Monday, August 27, 2007

The Motherload

My favorite thing about the miserably hot summers here is our local farmers market. We actually have two here, the Dallas Farmers Market and the Coppell Farmers Market.
I think the Dallas Farmers Market is a gross misnomer. There is nothing local about it. Most of the food is South American and comes from distributors instead of the growers themselves. It's picked days if not weeks before it's ripe and pretty much every stall has the same out of season produce.

The latter, though, is truly a gem and worth the 20 minute drive from our East Dallas home.

The market opens at 8 every Saturday and closes when the growers sell out, which happens around 11. There's only 4 farms that sell there, including an organic farmer from Grand Saline (where the Morton salt comes from), which is about 70 miles out of Dallas. Right now they only have okra and hot peppers, but I buy pounds and pounds of the ever versatile okra that will soon be unavailable as summer begins to wane.

Other farmers have all that you could ask for -- summer squash, both crookneck and zucchini, yellow Texas peaches, several varities of eggplant, onions, potatoes, green beans, the sweetest, reddest tomatoes I think I've ever seen, melons, strawberries...and the list goes on.

There's something really gratifying about meeting the people that grow your food and supporting small farms. I can't think of a better reason to get up early on a Saturday than to spend a fraction of grocery store costs on the ripest, seasonal produce for our weekly meals.

And I must comment especially on how RIPE the food is. Most large, conventional farms harvest their produce before its peak so that it can withstand their long shipping processes. Our local farmers harvest only when their produce is at its peak, which accounts for the amazing tomatoes, especially. While some fruit will ripen after it is picked, tomatoes don't. The skin will eventually blush and then turn red, but the flesh stays white or pale pink, which accounts for the soggy, mealy texture of grocery store tomatoes. Because everything is so perfectly ripe, it starts to spoil in a few days, so we can only buy what we can eat in a week.

This really isn't a problem, though. We get more variety in our diet than we do in the winter when local, organic vegetables are in short supply, and we've drastically reduced our grocery bill to the point that the only things we really have to buy are bulk staples that we've run out of and lettuce, since it's not in season yet.

Behold, this week's $23 bounty.
Nine beefsteak tomatoes, five Bartlett pears, four pounds (!!) of okra, two pints of strawberries, 3 zucchini squash, and four white Italian eggplants.

The okra and four tomatoes were turned into a bastardized version of Bhindi Subji, or, okra and tomatoes, onions, olive oil, okra, tomatoes, fenegreek, cumin, corriander, cayenne pepper, and smoked paprika. It's Indian comfort food that I used to eat at a particularly charming Indian bistro in our old neighboorhood. Stewed okra and tomatoes is so quintessentially Southern, but, honestly, Bhindi Subji has so much more personality.

I slow-cooked more of the tomatoes, some leftover mushrooms from last week, and the zucchini into a hearty marinara to go over butternut squash ravioli, served with poached pears and beer-battered Italian eggplant.
The end of the growing season is fast approaching and in a few weeks we'll have pumpkins and winter squash, lettuce, turnips, and beets, and then the world starts to go to sleep until the spring.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Big Howdy

I don't know where to start with this, as much as I don't know where this will go, if anywhere at all.
I suppose this is as good a place to start as any.

To me, Southern-fried food is comfort food, regardless of whether it's actually fried. Fried green tomatoes, however, are the sort of comfort food akin to peach cobbler and skillet-baked cornbread.

My partner, J, fell in love with them on a business trip to Memphis, and I learned to make them at the hip of my grandmother, the Southern Food Maven.

In Texas, green tomatoes are available at farmer's markets and roadside fruit stands from March ,for imported, South American fruit, through mid-September. Local fruit is available from June through early September. I've seen green varieties in specialty grocery stores, but this is not the type of tomato that I'm talking about. Choice tomatoes for frying are firm, unripened plum tomatoes, pale celandine and barely blushing.

Fried Greed Tomatoes

1 pound green tomatoes

1 1/2 cups coarse corn meal

1/4 cup all purpose flour (or whole wheat, if you prefer)

2 tbsp nutritional yeast

paprika to taste

salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup + enough to cover pan neutral-tasting oil (like canola or safflower)

Mix dry ingredients in a shallow pan.

Heat oil in a deep pan (I use a stock pot) until it starts to smoke. Reduce heat to medium high.

Slice tomatoes roughly 1/2" thick. Dredge in oil, then cornmeal mixture and repeat until evenly coated.

Fry in the oil until golden on both sides, about three minutes on each side, and drain on paper towels. Eat them warm and right away.

What's your comfort food?