It seems like a shopping no-brainer: instead of getting in your gas guzzler and motoring across town to a big box grocery store for your imported asparagus from Peru or heads of garlic from China, you spend your hard-earned food budget at your neighborhood farmers market, supporting the farmers who live and work near you, and getting the best quality produce you can. So why are so many people intimidated by the farmers market, and so few see it as a legitimate place to shop and feed their families?
Tricia Cornell tackles this question in her latest book, The Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook. Brimming with easy to accomplish recipes, the book also includes a comprehensive directory of farmers markets throughout the region, and helpful notes on each type of produce covered, so you can shop and cook with confidence. She took the time to chat with us about kohlrabi, the lies we've been told about stir fries, and all of her best tips for shopping locally like a pro.
The Hot Dish: Describe your new cookbook. What should readers expect?
Tricia Cornell: The most exciting thing about The Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook is that it's organized by product, so that you can experience it the same way you experience the farmers market. You can either start at the beginning of a row and walk all the way through, or you can drop in and see what you see in front of you, or you can go straight to the beets if you need beets. So the book is organized that same way.
HD: Why did you decide to write this book? Your previous book, Eat More Vegetables, tackles the questions of what to do with your seasonal produce. How does this book differ from or expand on the first?
Well, that book was also a lot of fun to write. That was 100% my recipes and the foods that my family eats at home. This book allowed me to talk to a lot of really dedicated farmers and chefs, some of them practically celebrities here in Minnesota and some them ordinary farmers market fellows. And the other thing is that this book allowed me to get really in depth and geeky on each vegetable in a way that I wasn't able to do so much in the first book. I take you through how to find a vegetable, when to buy it, what to when you get it home, how to store it...So, yeah, it's a little geekier on the vegetable front.
HD: Which recipes or types of produce would you recommend for a novice cook, or a first time farmers market visitor? Are there vegetables or herbs or fruits that are more forgiving? More finicky?
I think that one of the really great things about fresh produce is that you cannot screw it up. You really just can't. It's not precise like baking. If you start with a good product there's very little you can do that would make it bad. If it's your first time shopping at a farmers market, I would suggest two things. First, start with something you know you like. If you know you like green beans, go get some green beans, and they're likely to be some of the best green beans you've ever had. And then maybe at the same time, go and get something you've never heard of, something brand new. Maybe that means stopping by one of the Hmong stalls; they have these piles of greens that not everyone is really used to cooking with. Pick up something you've never cooked before! Then you know you've got something to eat for the week because you like it, and then you've got something to experiment with.
As far as cooking techniques or recipes if you're novice, just about every vegetable you can name can be roasted, and is delicious roasted. It's hard to screw something up if you roast it, so that's a great place to start if you're looking to explore cooking vegetables. Good fresh vegetables can be eaten raw, almost all of them. We just don't think of that. Beets, peeled, shaved, very thinly, can be eaten raw. If you always eat your green beans raw, try roasting them; if you always cook your beets, try eating them raw.
As far as something to stay away from, I see a lot of people refer to stir fries as something easy and quick and it's not. A stir fry is just not easy and quick. If your stir fry is easy and quick, I hate to say it, but you might not be doing it right. Stir fries involve a lot of prep work, cooking at very high heat, and they involve moving very quickly in the kitchen, so if somebody's nervous in the kitchen, maybe a stir fry is not the best place to start.
HD: Does anyone actually know what to do with kohlrabi?
This is hilarious, because so many people ask, "what do I do with kohlrabi?" and the best thing to do, really, is just eat it! It is so delicious raw. I mean so seriously, craveably delicious, that is all you need to do with it. Peel it, be sure to take off all the woody part on the outside, slice it into half moons and just eat it. That said, it is traditionally cooked in Europe and in India, and we have a recipe in there for braised kohlrabi which comes from Steven Brown at Tilia, and it's delicious [Recipe to follow]. But really, if you've only got one, just eat it.
HD: Are you a list-maker/follower when you hit the farmers market, or do you like to go with no agenda and see what looks good?
It's funny, because I think you'll hear a lot of people say, "I love to just wander around and get inspired," and that's terrific, but that's not what I do. I am a list shopper, I always shop with a list. If you go to the farmers market and just "get inspired" you're likely to come home with far too many vegetables, far more than you can get through. It's like, "that looks good, and oh, that looks good," and you start buying from the first table that you're at instead of looking around the whole market, which can be part of the fun. So if you are going to go and just get inspired, what I recommend is to write a reverse shopping list, just jot down what you bought once you buy it, and something like, "broccoli, Monday dinner; beef, Tuesday lunch," so that by the time you get home, you've got a mental check. It's really easy to bring home more than a week's worth of food in one trip.
