Outstanding In The Field 9/14/08

Red Hook, NY 9/14/08: About a year ago I was watching CBS Sunday Morning, the weekly news magazine with Charles Osgood. One of the stories this particular week was a feature about a Californian artist named Jim Denevan who had been known to create enormous designs in beaches using rakes and plows etc. People would take pictures (albeit from clifftops or helicopters (did I mention they are enormous?) and then shortly thereafter, the surf would come and wash the designs away. I guess the idea is “art for the moment”, it is created, enjoyed briefly, and then it vanishes. Not being much of an art connoisseur of any kind this was little more than a human interest piece. However, the second part of the story focused on a project that Mr. Denevan had developed called “Outstanding In The Field”. Using some of the same principles as the beach drawings, Jim was the force behind a traveling restaurant/art exhibit. The concept being that you would have a host farm. The “Outstanding In The Field” (OITF) group would arrive with roughly 20 tables and set them up strategically in some aesthetically pleasing pattern (based on Denevan’s vision). Each host farm (or some establishment less than 30 miles away) would provide the lion’s share of the food and wine. Each event has a local chef who oversees the preparation of all of the food- making each menu completely unique. They provide everything for the dinner, except the dinner plates. To add to the unique element of the dinner, everyone is asked to bring their own dinner plate. Flatware, napkins, glasses, paired wines, and a tremendous amount of food are all provided. Since the TV piece about this, I had kept my eye out for an event in our area. Sure enough, somewhere back in March an event was announced to be held at the C.I.A. (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, NY. Payment was by Paypal only and sold out in short time. We were told that details would be provided as soon as they became available. Over the next several months we would get periodic email updates, the most significant for El and I was the naming of the guest chef, a C.I.A. graduate named Melissa Kelly, who we both adore, having eaten at 2 of her restaurants including her current place, Primo in Rockland, ME. Nothing like driving 5 hours each way for dinner! Nonetheless, by this week we had all of the details, including a change in location from Hyde Park to a farm in Red Hook, NY which actually turned out to be closer for us. With our dinner plates in tow we headed to Gigi Market at Greig Farm in Red Hook, NY for a 4:00pm “reservation”.

Evidentially, they had some last minute logistical changes, which turned us into participants in a culinary scavenger hunt. We made it to Gigi Market in good time, only to be given a new set of directions to where on the 160 acre farm the dinner was being held. Got back in the car, followed the directions, when we came upon a table in the middle of a field where we were told we needed to turn around and park at another location. The goose chase ended and we were parked and headed back to the table for registration. We were among the first to arrive, having allowed much more time to make the drive from Albany. We were welcomed by Jim’s assistant, who cross-checked our name with her list and directed us to the Champagne table and told us to mingle until everyone had arrived. We got the bubbly offering which was Clinton Vineyards Jubilee and milled about making some small talk with some of the other early arrivals. It was kind of interesting to talk to people who are as nerdy about food as El and I try to be. Speaking of restaurants and chefs as if they were characters in a recent film. Anyway, after some time as many people started to arrive, a car drove up to the table and delivered a stack of pizza boxes labeled “skizzas”. As they were laid out 2 at a time on the Champagne table, it became apparent that “skizza” is the Gigi market’s version of “skinny pizza”. They looked like regular pizza, but the crust was ultra-thin almost like a multi layered phyllo dough crust. The toppings ranged from veggie with basil to mushroom with truffle oil to apples with crumpled bleu cheese. There were several offerings and as one pie was finished, another replaced it. I wanted to try them all, but I didn’t want to hover above the table, so I just made my way in, grabbed a piece (all not much bigger than a 1-2 inch square) and got out, then repeated. I was able to sample a few different combinations. All at least good. None bad. The veggie with basil my favorite.

Once they believed most of the 120 or so attendees had arrived, everyone standing under the shade of a large tree, Jim Denevan announced himself and started with a welcoming speech.

