Boulder Farmers' Market opens for the season

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There was just a little wistfulness mixed with the jubilation at the first Boulder Farmers' Market of the year on Saturday; you couldn't help thinking about the vendors who hadn't returned. For example, Mao Xiong, who came for decades with an assortment of Asian vegetables, hasn't been around for a couple of seasons now -- but I still see her broad smile when I pass the corner she used to occupy, and I still have lemongrass in the freezer from a stash she once gave me. Popular sellers Noosa and JJs Cocomel weren't in evidence Saturday, nor was Jason Condon, usually the friendly, talkative soul of the market, whose Isabelle Farm stand has always been one of the liveliest and best stocked.

And beneath all the greetings, hugs and cries of "Welcome back" and "Happy spring" thrummed a slightly menacing subtext: drought, with some of the farmers worrying aloud about their water supply. See also: - What to expect when the Boulder Farmers' Market returns - Best Farmers' Market Vendor 2013: Red Wagon Organic Farm - Best Farmers' Market 2013: Mo' Betta Green MarketPlace

Not a lot of produce is available this early in the year -- mostly spinach and lettuce leaves -- but farmers are nothing if not resourceful, and the ones who made the market all had something interesting to sell. There were jams from Ela Farms and farmer John Ellis, who also offered bags of compost. Eco-Cycle had bottles of its special worm compost tea, which does miracles for plants, along with a big sign explaining the tea's virtues. Sheila Payne, from Far-Out Gardens, was showing a collection of cunning little footwear gardens: sneakers, heels and clogs filled with earth and planted with succulents.

Within a month or so, there will be blooms along the entire street, but last weekend there were only a few small daffodils, some pots of tulips and a table of dry bulbs promising bursts of gladioli glory in fall.

There were lots of plant starts, though, and good stuff in containers for apartment and porch gardeners. The Gayle Grows It stand had strawberry plants in pretty clay holders -- perfect if you like the idea of snacking on a strawberry or two on your way in or out of the house. And an assortment of such herbs as thyme, cilantro, rosemary and dill were available from other sellers.

Mark and Sue Parsons of Sweetheart Farms have been with the market since the day it began, and although they say they're mulling eventual retirement, they were at the market Saturday. They brought big, gorgeous tomato plants that can stay inside in a sunny room all summer or go out once the weather's reliably warm. If you buy one, Sue will tell you exactly how to keep it bushy and happy. She's also enthusiastic about a tomato plant they'll be selling later called, improbably, Siberian Pink Honey. Yes, Sue says, the fruits are pink. And they're also insanely early and insanely huge, roughly a pound each, with none of the wateriness you usually get in very large tomatoes.

Market organizers have made a few adjustments this year. Parking has always been a problem, given the constrained but acutely desirable downtown location; free parking is available, but not all of it is nearby. This year you can get a little red wagon to haul around your purchases, and a staffer will watch it while you bring around your car. For those who don't want to buy the market bucks that serve as money at all the stalls, there's a handy new ATM machine. The market also accepts food stamps. Market T-shirts and canvas shopping bags sport bright new designs this year. Oh -- and please don't bring your dog. After a lot of discussion and a lot of doggy mishaps, pets have been banned.

There's also a touch of conflict between the farmers at the market and vendors selling prepared goods. While the latter attract a lot of people and also help fill coffers because they pay more for their booths, many farmers see them as a distraction from the event's main purpose: the grocery shopping that allows their farms to survive. Prepared-food stalls also cut into available space. So market staff are placing an increased emphasis on integration -- by which they mean the prepared-food folk using more of the farmers' offerings in their products.

Our market find of the week? Laudisio's baguettes.

At Saturday's market, Antonio Laudisio -- whose food-court pizza stand is hugely popular -- also had some of the most delicious baguettes we've ever tasted from flour grown and ground by farmer John Ellis. They're not like French baguettes. Baked in the wood-burning oven of the Med Restaurant (of which Laudisio is part-owner), this bread has a strong, thick crust, a nutty taste, and a deep, substantial texture. It's perfect with salted butter, sharp cheddar or both, and topped with slices of the hothouse cucumbers and tomatoes from 2-Rs Farm.

Keep reading for a recipe based on Boulder Farmers' Market bounty: Here's a way to use the succulent pork chops you'll find at Plowshares Community Farm, Cure Organic Farm or Jodar's Farm, and the blackberries in the supermarkets right now.

Pork Chops With Fresh Blackberries Four pork chops 4 tablespoons oil -- olive oil, vegetable oil, butter or a combination One or two fat shallots, finely sliced A clove or two of garlic, minced Half to three-quarter cup red wine Three-quarter to one cup chicken stock (it's nice to make your own, but a good store-bought is fine) Some sprigs of thyme and/or rosemary if you have them One and a half boxes of blackberries, most of them smooshed between your fingers, a few left whole Salt and pepper

Season the chops. Heat the saute pan, add oil, brown the chops on both sides and cook until they're almost done. (If they're very thick, finish them in a pre-heated oven for eight to ten minutes.) Take them out of the pan and put them on a plate. Turn down the heat, add a little more oil if necessary and saute the shallots for about a minute; add the garlic for about 45 seconds more.

Turn the heat to medium high and add the red wine to deglaze, along with the herbs. Cook the wine down to almost nothing, add half the smooshed berries.

Dump in the stock and simmer until the sauce is roughly the strength and thickness you want. Taste for seasoning.

Put the chops back in the sauce, add any juices on the plate. Add the rest of the blackberries, smooshed and whole. Simmer a couple of minutes to let the flavors meld. Taste for seasoning again. If the berries are very tart, you may want to add a touch of honey. And for a smoother sauce, stir in a knob of cold butter at the end.

Remember Jennifer Paterson of Two Fat Ladies and how she always finished dishes with a handful of parsley "for prettiness"? Feel free to scatter chives, onion tops and/or parsley on top of your chops before serving.

The Boulder Farmers' Market is located on 13th Street between Arapahoe and Canyon avenues in Boulder; it's open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday. The market will open on Wednesdays from 4 to 8 p.m. starting May 1. For more information, go to boulderfarmers.org/home.html.

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