It's clear when I arrive at the Boulder Farmers' Market Saturday that summer has finally and emphatically arrived. Fronds of dill have given way to long seed stalks. The peaches are profoundly welcome, but no longer the brilliant surprise they were last week. Not many field tomatoes yet -- though I notice a few at Aspen Moon -- but there's loads of squash everywhere; peppers, both hot and sweet, are piled on stands; I find big, shiny eggplants, bunches of rainbow chard and, best of all, the year's first corn at Miller Farms. When I cook a few ears for dinner later, tossing them into boiling water for not more than a minute, I find that though the kernels are small, the taste is wonderfully sweet and fresh.
It's so hot that the farmers are already sweating at 8:30 in the morning, and the folks at Street Fare -- the bakery that helps support the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless -- are setting out only a few of their delicious miniature cupcakes at a time so they'll sell before the icing starts to melt.
This week I'm thinking about all the creative ways local farmers find to stay afloat -- pumpkin patches, mazes, kids' days, petting areas -- and the fascinating, one-of-a-kind products they come up with to distinguish their farms and lure customers. The season is short in Colorado, which means most farmstands will have the same produce to sell at the same time. So Anne Cure of Cure Farms brings to market beautiful, hand-dyed wool from her own sheep; Karen Beeman carries dozens of kinds of garlic, each one carefully marked; you can hang a string of Sue Parsons's plump, glossy shallots in the kitchen and use them all year long. And John Ellis sells his own home-ground flour.
A farmer who has since left the market used to bring ostrich meat and eggs big enough to feed ten people each. And then there's Spencer Dew of Dew Farms and the beautiful array of jewel soaps on his stand, each containing a slice of loofah. Dew has been growing loofah and making soap with it for nine years now, and selling the soap along with farm vegetables.
It isn't easy, he tells me: "Loofah doesn't grow here very well. The first year we planted it didn't grow at all, so we started breeding. It's a beautiful plant with a flat, five-petal yellow flower == absolutely beautiful. We finally got the tight knit loofahs we wanted; it took four to five years." Made by Dew's wife, the soaps are scented with lemon verbena, coconut lavender, ruby red grapefruit, cucumber, honey almond and lilac.
Dew also sells chunks of loofah that can be used in place of a brush to scrub vegetables. The family uses these on the produce they bring to market. "It's cool," says Dew. "It's using one vegetable to wash another."
It would take more than the difficulties of growing loofah plants to faze the Dew family. "I can trace my family back to 1086 in England, the Doomsday Book," Dew says. "We've always been farmers --parents, grandparents, twelve generations -- and we've always farmed naturally." He also has a philosophical attitude toward drought: "We've been farming long enough that this year, when others were talking about cutting back on their crops, we didn't. We figured if you don't plant it, you can't harvest it. Farming is a risk and it goes from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed. Winter is the only time you can sleep."
He himself had retired from growing wheat and corn when his son Aaron asked for help with his vegetables. Dew immediately complied. "Can you imagine a farmer retiring?" he asks. He enjoys the work and meeting customers who buy into their CSA or shop at the various markets they attend. Best of all is working with his son: "It's one of the greatest things you can do as a parent."
The family's creativity doesn't stop with loofah soap. "We like to grow odd stuff," Dew says. "Aaron grows giant pumpkins -- 1000-pound pumpkins. We grew peanuts and that was wildly successful. But cotton was a total failure. Whether it's a success or a failure, you still learn something and you still have fun."
Keep reading for an eggplant recipe.
Leaving the market with a bagful of glossy eggplant, I ask Giulia De Meo Licht of Fior di Latte gelato if she has a good recipe. She e-mails me this:
Melanzane alla Parmigiana
"Parmesan" comes from (guess where?) Parma, an amazing city in the center of Italy, where they make Prosciutto (di Parma) and, of course, Parmigiano reggiano.
In order to be called "Parmigiano." it needs to be done in one of the following cities: Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna (on the left side of the Reno River) and Mantova (on the right side of the river Po). Just make sure it's the real one. It's worth it. Believe me.
Did you know that the real, authentic Parmigiano cheese is rated number one in the top 50 cheeses in the world?
Here is what you need: 4-5 big, round melanzane, ehm ... eggplants. Tomato sauce (see below what I mean by tomato sauce) 1 mozzarella (half a pound, 220 gr) Parmesan, a lot.
The typical Melanzana alla Parmigiana (Parmesan-style eggplants) calls for fried eggplants. Delicious, of course. But quite heavy and greasy. So I bake them instead, or grill them.
But first, it's important that, after slicing them about a half centimeter thick (mumble mumble ... I mean 0.3 inches!), you need to cover them in salt, and let them get rid of their water. I do it in the morning.
I lay them on a tray, with paper towels underneath and on top, and I put something heavy to push the water out. Then you dry them with the paper towel (try to remove some of the salt) and bake them for around 20 minutes at 400 °F
Now, the tomato sauce. Unfortunately we are not in Naples, and right now tomatoes are not in season. So I suggest that you buy a big can (I think it was about a pound) of tomato sauce, as much plain as possible (no garlic, no fancy spices, no so-called "Italian herbs"). Just tomato sauce. Add salt, pepper, chopped basil, and stir. That's it. You don't need to cook it.
Slice the mozzarella in strips (mine were 2 inches long, and very thin). Now, again, we are not in Naples (my husband and I had to spend four days there to get my Green Card at the American Consulate and we had the most incredible mozzarella you can possibly imagine). But you can find a pretty decent mozzarella at the grocery. Just look for some Italian brand ;-)
Pre-heat the oven to 450 °F Take a baking pan. I think mine was about 20 x 30 cm (8 x 11 in). Spread a spoonful of tomato sauce at the bottom, then start covering with the eggplants, then tomato sauce (not a lot, probably 4 full tablespoons), then mozzarella, then TONS of parmesan.
I mean, TONS. You need to have a delicious white parmesan layer covering the sauce. Repeat 4 more times (4 layers, or until you run out of eggplants). The last layer of Parmesan has to be ridiculously abundant.
Bake it for about 20-30 minutes at 450 °F.
And you can broil it for around 5 minutes at the end, so that you have that delicious, crispy layer of parmesan on top.
Let it cool down for at least 10 minutes before serving. It's going to be firmer and even more delicious (plus you won't burn your tongue as I did because I just couldn't wait.) The next day... Oh, my God ... the leftovers (if there are any) are going to be even better!
Buon appetito! Giulia
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By the time I set out to make this dish, there were fresh tomatoes available and I seeded and chopped them for the sauce. I did fry the eggplant instead of grilling or baking because, as Giulia says, they are so delicious that way, and I blotted off the oil as best I could afterwards. I was also a little afraid of that very high oven temperature, and so baked the Melanzana alla Parmigiana at 400 degrees for around 30 minutes. The dish was lovely.