It still takes something to make people not miss meat. When I talked to some folks about the nearly all-vegetarian family style feast the Community Environmental Council put on Saturday night of Earth Day Weekend, they’d ask, “And it was good without, you know, food?” So, despite it being 2014 and people realizing all the ways a meat-heavy diet might not be best for either themselves or the planet, it turns out you can’t proselytize enough for the Great Veggie Way.
Enter chef Jeff Olsson, from New West Catering and the recently opened, much lauded Industrial Eats. Yes, the Jeff Olsson who teaches a class in hog butchery. Yes, the Jeff Olsson who is known and loved for his handmade bacon. He was the lead in the kitchen for this spectacular, mostly meat free meal. (Note: There was supposed to be pancetta on the side with the little gems salad. Our table never got any. No one complained too loudly.) Afterward no one could complain about not getting enough, not having a wide enough range of flavors (admit it, my fellow carnivores, at a certain point even the best steak suddenly seems sadly samey), not sensing they’d had lovely products of the local land presented about as best as they could be.
It didn’t hurt that Buttonwood Farm was pouring three of its wines to match the meal. You could argue each of the wines got a bit better (or is that the way of all wine drinking?) — the first course’s 2012 Signature Sauvignon Blanc was bright and racy, perfect for the soothing minestrone it accompanied. And how lucky did they get with the weather for this dinner under the strings of lights luckily not blowing as badly as they had all day. (It was like the wind gods gave the dinner a bit of reprieve.) Still, it was just chill enough that opening with a soup warmed as a good soup should, especially since he broth was vivid yet clear and the white beans and kale in it didn’t suffer from being soaked to a softening mush.
Course two you could think of as salad two ways, fresh and braised. Those little gems prove how amazingly flavorful just a green can be, especially when set off with just the right amount of shallot-thyme vinaigrette. Alongside that was braised mustard greens with all their spice, set in a lovely charred tomato, fennel, basil “sauce” to layer flavors and kick in some acid, some sweet. The 2013 Syrah Rosé worked pretty well with the dishes that covered the salad gamut, so you have to give it lots of credit for versatility.
Course three was the evening’s star, a curry roasted cauliflower that made clear why that vegetable is a current chef fave. It offers enough texture and depth to soak up whatever you want to dish it with, and the hot chile, sweet onion, and mint all did the trick. That’s not to say the second dish of the course, a root-i-licious beets with not enough fresh favas, Drake Farms goat cheese and burnt-honey (yep, that’s fancy for caramel)-cayenne vinaigrette was any slouch, but it was more the ballast part compared to the flashy cauliflower (and has cauliflower ever followed that adjective before?). Here, the 2010 Cab Franc was just enough of a red to make it clear you can drink reds and not eat meat, but still not too much to overpower the dishes.
There was dessert, and it too was lovely, fruit with an olive oil cake so moist it didn’t get served with any dairy and didn’t need it, proving whipped cream is often just a sugary crutch for chefs who can’t make things good to begin with.
Add in the fine company — this was partially about break bread, and not just any but New Vineland, with all sorts of old and just new friends who care about the earth, what and how it provides for us, and how we can take that and make something satisfying and on its way to sacred.
This Farm-to-Table Dinner better happen again next Earth Day.