Category: Seasonality

Missives from a Market Farmer: Alliums—Onions and Light

Article Contributed by Judith Lessler, Durham Farmers’ Market Vendor

At the start of this series, I noted that garlic was a member of the genus, Allium. Other important members of Allium are onions, scallions, shallots, and green onions.

Classification of plants and animals into similar groups was practiced in a rudimentary form by the ancients. This endeavor is worthwhile because plants that are related share similar characteristics—such as, growth habits, flavor, and risk of poisoning. Children appear to naturally divide plants in to bitter, and, therefore, not edible and non-bitter or sweet. This is thought, by some, to enhance survival because bitter plants are more likely to be poisonous and have fewer calories. Growing children need lots of calories and are more robust if they avoid poisons. This their preference for sweet potatoes over arugula.

Traditionally plant morphology has formed the basis for grouping. Growth habit, flowering time, structure of flowers and seeds, presences of roots, bulbs, tubers, color, leaf structure, and so on are the basis for classification. Several of the articles on the genus allium note it is morphologically difficult resulting in changes over time in the nomenclature used to for the plants in the genus.

Nomenclature confusion also reigns in ordinary life. People are often confused as to differences among shallots, scallions, spring onions, and green onions, not to mention, plain old onions.  I will now clear this up for Durham Farmer’s Market customers. I am using the classification from Bon Appetit, an influential food and cooking magazine published by the famous mass media company, Conde’ Nast. Why? Because the differences are mainly important to chefs and cooks who are interested in the subtle differences in flavor of each.

  • Onions have bulbs and are sold without their leaves. They come in two types, sweet and storage. When picked, storage onions form a papery dry skin that allows them to be stored for 6 to 8 months in cool dry conditions. Sweet onions, for example, Vidalia onions do not form the dry skin but can be stored in for a couple of months if refrigerated.
  • Scallions and green onions are the same thing. They do not form bulbs and have long, hollow stems.
  • Spring onions look similar to scallions but are actually baby, bulbous onions harvested before they form the bulbs.
  • Shallots have multipart bulbs with separate cloves similar to those formed by garlic; however, these cloves do not have a thick membrane like that in garlic cloves.

Farmers must pay particular attention to one characteristic of onions, namely, whether they are short, long, or intermediate day onions. Short day onions start to form bulbs when the day-length reaches 10 to 12 hours and are grown in USDA zones 7 and higher (southern regions). Right now in our area the day length is fourteen hours and 30 minutes. We will max out at  fourteen hours and 36 minutes. To determine the longest day, one measures the number of seconds, and this usually occurs on June 20 or 21.

I love, love, love long days. So since, without looking at seconds are barely perceptible, without looking at a stop watch, I celebrate a nine day Approximate Summer Solstice. If you want to see the chart for day length by date, go to:

Long-day onions need at day length or at least 14 hours to form bulbs. Onions grow slowly—about 110 days from planting to harvest (3.6 months). In Durham we have 2.5 months in which the days are longer than 14 hours. In Madison WI, days are longer than 14 hours for 3.5 months.

Anyway the gist is: In NC we can only grow short and intermediate day onions. Most of the short and intermediate day onions are sweet onions. For example, intermediate day onions have variety names like Candy and Red Candy Apple. Thus, onions you buy at market are likely to be sweet onions. And, since shallots are long-day Alliums, you will never be able to buy shallots from a farmers at the DFM and you can forget about the need distinguish between shallots and scallions.

