By Lindsey Peterson
Jennifer, my fiancee, and I are careful eaters. What I mean by that, is we will dig a little deeper, pay a little more and maybe sacrifice a few things from time to time in order to eat things that are healthy and sustainable. We are members of a CSA for the first time this year, always try to get to farmer’s markets and usually do the bulk of our grocery shopping at a Co-Op. Organic, local and sustainable are words we take seriously. We have recently been buying all of our eggs straight from a farmer. We’ve noticed a difference in how we feel and in the ways we take care of ourselves. It just feels better.
With that, we’re always on the lookout for new ideas, foods, ways to get involved, etc. I’m fortunate in my job as the Assistant Program Director of WCCO Radio to be exposed to a lot of information. One of the things I’m proud of here is our show “Off the Menu” with Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. She’s such a champion of local food and farm-to-table eating, it’s inspired me to do more. That includes helping to write things on this website in the hopes we can share a few things with our listeners and readers that might benefit them. It seems like the “Good Neighborly” thing to do! And this is a story I was excited to share as soon as I thought about going!
A few weeks ago, Dara posted a link to her Facebook page mentioning her disbelief that Doug Flicker of Piccolo Restaurant in South Minneapolis was involved in a dinner at Star Thrower Farm near Glencoe, MN and it wasn’t sold out. The event was on Sunday, June 1st and it was put on by an organization called Slow Food MN. It caught my eye immediately.
First, Doug Flicker and Piccolo are renown on the Twin Cities dining scene. His precise, ultra-tasty and creative small plates have made Piccolo a must-stop for foodies. He’s been named one of the world’s most underrated chefs by “Fool” magazine and his more recently opened “Sandcastle” along the shores of Lake Harriet has been an instant hit. Now he’s cooking a meal at a farm? What could be better? I was hooked.
The farm, Star Thrower, is located on County Road 2 just north of Glencoe, MN. It’s a sheep farm, Icelandic Sheep to be exact. They produce rich sheep’s milk cheeses at the farm’s creamery and also beautiful fiber products from the wool of the farm’s flock. Deborah and Scott Pikovsky bought the farm in 2007, having very little knowledge of agriculture or shepherding sheep. But they knew that raising animals the “right way” was something they wanted to undertake and taking over a former confinement cow dairy and outfitting it to their needs was a large job to take on.
Doing it the right way however, seemed worth it. Deborah and Scott built the farm in a sustainable manner with sheep naturally fertilizing pastures and the waste water from milking and cheese-making going back on the fields. The hay and manure from the lambing/breeding barn is composted and applied to the fields in the Fall. Predators are shooed away by guard llamas (who knew llamas did that???) and extensive high tensile electric fence around the pastures have allowed them to pasture the sheep 24 hours a day, with the exception of new lambs who are brought back to the barn in the evening. It all makes a difference in final outcome as we found out.
Slow Food MN does several of these each year. Slow Food MN is an organization dedicated to supporting local farms, local foods and treating each as they should be treated. Minnesota is full of farmer’s markets, Co-Op’s, organic and sustainable farms and Slow Food MN brings people and consumers interested in those things into contact with the people producing those foods. It’s a hands on experience, from holding a baby lamb to seeing where the sheep are milked and the cheese made. Slow Food MN has a simple goal: Make agriculture local again.
So, back to our visit. We purchased tickets right away, hearing that these events typically have an early sellout. For Slow Food MN members, it was $40 a person, for non-members $50. Seemed like a reasonable amount for a day full of food and fun.
We arrived around 11:00 Sunday morning parking on the shoulder of county road 2 as the farm had seen far too much rain in order to let all the guests park on the grass. It was a wet night and would prove to be a wet day. At least for a little while. All this rain isn’t just bad for typical agriculture like corn and beans. It’s hard on the sheep too. But the rain eventually cleared and the day turned out spectacular.
After arriving, we entered the old barn where they were setting up food and drinks. Local brewery Fulton was on hand sampling a few of their beers along with a special beer made special for Sunday’s event, Hoppy Spelt Ale. It was made with malted spelt instead of grain. It gave the beer a delicious, rustic graininess. It didn’t have the bitter aftertaste of a traditional IPA but still delivered that nice, hoppy fruitiness in the finish. A great beer from a terrific Minneapolis brewery. Also there was Crow River winery to sample some of their local sustainable wines. We might have a tough climate for grape growing but there are many such wineries now making increasingly good wine in Minnesota. A tour of one of those is highly recommended. We’ve been to a couple and they’re a lot of fun.
