Category Archives: Farmers Market

Further Fine Food From Fat: BLTs with Locally Grown Tomatoes and Sprouts with Maple Cured Bacon

A friend of mine from Canada came to visit a couple of years ago and brought me one of those souvenir sets of typical Canadian condiments. You know, the kind of gift set you might find in a shop at the airport? Well, the present was well used. The condiments included two different bottles of delicious pure maple syrup and though I am not a lover of maple flavored things myself, the syrups were quickly consumed by the younger members of my family. The third item however went unused. It was a bottle of tiny lumps of maple sugar. Until a few weeks ago I must confess that had absolutely no idea what I was going to use this for. (I tried it on oatmeal and it didn’t do the trick for me.) Not being really suitable to put in the box for the next canned food drive, I stuck it in the back of the cabinet with the other sugars, salts, etc.

Then recently, when it was time to fortify my bacon supply, while hunting in the cupboards to find the ingredients for the cure mix, I came across the odd bottle of maple sugar. Serendipity is a wonderful thing! What could be better than maple cured bacon smoked over apple wood? Now I told you all about bacon curing in my post here, so I am not going to repeat myself. All I did differently was generously sprinkle the curing bacon with the maple sugar. (FYI, I could just as well have used regular real maple syrup.) As the bacon cured, the sugar dissolved and the meat was infused with the flavor. After an 8 day cure, a couple of days drying and an afternoon in the smoker where I used apple wood for the smoke, the bacon was ready to meet some delicious, locally grown, heirloom tomatoes. My yield was about 5 pounds of bacon which I sliced up into serving sized packages for the freezer.

(Sorry for the crappy photo – look at the earlier bacon post for some much better porn.)

Finally around mid-June, at the Maplewood Farmers’ Market, I spied a few first-of-the-season heirloom tomatoes. The farmer knew that he had gold that week. They were ridiculously But my bacon was waiting and my patience was non-existant. I had to have one, even though I cost me my right arm. Ugly, but perfect in texture, color and flavor this expensive tomato did not disappoint us.

Bacon and tomatoes this good, have to have just the right bread, don’t they? Since coming back from the CIA last spring, inspired by my new found bravery in the face of yeast, I have been making our breads at home. I learned several breads in class but the one I prefer by far is the one my classmate Jessica told me about. Apparently everybody in the world knew about this bread before me. But since I was leavening-challenged, I had been clueless before that class. The bread I am talking about is Jim Lahey’s No Knead bread. If you have always fantasized about homemade bread but didn’t have the desire or guts or both to deal with an involved multi-stepped process, I would urge you to take a look at this recipe. I have made many different variations on the basic no-knead version and I swear it never fails. Add herbs, dried grated cheese, chopped olives, sun-dried tomatoes and the basic bread yields to your creativity. I even made a rye version (I used a fine ground flour) that came out fantastically.

Looks like it came straight from a Paris boulanger, doesn’t it? This loaf comes out of the oven moist and yeasty on the inside and crisp and chewy on the crust. It is an amazing bread that makes for some truly ecstatic eating. Bob always likes his toasted and this bread is both crunchy and soft out of our Dualit.

Summer dinners have regularly consisted of a big, thick, well stuffed BLT. For the “L,” we use baby lettuce from my little hydroponic garden supplemented by fresh radish sprouts from that same farmers’ market. These lovelies add an element of spice to our sandwiches. I would show you how beautiful one of these gourmet dinners is but we never seem to be able to wait to take a photo before devouring our meal.

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Filed under Baking, Bread, Cooking, Farmers Market, Pork

Flowers for Foodies: You are what you eat?

When last we met, I made a promise about squash blossoms. These are lovely things and when I see them on restaurant menus, I am always captivated. Generally speaking, I really like the idea of eating flowers. This may be silly but I do. A flower is a thing of beauty and I happen to like the idea of eating things of beauty. Especially if it is true that you are what you eat.

You probably won’t find squash blossoms in an ordinary grocery store. If you do, I would not advise buying them unless you are going to pulverize them into soup. They could not possibly be fresh enough for stuffing. I found mine at one of my favorite local farmers’ markets. Squash blossoms are extremely perishable and difficult to keep. It is best to prepare and serve them on the same day they are picked, especially if you are going to stuff them. Mine had been picked the morning I purchased them and even still a couple were so badly bruised that I  had to toss them in the compost bucket! Don’t you just hate that?

You can see in the photo how beautiful they are. They have these delicate green veins – look closely. Mine were female as they had small squash attached which I removed for another time. The flowers tend to be about 4 inches in diameter and about three inches long. This leaves them with plenty of space to put some filling.

