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The Food Cycle

Local producers and the restaurants that use them

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Chef Dustan Bristol of Brick 29 uses fresh lamb "from tongue to tail" at his Nampa restaurant. Buying three at a time, he can pick out the live ones he wants at Shepherd's Ranch in Nampa, then have them delivered to Northwest Premium Meats just a couple of miles away and butchered to his specifications. "The lambs aren't killed until somebody needs them," he explains.

Bristol uses 100 dozen eggs a month and gets them from Happy Farms in Caldwell. Farm-fresh eggs can be pricey, so he's cut a deal with the farmer to help keep the cost down. In exchange for a discount, Bristol packs up day-old focaccia bread and remnants of butter lettuce for the farmer to feed to his chickens. It's a lovely, natural cycle in which the eggs feed the restaurant and the restaurant feeds the chickens that lay the eggs.

So then, with all that's available locally, why do our mouths water for New Zealand lamb that originates 7,000 miles from home? Why are Idahoans content to eat French goat cheese that has traveled 5,400 miles to reach our tables when we can get remarkable goat cheese from 40 miles away?

Our long-held belief that foreign lamb and exotic cheeses are somehow tastier because they were shipped from another continent has hurt us economically, as a state as well as a nation. The time has come to snap out of it. The grass isn't greener on the other side. On the contrary, the grass is greenest where we water it.

Like Bristol, a number of local chefs and restaurateurs have chosen to water the grass in their own yards, so to speak, by using meats, dairy products, baked goods and produce that are grown or made in close enough proximity for the producer to deliver it himself.

Returning To The Natural Cycle

The ancient, natural cycle in which the land feeds the animals and the animals nourish the land is evident on a large scale in the rural outskirts of Kuna. Located about 20 miles southwest of Boise, Vogel Farms is a 200-acre operation where beef cattle graze on open pasture. Pigs are fed a diet of grain that is grown on the farm. Likewise, Vogel's chickens and holiday turkeys are fed cracked corn that grows onsite. The animals only eat what the Vogels grow for them. In turn, rather than relying on chemical fertilizers, the animals provide manure that is worked back into the ground to keep the soil healthy.

The family also runs a small country store on their property where people can buy cuts of fresh frozen beef, pork and chicken as well as fresh eggs. The Vogels are active with the Kuna farmers market and are a family-run farm that exemplifies exactly what the locavore movement is all about.

Owner Debi Engelhardt-Vogel says the farm saw a 20 percent sales increase last year.

"The movie Food, Inc. helped," she says, referring to the documentary that exposed the routine mistreatment of cows, pigs and chickens raised to feed unsuspecting consumers via our nation's unnatural and industrialized food chain.

"I get really frustrated with politics," says Engelhardt-Vogel about trying to get the government to enact changes to the way food is produced in our nation. "We can't afford to wait for this to come from the top. Changes need to start at the bottom, locally," she says. "We can start doing something good right now, and people will catch on."

This year, the Vogels will grow fiery Scotch bonnet and habanero peppers for Sweetwater's Tropic Zone in downtown Boise, where owner Joe Zimmerman understands that serving Caribbean fare in the middle of Idaho requires looking down local avenues—beyond the usual corporate suppliers—to find the ingredients that his chef's recipes require.

Sweetwater's executive chef Susan Zimmerman obtains alligator for the restaurant's "gator tots" appetizer from Fish Breeders of Idaho in Hagerman, which is located 100 miles southeast of Boise. The alligator meat is also used in Sweetwater's sweet and spicy chili made with tender chunks of Kurobuta pork and Kurizo gourmet Basque pork sausage, both from Snake River Farms, which is headquartered in Boise.

This spring, the restaurant will also use Vogel Farms as a source for fresh eggs and poultry.

"I'm an animal lover," says Susan Zimmerman. "It bothers me to see how animals are treated. We feed them horribly, treat them horribly, then put them to death in the cruelest manner," she says of industrial methods of mass meat production that include forcing chickens to live in unbearably cramped quarters where they squabble and peck at each other. But seeing firsthand the humane manner in which the Vogels treat their farm animals struck a chord with her.

"Now I am trying to find someone raising goats locally," she says.

Champions for Change

Tim Sommer, owner of Purple Sage Farms in Middleton, produces herbs like rosemary, chives, sage and oregano for restaurants like Bittercreek Ale House in downtown Boise. Guido's Pizza uses Purple Sage basil on their oversized New York-style pizzas. Sommer also grows salad greens and edible flowers in the summery months on his organic farm.

