Last Call for Summer

It’s here, the last weekend of summer. On Monday the sun will pack her bags and cross the celestial equator heading south for the winter, much like the Canadian Geese who have been traveling en masse the same direction, a sure sign of changing seasons.

Farmers tend to have a heightened awareness to the impending shift as we witness up close and personal daily changes in the natural world. Livestock farmers notice their animals’ winter coats begin to thicken as the lighter summer coats shed out. Feathers fly as laying hens molt and slow down on their job as the days become shorter. Produce growers are now focusing on fall and winter crops as their summer vegetable plants lose their lushness to a picked-over spindliness. Melons have been replaced with collards in the CSA shares.

As a Central Farm Markets customer, you’ll be seeing seasonal changes, too.

Although some liken it to their displeasure of finding Christmas displays prior to Halloween, vendors who will have turkeys for Thanksgiving have begun advertising for reservations. Farmers want to know that they have as many as possible sold prior to delivery days for holiday birds so if you’re planning on a local turkey gracing your family table, be a dear and let your farmer know as soon as possible instead of waiting until the last minute.

While turkey for Thanksgiving is a given, similarly, if you want a special cut for any of the fall or winter holidays, it’s best to start discussing your plans now with vendors. Large cuts and premium roasts aren’t something that are routinely kept in stock throughout the year. We must have our cut lists ready for our processors when animals are scheduled in the fall. Telling your farmer the week prior that you need a standing prime rib roast that will feed a dozen people is not going to happen.

As the hot days wind down into cool mornings, you know what else is winding down? Seasonal markets. This means those customers are going to start seeking out longer running seasonal markets (Pike and Westfield go until November 23rd) and year-round markets like Bethesda and NoVa. The dead give-away for this is when every last leaf of Young Harvests’ salad greens has been snapped up before noon, they’ve broken down their stand and gone out to breakfast to wait for the official close of market to leave.

Consider this a friendly nudge if you want to jar up some sauce before tomato and pepper season is over. There’s still time left to make spirit-soaked stone fruit for holiday hostess gifts. The influx of regional market aficionados has yet to begin. For me, it’s time to dig out pants and long-sleeve shirts, jackets, scarves and of course, to begin getting my Halloween costume together.

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Long-Term Relationships

Yes, last Sunday I was M.I.A. at the market. No, I wasn’t sick. No, I didn’t have mechanical difficulties. Instead, I was in the heart of the District roasting a pig for one of the oldest neighborhood block parties with a customer-turned-dear friend on Saturday. It was the same neighborhood in which I had gone to another farmers market for eight years. I knew with the long day, libations and dancing I’d be in no shape for Sunday, so I took the day off sleeping in and visiting my old market friends.

When circumstance required me to choose a single Sunday market, it was a difficult decision having built close relationships with fellow vendors and customers spanning nearly a decade. But practicality took precedent—not as far to drive, lower market fees, better management, a growing area, and most importantly, year-round. Another plus, the front end of my car didn’t need realigned annually after traveling the streets of DC.

Despite the switch, each year I still procure the pig and help with the festivities, maintaining relationships that once began over a carton of eggs at a farmers market.

Over the years I’ve attended several markets in the MD/DC/VA/PA region. The dynamics of regional markets is ever evolving. While some vendors become mainstays, others migrate. The number of markets has swelled in the last ten years. Customers have more choices than ever for locally produced goods and vendor have more options for selling. I’ve witnessed many dedicated customers who will follow their favorite vendors from market to market throughout the region not only for the products, but for the friendships they’ve built.

At the block party last week one couple recognized me in delight wondering where I had gone. I’m certain they’ll show up this Sunday for the fix they’ve been missing and continue to be regulars once again.

As I reflect on many of my friendships, I realize that one way or another they began at a farmers market. Fellow vendors, customers, neighborhood business owners now make up the bulk of my “community”. Digging deeper I realized it wasn’t the transaction of goods or even weekly visits, but a sharing of lives that has precipitated great friendships.

Many of the Central Farm Markets vendors have open farm days, special events, internships, farm stays and parties to offer customers a glimpse into how their food is produced. What has fueled many of my friendships is the opposite—when farmers are invited to share their customers’ lives. Customers often challenge long held (and erroneous) beliefs of rural vendors in regard to music, art, cultures, sexual orientation, religions and of course, food. Great things happen when these barriers are broken down.

