Hello, my pets – have the last two weeks been fulsome ones for you, too? I managed to get ever so much stuff done, including prepping for a sweet and family-filled Fourth of July and at least a few visits to our local farmers market, but alas: I couldn’t make time to sit down for a chat with you lovelies. This post will hopefully make up for my absence last week, as it’s chockablock with pictures, rambling comments and asides, and some simple instructions for a yummy composed salad. Not included in this post will be pictures of my newest sewing project nor the small pile of easy mending projects that I’ve been avoiding like the plague. Nor will there be much discussion of the causes of my busy-ness: gardening in the yard; knitting a new ‘kerchief in bubblegum pink cotton yarn; talking with mentors and diligently looking for gainful employment; finally doing some of my long-avoided hand laundry; going for long hard runs at the gym and visiting the chiropractor because of said exercise; etc etc etc. Let’s just say that I’ve been a busy munakins of late.
What I WOULD like to chat about is visiting farmers markets, using fresh-from-the-farm produce, and reading cookbooks. These three things are all interconnected in my life, and they jointly and severally make me very happy. Let’s start with farmers markets, both in the abstract and in the particular, shall we? When I first started shopping at them in the mid-1990s, farmers markets was just being resurrected after many years of neglect (at least in our corner of the world). The first one I went to regularly was on Saturdays in an odd corner of San Francisco – between a ramshackle neighborhood and a run-down manufacturing district with an elevated freeway rumbling overhead. What the Alemany Farmers Market lacked in ambiance, it more than made up with some of the finest produce and fruit I’ve ever tasted, all at very reasonable prices. This is the farmers market by which all others are judged, in my accounting of such things. I haven’t been back since I returned to the correct side of the Bay, but I hear the market is still going strong and still rocking its working class roots.
The success of the Alemany market made some very clever people realize that a more centralized location could be quite successful, and thus San Francisco’s Ferry Building farmers market was opened and a number of others came to be scattered around the city. The Ferry Building farmers market, which is open on Saturdays (and Tuesdays and Thursdays), is the market that I urge visitors to San Francisco to include on their itineraries. It sells some of the best produce, fruit and flowers available locally in a lovely setting – albeit at prices that would make a New Yorker pause. The market also sells a lot of prepared food (cuz so few folks cook regularly these days, perhaps?), and hosts a permanent food market inside the refurbished building. It’s a thing of beauty, but the Alemany market and its more gritty progeny still have my heart.
When the Mister and I moved to Alameda, I became a loyal shopper at Oakland’s Jack London Square farmers market, which is open on Sundays. It’s not nearly as magical as San Francisco’s Alemany market or as swank as the Ferry Building market, but I fell absolutely in love with the apple guy at Jack London – every fall and winter he had an abundance of delicious varieties of apples at reasonable prices AND fresh quince in season and a plethora of winter squashes. My summer love at that market was a farmstand that only appeared for a few months, usually a month or so after the apple man closed down. The farm had an amazing variety of peppers – hot, mild, and in-between, as well as every type of tomato you could think of – and some you hadn’t thought of yet. They also had a great selection of summer squash and a nice variety of beans. As an aside, several specialty farmers and growers that we loved “graduated” from this market to SF’s Ferry Building market, where they were guaranteed larger crowds and better-funded shoppers.
And around the same time that I discovered the Jack London market, I fell in love with Oakland’s Grand Lake farmers market, which is open on Saturdays (bonus), has wonderful produce, and is so flippin’ Oakland-diverse that it gladdens my heart in these troubled times. It’s also one of the markets where Massa Organics sells their rice – btw, Massa grows the best brown rice you’ll taste this side of paradise. So between offering some of the highest caliber produce that I’ve found since the Alemany market and the best people-watching I’ve had anywhere, the Grand Lake market is hard to beat. The only downside is that parking is near impossible at that market – it’s difficult to find BIKE parking, fer crying out loud – and it’s a longish bike ride, there and back. It’s still my farmers market of choice in the spring, though: the greens at County Line Harvest make me glad to live in the Bay Area. But as lovely as this and other farmers markets are, I longed for one closer to home.
