26 July 2015

Recreating the Experience with a Chilled Zucchini Soup with Chèvre and Herb Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

The scene is set at God's Mountain

Have you ever had a life changing moment where you are so overwhelmed on many different levels of emotion that it is hard to put it down in words? I have experienced this only rarely in my lifetime. When discovering the tiny island of Kea in Greece through the eyes of Aglaia and Costas of Keartisanal, climbing up pinnacles of rocks to ancient monasteries in the Meteora region in Greece, driving along the Cinque de Terre in Italy at 18, staying at a converted convent on the Coast of the Gods in Tropea, Italy with an active volcano as my view across the expanse of a cerulean blue sea. These are life changing moments than can never be forgotten.

However, life changing moments can also be found in the simple things in life. When I attend any type of event I have always taken hundreds, if not thousands, of photos.  My third eye is my camera lens and through it I see the world through rose coloured glasses. Long before blogging I was taking photos of the food at my table while on even the smallest of adventures. There’s something so evocative to me about pictures of food and the power they have to vividly remind me of mouth-watering meals and moments that I’ve had on my travels. I can look at my culinary photos and remember exactly where I was, the scent of the dish placed in front of me, and the way the flavours opened up on my palate. In many cases the taste or smell of something in my past is capable of painting a picture with richer, deeper brush strokes than any snapshot in my photo album. In some small way I hope today to take you along for a few moments on this journey hand in hand.

I remember my first  long table dinner in San Francisco at the now defunct Foodbuzz Festival hosted by Outstanding in the Field. They are the grandaddy by which all long table dinners must live up to, not only in my own mind but by the creation of the ultimate experience. Imagine two hundred and fifty diners sipping on premium California wines and a multi-course gastronomic venture. We were seated at candlelit tables which snaked through a warehouse somewhere in San Francisco.  Each season I am privileged to attend numerous long table dinners here in my beloved home at a myriad of venues throughout the Okanagan valley. The experience greets me like an old friend that I have been longing to see after emerging from my cocoon come Spring.

Joy Road Catering

What are long table dinners you ask? For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is exactly what it sounds like. A multiple course dinner shared with friends (or complete strangers) served at one long communal table. The meals can take place in a rural setting often in the farmers fields themselves, amongst the vines at a local vineyard, or as in the case above in a warehouse. The setting is the catalyst to the exciting prospect of dining on the freshest food possible while supporting the local chefs and farm community in the simplest way possible. By enjoying all they have to offer. Sharing this experience with old and new friends, it simply does not get any better than that!!

You can paraphrase a farm to table dinner  as 'farm to fork', ' farm to plate', 'earth to table', 'the hundred mile diet', 'locavore' or however your hosts care to entice you.  The farm-to-table buzzword is well-established now at restaurants and venues across the country, and many chefs are finding ways to thoroughly integrate the locavore ethic into their kitchens. The farm-to-table movement will open your eyes and delight all your senses when you have the opportunity to experience it (and if it is done well). 

So far this year I have been to numerous long table dinners throughout the valley,  Whenever I have sat down to write about these experiences I have been overwhelmed by where to begin. How do you convey the joy, laughter, jaw-dropping food and kaleidoscope of home grown produce all rolled into one. The clinking of sparkling glasses, the special touches... I have decided that it's simply not possible to convey all these emotions so I offer you a condensed version of my experiences below through photos and narrative. 

Long table is set at God's Mountain
Every story has a beginning and our fairytale began in late Spring. It began here under a blanket of stars, surrounded by twinkling lights and warm smiles at God's Mountain in Penticton with Joy Road Catering. My dinner companions 2 couples from Wales exploring British Columbia on a once in a life time journey. My hosts the talented chefs Dana Ewart and Cam Smith of Joy Road Catering. The stage is set. Close your eyes and envision one long communal table, laid out under the stars, on a secluded bluff overlooking one of the oldest Riesling vineyards in the valley and Skaha Lake as the shimmering backdrop. In the background, a rambling, whitewashed bed and breakfast full of nooks, crannies, roofless rooms and stuffed armadillos that could be taken straight out of my photo album of a timeless trip to Santorini.
Seasonal bounty at God's Mountain by Joy Road Catering; Joy Road Catering's signature charcuterie boards

Cam and Dana of Joy Road Catering are just some of the people who have adopted this philosophy to get back to the land here in the Okanagan Valley with their "Cuisine du Terroir" dinners. Cameron and Dana say, "The most direct translation of this concept is “food of the earth”. Terroir is a French term used to describe the unique flavour imparted to food or drink by a region’s specific climate, soil, weather and growing conditions. We chose “Cuisine du Terroir” as our concept for Joy Road Catering because to us it means food with a strong sense of place."

