Local Food

Photo by Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Rutland Herald

Originally published in the April 19, 2012, edition of the Rutland Herald.

Last week, Rutland was witness to something unique: A Chamber of Commerce mixer that people were actually talking about. Wales Street became a spectacle as scores of people crowded inside the large tent to mix, mingle and enjoy the complimentary food and drinks.

Donald Billings, chef-owner of Roots the Restaurant — which co-hosted the mixer with Earth Waste Systems — threw down with a menu dominated by locally sourced food. The centerpiece, a pig roast, helped build anticipation as it cooked slowly in Roots’ driveway — its smoky scents wafting through all of downtown a full day ahead of the event.

The buzz around the mixer was unprecedented for these typically humdrum Chamber gatherings. Clearly, the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce knew it had something special, as it was especially effusive in its promotion of the mixer via email, print ads and social media.

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Originally published on the Rutland County Express on Dec. 8, 2011.

Pizza is in my blood. Of all my family’s culinary traditions, it is easily our oldest and, through The Palms, our most widely shared. In Vermont, we practically invented pizza.

No joke. The Palms was the first restaurant to sell pizza in the state — or so the legend goes. This was back in the late 1940s, when, if a Vermonter wanted pizza, they apparently had to call it in to New York State and wait for delivery at the border. (I’m guessing the “30 minutes or it’s free” policy was never honored.)

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Originally published in the Rutland County Express on Nov. 7, 2011.

In a recent edition of Kris Smith’s “Market Watch” column (appearing every Tuesday i n the Rutland Herald), Kris explained the accidental localvore phenomenon. That is, when your buying habits have become such that a given meal is locally sourced by circumstance rather than intent.

I’ve been there: reaching into the fridge, pulling out and preparing some veggies, meat or whatever and suddenly realizing halfway through the meal that it’s entirely local. It’s good feeling — not like a pat-yourself-on-the-back sort of thing, but more like, “Hey, isn’t it cool that I was able to buy all this stuff locally, from people I know and from farms I have been to?”

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  [Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 6/2/11] 
Like any true Vermonter, I embrace the arrival of each season with verve and vigor only to cast it off a couple months later as I eagerly await the next one.

I love the change of seasons. It adds variety — variety in make some cocktails (vodka and soda with a lime, of course) and fire up the grill.

In my continuing search for new and interesting seasonal recipes, I decided to find out what some of my chef/foodie friends like to throw on the grill. And here’s what I found.

Grilled peaches

Local foodwriter and gastronome Sharon Nimtz likes fruit — peaches, apples, oranges — to accompany everything from chicken to burgers and steaks.

For peaches, place the halves on the grill cut side down and flip them once they have started to caramelize, then, drizzle some olive oil, garlic and even a little raw sugar over them.

(I’ve also seen them served with a balsamic reduction drizzle, which adds a sweet/savory pop when combined with the fruit.)

Grilled mozzarella and tomatoes with basil quinoa

Donald Billings, chef and co-owner of Roots the Restaurant lives for the grill. On his days off during the summer months, he what we do, what we wear, and even in what we eat.

Indeed, what we eat varies wildly from season to season, and with each one comes a unique set of flavors and ingredients.

Fall and winter bring hearty comfort food — stews, roasts and anything else to help us pack on an extra layer of insulation to endure the colder months.

Spring and summer are all about light, fresh and (at least for me) healthy — cold salads, fruity desserts and grilled everything.

Indeed, grilling is one of my favorite summer pastimes. There a few better things to do in the early evening, when the sun has begun to dip and the cool breeze blows a reprieve from the day’s heat, then have some friends over, said he is likely to be found with friends doing some heavy duty grilling.

For this unique take on a caprese salad, slice a fresh tomato thick (Donald recommends Vermont Hydroponic) and place it on the grill for about two minutes on each side.

Do the same with a sliced ball of fresh mozzarella cheese. Keep it local here, too, with some excellent Maplebrook Farms mozz. (Be sure not to let the cheese get too melty.)

