Fox and Pearl Brings Its Hearth to Kansas City’s Westside

Fox and Pearl Brings Its Hearth to Kansas City’s Westside

Flames and glowing coals in Fox and Pearl’s hearth are visible through the restaurant’s west-facing windows. The well-tended wood fire in the kitchen is an invitation, a flickering signal for diners and travelers to gather in the Westside’s newest addition. Chef Vaughn Good and his partner and co-owner Kristine Hull opened Fox and Pearl near the bottom of a steep hill on Summit Street. In a way, the restaurant is a summit in the couple’s journey as restaurateurs.

From Lawrence to the Westside
Good, who grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, moved to New York and studied at The International Culinary Center. “I was into molecular cooking and super modern food,” Good says. Then he met a chef at the school who inspired a shift in focus. “Charcuterie was his thing. It was a turning point for me. I started working with him and became fascinated with [butchering] and rootsy cooking.”

Good returned to Lawrence and worked as a sous chef at Pachamamas, where he had previously interned. Next, Good and Hull opened Hank Charcuterie in 2014. The shop concept quickly expanded into a full-service restaurant that appeased demand for his dishes but outgrew Good’s original intent. 

“When it initially opened, I wanted it to just be a butcher shop and charcuterie,” Good says. “We couldn’t change the business name because it was already established. I felt stuck at Hank.”

Lawrence’s food scene is mostly geared to college-age diners. Good couldn’t find an audience for specialty offerings like foie gras sausage, for example. He says, “I was dictated to about what would work. We sold lots of burgers. The specials were our passion but we couldn’t sell it.”

After a four-year run, Good and Hull considered moving the business to another location in Lawrence. They decided to migrate to Kansas City. The relocation made sense to them. Good says, “Sixty or seventy percent of our customers were coming from Kansas City.”

 

Their new concept Fox and Pearl refers to the middle names of their daughters. Temporarily based in Novel’s former restaurant space (815 W. 17th St., Westside, Kansas City), Good began expanding his menu for a fresh audience. “The foie gras sausage at 815 was one of our biggest sellers,” Good says. “I only made burgers one day a week.” 

Good’s confidence grew, knowing he had creative freedom to explore ideas and develop dishes. Meanwhile, Hull and Good also searched for a more permanent location. 

They were drawn to an empty space with spacious windows and maple flooring on the corner of Summit Street. The couple worked with real estate developer and landlord Adam Jones to radically transform the space. The restaurant and bar occupies the main floor with additional seating and open kitchen on the mezzanine, and an outdoor patio. They installed a spiral staircase that leads to a basement bar, where retired Boulevard Brewing employee and music fan Trip Hogue spins ska and reggae vinyl records on Friday evenings. Good and Hull now had a setting to fashion a full-blown restaurant concept that suited their interests, expertise, and vision.

“I’m excited about the building,” Good says. “The time we had at the Novel space was important. We got to know people in the neighborhood. We want to be a neighborhood space for people in the community.”

 

From the Hearth
TThe wood-fired hearth is a key fixture in Fox and Pearl’s open kitchen visible from the mezzanine. Regarding the kitchen design, Good says, “People are interested in knowing where food comes from. People are interested in photos of the cooking process.”

Split pieces of oak and hickory wood are stacked on the patio, readymade fuel for cooking in the mason-built hearth. Local artist Bill Wenzel constructed the smoker positioned to the left of the hearth. Fox and Pearl also has a separate larger smoker formerly used at Hank Charcuterie. Good makes charcuterie and butchers meat in a dedicated room in the basement.

“Having a hearth will change the cooking quite a bit,” Good says. “I knew how to cook over fire. Now it’s getting in there, learning the tricks and setups and what works here. The built-in smoker can also be used as a warming oven. It imparts good flavor.”

Good drew inspiration for live-fire cooking from other chefs. Fox and Pearl developed its basic hearth design on chef Ted Habiger’s setup at Brewery Emperial in the East Crossroads. Both Habiger and Good were individually inspired by Camino, an influential Oakland, California, restaurant known for its wood-fired cooking. Highly-regarded Argentine chef, author, and restaurateur Francis Mallmann was another culinary North Star for both Habiger and Good’s aspirations to use a hearth in their kitchens. Good and his chef de cuisine Isaac Hendry (above right), who previously cooked at Hank Charcuterie, Bluestem, and Port Fonda, also researched many books on wood-fired cooking. 

