Central Illinois advocate for local foods finds ingredients in unusual places | Food and Cooking

Central Illinois advocate for local foods finds ingredients in unusual places | Food and Cooking

BLOOMINGTON — Kelly Lay is the person you ask for advice about how to control slugs in a small garden, for an exotic recipe that includes spruce branch tips, or how to navigate the Illinois Cottage Foods Act.

She’s all about local foods. She runs Meadow Lane Farm, a small market garden in LeRoy.

She worked with Illinois Stewardship Alliance as it helped change the Illinois Cottage Food laws to bring more opportunities for local producers and consumers.

And she mentors new growers including Kyan Glenn, a former pastor and urban transplant to central Illinois who started The Table Farm & Workshop.

Lay started her new job as the local food programs manager at The Land Connection in May. It’s a local food systems advocate and facilitator based in Champaign.

“I have a big passion for it,” she said.

Lay says she learned a lot by doing, sometimes on her own or working with other farmers including at PrariErth Farm, an organic farm in Atlanta, Illinois.

Labor of love

Kelly Lay prepares to grow asparagus Monday, May 11, 2020, in the backyard of her home in LeRoy.

Sometimes she learned things that led her further into her career, for example, early on when she was making jams and jellies to trade and sell.

“I didn’t realize it was illegal in Illinois to sell the things I made,” she said.

So she learned about the Illinois Cottage Food Act and became an advocate in updating it so small producers could sell their products in outlets other than farmers markets. Those changes have helped many selling products in a world forever changed by the pandemic.

She continues to advocate for food and the people who produce it. That may mean answering questions about growing things or helping people navigate how to work with the health department.

Lay doesn’t come from a generational farm.

“I grew up moving. My dad was in the Air Force,” she said.

But the family had roots that would call them home to Princeton in northwestern Illinois, where her grandparents had a truck garden and raised rabbits.

She visited her grandparents during the Bureau County Fair season, preparing pies and other entries for the event which has been the entertainment center of the community for more than 160 years.

She comes from a family where if someone was short of food, everyone would gather with food to share, she said.

The family recipe book her mother made is a treasure, Lay said. Photos of weddings, birthdays, holidays and summer gatherings are scattered among the treasured family recipes. It contains a recipe for naturally dying Easter eggs with photos of children doing it.

“My mom did this,” she said showing the well-loved, aging photo and recipe book.

Rhubarb Spruce Syrup 

The syrup can be used anywhere honey can and is good in soda and even on pancakes. Lay collects the tips of spruce trees in the spring when the needles and buds are soft.

“They taste like lemon and smell like a forest,” she said.

  • 1 C. spruce tips (Be careful not to harvest too heavily as you are removing the growing tips.) 
  • 2 C. thinly sliced rhubarb
  • 4-5 C. water
  • Sugar (see instructions)

Rough-chop spruce tips and add to a large stock pot with thinly sliced rhubarb. Cover with water (4-5 C.). Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer until rhubarb is very soft, around 20-25 minutes.

Strain into a clean bowl. A double layer of cheesecloth will produce a fairly clear syrup, a fine mesh strainer will be cloudier, but both are acceptable. Weigh strained liquid and add back to stock pot with twice as much sugar by weight. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for at least 5 minutes or until sugar is dissolved. Continue to simmer until syrup reaches the consistency you like (like honey).

Add to tea, drizzle over chèvre cheese on crusty bread, add to club soda or make interesting cocktails. Useful in almost any capacity honey is.

Chocolate Zucchini Bread

  • 5 eggs
  • 2 C. sugar
  • 1 C. brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 C. oil
  • 1 T. vanilla 
  • 4 C. flour
  • 1 T. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. baking powder 
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 C. cocoa
  • 2 C. shredded zucchini
  • 1 C. shredded apple
  • Optional: 1 1/2 C. walnuts or pecans, chocolate chips sprinkled over the top of the loaf

Combine wet ingredients in large bowl. Mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl then stir into the wet mixture. Finally fold in zucchini and apple and any other optional filling.

Fill greased loaf pans or mini-loaf pans. Bake at 350° for 50-55 min (full loaves) or 20-25 min (mini-loaves) or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool. May be wrapped and frozen for up to 6 months. 

BBQ Hot Honey 

In her own garden, Lay grows more than 50 different kinds of peppers and uses a mix of them in her pepper-infused Hot Honey. She also raises bees with five hives in locations including Glenn’s farm and her own in LeRoy.

  • 2 C. local honey
  • 3 T. dehydrated pepper powder (High quality, fully dehydrated pepper powder is key!)

Gently warm honey in a double boiler until lukewarm, no warmer than 95° (this preserves the delicate flavor and beneficial effects of honey). Fold in pepper powders until fully incorporated. Allow to infuse for 1-2 hours, being careful not to heat past 95°. Remove from heat, cover and allow to fully cool overnight. Store in tightly sealed jars. 

Uses: Drizzled over fried chicken, fresh cheeses, cornbread, pepperoni pizza, bacon pancakes, or liven up marinades/dry rubs, or add a little spice to cocktails.

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