Boulder Farmers' Market, week four: Strawberries, and seven things not to do

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The big news at the Boulder Farmers' Market Saturday: Randy and Regan of 2 Rs Farm have strawberries. I restrain myself from doing a celebratory dance around their stand -- which is also heaped with cucumbers and luscious greenhouse-grown tomatoes -- and snatch up three little boxes. Within fifteen minutes, all the rest of the strawberries are gone. By next month there will be field-grown berries at several stands, but right now these sweet, juicy little gems offer glorious assurance that after a long, cold April -- an April that destroyed the apricot crop and may also have wiped out our cherries, along with half the peaches -- spring is finally here. There's time later for strawberry souffles, shortcakes and jams. For right now, I'll just brighten the fruit with a drop or two of lemon, a little sugar and perhaps a sprig of mint or tarragon.

See also: - Boulder Farmers' Market, week three: spinach is in -- but no apricots, ever? - Boulder Farmers' Market, week two: From duck eggs to salmon - Boulder Farmers' Market is now open on Saturdays

A few stalls down, another long-awaited treat: the year's first asparagus at Miller Farms. These are particularly welcome since supermarket asparagus, no matter how organic or where it's grown, tastes like cardboard. Beyond that, asparagus doesn't freeze well, and the season for tasting the real stuff is far too short.

Walking along 13th Street between booths, I'm thinking about farmers' market etiquette. No question, the vendors love their customers. For many of them, this market and others around the state are the single mechanism that allows them to hold onto family farms and continue the work they feel born to do. They're grateful for the support and always happy to meet those who'll be eating their food. But they do have a few gripes. So if you want to be deeply welcome at the market, here are seven things not to do.

7. Pepper the farmer with intrusive or insulting questions Farmers like giving growing advice and answering questions about how they themselves grow things. Ask during quiet moments and they'll be downright evangelical about their calling. But on a hot, crowded day, with people pressing in on every side, extended question-and-answer sessions get stressful. "If I had a dollar for every planting question I answered, I'd be rich," one of them tells me. "Of course, that's part of why I'm here. But sometimes answering those questions is all I get to do."

"We get quizzed," says another vendor. "They ask if the meat is GMO free, if the animals are happy and how they're slaughtered, whether everything's organic. We're always happy to tell them. Then they say, 'Thank you so much for what you're doing' and nod and go off to buy their food at Costco."

And another: "Some people who've read about this or that on the Internet think they know more about your work than you do. Somebody once asked me the difference between white and brown eggs. I said it depended on the breed of chicken. And he said, 'No. Brown eggs are better for you. They're more nutritious. They're organic and they come from better-fed, healthier birds ... ' and on and on."

A long-winded, self-righteous environmental lecture is also out of place when you're talking to someone who spends his or her entire life working to preserve the integrity of soil, worrying about water, avoiding chemical contamination and nurturing a plot of ground through daily blood and toil.

6. Impede sales The Boulder market is a wonderful place to stroll, eat, meet friends, take your kids and generally spend a leisurely morning, but it's also important to be aware of what's happening around you. Because on this narrow crowded street, these activities can conflict with the basic business of the market: the coming together of farmers and their customers. Pet peeves from farmers: "Standing in front of my stand and blocking it while talking on a cellphone" and "People congregating in a group in front of me with strollers and bikes so customers literally can't get to me."

5. Bring your dog I love dogs and I was sorry when they were banned from the market. But then I heard stories about fights, dogs peeing up against food stands, and dogs actually licking bags of produce or meat. And some folks do still bring them.

4. Lack consideration Most of the farmers get up in the wee small hours to prepare their goods, drive to Boulder or Longmont, and set up. By the end of the day they're fried. Which means they get a tad resentful when "Someone comes up when the market's over and I'm packing to go and asks, 'What's this?' 'How do you grow it?' and 'Why can't you unpack one of these and sell it to me?'"

3. Take advantage Farmers give away free samples because they want to share the taste and freshness of their products. But not being part of big agriculture, they operate on a very small profit margin. Some people "linger and try everything or keep coming back and back for the same treat," says one vendor. "They'll bring their friends and stand around with them and chat and eat and that's their lunch. We really like having people taste our food, but we can't afford to give that much away."

2. Haggle It's true that food costs more here than at the supermarket, and there are good reasons for this. Vegetable farmers don't get the taxpayer-funded government support that big agriculture gets. And farming organically or with minimal chemical intervention is hugely labor-intensive: You can't just blanket the fields with pesticides. So you have to pay for labor as well as spend hours in the fields yourself. No one who sells at the market is getting rich farming, and several take second jobs to keep their farms going. So they tend to get upset when they're attacked on price. Besides, says one, "Our food may be higher than food in the stores, but the difference in quality is astounding."

1. Complain about a lack of variety The Colorado growing season is short and our temperatures are variable, so obviously you won't find lemons or mangoes at a local farmers' market. "A customer complained to me that six of the vendors all have lettuce," says one of the organizers. "Well, they do. But it's six different kinds of lettuce."

