I need to start by saying this is not a pitch for the cable television channel or any of its shows. What it is – is a pitch for the communication chain and information-sharing that I recently uncovered in our community.
I suppose I could attribute this discovery to my commitment to mindful eating, but really it was an email that started the wheels turning. It was a request for rhubarb. It came to me secondhand, forwarded by one of my farmer friends who has heard me moan about the bounty of our rhubarb patch and my ongoing search for ideas for using this bounty. I am not sure it was in anticipation of the grasshopper horde that eventually ate my rhubarb to the stalks or just not having any inspiration on what to do with this year’s bounty, but I chopped and froze several gallon bags of the stuff. After a quick freezer inventory, I found that I had rhubarb from 2016 that needed to move out – so I responded to the email positively, mostly just to see what would happen.
What ensued was a rendezvous at Cox Conoco, where I shared my previous rhubarb bounty. I ended up with a recipe for rhubarb BBQ sauce as well as a few jars of pickles and the special BBQ sauce in exchange for a freezer cleanout. Good deal by me. But more importantly I added a new node to the local food network. I now know where to offer rhubarb and how to upcycle my rhubarb bounty into something friends and family might like to eat.
I don’t think we fully appreciate the unique knowledge and earthy wisdom that is shared by our local growers at the farmers’ markets. Where else can you get the freshest produce and a story about how it was grown and some suggestions on how to best cook and eat it? While I don’t go as far as to learn the name of the pig I am buying each fall, it is reassuring to know that she is doing well, enjoying the mud, and especially liked the apple seconds I have sent to her. Who else is better to ask about how to render lard than the pig farmer herself ? I finally understand why the lard brand is “Snow Cap,” as the whiter the lard, the slower the rendering process and better quality of the resulting product.
Recently at the Cortez Farmers’ Market I tuned in to the questions of fellow shoppers and the delightful answers offered by the growers. “What is that?” a woman asked as she pointed to a beautiful bunch of chard. “Well, that is chard,” said the grower. “It is really good for you – full of nutrients. In fact, my mom used to call it Super Charge because it is so great for you.” “Well, how do cook it?” the now-intrigued shopper asked.
At that point, the grower and I went into a litany of options – sauté it, steam it, or add it to stir fry or soups. That seemed to be a bit overwhelming – so we ended with a simple sauté recipe. At another booth, I overheard the same question by someone pointing to Lacinato or dinosaur kale. Again, the patient grower responded with a clear answer and stories about kale’s health benefits and how to cook it. Although I was a little taken aback. Kale? People don’t know about kale? Which rock have they been living under? And then it struck me. They have never purchased kale that didn’t have a plastic bag with a logo and large type saying, “ORGANIC BABY KALE.” Well, good for them to venture into the world of unpackaged vegetables.
I am constantly on the lookout for unusual produce at the farmers’ market. Something that I can’t find at the supermarket but might have seen in foreign produce markets. This week I found some rare Spanish cooking peppers – just the right combination of hot and sweet. Impossible to find fresh anywhere – the best I can do is some dried version from the international food aisle. Shishito peppers have been all the rage – another unique find that makes a one-of-a-kind appetizer if you are willing to ask how to prepare them. Also, I always pick up any weird fruit or berries such as currents or chokecherries. If someone is willing to pick those little buggers, I will happily use them to make jam or to flavor a liqueur. With access to these ingredients, I don’t feel like I live in the middle of the U.S.A., thousands of miles from an urban ethnic neighborhood. I can get the same international ingredients right here in Montezuma County. How lucky am I?
While the farmers’ markets are the obvious place to tap into the local food network, there are lots of other places. Don’t be shy about asking at restaurants that use local meat or produce, especially if you have a favorite dish that includes them. Chefs are usually happy to share where they got the local ingredients and how they prepare them. Look around your neighborhood for any unfamiliar apples or fruit hanging off a neighbor’s tree. Try to catch the owners and ask about it. You may be rewarded with a tasty fruit treat of your own or their making. But more importantly, you will inspire them to look at that old tree with new eyes – that worthless trash tree is producing something somebody wants?
Talk to the produce manager at the grocery store. Most of them would love to talk to a person (rather than a vegetable) and are happy to share information about the source as well as ideas for serving their produce. Finally, there are plenty of local institutions such as the CSU Extension Office and 4-H that teach safe preservation methods and healthy cooking ideas for local produce.
In the end it comes down to this – don’t be afraid to ask. A single question could pull you into the local food matrix and soon you too will be sending emails into the network seeking obscure ingredients to make that special BBQ sauce.
Carolyn Dunmires gardens, cooks and writes from Cahone, Colo.