If there's a fine line between a garden and a farm, by the third year Skokan had clearly crossed it. He was able to expand to almost three acres by leasing land from Boulder County Open Space along with a group of like-minded budding farmers, whose adjoining leased properties totaled nearly ten acres. He bought a tractor and learned to drive it -- poorly, at first. In his new cookbook Farm Fork Food, Skokan writes that "'undulating' is the charitable word to describe the look of the rows that first season." By the end of the year, though, he was the only one still farming that leased land and had taken over some of what the others had left, finishing with more than five acres.
Black Cat Farms now covers 130 acres and includes pigs, cows, chickens and turkeys; what comes from the farm determines the menus at Skokan's restaurants. During the early years, he says, he hoped to "drive the farm into the center of the plate," growing staple vegetables like carrots, beets and cauliflower. "Instead of saying 'three weeks are from us and the rest of the year is from California,' the goal was to expand deeper into fall and winter and earlier into spring," he explains.
Pointing to Maine's Eliot Coleman, "the godfather of four-season farming," as inspiration, Skokan says Black Cat Farms now shapes his menus almost year-round, except for a small window between Valentine's Day and mid-March every year. He uses homestead techniques common 100 to 200 years ago to ferment and pickle kimchi, sauerkraut, cucumbers and jalapeños. During the tomato harvest, his restaurants put up fifty gallons of tomato sauce a day. Deep-freezes and commercial food dryers help preserve more vegetables for the lean months, while root cellars under the farm store 35,000 pounds of root vegetables -- beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, onions and other varieties -- to sustain the restaurants well into May.
But Skokan didn't stop there; he was also thinking about greens. "What do people north of us do in the middle of winter?" he wondered, and soon found that seeds purchased from Scandinavia -- spinach, mâche, chervil, Asian mustards, kale, escarole and arugula, to name just a few -- performed well in Colorado winters. He uses seed saved from his own plants now, and can harvest outdoors until mid-January, using shop brooms to push snow off fabric covers; a greenhouse the size of Black Cat Bistro itself provides an additional boost.
"No one does it to the extent we do," Skokan says of how his nearly year-round production ranks on the Front Range farm-to-table scene.
Skokan's book features recipes from his restaurants that were inspired by the farm, but also describes his evolution as a chef and farmer and includes tips for diving into more advanced home-food preparation (stocks, charcuterie, preserved vegetables), home gardening and selecting produce from farmers' markets. He describes the book as "one part inspiration and one part nuts and bolts," citing recipes built off what he loves to cook at home and ideas he gives customers at the farmers' market every Saturday. (As if he's not busy enough as a farmer and restaurant owner, Skokan and and his wife, Jill, also run a CSA and a booth at the Boulder Farmers' Market.)
Keep reading for more with chef, farmer and cookbook author Eric Skokan.