I was graciously given a ticket to attend a special event at Prairie Fruits Farm back home in Champaign over the weekend. Proceeds from the evening benefited the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, a worthy organization aiming to fight hunger in the area. The special guest was Chef Rick Bayless, who serves the farm’s goat cheese in his restaurants and agreed to appear for both a private cooking demonstration and intimate four-course dinner. Bayless’s commitment to local agriculture has been transformative in the Midwest over the past few decades; in fact, Prairie Fruits Farm itself had received a Frontera Farmer Foundation grant to install its commercial kitchen, so the event was an especially meaningful celebration of that partnership.
For the first part of the afternoon, Bayless demonstrated three seasonal recipes: guacamole, margaritas, and tomato salad using produce from the farm’s own garden – a dish he said he made up when he got there that day. I’ve seen his cooking demos before, but continue to be blown away by how seamlessly he incorporates ingredient information (did you know that it takes a full year for an avocado to mature?) and cooking tips into the actual step-by-step preparation of the dish. Bayless incorporated honey crisp apples, which he admitted were his favorite variety, into both the guacamole and the margarita. For the former, they were joined by fennel and thyme in addition to the avocado, and for the latter, they were blended with habanero before mingling with tequila, apple brandy, and a cinnamon-black pepper-salt rim. Both were lovely departures from their more traditional counterparts, although I will note that the margarita had some serious heat! After the demo, Bayless signed a few cookbooks and then was off to the kitchen to resume prep for the night’s meal. Meanwhile, we guests enjoyed a cocktail hour in the barn before co-owner Wes Jarrell led us on a tour of the farm. It was such a treat to see the adorable goats – and thank them for contributing to such incredible cheese! – as Wes pointed out interesting produce in the garden and shared more of the farm’s history.
Once back at the barn, it was time to eat. As expected, all four courses were a stunning convergence of the seasonal, elegant Mexican cuisine that Bayless does so well and the pure essence of each showcased cheese. The masa boat packed lots of richness and tang into a single starting bite, and the tomato salad held burst after burst of flavor, each component distinct within a bright tomato-centric palette. I was glad to see Bayless incorporate his famous mole into the main course, and the poblano variety underneath the pork loin was mild, but as complex and velvety as ever. I could have eaten that sauce on its own, but when paired with the chèvre-stuffed tamales, I was in heaven. The real show-stopper, though, was the dessert: a “mash-up,” as Bayless put it, of tres leches cake and a classic pear, blue cheese, and walnut salad. It was out-of-the-box and completely successful, perfectly punctuating the meal’s joint spotlight on the flavors of Mexico and the endless potential of farm-fresh cheese.