Each morning, Qayum Karzai stops by a farm in Glenwood to pick organic vegetables.
The routine provides a little rural tranquillity each day for the Howard County resident, and supplies produce for the three Baltimore restaurants he runs.
"Our customers are noticing the difference," he said. "If an eggplant or a tomato is picked that day and served to you that evening - what could possibly be better than that?"
After years of longing to grow produce locally for his restaurants, Karzai finally made it happen this year. Several months ago, he rented 5 acres that he has dubbed Fig Leaf Farm. As the first season is winding down, Karzai says the effort has exceeded expectations.
"We are getting high-quality organic vegetables - so high in quality that we are even selling to competitors," Karzai said, noting that five restaurants are clients, including Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Clarksville.
At Karzai's restaurants - the Helmand and Tapas Teatro on North Charles Street, and b, a bistro in Bolton Hill - asterisks next to menu items note that the produce is picked daily in Howard County. Fresh vegetables from the farm are on display at all three locations.
"There are times when I start thinking about what we could make by selling retail, instead of wholesale," said Jamie Forsythe, pastry chef at b Bistro and manager of the Glenwood farm.
Forsythe grows heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, lettuces, spinach, peppers, beets, okra, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and onions. There is a perennial herb garden as well. Next year, he plans to add blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.
The tomatoes are often served simply: sliced, topped with basil, drizzled with herb-infused extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkled lightly with sea salt.
For Karzai, the farm represents a chance to alter the pace of his life, which includes demands beyond the restaurant business. For the past seven years, Karzai has shuttled between Howard County and Afghanistan, where he is a member of Parliament, and his brother, Hamid, is president.
Weary of spending time away from home, Karzai said he is trying to pare down his international travel. Working at the farm provides a much-needed respite from politics in a dangerous part of the world, he said.
"Spending time at the farm is so refreshing," he said. "This is the only job that is difficult to turn away from."
The idea of growing organic vegetables and herbs, which has been on Karzai's mind for two decades, turned out to be a shared vision between the owner and the chef. Forsythe, who began working for Karzai a year ago, previously worked on a farm in Carroll County while he was also employed elsewhere as a chef. Karzai had grown vegetables for the Helmand on a quarter-acre of his home's 3-acre lot when he first moved to the county 14 years ago.
The parcel is leased from Chuck and Denise Sharp, friends who own the 250-acre property that is registered in the state's agricultural preservation program, Karzai said.
While the idea has been many years in the making, the idea for the name of the farm is even older. Karzai and a classmate at American University in Washington came up with the name of Fig Leaf Farm in 1990, he said. They even designed a logo.
"The fig tree has a spiritual connotation," he explained, since it is mentioned in the Bible and in the Quran. "We have a superstition that you only approach a fig tree in the morning, when angels are near."
Forsythe spends the bulk of his waking hours at the farm. He arrives early at b bistro on three mornings to bake for five or six hours, then heads out to the farm, where he spends 65 to 70 hours a week to do "anything and everything" that is required to ensure the crops flourish.
"I have always liked working the land," said the 32-year-old Baltimore resident, who designed the farm's layout.
The 1,500 heirloom tomatoes he tends were started from seed in March and transplanted in April in nine, 364-foot rows. They are grown in raised beds, so the plants' "feet" don't stay wet, and black plastic is used as mulch.
Each plant is staked and strung upright with twine, lending the quarter-acre tomato plot the look of a vineyard, Forsythe said. Drip irrigation is used instead of overhead watering, a process that is important since heirloom varieties don't have the disease-fighting capabilities inbred in today's other types, he said.
With names like Pink Brandywine and Cherokee Purple, the specimens have lived up to the hype that heirlooms are more flavorful than their modern counterparts. A technique that Forsythe says enhances the taste is planting basil between each plant. The fragrant herb, often used in Italian cuisine, doesn't impart its aroma or taste to the fruit, but bolsters the tomatoes' flavor, he says.
Forsythe's brother, Brendan, works at Tapas Teatro and also helps out at the farm, and Jamie has arranged for a dozen other restaurant employees to pitch in.
"Everyone seems to love it there," Karzai said.
For now, Karzai is living a long-held dream.
"I begin each day by walking around the farm, spotting a beautiful tomato here or an eggplant there and suddenly three hours have passed!" he said.
Grilled Organic Eggplant Steaks with organic tomato-fennel-garlic salsa
From the kitchen of Chef Antonio Baines of Tapas Teatro
2 medium organic eggplant, sliced lengthwise at 1/2 - 3/8 -inch thickness
1 bunch fennel, tops removed, cored, cut into small dice
1 medium yellow onion, cut into small dice
10 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
4 large heirloom tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
In a nonreactive saucepan, add tomatoes and cold water to cover. Place on high heat until it reaches a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 20 minutes. With a food processor or immersion blender, pulse tomatoes until completely broken down. Strain contents through a sieve to remove seeds and skin. Place back into pot with the onion, garlic and fennel and cook on medium-to-low heat until thick. Salt to taste.
Brush eggplant with olive oil and place on hot grill. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill each side for 45 seconds. When ready to eat, place eggplant in a broiler for 30 seconds, topped with the sauce and a few rounds of chevre.