URBANA - At 6:45 a.m. on Saturday morning, Steve Moore leaves his post at Tiny Greens and wanders the Urbana farmers' market looking for the best fruits, greens, bread and cheese he can find. By the end of the day, a new menu will be created from what he finds, from crisp asparagus in the peak of its season, from plump blueberries and crusty French baguettes.
From local farmers, bakers and others who sell their wares at Urbana's Market at the Square, founders Moore, Erin Brunelle and their friends are creating a new kind of restaurant. Every Saturday through the market's season, they're showcasing the best of locally grown and made goods in a dinner they're calling The Farmers' Table.
"The whole point is you can do a whole (meal), from appetizer to dessert with stuff you buy here," Moore said. "The event's goal is to maybe help to inspire some change in the local food culture."
Located at The Red Herring – the vegetarian restaurant in the basement of the Channing-Murray Foundation in Urbana – The Farmers' Table actually comprises many tables, each set with candlelight and seasonal flowers.
At 6:45 p.m., people start streaming in for their meal. For $20 a person, they'll get four courses of fresh and freshly prepared food made by volunteers. Any profit the meal makes goes into The Farmers' Table Project or to The Red Herring, said Brunelle, adding that the group would like to give talks about using local foods and encourage people to ask for local products in local restaurants.
Moore believes that local food tastes better. When food like tomatoes get refrigerated and moved from place to place, he says, "it loses all its vitality, it loses all its flavor." And he asks if so much of it is necessary. "Here, we're in the middle of farmland," he said.
Eating from nearby is part of what drew Pat Nolan to The Farmers' Table on Saturday night.
"It's just a great idea to grow local and to eat local," said Nolan of Urbana. "It sort of gives a sense of pride in this area, that this is what we're able to produce." She also liked that the restaurant made use of a space that often sits empty in summer.
"There's tons of stuff to cook now," Moore said. "It's about learning to cook from the bottom up ... letting the ingredients speak for themselves." So Moore finds the foods first, then decides the recipes he'll use.
On Saturday, he found radishes and field greens from Blue Moon Farms, goat cheese from Prairie Fruit Farms, strawberries from Brackett Farms and so on, using foods from 10 different vendors.
At The Farmers' Table, the parts translated into a four-course meal for more than 30 people that Moore said was made up of about 80 percent market items.
On Saturday, the volunteers served an appetizer of sliced radishes and greens, drizzled with olive oil with a few slices of baguette on the side.
It was a dish Elaine and Angus Rocket of Urbana particularly enjoyed. Though Angus Rocket thinks the goal of promoting local food to these diners might be "preaching to the choir," he does like that by seeing the foods prepared, "not only do I get to buy local, but I know what to do with it."
A mixed field greens salad following the appetizer, topped with strawberries and walnuts (with Dent de Leon chevre optional – the entire meal can be vegan on request) drizzled with red wine vinaigrette.
For the entree, diners ate spicy polenta with Provencal fennel sauce and served with sauteed asparagus and swiss chard, topped with baby micro arugula.
The asparagus seems to be a favorite of many diners, including Gillian Gabriel of Champaign. "It's just a nice contrast to restaurant food. The tastes are very subtle, ... delicate," she said. "The asparagus was amazing."
As the diners eat, Scott, Samantha and Aaron Schwartz and Rachel Warren, all of Urbana, play folk tunes. Turns out, they are another farmer's market selection. "Steve ran into us at the farmers' market this morning," Scott said.
For dessert, Table chefs serve vegan blueberry shortcake with fresh whipped cream or tofu cream sauce.
The meal has given Joel Gillespie of Champaign a few cooking ideas. "I think I'll try next week and go and get a few things (from the farmer's market)," he said. "At least for tonight, we're inspired."
As food changes with the season, so will the menu at the restaurant, which Moore said will run every Saturday while Urbana's Market at the Square continues. He envisions the sweet tastes of summer will give way to heartier, savory fare of fall. "I can't wait until the winter squash comes," he said.
One goal of The Farmers' Table is to encourage other local restaurants to buy locally, as some already do. He's already encouraged a few of the patrons of Saturday's Farmers' Table.
"It's very good to know where the food came from, that it's organic ... that it supports the local economy, supports the local farmers," said Susan Manning of Urbana. "If they continue with this quality, I think they're gonna have lines out the door. This is amazing food."
PROVENCAL FENNEL SAUCE
This Provencal Fennel Sauce was served at the June 6 Farmers' Table dinner, with ingredients from the Urbana farmers' market (market booth indicated):
3 cloves minced garlic (Claybank)
1 onion, sliced (Blue Moon, Claybank or Tomahnous)
1 large bulb of fennel or 4 large stalks, sliced (Claybank)
1 cup vegetable stock or dry white wine
1.5 cup chopped tomatoes (Blue Moon)
Kalamata olives, pitted & halved (optional)
Dent de Leon or other salty grating cheese (Prairie Fruits Farm)
Baby micro-arugula (Tiny Greens)
Extra-virgin olive oil for sautéing
Sauté garlic and onions in olive oil until soft and fragrant. Add sliced fennel and sauté until it begins to soften. Add liquid, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes and olives, if using, and cook just a few minutes more to heat through.
At the Table dinner, the sauce was served over spicy seared polenta cakes, but the chefs also recommend serving with cavatelli pasta, chicken piccata or seared scallops. Last, garnish with cheese and baby micro-arugula.
For more suggestions for cooking with local foods, Steve Moore of Tiny Greens recommends talking to farmers at the market. Because they have to eat the stuff week in and week out, they can often give great cooking ideas.
"Most farmers love to talk about their products," he said. "They know what's in season."
If you go
Want to try The Farmers' Table? Reservations are required, and meals are served Saturday at 7 p.m. at The Red Herring, 1209 W. Oregon St., U. Reserve by calling 840-9388 or get tickets at the Tiny Greens Farm booth at Urbana's Market.
To volunteer, e-mail FarmersTableDinner@gmail.com or search for "The Farmers' Table Project" on Facebook.