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Originally published Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Farmers' shared vision includes a great menu

Standing before a long table laden with ingredients last Wednesday, Bryan Vietmeier spread beef and sausage onto a cream base for the lasagna...

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Standing before a long table laden with ingredients last Wednesday, Bryan Vietmeier spread beef and sausage onto a cream base for the lasagna that more than 600 people would eat the next day as part of the luncheon at Snohomish County's annual Focus on Farming conference.

It had been nearly six hours since he and another cook from Russell's Restaurant & Bar, in Bothell, began prepping pans with locally made egg pasta. It would take 60 pounds of cheese, 45 pounds of veal, 45 pounds of beef, 100 pounds of onions, 20 pounds of butter and 20 pounds of pepperoni to complete the main dish, along with almost 4,000 square feet of pasta.

Nary a plate would have any remnants after the three-course meal the next day. Along with Russell's Northern Italy lasagna, conference participants dined on winter squash soup with crème fraîche and roasted sage, golden-autumn salad with toasted hazelnuts, peas with onions and tomatoes, and for dessert, apple-spice cake with caramel, as well as individual mint chocolates.

Satiated and satisfied, local farmers, producers, marketers, researchers and others then lumbered off to afternoon sessions on growing alternative feed, water rights and composting, trying to remain patient and awake before the late-afternoon highlight: the annual wine-and-cheese tasting, this year complete with oysters on the half shell.

The common thread running through the menus was that most of the ingredients were grown locally and then prepared by Puget Sound-area chefs, many with their own restaurants and catering businesses.

There was cheese from Samish Bay Cheese, onions and tomatoes from Hedlin Farms, sage and beef from Ninety Farms and more. Evening wines came from vineyards on San Juan and Lopez islands, Mount Vernon and other locales; the shellfish were cultivated on Puget Sound by Taylor Shellfish.

Calling it a conference meal would be unfair. To participants, it was a local smorgasbord.

"My goal is to show the farmers what a phenomenal meal can be made with their foods," said Linda Neunzig, a local farmer and agriculture-project coordinator in Snohomish County's Office of Economic Development.

Neunzig has been responsible for the menu each of the conference's four years. And while some people the first year suggested a catered meal might be easier, she thought the idea of serving food locally grown and raised could become a highlight of the conference, where a main goal is to help local farmers learn how to better market their products.

For Ed and Roxanne Husmann, the apple-spice cake was an especially tasty treat. Some of the apples came from their Sultan farm, which has 700 apple trees growing six varieties.

"It would have been considerably easier to just cater the food, but Linda did it the hard way," Ed Husmann said during last week's conference.

Roxanne Husmann, who watched the prep work the day before, agreed.

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"We sell our apples and never see how they're used," she said. "But I know some of the people from whom this food came from, so this is a great idea to showcase those farmers."

It's also a way to draw attention to local chefs and restaurants, which volunteer to prepare the food.

"Most of the year, the farmers from whom I purchase local food are too busy to come in and eat," said Seth Caswell, chef at Stumbling Goat Bistro in Seattle. Caswell was the creator of the golden-autumn salad.

"To me, one of my favorite things to do is to feed them what they've raised," he said.

Caswell also uses the conference to make new friends and business contacts. Buying locally for his menu is important to him, so showing local farmers what he can do with their product is a plus.

"I like peeking through the curtain while they're eating, and seeing their reaction, but then afterward I want to talk to them about what they do," he said. "I almost always would rather work with local farmers because you can ask them about their growing methods, and that means more to a local chef than buying from out of town."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-745-7813 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

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