He gave a brief history of these OITF dinners and how he and his brother started many years ago when he worked for his brother’s restaurant and they used to have dinners periodically where they would invite the farmers who supplied the restaurant with its produce and then started inviting some of the customers and it grew from there. Jim then introduced Norman Greig who owned the farm that was hosting our event who spoke a few words about the importance of fresh produce and support of local farms and is individual farming philosophy. While he spoke, some servers wandered through the crowd offering an amuse-bouche of “torchon au fois gras on toasted baguette with local plum conserve”. I am not much of a fois gras eater, but I did take one. Basically, a toasted round of bread with a slice of poached fois gras, with a dollop of plum jelly on top. For an amuse, the portion was rather large as it almost required two bites. It had a little more of a liver taste than I prefer, but the texture was nice and the plum jelly was a nice compliment. As Mr. Greig continued, he passed the floor to the gentleman who owns the farm next door who had provided some of the meat for the evening’s meal. A nice enough guy, but it seemed like he spoke forever relaying stories about his farm and the time before his family owned it. A little too much detail, but since some people continued to ask questions, I suppose maybe I was the only one who felt this way. By the way, at this point we cannot see the segmented table or the cooking facilities (although some brief plumes of smoke assure us food is being cooked somewhere in the vicinity). The next step was for the group to take a tour of the farm. Basically, this farm expanded as far as the eye could see, so there was no expectation we would see it all. In fact, we saw almost none. The whole group began walking about 200 yards to a clearing where Mr. Greig and his verbose neighbor continued to tell us stories of 1950’s farming vs. farming today. If I didn’t know any better, I would say the neighbor at one point even suggested that he invented free range chickens! Anyway, the “tour” was quick and we were then escorted en masse to the table and dinner setup. It was just over the hill from the Champagne table and as we descended everyone made a civil claim on their own real estate for the next few hours.

Our immediate neighbors introduced themselves and everyone took in the view not knowing what was on the agenda. The servers brought baskets of bread and ever table had several mason jars of different condiments. Corn/green bean salad, pickled beets, spicy hot pickled pepper rings, shaved radish with garlic cloves, pickled Brussels sprouts, among several other varieties. Everyone quickly realized as they grabbed the jar closest to them and dug in with heir fork for a sample, that to avoid the double dipping aspect, we would all have to use our knives to get the goods out of subsequent jars. We did wish they had some individual utensils for the pickled goods. We think we eventually go to them all. Calling down to nearby tables to send us your jars with the pink stuff and we’ll send down our jar of sprouts. Really, a nice beginning to the meal. Some went well with bread and others were better unaccompanied. The first course is then served. The wait staff were volunteers from the C.I.A., and as they set the family style platters on the tables, one senior C.I.A. member came over to explain the course in detail and answer any questions we had. This course is called “rabbit terrine with pickled vegetables and field greens served with a selection of Hudson Valley homestead mustards”.

Right away I am a little worried. I have recently had a very good experience with rabbit and I hoped it was not too soon to have another. The gentleman’s explanation of the course actually made it a little less appetizing. Basically, they took the loin of the rabbit and surrounded it with the rest of the ground up rabbit- specifically making sure we knew they even used the hearts and liver. All information that might have made this a little more appealing. Also, I found the portions to be a little on the big side. I mean a single slice of the terrine was about the size of a piece of Texas toast (about double thickness to a standard slice of bread). I would have been good with a much smaller portion, but I dug in and slathered so much mustard on it that I didn’t taste much else. The texture was a bit fatty, but it wasn’t as gamey as I thought it might be and since the parts were well ground, I managed to make it. I think if I hit a chunked piece of organ meat, I might just have lost my appetite. There were 4 different kinds of mustards for this course and they had to be split between the table of 120 guests. I was only able to try the Italian herb mustard and the horseradish mustard as the other options were too far away to yell down…”EXCUSE ME, BUT WOULD YOU PLEASE PASS THE GREY PUPON ALTERNATIVE…”. By this time the servers are coming around with the wine pairing which was Millbrook Winery 2007 Tocai Friulano. The next course was a deep fried squash blossom filled with locally produced ricotta cheese. The platter also had grilled squash/zucchini on it. An accompanying plate of heirloom tomato salad with vinaigrette was also passed at this time. This was an excellent course. The tomatoes were very large and sliced as in caprese salad, the squash blossom, which I know is one of El’s favorites was done very well. Hot and crunchy, with a burst of melted cheese in the center, but not too hot. The charred veggies were very good too with just the right amount of seasonings. They did not switch the wine pairing, so they just came around and kept refilling the glasses of anyone who wanted it. As we enjoyed the course, the servers brought out a bowl of pesto pantesca, a puree of toasted almonds, roasted tomatoes, basil, and pecorino-Romano cheese and olive oil. The people in our vicinity seemed to be in love with this stuff, which was really good on a slice of bread, but they just seemed a little too into it…you know best food they have ever put in their mouth kind of talk. It was good. Really good. Just not divine, in m opinion. As we were winding down on the above, the servers brought out a platter of lightly smoked duck breast with the platter center filled with moon and star watermelon. The duck was really nice. At different intervals during the evening, Jim would walk around the table with someone to introduce and allow them to say a few words. At one point he had the owner of the Gigi market come by and discuss his “skizzas” and the relationship the market has with Greig Farms.

