This place is a well-kept secret. Just 35 miles from Boston on the way to Cape Cod, the 15-square-mile Plymouth County town has 2,600 residents and 322 acres of farmland, not counting the nearly 3,000 acres devoted to cranberries. Established in 1707, this peaceful pocket of historical richness and rural beauty attracts a good number of people who are ready to apply the brakes to their lives on the go.
Some come to smell the roses. Others, like Kimberly Russo, prefer to grow them — along with a host of hardy perennials, fruits and berries, and vegetables that range from peas and carrots to bok choy and collard greens. This summer the eastern Kentucky native has started to cultivate people, too, at her and her husband Mark’s aptly named Just Right Farm.
Every Friday and Saturday night through September, a five-course, prix-fixe dinner planned and prepared by Russo is served in a rustically elegant screen house lighted by oil lamps as the sun goes down. Pinpricks of light from fireflies make it as beautiful as a stage set.
Two dozen guests sit at three sleek 10-foot-long ash dining tables Russo built by hand and enjoy food she grows or procures close by. “I love to cook for people,” says Russo. “We’re serving 24 people as though it’s a dinner party.”
The intimate ambience is enhanced by occasional between-course “hellos” from the cook herself, who is assisted in the kitchen by Elaine Murphy of Kingston. Their inspiration, says Russo, “comes from generations of cooks who served uncomplicated food fresh from the earth.”
“I want to share the farm,” says Russo, a self-taught chef and lifelong gardener who studied preservation carpentry at Boston’s North Bennett Street School. “Otherwise, it would be a disservice.”
“If we really want to work toward preserving these small farms and antique houses, we have to have people see them in a way they can appreciate them,” she adds, saying that not everyone likes to dig potatoes out of the dirt, but “people can relate to a quiet, contemporary dining space.”
A licensed agritourism business with farm-to-table dining, Just Right sets itself apart from the ever-growing number of eateries jumping on the “locally sourced” bandwagon. “It’s farm-to-table without the picnic tables. That’s what makes us different,” says Russo. “We want to be a middle ground between farm-to-table and fancy chefs who buy veggies.”
“Our lives on this farm express our passion for sustainably grown food, perpetuating a grounded way of life and being a part of the rural renaissance,” writes Russo on her website. In their farming, the Russos don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, make their own compost, and use local manures and low-till methods of farming. Most of the vegetables they plant are from organic seeds.
Russo and her husband, a holistic veterinarian who shares her commitment to historic preservation, were living in Duxbury when a friend tipped them off to Just Right Farm, which was for sale. As soon as Russo saw the 300-year-old farmhouse on 10 acres, she knew it was right.
“It spoke to me,” she says, admitting that at first she thought the name was hokey. “Now, it’s so near to my heart. You couldn’t pay an advertising agency enough money to come up with that name.”
Dinner is served at 7. Guests are invited to come a bit early and stroll the grounds, nursing a glass of strawberry lemonade, iced tea, or wine tthey have brought. Paths freshly mown in the grass skirt a grove of young peach trees and circle around raspberry bushes, sunflowers, and antique garden furniture strategically placed in groupings around the yard. The oldest garden has sweet peas climbing up posts and an old stone fountain in the center.
There is even a labyrinth modeled on the famous medieval pavement labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral in France.
“People appreciate different things,” says Russo. “One couple brought books [to read before dinner], others a Frisbee. Some people are reserved, some boisterous.”
Whatever their differences, people who make reservations (required) for dinner are all interested in local food. Russo says most of her guests are not farmers, but many are gardeners, like the woman she’ll never forget, who insisted on seeing the gardens during a heavy rainstorm, alone under a big, red umbrella.
“We start by going out to the garden and seeing what will be ready, then we see if something else, like Billingsgate corn or quail eggs from Brad Colton in Kingston, would be good to add to the menu,” says Russo. “We have the ingredients first, then come up with the menu.”
Billingsgate, a 200-year-old farm just down the road, is operated by Peter and Lynn Reading. “We’re very fortunate to have our quality product on her menu,” says Lynn, adding that Russo is coming that day for corn. Later I learn that the sweet corn kernels will accompany short ribs, smoked onion garlic jam, cheese grits, Italian flat beans, and eggplant on that evening’s menu. The prix-fixe meal ($100 per person) will start with scallop ceviche and end with coconut cake and house-made coffee ice cream.
Russo laughingly refers to her style of cooking as “Appalachian-New England fusion.” Cheese grits often appear in her menus, and another favorite dish is hot slaw, a Kentucky classic made with shredded cabbage for which Russo substitutes kohlrabi and bok choy when they’re in season. Her Southern background and penchant for bold tastes characterize the blend of contemporary and traditional food she’s drawn to cook. Fried green tomatoes and sorghum ice cream are on the same menu one night with basil crème fraîche and rosemary crisps; Kentucky country ham comes with four lettuces and fresh feta.
Like the recipes and food pairings, the setting — in the woods yet elegant — is, as Russo’s friend Mary Lou Sayles of Plympton puts it, “totally Kim.” Sayles, who has a background in interior design, is referring to not just the furniture Russo makes in her woodworking shop, but also to her whole design aesthetic: votive candles hang from tree branches; lady’s mantle, nigella, and variegated hosta are in vases adorned with burlap ribbon; a thick, white linen napkin is knotted around each diner’s heavy silver knife and fork. Sayles points out the echoes of Christian Liaigre, a French interior designer known for combining restraint with great elegance.
“I do things that I like to look at,” says Russo. “A big armful of eggplant is just as beautiful to look at as it is to eat.”
As dinner winds down, Russo exits the kitchen to mingle with her guests. Even though they have just finished five courses, including dessert, she insists on sending everyone home with a thin slice of dense chocolate tart.
“It’s working the way we hoped it would,” Russo says of her new endeavor. “When I look over [at the screenhouse] and it’s all lit up with oil lamps, and I hear the sound of happy voices, it’s about the nicest thing I can imagine.”