Two golden-brown, lattice-topped pies — one fat with thick, golden peach slices, the other stuffed with chunks of gray-pink rhubarb — rest proudly on a buffet table at FreshFarm Markets’ monthly staff lunch. Next to them is a bonus dessert that cook Juliet Glass had not originally intended to make, but while she was at the Penn Quarter market the day before, half-pints of plump, scarlet raspberries from Garner’s Produce inspired her. She snatched up the berries and paired them with sliced, sunset-colored apricots as the filling for a splendid, sugar-topped crostata.
Soon after FreshFarm, which operates 11 producer-only markets in the area, moved into office space in the First Congregational United Church of Christ a year ago, a tradition was born. A happenstance breakfast prepared for a weekly staff meeting turned into monthly Friday lunches. Staffers buy ingredients at FreshFarm’s Penn Quarter, Ballston and White House markets and prepare dishes the next day in the commercial- grade kitchen that abuts their work space.
“With the three markets we have on Thursday, there is just this bonanza of food that comes flooding into D.C.,” says Glass, one of the organization’s two directors of markets and programs. The lunch is a potluck of sorts, with staffers making a dish here and there, but Glass, a former associate editor of Food Arts magazine, is the unofficial head chef and coordinates the undertaking.
The lunches started when Glass, as a pet project, began teaching fellow marketing director Reg Godin cooking fundamentals, such as how to make chicken stock, roast a chicken properly (dry-brining with salt a day in advance is the trick) or roast vegetables cut sides down on a parchment-lined baking sheet to get them brown and crispy. These days it’s not unusual to spot a crock of sauerkraut quietly fermenting away on Godin’s desk.
“It’s an easy sell to get people to stop what they are doing and cook,” says Glass. “Eating together keeps us connected to the food that we are part of bringing into the city. Otherwise, it’s just an abstract thing.”
Between full- and part-time staffers and guests (often farmers and church employees), there could be upward of 20 lunchers seated at black and blond Ikea work tables pushed together in the center of the G Street NW offices. The hallmark of the sundry dishes, served buffet style, is simple preparation showcasing the freshness and quality of the ingredients.
Shopping at Penn Quarter on the last Thursday in July, Glass goes from stand to stand accepting effusive greetings from farmers while she fills bags with bacon and mint from Evensong Farm (Sharpsburg, Md.), creme fraiche from Blue Ridge Dairy (Sterling), bread from Wesley Lanham’s Bread Ovens (Baltimore), Berkshire pork chops from Cabin Creek Heritage Farm (Upper Marlboro), potatoes from Mountain View Farm (Purcellville), shiitakes from the Mushroom Stand (Pasadena) and assorted cheeses from Shepherd’s Manor Creamery in New Windsor, Md., the state’s first sheep’s-milk dairy farm. She even thinks to buy wildflowers from Wollam Gardens (Jeffersonton, Va.) for centerpieces.
The next day, Glass organizes the office’s kitchen effort. Next to a simmering pan of creamed sauerkraut, bacon and mushrooms, she sears pork chops she dry-brined the day before with a rub of salt, pepper, ground fennel seed, crushed red pepper flakes and bay leaf. Administrative coordinator Maddy Beckwith happily shaves strips of zucchini and yellow squash for a bright, mint-touched salad while market manager Nikki Caporale puts the finishing touches on harissa-spiked eggplant dip and chops fennel fronds, tarragon, chives and parsley for herbed potato salad. Even Ann Harvey Yonkers, FreshFarm’s co-founder and co-executive director, gets into the action, tossing together green and wax beans with mint, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic she grew at her Maryland retreat, Pot Pie Farm.
If the uncomplicated, colorful dishes set on the buffet table could be given voice, they would join in a chorus of “summer” over and over. Staffers and guests avail themselves enthusiastically (no timid eaters, they), piling clear-glass plates with every savory dish as Jasper, the cheery office dog, begs for a taste.
You might call the union of FreshFarm Markets and its landlord a perfect marriage of church and crate. The church, Washington’s first to integrate, was founded in 1865 by abolitionists. The original church has been rebuilt twice over the years to accommodate growth and now occupies the first two floors of a multi-use, 10-story, LEED-certified building completed in 2011.
“They were looking for just the right tenant,” explains Yonkers. “One that shared their values.” The missions of both organizations include environmental stewardship, but something else was just as important, says the Rev. Sidney Fowler.
FreshFarm, he says, “provides a link between rural and urban in a very powerful way. They provide precious food, but their drive is social justice. They relate to those who have a hard time getting food by providing the ability to use food stamps and using food that isn’t sold. This commitment is at the heart of what we’re all about.”
Throughout lunch, Yonkers looks down the table from its head and grins with pride, like the mother of a large, accomplished brood that gathered from all over for Thanksgiving. She muses about the years of diligence it took to get FreshFarm to this place and how moving to the church building coincided with the organization’s 15th anniversary and its earning of a Mayor’s Sustainability Award last year.
When dessert time rolls around, chatter stops momentarily as everyone heads back to the buffet for clean plates, filling them with full-size slices of all three pies and adding for good measure a generous scoop of the homemade vanilla ice cream that market manager Dana Rybak churned the day before.
Glass’s pies are de rigueur at every monthly lunch. She never considered herself much of a baker but got into it because she had access to such amazing fruit from FreshFarm’s markets. Now she bakes at least three pies a week, using pastry chef Elisabeth M. Prueitt’s foolproof recipe for buttery, flaky pie crust found in “Tartine” (Chronicle, 2006).
“Who doesn’t love pie?” Glass asks rhetorically. “Besides, I love people showering me with compliments.”
She deserves every one of them.
Hagedorn is a frequent Food section contributor and co-author with chef Cathal Armstrong of the upcoming “My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland and Restaurant Eve” (Ten Speed Press, March 2014). He will join today’s Free Range chat at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.