Farmers Market Finds

It is currently the height of summer in New England, and the heat and longer days are finally, quite literally, yielding fruit.  The shorter growing season in the northeast limits the kinds of fresh produce we can enjoy and when it is available, so it becomes that much more exciting when the farmers markets suddenly replace their regular offerings of potatoes and beets with brightly colored greens, radishes, and cucumbers.

Our local farmers market operates year-round, snuggling indoors at the Armory when the temperatures drop and reemerging like new shoots after Memorial Day.  Our local vegetable farmers, too, seem to hibernate for the winter, with one or two stalwarts persevering to provide the neighborhood with potatoes, apples, and other hearty storage crops.  Tables once heaped with greens are taken over by livestock farmers, fishermen, bakers, and chocolatiers.

With the market back out in its place in the sun, the fruit and vegetable sellers dominate once again.  Here is where the home cook can find the ingredients that can change an everyday dish in to something new and novel.

One of the major factors that distinguishes a meal at a fine restaurant from a something prepared at home is the variety of ingredients.  At a recent visit to a local wine bar, we ordered a radish salad – a very simple dish on its own, but the chef utilized three different kinds of radish, each prepared in a unique way and combined on one plate in a way that both accentuated the differences of each radish and melded in to a unified experience.  On our next trip to the grocery store, I looked around the produce department interested in what kinds of radish I might be able to pick up, only to find the common red-skinned golf ball as the only option.

The farmers market, however, has radishes.  French breakfast, watermelon, pink ones, white ones, even black ones that almost look like truffles.  The farmers market has these, along with a multitude of squashes and tomatoes and greens, because they may be too delicate to survive our long food logistics chain, or they are not produced in sufficient quantities to interest the grocery stores, or the farmer felt like it would be interesting to try a new crop.  The farmers market opens up the opportunity to experiment.

The simplest way to punch up a home-cooked meal is to make simple substitutions, because there is pleasure in novelty.  All those fancy adjectives that restaurant menus charge extra for can become the domain of the home cook when a simple tomato salad becomes an heirloom tomato salad or grilled zucchini becomes grilled Cousa squash.  A small change of ingredients requires no additional cooking knowledge beyond the understanding that varietals all will handle cooking in largely the same way.

And if you find something that you really don’t know what to do with?  There’s a qualified expert standing right there, ready to answer all of your questions about the produce that their farm (possibly even their own hands) grew, harvested, and laid out on the table you are in front of.

I had no real goal at our last trip to the farmers market, but I immediately eyed the pints of multicolored cherry tomatoes at one stall and knew what had to be done.  One of our favorite summertime meals is a simple “deconstructed caprese,” a dish of fresh garden tomatoes and gooey buratta, sprinkled with basil and fancy olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Here, I decided to turn that into something more of a traditional green salad after buying some lettuce on a whim.  When it came time to prepare this meal, I also had a leftover end of bread (also purchased from the farmers market) – I sliced this up and toasted it for croutons, but you could also cube and lightly brown a whole loaf and convert this salad in to a fattoush.

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Caprese-inspired tomato salad from the farmers market

1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
1 small Bibb lettuce
1/2 bunch basil (about 1 cup)
8 oz mozzarella
~4 oz bread (this was leftover sourdough)
Good olive oil and balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 425F. Cut the bread in to small pieces (these are about crouton sized). Toss with some plain old olive oil and salt, then spread on a sheet tray and pop in the oven until toasted, about 5-7 minutes.

Halve the tomatoes, chop the lettuce. Remove basil leaves from the stems and chiffonade. Cut mozzarella in to ~1/2 inch chunks. Toss all of this in a bowl.

To serve, place salad in plates or shallow bowls. Drizzle with olive oil (you know, the good stuff) and balsamic vinegar (you know, the good stuff) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place croutons artistically on top.

Fattoush variant – drastically increase the bread and tomatoes (maybe a good half loaf of bread and a pint of tomatoes). Cut bread in to ~1/2 inch cubes and only lightly toast, just enough to give it a little color.

 

 

A Use For Berries

Cooking, lately, has been less about meal planning and more about improvisation.  Our butcher offers a monthly “meat club” and the farmers markets are in full swing, which means I tend to collect a random assortment of meat and vegetables without any real idea of what to do with them.  I’ve decided to start keeping track of the meals I make with the ingredient grab bag – partly to share with you, dear reader, but mostly because I can’t remember what I did ten minutes ago without writing it down.

