Dan Sauer: Chef, farmer, contest winner

Dan Sauer, with son Amos, checks tomatoes in the 7a Local Foods garden. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

What do you do with stinging nettles, Russian olives, chicken-of-the-woods, and wild goose? If you’re Dan Sauer, you win the Island’s first Wild Food Challenge, held October 4.

Having first heard about the competition at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, the owner of 7a Local Foods and past chef at Outermost Inn quickly got to work. He foraged for weeks before the competition and had no idea what his dish would look like until he gathered all of his ingredients. This is what he calls “ingredient-driven cooking” and it’s right in line with his philosophy as a chef, “Get what is fresh and available and build your dish from there.”

Available were stinging nettles from Chilmark, chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms, which he stumbled upon while on a walk in Aquinnah with his two young boys, Russian olives from his mother-in-law’s house, also in Aquinnah, and a wild goose courtesy of the Wampanoag Natural Resource Department. All this was seasoned with sea salt that Mr. Sauer cultivated himself.

With the stinging nettles he made a puree, the Russian olives a gastrique, and the chicken-of the-woods went into a hearty risotto. Knowing that game birds can be tough, he called on cooking methods that would allow the bird to retain the most moisture. The legs were confited (cooked in fat) and the breast sous vide (cooked in a vacuum-sealed plastic pouch on low temperature for a long period of time). Don’t worry if any of these words sound foreign to you. For one thing, they are in fact foreign words, and also, Mr. Sauer has been cooking professionally for years.

As a teenager in Montana, Dan worked at the concession stand at Dehler Park, home of the Billings Mustangs, the “greatest minor league baseball team in the world,” Mr. Sauer says. Next, he found himself washing dishes at the Radisson Hotel, also in Billings. His interest in food piqued when it was time for college. He went on to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. There he helped open Tom Colicchio’s famed restaurant, Craft, and began to understand the importance of good ingredients. Mr. Sauer recalls being told, “If you are going to prepare food simply you have to do it perfectly.” With no heavy sauces to hide behind, the ingredient, be it a carrot or a steak, had to stand on its own. In New York Dan frequented the Union Square Farmer’s Market, but not because of the “buy local” movement that is so popular today, but because the food was, without question, better.

In 2005, he and his wife, Wenonah Madison, left New York for Ms. Madison’s hometown, Aquinnah. Mr. Sauer took on the head chef position at the Outermost Inn, finding himself with full creative control for the first time. He expanded the inn’s garden and experimented with different dishes depending on what was growing. He relied on the bounty of other farmers as well, and rarely missed a farmer’s market during his time at the Outermost and would often create special dishes or additional menu items based on what caught his eye. He calls his time at the Outermost, “Significant, because it’s where I came into my own as a chef.” But after five years it was time for a new project.

With an increasing interest in the growing aspect of food, husband and wife launched 7a Local Foods this past spring. (7a refers to Martha’s Vineyard’s growing region.) Now, working out of two plots of land, one in his backyard and the other at the home of friends Berta and Vernon Welch in Aquinnah, Mr. Sauer grows an impressive array of produce. At the 7a stand at the West Tisbury Farmers Market one will find many of the summer staples but they also offer what can grow here that people aren’t familiar with. Among the mounds of tomatoes and squash, you might also find podding radishes, artichokes, sunchokes, gooseberries, and sea beans.

In addition to their produce 7a offers catering and private chef services. “The catering part takes an incredible amount of planning,” but thanks to Ms. Madison handling all of the business and organizational aspects of running a business, Mr. Sauer can spend his time doing what he does best in the kitchen and garden.

The two will continue to expand 7a this winter. Some things to look forward to are cooking classes, prepared foods, a small market possibly behind Alley’s General Store, and possibly a restaurant. For now, he has jam to make with the last of his gooseberries and cover crop to plant on his soon-to-be-sleeping gardens.

Mr. Sauer’s Beets and Blue Cheese Risotto
makes 8 small portions

8 medium red beets
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion – diced
2 cups risotto
extra virgin olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
1 Tbs. butter – diced
1 cup blue cheese – crumbled (Mr. Sauer suggests Great Hill Blue from Marion)
1/2 cup chives – chopped

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Toss beets with olive oil, salt, pepper and a 1/4 cup of water. Place in a roasting pan and cover tightly with aluminum foil.

Bake the beets until they are tender (about 45 minutes). To confirm that the beets are done pierce them with a paring knife and the blade should slide out with no resistance. Allow beets to cool to warm. With a paper towel or rubber gloves, peel the skin off the beets and discard. Roughly chop half the beets and place them in a blender, puree until smooth, and season with salt and pepper. You may have to add a small amount of water to help blend the beets to a thick, velvety puree. Be careful not to make it too thin. Dice the remaining beets and set them aside.

Bring stock to a bare simmer in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan. Keep at a bare simmer, covered.

Cook the onion in oil in a wide 4- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add risotto and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute.

Add wine and simmer briskly, stirring constantly, until absorbed, about 1 minute. Stir in 1 cup broth and simmer briskly, stirring constantly, until broth is absorbed. Continue simmering and adding broth, about 1 cup at a time. Stir constantly and allow each cup of broth to be absorbed before adding the next, until rice is just tender and creamy-looking, 18 to 22 minutes. There may be leftover broth. Stir in beets, beet puree, butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. Season with salt and pepper.

Place risotto in bowl. Add crumbled blue cheese and chopped chives and serve hot.