Strawberries were supposed to be the star of chef Chris Starkus's cooking demo last Saturday at the Union Station Farmers Market, but weather and supply issues curtailed the supply of the sweet berries. So Starkus, executive chef at Urban Farmer, rallied and decided that peaches could replace the berries in his presentation, something he had organized down to the recipe cards he handed out.
"I am a big planner, but since peaches just came in, that's a great change, and honestly I'm happy about it," he says as we wander to Morton's Orchards to get the just-picked stone fruit. "I just needed something sweet."
The peaches were the perfect substitute, a juicy, delightfully ripe companion to the heirloom cherry tomatoes and fresh basil the chef picked up from Rocky Mountain Fresh. Good thing, too, since three of the chef's dishes for the demonstration relied on fruit.
"I have a tough time trying to simplify," he says, adding that the idea is to make a full meal in one pot. "This is three recipes in one and can work in a multitude of ways."
The blend of chopped tomatoes, basil and peaches would top bruschetta made from Hinman's Bakery bread, add flavor to seared sirloin steak from Corner Post Meats, and brighten a bed of mixed greens and multi-colored carrots from ACRES at Warren Tech. The only ingredients that didn't come from the market were salt, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard, which Starkus brought with him from the restaurant.
"It's all about light toppings," says the chef. "Sometimes you don't want to sit down in the summer to a heavy meal."
Not only had he planned to whip up these three light and easy plates, but Starkus also brought some of the bees from Urban Farmer's rooftop hive to show market-goers. Those buzzing buddies are one reason he bee-lined for Highland Honey, the Boulder company that provided his starting "nuc," or nucleus, a small honeybee colony. Honey, he says, was a key ingredient in his dish, and Highland Honey's not-too-sweet Breathe Easy blend, flavored with osha root, juniper berries, rosehips and chokecherries, proved spot on and also showcased locally forged ingredients. A giant spoonful of the stuff made it into the star mixture of fruits and herbs, adding a little more sweetness but also a hearty depth to the flavor.
"Anything at its peak season is at its best, and as a chef you don't have to really do anything to bring that out," he says. "Also, when you are sourcing from people who specialize in certain stuff, you are working with an ingredient that's an A-plus."
Once Starkus had all the components, he quickly got to work toasting slices of baguette in olive oil, dicing the peaches and tomatoes, and making a chiffonade of basil, which basically means stacking the leaves, rolling them, then thinly slicing the green bundle. The juice from the mixture would act as a dressing for the salad as well as a finishing pop for the bruschetta.
As he worked prepping the produce, a small crowd began to form, both to watch him prep and to get a closer look at the bees. The marriage of food, farms and beekeeping remained ever-prevalent during the demonstration, and Starkus was proud to highlight the growers he used at Urban Farmer. Corner Post Meats, he says, provides pork for the kitchen. Rocky Mountain Fresh does all the tomatoes — more cheaply, he adds, than out-of-state growers. Soon, he says, he is about to start using Morton's Orchards for peaches to replace blueberries on the seasonal menu. Josh Olsen from ACRES is a friend, and there are talks about him becoming Starkus's apprentice beekeeper.
Seasonal cooking and local sourcing of as many ingredients as possible is something Starkus does not only at Urban Farmer, but at his Lakewood home, too. His family has a micro farm, and since tomatoes are coming in strong, he explains, there is nothing his wife loves more than making a simple bruschetta topped with ripe tomatoes from the garden. In a way, the star mixture he made at the market was an ode to that favorite breakfast, and something other people could easily prepare as well, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner. The only trick is getting to the farmers' market and picking the freshest ingredients possible.
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