Saturday, 25 September 2010

This Little Piggy went to the Market

Shopping in the overly clean produce section of chain supermarkets makes me feel a little dirty.  I have to do it every once in a while, but I feel no connection to food when I walk down the neatly packed aisles, and  pick out a shrink-wraped head of broccoli and a pre-packaged bag of spinach.  In the supermarket, only tiny fluctuations in price and availability give any indications as to the season, and the aisles are stocked with the same items year-round.  Which might not sound like a bad thing, but I can't imagine anything more boring than eating the same thing year-round, unless it's reading Anne Murray's biography.

But what else is a city-dwelling, flat-dwelling vegetarian to do?  I think my ground floor neighbours might get a little tetchy if I tore up their back garden to grow my own carrots, and I applied for an allotment with my local council, but 174 people in my area have to give up their allotments (or die) before I get one.  So in the meantime, every Saturday morning my boyfriend and I trek out to our local farmer's market to find a bounty of local, seasonal produce itching for my love and attention.

I think when you look at the reasons why I love farmer's markets, you won't find this habit excessive or unnecessary.  There are many reasons to grab a canvas bag and frequent your local market, and here are my favourite:

1. Save that Shiny Green Earth:

The overpackaging in UK supermarkets completely baffles me, but I don't see it ending anytime soon.  I routinely witness customers picking up prepackaged produce that is being sold right next to the exact same, yet less expensive, loose produce.  Baffling.  Never once have I seen a cucumber in an English supermarket NOT shrink-wrapped, nor have I even seen loose salad leaves for the picking.  I wonder if children know that peaches don't grow in cardboard trays and plastic (although if tv programs are to be believed, kids today don't even know what peaches are, let alone how they grow). My Canadian counterparts tell me that rather than becoming more conscious about waste, Canadian supermarkets are becoming more overpackaged as well.

We all know that excess packaging creates a lot of waste, and that a lot of waste is bad for the environment, and that things being bad for the environment is A Very Bad Thing.  But what you may not realise is when food is wrapped in plastic packaging, there is a risk of the toxins on the plastic leaching into your food.  Toxins in your food are also A Very Bad Thing.  But when I wander into the bustling farmer's market, my sleepy, Saturday morning eyes witness crates full of unwrapped cruciferous vegetables and bunches of leafy greens bound only by a single, reuseable rubber band.  At most, veggies and berries are placed into a recylable plastic punnet, with no wrapping around them.  So much better.

2.  You can talk to the people who grow your food:

The possibility of having a conversation with a real live farmer who grew the food I am actually going to eat shouldn't fill me with a sense of amazement, but it does.  Most of us are so far removed from the source of our food that we have no idea how it even grows.  So talking to someone who actually works at or owns the farm that produced the ingredients of my dinner, someone who not only knows what a Jerusalem artichoke is, but can tell me how to prepare it, is a weird and pleasing sensation.  Having the farm workers present at the market also means that you can talk to them about their growing methods; some of the farms aren't organic, but don't use spray pesticides.  Some of them may be in the process of obtaining certification as organic, as the process takes years and is costly.  And you can't beat that personal touch: the boyfriend and I once stared long enough at a patty pan squash, trying to figure out what the heck it was, that the seller offered it to us for free to see if we liked it.  I can only imagine the bewilderment that I would encounter if I were to ask a chain supermarket worker if I could have something for free just to try it. 

3.  Seasonal Seeds:

I love the changing of the seasons, and nowhere is this change more apparent than at the farmer's market (especially since the weather doesn't actually change from one season to the next in London).  I love not knowing what I'm going to find, and whether or not rhubarb, or strawberries, or zucchini, or butternut squashes are in season yet.  Markets make me feel connected to the earth in a hippy, crunchy granola, earth goddess, Gaia kind of way.  I feel motivated to make the most of the short seasons of asparagus and tomatoes, knowing that next week they might be gone.  Every week there seems to be something that wasn't there last week, and I leave every week happily anticipating what I'm going to find next week.

4.  Branching Out: 

In the last two weeks of market going I've purchased purple cauliflower (yes, I said purple cauliflower), ruby chard, dark and rich green cavelo nero, teeny baby yellow squash, curly kale, humble hubbard squash, courgette flowers, and orange cherry tomatoes, alongside the stock carrots, potatoes, and onions.  I've never seen six of those items in a chain supermarket.  Health experts recommend eating as many different varieties of plant foods as possible, and all of those items I listed above were not only rich in variety and nutrients, they were local produce that was in season.  Who knew that such exotic produce existed right here in England? 

5.  Being Neighbourly:

I've got nothing against New Zealand farmers, but I don't particularly want to eat their produce, unless I'm actually in New Zealand.  Farmer's markets give you the chance to support local farmers.  If you're worried about food miles (and I think we all should be conscious of the issue), the produce at your market has at most been driven, not flown, a few hours.  Cooking with local produce is better for the planet, and it's better for you; eating tropical fruit that's flown for 8 hours so you could eat it in January just makes no damn sense.