Food is served on earthenware dishes created by Lawrence artist Michael Crouch. Good discovered the artist’s handcrafted coffee mugs in a Lawrence shop and commissioned the dishware. “It was his first time making plates,” Good said. “The kiln is wood-fired. Each firing gives each dish its own personality.” 

The focus on butchery and charcuterie is evident on the menu. Pork, beef, and chicken as well as rabbit, duck, lamb, and eventually goat will make appearances. For instance, made-from-scratch rabbit bacon sausage arrives on a cream-colored dish with a deep lip. Grilled potatoes, shiitake mushrooms, paprika sauce and mango-colored flower petals also adorn the dish. While categorically a meat-and-potatoes dish, the tangy mushrooms and savory sauce added pleasing depth to comfort food that’s far from plain. I paired this course with Off Color Brewing’s Apex Predator. This farmhouse ale is juicy and hazy with a dry finish and fruity character. Quite different from Belgian-forward floral saisons and farmhouse ales like Boulevard’s Tank 7, Apex Predator seamlessly paired with the caramelized flavors and delicate smokiness of Good’s lightly grilled food.

Other dishes include porchetta on a bed of horseradish turnip purée with grilled onions and salsa verde. Smoked and grilled duck breast is served with caramelized onion tart, cider turnips, and duck jus. Large parties might opt for the family-style portion of fried chicken with fermented hot sauce and pickles.

Vegetables, starches, beans and ingredients kissed by flame and smoke are also key components of dishes. For instance, roasted root vegetables are plated with peach sorghum vinegar, duck confit, and a crispy poached duck egg for good measure. 

Simplicity sometimes means restraint, allowing fresh ingredients to express flavor without unnecessary adornment. Subtly smoky tomato vinaigrette contributed umami to a salad of heirloom tomatoes, spicy greens, grilled squash, and cucumber relish. The dressing added depth without drowning the salad in a tsunami of excess. Nettle sheep’s milk cheese and crispy strands of fried shallots offered contrasting textures to a salad as pleasing as a summer lullaby. 

Duck pâté topped with strawberry jam and served with Ibis Bakery bread arrives on a wood plank. Ibis Bakery produces some of the best bread in the city. Its crunchy crust and chewy interior dappled with air pockets was a smart choice as a platform for what felt like a sophisticated PB&J. The bread counterbalanced the pâté’s custardy texture while the jam’s sweetness brightened its mild flavor.

Served in a petite iron skillet, a blueberry buckle dessert was on point with its homespun feel. A buckle is a coffee cake-like dessert where the cake batter rises or “buckles” around the fruit. This version had the lightness and texture of a sweetened cornbread with intense berry flavor. While an unconventional choice, I ordered a glass of J. Brix Skin Contact Pinot Gris 2018 to accompany the dessert. The Pinot Gris’ cherry notes, subtle spice on the finish, and gentle structure of this skin contact (aka orange wine) paired well with the buckle and delivered a satisfying conclusion to the meal. 

Lo-Fi Wines and Cocktails With Character
General manager and wine director Richard Garcia (above left), who first met Good and Hull as coworkers at Pachamamas, also worked at The Golden Ox, Novel, and The Antler Room. The couple recruited Garcia to be a core team member at Fox and Pearl, where he fashioned the wine list with an emphasis on biodynamic wines. 

“I call them lo-fi or minimal intervention wines,” Garcia says. Vineyard management and use of chemicals is 100-percent dependent on the environment and climate. When possible, Garcia sources wine from small producers dedicated to using “little to no chemicals in the vineyards that would wind up in the ecosystem.” These selections mirror “what Vaughn is doing in the kitchen” as far as working with small, eco-conscious farms and producers.

Designed to be approachable, the wine list highlights lo-fi wines and also lesser-known New World and Old World wines. Garcia says, “The world of wine is vast and hard to navigate. You try to find importers that parallel your values and offer wines you enjoy.”

