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What's Up Magazine

The Taste: Two Tree Restaurant

Apr 12, 2016 04:37PM ● By Cate Reynolds
401 Cypress Street, Millington // 410-928-5887  // twotreerestaurant.com

By Rita Calvert // Photography by Jenny Madino

As an avid conversationalist, scientist and writer, Dennis Hager tells us quite a fascinating “behind the scenes” story of his Two Tree Restaurant in Millington.

Hager looks upon his Millington role responsibly as he helps keep his town active, employs locals, while at the same time firmly holding on to a deep sense of community in a small town just a ten-minute ride from one of the largest Walmart superstores in the country.

What is your background and how did you become a restaurateur?

I grew up on a small farm in Western Piedmont, North Carolina. I milked cows by hand and most of the food we ate came from the farm. Before I opened the restaurant, I made most of my own bread and rarely, used convenience foods. I never considered myself a “foodie” and it wasn’t until I opened the restaurant that I figured out that I was of them.

I owned the building next door and there was an antique shop where Two Tree is now. The owner wanted to sell and offered the property to me. I bought it and continued to rent the space to an antique dealer. When the business closed, I was left with a vacant property and I decided the town needed a restaurant.

Do you practice farm-to-fork at Two Tree restaurant?

Farm-to-fork is one of those trendy buzz phrases and I am guilty of hopping on that train. However, I grew up practicing farm-to-fork and it’s difficult to ignore one’s heritage. I have had a home garden for most of my adult life and when I opened the restaurant, I made it a point to bring in produce when I had it. I have a few fruit trees and have forced American Persimmon Pudding and Hungarian Sour Cherry Soup on diners simply because I had the product. There was a plot of ground behind the hardware store. The owner allowed me to plant a summer garden for several years, but they decided to expand and I could no longer plant it. Last summer, I bought a farmette with the intention of growing more produce

So you bought a farm! Why and how many acres? What will you grow there?

I couldn’t help it since it’s in my genes. The farm is only 16.5 acres and most of it is in field crops. However, about 2.5 acres are [comprised of] an orchard, garden, and high tunnel or unheated greenhouse. The orchard includes apples, apricots, peaches, plums, pears, quince, persimmons, sour cherries, pomegranate, pecans, and heart nuts. It is several years away from production. There are also blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, rhubarb, and asparagus. In 2014, we only had a small late garden and because of deer pressure, the only harvest was winter squash. In 2015, we harvested multiple varieties of lettuce, beets, spring radishes, eggplant, tomatoes, okra, watermelon, tomatillos, cucumbers, summer squash, luffa, edible gourd, new potatoes, cantaloupe, rutabaga, celeriac, peppers, mustard, cow peas, collards, kale, fall radishes, winter squash, Chinese cabbage, endive, escarole, tatsoi, and herbs. We have free range guinea hens for insect control and unfortunately, they are also very fond of onions and ate our entire crop.

Why did you choose a vertical integration (the combination in one company of two or more stages of production normally operated by separate companies) model for farm-to-fork?

My motive was totally selfish. After working retail and interacting with many people, I need time to “decompress” and for me, there is no better way than gardening.

 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of that model?

The biggest advantage is that we are not as dependent on suppliers to get the product we want and we have a higher degree of flexibility in what we grow and offer. Instead of simply buying the variety that is available, we can grow multiple varieties and do our own side-by-side comparison, both in the garden and at the table. We can experiment with harvest at different stages and some products are simply not available in the commercial market.

The biggest disadvantage is that small-scale production is inefficient.

You mentioned a greenhouse on the farm. Will you grow produce there over the winter months? What vegetables?

The high tunnel was completed in November and is planted with Tuscan kale, four varieties of Chinese cabbage, spinach, lettuce, sugar snap peas (for tendrils), mustard, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, and a few herbs, By February, some of these crops will be finished and the tunnel will be used to get a jump on the spring and summer season.

Please describe some of the dishes using your homegrown produce.

Fried okra (in season) is one of our favorites. We serve it as an appetizer. Instead of the typical cut rings of okra, it is split lengthwise and longer pods are cross-cut to provide uniform bite size pieces. It is very lightly battered and served with a dipping sauce. Stuffed collards are filled with meat (chicken or pork) and mushrooms, served with pureed root vegetables. We use tender young leaves and the product is the size of a stuffed grape leaf.

How do new dishes on the menu come to be? Do you conceive them and do you work with your chef on creating them? What is the process?

Chef Jesse likes to surprise me and I like to guide him. We sometimes collide, but I try to give him space to create on his own. However, I have grown and used many of these things before and I usually sample produce in the garden before it gets to the restaurant because I like to capitalize on the freshness of the product. To that end, I hope and expect to see the product speak for itself. Sometimes that freshness and flavor gets lost, or the product becomes nothing more than a vehicle for some other flavor. My job is to point that out if that happens.

As a food writer, blogger, food stylist, photographer, Rita Calvert has partnered in writing cookbooks and developed product lines to showcase the inspiration, art and nourishment of food. She is an advisor for the food world. The Grassfed Gourmet Fires It Up! is her most recent book with co-author farmer, Michael Heller. After owning a successful restaurant in California, she has now been an Annapolis resident for close to 30 years.
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Moravian Chicken Pie

Serves 6–8 with a small roaster

Dennis’ Notes:
If one insists on white meat only, don’t bother to make this pie. It will be too dry and no amount of added velouté will compensate. However, it can be made with legs and thighs only. We use a 4" x 4" cast iron baking dish and neatly fold corners to form a pocket for one serving. The dough is rolled thinner than it would be with a larger container so as not to make the product too “bready.” You can use a 9-inch pie plate.

Ingredients

  • 1 whole roasting chicken, 2-1/2 to 3 pounds, seasoned
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Fresh rosemary leaves
  • Fresh thyme
  • 3 cups velouté sauce, seasoned with fresh rosemary and thyme
  • Pie crust
  • Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons water)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375F.

Roast the seasoned chicken until just tender. Do not over cook! Cool, pick meat from bones and shred into medium bites. White meat should be shredded smaller than dark meat.

Make stock from skin and bones and when cool, skim fat from the top to use for sautéing. Use the stock for making the velouté sauce.

Sweat onion in chicken fat. Add shredded chicken and enough velouté to moisten the mixture.

Place filling in pie crust and top with crust. Do not vent. Brush with egg wash and bake in hot oven until crust is golden.

Serve hot with more velouté.

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Veloute Sauce

Here is a tasty and easy-to-make recipe for a veloute sauce, from renowned chef Emeril Lagasse via Foodnetwork.com:

Total Time: 20 min
Prep: 20 min
Yield: 2 cups 

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground white pepper

Directions

In a saucepan, over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook for 2 minutes. Whisk in the stock, 1/2 cup at a time. Whisk until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the liquid to a boil and reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and serve.

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