One grand thing found in abundance in the Upper East Side of Texas is fresh, locally-grown food. For those looking for the ultimate dining experience, nothing beats the taste of meals prepared with ingredients that came from just a few miles away or even from a venue’s backyard.
From dairy farms like Waldo Way in Mineola and Full Quiver Farm in Kemp, to grass-fed meat sources too numerous to mention, to herb gardens, and fabulous farmers markets showcasing thousands of growers, this region is rich beyond measure with what it takes for the tastiest dining experiences.
And don’t forget the wine. The soil in the Upper East Side of Texas is proving perfect for growing grapes, and wine makers are taking advantage of that. Numerous wines from the region are winning awards from all over the world.
Locally created wines and foods paired together make incredible meals for those that live and visit in the region.
Most of the farmers markets start in May and run through October. Some farms like Red Moon Farm in Van offer fresh produce year round.
Many of the rural towns and restaurants take advantage of these resources and either feature local foods daily or put together farm-to-table special events throughout the year.
Chef Sara Brisco with The Forge Bar & Grill in Ben Wheeler uses locally-grown foods in her menu on a daily basis.
Last year she started a backyard farm-to-table event to kick off her annual Junebug Summer Fair. Proceeds benefit the Van Zandt Arts & Cultural District Foundation. Here she shares her menu and process that went into creating what guests said was the ultimate culinary experience.
Her goal was to produce a five-course menu (which turned into seven) using only local ingredients, down to the salt from Grand Saline.
She teamed up with farmers’ market manager D.J. Warren to help locate many of the ingredients.
Guests entered the backyard gardens behind The Forge to beautifully decorated picnic tables. The decor was simple and rustic with wildflowers in upcycled Patron bottle vases -- a perfect fit for this venue.
Twisted Rhythm played soft jazz on stage under the trees and white lights strung from branches put a nice glow on the evening.
The attentive, uniformed staff greeted each arriving guest with a sample of red or white wines from Green Goat Winery of Edom and White Fox Winery of Murchison.
People enjoyed a short stroll around the yard and a sneak peak at the art of the Junebug Summer Fair that opened to the public the next day. Meeting the artists and purchasing art added to this experience for many.
Then guests took their seats and introduced themselves to their dining companions for the evening, part of the fun of this kind of community event.
The first plate arriving was a Peach Salad with Haute Goat Chevre, a colorful display promising a fruit and herb taste explosion. It was paired with a white wine from Valle della Pace Vineyards in Garden Valley.
This East Texas summer salad was tossed in balsamic and oil with grilled peaches, blueberries, red onion, sprouts, greens, mint, chevre, and candied pecans.
“The peaches were from Orchard Farms in Troup, blueberries from Blueberry Hill Farms in Edom, and red onion from Gopher Knoll Farm in Athens,” Brisco says.
Other ingredients in the salad were sunflower sprouts and radish micro greens from Papa Boat’s Patch in Grand Saline, mixed greens from Red Moon Farm, mint from The Forge herb garden, chevre from Haute Goat Creamery in Longview, and pecans from Perryman’s in Athens.
“This salad is quintessential East Texas summer,” Brisco says. “We’ve got the juiciest peaches, the sweetest blueberries, (much of our soil is naturally acidic making for naturally prolific berry plants) and the sweetest onions pulled from our sugar sand. Randle from Papa Boat’s Patch has the greenest of thumbs and has mastered the art of growing sunflower sprouts. They are my favorite — crisp and juicy with a mild nutty flavor.
“And the chevre from Haute Goat, it’s just so good we used their cheeses in everything we could.”
Brisco said her only “local” cheats on this dish were the balsamic and pecan oil which came from Kinloch Plantation in Louisiana. Close enough.
The second course was Gazpacho & Bass Ceviche served with White Fox Vineyard’s Texas White.
“We went with a cold gazpacho — it’s perfect for the summer heat,” Brisco says. “We blended tomatoes from three different local farms (Brisco and Saxon in Ben Wheeler and Gardens at Peaceful Valley in Athens), along with garlic and onions from Gopher Knoll, cucumbers from Highway 19 Produce & Berries in Athens, and herbs from The Forge garden for the perfect flavor.