Garcia’s wine descriptions are intentionally light and “tongue in cheek.” For instance, a Hungarian Hegyi-Kaló Kékfrankos 2015, made from Blaufränkish red grapes, is summarized as “cherries and violets, balanced acid and texture, sleeper hit for sure.” A sparkling La Vignereuse Gaia Quoi! Pet-Nat Syrah, from Gaillac, France, sounds like a catchy K-pop song – “plum and violet fizzy pop, easy going and super fun.” The listing for La Vignereuse Mayga Watt 2017, a Gamay from Gaillac, France, is hardly pretentious – “strawberry soda sop, melty push pop, indeed chuggable.”

“Making wine lists is like making mix tapes,” Garcia says. “There are elements of yourself and poetry. Little gems you want to share with friends and the world.” 

Bar manager Katy Wade (above right) honed her craft at top venues in Kansas City and Lawrence, including Voltaire, The Golden Ox, The Rieger, Julep, and 715 Mass. Her approach to unfussy cocktails further reinforces Fox and Pearl’s intent to be “a welcoming neighborhood place.”

Look for seasonal ingredients, such as blackberries and blueberries, and local spirits in cocktails. As an industry veteran, Wade is savvy to the wealth of well-made craft cocktails through Kansas City. She simply aims for her offerings to be “fun, accessible, and good.” 

To that end, Copper and Tod is a riff on the animal names in the film The Fox and The Hound. Wade says, “It’s our take on an Old Fashioned.” J. Rieger & Co whiskey, Old Grand Dad bourbon, Amaro Nonino, and Luxardo Maraschino form the quartet in this classic. 

The Third Plate is a rotating seasonal cocktail utilizing local produce. “It’s inspired by chef Dan Barber’s book on how we eat, what is available and seasonal,” Wade says. She also plans to develop alcohol-free and low-alcohol cocktails, a trendy alternative now available in New York and Los Angeles bars.

The basement bar and lounge, not a speakeasy, mind you, will have different offerings than the upstairs bar. Wade intends to feature spirits that “express a sense of place and terroir,” such as single-estate Tequila Ocho and sherries. She adds, “We’ll use the space to explore special spirits in a more intimate setting, where the bartender may spend more personalized time with guests.”

Feels Like Home
Fox and Pearl’s food evokes the bygone days of farmhouse cooking once commonly practiced in households as a matter of necessity. Baking bread, putting up preserves, butchering meat, and growing vegetables in a garden were (and are) labor-intensive activities. Putting sustenance on the supper table was more practical than pastoral. Foodstuffs were once exclusively sourced from farmland, ranch, field and stream. Fox and Pearl offers a modern version of this experience, where guests may enjoy the delicious riches of someone else’s creativity and labor.

Good’s cooking draws on southern and midwestern cooking influences from his upbringing. His iteration of regional cuisine uses wood and smoke in time-tested techniques. Yet, he isn’t beholden to Kansas City’s barbecue tradition or boundary lines of what regional cuisine should be. The menu at Fox and Pearl is adventurous yet approachable. Chermoula-rubbed quail with stewed field peas and greens, black garlic yogurt, radish salad, pickled garlic scape, and hush puppy? Good deploys a North African sauce on a game bird supported by southern cooking staples. Elsewhere, heartland meets Old World as Good marries casarecce, a type of Sicilian pasta, with Kansas white beans, mustard greens, herbed buttermilk cheese, and black walnut gremolata. These dishes exemplify Good’s culinary imagination and versatility by tapping into seemingly disparate foodways. 

Fox and Pearl will inevitably be described with words like rustic, farm to table, rootsy, and chef-driven. These words still have currency and apply, to a degree, to the food and experience that Good, Hull and their team have shaped. Yet, sometimes language or a hashtag serves as shorthand to sketch an impression, conveying an implied sense of being in the know without fully providing context.

Rustic evokes gauzy imagery of rural life in the countryside, where folks wear denim and mud-flecked boots and drive old trucks that run forever. The term also refers to unsophisticated, coarse people from the country, who lack social graces or polish. A yokel, if you will. The food, wine, cocktails, service, and decor at Fox and Pearl is anything but unrefined and provincial. Fox and Pearl connects diners in a cozy urban neighborhood setting with farms, ranches, and provisional suppliers located outside of city limits. 

