There's nothing quite like a farmer's market to help a girl recover her appetite. Even better if, while still suffering a bit from post-illness weariness, all she has to do to get there is walk across the street.
Earlier this summer, G returned from a Sunday morning errand bursting with momentous news. "You'll never guess what's right outside. It's your idea of birthday and Christmas and Sunday morning miracle all wrapped up into one. C'mon, guess."
"Oh," I said, coming up with the most preposterous, unlikely idea I could muster, "ummm, well, suddenly, miraculously, masses of fresh locally grown produce are directly outside our door. Like, there's a farmer's market outside, on our street."
"Yes!" G howled in delight. Not that it actually made all that much difference to him, since I'm the one that's in the throes of local produce obsession. And actually, having a Sunday farmer's market across the street is probably a bit of an annoyance for him, since it cuts down parking options on our block. But he was thrilled on my behalf, and of such emotions are good marriages made. And maybe at least part of the thrill is on his own behalf. After all, he does enjoy his share of whatever I cook up from the fresh provender -- especially if it's collard greens, and extra-especially if it's corn.
Now when I say "farmer's market", you have to understand that this is not Union Square we're talking about. This is East Harlem, and the market consists of 2 stands. That being said, between the two we're offered a pretty nice variety of whatever's ripe on the farm. One of the farmers is originally from Mexico, and in addition to today's peaches, nectarines, plums, apples, pears, grapes, tomatoes, peppers and other fruits and vegetables, he was offering tomatillos, a couple of different kinds of hot peppers, cilantro and several herbs that apparently are traditional in Mexican cuisine which I've never seen at any other market, including Union Square. Both farmers offer their bounty at very reasonable prices, keeping their produce within reach of those who might not be able to afford the offerings at more boutique markets.
While the produce is not organic, the farmers have been willing to have some conversations with me about their growing practices. They do make the effort to avoid heavy chemical pesticides. Interestingly enough, they do this because it's more cost-effective for them, or so they claim. Pesticides are expensive, and if the customer isn't necessarily turned off by a few bug holes in the collard greens, why not avoid them?
Our neighborhood also has a slightly larger Thursday market, a few blocks further away, which attracts 3, maybe 4 farmers. Occasionally the nice people from Bread Alone are there too, as are the folks from Cornell Cooperative Extension, who operate a small table where they do cooking demonstrations, give samples of the foods they've made with seasonal produce, hand out recipes and offer information and other resources to the folks who come to look, and
hopefully, to buy. These two markets are not Greenmarkets, however. They are run by a group called ANWA/Harvest Home (and I found so little information about them that I don't even know what that stands for) in collaboration with Union Settlement. How can I not love the fact that someone cares about whether or not the people in my neighborhood (most of whom are on fixed incomes or public assistance or just generally living below the poverty line, despite rapid gentrification) have access to fresh, local, seasonal food?
Lest you should think I don't miss the precious baby sucrine lettuces and wild arugula and tri-star strawberries of Union Square Greenmarket, not to mention many colors of ugly tomatoes, well, of course I miss them. But I don't feel deprived, or not too much, anyway. Here's the thing: by nature, I'm someone who actually CAN have too much of a good thing. Especially when that good thing is something that promotes overspending and eventual waste. I'm sure others are capable of far greater restraint than I, but the the fact is, I rarely leave Union Square market having spent less than about $70, and my sense of being overwhelmed by gorgeous produce and specialty items (fresh sheep's milk cheese! Free-range quails' eggs! Teeny-tiny gold-nugget potatoes for $6 a pound!) leads me, too often, to buy more than we need -- and certainly to buy more expensively than we need.
The true motive for shopping more locally (in my own neighborhood, that is) is that this year is going to be the year of living frugally. I'm on a sabbatical leave (translation: the portion of my salary that allows for any margin of luxury is the portion I'm not getting in the paycheck this year. My luxury this year is time, although we've been too encumbered by recent illness and annoying tasks for me to be able to feel or enjoy it yet). One becomes accustomed to living at whatever level one can afford, and spending accordingly. Cutting back is never easy; however, I'm up for the challenge of being a little more creative about our finances. It's important to be philosophical about these matters. By some people's standards, we're in dire financial straits. From the perspective of many, many others -- well, we're doing just fine. As one of my students recently said, it's all relatives (family members not withstanding).
Occasionally I'm sure I'll allow myself the pleasure of a spin down to Union Square. But for now, while there's still corn outside my door at four ears for a dollar, I'll be factoring convenience and price points into the quest for healthy and local food.
And what to do with that corn? Well, I'm coming round to the idea that perhaps less is more when it comes to preparing produce, too. G could happily eat steamed corn on the cob seven nights a week when it's in season. But me, ah, well, the quest for novelty is ever-present. Earlier in the summer I made fresh corn soup as well as several mixed sautés of vegetables that included sweet nuggets of corn nestling in among the squash and peppers and tomatoes. But I wanted something different from that too -- a dish in which the corn could be the star.
