Union Station Farmers' Market Kicks Off Summer Cooking Season

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The Union Station Farmers' Market kicked off its inaugural season on Saturday, June 4, with a multitude of produce, meat and prepared-food vendors set up on the plaza outside the train station on 17th Street downtown. The farmers' market is run by Boulder County Farmers Markets, a nonprofit that until now has stuck to Boulder and Longmont. The organization's dedication to producer-only markets means that visitors will find farmers and other food producers selling only what they've grown, raised or made themselves (so you won't find bananas or oranges here). The ribbon was cut at 9 a.m. by executive director Brian Coppom, and streams of Denverites filled the plaza — and then filled their tote bags with fresh, local food.

While we're still fairly early in Colorado's growing season, farmers brought plenty of greens, herbs, young root vegetables and a few hothouse tomatoes. That was bolstered by bread from the Grateful Bread Company, pastries from Alex Seidel's Mercantile Dining & Provision, gelato from Fior di Latte, cured meats from Il Porcellino, and even fresh tortillas cooked on a blistering-hot comal from Machete Tequila & Tacos.
I was looking to gather the makings for a meal using raw ingredients, and was immediately attracted to the ivory-white turnips being peddled by several farms. I selected a bunch ($4) from Oxford Gardens, a small family farm near Niwot. The turnip tops were crisp and undamaged, so it was like purchasing two different vegetables for the price of one.

A few booths down, Jill and Eric Skokan of Black Cat Farm were offering mounds of lettuce, dried black garbanzo beans from last fall's harvest, and a freezer full of pork cuts from hogs raised on their farm. I went with a meaty slab of pork belly ($11 for about 1.5 pounds) that I thought I would braise and then sear to finish. Mushrooms seemed like a good accompaniment, so I talked to Michael and Liz Nail, who run Mile High Fungi and grow a variety of mushrooms near Jefferson Park just west of downtown. The blue oyster mushrooms, a year-round offering from the company, were striking in their layered architecture and blue-gray hue, so I selected an $8 cluster that looked like the right amount for two people.

I'm not much for recipes, preferring to practice techniques so that I can create a meal based on what looks good at the grocery store or market. So while the following isn't a step-by-step guide to re-creating my dinner, I've included the major components of the dish.

At home, I thawed and marinated the pork belly in a mixture of beer, balsamic vinegar and herbs from my garden (though there were plenty available at the market if you don't grow your own): green garlic, sage, tarragon and chives. After an hour in the marinade, I seared the belly on all sides and then put it in the oven at 300 degrees for two hours in a pot with a lid. I used the marinade along with a couple of cups of chicken stock for the braising liquid so that the belly was covered about a quarter of the way up.

For the mushrooms, I wanted to preserve the beautiful shape of the cluster, so I just cut the entire thing in half lengthwise along the central stem, brushed the caps with a mix of melted butter and olive oil, and put them on the grill outside with the lid shut. After turning once or twice, the mushrooms were done in well under ten minutes.

Turnips are good both raw and cooked, especially since these were so mild, crunchy and juicy. I used a vegetable peeler to make long ribbons of turnip that I dressed with salt and a brown-butter vinaigrette (nothing more than browned butter and apple cider vinegar) and then seared the cylindrical centers in more butter to create turnip "scallops." I chopped up the greens and cooked them in a little of the braising liquid from the pork belly along with a squeeze of lemon juice. 

I didn't want to waste any of the turnip, so I grilled the stems along with the mushrooms to give them a little char from the grill. Once the pork belly was fully cooked, I finished it on the grill to crisp up the fat.

Although not a cheap meal (I estimate about $25 for dinner for two), the farmers' market meat and produce carries enough quality and flavor that it doesn't take an expert to plate a dinner that will rival anything you'll find in a restaurant — at a fraction of the cost. 

The Union Station Farmers' Market runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday through October 22, with chef demonstrations and up to forty different vendors.

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