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Farm to table dining couldn't be a more perfect experience than an evening spent at Dinners at the Farm - a series of six-course meals served al fresco on local farms using ingredients just picked from the fields.
Jonathan Rapp, owner/chef of Chester's The River Tavern and Otto pizzeria, is the creator of the dinner series now in its eighth year. This summer dinners will be served in July at East Lyme's White Gate Farm and in August at Madison's Barberry Hill Farm.
Supporting Connecticut farmers and agriculture is an important aspect of Dinners at the Farm. To date Rapp has donated $115,000 to its beneficiaries and is again donating $20,000 to this season's recipients: CitySeed, CT Farmland Trust, New Connecticut Farmer Alliance, Working Lands Alliance, and Region 4 Schools (Get Fresh 4 School).
Cooking en plein air
“The menus end up being very different one night to the next," says Rapp. "The whole point of this is cooking what the farmers are picking for us daily. I try to remain as flexible as possible. That's the way I've always cooked, not getting locked into a menu; then if something isn't available you're (in trouble).
Rapp loves the spontaneity the concept of Dinners at the Farm allows.
"I can react to what the farmers have, the weather, how we're feeling. To me as a cook, that's what these dinners are about," he says. "That you're reacting to what's immediate and is very connected to the place - it's not intellectual. If a farmer brings you this bunch of carrots, what are you going to do with it? It's absolutely fresh and in the moment."
This kind of cooking, Rapp notes, is miles away from most restaurant cooking.
"It's very hard to cook this way in a restaurant setting. A restaurant has all kinds of requirements this doesn't have," he says. "It's the essence of the best home cooking. A typical restaurant has 30 dinners on the menu, for the farm dinner we have six (courses) and it allows you to focus on what you're doing - very simple and uncluttered, even though you're serving a lot of people."
Rapp says that there are a lot of wonderful things about the farm dinners, but for him, it's about making a connection to the land and the people growing the food.
"I think the farmers appreciate what we do - that we express through the food to the guests what they're doing. For example, what a winemaker does with grapes. It's sort of like a partnership, a collaboration between us and the farm to produce this food for the guests."
In addition to all the just picked vegetables and fruit used in the dishes, Rapp gets all his meat and poultry fresh from local farms and all his seafood comes from Gambardella Wholesale Fish in Stonington, just off the fishing boats.
A farmer’s eye view
Susan Mitchell got involved with Dinners at The Farm as the farm manager at White Gate Farm. She started her own farm this year in Colchester and specializes in organic vegetables, which supply the farm dinners. She is also one of the founders of New Connecticut Farmer Alliance - the newest beneficiary of the event.
The Alliance, she explains, was formed to support new farmers - whether they're young or getting into farming later in life for the first time.
"We started in the fall of 2010 with a handful of small farmers lamenting that there was no organization devoted to the needs of small-scale farmers and decided to create an organization that would do just that," she says. "Our mission is to provide networking opportunities among small-scale growers. We do a series of monthly farm tours and potlucks - you can learn a lot just by seeing different farms and operations.
"There's been a resurgence in farming, in sustainable agriculture in New England that a lot of young people are interested in," Mitchell adds. "It tends to be smaller in scale, organically produced, and marketed directly to the consumer.
"For a lot of us," she stresses, "we didn't grow up in farm families, don't have a farming background, don't have land we're inheriting, weren't raised in Connecticut, so there's a need for a network versus the established farmers that have been here for generations."
Mitchell says a lot of her friends who have managed farms for other individuals and non-profits are now going out on their own and are trying to make a go of it full-time, which has its challenges.
"This is our only income; we don't work second jobs. This is increasingly less common," she points out. "Only 47 percent of farmers in Connecticut farm full-time, the rest are part-time. They're trying to build this network so they can have a successful and viable business and make enough money to support themselves, raise children, buy a house, and have money for retirement."
Mitchell says of Dinners at The Farm, "I love this event. As a grower, one of the most rewarding things to see is how chefs use our products and how inventive Jonathan and his team is at putting dishes together. It's the most delicious food … the menus are so diversified."
In response to the cost to attend the dinners, Mitchell says, "Now that I have seen the fact that they get there at 9 in the morning and do prep work all day long (I realize) it's an entire day-long process of many people coming together to make this dinner possible. Only when I saw it did I realize this is exactly what it needs to cost. The food is so high quality. It's worth every single penny."
¾ pound fresh fish (recommended: sword, tuna, fluke, bass, squid, scallop, shrimp)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 cucumber, diced or sliced
1 green onion, thinly sliced
2 ears of corn, grilled or roasted and cut off the cob
1 sweet pepper-thinly sliced
1 tbsp. spices such as toasted or ground cumin, coriander, cloves, cinnamon, sesame seeds
2 tbsp. hot sauce, preferably homemade or chipotle Tabasco
Toss vegetables in herbs lightly with a little olive oil, lime juice and salt.
Dress seafood with half the spice mix, salt and lime juice
To plate — spoon 1 tbsp. of hot sauce on plate, pile salad on top and garnish with seafood. Finish with pinch of spices and herbs.
1 pound hot peppers (stemmed)
½ cup sugar
¼ cup salt
1 cup cider vinegar
3 cloves garlic
1 cup water
Bring all to a boil; simmer for 20 minutes; puree and adjust to taste.
What: Dinners at the Farm
Where and When: White Gate Farm, Upper Pattagansett Road, East Lyme on July 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and at Barberry Hill Farm, 353 Boston Post Road, Madison on Aug. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.
Each evening begins at 6 p.m., dinner served at 7 p.m. Upon arrival, guests are greeted with an orchard fruit cocktail and passed hors d'oeuvres and then proceed on to a tour of the farm. Following the tour, guests are seated beneath a tent at long candle-lit tables for a six-course meal of freshly cooked food with ingredients just picked from the fields outside the tent.
Tickets: $100 per person on Wednesdays; $125 per person Thursdays and Sundays; $150 per person Fridays; and $175 per person on Saturdays. For tickets, visit www.DinnersAtThe Farm.com.