The opening of the Boulder County Farmers’ Market is my favorite herald of spring—even on years when it falls on a wet, icy day. This Saturday, however, was bright and cool, slowly warming hour by hour. And hour by hour the crowd, sparse at first, swelled. For a few weeks, I’d been watching last year’s supply of local food dwindle in the freezer, pulling out the last Plowshares pork roast for one evening’s dinner, and the last Jodar chicken soup kit, mourning my final package of frozen spinach and container of asparagus soup. So it was time to replenish, time for fresh, baby lettuce leaves as bright as springtime itself, spinach, and last year’s overwintered carrots, large and knobby, but still deliciously sweet.
There was plenty of good stuff at the market, which will be open every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. through November 21 (and Wednesday evenings too, beginning May 6): Local farmers have shown a lot of ingenuity in dealing with the state’s crazy weather and short growing season—varying planting times, starting crops in greenhouses, using row covers, experimenting with different kinds of fruits and vegetables—a primary example of why small farms are so needed if we’re to have a secure food supply. The industrial behemoths simply can’t move as fast and smart as small farmers, with their deep understanding of soil, moisture and plants, and when you’re monocropping, it only takes only one unexpected catastrophe—pests, weather, seeping chemicals—to devastate acres of crop.
At the market, in additon to lettuce, spinach and carrots, farmers peddled arugula and baby kale, turnips, herbs like chives, tarragon and thyme. Hundreds of bedding plants. Jams from El Durazno and Ela Family Farns in Hotchkiss. Beautiful olive oil from an estate in Greece. Fresh eggs, beef, lamb, chicken and pork. Goat will arrive for the May markets and beyond because, as Bob Stocker of El Regalo Ranch told his customers in an e-mail, “It is kidding season here at the ranch.” Hope they’re yucking it up. When he does arrive, Bob will be sharing his favorite recipes, along with samples. The biggest surprise was asparagus on the Miller Farms stand, at a very reasonable five dollars a bunch. I wouldn’t have expected asparagus for at least another month.
A chef was working at the Hazel Dell mushroom stand, and I stopped to watch him cooking. He melted a knob of butter, sauteed sliced shallots, then added a mix of sliced mushrooms and a little chopped fresh thyme. He seasoned with salt and pepper and deglazed with a glug of white wine—any kind of wine, he told the growing crowd of people lured by the rich, almost meaty scent. This dish was great on its own; it would also taste terrific mixed into a risotto or scrambled eggs, added to an omelette or sauteed spinach, or just heaped on buttered toast for breakfast.
Everywhere at the market vendors and customers were greeting each other with “How was your winter?” Meanwhile, staff members were busily hiding plastic Easter eggs all up and down the street: Inside each egg was s slip of paper guiding the child who found it to a small treasure.
I love spinach simply sauteed: Wash and chop the spinach as fine or coarse as you like it. Warm a little chopped garlic in a mix of olive oil and butter, then stir in the spinach. Season. Cover, and heat just until the spinach wilts a bit: The wet leaves should provide enough steam for this.
You can follow the same procedure with bacon. Crisp the bacon, remove it from the pan and pour off most of the fat. Add your chopped spinach and wilt. Season and mix bacon bits back in.
Thinking recipes, I realized I tend to cook the same ones over and over, and decided to get a bit more ambitious. We love Indian food in my house, so I consulted Maya Kaimal MacMillan’s award-winning Curried Favors (a present from my-son-in law, who told me he’d never had a bad result using any of her recipes), and set out to prepare spinach paneer. Except that instead of paneer, I used chunks of sauteed chicken breast. You can also use shrimp, or serve the saag on its own.
I do believe theoretically in the whole idea of mise en place—that is, that you should measure out everything you’ll need before starting to cook so you can work as calmly and cheerfully as a chef on TV—but I don’t actually cook that way. I like doing it at warp speed, listening to loud rock music or the day’s news, frantically slicing onions as the oil heats up, or scrabbling around in the fridge for an ingredient I’ve just remembered I need. It’s worth prepping for this recipe, however, because of all the chopping and spice mixing it entails. And it’s all worth it for the delicious layering of flavors.
Paneer (recipe at the end, if you’re feeling ambitious and can find milk that isn’t ultra-pasteurized) OR sauteed shrimp OR sauteed chicken breast cut into pieces.
2 packages frozen spinach, thawed (I used fresh from the market—two 10-oz bags, washed and chopped fine)
I green chili (serrano, Thai or jalapeno), split lengthwise
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup thinly sliced onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 cup chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned. I used fresh)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper
¼ cup water
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon garam masala (1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon ground cardamom, 1 teaspoon ground black pepper. You can buy garam masala at spice shops if you don’t feel like mixing your own.)
Prepare the spice mixtures. (These are always best if you grind the spices yourself, but that isn’t strictly necessary.)
Cook the spinach in its own moisture (adding a tiny bit of water if necessary) with the green chili and 1 teaspoon salt for around five minutes. Set aside.
In a large frying pan over medium high heat, fry the onions in the oil until their edges are browned. Add garlic and ginger and stir for another minute. Add tomatoes and 1 teaspoon salt and fry until the tomatoes begin to break up.Add the spice mixture and stir for a minute. Add ¼ cup water and fry until the tomato pieces are pretty much broken up. Stir in the cooked spinach. Add 1 cup of water (I used less, because the spinach was moist). Stir in ¼ teaspoon garam masala and remove from heat. Taste for salt. Stir in the paneer, shrimp or chicken.
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To make your own paneer:
Heat 2 quarts whole milk over medium-high heat. When it’s at a full boil, remove from the heat and stir in ¼ cup lemon juice. Milk will split into curds and whey. Pour into a colander lined with cheesecloth or a clean dish towel. Toss the whey. When cool enough to handle, twist cloth around curds to squeeze out most of the liquid. Scrape into a ball, still wrapped in the cloth. Flatten the ball into a half inch disc and set on a cookie sheet, place a heavy, weighted pan on top and let the cheese stand for two hours at room temperature until it’s a flat slab. Cut into cubes.
Heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees and deep fry the cubes, half at a time, until they’re golden brown. Drain on paper towels.