Everyone loves to visit farms, but when was the last time you invited your farmers to participate in your life? Yes, we are a busy lot, but we also hold many interests outside of our agrarian endeavors. Got something cool going on that you’d like to share with your farmer? Invite them. They just may show up and become a friend for life.

I Stand Corrected

“Hey, I take issue with your blog post about meatless burgers,” said a Dishing the Dirt reader and Central Farm Markets customer who went on to school me about my fellow vendor’s “very good meatless burgers”. Always one for a good debate, especially over something I’ve written and/or eaten, they had my full attention. I knew her husband to be a vegetarian sometimes vegan, same for their children with she, a shameless omnivore. And I knew immediately who she was talking about.

I’d been walking past his stand for a few years, smiling politely, silently sneering at my utter lack of interest in anything marketed with the V-word, especially ones with names insinuating meat. Silently I would tick through my talking points about soy, monocrops, superweeds, pesticides, coconut and palm products making tasteless ultra-processed foods with ingredients that couldn’t be pronounced. Call it protein prejudice.

“You should really try his Veggie Burger. Even I really like them,” she suggested. What was it the little flip-card of daily wisdom on my bathroom countertop read this morning? We are here to learn. Well, I was about to learn about a better version of a meatless burger.

Having openly admitted my rebuke against fake meat, this was different. At first, it felt a little weird going up to John Meyers, co-owner with his wife Ashwini Persaud of Sexy Vegie and asking about the meatless burgers. I could only imagine what was going through his mind. Having a vegetarian friend over for dinner, perhaps? Nope. The truth was they were for me, the self-professed carnivore. He graciously provided me with a package of Black Bean Carrot & Corn Veggie Burgers. Immediately I read the ingredients and was surprised to find that I could pronounce every single one. Heck, everything in them I already ate—black beans, carrots, corn, breadcrumbs—just not all at once mashed into a burger.

I wanted an honest opinion from someone who takes their non-meat-eating diet seriously, so I invited a friend over for lunch who had been vegetarian most of her adult life. With the array of amazing vegetables and greens I bring home each week from Central Farm Markets, she’s never had a dull meal and quickly accepted. But upon learning of the Veggie Burgers, she was elated. “It’s so hard to find good ones.” Maybe I was on to something…

At first, I was tempted to fry the patties in butter, but opted for olive oil so my carnivorous taste buds would get a full plant-based patty experience.

The first big score was on appearance. There was no bleeding beet juice trying to impersonate a real meat, yet there was no mistaking the ingredients—black beans, corn and shredded carrot. My lunch companion gave very high marks to the fact that the burger did not stick to the pan or fall apart upon being cooked; the absolute worst, according to her.

Since there would also be no melted cheese or mayonnaise or egg roll bun, all requisite items for a great burger in my opinion, we opted to try the patties with a simple side of tomato.

Wow. I stand corrected that a meatless burger could not possibly taste good.

Taste and quality were the target of the husband and wife team who began Sexy Vegie out of an evolving food truck business five years ago. John had been raised in a vegetarian home, so he was familiar with the difficulties of finding healthy vegetarian and vegan products that were not ultra-processed and full of chemicals.

Sexy Vegie transitioned from food truck to farmers markets because the owners prefer the agility and feedback. “We love interacting with our customers!” John exclaimed and I understood exactly how he felt.

As for the Impossible Burger, John admitted to trying it. “I’m very familiar with processed imitation meats. It tasted good, but it’s not healthful for the body.”

In addition to the burger I ate, Sexy Vegie also makes Sweet Potato & Spinach, Beet & Black Bean, Quinoa, Spinach & Mushroom, and Falafel burgers. Ingredients are sourced locally and seasonally.

At the end of the day, what matters when it comes to food–be it meat, vegetarian, vegan, kosher, halal—whatever your philosophy—it must be good for the body, good for the planet and good for the soul. Sexy Vegie’s meatless burgers hit all three bases for a home run.

