Food Column: Sustainability, before it was fashionable

8th annual Farm to Table Conference to feature speakers, vendors and local food tastings

Judy Wicks, a Pittsburgh-area native who started a sustainable food business before sustainability was fashionable, will headline the Farm to Table Conference Friday and Saturday, March 21 and 22, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

Ms. Wicks, who grew up in Ingomar and graduated from North Allegheny School District, will discuss how to "balance head and heart in business decisions."

She was the longtime owner of White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, where she and her team bought fruits and vegetables from local farms, used animals snout-to-tail, harnessed solar energy to heat water and incorporated other environmentally friendly practices into the cafe's day-to-day operations.

She contends that using only one's head in business decisions has "created an economy that is often cruel," citing practices such as factory farming of animals.

She opened White Dog in 1983 on the University of Pennsylvania campus, serving muffins and coffee. As she learned about sustainable business practices, she incorporated them one by one. She also transformed the cafe into a full-service eatery, selling high-end lunches and dinners.

"I used my business as a vehicle for social change," she said, noting that she still focused on providing a good meal.

"Some people didn't understand the importance" of sustainability, especially in the early days before locavorism was popular, she acknowledged. "They just came to eat."

But that was OK, and as time went on and concern for the environment and humane business practices caught on, Ms. Wicks became known as a pioneer in the field.

She sold White Dog in 2009 to focus her energies on writing a book, "Good Morning, Beautiful Business." For the past year, she has been touring to promote the book and to educate people on the themes of sustainability, locavorism and social justice.

The Farm to Table Conference will feature additional speakers and a vendor hall. After the conference from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, there will be a local-food tasting with samples from about 40 local businesses, including bakeries, wineries, dairies and farms. Saturday morning, before the conference sessions begin, there will be a networking breakfast featuring local foods and speakers.

This year's conference theme is "Food Sources." Although local sourcing might spring to mind because it's trendy, organizer Erin Hart said that's not the only thing she had in mind. She also was thinking of soil and seeds -- food sources in themselves -- so there will be presentations on composting and making "seed bombs." She also was thinking of food as a source of nutrients, so there also will be a presentation on seasonal and healthy eating.

Other activities will include cooking demos and a tasting party for children.

Various registration options are available. For prices, schedule and registration, go to

Wine events

Kosher Wine Tasting: Tastings of kosher South American and Spanish wines suitable for Passover, plus live tango music, tapas and Mexican chocolate. 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, March 23, at Parkway Jewish Center, Squirrel Hill. $20; open only to ages 21 and up. (click "Wine").

Wine and Whiskey Dinner: Benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. 5 to 7 p.m. April 6 at The Carlton, Downtown. $135. (click "Events").

Ethnic events

Slovak Mass & Easter Customs Breakfast: Mass celebrated in Slovak, followed by Slovak Easter breakfast of ham, kielbasa, pysanki, paska and baked goods, along with cultural displays and a marketplace of gifts from Slovakia and Poland. Mass starts at 10 a.m. on March 29 in St. Adalbert Church on the South Side; breakfast will begin around 11:30 a.m. in the Parish Center. Free.

Latin American & Caribbean Festival: Music, food, dance, arts and crafts, and children's activities from Latin America and the Caribbean. Noon to 10 p.m. at Posvar Hall, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. Free.

Family fun

Family Fun Night: Kids and their parents will learn together to make French onion soup, marinated flank steak with mixed grilled vegetables, and apple crumble. 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 21, at Gaynor's School of Cooking, South Side. $65 covers one adult and one child; call the school to arrange tickets for extra children or adults. 412-325- 2703.

Brunch in Bloom: Cinnamon-roll challah French toast bake, Greek yogurt bar, Parma sausage, fiesta tofu scramble, quiche, quinoa oatmeal, carving and omelet stations, and more, all served against the backdrop of Phipps' Tropical Forest India. 11 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. seatings on March 23 and 30, April 6 and 13, and May 11. $30.95 for adults, $14.95 for children ages 5 to 12, free for ages 4 and under; Mother's Day brunch (May 11) costs extra. 412-651-5281 or

Think spring

Building Healthy Organic Soil for Your Vegetable Garden: Basics of soil composition and backyard composting. 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 26, at East End Food Co-op, Point Breeze. Suggested $10 donation benefits Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Reservations: 412-242-3598. Information:

Spring Fling & Bling: Demos and tastings of wrapped appetizers (mango daiquiris, Vietnamese-style chicken-salad rolls, toasted fontina and onion jam panini, herbed pork tenderloin with apricot marmalade and more), plus a jewelry trunk show. 6 p.m. April 3 at Crate in Scott. $55.

Butternut squash and mushroom tart

We used a blend of button and shiitake mushrooms.

-- Rebecca Sodergren

1 small butternut squash

Olive oil as needed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 cups thinly sliced mushrooms

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

Up to 1/2 cup white wine

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

2 to 3 tablespoons heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch of ground cinnamon

1 large egg, separated


1 sheet puff pastry

1/2 cup chevre or other soft goat cheese, softened

1/4 cup grated pecorino cheese

1 tablespoon water

Preheat a rimmed baking sheet at 425 degrees.

Halve the squash lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Rub the flesh and skins with oil and season the flesh with salt and pepper. Lay the squash flesh side down on the preheated baking sheet and roast for 20 to 25 minutes until the skin is browned and wrinkled and a knife slides easily into the flesh. Remove from the oven and let cool; turn the oven temperature down to 400 degrees.

Meanwhile, heat a good glug of oil in a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook for 5 to 8 minutes until the mushrooms have released and reabsorbed some of their juices. Add the garlic and rosemary and toss together. Turn the heat to medium-low and keep cooking; if the pan starts to get too dry, douse it with a splash of wine. Scrape to deglaze and keep cooking until the mushrooms have shrunk by about half and are soft, about 10 minutes. At the last minute, fold in the thyme and remove from the heat. Let the mushrooms rest while you prepare the squash.

As soon as the squash is cool enough to handle, peel the skin off. Transfer the flesh to a large bowl and mash it with the back of a fork. Mash in the cream, starting with 2 tablespoons, the nutmeg and cinnamon. When the mixture is cooled completely, whisk in the egg yolk. Season with salt and pepper.

Lightly flour a work surface and a rolling pin. Unfold puff pastry and roll it out to size of whatever pan you're going to use -- either a 9-inch pie pan or a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Drape puff pastry into the pan and push it in gently. Let the excess dough hang over the edges for now.

Prick the bottom of he pastry all over with a fork. Spread the butternut squash about ½ inch thick over the bottom of the pastry; it should come about halfway up the tart's sides. Cover with an even layer of the mushrooms. Dot evenly with the chevre and cover in an even dusting of pecorino.

In a small bowl, beat the egg white with the water into an egg wash. Brush over the exposed puff pastry; trim off any bits of dough that hang low down the outside of the baking dish.

Bake the tart for 15 to 20 minutes until the cheese is melted and the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven, let cool for 4 minutes, then slice into wedges or squares and serve.

-- "The Working Class Foodies Cookbook" by Rebecca Lando (Gotham, 2013)

Rebecca Sodergren: or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.


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