RGE RD 135 Dinner @ Nature’s Green Acres

Farm to table dinners seem to be all the rage lately, and rightly so, as people try to find ways to better connect with the food on their plate. Chef Blair Lebsack, formerly of Madison’s Grill, has been running a series of farm to table dinners for over a year under the RGE RD banner. Last summer, Nature’s Green Acres hosted an elegant dinner, cooked and served out on the pasture for a lucky party of 30. The event was so well received that this year, that number doubled, and Mack and I were among the diners fortunate enough to attend. We reserved our tickets back in May, and though $150 might seem pricey at first, it became evident that all the effort behind a truly local dinner was worth much more than that.

On a clear Saturday afternoon, we drove about two hours east of Edmonton to Viking, the location of Danny and Shannon Ruzicka’s farm, Nature’s Green Acres. We arrived just in time to grab a cold lemonade before Blair officially welcomed the group.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Blair and Caitlin

To get a feel for the farm, Danny first treated us to a horseshoeing demonstration, as he is a trained farrier.

Range Road 135 Dinner

It was definitely harder than Danny made it look!

Shannon then took us on a brief tour of the farm. She showed us their Cornish rock hens (aka “redneck lawnmowers”, in Shannon’s words), kept in mobile chicken pens. She told us that when they first decided to increase their chicken yield, they tried using large, truck-drawn pens which ended up being disastrous. They ended up losing 600 chickens that year, due to stress from overcrowding and the fact that some animals were run over in the shifting process.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Mobile chicken pens

She then brought us to a fenced off area home to twenty Tamworth pigs. A heritage breed, this type of pig is at home rooting and foraging in the wild, and as a result, have free run of about an acre of bush. That said, Shannon and Danny do put out feed (a mixture of wheat, peas and barley) and water for the pigs.

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Tamworth pigs, in all their copper-coloured glory

In addition, Danny and Shannon raise grass-fed cattle, and unlike the chickens and the pigs, they came to us! Our dining arrangement was in the middle of their pasture after all, but they didn’t seem to mind sharing the field for a night.

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No tipping

Shannon also showed us the small garden where she, Blair and his partner Caitlin grew most of the vegetables that would be served at our dinner. So unlike the popular 100-mile catchment area for local food, this dinner really emphasized the variety of what can be grown and raised on a single property.

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The garden

Before leading us to the dinner table, Shannon showed us some of the tipi rings that are scattered across their farm. With a buffalo jump also located on their property, it is no surprise that at one time Aboriginals would camp overnight in the area.

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Shannon shows us the tipi rings

Then came the big reveal: two gorgeous communal tables draped in white tablecloths, set amongst the pasture. Behind the tables was a cob oven (built just for this occasion) and the rest of the makeshift kitchen.

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Table at farm dinner

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Seated

The five course menu encapsulated summer. We started with a salad of fresh clipped greens with marinated beets atop a sheep’s cheese custard. The custard was the star, creamy and light, adding an interesting element to a typical starter.

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Fresh clipped greens, marinated beets, sheep’s cheese starter

Mack and I both selected the free-range chicken breast as our favourite dish of the night. Though it probably was the most “pedestrian” of the dishes, the preparation was outstanding. We couldn’t think of the last time a dish as simple as this wowed us – the meat was tender, and the chicken skin was crackling crisp. As one of our dining companions noted – chicken skin should be the new bacon. We also enjoyed the bed of simple but delicious carrot and zucchini slaw.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Chicken breast, carrot & zucchini slaw

A different palate cleanser was served next, in the form of a basil popsicle. Mack isn’t a huge fan of the herb, but wanted to ask for seconds.

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Basil popsicle

The wood roasted Landrace pork was a definite favourite among our table. A piece each of loin and belly was served with pea and onion gnocchi and stinging nettle pesto. It’s probably sacrilege, but I felt the cuts were just a little too fatty for my taste. That said, the meat itself was moist, and the gnocchi the perfect accompaniment.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Landrace pork, pea & onion gnocchi, stinging nettle pesto

The grass-fed Nouveau Beef braised shanks and roasted loin was not a delicate dish. The generous meat portion was served with a warm potato salad and a beautifully smoky tomato-corn dressing.

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Braised beef shanks, roasted loin, warm potato salad

Instead of a formal dessert plate, our dessert of Saskatoon berry galette with rhubarb ice cream was instead served on a branded wood tile. Why? To save on dishes, Blair then invited all diners to toss their “plates” into the fire! The galette itself, still warm(!), was crispy, buttery and just sweet enough. I don’t typically enjoy rhubarb ice cream, but the combination with the Saskatoons and raspberry granola worked well.

