Tag Archives: Side Dishes: Vegetables

Assembling & Plattering an Heirloom Tomato Salad: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Eating is first a visual experience. Not foremost, but first. And food styling — a fancy name for nicely presenting food — is a combination of painting and sculpture. Really. It is. (The same is true of flower arranging.) You are working with color, shape and texture. Nature provides a paint box loaded with colors. Food also has natural variations in shape and texture though it often needs an assist from you by virtue of the shape and size you cut things. It’s your job to plan and present a menu item that shows off nature — tastefully.

Assembling & Plattering an Heirloom Tomato Salad: A Step-by-step Guide

There are lots of ways to approach this. This is just my way. You are welcome to make it yours. It may seem long and involved, but it is actually quite simple. And by following this step-by-step guide, you will see how to organize that will be of benefit far beyond this post.

Heirloom tomatoes are nature’s paintbox at its most glorious. Heirloom tomatoes are typically something less than twice the price of “standard” tomatoes. But we’re not talking big bucks here. You want to figure one to two tomatoes per person, depending on the size of the tomatoes. If you are preparing for six people. Based upon 3/4 pound per person that works out to a little over 4 1/2 pounds. Let’s round it to 5 pounds to make the math easier. At $2 a pound for peak summer “standard” tomatoes, your tomatoes will cost you $10. “Upgrading” to heirloom tomatoes, will cost you about $8.00 more — or about an additional $1.33 per guest. But you get so much more both in flavor and visual appeal.

After rinsing tomatoes under cold water, using a sharp paring knife, remove the core.

Typically, the skin of an heirloom tomato is more delicate than standard tomatoes as standard tomatoes are bred for transport and durability and heirlooms are bred for flavor and color. As a result, you need a very sharp knife to work with heirloom tomatoes. A serrated knife is often a good solution. If you are having trouble slicing tomatoes, use the tip of your knife to poke a small slit through the skin where you want the slice to get started. Then slice.

Your next step is to cut away “the first thin slice” from the top and bottom of each tomato. These is always the least appealing slices. The top has a hole in it and both have a higher proportion of skin to tomato than the interior slices. They are also more difficult to arrange by virtue of their less regular shape. Save these tops and bottoms for a little tomato salad that you will make to top the sliced heirloom tomatoes.

Next, cut each tomato in half. Cut the tomato halves into slices 3/8 to 1/4-inch thick. Your goal here is to provide your guests an easy-eating tomato salad.

If some of your tomatoes are smaller as with these torpedo-shaped tomatoes, skip the cutting them in half as the slices cut from this size tomato will be fine.

Now take your “end cuts” — the tops and bottoms you trimmed earlier and cut them into smaller pieces — about four pieces each. You are going to use these to make a “tomato salad” to top your sliced heirloom tomatoes. Transfer these tomatoes to a bowl.

Time for the onion. I know some people shy away from onions and home entertaining. But I love onions and garlic and I  think flavor trumps everything. (Feel free to add finely chopped garlic to this salad.) My preference is a farm stand sweet red onion and if you are buying heirloom tomatoes you are probably at a farm stand so pick-up one large or two medium onions.  (There are also new crops of interesting garlics currently available.) I have a video on How to Chop and Onion that you would find very useful.

The key when doing anything with an onion is to leave the root end untrimmed as you can see in the photo above. This enables you to hold the onion together as you slice and/or dice the onion. When you are all done you will discard the little bit of root that’s left.

Here you want thin half slices of a half onion. That works out to quarter slices. Cut onion in half through the root and peel onion skin back to root. Then you can either cut a vertical slice into the onion, not quite back to the root, so when you cut your thin semi-circular slices, they naturally result in quarter slices. Or you can cut full semi-circles and then cut these in half. As you get to the end of the onion it gets harder to make nice slices. Just dice the end of the onion and reserve diced onion and add it to your bowl of diced tomato ends.

The next component is a chiffonade of basil. That simply means long thin strips. Start by making stacks of basil leaves.

With a sharp knife, cut across the short dimension of your stacks to create thin strips.

Here are all your assembled components on a handy tray: the trimmed and sliced tomatoes, sliced onion, basil chiffonade and diced tomato ends.

To the bowl of diced tomato ends and diced onion, add balsamic or good red wine vinegar. As balsamic is not as sharp, you can be more generous with that than the red wine vinegar. Next add some good olive oil — not the very best — to balance the sharpness of the vinegar. Add salt and pepper and mix well. All of this can be done up to six hours before plattering. Refrigerate. But you do not want to serve this ice cold. The tomatoes’ flavor is best at nearly room temperature.

Pick an ample sized rectangular or generous oval platter. White is ideal. Your platter should have a bit of a “belly” to hold the dressing. Certainly you want a monochromatic platter. Set you platter next to your tray of “paints.” In professional kitchen parlance, this is called your “mis en place.”

Begin plattering by arranging rows of sliced tomatoes — creating a rythum of colors as you go. This is called “shingling.” In general, you want to avoid having similar colors next to one another as you shingle a row. Don’t obsess!!! As you can see above, the smaller whole tomato slices work in pairs.

Here are my completed rows.

Now add a thin “layer” of sliced onions and basil chiffonade. Drizzle olive oil over tomatoes. Lightly salt and pepper.

You can certainly use standard salt, pepper and olive oil. The tomatoes will still taste great. But this is the sort of dish that really benefits from some premium ingredients. If you have very good olive oil — above is a bottle of premium extra virgin olive oil from Spain, this is the time to use it. By far my favorite salt for this is the Maldon Sea Salt Flakes. It’s just the perfect texture. At a minimum I would use Kosher salt. Avoid large crystal sea salt as it provides too much crunch and concentrated saltiness. The little box to the right is fresh ground pepper. I grind my pepper in batches in a spice grinder. You could also use a pepper mill. If all you had was store-bought pre-ground pepper, I would skip the pepper. These tomatoes deserve better and better to use no pepper than bad pepper.

The final step is to spoon the diced tomato and onion salad down the middle between the two rows of tomatoes. Use a generous amount of the dressing and rendered tomato liquid from the diced tomato salad. Add a bit of salt and pepper to this. Top with more basil and serve. Make sure you have some good bread to go with this to sop up the residual liquid. See my recent post on Grilled Bread.

So, visit your neighborhood farmers’ market or take a drive to a farm stand, buy some glorious heirloom tomatoes and serve them this weekend to friends and family.

To access all of At Home’s blog recipes, click here. You can also explore past posts by visiting the archives or clicking on the tags on the blog site.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve
Your Home Entertaining Coach

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On the Table: Farm Stands of Northern Chester & Montgomery Counties, PA

At dinner’s end, with guests gone and a tired me sitting on the couch, Christina nicely extolled a wonderful dinner. While I appreciated her compliments, I expressed that this dinner was not a culinary triumph that required any great skill. I asserted, as I often do, that preparing a nice meal is more a matter of aspiration and planning than it is any great skill. You could have prepared this dinner.

Here is the slightly ridiculous haul from my drive through Northern Chester & Montgomery Counties. My farm stand shopping is a matter of faith. I have faith that when I get home I will find good uses for all that I have purchased over the week.

Here was my mostly Northern Chester & Montgomery County Menu:

Hors d’oeuvres
Roast marinated sweet & hot peppers with grilled bread
Deviled eggs
Soppressetta from DiBruno’s
Cerviche of diver scallops with coriander

Dinner
Cold Beet Soup with Cucumbers, Sour Cream & Dill

Tomato & Red Leaf Lettuce Salad

Grilled Shiso-marinated Swordfish
Creamy Corn Salad
Grilled Wax Beans

Cherry Grove Farm Toma Primavera

Peach Sorbet with Blackberries & Doughnut Peaches

Dinner began at 7 PM with the Blanc de Blanc Champagne from J.Maki’s Chester County winery. Everyone agreed it was excellent by any standard — not just excellent for being a local champagne.

