Chicago City Provisions organic farm dinners

It’s Green Travel Month here at Gadling, so to get into the green spirit, I booked a special dinner with Chicago’s City Provisions Catering and Events, an eco-friendly catering company. City Provisions works with local farmers and suppliers, sends its organic waste back to farmers for composting, and sources all of its ingredients from organic and sustainable providers. The company offers catering services both off-site and at its city space, and is in the process of opening up a deli. It also hosts a monthly supperclub. In winter, dinners are held at the storefront location, but in the warmer months the meal is served out on a local farm, using fresh ingredients grown on-site. August’s dinner was held at Heritage Prairie Farm, about an hour north of Chicago. Heritage Prairie also does its owns farm dinners, but drinks and transportation are not included, as they are with City Provisions.

At 1 p.m., my husband and I arrived at the City Provisions location in Chicago. While we checked in, we were offered soft drinks – served in 100% compostable glasses – and light snacks. Then we, and the 38 other diners, boarded the biodiesel bus for the ride out to the farm. Along the way, we were introduced to Cleetus, the mastermind behind City Provisions. We enjoyed some BLT sandwiches, tomato gazpacho, and Great Lakes Brewing beers, and prepared ourselves for the upcoming feast.

Once at the farm, we met the owners and the farmers who work the land. They led us on a tour of the small property and explained the sustainable practices they employ to make the farm as efficient as possible. While Heritage Prairie is not a certified organic farm, the methods they use, such as allowing weeds to grow in certain areas rather than using pesticides, are green and eco-friendly. One of the most unique features of the farm is the three movable greenhouses, which allow the farmers to engaging in a practice known as “four-season farming”. The greenhouses are on tracks and can be moved up and down the length of the field, covering different sections as needed. This allows the farm to harvest some crops as late as January, long past the time when most other farms have halted their efforts for the year.

The tour took us through one of the smaller greenhouses, where we saw the wooden growing beds where seeds were left to germinate. Due to the farm’s small size, it’s very important that it be as efficient as possible. To ensure that every inch of the field is productive, the soil beds in the growing greenhouse are cut up into smaller squares, and only the successful ones are moved to the field. In this way, no field space is wasted. After exploring the grounds, we browsed through the farm’s market for honey made on-site and fresh produce and herbs grown at the farm.

By 5 p.m., we were sitting down to dinner at an elegantly-dressed table in the field. As we helped ourselves to baby eggplant baba ganouj with pita chips, servers began pouring the beer that would accompany each course. Provided by Great Lakes Brewing, one of the most environmentally-responsible brewers in the US, the beer was paired according to each course, and many of the dishes utilized the beer for their sauces.

Over the next three hours, we enjoyed five courses of delicious, fresh-from-the-farm food expertly prepared by the City Provisions chefs, who were all decked out in organic cotton chef’s jackets that had buttons made from nuts rather than plastic. Between each course, we had the chance to mingle with fellow diners and we learned about the process of brewing beer and about the sustainable practices at Great Lakes Brewing from owner Pat Conway.

Our first course, a delicate micro-green salad, was topped with sun gold tomatoes and a vinaigrette made with Grassroots beer from Great Lakes and honey produced on the farm. Next came a colorful mix of seared rainbow chard, baby leeks, currants and pine nuts, with crispy pancetta served over brown rice with a balsamic sauce made from the accompanying Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.

Course three – a zucchini cake topped with basil creme fraiche and served with baby carrots and more of the farm’s microgreens – was just as delightful. By the time course four rolled around, everyone at the table had become fast friends, and we traded stories while oohing and aahing over the grilled pork brat that was topped with grain mustard and served with potato salad and green beans in a browned-butter sauce.

Just when we thought our tummies had been filled to bursting, the final course was brought out. A light-as-air pavlova was topped with caramel-honey cream and fresh peaches and was served alongside a rich Glockenspiel beer. As we licked the last of the cream from our forks and tilted back our glasses to catch the last drops of beer, the chefs were busy setting up another surprise. While dinner had ended, the evening was far from over, and as we stood from the table, we saw that a bonfire had been started, more beer was ready to be consumed, and the ingredients for classic s’mores were laid out nearby. We drank, ate, and relaxed while enjoying the searing colors of the sun setting over the fields.

