Thursday, April 30, 2009

Wednesday market 4/29 and Thai cabbage salad

Market purchases from this Wednesday: strawberries from Whitted Bowers Farm; asparagus from Lyon Farms; rainbow chard and sugar snap peas (first of the season!) from Brinkley Farms.

I zoomed over to the Whitted Bowers farmstand first thing this week. Rob Bowers was there, strawberries spread out on the table in front of him. "Hey!" I said. "Hey!" he said back. "I visited your farm last weekend and had a great time!" I said. "Yes, I remember!" he said. We are friends now. I love it.

Sadly, though, as I predicted, no more asparagus from them this year. They have planted two more acres of asparagus for future harvests, but for the most beautiful asparagus of all time, it'll be another year of waiting. So goes seasonal eating. I'm glad I bought my two bunches last week after all. I happily bought my quart of strawberries. Rob recommended I try the asparagus next door at Lyons Farms.

For some reason, I just don't like this farmstand very much. Nothing against the produce, nothing really against the farm. I just don't find the farmers very friendly. Nonetheless, I suppose if they're a friend of Rob's, they could be a friend of mine. I stepped over to the Lyons Farm stand to check things out.

They have asparagus, alright. Yes, it's the same green stalk that grows on Whitted Bowers farm. But really? How can you compare the loveliness of Rob's biodynamic, long and slender stalks, with the uneven, mostly green stalks of other farms? I happened to still have a few stalks from my previous asparagus purchase from Whitted Bowers, so I took a side-by-side photo for comparison.

Now of course, both of these bunches are far more tasty than any asparagus shipped to the US from Peru in December, or even from Mexico in April, and bought at the grocery store. Of course, buying from the local farmer's market will garner the best and most delicious asparagus one can get. But just look at the difference! Same region of the country, same plant. But obviously the biodynamic TLC given to Rob's asparagus pay off. My few remaining stalks of his mighty asparagus look better a whole week after I purchased them than the bunch I picked up from another farm.

Sigh. There's always next year.

I still had the head of Savoy cabbage I bought last week, and it took me a while to find a recipe that I really wanted to try. Most of what I found involved cooking the cabbage, and I just wasn't feeling like making a hot meal in this weather. Finally I looked in my CookShop manual, and found a great cabbage recipe in the "January - cabbage" section that would also use my almost-wilted cilantro from Saturday's market.

CookShop is a program I utilized at CASES when I was serving in AmeriCorps. Basically, it is a curriculum that teaches low-income food stamps recipients how to cook using vegetarian, local products and easy recipes. The program was created by an organization called FoodChange, which I believe no longer exists and was taken over the the FoodBank of NY. Either way, I have a copy of the curriculum we used to teach these recipes to our mentally ill ex-offenders at CASES, and I often go back to the recipes. They are easy, tasty, and generally reliable. (And isn't it funny that in New York, cabbage is the vegetable for January? Again, seasonal eating changes so much based on where you live... my New York buddies inform me regularly that this blog makes them jealous of our Southern markets, as they're still wading in apples and potatoes!)

Thai Cabbage Salad from CookShop

1 small green cabbage, core removed and sliced very thin
5 green onions, both green and white parts, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced in thin matchsticks
2 carrots, shredded or cut in matchsticks (as I'm typing this up, I realized I forgot to put carrots in my salad! Whoops!)
1 cucumber, seeds removed and cut into matchsticks
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 red chili pepper, sliced (optional -- I didn't go for it this time but might next time)

3 limes, juiced
1 Tbsp honoey
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
3 Tbsp olive oil

1. Combine all salad ingredients in a bowl.
2. To make the dressing, combine the lime juice, honey, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Add the olive oil slowly while whisking.
3. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine.
4. The longer it sits the better it will taste!

Isn't this a great recipe! Simple language, easy-to-follow directions, delightful results. CookShop is a fantastic program, and bringing it to CASES was a big accomplishment for me during my AmeriCorps year.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Farm Tour

My buddy Sarah and I went on the Piedmont Farm Tour this past weekend. We chose three farms to visit, and each was delightful in its own way.

We started at the Chapel Hill Creamery, home of the lesbian cheese farmers Flo and Portia, from whom I have bought many a block of paneer at the Carrboro farmer's market. We visited with many of their cows in the pastures, saw the milking area, and got a view of the cheese-making process. We also each had a delish fruit + yogurt smoothie.

(Sometimes even cows get itches. They scratch them on trees.)

Next we went to the farm where I bought the miraculously beautiful asparagus of last week's Wednesday market, Whitted Bowers Biodynamic Farm in Cedar Grove, NC.

When we arrived, we met Cheri Bowers, one of the farm-owners. I complimented her asparagus. She poured us strawberry lemonade. We ogled the most beautiful strawberries I have ever seen.

Her husband, Rob Bowers, the same gent who sold me the asparagus last week, showed us around his farm, explaining the biodynamic principles they follow. They plant according to the planetary and lunar alignment with the Earth, given our knowledge of the pull of the moon on the Earth's water systems. Since fruit are mostly made of water, they feel paying attention to these gravitational pulls has a strong impact on the plants. They also view the farm as it's own entity, it's own little ecosystem, and do things like only use rainwater to feed their crops, and make tincture-like composts with various herb mixtures to nourish the plants. Pretty amazing stuff, and it seems to have a huge impact on their produce: it is all so, so beautiful.

