We get a lot of questions about our Red Hen chocolates (which we serve as a meal-finisher along with the check). People can't believe we were able to find a hen so closely matched to the one on our logo. What they don't realize is it actually IS the hen on our logo.
The Red Hen chocolates, you see, are made here in town by our friends at Cocoa Mill Chocolatier. They created the mold from our logo. (If you have any doubts, compare the hen on the Red Hen sticker--which you also get with the check--to the hen on the chocolates. There is a shadow under her wing that shows up as a depression in the chocolates.) And these chocolates are the bomb: sixty-three percent cocoa to be exact. That is the percentage Cocoa Mill feels produces the best taste--an intense chocolate flavor with just the right balance between the sweet and the bitter. And we trust their judgment on this, because when it comes to chocolate (and candy-making in general), they are the experts.
In fact, last week we paid them a visit just to remind ourselves how truly extraordinary they are. Chocolatier Mike Mayo was downstairs in his Willy Wonka workroom. Mike has extensive training in candy-making. He has done an apprenticeship in chocolate-making, taken courses at several confectionary schools, and attends yearly conventions to keep up his craft. (He is so knowledgeable that he even teaches a lesson in candy-making for one of the chemistry classes at Washington & Lee University.)
As Mike was busy at work, we talked to his wife, Sarah. Her family owns Cocoa Mill. We asked her what makes good chocolate. "The fewer ingredients, the better," she said. "We use no preservatives, waxes, artificial flavors or additives. It makes the shelf-life shorter, but it's a better product."
Most of Cocoa Mill's confections are offered in both milk chocolate and bittersweet (i.e. dark). Some, however, are only offered in bittersweet. Their "Limoncellos" are an example. They are a limoncello fondant covered in dark chocolate. Ditto their brandied cherry cordials (which take fourteen days to make because Mike has to cure the brandied cherries in the fondant). If you use milk chocolate for either of these confections, Sarah says, it would all become too darn sweet. That said, the chocolate-covered pretzels are offered only in milk chocolate, because the pretzels are dry and salty, and the milk chocolate is sweeter and creamier because of the dairy in it.
What Cocoa Mill is famous for, however, is truffles--their best-selling product. They make all sorts of them. And, boy, is it fun watching them being made. Check out Mike's assistant Kim, who's got the process down to a fine art:
Voila! The finished product:
Candy-making is a precise endeavor. The smallest change in ingredients can throw off the entire process. For example, if the sugar companies change where they get their product, it can affect the graininess of the sugar which can, in turn, affect the melting point. Likewise, a change in the cows' diet can affect the butterfat content of the milk and throw things off. And atmospheric humidity is always changing and must be taken into consideration. So Mike has to constantly adjust his recipes.
Given all that, it is pretty darn amazing the perfection Cocoa Mill is able to achieve:
What else can we say about Cocoa Mill? Chef Matt sums it up best, "I think we've lucked out having them in our town doing the quality that they do."
For many restaurants, tea is an afterthought. Diners are shown a wooden box and told to pick a colored tea bag packet from it. That doesn't happen here! For us, tea is a bit of a thing. And that is thanks to Chin Velasquez, our local herbalist and owner of Soothing Herbals Apothecary. For the past twenty years, Chin has studied and practiced Western herbalism, integrative Ayurvedic herbalism, clinical herbalism, and organic gardening. She grows many of the plants she uses and, in fact, has an established United Plant Savers botanical sanctuary at her home in Goshen.
All of our teas come from her, and the offerings change with the seasons...or sometimes just for the heck of it. The herbal teas are Chin's special mixes. At the moment we have five of them: Red Hen Blend, Soothing Chai, Winter Warmth, Lemon Lift, and Digestive Blend. By far the most popular is the Red Hen Blend. It's our signature tea, created especially for us (although if you go to Chin's shop, she will make it for you, too). The Red Hen Blend has a lot of reddish ingredients (because we are The Red Hen) and a tangy, zippy flavor. It is also a beautiful tea and very good for you.
But how exactly does an herbalist approach tea-making? We asked Chin to walk us through the creation of the Red Hen Blend.
The Red Hen is a small restaurant, so we feel pretty lucky to have an in-house pastry chef. Her name is Becca Adams and she is the wife of Chef Matt. This fall she has been baking apple tarts. Sometimes they are on the menu and sometimes not. If you happen to dine here when they are on the menu, you are in for a treat.
