It’s a brilliant Saturday morning in Madison, Wisconsin, and I’m feasting on a glorious breakfast—a pint of freshly picked Door County cherries. I pop the plump, blood-red orbs into my mouth, savoring the tart burst of each, slowly walking with the snaking throng through the country’s largest producer-only farmers’ market. Ringing the perimeter of the state capitol building, the Dane County Farmers’ Market is a spectacle to behold. Approximately 300 vendors participate in the year-round market, with 150 vendors in attendance on Saturdays, selling meats, cheeses, vegetables and fruits, pies, breads and pastries, flowers and every conceivable type of jam, jelly, pesto and relish. Even during the long, cold, dormant Wisconsin winters, the Dane County Farmers’ Market relocates from the capitol’s grounds and thrives in community centers scattered throughout Madison.
As I balance my basket of juicy fruit in Madison, around the country millions of people are meandering through their local farmers’ markets—Portland, Santa Monica, Des Moines, Ann Arbor, New York City, Miami, Austin—clutching eco-friendly tote bags, tipping locally roasted coffee to their lips, noshing on artisan foods while the smell of dirt and earth perfumes the air and just-plucked-from-the earth veggies beckon and seduce. Although each market has a signature vibe—the location, live music, protestors peacefully disbursing pamphlets, more strollers being pushed than people on foot—there’s a comforting common thread of contented unity. It’s the type of scene that makes you want to shuck your day job and become a farmer—convivial and bonding, with people sharing creative riffs on tomato and eggplant and peach recipes and planning meals around the season’s rhythms.
The siren song of seasonal and local produce and products impacts anyone who makes weekly, and sometimes semiweekly, excursions to a farmers’ market a regular part of their food-gathering routine. Markets have morphed into community events, bipartisan conventions of like-minded students of the earth’s wares, opportunities to interact with the people who not only grow the food that sustains us, but also fuel our collective culinary imagination.
Locavore is no longer a trend, but a way of life in cities, villages, suburbs and small towns. The pearly gates of our country’s culinary revolution are wide open, and all are welcome to get back to their roots. Hallelujah!
-Kimberly Winter Stern
(photos by Kimberly, as well)
Lugging home a bag from a farmers’ market brimming with fragrant vegetables that have stubborn clumps of dirt dangling from their roots is a satisfying way to begin a weekend in the kitchen. Favorite market finds include beets, onions, tomatoes, eggplants and fresh basil and some of my go-to recipes for vegetable preparation are in the Dean & DeLuca Cookbook. Whether you’re entertaining friends or making Wednesday night dinner for the family with your farmers’ market haul, these simple but flavor-packed dishes are dazzlers.
CHARCOAL-ROASTED BEETS AND RED ONIONS
Serves 4 to 6
Serve these warm as a side dish; they’re rather high in natural sweetness and make a good accompaniment to duck, goose or pork.
6 small fresh beets, trimmed of all but 1 inch of greens (about 1 1/4 pounds trimmed weight) and unpeeled
2 medium red onions, unpeeled
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Prepare a moderately hot charcoal fire in a grill unit that has a cover (like a Weber). Place the beets and red onions in a 10-inch cast-iron skillet and drizzle with the olive oil. Place the skillet over the fire, cover the grill unit, and roast the vegetables at least 1 to 1 ½ hours, depending on the size of the vegetables. You may have to leave the beets in a little longer than the onions. The onions should be soft to the touch, and a fork should pierce the beets easily. Alternatively, you can roast the beets in the skillet in a 400°F oven.
Remove the vegetables from the skillet with tongs. Add the stock, balsamic vinegar, and 1 teaspoon thyme to the skillet, place over high heat, and boil the liquid, scraping the bottom of the skillet, for about 4 minutes, or until it’s dark, glossy brown and syrupy. Season with salt and pepper.
Peel the beets and onions when they’re cool enough to handle. Slice the beets into julienne strips and the onions into thin rings. Spoon the liquid over the onions and beets, add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon thyme, and stir well to combine. Heat briefly and serve.
OVEN-DRIED TOMATO AND EGGPLANT TIMABLES WITH PESTO
If you like, you can make the timbales a little richer by layering in a little goat cheese as well.
Puncture the eggplant all over with a fork. Place it in a preheated 400°F oven, and cook until it’s quite soft, about 30 minutes. Remove and cool.
Prepare the timbales: Choose 4 small ramekins that hold about 2 1/2 ounces liquid each. Smear each one with a little extra-virgin olive oil. Place an oven-dried tomato half, skin side down, in each ramekin (the tomato should just fit the ramekin). Top with a teaspoon of pesto. Top with a 1/2-inch slice of roasted eggplant. Salt the eggplant. Top with another teaspoon of pesto, and then another tomato half, cut side down. You can serve immediately, or let sit at room temperature for several hours to allow flavors to mingle.
When ready to serve, run a small, sharp knife around and under the vegetables to prepare for unmolding. Then, turn each ramekin upside down onto small serving plates. The vegetables should come out of the ramekins in stacked, perfectly round cylinders. Serve immediately, drizzled with a little oil from the pesto.
Makes 8 oven-dried tomato halves
Use the tomatoes immediately in tomato salads, in sauces, in stews. Or, mix them with herbs and garlic, cover them with good olive oil, and hold them for a few days in a container at room temperature.
4 ripe tomatoes (about 1/4 pound each)
Olive oil for brushing tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 150°F.
Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise, and place on a baking sheet, cut sides up. Brush tomatoes with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place in oven for 20 hours or so. When finished, the tomatoes should be about half of their original size and still moist. (If you overcook them, they will shrink even further and dry out.)
Makes about 2/3 cup
This can be a delicious condiment as well. Simply spread a little bit on tomatoes, grilled vegetables, grilled bread, grilled fish, or grilled meat. To make the best pesto, use the freshest, most vivid basil you can find —without a trace of bitterness.
1 cup very firmly packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 teaspoons minced garlic
6 tablespoons Ligurian or Provençal olive oil
2 teaspoons firmly packed Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 teaspoons firmly packed pecorino Romano
Salt to taste
Wash and dry the basil well. Place in the work bowl of a food processor with the pine nuts and garlic. Process quickly to make a coarse, grainy paste. With the motor running, add the olive oil over the course of 5 seconds. Remove pesto from work bowl (it should still be fairly grainy).
Place pesto in a bowl, and add the cheeses. Mix well. (If the pesto is too thick, add additional olive oil to achieve the desired consistency. There should be some oil glistening around the edges.) Season to taste with salt.
Overland Park, Kan.-based freelance writer Kimberly Winter Stern writes travel, food, lifestyle and design. Also known as the gregarious and cuisine-informed Kim Dishes, listeners tune in weekly for her on-the-road segments on “LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen,” a popular Kansas City radio food show. Prolific in eating, writing and discovering, this foodie satisfies an innate desire to sample the world’s gastronomic rainbow by meeting food artisans and trendsetters, gaining insight into the culinary points-of-view of everyone from cheese makers, chocolatiers and chefs who set their city’s locavore pace to farmers who are passionate producers. Stern is a sought-after writer, with work appearing in Better Homes and Gardens, Unity, KANSAS! Magazine, 435 South magazine, KC Homes & Gardens, Generation Boom, Shawnee Magazine, KC Magazine, KC Home Design, KC Business and Midwest CEO. Stern is a national blogger for the Dean & DeLuca Gourmet Food Blog where she cooks, styles, shoots and writes about life and cooking … and loves to lick the bowl clean. This writer may have been given product and/or other compensation from Dean & DeLuca for this post.