The autumn colors have really taken hold here in North Carolina. The forests are alight as the leaves brighten and begin to thin. The drive between my apartment and my office is a breathtaking experience, and every morning becomes more spectacular.
Folks, we live in a beautiful country. And more than the stunning scenery, the fertile soils, and the glittering cities, the most beautiful part is that each of us has the opportunity to contribute to the leadership and policies that shape our nation.
No matter where your politics lie, I urge you to go vote today. Tune out the dizzying spin, find some reputable sources of information, and make a plan to get to the ballot box. Leave work 30 minutes early. Google map your polling place. Participate. Think carefully about what your vote means to you, your neighbors, and the millions of people that live and work around you every day. Then fill in the bubbles, slap on your free sticker, and encourage your friends and co-workers to follow suit.
Both the unofficial end of summer and the unofficial start of my favorite season, it heralds new school years, last summer hoorahs, and whispers of the beautiful autumn to come.
I haven’t quite felt that first breath of fall though. Yes, fall squash and small pumpkins are beginning to appear at the farmers market and the sun is setting noticeably earlier, and the campus at Duke is crowded once more now that the full student body has returned. But it’s hot. And still quite sticky. And still quite green.
But do you know what I’m talking about? That moment when you feel the spark of the season, any season really. I get it before the holiday season too, when something shifts either in nature or in me (or both, more likely), when I say yes, the season is changing. And also before the spring, a first warm day, watching naked brown trees burst into brilliant green or delicate blossoms seemingly overnight.
Any day now, I think fall will arrive for me. In the meantime, this dish is a fantastic way to celebrate late summer produce and puts a whole new spin on one of my favorite vegetables.
The Durham Farmers Market often features the recipes of local chefs on Saturday mornings, but for some reason I hardly ever find myself there at the right time. A couple weeks ago though, I arrived just as the cooking began, and her key ingredient? Okra! The final product was dolled out in paper cups to the hungry crowd, and after two bites I knew I had to make some for myself.
Alright, so, I know it’s summer and heatwaves are just a part of the drill (stay cool, mid-westerners!) but… it’s really hot here these days. The kind of hot that makes the walk from my parking lot at 9:30am more like a slog through a sauna. The kind where my weather tracker icon blinks furiously at me, warning me to stay indoors. Or where a broken air conditioner constitutes a full-blown maintenance emergency.
Someone in my life is happy about it though. It seems to be the perfect kind of hot for my basil to go. absolutely. crazy.
I think I had a misconception about what growing basil was going to involve; I didn’t realize just how quickly, and voraciously, it can grow. I’ve given my seven plants (yes, I know now that I may have overestimated how many plants I would need) four significant haircuts this season, and just a few days after each one, the plants again look like they haven’t seen scissors in weeks.
For most people, a weekly grocery run may not seem like something to look forward to. I, on the other hand, anticipate my Saturday trip to the farmer’s market as much as any other weekend activity I might have planned.
My college roommate recently informed me that she has discovered a farmer’s market near her home (yay!) and asked if I had any tips for first-timers. Halfway through my response to her, I realized that info might be useful for a wider audience as well.
As I’ve alluded to before, I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to spend my food dollars as locally as possible and have been striving toward that goal ever since. I’ve been fortunate to live in areas that support vibrant networks of farms and farmer’s markets, and I’ve shopped some of them regularly, some of them as an occasional change of pace. I’ve even taken to visiting markets in new cities when I go on vacation (doesn’t everyone?), and the variety amongst them is both astonishing and refreshing.
So for Sarah, and for anyone else out there who might be thinking about trying out your local farmer’s market, here’s what I’ve learned:
Remember the giant whole pickles? I used to buy them in elementary school in the snack line at recess, plucked straight from a vat of brine by the school cook and deftly wrapped in a flimsy paper napkin. Only fifty cents! Add to that a Sunny D or a zebra cake. Then to the tire swings!!
Those were the days. Minus kids making fun of my glasses and my last name.
I’ve always known that pickles are a relatively easy canning project, but I had never actually made them until last weekend. This particular method is easier than I could have possibly imagined.
So far I’ve posted lots of wholesome (sort of), savory (mostly), meal-type recipes for your reading & eating enjoyment.
It’s time for something truly unnecessary, but totally worth your time.
Too difficult, you say? Surely must be… handmade candy is wildly expensive, so it must be a complicated, time-consuming challenge that only fabulous cooks can achieve after years of training, right?
