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Farmers markets are everywhere. Thanks to a rapid expansion in recent years, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S., making it possible for almost everyone to buy fresh food directly from farmers. But with so many stalls and so many different foods, farmers markets can feel overwhelming. How do you find the best produce? Who’s who? And what’s what?
Follow our slideshow to learn the tricks to getting the most out of shopping at your local farmers market. In no time, you will be addicted to the super fresh fruits and vegetables and the seemingly endless variety. Shopping for produce and the other delicacies you can find at a farmers market will become a joy instead of a chore.
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Main photo: A true farmers market features local producers, not wholesalers, so the produce you see is all in season. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media
We don’t really celebrate the holidays, which means that on more than one occasion I’ve just left the country and enjoyed Christmas in Norway or Mexico or Rome.
But over the past few years, I’ve stayed home and shaped Christmas or New Year’s into an occasion for hosting a big, somewhat irreverent meal bringing together all those who don’t have another plan. It’s always the wackiest and most fun party, because we put together people we probably wouldn’t think to otherwise and it always works: Strangers become friends over the end — or beginning — of the year.
But what I anticipate with pleasure is my other, more personal holiday ritual that revolves around cleaning the kitchen thoroughly and getting it ready for another year of hard work. After all, I cook every day, and my kitchen takes a beating week after week, so I look forward to digging out the crumbs that have materialized in various cracks and crevices, washing the glass on my cupboard doors, tightening the knobs on the doors and bins, thoroughly washing all the parts of the refrigerator.
Cleaning the kitchen cleans the slate for the year ahead
Mind you, I do this other times of the year also, but I always make a special effort at the start of the year to do it all at once. After all, it feels good to start anything with a clean slate.
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Beginning with the refrigerator, I’m always amazed that the same odd things appear year after year — the chile paste that long ago dried out from lack of use; a fairly new can of tomato paste already filmed with fluffy mold (It always happens, which is why a tube with a cap is a better choice); and, always, there’s a jar with just three olives bobbing up and down in brine. Fortunately I don’t amass many condiments — that would be a sure disaster area. As for capers, which I think you might consider a condiment, this year there were two jars, both opened and both fairly full; ditto with horseradish. How does this happen? It’s among the mysteries of life.
A few years ago we had a pestilence of moths — thousands of them — that had an ugly effect: I had to throw out bags of grains and flours with evidence of worms and refrigerate all those that didn’t. So now my refrigerator is super full — of grains, flours, dried fruits, nuts, oils and vegetables, not to forget wine and cheeses, those double jars of capers, milk for coffee and a bottle of some healthful concoction I once vowed to take.
While all this cleaning is ultimately satisfying, it’s also a sobering exercise, for it never fails to reveal evidence of neglect and lapsed intentions.
The freezer isn’t much better. It’s crammed with big, chunky cuts of grass-fed beef and lamb, more grains, a zillion ice packs that seem too valuable to throw out, dried persimmons and apples and, if I dig down further, packets of frozen tomato sauce and applesauce I need to make note of so they’re used up by the time fresh tomatoes and apples come around again. I try to organize the freezer, but it seems to resist order, as do many dark, out-of-sight places. This is also a good time to check dried herbs and spices in case the life has just gone out of them, in which case, out they go. A January order to Penzeys is not uncommon.
On my many trips to Decorah, Iowa, when I was on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange, I used to stop in little towns along the way in search of old blue-glass Ball jars. They’re tall, handsomely shaped and beautiful to look at, so in addition to my cupboard, refrigerator and freezer, there’s also a number of exposed shelves that hold these jars and their contents of dried beans, quinoa, black rice, red lentils and the like.
While wiping the shelves and the jars themselves clean of accumulated dust, it occurred to me that these jars have become a part of my indoor landscape, more specifically, my kitchen landscape, to the point where I don’t see them. They’ve gone from containing food to being a part of the visual background, like books on a shelf, or the trees in the yard, or the similarly attractive shelves of canned tomatoes and jars of jam.
Warm sponge in hand, I realized that at some point there must have come a moment when I ceased to see these jars and their contents, and that’s when I discovered some of these beans and grains had been dwelling there for quite some time. How long I’m not willing to admit, nor do I necessarily know. I suspect the Santa Maria beans are so old even a long stay in my pressure cooker might not be enough to soften them. And they aren’t the only ones.
