Last night, Tony and I were honored to be part of a very special North Dakota event called Banquet in a Field, which took place at Peterson Farms Seed in rural Cass County. The event was sponsored by Common Ground North Dakota, a group of volunteer farm women from across the state whose mission is to build stronger connections between the farmers who grow our food and the people who consume it – in other words, the rest of us.
Tony and I were invited to participate as the volunteer food and beverage team and given the challenge to create a dinner that would showcase ingredients produced by our local crops, to be served right out on the field for about 120 guests.
This opportunity was unlike anything we’d ever done in the world of food, and we jumped at the chance to broaden our horizons.
In addition to preparing a five-course dinner, we were tasked with creating a variety of field-inspired appetizers, each of which would be served in front of a plot that had been planted with its designated crop.
Certain crops were easy, like potatoes, dry edible beans, corn, honey, sugar beets and wheat, as we already had several recipes for these in our repertoire. More challenging were the crops that we hadn’t worked with before, like soybeans, sunflowers and flax. What a great opportunity to explore new foods.
For soybeans, we chose to create an Asian-style salad using edamame, or young soybeans, which are harvested before they harden, making them soft and edible. They are often found in Asian cuisine and have recently become popular here in the U.S.
Flax was easy, as I had been looking for an excuse to add a homemade cracker to my baking routine. Flax was the perfect fit. I found a recipe that used both flax seed and flax flour, and am delighted with the results.
For sunflowers, we found our inspiration after scouring Pinterest for ideas. Every good party needs something unusual and fun that will delight the guests, and when we came across a photo of sunflower brittle we couldn’t wait to give it a try.
The recipe we chose was featured on foodandwine.com and came from Tia Keenan, a New York City fromager (cheesemonger, or cheese specialist). We were very happy with Tia’s recipe, which produced a rich, caramel-brown brittle that perfectly showcased the sunflower seeds. It was salty-sweet and deliciously sticky, but not in a way that would prompt an emergency visit to the dentist. We loved it.
My mother loved it too, and we were almost set with our recipes for the event until she suggested I make another batch, this time using my Grandma Sunny’s peanut brittle recipe.
I did, and now we can’t decide which version we like better. Grandma’s brittle had a wonderfully light and airy texture, easy to bite into and so good it’s impossible to have just one piece. While not as visible as in Tia’s version, the sunflowers made a great substitute for peanuts. Stuck between a rock and a brittle place, we decided to serve them both at the event and let our guests pick their favorite.
I submitted this column several days before the actual event, and I will be sharing more details about the Banquet in a Field with you next week. In the meantime, we encourage you to take inspiration from the agriculture all around us and discover a new recipe to add to your collection.
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
½ cup light corn syrup
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups raw sunflower seeds (we opted for roasted, unsalted for more flavor)
Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly oil the paper. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, water and corn syrup and bring to a boil. Boil over moderate heat until the caramel is golden and registers 320 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, salt and baking soda. Stir in the sunflower seeds and quickly spread the mixture on the prepared baking sheet in a thin layer. Let the brittle stand until completely cool, then break into pieces.
To store: The brittle can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
From Foodandwine.com, contributed by Tia Keenan
North Dakota Sun Brittle
Lightly adapted from Grandma Sunny’s (and Aunt Margie’s) Best Peanut Brittle recipe
3 cups sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
½ cup water
2 to 2½ cups roasted and salted sunflower seeds
2+ teaspoons baking soda (per Margie’s advice I used about ½ a teaspoon more – it makes it foamier)
In a heavy saucepan, stir together the sugar, corn syrup and water. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves and mixture comes to a boil. Continue cooking without stirring until the temperature reaches 280 degrees on a candy thermometer (or until a small amount of mixture dropped into very cold water separates into threads that are hard but not brittle – soft crack stage).
Stir in sunflower seeds gradually so mixture continues to boil. Cook, stirring often and watching closely until temperature reaches 300 degrees (or until a small amount of mixture dropped into cold water separates into thread which are head and brittle – hard crack stage).
Remove from heat. Add the baking soda, stirring in gently but quickly. (Don’t over stir – just get the baking soda mixed in.) Pour into a greased large cookie sheet without spreading with a tool. (It makes the surface look rough if you do.) Cool. Break into pieces.
Makes 2+ pounds.
Note: To make peanut brittle, use 3 cups salted peanuts instead of sunflower seeds.