Planting the Seeds of Change at The Acre

Shawn Weed / Photo by Liz opez

Shawn Weed / Photo by Liz Lopez

(Story by Amy Morton / Photos by Liz Lopez)
Can farm-to-table vegetarian food be accessible to everyone–from foodie omnivores to muscly weight lifters to budget-conscious families with young picky eaters? It may sound like a tall order, but that’s exactly what Chef Shawn Weed and his wife Danielle Reilly Weed are hoping to prove at their new “comfort vegetarian” restaurant The Acre, which opened just before Thanksgiving in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, where the couple lives with their two daughters, ages 5 and 3.

The Weeds’ first restaurant, The Acre caps off a multifaceted culinary journey for the chef, who moved to New Mexico from Indiana as a teenager and landed his first job as a dishwasher at age 15. He later worked in restaurants in San Francisco, Calif., Scotland, San Diego, Calif., and New York City, where he became a private chef for a successful restaurateur. Having had enough of the big city, Shawn convinced Danielle to move with him back to New Mexico. After a decade working as an executive chef for the University of New Mexico’s food supplier and as a food and beverage director at a local casino, he was ready to venture out on his own. “It became time that I needed to do my dream,” the chef says.

Tucked into the Montgomery Crossing shopping center, adjacent to Penzeys Spices and across the parking lot from Natural Grocers, The Acre is not your typical vegetarian restaurant. For starters, its chef is not a vegetarian, but someone who simply believes in eating less meat. If you ask Chef Shawn why, you won’t hear him put forth anything New Age or preachy, but rather a way of thinking that’s steeped in old-school Midwestern values.

“My grandparents in Indiana had a farm, and in the summers we would go to help,” Shawn says. “They called it ‘The Acre.’ After working, we’d put these rickety picnic tables together, and everybody would just sit down. They’d bring out these pitchers of tea, and whatever gets cooked, you’re eating it. A lot of times, it didn’t have meat. It was watermelon and roasted corn and amazing stuff.”

Flash-forward to present day, and “we’re in a culture of people who typically believe you need to have meat at every meal,” Shawn says. “I’m not one to stand on my soapbox against eating meat, but I do think we could all take it down a couple notches. If we scale back demand, it would be a better environment for everyone.” He cites small-scale operations like Estancia’s Old Windmill Dairy––The Acre’s local vendor for goat cheese––as a positive, feel-good environment, one that’s in sharp contrast to modern factory farms, which he describes as “bleak at best.”

His solution is not to oppose these practices, per se, but to champion a shift in appetites, starting in childhood. “I really want to take a stand and say that food is delicious that is not meat,” he says. “You go to McDonald’s and get a kids’ Happy Meal. Is there something you can get that’s not meat? No. So what are we training our kids to think?” For the Weeds, it was imperative that their girls could eat at The Acre. “As much as I love providing for the vegetarian community, I also love providing for local families that go, ‘I can take my kids here, and they’re not eating a bunch of crap. Every other place, they eat chicken nuggets.’’’

As part of his playful appeal to eaters young and old, Chef Shawn has put together a casual, reasonably priced menu of quintessentially American items that feel familiar just as they bump vegetables up from side-dish status to the star of the meal. There’s a Comfort Dog, with a marinated, braised carrot in place of the hot dog, slathered in homemade relish; a Mac ‘N Cheese that uses spiralized local, organic vegetables instead of pasta and can be made vegan upon request; a Meat(less) Loaf made of roasted and milled portabella mushrooms and mashed chickpeas, topped with a spicy habanero ketchup; and a triple-decker Comfort Club sandwich, featuring Chef’s flavorful, crowd-pleasing “carrot bacon.”

How might one make carrots resemble bacon, you ask? “It starts with these giant carrots from a farm in California––like Bugs Bunny, ridiculously big carrots,” Shawn says. “We shave them into planks and put them in a brine of amino acids, Tamari soy sauce, garlic, ginger and liquid hickory smoke. Then we let them sit for about a day. We pull them out, they change color a bit and we cook them off. When they hit the fire again, they pick up some of the smokiness from the cooking.” The idea is not to “clone bacon,” he says, but to make something all-natural that’s “reminiscent of something cured.”