Chop the cheese and tomatoes and toss in with some freshly cooked quinoa.

Finish it off with a basil vinaigrette: In a bowl add champagne vinegar, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil and garlic, and emulsify; and add a squeeze of grilled lemon (just grill it cut side down to get a smoky blast of citrus).

Serve cold on its own or with a piece of grilled chicken, fish or beef.

Now to get serious.

And that brings us to the main course — the meat. For me, it all starts with a marinade. If you’re not marinating your meat before it hits the flame, you’re really missing the boat. Marinades keep the meat moist and cook the flavors into it in a way that just a pinch of salt and pepper or an on-the-grill slathering of store-bought barbecue sauce never will.

All my marinades start out with the same two ingredients: fresh, chopped garlic and olive oil. From there, I will add other seasonings depending on the flavor I am going for. Here’s one that I really like:

Spicy Maple Chicken

(A note to my nonmeat-eating friends: this also works great on tofu or seitan.)

Start by placing the chicken in a deep pan; cover it with a healthy amount of olive oil and an even healthier amount of garlic. (FYI, I don’t measure in the kitchen so you’ll have to guestimate.)

Next, add some maple syrup — not too much because the sugars will burn on the grill.

Add some spice with a little chili sauce (Sriracha is my pick) or red pepper flakes.

Sprinkle in salt and pepper, then, squeeze in a lemon (about half of one).

Let it sit for about 30 minutes. Toss it on a hot grill, and enjoy.

Bonus Round: Quick and easy side dishes

If you’re looking for a couple no-hassle grilled side dishes try corn or zucchini. For the corn, soak the unshucked ears in water for about 30 minutes, drain and dry, and place on the grill rotating regularly until the husks are evenly blackened.

Grilled zucchini is even easier: Slice them thick, brush with olive oil, sprinkle salt, pepper and garlic, and toss them grill, cooking on both sides until tender.

And there you go. An entire summer meal prepared almost entirely on the grill. The only thing missing is a grilled cocktail; although, I’m thinking about experimenting with mojitos using grilled limes. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

AJ Marro / Rutland Herald

 [Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 5/12/11] 

Saturday, May 7 marked the Downtown Rutland Farmers’ Market’s return to its summer home in Depot Park. While we in Rutland enjoy a year-round market, there is a definite difference between the summer and winter varieties.

That’s not to say one is better than the other. Indeed, both are robust and vibrant displays of local agriculture, prepared foods and handmade crafts. It’s just that each has its own flavor and rhythm.

The winter market, housed in the Strand Theatre, behind The Co-op, has scrappy, urban feel — like a something you’d encounter in Brooklyn or Portland. Attending is like being let in on a secret.

But while the location may suggest that the market has gone into hibernation — stolen away in its cavernous den — the vendors prove the contrary. Greens, root vegetables, local meats and eggs sustain shoppers well into the darkest winter months.

By contrast, the summer market is a verdant weekly festival in full bloom. It is the prototypical farmers’ market — the kind that tourism bureaus put in glossy magazine ads and hotel rack cards.

On opening day, the excitement was palpable. For such a cold and dreary spring, the produce selection was surprisingly strong. Ephemeral early spring treats like fiddleheads and ramps were abundant. In another month or so, the market will explode with young vegetables as the soggy spring gives way (as it seems to be) to sunny early summer.

As always, a stroll down the meandering aisles reveals both familiar faces and many new ones. As the market has grown, it has made an effort to remain inclusive despite the obvious space constraints.

Something striking about these new faces is just how young they are. There is now a sizeable number of growers and farmers in their 20s and 30s breathing new life and energy into what has been an aging field.

Part of this energy is evident in the Vermont Farmers’ Market (one of the two organizations comprising Rutland’s Downtown Market) marketing committee, which features several of the market’s younger growers and vendors.

The result has been an effort to effectively “market the market” in the digital age. The group has been tackling social media and developing a number of events and activities that are aimed at broadening the market’s appeal and elevating its profile in the greater community.

