How to make a meal from farmers-market foods

Chris Young

Times changed, and we moved off the farm and away from big gardens.

Now times are changing back – sort of.

We’re no longer on the farm, but the farm seems quite willing to come to us.

The United States Dept. of Agriculture shows that the number of farmer’s markets nationwide has increased from 1,755 in 1994 to 6,132 in 2010 – a more than threefold increase.

So what to do with all that bounty?

To see how well markets can meet the needs of shoppers, it was decided to conduct a little experiment. Create a meal for a fundraising get-together for about 25 people prepared as close to 100 percent as possible with meat, produce, pasta and other items found at local markets.

To get ready, some items were purchased in advance, such as dry goods like pastas and noodles. Potted herbs like chives and Thai basil also were collected over the course of the summer season.

The majority, however, had to be purchased either Wednesday morning downtown or Thursday evening.

It helps to have a plan, but the key to success is staying flexible. Go with the flow of what is available. Be willing to throw out some recipes in favor of others when the right ingredients suddenly become available.

A few examples:

With the availability of tomatillos – small green tomatoes with a papery husk – it was decided to capitalize and make a simple tomatillo chicken recipe found in Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food. The recipe calls for hominy, but instead sweet corn was substituted. Hominy gives a distinct flavor and aroma, but sweet corn filled in admirably. The recipe says hominy can be left out if necessary.

Be confident enough to keep making recipe substitutions.

Okra was available and a spicy okra stir-fry recipe looked easy and promising. But it called for ground peanuts. No matter, pecans – available readily at the market – were a better-than-even trade for peanuts.

The pasta salad was the same story.

Substitutions and additions – based on availability – worked just as well.

And then there are those things that defy a recipe. They are just thrown together based on what the cook has on hand. Potatoes, green beans, onions, sweet corn and curry powder were combined in a slow cooker with some margarine and a little honey for sweetness.

This one was assembled to taste, with a little of this and that, until the flavor was right.

That’s the beauty of slow cookers. Hours in the Crock-Pot give the cook time to make needed adjustments.

On Wednesday, the Illinois Stewardship Alliance was giving away flour milled by Greenfield Mills in Howe, Indiana, which brought baked goods back into play.

Blackberry and peach cobblers were the result.

It was decided not to buy baked goods available at the markets and keep them for a day or two before serving them.

Two pleasant surprises – the availability of flour and Swiss cheese – led to egglant focaccia. It features slices of eggplant and Swiss cheese instead of mozzarella.

For the record, the only items not found at the market were some baking supplies like baking powder, yeast, salt, sugar, margarine and a little milk. Honey stood in for sugar in a few instances, but not always.

Spices like cumin, curry powder and others were used even though they were not produced locally. Vinegar, fish sauce and some other staples of the cupboards also were employed.

Getting the most of our gardens and markets is possible with a little creativity and flexibility.

Grandmother did it. We can too.

Fresh Okra With Peanuts (or Pecans)

Adapted from “Betty Crocker’s Indian Home Cooking”

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seed
  • 1 pound fresh okra, stem ends removed
  • ¼ cup peanuts or pecans, ground or coarsely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon ground red cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro (omitted due to availability)

Heat oil in wok or large pan over medium heat. Add cumin seed and allow it to sizzle for 10-15 seconds.

Add remaining ingredients and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally until okra is tender.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Blackberry Cobbler

Adapted from www.allrecipes.com

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups white sugar, divided
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons cold butter
  • ¼ cup boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 4 cups fresh blackberries

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, ½ cup sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in ¼ cup of boiling water until the mixture is evenly moist.

In a separate bowl, dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup cold water. Mix in remaining 1 cup of sugar, lemon juice and blackberries. Transfer to skillet and bring to a boil, stirring frequently.

The recipe calls for completion in the skillet. However, I transferred the berry mixture to a greased baking dish and dropped spoonfuls of dough onto the mixture.

Bake 25 minutes until dough is golden brown.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Chicken (or Turkey) Basil

Adapted from www.Thaitable.com

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 4-7 Thai chile peppers (or substitute serrano peppers)
  • 1-2 bunches of Thai basil
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • ½ pound ground chicken (or substitute ground turkey, which was available at the farmers market)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce

Mince garlic and peppers together. Clean and pick Thai basil leaves from the stem. It may look like a lot of leaves, but they will cook down.

Fry the garlic and peppers in oil over high heat. When garlic starts to turn brown, add the ground turkey. Stir constantly. Keep stirring until all the juice is gone. Add sugar and fish sauce. Then add Thai basil. Turn over a few times to mix the leaves with the meat and then remove from heat.

Serve with or without rice.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Chris Young can be reached at 217-788-1528.