Inside the barn, we set up our chairs, grabbed one of those delicious beers and wandered over to a table with some snacks. There were samples of two of the farm cheeses. A raw, sheep’s milk blue cheese that was as funky and pungent as you’d expect from a really good blue. It was powerfully flavored with a slight tang from the sheep’s milk in it. Also served was a Aged Farmstead Tomme. Tommes are produced from the skim milk left over after the cream has been removed to produce butter and richer cheeses. It was aged 11 months and the result was a mildly flavored dry cheese with a texture similar to Parmesan. Both were served with selections of bread brought in from Minneapolis bakery Rustica (a favorite of ours for sure).
To go with the cheese and bread, they roasted up some really wonderful lamb brats. Without a hint of gaminess, the brats were flavorful with a hint of spiciness at the end. That was mellowed by a really nice skyr sheep milk yogurt cheese with fresh mint, also made at the farm. A great start to the day.
There were a few tours to participate in. A farm tour, speakers on food foraging, local beer and wine making plus how insects contribute to the farm ecology.
We met Chef Sean Sherman. Sean is a Native American who grew up on the terribly poor Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Sean now works at Common Roots in south Minneapolis and uses what he learned growing up with his native culture to find foods through foraging, much like the indigenous people of the Upper Midwest might have done. Sean shared some things to look for that you wouldn’t normally use. Using dandelions in a salad for instance. They are good for your skin! Heard of Purslane? You probably have it growing in your yard. It can be eaten and you can stop spending money on fish oils. Purslane is extremely high in Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Forage away.
Sean gave us a great amount of insight into what native foods really consisted of. Fry bread is not a traditional Native American food. They only made it after being forced onto reservations and flour became their only food source. Now his work in the fields of Minnesota have led him to a point where he’d like to start his own restaurant specializing in Native American food. We’ll keep an eye out for that one!
The farm tour took us through the different areas where they keep sheep. We saw where the yearlings are held, overlooking the great fields of grass where they’ll be grazing. The pen where the newborn lambs and their mothers are just learning about life on the farm. The area where the rams are kept while they butt heads and wait for visitors to scratch their faces (one particular ram couldn’t get enough scratching while others are downright shy). The sheep are gorgeous, even though most have just been sheared. The “babies” drew the biggest crowds of course!
And even in Minnesota, predators are out and about. The farm is home to some coyotes plus a good number of bald eagles. To protect the sheep, each area has a llama! I would have never known that a llama is a protector. But each keeps an eye on the flock both day and night, threatening away any predators that would approach. Star Thrower has never lost an animal to a predator. Llama power.
The farm used to be a confinement cow dairy. As was explained to us, there was a time where confining the dairy cows was thought to be safer. You could control what they ate, control the weather they were exposed to and it made it easier to manage them. Star Thrower farm took a different approach and now grazes the sheep on grass and, of course, shelters them outside where they have room to roam. They are grazed in the great grass fields behind the barns and the owners take a personal interest in the health and happiness of each individual animal. It’s really a neat aspect to the farm, watching them approach the animals and show the relationship that they’ve built with them. Without question, it’s a demanding life. Deborah informed us that she hasn’t had a “vacation” in 6 years. Who would take care of the sheep?
The grass-fed sheep have led to a few buildings becoming obsolete. No longer needing to store corn for the winter, the century old corn-crib now houses the family ski boat. The grain building (with grain imprints on the floor and a hundred years worth of counting on the walls still) has been outfitted as a bunkhouse for students studying at the farm. The milking facility was retrofitted for sheep and part of the building turned into the cheese processing area.
After the tour (and a refill courtesy of Fulton), we wandered by an old, wood-fired grill being stoked by none other than Doug Flicker himself. The Piccolo chef was busy getting some charcoal and oak wood burning for our lunch. I love to cook. I do a lot of cooking at home. In a restaurant, I want to see what’s happening in the kitchen. I’m obsessed. So to be standing next to a grill with Doug Flicker working it? I’m not moving. Plus, we all know you can’t grill unless you have some of the guys standing around you drinking a beer. So I was a needed accessory.
