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A Change Of Plans
The pandemic wrought by Covid 19 and our nation’s inability to mandate a unified and successful response, has upended many thriving small food purveyors and farms in my area. But I have been amazed at the resourcefulness of some of these entrepreneurs. It is not just restaurants that have created carry-out versions of their menus. Across the country, farmers and purveyors of quality produce, cheeses, breads, and other comestibles, stranded by the pandemic, have found impressive new ways to sell what they produce. I now can order a box of vegetables and fruits from Twin Springs Farm, and pick it up at the Wednesday Farmers Market on Sherwood Hall Lane. My deck is beautifully outfitted with flowers and herbs ordered online from Middleway Farm and picked up on Saturdays. As you know from a previous post, San Giovanni’s Farm has an online order form for their greens, herbs and vegetables. For a treat from much farther away, I discovered a grilling cheese that is so much better than Halloumi through Saxelby Cheesemongers, plus some butter that has made the Resident Butter Maniac (the same as the Wine Maniac) deliriously happy. And some local restaurant chefs have taken this dismal fiasco and created new provisions outlets. John Wood is one of them.
The Backbone Of Open Hand
John started out as a teenage dish washer in a Knights Of Columbus Hall and became hooked on cooking professionally when he first worked at a local “French” bistro. There it was “obligatoire” to serve fettuccine with seafood and a white wine sauce. Realizing that there was more to professional cooking than garnishing chopped parsley on every dish, he graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine and worked in the restaurants of Bob Kinkead and later Frank Ruta. With Frank, he learned the importance of meticulous attention to detail. From Kinkead, Wood learned how to be an excellent saucier and also observed his effort to combat the buying power of chain restaurants by corralling independent restaurants together to form CIRA. John was also exposed to a renaissance of local suppliers, for whom quality and not price was the point of pride
John became obsessed with the art of making cheese and salumi – the latter is something dear to my heart. I nearly fainted with joy when he offered Bolognese style culatello and tigelle in one of his Pandemic Provisions bags. Working from Paul Bertolli’s book, which was a trailblazer at the time, John produced salumi for high-end restaurants in our area. He even learned how to slaughter lamb when he worked for a tapas restaurant. These skills John was planning to incorporate in his own restaurant. He was about to sign a lease when the Covid pandemic shut down the industry.
Wednesday Is Full Of Joy
Since going out to eat in this area is fraught with problems, cooking at home has become a seven-day schedule for many of us. Getting carry-out in boxes with plastic cutlery and using food delivery apps have some depressing side effects – the companies behind the apps are killing the profit margins of struggling restaurants, and eating out of a box or plastic container saps a good portion of joy from our dining pleasure. Instead we look forward to the weekly menus dreamed up by John and his staff. Every Wednesday is a looked for treat. One of Open Hand‘s workers delivers to my door a bag of provisions, which provide our Wednesday main meal. The Resident Wine Maniac has already made his vino selection and the table is set. And after, we have the makings for a couple of other meals with some additions from our cupboard and fridge. For example, last week, my provisions bag had Corn and Crab Ravioli which was sauced at home with Open Hand’s crab compound butter. The extra pasta was fresh bucatini to be topped with their spicy heirloom tomato sauce and conveniently grated pecorino romano. With our ravioli we had mixed green salad with fennel, fresh peaches, and almonds, dressed with an unusual Honey Bourbon vinaigrette. Open Hand provided enough for another salad with the bucatini. And of course, the dessert was divine: a cherry tart with a pistachio “pesto” and whipped cream. Wednesdays are joyful indeed.
Provisions And Some Final Thoughts
While I have experimented with other pandemic-induced grocery shopping alternatives, the $50 we spend on Wednesdays gives us a dressed up meal and then some. One time I bought two bags and shared it outdoors with some friends and their children, and we both had the makings of another meal in our homes afterwards. If you visit John’s site often, new things will appear, such as dried pastas that are freshly and correctly made featuring local flours (you can actually taste the wheat). Open Hand has started to sell not only their divine pasta but freshly made burrata and fior di latte mozzarella at some of our Farmers’ Markets (Del Ray, Four Mile Run, Rockville City Center, Olney, Shady Grove, West End and Pike & Rose). As resourceful as John has been, one of the most heartbreaking aspects of picking up the pieces was not being able to hire everyone he knew and had worked with. These are people who needed jobs, who had worked for years in restaurants and were going to lose their houses or struggle to feed their families. So when you get your bag from Open Hand, know that this lovely menu you are about to serve at your table will have helped others to have food on theirs.
I think John says it best when we talked about his idea of a weekly provisions bag: One thing I think now, is that what is important is how a meal makes the person feel. Italian food is actually a great medium. You share antipasti with the table, which brings people together and helps break the ice if necessary. Then you have the pasta, followed by the entree…and finally a light dessert. You end the meal feeling great, not stuffed and heavy. Pasta is the ultimate comfort food . I want to do my part to take high quality ingredients from good farmers and get them into the homes of customers. But I want to do that in a responsible and sustainable way where we can hire people who need to be hired.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.