“This was the perfect soup for a last-minute surprise pairing with ceviche. Our resident fisherman, Mr. Dwayne Price, came through with the freshest, most beautiful, freshwater bass a ceviche lover could hope for, and he even cleaned it.”
Brisco learned the art of cooking using local ingredients in a variety of places.
“I fell in love with ceviche traveling in Central and South America,” she says. “Each region is fluid in the use of local fresh ingredients. I learned a free style in preparing food from our southern neighbors. All the answers don’t come from a beautifully-worn, stained cookbook, but from what’s in hand, what’s fresh, what you can pull from the garden or lake that very day. Pairing the ceviche with the gazpacho also allowed us to put two courses in one.”
Already impressed with the beautiful flavors of courses one and two, many guests said it was the third course that was over-the-top amazing — a Heritage Pork Tamale with Shishito Peppers.
“This was a fun one,” Brisco says, “Let’s throw tamales into the mix of fine dining? Why not? These were some fine tamales and plus we are Texans — he who does not love tamales shall travel north.”
Creating the tamales started with heritage pork from Chandler Family Farm in Mabank.
“We slow smoked it in its very own fat, making it simply delicious,” Brisco says. “Along with Havarti from Haute Goat and our home-grown salsa verde, we rolled up what might have been the best tamales in the world. We sprinkled them with feta from Haute Goat and garnished with shishitos from Bobby Bever at Highway 19. We scored tomatillos from Free Earth Project (a vibrant new nonprofit from Athens with a goal of putting fresh food in the mouths of hungry folk, and it’s free and organic; along with my father’s onions; garlic from Gopher Knoll; and cilantro, green chilis, and poblanos from our garden.”
A slight cheat on this one is the Masa which is milled in Edinburg in South Texas.
The tamales were paired with 1543 from Castle Oaks Winery in Athens.
The fourth course was Apple Grove Lamb Stack with Lenoir semi-dry red wine from Green Goat Vineyard.
The lamb for this dish came from Apple Grove Farm in Ben Wheeler.
“It was rubbed in roasted garlic, salt, oregano, and thyme and grilled to a medium rare,” Brisco says.
The lamb was sprinkled with The Forge garden seasonings including oregano and thyme, and topped with Haute Goat chevre, and served with spiralized and fried red potatoes from Brisco Farms. Pickled red onions from Gopher Knoll made a tasty garnish, and on the side for dipping was a dollop of tzatziki made from The Forge dill, Highway 19 cucumbers, Gopher Knoll garlic and Waldo Way yogurt.
Fifth course was a palette cleanse, a delicious homemade raspberry sorbet by Double Barrel Dessert Company of Ben Wheeler.
Sixth course was Happy Cattle Beef Rosette Pinwheel, Roasted Carrots, and a Red Asian Long Bean paired with a Malbec from Castle Oaks Winery.
The grass-fed beef was donated by Happy Cattle Co. It was served with Gopher Knoll roasted garlic and Haute Goat chevre, roasted carrots from Gardens at Peaceful Valley and Red Asian long beans, rosemary, and herbs from The Forge gardens, along with roasted red potato and baby onion from Brisco Farms. A puree was made with butter from Waldo Way and mushrooms grown at Texas Fungus in Arlington.
The final course was a Blueberry Hill Farms Mini Pastry with Deb’s Vanilla Ice Cream and paired with Chocolate Abyss from Castle Oaks Winery.
“Blueberry Hill Farms baked all these sweet little treats the day of the event so they would be hot and fresh,” Brisco says. “So many people pitched in to help make this event a perfect culinary experience and we’re looking forward to the next one.”
Junebug Farm to Table 2020 takes place on June 19. Visit www.theforgebenwheeler.com for more information.
This summer D.J. Warren will oversee Locally Forged, a farmers’ market taking place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Sunday May through July at The Forge Bar & Grill so ingredients will really be close at hand.
For other farm-to-table events, markets, and venues, see the ads following this article and visit www.countylinemagazine.com for more information throughout the year.