Missives from a Market Farmer: More on Garlic

Article Contributed by Judith Lessler, Durham Farmers’ Market Vendor

Garlic’s current status is summed up by the following quote from The Oxford Companion to Food published by Oxford University Press,
“To say that by the beginning of the 21st century garlic had conquered the world would be something of an exaggeration. … [; however,] it is close to complete penetration of kitchens of the world. If folk-lore is correct, [we] are ever closer to the extinction of the vampire.”
Archeological evidence shows that garlic was a well-regarded food before recorded history. Its importance is also evidenced by multiple mentions in the earliest writings. As well as being a culinary delight through the ages, garlic was prized for its therapeutic and health promotion qualities. In recent centuries, it has been thought to fight evil spirits, thus, the reference to vampires in the above quote. The Egyptians believed garlic promoted strength and endurance. This idea was also espoused by Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Indians (East). A belief that arose independently in so many disparate cultures must have a basis in fact, and I have asked myself, “Is the vigor of garlic-eaters due to a spiritual or physiological quality?”
Given last week’s discussion about garlic “making life worth living,” I come down on the side of garlic evoking an invigorating, sustaining, spiritual reaction. Historical reporting supports this thesis.
First, ancient Egyptian records about building the pyramids indicate that the workers daily rations consisted of beer, flatbreads, and raw garlic and onions. A worker rebellion threatened the completion of the Cheops pyramid, and the Pharaoh was forced to purchase the “equivalent of 2 million dollars’ worth of garlic” to maintain the pace of construction.
Second, stories in the Bible of the exodus of Israelites from Egypt indicate the importance of garlic. The story goes like this: When the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians their population began to increase causing the Pharaoh fear a rebellion by this growing minority. Thus he ordered the murder of a newborn baby boys. Moses’s mother save him by hiding him in reeds growing along a river bed.
Later Moses was adopted by a princess in the Egyptian royal family and worked for them in various administrative capacities. When he was grown, Moses killed an Egyptian overseer who was abusing an Israelite and fled, at which point, he was recruited by God to deliver his people from captivity. Apparently Moses could read and write, and God also conveyed the Torah and other religious laws to him.
To facilitate the release of the Israelites, God caused them to suffer 10 plagues, the last of which was an Avenging Angel who went to each Egyptian household and killed their oldest son. At this point, the Israelites escaped Egypt and, under Moses’s leadership, began a 40 year journey through a wilderness to the Promised Land. There were few resources in the wilderness, so God gave the Israelites manna each day. It fell from the sky.
When growing up and studying this story at Sunday school, I imagined the manna as similar to baked yeasty breads, fluffy biscuits, or buttery Parker-House rolls which my mother often made for Sunday dinner. I assumed there was general rejoicing as it fell from heaven. That, however, was not the case.  Whatever fell from heaven was a grain of some sort that had to be ground, boiled, and baked by a fire into a cake which was eaten with water—not much better than barley paste we discussed last week.
People did not want to eat it. Numbers, Chapter 11 describes their discontent:
“We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.”  New American Standard Bible
This is the same group who built an idol in the shape of a golden calf while Moses was away for 40 days and 40 nights conferring with God about the Ten Commandments. Obviously, lack of garlic caused a deeply felt spiritual unease.
I recommend eating fish with Aioli Sauce, the original iconic garlic sauce from the Mediterranean.

Luscious lettuce & glorious greens: It’s the season for salads!

Eating healthy and preparing meals can feel overwhelming. With an endless to-do list and busy schedules, cooking at home or bringing your own lunch to work can easily get pushed to the side. Salads are simple to make, but it’s easy to get into a rut, using the same type of lettuce or green every time.

Spring is the perfect time to try new lettuces and greens, and the Durham Farmers’ Market is the best place to find more than 30 varieties of greens that will tickle your taste buds. Dinosaur Kale, Italian Escarole, Tango Lettuce – the possibilities and flavors are endless! No longer do your salads need to taste “boring” or “bland.”

Greens and lettuces are filled with Vitamins A and C, potassium, iron, calcium and fiber. As a general rule, the darker the green, the more nutrients it contains. No matter the green, it’s hard to go wrong! You can purchase a salad mix at the Farmers’ Market or make your own. Here’s a simple guideline for creating your own delicious mix:

1.) Start with a mild lettuce or green, such as spinach, mache, escarole or kale
2.) Add a crisp lettuce or green, like romaine
3.) Finish with a tart, bitter or spicy green, such as arugula, watercress, mizuna, radicchio, chioggia, tat soi, mustard greens, endive, dandelion, frisee, radicchio, swiss chard, collards, bok choy or turnip greens

Cool-season lettuces and greens thrive in the spring and fall when temperatures are below 70 degrees. These include kale, mustard greens, spinach, chard and looseleaf lettuces. You can find these and many others at the Market right now! Due to North Carolina’s mild climate, you can also find greens and lettuces throughout the summer, such as varieties of romaine and crisphead lettuces.

Spend time one evening this week prepping several salads so you have a ready-to-eat, healthy, local meal at your fingertips when lunch or dinnertime hits. Use the plastic containers or mason jars sitting around your house and fill them with luscious lettuce, glorious greens and local vegetables from your Farmers’ Market. When it’s time to eat, top the salad with your favorite dressing and add any proteins, such as quinoa, meat or nuts. Now you are all set for a meal that will make your body strong and give you the energy you need to continue with your day. Happy eating!

Staying creative with seasonal veggies

As I spritz the last slice of lime into my steaming curry sauce, I smile with relief that I’ve made it out of a cooking rut. I tend to ebb and flow in the kitchen with creativity; it’s easy for me to fall back into a world of stir-fry this and stir-fry that. As a mostly seasonal vegetable eater, sometimes it is challenging to be innovative when my winter market bounty looks similar week after week. I knew something had to change when I stopped eating my leftovers. I emerged from stove top monotony by turning on my oven, this is where my recent culinary excursion began.

Roasted vegetables returned to my menu when I had an abundance of carrots, potatoes, broccoli, and cabbage. Within fifteen minutes I tossed them into a baking pan with butter, coriander, ginger, salt, and pepper. I baked everything until the broccoli started to brown and was more than happy to eat this combination with rice all week. I thought my problems were solved. The following week, I found my second batch of roasted vegetables neglected by Wednesday and reluctantly admitted that I needed to branch out once again. I returned to the stove top but grabbed a pot instead of a frying pan.

