From Iowa farm to table
Pop-up dinner parties celebrate community, local food
For me and most Iowans I know, the arrival of sweet corn is a highly anticipated moment each summer.
Since summer and ice cream go together just as well, I was understandably excited when my sister told me she was creating a recipe for sweet corn ice cream.
She served the ice cream drizzled with honey and sprinkled with sea salt along with roasted dandelion kombucha, Iowa summer ceviche wraps, a chilled soup of leek, lemon and purple potatoes and pork jowl banh-mi sandwiches at a dinner party she and a friend, Emily Qual, of Mount Vernon, held in her backyard on Monday.
Under the moniker the Full Moon Cafe, Qual and my sister, Jamie Gowans, have hosted these pop-up dinners for more than a year, setting up tables in friends’ homes and yards and even once in a picnic shelter at a state park.
Their events are just one example of the farm-to-table dinners that have grown in popularity in Eastern Iowa in recent years. Featuring fresh, seasonal food sourced from local farms, the dinners fit right into the “eat local” ethos that has exploded in popularity across the country.
“We have all these products, and we have people who have the desire to consume them,” says Jay Schworn, chef and managing owner at Salt Fork Kitchen in Solon. “People who buy plates at these events support things directly related to their own community. The circle remains close to home.”
Salt Fork Kitchen opened almost a year ago as an offshoot of Salt Fork Farms. Though the restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch, they hold occasional dinners, announced a few weeks in advance and seated via reservation. The menu relies heavily on food from the farm, supplemented by what their neighbors grow.
The dinners also offer a more communal experience than dining at a restaurant.
For Simone Delaty, who runs Simone’s Plain and Simple from her home in Wellman, that element is key.
Delaty, who is originally from France and retired from the University of Iowa after 28 years teaching French, started her dinners about 12 years ago for friends.
Word of the evenings spread, so she opened the dinners to the public. Her meals, which she hosts about once a month, rotate between wood-fired pizza, French and Moroccan themes. All feature produce she grows in her garden, supplemented by farmers market fare.
She seats just 20 people at a dinner. Guests must come with fewer than four people they know. She wants diners to get to know strangers when they come to her table, a concept known in French as “table d’hôte,” or “the host’s table.”
“It’s something popular in the French countryside when you travel. You can stop for a meal, and there is a table and you can meet people,” she says. “ It’s a communal meal. It’s about much more than the food.”
The dinners also offer a distinctly non-formal setting on her screen porch overlooking her garden and the surrounding countryside.
“This part of Iowa is really beautiful,” she says.
Chris Grebner, a personal chef based in Iowa City, says the fusion of a unique setting and an opportunity to foster community conversation is part of what inspired his own farm-to-dinner effort, the Farmer’s Table.
“I think there’s something about eating a meal that has always been a communal act,” he says. “To come together with strangers and feel comfortable sitting at a table with them. It’s kind of a romantic idea, but it’s what I love about food at its core.”
Though the Farmer’s Table started in 2010, Grebner took a hiatus this summer after his wife had a baby. He’s planning to pick back up this fall. The dinners move from farm to farm, so that guests have a chance to meet the people who produce the food.
“I really think that’s something people who come to our dinners are looking for — that love affair with food,” he says. “Being able to sit across from the farmer and have these conversations is inviting to them.”
Seeing the farms also is part of what makes the meals unique, he says.
“I had heard of these types of on-location dinners being done in other places, so I thought, why not give it a shot and see if it works,” he says. “We’ve had dinners in barns and wineries.”
Experiencing a meal in a rural Iowa setting is the motivation behind an upcoming dinner Bloomsbury Farms in Atkins is hosting Aug. 23. A fundraiser for Four Oaks, the dinner will feature a meal of Iowa ingredients served on tables set up in the middle of a cornfield. The fundraiser was first held a few years ago and was enough of a success that organizers have recreated it every summer since.
“We wanted to host an event that was experiential,” says Liz Mathis, Four Oaks chief community officer. “We do a lot of events every year, but this is something unique.”
