Regional Items on Menu Include Buffalo Pasta, Pheasant Dumplings and Amish Cheese
October 2005 —Don’t plan on visiting the Corn Exchange restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota, during the second week of August. Owner M.J. Adams locks the door and heads out of town to avoid the annual motorcycle rally that brings 400,000 bikers to nearby Sturgis.
She’s found that the bikers aren’t interested in the menu she crafts, featuring seasonal food, much of it from regional producers. “All they want is snake on a stick and chicks in tube tops,” she says.
“I miss the city a lot. It took me a while not to be sad and look out the window and say `What have I done?’ ”
She manages to fill up her 36-seat restaurant every night for dinner, but wishes she could convert more locals to her way of cooking. “I know I won’t change the average person who really doesn’t appreciate food,” she acknowledges. But spreads in Gourmet Magazine and The Washington Post have made the Corn Exchange a mandatory destination for culinarily sophisticated travelers to South Dakota who want something beyond franchise cuisine.
To help promote her restaurant, and her thoughts on seasonal cuisine, Adams sometimes teaches cooking classes, either in local adult-education programs or at a cookware store in Rapid City, a town of about 60,000 on the edge of the Black Hills. “It’s free, and because it’s a community thing, it was in the newspaper that goes out to thousands of people,” she says. Adams made the local news again when she spent one vacation chopping vegetables in the kitchen of the well-known San Francisco restaurant Zuni, for the sheer pleasure of watching Judy Rodgers, a chef she has long admired, at work.
Adams purchases ingredients from local purveyors as much as possible because she wants to spend her money in South Dakota and help the state’s economy. “At the chain restaurants, none of the stuff is grown here, and the money goes to their corporate headquarters in Texas,” she says.
She tries to buy produce, dairy and meat products from suppliers near Rapid City. She gets her cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, red onions, green peppers, and zucchini from area farmers for much of the year. At the height of summer, she adds local raspberries, gooseberries, and green beans to her menu. When it’s too cold to grow produce in South Dakota, she turns to Denver’s health-food stores and organic produce wholesalers. Adams also buys from a local producer who both grows and dries tomatoes, so she has a ready source of dried tomatoes year round.
Adams brings Maytag Blue cheese in from Iowa, goat cheese from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy of Longmont, Colorado, and an Amish-made Golden Ridge Cheese from a dairy co-op in Cresco, Iowa. She’d love to have a local cheese producer but says that so far, local health officials don’t seem to understand the process of making artisanal cheese. “They freak out on this stuff. They don’t understand a lot of this, so when you want to do something different, they come down on you,” she says.
A Season for Roasted Pumpkin Soup
Through the end of November, Adams can still find local onions, pumpkins and butternut squash. She’s been making sliced pumpkin au gratin, and soups from a variety she calls the Cinderella pumpkin, also known by its French name as Rouge Vif d’Etampes. “I love making soups, but hardly anybody here makes soup anymore,” she says.
Adams starts her soup by oven-roasting pumpkins. Then she adds the pulp to a mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery, which she purees.
To roast pumpkins, Adams cuts them in half, scoops out the seeds and turns them, scooped side down, on parchment paper that has been oiled a little, roasting them at 375 degrees for an hour or so, depending on the size of the pumpkin. When the pumpkins are soft to the touch, she removes them from the oven and scoops out the pulp.
Adams says she met an older woman at the farmers market who had an alternative technique. At her age, she wasn’t strong enough to slice uncooked squash and pumpkins in half, so she poked some holes in them with a screw driver and baked them whole, until they were soft enough for her to cut open. “I haven’t tried it yet but I bet it would be good,” says Adams , “I am curious to see if you get a different flavor.”
Winter is Time for Buffalo Pasta
When the weather turns cold—and it does get cold in Rapid City, where the average January temperature is 8 degrees F.—Adams’ menu changes. “I don’t get to do as much vegetable stuff. We do pasta dishes, and even have a buffalo pasta.” Presently the Corn Exchange is offering home-made pheasant dumplings with a Japanese dipping sauce.
Adams also has a supplier who sends her trout raised in Spearfish, South Dakota. She smokes the trout at the restaurant, and serves it on a buttermilk, white corn and scallion pancake topped with crème fraiche. Her buffalo comes from either the Intertribal Buffalo Council of South Dakota or the 777 Ranch in Rapid City.
When she’s not cooking or teaching cooking class, Adams can often be found over at the Rapid City city hall. She’s badgering local officials to establish a permanent location for the farmer’s market. “The city doesn’t yet feel it’s a needed thing,” she complains. “So every two years the market has to relocate. But I am hoping to start a foundation and raise money to have a permanent location.”
Adams confesses to occasional bursts of longing for New York City. “I miss the city a lot,” she says. “It took me a while not to be sad and look out the window and say `What have I done?’ ” But she loves the abundant raw materials she finds in the region and puts to use in her restaurant. “It’s like California was in the 1960s before Alice Waters. Nobody uses it yet.” But if she has her way, local products will gradually infiltrate local menus and be sold regularly on the streets of her adopted hometown.