In the brightly lit center of The Kitchen at Middleground Farms, we’re learning something I thought I already knew — how to core an apple. Jessica Hansen, chef and owner of this recreational cooking school in a renovated cow barn, demonstrates the best way to slice the juiciest meat out of each plump heirloom orb. Cores and stems go into the compost for the chickens and the rest will be slivered into matchsticks for the kale salad we’re making.
Like coring an apple, getting back to the basics is a philosophy at the heart of things here on this 17-acre hobby farm just south of Portland in Wilsonville. While the meal we’ll end up preparing — a creamy lasagna of roasted butternut squash, chanterelle mushrooms and hazelnuts paired with bright kale salad and a delightful bread pudding — is undeniably complex in flavor, Hansen’s approach is not.
“I am passionate about sharing knowledge with people about food so they are more competent in the their kitchens,” Hansen says. “It is rewarding to them and it is rewarding to me to boost their confidence.”
Classes focus on old-fashioned skills like making pie, canning garden vegetables and creating seasonal soups and stews. She often invites experts in a particular field — like fermented foods or jam making — to teach. “I’m trying to make it a community,” she says. “We all get to learn.”
These basic kitchen skills are part of a sustainable approach to food that is Hansen’s passion. It starts with buying from local producers. Then you can learn to cook with the seasons. These practices help build the food community wherever you live. “If you don’t know how to cook it you can’t do it,” she says.
Hansen grew up with sustainable and local in her DNA. Raised among neighborhood farms in Forest Grove, she spent summers picking strawberries with her grandmother, who was from rural Central Oregon. After professional training as a chef and owning her own catering company, Hansen found herself confronted with the ills of the commercial food system. And when she started her own family, she decided she wanted to do things differently.
“We became more and more organic and more and more local. I started making cheese and that’s why we started a farm.” Laughing, she says the cooking school grew out of a need to make her local, organic approach to feeding the family more affordable.
For anyone who enjoys cooking, Hansen’s kitchen feels like a grownup’s playhouse. From the crisp aprons and the razor sharp knives to the roomy counter tops, gleaming subway tile and well-stocked pantry, a person feels inspired here. Preparing and eating the meal were equally delightful experiences, and many in our group pledged a return trip.
Take time to stroll around the farm to see the garden and the chickens, meet the Nubian goats that play a starring role in the cheese-making classes and be greeted by George the llama (who’s just there for his winning personality).