The family house, which collects many gallons of rainwater each month off the sloping roof.

Basil in the greenhouse. Huge and fragrant.

Asparagus, growing out of the ground! I'd never seen it in its full plant form before.

It takes three years for asparagus to really become a full crop. They planted two years ago, so they cannot harvest each stalk; some must stay in the ground to help maintain the roots.

The beautiful lake near the family house. On the other side are the farm's fig trees.

On our way out of the farm, we stopped at the u-pick strawberry fields and I gathered a pint.

These became yesterday's strawberry rhubarb crumble. The most beautiful strawberries, and some of the biggest, I have ever seen.

Last on our tour, we stopped at Captain John S. Pope lamb farm. I had purchased their ground lamb at the market before, and they always give out lots of recipes and free samples, so I was intrigued. They are also located right down the road from Whitted Bowers Farm.

A nice young man, perhaps twelve years of age, gave us a tractor-ride tour around the farm. He explained that around Easter they get a lot of orders. Also around another holiday -- maybe you've heard of it? -- called Passover. I asked him lots of social work type questions about what it is like to grow up on a farm. He explained that his favorite part is when they give the lambs their vaccinations, because they get to "manhandle 'em." There you have it.

Sarah and I ate lamb burgers at the end of our tractor tour. They were delightful.

The farm tour was fantastic! It is really amazing to see how unbelievaby hard our local farmers work to produce our food. It makes the sometimes steep cost of these fruits and veggies and meats feel absolutely worth it, and I feel very connected with these three farms in a different way than before, though I see them each at the market every week. Also, I really appreciate knowing what these plants look like growing out of the earth. Sometimes we forget when we are at the grocery store, or even at the farmers market, that everything we eat starts out in the dirt, a plant, growing.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble

This weekend, I picked (yes! myself!) the most incredible strawberries ever on the farm tour (I'll try to post the pictures tomorrow!) from my new favorite biodynamic farm, home also to the most incredible asparagus of all time. I looked to my favorite food blog for inspiration: strawberry rhubarb crumble, of course. The rhubarb came from Wellspring (also known as Whole Foods to those of you who have moved to Chapel Hill only in the last twelve years or so) but a produce employee told me it was shipped in from who knows where just this morning.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crumble

Yields 6 to 8 servings.

For the topping:
1 1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons Demerara sugar (I used brown sugar)
Zest of one lemon
1 stick unsalted butter, melted

For the filling:
1 1/2 cups rhubarb, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 quart strawberries plus a few extras, hulled, quartered
Juice of one lemon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
Pinch of salt

1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare topping: In a mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugars and lemon zest and add the melted butter. Mix until small and large clumps form. Refrigerate until needed.

2. Prepare filling: Toss rhubarb, strawberries, lemon juice, sugar, flour and pinch of salt in a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate.

3. Remove topping from refrigerator and cover fruit thickly and evenly with topping. Place pie plate on a (foil-lined, if you really want to think ahead) baking sheet, and bake until crumble topping is golden brown in places and fruit is bubbling beneath, about 40 to 50 minutes.

Oh yes. This is very, very good.

Hilary and I made the topping and filling at my house this afternoon after my last day at my field placement (I'm now unofficially a master of social work!) and put it all together tonight at Erica's house for American Idol. I'm only slightly interested in the show, but love to be around my friends who do care about it, so I like to bring a food project with me to Idol-watching events to keep myself entertained.

The friends were very pleased with these results. Tart and fruity and definitely dessert, this is some pretty incredible stuff.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Saturday market bounty, 4/25

Goodies from this week's market:

Savoy cabbage, red sweet potatoes, a bunch of cilantro, two bunches of basil, a pint of strawberries, and the weekly cinnamon bun.

I try to get something new, exciting, perhaps a bit of a splurge, each week at the market. This week's treat? Chapel Hill Creamery yogurt.

Plain yogurt from happy cows. Oh so good. I had it for breakfast this week with the strawberries, cut up, and a squeeze of honey.

Roasted Asparagus with Citrus Butter

Remember the most beautiful asparagus ever purchased from the farmer's market? Of course you do. How could you forget them.

I checked in with Deborah Madison's cookbook Local Flavors (given to me for my birthday last year by my former roommate, Lesley -- so thoughtful!) since these asparagus epitomize seasonal eating for me, I wanted to be sure to treat them with the springtime respect they deserve. She has a number of great asparagus recipes, but I wanted to let their flavor shine through the strongest, so I went with the following:

Roasted Asparagus with Citrus Butter

1 1/2 pounds asparagus
1 teaspoon olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup citrus juice
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, chopped into chunks
1 teaspoon grated citrus zest

If the asparagus is thin, snap off the tough parts of the stalks where they break naturally. If thick, slice off the tough ends with a knife.

