Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In Praise of Country Markets

There's a certain energy to an urban farmers' market, a vibrancy, a buzz. There’s the thrum of traffic, the roar of planes overhead, a clangor of voices, of different languages greeting, laughing, bargaining, all laid against the backdrop of the music coming from the stage, while the sun beats down on the pavement, and buses spew by, a light rail train sings along the tracks.

It can be thrilling, invigorating, inspiring. That was how our summer Saturday mornings were spent during most of the past five years (and our Friday afternoons, for two years before that), peddling our homemade bread sold under the name of Real Bread. Over that time we found that this same tableau can also be…really, really, tiring. Tiring to put it kindly, tiring to the point where, in spite of how much we still loved many aspects of market life--seeing our colleagues, our customers and friends, the look on the face of a new admirer taking in for the first time our baskets of handmade loaves--and with the growing thought, I could be at Bide-A-Wee right now…, becoming more insistent, then one morning, that of July 3, specifically, without warning, or planning, I showed up at the market, set up my tent, made the rounds, and, feeling the parking lot starting to swelter already at 8:30 in the morning, I knew we were done.

The bread business arose from our love of farmers' markets, but ironically (or, maybe, predictably, or both?), over time it came to mean that we could no longer enjoy farmers' markets, at least not in the same way we had before. Also, once you've seen inside the workings of a market's management, be it one run by a growers' association or a neighborhood organization--well, it's a little like what they say about sausage factories and the working of Congress, and I'll just leave it at that.

We’ve gone three Saturdays now without baking for a market, the longest stretch of any summer for the last seven years. I actually miss the baking, a little, the mildly miraculous alchemy of starting the day with flour and water and ending it with a house full of baskets and totes filled with gorgeous, crusty, fragrant loaves. I don’t miss the six hours spent standing in a South Minneapolis parking lot. I particularly don’t miss it when I think about the small and not-so-small Wisconsin markets we’ve been able to visit in the meantime.

We pulled up and parked in the shade along the curb next to a little park adjacent to the Dunn County Fairgrounds in Menomonie a week ago, got out of the car, left the windows halfway down and told the dogs to be good, we’d be right back. As we walked across the grass toward the market, where tents ringed the park the size of a small city block, the first thing that struck me was how quiet it was. But not quiet, exactly, because there was a pleasant sort of murmur of activity, but calm, and calming. I’d been conditioned to believe that a farmers’ market meant noise. More and more, amplified music has come to characterize the city markets of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. I hate it. I mean, I love music, and in it’s proper context, I love amplified music. At a farmers’ market, I hate it.

The calm of the Menomonie market was not just a lack of music, though. It also came from the fact that the market site was off the main drag, on the grass under spreading oaks. The shade, the leafy breeze, the soft, natural surround, all contributed to a feeling of ease that made us want to linger. We were hungry. We went to get breakfast.

In the picnic pavilion a half dozen vendors, all Hmong, were just finishing their set-up and starting to serve. We made the rounds, considering egg rolls, spring rolls, fried rice or stir-fried green beans, even crab Rangoon, and decided on a Hmong sausage and a dish of vegetable pad thai. The sausage, flavored with ginger and lemongrass, had a beautifully handmade, honestly porky flavor and was served with a pile of steamed rice. The pad thai, stir-fried while Mary watched, and while I went back to get a bottle of water from the car, was fresh tasting and flavorful. A hearty breakfast, which actually saw us through lunch, too. The dogs got a bit of the sausage, for being such good dogs.

We made our way around the market, then, chatted with a woodworker, the lamb vendor whose outfit was called “Ewes Rule the Farm,” and a bison producer. We were talking to the meat guys when the baker showed up late. He was the star of the market, the meat guys said. They thought he worked in the kitchen at Macy’s in the Cities, and brought bread to the market as a sideline. He had a line 12, maybe 15 deep from when he arrived until he was sold out of bread, they said. And as they were telling us this, while the baker was still getting set up, the line started to form.

We moved along, passed a woman setting up to play a hammer dulcimer, unplugged, and by the time we got to the other side of the market the bread was moving, the line stretched two-thirds of the way across the market, and I’d say 15-deep was a conservative estimate. Lots of folks were going away with focaccia topped with tomatoes and cheese. There were golden batards and some round rustic grainy-looking loaves. We pardon-me’d our way through the line. This was clearly no time for a baker-to-baker chat--the baker and a helper were doling out loaves as fast as they could--but I’m sure we’ll find a time to talk later in the summer.

We admired slender green beans, fresh white bulbs of garlic, dewy lettuces, adorable little fingerling potatoes. Lots of vendors were selling by the pound, so you could buy as much or as little as you liked. One thing I’ve come to dislike at Midtown and other city markets is a tendency among farmers to sell their vegetables in large, pre-portioned containers. Three dollars might be a good deal for a pound and a half of green beans, but I generally don’t want that much. I appreciate the buy-as-much-as-you-want approach, which seems more considerate and more friendly.

