Farm-to-table cooking: Taking advantage of farmers market bounty

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The bracing air of a cool Saturday morning greets me as I venture to the historic Taos Plaza to visit the myriad of vendors as they set up their wares for Taos Farmers Market. Musicians tune up near the Plaza entrance, and passersby stroll along the pathways, stopping to say hello to friends. We have a common goal: to obtain the fresh produce, baked goods, flowers, meats and hand-prepared delectables set up on tables, carts and even classic trucks – a true farm-to-table experience.

The farm-to-table movement has gained momentum of late. Restaurants feature “locavore” menus and boast local produce, meats and cheeses. The reasons are obvious: Not only do they support the local economy, but they are offering the freshest and healthiest food available to their customers — food that hasn’t been shipped far, that hasn’t been frozen and sometimes hasn’t even been washed before purchasing. Many of our restaurants in Taos embrace the farm-to-table concept, doing a great job of bringing us closer to food at its source.

But nothing says “local” like the farmers market.

This time of year, we’re approaching the harvest, and that means variety at the farmers market. The fruits and vegetables displayed provide a feast for the senses. I head for the market with an open heart and an extra bag. I am tempted by everything I see, and I allow what I find there to set my week’s menu: hand-gathered wild porcini (boletes) and chanterelle mushrooms, as well as cultivated oyster mushrooms grown in a specialized greenhouse. A melange of ripe red, green, yellow and cherry heirloom tomatoes will be on the menu, as will bushels of big zucchini, yellow squashes and calabacitas. I find crisp red, yellow and green bell peppers; vivid wrinkled little shishito peppers; decoratively tied bundles of scallions; red or white onions; woven braids of garlic; a trailer load of cantaloupe and Tuscan melons; bunches of Swiss chard and beets; baskets of tender green beans; fragrant and juicy peaches and plums; bundles of herbs; and inviting packets of crunchy and nutritious microgreens.

Variety is not defined just by vegetables, however. At Taos Farmers Market, you can find just about everything you need and want, including artisan crock-fermented sauerkraut – in a delicious selection of flavors – also great for your digestion. You can also find dried chiles and flowers intertwined into precious wreathes, hand-selected and assembled teas, homemade blue corn tamales and flour tortillas, freshly ground blue cornmeal, croissants, sweet rolls, savory breads, exceptional Berkshire pork, eggs from happy free-range chickens, grass-fed beef, roasted chiles, handmade soap and body lotions, plus burritos, empanadas and miniature pot pies.

The temptations are great at the farmers market, and I intend to continue taking advantage of farm-to-table cooking until the weather forces otherwise. As I said before, I always buy too much. But I look at this as a joyful challenge, not a quandary. The only dilemma is eating things fast enough. So I use the largesse as an excuse to invite people over. I then decide what to cook based on what I have at hand rather than starting with a recipe or a menu idea.

Did you buy too many Rocky Forge melons? No worries. For a simple, but always appealing appetizer, arrange the cantaloupe slices on a platter and drape with pieces of prosciutto or curls of aged Parmesan.

Or what about those interesting-looking wrinkled shishito peppers? Simply toss them with some garlic-infused olive oil and roast for 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Sprinkle them with coarse salt and serve.

For a memorable, yet easy main dish, I can honestly say the pork chops from humanely raised Berkshire pigs are among the most flavorful that I’ve ever had. Sprinkle them with your favorite rub and grill them for about 10 minutes on a side – until deep grill marks form and their juices run clear. Or how about some burgers made from local grass-fed beef? Mix the meat with some minced onion, parsley and spices before grilling for a savory and zesty repast.

You can concoct plenty of side dishes from the plethora of available produce. I like to combine and conquer using several vegetables in one dish. For example, when I see green beans, I think of traditional Greek green beans, slowly stewed for hours in a fragrant tomato and olive oil broth. But in a fresher and lighter version, I blanch the beans to keep them crisp and light. Then they can be lightly sautéed with slowly caramelized onions and cherry tomatoes and maintain their individual flavors.

Speaking of tomatoes, an excellent way to use a variety of them in one dish is by showcasing them on a fresh tomato tart. Start with a cooked crust of your choice, spread with a goat cheese cream and arrange the tomatoes on top for a meal that is almost too lovely to eat.

I am always inspired by the the amazing and delicious variety of mushrooms available at our market. My preparation uses a rich classic recipe as a jumping-off point and calls for any combination and amount of mushrooms, wild-foraged varieties or domesticated, sautéed in butter with shallots, white wine and cream. They are as delicious on pasta or sautéed chicken as they are on toast.

And for a great way to use a lot of squash, try roasting wedges of calabacitas, onions and peppers in the oven to concentrate their essence before tossing them with diced feta cheese, olives and bow tie pasta for a dish that can feed a crowd.

Finally, for dessert, you can quickly use up half a dozen peaches in a not-too-sweet lattice crust pie. I like to serve it with some specialty ice cream readily available in our community.

A final word: In Taos, we are fortunate to have more than one farmers market. In addition to the Saturday market from 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. in Taos Plaza, there are some smaller markets in the area. Taos Pueblo offers the Red Willow Market every Wednesday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Arroyo Hondo holds a small farmers market on Wednesday afternoons in front of Midtown Lounge. And also on Wednesdays, there is freshly picked local produce at Floyd Archuleta’s folk art gallery in Des Montes at the crossroads of State Road 230 and Hondo-Seco Road.

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