Apparently, squash blossoms open up early in the morning. One article I read encouraged picking them at that time so they would remain open and be easier to stuff. I had no problem gently coaxing mine open to get them ready for filling. I carefully washed them out. In one, I found a little bug. Unlike flowers, I am not interested in eating bugs. I also removed the stamens. Why? Because several recipes suggested that this part tastes bitter. It was easy to do. I just stuck the tip of a small kitchen shears inside and carefully clipped it away.

Most of the recipes I found called for stuffing the flowers, coating them in some way and then frying them quickly. Some called for a simple dusting with corn starch or flour and others suggested using a batter. I decided to use the same  basic batter I use when making Mexican style chile rellenos only with different seasonings.

 Here is the mis en place for the batter: a separated egg and a little bit of  flour (mixed with some onion powder, salt and pepper).

I also decided to use a fairly mild filling because the blossoms are hardly about flavor. With a lightly seasoned batter fried just so, this dish is so much more about mouthfeel than anything else. My meal consisted of polenta with guanciale and sous vide duck breast with a cherry gastrique in addition to the squash blossom rellenos. This dinner was a wonderful study of contrast in texture and taste: crispy and subtle vegetables set off against the meaty poultry with its pungent, fruity sauce and the creamy, bacony polenta.

To make the filling I used fresh ricotta flavored with preserved lemon, fresh mint, thyme, just a touch of basil, and some salt. I plucked the herbs from my garden – some of the few things I can grow in spite of my cursed black thumbs.

I finely minced the herbs in the small bowl fitted to my immersion blender (still my favorite kitchen implement), added the other ingredients and gave it a couple of pulses.

I ended up with a lovely emulsion though I wish it would not have thinned out so much. Next time I might add some flour or walnuts to bind it a bit.

To make the batter, I whipped the egg white until it was stiff but not dry, folded in the yolk which I had stirred well and then sprinkled on the seasoned flour. The flour was then lightly folded into the egg mixture, keeping the batter plenty light and fluffy.

Earlier, when I opened and cleaned out the blossoms, I set them on some plastic so by the time I was ready to prepare them for frying, they were pretty dry. As I filled each blossom with the cheese mixture, I brought the petals together and gently pinched them between my fingers just enough to keep them closed while I slathered them with the batter.

The batter more or less “glued” the petals together so the filling did not come out during frying – at least most of the time. I fried them up in very hot, but not smoking, canola oil. Canola works well because of its total neutrality. The frying went very fast – it took maybe a minute or two to get one side a nice golden brown. I flipped them over with a spatula, rather than a pair of tongs, to avoid having them break open and spill the filling. They came out looking really good.

I lost a little filling from one, but it was still  fine for serving.

Our dinner was lovely and romantic. We had great fun taking bites of the three dishes and experiencing the different flavors and textures. 

A couple of notes: Sour pie cherries have about a 3-4 week season here. I picked 25 pounds this year and canned them all. I made the gastrique from some juice that was unused after I had canned all the fruit. It was mildly sweet and intensely cherry flavored. After reducing the juice to 1/4 of its original volume, I amended it with some 18 year old balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon or so of honey. The polenta was actually left over from a meal we had earlier in the week. While it was in the fridge, the guanciale permeated the cooked polenta in a wonderful way. It tasted even better the second time around! The duck breast was cooked in the same manner described in my earlier post here.

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Duck, Farmers Market, kitchen tools, Sous Vide

Fanatic Finally Feels Fine for Fixing Fresh Food

Our farmers’ markets are in full swing now. During a normal week starting in mid to late spring and going through early fall, I often visit as many as three of them. Yes, yes, I know that is a lot but it is difficult to even limit myself to only three. I don’t just go to the markets to shop for the freshest and best local goods of the season. I also go for the conviviality. I never fail to see people I know, regardless of which market I am strolling through. Being connected with others in this way gives me a wonderful sense of community.

Over the years I have made friends with many of the farmers and vendors. I enjoy greeting them as I go along the rows, admiring the fresh, locally grown products and home canned delicacies. Sometimes I bring the dog – there are some folks at the markets who are disappointed when I don’t. Our markets often feature special events such as demonstrations, lectures, book signings and on Saturdays there is always music. You can buy a coffee and a pastry from a number of our local bakers and sit and watch the crowd – a favorite activity of mine.

I am having a hard time holding myself back these days. I want to buy some of everything being sold. So many unusual and special things: on Wednesday evening I bought Red Star Turnips, carrots and potatoes all of which had been pulled from the soil that morning. I also bought one waaaay expensive tomato that was probably one of the earliest local heirlooms of the season. (It is definitely time to break out the bacon and make some gourmet BLTs.) I have no idea what I will do with those turnips. The Farmer suggested I sprinkle them with olive oil and sea salt and roast them on the grill. Sounds good to me.

