The very best dinner of my life. That is how I would describe my Outstanding in the Field dinner this past Saturday at Sassy Cow Creamery
in Columbus, Wisconsin. The boldness of this statement is not lost on me. But as I recall the atmosphere, the food, the hospitality of the OITF staff and Sassy Cow Creamery family and the time I spent with good friends, I could best describe the evening as magical. I suppose the after-dinner drink otherwise known as the Perseid meteor shower, seen from the pitch black Wisconsin farmland, might have left me punch drunk and affected my perspective. But that's for you to decide.
But before I get too far ahead, let me say how this evening came about. A few of my friends were OITF veterans having attended a couple of their past events, and brought a few others including me into the mix. I really didn't ask many questions when invited, and willingly shelled out about $220 for the event. I merely understood that I was heading out of town for a very brief weekend with friends I never get to spend enough time with, and that the main event would be a dinner at Sassy Cow Creamery.
Outstanding in the Field now functions internationally I was told by Jim Deneven, OITF's founder and a chef himself, with events not only nationwide but throughout the world. As our group of nine considered which event to attend, we recognized the limited dates on which we could agree, our desire to escape Chicago a bit, and the fact that three persons in our group are vegetarians (so the dinner at Dietzler farms was ruled out). We ultimately agreed on the Sassy Cow Creamery event, which stuck out because it was only a few hour drive from Chicago and was on a Saturday, thus allowing us to stay overnight and spend time together Sunday.
We drove up to Wisconsin late Saturday morning for the 4pm event at Sassy Cow. By the way, you might recognize the Sassy Cow name if you've shopped at HarvesTime, where their milk is sold. Columbus, perhaps a half-hour outside Madison, was a sight for sore city eyes, decorated in green grass, rolling hills, corn rising all around you and the occasional horse prancing in the distance. No car horns, very little noise, no smoke. Sassy Cow Creamery was the perfect location for our city escape.The amazing setting
We were immediately welcomed by the casually clad OITF staff, who welcomed us with a sparkling cider and tables of hors d'oeuvres. The food this evening was prepared by Tory Miller, chef at L'Etoile
, and several members of his staff. The hors d'oeuvres:Radishes and house-churned Sassy Cow sweet cream butter
fresh bread too, but not picturedWillow Creek Farm pork rillettes, raspberry mustard, picklesSun jewel melon, La Quercia prosciutto, Satori Cheese SarVecchio, balsamic mustGoat cheese with vegetable ash, nuts, honeycomb
- bread not shown
All of the hors d'oeuvres were really terrific, but it was the ultra-rich pork rillettes that stole my heart. Probably the best pork rillettes I have ever tasted, and the richness was balanced beautifully by two types of pickles (one was more of a relish), raspberry mustard and bread. But who doesn't like radishes, and the lightly salted sweet cream butter from Sassy Cow was the perfect compliment.
We were then offered tours of the creamery, led by James Baerwolf, one of Sassy Cow's owners.Inside the creameryOut back
The Creamery also features a store where you can purchase Sassy Cow products, including milk and ice cream:
After the tour, we resumed some snacking activities, mingling, and simply absorbed the atmosphere around us. Jim Deneven then gathered everyone together. For this evening, there were approximately 160 attendees. Jim and Leah Scafe (the OITF Director) spoke very briefly of OITF and how it struggled in its early days, they told of their love of farms and their desire to better connect people with farms and help people understand better where their food comes from. Jim and Leah of Outstanding in the Field
James Baerwolf then spoke briefly about Sassy Cow, dryly joking about how he and his family have always lived on or very close to the farm, and how his and his brother's wives grew up merely a farm or so away.James Baerwolf of Sassy Cow
, with Leah of OITF in the background
Everyone then began the several minute stroll through the grounds of the farm to the dinner table. OITF asks you to bring your own dinner plate to add color to the table, although they supply plates if you don't bring your own. It seemed like the vast majority brought their own plates (which were gathered together as you arrived at the event, and transported to the dining area by OITF staff, where you'd then pick up your plates and secure a spot at the long, communal table). Frankly, I tend to prefer simple white plates and let the food supply the color, but not a big deal. They do wash and clean your plates for you, although they gladly accept donated plates for future events. At least the gathered plates made for a pretty picture:
It was a very pleasant several-minute stroll to the table, thanks to the lush scenery, beautiful weather, and some sassy cows! Don't worry if you're not up for the walk - they offer rides too.