Ravioli al Uovo with Spring Greens Garlic Butter, Chives and Chervil and Topped with Spot Prawns; Roasted Spanish-Style Olives; Milk Braised Pork

On the table, olive fougasse and Blue Mountain Winery Brut soon to be followed by Roasted Spanish Style Olives. You can't imagine my excitement when the staff brought bricks to the table. Yes bricks. I then knew that Joy Road Caterings signature seasonal charcuterie boards would be set on the table and overloaded with tastings of their house cured charcuterie and this time radishes with butter and Maldon salt and Asparagus and Hazelnut Pesto Bruschetta with Proscuitto. Even this presentation alone is enough to get me excited by what Cam and Dana bring to the table at their dinners held every Sunday and Thursday during the season. The highlight for me was the Raviolo al Uovo below made with duck egg fresh pasta, spring green garlic butter, chives and chervil and roasted spot prawns. The flavours blended so perfectly it is a dish that is unforgettable.

The setting; Sense of Place; Creme Fraiche Panna Cotta with Strawberries and Wild Rose Syrup

This was followed by platters served family style groaning with the edible bounty of the region. Our plates were piled high with Asparagus roasted in the wood oven with salt cured egg yolk; Wild Nettle Polenta and a salad from farmer Jordan. This was topped off with milk braised pork that literally fell off your fork, with a side of baby carrots with hung yogurt and sumac (I asked for seconds).  And for dessert (since this is a food blog and it is all about food), Creme fraiche panna cotta with strawberries and wild rose syrup.. Sigh....
The end; Skaha Lake
These unique multi-coursed dinners unite curious diners, local epicureans and culinary tourists alike. Nowhere is it felt more passionately than at our second venue last month at Sunshine Farm surrounded by old and new friends and the warm, inviting smiles of the Alcock family. Where better to have a farm fresh meal than on a real working farm for an "Earth to Table" dinner. To many the Alcocks are not just farmers but they are family. 

Our vehicle registered 40 degrees Celcius when my good friends Dina of Olive Oil and Lemons and Laura of The Culinary Travel Guide pulled into this family farm parking lot to partake in their "Earth to Table" dinner which created quite the buzz and quickly sold out. We have had a sweltering heat wave for over 5 weeks now but nowhere had I signed up for an outdoor venue on the hottest day so far this summer. Any trepidation soon dissipated since the Alcock family had installed misters to cool our heat weary bones and greeted us with hugs and thank you's and thirst-quenching raspberry chocolate mint popsicles and a never ending supply of ice water and cool drinks. This amazing and heartwarming family just thought of everything to make our experience a once in a lifetime memory.
The scene is set at Sunshine Farm; Raspberry Chocolate Mint Popsicle; Our menu
Rustic elegance and abundant charm provided an ideal setting for our encounter with the finest, freshest culinary presentations from Mona Johannson who worked magic with amazing heritage varietals picked only moments before in their fields. The simplicity of life in this bucolic setting inspired a simple and yet stunning presentation where everything on the table except the olive oil and dairy were produced right on the farm. Honey, fruit, eggs and poultry as well as over the top heirloom varieties including vegetables, herbs and over 150 varieties of tomatoes graced each stunning course in some way.

Because their gardens are a stones throw away, the chef can pick produce and local products at just the right moment to create culinary masterpieces at peak perfection for catered events and outstanding dinners such as what we experienced at their "earth to table" dinner.

