Planning big meals for friends and family during the holiday season can be stressful. Its no doubt easier just going to the neighborhood grocery store in a frenzied blur, at the last minute, than it is to go here and there in search of local food.
But with a flourishing food scene in the Treasure Valley, bolstered by lots of farmers markets and locavore grocery stores, like the Boise Co-op and Whole Foods Market, rounding up local foodstuffs has never been easier.
Say goodbye to all those factory-farmed frozen turkeys and corn-fed beef roasts from the Midwest.
Most of the local farms and food artisans around these parts are small-scale operations, reliant on a steady flow of customers who want high-quality, nutritious food raised in a responsible manner.
People seek out local food for different reasons. Some for good health, others for ethical reasons, like how we treat our animals and crops, says Janie Burns, owner of Meadowlark Farm in Nampa.
They mostly want to support local producers, though, and keep the farms in the area thriving.
Burns knows a thing or two about contributing to the local food system. She was a founding vendor at the Capital City Public Market, which started in 1994. She now sells her grass-fed lamb products at the new Boise Farmers Market. Burns holds steadfast to her belief that customers and farmers should interface as much as possible. Its a symbiotic relationship based on trust.
Food writer Lane Morgan nailed this philosophy on the head in his 1992 book, Good Food Guide to Washington and Oregon. Even back then, Morgan understood the importance of the mutual bonds that get created at farmers markets, as evidenced by this excerpt: Successful regional food production must be a true partnership between producer and consumer. The producer must supply what people want, reliably and at a reasonable price, and consumers must appreciateand pay forfreshness and quality.
Statements like these ring true now more than ever, baiting the burning questions that consumers often have about the cost of local food, such as Shouldnt food be cheaper if it travels fewer miles? The answer is unfortunately a resounding no. For example, big-box stores can sell beef roasts for much less because they buy in massive quantities from national distributors, who typically get their beef from large feedlot operations in the Midwest.
Small farms, on the other hand, often have high production costs that must get passed along to the customer in order for the farms to survive. Yet these family-run farms are able to maintain an extraordinary level of care for the animals and the land itself, unlike the sprawling factory farms.
You get what you pay for. Thats really the best way to put it. If you want cheap food, you get cheap food, Burns states.
If you want food thats been raised with care on a smaller scale, then you see the value of it.
Granted, this is a lot to consider when planning a holiday dinner, but most people, not just foodies, want to put forth their best meal possible during the festive season. Burns believes a dish cooked with care, made from food raised with care, is a soothing thought, especially when loved ones are gathered around the table.
MEAT THAT MATTERS
Homestead Natural Foods is a cooperative of three family-run farms in the area that supports responsible ranching practices, such as not using growth hormones, stimulants and antibiotics. These folks take their jobs seriously.
When they [the ranchers] all got together a few years ago, right away they came up with some standards on how the animals should be raised in a healthy manner, explains Elisa Edmunds, who handles sales for Homestead.
The result of this effort has been well received by the shoppers, who flock to the Boise Farmers Market to pick up Homesteads grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork and free-range chickenpulled from large coolers by Edmunds and her cohorts.
Prime rib is always a crowd-pleaser, but Homestead, like most smaller beef producers, has a limited supply of that choice cut this time of year (order no later than the first week of December). Edmunds says there are plenty of beef chuck roasts, pork roasts and whole chickens to go around, and theyre also ideal for big holiday meals.
Greg Morrison, owner of M&N Cattle in the Hagerman Valley, manages a herd of 120 Wagyu cattle, some of which are crossbred with Black Angus placing their meat in the American Kobe beef category.
Kobe beef from Hyogo Prefecture of Japan, cut from pure Wagyu cattle, is prized for its incredible marbling and flavor, due to a stringent diet of dried pasture forage, straw, specialized grains and, yes, rice lager. Morrisons American Kobe beef, raised on a similar diet, is equally flavorful and tender, yet he saves the beer for himself.
He is well aware of the fact that not everyone can afford Kobe-style beef.
The people who buy my products know what is it and what they want, and they dont mind paying the price, Morrison says.
A typical M&N prime rib roast weighs about 20 pounds and fetches a price of $20 per pound. At $400, thats one prime rib cooks surely dont want to mess up (see chef Gary Kucys easy prime rib recipe on page 50). Calling it a specialty item is an understatement.
Its a unique experience to serve this prime cut, thats for sure, adds Jim Birdsall, who takes care of sales and marketing for M&N.
Birdsall says that prime ribs always go fast (order by the end of November) and that those who dont want to pay top dollar can buy other cuts, such as chuck roast and brisket, for much less.
Bring some M&N Kobe beef salami over to Grandmas house on Christmas Eve. This delicious salami (mixed with a little pork) is sold by the pound or in 7-pound chubs.
We only do it for a limited time. People really enjoy it during the holidays, Morrison explains.
He also raises grass-fed lamb on his property near the Snake River. M&N has plenty of legs of lamb, shanks and shoulder roasts to sell this year.
Meadowlark Farm specializes in all-natural lamb products. Janie Burns has scaled back her poultry program, at least for now, because of incredibly high feed costs. But she has enough lamb, like legs, shanks and racks, to make it through the holiday season.
People love buying things that make their house smell great, like a roasted rack of lamb. Its elegant and comforting, Burns says.
She also makes lamb-apple sausage and spicy Moroccan-style sausage called merguez, which would taste wonderful in turkey stuffing.
Speaking of turkeys, Matthews All-Natural Meats, a small farm in Weiser, has plenty of gobblers this year. People can find Seth and Patti Matthews selling their free-range turkeys at the Capital City Public Market and Boise Farmers Market, where they also sell lamb, chicken, eggs and even a few ducks.