I picked up cilantro, lemongrass, coconut milk, limes, and fish sauce, essentials for a Thai red curry. The usual suspects came from the market; green onion, garlic, red potatoes, and the most beautiful cabbage I’ve ever seen. After cooking the potatoes and onions down with garlic and oil, cabbage was added along with water. Then coconut milk, herbs, and spices brought this dish to life. A little sugar and fish sauce creates a delectable salty and sweet flavor, while a bit of lime ties it all together. A scoop of this over jasmine rice was a party for my taste buds, I could feel them celebrate the accomplishment of both a home cooked meal and delicious, unique flavors. Typically, I am tempted to eat at a restaurant when I want to taste something different than what I am cooking at home. The health and cost benefits of cooking my own meals are so great that I try not to go this route too often. Instead, I will continue to find alternative ways to cook my beloved winter staples. Next up, stuffed cabbage and mashed potatoes. Visit us at the market and tell us what you’re whipping up with your seasonal vegetables.

Nourish your body & support your community with your new year’s resolution

This is a time when many of us plan for the year ahead. This year, do you want a new year’s resolution that improves both your health and supports the community? Then try adding one salad per day to your diet with ingredients purchased at the farmers’ market. This salad can be anything from the traditional green salad topped with veggies to a cold quinoa and veggie salad mixture. Want to try something fancier? Pick up beets and other root vegetables, roast them, and top with balsamic dressing over a bed of greens. The possibilities are endless and you will be surprised with the variety of offerings for your salad at the farmers’ market in the winter.

Our daily actions have ripple effects far beyond what we see in our lives. By resolving to improve your health this year by eating one salad per day, your actions will have a positive impact on our Durham community. The Farmers Market Coalition highlights the many benefits of shopping at your local market, including:

1.) Stimulating the local economy
2.) Preserving farmland and rural livelihoods
3.) Increasing access to fresh food for all community members
4.) Supporting healthy communities

It is estimated that every dollar spent at a farmers’ market generates approximately $1.60 of local economic activity. Therefore, if you spend $20 on salad ingredients at the farmers’ market, you are generating $32 of economic activity in our local Durham community. In addition, your purchase ensures Durham and our surrounding counties maintain beautiful green spaces and farmland. Also, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut with cooking, which is why picking up your salad ingredients directly from the farmer is perfect because vendors and other market shoppers enjoy sharing tips for meal prep. Finally, shopping at the farmers’ market ensures that your food travels no more than 70 miles to reach your table. This yields many benefits, including reducing carbon dioxide emissions since your food does not have to travel across or from outside of the country to reach your plate. Also, our vendors often harvest produce for the market the day before, which benefits you because freshly picked produce has a higher nutrient density since key vitamins and minerals often diminish each day after the food is harvested.

Who thought that a simple new year’s resolution to eat healthier could have so many ripple effects in the community? Whether it’s choosing to eat one salad per day or many other healthy options, your resolution can positively impact our Durham community in more ways than one. Let farmers’ markets play a role in helping you achieve your goals this year. From all of us at the Durham Farmers’ Market, we wish you and your family a very happy and healthy new year.

Reduce waste in the kitchen this holiday season with soups and stock

With one major holiday behind us and several more coming up this month, healthy eating can be a challenge due to the hustle and bustle of the season. One of the easiest ways to get ahead this month is preparing holiday meals in advance and freezing them. With the variety of flavors available at the Durham Farmers’ Market, you can easily whip up a tasty batch of soup that will warm your guests in late December.

If you want to get your kids involved in the cooking process, try making pumpkin soup directly in the pumpkin. First, cut the top off the pumpkin to make a lid while cooking and then scoop out the guts, saving the seeds to roast. In the center of the pumpkin, place your favorite soup stock and any seasoning, such as onion, garlic, nutmeg, cinnamon, and butter. Place the lid on the pumpkin and bake at 375 degrees for 1.5-2 hours. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and gently scrape the pumpkin’s flesh into the soup mixture. Use an immersion blender to reach the desired consistency and enjoy. Try an heirloom variety of pumpkin at the farmers’ market and savor the unique flavors of late fall.

Once the holidays have come and gone, we challenge you to reduce waste and save what remains of your meat dishes by making soup stock. What exactly is stock? This refers to the liquid that is made by simmering bones for an extended period of time, whereas soup broth is made by cooking meat for a shorter period of time. Typically stock is made from an animal’s carcass, giving you the added health benefits of the gelatin and minerals found in the animal’s bones. These minerals assist with digestion, can help reduce joint inflammation, improve bone health, and defend against free radicals that can cause you to get sick during the winter months.

Even though leftover bones from a holiday meal have been cooked once, roast the bones in the oven until they are brown, but not too dark. Doing this adds flavor to the stock as it cooks. When the bones are done roasting, add vegetables into the same pan and let those roast until they get a little color. At this point, you can mix everything in a big pot and cover with cool water to cook. Enjoy the stock immediately or freeze for use at a later time.

There are endless ways you can use your stock. For example, you can braise seasonal favorites such as kale, radicchio, and cabbage in stock. You can also cook your grits, rice, or quinoa in stock to give the dish a savory taste.

Ease your holiday stress this year by preparing soup in advance and reduce waste by making stock with your leftovers. Happy cooking!