Mysterious roadside goodies

A white tent popped up this summer in the parking lot of the Party Beverage store at Powell Drive and Western Boulevard near my house. The first few times I flew by it on Western, I figured it was some kind of beer keg annex, until I saw that it had plants.

It’s actually a little curb market, like the ones that sprang up on the sides of the road when I was a kid in Winston-Salem, N.C.

When I stopped to look around, it was obvious that some of the items were not local (limes, for example). I asked the quiet teen who was manning the stand where the produce came from. He quickly pointed out what was not from North Carolina, and said his grandfather grew most of the rest. I couldn’t get a lot more out of him as he went to help another customer.

The honey was from Mocksville, N.C., and there were corn, cukes, melons and herb plants. I went right for the tomatoes. Wherever the rest of the vegetables and fruits came from, these tomatoes were obviously farm grown, and from not too far away because they were a tumble of tender-skinned heirlooms in pink, red, maroon and bi-colors. Red and yellow cherry tomatoes were displayed like jewels in china bowls.

I bought an assortment of the large tomatoes. They were the best, along with the CSA’s, that I’ve eaten this summer. And now I’ve ruined it for myself because y’all will drive straight over there for these mystery ‘maters. But I’m closer. I’ll be there first.


Freestyle cooking with NAAEE

I don’t compost, unless you count The Hub’s desk, and I can hardly tell a good bug from a bad one (they’re all dead bugs if they enter my house). That’s why I was a tad puzzled when I heard from the North American Association for Environmental Education via the friend of a friend. The NAAEE is holding its annual convention this week in Raleigh, N.C. I was asked me to take a small group on a field trip to the State Farmers Market and talk about how to shop from a market. That I can do.

I rarely decide what I specifically want to cook before I arrive at the market, and that seemed surprising to many in the group. I urged them to free themselves from the tyranny of recipes. But that doesn’t mean going in with no thoughts whatsoever. Here are some suggestions I made:

Know what’s in season and what you can expect to find. Think about your favorite ethnic flavors.

Keep staples in your pantry and refrigerator. Rice can compliment a stirfry of summer vegetables, or become fried rice packed with greens or a cold rice salad with fruit. Penne pasta can become an Italian meal or spaghetti can become a cold or hot Asian noodle dish. Canned beans (black or white. Tortillas. And eggs. More people should make frittatas – you can put anything in them: artichoke hearts, fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs, green onions, peppers. It’s like an egg pizza. Soy sauce and sesame oil. Your favorite pasta sauce. Peanut butter – toss noodles and vegetables with it.

Wonton wrappers can become ravioli or potstickers. Yes, ravioli. Any filling is great: cooked kale and Parmesan, cooked butternut squash and goat cheese. Just don’t over-fill  – that’s the biggest mistake I made when I started making filled dumplings. A heaping teaspoon is enough.

Like selecting art, let the market’s offerings draw you in. If you see it and love it, buy it. Our group went for two kinds of tomatoes, kale, red banana peppers and – because the gentleman from the West Coast requested it – okra. We turned the tomatoes, peppers, some basil from my yard, olive oil and Parmesan into a fresh pasta dish: Chopped and placed in the bottom of a dish, then hot penne poured on to wilt the vegetables. (You could add drained canned cannellini beans or cooked shrimp, too.) I was going to add the kale, too, when someone mentioned kale chips. I grabbed a baking sheet, salt, garlic powder and olive oil, and we whisked the leaves into a 350-degree oven until they were nice and crispy. The okra pods were small, so I dipped them in buttermilk and a mixture of flour and cornmeal and fried them whole. Our Californian pronounced them slime free.

To me, that’s the way to cook. Even if I don’t compost my kale ribs.

Market madness

Most “officially declared” weeks (or months or days) of something are kind of lame. We’re supposed to get all excited because someone decided that it’s National Rutabaga Month, or some such thing. But this week is a week that I can get behind. This is National Farmers Market Week, and if you’re not at one right now, go find one.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there has been a 17 percent increase in the number of farmers markets nationwide between 2010 and 2011. If you could buy stock in them, it would probably be doing better than your 401K is right now.