My best purchase of the market on Wednesday were a gorgeous bunch of just-picked squash blossoms. Amazingly fresh and begging to be stuffed, I did not hesitate when I saw them. Now the truth be told, I have been a little remiss lately in my posting here. This is because I have been quite ill. If you knew what I have been through with pain and doctors and tests and surgery, you would understand. But this is not interesting stuff. Why I bring it up is that on Wednesday, at the market, I finally felt as if I was coming alive again and boy oh boy I suddenly got the urge to cook. That after a couple of long weeks of not only NOT wanting to cook but also not wanting to eat! So I am excited to get back in the kitchen, to return to my weekly rounds of fabulous farmers’ markets and to see many of my foodie friends.

Soon come mon: Squash Blossom Rellenos, Polenta with Guanciale and Fresh Cherry Gastrique (for the duck breast)

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Filed under Cooking, Farmers Market, Social Commentary, Sustainable Farming

Fantastic Farmer Facilitates Food for Fanatics

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend an event put on by our local chapter of Slow Food USA. In its 5th year, the event was called Lambstravaganza. It took place way out in Missouri farm territory, about 2 hours west of our BIG city of St. Louis, at the farm of Dave and Barb Hillebrand. Surprise: the Hillebrands raise lambs. The little one in the photo above had been born just that morning – mom and baby were clearly doing fine by the time we arrived around 3 pm. The Hillebrands also raise chickens (for eggs), a few goats and a few cows (both for their own consumption).

The business, called Prairie Grass Farms, comprises about 540 acres when you combine a number of different locations the Hillebrands are using. They have roughly 700 sheep. The family has been in the farming business for generations. Up until 9 years ago or so, they raised “row crops.” This term is the farmers’ euphemism for corn and soybeans – commodity crops which the government subsidizes. Raising row crops requires lots of inputs (aka chemicals), crops are not rotated and only the chemical companies really believe this is ok for the earth. The Hillebrands know better.

Now they only have animals and grass. It is all very symbiotic, sustainable, good for our earth. Their sheep are kept in relatively tight groups for grazing – protected by movable fencing and some wonderful and devoted working dogs. The dogs keep away the predators: mostly coyotes and fox. The sheep munch up an area of “salad”, trample what’s left as they go and leave their waste to fertilize and regenerate what they have eaten. Other than the sun, the rain and what the sheep leave behind, there are no inputs on the land. The creatures in the soil go to work on the waste and the left over roughage. It all gets mixed in with the soil naturally.

Nature takes care of the regeneration of the herd, too. Dave and Barb have a small number of rams who are able to service the girls. The rams are given full access to the ewes for 60 days a year. One ram can handle about 50 ewes (nice work). The timing of the rams’ access to the ewes is meant to enable, for the most part, the lambs to be born all around the same time of year. They are born naturally, in the field. Dave says he is trying to manage it so that when the ladies are with child and need it most, there is plenty of nutritious fresh grass around to so that they will thrive. Otherwise, during the harshest of winter months, the grass may be sparse, the rain or snow may be heavy and the ladies will be hungry. As needed, Dave brings in some hay and supplemental grain to help the ladies out. But, if most of the lambing can take place in the late spring or early summer, the diet of the pregnant mother can be of the best spring grasses. Also, the lambs will be able to grow and fatten up just on mother’s milk and the grasses. 

If a ewe does not produce, she is “retired.” (Hillebrands’ reputation for their lamb bratwurst is legend.) This is genetic management at the farm level. At first, it sounded harsh to me but then when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. The sheep have a job to do and in exchange for their job they are managed responsibly and with respect for them and the land. If a particular animal cannot do its job then room is made for one who can.

At Prairie Grass Farms, nothing is wasted, except the wool. And that really is not wasted either. The wool is useless to Dave and Barb. It is not fine enough to sell for anything worth the effort of getting it – they have too many other things to take up their time. So, they give it away for the shearing. The person who does the shearing takes the wool and makes use of it. A good deal for all.

Prairie Grass Farms sells its lamb and eggs at our local farmers’ markets and to many restaurants throughout the area. A number of their best restaurant clients showed up and gave their time and resources to cook for those of us who attended Lambstravaganza. It was a feast of extravagant proportions, as the name suggests, with a host of fine chefs showcasing their creativity in a kitchenless environment. We ate in a barn, open on two sides, with an old tarp covered truck behind us, looking like the perfect set piece. It was a beautiful, blustery day. I ate fabulous food, met friendly and interesting people and (my favorite thing) I learned a whole lot.

