There are more celebrity sightings than ever this summer in Chicago. Fans need only head to their local farmer’s market to catch a glimpse. Certainly the requisite number of chefs will be milling about foraging for produce for their menus, but another sort of star in the food world works the other side of the produce stand, and that’s the farmers themselves.
As a movement to celebrate the local farmer sweeps the country, Chicago’s growing number of farmers markets makes it easy to understand what all of the fuss is about. There is more availability than ever to enjoy the flavor—and healthful benefits—of produce that is grown on small farms, without chemicals, close to home.
This is one spotlight that acclaimed chefs don’t mind sharing. “The farmers deserve as much credit as the chefs do,” says Paul Virant, chef/owner of Vie in Western Springs. Virant travels to organic markets and to the farms themselves to find the best produce for his restaurant and to get to know his farmers. “They are masters of their craft just like we, as chefs, are,” he says.
“They’re putting in long days, with successive planting for continuous harvests. This takes skill and knowledge. Then add the organic approach to that, which requires preventing pests and dealing with weather issues in a natural way.
It’s a noble profession with a big mission.”
That mission has been supported by the city’s many markets and grocery stores that now place an emphasis on organic farming techniques, and that connect the buyers, chefs and individuals, with the farmers and their produce.
Abby Mandel, founder of Chicago’s Green City Market, brought the concept of the organic market to the city after spending time in France, where local farmers are an integral part of daily life. “Chicago required a niche that focused on great farmers who take care of the land and other resources in the production of their products,” she says. “Of course, sustainability was not in anyone’s vocabulary when we first began. Now we’re seeing a trend here that showcases the farmers, and that’s gratifying.”
Karen Stark is a founding member of the new Geneva Green Market, which opened last month. She grew up on her family’s dairy farm, where she gained an appreciation for what it takes to farm well. “Any credit the farmer’s are getting is deserved,” she says. “They are passionate about what they do, and they are artisans of the land. It means a lot to know who created your food and how, and people are catching on to how much that contributes to life.”
Just as words like sustainability are relative newcomers to our vocabulary, so too are the Asian vegetables of Beth Sakaguchi Eccles’ farm. Eccles carries on the tradition her grandparents started when they emigrated from Japan and opened their farm in North Judson, Indiana, in 1933. That means producing a variety of Asian vegetables which are not typically grown in the Midwest.
“My grandfather grew six or seven varieties of exotic Asian vegetables: Chinese bitter melon, Chinese and Japanese eggplant, Chinese cabbage, Japanese daikon radishes,” says Eccles. “There have never been many growers in this region planting Asian vegetables, and that’s what gives us our niche.”
It’s a niche that has exploded in recent years as consumers’ taste for Asian vegetables has developed. Today Eccles’ Green Acres farm grows 683 varieties of vegetables, including 89 varieties of heirloom hybrid tomatoes.
Green Acres is a sustainable farm where no pesticides are used. “We do this to build up the soil,” Eccles says. “We use natural methods to maintain the land so that things want to live in it.
“Farmers often try to get rid of bugs, but it’s good for them to be there to create a healthier, productive, living soil.”
Eccles says that organic, locally produced food consumed soon after harvest retains its nutrients as well as its flavor. Green Acres harvests produce just one day before bringing it to markets throughout Chicago.
A solid base of chefs supports Green Acres not only because consumers appreciate the way the produce is brought to market, but also because of the quality and flavor of the produce. “One chef told me he’s had Chinese broccoli on his menu year round, but when he tasted mine in season, he said it was so fresh and good that it was as though he hadn’t never eaten real Chinese broccoli before,” Eccles says.
Because the produce is just-picked and flavorful, preparing it simply is the best way. “None of these vegetables is hard to prepare,” Eccles says. “I love the Japanese eggplant, which differs from American eggplant because there’s no bitterness in it. Brush it with a little oil and lay it on the grill and you’ll be happy.”
Chinese Broccoli with Oyster Sauce
Beth Eccles adds a hint of sugar to this simple recipe to compliment the slight bitterness of the broccoli. Even her children eat broccoli prepared this way.
Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 bunch Chinese broccoli, washed and chopped (include stems, leaves,
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon sugar
Stir-fry the broccoli in the olive oil over medium heat until bright green and tender. In a sauce pan, combine the oyster sauce, soy sauce, water, and sugar and heat just until boiling. Drizzle over the broccoli. Serve warm.