The Politics and Economics of Local Meat

Last week there were plenty of customers at market asking what I thought about the ICE raid on the poultry processing plant in Mississippi or of the fire at the Kansas beef plant. Would they in any way impact what I do? Reading the snippets of news devoted to these events gave the impression that there would be no one to slaughter beef or chicken in America thus leading to shortages and price increases.

First, if you are shopping at the farmers market for your meats, these two events will not hinder your access to locally raised and processed meats. The two processing plants only handled livestock they contract farmers to raise (poultry) or through aggregate purchasers who travel to regional public livestock auctions buying by lots that may number in the thousands of animals at any one time (beef).

The farmers you encounter at market have their meats processed at local USDA-inspected abattoirs who perform a service—the slaughter, cutting-up, fabricating (making sausages, burgers, bacon, etc.). While some butcher shops may have their own storefronts selling cuts to individual customers or contracts to supply restaurants and retailers, many specialize in taking care of the niche producers who pale in comparison to how the majority of meat is raised and sold in the U.S. We are the true 1%.

Currently, five companies are responsible for over 60% of poultry grown and processed in this country, including Koch Foods Inc., the company targeted in the ICE raid. To offer some scope of the industrial poultry industry, in 2017 Americans consumed 9 billion chickens. Yes, billions. Compare that to the average pastured poultry grower selling direct to the customers who raises 3,000 a year and the exemption from federal inspection set at 20,000 birds a year for small producers.

Here’s a few more statistics to gain perspective. According to the North American Meat Institute, in 2017 meat and poultry production in America:

  • 2 million cattle and calves
  • 7 million turkeys
  • 2 million sheep and lambs
  • 121 million hogs

The Tyson’s beef plant that burned down last week had the capacity to process 4,000 cows a day. Your typical farmers market meat vendor patronizes small regional plants that process 4-40 cows per day, some only slaughtering one or two days each week. These plants are typically family-owned businesses employing family and local community members. Many span two or three generations.

The advantages of purchasing your protein from local farmers are many. As niche producers, each farmer is able to ensure agricultural practices that set them apart from their industrial counterparts, the largest being pasture-raised. While I tend to focus on the measurable benefits—more healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, more vitamins and minerals, and reduced chances of pathogenic foodborne illnesses, customers are more concerned with animal welfare issues, regenerative environmental practices and social justice concerns.

Over the last thirty years I’ve watched as consumers have gone from completely oblivious as to how that steak on their plate got there to the micro-management of an eater’s checklist before their meat hits the grill. I’ll admit that sometimes it can be frustrating when customers’ concerns are a product of egregious industrial food practices that leaves me wanting to shout, “Why do you think we do what we do here at the farmers market?”

Unfortunately, as the demand for locally produced meat increases, access to USDA-inspected processing is becoming more challenging for producers, many who must schedule processing dates in advance of the animals’ actual birth! Building new meat plants are expensive ventures, costing into millions of dollars. Smaller custom butcher shops are opting to retrofit their operations to meet criteria for federal inspection. Having experienced this process, however, the costs, paperwork and time are still prohibitive. It took two years to have a federal inspectors perform several hours’ worth of work to sign off—mainly on paperwork—to bring one of the plants I now use online.

Smaller meat processing plants are subject to the exact same rules, requirements and regulations as their large, industrial counterparts which can become onerous when enforced by federal inspectors, especially those lacking common sense. For example, industrial meat processors must keep a log of the lots of beef trim used in the production of ground meat. According to the Beef Checkoff Program, the United States is the largest importer of beef in the world purchasing trim (what is left over after carving up premium cuts) from 22 different countries to meet the demand for lean ground beef. That means the burger you buy in the grocery store or eat at a fast food establishment could be sourced from multiple countries. Furthermore, since it has been processed in the United States it can be labeled as Made in the USA since the Country of Origin label (COOL) laws have been struck down.

However, small-scale processors are required to keep the exact same paperwork even if the numbers will always be zero as many pride themselves on customers getting back 100% of their livestock.

In other instances, small-scale plants are targeted for increased enforcement, especially with pork. Multiple states have declared all pigs raised outdoors, as opposed to industrial hog barns holding thousands of animals on concrete, to be considered feral. This requires and additional layer of regulation, including specialized labeling not required by industrial producers since they can prove their animals have not interacted with the natural world.

