Sunday, August 3, 2008

Meet Me At The Farmers' Market

Carbondale Farmers' Market - Saturday August 2, 2008

(My monthly column for Heartland Women)
August 2008

I must say, I was very disappointed when my summer travel plans did not turn out the way I wanted this year. Wait! That didn’t come out right! My friends I just returned from visiting are going to read this and think I didn’t have a good time with them in Iowa and North Carolina – but I did!

What I should say is, I had planned to visit my last three states and I really was looking forward to reaching my 50-state goal and setting my sights on more distant lands. Alas, that big wedding we just had, plus even bigger gas prices, did not add up to the final leg of my “See American First” road trip this summer. North Dakota, Montana and Idaho will be there next year, I guess, and upon further reflection, I’m not sure my driver was as disappointed as I was.

As it turns out, I’ve made do quite nicely with Plan B, a little road trip of my own to Iowa and a flying trip to North Carolina. I have been to Iowa a few times to visit my BFF, Robin, and her family, and I lived in eastern North Carolina for twenty-four years, so neither was a first-time. In fact, before we moved back to Carbondale, we seriously considered settling in Chapel Hill, which had always reminded us so much of Carbondale. Funny how things work out sometimes.

When you are looking at a new town to live in, you are concerned about all manner of factors related to economics, healthcare, schools, etc. But when you are just traveling, factors like entertainment and shopping are much more important. Let’s face it, for me, that means bookstores, theaters (movie and live performance), food markets, and kitchen shops – but mostly restaurants. I am what I am!

I love the feel of Iowa City as much as I love the drive through miles of rolling cornfields to get there. The neighborhoods are filled with charming homes and friendly people are always out walking. The downtown area is alive and bustling with interesting shops and restaurants, including it’s own Pagliai’s Pizza and the famous Hamburg Inn, which is a campaign stop for every serious presidential candidate! Iowa City seems so alive and so corn-fed-middle-America. What’s not to like about that!

Every trip I make to Iowa City includes a restaurant stop or two. This time we had dinner at Atlas and, with Dan’s recommendation, I tried the Buffalo Chicken Burrito, something I would probably not normally choose. Well, I would have missed out on something really good! Crispy hand-breaded and fried chicken tenders, spicy wing sauce, mashed parmesan and Yukon gold potatoes, fresh carrots and celery all rolled into a giant burrito and served with Maytag blue cheese or ranch (Dan’s favorite!) dressing for dipping. Loved it -- an amazing blend of some very basic bar food done fresh, local and with a twist!

I also dined at, not one, but two great restaurants right on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, within easy walking distance from campus. At Lantern, chef-owner Andrea Reusing creates her Asian-inspired dishes with locally grown produce, meats and seafood. My choices were a cold spicy cucumber soup, delicious pork and chive dumplings, a steamed halibut with ginger, scallions, black beans and baby bok choy entree, and a creamy local strawberry ice cream with pistachio shortbread. Everything was very good!

On another night, my friend Dannie took me to her latest discovery, Bonne Soiree, where husband and wife team, Chip Smith and Tina Vaughn, offer a simple, yet elegant, atmosphere to enjoy delicious local foods, this time with a French influence. I chose to start with an herb and goat cheese soufflé, followed by a perfectly seared scallops entrée. Both were wonderful, especially when paired with wines, chosen by Tina, to compliment them perfectly. Dessert was a decadent pot de crème.

We also spent time in the Pinehurst/Southern Pines area while I was in North Carolina, which included some more great eating experiences. Perhaps my favorite dinner of the whole trip was at Wolcott’s, a very small eatery in Southern Pines. Chef Scott Wolcott prepared the most incredible fried calamari that was so light and tender, it simply melted in our mouths. I followed that with equally delicious fried oysters (what can I say, I’ve really missed fresh seafood!) and then a fresh, butter poached Maine lobster tail served with cheese polenta and spinach in garlic. I also tasted almost everyone else’s dinner at our table . . . everyone likes to share with the food writer! The Berkshire pork tenderloin was outstanding, living up to everything I’ve read about it. It took a second or two to detect the divine flavor in the mashed potatoes that accompanied the pork – freshly ground nutmeg! Dessert was the lightest, most wonderful bread pudding I’ve ever tasted . . . and I can’t begin to imagine how it was made or even how to describe it. I must add, the wait staff at Wolcott’s was both very professional and quite charming, which added to our total dinner experience.

