Food for Thought: A U of M partnership yields some exotic fruits

Photo by Becca Dilley

Photo by Becca Dilley

Across the country, campus dining tends to be where mediocre food comes to a bad end, ladled from plastic bags into heating vessels and then into troughs where it is consumed with a mixture of indifference and resentment. “Banquets” are sorry affairs, dominated by overcooked vegetables, cloying desserts, and rubber chicken entrees more appropriate to a 1982-era small town supper club than an institution of higher learning.

And yet: at the University of Minnesota Campus Club, the kitchen pulses with the constant ebb and flow of seasonal, local produce and pasture-grazed meat. Chef Beth Jones, captain of the culinary ship there since 2006, doesn’t draw up lists of recipes and then order food accordingly—she grabs what’s freshest and then lets the ingredients (and the creativity of her cooks) drive the process.

When Jones started her tenure, the Campus Club was much closer to the old model of collegiate dining. “They were doing very little food from scratch, no farm-to-table—nothing,” she says. (Then, as now, the Campus Club was a membership organization, but it now opens its doors frequently to the public for happy hours, tasting menus, and more.)

Chef Beth Jones // Photo by Becca Dilley

Chef Beth Jones // Photo by Becca Dilley

As she set out to transform the restaurant, Jones was blessed with two assets beyond her own training in seasonal, local cooking at Lucia’s in Minneapolis. First, an open-minded board of directors that oversees the nonprofit Campus Club, which is independent of University Dining Services. And second, a team of veteran cooks who had been in place for years. “I walked in to a staff of almost exclusively Ecuadorians who have been doing what the previous chefs wanted, which was fine, but they all were good cooks at home on their own,” Jones says. “All it took really was me to show them a few tricks and they just kind of got it.”

All of this—talented cooks, a young ambitious head chef, access to produce from the University of Minnesota’s student-run farm known as Cornercopia—set the stage for author Michael Pollan’s visit to campus in 2007.

“That actually started the overhaul of the Campus Club,” Jones says. “I had been there several months and I had started doing a lot of stuff, but I basically said: ‘We can’t serve this crap to Michael Pollan.’” 

Jones still has the memo she drew up for campus farm manager Courtney Tchida in response to the crisis at hand. “It was: ‘Can you grow these things for me?’ And she was like: ‘Sure, we’ll try!’ That’s the great thing about this place—you guys will try anything.”

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As we talk to Jones and Tchida, we are standing in Cornercopia, a joint project of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the University’s horticulture department. It’s located a stone’s throw from the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and is a place where anything can and probably will be tried. Just beyond the field in which we stand is the 5.7-acre farm complete with fruit trees, squash, herbs, edible flowers, and Freedom Ranger chickens grazing from within their mobile cages (charmingly called “chicken tractors”).

The fields of Cornucopia on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul Campus // Photo by Becca Dilley

The fields of Cornercopia on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul Campus // Photo by Becca Dilley

In total, Cornercopia grows around 130 different crops. “Probably our biggest crops are tomatoes,” says Tchida. “We have 1,200 plants in 95 varieties—every size, shape, color I can find. It’s about $8,000–9,000 in annual sales, wholesale and retail.” Salad greens, everbearing strawberries (which can produce three crops a year and supply the Campus Club with fresh, local fruit all the way into November), potatoes, and beans round out the more productive side of agriculture on campus.

The less productive side is even more interesting. Among the crops that pop up at Cornercopia are otricoli berries, celeriac, sea kale, Egyptian walking onions, and ground cherries. As if to underline the point, while we’re hanging out watching baharat-rubbed Cornercopia chickens sizzle on the grill under Jones’s watchful eye, a student brings us a bag of wonderberries. The berries glisten with a metallic blue-black sheen, pop like caviar, and deliver a confusing blast of flavors: cucumber and berry followed by an astringent melon aftertaste that lingers for minutes. 

“We have lots of different herbs, lots of different edible flowers,” Tchida says, “and we grow a crop called jelly melon. Whenever I’m watching a sci-fi movie like ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Star Wars’ and they have food, there’s always a jelly melon there because it looks like an alien fruit. The whole plant is covered in spikes,” she laughs. 

Jones adds: “I remember we did a fundraiser years ago and she showed one to Lynne Rossetto Kasper and she was like: ‘I’ve never seen one of these before!’”

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Overlooked by a tally of the farm’s physical crops is what might be its most valuable harvest: knowledge. “We’re doing outreach and research and production in a real-world setting,” Tchida says. “We have students working on the farm pretty much year-round.” Among the students who have rotated through the up-to-30-hours-a-week work stints are Eric Sannerud and Ben Boo, founders of Mighty Axe Hops. Grad students can use Cornercopia as a place to study the impact of soil and fertilizers on myriad crops; Jones and her crew at the Campus Club can use its produce as the basis for farm dinners and other events with strong educational components.

A variety of the mushrooms grown at Cornucopia // Photo by Becca Dilley

Top: Courtney Tchida. Bottom: A variety of the mushrooms from Mississippi Mushrooms in North Minneapolis // Photo by Becca Dilley

Education is noble, and the Campus Club is a nonprofit, but even nonprofits need to be sustainable. On paper, the direction Jones took with the Campus Club might look like a recipe for bankruptcy. Fresh local produce is expensive, and scratch-made food takes time and focus. Food service entrees can be more or less decanted and dressed with stable sauces and ready-to-eat accompaniments; scratch-made food has to be cleaned and babied and cooked to order. 

And yet: “When I started doing this, our food costs dropped about four to five percent,” Jones says. “We were using our food more efficiently. We rely a lot on our servers to tell us how many people have gone through a buffet, how many people need to eat more, so we’re not wasting extra food. A lot of it, too, is that we started making our own stock from scratch.” A program of scratch-made bread also helps. Several years ago, Jones worked with Gladys Campoverde, the wife of one of her cooks, to train her in baking. She’s now Beth’s sous chef and Campus Club’s full-time pastry chef.