These days I’m more concerned with African Swine Fever, a highly contagious hemorrhagic fever which has already decimated hog populations in over two dozen countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. While the U.S. remains vigilant against any outbreaks, keep in mind that the largest pork producer in this country, Smithfield, is owned by China where over half of all the pigs in that country have already died or been culled due to the virus.

Unlike commercial slaughterhouses which are demanding faster line speeds and less federal oversight, small-scale butchers have the ability to better examine each animal, turning away diseased animals, thus preventing them from entering the food supply.

While most livestock disease outbreaks, like Newcastle disease in birds, develop geographical hot spots, the numbers are staggering and can cause nationwide shortages. In 1971, a major outbreak in southern California infected 1,341 flocks, caused 12 million birds to be euthanized, cost $56 million, took 19 months to end, and seriously threatened the nation’s entire egg and poultry supply. Currently, an active outbreak has state officials euthanizing millions of birds again, including thousands of beloved backyard pets.

Yes, we’ll continue to answer questions about feed, housing, pastures and husbandry practices, but more importantly, customers need to understand that the politics of their plates are becoming increasingly complex. Your producers do not operate on a level playing field when it comes to meat production in America, even more so with the advent of fake and lab-grown proteins masquerading as meat.

So next time you’re tempted to compare your favorite farmer to the industrial meat complex, remember they are focused on quality, not quantity. By supporting a robust regional meat industry that includes both producers and processors, customers also help to ensure access to safe food while keeping their dollars hard at work to sustain their communities. Remember, for every dollar spent at your farmers market, that investment get multiplied ten times over as farmers, too, patronize the local businesses that keep their farms functioning.

Time to Relish Salsa

Summer means salsa and relishes. Sweet corn, peaches, summer squash and peppers are everywhere. Turning the season’s bounty into colorful jars of flavored sunshine is both tasty and wise. Plus, they can double as wonderful gifts for friends and family.

With ears {of sweet corn} coming out the ears {of farmers & shoppers}, lots of folks are left scratching their heads of what to do with all of it. The season begins with those first golden cobs steamed and slathered in melted butter. The recipe storming social media, magazines and food sections of newspapers this corn season is elote, Mexican street corn slathered in mayonnaise, butter, cheese, lime juice, chili powder and fresh cilantro. For a less messy version, try this recipe that cuts the roasted corn off the cob which is what I like to do. By now, you might be asking yourself, “What am I going to do with all this corn?”

The central Pennsylvania right-of-passage has always been puttin’ up or freezing corn so there would be plenty come the winter holidays for baked corn. Families would purchase truckloads of fresh sweet corn and make an afternoon of shucking, cleaning, blanching, cutting, and canning/bagging, each going home with enough to {hopefully} last until the next season.

Having lived on both coasts, I’ve noticed that salsas and relishes have similar base vegetables yet are prepared according to regional tastes. Starting with cut fresh corn, onion, tomato and peppers, the westerners add in lime juice, cilantro and hot peppers while the easterners go for the sweet and sour version with vinegar, sugar and mustard seeds. Spicy peppers are swapped for sweet versions. One is called salsa, the other relish, but both are time-honored ways of using a bountiful harvest.

Last week we talked tomatoes, the vegetable that is really a fruit. While fresh salsa (aka: salsa fresca, pico de gallo) comes to mind first, there are plenty of other fruits perfect for tempering the sizzle of summer peppers’ heat.

Like peaches…

Just as abundant as sweet corn, fresh peaches have taken over the markets. Yellow peaches, white peaches, donut peaches, freestones, cling fruits—take your pick for the show-stopping ingredient in fresh peach salsa. Adding peppers and onions to peaches would have been considered sacrilege in my Pennsylvania Dutch family but having experienced the delicious combination in a variety of ways I can honestly say that nothing compliments a thick pork chop or tuna steak like fresh peach salsa. I even gave this salsa using both corn and peaches a try!

However, the foundation for both salsas and relishes are the peppers and onions. Right now, at the markets there is a veritable rainbow of peppers. Take your pick. Want in on a market secret? Sometimes there are imposters, typically hot peppers such as jalapeño or habanero, that contain no heat, but all the flavor. Ask your farmer if you are uncertain.