All we wound up buying at Menomonie, other than breakfast, was some garlic. That’s because we had done the bulk of our shopping on Friday afternoon at the little--no, littler than little, tiny--market in Dallas, which I mentioned in a recent post. The Dallas market is just a few weeks old, and no one would call it a destination market--except, I guess, it sort of is, for us. We could shop at any number of markets, but we’ve made a point of visiting the Dallas market. It’s not just the awesome root beer floats (signs on the road into Dallas announce ROOT BEER FLOATS AHEAD!), or the fact that the produce, while not super-abundant, has been utterly top-notch. It’s more the spirit of the whole endeavor, the really, truly grass-roots nature of it, that we find so appealing.

So far there have only been three or four growers at the market, plus an Amish woman with baked goods (as well as hens and chicks, and I don’t mean the plants that go by that name, but real live chickens with a clutch of real live chicks), and those floats made with super-tasty brew produced right there at the Viking Brewing Company run by market organizer Ann Lee and her husband Randy. But it has the feeling of a real community event, of people doing it not because they think they’re going to make a lot of money at it, but because it contributes, it’s fun, and it’s just a good thing to do. It livens up downtown Dallas on a Friday afternoon, and it offers fresh produce to people who might not have easy access to it otherwise.

Who knows where it will go. All new ventures go through tenuous times finding their feet. We wish the Dallas Farmers’ Market and all its vendors the best, and in honor of the Dallas vendors I offer this recipe that we produced out at Bide-A-Wee last Friday night, made almost entirely with produce from the market (only the corn came from a roadside stand in Osceola). It was absolutely delicious (if I say so myself!), and a treat for the eyes, as well.

Dallas Farmers’ Market Confetti Vegetable Sauce on Pasta
serves two amply

I suppose this is a version of the famous past primavera--springtime pasta--invented , so it is said, at Le Cirque restaurant in New York in 1974, but I was inspired simply by the beautiful market produce, not any particular recipe. Don’t fear the cream. It’s just a couple of tablespoons per person, and the rest of your dinner is all beautiful, healthful, delicious vegetables (and, yes, okay, a little cheese--but this dish was conceived in America’s Dairyland; are we going to freak out about a little cream and cheese? I didn‘t think so…). We stop in Connorsville, on highway 64, at
Bolen Vale Cheese for excellent Wisconsin fromage and a chat with Rene Bartz. Our cream of choice, I must admit, is a Minnesota product, from--where else?--the Cedar Summit Farm dairy, Dave and Florence Minar, proprietors.

a fistful of beans--green, wax, or purple--remove stem end, slice on diagonal into 1-inch pieces
1 small zucchini or summer squash, cut into 1/2-inch slices, then 1/4-inch strips, then 2-inch pieces
2 sweet banana peppers, halved, seeded, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch strips
1/4 of a small red cabbage, shredded 1/4-inch wide
1 small onion, sliced thin
1 ear corn--cut the kernels off the cob
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup chicken or veg stock or water
salt & pepper
1/2 cup grated Wisconsin asiago or other grating cheese
a few leaves basil
1 Tbsp unsalted butter (plus a little extra to finish the sauce, optional)
1 Tbsp olive oil

In a large skillet or saucepan heat the oil and butter over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook for 2 minutes.

Add the banana peppers and cabbage and a good pinch of salt, and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add the garlic, zucchini, beans, and corn. Cook for 2 minutes.

Add the stock and 1/4 cup of water, partially cover, and simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the cream. Taste for salt and add a little more if needed. Cook, uncovered, until the sauce thickens a bit, about a minute. Stir in most of the tomatoes, saving a few pieces for garnish. Tear the basil leaves into rough pieces, and stir them in.

Serve over linguine, spaghetti, or a pasta of your choice. Sprinkle with cheese to taste, and a grind of black pepper.

You can vary the vegetables in this dish depending on what's in season or available. Use snap peas in place of the beans, a small red bell pepper in place of the banana peppers (or use a bit of hot chili, if you like). Go for a nice variety of colors, whatever mix of vegetables you choose.

Leftovers can be chilled and served as a salad alongside a sandwich or bowl of soup.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

I miss markets, noisy or no! The one you mentioned ringing the park is very similar to one that's three towns away. Usually a jug band plays. Usually one woman is giving cooking demonstrations of, basically, what to do with her vegetables. It's fun.

It's also a lot of work. Maybe you need to find a middle ground: do your baking and have someone else sell it in that hot parking lot. I am sure you can find some takers...especially if they might have their own stuff to sell too.

Or, I don't know, just enjoy your summer at the cabin?

Tom said...

The ready-to-eat food you describe are making my mouth water; it's so weird to me that at Midtown in spite of having so many Hmong produce vendors we don't have anybody making Hmong food for consumption at the market.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi El: I'm with you, I really do like markets of all sorts, and am happy to be recharging my enthusiasm for them. Each one has a personality, and it's fun to sample a variety.

Am mulling various baking options. All suggestions welcome.

Tom, Midtown had someone selling middling egg rolls and spring rolls a couple of years ago, didn't last the season. Kingfield had a Hmong food stall with more interesting preparations a while back, but I don't know if they're still in operation. I keep thinking about that sausage; it was just the sausage on a pile of rice, but it was excellent. I must say I cast a sidewise glance at that crab Rangoon....

My BFF Mala, who with her partner in crime Mary Duffy makes those splendid crepes, is rather taken for granted now, I'm afraid, but with her in the vanguard, Midtown has lined up some pretty tasty ICF vendors, as you well know!

Cheers~ Brett