“I like to challenge diners.”

That’s what Executive Chef Leonard Hollander told me a few minutes before the recent Prairie Fruits Farm dinner at Marion Street Cheese Market Café.

“And when I say ‘challenge,’ Hollander quickly added, “I don’t mean that in a bad way. I like to present diners with the unexpected.”

Before landing at MSCM Café, Hollander worked at a number of high-exposure restaurants, including Ambria and then Avenues in the Peninsula Hotel (recently awarded two stars in Chicago’s first-ever Michelin red book guide).

I was glad to be invited to a dinner showcasing cheeses from Prairie Fruits Farm, the first of a growing breed of artisanal Illinois cheese makers with the designation “farmstead.” All their cheese is made with milk from animals that live on their farm.

Farm-owners Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband keep sheep as well as Nubian and La Mancha goats. These particular goats were selected because they seem to yield less “goaty” milk. Many prefer this milder flavor, though this dinner included a number of cheeses with a lot of personality (and I mean that in the best way: I’m the kind of cheese-lover who uses “barnyard funk” as a compliment to cheese).

Goat Cheesecake. Chef Hollander began the meal with a challenging app. This dessert-in-reverse was a savory and dense confection, made with Jarrell and Cooperband’s pillowy goat cheese set in a crust of marcona almonds. This Spanish variety of the almond tends to be a little sweeter than most but still has a predictable though slight bitter note that provided contrast to the sour mutsu apple marmalade. All which made for a starter that sparkled the palate with sweet, bitter and sour flavors, a good set-up for the meal that would follow.

Throughout dinner, Wes and Leslie and Chef Hollander detailed what we were eating. It was an “education,” but not in any boring classroom sense but because it enlightened everyone around the table about where our food comes from and the incredible diversity of great stuff to eat.

Last summer at Chicago Gourmet, Chef Rick Bayless (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, Xoco) mentioned to me that “I always see my role as that of an educator because what we want to do is sort of seduce people with really great food. But that just opens the door for us to be able to start a conversation.”

The conversation around the table at MSCM Café was all about food.

“People want to know more about their food,” Hollander told me, “They want to try new things and new flavors.”

Cheese Course. I’ve been eating Prairie Fruit Farm cheese since their first year in operation. Now, five or so years later, I’ve had two of their best cheese ever: Roxanne (a harder raw milk sheep’s cheese) and Red Dawn (an unctuous ripened goat cheese dusted with smoked paprika). The sheep’s cheese, Cooperband explained, “reflects the seasonality of late August, early September,” when the volume of milk diminishes but the fat content remains relatively constant, resulting in richer milk and more flavorful cheese. “Cows are usually milked year round,” Cooperband went on, “so there’s less seasonality, less a sense of the terroir [the land where the milk originated]” than there is with their pasture-raised sheep and goats. The cheese platter was served with a hunk of comb, heavy with honey, and cashews. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about eating strong cheese: sweet stuff and nuts seem to always complement a full-flavored fromage.

Sun Choke Bisque. This dark green creamy soup was spread with sunflower seeds and sprouts, thickened and enriched with a black pepper chevre. Jarrell explained that the sun choke is the bulging root of a flower that Italians called “girasol” (because it turns toward the sun, like a sunflower). MSCM owner Eric speculated that this Italian name is probably why the gnarly root is sometimes mistakenly known as a Jerusalem artichoke, though it has nothing to do with Jerusalem.

Guinea Hen. Hollander did a pulled style of Guinea hen, served with toasted chestnuts and gnocchi made with sweet potatoes from Prairie Fruits Farm.  We’ve not often had the opportunity to eat Guinea hen. Cooperband told us this is “a very stupid bird that makes chickens looks smart.” Farmers keep this fowl on their land to act as a kind of “watchdog, because they make a lot of noise.”

Unfortunately, because the birds have so few survival skills, it’s usually necessary for farmers to get a few new Guinea hens every year because they tend to die off or just disappear into the bellies of more clever predators. 

The meat of the Guinea hen is mainly quite dark, loaded with flavor and yet lean. A little cheesy richness was provided by shaved Kaskasia, which had the dry, stiff tang of a Manchego or Parm.

Throughout the year on their Guinea hen-patrolled farm, Jarrell and Cooperband hold a series of dinners, during which folks from Chicagoland and elsewhere travel to their property in the Champaign-Urbana area to sample cheese, meat and produce. “We call them 100 Yard Dinners,” explained Jarrell, because “all the food we serve comes from within 100 yards of the table.”

Jarrell, who until recently taught full-time at nearby University of Illinois, is like Cooperband a natural instructor. They both enjoy informing diners about the genesis of what ends up on their dinner plates. Like Bayless, they’re conversation starters, provocateurs who through delicious dinners start challenging people to think more about the origins of their food.

Like many of those who’ve returned to the land, Jarrell and Cooperband bemoan the low quality of much of the produce that we Americans eat. Like Hollander, they believe that part of their role is to challenge. “Our mission,” Jarrell says, “is to make people dissatisfied with store-bought fruits and vegetables.” Once you savor a peach or carrot from a small farm, presented in season, you’ll find it harder to choke down a similar fruit or vegetable from a factory farm.

Krotovina Ice Cream, whipped up from half sheep and half goat milk, was served with figs and a Sicilian pistachio cake. Cooperband herself was “pleasantly surprised” that Hollander was able to turn this pungent cheese into a delightful dessert that was lighter than a cheese course and yet packed powerful cheese flavor.

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David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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