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.
Green Dirt Farm hosted a KC Ale Trailbeer dinner on October 31st with Chef Craig Howard of Howard’s Grocery, Cafe and Catering, and myself as guest speaker. ReGina Cruse of Green Dirt Farm, Craig and I worked together to plan this end of harvest event and cross-promote the farm’s cheeses, my book, local breweries and beer, and Craig’s new cafe.
The evening turned out to be beautiful with a crisp chill in the air and clear skies. The barn was heated and cozy and the family-style dining table was set. Musical duo Victor and Penny arrived and set up to perform acoustic sets before and after the beer dinner. Their charming sound created a perfect relaxing backdrop for the event.
Craig Howard and Allison Muller.
Craig and his assistant Allison Muller busied themselves setting up an outdoor kitchen to finish preparation of the four-course meal. Once all of the guests arrived and visited a small flock of sheep grazing nearby, the group settled at the table. After introductions and a welcome by farm owner Sarah Hoffmann, I shared some back story on the making of KC Ale Trail, why I wrote the book, and the “grueling” beer research behind the effort.
Green Dirt Farm owner Sarah Hoffmann.
Soon, we launched into the first course. Servers brought out plates of flatbread topped with Ruby cheese, pea shoots, carrots, and sweet potato. Ruby is a new cheese from the farm made of 100-percent cow’s milk. The cheese is buttery, tangy and floral. According to ReGina, it has been washed for the first two weeks of its life and then grows a beautiful powdery bloom. The cow’s milk is sourced from Jerry Miller and his family who live in Stanberry, Mo.
I chose to pair this dish with Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7, a Farmhouse Ale style with a floral and citrus-y hops nose. The flavor begins with a soft, sweet maltiness and a brief finish of hops bitterness and citrus-y grapefruit. I felt the floral aroma of the beer would match the aroma and tanginess of the cheese while the malt would complement the flatbread.
For the second course, Craig prepared a butternut squash soup that matched the spirit of the fall season. The soup was garnished with sauteed local greens, local bacon, pepitas, and fresh cheese from Green Dirt Farm. The cheese is soft, crumbly and mild-tasting. I decided on Free State Brewing’s Oktoberfest for this course, a seasonal beer with a solid balance of caramel notes from malts countered by a touch of hops bitterness on the finish. The pairing worked quite well, underscoring the seasonal nature of both food and drink that both farmers and brewers honor year-round.
Next, the main course of ground lamb burger on Farm to Market buns included Green Dirt Farm’s Prairie Tomme cheese, ale caramelized onions, eggplant bacon, pickles, and sides of marinated vegetables and crispy potato with preserved tomato. Craig Howard excels at using and preparing a variety of local and regional ingredients with different cooking techniques. This dish was an elevated play on pub fare – a burger with cheese and potatoes.
In that spirit, the light-bodied Pub Ale from Tallgrass Brewing made sense at a match-up. This lower-alcohol session beer was made for knocking back one or three with this type of food. Craig just turned up the creativity and flavors. This beer’s malt profile jumps out with caramel flavor. It was a popular pairing and course for guests that came from Dallas, Kansas City and outside of Lawrence and Blue Springs.
Gradually, our bellies were getting full. We did save room for the dessert course of devil’s food cake loaded with Tuffet cheese and candied pecans, plus a drizzle of red currant sauce. This rich chocolate-laden cake and the dense cream cheese-like texture of the Tuffet needed a bold beer to anchor the pairing. Rather than a chocolate milk stout, I opted for Mother’s Brewing Winter Grind, a coffee stout that distinctly tastes like a strong, robust cup of joe. I’m glad I chose a coffee-infused beer rather than one with chocolate. The latter might have been too much for the cake.
I enjoyed chatting with the diverse group of people with different backgrounds, ages, and familiarity with local craft beer. We wound down the night with more music from Victor and Penny. Some guests loaded up on Green Dirt Farm’s cheeses to take home. The Royals were competing in Game 4 of the World Series against the NY Mets and would later win the match 5–3. Most fans in attendance at the dinner made haste to head home or somewhere to catch the game.