I’ve noticed that I’m happiest in my kitchen when the cupboard’s shelves are nearly bare, and the refrigerator is practically empty. In short, when there’s not a lot to choose from come time to cook dinner. That’s often when creative juices start to flow, and it’s also when I really do look in the freezer and am happy to find that frozen soup to thaw. It’s also when those jars and their contents suddenly come into view and present themselves as food with appealing possibilities. What about that quinoa salad I haven’t made in years? Or my favorite red lentil soup? Or that unopened package of Rio Zape beans? Take away some of the competition, and suddenly there are myriad possibilities I’ve merely been overlooking.
It’s an argument for less being more, and for taking a break from shopping. Instead, I use what’s there. And it’s a great way to start a New Year — at any time of the year.
Main photo: Blue-glass Ball jars lined up on a kitchen shelf. Credit: Deborah Madison
I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.
Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.
Agribusiness central to region
Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.
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Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.
Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.
The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.
Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”
Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.
There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.
World Ag Expo
One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.
The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.
The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.
Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison
A wine gelée, or jello, is one of my favorite desserts any time of year, but especially at the extreme times — a very hot summer day or a cold wintery one. Not that I wouldn’t take pleasure in biting into the translucent, quivering cubes of a jellied wine whenever the opportunity presents itself, but it’s the very hot and very cold days that I appreciate it as a dessert.
In the summer we don’t have much of an appetite for desserts that involve crusts and cream, so a light, glistening jellied wine with fruit is ideal. In winter we may have had an especially hearty meal so to end, again, with no crusts but the amber cubes of a jellied Marsala with a bit of cream poured over (or not) fits the desire to finish on a sweet note, but not a heavy one.
Just about any wine will do in wine gelée
In summer I make wine gelées with white wines, champagnes, Prosecco, Asti Spumante — anything a bit frizzante is good. Even a vino verde, which can seem a little tart on sipping, works well. A rosé makes a beautiful jellied bowl of wine as well.
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Once it has set, I cut the jellied wine crosswise both ways to make sparkling cubes, then spoon them into individual clear glass or crystal cups, interspersed with raspberries, blackberries or grapes or white peaches or nectarines cut into small pieces. Alternatively you can fill glasses with fruit, then pour the still-warm wine around it and refrigerate until it sets. Turn them out or serve them in the glass.
Toward fall, still a warm time of year, I start mixing figs, raspberries and pomegranate seeds with the gelée. Or I serve the gelée with cut-up aromatic melons, such as Galia, Passport or Ogen. You could serve it in the cavity of a small Cavaillon. A late harvest Riesling would be a wonderful wine to use in the fall.
For winter I turn to heavier wines, like sherry and Marsala, or a red, such as a Zinfandel or American Pinot Noir. A glowing amber or plum jewel-like dish is what you end up with. Instead of fruit, you might choose to pour a little cream over the wine. A nut cookie on the side provides a bit of crunch.
Here’s a recipe that will work for any wine, really. It’s not sweetened but a bit, so add more if you like your desserts really sweet.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Setting Time: 4 hours to 6 hours
Total Time: 4 hours 10 minutes to 6 hours 10 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings, depending on the amount of fruit used.
- 1 package gelatin
- ⅓ to ½ cup sugar
- 2 cups wine, divided
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 to 1½ cups fruit, cut or sliced into small pieces
- Sprinkle the gelatin over ¼ cup cold water and set it aside to soften.
- Combine the sugar with ½ cup of wine in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, and then stir in the softened gelatin. Stir until it’s thoroughly dissolved, then pour it into the rest of the wine.
- Mix well, then pour into a bowl or compote dish and refrigerate until set. Wine seems to take longer to set than cream or fruit juices, so plan on at least six hours, or even overnight for a firm set.
- Chop the jelly into cubes then serve in the compote or in wine or champagne glasses interspersed with the fruit.
After the wine has set, chop it into cubes and slivers just before serving so the pieces sparkle and glisten. Then serve the broken gelatin in wine glasses, interspersing the pieces with ripe summer fruits. It can also be served plain.
Main photo: Jellied wine with summer fruit. Credit: Laurie Smith
The revolution in food we’ve been witnessing for decades — the chefs, the farm-to-table movement, the pop-ups, the food trucks and all that — has spurred eateries galore featuring good food. Often awesome food.
Usually it’s urban food. A friend who just returned from Brooklyn told of how wherever she looked there was exceptionally good food to buy and eat, and how much of it she sampled.
My own recent experience in Portland, Ore., was similar. It was impossible to walk down a street without being tempted by good things to eat that were beautifully prepared and presented. My friend and I ate food when we weren’t even hungry simply because it was so enticing.
