Chef Josh Thomsen leaves Agricola in Princeton this month for a new post at a major Palm Beach, Florida, resort. He leaves behind not only the respected restaurant he opened in 2012 but a beautiful and useful cookbook that brings that restaurant’s farm-to-table ethos into the home.
Agricola (which means farmer in Latin) came about when businessman Jim Nawn decided to get serious about both halves of the farm-to-table formula, which was fast becoming the culinary buzzphrase of the second decade of the 21st Century.
Nawn had sold off the 37 Panera Bread franchises on which he had built his career and capital. He already owned a farm: the 112-acre Great Road Farm in Skillman, outside Princeton.
What he needed was the table part of the equation, specifically a restaurant that would feature Great Road fruit and produce and other local bounty.
He bought and renovated, indeed transformed, the vacant Lahiere’s, one of the warhorse eateries of old Princeton. He needed a chef, and he found Thomsen, a New Jersey native with an impressive resume. Nawn and Thomsen connected through one of Thomsen’s former instructors at the CIA, from which Thomsen had graduated.
Thomsen had made his career on the West Coast, working with superstars Alice Waters at her influential Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and Thomas Keller at his renowned French Laundry in Yountville, Napa County.
Thomsen learned a lot from both masters. Of Keller, he says, “Chef Thomas wasn’t just a guy teaching you how to cook. He was also teaching you how to be respectful of others. What we do every day is nurture people, and he taught us that.”
Nawn and Thomsen met in New Jersey. The businessman told the chef what he had in mind.
Thomsen laughed. “You guys call it farm-to-table out here,” he said, “but in California we just call it cooking.”
That quip pretty much sealed the deal.
The Agricola Cookbook came about when the publisher of Hopewell-based Burgess Lea Press approached Thomsen, Nawn and Great Road chief farmer Steve Tomlinson about creating a collection of the restaurant’s most popular recipes. Burgess Lea specializes in books by excellent chefs and their restaurants that work with small-scale family farms. All after-tax profits on book sales are donated to organizations devoted to hunger relief, farmland preservation and culinary education.
The resulting Agricola Cookbook, out this month in a stunning, hardcover edition, shows you how to make the dishes that Thomsen and his long-time chef de cuisine, Manlee Siu, popularized during their three years at the restaurant. (Thomsen is taking Siu with him to be his second in command at the Eau Palm Beach Resort.)
Among recipes in the book that have been on Agricola’s menu since opening day are the kale, roasted cauliflower and pickled pumpkin salad, and a mushroom, spinach and cracked-egg flatbread.
If you look under the hood of a catchy phrase like farm-to-table, what you find is hard work and a lot of planning ahead.
Tomatoes are a good example. To adapt that old ad line “New Jersey and You: Perfect Together” that nobody misses, Jersey tomatoes and summer are perfect together. But what about the rest of the year?
“It’s a creative challenge,” Thomsen admits.
In the case of tomatoes, those great big summer trophies can be canned, preserved, turned into compotes, sauce, all kinds of things. But one of the easiest ways to enjoy tomatoes out of season is to oven-dry them when they’re fresh.
Let the Agricola Cookbook show you how to do it…
Makes about 2 cups
3 pounds ripe Roma tomatoes (about 15 tomatoes)
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for covering
Leaves from 1 large bunch fresh thyme
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1) Preheat the oven to 250°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2) Cut each tomato in half lengthwise and arrange, cut side up, on the baking sheet.
3) Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes and scatter the thyme leaves over the top. Season with sea salt and pepper.
4) Bake the tomatoes until they’re shriveled, but still have a little juice inside, about 4 hours.
5) Let cool, then serve or pack the tomatoes in a mason jar and cover with extra-virgin olive oil, seal and store in the refrigerator. Return to room temperature before serving.
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