Every successful visit to Chapel Hill must include a couple of hours cruising around in Southern Season, my favorite food/kitchen/wine shop. I was sorry not to have had time to take a cooking class, but the irresistible, non-perishable goodies I collected there just arrived at my door, so I’ve got to finish this column and get back into my own kitchen!

Iowa City and Chapel Hill both draw from much larger economic bases than Carbondale and it shows in the variety of really good, locally owned restaurants and the number of little shops they can support. They both offer a vibrant local food culture, including growing numbers of local farmers and food artisans, a network of area farmers’ markets, and even Slow Food convivial, that all add to the whole food scene.

Carbondale is much smaller than either Iowa City or Chapel Hill, even when the population of the surrounding communities is added. That doesn’t matter much though, because we still have what it takes to put good food on our tables at home. We don’t have to travel far to find butchers, bakers and produce growers. We have orchards and farms selling their own locally grown fruits and vegetables, and at least half of the homes on my street have a vegetable garden in the backyard too. We have markets specializing in ethnic food items to help us enjoy a wide variety of cuisines. In most of our markets, we can buy fresh baked goods, organic produce and even locally raised meats. Where the local food culture supports the availability of this many good products, it isn’t long before even more food artisans, more specialty shops and great local restaurants appear – and that’s a good thing!

Best of all, we already have our own farmers’ markets where it is possible to find fresh, local, organic and artisan foods (and crafts!) in one place. Just remember though, you can’t go to our farmers’ market, if you are in a hurry, because you will always run into people you know. In small towns, we are a community and places like the farmers’ market celebrate the best of what brings us together -- good food and friendly, familiar faces.

Over the next few days, I'll post some recipes for summer’s very freshest ingredients in honor of National Farmers’ Market Week August 3 – 9. Traveling is fun, but home is also a good place to eat and shop. Meet me at the local farmers’ market to celebrate National Farmers’ Market Week, August 3 – 9. Remember to eat local and let the people who grow, raise and craft your food know how much you appreciate them.

1 3/4 c. diced peeled peaches (about 3 large)
1/4 c. diced red bell pepper
1/4 c. chopped red onions
3 tbsp. fresh lime juice, divided
2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. minced seeded jalapeño
1 garlic clove, minced

Mix peaches, red bell pepper, green onions, 2 tablespoons lime juice, chopped cilantro, jalapeño, and garlic in small bowl to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour before serving to allow flavors to blend.

4-5 med. zucchini (about 1-1/2lbs.)
3/4 tsp. salt
4 eggs
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
1 tbsp. finely chopped onion
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
sour cream

Trim and coarsely shred zucchini (you should have about 5 cups). In a large bowl toss zucchini with salt. Place in a colander or sieve. Place a plate on top of zucchini and weight down with a couple of cans; let drain in the sink or over a bowl for 15 minutes. Discard liquid. In the large mixing bowl, beat eggs and garlic. Stir in flour, Parmesan cheese, onion, and pepper until just moistened (batter should be lumpy). Stir in shredded zucchini until just combined (mixture will be thick).
For each zucchini pancake, spoon a rounded tablespoon of batter onto a hot, lightly oiled griddle or heavy skillet, spreading to form a 3-inch circle. Cook over medium heat for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until the pancake is golden brown. (Reduce heat to medium-low if pancakes brown too quickly.) Keep pancakes warm in a 300-degree oven while cooking remaining pancakes. Serve warm topped with a dollop of sour cream, if desired. To keep for future use, cool then place in layers in a freezer container with waxed paper between layers. To reheat: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place frozen pancakes in a single layer on a greased baking sheet. Bake, uncovered, for 8 to 10 minutes or until hot and slightly crisp. Makes about 30 pancakes.

1 med. seedless watermelon, cut into bite-size chunks
1 c. thinly sliced red onion
1 c. Feta cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp. fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)
1-2 tbsp. honey
salt to taste
2 tbsp. chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tbsp. fresh basil, thinly sliced into ribbons

Toss all ingredients together, except mint leaves and basil, and let sit for 1 hour. Refrigerate or serve at room temperature. Toss with herbs immediately before serving.

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