Where would we be without onions? We started out in spring with ramps, marching through to summer with green onions, leeks and on to fresh onions—white, yellow and red. It’s garlic and shallot season, too. Each has their own flavor and texture. Similar to peppers, some can be hot and others sweet.

Although individual varieties are bred for different levels of heat, both peppers’ and onions’ spiciness are also dependent upon their environments. For example, onions grown in one soil type may produce very sweet onions that don’t make you cry when you cut them, yet others will have your eyes stinging so badly you won’t be able to see through your tears for an hour after you’ve made the first cut.

Peppers develop more capsaicin {the chemical that makes them hot) when the plants are stressed from a hot growing climate. Want hotter peppers? Grow them in full sun, cut back on water and fertilizer, and let them mature to red on the plant. That’s why peppers native to hot environments are the spiciest. In both peppers and onions, these traits are natural defenses, but that’s not going to deter me from whipping up a couple of batches of fresh salsa and relish this season.

You Say Tomato

I say sauce, puree, salsa, chutney, tarts, shakshuka and sandwiches. And those bite-sized beauties, I eat ‘em like candy. Yes, August is here in all its flaming glory of color and flavor. Last week in Dishing the Dirt the elegant aubergine (aka: eggplant) was featured, but this week a fellow member of the Solanaceae family is busting on to the scene with an array of shapes, sizes, colors and flavors—tomaaaahto season is here.

While eggplants aren’t exactly one of those things that gets “put up”, tomatoes are a different story.

Canning was a way of life for my family when I was growing up. Grandma Miller’s basement walls were lined from floor to ceiling with shelves stacked full of anything and everything to come out of summer gardens. Living in the same small town, those jars often found their way to my dinner plate.

Walk through the markets and you’re going to see an abundance of tomatoes since the height of field-grown fruit is upon us. Yes, we’ve been spoiled by year-round tomatoes from the farms with greenhouses, but there are only so many varieties they can grow. This is the time of year when the interesting heirlooms of farmers’ choice begin to arrive. With names like Ox Heart, Striped Tiger and of course, every canning aficionado’s favorite, San Marzanos, the plump meaty plum tomato synonymous with Italian cooking, there’s an endless array from which to choose.

It is this time of year that my kitchen is spattered with tomato juice, skins, seeds and pulp as I cook down, mill, create and can as much as possible to enjoy during the coming winter. There’s nothing like opening a jar of rich red sauce when the landscape outside can barely manage sepia tones.

When customers see me loading up at the end of market with a huge box of tomatoes, I’m given their lament of “I wish I could….”

And I tell them, “You CAN!”

True, putting up tomatoes is a labor of love. It requires time and equipment, however, on both fronts the payoff is well worth the investment.

I’m going to debunk all the excuses I’ve heard.

I would never eat that much. Really? Between now and next year, you’re not going to go through 8 quarts (16 pints) of tomatoes? That’s roughly what a twenty-pound box of tomatoes will yield. Many of the tomato vendors offer special deals on bulk purchases or seconds. Please note though, don’t show up early in the day without prior arrangements expecting either deal on demand. Talk to your farmers and order in advance.

I don’t know how. There are over 36,400,000 results when googling “canning tomatoes”. You can buy a book, take a class or better yet, get together with a friend who knows how and has all the equipment. Share the work, share the bounty.

There too much special equipment to buy. To put up whole tomatoes you only need canning jars, a pot deep enough to cover the jars with water and a paring knife. Add in some salt and lemon juice to you shopping list. If you want to get fancy, pick up some fresh basil and garlic. While I put up several jars of whole tomatoes every summer, mostly I use a Victori-O food strainer. Fair warning—you get one of these and soon you’ll also be making other goodies like salsa, apple sauce, berry puree, etc. There are several styles of this type of equipment—sieves, strainers, mills—some with motors, others that crank by hand or the classic chinois with a wooden pestle to mash the fruit pressing the pulp and juice through the holes.

Due to their low acidity, tomatoes are borderline when it comes to canning without a pressure canner. (NOTE: a pressure cooker is not the same as a pressure canner so don’t try this with your InstaPot) By adding citric acid or lemon juice, you’ll be fine using a hot water bath. For what it’s worth, I’ve never used a pressure canner for my tomatoes. A simple stock pot will work fine for 4-5-quart jars.

