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.