The Second Annual Peace Tree Farm Dinner came and went last month, and I am still reveling in my astounding community. This year the dinner benefited the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). PASA is recognized as the largest sustainable farming organization in the country and enables viable farming systems that help provide healthy local food throughout Pennsylvania and the nation.
In the dead of winter, a collection of farmers and artisans from Pennsylvania (and the surrounding area) retreat to PASA’s annual conference held at Penn State in State College, giddy with anticipation of the season ahead. I joined PASA last year while representing Peace Tree Farm. I was there this year to promote our farm dinner and the debut of my herb salt made with Peace Tree's organic herbs. Peace Tree Farm, owned and operated by my close family friends, The Travens, offers a variety of plant starts. They focus on unusual plant varietals like cardamom, coffee, and figs as well as their staple herbs like thyme, rosemary and, of course, their famous lavender. Bringing a couple of hundred plant starts to a dreary convention center in the middle of winter, with over-wintered farmers, is best equated to shooting fish in a barrel. We've all been itching for spring, and suddenly we have all the plants your heart could desire.
PASA focuses on education and offers a series of workshops throughout the conference from regional experts. My friend Alex Traven and I scoped out the workshops and bartered shifts so we could catch the classes we were most interested in attending. I had the pleasure of witnessing Sandor Katz' fermentation demo and found myself inspired by his fervor for the art of fermentation. Katz' books were the recipe bibles at the farms I worked at in California. Unlike many other fermentation books, Katz' methods are simple and prepared without special equipment or ingredients. He goes through the entire process, and his wisdom allows for one to elaborate on the basic principles of the recipe. In true groupie fashion, I asked Katz to sign my copy of his book and gave him some of my herb salt in return. I was ecstatic, just thinking about him someday using my salt.
We left PASA after three days of exhausting inspiration and headed back East, eager to prepare for our second annual Peace Tree Farm Dinner. The week before the farm dinner, I drove back out to Central Pennsylvania to pick up food from several generous farmers who were donating to the dinner. We had some snow fall that morning when I left my home in Bucks County at dawn. I watched the sun rise over the Delaware River as I drove alongside the icy Palisades, glimmering in the morning light. Three and a half hours later, I found myself in Newport, Pennsylvania with Brooks Miller of North Mountain Pastures. Brooks serves on the board of PASA, and while I attended the conference, we conversed about making a sausage for the dinner with Peace Tree’s herbs. Alex had sent me to Brook’s onsite butcher shop with over eight-gallon bags of fresh cut herbs for us to incorporate into the sausage. Brooks already had some fatty cuts of pork from his pastured hogs, seasoned with sea salt and we added Peace Tree's organic oregano, tarragon, thyme, basil and his homemade pear cider.
This was my first time making sausage, and I was taken with the process. It was a bitterly cold winter morning, and we wore our winter coats underneath our plastic aprons as we made the sausage. First, we ground the pork into a forcemeat with the herbs and then added the cider. The pork was ice cold and it stung my hands as we made sure all the ingredients were well mixed. Afterward, we went into his home with a bit of the sausage to cook it off and taste it for seasoning. Brook's wife, Anna Santini, and their three kids, Kaj, Leila and Terra, were bustling about their cozy wood-heated farmhouse as we cooked up some of the sausages. The air was perfumed with herbs, sweet cider, and rich fat. We tasted the sausage, and I thought the subtle aromatic flavor the herbs added were perfect. We went back out to the butcher shop with the kids in tow and got ready to stuff the sausages. Leila and Terra cuddled on a playmat in the slaughter room, as Kaj played Star Wars with his lightsaber. The family scene struck me as I realized we were in fact, in a butcher shop; a place where their animals were slaughtered and processed, yet the kids were just hanging out with their dad as he worked. At one point, Terra was swinging from a levered meat hook that Kaj was maneuvering to lift her off the ground as he hysterically laughed. It was inspiring to see their family as such an intimate part of their farm. This was not just a butcher shop; it was their playroom, their imagination land, and their home. It nourished them and provided them a way of life. They were living in a complete food cycle.
Kaj started to tease me for how slow I was tying off the sausage and quickly showed me the ropes. We finished up the 50 pounds of sausage and returned to the house for lunch. We all sat at the family’s kitchen table eating the sausages we had just made, some pickles from last season and grits. We talked shop and about the menu for the dinner. We parted ways after I scrubbed down the butcher shop and Brooks’ showed me his impressive cure room, sending me off with two links of saucisson. I looked forward to hosting them at the farm dinner that next week.
makes about a quart
1 cup coarse sea salt
1/4 cup packed oregano
1/4 cup tarragon
1/4 cup packed fresh lemon thyme leaves
1/4 cup sage
handful dried lavender flowers
1/4 cup pink sea salt
In a food processor pulse together sea salt, oregano, tarragon, thyme and sage until combined. Pick out any large stems or twigs. Add lavender flowers and pink salt. Store in a mason jar.
