Monday, August 10, 2009

eG Heartland Gathering: Brunch is Bountiful

The final official event of the 2009 eGullet Heartland Gathering was a brunch hosted at Crum Farm, just west of Kansas City near Bonner Springs, KS. I was told ahead of time that it was going to be an outdoor event and I was prepared for the worst: hot, humid weather or even worse, rain. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to walk out of my hotel room at the Best Western to discover bright, sunny skies with a high in the lower 80's. My roommate and I checked out of our room, packed up my car and headed westbound on I-70. The funny thing about Missouri and the little bit of Kansas that I did drive through was that much of the landscape reminded me of rural Ohio. That is, until we got to the actual road that the farm was on. Suddenly it looked like we stepped out into the middle of nowhere as the paved road disappeared and a dirt road replaced it.

Another half-mile or so and we found the street address for Crum Farm (16211 Stillwell Road, Bonner Springs, KS 66012). Having no other identifying mark than the "16211" on the mailbox, we threw caution to the wind and turned into the driveway. As soon as we rounded the corner, we breathed a sigh of relief as we realized that it was completely obvious we were at the right place. Besides a wonderfully quaint and beautiful house and surroundings, we also noticed some of our compatriots from the previous night's dinner. A young man helped us find a place to park and once I got outside of my car, I was simply amazed at the luscious beauty that surrounded me.

Before I get into the food, I wanted to spend just a little time to try and give you some perspective on where we would be brunching this morning. Our environment truly added as much to the experience as the delicious food we would be served.

Here is a shot of the front of the house at the top of the driveway:

The entire property is covered by trees so there are lots of places to find a cool area to sit during a warm day. However, today the temperature was quite moderate and there was a lovely cool breeze blowing.

Right across the way from the front of the house were the chef and his assistants actually cooking our meal on an open fire:

The next shot is of the neighbor's wandering dog, but he really felt like he belonged in this idyllic setting:

He was definitely an attention whore and allowed nearly anyone who wanted to pet him to do so.

Walking around to the right side of the house we were greeted with a small porch that contained cups, coffee, tea, and water. Right across from the porch was this little mound of Earth:

The first thing that popped into my head was, "Boy, somebody sure is a fan of The Lord of The Rings!" Actually, it was pointed out to me after voicing this opinion, that this is an honest-to-goodness root cellar. While we were invited to go in and check it out (and some did), I never managed to get around to it as I continued to wander around the farm.

This next shot is the back of the house. Notice the many perfect spots for sitting around and losing one's self in the lost art of small talk:

It was on the back porch I discovered another farm resident, the mouse chaser:

Unlike his canine partner out in front of the house, this one preferred his solitude and ran any time you got close to him.

One of the things that struck me from the moment I entered the driveway was the absolute beauty and number of simply vibrant colors that surrounded me. Sitting on the porch where our refreshments were being served was a simple aluminum can filled with a most vibrant floral arrangement:

At the back part of the grassy area behind the house was this cute little shack. I'm not sure what it is being used for, but it was kind of quaint and colorful and I thought I'd take a shot:

The actual fields are directly behind this structure. To the right of the shack was a vinyl covered hothouse where tomatoes and cucumbers were ripening on the vine:

And between the shack and the hothouse were several racks of seedlings and herbs, ready for planting or harvest:

As I wandered around the back yard, I came across cluster after cluster of just amazing colors. Here are a couple of shots from some of the flowering plants:

Alright, gentle reader, I think I've given you a pretty good mental picture of the Garden of Eden we'd be enjoying our brunch in; now I think it's time to get serious and start talking about the food. Inside the side porch where refreshments were being doled out, a chalkboard listed the wonderful brunch dishes we would be sampling today:

Oh, man, were we in for a TREAT!

At the back of the house and to the left of the root cellar were pre-set tables and quilt covered haybales ready for the brunch to begin:

These were perfectly set up in the shade with just the tiniest specs of sunlight peeking through the branches. Nestled in the shade with the gentle breeze blowing by made this the absolute perfect place to enjoy this last meal with friends and colleagues.

