As Kentucky's growing season gets under way and farmers market vendors fill their bushel baskets to the rims, our menus grow as well.
Some weeks you can buy local meat and potatoes; sometimes you can opt for salad greens, radishes, and heirloom tomatoes; and often you simply choose fresh baked breads, olive oil, herb seasonings, and artisan cheeses to round out the family meals.
A week's worth of great dinners is at our fingertips at area farmers markets.
The Lexington Farmers Market has a lot more to offer than green beans and corn on the cob — not that those aren't fantastic. You can buy grass-finished short ribs, lamb loin chops, English bangers, garlic scape pesto, certified organic eggs, salsa, granola and fresh-cut lillies.
The market also features the Homegrown Authors Series where writers sign books; Sullivan University offers cooking demonstrations; artists and crafts-people display their work; and you can learn about coffee, olive oil, wine, and cheese making; and get health and wellness information from the experts.
Studies show that food grown locally is more nutritious, and buying from neighboring farmers helps the economy.
Jeff Dabbelt, executive director of the market, said although spring "is reluctant to relinquish its grip and some crops are late getting into the ground, I believe the summer market season is shaping up nicely from what I have been hearing from the farmers.
"We are seeing the first signs of summer even earlier than before, as farmers continue to utilize row covers, high tunnels and greenhouses to warm the soil and air temperatures and yield summer produce ahead of normal seasonal schedules. The first squash, zucchini and cucumbers are already on the market, as well as a few early tomatoes."
The market is operating five days a week (Tuesday through Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) at four different locations, and there are no plans to add another location, Dabbelt said.
Each neighborhood market has its own identity.
"Neighborhoods can be a key ingredient in the success of any market, as they are a tangible and functional symbol of community, which is so important in developing customer support and market identity," Dabbelt said.
Leo and Jean Keene, owners of Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, are vendors at the Cheapside and Southland markets. They sell garlic, artisan bread, and meats from Colcord Farm in Paris, Stone Cross Farm in Spencer County. "I think each of our five markets offers unique opportunities and advantages," Leo Keene said.
The Cheapside location is busier than the other markets, and it has more of a social atmosphere. "It's rare that our customers don't run into a neighbor, friend or relative they've been wanting to see," he said. Sunday at Southland slows the pace somewhat, allowing for more extended conversation and exchanging of recipes."
Rona Roberts of Lexington is a loyal shopper at the downtown markets. She buys "food from people I trust so I have confidence in the quality, safety, and 'home training' the food has had. I usually buy certified organic pastured eggs, beef, and chicken, plus many organic vegetables and fruits. Pastured animal protein has become more and more important to me, and it is easy to get a wide range at farmers' markets," she said.
Here are some recipes worth trying this summer that highlight some of the great fresh produce available at the markets.
Garlicky kale and spinach dip
1 cup cooked or steamed chopped kale, squeezed dry
1 cup cooked or steamed spinach, squeezed dry
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Add kale and spinach to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until pureed. Add garlic, pine nuts, and vinegar. Pulse to puree, slowly adding in the olive oil. Scrape down the bowl, add salt and pepper, and pulse to blend. Makes 2 cups.
Source: Kale by Stephanie Pedersen
Summer tart with roasted tomatoes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
18 medium-size plum tomatoes (about 2 pounds)
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon mixed dry herbs, such as parsley, thyme, rosemary, chervil, sage, dill
3 medium-size onions, peeled, quartered, and very thinly sliced
1 ready-made pie crust
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. drizzle 3 tablespoons olive oil over the bottom of a rimmed baking sheet. Cut tomatoes in half lengthwise. Rub the cut sides of the tomatoes in the oil in the baking sheet, and then arrange them, cut side up, on the baking sheet. If the tomatoes look dry, drizzle a little more oil over them. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and the dried herbs over the tomatoes. Roast for 1 hour, turning the pan around halfway through cooking to ensure they cook evenly. The tomatoes are done when they look smaller and somewhat drier. The cut sides will have browned a bit, but not charred, and the uncut sides will feel soft and pillowy. Take out the baking sheet but leave the oven on. Set the tomatoes aside.
Slick a medium-large skillet with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, and warm it over medium heat until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the onions, reduce the heat to very low, and partially cover the skillet to speed the cooking but still allow moisture to escape. Cook, stirring from time to time and making sure the onions do not stick to the skillet or burn, until they are tan and caramelized, with a jamlike consistency, and are reduced to about 1 cup, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Spread the onions over the bottom of the partially baked tart shell. (Place pie crust into a tart pan. Cut off excess overhanging dough. Prick the bottom in about 10 places with the tines of a fork. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cover the dough with aluminum foil. Fill the foil with pie weights. Bake for 20 minutes.)
Then arrange the tomatoes, cut side down, in a single layer of rings, starting at the outside. Overlap them enough so that all of them fit.
Place the filled tart on a baking sheet. Bake until the crust is set and golden brown and all the ingredients are heated through, 15 to 20 minutes.
Release the tart from the pan by pressing up on the bottom from below, letting the fluted rim drop. Then gently slide the tart off the metal bottom and onto a flat plate, using a spatula to loosen it.
Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, but not cold. It can be made ahead and reheated for 30 minutes at 200 degrees. Makes 4 main dish servings, or 6 side dish servings.
Source: The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook
Shaved fennel salad with orange, green olives, and pistachios
1 tablespoon grated orange rind
3/4 cup orange sections (about 2 large oranges)
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pitted green olives (about 3 ounces)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
2 medium fennel bulbs with stalks (about 2 pounds)
1 cup shelled unsalted dry-roasted pistachios
Combine first 7 ingredients in a large bowl; toss gently to combine. Trim the tough outer leaves from fennel, and mince feathery fronds to measure 2 tablespoons. Remove and discard stalks. Cut fennel bulb in half lengthwise, and discard core. Thinly slice fennel bulbs. Add fennel slices to juice mixture, and toss gently to combine. Sprinkle with fennel fronds and nuts. Makes 8 servings.
Note: A mandoline is great for shaving the fibrous fennel bulbs into delicate, thin slices.
Source: Cooking Light Pick Fresh Cookbook
IF YOU GO
Lexington Farmers Market
■ 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Cheapside Park.
■ 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, Southland Drive.
■ 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, corner of University and Alumni drives, near Commonwealth Stadium.
■ 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, Corner of Broadway and Maxwell Street.
Go to Lexingtonfarmersmarket.com
Bluegrass Farmers Market
■9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, at 3450 Richmond Road, in the parking lot of Pedal the Planet and Fast Signs. Go to Bluegrassfarmersmarket.org.
Azur Farmers Market
■ 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Azur Restaurant in Beaumont Centre. Go to Azurrestaurant.com.
Sharon Thompson: (859) 231-3321. Twitter: @FlavorsofKY. Blog: Flavorsofkentucky.bloginky.com.