Eating local meat and vegetables paired with local wine, all while surrounded by rows of corn, was about as Iowa an experience as they could come up with, she says.
Like sweet corn ice cream, it celebrates local food and community. Mathis thinks that’s what makes the model work.
“The beauty of it all is what makes it so successful. It’s very homegrown,” she says.
Cuisine in the Corn
•When: 6 p.m. Aug. 23
•Where: Bloomsbury Farm, 3260 69th St., Atkins
•More information: Fouroaks.org/ or call (319) 364-0259
•When and where: Announced on website and via email list
•Cost: Dinners average $40 to $70
•More information: Thefarmerstable.us/ or (319) 325-4344
Full Moon Cafe
•When and where: Announced via Facebook.
•Cost: Suggested donation averaging around $30, with any profits donated to Local Foods Connection
•More information: Facebook.com/MoonDinner
Salt Fork Kitchen
•When: Announced on Facebook, website and via email
•Where: 112 E. Main St., Solon
•Cost: Dinners average $50 to $75
•More information: Facebook.com/saltforkkitchen or (319) 624-2081
Simone’s Plain and Simple
•When: Announced via email
•Where: 1478 470th St. SW, Wellman
•Cost: Dinners average $50
•More information: Simoneplainandsimple.com/ or (319) 631-0146
Sweet corn ice cream
If you have an ice cream maker, try this seasonal Iowa dessert. It is easiest to make with a friend’s second set of hands.
•3 cups heavy cream
•1 cup milk
•5 egg yolks
•3/4 cups sugar
•5 ears of sweet corn
Cut the kernels from uncooked sweet corn cobs. Add both kernels and cobs to a pot with the cream, milk and a half cup of sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring. Remove from heat and let cool for up to two hours.
In a separate bowl, mix remaining sugar with the egg yolks.
Remove the cobs from the cream mixture and bring back to a boil.
Continuing to stir the boiling cream mixture to keep it from burning, slowly add 1 cup of cream mixture to yolk and sugar mixture, stirring constantly to ensure yolks don’t cook. (This is where the extra set of hands is helpful.)
Add this mixture back to the pot on the stove, continuing to stir, and cook until it thickly coats back of spoon. Remove from heat and let cool.
Strain mixture through a fine sieve, pressing to extract as much liquid as possible. If you like, you can puree the kernels left in the sieve and add them to the mixture.
Chill, put in ice cream maker and prepare according to ice cream maker’s instructions.
Serve garnished with a drizzle of warm honey and smoked salt. Makes about 1 quart.
Source: by Jamie Gowans, Full Moon Cafe
Cherry Tomato Gazpacho
•5 pounds cherry tomatoes
•1 bunch basil
•1 bunch cilantro
•2 tablespoons sea salt, plus more to taste
•1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper, plus more to taste
•4 tablespoons sugar
•1 1/2 cups high quality olive oil
•1 bunch basil
•1 cup high quality olive oil
•5 tomatoes, sliced into eighths
For the gazpacho, combine all of the ingredients, reserving 1/2 cup of olive oil, and crush with your hands into a pulp. Place the mix into a blender, blend on high until smooth and pass through a fine sieve — pressing to extract as much liquid as possible.
Pour some of the strained soup back into the blender and spin while adding the reserved 1/2 cup olive oil in a slow and steady stream until fully incorporated.
Mix with rest of the gazpacho and transfer to fridge to cool.
For the basil oil, place the basil into a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds, drain and blanch in ice-cold water. Once it’s completely cool, squeeze the basil to remove as much water as possible. Roughly chop the leaves and place in a blender with 3/4 cup of the olive oil and blend, slowly adding the remaining 1/4 cup until smooth.
Serve the gazpacho in bowls and garnish with a little basil oil, basil leaves and the slices of tomatoes. Torn fresh mozzarella and some grilled bread would be great accompaniments.
Source: Chris Grebner, The Farmer’s Table