About a week ago, a moderately cryptic e-vite showed up in my inbox asking me what I was up to Monday night. It was from Mary Bigham, the preeminent voice behind wcdish.com and one of my favorite (and craziest) food-obsessed acquaintances.
The e-mail continued with a temptation: “I have a very special invite for you … not a press dinner. Total farmers ’n’ local stuff—kind of a secret, local-food Thanksgiving meal.”
Further correspondence informed me that the potluck hostesses were Sarah Reese—former Talula’s Table employee and current owner of He & She vintage boutique in Kennett Square—and Abby Morgan of Inverbrook Farm and Talula’s. The venue: Inverbrook Farm, home to the Murray family (check out our August Dining Guide for a profile of Claire Murray who runs the farm) and one of the finest CSAs in the area.
The approaching holiday season was a clear impetus for the soiree, but the ulterior mission was to bring together Chester County’s hip, young breed of farmers, horticulturalists, foodies, cheese mongers, chefs and musicians-for-good-food for social networking and an epic, edible gathering. Just getting so many folks with odd hours in the same room at the same time is an amazing feat.
My cyber ears were poised for more details, which arrived in a subsequent e-mail with this postscript: “We would love if people focused on using local ingredients in their dishes!” (To help guests out, the invite also listed several useful and informative links, which I tacked onto the end of this post for readers who wish to know more about the local foods available to us, particularly in the winter when choices might not be so obvious.)
With so many farmers on the guest list, keeping it local seemed like the logical theme: Those coming from farms were assigned vegetarian sides, people who were omnivores got meat dishes, and Claire Murray, who works with poultry during the season, got the all-important assignment of The Bird (which she handled with superiority, having cooked the skin of two turkeys to a beautiful golden brown and taken care to leave the meaty flesh overflowing with juiciness.)
Given the short notice, the only thing local I had in my fridge was a six-pack of Victory Hop Devil—which would’ve been perfect, had I actually remembered to bring it with me.
I did manage to remember the canned goods that would go to the Kennett food bank, as suggested by a very caring Tim Mountz of Happy Cat Seeds and Terrain—whom I regret not having the opportunity to chat with, as Terrain is now my new favorite haunt. (I’m combing my calendar for the perfect opportunity to dine at The Café and take in the colorful lights at Longwood Gardens.)
The hour or so drive in pretty nasty weather was rewarded with the opportunity to get inside a very lovely home filled with imagery of yesteryear and a wonderful collection of silver serving pieces. The dining room was perfect for entertaining such a large group—which being a rainy Monday three days before Thanksgiving, was mighty impressive. (Of course, I was definitely one of the “more mature” guests in the house. That didn’t stop me from jumping in on the temporary body tattoos, though!)
It was a little bit strange walking into a room and not knowing anyone, but eventually, I saw a few familiar faces. It was a great group of people and reminded me that breaking bread with friends, old and new, and celebrating the harvest never goes out of style or loses its sentimental value.
The culinary highlight for me was the huge platter of baked mushrooms bursting with earthy flavor, having been doused with a really well-balanced olive oil and baked with sea salt until crunchy—the best stand-in for potato chips that I’ve ever tasted. They were beyond amazing in taste and texture, each bite better than the next. However, the corn soufflé prepared by Claire Murray’s mother was also out of this world. I must remember to get my hands on that recipe!
Here’s a rundown of guests and dishes as delivered to me by Reese. As you can see, the only missing ingredient was the Olexy-Sikora team from Talula’s. They were supposed to be “in the house,” but a last-minute dinner request by stud chef Marc Vetri, of Philly’s Vetri Ristorante, put them back in the kitchen.
• The Charlestown Farm people brought house-made hummus with a huge pile of carrots from the farm.
• Tim and Amy Mountz of Happy Cat Seeds (a.k.a The Heirloom Tomato Guy) and Terrain brought … cider!
• Meg Gallagher, a horticulturist from Winterthur (and the girl that created the raised beds in the Sikora’s back yard for veggies and herbs for Talula’s), brought vegetarian moussaka.
• Abby Morgan of Inverbrook/Talula’s made cider-braised cabbage, caramelized parsnips and quinoa salad.
• Claire Murray of Inverbrook whipped up a batch of savory bell peppers from the farm, along with those two gorgeous turkeys.
• Franz and Maggie Lidz brought the addicting baked mushrooms, Belgian endives with Roquefort, and a zesty tuna dip. (Note: Franz is a renowned author who wrote Unstrung Heroes, which was later turned into a movie, Ghosty Men, and the Condé Nast article on Talula’s Table that was picked up by AOL and MSNBC. His wife, Maggie, is the historian at Winterthur.)
• Paul Dolan is a chef at Talula’s. He arrived with vino and, apparently, was working at the store until right before he came, assisting with the Vetri dinner.
• Jacob Bortman of Terrain—though formerly of Maysie’s Farm, Pete’s Produce and Sunnygirl Farm—made organic honey whole wheat bread.
• Paul Morgan brought tempeh dogs and baked squash.
• Christy Hannum Miller, a filmmaker and writer, brought plates that we think were biodegradable.
• Dan, Ivy and Kelly—all baristas at Talula’s, and young enough to be my kids—brought some pretty amazing dishes: Dan made a monster-sized baking dish of mac and cheese; Ivy made vegan chili; and Kelly made a fantastic sweet potato casserole.
• Lee Zagorski, owner of the almost-opened music venue in Kennett called “The Flash,” brought wine. The Flash, for those into music, is an all-ages BYO with unconfirmed ties to WXPN.
• Rob Berliner of Hoots & Hellmouth (and fresh off a three-month tour) paid his way in kitchen labor.
• Dan and Pam Ody brought their baby, Felix (I liked him even better than the mushrooms and soufflé), plus lovely crêpes stuffed with squash and ricotta, and tied up with stems of chive.
• Two gals from the Kennett Square Farmers’ Market, Holly Tyson and Hailey Cohn, brought wine and pumpkin/coconut pie.
• And Southern-born Sarah Reese delivered big with a well-played version of her granny’s pineapple upside-down cake, Mexican cornbread with grass-fed beef, and a celery salad with Gorgonzola, olive oil and crushed peppercorns.
Needless to say, I ate a ton, and it was all worth the calories. I was away for the holiday, and as good as the food was on my trip, it didn’t hold a candle to all the delicious fare I soaked in that night. The best part was getting to meet so many creative and talented people.
This week it’s another trip to Inverbrook for a potluck supper/meeting and picture-viewing party for Buy Fresh, Buy Local. The organization is currently working on a “Feedability Guide” and has some excellent pictures of area farms, businesses and restaurants taken back in September.
Can’t wait to see what’s on the menu!
Franz and Maggie Lidz’s Crazy-Good Baked Mushrooms
What you need:
• 2 lbs. shiitake mushrooms (Franz and Maggie are partial to Phillips Mushroom Farms’ fungi)
• Good-quality extra virgin olive oil
• Hollow sea salt
What you need to do:
• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
• Pull the stems off the mushrooms, and lay them face-up on a baking sheet.
• Dribble with olive oil until all caps are covered.
• Sprinkle with sea salt.
• Bake in the oven until crispy, for one hour minimum—half an hour more, even better.
• BuyLocalPA.org: Your resource for finding local foods.
• “Table’s Bounty: Keeping It Local”: A great article from Sunday, Nov. 16, on feasting locally.
• Gourmet.com: Yummy and creative recipes.
• Epicurious.com: An A-to-Z resource for ingredient-centric recipes.
• NewYorker.com: The food issue!