Urban Honey at the Chicago Honey Co-op
If you thought that the locally grown label couldn’t possibly apply to honey, the Chicago Honey Co-op will change your mind. In fact, the bucolic acres of corn and soy beans throughout the country’s heartland are not the optimum feeding ground for bees. It’s the city’s diversity of flora, such as Linden trees and white sweet clover—constituting the terroir of the honey world—that produces honey with flavors as nuanced as fine wine, chocolate, or olive oil.
“Urban honey is a special thing,” says Sydney Barton, who has been a member of the Chicago Honey Co-op for the last three years. “Our honey is more complex in flavor than a lot of honey produced in rural areas because we have the clover, the Linden trees, and the flowers. The bees also find the plantings in the parks, which add still other notes into the flavors.”
“There’s actually a dearth of interesting nectar plants in rural areas,” she says.
The apiary, located at 3740 W. Fillmore in North Lawndale, is committed to sustainability in its production of honey. This means that antibiotics and chemicals, used by most beekeepers to fight disease and pests, are shunned. Keeping the hives and the bees healthy requires an approach that is clean from the start.
“When we purchase packages of bees, we buy a strain that’s bred for resistance,” says Barton. “They’re hygienic, and they actually can control the mites on their own.
“There’s a lot of unnecessary preventative action done by beekeepers. If the hives were left alone they’d likely fight these things on their own,” she says.
In addition to its commitment to sustainable agriculture, the co-op is dedicated to assisting those in need in the community by offering job training opportunities for the under-employed.
Chicago honey boasts the fewest food miles of any product at Chicago Green City Market, traveling just 6 miles from the apiary to market. Commercial honeys such as Sue Bee travel thousands of miles to get the honey to the processing plant and then out to the marketplace.
“It’s all about the ecosystem,” says Barton. “The food itself is not only healthier for you, it’s healthier for the planet because it’s not traveling so far.”
River Valley Ranch
Market days begin so early for grower Eric Rose that it’s practically still the night before. He is up at 2:30, loads his truck by 3:30, checks on his crops because he’ll be gone for the next 12 hours, then heads to the city. His work, he admits, is a labor of love.
“It’s a dynamic and engaging process,” says Rose. “I plant a crop every 12-14 days, which allows for continuous opportunities for improvement, observation, and challenge. That’s what has kept me in it, certainly not the money!”
Those opportunities for improvement included a serious shift in his approach to farming at his River Valley Ranch in Burlington, Wisconsin. Once a high production mushroom grower using methods to support the maximum output of produce, Rose realized that he wanted to grow a better product with higher nutritional value and health benefits.
“I like to eat clean food, and there was a disconnect between what I was producing and my personal outlook on food,” he says. “It’s important to me to know as much about it as I can in terms of production of the food I eat.”
Clean food for Rose means growing his mushrooms organically without any pesticides, chemicals, or synthetic growth enhancers. Changing to sustainable farming wasn’t all that tough for Rose because he did it over time and learned how to be vigilant with his crops—which is no small feat, given that River Valley Ranch spans 37 acres, cultivating 400,000 pounds of mushrooms each year.
“There were some painful lessons learning this type of farming,” he says, “but there’s no going back to the old way.”
One way Rose sustains his work and makes use of his produce is by pickling his mushrooms. At first he taught people locally how to pickle, but when they told him how much they enjoyed the mushrooms but didn’t want to do the work of pickling, he decided to do it for them.
River Valley Ranch sold two varieties of pickled mushrooms in 1997; today they sell 25. “It has certainly become a bigger part of what we do,” Rose says. “It gives me as a farmer a lot more stability because I can process surplus product now.” He gives all of the credit to nature, though, describing his pickled mushrooms as “absolutely some of the finest food the earth has to offer.”
If there is celebrity in the world of growers bringing produce to market, Rose qualifies. He was the first to bring the large, tender, and at the time unknown portabella mushroom to the Midwest in 1990. “No one knew what they were, and then in the mid-90s they exploded.” He says that people practically crawl over the table at the market to tell him his marinated portabella was the best thing they’d ever eaten.
Grilled Portabella Mushrooms
Store fresh mushrooms in a brown paper bag on the lower shelf in the refrigerator, and wash just before using.
Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Yield: 2 servings
2 portabella mushrooms
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh rosemary, chopped
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper to
Trim the stems of the mushrooms. Rinse and pat the mushrooms dry with a towel. In a small bowl, whisk the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, rosemary and pepper. Place the marinade and mushrooms in a plastic zip-lock bag and marinate for ½ hour. Grill over medium heat for five minutes per side, or until you can bend the mushroom with tongs.