North Carolina made USDA’s list of top ten states in the numbers of farmers markets, with 217. No. 1 California sports 729 markets. Alaska and Texas showed the most growth in farmers markets during the past year. You can read the entire report here.

A great list of North Carolina farmers markets is here. And the book “Farm Fresh North Carolina” by Diane Daniel (University of North Carolina Press, $18.95) offers information on local food around the state here.

So, if you want to declare it National Rutabaga Month, Beet Week or whatever vegetable you like, that’s fine. Just buy it at a farmers market.

Young farmers grow

If you’re rushing down Tryon Road, busy with Saturday errands, you might miss the little sign at the corner of Tryon and Dover Farm Road (near the intersection with Avent Ferry Road). It notes the presence of the farm for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Young Farmer Training Program and its farm stand. I’d whizzed by it a number of times, always planning to stop in. I finally did.

Teens in the program learn about farming from the dirt to the business plan. More about it is here. A Food Shuttle spokesperson said that they are considering adding a CSA in the future.

Teens who grow the vegetables on land right across the road sell them on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. A lively clump of young farmers had their tunes turned up when I got there, but wanted to tell me plenty about their wares. On this day, they had swiss chard, melons, baby turnips and several varieties of tomatoes, among other things, all picked that morning. There were also grow-your-own oyster mushrooms: A bag of growing medium inoculated with mushroom spores. I was curious, but it would have turned into a cat-attracting object at my house, because the teen farmers told me you keep it indoors.

I don’t think a lot of people are aware of this fresh little market. It’s always fun to buy good food from enthusiastic people. The market will operate through Oct. 15.

Looking for lavender

If you have the opportunity to meet The Hub, you will note that he looks fairly normal. But it’s just a front. For example, on Saturday morning, I told him that I was going to the Midtown Farmers Market at North Hills to visit Norma DeCamp Burns’ Bluebird Hill Farms booth. I explained that Burns used to be a Raleigh City Council member (among other things in her varied life) and now produces herbs, flowers and vegetables on the Bennett, N.C. farm. The Hub’s response: “Is she a member of the Society of the Cincinnati? She certainly would fit.”

Duh, huh, what?

He explained that Cincinnatus was an ancient Roman leader who entered public service only because he was needed, and left to go back to his farm as soon as the crises he was called upon to resolve were over, without seeking ultimate power. The society, The Hub continued, was formed at the end of the Revolutionary War to promote the ideals of citizen political service; Washington and Jefferson were members.

“Uh, sure,” I said, and left before he could hand me a final exam.

I was looking for lavender that I could use in an ongoing experiment: making lavender ice cream. When cooking with lavender, there’s a fine line between intriguingly tasty and choking on potpourri, and I’m slowly creeping up on it while trying not to cross over. Burns’ crops are organic, so the lavender is safe for use in cooking. She leaves her culinary lavender buds on stems, making the lavender easier to strain from liquid than the loose buds.

Because I can never leave a farmers market solely with what I came for, I also got a Grilling Spice Rub. It contains oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil, sage and an herb called perilla, which is known as shiso in Asian cooking. At home, I mixed olive oil, lime juice and enough of the rub to make a paste, which I rubbed on flank steak. I let it sit at room temperature for about an hour, then hit the grill. The rub offered flavor and tenderness without a long marinating time.

Before I left the booth, I told Burns about The Hub’s comments and the Society of the Cincinnati. She smiled and said, “I’ll have to look that up. Your husband certainly sounds interesting.” True, never a dull moment, as long as I can avoid history pop quizzes.


Piedmont Grown begins

A new program provides consumers a way to find locally produced food, and supports the farmers and artisans who produce it. Piedmont Grown certifies farmers markets, farmers and local food producers in the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte areas.

In order to be part of the program and display its logo, the food involved must be from the 37-county area covered by Piedmont Grown. For example, farmers must certify that they produce the food they sell, and farmers markets must be producer-only markets. Participants must be certified annually, and there is a enrollment fee.

About 100 farms and businesses have registered so far. A searchable index and other information is at the web site here.

