Boulder Farmers' Market, week three: Salad days bring back memories of my mother

When I was little, my mother used to send me to the fishmonger to pick up fish heads and other piscine waste. This was during the postwar years in London, when food was on the ration and Englishwomen were struggling to make cakes out of dried egg powder and pretend cream from margarine, milk and cornflour. They got one egg a week per child (none for adults); used carrots as sweetener, sugar being almost unobtainable; and found dozens of uses for Spam. Fortunately, my mother was a country girl from Czechoslovakia, and she knew how to make do: She jellied pigs' feet, made risotto with chicken giblets (I swear, given a few handfuls of rice and some offal, my mother could feed multitudes), and cut whatever flesh could be salvaged from a calf's head. We not only never went hungry at our house, we ate deliciously -- except for the time I came home from school, glimpsed a poor denuded head on the kitchen counter, burst into tears and refused to eat for days.

See also: Fourteen reasons to shop at the Boulder Farmers' Market

My mother was particularly skilled with offal, but everyone we knew ate liver and onions and served thin-sliced beef tongue at parties, and my sister, Eva, and I fought over beef bones from soups and stews to scrape out the delicious marrow -- now considered a delicacy in many upscale restaurants, though most of my friends still get nauseated when they see the greasy gray globules on a plate. With my mother's ghost at my elbow, I always feel guilty if I don't pick all the meat from the backs, wings and necks I've boiled for chicken stock.

So I am particularly interested when Frank Silva, of Homestead Beef, tells me at this past Saturday's Boulder Farmers' Market about his experiences as a boy in Long Beach, California. Silva's family was poor, and his Portuguese father went to the docks daily to retrieve discarded fish heads for a soup that included sweetbreads, whole hard-boiled eggs and great chunks of bread. Now, Silva says wistfully, he continues to crave the stuff, but nobody knows how to make it. (I Googled later and found several recipes for Portuguese fish-head soup or stew, though none exactly matched Silva's description. Also an article on fish offal from the Guardian.)

Silva's boyhood dock visits did create a lifelong aversion to tuna. There was ice in the boats, he explains, but the fishermen had no way of keeping their catch cold once it was landed and laid out, and the fish soon crawled with maggots. "I remember the smell," Frank says. "I still feel sick whenever I open a can of tuna."

It's another gray day, not particularly cold, but threatening rain and growing cooler rather than warmer as the morning wears on. Some farmers haven't come. There are fewer shoppers then usual -- at least by 10 a.m., when I leave -- and most of the stands carry the same produce they carried the week before. The parking lot behind the Dushanbe Teahouse has been closed for construction all spring; the remaining lot always fills up fast, and there are "no parking" signs in the street -- I'm not sure why.

Miller Farms brought asparagus last Saturday, so I'm expecting more and planning asparagus menus, but apparently that very early first flush of spears was a small miracle that hasn't repeated. Walking the food court, I notice I'm not smelling the addictive lime-soy sauce that goes with the dumplings at Sisters Pantry -- and realize I haven't seen the sisters in action yet this spring. Checking the website, I see that that their commercial facility in Lyons was so damaged by last year's floods that the sisters will skip farmers' markets for the entire year, though their wonderful dumplings will still be available at festivals and in some stores.

So it's a downbeat market, but there is one unexpected pleasure: Tungsten Toffee, which doesn't usually show up in Boulder until the Wednesday market opens in May -- though it does sell in Longmont from the beginning of the season -- is here selling the usual array of thin, crunchy, and utterly irresistible chocolate-topped toffee, along with the crisp toffee corn that's my current obsession.

Other than that, I load up again on tomatoes, cucumbers and a raft of salad greens and, as I do, my mother is on my mind again. I used to crave her salads as a kid, and as an adult, until I tasted the dew-fresh produce from the farmers' market, I could never quite fathom why, since the lettuce I was getting from the store was pretty tasteless.

Her salads were very simple: tender butterhead lettuce with a dressing that was essentially nothing but unsweetened lemonade -- lemons, water, salt and a pinch of sugar to mitigate the sharpness. She had to split the pale lettuce heart between me and Eva -- still and forever squabbling -- and after we'd finished it, we'd tip up the bowl to drink the tangy, refreshing, lettuce-y lemonade.

Salad dressings.

There's nothing like making your own vinaigrette. If you do, you'll never want to use store-bought again, and it's beyond simple. Essentially, it's an emulsion of one part acid -- vinegar, lemon or lime juice, whatever suits -- with around three parts oil. Put the vinegar into a bowl, add salt and pepper and around a teaspoon of mustard (the mustard is to help with the emulsification). At this point, I usually toss in minced garlic and any kind of chopped herb I happen to have around. Whisk everything together. Now whisk in your oil, olive or vegetable, depending on the flavor you want, a drop at a time, whisking as you go. Once you see the vinaigrette start to thicken and become glossy, pour in the rest of the oil in a slow, steady stream -- and don't stop whisking.

If you're in a rush, just shake up everything together in a jar.

Now you can play: Use different kinds of vinegar -- and the array on the shelves these days is breath-taking. Substitute mayonnaise or a little egg yolk for the mustard. Throw in finely chopped shallots, capers, little bits of bleu or goat cheese. Mash up avocado for thickening and flavor, or skin and juice tomatoes and add the juice for a bit more acid. Finish with a few drops of a lemon or orange-flavored oil. Try a limey vinaigrette with bleu cheese.

One of the favorites at our house is a sort of fake Asian: I add an extra clove of garlic and a blob of minced ginger to rice vinegar, along with chopped cilantro and soy sauce, emulsify with a mild oil like canola, then finish with a few drops of toasted sesame oil.

There is no one right way to make vinaigrette; the thing is to keep dipping in a bit of lettuce leaf and tasting tasting tasting to see if you like the seasoning and the overall balance between acid and mild.

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