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Range Road 135 Dinner at Nature’s Green Acres: July 23, 2011

With a very deep bow to local Edmonton Food Hero: Chef Blair Lebsack!

and a very special happy birthday to my Vanja!

Saturday was supposed to be sunny, but the sky was laden with dark, ominous clouds when we headed east to Nature’s Green Acres for Chef Lebsack’s first farm to table dinner early in the afternoon. There was only one patch of blue sky, yet somehow I knew the weather would behave. There was far too much love worked into this day for Mother Nature to even think of raining on it!

The drive is about an hour and a half east of Edmonton, and we wondered why we don’t make time to get out of the city more often! The canola fields were vibrating yellow… or was it mustard? I think this is canola blossom season.

A grain elevator! This rustic beauty is about 10 kilometers west of Holden. When I was young, you would know you were coming to the next town when you saw the mighty elevator looming in the distance. Without even realizing it, they are almost extinct. Swept away with so many of our prairie traditions. This noble icon beckoned and welcomed and stood guard over every small town throughout too many lives to count.

Thankfully, farmers still build barns and paint them red. Even at this phase of my life I get excited when I see a beautiful red barn. Grandma Maude’s barn was old and dry with red paint peeling off in shards, but it was solid and bulging with the life and mystery of her farm.

In no time, we found the gravel range road and turned onto it, driving directly into the darkest part of the entire sky and the thought of rain was on my mind, but not the possibility of it!

However, the sun shone over Nature’s Green Acres! Look at the grinning greeters!

At 3:15, we thought we’d be first, but apparently there were early arrivals! Shannon guided us out to their almost-ready-to-move-into-new-house and there was a small crowd gathered on the porch near a table of nibbles. Kevin had already arrived. And Blair? Oh, yes! “He’s been practically living here since Thursday! I had to cook for him twice, and that was intimidating!”

Can you see him below? Someone pointed out the cooking area and a tiny white speck was moving towards us; he is right in the middle of the photo below. (a very tiny white speck)

In his chef whites, through the field, porting a tray, I was reminded of an article that impressed me years ago in Gourmet magazine where I saw a series of six Italian Chefs, shoulders laden with trays of antipasto preparations, walking through a Tuscan field in their whites toward a sophisticated gathering. Where was Gourmet magazine today? This happening was every bit as spectacular.

One hand under the tray, bearing a warm welcoming smile, Chef Lebsack definitely had our attention!

Up onto the porch and off with the foil: smoky carnivorous aromatics wafted through the air.

Perfect cubes of glistening smoked pork belly, fat globules sweating onto the tray in sticky droplets of nummy, went onto the board and were garnished with rhubarb.

As he was plating his food, Chef Lebsack explained what was on the table. The spelt crackers were made with his own homemade butter and buttermilk. I need to learn how to make these crackers. They were tender layers of crusty crumbly flaky deliciousness.

The Farm Terrine was made primarily with chicken livers, but also with pork jowls and other animal parts. The pickled beet tops did add a little lively hit to the flavourful full bodied fatty meaty goodness.

The tray with the meat was lifted up, and under it were these croustadas dabbed with some of Chef Lebsack’s homemade mildly hot pepper paste. And what would go on top of these?

Nature’s Green Acres Nouveau Beef Sirloin that had been hay smoked! “We smoked these with hay for a sweeter smoke.”

The crunch of the croustada with the intensity of the smoke coupled with the tender juiciness of the meat finished with the lovely heat from the pepper paste was prairie farm perfection in two bites. Now, this is my Alberta!

The ribbons of fat layered through the ultra crispy skinned belly took the word unctuous to a whole other level. Swoon! The brightness of the rhubarb did cut into the fat and paired perfectly with it. This bite (well, two bites) was absolutely unforgettable. I have only ever eaten the meat from pork belly before, and this time, I just went for it. Oh, baby! The light bulbs went on and the wheels were whirring! So, THAT is why pork belly is so revered! Or, maybe not. I doubt that few could accomplish this  flavour and texture combination like Chef Lebsack. And Caitlin was busy, too: Front Porch Foraged Teas! Both so refreshing. I preferred the pinker one.  The one to the left, below was stinging nettle and lemon balm and the other raspberry mint. The pinkish one is the raspberry mint. A recommendation for the stinging nettle tea is to serve it extra cold with a higher ratio of lemon balm or lemon verbena than nettle.

Our hosts, Danny and Shannon Ruzicka enjoy a bite. Every bite from this meal was from their farm (except for the green beans which were planted, but didn’t grow on schedule).

Danny is a farrier. There are very few that exist any more, and we were able to learn about his trade through a horse shoeing demonstration. (There are many more shots of this in the slide show – the link to it is at the bottom of this post.)

