The annual Farm to Fork Picnic, a fundraiser that showcases the best local produce prepared by the area's top chefs, offers many lessons along with its culinary delights. At this year's event, the curious could find inspiration in any number of dishes that exhibit the skill and ingenuity of their creators.
Zucchini fritters with basil aioli from Sunset Farms and Pazzo! Restaurant; roasted beet salad with fresh mint and creamy carrot vinaigrette from Dutch Buffalo Farms and Poole's Diner; and Italian sausage subs with wilted rapini, pickled fennel and Chapel Hill Creamery's mozzarella from McKinley/ Whatley Farm and Neal's Deli were among the treats that hundreds of foodies nibbled on at last month's picnic.
The Farm to Fork Picnic tradition began in 2007 at Chapel Hill Creamery to honor the Triangle visit of Slow Food godfather Carlo Petrini. Farm to Fork matched area farmers with celebrated local chefs from favorite restaurants such as Neal's Deli and Lantern in Carrboro/ Chapel Hill, Irregardless of Raleigh and Watts Grocery/ Sage and Swift Catering in Durham. The event took place at N.C. State's research and education facility north of Hillsborough, the W.C. Breeze Family Farm.
A fundraiser for Young and Transitional Farmers' Apprenticeship programs, the picnic is organized by Orange County, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems and Slow Food Triangle. This year's 500 tickets sold out almost immediately, raising $20,000 for the programs. Even before the on-site silent auction, in which local restaurants gave away certificates for wine dinners for two and other yummy prizes, the event was a success.
Simplicity was on display in dishes such as Chef Scott Crawford's strawberry soup. Such concoctions are testimony to the ease with which we can cook simply but deliciously. Even locavores with full-time jobs and ordinary home kitchens can make the most of seasonal ingredients abundant into the markets right now. In-season food cooked straightforwardly can be the most delicious you'll find anywhere.
Crawford, who leads the kitchen at Herons in the Umstead Hotel, scaled down the recipe for the home cook who wants to feast with summertime ease. Everything but the lime juice and seasonings can be bought right now at your farmers market. This fruity gazpacho is assembled in 10 minutes and then requires chilling time.
Chef Scott Crawford's Strawberry Gazpacho
Serves 4 as a starter
2 pints fresh local strawberries, stemmed and rinsed
1 fresh jalapeño pepper, seeds and rib-membrane removed
2 fresh cucumbers, peeled and seeded
1 large (about 1 pound) tomato, cored and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons seltzer, sparkling water or club soda
Salt and pepper to taste
1 small bunch basil leaves (3 six-inch stems with 6–8 large leaves each)
Place strawberries, jalapeño, cucumbers, tomato, lime juice and seltzer into the bowl of a food processor or a metal mixing bowl for use with immersion blender. Blend to a puree of the consistency you like. Chef Scott likes his chunky, so that means blending it on "high" for 30 seconds to a minute. If you go longer than one minute, the soup will resemble a savory smoothie.
Transfer to a nonreactive bowl, season with salt and pepper to taste.
Tie basil leaves together with kitchen string, leaving the stem-ends of the herbs attached. Immerse the bundle, stem-end up, into the soup. Alternatively, wrap and tie the basil in cheesecloth. Chill overnight, or all day if you make it in the morning. Remove basil. Be sure to shake the gazpacho off the leaves or squeeze it out of the cheesecloth before you serve it.
Serve in chilled bowls as a starter for any meal. It is especially good as a lead-in to grilled fish and a roasted zucchini main dish.
Picnic Pasta Salad
The pasta salad dish is one of my own concoctions. It makes the most of fresh, local ingredients and is easy to put together. Serves 6 as a main dish or 8–10 as a side
One 1-pound box fusilli or farfalle pasta
2 cups summer squash, roasted (green or yellow zucchini or sunburst work well)
2 cups plum tomatoes, roasted
2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for drizzling and dressing
1 fresh green or red bell pepper cut into strips
1 hot pepper minced (optional)
pound firm mozzarella, cut into cubes
1 cup grilled or roasted chicken, cut into strips (optional)
1/2 cup torn basil leaves
1 cup favorite oil-and-vinegar dressing or a mixture of 3/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons
balsamic or wine vinegar, salt and pepper to taste (see note for alternative dressing)
Cook pasta according to package directions. Let cool and toss with 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut squash and tomatoes into 2-inch chunks and spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Spray or drizzle with olive oil to lightly coat. Roast until tender and starting to brown, about 20–30 minutes, depending on your oven. Cool and season to taste.
Toss pasta, roasted vegetables and peppers. Chill until ready to serve.
Right before dinner, add cheese, chicken (if using), basil and toss with dressing.
Leftovers travel well to work, but the pasta will absorb the dressing. If you like it wet, add more dressing.
Alternative dressing: Omit cheese and toss with pesto mayo: 1/2 cup basil pesto with 1/2 cup mayonnaise. This mixture is also excellent on sandwiches.