I heart farmer’s markets

I could fashion an entire vacation around farmers markets. The only problem is – I want to purchase everything I see, take it home and cook it. A little difficult in a hotel room.

On my last day in Santa Fe, N.M. at the Association of Food Journalists’ conference, I (and many others) stopped at the Santa Fe farmers market. It’s considered one of the best in the country, and I won’t argue with that. I made breakfast out of a raspberry-oatmeal bar (oatmeal is a breakfast food, right?) and a beautiful flatbread stuffed with sauteed market greens. The flatbread came from a spot called The Intergalactic Bread Company and sold by a lovely woman in a sari who was not apparently Indian, but no matter. A nearby booth selling watermelon juice rounded things out.

The real star for people like me from elsewhere was the chile roaster. You could select the chiles of your choice for roasting in a rotating drum. Or you could take what they’d already roasted (still warm). I picked up two bags of a medium-hot chile and, on their advice, double-bagged and packed them in my checked luggage. When I got home, a TSA card noted that my suitcase had been examined. Wonder if those bomb-sniffing dogs caught a whiff? The chiles were still there, and are now in my freezer awaiting the right occasion.

Here’s a slideshow I did of my photos from the market.

Santa Fe Farmers Market with Association of Food Journalists

Food news roundup

There’s some great stuff in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) and Charlotte (N.C.) Observer today – making ice cream without a pricey, counter top-eating ice cream machine, to name one. But a more interesting item is in N&O food writer Andrea Weigl’s blog. The Raleigh Downtown Farmers market is struggling. It’s a great market, great farmers, local seafood, you name it. The problem, in my opinion, is it’s in the middle of the workday. Where are downtown workers supposed to keep veg and fish if the office has no refrigerator? I think an end-of-the-workday market would draw more shoppers (say, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.).

Community gardens are not new. But a huge garden (1,000 sweet potato plants, for starters) in Winston-Salem, N.C. is being grown by volunteers, with the entire crop going to Second Harvest Food Bank. Read more in the Winston-Salem Journal, here.

Cupcakes? They’re so ’09. The hip baked good now is the macarone, declares the Kansas City Star here. No they’re not shaggy macaroons. Macarones are puffy, light, colorful cookies in unusual flavors.

Water your whiskey? Ice cube in your wine? Not so crazy, writes food scientist Harold McGee in the New York Times. Water can actually be a useful flavor enhancer. Read more here.

Food news roundup

Corn. Butter beans. Squash. Tomatoes. No more to say, except see great recipes at The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) here.

If there’s a farmers market just down the street from the office, it makes dinner easy and good, says Kathleen Purvis at the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. Read more here.

Blueberry recipes abound in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, including one that combines two things I love: blueberries and sugar cake. Watch out, thighs. It’s all here.

Grass-fed beef is lower in fat, which can make it tricky to cook on the grill. The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) offers tips for making grass-fed burgers for the grill. Read about it here.

The Chicago Tribune contends that one can eat well while camping. There’s even what appears to be a glass of white wine in the photo. Since my idea of camping is staying in a hotel with no TV, I find that hard to believe. See for yourself if the heat has gotten to them here.

If you grill it, they will eat

Charcoal smoke is in my blood. As a kid, my father and I, in coats and gloves, basted ribs with barbecue sauce on the grill in January. I have often thought that I would eat anything – anything – if it were cooked over hot coals.

I put the theory to the test last weekend.

The vegetables are beginning to pour into the farmers market, and I wanted to make an entree using grilled vegetables, with an Italian touch. It needed some protein. Left to myself, I would have layered some fresh mozzarella between the grilled vegetables, but that wouldn’t fly with the dairy-allergic husband.

Well, I thought, there is that white stuff in a block that I like about as much as wet chalk: Tofu. People have tried to convince me for years that my hatred of the bean curd Jell-O is unreasonable. It is not. Vegetarians have told me that it has no flavor on its own and just picks up what you put on it. Wrong. It does have a flavor – one resembling wet weeds. The only recipe up to now in which I’ve liked tofu was a chocolate pie made with the silken variety, although making it almost burned up my blender.

