Overheard at the Farmers Market

Woman: Do you have mackerel?

Fisherman: Yes we do. It’s great today.

Woman: Ok, but is it really fresh?

Fisherman: Absolutely, take a look, it’s right here. It’s great sautéed or baked in the oven.

Woman: Ok, I want to make sure it’s fresh though because my cat is a really picky eater.

 

My Childhood Friend, the Barcode Scanner

I worked at a supermarket for 3 years as a cashier when I was in high school and I loved almost every minute of it. I even had a favorite bar code scanner  (#22) which I sincerely believed was better than the rest. I cleaned it well and it almost never failed to scan accurately. When I punched out, I would sometimes buy myself dinner and wait to be checked out by #22. I used to think that items checked out using my scanner were somehow more special.

I recently stopped by the Tailgate market here in Flat Rock, NC. For such a small market, they provide an extraordinary array of produce, cheeses and meats. There is even a fisherman who unloads Carolina shrimp off the back of his pickup truck. Last week I met a farmer who was selling perfectly sweet grape tomatoes as well as a few heirlooms. She frequently brings her two young kids who help out a bit. I put a couple handfulls on the scale. “Three dollars,” she said. I had only a twenty which she said she couldn’t break. “Don’t worry about it. Just come back in 2 weeks. I’ll get it then. Also, take a bag of arugula and some purple heirlooms on the house. It’s hot today and I’d love to get rid of this stuff before I leave for vacation.”

I later found out that she supplies many of the vegetables for Husk in Charleston, SC one of the country’s premiere farm to table restaurants which was recently named the best new restaurant in the US by Bon Appetit. She was on her way to dine there with her husband. Apparently, farmers are serious VIP’s at Husk (as they probably should be). I left with my large bag of vegetables and the same $20 bill I had arrived with.

The salad that night of arugula and heirloom tomatoes was very good. I do like bargains but I don’t think it tasted better because many of the ingredients were free. To be honest, I’m not even sure it tasted better because they were fresh. But it may have tasted better because I knew a little bit  about the person who produced the food. I knew she was en route to Charleston for her first vacation of the year and I knew they had arranged for a babysitter for the night so she and her husband could enjoy Husk.

I certainly knew a bit about the scanner from my high school days as well but nothing about its children, it’s vacations, or its spouse. I realize in retrospect that my relationship with the scanner was a bit shallow. It might have been because I was young but I’m wondering now (and here me out on this)  if a bar code scanner might not be so good at friendship regardless of the circumstance.

Farmers are another story though. I know many of you have written in and have spoken about your favorite farmers. I’d love to hear more about the farmers you know and love. Feel free to post stories, pics, or recipes.

Thank you.

Grilled Asparagus with Garlic Rubbed Lamb Shoulder

I loved Mark Bittman’s piece about rethinking the meat component in home dishes. He looks at ways to cut back on meat consumption, a step that is inarguably better for everyone (except perhaps for big agribusiness).  At one point, he even suggests describing dishes differently to make the scaling back of meat smoother.

“Compare these statements: “We’re grilling a leg of lamb and throwing a few vegetables on there,” and “We’re grilling vegetables and breads, and will throw a few chunks of lamb on there.” Again, if you see the meat as a treasure, things change.”

I believe meat tastes far better when it’s surrounded by other delicious non-meat items. I think that’s why Korean BBQ is so wonderful. Same deal with authentic carbonara, a winter beef stew, and to be honest, most meat dishes from anywhere else in the world. I don’t think it’s a matter of trying to miss the meat any less, but more a matter of loving the other ingredients equally as much and working to give them more prominent roles on the plate.

So as much as I like lamb, I think I might like local asparagus just as much. The farmers in New York just started bringing in the most beautiful, crisp asparagus I’ve seen since, well, last spring. I had one bone-in lamb shoulder steak in the freezer. I was about to grill for the first time since last year and I was certainly tempted to grab a pork shoulder or a rack of lamb chops or some other impressive hunk of meat to kick off BBQ season. But a platter of grilled asparagus with great olive oil would be impressive too. And as rich and flavorful as pastured lamb is on its own, I knew I could heighten its flavors even more with the same great olive oil and few cloves of chopped garlic. This was to be a hearty meal with huge flavors.

I like to showcase great meats with even better vegetables and starches. Perhaps that farmers market duck is calling out to you. Why not go crazy buying the best local greens you can find and serve a Chinese stir fry with crispy cubes of duck over rice? I doubt you or your guests will be unsatisfied. Does the heritage bacon at your farmers market look good? Why not toss a small amount of  it with pasta and those delicious ramps which are going to disappear in a couple weeks until next year.

Sometimes we talk about changing our eating habits with such a strong deprivation mentality. It’s not necessary. There are great meals to be had by eating a greater variety of the local foods around us. To me, that’s the opposite of deprivation. That’s fun and will likely lead to more delicious and creative meals than we could have envisioned just a short while ago.

