×

Farm Share: Trio finds their way back to Pioneer Valley, embracing herb business

  • Mary Ellen Warchol’s basil-blueberry shrub bubbles over in a pitcher at her home in South Deerfield where she, her husband John Warchol and her sister Denise Lemay run Stockbridge Herbs. Recorder STAFF/Matt Burkhartt

  • A bowl of basil butter orzo with a basil garnish. Try making this at home using the recipe in today’s Farm Share. Recorder STAFF/Matt Burkhartt

  • Basil butter cooks in a saucepan at Stockbridge Herbs. Recorder STAFF/Matt Burkhartt

  • A basil chocolate cake prepared by Mary Ellen Warchol in South Deerfield. Try recreating this at home using the recipe in today’s Farm Share. Recorder STAFF/Matt Burkhartt

  • Basil plants grow in a garden plot at Stockbridge Herbs. Recorder STAFF/Matt Burkhartt

  • Mary Ellen Warchol scoops out basil butter into a bowl of orzo as she prepares her basil butter orzo recipe in her home in South Deerfield. Recorder STAFF/Matt Burkhartt

  • Mary Ellen Warchol passes out cups of basil-blueberry shrub in her home in South Deerfield. Recorder STAFF/Matt Burkhartt

  • Mary Ellen Warchol cooks basil butter in a saucepan in her home in South Deerfield. Recorder STAFF/Matt Burkhartt

  • WEISBLAT



For The Recorder
Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Basil reaches its apex in August. Many varieties of this fragrant culinary herb are now being harvested at Stockbridge Farm in South Deerfield. This herb farm has three proprietors: John Warchol, his wife Mary Ellen, and Mary Ellen’s sister Denise Lemay.

John is in charge of growing the herbs. Mary Ellen and Denise cook and package John’s harvest. I recently visited the trio to learn about their business — and to sample basil recipes.

Stockbridge Farm is headquartered in the lovely white farmhouse John Warchol’s grandparents purchased in 1903 upon arriving in this country from Poland. Those grandparents raised typical Pioneer Valley crops — tobacco and asparagus. When John’s father took over the farm, he added dairy cows.

John originally chose to be a teacher rather than a farmer. He took a job teaching English in Ludlow. There he met and married the school guidance counselor, Mary Ellen, originally from Turners Falls. Staff cutbacks in the 1980s forced the couple to look for new jobs. Happily, they found teaching work close to their old homes.

“The house was here,” John Warchol recalled, “and we decided to move back here temporarily. That was 37 years ago.”

Mary Ellen’s sister Denise, also a teacher, got her first job in New Hampshire. “I said I would never go home when I left,” she said with a rueful smile. “And then I got engaged to a guy from Turners Falls.” She ended up teaching special education in Turners Falls, and she and her husband live near Stockbridge Farm.

Always busy, the sisters began a side business selling counted-cross-stitch products at craft shows. In his spare time, John cultivated some of his family’s 69 acres. Mary Ellen and Denise had always cooked and convinced him to plant an herb garden near the house. They ended up with extra herbs, so they put together an herbal cheese mix and took it along to a craft show. People admired the cross-stitch work, but they bought the herb mix. The sisters sold all of their first batch of mix by 11 the first morning, and their herb business was born.

Mary Ellen and Denise began developing additional herb recipes; they currently sell six dips and seasoning mixes. They also discovered that their teaching work had given them an aptitude for cooking demonstrations and classes.

They built up a customer base and a reputation through events like lavender festivals. They also hosted garden parties at the farm and at a local restaurant. Eventually, all these activities, combined with full-time teaching jobs, began to overwhelm this energetic trio. Today, they have retired from full-time teaching and have scaled back their herb business to a manageable rate.

The sisters currently teach about six classes a year at the Baker’s Pin in Northampton. They also speak and cook at clubs and conferences. They keep in touch with their fans via a monthly e-newsletter.

Each year the herb farmers also participate in the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange. Denise, who bills herself as “the garlic queen,” creates an annual garlic-infused dessert. They also sell their products via mail order, by pickup from their farm, or from local purveyors such as Atlas Farm.

“We’re happy where we are at this point,” Mary Ellen Warchol told me. She stressed the fact that their home-cooking background makes them ideal instructors at such locations as the Baker’s Pin.

“We don’t claim to be chefs,” she explained. “We’re not doing la grande cuisine. We want you to be able to go home and cook.”

I am certainly ready to cook the three basil dishes they served me.

Basil-blueberry shrub

Mary Ellen Warchol notes that shrubs were popular in colonial times; the vinegar made them particularly good at quenching thirst.

Ingredients:

1 cup blueberries (any berry or fruit in season can be substituted)

1 cup sugar

1 cup basil-infused vinegar (or apple-cider vinegar)

Instructions:

Crush the blueberries and mix them with the sugar. Cover the mixture and place it in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours and up to three days. Stir occasionally to encourage the sugar to melt.

Add the vinegar to the fruit/sugar mixture and stir well. Strain through a double layer of cheesecloth. Discard the blueberry mash. Store the shrub in the refrigerator. Add about 2 tablespoons of the blueberry infusion to 6 ounces of sparkling water. Add ice and enjoy. Serves 12.

Basil butter orzo

Ingredients:

1 pound orzo

1 sweet yellow pepper, chopped

1 sweet red pepper, chopped

¼ pound (1 stick) butter at room temperature

1 to ½ cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves

2 cloves garlic, chopped

¾ pound cherry tomatoes

¼ pound Feta cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons capers, drained

Instructions:

Bring three quarts of water to a boil. Add the orzo and cook until tender. Drain it and return it to the pan. Rinse the peppers, clean them, and chop them finely. In a food processor, purée the butter, basil and garlic. Add the butter mixture to the orzo.

Stir over medium heat until the butter is melted and the pasta has warmed. Stir in the peppers, tomatoes, cheese and capers. Put the orzo on a platter and garnish it with fresh basil. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8 as a main dish or 16 as a side.

Flourless basil chocolate cake

Ingredients:

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips or chunks

1½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter

1 cup loosely packed basil, finely minced (measure the basil before mincing)

4 room-temperature eggs, separated

½ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup almond flour, plus additional flour for preparing the pan

2 tablespoons cornstarch

¼ teaspoon salt

confectioner’s sugar for finishing

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch-round cake pan and lightly dust it with almond flour. Gently heat the chocolate and butter in a double boiler or melt them on low power in a microwave.

Stir until the butter and chocolate are incorporated. Stir in the basil. Mix well and set aside to cool slightly.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks with ½ cup of the sugar until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture forms pale yellow ribbons when the whisk is lifted. Add the egg/sugar mixture to the chocolate and stir well.

Combine the almond flour, cornstarch and salt; then add the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture. Beat the egg whites with the remaining tablespoon of sugar until they form stiff peaks. Fold ⅓ of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture and stir to incorporate them.

Next, carefully fold the remaining egg whites into the batter, folding lightly until no white remains. Pour the mixture into the cake pan and place it in the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Cool the cake on a wire rack for about 10 minutes; then remove the cake from the pan and set it back on the wire rack. Let it sit until it has cooled completely.

Store the cake, lightly covered, in the refrigerator. Sprinkle it with confectioner’s sugar and serve it either cold or at room temperature, according to your preference. A dollop of freshly whipped cream served on the side never hurts! Serves 12.

Food writer Tinky Weisblat of Hawley is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” and “Pulling Taffy.” For more
information about Tinky visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.