Recently, we photographed Becca making her tarts, and we asked her to give us some commentary. We thought you might enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at restaurant baking:
Granny Smiths are my comfort zone because they are so consistently crisp and tart--a great formula for delicious apple pie and tart. That being said, I would love to find a local apple that fits that bill. So the first step is to chop the apples. It will be about one and a half apples per tart. Notice I am not peeling, which is a decision I make for flavor, texture and nutrition.
I chop the apples as evenly as possible, but it's not so much chopping as slicing. I want full slices of apple because I cook them before putting them in the tart, so I don't want tiny pieces that turn to applesauce. I mix the slices in a bowl. I add a quarter cup of brown sugar and a quarter cup of white sugar for ten apple's worth of slices (which will make six tarts). Then I add a big pinch of salt, two teaspoons of cinnamon, and the zest and juice of one lemon. I toss it all together in a bowl until it's well-distributed. At this point, I taste one of the coated apple pieces--and so should you! Is it sweet enough? Tart enough? Cinnamon-y enough? If not, adjust to your liking. Then I do a low, slow cooking (30 minutes on low) of the mixture on the stove top in a Dutch oven, stirring occasionally. Contrary to what you might think, this actually helps the apples hold their crispness. It also kick starts the melding of flavors before the actual baking process.
I love doing the individual tarts rather than a pie, because I feel you get a better crust-to-fruit ratio. Sometimes the pastry can take a back seat, but I prefer it to be more prominent--maybe because I am a pastry chef! Given that, the chemistry of the crust is really important, and the mixing method has a lot to do with that. I like to use a food processor and very cold butter. Acid is also very important in this process, and my acid of choice in this particular recipe is white wine. The recipe is as follows:
2.5 sticks of butter (cubed and cold)
3.5 Tablespoons water (cold)
1 Tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon white wine (cold)
3.5 Cups all purpose flour
7 teaspoons sugar
.5 teaspoons salt
pinch of baking powder
I use a food processor for this recipe. That way, the dough does not get over worked and you don't develop the gluten, therefore avoiding a chewy crust.
Combine flour, sugar, salt and powder in the processor and pulse until well aerated and combined.
Then, add the cold butter, pulsing the machine several times until the butter is crumbled into pea sized pieces.
Then, add the cold water and wine. Pulse the machine until the dough comes together.
Place in plastic wrap, bringing all the dough together and fridge for a half an hour before rolling. When it's ready, I roll it out. Then I cut out a little circle of crust for a tart and place it in the tin.
Then I fill the tin with the cooked fruit, mounding it generously.
And I top it off with a small amount of juice from the cooking process.
Then I use a pizza cutter to cut out strips in the dough. I make them about a quarter inch wide.
Then I start the weaving process. Yes, instead of just laying the strips on top of each other, I actually weave them. I think it's important for the aesthetics.
As you can see, I've gone over and under and over and under. Then I gently press the edges down into the tart tin.
Then I brush the tart with an egg wash. To do this, I crack an egg in a little bowl and briskly whisk with a couple of drops of water. Then I use a pastry brush to gently coat the lattice. Now we are ready to bake. I put it into a hot oven (425 degrees. You want that initial blast of heat to steam the butter in the pastry dough to create the tender flakes. I leave the tart in 425 degree heat for 15 minutes and then turn the heat down to 400, cooking until the tart is golden brown and bubbly (about 25 minutes--roughly 40 minutes for the entire process.)
Let cool and enjoy--with ice cream or whipped cream, if you like.
Question: What is the difference between Donald's Meats, Potter beef and Buffalo Creek beef? Answer: Nothing! In a small town like ours, the same thing often goes by multiple names. We locals know what is being referred to so we don't worry about what things are called. But this can really confuse visitors.
At the Red Hen, Buffalo Creek beef in some form or other is nearly always on the menu...although sometimes it is listed as Donald's Meats...and we will refer to it as Potter beef. This is because the Potter family owns and runs Buffalo Creek beef. And eight years ago they took over the Donald's Meat Processing operation and kept the name.
If you go to Donald's Meat Processing, you will see a Potter family member at the counter and the family's beef being butchered and sold. We recently stopped by and spoke with family patriarch Charlie Potter. His great great grandfather, Isaac Potter, began farming along Buffalo Creek near Collierstown in the early 1800's. As you might imagine, Charlie knows a lot about beef. He is present at every stage of his animals' lives and eventual "harvest", as he calls it. This is practically unheard of in America today.
