Friday, June 8, 2012

This Week at your Local Farmer's Market (6/9/12)

I have a friend who just happens to sit across from me at work.  On Monday, I heard the tail end of an exchange between her and another co-worker.  It went something like this:

"I always thought the farmer's market would be cheaper.  It is not!"

Intrigued, I asked "Well what did you buy?"  I was expecting to get into an exchange on how organic, soy free, cage free eggs are necessarily going to cost more than the crap you buy at the grocery store, simply due to the need for land to let the chickens roam on, and food to feed them that's not ground up other chickens, corn byproduct, and antibiotics.

"Tomatoes.  And they weren't even that much better than the ones I get in the store."

Later, while writing this (but certainly not at work, because I don't write my blog at work, because that would be wrong), I asked her if I gave her a look, and she replied "Yes.  You gave me a look that said 'Bitch Please.'  But in a nice way.  Or maybe it was that, 'Oh, honey, no.' look that your mom gives you."

Either way.

So I patiently lectured her on the fact that tomatoes were out of season.  These tomatoes were grown in someone's greenhouse.  They taste like the grocery store tomatoes, because, like grocery store tomatoes, they didn't have the chance to fully ripen in the hot hot sun.  Hot house tomatoes are good, especially after a long winter of NO tomatoes (I was very excited for my two tomatoes that I lovingly bought and carried home from the Madison Farmer's Market), but they are in fact not that much better than the ones at the grocery store.  And because they're a specialty product, they're going to cost more.

"You've got to buy what's in season," I told her.

"Well how am I supposed to know what's in season?"

That's a really good question.  As someone who always had some sort of a vegetable garden, I guess I just kind of know.  And then later, I worked in some nicer restaurants that thought a little bit about seasonal ingredients - although that wasn't really their focus.  You could start to see patterns of things coming in and out... although I'm sure we had asparagus in the middle of the winter.

It wasn't really until I started regularly attending farmer's markets that I got an understanding of what really was in season and when.

So how do you know?  Well, you've got a couple options:

1. Ask.  
Farmers markets don't need to be fancy to be awesome.
Ask the farmer.  Is this in season?  How was this grown?  Is it organic?  Do you use pesticides?  Where is your farm?  Did you grow this?  (You'd be surprised how many answer no to that last question.)  Once, there was a farmer who had tomatoes in the dead of winter.  I asked him if he was magic.  That is a direct quote.  His response was he had a brother who lived in Florida who happened to be visiting and brought him some cases of tomatoes.

2. Look around.
What does everyone else have?  Do all the farmers have asparagus, spinach, greens, snap peas, and garlic scapes?  Then that's what's in season.

3. Think about it.
I don't mean this in a mean, stuck up way.  If you're not used to thinking about where your food comes from and how it's grown, if you're just used to picking up whatever you want that night at the grocery store, regardless of the month or weather patterns, then why would you think about seasonality?  Our modern grocery store system makes it unnecessary...

But if you're interested in eating locally, and not eating the gunk that they put on grocery store produce, then think like a gardener.  Think about your garden.  Most things, when they come out of the ground, are green.  We talk about someone or something being "green" in the sense that they are brand new.  "Green behind the ears," meaning someone is lacking in experience.  Young food is green.  If it's got color, it probably started green and turned that color as it ripened.  So spring food is not going to have color... it's going to be green.  The bigger it is (generally) the longer it needs to grow.

Spring food is green, like what I listed above: asparagus, spinach and other leafy greens, snap peas, garlic shoots, been sprouts.  It's new and small.  Strawberries have color, but they are very small.  You may find beets with their colorful roots, but they will be small with delicate greens. The greens haven't had time to get big. 

Summer food has had time to ripen.  It's often big and plum.  It has had time to change color.  Summer is where most of the food lives.

Fall food is starting to get hard.  Or, sometimes, it's a second planting of spring food.  But we like our fall food to get hard because then we can store it in our root cellar (if we have one.)  The plant has had time to take the energy of the sun and build up a big heavy rind.  Fall food takes a lot of energy to produce.

4. Visit the internet.
This is my favorite solution.  And I hope you made it this far.

Here are the things that you should be able to find (in season) at your farmer's market this coming Saturday, barring no unforeseen weather disasters, and assuming you live in the greater Milwaukee area:

  • Arugula
  • Radishes
  • Radish Greens (don't throw out the top of your radishes.  They're really good sauteed, or fresh and thinly sliced in a salad)
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach 
  • Pea Shoots (again, sauteed or fresh!)
  • Snap Peas 
  • Baby beets 
  • Beet greens (sauteed or fresh... catching on to the pattern here)
  • New potatoes
  • Small onions
  • Mushrooms (basically always good)
  • Strawberries (the crop is not so great this year, so if you can find them... they might be a bit spendy)
  • Asparagus (it's getting to be the end of the season, so maybe not.)
  • You'll find other stuff, too, like cucumbers and tomatoes.  Knock yourself out, but know that they are out of season and will cost a little more. 
So, what do you do with all this?

As little as possible.

It's spring.  Things are new.  They're sweet.  They're fresh.  Do as little as possible with them.  If you're going to cook them, cook them lightly.  Or, better yet, don't cook them at all.

Here is a spring salad recipe that allows for a lot of variation depending on what you like and what you have.

Spring Vegetable Tuna Pasta Salad

  • 2 oz (about) dry pasta
  • 1 cup mixed spring greens
  • 1 cup assorted spring vegetables (such as been sprouts; snap peas; thinly sliced radishes, spinach, and radish greens; and julienned asparagus - fresh spring asparagus is amazing raw)
  • 2 oz (about) high quality canned tuna in oil - make sure you buy the good stuff.  There is a huge range of quality and flavor of canned tuna.
  • 1 tbsp of your favorite salad dressing
  • 1 oz (about) cheese of your choice
Cook pasta until it is al dente.  Carefully wash your greens (farmer's market greens often are dirtier than grocery store greens) and let them dry.  Combine pasta, vegetables, tuna, and salad dressing and mix gently.  Top the greens with the pasta salad, and then sprinkle with the cheese

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