Photo by Liz Lopez

Photo by Liz Lopez

While this may seem like a sleight of hand to some, it should be noted that nowhere on The Acre’s menu will you find any meat substitutes like soy isolate protein. The veggie burger, for example, is made from beets, black beans and quinoa. It’s all about a clever use of vegetables here, which Shawn tries to source locally whenever possible from vendors that include Sol Harvest Farm, Skarsgard Farms and the Downtown Growers’ Market. “We don’t have tofu or any of these machine-made products,” he says. “What we do here is made from scratch with a low industrial footprint.” He plans to change the menu quarterly based on what’s in season, and come summer, he’ll be picking fruit from trees throughout the South Valley, having put together a list of people with trees.

Seemingly, for every new-fangled twist at The Acre, there is an old-fashioned one for balance. Yes, there is a Chicken N’ Waffle dish made with chicken-fried cauliflower, but Shawn also makes his own pickles, just like grandma used to. At any given time, there are 100 pounds of vegetables pickling in the walk-in refrigerator, with the current selection of carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers and bell peppers available as part of the simply named “Pickle” appetizer. Soon, that will shift to sweet pickles as well as spicy pickles, once jalapeños come into season.

A similar dichotomy exists in The Acre’s winsome décor. “We tried to straddle the line between modern farmhouse and country cottage,” says Danielle, CEO of the consulting firm Media Tonic, who helped decorate the 50-seat restaurant and also handles marketing, PR and social media. Modern touches include a sky-high ceiling, exposed ductwork and two huge sepia-toned photographic murals, one featuring a wheat field during the golden hour and the other a weathered barn. “It’s a little bit of the bygone era,” she says. While both are stock images due to the resolution requirements, you can see a real 1970s-era aerial image of Shawn’s grandparent’s farm in the hallway by the restrooms.

Photo by Liz Lopez

Photo by Liz Lopez

Grounding these large-scale elements, and imbuing a cozier ambiance, are the mismatched vintage white chairs, grainy shiplap walls, Edison-style pendant light fixtures and cushioned bancos covered in an array of homey pillows. Tableside, there are other retro accents, like white stoneware pitchers and housemade lemonades––the version made with Los Poblanos lavender is the most popular of the five options––served in Mason jars with paper straws.

But the pièce de résistance, as Shawn sees it, is the 16-seat communal table made of reclaimed wood. For him, it’s the embodiment of his grandparents’ picnic tables, bringing people together face-to-face over locally produced food and beverages. (New Mexico craft beers from Marble, La Cumbre, Tractor and Santa Fe Brewing Co. are featured on the drink menu, as are nitro cold-brewed coffee and iced teas from Albuquerque’s Villa Myriam.)

“I see it as akin to people sitting at the bar because they want that engagement. Like, ‘I’m here to be part of this,’” Shawn says. In the seven weeks The Acre has been open, the chef says only two parties have declined to sit at the communal table when there’s been a wait for a private one. As for the makeup of this budding interactive tribe, he estimates there’s a 50/50 split between vegetarians/vegans, and those who are not vegetarian or vegan.

 

Photo by Liz Lopez

Photo by Liz Lopez

“We get a lot of people that aren’t vegetarian but just want to eat healthy,” Shawn says. “People like me. I call myself a flexitarian. I don’t eat that much meat, and I just try to eat as clean as I can.” As for vegans, he reports that roughly 75 percent of the menu is “veganizable,” a fun word he and his staff coined for modifying dishes based on pre-tested approaches that meet his quality standards. Because everything is made to order, they also have the luxury of being able to leave out or replace certain ingredients on the fly. “We never say no” to diner requests, he says. “That isn’t in our belief system. We have to be extremely flexible, because it’s also part of being inclusive.”

Between “taking the burden off” vegans by anticipating their needs, feeding kids unprocessed, plant-based foods they’re predisposed to like and getting carnivorous New Mexicans to admit that, yes, The Acre’s meat- and oil-free “unrolled” enchilada isn’t missing a thing (which is truly the case with his unconventional, crave-worthy rendition), Chef Shawn’s got a lot on his plate. But judging by the full house on a recent Friday night–with everyone from families with kids to a large, multigenerational birthday party in the mix–change may be easier than you think.

The Acre is located at 4410 Wyoming Blvd. in Albuquerque, 505.299.6973, theacrerestaurant.com.