I don’t have the time. You think I’ve got extra time? When you want tomato sauce in the winter that doesn’t taste watered down you make the time. The last two days I’ve been up until midnight filling my hutch with jars of tomato puree, BBQ sauce and ketchup. Still on my to-do list are sauce and whole tomatoes. I queue up a good audio book, listen to music, and catch up with conversations on the phone. Tomato season is not the time to be a couch potato.

It’s too hot. On this one, I must agree, but sacrifices folks…sacrifices. In the past I have frozen tomatoes whole and then canned them in the colder months, but somehow the sun-kissed flavor failed to translate using this method.

Speaking of freezing, if you’re not up for canning, sauces and purees can be frozen in freezer-proof containers and bags. But before you begin, make sure you have enough space in your freezer. For me, that’s the biggest advantage of processing in glass jars—no refrigeration or freezer needed—and the jars are beautiful.

Gold Medalists

This Sunday, you’ll have to to congratulate the folks at Shepherds Manor Creamery on their gold medal win this year at the American Cheese Society’s (ACS) annual cheese competition.

Colleen & Michael Histon own and operate Maryland’s first and only sheep dairy. Yes, you can milk sheep!

This year’s gold medal went to their Fetina in the Sheeps Milk Feta category. The Histons are no strangers to the winners’ circle when it comes to the Olympics of cheese. Last year their Dottie Tomae, a pasteurized semi-hard cheese with a Riesling washed rind took second place in its class and in 2017, the original Tomae which is made with raw milk took home a gold medal, the first year they ventured into America’s premier cheese competition.

Unfortunately, the competition comes at the worst time of the year to leave the farm for several days to attend the conference and competition which moves around the country. This year’s event was held in Richmond, Virginia making it easier for Histons to attend and accept their awards in person. “We milk from March to mid-October doing all the processing, affinage, packing, labeling, deliveries and markets ourselves,” explained Colleen as the couple drove home Saturday afternoon skipping the grand finale of the conference, the Festival of Cheese, which showcases all the entries and winners of the competition. “We still have to go to market on Sunday.”

This is the life the Histons have lead since ditching mere careers for a true passion. “We started out as foodies with office jobs,” said Colleen as she chronicled how her love for food went from hobby to farmstead cheesemaker. Having raised and showed meat sheep for many years, the Histons were not completely new to sheep. After a few fortuitous visits with a cheese monger at the farmers market in Saint Helena during trips to California, the meat breeds were traded for milk breeds, a larger farm was purchased, a creamery built and in 2011 the Histons made their first cheeses and began selling at regional farmers markets in 2013.

“If we would have known what we were getting into back then, we might not have done it,” admitted Colleen after telling me how she and her husband built their entire operation themselves, often putting in long hours on the farm in addition to their day jobs in the beginning.

Currently, they milk a mixed flock of approximately 90 ewes. The two breeds they milk are East Friesian, originating from East Frisia in northern Germany and Lacaune from southern France.

Shepherds Manor Creamery produces ten different varieties of cheeses. The Shepherds Soft Serve Ewe Crème is a pasteurized sheep’s milk soft cheese similar to ricotta and comes in a variety of flavors (garlic, pepper, chive) in addition to plain. There are two styles of washed rind Tomae, one made from raw milk and the other with pasteurized milk. The Colbere is a mild white soft slicing style raw milk cheese and this year’s winner, Fetina is a European style raw milk feta. My favorite is one of their newest cheeses, Cameo, which is a Camembert style cheese with a bloomy rind.

In addition to their award-winning cheeses, the Histons also make luxurious sheep milk soaps.

Eggplant City

Eggplant—one of the vegetables that was never served while I was growing up has turned out to be one of my all-time favorites after I was gifted a copy of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and the gifter asked me to make her Eggplant Parmesan. I knew what it was, but had never eaten, let alone cooked it. Off to the farmers market I went in search of the perfect eggplant.

But I soon found out that eggplant, a member of the nightshade family, was similar to tomatoes coming in assorted shapes, sizes and colors. By the way, eggplant is technically a fruit, but we’ve already had that discussion here at Dishing the Dirt. Sticking with the recipe, I opted for the fat aubergine orbs, followed Hazan’s recipe and fell in love.

