Blue Plate Special: Johnson's Farm in Orange: 'Here for the long run'
Diane Johnson adds maple syrup to her Maple Chicken with apples and walnuts at the Johnson Farm in Orange. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Maple Chicken with apples and walnuts, fresh mashed, green beans and cranberry. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Diane Johnson with Maple Chicken from The Johnson Farm in Orange. Recorder/Paul Franz Purchase photo reprints »
Family is paramount at Johnson’s Farm Restaurant, Sugarhouse, and Gift Shop. Steve Johnson and his wife Diane are the fourth generation to run the farm on Wheeler Avenue in Orange, which the family acquired in 1900. Their children and grandchildren help out frequently, bringing the total of generations up to six.
When I interviewed Diane Johnson recently, she made it clear that her staff and customers feel like family as well. “We have a wonderful, wonderful staff,” she enthused.
“We all play together and have a good time.”
“We have a great array of customers,” she added. “They all mean something to us.”
The pair took over the farm from Steve Johnson’s parents in 2000. A couple of years later they decided to construct the building that now houses the restaurant. It was meant to serve as a vegetable stand and ice-cream shop.
“We decided to do a breakfast,” Diane Johnson recalls.
“And then breakfast led to lunch and dinner. We weren’t sure whether it was the right thing to do. While we were building, people wrote on the walls, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
The restaurant is in the midst of one of its busiest seasons of the year. March is Maple Month here in Massachusetts, and the Johnsons still tap 3,000 trees with buckets, as well as many more trees through a pipeline.
Diane Johnson explained that the farm’s syrup is all heated traditionally, by wood. “We’re here for the long run,” she said with a smile.
She observed that she enjoys the reaction of people from near and far to the work in the sugarhouse. “Some people who live in the city have no idea that maple syrup comes out of a tree,” she said.
Asked about the best time to visit the farm during the month of March, she noted that anyone wanting to view sugaring should call in advance (978-544-7835) to make sure the family is boiling sap that day. She also predicted that people will have to wait in line to eat, particularly on weekends.
Johnson reminded me that the restaurant is open year around as well as in maple season, and that maple syrup is always available for sale. The Johnsons do close the restaurant for the month of January and also for a week in July.
During the July week the family and the restaurant staff take a cruise together. Customers are welcome to join the cruise as well; this year’s vacation will take the group to Canada on the Holland-America line.
Diane Johnson also reserves the right to close the restaurant for long holiday weekends to spend extra time with her family.
“I have children and grandchildren, and if you don’t take some time for them, you’re missing the boat,” she told me. “People understand.”
I asked about the “gift shop” portion of Johnson’s Farm’s name. The gift shop is actually all around the restaurant’s diners, on the walls and in hutches — country merchandise and pictures.
“Anything on the walls is for sale,” said Johnson. “It’s our decoration.”
Johnson’s Farm is open for breakfast Tuesday through Sunday, for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, and for dinner Wednesday through Saturday. Wednesday is ’50s night, featuring a 1950s-themed menu — including a John Wayne burger — period music on the restaurant’s jukebox and trivia games.
Many of the restaurant’s dishes use Johnson’s Farm maple syrup, including the chicken dish below. Diane Johnson reports that it is one of the most popular items on her menu.
JOHNSON’S FARM MAPLE CHICKEN
for the crumb mixture:
1 cup Ritz cracker crumbs
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon paprika
for the chicken:
1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
a sprinkle of poultry seasoning
a small amount of the oil of your choice (canola or olive)
½ apple, sliced (Diane Johnson likes Cortland apples as they do not brown while cooking)
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon brown sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons crumb mixture
a small amount of melted butter
First, combine the ingredients for the crumb mixture. Set them aside. One recipe of crumbs can be used for at least 8 chicken portions.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Pound the chicken breast for a few seconds (top and bottom sheets of plastic wrap can make this easier) to tenderize it. Sprinkle poultry seasoning and oil on the chicken.
Brown the chicken on a grill or in a sauté pan. Remove it from the heat.
In a sauté pan with a little oil, sear the apple slices briefly on each side.
Place the chicken breast in a baking dish. Spread the apple slices on top of it, followed by the walnuts, the brown sugar, and the maple syrup. Sprinkle the crumbs on top, followed by a drizzle of melted butter.
Bake the chicken breast until done (about 15 minutes).
Writer and singer Tinky Weisblat lives in Hawley. She is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” (www.merrylion.com) and “Pulling Taffy” (www.pullingtaffy.com.). If you have a suggestion for a future Blue Plate Special, please email Tinky at Tinky@merrylion.com.