Saturday, May 15, 2010

To Market: South Bend Farmer’s Market

Having been reared in urban Philadelphia, and later moving to New York where I attended university and later culinary school (I subsequently “cut my teeth” as a professional cook, recipe tester and food-stylist assistant in Manhattan), life in Italy has provided me with my first, true agricultural experiences. I worked at a friend’s estate outside of Siena, where along with his family and several cronies we bottled the wine produced from grapes that grow on a property that's belonged to his family for centuries. I worked in a small restaurant in Modena for a bit, and met a man who makes some of the area’s best balsamic vinegar. I visited the vineyard where he grows the trebbiano grapes used to make his magical elixir, and tasted my first grape fresh off the vine. I’ve
picked tiny, wild strawberries, plucked caper buds from ancient walls, encountered a wild boar and walked among olive groves. I lived in Florence for three years, and discovered the beauty of the Sant’ Ambrogio farmer’s market; frequent excursions there helped me understand the interconnection between “town and country.” Seeing fruits, vegetables and meats in their raw state gave me a new respect for food and the people who produce it. The market also allowed me to participate in the bounty that each season provides. To anticipate the arrival of porcini mushrooms in the fall, savory fava beans in the spring, bitter greens in the winter, and luscious figs in the summer heightened my new-found connection with nature. Now wherever I go, a trip to the farmer’s market is high on my list of priorities.

I live in South Bend, IN part of the year, since my husband teaches in the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame (he’s currently teaching with their program in Rome, which we essentially call home). When I’m there, particularly during the summer, I make a beeline to the bustling local farmer’s market, where I always find some of the best local, seasonal (and often organic) meats, fresh fish (not local, but of excellent quality), cheeses, etc., in the state.

The South Bend Farmer’s Market was established in 1911 as an outdoor venue where local farmers, gardeners, home cooks and businessmen could sell their products to the public. This was the same year the Studebaker Corporation was founded, and their successful car and wagon manufacturing business transformed the town into a vital metropolis that attracted hundreds of laborers (mostly German, Polish and Irish immigrants) looking for solid employment opportunities. As the town grew exponentially the market continued to thrive, so much so that it was moved to various larger locations to accommodate the throngs of shoppers and vendors that made this one of the biggest and active markets in the county. In 1972 the market was relocated to its current cavernous, barn-like space that houses over 100 vendors, and a cafe was added that transforms some of the market’s products into hearty fare such as biscuits and gravy (a mid-west delicacy!), meat-loaf, fried chicken, potpies and burgers (and for those who view “meat as murder” there’s vegetarian chow as well), various cakes and seasonal pies. If you prefer to eat while you shop, you can nosh on a warm pretzel from the Amish bakery, grab a fresh tamale from the Mexican food stand, a spring roll from the Thai food stand or a panino from the Italian deli. In a sense, a local Farmers market is a self-sufficient town that reflects both the traditional and the diverse nature of its community. And more, it gives us the opportunity to nourish our bodies with wholesome, delicious foods that are the results of nature and human hands.

Bicolor Cherry Tomato Bruschetta

Serves 4

Everybody loves bruschetta. In Italy this humble dish is the hallmark of cucina povera (peasant food). The origins of this tasty snack hails from Tuscany. During la raccolta (the olive harvest that takes place throughout October), olive farmers prepare grilled bread that they use to sample the flavor of their oil. Bruschetta is derived from the verb bruciare, to burn, which refers to the method of toasting the bread over a hot charcoal grill. Once you toast your bread, any number of toppings can be added such as white beans, sautéed greens, prosciutto and the classic tomato and fresh basil. Since it’s August, and the market was literally bursting with a kaleidoscopic color of cherry tomatoes, I decided to make a mix consisting of orange and red varieties and lots of garlic.

2 pints of clean cherry tomatoes of diverse colors (or go nuts and use three or more) 1 round loaf of crusty Italian bread 3/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil 3 cloves of garlic coarse sea salt freshly ground black pepper

Cut tomatoes in half and add to a mixing bowl. Using a knife, or a garlic press, mash garlic into a semi-smooth past (it’s OK to have a bit of texture). Add to tomatoes and pour on the oil . Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix thoroughly. Let the tomato, garlic mixture rest so that the flavors marry. Heat an outdoor grill, or indoor cast iron grill pan, until searing hot. Slice the bread in half, and then make even thin slices out of each half (not too thin; about less than an inch). Place the slices on the grill and cook until they are nicely toasted on each side. When all the slices are ready, arrange them on a platter and top with the tomato, garlic and olive oil mixture. Note: I like to sprinkle on an additional amount of coarse sea salt—I like that crunchy burst of salt you get with each bite! I typically forgo the use of basil, or other herbs such as parsley, since I think they overpower the sweet, pure flavor of the tomato, but feel free to use either if you like. Buon appetito!

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