Light hors d’oeuvres included roast, marinated sweet and hot pepper, deviled eggs and a DiBruno’s house-made soppressetta. The deviled eggs includes mayonnaise, mustard, a tiny dice or cornichon, fresh chives and topped with sweet smoked Spanish paprika. Frankly, the roasted peppers were a pain to peel — but they were possibly the unexpected hit of the evening. I bought them at a stand in a residential street from a “backyard” farmer whose mode of transport was a golf cart rather than a tractor. The peppers were arrayed in little plastic baskets like we use to serve burgers at Frog Burger — $1 a basket, one red sweet and one hot green. But they were very thin-skinned peppers that were difficult to peel after I charred them in the broiler. I cut them into short, thin strips and tossed them in olive oil and garlic. They were served with grilled bread — something a bit different from fully crisp crostini. I plan to post a “How to Make Grilled Bread” Tip in the next week or so. DiBruno’s house-made dried sausages are a go-to easy hors d’oeuvres addition.

Another very easy hors d’oeuvres are sliced diver scallops — also know as dry scallops because they are not packed in that awful white liquid that lesser quality scallops can be packed. They are simply thin-sliced and “dressed” about a half hour before guests arrive with lime juice, olive oil, chives and crushed toasted coriander seed — plus a little sea salt and pepper. There is a similar recipe on page 149 of At Home using pink peppercorns.

Unlike recent weeks when dinner was served family style on the table — that is, on platters where guests helped themselves, this menu was a plated dinner.

This cold beet soup is the third cold soup I have done this month. As frequently noted, I am a fan of soups as meal starters. They are easy, do ahead and lend themselves to dressing up. Here, the soup is dressed up with a small dice of cucumber, a dollop of sour cream and fresh dill. To make the soup, I just peeled the beets, cut into similar-sized chunks, cooked in a corn stock with onion and garlic, pureed in a blender and flavored with red wine vinegar. Look for the recipe tomorrow.

The cold soup co-opted the first course that would likely included tomatoes so I added a small tomato salad to the menu. I picked up some beautiful red accented lettuce from the Z Farm stand on Rittenhouse Square in the morning. The tomatoes and sweet onion came from my trip as did the basil. So, this is just the lettuce, two slices of tomato, topped with small yellow pear and orange tomatoes — cut into half as even the smallest tomatoes should be — dressed with a little balsamic, very good olive oil, Maldon sea salt and fresh ground black pepper and topped with a basil chiffonade. Everything was ready to go to be plated well before guests arrived.

I had grilled fresh swordfish earlier in the week for Christina and she lobbied to have it again for our guests. Given my failure to locate duck or lamb or pork on my drive, I went for the swordfish. It was marinated in a little garlic, shredded shiso — a minty, grassy herb that I got from Z Farm and olive oil. It was grilled in my grill pan — good as any you would get off a backyard grill. Served with a properly trimmed lemon wedge. There is a similar recipe on page 198 in At Home. I decided to grill the yellow wax beans. Just lightly tossed in olive oil and grill. Here a grill pan is much better than an open grill as there is no place for the beans to fall. The grilling adds a dimension to the otherwise very simple beans. See At Home page 307 for Grilled Green Beans. And what’s the purpose of a summer’s dinner but for an excuse to eat corn. Here it’s shaved with just a little sweet red pepper for color and purple scallion. What was unusual about this corn salad is that I had some leftover home-made mayonnaise from the deviled eggs and felt that the plate could use something creamy so I dressed the corn salad in the mayonnaise. It was sweet and creamy with a little bite from the scallion. One does not frequently see a corn salad with a creamy dressing.

We served the J.Maki Viognier with dinner. Like the champagne, it was also excellent. If you are not familiar with Viognier’s — a varietal grape that typically not bone dry and with tropical fruit overtones. At Home owners check-out the wine chart on page 32.

Rather than a full blown and filling cheese course added to an already ample meal, I served just a little bit of a Toma Primavera from Lawrenceville, NJ’s Cherry Grove Farm. I would put this cheese up there with the world’s best cheeses. It is available at the Rittenhouse Square Farmer’s Market. It’s served with a little grilled bread.

Weaver’s peaches were ripe, sweet, spectacular and easy to handle freestones. I made a peach sorbet by simply pureeing a mix or yellow and white peaches — skin and all – them passing the puree through a strainer to remove the larger pieces of skin — adding a ginger-scented simple syrup and then freezing in my ice cream freezer. It is important to “temper” sorbet or ice cream before serving. That means removing it from the freezer so it has a chance to soften somewhat. The peach sorbet was served with a grilled half of a yellow doughnut peach. I used an apple corer to get the pit out while accenting the “doughnut.” These were brushed with honey from Jack’s Farm Stand of two weeks ago and olive oil and grilled. Blackberries provided a color and slightly sour counterpoint.

Prep and Service Strategy
I always counsel that the ideal is to begin planning a weekend dinner at least the weekend before and spread your tasks over time. My current schedule isn’t allowing me to do this, but here’s how I would approach this meal if I were you. The sorbet and roast marinated peppers the weekend before. (Be careful not to eat those wonderful peppers during the week!)  The cold beet soup early in the week. You can also make deviled eggs mid-week though I would not stuff them until Friday or Saturday. Shop on Thursday for everything else except the swordfish and scallops. On Friday, grill bread and store in air-tight bag, dice cucumbers and chop dill for soup, slice onions for tomato salad, rinse lettuce and store in damp towel, blanch yellow beans, make corn salad, chop garlic for swordfish marinade, make lemon wedges and remove pits from doughnut peaches. Friday also set the table and chill wine.

That leaves for Saturday during the day, slice scallops, marinate swordfish, grill yellow beans, slice small tomatoes and make basil chiffonade. Grill doughnut peaches. Place hors d’oeuvres on platters or bowls. Make sure you give yourself one relaxed hour before guests arrive. If you follow this schedule that will be easy.

To turn-out dinner: dress scallops, bowl and garnish soup, arrange and dress tomato salad, grill swordfish and plate entree, cut cheese and plate with grilled bread, plate sorbet with doughnut peach and peach sorbet.

I am not suggesting this is no effort. Nor am I suggesting you try to repeat this exact meal — though I believe you could. What I am suggesting is that by planning ahead and spreading out your tasks, this can all be fun and not a chore — including the shopping.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve
Your Home Entertaining Coach

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On the Road: Farm Stands of Northern Chester & Montgomery Counties, PA

This past Sunday’s New York Times featured an Editorial Notebook piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg called Death of a Farm. Klinkenborg notes the passing of the Tuttle’s Red Barn Farm, America’s oldest farm founded in 1632. Here’s a link to the Tuttle’s Red Barn Farm website where you can read the Tuttle’s letter explaining their decision. To quote from Kilinkenborg’s piece: “Each year it has become harder for family farms to compete with industrial scale agriculture — heavily subsidized by the government — underselling them at every turn. In a system committed to the health of farms and their integration with local communities, the result would have been different.”

On the Road: Farm Stands of Northern Chested & Montgomery Counties, PA
Some things are predictable about my summer excursions in search of farm stands. This includes a cornucopia of seasonal produce currently including peaches, blackberries, zucchini, corn and tomatoes. Not predictable is the path to find this. And frankly, if were only about the produce, there are easier ways to get this stuff than hunting down farm stands. (For instance, my local Saturday Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market or any day at the Reading Terminal Market.)

As I drove over hill and dale in search of the perfect farm stand, I had to remind myself of the importance of the journey and not just the fruit and vegetables. My carefully researched and exhaustive list of farm addresses offered no assurance that I would actually find that weathered rickety table with hand-lettered signs offering tenderly cared for produce. Sometimes a farm is just a farm.

My drives have provided me with a notion of the best farm stand business model. This includes, in addition to the farm and farmer, a sufficiently dense population that values and is in need of fresh-picked produce. When most of your neighbors are farmers, well maybe that just not the place for a farm stand.

Still, if you stay off the main roads, drive slowly enough to gaze left and right, there is lots to see including beautifully picturesque classic Pennsylvania farms.

And birds of a feather flocking together for a late morning siesta.

And a young family enjoying a late breakfast.

These are primarily serious commercial farms whose business models do not necessarily include roadside stands.

With a long tradition of farming success.

Here is a large field of zucchini but nary a ready-to-stuff zucchini blossom for sale.

Undaunted, I headed north where broad open valleys and long straight roads gave way to creeks, hills and winding roads.

It’s interesting how New Jersey seems to have a tradition of showy signs announcing their presence and extolling their produce. By comparison, Pennsylvania’s signage is more demure — and less fun. In addition, Pennsylvania’s Buy Fresh. Buy Local program does not quite compete with the “Jersey Fresh” campaign. As with most “orchards,” Weaver’s is a large scale operation

But they do offer local corn.