Here’s the secret that gourmet candy companies don’t want you to know: many candies are deceptively easy to make. Really. A big pot, a wooden spoon, and a candy thermometer (you can find one for less than twenty bucks at a home goods store, maybe even your grocery store’s baking aisle) comprise the bulk of the equipment list.
Of course, you’ll need some ingredients. Candy with no ingredients would be, well, gross.
Of late, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with integrating honey into my cooking. In my continuing quest to eliminate non-local foods from my diet, white sugar is going to be a major challenge. It makes an appearance on the ingredient list of almost any recipe, but it only grows in like, three US states. (Is that redundant, US states? Please advise.) Anyway, unless I plan to move to Florida, Hawaii, or Louisiana, the odds of finding sugar cane at my local farmers market are slim at best. Honey, on the other hand, is fashioned by busy little bees all over the place.
In a moment, I’ll show you how to make this tasty dessert. It’s easy. It’s delicious. It’s summer in a ramekin. I’m horrified that I’ve never made it before.
But first, a public service announcement.
Don’t be scared of ugly fruit.
A blemish, a torn bit of skin, or an asymmetrical shape do not a bad fruit make. Just like a frizzy hair day (read: every day I spend in the South) doesn’t make me a bad person. Contrary to what grocery stores would have you believe, not all squash produce pops out of the ground coated in wax and uniform in shape and size. Embrace variety.
“Seconds”, as you’ll see and hear them called, can provide an extremely economical way to buy fresh, local produce in bulk. While Grade A (code for pretty freakin’ perfect) produce is usually sold at the farmers market by the quart, pint, or pound, seconds are usually sold in bulk for a very low price so the farmer can avoid trucking home boxes of excess, super-ripe produce.The first batch of peaches I bought this season (about a month ago, amazingly… NC peaches ripened in mid-May) were seconds, and instead of paying $5 a quart, I paid $2 for an entire bagful that is now mostly sliced and in the freezer. This week was even better: the peach lady only had seconds available by the time I made it to the market, asked me how many I wanted, and wouldn’t let me pay her a dime for the eight peaches she placed gently in a bag.
Not too shabby, right?
If you frequent farmers markets or buy directly from farm stands, keep your eye out for seconds. Some vendors will have a seconds section, others keep them to the side until the Grade A produce is sold. If you don’t see any, ask! Chances are you’ll get a sweet deal.
As a recent transplant to the South, I have some culinary confessions:
I’ve never eaten grits.
I don’t care for sweet tea. Not to be confused with sweetened tea, I’ve learned.
To be honest I don’t care for sweetened tea, either.
But I do love biscuits.
Biscuits are sort of a huge deal here. There are entire restaurant chains dedicated to the biscuit, whole shelves of biscuit flour at grocery stores. Breakfast biscuits, dinner biscuits, biscuit sandwiches and biscuits slathered in butter. There’s one drive-thru biscuit place a few miles down the road where cars line up for blocks to get breakfast on Saturday mornings.
This particular recipe is really, and I mean really easy. I found it one morning when I woke up craving biscuits but not craving salad for the rest of the day. To be sure, they’re not sticks of celery, but they’re also not sticks of butter. This is a win in my book. I had never heard of “cream biscuits” but am sure glad I did. Wow.
So, I actually feel a little silly about the recipe I’m about to give, mostly because I rarely measure ANY of the ingredients when I make it myself. I also change the ingredients based on what’s in season and what I have. A lot.
But I’m sharing anyway because, quite simply, I love stir fry. I make it all the time. I mean, what an awesome go-to meal! It’s warm. It’s savory. It’s quick. It makes great leftovers. And it’s chock full of whatever vegetables are in season.
This is my first spring living in North Carolina, and I must say, I am impressed by the bounty of produce that is already available at the farmers market. Maybe this is all old hat for life-long North Carolinians, but to see this many vegetables fresh from the fields in early May is astonishing to me.
Now, I definitely could have gone with just these and had almost completely local stir fry. But I must confess, a few of my favorite stir fry add-ins are definitely not from around here. These three in particular lend a crunchiness that I find delectable against softened vegetables and chewy rice.
You should use whatever vegetables you want. My dream stir fry is probably not the same as your dream stir fry, and in fact, you may think I’m a bit odd for having a “dream stir fry” at all. Really, who says that?