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Thursday, March 25, 2010 02:54 am

Perfect pastoral evenings


The bucolic setting for Dinner on the Farm.

The humidity hung around us like a wet blanket. It had rained for days, and more rain was predicted for later, but right now it was merely a threat – or promise, depending on how you looked at it. It was the kind of midsummer weather that makes you want to hang out with a big glass of iced tea (mostly ice) or escape indoors to air conditioning. But the setting was so lovely, and the smells drifting towards us from the barbeque and kitchen were so intoxicating, the heat and humidity didn’t matter. In fact, they seemed part of such a beautifully bucolic experience: Dinner on the Farm at Prairie Fruits Farm in Urbana.

Prairie Fruits Farm grows different kinds of berries, and has trees that will eventually bear fruit, but they’ve gained national attention for their artisanal cheeses, made from their own goats, beginning in 2005. Their cheeses can be found in an increasing number of top restaurants and cheese shops, as well as local farmers markets – sadly, not (yet) at Springfield’s – but occasionally some varieties are available at Schnucks.

Their Dinners on the Farm have received national attention as well, in the Jan. 2010 issue of Food and Wine Magazine. This will be the third year Prairie Fruits Farm has been offering such dinners. They don’t begin until May – I write about them now because they sell out quickly.

This spring, Prairie Fruits Farm is offering something new: Breakfasts on the Farm. Every Saturday through April, from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. they’ll serve three to four differing breakfast items, such as house-made doughnuts or bagels (these are fantastic!) with eggs collected right on the farm, Triple S Farms bacon, and Prairie Fruit’s chèvre. Rolled oats oatmeal, maple syrup, roasted candied walnuts and more will be sourced from local growers. There will be fair trade coffee and house-made Mexican-style hot chocolate made with goat milk. Their goat cheeses and early season vegetables, such as greens, eggs, mushrooms and herbs from local farmers, will be sold.

It’s also a chance to see the baby goats and maybe even catch one of the does giving birth.

That humid midsummer evening was the first Prairie Fruits Dinner for my husband, Peter, and me. Some dinners are prepared by Prairie Fruits’ in-house chef-turned-cheesemaker, others by guest chefs. That night Paul Virant, chef/owner of Vie in Western Springs, was doing the cooking and manning the barbeque. (You can find out more about Virant, last year’s Hope School Benefit Celebrity Chef, in my 9/03/09 RealCuisine column at the IT Web site.) Weather permitting, meals are served outside, but that night we dined in the sweet-smelling hay barn. Midway through the incredibly scrumptious meal, Peter leaned over and asked, “Can we get a season pass next year?”

Peter asked the same question at the second Farm Dinner we attended last year. That meal, “An Illinois Fish Tale,” featured local fish, both farmed and wild, including freshwater prawns raised in southern Illinois. Chicago’s Sunday Dinner Club chefs Chris Cicowski and Joshua Kulp were cooking. The late summer evening had a hint of coolness, and we ate outside, a glorious sunset adding to our pleasure. A different experience, but also one to savor.

Although we weren’t able to get a season pass, we’re having dinner at Prairie Fruits this year as much as we’re able.

Prairie Fruits Farm is located at 4410 N. Lincoln in Urbana. Cost for the dinners ranges from $50-$100 per person. A fruit-based aperitif is offered; wine, beer, etc. is BYO. For more information or to make reservations, call 217-643-2314 or visit their Web site, www.prairiefruits.com.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Here’s what Prairie Fruits Farm is cooking up for this season’s dinners

May 22: Spring Hopes Eternal
The first dinner of the season will feature lamb from Monticello’s Caveny Farm, spring greens, delicate herbs, sweet asparagus, green peas and (hopefully) some early rhubarb and strawberries.

June 5: Tres Leches
Yogurt, crème fraiche, sweet cream, butter and cheese – this dinner is all about the wonders of milk. Drawing from “three milks”– fresh cow, goat and sheep milks – the eclectic menu will features dishes from both the American heartland and around the world that highlight the diversity of milk. The entrée will be pork braised in milk (a recipe for this Italian specialty is in the IT Web site’s recipe section); organic vegetables and strawberries will also play roles.

June 19: This little piggy went to market
Guest chef Thad Morrow of Champaign’s Bacaro will prepare a hog wild feast from snout to tail made from one of Kilgus Farmstead’s pastured hogs. Morrow is a good friend and an even better chef. (Read more about Morrow in my 8/23/06 RealCuisine column on the IT Web site)

July 3: Backyard Barbeque
Celebrate Independence Day weekend with an all-American menu of barbeque beef brisket from the “big daddy” smoker and buttermilk-fried, free-range chicken from Triple S Farms. Vegetables from their garden, fruit tea, house-made gelato and berry desserts will complete the meal.

