STYLE

Chef behind bustling farm operation turns sights to helping home cooks

12/10/2014 11:40 EST | Updated 02/09/2015 05:59 EST
LONGMONT, Colo. - It was the first deep freeze of the season in Colorado, snow thick underfoot and the temperature in the single digits, when Eric Skokan accidentally left a 35-pound bag of onions in the car.

The chef wasn't about to give up on the red onions he'd grown himself on his sprawling 130 acres in the Rocky Mountain foothills. So instead of storing the onions, as he'd planned, Skokan and his wife Jill thawed them and started a monster batch of French onion soup, the scent turning their small farmhouse into a warm, fragrant respite from the chill.

"We'll have some now and freeze the rest," Skokan said, shrugging off the mouth-watering accident bubbling away on his stove.

Skokan's intrepid approach to food and ability to turn misfortune into a delicious dish help explain why his integrated farm-and-restaurant operation is one of the nation's largest.

He has gone well beyond the small vanity gardens some restaurateurs grow in order to claim a farm-to-table ethos. He raises thousands of animals — steers, pigs, chickens and geese among them — and grows vegetables by the ton to supply his two acclaimed restaurants, Black Cat Bistro and Bramble & Hare.

Even through Colorado's frigid winters, more than 90 per cent of what Skokan serves comes from his farm. And that often means working with misfortune, as in the year he ended up with thousands of pounds of unusable turnips. Rather than discard them, he bought pigs to eat them. And so pork, not turnips, ended up on the menu.

But you don't need quite that level of agricultural ingenuity to appreciate Skokan's just-released first cookbook, "Farm, Fork, Food," a work inspired by his other job — selling produce and meat at a farmers market.

"The book I envisioned writing a while ago was a polished, technical cookbook geared toward chefs," Skokan said. "But over the last seven years, selling produce at the farmers market, we've spoken to hundreds and hundreds of customers who have had more basic questions — 'How do I make a great vinaigrette to go with this arugula?' Or, 'I made pot roast last night and it was miserable, can you help me figure out what went wrong?'

"So I came around to wanting to do a book that was inspired by those conversations, to bridge that gap between the enthusiasm people feel about food they're seeing at the farmers market and success in the kitchen."

The book includes a section on basic building blocks for that success, including how to make homemade vinegar, garlic oil and curry powder, along with six kinds of stock. "I share lots of little tricks along the way, the building blocks of good cooking," Skokan said. "That's ultimately what the book is about it. It's a toolbox."

Throughout the book, Skokan also holds forth on his favourite topic whether he's at the farm, restaurant or farmers market — introducing diners and gardeners to new foods.

Skokan shows off products even some savvy foodies may never have heard of. He explains what to do with green coriander berries or lamb's quarters, a weedy plant with leaves that can be used like baby spinach. He talks about the superiority of Hailstone white radishes in Colorado gardens, and why gardeners shouldn't throw out pea tendrils.

Cooking, he said, can be an exploration just as risky and exciting as planting a new type of vegetable, not knowing how it will turn out, or picking up a strange new item from a farmers market.

"It's a slippery slope," he said with a grin.

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SAUTEED TURKEY WITH PROSCIUTTO, SAGE AND CHANTERELLES

"Taking a cue from the classic Italian dish saltimbocca, this dish is a quick alternative to a whole roasted bird," Eric Skokan writes in his new cookbook, "Farm, Fork, Food." ''The slices of breast cook up quickly and stay very tender. I love to feature our heritage turkeys and our handmade dried hams this way."

Start to finish: 20 minutes

Servings: 4

2 pounds turkey breasts, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices

Sea salt and ground black pepper

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

2 medium yellow onions, julienned

3 cups sliced chanterelle mushrooms (or other mushrooms)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

2 tablespoons white wine

4 sprigs fresh sage

1 cup thinly sliced prosciutto or dried ham

Season the turkey on one side with salt and pepper.

In a large saute pan over high, heat the oil. Add the turkey and saute until lightly browned on the first side, about 3 minutes. Turn the turkey slices and cook 1 minute more. Transfer to a platter to rest.

Return the pan to the heat. Add the onions, mushrooms and butter. Cook until the onions just begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the wine to deglaze the pan, scraping to loosen any stuck bits. Add the sage and prosciutto and cook for 2 minutes. Season with salt.

Divide the turkey slices among 4 warmed plates. Top each with the onions, mushrooms and prosciutto and serve immediately.

Nutrition information per serving: 510 calories; 190 calories from fat (37 per cent of total calories); 21 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 180 mg cholesterol; 10 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 67 g protein; 1640 mg sodium.

(Recipe adapted from Eric Skokan's "Farm, Fork, Food," Kyle Books, 2014)

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