As I delved deeper into their origins in India and followed their spread throughout the globe, showing up as a staple in recipes from Asia, Europe North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, my meals reflected the diversity of cultivars. Enamored with the versatility of this ancient ingredient, throughout the years at the height of its season, the complaint became, “Eggplant again?” The truth is I can (and often do) eat eggplant every single day during summer thanks to the available bounty available at Central Farm Markets.

But there’s more to these delicious beauties than an endless way to serve them—they’ve got health benefits including lots of minerals, vitamins and fiber minus the calories. The purple color from the anthocyanin has antioxidant properties to combat those pesky free radicals responsible for cellular damage. The high fiber and polyphenols (plant-based micronutrients) are credited with stabilizing blood sugar along with protecting against heart and neurodegenerative diseases. As a member of the Solanaceae family, eggplant contain solasodine rhamnosyl glycosides (SRGs), a known cancer-fighting compound. How’s that for a superfood?

Despite all the advantages of the eggplant, farmers gripe about growing it. Mark Toigo, owner of Toigo Orchards joked that every pest in a five-mile radius will find the eggplant patch. Flea beetles, spider mites, potato moth and white flies all make a bee line straight to the eggplants. Add to that the susceptibility to fungal diseases. Yet despite these challenges, eggplants are plentiful.

Yes, I realize that cooking in front of the hot stove or turning on the oven these last few weeks isn’t exactly on everyone’s agenda. It’s grilling weather which means I turn to my second favorite eggplant recipe– baba ghanoush, an easy middle eastern dip made from grilled eggplant, tahini, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. It’s great for dipping vegetables or pita and will even satisfy vegan, gluten-free and paleo eaters.

Here’s my go-to recipe that I’m guilty of eating by the spoonful straight out of the jar.

Baba Ghanoush

Ingredients

2 large eggplants

4 tablespoons tahini

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon, lime or orange juice

1 teaspoon sea salt

3 cloves of fresh garlic

Directions

Halve eggplants and grill for 30 minutes or until soft. Set on a plate to cool enough to slip off the skins. Toss out the skin. Add everything to a food processor and pulse until smooth. Top with goodies such as olive oil, fresh parsley or cilantro, sesame seeds, pomegranate seeds or diced tomato.

Fried Farmers

Wow! That was a hot one.

If you are a regular reader of Dishing the Dirt, you may recall my missives about farming in freezing weather over the years. What I’d given for blast of Arctic air last week. Customers often ask which I like better—the cold or the heat. That’s easy, the cold. I can put on more and warmer layers, but in the heat, there is only so much I can take off. And the livestock? They’re stuck wearing fur coats, wool sweaters and down jackets.

For farmers there is no taking off in the oppressive heat if you want to eat. Fruits and vegetables must be picked and packed. Animals must be tended even more so as temperature extremes are when Mother Nature tends to cull the weak and infirmed. This is another reason I prefer colder temperatures. In a polar vortex if something dies it’s ok to wait until less inclement conditions to deal with the unfortunate. In hot weather, it’s a constant vigil requiring immediate action as the rate of decomposition and the Earth’s undertakers (maggots, beetles, vultures) seem to increase exponentially as temperatures soar.

So how do farmers deal with the heat?

As you may have noticed last week the markets adjusted their hours to reduce both vendors and farmers exposure to record temperatures. Similarly, this is why there are adjusted hours during the winter market season and closures due to wintery weather.

Chatting with fellow vendors prior to the opening of market on Sunday I asked them what the excessive heat meant for them and how they deal with it.

At Young Harvests, their number one priority is keeping everything watered. Rob explained that the greenhouses can become dangerously hot for the tender greens and must be ventilated. “The sides are rolled as high as they can go, and the fans are at full blast.” Additionally, Rob uses shade cloth, a type of black nylon netting that can be spread on top of the greenhouses to diffuse the direct rays of the sun.

Cameron at Bending Bridge Farm was more pragmatic about the heat. “We go sit in the cooler when we get too hot.” Who needs air conditioning when you have a walk-in?

