Strange Vegetable Confessions: Stumbles on the Way to the Farmers’ Market | Civil Eats

Strange Vegetable Confessions: Stumbles on the Way to the Farmers’ Market

In honor of National Farmers Market Week August 1-7, 2010, I’m encouraging readers to tackle an unfamiliar or daunting vegetable, and to join together in a bit of soul-baring about our vegetable barriers while we renew our commitment to farmers’ market shopping.

I apply the triple bottom line theory here:  Farmers’ market vegetable purchases are low carbon, they are healthy, unless you deep fry them or roll them in mayonnaise, and purchases from farmers’ markets deliver direct economic benefits to small owner-operated local farms that we hope populate your favorite market.

But vegetables do have an under side. The theories are wonderful, but barriers to entry abound. The industrial food system appears to offer convenience, low prices and smoke-and-mirror marketing to seduce us into thinking that pre-prepared foods are the right choice for time-crunched eaters. I beg to differ.  I love making conscious purchasing decisions by shopping for local seasonal vegetables at farmers’ markets. Yet my vegetable transgressions are many and I see others also struggling with the most basic vegetable access issues.

Vegetables are a lot of work. I insist on buying 90 percent of my family’s food at the farmers’ market, focusing on vegetables and fruits. This is both a luxury and a commitment. Not everybody has time, money or easy access.  Blame the supermarket: it’s hard to compete with 7 am – 11 pm shopping window and the “pile it high sell it cheap” mentality. If you’re concerned about personal health and the health of the food system, ignore the siren call and stick to a farmers’ market schedule.

Once home from the market, vegetable volume is a challenge. Leeks are long, corn on the cob is bulky, and carrots with tops take up a lot of room in the refrigerator. No storage for a liter bottle of Pepsi? Good. Throw it out.  High fructose corn syrup is its main ingredient; it will make you sick and fat.  Make room for leeks!

A personal confession: salad greens are a problem for me. Alice Waters rhapsodizes about washing salad greens, her favorite activity. Well, I hate washing them. I’m always cold. I don’t like running freezing water over my hands unless the temperature in my kitchen is above 90 degrees. Those warm days are rare in Oakland. I’m paranoid about water-usage in drought-stricken California, especially as my Über-green husband hovers suspiciously when I turn on the faucet lest I squander a drop.

However, it’s important to buy salad greens, especially from small farms. The leafy greens marketing agreement proposed by the USDA in cahoots with agribusiness in a misguided effort to promote food safety favors large producers over small farms. So I defiantly purchase greens from farmers I know as a vote of protest against a broken food safety system. If we don’t spend our money there, those farmers won’t stay in business.

Storage takes knowledge.  A refrigerated tomato is as tasteless as a Britney Spears video. Greens should be wrapped in damp paper towels in plastic or a special cloth bag that most people don’t have, can’t find or don’t know about. Asparagus should be stored standing up in water or preferably not stored at all. Sweet potatoes masquerade as root vegetables, but in fact they don’t keep long.  Deborah Madison is an expert guide; she insists that vegetables must be stored correctly. When I backslide: more poundage for the compost bin.

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Waste turns honorable vegetables into a carbon footprint concern. Rotting lettuce will release methane if not properly composted.  My city composts, but the guilt is sharp when I overbuy and don’t eat that lettuce. As I walk to the bin, I recuse myself by reviewing this week’s project deadlines that made cooking akin to competing in the Alaskan Iditarod. Or frigid July weather that made cold salad unappealing. But better to buy than resort to a burrito. For people struggling with finances, weight gain or time, a kitchen that’s stocked to make dinner every night is a crucial tool.

Carbon footprint rears its ugly head again in vegetable preparation–roasting root vegetables in a home oven is not efficient, according to food and climate change expert Helene York. If you turn on the oven, have several roasting projects afoot to make optimal use of the energy it took to heat it. Roasted beets freeze very well and you can make a mock borscht that even food geek Bonnie Powell will like. Plus, beets are usually cheap; add beets to the list of budget-friendly vegetables that make the farmers’ market a reasonable destination no matter the size of your wallet.

My secrets include five minute preparation for several favorite cooked vegetables, including artichokes and corn in the husk, which I steam in the microwave. I was lead gently into microwaving by respected culinarian Barbara Kafka. My revolution will not be microwaved but if I want a farmers’ market-based dinner on the table in 14 minutes flat, I pick my battles. An ear of corn qualifies as fast food. It offers redress to the icon of corn as the evil staple fueling the industrial meat and soda machine.

Dinner tonight: corn on the cob, slathered with homemade aioli, sliced heirloom tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and festooned with hand-torn basil. 100 percent local, 100 percent seasonal, except for the salt.  Prep time: three minutes for corn, three minutes for slicing tomatoes, five minutes for mayonnaise, four minutes to pick, wash and tear basil, two minutes to set the table: 14 minutes total.

Let’s all finish out National Farmers’ Market week by trying harder with vegetables, and not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Eschew supermarket produce if you want farmers’ markets to thrive. Make a commitment to vegetables by exploring one new one or vamping with an old favorite. Right. I bought kohlrabi Saturday. It’s Monday and I haven’t touched it.  It sits silently in the refrigerator. I reach for the corn.

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Haven Bourque is the founder of HavenBMedia an Oakland, CA-based communications group focused on food, environment, and community. She helps businesses, non-profits, and individuals get the word out about their commitments to responsible food sourcing and social justice. When she’s not communicating, she’s cooking up a storm in her kitchen, or walking her neighborhood’s goats. Follow her on Twitter. Read more >

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  1. Megan
    Grate your kolh rabi, mix it with an equal portion of grated carrot, add some white wine vinegar (or red wine vinegar with a little seeded mustard) and salt, and mix. it's a delicious, crunchy salad, which is especially amazing on banh mi (vietnamese style sandwiches) or just as a side dish. And I promise it won't take more than 14 minutes, even if you grate slowly. :)
  2. Your carrots (and parsnips and beets and turnips and...) will keep for a longer time - and in a smaller space - if you cut the tops off before you put them in the refrigerator. Those greens will continue to transpire even after harvest, and they'll suck the roots dry.
  3. Megan - thanks for the inspiration! I'll try that tonight.

    Andrew - right; I just love to save the tops for stock. But I shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, right?

    Thanks for commenting.
  4. Kohlrabi looks scary but it is one of my favorites! Peel it, cube it, saute in olive oil, crumble some feta cheese over it, add fresh dill or basil - done! It is definitely a challenge to work with unfamiliar vegetables or to use up familiar veggies in new ways - it's a good fight though!
  5. I love kohlrabi raw in salads. It also makes good pickles. Never tried cooking it. Keep meaning to. Maybe I will now.
  6. I've met few vegetables that I haven't liked but cannot eat Swiss chard for what it does to my mouth. Using a pressure cooker (if you choose to cook)can make any vegetable table ready and tasty (including artichokes) in less than 20 minutes. I, of course, encourage everyone to try new things all the time. Purple green beans, red okra, orange cauliflower -- it's all good.
  7. Terry
    I recall that you definitely have to peel the kohlrabi - the peel is quite inedible. Great article, Haven! So true about the refrigerated tomato...
  8. The Vegetable Lady
    Farmers markets need more support so that they can stay open longer hours. People who work full time sometimes have no choice but to shop in supermarkets.
  9. I appreciate your comments on food storage and what an important knowledge set this is in order to make your vegetables (and your money) last longer. As far as kohlrabi, I recently picked it and use it to top green salads and even burgers.

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