A Farmer’s Market such as Weaver’s typically offer their customers the convenience of produce not locally grown. (I saw no pineapple plantations in my travels.)

Several weeks ago in South Jersey there were only cling peaches — peaches whose flesh sticks to the pit. Freestones, that come later in the summer, are on sumptuous, picked ripe and ready-to-eat display at Weaver’s — yellow or white. Plus sweet yellow or white doughnut peaches. Weaver’s peaches and blackberries became Saturday night’s dessert.

As I headed north I passed several gun clubs and sporting “reserves” where, I assume, hunters stalk and shoot their prey and some bring it to Big Bull’s Taxidermy for stuffing — and not the culinary variety.

Corn is America’s largest crop — more than two times that of any other crop. Most of it is used to produce things like corn syrup and feed for animals rather than what we enjoy at our dinner tables and barbecues throughout the summer.

Corn is bi-sexual with each plant having both the male and female components necessary to produce an ear of corn. The spindly stalk is seen here protruding from the plant’s top.  The stalk at the top is the “male component” and produces the pollen. The pollen is transported by air to surrounding plants. That is one reason corn is grown so close together.

The silk, seen here on an immature ear, is the female component. It catches the pollen. Each strand of silk is a long tube that transports the pollen to the ear and produces the seed. For every kernel of corn there is a strand of silk.

Of course, man does not live by produce alone. Cows seem to have a pretty good life around these parts.

…and goats…

…and why not llamas?

The 35-acre Old Earth Farm in Oley sits behind an 1828 stone farmhouse.

The Reiff Farm, also in Oley, was started in 1732 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today it’s a bed & breakfast in 1815 farmhouse. Driving through this area one cannot help but imagine what the area must have looked like 50 years ago…or 250 years ago when all there was were farms carved out of forests.

I began my drive with 15 potential “farm” locations that ultimately yielded four actual farm stands or farmers’ market. However, I did discover a number of unexpected “honor system” roadside farm stand.

Here is Pleasant Valley farm stand where my purchases included yellow pear tomatoes — you don’t that often find these — a sugar baby watermelon not much bigger than a soft ball, and a jar of homemade sweet cherry jam.

Hauseman’s modest stand provided the beets that became a cold beet soup that will be Friday’s recipe.

And suddenly along a quite and residential road, set-up in his driveway, was this backyard farmer’s stand where $1 baskets of sweet and hot peppers yielded my roast marinated pepper hors d’oeuvres.

Cemetaries are always reminders of lives past of those who toiled in these parts. Here the grave of a soldier that dates to 1868. One can only wonder if this soldier fought for the union in the Civil War — in what other war would he have been a soldier? — and then returned home to his farm?

Churches spires dot the landscape.

Along with more ominous spires. I have often seen the Limerick nuclear power plant off in the distance as it looms over this area. I am of the Three Mile Island and China Syndrome generation. I remember the day the accident occurred — not at this plant but the one near Harrisburg. I took the opportunity to drive as close as you can get to the Limerick plant without being arrested for trespassing. It was remarkable how close this plant is to a small airport and how close you can actually get to it. I find myself wrestling with the role of nuclear power in our nation’s strategy to move away from the dangers of fossil fuels. These two towers appeared quite benign though I am aware of the potential danger that lies within.

On the other hand, it is hard to ignore other dangers that lurk along the road.

Some farm stands are very modest in scale but inventive in execution. It was at the Stimigo Farm stand that “the farmer’s wife” — sensing I was a cook — handed me a recipe for Zucchini Pancakes. Over the next few weeks I plan to modify this recipe some and offer you more to do with the avalanche of zucchini likely to appear soon at your neighborhood farm stand.

Clearly the day’s “winning” farm stand was Barry Davis Produce. I had been tipped off by a blog ready about how this was a farm stand worth the trip. There was who I imagined was Barry himself, looking much like the guy who I just left the fields, taking the cash while who I assumed was Mrs. Davis stocking the produce with he son’s assistance. Certainly a family affair.

The quest for Barry Davis Produce was a key determinant in establishing my day’s driving route. However, it’s address at the intersection of Germantown Pike and Smith Road in Collegeville — it had no numbered street address — proved to be completely perplexing to my GPS as it apparently requires a number and a street. However, through the wonders of an alternate technology, I followed the Google Map displayed on my G3 enabled miracle of an iPad to finely hit pay dirt and Barry Davis Produce!

Which brings me back to Tuttle’s Red Barn Farm’s last harvest. In no small measure, Tuttle’s Farm’s demise after nearly 400 years of continuous operation is the result of “progress” aided and abetted by advances in technology. These changes in technology have had major pay-offs hardly limited to mapping routes. Advances in technology led to increases in overall economic productivity and a net reduction in the cost of food as a percentage of our income. In 1929, on average food as a percentage of income in the United States was 24%. By 1970, that had dropped to about 14% and today it is less than 10% — the lowest in the world. That means that more people can afford to eat better and more money is available for non-food purchases. But “progress” has also resulted in changes in our lives that are not so good. This includes more time spent working and less time to prepare meals at home. And because in supermarkets nearly all farm products are available from some farm somewhere in the world all the time, we have become disconnected from our time and place in the world.

Now here’s my point: We are not prisoners of “progress.” We are not mere bystanders in some inexorable march into a future. We make choices. These choices include where and how we shop — the value we place on ingredients — and whether we prepare meals at home for family and friends. Through our actions we are writing our prescription for the world’s future. We decide whether our future world includes small family farms and farm stands and farmers markets offering wonderfully fresh seasonal produce. The fate of Vermont’s Tuttle’s Red Barn Farm and Collegeville’s Barry Davis Produce and Princeton’s Z Farm and Salem County’s Mr. Tkach is not inevitable.

Front row, left to right: Tiny ears of “un-sprayed” corn, beets, sweet cherry jam, zucchini, sweet onion, patty pan squash, tomatoes, variegated eggplant, leeks, yellow beans, cherry peppers and bi-color corn. Second row: Sugar plums, sugar baby watermelon, blackberries, honeydew, basil, spaghetti squash and sweet and hot peppers. Third row: Little orange and yellow pear tomatoes, yellow watermelon, cantaloupe, white and yellow peaches and yellow doughnut peaches.

Tomorrow — On the Table: The Farm Stands of Northern Chester & Montgomery Counties, PA
Beginning this week I will divide my weekly excursions and the resulting meal into two blogs rather than a single longer blog. The first post — On the Road — will share with you the day’s journey. A separate post on the following day — On the Table — will include the resulting meal. This will enable me to provide more focus on what you can do with all this stuff as well as provide more coaching on how to put your meal together. So, for instance, tomorrow there will be a post called On the Table: The Farm Stands of Northern Chester & Montgomery Counties, PA. Then, the following day I will post a recipe representing something I prepared. Somewhere in here, maybe earlier in the week I will try to keep the Tips post going.

My goal is to increase your home entertaining and to encourage you to shop locally — at farm stands or farmers’ markets — and invite friends and family to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of your efforts…At Home.

Friday — Cold Beet Soup with Cucumbers & Sour Cream
If you’re not a fan of beets, it’s time to give beets another chance. And if you love beets, you’ll love this soup. For access to all of the At Home blog’s 80-plus recipes, go to the Recipe Index.

Next week: On the Road: The Farm Stands of Long Island’s North Fork
About halfway out on Long Island, at Riverside, the island splits. The South Fork borders the Atlantic Ocean and the North Fork faces the Long Island Sound. The Peconic Bay sits in between and divides the two forks. While the South Fork is home to the Hamptons, the more rural North Fork is home to great wineries and more than 40 farm stands — not just farms. I don’t plan on visiting all, but it should be an interesting and productive trip and I look forward to sharing it with you.

Next may include Lancaster County. I have already received some good advice from a blog reader, but if anyone can suggest Lancaster County farm stands, I would certainly appreciate it. The internet clearly has its limitations.