On May 14, they are helping to organize a parade to mark the return of the summer market. The procession, which will start at 10 a.m. in front of The Co-op on Wales Street and will travel down Center Street into Depot Park, where Mayor Chris Louras will throw out the ceremonial first radish.

The parade will also feature animals, musicians, costumed revelers and representatives and friends of local organizations like Sustainable Rutland and RAFFL.

At the market, there will be hourly raffle drawings for prizes from various vendors as well as a grand prize drawing for a market-wide gift certificate.

Everyone is invited to join in the parade. The theme is vegetables (obviously) so all are encouraged to dress accordingly.

Ana and Rob DiTursi with their children

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 1/13/10]

It’s Saturday morning. Still foggy from the night before, you amble — coffee in hand — into the Winter Farmers’ Market. Immediately, you’re overtaken by the sights and sounds and smells of Rutland’s weekly local food bazaar.

They say you should never shop for food on an empty stomach so before you begin your adventure, you’ll likely need something to eat.

If you take a sharp right upon entering the old Strand Theater space that houses the Winter Market, you’ll find Ana’s Empanadas.

For three years, Ana and Rob DiTursi have been preparing and selling the authentic Argentinean treats throughout the Rutland area.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of great prepared food at market. Over the last couple years there has been a rise in prepared food vendors — each creating unique culinary offerings that put Rutland’s local farmers and growers front and center.

The DiTursis met in New York City in the mid-1990s in an instance of serendipity that Nora Ephron couldn’t have penned better.

Ana was a ballerina, who came from her native Buenos Aires to dance for a company in Manhattan.

Rob, who was renting from someone involved with Ana’s company, was in the process of moving out due to the frequent dance rehearsals held above his apartment, when they met by chance when Ana’s rehearsal was rescheduled for the same day he was moving out.

“If that rehearsal didn’t get moved, we never would have met,” said Rob.

At the time, Ana spoke little English and Rob spoke no Spanish.

Seven months later, they were married.

Ana continued to dance and teach ballet in the New York area while Rob worked as a manager at Babbo, Mario Batali’s first restaurant in Manhattan. Ana soon took a job there as well, working as a hostess among other roles.

After 9/11, the DiTursis began to take stock of things. Their first son Luca had just been born, and the couple wanted to find a better life for their growing family.

“We decided to get away,” Rob said.

In July 2002, they moved to the Rutland area. Growing up, Rob had uncle who owned a house on Lake Bomoseen. He had come to visit through the years and was familiar with the area.

Rob took a job at the Killington Grand. Ana began teaching ballet locally. She also continued to teach at a school in Staten Island, regularly making the five-hour drive back to the city.

While the empanada business happened organically, the seeds were planted long ago. As a child, Ana’s mother taught her how to make the traditional Argentinean food, which is as common there as pizza is here.

In New York, Ana’s friends would often ask her to make the treats for parties and other occasions, all the while urging her to go into business for herself. She finally made the leap after a visit to the Rutland Farmers’ Market, where a vendor was selling empanadas that, upon inspection, Ana found to be less than authentic.

So she decided to show them how it was done.

In her first week at market, Ana prepared just 50 empanadas and sold every last one.

Looking back on that first week, she chuckles at how basic their operation was compared to today. “We had a card table, a tiny sign and 50 empanadas,” she said.

Since then, their operation has grown steadily.

Soon, Ana realized this was not going to be a one-woman show. Rob left his job at Killington to join Ana, bringing with him his experience in food service.

Ana is quick to show her appreciation for the role Rob plays — the business may be called Ana’s Empanadas, but she happily acknowledges it is an equal partnership.

Last winter, they opened a cabin on the slopes of Killington, at the base of Needle’s Eye, to the delight of skiers and riders.

During the summer months, they sell at farmers’ markets in Dorset and Woodstock in addition to Rutland, and have begun to appear at area concerts and festivals.

