Farm-to-Fairway Valentine’s Day Dinner

Romantic DinnerAs part of our Farm to Fairway series with NBC and LX.TV, Fairway Chef de Cuisine Mitchel London and I were tasked with sourcing the key ingredients for a Valentine’s Day dinner. So we headed to the West Coast in search of loin of lamb, heirloom navel oranges, and Meyer lemons.

Mitchel has a long history with preparing lamb (which is a sheep that is less than 6 months old), dating back to his formative years when he lived in Israel. The meat is full of flavor, so the main goal is to let the meat’s natural flavors come out.

While Mitchel loves his lamb chops for special occasions and holidays, he also enjoys a lamb burger for weekly consumption in our Cafe and Steakhouse at the Upper West Side NYC Fairway store at 74th and Broadway. Specifically, though, he has always held a special place in his heart and on his table for loin of lamb. So our first stop, of course? A lamb ranch about half an hour north of Bakersfield, in Wasco, California.

There we met Paco and Frankie Iturriria, first and second generation Basque sheep farmers. (Fairway Market works with Superior Farms to procure lamb from farmers like Frankie and Paco.) Together they have been raising lamb for over 50 years since Paco came to the United States from Spain. Wasco is an ideal location to raise lamb because they can graze in open fields throughout the year. Much of lamb’s great flavor comes from what they eat and how they are raised. These lamb have a vast field to roam, and they’re raised in an environment as close as possible to their natural habitat.

This particular field Mitchel and I visited, nestled amongst almond groves and vineyards, holds 600 of the 7,000 sheep the Iturririas are currently raising. The lamb we saw were about 3 months old. The animals grazed on alfalfa and, in the process, helped to clear the field for next year’s crop. In addition to alfalfa, the lamb will also feed on natural grasses and hay throughout the course of the year. This plan allows Paco and Frankie to practice sustainable agriculture. Their herds are rotated from field to field during different times of the year, so each field is able to replenish and regenerate the natural nutrients in the soil.

Now while Mitchel was intensely passionate about the lamb, I was most looking forward to seeing the citrus groves, which was our next stop on our Farm to Fairway segment. The orange has been one of my favorite fruits since I was a little boy, when Fairway used to squeeze its orange juice in our 74th street store. At an early age, my father taught me to look for an orange that feels heavy for its size — those are the ones with the most juice. I still drink a few glasses of Fairway’s fresh-squeezed OJ daily.

To include citrus in a meal as special as a Valentine’s Day dinner, I knew that we could not use any ordinary citrus. That’s why we headed to Rising C Ranches in Orange Cove, California. When an orange comes from a place named Orange Cove, you know you are sourcing it from the right place. Owners Eric and Kim Cristensen showed us what separates their citrus from the rest. Orange Cove has the perfect climate for it — warm during the day and cool at night. You need this fluctuation in temperature for the full flavor to come out. And just in case it gets too cold, there are huge wind machines to circulate the warm air down to the citrus to keep them from freezing. They have it down to an exact science and the taste proves it!

We also learned how to pick citrus correctly, leaving some of the stem on the fruit to maintain their freshness longer. Now I can attest that there is nothing like eating an orange (or grapefruit) right off the branch. I had selected the heirloom navel orange for our orange and chocolate heart-shaped tart. I introduced this orange to Mitchel last year and, in my opinion, it is the best orange to eat that we have in our stores. Mitchel now eats 2 to 3 every night when they’re in season. The heirloom navel is what an orange should taste like: pure sweetness, almost like sugar.

The heirloom navel oranges at Rising C Ranches are grown on “old line” Washington Navel trees. Eric explained to me that they haven’t come up with anything new in growing their Heirloom Navels — they are just farming them they way it was done 100 years ago. That is what gives the navel its pure taste. Its season starts in November and lasts into April.

The Meyer lemon is a highly undervalued and underutilized fruit. Thought to be a hybrid of a lemon and an orange, the rind is is a deep yellow-gold and is thinner than an ordinary lemon. There is also little to no oil in the rind, and it has a much lower acid level, so the juice does not have a lemon’s customary bitterness. Meyer lemons are very aromatic, and when they were being harvested at Rising C, Mitchel and I could actually smell a large bin of Meyer lemons from quite a distance. Like the heirloom navel orange, the season starts in November and lasts into April.

Although we went to the farm for the heirloom navel and the Meyer lemon, the true star of the show was the MeloGold grapefruit. I know that many people think that the best grapefruits are grown in Florida, but after experiencing the MeloGold I beg to differ. Since our trip, it has become my new go-to fruit for breakfast. It is the sweetest grapefruit I have tasted, and there is absolutely no need to finish it with sugar. It has the appearance of a pomelo, but is flatter on its top and bottom, and it has a deeper yellow color. The rind is thick but soft, almost spongelike with zero oil. The MeloGold season starts in December and lasts into April. You can find the heirloom navel orange, Meyer lemon, and MeloGold grapefruit under the Ripe to You® label in our Fairway stores.

At the end of our trip, with our lamb and citrus on a truck headed straight to Fairway on NYC’s Upper West Side, Mitchel and I headed back for our favorite part of the show: cooking. We hope you’ll catch that and the rest of our trip this Saturday at 7 PM on NBC 4 New York.

Here are the Valentine’s Day dinner Fairway recipes we’ll show you how to make:

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

TELL US: How are you going to work these specialty foods into your very special Valentine’s Day dinner?

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