Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Thanksgiving feast with local, organic food

A Thanksgiving feast with local, organic food

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I’d like to be able to say that my concern for the long-term good of planet earth guides all of my decisions about the food I buy and consume. But the fact is, I do most of my shopping where it’s convenient, and I’m as likely as anyone to hesitate when the sticker price on organic food is higher than the conventional alternative.

But I think Thanksgiving represents a fantastic opportunity for being more mindful about food—being thankful, first and always, to have enough, but also appreciating where it comes from, thinking about my relationship with the people who produce it, and cultivating an understanding of how food production for humans affects the rest of life on earth. Since contemplating these matters always leads me back to the same place, which is a renewed commitment to seeking out locally produced, organic food, I’ll spare you the philosophy.

Instead let me tell you about a conversation I had recently with Alisa DeMarco, who knows local food and what to do with it as well as anybody in east central Illinois. DeMarco is currently chef and associate cheesemaker at Prairie Fruits Farm just north of Urbana. Before coming to Prairie Fruits Farm, she trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, after which she spent some time cooking in Austin and was then chef at the Great Impasta in Champaign. (DeMarco also currently operates Big Spoon Custom Culinary Services.)

Over lunch at the reinvigorated Common Ground food co-op in Lincoln Square Village, DeMarco outlined her plans for a Thanksgiving Day feast featuring local food. [Photo: some of the local, organic produce currently available at Common Ground, including leeks, carrots, brussls sprouts, and chard.] She emphasized that a person need not make any painful accommodations to put on a locally sourced meal, given the abundance and variety of local food available now in east central Illinois.

Since Thanksgiving can be an all day affair DeMarco suggested that a cheese board would be the place to start and, naturally, cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm would be essential to that, along with, perhaps, a mix of sliced apples and pears.

The first course of a meal could then be a soup, featuring either butternut squash, or pumpkin, or maybe even both together. (See recipe below.)

Follow that with spinach salad, wilted with a little bacon from Stan Schutte’s Triple S Farm or another local meat producer, and topped with toasted walnuts.

For the main course nothing beats a locally raised turkey, although you’re unlikely to find one of those if you haven’t already arranged for it. If you’re stuck with a grocery store bird this year, you might make a note to yourself to sign up for one with a local producer at the farmer’s market next summer. DeMarco said she would be making her stuffing with a traditional mix of herbs and onions, but that it would also feature fig and walnut bread from Stewart's Artisan Breads and Desserts in Monticello (217.586.7816 |

We talked about so many possibilities for vegetables and potatoes that I won’t try to recount them all here. But DeMarco made the point that when you start with local produce, simple preparation is the key since the flavor is in the food itself.

While Thanksgiving is a great time to be mindful about the food we eat, it’s also a good time to recall that there are many among who need help just to get by right now. So as you’re planning what you’ll buy, you might also budget for a donation to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. They can provide $10 worth of food for families facing hunger for every dollar contributed to them.


Silky Butternut Squash Soup with Nutmeg Cream, from Alisa DeMarco

serves 8

4 lbs butternut squash, peeled, cleaned and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 stick unsalted butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
3 apples, peeled and diced
2 quarts vegetable stock
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup heavy cream
freshly grated nutmeg
fresh thyme, finely chopped

In a large 3-4 qt. saucepot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, garlic and celery and sweat, stirring occassionally, until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add apples and squash along with vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables and squash are just tender, about 20 minutes. Working with a blender or food processor puree soup until smooth. For a finer texture, pass soup through a sieve and return to pot. Adjust with additional stock if necessary. Add 1/2 cup of heavy cream, cinnamon, cayenne and additional salt and pepper to taste. Whip remaining cream to soft peaks and add freshly grated nutmeg. Re-warm soup and serve ladled into bowls garnished with a small dollop of nutmeg cream and chopped herbs.