I love the Boulder County Farmers’ Market. It’s my church, my community and my sustenance. But for the last few weeks visits have been a bit dispiriting as I confront rows of greens, greens and more greens: arugula, lettuce, spinach, mizuna, tatsoi, broken up by occasional displays of turnips and radishes. The constant rain and cool nights have meant that many warmer-weather plants are just hanging out in the fields—neither dying nor growing, and local farmers are struggling through sucking mud both to harvest and to plant. “Don’t even mention the weather,” said Peter Volz of Oxford Gardens, holding up a warning hand as I approached his stand Wednesday. He’d just been quoted in a newspaper article on our late and vexing spring and I’m guessing his afternoon has been full of questions and condolences. I comply, and pick up four or five of his crisp, delicious little cucumbers.
On Saturday, however, there’s something seriously exciting on offer: the first Colorado cherries.
When I arrive at 8 a.m., it’s clear word hasn’t gotten out yet, because usually when the folks from Morton’s Organic Orchards have fruit of any description to sell, the line of customers winds along the sidewalk in front for a block or two. I’m so thrilled by the two-pound bag of cherries I score, that I offer a cherry to almost every acquaintance I encounter. Later, as my husband and I wrangle over who’s been eating more than their share, I wish I’d bought double the amount.
Cherries aren’t the only sexy thing to show up at the Saturday market. There are also white linen bags of fine-ground cornmeal from chef-farmer Eric Skokan at Black Cat. He’s been planting Boone County white corn, and is pleased with the taste. His Bramble and Hare blog features a cornbread recipe, but I’m planning to investigate the possibilities of polenta, which, despite its popularity, I’ve never tried making.
I’ve been dithering about whether to plant a vegetable garden this summer — as always my spring fever has been damped down by the memory of hot, weedy, insect-infested midsummer days. But I finally did get the plot dug up last week with the help of a strong-armed student named (appropriately, given the poet’s love of his garden) Blake, and Karen Beeman of WeeBee Farms told me June 1 is a good time to set tomatoes out, so I’m checking out the seedlings: You can get so many varieties at the market: yellow, red, purple, black, huge meaty fruits or tiny cherry tomatoes. The names themselves are enticing. Mark Parsons sells me an Iowa Memory plant — a name that caused a bit of trouble since he’d ditched the variety’s nondescript letters-and-numbers name and made it up after his nostalgic mother said the taste reminded her of her Iowa childhood. The tomato got mentioned in the newspaper last year and people started trying to find it.
Inspecting the seedlings at WeeBee, I wonder what inspired gardener came up with the idea of naming a tomato Paul Robeson. The literature speaks of a dark bloom on the surface, a kind of black-red coloration and describes the taste as “distinctive, rich and smoky.” I’ve known about the famous actor, singer, activist and athlete for years, read about how his career was destroyed during the McCarthy era, and listened to his recorded voice — a voice so resonant, powerful and profound you want to drown in it. Black tomatoes originated in Russia and the Ukraine, and it turns out this Russian heirloom is distributed by seedswoman Marina Danilenko.
We told you last year how olives from a family estate in Sparta, Greece, came to be available at the Boulder market through a connection made between a St. Louis organic farmer named Karl Burgart and George Chronis, whose family had been cultivating the trees at Olea Estates for 160 years. Karl’s son, Jake, has been selling here regularly, and today, Kurt has joined him at the stand, having just moved to the area. Father and son have added a new product to their smoothly delicious olive oil and organic black olives. They are selling small sour green olives that I can imagine serving brilliantly as a side dish for a dinner with friends. Jake has always suggested buyers save the brine in which the olives are preserved for vinaigrettes and marinades. Today, the two men are giving out tastes of what they call sauerkraut — actually a quick pickle made by marinating shaved slices of radish and perhaps turnip (I can’t be quite sure) in a mix of the red wine and olive oil brine from the black olives and the lemony brine from the tight green ones in the fridge overnight.
And speaking of radishes: last weekend they were honored with a radish festival at the Longmont Market. There I found a radish tasting, a booth where visitors could make radish jewelry, a radish piñata, radish face painting for kids and my old friend farmer John Ellis wearing a radish pin on his t-shirt. Radishes aren’t as thrilling as cherries — but that’s the point. The market organizers want us to take another look at those vegetables we take for granted, to celebrate the many shapes and colors of the radish, to think about ways of preparing them, their satisfying crunch, the levels of sweetness and heat they provide and the generations of kids who got interested in planting because of the ease of nurturing a little radish patch — three or four weeks from seed and the welcome, early-year beauties are up. In line for festival attention over the course of the summer: kale, followed by stone fruit, tomatoes, peppers and carrots.
As for recipes: I like radishes piled on buttered brown bread, thin sliced and salted.
Also halved and sauteed till a little tender in olive oil and butter in which you’ve already heated minced garlic. You then add chopped greens — spinach, the radish leaves themselves, whatever you have on hand — and cook just until the greens are wilted.
Radishes like mustard because they’re part of the mustard family, so they go well in a nice mustardy sauce or vinaigrette.
And don’t forget the Burgarts’ refreshing radish pickle.
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In The Best Recipes in the World, Mark Bittman has a recipe for glazed turnips that he says also works well with radishes:
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound root vegetables (turnips, carrots, radishes) trimmed, peeled and cut into pieces roughly the size of radishes.
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
About 1 cup chicken, beef or vegetable stock. (I imagine water would do.)
Minced fresh parsley leaves for garnish.
Put the butter into a medium saucepan that will hold the vegetables in one layer, over medium heat. Add the vegetable and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring once in a while until the vegetable begins to brown, about ten minutes.
Add the sugar and enough stock to cover; bring to a boil and cook, more or less undisturbed, until the liquid has mostly evaporated and the vegetable is tender and brown, 20 to 30 minutes. When done, the shiny vegetable should be sitting in a small puddle of syrupy liquid.
Taste for seasoning, garnish and serve.