Romero Farms

ROMERO_01_kl_2017Matt is one of the most popular, colorful vendors at the market, offering samples, recipe ideas, growing tips and answers to just about any question a shopper may have. He is what you might call “a farmer’s farmer”—skilled at his craft, devoted to his labor and happy to share what he’s learned with others. Yet Matt didn’t grow up on a farm and he didn’t harbor a lifelong desire to connect to the land through growing things. He worked as a chef, instead, honing a creative sense of flavor and an instinct for what people like to eat.

“I know I’m doing the planet a favor, but that’s not why I’m doing it,” Matt says, taking a break from mowing on a recent spring morning at the farm. “I’ve always loved producing good food for people, whether it was at a restaurant and I bought and cooked it, or here on the farm, where I grow it. I still feel pride over what I do and the knowledge that I share with people. For example, someone will say ‘I don’t like radishes.’ If you don’t like them, and then you try them, then you’re a perfect test case. Every year, I see people try things they don’t like and then they taste it and they change their mind.” (Case in point: when I arrive at the farm for our interview, Matt hands me a warm breakfast burrito, stuffed with his red chile and homemade elk sausage sourced from an animal he and his daughter brought home from a hunting trip. Although I normally don’t eat elk, this was one of the best burritos I’ve ever had.) Continue reading

The Corn Man

Taos Family Foods

Taos Family Foods

Have you ever counted the kernels on a single cob of corn? Each seed is secured within a meandering row running the length of the cob. And sure, you could count each kernel, but knowing the number would not describe one cob of corn any better than simply knowing the taste of it, or feeling its rhythmic surface in your hand.

This is a tale of a few of those kernels of corn. There is no single story of corn in New Mexico. From an agricultural perspective, corn is so integral to the mythology, landscape, agricultural and aesthetic landscape of New Mexico that it could take multiple shelves of the library to tell that story in a truly comprehensive way. Instead, we are going to travel the route of one row of kernels on one cob of corn, to see where those stories lead.

The seeds of this particular story were first planted over three decades ago. Today, just minutes from Taos Plaza, on a surprisingly chilly mid-May morning, native corn seed is being planted in rows. The seed falls from a 37-year-old piece of machinery called a “planter” (affectionately named Romeo) attached to a 38-year-old John Deere named Moses, driven by a young man from Arkansas. Lifelong farmer David Frazier likes to name his machines because he looks forward to a long working relationship with them. His young dog Critter runs alongside, always with David in her sights…except perhaps when she sees a rabbit. Continue reading

The Big Chèvre – Old Windmill Dairy

DSC_2284Can baby goats stampede? I’m still not sure, but I am sure that 70-some two-month-old kids unleashed from their corral and running toward awaiting bottles is an entirely joyful sight. Their long ears flopping, their spindly legs barely finding purchase on quarter-size hoofs. This spring, my fellow baby goat feeders at The Old Windmill Dairy’s farm visit wait innocently as the wave of goats floods us, pooling around our knees, and voraciously searching for their bottles. When they can’t find one or they get shouldered aside, they settle for suckling our fingers or untying our shoelaces. Effervescent laughter ripples through the crowd. A few minutes later, their bellies absurdly bloated on their tiny frames, the babies demur. I pick one up, No. 245, and—after a failed attempt at eating my earring—she tucks her feet into the crook of my arm like a cat, settling in for a nap.

Awash in this overwhelming adorableness, it’s easy to forget: Soon, these kids will grow up and, like their milk-heavy mothers, help make some seriously good farmstead cheese. Since it opened in July 2007 as a Grade-A dairy, The Old Windmill Dairy has earned a handful of awards for its popular chèvres as well as its semi-hard cheeses. Fifteen years into his business journey, Michael Lobaugh lights up recalling when he’s earned compliments from his customers. “The joy of it is seeing the end product,” he says. Continue reading

Kale, Collards and Kimchi – The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market in Winter

_p9a5061The term “farmers market” calls to mind a hot summer day, strolling through aisles of colorful fruits and leafy vegetables. But at the Santa Fe Farmers Market the greens are abundant yearround, and the unique wintertime vendors come together to create a market that’s completely and deliciously diverse.

According to Ceci Ervin, marketing coordinator for the Santa Fe Farmers Market, the winter market takes places every Saturday, from the first Saturday in December through the first of May. Fifty vendors, all from the 15 Northern New Mexico counties, come to the market to sell what they’ve grown, cooked, and created. “You’re going to find things here at the market that grow right here in the northern part of New Mexico, and that is pretty unique,” Ceci says. “You know you are getting authentic, real produce.” The market has strict guidelines for participants, requiring that all fruits, vegetables, and nursery items are always 100-percent grown in the northern counties. And in the baked goods and crafts, at least 70 percent of the materials are local, too.