At 10 p.m., it was time to re-board the bus and return to our city lives. Our indulgent dinner may not have single-handedly saved the planet, but our support of farmers and producers who use sustainable methods may help encourage other restaurants and farmers to take a step in a greener direction too.

Can’t make it to Chicago to book a farm dinner with City Provisions? Here are some other green-focused farm dinners around the country.

Austin, Texas – Dai Due Supper Club
Portland, Oregon – Plate & Pitchfork Farm Dinners
Old Lyme, Connecticut – Dinners at the Farm
Ashville, North Carolina – Maverick Farms
Boulder, Colorado – Meadow Lark Farm Dinners
Point Arena, California – Oz Farm
Various locations – Outstanding in the Field

Virgin America unrolls fresh spring food selections

If you’re sick of the same old chicken or beef + wine or sugar water for your in flight meal, you’re not alone. Many people in the green revolution are moving towards healthier and fitter food selections, and the same old peanuts, pretzels and diet coke aren’t cutting it.

To find any creative meal content, however, you’re going to have to step away from the legacy carriers. Leading the effort, Virgin America, recently redesigned their spring in-flight menu to include options for the health conscious travelers.

Those traveling in Coach will now be able to select fruit and cheese, spring spinach salads, hummus and pita chips, wild berry parfait and mandarin chicken hand rolls among a host of other delectable options.

Guests in First get more mouth water options, including maple roasted chicken, barbecue lamb cutlets and braised beef with peas, feta and nuts. Yum. Take a look at the first class options in the gallery below, and hope that the other carriers tune in and kick up their food offerings as well.


Fill your stomach, save your wallet

You’ve heard a lot about cheap flights and amazing hotel rates lately. Well, restaurants are getting into the game, too. Prix fixe meals for between $25 and $40 are being offered at upscale restaurants across the country. Hey, if you’re not likely to spend big cash on travel, maybe you can splurge a little on a great local meal.

The restaurants are suffering just as much as the hotels and airlines, so they need to get diners in the door.

This year, the National Restaurant Association (yes, there is another “NRA”) expects restaurant sales to drop 1 percent this year – as it did in 2008. That would be the first time drops happened in consecutive years since the association started to keep score back in 1970. This isn’t as bad as the U.S. Travel Association‘s forecast of a 6.7 percent slip in travel spending, but for restaurateurs from coast to coast, it’s certainly cause for concern.

So, if you’re willing to sacrifice dinner at home from time to time, you stand to win. National seafood chain McCormick & Schmick’s for example, is offering a steak and lobster dinner special (with dessert) for $29.95. Realistically, the company has no choice. Up to 40 percent of its customers are business travelers, and sales are down 13 percent from last year.

To find some real bargains, keep an eye out for prix fixe menus. These deals allow restaurants to offer a better value to guests without having to turn to coupons and discounts that would bring prices down relative to specific menu items. Also, every party of four is likely to have one or two people who pull from the regular menu … and they can always nail you on the liquor.

Cockpit Chronicles: Take your kid to work day!

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.

“We’re going to try a new place to eat,” Doug, the captain said as I walked into operations.

While he waited for the dot matrix printer to spit out the twenty feet of paperwork needed for our flight, he filled me in on what was the plan was for Paris.

“Mike (the co-pilot) and I read a review on a New York Times blog about a really small restaurant up near the Arc de Triumph called Le Hide. I figured we’d give it a try.”

Crew members tend to have their own favorite places that they frequent. Sometimes it’s easy to get into a rut and not venture out very far to experience anything different. Not so for Doug. He’s on a quest to try a new restaurant almost every layover.

“This is my step-son, Mack. He’s coming with us tonight,” Doug said, as Mack stepped forward to shake my hand. “Mack has just turned 21 this week, so what better way to celebrate the occasion than to bring him along.”

I was starting to get flashbacks of Michelle’s daughter almost getting bumped from the last trip.

“Are we weight restricted?” I asked.
“Not at all. It’s wide open there and back.” Doug explained.