In December, they also moved into a new kitchen at 54 Strongs Ave. in downtown Rutland. In addition to a much-needed commercial kitchen, the space — which they rent from friend and owner of the Waffle Cabin, Peter Creyf — also features a storefront where their fresh, homemade empanadas can be purchased all week long.

In the kitchen, Ana and Rob have the operation down — large batches of dough, or masa, are mixed and rolled out; the filling, or rellenos, is placed inside; then, they are sealed, marked and baked.

The result is a light, slightly sweet crust that gives way to a warm, tasty blend of any number of flavors from the traditional tangy-sweet Argentinean-flavored beef to the zesty chorizo and cheddar that melts in your mouth — all finished off with their signature chimichurri sauce.

According to Rob, during the winter months, they will prepare on average about 3,000 empanadas a week.

A key part of that preparation is sourcing and highlighting local ingredients. From the start, Ana and Rob knew that was going to be essential.

“When we came up here nine years ago (local food) didn’t exist,” Rob said, noting that that they had “become accustomed” to eating locally in New York, where it was much more common.

“It blew my mind,” he said. “We were right in the middle of it here (in Vermont).”

At market, Ana and Rob shop as much as they sell — gathering their ingredients for the week from fellow vendors like Hathaway Farms, Boardman Hill, Sunset Farm, Foggy Meadow … the list goes on.

At work, Ana and Rob keep the family close by. Their two sons Luca, 10, and Nico, 3, busy themselves with toys and games while their parents cook.

Being far from home, Ana still manages to keep in touch with her roots. Both the boys have been raised speaking Spanish and English, and she travels to Argentina at least once a year.

Her mother also visits regularly, lending a hand in the kitchen while she’s here.

“She’ll make three empanadas for every one I do,” Ana says with a laugh.

With a solid product in place, the DiTursis are looking to continue expanding, selling at more mountains in winters to come and getting into even more markets and festivals in the summer.

Looking at their business model, Rob is pleased with what they have accomplished. With his experience, he could easily be working on the higher end of the food industry, but he is content right where he and Ana are — making good food with quality local ingredients that everyone can afford.

Hilary Adams and her daughter McKenzie

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 12/2/10] 

Hilary Adams’ earliest memory of the Rutland Farmers’ Market dates back to the 1970s. She was just a child then, tagging along with her father, a farmer himself.

It was a bright summer day. Only around six vendors were there — hard to believe considering the size of the current market.

Amidst the farmers was a folksinger. Adams recalls that between songs, the man gazed upward remarking, “Look, there’s not a cloud in the sky.”

It’s a pleasant memory that has always hung with Adams, and one that she now recalls fondly each week as she sells her gourmet creations each week at market as the Domestic Diva.

The path to Adams’ arrival at the market, however, was not a direct one. While she explains that she was “always intrigued” by cooking, it was not until relatively recently that she considered it as a career.

“My mother wasn’t much of a cook,” Adams said. “But my grandmother, whom I never got to meet, was a great cook.”

She jokes that the first meal she ever prepared was at the age of 3 when she made her family a mud pie — from real mud.

“I think I was born with it, but lost it,” she said.

Growing up in Shrewsbury, Adams had the experience of being raised in a rural agricultural community. Her father, Dick Adams, was a dairy farmer, though the cows were sold off long ago.

Today, Dick keeps his thumb green by growing for Hilary, rounding out her business as the Domestic Diva and Our Farmer’s Funky Foods.

Her passion for cooking was renewed a few years back when a foodie friend got her a subscription to “Epicurious,” the culinary magazine.

“Before you knew it, I was making graham crackers from scratch,” she said.

Meanwhile, Adams had begun working as a server in restaurants around the area. In 2004, while at Café Provence, chef Robert Barral recognized her culinary talents, telling her that she was on the wrong side of the line.

“So he sent me to NECI (the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier),” Adams said.

She describes her decision to go to school as a “big leap,” a sink-or-swim moment that she knew she had to take.

