July 19, 2009

Finding unique farm-fresh ingredients

by Nate Rafn

I love food and love to cook, but I have a bit of a flaw. When I find something good, I stick with it for a while. Although I could survive on a diet of fried eggs and toast, and be happy as a clam, I often get stuck in a culinary rut, shying away form unfamiliar ingredients.

Determined to put an end to my hermit-like appetite, I took a jaunt to the Wednesday Farmers' Market in Salem, to look for some fresh vegetables that could be considered somewhat "unusual."

My first stop was at the Persephone Farm tent, where I was greeted by owner Elanor O'Brien. I explained my mission, and she immediately pointed to the pile of bundled garlic whistles stacked on the table.

"They're getting the most questions of anything we have at the stand today," said O'Brien, noting the strange coiled shape of the vegetables.

Garlic whistles are unopened flower buds that grow at the top of the garlic plant. They are often steamed, pan-fried, or baked whole, and eaten with the addition of salt and butter. They offer a mildly pungent flavor.

About ten yards away, I meet-up with Melinda Nikko, owner of Nikko Farms. She is best known for growing Asian vegetables and mushrooms, particularly shiitakes. For me, she recommends coming back in two weeks to try shishito peppers. In July, Nikko expects to have a wide variety of peppers, along with edamame, and red tomatoes.

As I continue walking, I encounter a table with leafy, redish-purple vegetables bundled together with rubber-bands. I ask the nearest attendant, "What is it? How do you cook it?"

"It's called amaranth," said Tou Her, of Lucky Flower Farm. "Stir-fry is the best for them."

Amaranth is used as a leaf vegetable and grain in many parts of the world, including eastern Asia, parts of Africa, South America, Europe, and yes, the Willamette Valley.

On the far east end of the market, I find Minto Island Growers. Farm-hand Katie Dennis shows off a basket of small artichokes, and informs me on what's available next.

"Feel how light they are," said Dennis, referring to the artichokes. "A lot of the interesting stuff is going into the CSA boxes this time of year. We are seeding some interesting kinds of herbs like lemon basil and cinnamon basil in the next week."

Nearly satisfied with my discoveries, I walked back to the far west side of the market, toward Denison Farms. Cardboard boxes filled with large, bright yellow copia tomatoes acted as a centerpiece for the stand. Next to the tomatoes sat a basket of large fava beans in their pods.

"They taste like a sweet pea and they have the texture of a lima bean," said Harry Hamlin, of Denison Farms. "If you blanch them real quick, it will get the skins off, and then you can stir-fry them or toss them in a salad."

I left the market that day feeling confident that local agriculture could rouse hunger in the most rutted of gastronomes.

Next, I'll have to find a way to use garlic whistles, shiitake mushrooms, amaranth, artichokes, copia tomatoes, and fava beans in a single dish! It might sound "unusual," but it's sure to be good.

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