Ever considered serving buffalo for the holidays? Well, this healthy meat is readily available thanks to Browns Buffalo Ranch, a small farm based in Nyssa, Ore.
Browns Buffalo is finished for the season at the Boise Farmers Market, but the Brown family also owns Northwest Premium Meats in Nampa, where folks can pick up roasts, ribs, steaks and osso bucco-style roasting meats cut from grass-and-grain-fed bison.
They also sell cured meats like summer sausage, sweet Italian sausage and pastrami-like smoked buffalo roast ideal for holiday meat platters.
We dont do the smoked roast that much anymore, but well make it if people want it. It seems to be popular during the holidays, co-owner Garrett Brown says.
Commercial elk is another game meat that often gets overlooked this time of year. Of course, Idaho hunters, if theyre lucky, have their freezers packed with the wild stuff. But for those who missed out on an elk tag, or just missed their target, Timber Butte Elk Ranch caringly tends a herd of grass-fed Roosevelt elk near Horseshoe Bend.
The popularity of elk has spiked in recent years due to the healthy, low-fat nature of the protein, much like buffalo.
Timber Butte is owned and operated by the Molenaar family, who can be found selling their natural elk products at both Saturday markets in Downtown Boise.
Stop by and score some huckleberry elk sausage for that New Years Day brunch. Timber Butte also makes jalapeno salami and Havarti salami, both of which make great holiday gifts.
Out in the country, near the Ada/Canyon county line, there are two family-run businesses where people can buy impeccably fresh meat.
Vogel Farms Country Market, a small farm and retail shop in Kuna, is a one-stop shopping destination for those looking for natural meat products. They dont have many turkeys to sell this year, though. Evidently a critter wreaked havoc a few months back, killing around 200 young birds. No worries. Vogel has lots of free-range chicken, pastured pork and grass-fed beef.
Nearby, at the corner of Amity and Ten Mile roads in Meridian, Greenfield Custom Meats has supplied locals with fresh-cut beef, pork and lamb for nearly 50 years. They make an excellent smoked ham, but it might be wise to order one in advance as the holidays draw nearer, and the same goes for prime ribs of beef.
While on the topic of ham, Smoky Davis is definitely the go-to place for smoked meat items. This Boise institution has its smokers going every day, turning out hams, turkeys, assorted sausages and Hagerman Valley trout, to name a few. Smoked trout dip, anyone?
WHAT ELSE TO SERVE?
After figuring out the main course, its now time to pick some tasty side dishes to help fill the table. How about potatoes au gratin? Thats surely comforting. Roasted acorn squash soup sounds pretty good, too. Finding locally grown vegetables to make dishes like these is a snap, even as the Valley temperatures dip into the 20s.
Rice Family Farms is an organic operation that grows its produce on a 60-acre spread in Meridian. Currently people can buy potatoes, winter squash, hearty greens, onions and leeks from the Rice family at the Boise Farmers Market.
We just finished harvesting our potatoes. We let them cure out a little bit before we sell them. I expect to have potatoes available through December, says Lee Rice, family patriarch and co-owner of Rice Family Farms.
Rice and his small crew digs up several kinds of spuds each fall, like Yukon Golds, reds, fingerlings and even sweet potatoes. His squash selection this year includes butternut, acorn, sweet dumpling and delicata.
Peaceful Belly is another organic farm that sells squash, greens and root vegetables this time of year. Clay and Josie Erskine grow seasonal produce at their farm in the Dry Creek Valley area of Boise. They show up on Saturdays at the Boise Farmers Market.
Purple Sage Farms, owned and operated by the Sommer family, has supplied area chefs and stores with organic mixed greens and assorted fresh herbs since 1988. Right now, Purple Sage has lots of dried savory herbs, both individually packed and in blends, which will surely enhance any recipe.
Michael Sommer also makes batches of bubbly kombucha, a fermented herbal tea known for its medicinal properties. Its the perfect elixir, in flavors like basil and lemongrass, after too much holiday fun.
Cheese platters are always a hit during the holidays, especially ones composed of local farmstead cheeses.
Rollingstone Chevre in Parma is renowned for its fresh and aged goat cheeses, made from the milk of Saanen goats. Cheesemaker Karen Evans can be found giving out samples at the Boise Farmers Market. Good picks this time of year include the cranberry-walnut torta and orange zest-pecan roundan aromatic aged goat cheese with a waxy rind.
Both of those cheeses have wonderful flavors for the holidays. They work great on cheese trays, Evans says. She also recommends the Brandywine cheese, a fresh chevre (with roasted garlic) wrapped in a brandy-washed grape leaf.
Green Goat Dairy and Blue Sage Farm, two up-and-coming creameries in Shoshone that sell at the Capital City Public Market, turn out a gamut of farmstead cheeses that are also ideal for cheese platters. Try Blue Sages Borrego, a nutty Manchego-style cheese made from sheeps milk.
One surely cant go wrong with cows milk cheeses made by Ballard Family Dairy. An Idaho cheese selection would not be complete without Ballards aged white cheddar and ultra-creamy Danish Pearl.
Farmstead cheeses and freshly baked bread go hand in hand, and Boises bread scene is booming thanks to a handful of artisan bakers. Gastons Bakery, the bakery arm of Le Cafe de Paris, pulls from its scorching ovens every day a large variety of crusty breads, like baguettes and Euro-style rounds sold at both Saturday markets in Boise. They also make cakes and patisserie items such as croissants and sweet, flaky pastries.
New to the artisan scene is Acme Bakeshop, which sells its baguettes, rustic rounds, focaccia and ciabatta at the Boise Farmers Market.
James Patrick Kelly, a restaurant critic at the Idaho Statesman, is the author of the travel guidebooks Moon Idaho and Spotlight Boise. He also teaches journalism at Boise State University.