He shoes 7 to 8 horses a day. Normally, the length of a farrier’s carrier is 8 years due to how taxing it is on one’s body. This is Danny’s twelfth year. Shannon does the farming.

At this point, I could no longer resist, and had to head on out to the fire and the food. Can you see the smoke in the middle of the photo below?

City children miss so much. Just walking across the field investigating the plants and mushrooms, gopher holes and stones was fascinating for me. How I used to spend hours as a child studying the field and forest grasses and hiding and playing in them. I cannot imagine children in the city today not having this kind of mind expanding space to play in.

The table was set beautifully. Yen was putting on the last minute touches. And the stove: Blair was going to try to get an old wood burning stove from an auction when Danny asked him if the one in the shed would do. Perfect! Even the thermometer on the front still works. Everything cooked at our meal was cooked on and in this wood burning stove and on the homemade double barrel grill that Danny’s brother welded for Blair.

As I was backing up to take a photo, I noticed the ancient Tee-Pee rings in the grass. Look carefully below at the photo on the left and you can see rocks making circles in the grass. Shannon has been told that these are some of the oldest in the prairies here on their farm. most like from the Cree. It was the first I had ever seen and quite a quiet moment for me taking myself back about three hundred years in time imagining that life and wondering.

I got back just in time for the garden tour; people were already trailing behind Shannon, so I fell in line.

Apparently, Shannon and Danny have never had a vegetable garden in the nine years on this 350 acre farm, until Blair and Caitlyn built this one to supply the produce  for the dinner. Of course, there is extra for them to enjoy, too.

I could not resist trying a scarlet runner flower and they were juicy, sweet, fresh and delicious with a vibrant green bean flavour. I would love a lot of those in a salad! YUM! The texture was every bit as appealing as the flavour.

I had never, to my knowledge, seen a stinging nettle growing and there is one, below, left. And again, in my hand.

I still never got to see the Lambs Quarter. This is another edible, and apparently tasty, weed. I know they had a lot growing there as Kevin had told me they had all grown quite high, but I just didn’t know what I was looking for.

Now we are headed out to the chickens and the pigs.

Shannon and Danny raised 800 chickens this year and have already sent them off to market. The few left behind were for this event so that we could see how they raise their birds. They are in a movable, sheltered and bottomless structure with water and feed that gets moved twice a day to fresh grass. For more information about their farming practices, take a look at Kevin’s visit to their farm as part of his From Local Farms project. The land is rich with a variety of grasses and that is what these chickens eat and eat. It is brimming with alfalfa which is a superfood that the chickens, pigs, and cows all enjoy and eat a lot of at this farm.

I picked and photographed the first sprig pointed out to me, and then found clusters growing everywhere abundant with purple flowers. The flowers were really tasty. As these are from the pea family, the flavour made sense as there is definitely substance in the dense blossom and it was pea like – almost nutty. There was no doubt when eating this flower that it was hearty and filling. I would like to grow them to add to salads in my yard for the nutritive value. (Best be careful which you buy to grow because, yes, there is GMO alfalfa out there, too, with credit to Monsanto, once again.)

Vanja’s dad grows 2 to 3 pigs every year and butchers them late in the fall so I have had some experience with pigs very nearby as we are there every year. These were as friendly as ever! Danny and Shannon raise only 30 and find that amount to be plenty. I didn’t ask about the cows.

Vanja couldn’t resist making friends with one and feeding them some of the fresh alfalfa. These get moved two times a day, too – but, if they are anything like the pigs his father raises… they will eat as long as there is food and do not have any little bell that rings in their head to say “I am full”; when the grass is gone, they have to stop eating or they would probably die from eating too much

We have already left the farm, driven in a caravan of cars to another part of their property to see an ancient Buffalo Jump. Here,, we are walking to the knoll just ahead across prairie wool This is the first time I have ever walked through and on and across prairie wool (to my knowledge). Prairie wool is land that has never been farmed. It is a combination of original grasses that have grown on the land forever without any interference from man. Are there really untouched places yet on our Earth? If the mosquitoes weren’t so relentless, I could have spent hours here just investigating the grasses and flowers.

What a perfect Buffalo Jump! The buffalo would be herded to the top of the hill, and with the sudden drop off, usually roll down into the creek on the other side, get up, if uninjured and try to run again. But the Cree were usually ready and waiting for them and few that fell would escape. This is the first time I felt I was at a real Buffalo Jump… mind you, I had come the way of the buffalo and could clearly see how easy it would be to not expect the ridge to be there.

Just around the corner, on the way back, Chef Lebsack and team were busy with last minute preparations. What a gorgeous place for an evening meal.

We parked and headed down immediately. Everyone was hungry.