Soak the asparagus in cold water while you preheat the oven to 425F, then drain and put them in a gratin dish. They needn't be dry. Toss with the oil and season with the salt. Bake until the stalks are tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife, 20-40 minutes, depending on their thickness.

Boil the juice in a small skillet until it has reduced to about 1 1/2 tablespoons. Remove from the heat, whisk in the butter, then add the zest, a pinch of salt, and some pepper. When the asparagus is done, remove it to a platter and spoon the sauce over it.

Yum. The citrus butter was easy and fun to make, and really did complement the asparagus well. It also spread well on bread later in the week, but look out for a serious kick of lemon.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Market Miracle

During today's trip to the farmer's market, I happened upon a miracle:

The most beautiful asparagus I have ever seen.

I walked through the market as I usually do, passing by each stand and assessing the day's goods, thinking through what I'll want to pick up on my walk back through to the entrance. Everything looked good today, what one would expect at the glorious start of the spring season: leafy greens, a sprinkling of red tomatoes, many herbs ready for planting, radishes and turnips and the occasional jumbled quart of strawberries.

But today, I walked down to the very end of the market, and there on a table at the last stand, I stood awestruck: long-stemmed, green, glorious asparagus, bundled up and ready to be lovingly cradled in my arms. Asparagus! Asparagus season is really truly here! I knew it was here last week when I bought my first batch of the season, but those in no way match up to these delightful beauties, these perfect specimen of plant.

I bought one bunch, telling the farmer that his asparagus were by far the most impressive I had ever seen. He told me that they had been harvesting for a few weeks, but as I know, the asparagus would only be around for a few weeks more. I asked if he would be back on Saturday; alas, no, his farm is only in Carrboro on Wednesdays. I paid for my single bundle of asparagus, walked back through the market and added a quart of strawberries, a single cucumber, and a bunch of Lacinato kale to my tote.

But as I walked back towards the entrance to leave the market, I felt unsettled. Something wasn't right. I knew -- I needed to go back for more. More asparagus! 'Tis the season, and as short as it is, and as beautiful as those stalks were, I knew I had to have another. I returned to the farmer, from the hopefully-now-famous Whitted Bowers Farm (biodynamic, of course -- this must be related to the extraordinary quality of these asparagus) to buy a second batch.

I am most certainly in love.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mom's Birthday Present: Part 3

Apologies for not posting Mom's birthday part 2. No photos were taken at the event. But here we are at part 3!

However, first things first, the farmer's market purchases from this past week.

Wednesday held two especially incredible purchases: the season's first strawberries AND the season's first asparagus!

Both came from a farm that I tend to avoid, and honestly, the only reason is because the head farmer is not very nice. Everyone else at the market is friendly and greets customers and chats, and this particular one just isn't a friendly or nice person. Given that there tends to be a lot of choice at the market, it's not hard to refrain from purchasing from a specific stand since items are usually available at about the same price from more than one farmer. However, I had to make an exception in this case for the asparagus and strawberries. No one else had them yet, and Karen and I were thrilled to finally see these items! Asparagus has a very short season, so expect to see much of it over the next few weeks. Add to the purchased items list a delicious and enormous $2 bag of salad greens.

This Saturday I acquired a nice bunch of spinach and another bag of lettuce, though I looked for the farmer I purchased the lettuce from last Wednesday and didn't see her on Saturday. Maybe she only comes on Wednesdays?

The strawberries were the primary inspiration for Mom's birthday dinner #3 this past week. I flipped through the index of various Moosewood cookbooks, looking for strawberry inspiration, and landed on this strawberry salad dressing from New Classics.

Strawberry Dressing

1 cup fresh strawberries, rinsed and stemmed
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbsp white or regular balsamic or cider vinegar (we used balsamic; might try cider or white next time to lighten it a bit)
1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp water
pinch of ground black pepper

Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Refrigerated in a sealed container, this dressing will keep for three days.

With all the basil from last week's farmer's market purchase, making pesto pasta was the obvious choice. My go-to pesto recipe:

Mollie Katzen's Pesto from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest:

3 packed cups fresh basil leaves (no stems)
3-4 healthy cloves of garlic
1/4-1/2 tsp of salt
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pulverized nuts (I use pine nuts or walnuts, or a mix or both)
1/2 cup olive oil

Optional: 1/2 cup packed fresh parsley (I use this occasionally, or add a sprinkle of parsley if I have a bit around); 1/4 cup melted butter (not necessary, say I); freshly ground black pepper (sure!)

Puree everything together in a blender or a food processor until it becomes a uniform paste.

We roasted some tomatoes for the pasta as well (keeping them on the side, of course, to accommodate my Dad's extreme tomato dislike). Roasting cherry tomatoes really brings out their flavor. I use a combo of about 2 olive oil:1 balsamic vinegar, plus a teaspoon or so of sugar, a teaspoon or so of salt, a pinch of pepper, and you can add a pinch of herbes de provence or anything dried and green you have around. Whisk it together, coat the tomatoes, roast them on a baking sheet at 400 or 425 for 20 minutes or so, and you've got some good eats.

We put mixed the pesto in with the pasta, threw in some olives, and put together a salad with some toasted almonds, raisins, and the strawberry dressing. Call it dinner.