Woodfire oven at Sunshine Farms

Sunshine Farm is nestled in the hills of South East Kelowna on just a little over 12 acres. It has been owned and operated by Jon and Sher Alcock since 1987 when they decided to live their dream and create a life for themselves and their growing family on a sustainable farm that is a valuable part of this community.  They specialise in Certified Organic rare, heirloom, and open pollinated vegetables, herbs and some fruits all of which they provide to local restaurants and bring to the farmers market. Chances are that if you go to one of our local farm-to-table restaurants in the city their unique signature would be felt on the menu. 
Jon with Organic Chickens with Honey Apricot Glaze; Ravioli with Pea Shoots and Pesto; Heirloom carrot Terrine Board
Here in the Okanagan Valley, farmers and chefs take pride in their commitment to quality and share a passion for locally grown food and nowhere is it more evident when Jon speaks of his love for his land. His passion and knowledge shone through while explaining some of the more unusual offerings and the history behind them. Have you heard of Egyptian Walking Onions? Anyone? Regardless of the farm’s size, there is a lot to be done especially with the strain of the heat. Through our conversation I was struck with how farming really not only takes technical know-how but it takes a lot of courage. As a vocation it is certainly not for the faint of heart.

To echo Jon’s sentiments, it really takes all of us to support the local agricultural community of which we’ve grown so fond of in the last years of ‘eating local’ and we need to continue seeking the closest connection possible with our food producers.  Enjoying a farm-to-earth dinner truly is the quintessential essence of that spirit and should not be missed!

Roasted Heritage Potatoes;Egyptian Walking Onions; Wood Fired Flatbread with Fava Bean Puree, Heritage Potatoes, Rosemary and Pecorino

The evening started with Wood Fired Flat Bread baked at high temperatures in their wood fire oven and lavishly spread with a fava bean puree, heritage potatoes, rosemary and Pecorino.  It takes about 90 seconds for their pizzas to cook! Of note their wild sourdough was started in 2011 from their Marquis wheat which is also grown right on their property and then ground in their glorious farm kitchen. This was followed by ravioli with pea shoots and pesto.

Next a kaleidoscope of colour and flavour with a mixture of freshly plucked Spring greens and roasted baby beets served with an Heirloom Carrot Terrine. Local goat cheese, honeyed walnuts and a farm apricot vinaigrette made this dish a highlight for me. The honey is harvested from their bees who have the added benefit of buzzing carelessly amongst the many heritage varietals of fruits, vegetables, and flowers grown on their farm.

Heirloom Carrot Terrine 

We were treated to beautifully burnished farm-raised Organic Chickens with a Honey Apricot Glaze served on a bed of Salsify Puree. Salsify is a vegetable regaled in Europe and it is no surprise that it is grown on the farm as well. These were followed by huge platters served family style...Fire Roasted Heritage Potatoes, Rainbow Carrots and Egyptian Walking Onions which was one of the evening’s favourite dishes proving sometimes simple, straight-forward food with whole ingredients is the best. And for dessert Buttermilk Shortcake with Sour Cherry Elderflower Ice Cream and Dark Chocolate Ganache. This truly was one of the best long table dinners I have ever attended from the extra touches to the exceptional offerings cooked with love. They really make you feel like one of the family and I'd like to think we are kindred spirits (although I am the condo living member of the family).

This special place not only is a sustainable farm but is the setting for Vocational Development Opportunities for challenged adults in the community. The setting is diverse, offering a chance to learn about equipment operation, woodworking, plant identification, seed collection, harvesting, labelling, math skills, weighing, and packaging.

Flowers from the farm

As the sun was setting and it cooled down a group of culinary enthusiasts toured the gardens while in true food explorer style we were ushered into the kitchen which is truly the centre of their home. A myriad of pots and pans, the serious workhorses of the kitchen, lined the walls as well as collections from their many travels offering a serene and therapeutic work environment. Mona offers cooking classes so I can see myself  puttering around in their  kitchen again someday.

Quail's Gate Winery
Farm to table dining has certainly swept the nation, but these locations in the Okanagan Valley with their sweeping vistas and world class cuisine take the idea of farm to table to the extreme. My final destination for today is Quails’ Gate Winery which opened in 1989 as one of Canada’s oldest and most beloved wineries.  The philosophy of wine making at Quails’ Gate is based on quality over quantity. 

The Stewart family, owners of Quails' Gate, are pioneers of the Okanagan wine region, and their vision for fine dining as part of the winery experience has come full circle during the past decade with the success of their onsite dining experience Old Vines Restaurant. Not only is their wine world renowned but they have attracted the attention of food lovers who appreciate the unique blending of food and wine produced in the same geographical region. A few times a year they offer the long table dinner experience. 

