Many of us have been following the local, seasonal approach to meal planning long before doing so was the media darling it is today, especially if you grew up in a rural area like the Eastern Shore. You ate strawberries when the patch out in the garden was bearing fruit, radishes were always the first spring vegetable on the table, and the green beans and beets and concord grapes were served fresh from the plant unless they were canned or frozen or made into jam for storage in the pantry. Tomatoes are probably the epitome of seasonality we recall fondly from back in the “good old days”, before the idea of cross-country shipping created the tasteless orb that passes for one during this age of year round availability. Peaches came into being in August, apples were picked in due course, and the sweet corn was usually Country Gentleman shoepeg, planted by the acre for the local processor. If you didn’t grow it yourself, there was bound to be a roadside produce stand nearby to fill in the gaps. For protein, the fish man had shad in the early spring, rock fish a little later and oysters when the weather turned cold. Your beef was local – barnyard local – and the chickens that chased you down the lane laid the fried eggs you ate for breakfast. It was not headline news, it was life in the 50’s and 60’s.
Now it is so very trendy, the sustainable-local-seasonal mantra. We even saw an ad recently for a dog food that was “inspired” by the Farm to Table movement. Dog Food! Ha! as if our dog would care, the way she wolfs down her kibble each day! But, even as I ridicule the idea that all this is supposed to be novel somehow, I do realize that the recent growth of the seasonal food movement has done us a great service during the last 10 or 20 years. With the spread of this behavior influencing grocery stores and restaurants across the country, it has become the right business model to put “local” on shelves and menus. No waiter needs to tell you they source their food locally because you just assume they do. Doesn’t everyone? We appreciate better than ever that the more we keep our shopping habits within our own community, the more we will be supporting the livelihoods of the small farmers and producers who are our neighbors.
Farmers Markets make it easy. Whether you plant a vegetable garden in your own back yard or come across a roadside table loaded with tasty tomatoes and fresh picked sweet corn, it remains undeniably pleasurable to have a variety of stalls of fresh produce at your fingertips on a regular basis in a town near you. And right now the prospect of fresh equals local is really heating up.
The start of asparagus season in Kent County was one of the first things you noticed at the recent Farmers Market in Chestertown. (This helps to explain why three out of our nine menu items for the week feature everyone’s favorite first local veg!) While there is nothing better than having an asparagus bed of your own, the convenience factor of picking up a pound or three without the hassle of digging trenches and waiting three years cannot be overemphasized. Prices hovered around $4 a pound.
I was frankly more excited to see the rhubarb last week. I love rhubarb and it is very hard to find locally. While it takes an awful lot of sugar to make it palatable, it is so worth it. Stewed until tender, there is nothing better over vanilla ice cream or panna cotta. To prep it you must cut off the leafy end and trim the root end, then peel away any stringy outer skin – which is a very satisfying job in itself – before you cut it into inch long segments and cook it down with sugar. Start with about a half cup of sugar per pound of rhubarb and add more if you think it is too tart – I like it pretty tart. Plus rhubarb freezes great – just do your prep and pack it in freezer bags. You can put it frozen right into your saucepan and stew it just like that. The classic pairing for rhubarb is strawberries, perhaps because the timing is right, but strawberry-rhubarb crisp is easier than pie and just as tasty.
Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp
Combine 2 cups of flour, 4 cups of rolled (old-fashioned) oatmeal, 2 cups of brown sugar, 1 T. of cinnamon, 1 tsp. of salt and 1 tsp. of vanilla. Work in 10 to 11 ounces of cold butter until the mixture is crumbly. Using a combination of rhubarb and strawberries to suit your tastes, add 1/2 cup of sugar for every four cups of rhubarb you include. (The strawberries need no added sugar.) To keep things a little less juicy, toss all the fruit with about 1/3 cup of tapioca flour before placing all in the bottom of a 9X13 baking pan. Spread your oatmeal mixture evenly on top and bake in a 350 degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes, until bubbling hot.
Colchester has some nicely stored root vegetables, including potatoes and turnips, but their fresh carrots and greens are what stood out for Kevin last week. He braised the carrots with a little water and butter for about 10 or 15 minutes and served them just like that, with the little stem signaling their superior freshness.
Lockbrier’s stall was clearly the winner when it came to asparagus, rivaling Godfrey’s production I would contend. While they had the usual supply of wintered vegetables to chose from, they also offered things like cucumbers and spaghetti squash, which, if we presume all the produce at the market is grown by the purveyor, you sort of have to wonder how they managed to get cucumbers of that size ready for the early spring market?
One way to get the most from asparagus, especially if you’ve been snapping it in preparation of roasting or steaming, is to make soup.
Roasted Asparagus Soup
Everyone knows how to roast asparagus, right? Toss the prepared spears in a little olive oil, salt and pepper and bake on a sheet pan in a 400 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until just done. Eat some, set some aside. Take the ends that you saved when you snapped the spears and put them in a pot with enough water to cover by about an inch or two, and simmer gently for 30 or so minutes. Strain it and set it aside, discarding the now spent ends. Meanwhile, cut the tips off of your asparagus spears and reserve them for garnish for your soup. Chop the remaining stems into half inch pieces, and set aside. Sweat some onion in butter for about 5 minutes, then add your strained stock. Peel and slice some potato (more or less depending on how much asparagus you started with), adding that to the simmering onion/stock mixture and gently cook until the potatoes are done. Add the asparagus stems and puree the whole thing in a blender or food processor until it is as smooth as you like. At this point you can add cream if you so desire and season with as much salt and pepper as you like. Garnish with your reserved asparagus tips. This soup is good hot or cold, which makes it a perfect party food.
Eat. Drink. Relax. Cook!