More to the point, Fox and Pearl’s team have realized a vision for their aspirations. Within the realm of possibilities for what a new restaurant and bar might be, Hull, Good, and their team’s combined ideas and raison d’etre for Fox and Pearl are synchronized and unified. Warm sunlight fills the space and glows across the maple floor. Spacious booths and banquettes, family-style tables, and cozy bar stools offer multiple settings to have an intimate meal, a convivial gathering, or to rub elbows with the charming person at the bar. While brand new, Fox and Pearl already feels as familiar and inviting as home.

Swedes and Sunshine
Parking at the intersection of Summit Street and Avenida Cesar E. Chavez affords a view of the 1907 three-story brick building that houses Fox and Pearl. Cast iron five-pointed stars adorn the brick wall to the west like black sparks from an ancient fire long since cooled and bound in place. These stars are anchor plates, commonly used in European cities, towns, and villages on 18th and 19th century brick and masonry-based buildings. Connected to a tie rod or bolt, the anchor plates provide strength by reinforcing the wall. If read like a constellation and with knowledge of the city’s history, the stars are clues to the slow, gradual evolution of the Westside.

Fox and Pearl makes its home in a neighborhood long associated with its Latino and Mexican-American residents and cultural roots. Yet the building is a reminder that the area was once known as Swede Hill. In the 1900s, around 2,000 Swedes and western European immigrants settled in this hilly section of the city. 

According to Niel M. Johnson’s Swedes in Kansas City: Selected Highlights of Their History, Swedes began arriving in Kansas City in 1868. Some continued westward to rural towns such as Lindsborg, Kansas. Others settled near Kansas City’s riverfront, where they worked at meatpacking houses and on the railroads. 

By the 1880s, growing numbers of Swedish settlers congregated next to German and Irish immigrants. Swede Hill “was bounded by 25th Street (the railroad tracks) on the south to 16th on the north and from the bluff on the west to Broadway on the east,” according to Johnson. Gradually, Mexican-Americans rented and bought homes built by immigrant Swedes. By the 1920s, the neighborhood’s identity shifted from Swede Hill to the Westside. 

Swedish-Americans once gathered in the brick building that is now home to Fox and Pearl. The building originally housed the Nytta, Nöje och Enighet Lodge [usefulness, enjoyment, and unity], a Swedish-American social organization. The Swedish Pioneer Club No. 1 (Pionärklubben), another fraternal organization established in Kansas City in 1896, also met at the hall. 

Swedish-Americans observed native customs at the hall, such as midsommar and the julfest [Midsummer and the Christmas festival]. According to Johnson, cultural programs also included “readings of Swedish stories and reports by members on trips to Sweden or to remote places in the U.S.” Following each program, members served “a light supper, which might be accompanied by a case of beer and a fifth of ‘sunshine’ (whiskey).”

The first floor of the brick building later housed a drug store, possibly Stevens Drug Store, and grocery, likely Noon and Johnson. By 1970, the Swedish Pioneer Club and NN&E had dissolved. The latter organization sold their building to the Guadalupe Society. 

 A preserved Swedish lodge banner bearing the slogan Nytta, Nöje och Enighet is currently displayed on another floor of the brick building. The banner may be moved to Fox and Pearl’s upper dining room. 

The Swedish spirit of usefulness, enjoyment, and unity and Westside roots imbues Fox and Pearl’s modern space with an innate sense of history tied to the community. Other signs of the building’s rich history are evident. Blue-and-white tilework by Fox and Pearl’s fire engine red front door designate “Drugs,” a nod to the pharmacy that once operated in the space. 

Inside, Fox and Pearl displays a black-and-white photograph from 1923 of a grocery store and a second-floor butcher shop that once conducted business onsite. Artist Peregrine Honig and musician Mark Southerland, two longtime creative contributors to the cultural growth of the Crossroads, lived and worked in the building’s first-floor studio space years ago. Boulevard Brewing Company’s marketing department offices were once located on an upper floor of the building. Today, Fox and Pearl operates in a fully-transformed setting replete with rich history, providing hospitality, supper from its hearth, and even a bit of “sunshine.” 