But I considered extra-firm tofu. Would grilling cover its many sins? The answer, to quote a wise copy editor friend: It didn’t suck absolutely. It wasn’t fresh mozzarella, but it wasn’t hideous. Grilling added smoke to the flavor and firmed up the texture (one of my issues). Here’s what I did.

Two eggplant, three yellow pattypan squash, a small red onion and a weird variety of green squash I got from the CSA, cut in about 1/2-inch slices. No need to peel the eggplant unless you’re swimming in extra time and have nothing else to do. Rubbed with plenty of olive oil. Griledl until brown on each side. I used a perforated grill pan to prevent slices from falling through the grate. I put them in a low oven to keep warm. While the vegetables cooked, I made a sauce. I thought I was grabbing a bag of homemade tomato sauce from my freezer, but it turned out to be frozen cherry tomatoes. No matter. I boiled them down with garlic, marjoram and lots of fresh basil until they thickened. After the vegetables, extra-firm tofu in 1/2-inch slices, rubbed with olive oil and sprinkled with marjoram and garlic powder. I grilled them until they didn’t look like tofu anymore, but perhaps oddly shaped chicken breast. Layered it up, poured over the sauce. Nice, even with the four-letter food included.

Ah, corn

summer corn cakes

summer corn cakes

“What’s for dinner?” I yelled out the car window at Jason Smith. The 18 Seaboard chef was intently stuffing all sorts of vegetable matter in a van at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, N.C. this morning. “This time of year is such a cornucopia,” he said enthusiastically. “An old chef I knew told me once, get the best ingredients you can and then don’t mess them up. Actually, he didn’t say ‘mess’.” (Jason, I worked at newspapers for 15 years. There isn’t a four-letter word I haven’t heard and possibly used. But I appreciate the attempt to spare my delicate Southern sensibilities.)

The cornucopia in the back seat of my car: blueberries, nectarines, watermelon, cantaloupe, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and corn. When I got home with it all, I craved corn cakes for lunch. I guess they’re sort of fritters. Sometimes I put chopped shrimp or okra in them, but I had neither on hand. This time it was a couple of ears’ worth of corn kernels, a few shakes of chili powder and smoked paprika, chopped green and yellow onion, a chopped clove of garlic, and salt and pepper. A tablespoon or so each of flour and cornmeal, some baking powder, then a beaten egg to hold it all together. I scooped the batter gently with two large spoons into hot oil and fried the cakes until they were brown on both sides. I drain all my fried foods on a cake cooling rack over a plate, not on paper towels – the oil just hangs around on the towels and gets the food soggy.

I made a salad of sliced cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh mozzarella, olive oil and vinegar to go with the corn cakes. That’s a summer lunch.

Point to a new farmer’s market

I love to see new farmer’s markets sprout. Residents of Raleigh’s Five Points have a new one in their own ‘hood as of May 1. The Five Points Farmers Market will operate each Saturday through Oct. 30, 8 a.m. to noon, in the parking lot of Nofo at The Pig on Fairview Road. According to market manager Anne Atkinson, there are nine permanent vendors, including Southport Seafood, Yellow Dog Bread Company and Bee Blessed Farm (honey and eggs). Two different guest vendors will be part of the market each week.

The eating of the greens and soft-shell crabs

It feels like Christmas in April – I picked up the first CSA box of veggies this week. The result: I had enough lettuce

lettuce, green onions, strawberries and more lettuce

lettuce, green onions, strawberries and more lettuce

to make salad for all in the immediate area of Moose Manor, thanks to the ample contents and the three large pots of leaf lettuce I’m growing on the patio. Planning, not my middle name.