The menu for the day looked fantastic to me. My fiancee, Jennifer, was more apprehensive while still being game to try it all. Jen is a long-time believer in organic, local and sustainable and I’ve learned a lot from her on those topics. But after spending some time as a vegetarian and even vegan for a bit, eating meat is still restricted to some basics (well done, the basic cuts, etc). I’ve helped expand the horizons some over time, and the local movement surrounding grass-fed and well treated animals has certainly helped us both.
But now, it was lamb. And she’d never had lamb. The first bite of the day into a lamb brat didn’t go well. The rest? Thanks to the talents of a great chef and the terrific food products from Star Thrower farm and a few well foraged ingredients, it went amazingly well!
The meal started with a Chilled Cucumber Gazpacho with Horseradish and Bell Pepper. The chilled soup was refreshing on a humid day with just a hint of horseradish that didn’t overpower the delicate veggies. Also served were Ramp Deviled Eggs with Marcona Almonds and Spanish Paprika. While I’m not a big deviled egg lover, they were perfectly cooked and the Spanish Paprika a nice compliment. Jen thought they were as good as any deviled egg she’s ever had.
Next came Star Thrower Lamb and Chickpea Kabobs with a Nettle Skyr (sheep’s milk yogurt). The lamb was flavorful and tender, charred on the outside by the grill and very moist still in the middle. It almost came off as a meatball it was so tender.
Along with the kabob was a mixed salad of foraged and cultivated greens (including some dandelion leaves), grilled and organic asparagus made with brown butter, ramps and blis maple syrup (smoky and sweet…a fantastic preparation of asparagus) and then the one that made Jen’s heart skip a beat, no pun intended. Grilled lamb hearts with brown mustard seeds, morels and chickweed. Yes, lamb hearts. Just telling someone that you are eating hearts will get you funny looks and the inevitable “blech!”
While watching Doug grill up lamb hearts, there were more than a few people who commented that they might have to skip that course. While Jen and I snuck in for a closer look, she told the chef how excited I was to try the hearts (true by the way). While slicing them up, he handed me a piece. It was delicious. Jen, your turn. She took a slice and without hesitation popped it in her mouth, then turned to me with a big smile and said “yes please!” A lamb heart convert.
The texture is that of a pot roast or a corned beef brisket. Slightly tender but still with enough to keep it from falling apart. The flavor is like the beefiest of beef. Charred from the grill, the hearts were a huge hit with even the most hesitant eaters in the crowd. Complimented perfectly by the hard-to-find and ultra-flavorful morel mushrooms, this dish was declared as Jen’s favorite, and I have to agree. Fantastic.
The meal was finished off with a spring staple, rhubarb, in the form of a crumble. The brown sugar spiced topping a perfect crunchy companion to the softened and sweetened rhubarb and the tangy, fresh whip cream.
As we trudge into grocery stores, restaurants and even farmer’s markets throughout the year, many of us don’t give much thought to where our food comes from and the people who help put it there. You fill your bags, but do you know what went into getting that product into your bag? Are they sprayed with countless pesticides? Are you getting all the nutrients from that that you should? Is it flown in from somewhere across the planet and kept looking fresh by some science experiment? Or, was it grown locally under the watchful eye of some of Minnesota’s fine farmers, treated like something they would put on their own plate? Don’t you deserve to have the freshest, tastiest and nutrient-dense food that our grandparents used to have when they grew up eating off the land they lived on or near? I don’t think it’s too much to ask.
We were thrilled to be a part of the Slow Food MN event Sunday, learn more about what Star Thrower is doing, and once again examine how and what gets put on our dinner table. I left once again convinced that we find ourselves on a path of sustainability and healthy living by taking the time to look for those things when we shop. It’s not always easy, it’s certainly not always the cheapest. But it’s worth it. We’ll look at more of their events and are considering membership.
Look for more events from Slow Food MN here and if you find yourself in the Glencoe area, Deborah assured us they’d welcome visitors so they can once again show off what’s happening on their farm. We recommend it. At Star Thrower or any of the countless number of farms that can’t wait to show you the great things they’re doing, Minnesota’s farms are doing great things! Find some time to enjoy it.
Lindsey Peterson is Assistant Program Director for WCCO Radio. Follow Lindsey on Twitter at @lpeterson830.