Tradition and Trend in Buttermilk Grafitti

Tradition and Trend in Buttermilk Grafitti

I’ve been reading Buttermilk Grafitti, a food memoir by Edward Lee. Lee explores melting-pot cuisine across America. His writing deftly examines cities and communities and how immigrants and cultural forces shape a cuisine or local specialty. Lee shares anecdotes and conversations with chefs, cooks, restaurant owners, food enthusiasts, and passersby on his travels. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter, “The Palace of Pastami.”

Brian Shapiro, Shapiro’s Delicatessen, Indianapolis: “All the chefs these days are artists, and that’s fine, but then you have a restaurant linked to an individual, not a tradition. There will never be a restaurant that lasts one hundred years anymore. Chefs change their food depending on the trends. We don’t.”

Chef-author Edward Lee: “So there is no chef here?

Shapiro: “We don’t call them chefs. It is family recipes that are made by everyone. It speaks to the culture of the group, not an individual. If we persist in making food that is an individual expression, our restaurants will only last as long as the artist’s whim or the public’s attention span. This…” He gestures to the room. “This can go on forever.”

This passage sparked a lively conversation when I posted it on Facebook. For me, Shapiro doesn’t entirely discount the impact of chefs as artists who may adapt to trends. His primary point is that adhering to traditional recipes and preparation methods have been the key to his family’s kosher delicatessen over four generations.

Operating since 1905, Shapiro’s focuses on a specific culture and its foods. It makes sense to emphasize the consistency of preparation and quality over time. The pastrami sandwich, stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup, and other dishes are standbys. They are tried-and-true touchstones for regular customers that have been patronizing Shapiro’s for years. These prepared foods upholding Jewish traditions are also a draw for tourists and food lovers seeking genuine tastes.

There’s something comforting in eating food like this. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken, whether it’s classic Italian-American cuisine based on family recipes brought from the old country or fried chicken that stands the test of time. Clearly, Shapiro’s has found a successful approach that pleases customers and generates profits. Otherwise, change would certainly happen if the business weren’t making money.

Underscoring Shapiro’s point, the focus centers on the food preparation more than the cook or chef making it. The culture of the group, the tradition of the family, whether tied to ethnicity or regional style, supersedes the influence of any one person.

Ong Choy With Pork Belly at Kim Son’s

Detour

Tonight I pulled into Kim Son’s Restaurant (7514 N. Oak Trafficway, Gladstone). Glad I did. 

A $6.95 Chinese buffet banner hangs above the front door. It is a tempting lure; however, that price applies to the lunch buffet. Later, the young woman behind the register said that a dinner buffet might be available in coming weeks. Meanwhile, I was hungry and curious to see what else Kim Son’s had to offer.

The menu offered both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes. In need of updating and reprinting, the menu has a number of items that are crossed out. I opted for #14, a Vietnamese dish made with ong choy and pork belly served with rice. 

Ong Choy

Ong choy is also known as morning glory, water spinach, and many other names. If you haven’t had ong choy, then seize the opportunity to eat a dish that features it. Ong choy is an oft-eaten staple in Thai and Vietnamese households. Abundant and available at Asian markets, inexpensive, and delicious, ong choy is also nutritious as a leafy green.

I haven’t seen the vegetable as an option in Vietnamese restaurants around Kansas City. Maybe I just haven’t noticed it. Regardless, this dish had a home-style cooking feel to it that made it more appealing. 

I failed to jot down the Vietnamese name of the ong choy dish I ordered at Kim Son’s. The proper name of the dish is similar to rau muong xao toi, or ong choy stir-fried with garlic. The menu has options for at least two other dishes featuring ong choy besides pork belly, but I cannot recall whether it was catfish, chicken, or other protein. Odds are you can order a vegetarian dish of it that would also taste great.

The plant has a thin, long, and hollow stem and a slender triangular-shaped leaf when uncooked. Whether stir-fried or steamed, ong choy has the light taste of fresh leafy greens with no bitterness and a tender texture. Thin watery sauce in this dish added subtle sweetness and hint of salt. A wedge of lime squeezed onto the dish provided a suitable amount of acidity for balance.

