Welcome back to our series Top Crop where we connect with PA farmers, celebrate local products, and pair seasonal dishes with Pennsylvania wines. Next up is winter, the season when long nights around the dinner table illuminate the dark evenings.
When we catch up by phone with Michael Kovach, he’s eying a runaway cow out his window.
“Over the last four or five days, I keep looking out and seeing her grazing happily in my yard,” explains the proprietor of Walnut Hill Farm in Sharpsville, PA. “Somebody forgot to close the gate. I’ll have to chase her back in.”
Fortunately, Kovach has a few minutes to chat before resuming his busy cow-chasing schedule. At his family farm in northwestern PA, he also spends time chasing sustainably-raised chickens, lambs, turkeys, and pigs.
“I was a lot of different things before I was a farmer,” explains Kovach. “I didn’t start farming until I was 39. I was a geologist for a long time. I managed an Internet retailer for about seven years. That company was sold, which allowed me to pursue this. Honestly, when we started, I thought we’d raise a couple of cattle for us and friends. Then I thought, if I’m going to feed six cattle, I might as well feed 60.”
Those cows are 100 percent grass-fed; in the winter they eat round bales of hay that are harvested during the summer months. As for the business, about 95 percent of sales are via the family’s farmstand, which Kovach’s wife Karen opens on Thursdays and on the first Saturday of the month (or by appointment). They also have some local restaurant wholesale clients.
“I think it’s probably in the top three favorite things about this job and lifestyle is the connection we form with our customers,” says Kovach. “There’s a community that sprung up around this farmstand that we never expected and truly cherish.”
Another way Kovach connects with his community is via his role as vice president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, which is dedicated to the preservation of family farms throughout the commonwealth.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for the bond that forms among a family that farms together,” he says. “There’s no way to quantify it, but it’s invaluable. Raising my daughter on the farm was another primary driver to making this life change.”
On a livestock farm, the work doesn’t stop when the land goes fallow, and winter is particularly tough in northwest Pennsylvania when the snow piles up and the wind whips off the lake.
“Winter is challenging, but it brings with it opportunity,” says Kovach. “We’ll run pigs under our hazelnut grove in late fall and early winter to clean up all the fallen nuts. It’s free food from the sky.”
Winter also means plenty of time for low-and-slow cooking, hearty stews, and convivial family meals. We asked Kovach about his favorite seasonal dishes, then paired them with Pennsylvania wines.
Paprikas Csirkleves paired with Noiret
As owners of a livestock farm, it’s no surprise that the family makes a lot of stock. They even sell a stock kit to customers and wholesale clients comprised of chicken backs and other goodies left over after the birds are broken down for the breasts, thighs, wings, and drumsticks. Nothing goes to waste.
One favorite destination for that unctuous homemade broth is Paprikas Csirkleves (Chicken Paprikash Soup), a dish made with lots of paprika, peppers, and canned tomatoes. It’s a meal that conjures memories of one of their favorite culinary adventures.
“We went to Budapest for my wife’s 50th birthday,” recalls Kovach. “She’s of Slovak descent and I’m of Hungarian descent. We went to Prague to Vienna to Budapest. We took cooking classes and really enjoyed that. It’s a really great way to know more about a culture than just want you to kind of see at your typical tourist stops.”
Pair this spice-forward dish with a spice-forward red wine like Noiret, beloved for its black pepper notes and balanced tannins.
Shredded Pork Cutlets with Eastern Carolina Barbecue Sauce paired with Riesling
The pigs at Walnut Hill Farm get plenty of time to forage for food. In addition to the aforementioned hazelnuts, they munch on windfall apples and black walnuts. One cut that the family reaches for in the winter months is thin pork cutlets.
“We slow cook them in a crockpot or in the oven at 200 degrees for three hours with some sort of braising liquid,” explains Kovach. “Yesterday, my wife added beer, garlic, salt, and pepper, then shredded it up and made an [vinegar-based] Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauce. She served it on brioche rolls with German potato salad and baked beans on the side. That’s a full comfort meal.”
Pick an acidic white to complement the tangy sauce. Riesling is a great choice; one with a bit of residual sugar will amplify the sweetness of the rolls and beans.
Smoked Coffee-Rubbed Chuck Roast with Braised Onions paired with Merlot
While his wife rules over the kitchen, Kovach loves to put his handy smoker to good use. When he has time, he does it the old fashioned way — enjoying a drink or two and tending the fire over many hours — but the busy life of a farmer means that sometimes shortcuts are necessary.
“Most often, I use my electric smoker on the porch,” he explains. “It’s like a crockpot with smoke. You just set the temperature, set the time, and put the wood chips in. I gather my own wood chips; I’ve got cherry wood, applewood and all kinds of different fruit woods to smoke with.”
Kovach’s favorite thing to smoke is a chuck roast. He’ll mix up a dry rub with salt, pepper, cayenne, and other spices — it’s never the same twice. His new favorite rub ingredient is coffee.
“I’ll smoke it open on medium heat for about 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half and then put it into a roasting pan,” he explains. “I’ll slice some onions and put them underneath, then pour in braising fluid, which is often beer or apple cider. Cover that thing tight, put it back in in the smoker, and leave it in there another six hours or so. It’s amazing.”
This big, bold meal deserves a big, bold red. Open a bottle of Pennsylvania Merlot and allow the fruit flavors to tease out the earthiness in the meat and the sweetness of the onions.
Chicken Burgers with Bacon and Grilled Pineapple paired with Gewürztraminer
Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. In winter, your freezer and your pantry are the best inspiration. The Kovachs have an incredible store of sustainably-raised, pastured meats, and they get creative when putting them to use.
“Our processor accidentally made some chicken patties out of our ground chicken,” recalls Kovach. “They sold like crazy. We kept a couple of packages for ourselves and just cooked the last of them. Season it up and sear that thing in a cast-iron skillet with a little bacon grease in the bottom (after you fry a couple of strips of bacon). Put that chicken burger on a pretzel roll with a couple of strips of bacon, a piece of grilled pineapple, and Swiss cheese melted over the whole thing. It’s unbelievable.”
The pineapple is the wildcard when pairing this dish. It brings sweetness and acidity, so you can look for a wine that does the same. One enticing option is Gewürztraminer, a white varietal with a zippy mouthfeel and tropical aromatics. It’s the perfect antidote to the dead of winter.
Apricot Kolaches with Late-Harvest Vignoles
The couple’s teenage daughter Amelia is no slouch in the kitchen. She particularly loves to bake and even makes her own birthday cake every year.
“My wife being of Slovak descent, she’s always made kolaches [a traditional pastry of puffy dough around a sweet filling] with her mother around the holidays, both Christmas and Easter,” says Kovach. “My father-in-law made this tiny little rolling pin for my daughter when she was around two years old and she was helping roll out the dough.”
When it comes to fillings, they always make nut kolaches, poppy kolaches, and apricot kolaches for dad. It’s his favorite. In fact, he loves them so much that they recently planted apricot trees on the farm.
Pair these subtly sweet treats with a dessert wine made from Vignoles. These late-harvest wines exude notes of citrus, apricot, papaya, and pineapple.
For more on this family farm, visit thewalnuthillfarm.com. For earlier installments in Top Crop, click here.