We were truly blessed. The sun had continued to play hide-n-seek with us all day behind heavy purple clouds and it was still shining! The mosquitoes had slept all day until we disturbed the prairie wool and now we were about to partake of a meal where almost 100% of it was locally grown and handmade. This is my Alberta!

The final preparations were coming together.

Gull Valley Greenhouse supplied the beans; Lannigan-Edwards supplied the wine; Rosslyn liquor store, the beer, and Chef Lebsack made the butter. There really wasn’t anything he didn’t do for this meal that wasn’t from scratch. He picked up the pig, took it to the abattoir, butchered it and cooked several parts of it for us. “It sure makes you focus on not wasting anything!” he commented when referring to this experience.

The clouds parted. The sun embraced the moment with us: linen cloths and napkins, beautiful glasses and cutlery, full table side service – and all this – well, the entire day, for only one hundred dollars a person. Clearly, this was a labour of love for Chef Lebsack. The hours and days he invested could never be compensated monetarily.

I love that I captured him in my glass of wine!

After thanks, introductions and explanations, the meal began with a blessing from Danny. How absolutely perfect.

Thank you, Kevin, for the photos of us. And course one:

Chilled Pea Soup with Pansies

The colour combination was perfect: velvety smooth, cool, lush and light. Yum! (I think I muttered something about wishing I had Gene Simmons’ tongue after I emptied my glass.)

Danny’s mother made the buns. And people say we don’t have a food culture or food heritage in the prairies! Her buns were exactly like my mom’s buns! They are not a hard crusty roll, but a slightly sweet soft country bun. And the homemade butter grounded them.

Course two explanation: The Chorizo was made with the pork and combined with the chicken in a stew: a take on chicken and dumplings.

Brined Chicken Breast w/ Chicken and Chorizo Stew and Spelt Dumpling

The flavour of the chicken was astounding. I eat really good organic chicken at home and this chicken is definitely the whole meal deal. The aroma and flavour brought me back to the farms from my childhood. The stew was a dynamic combination of good farm flavours. The quality of the produce was crystal clear. Chef Lebsack honored the food at his hand and brought it to the table in its fullest glory: steaming hot and dish licking scrumptious.

Kevin volunteered to video tape the day and was helping with what was needed. Rob Ingram is plating the salad.

Apparently this ice was made in the freezer just a few days in advance. I saw three bricks of it this size. I have made ice bowls, and they seem to take forever. Just finding space to freeze this and them moving it was enough to “awe” me!

Course Three:

Arugula and Garden Greens Salad w/ first pressed Canola Oil and Buttermilk Vinaigrette

The serving was extremely generous and the dressing reminded me of the one my grandmother always made with the first lettuces of the year. When I described it, Shannon said that her grandmother made the same dressing with the new spring greens! These are the Alberta heritage recipes that cannot be lost: the farm country soft buns, the new lettuce salad dressing, and so many more! Each subtle, but definitely “ours”.

Shannon kept us entertained all evening. She is so funny and has so many stories that just had us laughing all night long!

his was Grasshopper Beer from Calgary’s Big Rock Brewery. A stinging nettle syrup was made from the nettles and a squirt or two of that was mixed into each portion and garnished with an alfalfa flower. Now, I do not drink beer. Have never tasted it. I did taste it. Didn’t like it, but loved the attention to detail and the thoughtfulness of the process each part of the meal underwent. Vanja really enjoyed his two glasses!

It never seemed long between courses. Actually, each appeared rather rapidly as I think about it! And course four:

Landrace Pork and Beans w/ Smoked Tomato Concassé

Vanja swooned, literally, from the aroma alone. “I just love the smell of this pork!” We make a perfect couple: I loved the beans and he, the pork. It was so delicious and moist, tender and flavourful that even I, the non-meat eater, was impressed!

Corey Ingram chopping more wood for the fire.

Did you see the size of the pork rib? Do you recall the size of the chicken dish, and the salad? And there is more… the lovely baby vegetables below were served steaming hot in a small cast iron casserole dish: again, perfect.

Course five:

Nouveau Beef 2 Ways: Char Grilled Sirloin and Slow Braised Rib-eye w/ Roasted Root Vegetables and New Potatoes en Cocotte

You did see that there was a large portion of rib-eye under the two oversized slices of sirloin? And more vegetables? The vegetables were heaven. Vanja was crazy over their nouveau beef. They actually take their beef to slaughter before 9 months; it is older than veal and younger than beef. Well, it is more than that: it is the most flavourful, tender, lovely piece of meat you will find. Completely grass fed, like all of the other animals at this farm…. and remember, the grass is really tasty. I tasted it!

A girl friend photo! Can never have too many of these and Liane and Judy were delightful dinner partners!

Corey McGuire, Chef Blair Lebsack, and Rob Ingram followed by Mr. and Mrs. Lebsack and then Nicole and David Hebert.