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Saskatoon berry galette

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Mack readies his toss

A peek into the makeshift kitchen really made us appreciate all the work behind setting up this al fresco dining room. Everything had to be transported to this location – from the tables and chairs themselves to the dish and flatware, to the water and wood!

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The cleanup begins

Congratulations to Blair, Caitlin, Danny, Shannon and the rest of the RGE RD team for pulling off this dinner. They not only achieved their goal of providing us with a taste of the farm, but also in creating community – we definitely enjoyed breaking bread with those around us at the communal table!

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Enjoying the company

Here’s to more RGE RD dinners to come!

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The end of a beautiful evening

You can take a look at our photoset here, and make sure to check out Valerie and Kevin’s posts – much more timely than my own.

A Love Letter to Local Food: Farmers’ Market Dinner at Madison’s Grill

When I saw the menu for the third Farmers’ Market Dinner at Madison’s Grill, I couldn’t look away. Sylvan Star Cheese fondue? Nature’s Green Acres short ribs? Greens, Eggs and Ham duck confit? Not only did every dish sound delicious, but the ingredients for nearly the entire dinner had been sourced locally. Moreover, several producers would be joining us for the meal. We were in.

The fact that the dinner cost $70 per person (plus $30 for wine pairings) was a moot point when I made our reservations two weeks prior. But after the fact, I can wholeheartedly say that the experience was worth every dollar.

It was a little comical that we made our way to the Union Bank Inn on Friday via public transportation, but then again, it didn’t make sense to drive, particularly in the dinner’s context of sustainability. After our coats were taken, we joined a couple seated at one of the two tables in the Vintage Room, right by the fireplace. Meals at a communal table have to do with the luck of the draw sometimes, but fortunately for us that night, Monique and Patrick and Slow Foodies Nicole and Steve provided us with good company, and enhanced our evening with lovely conversation.

My only criticism was the packed quarters – I felt bad for the servers who had to work between a too-narrow space between the two tables (resulting in a few dropped dishes). I had to wonder if the decision to include an additional eight seats beyond their original limit of twenty was the right call.

The cocktail hour was accented by dainty hors d’oeuvres – including smoked salmon, beef tartar, and Fairwinds Farm goat cheese tartlets. The beef tartar was particularly excellent.

Smoked salmon tartlets

Before the meal began, Chef Blair Lebsack invited the two producers up to provide some background on their farms. Andres Gruenberg (of Greens, Eggs and Ham) and Eric and Ruby Chen (of Peas on Earth), gave us snapshots of their production, and were ever gracious about the work that they do. Blair then proceeded to introduce the appetizer course – descriptions also accompanied every subsequent dish, and was much appreciated. It was obvious that Blair has a lot of respect for local producers (having visited their farms and all), so it was great to hear about some of the cooking processes he used to create the dishes.

The Sylvan Star Cheese fondue came in individual servings, much to my delight (not that I wouldn’t have shared, heh). The grilled apple, Saskatoon berry compote and spicy pine nuts were fancy accompaniments, but I probably would have been happy just with baguette slices and cheese. Yum.

Sylvan Star Cheese Fondue

The Northern Alberta Pike fillet (from Lesser Slave Lake) was a favourite of some around our table. Wrapped in Pembina Pork bacon and topped with candied bacon(!), it was a surprisingly subtle course, with each element holding its own. The fish had been cooked perfectly, and the underlying shellfish and golden beet broth lent an earthy note to the dish. Not surprisingly, Mack loved the candied bacon.

Northern Alberta Pike Fillet

The cleverly named Duck, Duck, Goose was my personal favourite. Andres had asked Blair why he hadn’t been ordering goose, which spurned experimentation in his kitchen. Both birds were served two ways – in-house smoked duck breast atop potato-onion hash, an absolutely sublime pulled duck confit with braised leeks and parsnip puree, slow roasted goose breast with sour cherry pan jus and goose rillette on toast points. The servings may look deceivingly small, but it packed a hefty punch – and had Mack been momentarily distracted, I would have swiped some of his duck confit.

Duck, Duck, Goose

As I had the chance to visit Nature’s Green Acres last summer, I was looking forward to trying their Nouveau Beef again (butchering at seven months lends the beef its name). The braised short ribs did not disappoint – meltingly tender, the flavour in the meat was inherent. The mushroom confit and mushroom-marrow farce were great accompaniments, and mirrored the beef’s richness.

