Neighborhood chefs offer favorite farm-to-fork recipes

Our Curtis Park urban lots are, on average, small and often shady.

In our household, we can only grow herbs and citrus for the kitchen. Those wonderful old oaks, elms and ash trees hog the available sunlight, but they’re so beautiful I don’t mind going to the two closest farmers’ markets for some of the best organic produce in the region.

When we have out-of-town guests, they clamor for a shopping spree at the Sunday morning, year-round extravaganza under the freeway at Fifth and W streets. Alternatively, I head to the seasonal and much smaller Oak Park Farmers Market in McClatchy Park on Saturdays.

Those of us interested in fresh and creative cooking have to jump over our parents’ generation – remember most of the Post-World War II moms freed themselves from garden and kitchen duty largely by relying on canned and processed foods. It was our grandparents’ generation that many of us are emulating – backyard gardens, canning or freezing tomatoes, eating close to “just off the tree” stone fruit, corn, tomatoes and an array of fresh produce.

I was interested in which particular foodstuffs or ingredients some neighborhood home chefs sought from local farmers. This is what they said.

Q. Which is your favorite farm-to-fork ingredient or food from local farmers? Can you tell us how you use them?

Salad greens of all kinds. I love the silken beauty of lettuce – Little Gems, Oak Leaf, Butter – whatever is on hand. I have a favorite vendor at the Oak Park Farmers Market, Root 64, based in Colonial Heights. I dive for their stand first and gather up the lettuces of the week. I’m especially happy when I find their bags of pre-washed and cut lettuce for easy lunchtime salads. I survive on green salads for lunch and dinner all summer long – salads tossed with my homegrown tomatoes and avocado, dressed simply with olive oil and rice vinegar, coarse salt and pepper. That’s all. It’s my sustenance.

It makes me feel close to the earth.

Kathy Les, Portola Way

Sautéed greens. I use chard, spinach, even kale. Remove the stems. Chop up some red onion, dice some garlic and sauté in some olive oil. Add chopped greens and sauté until wilted. (Kale will require more cooking, even some steaming with a bit of water while covered.) After cooking, dress them with olive oil, some balsamic vinegar, and Parmesan cheese.

Peter Winslow, 25th Street

Too many eggplants? Even the Japanese variety? Try making Caponata – a piquant Sicilian relish for crostini or a savory pasta sauce. Simply cube the eggplants (skin on), salt them, and let drain. Sauté them in olive oil; add onion and celery and continue sautéing until all the veggies are soft. Incorporate diced tomatoes with juice and pitted ripe green olives (not cocktail olives) and simmer to thicken. Finish with capers, chopped basil, and an ounce or two of vinegar to develop a subtle sweet-and-sour aspect to the dish. Serve at room temperature on crostini, warm and toss with your favorite pasta, or use in a vegetarian lasagna.

Mark Helmar, Rochon Way

Anticipating the arrival of spring and summer, I am eager to begin making fermented, spicy and crunchy kosher pickles. Having run out sometime in the fall, the hunt for fresh organic pickling cucumbers begins. The key is to buy them fresh, small about the size of your thumb and very hard. Sea salt (2 tablespoons per quart of water), water and a little time in a jar are all it takes to transform a cucumber into an amazing pickle. Wash the cucumbers in cold water and make sure the blossoms are removed. I use a one-gallon jar with an airlock in the lid.

I fill the jar with cucumbers, leaving a couple of inches of space below the top.

Add a bunch of smashed garlic, some red pepper flakes and a teaspoon of pickling spices. Add a couple of bay leaves for their tannin, which helps keep the cucumbers crunchy. Pour in the water.

The cucumbers will float, so put a Ziploc bag full of the saltwater brine on top to keep them submerged. Close the lid, add some water to the airlock and place the jar on the kitchen counter. In about five days, test for taste. Keep testing, if necessary, until you find the taste you like. At that point, put them in jars and keep them refrigerated.

Peter Blackman, 26th Street

Our weekly winter trips to the Sunday farmers’ market invariably result in a pound or two of Brussels sprouts. While I’m drawn to those big beautiful stalks, I always buy them loose. My favorite way to prepare them is by roasting in a moderately hot oven. The sprouts become tender inside and crispy, caramelized outside.

After trimming and halving the sprouts, I toss them with olive oil, salt, freshly ground pepper, and maybe some sprigs of thyme from the garden. Then I drizzle on some aged balsamic vinegar, flavored with figs, and roast about 40 minutes at 400 degrees.

Anne Mazur, 10th Avenue

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