Oh, my – there is pie!

Course Six:

Saskatoon Berry Galette w/ Stinging Nettle Ice Cream and Raspberry Granola

The colour of the stinging nettle ice cream was mystical. I couldn’t taste a stinging nettle flavour, though, but it was the most delicious ice cream I have had in recent memory. Not at all sweet: just cold rich creamy velvet. And the galette! Oh, my! Oh, my! The pastry was buttery and flaky and addictive with the thick cold ice cream. The Saskatoon berries perfectly sweetened (not too sweet) and the raspberry granola a delicious and unexpected crunch that was also perfect with the cream. Chef Lebsack said that the fresh raspberries were mixed with the oats and some sugar or honey (sorry, cannot recall), but I loved the idea, and the flavour was very bright.

Ah! It has come to an end. The feasting. The laughing. The standing still on this one moment in time.

Time for the chef to relax. And, he thanked us! He thanked us for appreciating his work and it was clearly evident in every detail throughout the evening that his appreciation of our appreciation was sincere.

And we did appreciate. Chef Blair and Caitlin , and Corey, and Rob – the experience was one of those life time experiences that is simply unforgettable. And thank you Yen and Kevin.

Danny and Shannon, what a life you have built for yourselves and your family on this gorgeous piece of land! The ethics with which you farm are deeply appreciated and so very important.

Do you see me clapping? A standing ovation for all of you.

And pouch is exhausted from all this company and commotion.

Nicole and David are leaving right behind us… (in the fancy car!)…

… Judy and Liane ahead… and as we drive away, our tummies are full, our hearts are warmed, our minds that much more enlightened and without a doubt, we will be back.

Oh! And, thank you, God and Mother Nature, for the opportunity we had to enjoy this day without the rain. That was truly a miracle that did not go unnoticed.

Kevin Kossowan has also posted his video of this event on his site here. It is well worth the click over.

And, should you want to look at the entire stack of 251 edited photos from the 600 plus I took, they are here, in my gallery, on a slide show.

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About Valerie Lugonja

Educator, Writer, Gardener and Traveler who believes in buying and eating locally, and most importantly cooking at home!

Join The Conversation!

  1. Definitely an amzing experience Valerie. I just love these types of dinners where you meet so many wonderful people and taste incredible local foods.

    • Valerie says:

      Bellini Valerie:
      I actually thought of you and your dinner with The Okanagan Writer’s Workshop last fall. It is somewhat similar to that…
      :)

  2. Blair Lebsack says:

    Thank you for the beautiful blog Valerie. The teas that Caitlin made were stinging nettle and lemon balm and the other raspberry mint. The pinkish one is the raspberry mint. A recommendation for the stinging nettle tea is to serve it extra cold with a higher ratio of lemon balm or lemon verbena than nettle.

  3. Amazing. What a journey. Wish I could have been there. :)

  4. What a pleasure to read this post Valerie. I love the setting and the people, the people make the evening don’t they? Well the food is the star, but the company makes for a great evening. thanks for sahring

  5. It was indeed an epic and memorable evening. I just posted the video over on my site.

  6. So pastoral!

  7. Nicole Hiebert says:

    Valerie, thanks SO much for letting me re-live a wonderful, magical and truly special evening. It was perfect and I’d do it again in a heart beat!! A real highlight of summer…

  8. Valerie says:

    From “Farmer” Shannon:
    Hello Valerie,
    Love the blog!!! there’s a couple oopsies. We have 20 pigs not 30. and the part of Shannon being the farmer, kinda made me feel guilty since Danny was the one who 95% of the time for the last month and a half (when the chickens were out on pasture) was up at 5am doing chores before a full day of horse shoeing. I had the hard part of sleeping in a bit (till 6am) and making him breakfast, and the kids don’t usually get up till 8am, so it was really tough! I just had to appease my conscience a bit!

    Thank you, Thank You, Thank You!!! for coming out and posting this for us. We’ve already begun brainstorming for next year. I’ve got your chickens on the list for tomorrow. So hopefully we’ll see you.
    Shannon

  9. Oh no! I missed wishing Vanja a happy birthday :(. Please tell your always so kind husband LeQuan says happy belated birthday. Vanja, if you’re reading, happy belated birthday! I hope you were extra spoiled (cause you’re spoiled everyday with Valerie’s magnificent cooking and of course her presence. Haha) on you birthday! Big hugs to you!

    My oh my what an amazing experience this was. Loved those shots of the field flowers, just so simple but absolutely pure and gorgeous. Thanks for pointing out those Tee-Pee rings. And look at that feast you guys had! The food looked fantastic and delicious! I’m so glad the weather cooperated for you guys. Love that picture of you and Vanja together. Thank you for sharing such an amazing experience with us. Off to read your next post.

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