So how does one go about fitting a weekly visit to the market into their shopping?  Because you don't necessarily know what you are going to find at the market, shopping has to be done a little differently.  Experienced cooks will be able to semi-plan meals as they go along, but even if you have no idea what you are doing in the kitchen, you can simply estimate as best you can how much produce you will need to make at least 5 wholesome dinners.  Once you come home from the market, turn to your recipe books and the internet for inspiration on what to make.  You can either make a seperate trip to a regular grocery store, or simply pick things up throughout the week as you need them, whichever way fits into your schedule better.  A very easy and delicious way to utilise what you buy in the market is to make simple preperations of veggies with side dishs of legumes and grains.   Using this macrobiotic-esque method creates a nutritious, delicious and easy-to-prepare plate that will also be visually appealing.   If you would rather make more complicated dishes, or follow recipes, don't be afraid to make substitutions; you might end up spending a fortune if you follow every recipe to a T, and most recipes are quite happy to be messed around with a bit.  If you need to do all your shopping in one trip, think about bringing your most-used cookbook with you to the market with a pen and paper, and just sit down and plan your week before you go to the supermarket. 

The second way to market shop requires less time, but a little more organisation (and glorious, glorious lists).  If you are the kind of person who likes to have a constantly well-stocked pantry, you can simply make a list of every non-perishable/long-life item you want to keep stocked, and mark down when you've used something up.  That way you can visit the market every week, and always be sure of having the non-market items you need to make a recipe.  Using this method, you may only have to visit the grocery store once or twice a month, but the shopping trips will be big ones.  I don't think shopping this way really costs anymore money, but does require forking out more money at one time, so it's not going to be suitable for everyone.  But doesn't the idea of constantly having every pantry item you could ever need always on hand just make your toes wiggle?

Because you are buying local, seasonal produce to base your meals around, shopping at the market is usually completely inexpensive.  However I should warn you that if you are currently on an emergency budget, you will have to use a lot of restraint during your trip to the supermarket, because making two different shopping trips can often result in spending more.  Otherwise, farmer's markets are competely affordable, delightful options.  And yes, they are a little time consuming, but I think most of us spend our time in a lot less efficient ways that focusing on our food and our health.  Like the 45 minutes you just spent reading the moronic comments on an online article. 

So look up your local market.  If you are in the UK, a list of them can be found here, if you live in Canada, try going to this page and click on your province (not all provinces are listed), and if you live in the States, there is a national farmer's market search engine on this site

You can thank me after you're finished tucking into a pile of velvety squash, crispy roasted cauliflower, and lemony kale. 


Marketable Curry

Most of the time when I'm shopping, I come up with meal ideas in my head.  However, there are times when we come home, put everything away, I stare proudly into the fridge at the spectacle of vegetable, and then say, "Crap...what the blerg am I supposed to make with all of this?"  That's when I make this curry.  You can shove pretty much whatever veggies you bought into this dish, but try to come up with a similar variety of types of veggies to the ones I have listed.

3 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 small green chilli, chopped (remove the seeds for a milder curry)
1 cup of cauliflower, chopped into florets
1 potato, cut into thick sticks
1 cup winter squash, peeled and cut into 1" chunks
1 cup fresh or frozen peas
4 largeish mushrooms, cut into quarters
1 cup leafy greens such as spinach or kale, roughly chopped
1 bunch fresh cilantro, remove the staulks from the leaves and chop (optional)
2 tins of plum tomatoes
1 tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
2-3 gloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (optional, but adds a rich zing)
2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted if you like
1 tsp coriander
2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
2 tsp garam masala

Heat the oil in a large frying pan (you will likely need the biggest pan you have), and add the onions and one tsp of cumin seeds.  Saute until the onions become translucent.  Add the cilantro staulks, turmeric, salt and chili and saute for a minute or two.  Open the tins of tomatoes, and use a cheese grater to grate the tomatoes into a bowl.  Add the tomatoes to the pan and conserve the remaining tomato juice.  Add the garlic, ginger, remaining cumin seeds,coriander, and optional balsamic vinegar, and simmer together for a few minutes.  Add the potatoes, squash and cauliflower, with the tomato juice of one can.  Coat the vegetables with the tomato mixture, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and peas and chickpeas, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.  If the mixture is getting too dry, add the remaining tomato juice, or water if needed.  Add the leafy greens, cover, and simmer for another 5 minutes.  Test the potatoes and squash, and cook longer if needed, adding more water as necessary.  Once cooked through, add the garam marsala and stir it in as best as possible.  Add the chopped cilantro leaves, cover and leave off the heat for as long as possible before eating.  Serve with brown rice.

Will be toe-curlingly good the second and third day.