How a farmers' market feeds my soul

Rob McKeage, owner of The Potato Homestead, a farm in Sewell, NJ, restocks the lettuce on his table at the Dickinson Square Farmers’ Market. The list of the local farmers markets in the city and burbs. Please shoot the bounty of the farmers market, with close up shots of the spring produce. Also, please shoot an overall atmosphere shot of the scene at the market. Dickinson Square Farmers’ Market: 06/04/2017 MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

As farmers’ markets open around the region, I look forward with great pleasure to visiting my favorites and checking in with the growers from around the region.

As a gardener, I go to learn from the masters.  I can see and sample crop varieties I might try, in quantities I couldn’t grow without an acre or two.  I have a small backyard berry patch and veggie beds,  but I need boxes and boxes of strawberries for the jam I want to put up this month, the dilly beans I crave in July, and the peach brandy I want to infuse in August.  In spring, most farm markets have at least one grower who sells seedlings – often of the same crops they have had success with in years past.   Advice about planting and care direct from an expert comes along with every sale.

Kohlrabi from The Potato Homestead, a farm in Sewell, N.J. was for sale at the Dickinson Square Farmers’ Market. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

As a cook, I see myriad ingredients for every meal – all the vegetables and fruits that can be coaxed out of healthy local soil.    I’ve had Pennsylvania grown chickpeas, right out of the pod, and the sweetest melons – still warm from the field – grown right here in Philadelphia.

As a lover of color and style, I never leave a farm market without a bunch of locally grown cut flowers.  I imagine these nearby flower farms dotting the landscape with blooms and feeding a diverse ecosystem of pollinators and birds with their nectar, pollen, and seeds.   Bringing these flowers back to a dining room table connects me to the hands that planted and cut these flowers,  and the bees,  hummingbirds, and ladybugs who feed on them.   I like this feeling.

But farm markets are about so much more than buying food for me. Bursting with colors, they are a hub for neighbors and tourists to mingle, and a very important source of income to the valuable stewards of the land that surround our cities.   And nowadays, there is so much more to offer than produce:  These markets provide such artisan products as bread, cheese, candles,  herbal tinctures, beer, soft and hard cider, even whiskey, not to mention locally made ice cream, jams, and honey. At the best markets, these are made on the farms and available for sale direct from the producer. And many farm markets now have a prepared-food stall or food truck that allows you to extend your stay with a pastry break or a food truck taco.

I also prefer to buy eggs, poultry, and meat at farm markets.   Doing this can help support practices that let animals lead the kind of life – scratching,  pecking or grazing  outside – that respects the animal, the land, and the humans whose livelihoods are entangled together with these creatures.  No antibiotics, no feedlots, no manure cesspools.  I envision the animal having an integral role on these family farms – eating the grass, providing eggs to eat,  manure to fertilize, and tasty flavorful meat for the occasional meal.  I like this image, and if it means fewer meat meals because this meat costs more, that is the cost of doing the right thing.

If you are not sure about how something was grown or raised, ask the farmers, because they are the ones behind the table laden with goods.  Their growing practices are influenced by the requests they get, and this feedback and these connections help us all understand new things.   Among other things, supporting  local farmers means they have a livelihood  and a productive use for their land,  so maybe it won’t be sold for another housing development.

There is so much to take in and enjoy at these markets, that it is best, when you can, to shop without urgency.  Enjoy the meandering, the conversations, the samples.  Most of us live or work within minutes of a market, and so can all enjoy these connections to our food producers, to our neighbors, and to the ingredients that will produce delicious meals.

And don’t forget one of my favorite adages this time of year: “If you’ve eaten today, thank a farmer.”

 Tips for doing the farmers' market right

 Shopping at a farm market requires more patience and planning than a trip to the supermarket. Here are some tips to help you make the most of it.

1. Take along various-size bags, including an insulated bag with a cool pack, so cheese, fish, meat, or poultry can be safely transported. A market basket with a handle and with more room to spread items out horizontally will keep tender fruits like soft strawberries from getting smashed. A mason jar tucked in your basket with a few inches of water will keep flowers fresh.

2. Each vendor has to be salesperson and cashier, and that can take time. Be mindful of how many folks are trying to pay for goods. Circle back during a lull to pick up the conversational thread, but don't keep a farmer from making sales.

3. Make the most of your trip. Arrive as close to opening as you can, when the variety is at its peak, and the farmers' are too. Many of the growers pack their trucks before dawn and drive into the city just after sunrise. By midday, their produce isn't the only thing flagging.

4. If your neighborhood market is a late-afternoon affair, plan to stop between work and home for the freshest dinner salad or dessert.


