Smile Politely

The Farmers’ Table makes a stellar debut

First, I am not employed by The Farmers’ Table or in any way benefiting from this gushing article — at least not yet. Despite this I am still going to try to sell you on how tasty the food was and how fulfilling it felt to be eating almost entirely local for an evening, especially since this incarnation of local eating doesn’t result in me doing any dishes. Second, this was not a “cheap” dinner at $20 per ticket, but I believe the full experience with three courses of superb local fare clearly rivals the value you would get at other formal dining establishments in Urbana-Champaign.

Here’s the rundown: Stephanie and I were lucky enough to buy some tickets to the first Farmers’ Table. For those that missed the memo, The Farmers’ Table is “a weekly gourmet vegetarian meal prepared with local ingredients purchased fresh that day at the Urbana Farmers Market! A Non-Profit, Volunteer-Run project of the Channing-Murray Foundation.” Tickets were being sold Saturday morning at the Tiny Greens stand at the Urbana Farmers’ Market. Reservations for the dinner can also be made by calling Erin at (217) 840-9388. Since all the food served up at dinner gets purchased that morning at the Farmers’ Market they ask that same-day reservations be called in by 11 a.m.

The dinners are held at The Red Herring (1209 W. Oregon) in the basement of the Channing Murray Foundation, which is otherwise underutilized during the summer months. Upon entering this usually relaxed lunch spot, I was surprised by the lowered lights and a small vase of cut flowers with a candle on each table. The mood was still relaxed, but a little more formal. We were very quickly provided water and chatted while other folks wandered in and took seats. We were pleasantly surprised by the accompanying music and singing from Farmers’ Market regular Gina Cassidy on violin and acoustic guitar. The folks in attendance appeared to be a mixture of couples, friends, and a healthy sprinkling of families with children.

The dinner consisted of three courses, the first of which was mixed greens in a honey-basil vinaigrette. There were sugar snap peas and walnuts mixed in. The salad was topped with a generous helping of sprouts. The salad was dominated by the nutty flavor from the walnuts and the complex sweetness of the local honey, but I didn’t really pick up much basil. I absolutely love snap peas, and the ones in the salad were fine specimens. The mixed greens and sprouts held up well and complemented the dominating flavors. A surprise was the some of the semi-sprouted beans in the salad provided additional crunch and flavor. Not sure if this was on purpose, or a happy accident. All in all, it was an excellent and nutritional local salad.

The second and traditional main course consisted of fettuccine with a creamy ramp and goat cheese sauce. There were also some scallions and oyster mushrooms mixed in. As will happen with goat cheese, that was most of what you tasted in the fettuccine. Luckily I’m a huge fan of goat cheese. My only note of discord was that the sauce was a little grainy.

Across the plate from the fettucine was an arugula and goat cheese frittata (simple egg casserole). Despite the goat cheese you could clearly taste the arugula greens, as this was a much more nuanced use of the goat cheese. Overall the frittata was pleasant, but I could have handled a bit more seasoning. On the other hand, I’m a heavy seasoner — so take that comment with a grain of salt (or better yet, some cayenne pepper). A bunch of local asparagus, simply prepared, was laid atop of the dish. The dish was also graced with a pile of sprouts and micro-greens, which were good friends with the rest of the plate. The main course was an impressive feat of local fare, especially considering the limited options this early in the season at the Farmers’ Market.

In finale, and in my opinion the crowning jewel of the dinner was the ricotta fruit tart in a flaky phyllo pastry shell. The warm ricotta filling was seasoned with mint and basil, with the basil clearly dominating. The filling was topped with sliced fresh strawberries and blueberries. Over everything was a drizzle of local honey. I can’t say enough how different a good local honey tastes than homogenized, dumbed-down supermarket varieties. This dish allowed the honey’s flavor to really take a significant role. Double yummy, yum! After dessert we weren’t stuffed, but we weren’t hungry. I don’t know about you, but that’s my favorite way to feel after dinner.

Congratulations Steve Moore and Erin Brunelle (and everyone else who made this happen). I believe you’ve started something.

FYI — The Farmers’ Table has an information age appropriate Facebook page.

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