This past weekend, we embarked on our annual SufferFest up at Russell Orchards.  SufferFest occurs in late July when, if the weather cooperates and the stars align, the blueberries are beginning to ripen, the raspberries are in full swing, the currants are just winding down, and the blackberries are just barely reaching maturity.  The last week of July is also usually the hottest week of the year in New England, and the farm is conveniently sited right next to a small creek and marsh (a perfect habitat for mosquitoes) and the beach (where the greenhead flies wander in from).  SufferFest is a full day out in the blazing heat and sun, being eaten by bugs, in order to pick as many berries as possible before dying of heat stroke or blood loss.

Thankfully, this year the weather stayed a wonderfully moderate mid-70s with a breeze and some cloud cover, which only left the flies to do their damage to my exposed skin.  We picked about five pounds each of raspberries and blueberries, plus a pint each of red currants, black currants, and jostaberries.  The jostaberry is a black currant/gooseberry hybrid, producing a fruit similar in shape and color to a black currant but about twice as large.  While the currants were spoken for to make desserts and baked goods, the jostaberries were a bit of a wild card.

Sweet fruit sauces go well with heartier meats, but being summer I didn’t really want a very heavy meal.  Instead, I chose a boneless pork loin roast – lean on the inside but with a decent fat cap, the cut takes on a good sear but also benefits from some saucy enhancement.  Here, I took the basic idea of a Cumberland sauce and modified it for fresh jostaberries.

Cumberland sauce begins with port and is flavored with spices, sugar, citrus, and (traditionally) currant jelly with the addition of some fresh berries.  It’s very similar to American cranberry sauce (the whole berry kind, not the smooth canned stuff), and should be tart to offset the heaviness of the game or red meat it’s traditionally served with.  Here, I attempt to make the jelly in situ by cooking down the berries in a mixture of port and red wine, along with some extra sugar to cut the intense tartness of the jostaberries (some of them may have been a bit underripe).  I also wanted the sauce to flow a bit more than would be traditional, so it was served chilled but not fully set.

The choice of sides here was entirely influenced by what we had lying around in the kitchen.  I had just harvested some haricot verts from the garden, and while thinking about a starch I discovered a couple of red potatoes hiding in the produce basket.  With some time to kill and plenty of rendered fat from the pork, the choice seemed clear – fry these suckers.  Shallow frying potato chips is time consuming but entirely doable; red potatoes don’t seem to really color at all until they transition from crispy to burned, so be warned.  A more traditional frying potato would be a better choice if planning ahead.

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Roast loin of pork with jostaberry Cumberland sauce, haricot vert, and potato chips

1 boneless pork loin roast, 2 lbs or so
1/2 lb haricot vert (give or take, I harvested them from the garden)
2 red potatoes (or, you know, a good potato for frying)
1 pint of jostaberries (or currants, or cranberries…)
1/2 cup ruby port
1/2 cup red wine
1 lemon
dark brown sugar (I did not measure this)
1 tsp mustard powder
1/2 tsp ground ginger
pinch of ground clove
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and black pepper

To make the sauce:
Rinse the berries. Peel the skin off of the lemon and then juice it. Mix the port and red wine in a saucepan, add the spices and lemon peel, and simmer for about five minutes. Remove the lemon peel. Add in the berries and brown sugar (maybe… 1/4 cup?) and lightly simmer for about 15 minutes, until the berries pop and the sauce thickens a bit. The sauce should be tart but not overwhelmingly so; add a bit more brown sugar if it’s really puckering. Add salt to taste, then chill in the fridge.

Take the lemon juice, add 3 oz. gin, 1/4 oz. Maraschino, and 1/4 oz. creme de violette. Shake with ice and strain in to a cocktail glass garnished with a Maraschino cherry. Drink.

Everything else:
Preheat oven to 350. Rub the meat all over with salt and pepper. Sear the outside in a cast iron skillet over high heat, starting with the fat cap. Remove to a roasting pan, then put that in the oven until the meat reaches 135-140.

Stare at the skillet that is now full of pork fat. Run your gaze across the kitchen until you find two lonely red potatoes hiding in the produce basket. Decide that you have some time to kill until your wife gets home. Slice the potatoes 1/8″ thick with a mandoline, then cook in batches in the pork fat over medium-high heat until crispy but not burned; they probably won’t color much. Drain on a cooling rack set in a sheet pan, and sprinkle salt over them while still warm.

Reach for the pot to steam the haricot vert. Think forward to after the meal when there will be yet another pan to clean if you pull it out of the cupboard. See the pork fat shimmering on the stove top, beckoning. Close the cupboard and toss the beans in the hot oil instead. Cook 2-3 minutes until tender and just barely browned in spots.

Cut the pork into about 1/2″ slices, fan on the plate, and arrange the beans and chips artfully around it. Spoon sauce over the pork.