Doug gave Mack a tour of the cockpit while I did my FB duties, since I was again the relief pilot. I went outside and looked over the nose, landing gear areas including the tire pressures and worked my way clockwise around the airplane. Wings, engines, lights, wheel wells, tail skid, rudder, elevator–it looked like everything was all there, with no leaks or damage.

It’s easy to get complacent after looking at hundreds of airplanes that have nothing wrong with them. I try to challenge myself to catch something out of place, but everything looked fine.

After the obligatory pictures of Mack in the cockpit, I showed him how we set our airspeed bugs manually on the airspeed indicator. Each ‘bug’ represents the point where we can retract our flaps to the next lower level.

So after takeoff and above 1000 feet we nose the airplane over slightly and select climb power, which is a bit less than our takeoff power setting. As the speed accelerates we can then move the flaps, which change the shape of the wing. This allows us to go from a wing that’s optimized for the slow speeds needed at takeoff to a shape that would allow for a cruise speed at MACH .80 or 80% the speed of sound.

Departing at flaps fifteen, we’d then ask for flaps five, then flaps one and finally flaps up. At around 2500 feet above the ground, we’re all ‘cleaned up’ and ready to accelerate to 250 knots, which is the maximum speed the FAA allows below 10,000 feet.

Passing through 10,000 feet we can then accelerate to our climb speed, which would be around 320 knots tonight.

Since Mack already has a few hours under his belt, and he’s even soloed a small airplane, he quickly understood the concept and he even helped me to reach over and set Doug’s bugs. May as well make him useful.

The departure was uneventful, and I did my relief-pilot duty of dividing the flight into three parts of about an hour and fifty minutes each to divide up the breaks.

I was fortunate to be back in the cockpit during Mike, the copilot’s break, when we passed just south of Ireland as the sun was rising. I couldn’t help thinking how Lindbergh may have hit this exact part of Ireland, near the Dingle Peninsula, on his solo flight across the Atlantic.

I also thought of Ruthann,, who lives in a tiny village in Western Ireland. She’s been reading my blog almost since the beginning and she’s the one responsible for editing and proofreading everything I’ve written since coming over to Gadling.

Since the age of eleven, Ruthann has gone to sleep while listening on a VHF radio to Shanwick Air Traffic Control give out clearances to airplanes passing just above her house.

She still catches our flight every now and then, using a VHF or HF radio. I suppose you could say she’s an aviation nut–just take one look at her flickr pictures to get an idea. She plans to start flight training this fall in Florida.

After arriving in Paris, we went down the stairs near the top of the jetbridge and down to the waiting bus. After swinging around to pick up Doug’s step-son at the front of the terminal, we were on our way to the hotel.

The Saturday morning van ride took only 35 minutes–a far shorter ride than the hour and forty-five minute ride that’s common on weekdays.

Since this was the first trip of three 3-day Paris trips in a row, I figured I’d catch up on some sleep, so I arranged to meet Doug and Mack at a pub after a nice five hour ‘nap.’

Doug and Mack toured all over Paris, going all the way up to Montmartre, north of the city and finally ending up at a wine tasting event that’s held at the Dernier Goute, a wine store in the Latin Quarter.

I worked my way toward the pub where we’d meet up, stopping at my favorite creperie for a crepe Nutella. For me, it’s not an official Paris trip without a crepe Nutella.

Doug found a nice Irish pub right off the Seine called “Le Galway.” Since we both have GSM cell phones that work in Europe, he was able to send me text messages to let me know exactly how to find this pub.

Mike managed to find the meeting point as well, so we worked our way to the metro station where we’d eventually come out in front of the Arc de Triumph.

Doug had read some great reviews about a restaurant that was moderately priced, especially considering the quality. Le Hide is described by Alexander Lobrano of Gourmet magazine as “a fantastic new bistro run by genial Japanese chef Hide Kobayashi. I left looking forward to my next meal here, and since I’m not alone, make sure to reserve, since word is getting around on this one.

We chose our appetizers and entrées, and left the desert choice for later. The prix fix meal was 29 Euros, which was great for such a prime location. As I’ve mentioned before, a pr
ix fix menu is made up of your choice of one of the starters, one main course and often a dessert.