Cornercopia hosts retail markets early in the week and then checks in with the Campus Club. “Thursday morning I do an inventory of my cooler of everything we have, and I send Beth that list,” Tchida says. “She usually takes 90 to 100 percent of it.”

“I clean out her coolers, basically,” laughs Jones. “Then my staff gets to play!”

“I sometimes feel like Santa Claus when I bring it,” Tchida adds. “If I come at 10 to drop it off, all the cooks go like: ‘WHOOSH!’” Tchida makes a swooping motion suggestive of buzzards cluster-rushing a fresh kill, “and they tear open the boxes.” “Especially Nettie [Colón],” says Jones. “She’ll knock people down to get to it. She used to hide stuff under ceiling tiles at Lucia’s! I’m not kidding. She did. You’d go in the basement, and go: ‘I swear to God I bought tiger eye beans, where’d they go? Nettie, where did you hide them?’”

Produce-wise, Campus Club is supplied almost exclusively by enterprises with women in key positions: Courtney’s Cornercopia, Pam Benike’s Southeast Minnesota Food Network, and the Shared Ground Cooperative. 

Other local purveyors play important roles, too: Peterson Farms, Kadejan, and Coastal Seafoods are all major suppliers.

That attitude—seeking the rare, the fresh, the wonderful, and the new—is an apt summary of the strange and harmonious tandem effort that is the Campus Club and Cornercopia, a restaurant wedded to a university, a farm that harvests knowledge, and, of course, wonderberries.

Bharat spiced chicken and Grilled Oyster Mushroom Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes and Purslane // Photo by Becca Dilley

Bharat spiced chicken and Grilled Oyster Mushroom Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes and Purslane // Photo by Becca Dilley

Recipe for Baharat Spiced Chicken

Serves 6–8

Ingredients

1½ teaspoons whole cumin seed 
1½ teaspoons whole coriander seed
24 pods green cardamom
2 whole star anise
¼ cup sunflower oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon Aleppo chili flakes
2 tablespoons coarse sea salt
Oil for brushing the grill
1 whole chicken, roughly 4 pounds, spatchcocked or cut into quarters

Directions

Toast the cumin, coriander, cardamom, and star anise in a dry saute pan over medium-high heat, until lightly toasted and fragrant. Transfer to a coffee grinder and pulse until finely ground. Return the warm pan to the burner, but turn the burner off. Pour the sunflower oil into the warm pan and add the garlic, cinnamon, Aleppo, salt, and freshly ground spices. Allow the ingredients to sit for 10 minutes to perfume the oil.

Rub the spiced oil into the chicken, loosening the skin and getting the mixture onto all of the meat. Marinate overnight, and remove from the refrigerator 1 hour before cooking.

Preheat the grill to medium-high heat. Brush the grill with oil, and begin cooking with the skin-side down. Cook for 10–15 minutes, or until nicely browned. Turn the bird and cook for another 20–30 minutes, or until a thermometer reads 160°F when inserted into the thickest part of the breast. Remove the chicken from the grill and allow to rest for 10–15 minutes before carving. Be sure to collect all the juices that run off; these will be used when serving the chicken.

 

Mushrooms being salted on the grill // Photo by Becca Dilley

Mushrooms being salted on the grill // Photo by Becca Dilley

Grilled Oyster Mushroom Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes and Purslane

1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1 cup rough chopped mixed basil, mint and oregano
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound Mississippi Mushrooms gray, pink or blue oyster mushrooms, gently separated into clusters (do not chop)
1 pound heirloom tomatoes, diced in large chunks, or a variety of cherry tomatoes
3–4 cups purslane, well washed and roughly chopped into 1- to 2-inch pieces

In a medium Mason jar, add the red wine vinegar, olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt, and pepper. Shake until well blended. 

In a large mixing bowl, toss the tomatoes and purslane with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Add a third of the vinaigrette and allow to marinate for 5–10 minutes.

Preheat the grill to medium high heat, and brush lightly with oil. Drizzle the mushrooms with olive oil, salt, and pepper and grill for 2 minutes on each side, or until charred and slightly wilted. Toss the mushrooms with the tomatoes and purslane and drizzle with more vinaigrette to taste. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Place on a large platter and top with the carved chicken. Pour any collected chicken juices over the chicken and serve.


Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here


An Autumnal Sampling of Public Events at the Campus Club and Cornercopia

Cornercopia Open House & Heirloom Tomato Tasting  | September 11 | 4‒6pm

Meet at Lindig Street and Dudley Avenue on the St. Paul Campus and sample a wide array of Cornercopia-grown tomatoes.

Farm-to-Kitchen Cooking | September 12 | 5:30‒8pm | $45

A class set at Cornercopia and the adjacent Good Acre featuring Beth Jones and Courtney Tchida, focused on the how, when, why, and where of cooking and buying local food. Also includes the cooking (and eating) of ratatouille and a wonderberry clafoutis with thyme whipped cream. Learn more…

Behind the Scenes: Cornercopia Tour and Dinner | September 16 | 4‒8pm | $55

A tour of Cornercopia followed by a dinner at the Campus Club featuring Heirloom Tomato Plate with U of M-made Artisan Cheese, Basil Salt and Balsamic, Kosher King Heritage Roast Chicken, with Lemon, Garlic and Herbs, served with Mississippi Mushroom’s Oyster Mushroom, and Summer Vegetable Stew and Chef’s Special Vanilla Pound Cake with Ground Cherry, Grilled Sweet Corn and Blueberry Compote. Learn more…