Thin pieces of pork belly were mostly lightly rendered fat that added layers of flavor – a faint sourness reminiscent of cured Chinese pork sausage, a hint of sweet fatty bacon, umami, and salt.

Cooked ong choy is easy enough to eat with chop sticks. Transfer a mouthful from the main dish onto the rice mounded on a separate plate. Scoop underneath and guide the mouthful to its destination. A fork and spoon may make the handiwork easier for those not adept with chop sticks. Be sure to spoon some of the sauce from the plate onto the rice so it soaks up the combined flavors. Don’t waste a drop of sauce or grain of rice.

An order of ong choy with pork belly was an ample portion for one, but easily shared between two people. While the amount of pork belly wasn’t substantial, its contribution to the overall flavor of the dish was evident. Pork belly played a supporting role while ong choy shined as the star of the show.

Kim Son’s menu has plenty of other familiar Vietnamese dishes, including spring rolls, pho, and banh mi, as well as classic Chinese fare. If inclined, try some of the less-familiar selections. The prices are super affordable. My initial unplanned visit was rewarding enough to merit return trips and sample other dishes. 

Beyond the Buffet

A final note on appearances.

Don’t venture to Kim Son’s for the decor or ambiance. Indoors, it is a colorful mishmash of low-key design and startup decor – think Las Vegas palace meets Chinatown meets restaurant makeover candidate. There’s an over-sized fish tank of goldfish trolling around in yellowish water. Even so, don’t expend effort knocking the venue for its looks. After all, it takes a lot of $6.95 lunch buffets to cover overhead. 

Here’s what I’m saying: Go for the food and simplicity of the experience.

There’s something delightful and understated about a suburban Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant in the sleepy nook known as Gladstone. The city’s modest civic revival hasn’t quite reached every shopping strip and parking lot filled with more pools of amber light than vehicles on a quiet weekday winter evening. With luck and time, joints like Kim Son’s and other Vietnamese restaurants and eateries in nearby Gladstone Plaza will find a growing audience for their food and drink. Kim Son’s has homestyle appeal with potential for growth. Hopefully, that sidesteps the formulaic offerings of a chain restaurant, an all-out dumbing down an “ethnic” eatery to accommodate timid diners, and hip takes on classic cuisine that render its spirit impotent. 

On the other hand, if you want a large volume of assorted food at a cheap price point, Kim Son’s will gladly welcome you to its buffet, too. 

These restaurants seem like the kind of modest venue that the late Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times restaurant critic, might explore. Famous or not, the intent is not to be a foodie prima donna or a colonist, who “discovers” or denounces a “find” based on self-appointed criteria and standards. Instead, try savoring a single unfamiliar dish. See if it stands out from the usual array of greatest hits that normally constitute menus in Asian restaurants. Meet the food, culture, and experience on its own terms. Enjoy the detour.

Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. The scent of smoke from wild plum, oak, grapevine, and lavender clings to my skin, my hair, and my clothes. Smoke hangs on with persistence, a ghost that lingers, a presence that is intangible but most certainly there.

As the chef and brand/event manager at Fence Stile Vineyard and Winery, I spent the afternoon preparing ingredients for a farm and market-themed wine and small plates dinner taking place on November 18th in the Tasting Room. Near a pond with a slushy iced surface, I built a small fire to grill radishes and smoke leeks sourced from farmers Tom Ruggieri and Rebecca Graff at Fair Share Farm, based in Kearney, Missouri. I used wild plum wood obtained from farmer Linda Hezel at Prairie Birthday Farm, also based in Kearney, and oak and grapevine from the winery estate. A single piece of oak formed the foundation of the fire. Smaller pieces of wood tilted at angles on both sides of the oak like church rafters. Brisk November wind blew across the pond and fanned a flame. Kindling shriveled into glowing orange threads and ash. Soon the fire roared as wood crackled and hissed. 

The upcoming wine and food dinner highlights ingredients and products from Fair Share Farm and Prairie Birthday Farm. Also, Dr. Janet Smith of Borgman’s Dairy Farm, based in Holden, Missouri, supplied milk, cheese, yogurt and other products made from goat milk.

