The Union Station Farmers' Market drew a crowd from the moment it opened on Saturday, May 26, and chef Thach Tran of Ace Eat Serve was among the shoppers. Instead of filling his own basket with local produce, the chef was looking for the perfect picks for the morning chef's demo, put on by the market in partnership with EatDenver.
"It's always fun to run around the market and buy stuff," the Saigon-born chef says, adding that being in the market is nostalgic. "My grandma had a noodle stall in an open-air market, and I did a lot of errands for her."
This time the chef wasn't really running around, but he did poke his nose into many of the stands to garner inspiration for the dish he would create. All he brought with him was his knives, rice paper, soy sauce, fish sauce, and his favorite ingredient of all time: crispy shallots.
The first buying stop took us to the Fresh Herb Co., a Boulder-based farm that grows plenty of gorgeous flowers, plants and herbs. Tran picked out a large bunch of fresh mint for $5. "I think that I might do a summer roll," he explains.
We continued to peruse the market, stopping to chat with various vendors along the way. The crisp micro-greens from Topping Out Farms caught his eye, and the chef bought both sunflower sprouts and the Asian blend. The dish continued to form in his mind, and Tran made a beeline for the asparagus at Kiowa Valley Organics. From there the idea of doing a "spring summer roll," as he called it, permeated the trip, and he picked up bright purple and green flowering chives and dark, spicy mustard greens from the Denver Botanic Gardens stand, both of which were grown at the organization's Chatfield Farms location in Littleton.
After tasting through the portfolio of dressings at Bloombox Foods, Tran picked up some honey-sherry vinaigrette, a blend the company makes specifically for kale. He also hit up ACRES at Warren Tech for flowering pok choi (like bok choi, but a little sweeter), tender and lemon-tinged red-veined sorrel, and multi-colored nasturtiums. With that, his shopping was completed and we headed back to the pop-up kitchen in the middle of the market.
Once there, Tran shaved the asparagus thin to make a sort of salad that also included the mint, dressing, mustard greens and both sprouts. At this point a small crowd had gathered to find out what he was creating. With a microphone on to address the audience, he talked about how to soak the rice paper before rolling, and then demonstrated the process. After folding the salad in the translucent circles a couple of times, the chef added the bright chive flowers and pok choi leaves. He gave the summer roll another turn and then delicately placed a leaf of sorrel in the mix.
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Once completed, the spring summer roll looked like an edible cigar of pressed flowers. It tasted of the season, with strong green-vegetable notes, a bright lemon essence and a floral note from all the edible blossoms. Chef Tran cut up samples, and guests of the market dived into his newest creation — something, says the chef, that will likely appear as a special on the Ace Eat Serve menu soon with a coconut-hoisin dipping sauce.
"I kind of winged this [recipe] after I found the beautiful dressing and just made it," the chef told one of the patrons. "I get inspired by what you see in the market, and then I make something out of it."
For more photos, see our complete slideshow of the Boulder Farmers' Market chef's demo.