Addendum regarding the “blind-folded” horse
My post about Chester County included a photograph of a “blind-folded” white horse. A blog reader and equestrian provided the explanation that an important purpose of the “blind-fold” — which is actually a mesh through which the horse can see — is to keep flies off the horse’s eyes and, in so doing, make the horse’s life more pleasant. I appreciate the explanation as I strayed from my area of knowledge.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve
Your Home Entertaining Coach

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On the Road: Farm Stands of Chester County, PA

Please be clear that my weekly drives through nearby “foreign lands” are meant only to be impressionistic. I start each drive having done some desktop internet exploring. This provides a general plan and a series of destinations. I plug these into Google Maps. I have figured out that once I have my destinations pin-pointed on Google Maps, it is simple to re-arrange and rationalize their order. I have some ambivalence regarding this function as it has the potential to provide a little too much intentional and not enough meandering.  But given the vast expanse of Chester County, it would have been crazy to spend the day back-tracking from place to place. Once on the road, I plug my destinations into my trusty GPS so I can fearlessly get lost. My point here is that I am sure there are wonderful places I am missing. These are not definitive guides. Rather, they’re just one curious guy’s drive. I welcome reader’s comments and suggestions regarding places I’ve missed.

Chester County, PA
This past fall Christina and I spent a wonderful birthday weekend in southern Chester County that included a number of excellent meals including two lunches at Tulula’s Table in Kennett Square. It had been my first visit to Chester County in years.

Chester County is a sprawling expanse that stretches from Delaware and Maryland on the south, Lancaster County on the west, Berks and Montgomery Counties to the north, and the western Main Line’s Delaware County on the east. It is the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania and 24th wealthiest in the United States. Nearly 500,000 people live in Chester County — about 60% more folks than lived there just 20 years ago. By virtue of this influx of new residents, it’s political leanings have altered with Barack Obama the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the county since Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964. With a population density of 217 per square mile, it is on average, vastly closer in feel to Salem County’s 190 than Mercer County’s 1,552. But you don’t drive through “averages.” Southern Chester County feels far more congested than the delightfully spare northern stretches.

The area around Kennett Square is dubbed “the mushroom capital of the world.” But my quest was not mushrooms grown in dark rooms, but produce grown on sun-drenched fields.

Long ago, Route 1, aka Baltimore Pike, was the main road connecting Philadelphia to Baltimore.

If I did this tour again, I would not try to do both southern and northern Chester County in one day. Actually, but for the excuse to visit Tulula’s Table, I would confine my visit to the north. The north seemed far less congested and more physically beautiful. Once I got past the congestion of the south, roads narrowed and shaded and wound through hills, along ridges overlooking lush valleys and passing many large and classic Pennsylvania farms.

Wide fields, dense woods and distant hills.

In addition to farm country, Chester County is also horse country.

Here is a seemingly blind-folded white horse with a braided tail. The “blindfold” is actually a light mesh that only restricts the horse’s vision and is sometimes used to calm horses.

A principle farm product is hay — here stored in a barn along the side of the road.

Serendipity plays a large role in what provides the lasting images of a drive…or walk for that matter. A spontaneous decision to see “what was up that road to the left?” brought me to a long expanse of a stunning bamboo grove. Bamboo is one of my favorite things. I have many books on bamboo. Of course, pictures — these included — are no substitute for being there. It was a breezy day that caused the bamboo to gently sway and make a rustling sound.

It’s not Madison County, but here’s an old covered bridge crossing one of the many creeks that through the county. In northern Chester County is French Creek State Park.

Here is a link to the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust. It includes information about the trust’s activities and a helpful guide to local foods in and around norther Chester County. Look for the PDF link to this guide at the bottom of the Trust’s homepage. There is also information about what looks like a wonderful culinary event this Saturday, July 31st — the annual Homegrown Harvest Supper and Hoedown.

Highland Orchards

A large commercial orchard was home to a fairly conventional “produce shop” that featured just-picked orchard fruits, local produce and produce from far away. There was also a bakery.

Pete’s Produce Farm at the Westtown School

Pete’s 170 acre farm is on the grounds of the Westtown School, a Quaker secondary school.

Pete’s carries a wide variety of produce — most of which is raised on the farm, but also includes produce from places far away from Chester

Here are gourds hanging from an arbor adjacent to the parking lot. They have a long wait to their fall harvest.

I have been looking for garlic scapes all summer and finally found them at Pete’s. They are the mild shoots that grow out of the tops of the in-ground heads of garlic. They have a delicate garlic taste. I added blanched, chopped garlic scrapes to the new potato from tiny Wynnorr Farm potatoes (following) dressed with a fresh lemon-tarragon mayonnaise made with olive oil. Scapes are also excellent simply sauteed or grilled.

Stratton’s Wynnorr Farm

You can tell a lot about a farm from its sign.

You just had a sense that this farm was lovingly tendered by hand.

While the tables were not overflowing, they had crates of potatoes that put the “new” in New Potatoes. It occurred to me at the start of this drive that I had been over-looking the humble potato in favor of their more glamorous relatives and I made a mental note to try local potatoes. Wynnmorr Farm also offered three varieties of corn — yellow, bi-color and white. I asked which they reccommeded and was told they were known for their yellow. I added to my basket a small block of local Conebella Farm Horseradish Cheddar.

Sugartown Strawberries

Strawberry season is a June memory at Sugartown Strawberries but an honor system farm table offered eggplant, peppers and squash and some of the biggest, fattest sunflowers around.

J. Maki Winery

Some of J. Maki’s 16 acres of vineyards occupy a gentle slope that leads down to the winery.

Tending the shop was Janet Maki, vineyard keeper and wine maker. Maki began J. Maki Winery in the early 90’s after a twenty-plus year career with IBM. In selecting the location, she was struck by similarities in climate, soil and topography to many of France’s great wine growing regions. Unlike the more modestly aspiring and priced wines of Unionville Vineyards from New Jersey’s Hunterdon County that I purchased at the Trenton Farmers’ Market, Maki produces premium wines including a champagne that received a prestigious French award.

Nearly forty years ago, as I started visiting wineries from Napa to Bordeaux, I was always struck by how wine-making starts with farming and that wine is produce, in another form.

My sampling of j. Maki wine under the shade of Sugartown Strawberries’ sunflowers from left to right, Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, Blanc de Blanc Champagne, Viognier, Petite Verdot.

Amazing Acres
A call from winemaker Janet Maki to her neighbor Fred brought me to the basement door of Amazing Acres, makers of artisan goat cheeses.

Set high on a hill overlooking northern Chester County, here is the home of Amazing Acres twenty goats. What began as a 20-year love of their pet goats evolved into this mom and pop business a year ago. Fred is helper to his wife, Debbie. Fred and Debbie “retired” into the grueling but satisfying life of Chester County cheese makers. Amazing Acres cheeses are available in Philadelphia at DiBruno’s 18th Street and 9th Street stores.

The Farmer’s Daughter

Names conjure images and mine was a quaint little farm stand overseen by, who else?, the farmer’s daughter. Instead, I pulled up to a mega-stand offering a library of produce that included a nice selection of locally grown.

Best was the right-off-the-back-of-the-truck white corn that Christina and I enjoyed several hours later — as sweet and good as any corn either of us ever had that we enjoyed with some left-over grilled turkey flank steak with a little Green Tomato Ketchup from Tulula’s Table and some heirloom tomatoes from Pete’s Market dressed with my very best olive oil. The joys of summer…At Home.

Heading home from northern Chester County and looming in the distance is the vaguely menacing presence of the Limerick nuclear power plant. When you set-out on the road you don’t know what memories you will bring back. In Salem County it was Mr. Tkach and his cucumbers. Mercer County a toss-up between the “bouquet” of turkeys in the air at Lee’s Turkey Farm and the humble honesty of Kerr’s Korn. I set-out in Chester County expecting to find lush farm stands around every turn in the road, but instead found two women farmers — one a tender of grapes and winemaker — and the other a tender of goats and a cheesemaker.

At Home. From left to right starting in first row: Wynnorr Farm’s yellow corn, apricots, jalapeno, patty pan squash, garlic, heirloom tomatoes, Amazing Acres Crotin, baby eggplant, Tulula’s Table lamb sausage, tiny golden tomatoes, lima beans, Jack’s Farm honey, blackberries, more heirloom tomatoes, Tulula’s Table Green Tomato Ketchup, Conebella Farms Horseradish Cheddar, Amazing Acres herb-covered goat cheese, sunflowers, cantaloupe, Amazing Acres fresh goat cheese, red watermelon, yellow watermelon, sugar plums, Maki wines — Blanc de Blanc, Viognier, Petite Verdot, Ice Wine.