I played it safe and ordered the Lyonnaise sausage over mashed potatoes, while Mike and Mack went for the escargot. Doug’s appetizer was the pan fried foie gras.

Doug and Mike insisted that I try their appetizers. I may have made a mistake in playing it safe, since I sampled a bit of Mike’s escargot and Doug’s foie gras, which were both out of this world.

For the main course, I had the pan-fried fillet of sole, and the others had either saute of chicken or veal chops in a butter sauce. That was all I needed to officially crown the French as having the best food in the world.

And we hadn’t even had desert by then.

Unfortunately, the battery in my camera died during our time in the city. Luckily Mack came to the rescue with some nice shots along the way. Thanks, Mack.

The next day, Mack came up to the cockpit once again during boarding to pose with Doug and Mike. I was busy doing the preflight, of course. I think he had a great time on his second trip to Paris with Doug.

Doug bought enough supplies to have a Parisian picnic in the cockpit on the way home, sans wine of course. We enjoyed some baguette and cheese, and some deli meat that had to be eaten before we arrived in Boston since the U.S. agricultural department doesn’t allow these kind of food items into the country.

We usually end up racing Air France flight 332 into Boston at the end of the leg. We generally beat them into Logan, which is important because U.S. customs occasionally prevents our passengers from deplaning until the crowd of people from other flights has cleared the customs area.

But this time, AF332, was just passing 2000 feet overhead as we prepared for our descent. Even though they managed to get a few miles ahead of us, Boston center decided that they’d give the Air France flight a 30 degree heading change to properly space the arrivals. That meant we’d be in the lead.

As I went to get my camera and take a picture of the second-place Air France jet, it slipped into the melted bucket of water that was once full of ice. I immediately yanked out the battery to prevent anything from shorting out.

Perhaps it’s just payback for taking the lead away from the faster Air France flight. But I’m happy to report that after drying out for 24 hours, the camera works fine.

Anytime you can take a family member or close friend on one of your trips, it hardly feels like work. I’m sure Doug was excited to bring Mack along. It was fun for all of us to experience the city through his eyes. I’m hoping that Mack continues flying, as I’d love to have him as my co-pilot someday.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston. For the months of May through July, he’ll focus on Paris almost exclusively. If you have any good suggestions for Parisian activities, feel free to leave your tips in the comments.

How to be a good dinner guest in France

My dad lived the high life in Europe for a good chunk of his adult life, and as a Commanding Officer for the Royal Canadian Air Forces, he was treated to many fine dinners at many fine establishments. So you can imagine the lectures I got when I put my elbows on the table or, heaven forbid, asked for ketchup for my food. “If you ask for ketchup in Paris, you’d get kicked out of the restaurant,” he’d say as I rolled my eyes.

As painful as it was when I was a surly teenager, I’m kind of glad for the etiquette lessons of my youth because I it gives me the chance to escape being labelled a stereotypically rude North American when travelling. Still, it can’t hurt to brush up on table manners. Here are some tips for being a good dinner guest in France from MSNBC:

  • Don’t arrive exactly on time for a dinner party. Come about 15 minutes to half an hour late
  • Don’t bring wine — it implies that you don’t trust the host’s selection. Bring sweets or flowers — but not chrysanthemums (they signify death) and not yellow ones (they signify an unfaithful husband)
  • Men should wear nice jackets to dinner and women should wear high heels
  • Always keep your hands on the table, but not the elbows.
  • When greeting, women can kiss women and women can kiss men, but two men should never kiss so save yourself the embarrassment of leaning in (cringe!) If you’re in Alsace or Brittany, be prepared for up to three kisses but don’t initiate them yourself.
  • Never pour your own wine at a restaurant. Want water? You’ll have to ask.
  • Eat asparagus with your fingers and use your digits to get shellfish out of the shell, but otherwise use your utensils.
  • Always eat with your fork in the left hand, knife in the right. And hold your fork properly — it’s not a shovel!
  • If it’s a five-course meal, the only course you can refuse is the fourth one (aka, the Cheese course.) If you have dietary restrictions, let them know beforehand because it’s uncouth to refuse anything.
  • Don’t cut your salad — roll it with your fork.