Most beef cattle in our country are raised on pasture and then sent to one of the giant feedlots in the Midwest where they are "finished" (fattened) on corn before they are "processed" at the slaughterhouse. These are enormous factory slaughterhouses that will handle 300-400 cattle per hour. Yes, per HOUR. Processing on this scale and at this speed is what causes much of the beef contamination in our country.
The Potters do things the old-fashioned way. First, they use no hormones or antibiotics. "Our beef is an all-natural product," says Charlie. Second, only eight to ten cattle are processed per week. Third, the meat is aged anywhere from a week to ten days in order to give it extra flavor. And, after the aging process, the beef is "broken down" (butchered) by hand. According to Charlie, cut-to-order butchering is a dying art: "They process on an assembly line in the big plants, so you don't have one person breaking down a side of beef anymore." Cut-to-order butchering allows the Potters to offer specialty cuts of meat not seen in grocery stores.
At the time of our visit, Donald's was readying hamburger patties to be delivered to the Lexington schools for "Farm to School" week. Lou Hassler, Lexington Food Service Director, holds Potter beef in high regard and wishes she could serve it more often (unfortunately, the school food budget is too tight at the moment). For Farm to School week, however, she went all out: Spaghetti with Potter beef in the sauce on Tuesday, hamburgers on Wednesday, and sloppy joe's on Thursday.
And what did the kids think of their locally-sourced burgers? Check out these smiles.
It's pretty hard to dine with us and not eat something grown on (or laid at) Paradox Farm. For years they have been one of our biggest suppliers. They are also a major player in the sustainable food movement in our area. Owner Mitch Wapner serves on the board of the Healthy Foods Co-Op & Market in town, manages the Lexington Farmers Market, and is president of the Rockbridge Farmers Alliance. He keeps pretty busy for a retiree--he used to be an equine vet. When we caught up with him recently at the farmers market, he could barely talk to us. He was phoning customer Julie who had left without taking her bag of melons and chatting with customer Peggy who knew a woman who rehabilitated feral cats. He was fretting about his egg shortage, as his chickens were slowing down with the start of fall ("They are seasonal layers.") but demand was still high. "Red Hen took three dozen of my eggs yesterday. They wanted more, but I can't do it until the CSA season is over."
Still, he managed to answer a couple of questions, like: What's with 2 Farmers and Jo? (Sometimes Paradox Farm produce appears on our menu as grown by 2 Farmers and Jo.) "That's Cat and Chad, my farm managers. Alli Jo is their dog." Cat and Chad spent last year working as interns at Paradox. They did so well they were promoted.
We also quizzed him about his produce. Paradox is known for its quirky veg. Unusual heirloom varieties, things grown from saved seed--stuff you can't buy in a supermarket. He had some fantastic purple string beans that turn green when you cooked them, but we decided to ask him about the wispy carrots we had photographed the week before:
"Well, they're grown with love and without chemicals!"
Paradox is a stickler for all-natural. They use no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. To do this, they concentrate on developing and maintaining healthy soil. They use compost as well as aged and composted manures. In their literature, they refer to themselves as soil farmers. Said literature also apologizes for the less-than-perfect appearance of their vegetables: Our Eco-friendly philosophy of growing food means that much of our produce may not LOOK perfect, but our concern is that it TASTES perfect in addition to being free from chemicals.
But does veg get any more beautiful than this?
What do you think?
Autumn in Virginia brings pawpaws, a.k.a. the Shenandoah banana, America's largest indigenous fruit. They have a cloying apple mixed with banana mixed with kiwi smell, a custardy flesh, and an elusive taste. Ask anyone to describe the taste of pawpaw and watch them struggle. It's a completely intriguing fruit. Yet nobody in the restaurant world works with them. To begin with, there are no commercial growers. The season is too short (weeks). The shelf life is too narrow (days). And the skin is too fragile (tears at the slightest bump). Suffice it to say they will never appear in the grocery store fruit bin. This, of course, makes them all the more appealing to us, especially since we have recently come across a pawpaw source! Wild groves are now available to us at Echo Valley Farm in Bath County. All we have to do is pick them ourselves....