But the grower is also trial-oriented in the things he grows.

"There is so much to know about food and what it does," Sommer says. After learning that purslane is the top leafy-green source of omega-3 oils, he grew a batch of the succulent plant and sold it to Bittercreek, where it showed up in garden salads. Unafraid to try new things, Sommer enjoys looking through recipe books and magazines to gain ideas for which plants to grow next. It helps that he has a willing guinea pig in Dave Krick, owner of Bittercreek and Red Feather Lounge in downtown Boise.

"He is a true champion for changing the way we think about food," Sommer says of Krick.

Charles Alpers, owner of Zeppole Bakery, bakes fresh bread for Krick's restaurants. For the breads used at his restaurants, Krick requires Zeppole to use locally sourced whole grain flour made from hard red spring wheat grown 25 miles away at Canyon Bounty Farm in Nampa.

Initially, Alpers was concerned about changing an ingredient in the honey whole wheat bread he baked for Krick's eateries because the bread was already popular with Zeppole customers and selling well. But the addition of the locally grown wheat flour resulted in a richer taste and a better bread overall. Alpers was impressed and is now a regular customer of Canyon Bounty.

"Whenever I need flour, I call [Canyon Bounty owner and farmer] Beth [Rasgorshek]. She mills it and delivers it to me wearing her overalls."

The Other Crops That Idaho Does Best

Idaho produces nearly 30 percent of all potatoes harvested in the country. Yet many people don't realize that the state also offers a rich patchwork of agricultural bounty. According to the Idaho Department of Agriculture, wheat is the second largest revenue producer among all the crops grown in Idaho. The Gem State is also the third-largest milk producer, the third-largest cheese producer and the fifth-largest dry bean producer in the nation.

A number of fruit and vegetable crops thrive in Idaho's four-season climate. Residents don't need to look far for seasonally fresh apples, peaches, pears, pluots, cherries and grapes grown for the table as well as for wine making. The state Department of Agriculture reports that more than 25 percent of the yellow onions in the United States are grown in the Idaho-eastern Oregon area, which includes Southwest Idaho and Malheur County, Ore.

Rollingstone Chevre in Parma has been turning out some of the best goat cheese in the nation since 1988. According to the Rollingstone Web site, Bon Appetit magazine praised Idaho's first goat cheese maker for "producing some of the finest goat cheese outside of France."

The 45-acre farmstead is located in the heart of Idaho's wine country between the Snake and Boise rivers, where temperatures and soil composition are similar to those of Provence, France, which is a region known internationally for producing incredible goat cheeses. For 22 years Rollingstone owners Charles and Karen Evans have used only the milk from their herd of Saanen goats to create fresh and aged cheeses onsite.

While they may not be the largest cheese manufacturer in the state, Rollingstone has developed an impeccable reputation for making creamy chevre, which is dreamy enough in its plain form, but is also shaped into logs and coated with spices and herbs or layered with ingredients like pesto and sun-dried tomatoes to create a delectable torta.

The chef at the upscale Sego Restaurant in Ketchum uses Idaho Goatster from Rollingstone for his delicata squash salad.

"Everyone wants chevre," says Sego's executive chef Taite Pearson. "We went a little deeper." Describing the Goatster as a hard cheese that is similar to the Italian sheep's milk cheese Pecorino, Pearson says the orange wax coating on the uncut wheel of locally made cheese leaves a light orange hue on the rind, creating a nice visual effect on the plate.

"It has a sharp flavor that reflects Pecorino, but it didn't travel [5,700] miles to get here," he says.

Pearson has worked in some of the nation's most prestigious kitchens: Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. He was the director of culinary development for Wolfgang Puck's epicurean empire. As a personal chef to a Hollywood millionaire, Pearson visited 80 different farmers markets around the world in one year. When the well-traveled chef arrived in Ketchum last November, he got on the phone and called 150 local and regional farmers, growers and ranchers to locate the goods now showcased on his menu.

Located 100 miles from Ketchum, Fish Breeders of Idaho in Hagerman supplies Sego Restaurant with sustainably raised sturgeon. Pearson grills the fish and serves it with sun choke capelletti and clams then seasons the dish with chile, lemon and parsley. He uses sturgeon caviar to garnish an appetizer of marinated yellowtail with citrus and chervil.

"The best dried legumes grow right here in Idaho, but I don't see a lot of other chefs putting them on their menus," says Pearson. The Palouse region of northern Idaho and eastern Washington is one of the most important lentil-producing region in the nation. On Sego's menu, Idaho lentils are served alongside pan-roasted arctic char and braised greens.