Braised Nouveau Beef Short Ribs

By that point in the meal, I’m sure I would have been satisfied with flavoured whipped cream for dessert, but of course, Blair did not disappoint, and ended the dinner with a bang. The white chocolate pecan brownie had been doused in a duck egg-EnSante wine sabayon and macerated berries – every bite was a textural firework of nutty, tart sweetness.

White Chocolate Brownie

The dinner was a love letter to local food, no question, and I was especially thankful for the opportunity to share a meal with some of the city’s wonderful producers. Shopping at a farmers’ market or even visiting a farm is one thing, but breaking bread is something else altogether. Blair said that another Farmers’ Market Dinner is in the works for March, though patrons would probably get something similar by ordering the chef’s 6-course “Menu Surprise” – a tasting menu that allows the chef to utilize producers that cannot offer great quantities of ingredients.

Thanks to Blair and the staff at Madison’s Grill for a wonderful evening!

Madison’s Grill (in the Union Bank Inn)
10053 Jasper Avenue
(780) 401-2222

Farm Visit: Nature’s Green Acres

On Monday afternoon, I had the privilege of accompanying Chef Sebastian Lysz to meet one of his clients. Since leaving Devlin’s in March due to a carpal tunnel-related ailment, Sebastian has started a culinary consulting company called Relish.

We drove to Viking, just under two hours east of Edmonton to meet Danny and Shannon Ruzicka of Nature’s Green Acres. The Ruzickas have two young children (with another on the way) and have been farming for about six years. They currently raise cattle, pigs and chickens, mostly for direct sale. As a small family farm, they are working with Sebastian to grow their capacity over the next year, and hope to supply several Edmonton restaurants with their products beginning in the fall, in addition to eventually having a weekly presence at the city’s farmers’ markets.

Shannon and Danny Ruzicka (their dog Nash crashed the photo)

All of their animals are hormone free, pasture-raised and grass fed. With the dry weather conditions up until last week, the Ruzickas were certain they would have been forced to fold if rain hadn’t arrived (hay bales are up to $200 each). Although I had read stories about the drought affecting farmers, hearing Shannon and Danny’s story firsthand made it all the more real.

Shannon points out an area of pasture still crunchy and brown

Shannon and Danny were more than happy to provide a tour of the farm – the transparency of it all was so refreshing. We started with the pigs – 20 animals contained within a movable pen, with continuous access to water. The pen is hitched to a truck at least twice a day to be moved, which ensures the pigs have access to fresh greenery.

Moving the pig pen

Seeing the pigs swish their tails around, ecstatic with fresh grass available, I thought back to Joel Salatin’s comment about how animals are happy when they are able to do the things they were naturally meant to do. I had no doubt that these pigs looked happy.

Four month old pigs

Next up were the cattle. Their 31 cattle have a large run of the land, and obviously require the most space of all the animals. As their farm totals 480 acres, just how much land is required to support the grass-fed approach blew my mind – such a contrast to the industrial system of grain-fed CAFOs.

Cattle out in the field

Nature’s Green Acres is the only farm to produce what they call “nouveau beef”. Instead of butchering the cattle at the conventional 18-20 months, they are butchered at a much younger age – 6 months, in fact. The result is very tender beef with naturally less fat.

What are you looking at?

Our last stop was a viewing of an area of their land that archaeologists have said may have been a buffalo jump at some point. With a pool of water at the valley’s base and an uninterrupted view of green, Shannon brought up a novel idea of holding an outdoor barbecue on the site – similar in nature to vineyards hosting meals in the orchard itself. Sebastian and I thought it was a great concept – I will definitely be posting details of the dinner if it happens on my blog.

Potential buffalo jump

Shannon and Danny were beyond hospitable – they did not just invite us onto the farm and into their home, but also prepared a hearty, home-cooked meal for us. Barbecued rib steaks with mustard, lemon juice, garlic and olive oil were served with a sage onion compote alongside mashed potatoes and an apple, avocado and feta salad. The steaks were by far the star of the meal, undeniably tender and flavourful.

Visiting farmers’ markets and speaking with producers firsthand are one thing, but seeing the land that allows it all to happen is something else entirely. Thanks to Shannon and Danny for their hospitality and allowing me a peek into their daily lives – I certainly have a greater appreciation for where my food comes from. And thanks of course to Sebastian for taking me along for the ride!

Watch my blog for updates about when products from Nature’s Green Acres are available in the city – at restaurants and beyond.