As I began packing for my Advanced Mixology Academy class field trip to Chef’s Garden in Milan, Ohio, I had no idea what to expect. Sure, I have been to my share of the city’s vast and vibrant neighborhood farmer’s markets. I've tasted some of the best food and sipped the highest quality cocktails around, but I was told that this wasn't anything like your typical farm and that these ingredients weren’t going to be found at the average farmer’s market.
I made sure to leave enough room in my bag to bring back anything unusual or unique that I might encounter. As a mixologist, I am responsible for helping to raise the quality of drinks for the average person to experience and enjoy, and this was another way we could incorporate aspects of the culinary world into the cocktail world. I could feel the excitement building and the creative juices flowing as I dreamt of mixing amazing cocktails with exotic ingredients: multicolored heirloom tomatoes, garlic chives, white celery herbs, multicolored and multi-spiced chiles, and square one botanical vodka for a perfect Bloody Mary; Cruzan blackstrap rum, pomegranate molasses, sorrel and orange mint with fresh lime juice. Patron silver tequila, fresh ginger beer, giant root beer leaf...
Twenty eager mixologists pulled up to the famed Culinary Vegetable Institute, which has welcomed food celebrities like Alex Guarnaschelli of the Food Network as well as local high-end restaurant chefs like Charlie Trotter. People say Farmer Lee Jones’s specialty produce is among the most demanded in the country, the farm even ships its “microplants” to China. As we walked up the entrance, we passed a number of gardens woven together in a circular path, with a fountain spouting freshwater out its top. As we made our way through, we realized the white labels sticking out from the ground were for ingredients in a completely edible mini garden! None of these plants reached past our knees, and some even fit in the palm of our hands! When we picked some and tasted them, we could not believe how flavorful they were.
After a fabulous dinner that consisted of items taken directly from the farm, including luscious mixed greens and a superb steamed sweet corn right off the cob, we dove right to the herbs table and started mixing! A lot of us were excited to be bringing some of nature back to the bars and restaurants and reintroducing Chicagoans to freshness and quality.
We all expected to pull up to huge, corporation-owned farm, with acres and acres sprawling with all kinds of large and juicy crops. Instead, we were treated to a small family farm thats transformed itself into a literal creation of a chef’s personal garden, where he or she can tailor grow his crops and produce. The farm uses no chemicals, cross pollination or cross breeding, or seed manipulation. Instead the farm grows marvelous creations, including: “cukamelons”, or cucumbers shaped and looked like watermelons; garlic chives that really tasted like garlic cloves; giant root beer leafs that, you guessed it, tasted like root beer; and the coolest of all, the oyster leaf that looked exactly like a giant leaf but allowed me the chance to smell and taste something eerily similar to something not kosher!
We were also treated to some unusual produce: mini eggplants, multicolored heirloom tomatoes, chiles of all shapes and sizes, and even purple colored carrots called “dragon carrots” whose skin was dark purple and the flesh a vibrant orange! I brought home a sample of some of these fresh micro-plants and produce to work, my general manager and sous chef went nuts when they looked at such wacky but flavorful items such as purple-colored broccoli bunches! And I am sure fellow Oy! Blogger Ron Krit would agree that the freshest, most natural fruits, herbs and produce are the healthiest foods for your body!
The best part of this trip was not just experiencing this amazing garden, but also spending time mixing the sprits the Culinary Vegetable Institute makes.
Today’s signature cocktail is in honor of Chef's Garden in Ohio. Named after the generous and hospitable Farmer Lee Jones, this cocktail is a wonderfully refreshing beverage that is a modern variation on a classic sour recipe, but using Farmer Lee's fresh ingredients and herbs. You can try to make this yourself at home with fresh ingredients, but even if you can't the possibilities are endless when it comes to incorporating fresh herbs and ingredients such as these into a cocktail or a home-cooked meal.
Farmer Lee's Lavender Elixir
2 oz. Square One Botanical Spirit (You can use Tru Organic Vodka if you can't find Square One)
1/2 oz. Grand Marnier (Triple Sec or Cointreau will do)
3 oz. Fresh Lavender lemonade
4-6 orange mint leaves
3-4 lavender flowers
To make the lavender lemonade, stir together about 1 and a half ounces of fresh squeezed lemon juice for every ounce of simple syrup (heat equal parts sugar and water in saucepan until sugar is dissolved, then cool). Place 1-2 lavender flowers inside the pitcher and chill in the fridge for a couple hours, or until really cold. Do NOT add ice as this will dilute the mixture. Stir in more simple syrup to taste, leave flowers in pitcher for presentation and added lavender flavor.
In a pint glass, muddle the mint leaves with a splash of sparkling water. Then pour the vodka and Grand Marnier into mixing tin with ice. Shake well, then strain over crushed ice into highball or pint glass. Fill almost to top with lavender lemonade, top with splash of sparkling water. Garnish with orange mint sprig and lavender flower.