Locality and sustainability are also important to Chris and Rebecca Kastner, owners of CK's Real Food in Hailey: The couple composts the vegetable scraps from their kitchen and uses the compost to fertilize their onsite garden. The seasonal bounty from that garden is used at the peak of ripeness on the restaurant's menu and is also canned for later use during winter months when snow blankets the frozen ground in the Wood River Valley. It is at the coldest time of year when dishes like CK's slowly simmered ragout of lamb are most effective at warming snow-chilled bodies and easing cabin fever.

The free range lamb shoulder used in CK's ragout comes from Lava Lake Lamb, which is located 28 miles away in the ranching and agricultural town of Carey. Lava Lake's flocks are pastured on 800,000 acres of private property and BLM land that stretches from the Pioneer Mountains to the north all the way down to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve to the south.

Lava Lake ranch manager Cheryl Bennett praises Kastner's ability to use lesser known cuts of meat like shoulder, hind shank and top round to create a signature dish like CK's mouthwatering ragout.

"If I could raise a lamb that was all racks and legs I'd have an easy job of selling it," she says of the desire among chefs to serve only the most popular cuts of lamb. Instead, Bennett hand-picks the restaurants that use Lava Lake Lamb in an effort to broaden the culinary horizons of regional kitchens and customers alike.

Much to Moo About

As the nation's third-largest milk producer, Idaho is home to an awful lot of cows. A mere handful of them are raised by independent dairies like Ballard Family Dairy and Cheese located in Gooding, about 130 miles southeast of Boise. Call the family dairy on a typical weekday and you're likely to reach Stacie Ballard while her hands are busy making a fresh batch of cheese using milk from Ballard's herd of 100 Jersey cows. Stacie and husband Steve Ballard started out producing milk and ice cream with 30 Jerseys in 1996. Recognizing that cheese has a longer shelf life than milk, the couple also learned to make fresh cheese curds. Ballard's Idaho garlic herb cheese curds won second place in the flavored cheese category at the American Cheese Society Contest in July 2006, where there were 157 producers from the United States and Canada.

Today, the Ballard Family Dairy repertoire includes aged white cheddar, baby Swiss, feta and Idaho golden Greek, which is similar to halloumi, a Greek sheep's milk cheese. The fruits of their labor appear on the menus at Bittercreek and Red Feather Lounge, as well as at Sego Restaurant. The regional grocery store chain Winco also carries Ballard Family products.

Just 120 miles from Boise, Bill and Donna Stoltzfus of Cloverleaf Creamery in Buhl have a dairy where 70 cows produce milk and cream that are turned into ice cream and butter.

"I'm an animal lover," says Donna Stoltzfus. "We do a good job with our animals so they live a long, healthy life."

Describing the barn where the cows are protected from night-time predators and harsh winter weather, Donna explains that her animals are treated fairly and have fresh warm straw to lie in. In contrast, she says, an industrially raised dairy cow is rarely given a dry place to lie down or shelter from the elements. Lying in slop and huddled together to ward off the cold, an industrial cow can contract the bacterial infection mastitis, which necessitates the use of antibiotics to cure the sickness and results in a lower quality milk with poor shelf life. Then the milk is subjected to the ultra pasteurization process where "they boil the heck out of it," says Donna. The end product from an industrial dairy is milk with very little flavor or nutritional value.

"We use a cold milk separating process that leaves more flavor in the milk," she says.

Cloverleaf Creamery products are on the menus at College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls and St. Luke's medical center cafeteria in Ketchum. In Boise, Dry Creek Mercantile in Hidden Springs, Boise Co-op and M&W Markets carry Cloverleaf milk in reusable glass bottles that help keep plastic milk jugs out of the local landfill. Bittercreek goes through 12 half-gallon tubs of Cloverleaf butter every week.

Reed's Dairy in Idaho Falls is gaining popularity in the Boise area for home delivery of milk, ice cream and yogurt made from cows that are never treated with the growth hormones to increase milk production. Of Reed's Dairy ice creams, Saveur magazine says, "they are almost supernaturally sumptuous ... The strawberry is the best I've ever tasted."

Kuna residents can find milk from Reed's Dairy inside the country store at Vogel Farms, and Boise diners can find Reed's noteworthy ice cream on the banquet menu at the Doubletree Hotel.

With such a bounty of locally produced ice cream, milk and cheese, as well as lamb, pork, beef, fish, fruits and vegetables available at our door step, the time has indeed come to snap ourselves out of our routine of complacent culinary consumption.