Overall, the dinner was a smashing success – a perfect union of local food, drink, and music. I was pleased to partner with and cross-promote a local farmer, brewers, and music act all in one setting. I left with a full belly but wish I could have stayed longer near a campfire, sipping on a seasonal beer and letting the last hours of Halloween slip by as the night grew dark and cold.
If able, we might set up a similar event in the the first or second quarter of 2016. It would be interesting to see how we can pair seasonal spring craft beers with sheep’s milk cheeses. The cheeses will have subtly different tastes and aroma from the terroir and diet of the sheep. Until then, it was time to head back to Kansas City on the Ale Trail.
Tallgrass Tap House in Manhattan, Kansas, hosted its first-ever beer pairing dinner on Friday, October 23rd. I was the featured speaker and discussed the making of KC Ale Trail and answered questions about local/regional breweries and beer styles. Each guest enjoyed a hearty four-course meal with beer pairings and a copy of the book. Here is a recap of the meal with beer pairing notes.
Above, the first course of Velvet Mussels featured sauteed mussels in a Velvet Rooster Belgian-style Tripel and smoked tomato broth with saffron and served with sourdough toast points. Paired with the Velvet Rooster from Tallgrass. As you’ll read below, each course incorporated one of the brewery’s beers in the actual cooking.
The second course of acorn squash bisque with toasted pepitas was paired with Pumpkin Slayer Porter, a seasonal brewery-only release with prominent pumpkin pie spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg. We were the first guests ever at the Tap House to try this beer that was subsequently released to the public in the tasting room later that night.
Course three was a massive plate of bison short rib braised in Tallgrass Pub Ale demi-glace with gooseberries, served with pancetta asiago dauphinoise potatoes and roasted root medley. This course was paired with Pub Ale, the brewery’s malty mild English Brown Ale with caramel notes.
Finally, we wound down with a dessert of pumpkin pear bread pudding laced with pecans and a Great Hambino caramel sauce and creme anglaise. Great Hambino Porter was provided with this course. As a bonus fifth course, each guest received a flight of the brewery’s Subrosa Berliner Weisse with three additional flavored variations. A Berliner Weisse is a traditional German wheat beer style that is sour and often served with added fruit syrup to balance out the tartness. Tonight, we were served the unadulterated Weisse and versions with raspberry, blackberry and honey lavender sauces. All were delicious.
Subrosa Berliner Weisse with flavored sauce variations.
Thanks to Tap House general manager Matt Ruhnke, chef Lance Gipson, and brewer Brandon Gunn for their help in organizing and co-hosting the event. Lance and Brandon each took turns discussing the courses and pairings. I was able to spend time chatting with the group overall and visiting each table for more conversation and questions. The meal and evening were great.
Matt Ruhnke, Chef Lance Gipson, and brewer Brandon Gunn.
Brewer Brandon Gunn discusses each beer paired with a food course.
That evening, the Kansas City Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays that evening in Game 6 of the ALCS and advanced to the World Series. Our group was able to watch the game after the dinner on a large-screen TV. I whooped and howled and cheered as the Royals eeked out a 4–3 win. I could hardly sleep that night, eager to return to Kansas City.
If you ever find yourself in Manhattan, be sure to stop at the Tallgrass Tap House for some excellent beer and food.
Kansas City never ceases to amaze me. This past weekend’s sunny weather and clear blue skies made it irresistible to head outdoors and explore. I found myself driving to the East Bottoms, West Bottoms and downtown in search of old brewery buildings to photograph for my next book, Kansas City Brewing. While strolling around the East Bottoms, I came across these cute tiny goats feeding on hay and minding their own business. From time to time, I take a drive or walk to explore my hometown and find fresh sights and surprises. It makes me happy to discover or simply see a corner of the city I hadn’t noticed. Sometimes I come across new friends that like to eat too.
Columbus Park Ramen Shop opened this past week to the delight of Kansas City diners waiting for Josh and Abbey-Jo Eans’ new restaurant to open. The wait was worthwhile.
I won’t go into much detail since the ramen shop has only been open a few days. The compact space is minimalist out of necessity given that it is shoehorned next to sister restaurant Happy Gillis Cafe. The few furnishings and decor exhibit modern craftsmanship. Accents like a maneki-neko, or beckoning cat believed to be a good luck charm, and a J-pop soundtrack reference Japanese culture. This space isn’t meant to be a splashy setting worthy of a lifestyle magazine spread. Food and social interaction is the draw.