On the Table: Saturday Night Dinner at Home with Friends
A little supplemental shopping at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market added to my Chester County haul — and assorted fresh sausages from DiBruno’s made for a delicious summer’s eve dinner with friends.

Our evening began with fresh Black Berry Spritzers — made from pureed Chester County blackberries, simple syrup and seltzer. You can make your own fruit spritzers — a fresh fruit “soda.”

Our friends are beer lovers so the menu was beer-friendly. They “harvested” a wonderful selection of beers for our dinner.

Serious dining began with the last of my three pounds of Pimientos de Padron with grilled bread. I trued to place another order from La Tienda, but they are currently out of stock with more expected soon.


Pasta followed dressed with olive oil, sea salt, fresh black and a quick sauce made from assorted small tomatoes.

Dinner Buffet


Clockwise from six o’clock: Corn and lima bean salad with garlic scapes, tomato salad, new potato salad and grilled vegetables.

Corn and lima bean salad with garlic scapes included local purple scallions, sweet onion, cilantro, garlic, red wine and rice wine vinegars and olive oil.

Tomato salad with torpedo red onions, purple basil and miniature tomatillas served over butter lettuce and dressed with balsamic and olive oil.

Grilled garlic scapes, patty pan squash, baby zucchini and eggplant.

Our cheese course was three goat cheeses from Amazing Acres. A sweet ending came from Metropolitan Bakery’s biscotti and flourless chocolate cake.

Everything was prepared in advance and almost everything served at room temperature. I just had to quickly saute the peppers, cook the pasta and warm the tomato sauce and grill the sausages. My “time in the kitchen away from guests” was minimal.

Tomorrow’s Recipe — Cold Lightly Curried Zucchini Soup

Next week — On the Road: Farm Stands of Northern Chester County with a touch of Berks and Montgomery Counties
I found this week’s trip a bit farm stand frustrating — actual farm stands were few and very far between — with the feeling that that there was more there than met my curious eyes. So I have a new plan to explore more of Northern Chester county and include bits of Berks and northwestern Montgomery Counties. I look forward to sharing the fruits and vegetables of my travels next week.

The following week I am heading out to the farm stands of Long Island’s North Fork.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve
Your Home Entertaining Coach

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On the Road: Farm Stands of Mercer County, NJ

Farm Stands of Mercer County, NJ

The Joy of GPS
Yes, I understand that most people use their GPS to get from A to B. Pity. The true joy of a GPS is its stubborn determination to get you to your destination — regardless of the deviations and detours from its directions. This is very liberating to the intentional meanderer. No longer do you have to worry if the lure of an un-programmed left turn will leave you hopelessly lost — and, God forbid, have to ask for directions. Your GPS cares not. It will simply re-group and provide you with a new path — and never pout or be resentful of your willful disregard of its instructions.

Mercer County, New Jersey
Into the hot soup that is our summer of 2010 we drove – across the Burlington Bristol Bridge and north up Rt. 206. Mercer County strides north and east of Philadelphia along the Delaware River in the crux of the elbow that is New Jersey. Compared to my prior destination of South Jersey’s Salem County with its population of about 65,000, Central Jersey’s Mercer County is home to 370,000 people. And with a population density of 1,552 per square mile, it is eight times more dense.

Mercer county has an entirely different feel from the more hard-scrapple South Jersey. Mercer County is home to elite private prep schools and Princeton University as well as numerous multi-national corporate headquarters. While there are pockets of farmland, Mercer County offers little in the way of Salem County’s long isolated country roads. And Mercer county’s roads provide small allowance to drivers going nowhere in particular — slowly. Here, riding lawn mowers that maintain manicured lawns surrounded by painted white fences far out-number farm tractors. Lush, clearly wealthier, and less tranquil, our trip included a mid-afternoon traffic jam through Princeton. No clothes drying on lines in the sun. Pools more likely to be in-ground than above. While there were occasional broad vistas across open fields, more likely those fields have given way to housing developments, garden apartments and country estates. It is of note that while Trenton is the state capital, the governor’s residence is in Princeton.

On the other hand, its farm stands are more fully stocked.

First, Hot Dogs!
A cardinal principle of intentional meandering is to not let your destination deter you from a detour — especially if a hot dog is involved. And so, as we drove north through Burlington County on Route 206, we passed an eye-catching sign on the opposite side of the road. A U-turn brought us to Russ Ayres Hot Dogs, 680, US Rt. 206, Bordentown.

This just goes to show the importance of a good sign. The pastel yellow shack and bold sign were eye-catching and said something good was going on inside.

Guests are greeted by this slightly scary character who is dispensing ketchup as well as mustard despite the store’s admonition that ketchup is just for hamburgers — a product unavailable from Russ Ayres. Russ sells just hot dogs – $2 with the works – onion, sauerkraut and mustard. Bigger appetite? Try the more elaborate chili dogs, cheese dogs and chili-cheese dogs. Get them to go or find a seat at the six person counter. The standard assortment of bottled beverages is available. We went for a pair of hot dogs with the works. After all, this was really a late morning breakfast with a full day ahead of us.

It was in Russ Ayres Hot Dog Stand where we learned that despite our apparent proximity to Philadelphia and the Phillies, the Go Yankees sign declared we had left home and our Phillies behind.

Nestled behind Russ Ayres was Gelato’s, a stand that offered the ideal follow-up to our hot dogs. Think of it as a mini-food court. Christina likened the scene to something you might find along the road in Italy — a notion I thought was quite a stretch. Still, the brace of conical evergreens, red umbrellas and wrought iron tables and chairs provided some distraction from the awning reminiscent of Rita’s Water Ice.

My preference to try their homemade ice cream yielded to Christina’s preference for a black cherry ice layered with soft vanilla ice cream — something that is available at your local Rita’s.

Our GPS setting to avoid highways took us through the streets of Trenton as we headed to our first stop, the Trenton Farmers Market. As we journeyed along we noted a Trenton pierogi shop that we would have visited, but for our recent hot dog detour.

Trenton Farmer’s Market
960 Spruce Street, Trenton
Seemingly out of an era that preceded glizt, the Trenton Farmer’s Market, open daily except Monday, is home to a combination of farmer’s and ethnic stalls with an occasional craft or thrift table – a sort of 1950’s Reading Terminal Market in miniature. As a farmers’ market is a collection of farm stands, it provided a preview of the produce we would find on the road.

A little more research or curiosity would have taken us to the Halo Farm Store — famous for ice cream and dairy products, located just across the parking lot from the Farmers Market.

It’s not the White House, but it does have an East and West wing. Actually, shaped like a cross, there is also an un-named north and south wing. Local farmers truck their produce to their stalls in the Farmers Market.

Jersey is famous for corn and tomatoes. Nearby fresh picked Jersey corn. Despite the searing heat, most Mercer county tomatoes were still a week or so away.

Our July 16th visit was Jersey corn give-away day.

You can buy by the piece, by the pound or by the bushel. Peaches, hot peppers — never sure what to do with an entire bushel of hot peppers — zucchini and cucumbers are in abundance.

And it’s berry season. Not strawberries — they are an earlier season fruit, but lots of blueberries and luscious blackberries — the best of the berries though often needing a touch of sugar to pick them up.

In addition to farm fresh produce, the Trenton Farmers Market is lined with ethnic stands including Pulaski Meats.

And an Italian bakery that reminded Christina of sweets her grandmother baked.

A cheese case worthy of sophisticated big cities.

It’s not showy, but it has a gritty authenticity.

A Pennsylvania-Dutch stand sells fried chicken, roast pork and spare ribs — eat in or take-out.

Included among the farm stands and prepared food stalls was a modest table sampling and selling wines from Unionville Vineyards. Unionville Vineyards is located in nearby Ringoes, in north neighboring Hunterdon county. Very drinkable and fairly priced, we bought three bottles: a 2006 Heritage White (mostly semillon grapes), a non-vintage Big Red Fox, mostly syrah grapes and a 2008 Fields of Fire, an attractive dry rose from Pinor Noir grapes.

Nestled in a separate building across from the Framers Market is a fresh fish store called The Crab Shack.

