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Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 02:54 pm

It ain’t over till it’s over


Farmer John is harvesting swiss chard for the Old Capitol Farmers Market.

It happens every year. Every vendor at every farmers market will tell you the same thing: business drops off after Labor Day. Maybe it’s because parents are preoccupied with getting their kids back in school. Maybe it’s because even adults who don’t have school-aged children participate in organizations and activities that start their year’s calendar at the beginning of September. Most likely, though, it is that many folks just think that since summer is over, local food must be over too.

But September and October are harvest months, and not just for corn and soybeans. Late summer and early fall are when our local bounty of fruits and vegetables is at its peak, and vegetable vendors’ displays are overflowing. Some things such as sweet corn and summer squashes taper off as the season progresses. But many fruits and vegetables are at their best when central Illinois’ heat and humidity give way to cool, crisp nights and still-warm sunny days.

Prominent among such vegetables are members of the Brassica family: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, turnips, mustard greens and more. Spinach, lettuces and other greens are tastiest in cooler weather, too, and begin making their appearance at farmers markets again after summer’s heat.

Red raspberries also have a second coming. Peaches and nectarines give way to apples, pears and fall plums. An abundance of winter squashes appear: pumpkins, of course, which seem to sprout a new decorative variety each year; but also butternut, acorn, hubbard, delicata and spaghetti squashes, to name just a few.

Vendor farmers who raise produce, fruits and meats for their living are the mainstay of all farmers markets. They are the vanguard essential to increasing the amount of local foods in our diet.

But there are other farmers market vendors. Folks who are growing food and selling it as a retirement project, hobby or for a little supplemental income to cover the costs of their gardening endeavors. They’re an interesting and integral part of farmers markets, in it for the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment that feeding people brings. Two such vendors at the Old State Capitol Farmers Market are John Hamilton and Joe Gardner.

Hamilton’s three and a half acre garden is gorgeous; something that could easily be featured in a gardening magazine. The rows of beautifully tended plants are often beautiful themselves, from the green leaves and multicolored stalks of Bright Lights Swiss chard, to eggplants in varying shades of purple (my favorite variety, for looks but mostly for its exceptional taste is appropriately named Neon.) There’s even a pond with a miniature island, courtesy of the Fraase family from whom Hamilton purchased the property.

Hamilton is a retired economist, but has a family history of farming/gardening. He’s been gardening since his student days. In Champaign/Urbana, his landlord let him “dig up the back yard.”

“But I only really started gardening seriously after I retired,” Hamilton says. He became a Master Gardener, has served on the U of I Extension Board, and is a member of the Specialty Growers Association.

Initially Hamilton took everything he grew (except what he and Bonnie ate themselves) to the Food Bank, and that’s still where most of it goes. But for the last eight years, he’s brought some of his more unusual produce to market.

Hamilton likes to try new things. He was among the first vendors to sell arugula and edamame, deliciously edible soybeans. (For more about edamame, including recipes, find my Aug. 19, 2010 column on the Illinois Times website.) A newer offering is cucuzza, aka googootz, an Italian mainstay little known outside Italian-American communities.

Hamilton is committed to “not taking anything away from vendors trying to make a living.” He doesn’t sell by the pound, grows “unique and different stuff,” and doesn’t look at other vendors’ prices.

Joe Gardner (yes, that’s really his name) is officially retired. But the medical technologist still works about one day a week at Memorial Hospital. Gardner has been gardening since he took over his family’s plot when he was about 8 years old. A year after the OSCFM began, Gardner has brought an “eclectic collection of offerings” to market (unless he had to work).

That’s for sure. Gardner sells cherry tomatoes, young salad greens in spring and fall, flowers, a few herbs such as basil, and an astonishing 50 varieties of peppers that he grows on just over half an acre of land. Even more astonishing is that he rarely eats the peppers himself, and never the hot ones.

Farmer John tending his booth at the Old Capitol Farmers Market.

“Back in the 90s, I was gardening with a co-worker who was really into hot peppers, but when she left ‘at the turn of the century’ I continued to grow them, and got lots better at it.” Gardener raises them now because “they’re so beautiful and easy to grow.” He may not eat them, but Gardner can tell customers all about each variety.

I’m a particular fan of Gardner’s flowers: rose-like lisianthus and mulit-hued zinnias. Not only are they lovely and modestly priced, both last for at least 10 days.

Gardner avoids competing with the full-time growers: “I’ve tried to find niches, things nobody else has.” Of Hamilton he says, “We’re kindred spirits.”

So don’t give up on farmers markets after Labor Day. Unless you grow produce yourself, there’s no better way to get a feeling for the rhythms of the changing seasons and a sense of our community, things easily missed in modern society. Both adults and children can experience them by going to farmers markets from early spring to late October. And for anyone who has never been to farmers markets, harvest season is an excellent time for a first visit.

This delectable recipe is from Dean Bair, a familiar figure at the Old State Capitol Farmers Market. Bair doesn’t have a stand of his own, but has helped several growers, including Hamilton, for many years. One of Hamilton’s fall offerings is Cheddar Cauliflower, whose golden heads he says are especially good to use in this dish. Bair’s recipe calls for canned mushroom soup; I substituted Greek-style yogurt; sour cream would work. I also increased the amount of curry powder.

Curried cauliflower
• 1 large head of cauliflower
• 1 can cream of mushroom soup, [or substitute 1 1/4 cups Greek-style yogurt or sour cream]
• 1 c. grated Cheddar cheese
• 1/3 c. mayonnaise
• 1 tsp. [to 1 T.] curry powder
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
• 1/4 c. breadcrumbs
• 2 T. melted butter

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Wash the cauliflower and remove any green leaves. Separate it into large florets, and discard the thick central core.

The cauliflower must be cooked until just tender before continuing. I used to cook cauliflower by simmering the florets in salted water about 15-20 minutes. This works perfectly well, but now I prefer tossing the florets with a little olive oil and salt, then spreading them in a single layer on a baking sheet and roasting in the oven 30 to 40 minutes. Roasting keeps the cauliflower’s nutrients from leaching into the cooking water and concentrates its flavor.

Spread the cooked cauliflower florets in a lightly oiled baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer.

Combine the mushroom soup [or yogurt or sour cream], cheese, mayonnaise and curry powder. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The soup is quite salty, so you many not need to add any additional salt if using it.

Pour the sauce evenly over the cauliflower.

Mix the melted butter and breadcrumbs and sprinkle them over the top.

Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and the sauce is bubbly. Serves 4-8.

Note: Last week’s column omitted the recipe for pizza dough, which can be found on Illinois Times website in my Feb. 17, 2011 column (“Make your own pizzas”).

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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