Chicken Liver Pâté
adapted from Jacques Pépin
1/2 pound chicken livers, trimmed
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 teaspoon herbes de provence
1 teaspoon dijion mustard
1 bay leaf
salt to taste, roughly 1 teaspoon
1/2 cup water
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, quartered
2 teaspoons Cognac/Scotch
Fresh pepper to taste
In a medium skillet, combine chicken livers, onions, garlic, spices and salt. Add water and simmer. Cover and cook on low heat for 3 minutes until livers are just pink in the middle. Remove from head and let stand for 5 minutes covered. Remove bay leaf and transfer mixture to a food processor and pulse till combined. With machine on add butter until combine and season with cognac, salt & pepper and process till smooth. Place in desired terrine or ramekin and cool in fridge until firm. You can also seal the pâté with fat such as schmaltz or butter, or with a gelee.
After months of planning for the farm dinner, my favorite part of the process finally began, cooking all that theoretical food I had been plotting for weeks. It is an odd skill to learn to produce mass amounts of food. It is something that is second nature to me now, which has come with many years of practice. It is a constant learning process, but I have always enjoyed the long hours of prep while listening to my favorite albums, cutting up hundred of pounds of vegetables, butchering meat and finding new inspirations with the unexpected results that come with large-scale food prep. There is always something that can’t be anticipated, and you have to be adaptable.
Like when we cooked the sausages, and they gave off an obscene amount of fat. A wonderful, wonderful surprise. I had over five quarts of lard by the end of it and knew it would be magical to cook the heirloom potatoes I had just picked up from Blooming Glen Farm of Perkasie, Pennsylvania.
Or like when I went to Conklin Farms in Newville, Pennsylvania and Joe Conklin & his Father Joe, unexpectedly gave me over 16 chickens, three pounds of chicken livers and a couple of pounds of chicken feet. This meant that I would not only be adding a chicken course to the menu but that I would also be serving chicken liver pâté and experimenting with chicken feet.
It's all about being flexible, and it is my absolute favorite thing, cooking with what you have. The availability of the season dictated this menu as it was what the farmers had in the middle of February. It takes some imagination to bring it all together on the table.
Alex's Green House Salad
makes about a pint
6 oz extra virgin olive oil
6 oz tahini
1 oz truffle oil
3 oz balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients together in a pint jar with a lid and shake to combine.
A big salad bowl full of fresh greens
2-3 blood oranges, peeled and halved
handful of goat cheese crumbles
handful toasted walnuts
pepper, to taste
Assemble salad. Pour dressing over greens and sprinkle with cheese, oranges and walnuts. Enjoy!
Blooming Glen Potatoes & Braised Cabbage
5# good potatoes
1/2 cup good lard
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes. Lay on sheet pan and season with salt and pepper. If lard is solidified, glob a top, if liquid, pour over sheet pan. After 10 minutes, stir potatoes. Cook for 30-45 minutes, or until golden.
2-3 large purple cabbages
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar or beer
salt, pepper, red pepper flake, to taste
In a large cast iron skillet over medium heat, melt butter. Add cabbage and cook for about 5-10 minutes until soft. Turn heat to high and add vinegar or beer. Season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flake.
Conklin Farm Roasted Chicken with Great Road Farm Turnips
1 good 2-4# Chicken
3-5 sprigs fresh thyme
1-2 lemons, halved
1 head garlic, halved
salt and pepper
Remove any inners of the chicken. Set aside. Stuff the cavity with thyme, lemons, garlic and season the outside of the chicken with salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes-hour until golden or internal temperature reads 165 degrees. Enjoy!
1/2 cup good lard
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut turnips into 1/2 inch cubes. Lay on sheet pan and season with salt and pepper. If lard is solidified, glob a top, if liquid, pour over sheet pan. After 10 minutes, stir turnips. Cook for 30-45 minutes, or until golden.
This menu was also an expression of the community I find myself a part of, of the relationships I have cultivated over the years and the people who have helped me to bring food to the table. This was most encapsulated by the cheese course served at the dinner. The cheese boards themselves were handmade by my Father, Charles Briggs, an eccentrically talented woodworker, who when I start working in the cheese world, made me these elaborate cheese boards. The cheeses themselves came together organically on the boards.
First up was the Yellow Brick Road, a goat’s milk cheese washed with Victory beer, made by Al & Catherine Renzi of Yellow Springs Farm in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. I was a long time fan of their cheeses while working in Philadelphia and went out to visit their dynamic dairy farm years earlier. I had reached out to them again a few weeks before the dinner, and they were happy to support the cause.
Then there was the Drumm from Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, a cow’s milk cheese made by my neighbors Jonathan & Nina White, who have long been littering my menus. They were happy to be a part of the board and also provided the stellar bread, served alongside the cheeses.
Then there was the finale, the infamous Birchrun Blue, a creamy cow’s milk cheese from Birchrun Hills Farm, also hailing from Chester Springs, made by Sue Miller, one of Pennsylvania’s premier cheese makers. Sue also serves on the board of PASA, and offered a wheel of cheese to support the dinner back at the conference.
The cheese board was cohesive, telling the story of three renowned cheese makers, each cheese lending itself to the next, all assembled a top my Father’s woodwork. It was a true expression of my community.
These farm dinners are about focusing on the meaningful work my community tirelessly (and often thanklessly) does day in and day out. It is about engaging people to recognize where their food comes from, the people who worked so hard to produce it and to all come together in the most meaningful way possible, over a meal made from that very food. I could not have done it without my community and all the farmers PASA helps support. I look forward to the next chance I get to bring my community together for such a worthy cause.