A tiny shop across from Ace Hotel on Stark Street had but a few small tables, excellent brewed loose tea and a very small number of perfect pastries — from homey oatmeal-date bars to an exquisite Paris-Brest. Who could resist? We couldn’t and we didn’t, even though we had just had a very satisfying lunch at Clyde Common.
In the very short time we spent in this city, we ate much, drank much and spent much to support Portland’s edible economy. And it was all worth it.
Good food making its way out of the big cities
But what I really value about the sea change in cooking is not so much the excess of goodness on a city street, as gratifying as that might be, but what you might find in a small town, away from an urban center.
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Take McMinnville, Ore., an hour away from Portland and a place that qualifies as a small town. On this trip, it was the Red Fox Bakery that seduced us. I’d been there before and especially enjoyed the sandwiches. They don’t read as if they’re going to be exceptional — it’s the usual sandwich fare presented on the bakery’s sliced bread. But the bread is so good and so fresh you can’t believe how delicious what seems to be an ordinary-sounding sandwich can be.
Not only are the sandwiches tasty, but they are substantial without being heavy, and it feels like a meal. Real food. Nourishing. The macaroon that comes with each sandwich is a generous nod to dessert, although you might be tempted by a fruit pastry as well. I always am.
Because it was chilly and wet when we arrived in McMinnville, we first paused at the Red Fox just for a look, but the look turned out to be for a cup of hot soup to warm us, a thick slice of that good, fresh bread and then a rhubarb galette.
The next day was Mother’s Day, and although they said they’d open at 8, so many people came by to pick up pastries for their wives or mothers that they were serving by 7. That day our breakfast was a galette as well, this time filled with the blackest of blackberries. And a cup of Illy coffee.
Red Fox cares about its wheat more than forming the perfect croissant. The pastries may look a little funky, but they’re good to eat. Not only do the bakers bake with the best local wheat they can get, they sell it at the counter in flour sacks printed with flowers, the same sacks of wheat we had encountered at the farmers market in Portland. Red Fox is a farm-to-table establishment and not that unusual except for being in McMinnville rather than Portland. As it says on its website, “We’re an artisan, small-batch bakery that specializes in unique flavors, wholesome and all-natural ingredients, and that strives to support locally grown produce and agricultural goods.” And so they bake with this local wheat. It’s not necessarily old-variety wheat, but it’s good wheat. And they use the good local fruits that grow so well there.
The building that houses the bakery is the kind you can find only in small towns and big cities that haven’t yet “arrived” on a food scene — a barn-like space that hasn’t been touched by a designer of any stripe. There’s the big stack oven, the sacks of wheat on the counter, the racks of bread behind, a menu board, a few tables and stacks of cups for the Illy coffee brew.
The tables are mismatched, which hardly matters, but my favorite touch is the bumper sticker slapped on the door that reads “Grateful for gluten,” a courageous statement in a day when so many are, or claim to be, gluten intolerant. Again in the owners’ own words, “… We believe the healthiest sweets and baked goods aren’t necessarily low-fat or gluten-free. … Cost and profit isn’t the bottom line. Seeing a person’s eyes light up as they bite into one of our cupcakes is.”
I like that sentiment. Both of them. It sounds big city, but it’s actually small town.
Another good little find in McMinnville is Thistle, a restaurant with a window facing a side street that recalls the mood of Kinfolk magazine — a small wooden work table, some old equipment, the stove in the background, the promise of something “artisanal.” The small bar (“… an ode to the pre-Prohibition era, a time when the cocktail was king …” its website says) and few tables provide space for some very good wines and farm-to-fork food that rivals any Portland restaurant. No doubt other treasures like these are around, but for a short visit — less than 24 hours — these were good to find and ones to return to.
I love that good food is not just stuck in urban areas but is showing up in smaller places more and more. This is hardly the only example of that, but being such a recent experience, it reminds me how good it is to be able to eat well in small towns too. And shouldn’t this be the ultimate result of all those kids going to culinary schools?
Now, if we could just find this food in our schools, I might be tempted to think that all is well, or at least getting there.
Main photo: A Grateful for Gluten sign hangs in a window at Red Fox Bakery in McMinnville, Ore. Credit: Deborah Madison
Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog. The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.
I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.
I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.
Recipe box about the why, not just the how
I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.
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The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)
But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.
Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.
A relentless diet
There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)
Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.
A reflection of progress
My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.
There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.
My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.
Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison