Good food fresh off the farm

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The best was last. A small dish full of ``Jerilyn's Blackberry Cobbler'' recently put the finishing touch on my supper of zesty vegetable soup and Chicken Boreg -- well-seasoned chicken breast wrapped in phyllo dough -- at Brusseau's, a small, homespun restaurant in this suburban community.

The simple but luxurious-tasting dessert is typical of the food served here: appetizing to the eye, and with flavor that has a kind of right-off-the-farm authenticity.

The tangy-sweet berries, explains owner Jerilyn Brusseau, are shipped up regularly from Oregon. There are closer supplies, but the Oregon variety, called Marion blackberries, ``has a particularly good flavor and is available the year round,'' she says.

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Mrs. Brusseau has perfected her cobbler over some 20 years. Its moist topping, she observes, is a big improvement over the drier cobblers she ate as a girl growing up on a farms in the Northwest. Like most of her dishes, this dessert springs from a lifelong involvement with carefully prepared, meticulously fresh foods.

``There were always people in our home,'' she says, recalling the ``big fried-chicken dinners'' that were a Sunday tradition with her family.

This strong tradition of hospitality, nurtured on the Snohomish, Wash., dairy farm where she spent her childhood, led Brusseau to act on a longtime dream and open a restaurant eight years ago. She bought an old gas station on one of Edmonds's main streets, up the hill from where the ferry steams across Puget Sound for Kingston every hour, and turned it into a friendly blend of homey informality and ``light, interesting fare.''

Most of that fare -- grains, vegetables, fruits, poultry, seafood, dairy products -- comes from the surrounding region.

These days, ``part of what I do is get farmers out before the public, to show people what they do,'' Brusseau says. At a recent cruise banquet she helped organize, locally raised specialties were front and center: out-of-the-ordinary things like Japanese Kumamoto oysters (``succulent, sweet, delicious,'' according to Brusseau), wild greens, goats'-milk blue cheese, and oyster mushrooms, named for their oyster-like flavor.

Only ``free-run'' chicken, raised locally of course, makes it into such Brusseau's delicacies as Chicken Boreg. Unlike the pen-raised birds found on most supermarket shelves, this poultry is allowed to roam the farmyard -- and the taste difference, asserts Brusseau, is distinct. ``It really tastes like chicken,'' says Henry Knapp, a faithful patron who grew up in England and remembers the ``free range'' poultry of Yorkshire.

Like Mr. Knapp, many of Brusseau's customers tend to make the compact little restaurant a part of their daily lives. Brusseau points out one couple, the Gruenwalds, who've been coming in twice a day since 1979. The same twosomes and groups drop by every morning to sit, eat some of Jerilyn's tempting cinnamon rolls, perhaps, and talk.

``People come in for more than the food,'' says the short, sparkly proprietor. ``They come to see friends, to relax.'' Some well-traveled locals (Edmonds is a rather sophisticated suburb of Seattle) have compared her establishment to the caf'es of Paris, Brusseau says. Certainly the ample supply of late-afternoon customers sitting, chatting, sipping, and sampling indicates that Brusseau's is something of a neighborhood hub, a place where conversation and joviality reign.

Brusseau thinks of her restaurant as ``real supportive of people and families.'' Her oldest son, Jeff, works with her in catering. ``He's a great food person,'' she says, beaming. Her father makes the jams that complement the substantial, multi-grain breads produced by the bustling bakers here. An uncle from Oregon supplies her with hand-shelled walnuts.

When the restaurant was launched, ``I didn't know a thing about the business,'' Brusseau says. Her main entrepreneurial strengths, she explains, were that family tradition of hospitality, which she hoped to share through her restaurant, and a lifelong interest in food and its preparation.

There were some shaky times, when it seemed those ingredients might not be enough -- but friends who glimpsed some of her vision for the place were on hand to help smooth financial squalls, such as pending tax bills.

Brusseau's is very much in tune with current preferences for natural foods. In one way, at least, it might have been a little ahead of the trends. Smoking is not allowed -- something a bit avant- garde when the place opened eight years ago, says the owner. No additives find their way into the baked goods, she affirms, and this restaurateur wouldn't hear of using mixes, despite some early advice that she wouldn't be able to stay in business without them. ``I'm adamant on that,'' she proclaims.

Readers can judge the results for themselves in her blackberry cobbler recipe, which follows: Jerilyn's Blackberry Cobbler Filling 6 cups blackberries 1 1/4 cups sugar 1/3 cup cornstarch Topping 2 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste 1 cup milk 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Rinse berries very gently and place in a bowl. Sprinkle with 1 cup sugar and let stand 1 hour at room temperature. Drain, reserving juice.

In a saucepan, combine remaining 1/4 cup sugar with cornstarch and reserved berry juice. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until mixture is thick, about 4 minutes. Cool slightly and stir into berries. Pour berries into a 9-by-9-inch ovenproof dish.

To make topping, in a large bowl combine flour, 1 cup sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add milk and butter and beat mixture until smooth.

Spoon topping over berries, spreading to edges of dish to prevent any excess juice from boiling over. Sprinkle topping lightly with nutmeg and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar.

Bake cobbler 35 to 40 minutes, or until topping is golden brown and filling is bubbly. Remove cobbler from oven, cool slightly, and spoon into serving dishes. Top with heavy cream.

Yield: 12 servings.

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