I always dread winter. Not because of the cold -- nor the thought of driving through blinding blizzards (OK, maybe that), but because it means the end of locally grown fruits and vegetables. My cooking suffers terribly -- denied the creativity inspired by farm stands offers found in the other three seasons. Just picked red tomatoes, green ones, too. Plump pumpkins, juicy raspberries, sweet and hot peppers, a seemingly endless bouquet of fresh basil, thyme and rosemary.
It happens every year, and, still, like the grasshoppers I'm caught off guard. It's only after the thermometer deeps into the freezing zone at night that I remember why my mother spent countless hours canning vegetables and fruits for the long winter months ahead.
Just when I had all but resigned myself to a lackluster culinary winter, I went to a friend's home where she served a simple, but surprisingly sophisticated appetizer: cream cheese with an apricot and jalapeno mixture on top, serving it with crackers. One bite and it was as if I had shed my winter boots for sandals--so intense was the fresh taste of the ingredients. Before I could ask, and, knowing me well, my friend retreated to the kitchen, returning with a 10-ounce jar of Muirhead Jalapeno Apricot Jelly, saying it was just one of the many products they offer. I was beginning to see the light at the end of my winter table.
Doris and Ed own and operate Muirhead, located in an 18th-century farmhouse in Ringoes. It all started, says Ed, with their restaurant. "We couldn't a place to dine that offered the kind of food we liked to eat. Remember, this was back in the' 70s" he says. So, Ed, an engineer by profession, and Doris, a home economics major, bought the farmhouse and opened up Muirhead in 1974, using the downstairs for the dining rooms and living upstairs. Sitting at home at one of the round tables from their restaurant, I ask if the name is a nod to American botanist John Muir. No, they say, enjoying the reference. Doris explains, "There was a lane next to the fence on our property and the farm on the other side was owned by John Muirhead. At that time the railroad wanted to put in a whistle stop of a station by the lane on his property to carry peaches and hay to the New York markets. He agreed, but only if the railroad named the stop after him." The stop, it turns out, was built, not on Muirhead's land, but on theirs. Quips Ed, "Quick was the name of the original owners of our farmhouse, but we thought Quick Restaurant wouldn't have made a very good name. Back then continues Ed, "You couldn't get a lot of things. Fresh herbs, couldn't buy them." So he started growing his own: dill, basil, oregano. Adds Doris, "Even garlic used to come, two tiny heads, in a small paper carton. And the only lettuce in the markets was iceberg."
With their restaurant, the Simpsons easily captivated a following with the quality, innovative and fresh food they served, running the restaurant until 1994. Somewhere in between, a demand for their salad dressings grew, especially the most exotic at the time, Balsamic Vinaigrette, made with extra virgin olive oil; and an old-fashioned one, Hazel's Sweet-n-Sour Dressing, this one culled from Doris' mother. "We always enjoyed this dressing at home, and, with a new twist to it, started offering it," says Ed. The best way to serve it, he says, it to slice cucumbers very thinly, toss with the dressing and marinate overnight. (No food dummy here, I did as he said, and -- Viola --heaven!) Their customers loved the dressing and clamored for more. Soon the list of what they had to offer kept growing, adding mustards and compound butters to the dressing, until finally, as Doris says, "Something had to give." And just like the recipes used in their restaurant ,all the recipes for their products are developed by them. For example, says Ed, "Our pumpkin butter evolved from the Ringoes Grange Fair Pumpkin Festival. Some woman brought a pumpkin butter. We bought it, liked it and made our own with some changes." Ed also added pecans to the mix and at the 1990 Fancy Food Show in New York. Muirhead's Pecan Pumpkin Butter walked away with a prize. And Williams-Sonoma is so taken with the butter that it carries it in all their stores.
About two years ago their youngest daughter, Barbara, an environmental engineer and -- no surprise here -- a great cook, joined her parents in the business. Says Doris, "She's our right-hand and left-hand gal and everything in between." Barbara takes this parental praise in stride and presents an explanation, "It's a group effort. It's a small business, a family business. It's hands-on and it's fun."