A Saturday’s trip to the Trenton Farmers Market will provide you with everything you need for a delicious low-stress Sunday dinner for friends and family — the freshest of produce, butcher-worthy meats and fresh fish to grill and just-picked fruit and fruit pies for dessert.

Terhune Orchards
330 Cold Soil Road, Princeton
Farm stands exist on many scales. Some are modest mom and pop operations. Mom and pop toil long hours doing the lion’s share of the work. They may get some help from sons and daughters and grandpa and grandma – but they are mostly family affairs. Marketing consists principally of a roadside sign and a kind of “build it and they will come” approach. Others, like Terhune Orchards, are larger in scale with more employed workers and differentiated tasks that include more aggressive marketing.

A pretty as a picture entrance welcomes you.

Terhune has an outpost in the Trenton Farmers Market, a large farm store at the farm — not simply a stand — a substantial website and even publishes a “newspaper” and regular recipes geared to its wide selection of seasonal produce.

There is an area of the store dedicated to organic produce. It lead me to wonder what the opposite of organic produce is…inorganic?

A sign shows the wide variety of fruit and produce that Terhune grows and when it’s available. The red bars indicate when you can pick-your-own at the farm. Pick-your-own was a feature of nearly every farm stand we visited.

Zinnia’s summer rainbow of colors are as much a part of summer’s harvest as peaches and tomatoes.

My goal in visiting farm stands is to find things that I cannot find at my local Whole Foods Market. At Terhune’s, these included fresh currants that I have combined with sugar to create a currant syrup to combine with seltzer for a fresh fruit spritzer.

Petral apples, small sour and green, are Terhune’s first apples of the season. Mine went into a rice salad with almonds and shiso leaves. More about shiso leaves later in the blog.

Since I’m not a baker, I love the sight of fresh-baked fruit pies — baked by someone else.

And it’s impossible to resist a cinnamon and sugar-coated cider doughnut. Well, apparently it is possible as Christina did resist. Maybe it’s just me?

A pair of yellow labs enjoyed their “apple-a-day.”

With the temperature in the mid-90’s, a frozen cider slush was an ideal summer cooler.

Kerr’s Kornstand
317 Pennington Rocky Hill Road, Pennington, NJ
Thanks to the generosity of a friend and former Mercer County denizen, I had already previewed Kerr’s sweet signature corn – dropped of at our apartment two weeks ago. It’s tiny first of the season kernels were now plump with sugar.

Kerr’s stand was modest enclosure supplemented by a farm table.

In addition to their own produce, Kerr’s offered Circle M Peaches from Salem County. Though Salem county is only about 75 miles south, Salem county’s peaches…and tomatoes arrive several weeks earlier than Mercer county’s.

There are scores of tomato varieties. Here are Kerr’s first of the season, called July 4th because they are ready by Independence Day. Kerr’s was also my source of bell zucchini — a fat, round variety. I stuffed these with grape tomatoes and roasted them. Stuffing over-sized zucchini — common as summer progresses — is an excellent way to use large zucchini that have an unappetizing pulpy interior that benefits from being scraped away. A recipe for this will be forthcoming.

Lee Turkey Farm
201 Hickory Corner Road, East Windsor

How did Lee”s Turkey Farm promise of the “sweetest” corn compare to Kerr’s? Despite buying a dozen ears from Kerr’s, I had to add four ears from Lee’s for an at-home “corn tasting.” Unlike Kerr’s white, Lee’s corn is yellow.

Though Lee’s farm goes back six generations, it holds the distinction of establishing New Jersey’s first “pick-your-own” option in 1964.

Ronnie Lee is the sixth generation Lee. He works with his fifth generation dad and seventh generation children. Different farms — especially those that endure for generations — employ different strategies to extend their business and season. For Lee’s. it’s 3000 turkeys! Lee’s sells 90% of its turkeys in November. I suggested to Ronnie that he promote his turkeys for summer grilling. When we provided the food services for Philadelphia’s Mann Center as we did for a decade of summers, turkey “flank steak” was a staple of our Bravo menu. With that, I found my farm stand recipe for this week.

Look for Grilled Marinated Turkey “Flank Steak” with tomorrow’s blog.

Stult’s Farm
62 John White Road, Cranberry

From the road, Stult’s Farm Stand looks as though a tornado had picked up a Lancaster county PA Dutch farm and plopped it down in Mercer county. This was primarily the result of the distinctive black carriages that marked the entrance to the stand.

Stult’s primary commitment was clearly to the Pick-Your-Own set. For those less intrepid, the pickings were slimmer and for us included just a few soil-covered onions that turned out to be a sweet addition to a weekend cucumber salad. (I’m still trying to use up Mr. Tkrach’s cucumbers. Thirty eight down, two — the one’s that got buried in my produce bin — to go.)

Many years ago, the great retailer and founder of Crate & Barrel, Gordon Segal taught me that the key to merchandising is massing and simplicity. (At Home book owners see page 363.) While the produce in the fields may have been outstanding, the produce displayed on the tables got the simplicity part but was missing the massing. Here’s Christina — not fully satisfied with Stult’s.

Z Food Farm
3501 Princeton Pike, Lawrence Township
Z Food Farms has a small stand at my neighborhood Rittenhouse Square Saturday Farmers’ Market. I like it because they have produce that I don’t see at other stands. A few weeks ago it was tiny yellow wax beans — similar to haricot vert, and kohlrabi — a crisp cabbage-tasting vegetable perfect for a simple summer’s crudite. This past weekend I bought shiso leaves. Shiso is a leaf typically used to garnish sushi — usually bright green, heart shaped, with lots of little spikes around the edges. (If you should be lucky to get a shiso leaf with your sushi, wrap it around some shredded daikon — another familiar garnish, and dip it into your soy-wasabi. Yum.) It is one of my favorite flavors and a leaf rarely seen in markets. My first encounter with shiso was many years ago at Omen — a Japanese restaurant in Soho — that’s still around and still wonderful. A meal at Omen would not be complete without a bowl of shiso rice, steamed white rice scented with the distinctive anise flavor of the leaf.

Over several weeks of visiting their stand on the Square, I learned from mom and dad “Z,” who manned the stand, that their son’s farm was in its first year. I decided that it should be included on my Mercer county tour. Though our GPS insisted that we had arrived at our entered address, Z Farm Foods was nowhere to be found. Undaunted, we circled back and forth until we discovered a sign-less location with nothing for sale. It was not until this past Saturday, when we reported our attempted visit to mom and dad, that we learned that for now, Z Farm Foods only operates it farm stand on Wednesday afternoons. But, a new walk-in refrigerator is due this week that will enable Z Farm Foods to expand its farm stand hours.

This past Saturday I did buy some of Z’s garlic that I used – thin slivered and not chopped — in my “What to do when you buy too many small tomatoes” Sauce. Z’s garlic is seen here curing at the farm. It’s a lot of garlic. But mom and dad say it will all be gone by fall.

Little Acres Farm
238 Federal City Road, Pennington, NJ

Little Acres was a modest and unassuming stand befitting it’s name.

Half a watermelon — from Salem county and a local cantaloupe were added to our produce haul. In years past I despaired of local cantaloupes — always finding them tasteless and mealy. But I have had repeated good luck this year including at Little Acres.

Along the road there were occasional no-name stands.

Here down a narrow road.

And the occasional unmanned stand operating on the honor system.

As our day stretched into early evening and our car packed with produce, we decided it was too late and we were too tired to head home for dinner. Instead, we headed for Lambertville, NJ — along the Delaware just north of Mercer county in Hunterdon county. There we met an old fellow restaurateur — Reed from Astral Plane, who was holding down the floor at the Hamilton Grill. Astral Plane, long a fixture on the 1700 block of Lombard Street and a veteran of the first Philadelphia restaurant renaissance, opened just a few months after Frog in 1973 and provided years of warm welcomes and fine dining — thanks to Reed.

The Hamilton Grill is a BYO so be sure to stop at the Unionville Vineyards table at the Trenton Farmers Market. We were very glad we did as dinner without wine after such a nice day would have been a disappointment.