The scene is set at Quails Gate Winery

As a special treat for my birthday I chose to spend the evening at a long table dinner amongst the vines for their semi annual "Dinner in the Vineyard." A gastronomic feast awaited us. My table guests were a sweet newlywed couple on their honeymoon, and the host for the evening Bill Wightman and his fiancee and daughter and 40 other eager food aficionados. We celebrated birthdays, weddings, and engagements with complimentary "champagne." Thanks Bill!!! The dinner is a great opportunity to experience the restaurant's cuisine de terroir with new found friends. Each dish on the menu was designed to complement the diversity and styles of the Quails' Gate wine pairings. 

As usual I arrived early and was ushered out to their deck and into the club lounge area. My daughter called to wish me a happy birthday as I was sitting there overlooking the sweeping vineyards.  I could see that diners were gathering so I ventured down and was offered another glass of their 2014 rose, Cache Creek Beef Tartare, Heirloom Sungold Tomatoes with Basil and Pesto, and crispy Halibut Brandade while "schmoozing" with 40 new found friends all with a single goal for the evening. The scene was set with a long table draped in white crisp linens and topped with sparkling crystal soon to be filled with last years Quails Gate wines. White plates and silverware were set, table decorations arranged from candles to flowers. Our senses were heightened and we were more than ready for a highly anticipated evening. Candles flickered and nature created the backdrop, a kaleidoscope show of colour in the fading light as a sea of revellers loomed before us. It was a beautiful evening with gentle breezes amongst the vines with a panoramic view of Lake Okanagan competing for the centre of attention. 

Halibut Brandade; Chilled Puree of Local Summer Squash with Crisp Squash Blossoms ands Local Chèvre; Summer Salad with Wild Arugula, Fennel and Apricots with Coppa, Radish and Apricot Vinaigrette

We were ushered to the table with the strains of angelic music for a Chilled Puree of Local Summer Squash with Crisp Squash Blossoms with Local Chèvre and Tarragon Oil paired with their 2014 Chasselas. The Stewart family, owners of Quails' Gate winery celebrated their milestone 25 years in 2014 but they have been successfully growing vines since the 1950s, which means they know vines and vineyards. In total, they farm over 180 acres of vineyards. In addition, brother Ben Stewart introduced Dijon clone vines (from Burgundy, France) to Canadian soil, which is why Quails' Gate is home to some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the country.

Each section was then served very large platters of Summer Salad with Wild Arugula, Fennel, Apricots, Artisanal Coppa, Radish and Apricot Vinaigrette to pass and share and a pouring of their 2014 Orchard Block Guwurztraminer. The artistry of handling the bowl lent itself to more "meet-your-neighbour chat" as it worked much better to help each other out in serving. This was followed by more platters of Haida Gwai Chinook Salmon with Raspberry and Grilled Vegetables. For dessert a birthday girl could not be happier with a myriad of small bites including two things I could never pass by if they were offered on a menu…Lemon Meringue pie and creme brûlée. By this time the sun was beginning a slow descent, illuminating the vines. A balmy, heavenly breeze danced around the diners carrying the laughter into the night.

The table; Haida Gwai Chinook Salmon with Raspberry; Roasted Potatoes and Vegetables

Each of these experiences above were special in their own way. It is about enjoying someone else’s idea of what a good meal should be. We trust that the menu will transport us. We trust that whoever sits next to us, we will at least have good food in common. And from there, things only get better!! We’re not rushed, because the whole evening is devoted to the experience. No one is waiting to take our seats. The emphasis is on enjoying what we’re being treated to, to opening up our minds to new flavours, and to new friends who fast become kindred spirits. I always enjoy myself whether it is with my friends or if I go solo and make new friends. Given the groans, moans, and laughter I think I can say the same for my dinner companions on all occasions. A long table dinner is one of the experiences every serious diner, and every diner who visits the valley should experience.