In addition to tasting delicious, all their products are preservative-free, using only wholesome ingredients with no gums, colors or high fructose corn syrup added. According to Ed, many other salad dressings on teh market use gum to keep the color. "We don't use any," he says. To which Barbara adds, "Gum makes it sparkle a little and gives it that slippery feeling." It also masks the taste. Vinegar, salt and sugar are natural preservatives, notes Ed, and that's good enough for them. Keep the taste and aroma fresh and real is another of their goals, says Barbara. They don't try to mix too many ingredients into a product, just a few to enhance the main ingredient's flavor. Plus all their products are vacuum-packed and sealed, giving them a shelf-life of at least two years. An added welcome bonus is the attractive, removable label on top of many of their products with recipe suggestions. (The Simpsons' eldest daughter, Robin, when an art student in 1973, drew the drawing of their farmhouse for the logo.)
A lot of the fruits, vegetables and herbs they use are locally grown, either coming from Ed's garden or Jersey farms, often times, a combination of both, although they do ship in produce from other parts of the country. For example, the green tomatoes are strictly Jersey grown, while the pumpkins are shipped in from the Midwest. Jersey, they explain, grows mainly Jack-o-lantern pumpkins, with the Midwest growing teh bulk of the squash type.. "A good part of the business," says Doris, " is finding where to buy the ingredients and quality we want." And like my mother, putting up for the winter ahead, the Simpsons freeze a lot of the fresh produce, such as the Jersey green tomatoes, for winter production. Since coming on board, Barbara has created some of her own in-demand products, including Apple Pomegranate Chutney, Pomegranate Dressing and Green Tomato Mincemeat. She's also in charge of creating the recipe-of-the-month found on their Website (www.muirheadfoods.com), which, she says, she tries to tie-in with the season.
I joined Barbara one morning when she was making Green Tomato Mincemeat. Though mincemeat was born in medieval England as a sweet and savory main dish of chopped meat, suet and fruit, Muirhead's take on the dish is totally meatless and, though the recipe is a company secret, is made primarily with green tomatoes, apples, raisins, and a mixture of spices. Says Barbara, "The recipe on the label gives a good idea what's in it -- and how to use it."
Walking into the carriage house behind her parents' farmhouse, the air is intoxicating with the aroma of sweet green tomatoes. The carriage house, divided into two rooms, serves as the storage, packing and shipping area in one and the kitchen in the other. My nose leads the way into through the first into the kitchen, where a large 25-gallon stainless steel kettle whirrs away, sending steam wafting up and perfuming the air with mouthwatering scents. A large utility rack on one of the walls holds 25-ounce bottles of spices--ground cloves, paprika, dark chili powder, ground cumin, whole thyme leaves. Under is a shelf well-stocked with gallon jugs of extra virgin olive oil. soy sauce, Chablis wine and assorted vinegars. On a stainless-steel work table -- lined up like soldiers, two-by-two -- are 13-ounce jars ready to be filled with today's bounty.
Debbie Ferrante, their invaluable assistant in the kitchen and with the orders, tests the consistency of the brew with a spatula. Satisfied, she nods to Barbara for a final test. Like Debbie, Barbara wears a regulation-hair net as she conducts a final temperature and pH-level test. It's good. This, she says, ensures the mixture is at the right level or condition for preservation and marks the results in a marble-design school notebook for state inspectors. Working in tandem, Debbie carefully spoons the Green Tomato Mincemeat into the glass jars, with Barbara following, wearing a grip-ribbed glove on her left hand, tightening the lids and turning the jars upside down. This sterilizes the lids, as well as vacuum seals the jars.
My mewing sounds of hunger do not go unnoticed, and I'm rewarded with a taste. I clean my plate, rhapsodizing with them about the different ways to use this ambrosial mixture. As an aside to a pork roast, I offer, or perhaps as an accompaniment to a sharp English cheddar. Barbara's favorite is Oatmeal Mincemeat Bars; Debbies is Muirhead's recipe for Pumpkin and Mincemeat Cheesecake. (Both recipes can be found on Muirhead's Website.) As we chat, I mentally make my shopping list, with pork roast, cheddar and oatmeal as the lead items and, of course, stocking up on the Green Tomato Mincemeat and Pecan Pumpkin Butter before I leave.
To order, go to their Website, (www.muirheadfoods.com) or call 800-782-7803. You can even phone ahead and, if they're available, drop by and pick up. You can't miss their farmhouse; it's the only one painted an organic celery green with a bright pumpkin orange front door on Route 202.. With colors like that, you gotta know they're offering something healthy and delicious inside.
Oh, about the appetizer my friend served? Trust me. You don't have to wait for company to enjoy it.