Tip: Of course our white wine was not chilled — having been a passenger in our car for hours. The waiter stuck our wine in the freezer to get it chilled. FYI: The fastest was to chill a bottle of wine is to place it in an ice bath in an ice bucket — lots of ice plus enough water to surround the bottle fully, and then add lots of salt – regular table salt is fine — to create a brine — just like the old-fashioned way of making ice cream. The salt hastens the melting of the ice which has the effect of rapidly chilling the wine.

I’m like the kid in the candy store – except my candy is farm stand produce. Here is our day’s haul.

From left to right: Grape tomatoes, radishes, Lee’s yellow corn hidden under the radishes, currants, watermelon, nectarines, doughnut peaches, bell zucchini, Lee’s boneless turkey breast, cantaloupe, onions, more grape tomatoes, Petral apples, Kerr’s white corn, and just off camera, Kerr’s 4th of July tomatoes. In the background, partially consumed Unionville Vineyard wines. All Jersey Fresh!

They’re Back!
It’s Pimientos de Padron season. These amazing peppers, that I first discovered in Madrid a few years ago, are available in the United States for a short summer season.

I bought mine via the internet from La Tienda, the site that specializes in Spanish and Latin foods. Here’s the link to last summer’s blog about these little devils along with a recipe. I strongly suggest ordering a pound or two – a pound will easily serve four, buying some very good bread, lots of beer, some excellent cheese and watermelon and inviting friends and family over for an easy dinner they will not forget. An alternative to cold beer is iced sangria. See At Home page 51 for my Sangria recipe.

Pimientos de Padron were the centerpiece of a recent dinner at home with Christina and Noah — along with Turkey “Flank Steak” and Roasted Grape Tomato Stuffed Zucchini.

Upcoming recipes from this week’s harvest:
Grilled Turkey “Flank Steak” – tomorrow
Roasted Grape Tomato Stuffed Bell Zucchini – soon
“What to do with too many grape tomatoes” Quick Tomato Sauce – soon

Next weekOn the Road: Farm Stands of Chester County, PA
Next week I head south and west of Philadelphia. I hope sharing these experiences encourages you to take to the road to visit farm stands or, at least, to visit your local farmers market and enjoy this bountiful harvest with friends and family…At Home.

Reminder that all of At Home’s blog recipes are available on the blog site — accessed through the recipe index.

Please pass along to others who you think would enjoy going along On the Road.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve
Your Home Entertaining Coach

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On the Road: Farm Stands of Salem County, NJ

Note: This photo-filled blog is best viewed on the blog site. If you are not viewing it there. simply click on the title. As always, if you think of someone who would enjoy this, please pass it along.

It is curious how we travel to far-away places to rent a car and turn down a country lane to get close to the “real” wherever. Yet, we rarely get into our own car to explore country lanes close to home. I have lived in Philadelphia since 1964 and until my trip to Salem County’s back roads, all my trips were through Salem County — on the main highways — on the way to Avalon or Cape May. (See At HomeThe Event That Came Closest to Not Happening on Page 241.)

My goal in the On the Road series is to share with you the joy of discovery that comes from a little intentional wandering.  By intentional wandering, I mean doing a little research to establish a few destinations and using this as a starting place to wander. It’s neither aimless wandering nor is the destination the singular purpose. Put another way, it purposeful meandering. The idea is to look left and right and not just straight ahead.

Of course, most of my focus will be on food with an occasional non-food observation.  This summer I plan to visit area farm stands and farmers markets. As with all that I do on this blog, it is my hope that what I share will lead you to more home entertaining.

Some Definitions
First, a few definitions. A Farm Stand is located at a farm and is essentially a rural entity. Farm stands ideally sell only products from that farm or neighboring farms. A variation is a roadside stand that sells local produce from area farmers — though not attached to any particular farm. Inevitably, stands sell products brought in from far-away — like the Texas watermelons offered by one Salem County stand, to augment their sales and provide shoppers convenience. It should always be clear to the shopper what is “Our Own” and “Local.” On the other hand, Farmers Markets provide an urban outpost to a collection of area farmers.  They are typically manned by the farmers (or their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers) and sell products just harvested from their farms. Farmers Markets often are mini-malls selling related like products like fresh baked bread and pies.

Why shop at farm stands and Farmers Markets?
Why shop at farm stands or Farmers Markets? As I have said before, cooking that’s sensitive to seasonal changes is a way of staying connected to your particular place in the world. And cooking starts with shopping. Food shopping can be an enjoyable leisure activity and not always just a task for which your only satisfaction is crossing out things on a list until you’re done.

Fresh produce is a thing of beauty. At a minimum, farm stands and farmers market products are far fresher than similar products you can find in the supermarket. Fresher usually means tastier. Ideally, you occasionally find products that you just don’t see in supermarkets — like the large bunch of dill weed that I purchased to go with the huge $3 basket of Kirby cukes. Though my Kirby cuke purchase was a good buy, in general, low price is not why you go to these markets.

Finally, there is something “life affirming” in buying directly from farmers and, in so doing, supporting their efforts. A world with small local farms is simply a better world. Think of your purchases as a delicious way to help preserve an endangered species.

The Farm Stands of Salem County, NJ
My trip plan began with modest internet research. “Farm stands” –” roadside farm stands” — “farmers markets” and “Salem County, NJ” brought me to several websites. Though I have appealed for suggestions of farm stands on this blog, no one had offered any in this South Jersey area. And off I went one glorious morning last week.

Salem County is quintessential South Jersey, located in the southwest corner of the state along the Delaware Bay just below Gloucester County and across from New Castle County, Delaware. It’s flat and forested, punctuated by broad expanses of fields, modest farm houses and country residences with above ground pools and clothes hanging on the line to dry in the summer sun. Per capita income is modest at $20,874  Total population of Salem County is about 68,000.

While not all roads lead to Pittsgrove Township, there did seem to be a cluster of farm stands around there. So, it was off to Pittsgrove — about a 45 minute drive from my Center City home.

On a rare cool summer day with cloudless blue skies, signs of faith and a faded past stand out against a backdrop of lush fields of corn and soybeans.

These are soybeans, grown for processing and not likely destined for your local Japanese restaurant.

It soon became clear that my little trip offered more than simply peaches and tomatoes. Though Salem County would hardly make any Ten Most Beautiful Counties in the Unities States list, beauty was abundant if one simply bothered to look around.

A colt grazing with its mother. Certainly not horse country, but horses none the less.

Horses of assorted sizes and shapes.

Curiosity meets curiosity. If you get out of the car, you can get up close and personal.

Sometimes curiosity is best served from inside the car. Here is a turkey vulture having lunch by the side of the road.

Walkers Farm Market was my first stop for no good reason except that I put it first on my list. I made no effort to line up my destinations in any rational sequence. As a result, I occasionally backtracked over the same roads, but they never looked just the same twice. I always noticed different things.

In season at Walkers modest stand were Jersey peaches, tomatoes, string beans and blueberries. It was not clear which of these were actually grown by the Walkers. The watermelons were from Texas.  Assuming there was a Farmer Walker, it seemed to be his teenage daughter holding down the stand. As each trip and associated blog will feature a recipe, I began wondering what the recipe would be for this blog.

Weaver’s Farm Market was next on my list. More substantial than Walker’s, the stand included a “garden center” with greenhouses filled with annuals as well a a broad selection of farm-raised produce, carefully signed as “Jersey Fresh” — meaning farm grown and local , and items marked “Our Own.” Weaver’s was neatly ordered and run by what I assume were the Mennonite farmer’s wife and daughter.

In addition to fresh produce, one sign expressed: We appreciate our customers being modestly attired. Another provided a prescription for a good life.

Lovely small beets and a big fat bunch of apple mint caught my eye. These are the sorts of things I like to find at farm stands — things I am not going to find in my local supermarket.

Though Maple Acres has had corn from their fields for several weeks, there was little Jersey corn on my pre-July 4th trip. Wojculewski’s specialized in corn. No corn, no Wojculewski’s.

This is not precious organic farming country. The parched field in the foreground is the result of weed killing chemicals and not the parching sun. Fields are “cleared” this way, then plowed and re-planted. In the background, adjacent to the woods is a lush green field.

Only occasionally farms have given way to housing developments as the country yields to echoes of the suburbs.

As urban roads make way for bikes, these country roads make way for tractors.

In the background sits a wide bank of solar panels to help cope with future energy challenges.

As communities develop ways to support and preserve pastures and farmland.