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Filed under Cooking, Education, Farmers Market, Food Trends, Lamb, Social Commentary, Sustainable Farming

Pork Belly Divine

Every once in a while I am able to get my hands on a whole pork belly from my local pig farmer, without having purchased the whole animal. This may seem like a simple matter, but it is not. Our local restaurant chefs and artisanal (local/retail) charcutiers always get first dibs. The short supply for us ordinary folks is also due to the fact that pork belly has become one of those “it” foods I have talked about before (here). The stuff is being roasted, braised, and sautéed. I’ve even seen it make an appearance  breaded and deep fried. On many of the more modern or experimental restaurant menus, said pork belly is showing up increasingly more often and it is being used in a greater variety of ways: it’s not just your mother’s bacon anymore. 

In the summertime, when the tomatoes are at their best, we can go through a whole mess of bacon here. So, for my family, it takes a lot of fortitude to resist curing every last drop of fresh pork belly I am able to get my hands on. A fresh whole belly weighs about 17-20 pounds with the skin on. When all is said and done, you will probably yield about 65-70% of that weight as  home cured, smoked bacon – maybe 12 pounds in all. Bacon is easy to make, too – have a look here.

This time, with this belly, I was ready to try making something other than bacon with at least a portion of the slab. By the time I recieved word from Colby Jones (Farrar Out Farms) that he had a whole fresh belly for me, I had chosen my strategy. I sliced off two (approximately) 1 1/2 pound chunks of meat and took off the skin with my great big chef’s knife. (I reserved and froze the skin. Eventually I will smoke it and use as seasoning for greens and other vegetables.) I made a brine using 6% salt and 3% superfine sugar. The superfine sugar dissolves very well in tepid water, as does the salt. Adding a touch of pink salt to the brine helped to maintain the pink color of the pork. To the brine I added two bay leaves, some fresh thyme, several whole garlic cloves, and some peppercorns. I made the brine directly in a jumbo zip lock bag and put the hunks of belly in the brine. This was left in the fridge for a day.

Once it was ready to be cooked, I took one chunk of the brined meat, dried it off and put it in a vacuum packing bag. I added a good half of a cup of local honey to the bag – enough to coat the meat, once the vacuum was applied. Now this is somewhat difficult to do with the Food Saver machine I have, since it is not the greatest with liquids. But there is a good trick that I use to make it work. Use a bag that is large enough so that the meat and the liquid hangs about a foot or so over the edge of your counter after it is inserted into the mouth of the machine. This means that your bag will need to be about 18-20 inches long. With the help of gravity, the Food Saver will pull out the air and seal up the bag without sucking out the liquid or creating a faulty closure.

The belly went into the Sous Vide Supreme water oven which was set at 79C/175F. I left it in the bath for 14 hours. When the time came, I took it out of the water oven and quick chilled it to stop the cooking. This is done with a large bowl filled with half ice and half water. Once the meat cooled down, I removed it from the bag, dried it off with paper towels, wrapped it tightly in plastic and popped it in the fridge. I reserved the sweet honey flavored pork juices for a sauce.

The next day I took the belly out and brought it up to room temperature.

Just before it was time to sear and serve my fatty and hopefully delicious treat, I cut the belly into two inch cubes.

Searing was no job for my good old Iwatani torch, however. Instead, I placed the meat into a very hot skillet. As each side of a cube of pork crisped and released, I turned it until all sides were very well caramelized. This took less than a minute per side and by the time all sides were crispy, the inside was nice and warm.

I was able to make a wonderful sauce out of the juice that I had reserved from the bag. I took some apple juice (pure, organic and unsweetened) and reduced it by 50%. I added a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, some cloves and the stuff from the bag that was already highly concentrated with porky, honey flavor. Before thickening the mixture with a little cornstarch, I strained the liquid. My meal was now ready for plating. As sides, I served whipped parsnips and glazed sous vide carrots.

This dish is a real keeper. I would happily serve this to guests. Because of the use of a relatively high temperature in the SVS, the fatty part of the belly was rendered well enough to leave just the right balance of both meat and fat. The pan searing process gave the chunks of belly exactly the right crispness and a perfect texture. The unctiousness of each bite was beautifully counter-balanced by the  mildly sweet and sour, apple flavored sauce. No doubt, this is an incredibly rich and calorie filled meal that can’t be consumed too often without dire consequences to the waistline. However, as a special treat…well all I can say is “everything in moderation.” Actually, my husband’s enthusiastic “wow” said it all.