Lemon Cumin Chicken with Roasted Asparagus on a Bed of Spring Greens

Makes 4 to 6 servings

INGREDIENTS

For the chicken:
One 3-pound chicken cut into 8 pieces (or 4 chicken legs, split thigh and drumstick)
Juice of two lemons
Zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon salt
Fresh ground pepper
1-3 dried red peppers (optional)
1 lemon sliced thin
For the roasted asparagus:
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and fresh ground pepper
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and washed
To serve:
3 cups tender greens such as spinach or young pea shoots (or a combination)
Sprigs of fresh herbs such thyme, marjarom, fennel fronds, chives, or dill

DIRECTIONS

1. Mix the chicken with all the ingredients in the chicken recipe (except the lemon slices) and let marinate for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Place the chicken into a roasting pan with enough room for the pieces to roast without touching. Arrange the lemon slices on the bottom of the pan, under and between the chicken pieces.
3. Cook for 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer stuck into one of the thick pieces of thigh reads 155 degrees (the meat will continue to cook out of the oven, and should reach 165 to be considered done).
3. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Spread the oil on a heavy baking sheet. Sprinkle the sheet evenly with salt and pepper. Place the asparagus on the sheet and shake gently to coat the asparagus with the seasoned oil.
4. Place in the lower third of the hot oven for 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the asparagus.
5. Remove from oven when the asparagus has browned on the bottom. Shake gently to allow additional surface contact with the hot pan. Remove from pan and set aside.
6. Clean and dry spinach. Remove any thick stems. Pea shoots should be trimmed to use only the tender parts since they are being served raw. Reserve thicker stems for another use. If spinach or pea leaves are large, slice them into smaller pieces. If small and tender, leave them whole.
7. Make a bed of leaves on your platter or plate. Place warm chicken, lemon slices, and pan juices on top of the spinach. It will wilt and be dressed by the chicken’s warmth and juices. Garnish with roasted asparagus and remaining lemon slices.

Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 6): 349 calories, 46 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 16 grams fat, 135 milligrams cholesterol, 1,307 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Smashed Pea Pesto and Wilted Greens on Goat Cheese Toast

Makes 4 to 6 servings

INGREDIENTS

For the Pea Pesto:
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tender garlic scapes, minced fine, or 2 cloves garlic, minced
10 ounces fresh peas blanched in salt water and cooled (or frozen peas, defrosted)
2 tablespoons minced cilantro and/or chives
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly grated pepper
Additional olive oil as needed
To assemble:
4 to 8 slices of multigrain or seeded bread, depending on the diameter (with baguette, you may have topping for up to 10 slices)
1/2 cup fresh local goat cheese, divided
1/2 cup finely chopped, seasoned, wilted greens such kale, chard, or spinach (about one large bunch cooked)
3 radishes very thinly sliced (sharp knife or mandolin)
Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)
Fresh ground pepper
Olive oil to drizzle

DIRECTIONS

1. In a medium sauté pan, add the oil and heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and swirl in the hot oil for a 10 to 20 seconds; do not let garlic brown. Add the peas, cover, turn off heat, and let sit until cooled.
2. Add the peas to a food processor with salt and cilantro and chives and pulse several times, scrape down bowl, and pulse a few more times. Taste. Add olive oil as needed to make a chunky but soft paste.
3. Toast or grill bread. Spread a thin layer of the goat cheese on each slice of toast. Spread a thicker layer of pea pesto on top. Garnish with the seasoned chopped greens and radish slices. Drizzle a bit of olive oil and sprinkle with flaky sea salt and fresh ground pepper to serve. Garnish with radish or arugula flowers if available.

Anna Herman

Per serving (based on 6): 230 calories, 8 grams protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 531 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Puff Pastry with Strawberries and Cream

Makes 12 servings

INGREDIENTS

1 pound of frozen puff pastry
¾  cup granulated sugar, divided
1 quart of strawberries
1 tablespoon good-quality strawberry jam
1 teaspoon orange blossom water (optional)
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier (optional)
1 pint heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS

1. Defrost the puff pastry per package instructions. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Unfold puff pastry onto a large baking sheet. Cut in half lengthwise and cut each length into 6 pieces, yielding 12 rectangles. Spread out to two baking sheets so the pieces can cook without edges touching. Using one or two forks, “dock” the puff pastry by pricking evenly over the surface with the tines of the fork. This keeps the pastry from over-puffing when baking. Take 1/4 cup of the sugar and sprinkle a bit over the surface of each of the rectangles after docking. Bake in the oven until browned and cooked through. Let cool.
2. Select 6 to 12 of the best-looking strawberries in the box. Core and slice the remaining strawberries. Sprinkle them with 1/4 cup of sugar, and gently toss with the strawberry jam and, if using, the orange blossom water and/or Grand Marnier. Let sit to macerate at least 30 minutes.
3. To assemble, whip the cream with a whisk in a cool bowl with the remaining ¼ cup sugar and vanilla extract until peaks appear. You can make the whipped cream thicker or thinner, as you like — but do not overbeat or you will make butter.
4. On individual plates, or a platter, arrange 6 puff pastry rectangles. Spoon some of the berries and juice on top. Add a dollop of whipped cream and place a second puff pastry rectangle jauntily accross the top. Serve with remaining strawberries and cream to pass around. Garnish with reserved whole berries.
 

Anna Herman

Anna Herman Per serving: 413 calories, 4 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 29 grams fat, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 110 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.