Both private and public. A “Chosen Freeholder” is an elected representative, here in Gloucester County, north of Salem.

The wonderful thing about discovery is that when you set-out, you never know what it is that you will discover.  The highlight of my trip was meeting Mr. Tkach of Tkach’s Farm. Mr. Tkach is 80 years old.

He was born two years after the farm was established in 1928. At the age of five he began working with his father. He recounted that as a teenager he and his father would take the cart up the road to what was then a German Prisoner of War Camp — Rommel’s Afrika Korps, according to Mr. Tkach, to fetch the garbage to bring back to the farm to feed the pigs. The woods across the road from his farm stand have long-since reclaimed the POW site, but he assured me that the concrete base of the guard tower remains. He told of how the POW’s would play soccer all day and when the ball got kicked over the fence, he’d just toss it back.

This is his field. To the right — out of the photograph — is an expansive field of dill weed. To the far left are okra plants. Surrounding the field is a new fence. It cost $6,000 with 1/3 paid for by New Jersey, 1/3 paid for by a government farm program and 1/3 paid for by Mr. Tkach. It’s another example of the community commitment to  maintain small family farms — though as he pointed out, the same program is available to New Jersey agribusiness.

It’s not fancy, but it’s fresh. And what caught my eye was the basket of beautiful Kirby cucumbers on the right — the entire basket for $3 and the generous bunch of dill weed for $1.50, already bagged for me in the the yellow bag, partially obscured to the left. I know I did a cucumber recipe for my Maple Acres blog so I couldn’t do that again, but I do love pickles and thought maybe I’d make a batch and share an additional cucumber recipe.

It was at Wm. Schober Sons, that I discovered Peach Cider. The facility wasn’t cozy looking as I assume that most of their efforts went into more commercial distribution of their products. The cider came from “Jersey Fresh” Circle M Fruit Farms. It’s not exactly fresh crushed apple cider for peach enthusiasts. It is pasteurized and contains “peaches, sugar, water, all natural peach flavorings, and erythorbic acid to promote color retention.” I never knew peach cider existed and it’s delicious in a somewhat processed way and benefited from a squeeze of lime and a little seltzer — a peach spritzer.

Salem’s landscape includes orchards like Schober’s.

You could do a nice little book just of just New Jersey farm stand signs — here across the road from Schober’s.

Deer Apples and Deer Sweet Potatoes are meant to feed deer — and, my guess, a form of “deer bait” for hunters.

Along the road backyard farmers pick-up a little extra income with “honor system” stands.

Some very modest.

Given that it’s peach season in Salem County, peaches ended up as my ingredient of choice for this week’s recipe. Early season peaches are “cling,” meaning that the flesh clings to the pit. The cling varieties are distinct from “freestones” that begin to arrive in Jersey orchards in August. The flesh of  a “freestone” peach separates easily from the pit and so lends itself to recipes requiring attractive peach halves or slices. To remove the flesh from the stone of a cling peach you need to just slice in away with a sharp paring knife. While a pretty peach half from a freestone is perfect for poaching or grilling, cling peach pieces work in things like cobblers, chutneys and butters. The recipe that will accompany this blog will be for Fragrant Peach Butter — published tomorrow.

I am new to the wonders of GPS Navigation Systems. Much to my surprise and delight,  there is a setting that provides a route that avoids highways. In keeping with the spirit of my journey, heading home on back roads seemed the consistent path. In many respects, the trip home proved of equal  — though dramatically different — interest as my sojourn through Salem County. As I headed back to Philadelphia, country lanes gave way to suburban tracts and these, in turn, gave way to the gritty industrial corridor of Gloucester City marine terminals along the Delaware River. And then on to scenes of the oppressive urban poverty of Camden, New Jersey.

With a poverty rate of about 10%,  Salem County is no Xanadu. Yet at 44%, Camden holds the distinction of the highest poverty rate in the nation! Much like my prior trips were on main highways through Salem County on the way to somewhere else, my contact with Camden has mostly been with the small strip you pass through from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge on the way to anywhere else.  Driving through Camden along the river from the south was an eye-opening exposure to block after block of raw urban poverty. The photo above slightly obscures a small vegetable garden planted around the cross in a weed-filled empty lot. The sign reads “Heal Camden.” That sign and barren garden seemed more a cry of despair than an expression of hope. Ten minutes later I was in the comfort of my home.

Here’s my Salem County farm stand haul. Back row left to right: Kirby cucumbers, red leaf lettuce, peach cider, cranberry blossom honey, peaches, dill weed and corn (yes, there was some early Jersey corn). In the foreground, scallions, apple mint and beets. All Jersey Fresh.

As the week progressed, my refrigerator filled with produce without purpose. Purpose was found with an impromptu July 5th dinner I shared with my brother-in-law Larry. A short stroll on Saturday through the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market had yielded sweet yellow “haricot vert” and a crimson sploached broad beans. These got simply blanched and drizzled with very good olive oil. There were left-over tomatoes from Maple Acres that I tossed with balsamic and cilantro. The big, fat asparagus from Sue’s Market were simply grilled and Sue’s Lancaster County corn quickly blanched.

My produce “leftovers” were supplemented by a trip to DiBruno’s. DiBruno’s highlights included large, pickled Spanish anchovies — a personal favorite, a pate flavored with wild mushrooms and some sliced hard salamis. In the back right is a pitcher of apple mint tea from the bunch of apple mint I found at Weaver’s Farm Stand. Earlier in the week Weaver’s little beets became a beet and red onion salad, long-since consumed.

And here are my pickles from Mr. Tkach’s farm.

Tkach’s Farm Stand
824 Almond Road
Pittsgrove, N.J.

For further information on Salem County Farm Stands.

Next: On the Road: The Trenton Farmers Market and the Farm Stands of Mercer County, New Jersey

This Saturday’s Chestnut Hill Book Festival
This Saturday, July 10th at 2 PM I will be at Laurel Hill Gardens as part of the Second Annual Chestnut Hill Book Festival. I will discuss the At Home Project and its mission to increase home entertaining. My focus will be working with fresh herbs and will include an “herb tasting,” talk about planting a backyard herb garden, working with fresh herbs as well as a recipe demonstration of fresh salsa, chermoula — a sort of Egyptian “pesto” we are currently featuring at Cleo’s Portico at The Franklin Institute and a simple herb marinade for grilling. Lots of things to taste. Of course, I will be happy to sell and sign books. Please help spread the word. Hope to see you there.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve
Your Home Entertaining Coach

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Avocado & Black Bean Salad Recipe

A colorful salad with a Southwestern flair combines tender beans and avocado with crisp peppers and onion and a sweet orange dressing. Be sure to pick avocados that are ripe but still firm or they will lose their shape. You can substitute red pepper if orange and yellow peppers are unavailable. You can also substitute 5 cans of beans for the dried beans and skip step 1—this might impact the texture and color of the salad but it will work in a pinch.

do ahead Salad can be made to step 3 up to one day ahead.
1 pound black beans, picked through for stones
and soaked for 6-8 hours
zest and juice of 2 oranges
2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
6 scallions, sliced
1/2 cup medium chopped orange or yellow pepper
1/2 cup medium chopped red pepper
1/2 cup medium chopped red onion
1/2 tablespoon finely chopped jalapeño
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 head romaine lettuce, leaves separated, washed and dried
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
1 teaspoon olive oil
3 ripe but firm avocados
1 In a medium saucepan, cover beans with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat, partially cover pot and simmer gently until beans are soft, about 1 1/2-2 hours. Rinse and drain beans and toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt.
2 In a small saucepan, bring orange juice to a boil and continue boiling until juice is reduced by half, about 8 minutes. Transfer reduced juice to a small bowl and allow it to cool. Make the dressing by adding garlic, rice vinegar, olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt and black pepper.
3 In a large bowl, combine beans, dressing, orange zest, scallions, orange pepper, red pepper, onion and jalapeño. Toss to coat evenly. Allow beans to marinate in the dressing for at least 30 minutes.
4 Just before serving, peel and cut avocado into small cubes (about 1/4-inch). If the avocado sits out undressed it will discolor. Add avocado and cilantro to salad and toss to distribute. Check seasoning and add more salt and pepper to taste. Serve salad on a platter lined with a bed of lettuce.

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