HD: The farmers market season always seems to fly by too quickly. Does the book teach folks how to preserve all that seasonal produce for the long, dark winter?
Preserving itself, when you talk about canning and freezing, that's pretty specialized and actually easier than it sounds to screw up, so it doesn't get into that. I think that's a whole new book; maybe that's the next book? But it does have for each product, each vegetable, a section on how to keep it, how long it will keep in the fridge and the best way to store it, and if it is possible to freeze it, there are brief instructions on that, but the book doesn't get in to canning because canning is its own science.
But you know, the farmers market season is longer than people think. In the Twin Cities at least there are winter markets all winter long. The St. Paul Farmers Market is open all winter long, and there is a winter farmers market at Bachman's on Lyndale run by the Kingfield Farmers Market Association. True, there aren't a ton of vegetables there, but there are vegetables, because Minnesota farmers are getting really good at growing things outside of their traditional season. We've got a lot of growers who work with high tunnels, growers working in greenhouses, and then we've got growers who can store crops, so if you go to a winter farmers market you might find greens that came out of a greenhouse, squashes that have been stored right for the winter, or potatoes, or carrots. Really, the farmers market season is longer than we think.
HD: Time to name names: Which are your favorite farmers markets?
It depends on what I'm looking for. The farmers market phenomenon is almost not a shopping thing for a lot of people. For a lot of people it's an entertainment option, which is terrific, someplace to hang out with the family and maybe pick up a vegetable or two, but mostly you're there for the coffee and the pastry. Neighborhood farmers markets have become a place to actually see your neighbors and chat. They've become these new places to just be part of a community and a neighborhood. So if that's what I'm looking for I go to my neighborhood farmers market, which is the terrific Linden Hills Farmers Market. If I need to just shop, just get the groceries for the week, then that leads me to the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale, where you throw elbows and you squeeze past and get what you need. The Saint Paul Farmers Market manages to be a nice combination of those things, where you can be entertained and hang out for the morning, and also get some serious shopping done.
I might have gotten myself in trouble here, because that's actually something that farmers market organizers are exploring: how do we get people to treat the farmers market as a place to shop, as a place to actually come and buy their vegetables? People come, and they buy a pastry, a coffee, and then they walk right past the radishes. They aren't thinking of it as a destination to shop. But I know organizers are trying to get people to treat it just like the grocery store.
HD: It sounds like your book could help with just that.
I hope so! There's a perception that farmers market produce is expensive, and I haven't done a mathematical side by side study, but I've just done enough shopping in my life to know that if you're shopping out of season, if you're buying the very first tomatoes and the very last tomatoes of the season, then yes, they are more expensive than at the grocery store. But if you're buying things at the peak of their season, you're actually going to get a pretty good price, and you're going to get such spectacular quality that the price to satisfaction ratio might be even higher.
HD: Finally, what would tell someone who thinks that local foods and seasonal cooking are out of their grasp?
Financially, I would say go to some of the bigger farmers markets, like the Minneapolis Farmers Market, and really look at the prices. For things that are in season, you're going to get terrific prices, so it's not necessarily financially out of reach. The smaller, specialty markets, yes, those prices are going to be a little bit higher.
When people think that cooking is out of their reach, I think it's because their standards are a little too high. Maybe they think they can't cook at all if they can't cook restaurant quality food. You don't have to jump right to complicated hour-long recipes. You can roast some winter vegetables, coat them with oil, maybe a little salt, and put them in the oven: that's cooking. That counts. You don't have to complicate things. Slice up some tomatoes, drizzle some olive oil on them, boom. I think someone who is intimidated by the kitchen has maybe been watching too much Food Network? It doesn't have to be that complicated. You don't have to put three courses on the dinner table every night. My family eats, generally speaking, one dish. If you're trying to cook three courses for dinner you'll drive yourself crazy. Tonight we're eating lettuce cups: vegetable, meat, done.
Tricia Cornell will be speaking at the Kingfield Farmers Market's last winter market at Bachman's (6010 Lyndale Ave S) on March 22nd.
[RECIPE] Braised Kohlrabi By Tilia Kitchen Reprinted with permission from The Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook
Serves four to six.
2 pounds kohlrabi, peeled and cut into 1/2'' pices 2 cups water 3 tablespoons red miso paste 3 tablespoons soy sauce 4 thyme stems 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Combine all ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender. Allow kohlrabi to cool in liquid.