With this in mind, I found a recipe for fresh corn polenta in Suzanne Goin's lovely book Sunday Suppers at Lucques. This seemed to me a capital idea, consisting, as it did, of sautéed kernels folded into more-or-less conventionally-made polenta (although Ms. Goin's is long cooked, with a high proportion of water). I couldn't even wait for dinnertime to try it out. I got up early the next morning and made a pot of excellent stone-ground grits and folded the sauteed kernels in along with some lumps and bumps of sharp Vermont cheddar cheese. Delectable, especially when sided with crisply fried sausage patties. Emboldened by this success, I went on, a day or so later, to try the dinnertime version with polenta.
I knew I had polenta in the house, since someone had recently given me a packet as a gift. A packet whose label I hadn't read. A packet that turned out to be quick-cooking polenta. How bad could it be? I cooked it up despite my misgivings, folding in the fresh sweet corn kernels and some Parmigiano Reggiano, and served it up next to crisply sautéed filet of sole and green beans in a thickly simmered jam of fresh tomato, garlic and basil. I feel quite sure that the reason the polenta turned out to be such a dud-like bowl of gruel has nothing to do with Ms. Goin's excellent recipe. It's simply the gluey result one gets from instant-style polenta (conversely, I knew that the reason why my experiment with the grits had turned out so well was that they, unlike the polenta, were a coarsely textured stone-ground product). The addition of fresh corn to the polenta studded it with beautiful kernels of corny goodness which somehow didn't do a thing to mitigate its pastiness or provide any sort of much-needed flavor boost. It was merely, as G says whenever he considers something okay but not particularly delicious, "fine."
"Fine," I thought. "I can still do something delicious with the leftovers," because leftovers there were, however gummily unyummy they might be. In my mania to conserve precious natural resources in addition to the dwindling resources inside my wallet, I simply had to use this stuff up. I though of a recent blog post I'd seen on Orangette that had, at its end, a recipe for polenta fries. "Great!" I thought. "Instead of making the polenta the way it is in Molly's recipe, I'll just use my leftovers and cut them into sticks and fry them. Perfect."
No. Not perfect. Not perfect at all. I wasted an entire bottle of cooking oil, burned my hand and made my kitchen smell like fried food, something I studiously avoid any more than once or twice a year, tops. And all in the name of making these rather nasty fried logs of starchiness which, at first attempt, fell apart completely in the oil, and then, when I cleverly coated the next batch in cornstarch to make them stick together, burned and well, just weren't particularly flavorful, since the pap of which they were composed wasn't all that good to begin with. So again, please be advised that this has NOTHING to do with Molly's lovely recipe, which I did NOT follow, since I was using up leftovers and just going with the concept of polenta fries rather than her careful recipe.
All I can tell you is that as G valiantly chawed through the crunchy but tasteless corn logs on his plate, I knew, despite his avowed love of corn, cheese and all things deep-fried, he could only be thinking "Why couldn't we just have had corn-on-the-cob?" There's a lesson in that somewhere. I'm aware that for the most part, my efforts to economize and use things up are rewarded with something delicious -- or at least edible. In this case, however, trying avoid waste merely led to waste: a whole bottle of wasted oil, wasted corn mush (lots of it got thrown away), wasted time and energy. In this case, the waste was caused by a low-quality ingredient: the instant polenta.
Even though the dish might have been wonderful with real polenta, I think that for the moment, I'm going to stick with the less-is-more premise -- particularly when it comes to corn. For the rest of the season, as long as the corn lasts, we'll enjoy simply steamed ears, sweet and milky and toothsome. And you, being wiser than I, will probably do the same even without my cautionary tale.
However, in the event that you have a few ears left over from steaming, and you're in the mood for a corny breakfast (or for that matter, dinnertime) treat, the following is still well worth a try.
Fresh Corn Grits
serves 2 generously or 3 modestly
2 to 2 1/2 cups water
2 Tbsp. butter
1 tsp. salt
2 ears leftover steamed sweet corn
2 oz. good cheddar cheese, in small cubes
freshly ground black pepper
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Stir in grits, 1 Tbsp. of butter, and salt. Return to a boil, reduce heat and cook slowly, covered for at least 1/2 hour, stirring every few minutes. Add more water if it becomes too thick.
While the grits are cooking (please don't skimp on the cooking time -- long, slow cooking makes these better than you ever thought they could be), shave the kernels from the cob with a sharp knife. Sauté them until they become slightly browned in the remaining tablespoon of butter. Stir them, along with the cheese, into the hot grits. Serve immediately with black pepper ground over the top.