Thanksgiving, Part III: At the Governor’s Mansion in Albany
Chef Noah Sheetz flanked by co-workers Tom Santimaw and Sheila Smith
Early last summer, picking up my weekly farm share from Hawthorne Valley Farm’s CSA, I was amused to see an entry for “Governor’s Mansion” on the pick-up list. I was naturally curious and eventually discovered that Noah Sheetz, the executive chef for the Executive Mansion in Albany, was a member. I decided I’d track him down.
Sheetz, a boyish, low-key Texas native, arrived in New York State nine years ago, enrolling at Hyde Park’s famed Culinary Institute of America He’s been in the Hudson Valley ever since, working in restaurant kitchens and in his own bakery until joining the mansion’s staff in 2004. The Red Hook resident has embraced not only the unusual rigors of the hybrid of home-and-commercial cooking his position demands, but also the extensive “Greening the Mansion” program underway at the 1856 residence in downtown Albany. Part of the mansion’s “green” program dictates the use of New York-grown—and preferably organic—produce whenever possible. Asked to name the percentage of ingredients sourced in-state, Sheetz pondered for a moment. “About 80 percent. It would be more, but there are some things we just cannot get locally—nuts, lemons, olive oil.”
As any locavore-wannabe knows, that list of impossible-to-procure items is vast. But at the mansion, Sheetz and co-chef Tom Santimaw do a heroic job of pounding the pavement (and the dirt roads) to find local alternatives. The mandate to buy New York State ingredients clearly dovetails with Sheetz’s own passion for not only finding local products, but forging connections between his kitchen,and the farmers who provide him with ingredients, and his blog is an exhaustive chronicle of his discoveries around the state. Meat, produce, dairy and grain come from producers throughout Columbia, Dutchess, Orange, Scoharie, and Washington counties, among others. One of the biggest challenges isn’t sourcing, but distribution. Many small producers don’t have the resources to promote or deliver their products beyond a very limited area. As a result, Sheetz often happens upon new products the way the rest of us do: at the farmers’ markets (he’s a particular fan of the year-round market in Troy).
One of his latest finds, brand new to the marketplace, is oil made from roasted seeds of butternut squash. With a toasted quality reminiscent of sesame oil, but a milder flavor overall, the oil is delicious on its own or in the Champagne vinaigrette Santimaw asked me to taste. Thanks to a high smoke point, the oil is also appropriate for sautéing. The oil was developed by technicians at Cornell in response to a request from a farmer trying to find a use for the waste generated after processing his butternut squash crop. Now produced by Stony Brook Wholehearted Foods in Geneva, New York, the oil is available for online ordering here.
But Sheetz and Sheila Smith, the new executive director of the Executive Mansion, are greening the historic house from within, too. On site, they have their own vegetable garden, an herb garden, and a bit of space in the greenhouse to start new crops for the gardens. While I visited, Sheetz planted a few trays of sprouts—buckwheat, mustard, and sunflower seed—to use in salads in the weeks to come. We picked mint and cutting celery in the herb garden, and he proudly pointed out the mansion’s composter, tucked away in a far corner of the grounds. Though Sheetz says he’s not much of a gardener, he’s had constant help and support from the mansion’s head groundskeeper, Frank Willey, who nurtures not only the kitchen gardens, but also a greenhouse full of house plants and a formal rose garden.
Sheetz believes in preserving summer vegetables—whether grown on site or sourced from local farms—to enjoy year round. Bushels of corn are cut off the cob and the kernels frozen for later use. He opened a jar of pickled red and yellow beets for me to sample. The delicious pickles, smelling of cloves, were just one of many jars of put-up vegetables high on the glass fronted shelves in the mansion’s kitchen.
But for Thanksgiving, most of the vegetables—and meats—on the governor’s table will be both fresh and local. On Thursday, Governor David Paterson and his wife, Michelle will, like many of us, be feasting with their family. The menu for their dinner for twenty includes roast turkey with giblet gravy; roast ham; cornbread stuffing; green beans (not local, to Sheetz’s dismay) with (local) shiitake mushrooms; collard greens flavored with smoked turkey; macaroni and cheese; sweet potato pie; peach cobbler, apple pie and pound cake—not to mention vanilla and strawberry ice cream. The governor’s meal will include family favorites such as sweet potato soufflé from a recipe given to Sheetz by the governor’s mother-in-law, Kay Johnson. And the turkey will come from Eagle Bridge Custom Meat & Smokehouse.
Sheetz was kind enough to share his favorite stuffing recipe with us. He swears by this simple, slightly sweet stuffing. The book it comes from, Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook, is clearly a treasured possession: his paperback copy is in tatters, held together with rubber bands, stored in a Ziploc bag in a drawer in the kitchen. Santimaw has promised to find Sheetz a new copy on eBay for Christmas.
Sweetened Corn Bread Stuffing (adapted from Farm Journal’s Country Cookbook, Ballantine, 1972, courtesy of Noah Sheetz)
Makes 9 cups
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup butter
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons rubbed (dried) sage
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 slices dry wheat bread, crumbled
4 cups coarsely crumbled sweetened corn bread (recipe follows)
1-1/2 cups turkey stock or water
Saute vegetables in butter until tender-crisp. Stir in seasonings.
Combine breads in a large bowl; add vegetable mixture. Stir in broth. Fill bird (do not pack.) Truss and roast the turkey as usual.
Or, spoon into a buttered 4 quart casserole and bake, covered, in 350 F oven for 35 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 minutes more.
Sweetened Corn Bread (adapted from a recipe provided by Noah Sheetz)
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups cornmeal
1 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup butter, melted
2 cups milk
3 shallots minced
Preheat oven to 400F. Line a 12 by 16 inch sheet pan (about 3/4 inches deep, with a lip—not a cookie sheet) with parchment and rub the paper with extra virgin olive oil. (You could also use two nine inch round cake pans.)
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Stir remaining ingredients together in another bowl. Add wet to dry, stirring until just combined.
Bake 20-25 minutes or until firm and golden, just beginning to brown. Allow to cool completely before crumbling for the stuffing recipe.
Reserve the extra cornbread for other uses (say, snacking.)
An All New York Larder
Noah Sheetz recommends the following New York state sources for ingredients
Cornmeal - Wild Hive Farm
Butter - Ronnybrook Farm Dairy
Milk - Meadowbrook Farm • Charles, Robert & Paul Van Wie • Box 248, Clarksville, NY 12041; 518.768.2451
Heritage Breed Fowl and Meats - Turkana Farms • 110 Lasher Avenue, Germantown, NY 12526; 518.537.3815
Shallots - Wellington’s Herbs and Spices
Eggs - Feather Ridge Farm • Feather Ridge Farm Inc, 47 Bogdanffy Rd, Elizaville, NY 12523; 845.756.2381
Peppers - Holmquest Farms
Onions - Pawelski Farm
Celery - Sheetz will use the Mansion’s garden’s own cutting celery and some regular celery, which he has dried from the Farm at Miller’s Crossing He may also add some celeriac to his stuffing; his comes from Denison Farm