Grilled Asparagus with Garlic Rubbed Lamb Shoulder

Farmers Market Bill ($20/4 servings = $5/serving)

Prepare a charcoal grill or preheat gas grill to high

Break the tough ends off 2 pounds of local asparagus

Drizzle with good olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper

Chop 4 cloves of garlic

Season a 1 pound bone-in lamb shoulder steak with salt and pepper and rub with chopped garlic

(if shoulder steaks are not available, use around a pound of bone-in loin chops or a leg steak of about the same size)

Grill lamb for 5 minutes per side or until internal temperature comes up to about 135

Throw asparagus on the grill and cook for 2 minutes for thin spears (4 for thick)

Turn the asparagus and cook for another few minutes or until char marks appear

Serve with some warm bread

Mangrove Snapper Tostadas

Fast food Mexican food can be tasty but sometimes I don’t want to think about the 45% ‘real’ filling or wonder when the meat hose was last cleaned out. But tostadas can be fresh, light, and made with local ingredients. If you have good seafood available locally, fish tacos or tostadas can be a fast and delicious weeknight meal.

I first tasted really great fish tacos in Los Angeles where people go so far as to wait in line for half and hour for a hand-pressed tortilla  with perfectly fried fish and cabbage slaw on top. Those tacos are truly things of beauty.

For the home version, I thought it might be better to saute the fish in a pan with some breadcrumbs instead of deep-frying. It makes the dish lighter and the cleanup easier. I found a small fillet of mangrove snapper that had been caught that morning and I had some leftover tomatoes, onions, and poblano peppers from the farmers market as well as half a Florida avocado. I also keep tortillas in the freezer for nights like this.

This works with almost any light fish. I’ve done something similar with tilapia and flounder and the results are just as wonderful. Similarly, feel free to chop up whatever vegetables you have around and throw them in the salsa. It will all be good.

And when you sit down to enjoy your meal, possibly with a margarita or beer in hand, you can rejoice in the fact that you put a light and local Mexican meal on the table without ever using a meat hose.

Mangrove Snapper Tostadas (Farmers Market Bill $12/3 servings= $4/serving)

Salsa:

Dice up a medium onion, 2 poblano peppers, and two medium tomatoes

Season with salt and a squeeze of lime juice

Fish

Beat one egg into a bowl

In another bowl, add about a cup of panko bread crumbs

Add a pinch each of salt, pepper and chili powder to both the bread crumbs and the egg

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat

Dredge an 8-10 oz piece of snapper in the egg and then coat with breadcrumbs

Saute fish for 4-5 minutes per side or until cooked through (It’s fine if the fish falls apart or if you need to cut into it to check doneness)

Warm up 3 tortillas in microwave or oven

Break fish apart and top each tortilla with a couple pieces of fish and a hefty spoonful of salsa

I added avocado and bit of sour cream at the end and of course hot sauce would work well too

Citrus Glazed Gulf Prawns–These Colors Don’t Run

I love using the Seafood Watch program on the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.

It’s a great tool for figuring out what seafood is the most sustainable based on the type of fish, the country of origin and on whether or not it is wild or farmed (some farmed choices are indeed better). I love shrimp but there are serious problems with most of the shrimp from overseas. Gulf Shrimp though? The sweet and near-perfect looking specimens found along Florida’s Gulf Coast are not only some of the most delicious shellfish I’ve ever tasted, they are among the most sustainable as well. So it’s time to wave the American Flag and start buying American when we want shrimp. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a Toby Keith song or at least a talk-radio segment about the importance of buying American shrimp. In fact, I think we wasted far too much time making fun of arugula-eaters as being out of touch. Perhaps it is those buying shrimp from 10,000 miles away we should be taking a look at. They might be the real socialists.

Fresh and local citrus is also very good in Florida. It’s sweeter, nicer looking, and I’m certain healthier than what we get in our supermarkets in the North. Oranges and grapefruits are  good for breakfast but because $4 buys you a very large bag of them, I wanted to find some other uses for them as well.

The jumbo prawns are on the pricy side. They’re going to run you around $8/serving. That’s more than many of the proteins I write about here but still less than most entrees in a mediocre restaurant. So drape that American flag around yourself  and get yourself some Gulf Shrimp. You’ll be happy with your meal I’m certain. Also, it will keep people from thinking you’re a communist.

Citrus Glazed Gulf Prawns $16/2 servings = $8/Serving

Peel prawns and set aside

In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil (the higher smoke point helps here) over high heat

While oil is heating, juice 1 orange and wedge of grapefruit into a small bowl

Add a tablespoon of soy sauce and a hefty pinch of cracked pepper

Toss prawns in bowl with sauce

One by one, shake off the excess sauce and put in pan (be careful, it may spatter a bit)

Cook for 2 minutes per side or until just cooked through in the middle

Remove prawns from pan and turn heat to low

Add remaining sauce and cook for a minute

Add 2 teaspoons of butter and whisk into sauce

Toss prawns back in the pan to coat with the cooked sauce

Serve on a platter with a citrus wedge if desired

Sunshine State Locavore

Sunshine State Locavore

There has certainly been some sunshine in New York lately but more often, there has been ice, cold wind, and heated conversations about whether it’s better for sanitation workers to be hauling snow or garbage.

So I’m happy to be working in Florida for a couple months. In some ways, the farmers markets here offer a preview of what the Northeast can expect in a few months (I’ve already seen great tomatoes and cucumbers). But the markets here also offer ingredients that the Northeast will simply never be able to provide (like citrus and grouper) unless there is some very serious climate change. I’d rather not think about that right now.

So for the next couple months, I’ll be joining my southern readers in exploring the local foods of this fertile and, at least now, warmer part of the country than I’m used to. To those of you who live in Florida or the surrounding areas, I look forward to hearing about the local producers you respect and hearing more about what you like to do with their products.

As far as snow goes, I haven’t seen any. I have seen pelicans though. They have much larger beaks than pigeons.