“It freed me a lot,” she said.

Adams looks back on her time at NECI as being impossibly valuable from a technical perspective.

“It teaches you how build a cookbook,” she said. “It gives you the tools and the knowledge, but the rest is up to you. You’ got to make it yours.”

To round out her degree, Adams had complete a series of six month internships in area restaurants. She chose variety from around the county that offered her dis parate experiences such Hemingway’s, Table 24 the Killington Grand and of course, Café Provence.

As she bounced from restaurant to restaurant Adams was constantly developing and revising business plans.

“I always knew I wanted to be in business for myself, doing some kind catering or meal delivery service,” she said.

Being able to work from home is important Adams as is having the freedom to develop her own style.

During this time, the local food movement along with the resurgence and growth of the Rutland farmers’ market community, was getting a lot of attention. In particular, there was a lot of buzz around the new Winter Farmers’ Market.

“My daughter MacKenzie had been going to the winter market a lot, and every week she’d come home with such great food,” Adams said.

One day, MacKenzie came home with a plan.

“She told me, ‘Mom, this is where it’s at.’”

She informed her mother that the farmers’ market was the perfect location to try out Hilary’s business idea.

The following week, Adams accompanied her daughter to market.

Upon entering, she was awestruck – surprised and amazed by the diversity of vendors and how much local vegetables and meats were readily available.

That enthusiasm has yet to wane. “Some of the farmers think I’m crazy,” she laughed, noting that most of them have by now gotten accustomed to her excitement and passion for what they grow.

By the end of her visit, Adams had her business plan. She decided to get a booth when the market moved outside in May.

“That first week was a deluge,” she said of her soggy debut at the summer market.

In addition to the rain, there was a fair amount of early jitters.

“If I had only sold three cookies, I would have been happy.”

At the end of the day, she sold a lot more than three cookies.

Customer interest in her stand grew steadily. Meanwhile, Adams continued making her rounds to the farmers and growers.

From the start, using local ingredients was part of Adams’ plan.

“We’re so blessed to live in Vermont where all this great food is available,” she said.

Adams began acquiring food directly from the growers, creating her weekly menu based on what was available and giving prominent recognition to the growers used.

She notes that her turn at the market’s “Shop with the Chef” event was when everything began to click with the farmers. The items she prepared highlighted all aspects of the market, right down to the handmade cutting board she procured from a neighboring vendor.

At market the Domestic Diva’s booth is easy to find: Just look for the cheery mother and daughter team decked out in pink. Her table presentation is enticing and often decadent, drawing passersby in with smells and sight that compel them to sample a taste or two, and usually, make a purchase.

Offerings range from down-home comfort food like chicken and dumplings and chocolate chip cookies to standout creations like her “almost-famous” artichoke spread and a mildly spicy root vegetable curry.

On a recent Saturday, Adams’ unique take on a Monte Cristo panini blended traditional flavors with fresh mangos and local cranberries to great effect.

Fellow vendors have also become accustomed to Adams’ frequently delivered gifts. “I like to feed the farmers back,” she said. “I want to show them what I’ve done with their food. I like them to be proud.”

Indeed, cross marketing is part of Adams’ plan. In no small, way she has connected the dots at the market — tying all its various pieces together to create a unified product.

“It’s not about me,” she said, acknowledging a cooperative spirit common in close-knit, rural communities like her native Shrewsbury.

“There are many different parts, and by putting those parts together we can highlight the community in a new way,” Adams said of the farmers’ market’s role. “Without those parts we, we wouldn’t have anything.”

Stepping back a moment, Adams is surprised by how much her business has grown in less than a year. She is also grateful to be accepted by the market community.

Looking ahead, the Domestic Diva wants to continue to grow her catering business. She’s also got an eye toward opening a restaurant at some point – prominently featuring local food, of course.

As she watches the community’s interest and passion for locally grown and produced food, grow she is her usual enthusiastic self: “I really think Rutland can become a Mecca for showing people how you can make it all work.”