On the drive home, we start talking possibilities: pawpaw pies, pawpaw sorbet, pawpaw drinks, pawpaw mixed with this and that. We decide the Red Hen will invent The Definitive Paw Paw Dessert...and then The Definitive PawPaw Cocktail. The grandiosity builds. We are going to put pawpaws on the map. We can't wait for people to come from miles around (and away) to eat pawpaws at the Red Hen. It is going to be awesome.
Pawpaws are about thirty percent seed. Black shiny nickel-sized seeds. It had been a few years since we had eaten pawpaw, and we had forgotten about this. Oops. Even worse, the seeds are distributed throughout the fruit, so you have to dig out each one individually or you won't have enough pawpaw left to work with. Chef Matt, a pawpaw rookie who had been excited to start working with them, cuts into one and has a small heart attack. Still, he peels them all and excavates every single seed (he is an amazing sport). It's a ridiculous amount of work for just a little bit of fruit. But Matt does wonders with it. He mixes it with eggs, vanilla and brandy, pours into a tart shell, and tops it with whipped cream and pistachios. The pawpaw cream tart is a winner. It's kind of like a banana cream tart, but more exciting. It has a citrusy flavor that you can't quite put your finger on. We could eat this every day! Unfortunately, the word "pawpaw" now makes Matt wince. The seeds.
A few days ago, Matt started making pawpaw wine. It will be ready in six months. We are not sure how it will turn out--or even, if it does turn out, whether it will appear on the menu. Matt is so over pawpaws.
But, oh, how we would dearly love to eat this again:
Last Saturday, Pat Foreman and Jeannette Beranger joined us for dinner. Pat is the author of City Chicks (and co-author of Chicken Tractor, Day Range Poultry and Backyard Market Gardening) and founder of The Gossamer Foundation. Jeannette is the Research and Technical Programs Manager at The Livestock Conservancy and co-author of An Introduction to Heritage Breeds: Saving and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry. Red Hen co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson, Eftoo Farm owner Ann Waller and Jeannette's awesome husband Fred rounded out the table. Pat and Jeannette are helping us with our Dorking Project. In addition to the entrees, Chef Matt surprised everyone with giant chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms and his own spin on Pommes Anna (he adds fennel). Chef Matt does not want anyone to go home hungry!
This adorable Dorking chick is one of twenty that arrived at Eftoo Farm over the weekend. Eftoo and the Red Hen, with the help of the Livestock Conservancy, have partnered to form The Dorking Project to protect this very important breed. You may not know it, but many of our heritage farm breeds are endangered. It is particularly important that the Dorking be saved as it is a foundational breed. This means it is a building block for other chicken breeds. Many if not most American chicken breeds contain some Dorking, so its genetics are particularly important.
Dorkings can be traced back to Britain during the Roman Era. Before that, no one knows for sure, although one chicken expert likes to say, "Dorkings? Why Caesar ate them!" No one is certain when they arrived in America either, but they were a well-distributed and popular table bird by 1840. In fact, the Livestock Conservancy says: As a table fowl, the Dorking chicken has few peers and no superlatives. In 2009 the Livestock Conservancy sponsored a heritage breed tasting competition, and the Dorking won hands down. Yet another reason we need to save it!
But if they are rare, you shouldn't eat them, right? Au contraire! In order to save a heritage breed, people have to use it. In the case of the Dorking, that means eating it. Our breeding program depends on its ability to sustain itself. So we will be serving the culled birds (the ones not chosen as breeding stock) at the Red Hen.
It will be a good four months before these birds are mature.
PS. If you would like to see the chicks when they were first hatched (thanks, Livestock Conservancy!) check them out here.
Eftoo Farm in neighboring Bath County is raising a batch of Rouen ducks for us. The Rouen is a heritage breed--in fact it was the very breed Escoffier used at the Savoy in the 1900's to create his famous dish Caneton de Rouen à la Presse. But its history goes back further in both France and England where it was a premier roasting duck. Rouens have been raised in America since the 1850's but they are rarely served in restaurants anymore. This is because it takes five to six months for a Rouen to mature. That is forever in modern duck farming. The industry standard today is a specially bred duck that matures in a mere nine weeks. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of flavor.
Our Rouens are, admittedly, an experiment. They are being raised on pasture, as their ancestors were a hundred and fifty years ago. With all the bugs and forage, their meat should be incredible. However, they will have to make it through a gauntlet of raccoons, weasels, coyote, and bear! With luck, though, they will be ready for the table come November/December. We will keep you posted!