The atmosphere on a preview night with friends, neighbors and service industry people was upbeat and celebratory. Guests seemed pleased to eat a tasty bowl of ramen. And that ramen. It’s going to sustain diners all winter that crave a soul-uplifting pick-me-up.
I ordered Shoyu, a dish that begins with chicken and dashi broth and is layered with braised Amish chicken, marinated farm egg, pickled shiitake, scallon and yuzukoshō. The latter is a Japanese seasoning made from yuzu peel, salt and chili pepper and used as a condiment. The citrus accent and mild bite of pepper from the seasoning and bright acidic nip of the shiitake’s pickling provided needed counterbalance to the rich, soothing broth. The ramen noodles and broth, studded with bits of chicken, pickled halves of egg and scallion, is sheer comfort food delivered in spoon-fed bites and slurps.
The menu offers four versions of ramen. Given the preparation of the ingredients and dishes, plus the tight confines of the kitchen, don’t expect an expanded or regularly rotating menu. Instead, visit regularly and explore the textures, flavors and careful balance that each type of ramen offers. I intend to return often.
Master distiller Tom Nichol arrived in Kansas City this week for the debut of his gin made in collaboration with J. Rieger & Co. The East Bottoms-based distillery, co-founded by Ryan Maybee and Andy Rieger and led by head distiller Nathan Perry, enlisted the services and expertise of Nichol, who retired from Tanqueray in July, earlier this year to develop its new gin.
Nichol, Perry, Maybee and Rieger joined about 50 professionals in the bartending industry at Republica on the Country Club Plaza for a gin tasting and industry launch party hosted by JP Gilmore of Vintegrity Wine.
Andy Rieger, Tom Nichol, Nathan Perry, and Ryan Maybee.
The botanical recipe for the gin is deceptively simple, using juniper, licorice root, orange peel, angelica root and coriander. The ingredients were sourced from Europe to obtain the finest quality at no small expense. That costly decision was a price to pay to attain the level of quality that Nichol and the team sought and achieved in the final result. They opted to not use exotic or local ingredients of lesser quality nor any crazy methods.
“It didn’t translate,” Maybee said. “We kept it practical so we could make the best possible gin.”
Nichol’s straightforward recipe resulted in a classic, moderately London dry style that began with a neutral wheat-based spirit. J. Rieger’s version differs from Tanqueray’s well-known gin and stands on its own merits. Nichol explained that he had to find a new balance for this gin that put light between the balance he had devised for Tanqueray.
“I’ve had a recipe in my head to make a great gin,” Nichol said. “It’s simple but a great gin. It takes months to get there. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
The gin has character by itself but enough structure and flexibility to allow creativity by bartenders crafting a gin and tonic, Campari or original cocktail recipe. Various drinks served at Republica for the industry event used garnishes of rosemary, flowers, and citrus separately, each lending an herbal, floral or acidic note to the aroma and taste of the drink. In short, the J. Rieger & Co. gin is both versatile and a classic that should stand the test of time as tastes and trends evolve and return to form.
Nichol, a native of Tullibody, Scotland, earnestly spoke in complimentary terms about the guys at J. Rieger and bartenders in the industry.
“Bartenders are my favorite people,” Nichol said. “You are my heroes.”
He also laced his comments with a few choice swear words in his brogue. Nichol admonished bartenders at large that don’t respect the integrity and hard work that goes into making a solid gin.
“What’s the point of me making it if a bartender’s going to fuck it up?” Nichol pronounced. “Shit bartenders aren’t worth a fuck.”
In other words, know your craft and respect the quality spirit being used.
Regarding Perry and his aptitude for learning, Nichol was quick to tell the audience, “Nathan is a master distiller. He reminds me of me when I was young. He sucks it all in.”
The gin joins its sister spirits vodka and whiskey from J. Rieger & Co. that have also had successful launches into the marketplace in Kansas City and elsewhere around the country. The gin is available at The Rieger, Republica and other select restaurants around town, area liquor stores including Underdog, and area Hy-Vee and Pricechopper stores.