July 17: Vegetables Hot off the Square
This vegetarian feast will explore everything Urbana’s Farmers Market growers offer. Look for hand-rolled pasta, locally-made artisanal tofu and plenty of cheese.

August 7: Summer Evening with Beer and Cheese
Prairie Fruits Farm teams up with local brewmeisters Chris Knight and Bill Morgan of the Blind Pig Brewery. Chris and Bill will be bringing several of their local microbrews on tap including (hopefully) a small batch of lager crafted with Prairie Fruits own berries. Appetizers and main courses will be paired with each beer in a casual setting perfect for kicking back on the farm with a cold one.

August 22 (Sunday afternoon): The Best Things in Life are Fermented
 Chef Jared VanCamp of Old Town Social (Chicago) will be returning to his central Illinois roots to prepare a dinner of microbially mediated foods. The meal will feature his highly regarded old world-style sausages, cured meats and other charcuterie, along with other fermented foods–cheese (of course), breads, pickles, beer and wine.

September 5 ( Sunday afternoon): East meets West-A Vegetable Love Affair
Henry’s Farm in Congerville boasts over 630 varieties of vegetables, many with Asian origins. Nestled in fertile soils of the Mackinaw River Valley, Henry Brockman’s farm exemplifies diversity, complexity and sustainability. This Asian-inspired vegetarian menu will highlight the qualities of Henry’s unique vegetables.

September 18: Ode to the Tomato
 Chef Paul Virant will design a fanciful menu around the beloved tomato. With hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes to choose from, Virant is sure to pull out the stops and surprises (see above).

October 2: The 100-Yard Dinner: the Sequel
This dinner will be made entirely from ingredients grown and raised on the farm, within 100 yards from the actual dinner table. The main course will feature guinea hens. Late season vegetables, apples and raspberries will round out the menu along with eggs and cheeses from Prairie Fruits “girls.”

October 16: An Upscale Street Fair on the Farm
Chicago’s Sunday Dinner Club chefs are planning a fun and fanciful menu of “farm meets city” street fair food.

October 30: Pioneer on the Prairie
An exploration of dishes that sustained the hearty prairie pioneers, this dinner will feature local game meats and modern twists on traditional favorites.

November 14 (Sunday afternoon): An Afternoon Dinner with Stephanie
2008 Season (and only woman) Top Chef Winner, Stephanie Izard, will prepare a menu inspired by her new Chicago restaurant “girl and the goat.” Stephanie’s last name “izard” is a goat native to the Pyrenees Region; she’ll prepare dishes inspired by that region featuring lots of our cheeses. 

December 4: Winter Beer and Cheese Fete

Prairie Fruit’s last 2010 dinner features Microbrews and Cheese. The Blind Pig Brewmeisters will concoct special seasonal brews to accompany a cheese-infused holiday menu of tapas sure to warm the soul on a cold December night.

The bucolic setting for Dinner on the Farm.

Clafoutis a la virant

Clafoutis is a very traditional French fruit dessert, one that falls somewhere between cake and custard. I’ve made – and eaten — them for years, but never had one as delicious as the one Paul Virant served at Prairie Fruits Farm last year. His secret is the almond flour; most versions only contain wheat flour. Sweet cherries are most commonly used in clafoutis, but other fruits are used as well. Virant used a mixture of blackberries and raspberries grown on site for the Prairie Fruits dinner. I’ve been longing since last fall for this year’s berry season to begin so that I can make it again.

  • Unsalted butter, for greasing the dish
  • 1/2 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
  • 2 vanilla beans
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups almond flour (6 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 pound berries: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries (halved or quartered if large) OR substitute sweet cherries, pitted and halved

Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a 10-by-15-inch baking dish and sprinkle it with sugar. Split the vanilla beans in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a sharp knife. Put the ½ cup sugar in a large bowl or bowl of an electric mixer and add the vanilla seed scrapings. Rub them into the sugar until no clumps of seeds remain. Add the heavy cream, eggs, almond flour, and all-purpose flour and mix with an electric mixer at low speed until the batter is blended.
Scatter the berries or cherries in the prepared baking dish; pour the batter on top. Bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the clafoutis cool slightly before serving.

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