As we approached the table, we noticed a large, tented area where Chef Tory Miller and his staff were busy preparing dinner:Chef Tory Miller and staff
As I mentioned, it's one large and slightly curved communal table for the approximate 160 diners:The dinner table
We were then seated and presented with menus for the evening, along with water, bread and Sassy Cow butter:The evening's menu, including hors d'oeuvres and wine pairingsBread and Sassy Cow butter
We were then served our first course, several varieties of grilled Harmony Valley beets, Sassy Cow Creamery cheese curds and dragon tongue beans, lightly dressed with a buttermilk ranch dressing and chives. I'm not a huge beet fan, but appreciated the dish. The beans retained a crunchy texture which was appealing, and the cheese curds were terrific. By the way, all of the food this evening was served family style. Although the vegetarians in our group had their portions separately plated (and generously so) for meat courses.Grilled Harmony Valley beets, Sassy Cow cheese curds, dragon tongue beans, buttermilk ranch dressing, chives
Before we began eating our second course, which featured Fox Valley Berkshire pork belly, Todd Richards of Fox Valley Berkshire
said a few words to the group about their Berkshire hogs and why thy flavor is so outstanding (which it was):Todd Richards of Fox Valley Berkshire
The second course was a magnificent grilled Fox Valley Berkshire pork belly, with roasted corn, Morren Farm peach relish, fried black kale, and a slightly spicy and very thin layer of bourbon-peach bbq sauce. The pork belly was the star here, so flavorful and practically melting in your mouth. The peaches and corn and bbq sauce were not only wonderful complements, but delivered that comforting feeling of being at a family, summer barbecue. I'd say Tory Miller and his staff also did a fantastic job of plating. Obviously, the vegetarians were not served the pork belly, but I can't recall if they were given a substitute for this course.Grilled Fox Valley Berkshire pork belly, roasted corn, Morren Farm peach relish, fried black kale, bourbon-peach bbq sauce
The next course was no less impressive - several varieties of Voss Organics heirloom tomatoes, Fountain Prairie Farm grass-fed steak, sweet onions, thai basil, and a spicy lime vinaigrette that included fish sauce, adding a Vietnamese flair to the dish. It was beautiful to look at and equally delicious. I loved the charred rare to medium rare beef, the tomatoes were fantastic (particularly the sun golds) and the chef was obviously careful in using the vinaigrette to accent the dish without overwhelming the other flavors. (Note that vegetarians were served grilled tofu in place of the steak with this course.) Voss Organic heirloom tomatoes, Fountain Prairie Farm steak, sweet onions, thai basil, spicy lime vinaigrette
If the pork belly dish did not make me the number one fan of Fox Valley Berkshire and Chef Tory Miller, the next pork dish certainly did. Fox Valley Berkshire sweet Italian sausage (made in-house by Chef Miller), served with Cesar's Oaxacan-style mozzarella, eggplant caponata, arugula and bread crisps. The sausages were magnificent, and that might be an understatement. Although I prefer a spicy Italian sausage, this sweet sausage nonetheless delivered great flavor and even a little heat, and the sausage itself had a gentle snap and not-too-packed texture. I can't recall tasting a better sausage. And the eggplant caponata, dotted with the oozing mozzarella, was also outstanding - another great reminder of summer's bounty.Fox Valley Berkshire sweet Italian sausage, Oaxacan-style mozzarella, eggplant caponata, arugula and bread crisps
Finally dessert, and it was the ideal finish for this meal. There was a creamy and delicious Sassy Cow salted caramel ice cream, studded with crisp, flaky shortbread made with Sassy Cow butter, and served with fresh raspberries and blackberries. We had a hard time deciding whether we preferred the ice cream or shortbread, but it was all delicious. Sassy Cow salted caramel ice cream, shortbread made with Sassy Cow butter, raspberries and blackberries
We lingered, we laughed, we drank and just enjoyed the food and atmosphere. We arrived shortly before 4pm, and at about 9:30pm we were driven for a couple-minute hay ride back to the parking lot. We oohed and aahed as we watched meteors seemingly 100 feet above our heads. The cynic in me never believed that I needed to visit a farm and connect with my food. Isn't that what I do when I visit Chicago's outdoor produce markets? Don't I meet the farmers? I grew up growing fruits and vegetables - I get it. And until this evening, my favorite dinner every year is the annual Green City Market BBQ event. The romantic in me learned that the cynic in me is an idiot. I wish I could travel from farm to farm, soaking it all in.
If anything, I returned home more inspired than ever, and determined to become a better home chef. I developed a greater appreciation for the little farmer - the family that doesn't merely want to make a living. Like the boulangerie in Paris that prides itself on making the flakiest, most layered and most buttery croissant, I felt like I was introduced to farmers right here in the Midwest determined to provide us with the very best product that could be made available. And I can't wait to partake in my next Outstanding in the Field event. It might not be until next year, and perhaps my friends and I will visit some place farther away, maybe Oregon. But I can't wait. Note for those that don't care to travel that there are dinners in this area, including one tomorrow (Friday) night at City Farm (but I recommend a trip out of the city).
It didn't hurt that the Outstanding in the Field staff was extraordinary - delivering food at the same time to 160 people, explaining and pouring the wine pairings, delivering cold water bottles throughout the evening, ensuring that vegetarians were adequately fed and pleased, and smiling and enjoying it all the entire time. And if you check out their website and list of events, you'll notice that they really pair with truly great chefs, chefs you'll recognize as delivering a farm-to-table experience. But note that you really need to reserve early, really early, as these events typically sell out. Apparently, they had such huge demand for this Wisconsin event that they expanded it to satisfy those who were begging and pleading to be let in.
And for those of you that have heard of these events, that have considered attending, I urge you to give it a chance. Perhaps you'll also feel compelled to wax poetically upon your return. It was only a two-day trip, but the memories will last a very long time. Yes, the best dinner of my life.