There are some nights so magical that you hardly know how to put them into words. Fortunately, one guest at last week's second annual Banquet in a Field knew just how to sum up the evening. "It's so beautiful and perfect out here that I'm reminded of California's Napa wine country.
"While it may seem an unlikely comparison, Tony and I found it difficult to argue with her. After preparing this feast on an idyllic summer evening in the heart of some of North Dakota's most beautiful farmland, we could hardly believe our good fortune. If this was considered work, then sign us up for more, please.
The evening was hosted by Carl and Julie Peterson at Peterson Farms Seed in rural Cass County, in conjunction with Common Ground North Dakota. Common Ground ND is an energetic group of volunteer farm women whose mission is "to share conversations about North Dakota food and farming" with nonagricultural folks, like the 120 guests who attended the banquet.
With dazzling blue skies and lush fields as our backdrop, North Dakota was the uncontested star of the night. Two long tables adorned with white linens, sunflowers and other rustic features were set smack dab in the middle of the farm fields, surrounded by acres of soybeans and corn.
This was our second year steering the food and beverage committee for the banquet, and we were again challenged to come up with a menu inspired by some of North Dakota's most prolific crops, including durum, spring wheat, barley, honey, dry edible beans, potatoes, flax, corn, sunflowers, soybeans, canola and sugar beets.
Small plots of these crops had been planted in a section of the field opposite the tables, and guests were encouraged to walk among them and visit with the local farmers and ranchers who were there to answer any and all questions.
North Dakota's livestock and ranching tradition was also on display, with dishes featuring beef, pork and lamb. Once again, the talented team from North Dakota State University's BBQ Boot Camp and Animal Sciences Department stole the show, manning the grill with ease and preparing lamb kabobs and beef tenderloin to perfection.
This year's menu offered favorites from last year, including corn fritters, sun brittle and edamame salad, as well as new dishes like candied bacon, honey ice cream, potato croquettes, wheatberry salad and North Dakota white bean puree. We were pleased to welcome a dozen young volunteers from the Future Farmers of America, who served our guests with enthusiasm, efficiency and grace.
One particularly popular item was our Blueberry Flax Muffins, which are only moderately sweet and wonderfully satisfying. Flax is a great source of fiber, protein and vitamins, and North Dakota is the leading producer of flax for oil and food use in the nation. I made dozens of these healthy muffins in miniature form, about 10 of which were inhaled by our 10-year-old son, Gio, which I always consider a good sign.
There is so much we love about Banquet in a Field, and the challenge of preparing and serving all of those dishes in a remote North Dakota field is an experience we will cherish forever. But what brings us back to this table is the heartfelt motivation behind the event to create sincere connections between farmers, ranchers and the rest of us.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: If you have questions about your food and where it comes from, get to know a farmer - they're friendly, eager to share and North Dakota's full of them.
North Dakota Blueberry Flax Muffins
Makes: 12-16 regular muffins or 24 or more mini muffins
2 cups Dakota Maid all-purpose flour
¼ cup whole flax meal, regular or golden
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature (4 tablespoons)
½ cup light brown sugar, well-packed and slightly heaping
2 large eggs
2 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup buttermilk
1 ½ cups fresh blueberries
Sugar for sprinkling on top
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease muffin tin with butter or cooking spray, or line tin with greased papers.
In a large mixing bowl, use a whisk to combine the flour, flax meal, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment to cream the butter and brown sugar on medium-low speed until light brown and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl and add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each egg.
Add the vanilla and buttermilk and continue mixing on medium-low speed until combined; the mixture may appear somewhat curdled, which is normal.
Turn the mixer off and add the flour mixture, gradually, while mixing on low speed until combined. The batter should appear mostly smooth with few lumps. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the berries by hand.
Use a scoop to transfer the batter in even amounts to the muffin tin, about ¾ full. When done, generously sprinkle the top of each muffin with plain or coarse sparkling sugar to create a crusty texture.
Bake until golden brown on top and toothpick-clean in the middle, about 12 to 15 minutes for mini muffins and 20 to 25 minutes for regular-sized muffins.
Remove from oven and cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer muffins to a cooling rack. Eat as soon as cool enough to handle.
To store: Keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.
- For best results, take time to properly cream the butter and sugar before adding the eggs — this will create a superior muffin texture.
- If using salted butter, omit the ½ teaspoon of salt.
- When sprinkling muffin tops with sugar, sprinkle generously to create a crunchy crust.
- To ensure size consistency, use a scoop to measure batter into the muffin tin.
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 10-year-old son, Giovanni.