Think about it. What's the best way to enjoy a farm-to-table dining experience? I vote alfresco dining on an actual farm. In mid-September Haskell's Farm, on the outskirts of Chadds Ford, will be staging the last of its three such dining summer adventures.
The son of a former mayor of Wilmington and Delaware Congressman, H. G. Haskell's grandfather bought the former Pyle farm around 1910 and renamed it Hill Girt Farm. For many years it was a working dairy farm. Sections of the massive bank barn-- where the farm dinners are staged-- date back to the 1600’s and the main house to 1816.
Twenty-eight years after its self-service debut, Haskell’s is arguably the best local produce stand in the Brandywine Valley. The late summer bounty of seasonal produce will supply the September 12 farm dinner that features Wilmington chef Bryan Sikora. He is the founder and chef of Wilmington's La Fia, a breezy hybrid bistro on Market Street across from the Queen Theater.
Sikora's menu creations are driven by his dedication to made-from-scratch elements and seasonality. Foodies have taken note in a big way. Earlier this year Sikora was named one of nine semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation awards as the Best Chef, MidAtlantic. The prestigious Beards are often called the Oscars of the culinary world.
An added bonus to the September farm dinner is a performance by Erin Dickins, a founding member of Manhattan Transfer. Dickens also has as food pedigree. She studied at the New York Restaurant School and opened a Manhattan eatery called “Possible 20.” Her just released cookbook and CD, "Sizzle & Swing - Jazz For Foodies" is a delightful combination of food and song pairings with stories about Dickins' musical adventures. She has debuted her new line of herbal seasonings, also under the moniker "Sizzle & Swing."
Starry, starry night
As the sun dipped below the trees in mid-July, a mixed bunch of guests tromped along the land viewing fields of plentiful produce that spread out toward the horizon. They were on their way up to a bank barn festive with arrangements of local wildflowers, strings of twinkling lights and a vintage chandelier. The sounds of crickets, conversation and music ebbed and flowed in the gentle calm of the farm's natural beauty. Friends and family were set to savor a bounty of food harvested just hours before its preparation.
"As a grower, some of the most rewarding things are seeing how the chefs use our products and how creative they are at putting these delicious dishes together," said proprietor H. G. Haskell. "I also enjoy talking with our guests. They are quite curious as to how we're able to grow such a variety of crops and how the farm operates."
The sprawling 60-acre farm sits across Route 100 from Haskell's iconic farm stand SIW Vegetables that comes to life each year from mid- June through late October. A hand-painted white "Open" sign out front ushers folks into the gravel parking lot next to the railroad tracks. Most summer days, SIW's wooden shack check-out does a brisk business.
Throughout the summer season 40 kinds of sustainable veggies and fruits are toted by the pickers from fields to rustic wagons several times a day. The farm stand has a bevy of heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, onions, melons, garlic, raspberries, blackberries, green beans, Doc Martin lima beans, okra, and the summer sunflowers that look like they're right out of a Van Gogh painting.
The idea of the summer alfresco dinners sprouted as a thank you to members of SIW's Community Supported Agriculture program launched in 2001. At the farm stand an arty chalkboard lists intriguing seasonal produce items for pick-up by CSA members each week.
While the relationship between rural farms and urban and suburban restaurants has long been established, there is something truly special about sitting down to eat right where the food grows. This summer marked the third consecutive year that Chef David Banks was at the helm of Haskell's farm-to-table dinner. Executive Chef of Harry's Hospitality Group in Wilmington, Banks, along with Xavier Teixido, is also the co-owner of Harry's Seafood Grill and partner in ownership of Kid Shelleen's.
Banks orchestrated the July unending buffet of all things local from a makeshift kitchen adjacent to the barn. The bounty included locally sourced, exquisitely grilled organic chicken and beef served side by side with dishes that showcased SIW's wealth of fresh produce. The caprese salad served with H. G.'s prized heirloom tomatoes and DiBruno's EVOO and fresh mozzarella was superb and the raw bi-color and white corn salad teamed with rhubarb was unexpected and delightful. The sideboard groaned with perfectly turned mushrooms, kale and candy onions, luscious red beets, and fruit salad with melons, berries and cherries. Topping off the evening's pleasures were blueberry and blackberry pies shot through with summer sweetness. It was a farm dinner at its finest.
"The idea is to keep it fresh and exciting, playing on the seasonality of the crops," explained Banks. "We take probably 15 components (crops) and turn them into creative dishes like the organic chicken that satisfies the wants of our guests. There is a lot of spontaneity-- 100 percent."
As summer rolls along the bounty of the farm includes 60 varieties of heirloom tomatoes that shine in their crimson, purple, green and yellow hues. Rich in character, heirlooms range from modestly tart to immodestly sweet. The Green Zebra has sweet and zesty flavor that is as appetizing as its appearance is spectacular. Then there is the funky-shaped yellowish orange Hawaiian Pineapple that is terrific for juicy tomato sandwiches, and the pink-tinged Peruvian that looks almost hand-painted.
"Heirlooms have been one of the stars as H.G.'s farm stand has evolved in popularity," Banks said. "They've taken foodies by storm over the past five or six years. Some are ugly, gnarly looking, but the heirlooms flavors are outstanding. They are the lynchpin of my farm dinners here."
Chef Banks appreciates the challenges farmers like Haskell face.
"It's not easy being a farmer, there's an enormous amount of hard work and then you throw in the vagaries of weather," Banks explained. "As chefs we express through the food to farm dinner guests what farmers do. It's a partnership, a collaboration between the chefs and the farm to produce these wonderful dinners. For me, it's the essence of the best home cooking."