Lucas at Spiral Path Farm was sporting his swim shorts so that as soon as he got home, he’d be able to dive into his pool without changing. In all seriousness though, he humbly pointed out that his workers are doing the best they can to get produce picked at the peak of ripeness. “Those guys are amazing,” he said explaining that things like melons, peppers and tomatoes have to be picked when they are ripe. “There’s no waiting on cooler weather.”

Vendors had an assortment of cooling strategies to get them through markets. There were portable fans, cooling towels and lots of extra water and ice. I kept a misting bottle of cold water handy for myself, fellow vendors and customers. It’s amazing what a spritz on bare toes and the back of the neck will do.

But who I felt for the most were the good folks of Cipolla Rossa who worked in front of their wood-fired pizza oven. “It was tough,” said Josh who survived by keeping towels dipped in ice water on his neck.

Our regulars were in and out early with their insulated bags, rolling coolers and big hats. Everyone at all the markets stayed well-hydrated and no one hit the ground from heat exhaustion. We’re not halfway through summer so the potential to experience more high temperatures remains. In the event of another heat wave, Central Farm Markets will do everything to keep our customers and vendors safe. Keep in touch with what’s going on by following our social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or subscribe to our weekly eBlast that keeps you informed of what’s happening at the market.

Handicap Parking

One of my regulars has Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Normally a mild-mannered person, on Sunday she fumed with seething indignance over an able-bodied person without a permit parking in a designated handicap spot. At first, she politely pointed the error, hoping the driver would relinquish the space to a handicap permit holder. Instead, the driver got out of the vehicle explaining they were “only going to be a few minutes” adding that in the event of being reported they would be gone before the police arrived.

Ouch! What a lame excuse for illegally parking in a handicap space on top of a heap of rudeness.

Yes, the school lot where the handicap spots are located gets congested, but there is ample free parking all around the neighborhood. Mitch Berliner, founder of Central Farm Markets, pointed out that there is free covered parking in the lot on Saint Elmo just off Old Georgetown. “You can get a spot there and get into the market using the Wilson Street entrance much quicker than getting stuck in traffic waiting for a spot on the school lot.” Plus, your vehicle won’t be boiling hot when you return with your market goods.

Similarly, Pike, NOVA and Westfield all have reserved handicap parking in proximity to the market. Don’t want to haul all your shopping across the street or into a parking garage? Central Farm Markets provides concierge curbside pickup. Just ask market staff at the information tent. Similarly, disabled customers who need assistance, please ask your vendors. If we are unable to assist you, we will locate market staff who can.

Listen, I know it’s been hot, and the market gets crowded earlier. Even if you are quickly running in to get a bag of coffee, fresh bread, pastries or a dozen eggs unless you have a valid handicap parking permit, DO NOT PARK IN A HANDICAP SPACE. {I hope this conveys this issue loud enough}

As able-bodied people, there is so much we take for granted with our unfettered mobility. Before going out in public we don’t have a running internal dialogue about curbs, stairs, restrooms, doors, etc. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, we’ve had thirty years to integrate this issue into our daily lives yet there’s always those out there who have zero compunction for stepping all over someone else’s civil rights.

In Montgomery County, the fine for blatant disregard of the law is $250. In other parts of the country where the problem is more rampant, fines can be as much as $1,000 and a 30-day revocation of the offender’s license for the first offense.

Here’s a reminder about the different types of handicap parking spaces you will encounter and the importance of respecting the specified boundaries. All permitted spaces will be marked with the universal logo of a white wheelchair on a blue background. Van accessible spaces may have one or two areas on either side for ramps and lifts. These spaces are not for parking motorcycles or bicycles and are necessary to facility entry and exit of the van. Do not block these spaces either.

No one is above the law when it comes to parking in disabled parking spaces without a legally administered placard. In addition to respecting the laws regarding handicap parking spots, be cognizant when they are occupied during your drive through the parking lot. Wheelchair visibility can be impaired when driving a high-profile vehicle, especially when backing. People with mobility challenges may not move as fast. Please be vigilant, patient and most of all, kind.

A note to our disabled customers: We at Central Farm Markets believe that everyone deserves access to the farmers market. If you encounter a navigability issue within any of our markets, please bring it to our attention.