Fortunately, I have been on a trend of salad for lunch for several months and I’ve become creative with dressings. I prefer to make my own – it’s easy and tastes so much fresher than bottled dressing (probably less expensive, too). I can also leave out things I don’t want, like a ton of salt or sugar. Herb flavored vinegar, balsamic vinegar, chunks of garlic, shakes of herbs, lemon or lime juice, Dijon mustard, mashed avocado, even a dab or two of barbecue sauce all make nice friends with olive oil.

The CSA alone would have made it a big week in the kitchen for me, but there was also the opening of the downtown Raleigh farmer’s market on Wednesday, on the end of Fayetteville Street near the convention center. Ed Mitchell of The Pit was cooking ‘cue, so the place was mobbed. But as a friend and I slogged through the crowd, I found North Carolina soft-shell crabs. I snatched them up like the pure spring gold that they are and ran home to my kitchen, where I did a little jig of delight and called my husband to share the news.

There was one little thing about these soft-shells: I had to clean them myself. In this case, “clean” means dispatching them to crab heaven, because fresh soft-shell crabs are sold live. The fishmonger had always cleaned them for me before. As oil heated in my frying pan, I pulled the package from the refrigerator and unwrapped it. The crabs twitched slowly, like slightly drunk spiders. I followed instructions: Snip off just below the eyes with a pair of kitchen shears, open the top of the shell and pull out the gills, then snip off a triangular spot on the back.

With that, I had killed my own food for the first time. Watch out, Ted Nugent.

Party at the market

If you live in West Raleigh, there’s a small gem on the N.C. State University campus worth braving the parking hassles to visit. A completely student-run farmer’s market sets up on the Brickyard every Wednesday during the spring and fall semesters from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.. And, yes, students came up with the idea. All vendors sell North Carolina-produced items. Besides fresh produce, there is exotic ravioli from the Pasta Wench in Boone, roasted corn cornmeal (it has an interesting smoky flavor) from Carolina Grits & Co. in Rocky Mount and other vendors.

On April 14, the organizers are throwing “Localpalooza,” with food samples, music and information on finding locally produced food.

With NCSU’s agricultural roots, a market makes sense; with the stereotype of student eating (pizza and burgers), it doesn’t. Read about how the market came about in my article here. For information on the market, visit its blog here.

Bye-bye yellow haze

The yellow haze of pine pollen lifted this weekend, and even the pink and purple azaleas in my yard seemed brighter. It would no longer require a complete hose-down and wardrobe change to sit outside, so the grill was running. First, grilled asparagus. It’s the only way to cook asparagus. Roasting in the oven is OK; steaming is a waste of a good vegetable. But grilling, with its crispy-smoky goodness – that is asparagus heaven. Don’t bother with the other methods. All the grilled asparagus needed was a little salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.

I got some thick, meaty fillets of North Carolina striped bass at the Western Wake Farmers Market. Those I marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and chopped ginger and garlic. Never marinate fish too long or the texture will become mushy – 15 minutes is plenty. The fish was fairly thick, so it took, maybe 6 to 10 minutes to cook. Better to undercook slightly – and touch up any pieces that need it in the microwave indoors – than overcook fish on the grill.

I put some North Carolina shrimp, boiled in beer and Old Bay, next to it. And a bowl of spring greens (kale, tatsoi, baby spinach, leaves from tender Japanese turnips) sauteed in olive oil, garlic and ginger. A meal that threatened to be healthy, although I wouldn’t hold that against something that tasted so good.

See Debbie on NBC-17 and at farmers market, too

I just got back from carrying a lovely tray of deviled eggs to NBC-17 in Raleigh, N.C., where it and I will be featured on the new local show, My Carolina Today. The segment with host Valonda Calloway will be shown Thursday, April 1, at 11 a.m.

Don’t forget to come out to the spring opening for the Wake Forest Farmers Market this Saturday, April 3. I’ll be there, selling and signing cookbooks, and offering samples of deviled eggs, of course. I’ll be at the market in downtown Wake Forest, N.C. from 9 a.m. to noon.