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Filed under Charcuterie, Comfort Food, Cooking, Farmers Market, Food Trends, Pork, sous vide cooking, Sous Vide Supreme, water oven

Spring peas: the stuff my dreams are made of?

I have been dreaming of fresh peas (of the “shelling” or “English” variety) for more than a month now. I had started seeing restaurant menus featuring “spring” peas and this, I am sure, is what got me going. I put out an APB to my friends in the local slow food community. (We kinda look out for each other.) But nobody had any leads. I began showing up at our earliest farmers’ market, opened beginning every Wednesday starting on April 7th, right at the moment the vendors started selling – scouring the place for a cache of peas. Alas, none were to be had.

After more than three weeks of purposefully pounding the pavement for peas, I was ready to give up. I just figured that all fresh peas in our world went to the restaurants and none of us peons were going to get any. I imagined trench coat cloaked vegetable purveyors furtively knocking on the back doors of the fanciest of eating establishments, quickly exchanging cash for peas. I envisioned a whole pea mafia to whom bribes were paid early on in the season to ensure that these rare jewels were safely delivered to these parlors of payola.

Adding insult to injury, one of the web sites I like to visit, Food52, announced a contest asking people to enter their best spring pea recipes into the weekly competition. I wrote in and suggested that spring peas were impossible to come by and they announced that frozen peas could used as a sub for the real fresh thing. Ah ha…an admission that there was a pea cartel!

Then, lo and behold, last Saturday I was standing in the middle of the produce department at my favorite local Whole Foods store when I turned to my husband and (I think in my normal tone of voice) said “I am just going to give up the search for fresh peas.” At that moment a miracle happened! A woman working the lettuce row turned to me and said “we have some fresh peas right there” pointing to a small stock of clear polystyrene boxes filled with the heretofore illusive vegetables. I say miracle because there was neither sign nor any other sort of indication of the existence of said peas and under no other circumstances would I have found them!

Feeling guilty about buying 5 out of the 10 little boxes they had hidden there amongst the more common vegetables(I should have bought them all), I skulked out of the produce section with what I hoped would be my fill of the beautiful green pearls. Now that I realized my dream, I had to make some choices: what would be the best way to enjoy these sweet green things?

Looking over my booty, I decided that I had enough for two meals worth of peas for the three of us (me, my husband and my wonderful, kind, sweet, darling, agreable, darling adolescent, step-monsterdaughter). I also knew that one meal had to feature just plain salted and buttered peas. So, that night I shelled about one cup of the fresh, succulent things and immediately before we sat down to our meal I tossed those little pretties into a small pan of boiling salted water. I left them there for not more than 100 seconds, knowing that fresh peas need very little heat to soften them up just the right amount. After draining off the boiling water I placed them in a little bowl with about a tablespoon of butter and a little bit of salt, stirred. At the table, I counted out the peas on the three dinner plates (ok, ok, that’s a lie but I would have liked to have done this because the damn things are so effing rare). Each of us savored every pea that went down our gullet, believe you me! The green giant has nothing on fresh peas – even when served perfectly plain and well-under cooked.

The second go around was far less banal and no less delicious. Real, fresh, spring pea soup is NOTHING like Pea Soup Andersen’s, especially when subtly seasoned with preserved lemon and white truffle salt. Now I am not saying that Andersen’s is bad, its just that it is nothing special. It is made of those dried split peas that make a soup which is a grey-green, starchy, heavy, and, worst of all, ordinary. But Spring pea soup…that is another thing.

After shelling out the rest of the peas, I had two cups to work with. This was just enough for a fine bowl of soup for each of us. I put the peas in a pot of boiling, salted water and set my timer for exactly 2 minutes. Then, I poured the peas into the colander and hit them with some nice cold water to cool them down quickly. There is nothing worse than overcooked peas – especially the rare, fresh ones. I placed the peas in the tall beaker that came with my immersion blender (remember my deserted island tool?) and added about a half of a cup of whole milk. I also added a couple of sprigs of fresh mint tops and a piece of rinsed and chopped preserved lemon peel. I ripped those peas to a puree with the blender and added more milk to get it to the consistency of mashed potatoes.  This mixuture was blended long enough to get the puree to be velvety smooth. You could get a beautiful aroma off of the lemon and mint. I placed the puree back in a sauce pot, over a medium heat and thinned it (ladle, by ladle) with some of my nice rich hen stock. I brought the soup up to a nice warm temperature – but not so hot that you couldn’t spoon it right on your palate. This soup actually could have been consumed at room temperature. Just before serving, I finished and enriched the soup with about 3 tablespoons of mascarpone.

I am going to dream about that soup until the next time I find some fresh spring peas!

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