On the other hand ...

The farmers I talked to had far more to say about the pleasures of the market than the minor irritations. Farming can be solitary work, one explains, and it's a joy to meet the folks who eat your food: "I love it that people love our stuff. That connection is really strong. The farmers' market is a great way to get a sense of your community. And there's a lot of information going both ways. Not to mention the open air and the blue sky and the Colorado sun."

"I love being in Boulder," says another. "Everybody's so upbeat and willing to try new things." Another, an Obama supporter who lives in a conservative small town, laughs and says for him it's a pleasure just to talk politics in Boulder.

"The customers become friends," says a woman tending a plant stand. "I see the same people year after year; I see their children growing up. One woman met my granddaughter at the market, and the next week she brought me a book that was her own daughter's favorite to give her. That kind of thing just doesn't happen at King Soopers."

Keep reading for this week's recipe.

Fresh asparagus is delicious boiled, steamed, roasted, grilled or in a salad topped with crushed hazelnuts and a few curls of orange zest. But one of the best preparations is in a risotto with shrimp.

Ingredients: Half a pound to a pound of fresh asparagus A pound of medium-sized shrimp 5-6 tablespoons olive oil A couple of shallots, chopped or thinly sliced A thinly sliced garlic clove or two 1 cup arborio rice 3/4 of a cup of dry white wine 4 cups chicken stock A pinch of saffron (optional) A handful of chopped tarragon Salt and pepper to taste

Wash your asparagus and snap off the woody ends. Bring a pot of water to a boil, cook the stalks for a minute or two, until they're tender but still bright green. Drain. When they've cooled a little, chop them into one-inch pieces.

Heat around three tablespoons of olive oil and saute the shrimp quickly. They're done when they turn pink and are opaque on the inside. Don't overcook.

Shell and devein the shrimp. Cut them in two if they're large.

Warm your chicken stock. If you want, you can wash the left-over, woody asparagus ends and let them simmer in the stock for a little extra asparagus flavor, then strain them out.

In a pot or saucier, saute the shallots and garlic gently for a minute or two. Stir in the rice, let it cook for a couple of minutes. Add the wine and let it cook down into the rice until it's almost evaporated.

Start adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring as you go. As the rice absorbs the liquid, add more. Season with salt and pepper. Crumble your saffron into a little stock and add that to the mix.

Keep ladling and stirring until the rice is done. Taste for seasoning. There should be just a tiny bit of bite at the center of each rice grain, and the overall dish should be soupy rather than stiff. But basically just keep going until the taste and texture are to your liking.

Add the shrimp and asparagus and let them heat through.

Now you can take the pot off the stove and stir in a knob of butter, a few drops of truffle oil or some grated parmesan.

Sprinkle with tarragon and serve.

Chicken stock

You can find decent stock in the stores, but nothing tastes as good as home-made. It's a great idea to cook up a big batch and freeze it in different-sized containers so that you always have some on hand.

When I first started cooking, I suffered from the idea that there were very specific and intimidating standards for each particular dish. There's nothing like making stock -- a nice, messy, unscientific operation -- to disabuse you of this notion. Ask a dozen fanatical cooks how they make stock, and you'll get a dozen different versions. Some cooks include white wine, some a couple of tablespoons of tomato paste; some roast the bones ahead of time, some don't; some roast the vegetables along with the bones. Unless you're planning a perfect, crystalline consomme for use at a royal banquet, you can't really mess the stuff up. Here's how I usually make mine:

Buy a couple of packages of backs and necks from Jodar Farms or Wisdom Poultry. Also some chicken feet, which will gelatinize nicely and add succulence. Array everything except the feet in a roasting pan, and cook in a 375 degree oven for around forty minutes. This deepens flavor and also gets rid of a lot of fat.

Now toss the roasted chicken bits and the feet into a big stock pot. Add roughly chopped onion, carrot and celery -- about twice as much onion as carrot and celery, but you don't need to measure. (This is called mirepoix and is the basis of all kinds of soups, stews and braises.) Add a couple of garlic cloves and a little bundle of herbs that includes a peppercorn or two, a bay leaf, parsley stems (you can save and freeze these whenever you chop parsley for a dish) and some sprigs of thyme. Recipes tell you to tie these herbs together or put them in a tea ball or a neat little cheesecloth bag, but since I strain everything later anyway, I never bother, just throw them in. Do not add salt. Now cover everything with water and simmer for two or three hours until the broth is as strong as you want it. Don't let it boil, and skim off the froth and scum as it floats to the top. (You're supposed to skim constantly, but I've been known to get lazy about this, too.)

When the stock is sufficiently flavorful, let it cool a bit, then strain into a bowl or a second large pot. I use a colander lined either with cheesecloth or a clean, permeable dishcloth. Don't press out the last drops of liquid from the meat and vegetables or you'll have cloudy stock. Refrigerate. By the next morning, any remaining fat should have coagulated on the top. Scrape it off. And you're done.

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