On each table was another amazing assortment freshly-cut flowers:

As we began to congregate around the tables, the chef and his assistants started assembling platters on the table with the blue and white checkered tablecloth behind where we were siting:

In true foodie fashion, a line of people formed and started walking down the buffet line; not to sample the food, but to take photo after photo of the most sumptuous looking food. I had to chuckle at that one and I even made a joke to the chef at the opposite end of the table, "Only with foodies." He laughed.

So, walk with me now, gentle reader, as we explore the absolutely amazing brunch that was prepared for us today. First up, the challah French Toast:

And to go with the French Toast, a simple wild blackberry and peach compote made with blackberries picked right at the farm:

Next up was a delicacy that wasn't listed on the actual menu, but it turns out that our chef had done some pastry work and decided to whip together some Kouign Amann:

These were INCREDIBLY good. And unfortunately incredibly limited as they went fast.

Next up was the farm-raised Kennebee potato wedges fried in pork fat and served with a heirloom tomato catsup made from tomatoes harvested right there on the farm:

To the left of the potatoes was a coffee-braised pork belly served with poached eggs:

The only real problem with this dish was that a spoon was provided to serve yourself. Unfortunately, many an egg yolk was broken as someone attempted to scoop out a portion for their plate.

To keep the pork fat theme going, the next dish on the buffet line was a heirloom tomato salad dressed with a homemade mayonnaise using pork fat as the oil component:

After that was a roasted eggplant served on homemade zucchini bread and topped with just a little bit of freshly made lardo:

At the end of the table were a duo of bowls. To the left we have long-simmered trotters (again with the pork, spotting a trend?) with some locally harvested honey and other spices and to the right is a bowl of roasted vegetables served with browned butter and herbs:

The last dish to make it to our table was a large bowl of Humita with slowly cooked 55 minute eggs:

Needless to say, I had to make two trips. On the first trip I managed to grab seven of the nine dishes, and even then they were just bite-sized samples:

I have to say that hands down, this was perhaps one of the most marvelous plates of food I have ever had the privilege to eat. This just reinforces my belief that if you start with incredibly good ingredients, you don't have to do a whole lot to them to make them taste great. Starting at noon and going clockwise you have the challah French Toast with berry compote, the Kouign Amann, the Kennebee potatoes with the heirloom tomato catsup, the humita with 55 minute eggs, the heirloom tomato salad with pork fat mayonnaise, the grilled eggplant on zucchini bread with lardo and right in the middle you have the coffee-braised pork belly with a poached egg. A special shout out goes to the Kouign Amann (which was the most stunning pastry I've had in a long while) and the Kennebee potato wedges with heirloom tomato catsup. Honestly, the potatoes served more as a vehicle to get the catsup to your mouth than anything else.

On my second trip, I tried a few repeats of some of the contenders during my first trip along with the other two items on the table I had yet to try:

At the bottom of the photo are the grilled vegetables with brown butter and herbs and to the left of that are the pig trotters with honey and spices. While both of these were wonderful flavor-wise, I wasn't a huge fan of the consistency of the trotters. To be honest, they were kind of chewy. However, I do think they were cooked correctly and several others at my table absolutely loved them. I think that pig trotters might just be one of those foods that I'll try if they are available, but wouldn't necessarily have a craving for them.

As a wonderful parting gift, one of the owners of the farm passed out these small plastic bags of homemade granola:

Even though they were sealed, you could still smell the assortment of spices through the plastic. I wasn't sure when I'd be eating this, but I was certainly looking forward to it.

With our meal now complete and a seven hour drive ahead of me to my stopping point in Terre Haute, IN, I picked up my bag of granola, thanked our hosts and this year's organizers (Aaron and Judy) and did the rounds hugging old friends and new before climbing into my car and driving off. I felt like I had just experienced the perfect meal and if I had ever doubted it was worth driving 24 hours round trip just to be in Kansas City for 36 hours, those thoughts were now exorcised. This meal had not only fed my gut, but nourished my soul and will sustain me another year until the next Heartland Gathering, wherever it may happen to be.

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