Food news roundup

Hesitant cooks find it hard to freestyle at a farmers market. They clutch recipes like puzzle pieces and look for an exact fit. But traveling the aisles without a plan is liberating and allows you to use what’s best and fresh – and cooking seasonally may save you some money, too. The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) offers help to think outside the recipe box by following a chef through the State Farmers Market. Read more here. It’s in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, too, where Kathleen Purvis also tracks down a rumor about vendors at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. The scoop is here.

Where there’s smoke, there’s a discussion of the myriad uses for smoked paprika, and it’s in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal here. I love the stuff. When I started using it, most people hadn’t heard of it – now it’s widely available. I will say, too much can overwhelm, so start small. And the longer you keep the jar, the stronger the smoky aroma and flavor becomes, and not always in a good way. Another reason to purchase fresh spices and herbs regularly.

ThePieDaily offers the recipe for the goodie that sold out first at the Triangle Food Blogger Bake Sale on Saturday in Durham. Of course, it contains chocolate.

Ever pulled out Mom’s ancient recipe for a cake, baked it and found it, well, awful? Happened to me with an apple cake recipe that was drowning in oil by today’s standards. A Portland, Ore., baker is trying to adapt vintage cake recipes to modern eaters. Read more in the Oregonian, here.

JanNorris doesn’t let a mere power failure stand between her and sweets. She offers no-bake dessert recipes here.

If you feel extra light and puffy today, that’s because it’s National Cheese Souffle Day. And I wouldn’t have known that without Eatocracy telling me so.

I have to say, one thing I have never thought about doing to strawberries is roasting them. But it occurred to LeitesCulinaria, and there are details.



Stocked markets

If the ACC Tournament is coming up, that means it’s time to crank up the sausage balls. Oh, it also means farmers markets are reviving around the Triangle. The Campus Farmers Market at the N.C. State University Brickyard in Raleigh has reopened. And a new market is opening in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights. The Saturday Market at 301 Kinsey Street will offer a little bit of everything, including produce, food trucks and crafts. It will be open Saturdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. starting April 23. The market is on Facebook: Thanks to Andrea Weigl’s blog Mouthful for alerting me to the market.

A food lover’s guide to North Carolina

Visiting farmers markets, farm stands, microbreweries and anything else interesting in the food area is part of any vacation I take. I usually research online and print out notes on sheets of paper, which end up flying all around the back seat of the car.

Now there’s a book I can leave in the back seat wherever I go, and it will stay put. “Farm Fresh North Carolina” by Diane Daniel (The University of North Carolina Press, $18.95) is a collection of information on farmers markets, farm stands, wineries, dining locations and more all over the state. Daniel, who lives in Durham, selected the places to include based on her visits to the locations and the experiences she had. You’re unlikely to run out of things to do on vacation – or even with spare time near home – with this book in hand.

It goes beyond simple listings with mini-profiles of farmers and producers, historical facts and recipes. Everyone with an opinion may question the restaurant selections, but I agree with most.

The problem with guidebooks like this one is they can quickly become outdated. Daniel plans to address this issue by posting updates to the book on her website here. However, the book itself will not be online.

Food news roundup

I opened my News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Features section today to….”Survivor.” Apparently, the new season starts tonight, and I still don’t know why I should care. Where’s my Food? Oh, at the bottom of the page, next to a rock concert review. The article is by your humble blogger, offering tips to make football tailgating simple. I can’t help your team, though. It’s here.

A new downtown city market is contemplated in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. The question is, will anyone shop there? Read more here.

The joy of end-of-summer dining at walk-up windows is the topic in the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News. Save money, too. The story is here.

Another installment in the ongoing story of the opening of Husk is in the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. The restaurant’s chef, Sean Brock, will source everything on the menu from the South. That means no olive oil or balsamic vinegar, among other things. I hope for bacon fat as a substitute. Read more here.

The San Francisco Chronicle takes readers behind the scenes at the French Laundry, the California restaurant recognized as one of the world’s best. I couldn’t help thinking of “Ratatouille.” The article is here.

Exotic new flavors of soda pop and how to cook with them is the subject in the Chicago Tribune. Anyone remember Wacky Cake? Read the article, accompanied by a photo of a stunningly pink cake, here.