Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Farmers' Markets as a Culinary Muse

Van Gogh found inspiration for his masterpieces in the fickle clarity of Provence’s brilliant light and landscape. Rodin found it in the mystery and magic of human hands. Beethoven heard it in the trumpeting sounds of nature.

I am not an artist, but I am a chef and a cook and a food writer. For me, the greatest inspiration doesn’t come from a cookbook or a fabulous meal, though these usually rank pretty high on my list. Instead, it’s a farmers’ market, any farmers’ market, any time of year that tweaks my culinary muse.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been a farmers’ market addict for nearly twenty years. It really kicked into full force when I was living in rural France where village “marche’s” were offered daily like delicious sacrificial lambs to my empty, yearning basket and curious culinary mind. Each market in this rustic corner of the Pays Cathare was different, not unlike each of the markets I’ve uncovered in the great region of the South I explored while researching and promoting Southern Farmers Market Cookbook. Like people, each has a personality, a pulse, of its very own. Some are prettier than others, some are more sophisticated, some are more local, some are more organic, but to me, they all offer a brilliant and spiritual palette from which I can “paint” while nurturing my body and soul.

Consider a table stacked with ruby red and pale purple heirloom tomatoes roasting in the morning haze of the August sun on a crude table situated at a farmers market, Anywhere U.S.A., or world, for that matter! Is there a more beautiful site to see? An aroma more intoxicating? In my mind, the tomatoes realize myriad culinary possibilities, even before they reach my kitchen. Might they become a lazy tomato sandwich, dressed simply with mayo, salt and coarsely ground pepper, maybe a sprig of basil or two, gently pressed between two soft slices of white bread? Or, a succulent tomato sauce to embrace the grass-fed beef sausages I picked up two booth’s ago? Or, a perky gazpacho? The list goes on and on, and it doesn’t matter the ingredient, as long as it’s fresh and seasonal.

As the number of farmers’ markets and their popularity continue to mushroom across the country, this is an attitude with which I hope more people will become increasingly comfortable. I hope they will let their local farmers’ market bounty dictate what they bring home and what they create in their kitchens. I hope that people will ditch their shopping lists and their plans and embrace the whimsy of freshly picked produce and artisanal cheeses, charcuterie and breads to make unforgettable meals – edible art, if you will.

For this, along with the unsurpassed communal spirit of farmers’ markets, is what it’s all about. This is what living is, and this is the culinary muse that farmers’ markets provide the artist within us all.

From the Southern Farmers Market Cookbook Recipe File

Yellow and Red Watermelon Salsa over Red Leaf Lettuce and Smoked Ham Salad
(Serves 4 to 6)

Like tomatoes, watermelons are increasingly showing up at Southern farmers markets in a range of colors and sizes. This recipe puts both the sunny-hued “Yellow Flesh” and bright red “Cannonball” watermelon varieties to good use in a zippy, cool salsa served over a simply dressed salad of summer-seasonal red leaf lettuce and cubes of sautéed smoke ham. Mix and match with whatever local and seasonal watermelon you find. Freshness is always the key, and local is always how to find it.

For the salsa:

1 cup each cubed “Yellow Flesh” and “Cannonball” watermelon, seeded and cut into ¼-inch cubes
10 mint leaves, cut into thin strips
3 tablespoons finely diced red onion
Dash of fresh lime juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the salad:

1 head red leaf lettuce, cleaned and gently dried
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 ½ cups diced smoked ham
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the vinaigrette:

Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon local honey
Salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

To prepare the salsa, combine all salsa ingredients in a small bowl and chill up to 30 minutes before serving.

To prepare the salad, clean and dry the lettuce and tear into bite-size pieces. Reserve in a bowl, covered with a damp kitchen cloth, in the refrigerator.

Meanwhile, heat the oil and butter over medium-high heat in a large sauté pan. Cook ham, tossing occasionally, until golden brown on the edges. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside, keeping warm.

To prepare the vinaigrette, whisk together the juices, honey, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Gradually drizzle in the oil, whisking the entire time to incorporate. Taste and verify seasoning; set aside.

To assemble, season the lettuce and dress it lightly with the vinaigrette; toss gently to coat. Arrange the greens on serving plates and top with a generous portion of the chilled salsa. Sprinkle warm ham over the top and edges of each plate. Serve immediately.

(Recipe from Southern Farmers Market Cookbook by Holly Herrick, published by Gibbs Smith, June, 2009)

Farmers’ Market Faves

Though I’m not really comfortable picking “favorites” here are few markets that I’ve visited that really impressed me and why:

Morningside Farmers Market
1393 North Highland Avenue
Atlanta, GA
(404) 313-5784

This small, intimate market is 100% organic and all produce comes from within a range of no more than 30 miles. More importantly, it swells with community support and enthusiasm. People, young and old, pour in from the neighborhood to pick up their morning produce and friendly fix and to take in live music, chef cooking demonstrations and more.

Carrboro Farmers Market
301 West Main Street
Carrboro, NC
(919) 932-1641

Another tiny market, this one is huge on heart. What I really love is the palpable curiosity and enthusiasm not just of the vendors, but of the shoppers. They ask questions at every booth – “How do I prepare this?,” “What would you pair this with?” It’s intoxicating, and the setting in a small park in this hamlet of Chapel Hill is exquisite.

Spring Park Farmers Market
Spring Park
Tuscumbia, AL

This is the only farmers market I’ve ever been to, anywhere, that has a tiny choo choo train riding through and around it. As if that weren’t enough, it’s situated in an expansive, verdant and recently refurbished park. The town mayor is a regular attendee, the produce is local, the mood is light and the living is good.

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Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like couponmom.com) which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like couponmom.com with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site (harristeeter.com) , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.