Last night, I ate three dinners.
An Atlantic rockfish filet paired with roasted apples and leeks, smothered in an apple curry sauce, was followed by veal and black garlic risotto with wild mushrooms, truffle butter and big shavings of Parmesan cheese. Next came a boneless leg of lamb, cooked sous vide until perfectly medium rare, served on a bed of creamy polenta and topped with a cranberry fig compote. My meals were topped off by roasted pumpkin pudding with caramel sauce and ginger whipped cream.
None of my pants fits anymore, and my skirts are all tight around the middle. But that’s not the point. The restaurant that served these three dinners (it called them “courses,” but trust me … these things were full-fledged meals) is a neighborhood joint.
When my family moved to Brookeville, MD, 10 years ago, we went to Ricciuti’s (http://www.ricciutis.com/) for pizzas and calzones. It still serves those items (plus a mean plate of spaghetti and meatballs), but the restaurant today is better known for carving its own space in the sustainable, seasonal, local farm movement sweeping the country.
Chef-owner James Ricciuti decided a few years ago to start serving local, organic fare and to do business with people committed to “responsible ecological business practices.” He even made his decision part of the restaurant’s mission statement: “The true value of food is found in the values of those who raise, farm and catch the food we eat.”
So last night, our apples came from an orchard in Westminster, MD; our squash from a farm literally down the road. Our veal was from St. Brigid’s Farm in Kennedyville, MD, and our lamb was from the Shenandoah Valley. The animals that became our dinner were raised on grasses and weren’t pumped full of antibiotics.
My husband and I got to eat James’ yummy meals (and celebrate my husband’s birthday!) as part of Ricciuti’s “Food & Wine Uncorked” event. For $75 apiece, James cooked each course for us while a representative from the Yalumba winery in Australia paired them with wines. (Another reason my clothes are shrinking.)
As he cooked, James told us how he was making each dish and where he bought his ingredients. He also shared some “chef-y” secrets:
“If your food is bland, you haven’t used enough salt.”
There were some gasps.
“No, really. When you’re cooking with fresh ingredients, you don’t have to worry about salt like you do with processed food. If you use too much salt, you’ll know it. It won’t taste good, and you won’t be able to eat it.”
He goes on to talk about how the farms he does business with treat their animals. No genetically modified feed. No antibiotics. No crowded feedlots.
But he isn’t a fanatic. Leeks are hard to come by locally, so ours hailed from outside the immediate area (maybe even outside the country). Maryland rockfish wasn’t available yesterday morning, so we ate rockfish from farther north. And our apples weren’t organic. (But they were grown sustainably, without genetically modified insecticides.)
Why is all this important? I mean, I have friends who think we’re crazy for buying organic meat, locally grown vegetables and organic dairy products. I try to explain that we like the idea of keeping the food chain as clean as possible – we don’t want to eat from a cow that has been inoculated with growth hormones or antibiotics. We like the karma of knowing the animal that’s providing our dinner lived a happy life – roaming fields and eating what God created it to eat. And we like the economics of supporting a local business that supports local businesses.
There’s a lot in the national press these days about small family farms and the restaurants that celebrate them. One of those restaurants is just down the street from me.
Hats off, Mr. Riccuiti. My waistline may not thank you, but my community and my family do.