Several varieties of French-American hybrid grapes grow along ten hilly acres that surround the tasting room at Fence Stile. Owner-winemaker Shriti Plimpton launched the winery and vineyards nearly ten years ago. The winery is known for its dry and semi-dry wines, but has a wide range for those with sweeter palates. The upcoming dinner is an opportunity to offer a showcase for how three wines produced onsite – Vignoles, Backpack Red, and Vidal Blanc – pair with seasonal farm ingredients prepared to their utmost flavor.

Vineyard manager Shawna Mull tends to the vines year-round. Sometimes, a section of vine runs its course. Cut into small segments, this particular dry, dead grapevine in the heart of the fire had no more life to give as a lifeline for grape clusters. Burning vine and wood produced smoke that enveloped the bulbs of radishes with leafy greens still attached and a cluster of leeks thick as metal pipes.

You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you.

The wind shifted and smoke blew past my face, prompting my eyes to water. The smoke sent a signal, a reminder. Smoke and fire heeds its own whims and acts as its own master. I attempted to coax the smoke to lend its scent to vegetables on the grill. I tried to tame orange licks of flame to do by bidding. I poked and prodded and fed the fire’s appetite. Flames subsided into coals and smoke wafted at a steady pace, dancing around the radishes and leeks. 

Slowly, the bright magenta skin of the radishes dulled and charred with black flakes. Most of the greens had burned away. Removed from the grill, the radishes more closely resembled baby red potatoes cooked directly in a fire. Grilling the radishes mellows its sharp peppery bite and introduces a soft sweetness. The subtle taste and aroma of smoke will interplay with the sweetness, a tart dash of lemon juice, creamy butter, and a dash of salt to unite the flavors.

The leeks grilled until they softened and charred at the edges. Once the coals were ready, I added stalks of dried lavender from Fence Stile’s flower bed to further perfume the smoke dancing around the leeks. After sufficient smoking, I plucked the leeks from the grill, doused the coals, and headed to the kitchen. 

The leeks and radishes are only some of the produce received from Fair Share Farm. They also provided pristine small salad turnips with ivory skin and lush plumes of green leaves. I trimmed the greens and set them aside. They will be sauteed in a pan with Chinese broccoli and served with spelt, a rustic grain similar to farro. Salted and buttered grilled radishes will accompany the greens and spelt. I roasted the trimmed turnips with garlic cloves in the oven until they were tender, sweet gems. 

After paring the charred tough outer skin of the leeks, I cut them into long strips and then chopped them into smaller pieces. The scent and taste of smoke on the leeks seemed to aggressive. Not only would it compete with the other flavors in the dish, it would overwhelm the wine pairing with Backpack Red. This light-bodied, dry red blend of Chambourcin and Norton offered a hint of pepper and earthiness on the finish. Bold smoke would wrestle and dominate the wine, altering the balance of the sweet, salty, earthy and smoky flavors. 

I tucked the chopped leek into a food processor and pureed the contents. A light cloud of steam and smoke arose. Perhaps the leeks could become a sauce for oven-roasted turnips? Ransacking the refrigerator, I selected a jar of creamy goat milk yogurt from Borgman’s Dairy. Slowly, I spooned dollops of yogurt and sprinkled a bit of salt into the leeks and whipped them further. The leeks transformed into a creamy, thick sauce that still bore a hint of smoke. The savory, smoky sauce will provide suitable balance for sweet, earthy turnips. 

Slowly, the various components of this dish, one of three, were coming together.Once assembled, plated and served, this melange of smoked, roasted and sauteed vegetables and grain should work in harmony. The goal is to stimulate the senses, appease the appetite, and illustrate how Backpack Red tastes with a variety of flavors while holding its own. 

Other small plate dishes for the Farm and Market meal include a sweet potato, ginger, and turmeric samosa with curry goat’s milk yogurt sauce (paired with Vignoles). Dessert will be honey and apple sweet grits topped with Fence Stile blackberry compote and goat’s milk caramel sauce (paired with Vidal Blanc).