Which brings me to my current regular farmers market and the source of all of today’s pictures: the Alameda market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The selection on both days is good (but slightly better on Tuesdays in the summer), the people are unfailingly nice, the prices are reasonable, and it’s an easy trike-ride from the homestead. There’s even a ranching family that sells their own locally-raised, free-range pork, beef and goat at the Saturday market. And that, for now, is more than enough for me. Hey – speaking of trikes, let’s take a look at my beautiful blue beastie: Ain’t she fine? This ol’ girl will be quite the blessing come preserving season when I’m hauling full boxes of tomatoes and peppers, lemme tell you. As I’m fortunate that I can visit this market twice a week, if I like, I usually don’t load the trike down very much: because I can shop during the week, I don’t have to purchase too much at any one time (unless I’m in full-tilt preserving mode, of course). This means that the food I buy can be super ripe and in small enough quantities to be snarfed before it starts to rot. This is such a blessing with stone fruit, which seems to go from perfectly ripe to perfectly rotten in a matter of hours. Usually, though, much of the super-ripe fruit I buy at this market ends up in my belly shortly after purchase. My, how I enjoy wandering through a farmers market on a late summer morning, grazing as I go …
Here’s a fun fact: in all the years I’ve been going to farmers markets, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked why I shop at such places. Everyone seems to understand the why of it, but many complain that they never have time to shop at farmers market because of limited hours, or they worry about finding parking (this is why I bike, peeps), or are shopping for one and are concerned about buying in sufficiently small quantities. Other people get frustrated because the item they wanted to purchase that day wasn’t available – it was either too early or late in the season, the item isn’t grown locally, or there was not enough of a perceived customer base to risk bringing it to market or even growing it. Oddly enough, these latter complaints are some of the very reasons I enjoy shopping directly from farmers! Shopping at farmers markets has taught me to (1) eat seasonally, (2) buy locally harvested food, and (3) get to know my farmers. It pays to ask the person at the table about what’s in season, and what you can look forward to in the coming weeks. If you don’t ask, you might not know that this is the last week for those luscious pluots, or that you darn well better be at the market for the next few Saturdays, cuz this year’s crop of sugar snap peas is going to be a fleeting one. And how will farmers know that you long to pickle green tomatoes – the unripened red ones, mind you – and that you’d be happy to buy unripe fruit, if you don’t beg for a box or two at the end of the season?? It pays to indulge in a little friendly gossip with your local farmers and vendors, my pets.
Mostly, though, I’ve noticed that shopping at farmers markets has made me a more flexible cook. I can distinctly remember the first time I went to the Alemany farmers market: I had a list firmly in hand, only to realize that very few of the items on the list were either in season or particularly good that year. Instead, I learned to plan my meals around both what was available at the market that week and what was at its best. I learned to ask people – vendors, farmers and customers alike – how to cook unfamiliar foods. Over time it became clear to me that foods that grew together would taste good together. Of course, that realization was also echoed in every decent cookbook I’ve ever read, but there you go. And from that realization and from reading a great number of cookbooks, I became a more inventive and intuitive cook. Mind you, there was a learning curve, especially when I was first learning how to cook. Some meals were very … interesting … and some meals went straight into the compost bin. However, the balance of the meals I have made went into my tummy and the tummies of other grateful recipients, and many’s the good lesson I learned from my experiments.
Which brings me to the salad that I made for the Mister and me a few date nights ago of blistered peppers and fresh tomatoes. I had purchased the peppers that Tuesday from a farmer selling mostly Asian veggies – see the peppers in situ above. The peppers were neither hot like a jalapeno nor sweet like a bell. They reminded me of bigger Padron or curlier Shishito peppers, which made me think of the Spanish tapas dish of blistered Padron peppers. With that recipe in mind, I halved the peppers, removed their stems, pith and seeds, and sautéed the cut peppers in a little bit of olive oil, with the white portions of a few green onions, a garlic clove or two, some salt and a halved lemon. I let the peppers cool to room temperature, and then tossed them with halved cherry tomatoes, fresh herbs, and the juice of the blistered lemon. The salad was a perfect foil for the richness of a Syrian-inspired roast chicken and potato dish, and we ate well that night. If memory recalls, we drank well, too: it was on a Friday, which is the day the Mister picks up his growlers from Faction, and there are few things more refreshing on a warm summer evening than well-made, freshly brewed beer.
Which, in turn, brings me to the end of this week’s post, and a parting thought on the joy of reading well-written cookbooks. I read cookbooks like they were novels – I read ’em for pleasure, for edification, and for spiritual enrichment. I collect recipes, too – not many of ’em, but they’re neatly organized in two binders in our kitchen, next to the Mister’s personal binder of recipes, which in turn is next to my copy of the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning. Go ahead and enlarge that pic and snoop through our collection, if you care for such things, as it stands this summer. We have limited space at the Houseproud homestead, so not all of the cookbooks that come into the house stay here. There are some that I will keep forever – that’s my mum’s copy of Joy of Cooking there on the bottom shelf, for example – but there are others that will eventually make way for new cookbooks. One of the reasons that I read and re-read cookbooks is because of a self-imposed rule I have to insure that I leave the house on time: I am NOT allowed to pick up a novel before 6 pm. As the Mister will attest, I am a voracious reader, and am capable of sitting down with a good book at 7 am and not putting the book down until it’s been finished many hours later, which is all very well and good as a special treat, but rather bad if you’re supposed to be someplace at 9 am. Cookbooks are best digested (ahem) in small portions, and are thus a better choice with my morning coffee and breakfast nosh. And on that note, I bid you adieu for this week. I’m reasonably sure that I will talk about preserving garlic and pickling onions next week, but we’ll see – who knows what will distract me in the interim?? Until then and ever so fondly, yr little munakins