What happens when you pay one of the region’s best chefs at one of the region’s finest and fanciest restaurants to “curate” your grocery list?
Pickled ramps happen, that’s what. Duck confit happens. Lardo, foie butter and kale salsa verde happen. And a juicy cut of animal meat I never knew existed, and which I would eat exclusively from now on if only I could find it and afford it, happens.
This spring, La Belle Vie’s Tim McKee announced that the restaurant would be offering a spin on the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) phenomenon, where you pay a monthly stipend and receive in return a box of vegetables from a local community garden. Typically, at least in Minnesota, that means you might get a bushel of carrots and a half-dozen heads of lettuce one month, and a pallet of zucchini the next.
Only this time, the restaurant staff would cull seasonal goodies from their farmers, cheesemongers and providers of wild boar, or whatever, and pack it into a large cooler to be picked up monthly by a limited number of customers. McKee promised to elevate the idea with distinctive products, a monthly cocktail mix and a few recipes to show you how you might use the enclosed ingredients.
CSAs are kind of a grass roots thing, so there were some purists at the time who groused that this was not really a CSA and they had concerns that, at $100 a month, it was too spendy. Frankly, I don’t care what you call it, just don’t call me late for dinner. I rarely get out of Lunds for under $100, so I thought testing McKee’s concept was worth a try. I plunked down the seasonal cost, $500 for five months’ of food, and waited for the bounty.
First, a brief culinary history: I, um, exaggerated my food writing credentials to nab an early job, which included regular features on cooking and restaurants. At the time, my “skills” consisted almost exclusively of dropping a bag of chicken a la king into boiling water. But I got the job anyway and my (now) wife began buying cookbooks and kitchen widgets with the idea that I would be the chef de cuisine in our household. Over the years I took courses in braising, soups, sauces and became adequate in the basics. Most important, I enjoyed cooking.
Bring it, La Belle Vie.
I picked up the first cooler full of food on a Friday committed to cooking whatever was inside that night for dinner, brought it home and opened the lid to find: pheasant eggs.
What in the name of Anthony Bourdain? I had never considered a pheasant egg for a meal.
There were also some root vegetables such as celery root, parsnips and a new favorite, Jerusalem artichokes. There were a couple of super-cute little hens, or “poussin,” some pea shoots and microgreens, a big chunk of ramp butter, house-made ricotta cheese and something called a “rhubarb shrub,” a concoction from La Belle Vie’s bartenders that I was to mix with gin.
I decided I needed to start with a gin shrub.
Fortunately the restaurant had included a recipe for the pheasant eggs, which were combined with ramps (spring onions) pancetta and house-made ricotta, with a paper-thin slice of lardo, which sounds suspiciously like “lard.” That all has to be good for you, right? The process looked pretty straightforward, seeing as how the chef had already made the ramp butter and ricotta for me. Otherwise this little appetizer would have cost me an afternoon and evening.
I served the cute chickens and some roasted vegetables and got raves from my wife. I didn’t know how I had gotten to this point in life and not experienced the magical mouth-feel of the precise combination of pheasant eggs, pancetta, ramps and cheese.
“Might be my favorite dish ever,” said my wife.
Since then, it’s been a summer parade of what my traditional family would have called “weird vegetables” and “mystery meats,” like the delicious duck confit with cold smoked duck breast, sunchokes and bok choy and heirloom this and heritage that.
La Belle Vie invites CSA members to come into the restaurant and see how they make and plate the dishes with recipes, a clever way of driving more business back to the restaurant.
If that happens, great said Mckee. “We are always trying to get people into the restaurant, but we thought this was a nice way to connect people with our producers,” he said. “We have access to incredible ingredients that most people can’t buy. We take it for granted because we see it every day.”
CSA members (30) have been posting some results on social media, “which is fun,” said McKee. “But I don’t know we’d want to make it into a second business.”
McKee said customers frequently ask him for recipes, but it would take him so long to write them down, then the customers would realize how labor-intensive the cooking is, “and then they never make it.”
Which reminds me. Gotta go. I have to get some fresh ricotta to stuff into my squash blossoms.