Smoking is one technique used to impart flavor and aroma to food. Its scent and taste connect with the primal parts of our brain and ancient appetites that learned how smoke adds character to food and drink consumed. Even when curls of smoke have dissipated, the aroma of smoke is a remnant of wood and vine that grew over years, served its purpose, and continues on its journey in an intangible form. Smoke is ethereal yet real like the memory of a remarkable meal or bottle of wine that makes a lasting impression long after the last bit and sip. 

You cannot touch smoke. Smoke touches you. It sends a signal from past to present before continuing on for those ready to receive. 

Chicken Chorizo Vegetable Stew and the Kitchen Equinox

Chicken Chorizo Vegetable Stew and the Kitchen Equinox

The first spoonful of chicken chorizo vegetable stew tastes rich and savory, slightly smoky with a faint residual heat. Hard nuggets of potatoes and carrots have slowly cooked into creamy, grainy morsels, rising as mountain ranges just above a sea of sienna-colored broth in the bowl. Scattered dark green islands of poblano pepper and specks of oregano form an archipelago. The broth glistens from chicken fat and tomato-chorizo stock, making each slurp feel more indulgent than wholesome and nutritious. Chunks and shredded bits of meat from chicken legs, thighs, and backs are distributed throughout the earthy stew.

Earlier this evening, I debated what I should eat for dinner after waking from an afternoon nap. My head was still groggy. My muscles sore from work over the weekend. I thought about visiting the newly-opened Black Sheep + Market, a farm-to-table restaurant and market from chef Michael Foust and his partners at The Farmhouse. Or, perhaps I could head to The Rieger for the debut of their new fall menu.

Recently, someone had shared a photo of the gargantuan pork tenderloin sandwich at The Firehouse on 20th Bar and Grill The image inspired a craving for the tenderloin and cold, cheap beer. I wrote about that impressive made-from-scratch sandwich three years ago. The sandwich is big enough to constitute two meals. Customers often buy an extra bun for fifty cents and take home the leftovers for a second meal.

However, after splashing cold water on my face, I resorted to peering inside the refrigerator. As often as I open the fridge, you’d think I would have its contents classified and memorized like it was my social security number. Whether it is before midnight, first thing in the morning, or just as hunger pangs inspire action for supper, I often take a gander inside the fridge. Sometimes I’ll also peek in the freezer and then double back to the fridge in case I missed something. At first, I’m reacquainting myself with what’s there or, more often, not there. Other times I open the door and look inside. I’m full of hope as if I’m scratching away at a lottery ticket to score $500 or a beef Wellington. Usually, I’m either assessing leftovers or calculating ingredients and what can be composed into a meal.

I opted for the container of chicken chorizo vegetable stew. Technically, the food wasn’t leftover but instead a dish I prepared a few days ago from various ingredients lying around. I threw them in the crockpot, cooked and seasoned the stew, and then stored it for later in the week. I waited impatiently for the stew to reheat in a deep saucepan on the stove. I could have abandoned the preparation and easily bolted for a restaurant. There, I could sit, drink, and indulge in someone else’s cooking. Yet, I’m glad I didn’t tonight.

I don’t mind spending money on food and drink prepared and served at local restaurants. Not only does it support the local economy, but it also breaks up the monotony of cooking and eating my food daily and nightly. Eating out provides ideas, inspiration and social interaction, a chance to see the results of another cook’s labor and creativity.

Sometimes eating a home-cooked meal provides its own reward. The sensory payoff of a dish’s flavor, aroma, and presentation makes the effort worthwhile. Tonight, the decision to stay home and eat rustic, hearty chicken chorizo vegetable stew paid off.

Two days ago, the last day of summer ended and autumn began in the northern hemisphere. The stretch of daylight has regressed as evening grows dark earlier. It’s a time for festivals, harvest and rituals that prepare us for darkness, cold weather and a slower pace for some. Eating simple meals like stew prepared at home offers comfort and satisfaction. And opening the refrigerator door, a daily ritual to peer from the outside in, is a sort of kitchen equinox that observes a transition from dark to light, from indecision to inspiration. The possibility of hope and pleasure that awaits serves as a reminder that I can nourish myself no matter how many meals await elsewhere far beyond the refrigerator door.