The diversity of offerings at the market is truly unparalleled. “The winter market gives us so much diversity because you will find things like holiday jewelry, crafts, basketry, and pottery, alongside the greens that the farmers grow year round,” Ceci explains. “It is surprising to people that we can have greens all year. But it is all thanks to the farmers and the hoop houses.” Along with the typical winter fare for vegetables, which often includes potatoes and root vegetables like squashes, you’ll also find heartier greens like kale and collards, and even spinach. Continue reading

For the Love of Lavender

conastogawagonLavender is a shape shifter, transforming from a sweet herbaceous undertone in lemonade and cupcakes, to essential oils in body products that can ease tension and heal skin. This month, two festivals—one in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque and one in Abiquiu—exude purple passion, showing off our love of lavender in any and every form.    

Lavender in the Village, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque

Lavender in the Village returns after a two-year hiatus for a refreshed festival that promises to capture the community spirit that has made it a favorite for 10 years. Longtime Lavender in the Village board member Katie Snapp grew up visiting her grandparents’ farm outside Kansas City. For her, the fete has a sense of nostalgia. “This festival gives you that bucolic reminiscence,” she says.  

grey-lavenderPenny Rembe, whose family owns Los Poblanos Inn and Organic Farm, itself a major player in the world of lavender, founded the festival more than a decade ago. For nine years, a small board and community volunteers put on the two-day festival that drew 6,000 to 8,000 people to the pastoral island within metropolitan Albuquerque. For this year’s event, the board bypassed that logistical feat, hiring event creator Dean Strober of Blue River Productions. Dean’s also put on notable food fests such as Southwest Chocolate & Coffee Fest and Southwest Bacon Fest. “People love this event,” he says. “It has such an incredible following and such a long and wonderful history of bringing people together.”

Dean has several changes in store. This year’s festival will unfold on one day, July 16, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Lavender in the Village will also take place in one location—versus several, as in previous years. Happenings will take place at the Agri-Nature Center, a working farm across the street from Los Poblanos Inn & Organic Farm that backs up to Los Poblanos Open Space. The rural oasis will host open-air yoga classes in the field—another new addition this year. Live music, from bluegrass to a Beatles tribute band, will mingle with the sounds of conversation shared over lavender sangria and craft beer. More than 100 vendors (previous years have had around 40) will tout lavender used in every way, from artists to paint it to purveyors like Old Windmill Dairy. “There’s something very healing and beautiful about it. It’s very much New Mexico at its core,” Strober says. Although the event is family friendly, if parents want to enjoy it for a couple hours by themselves, they can drop off their brood at the Kids Camp, with hands-on activities by Los Ranchos Farm Camp. No matter which aspect of the festival participants enjoy, lavender and sustainable agriculture will be at the fore. On-site parking is limited, so be sure to follow the directional signage to off-site lots and shuttles.

Lavender at Los PoblanosPrior to Lavender in the Village, on July 8 and 9, Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm will host a four-course, field-to-fork dinner.

Tickets: Ages 13 and up $8, Agri-Nature Center, 4920 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, lavenderinthevillage.com.

Lavender in the Valley, Abiquiu

Purple Adobe Lavender Farm may have founded this festival, but the celebration’s purple flags fly across the Abiquiu valley, July 9 and 10 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. The Abiquiu Inn will serve a special lavender themed menu––and lavender lemonade and lavender chocolate chip cookies are on deck at Bode’s general store. Artists will capture the purple flowers in their paintings live at Rising Moon Gallery and Art Center.

Of course, the Purple Adobe Lavender Farm is the event’s epicenter, and the happenings here are as bountiful as the crop. Visitors can join field tours, enjoy the shade under the ramada to make crafts such as Victorian wands, and listen to the flute and guitar of Ronald Roybal and Ryan Dominguez. Santa Fe-based photographer Woody Galloway is the festival’s featured artist this year; he’ll be on hand to sign commemorative posters. A favorite of farm visitors throughout the year, the teahouse will serve gluten-free goodies, such as lavender scones and house-made gelato. Attendees can also cut their own lavender from a thousand plants in a U-Pick field, new for this year. Continue reading