There is a passion in the producers here and I have always been impressed by simple farm dinners, more impressed than with the food you get in three-star restaurants in Europe, which in my humble opinion simple don't scratch the surface or touch your soul like food that's from the field and on to your plate. There are still long table dinners coming up for me next month. A long table dinner at Mission Hill WinerySummerdine to support local young women chefs, East Indian fair at Poppadoms and still more to come for the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival. 
Desserts 1) Ice Cream with Rosemary; 2) Truffles and Seasonal Fruit Tarts; Creme Brûlée; Lemon Meringue Tarts
The life changing moments that I mentioned earlier are also reflected in the food we are fortunate enough to experience. Each of these dinners are outstanding as a whole but there is always one dish that moves its way into your heart forever. For me the complexity of the Raviolo al Uovo at Gods Mountain made with duck egg fresh pasta, spring green garlic butter and herbs; the Heirloom Carrot Terrine with local goat cheese, honeyed walnuts and a farm apricot vinaigrette at Sunshine Farms are food memories not soon forgotten. 

My good friend Barb heard my plea for local farmers to bring in squash blossoms at the markets and offered up her zucchini blossoms. As a reward for ourselves I ventured into her kitchen and recreated a Greek-inspired menu with spanakopita and dolmades to start followed by Patates Riganates, Spiralized Greek Salad, and Kolokythokeftedes. The Chilled Puree of Local Summer Squash with Crisp Squash Blossoms with Local Chèvre and Tarragon Oil from the dinner in the vineyard at Quails Gate Winery was the inspiration for the chilled soup below. Sometimes I find a dish that I know I can try and emulate in my home kitchen. I am not a restaurant caliber cook and many dishes are both complex in flavour and preparation to get the desired effect. 

This dish brought back memories of  stuffing freshly plucked zucchini blossoms with feta and mint on the island of Kea in Greece in Aglaia's kitchen. I loved this dish served at the vineyard dinner with the combination of the chilled soup and the warm goat cheese stuffed blossoms. A dish not soon forgotten. You will find my rendition below.

Valerie's Version of Chilled Roasted Zucchini Soup with Chèvre Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms
 **Chilled Zucchini Soup with Chèvre Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms**

1 large zucchini (approximately 6 cups in 1/4-inch slices)
2 large cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 sweet onion, chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup lightly packed fresh herbs (consider a combination of what you have available, such as: parsley, mint, garlic chives, oregano, marjoram)
2 cups chicken stock
½ teaspoon lemon zest
juice of 1 lemon lemon
½ cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Chèvre Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms
Basil Oil (if desired)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat olive oil in a 10-12" heavy bottomed oven proof skillet. Add zucchini, onions and garlic. Place pan in the preheated oven for 20-30  minutes or until browned and soft.

Remove zucchini from the oven. Add chicken stock to the pan and simmer. Add herbs, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Add yogurt. Using your immersion blender blend soup until it is smooth. If you wish you could also use a blender for the task and puree in batches if necessary.

Place in the fridge to chill. Adjust seasonings before serving. The soup is delicious ice cold, slightly chilled or hot. It can be made a day in advance to allow the flavours to blend.

To serve, garnish with basil oil (if desired), chopped chives, edible flowers, and stuffed zucchini blossoms. The recipe can be found here, but use whatever herbs you have on hand.

Serves 4, or 8 as an appetizer

You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author/owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison.
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  1. You write.. exquisitely.
    The way you describe the food..the people..the gorgeous region..just top notch.
    I love all the tables..the views..the presentations.
    I admire that you do all these things and take such pleasure in conveying your joy and appreciation for everything.
    That carrot terrine..right away on the long board w/ the lily I thought wow.

    1. It was my first time trying a day lily but the carrot terrine, the zucchini soup, and the ravioli un uvolo were all highlights.

  2. Fantastic food and place! Your chilled soup looks amazing and sounds hyper classy.



  3. Utterly divine!!! The colors, the light, and flavors - all of them are sheer magic. :-)

  4. I don't think I've ever seen a more gorgeous setting and beautiful array of food and friends. I wouldn't want the day to end...

  5. beautiful images! i love the idea of a stuffed squash blossom, though i've never been bold enough to try it myself!

  6. This is a great experience.

  7. What a wonderful post, Val! I'm glad I was there to share one of these memorable meals with you. I too will remember that heirloom carrot terrine, possibly forever. It's one of those unexpected dishes that makes every one of your senses sing. Summer in the Okanagan is just the best.


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