Next up is the first of the entrees. A wood grilled poussin (or Cornish game hen) served with a side of fresh corn and marjoram polenta integrale. Also some roasted and herb marinated peppers and fried pardrones. The poussin was most tender and juicy and well flavored. A real delight. Interestingly, they have paired this with a Millbrook Winery 2006 Pinot Noir. A red with poultry I thought was unconventional…then again this whole dinner is a little unconventional. The polenta was really good. Tasted just like a spiced up creamed corn. I always love roasted peppers and these were no exception. More grilled than floating in olive oil. The thing about the padrones is that they look like jalapenos. When the table got its explanation, he said that they are very mild to sweet, except about 1 in every 15 peppers is very spicy hot. I took the gamble by popping the pepper and was lucky to get the sweet variety, but you could hear down the table as people did bite into one with a kick. Another introduction by Jim to the table was a gentleman who said he was responsible for the honey tonight. When we asked which dish had the honey, he assured us we wouldn’t miss it when it came around. He told us a little about his apiary and about bee farming in general. He also made sure we knew we could eat the wax even though no one knew what he was talking about.

Next came a platter called “pork done three ways” and unfortunately it was not on the menu, but just a chef surprise this evening. The first way was pork paillard. This refers to the quick cooking of meat that has been pounded thin. The second way was a pork sausage served over a slaw. The third way being sautéed with Brussels sprouts. All three methods tasted excellent, especially for something that the chef just whipped up. After we were pretty much done with this course, they served a platter of cantaloupe to cleanse our palates. I refrained as I do not eat the melon and opted more wine to clear my palate.

The following course consisted of a selection of locally crafted cheeses with grapes. Two sheep milk, two goat milk and two cow milk selections. I am not much of an artisan cheese eater, although I did opt to try the ewe’s milk bleu cheese which was nice with the bread I put it on. I neutralized the sour cheese taste with some grapes. Then the tables were delivered a platter of what looked like sugar cubes. This turned out to be the wax cubes filled with honey, you just stick your fork in and grab the whole cube and try to dredge it to get the maximum amount of honey take-up.

As you bite into the wax cube there is a gush of honey in your mouth. As you suck the honey out you are left with a chewing gum size (and consistency) piece of wax. I ate the first one, but chose to spit out subsequent waxes. I don’t think I had ever had honey served like that before and it was pretty tasty as I believe they have not done much of the processing that goes into sore bought honey. It was richer and had a buttery flavor that made it very appealing. At this point, the servers come around and collect all of the pales and flatware and serving dishes from the tables. They are soon replaced by small dessert plates, and the servers come around with a dessert wine which is Millbrook Winery “Romance”. Sweet, of course. Not too sweet, but for me the drier the better at all times! The desert course finally arrives. No one seems “stuffed”, just pleasantly full. This course is a Primo cannoli filled with Old Chatham ricotta. The cannoli shell is made of crushed almonds, which are then filled with the ricotta and then dipped into chocolate on both ends. They are really good and everyone is satisfied. It is getting pretty dark now. The moon is full, but some scattered clouds keep it from illuminating the scene totally. The servers bring around several tea lights and light them for some end of the dinner discussion. At this point, Jim introduced the guest chef, Melissa Kelly to the group and asks her to say a few words to the group. Our end of the table couldn’t even see her, let alone hear her.

Nevertheless, it was a way to wrap up the evenings preceding. We thought he was going to bring her to our end of the table, but he didn’t. I see that they have washed everyone’s dinner plates and set them in a giant pile on a small table. I decide to get a jump on everyone and get up to get our plates. Luckily we are the only two with square plates, so they stick out like sore thumbs and it takes only a few seconds to get what I came for. As I return to the table the servers are bringing out yet another dessert course. This time grilled late summer peaches with a dollop of brown sugar crème fraische on top. This was a really nice late addition to the meal. I certainly wasn’t expecting any more food to come around, but this warm peach was well spiced and really tasted good. As we put our belongings in our picnic basket and finish up our peach we decide to purchase Jim Denevan’s book called coincidentally enough, “Outstanding in the field” and being the nerds we are asked him to personalize it for us and then El was able to get Melissa Kelly to do the same. We took advantage of the moment to tell her how much we appreciated her work in general and specifically, here tonight. She was super gracious and quite pleasant. As we walked away we realized this was the perfect time to make our exit. We grabbed our basket and made it back to our car and headed back home. Earlier in the evening as I looked around at the makeshift kitchen and figured that this is what it must be like when a chef goes camping and does the cooking.

You know their camping grub is going to be head and shoulders above everyone else’s. So, there were some aspects of the dinner that would have been better had the chefs had real kitchens. But, at the same time, there was something, by design, that was very time and space specific to this experience. Dining al fresco with 120 strangers and having a world class chef prepare the meal…there is something priceless about that. At $200 each we could have spent the money elsewhere, but as far as unique experiences this was tops and I would be happy to try to do it again. Outstanding in the field indeed.