Category: Seasonality

Missives from a Market Farmer: Legumes—Fresh Beans

Article Contributed by Judith Lessler, Durham Farmers’ Market Vendor
Legumes are extremely important to farming and food production because they have a symbiotic relationship with a type of bacteria, Rhizobia. Rhizobia colonize plant roots, pull nitrogen from the air, and convert it into a type of ammonia that plants can use. The plant then makes amino acids which are combined into proteins.
Legumes are used by farmers to enrich the soil. The major plant nutrients are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Phosphorus and potassium are part of the mineral content of the soil and are relatively stable in comparison to nitrogen. Newly tilled soils and forest floors (a planting surface created by the ancient slash and burn method of farming) have plenty of nitrogen. After a field has been farmed for a few years, the nitrogen is depleted. Early on, farmers discovered ways to increase the soil’s nitrogen content. These included 1)planting in river valleys subject periodic flooding which deposits rich soil in the flood plain, 2) adding combinations of manure and plant debris (what we now call compost), and 3) planting and tilling in legumes prior to grain and other crops. Use of legumes to enrich soil was known by ancient Greeks and Romans, with surviving Greek texts from 400 BC mentioning such use. However, the actual chemistry of the nitrogen fixing process was not discovered until the 1880s.
Worldwide, legumes provide about 10 percent of the protein consumed by humans; however, unlike protein from animals, legumes do not provide a “complete protein” in that they do not contain ALL the amino acids we need to make our bodily proteins. Again, long before scientists knew about elements, amino acids, and proteins, we had learned to eat legumes with a grain—corn, rice, or wheat—to promoted health and growth.
There is a multitude of healthy legume/grain combinations.  For example, I spent a significant part of my youth eating pinto beans that were simmered for hours on the stove and served with fresh-baked cornbread. This was a particularly prevalent meal on the days immediately prior to my dad getting his Saturday paycheck. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, published by Oxford University Press, Ful Medames or Ful Mudammes is the “single most famous bean dish” in the world. It originated in Egypt as a breakfast dish of long-simmered fava beans served warm pita bread.
Beans. Beans are described as a remainder category in the Oxford Companion on Food, namely, as “Any legume whose seeds and pods are eaten and which is not classified as a pea or lentil.” This seems like an odd definition me. What about peanuts? But maybe those Oxford University Press folks had heard the song Goober Peas, and think of the peanut as a pea.
But back to beans.
The majority of beans are used in their dried form. When a bean dries, its pod or hull becomes thin and papery allowing easy removal of the seeds. They can them be cleaned and stored nearly indefinitely. Harold McGee who authored the famous text, On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen, speculates that people initially consumed green or fresh beans. Dried beans are not easy to digest, and he believes consumption of dried beans came after cooking was invented. Supporting his theory is the observation that breeders did not develop new varieties of  fresh beans until recently.
Initially, green beans were climbing varieties and were native to Central America and the Andes. Within the past 200 years, breeders have developed cultivars with tender shells and special colors (yellow and purple), that grow in bushes, and that are string-less—without the fibrous strip that holds the two halves of the shell together. Seed catalogues still sell varieties with strings, and many people still refer to all fresh beans as string beans.
Currently, most of the beans available in the Durham Farmers Market are fresh beans. When I was young, all beans were cooked until limp and with “seasoning,” a fatty, cut of pork called fat-back, or with bacon. Now it is more popular to lightly cook or steam beans and to served them with butter, olive oil, and possibly lemon.

Missives from a Market Farmer: Alliums and Health

Article Contributed by Judith Lessler, Durham Farmers’ Market Vendor

I no longer believe that food is food, and that we can ignore the details of what we eat as long as we do not eat too much, have 5 servings of vegetables/fruit a day, and consume enough protein. My recent research on ancient beliefs concerning food and health and new scientific studies on the chemistry of nutrients in food tells me details matter.

The notion of certain foods having medicinal qualities is ancient. A 2015 article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology entitled “When foods become remedies in ancient Greece: The curious case of garlic and other substances” addressed the distinctions between food and medicine in a body of writings called the Hippocratic Corpus (HC), a multi-author work compiled from 500 BC to 400 B. In that time, many medicines were purgatives. Called “pharmakon” they were astringent, bitter, and foul smelling and could not be concocted by the body. Concoct roughly means to digest but includes idea of providing nourishment and supporting growth. “Trophe” was the name for nourishing substances.

Garlic was a major component of the Greek diet, however, it was also considered to have medicinal properties. It was mainly used to promote robustness after other treatments. Women who were treated for displacement of the womb with purgatives, fumigations, and manipulations were encouraged eat both raw and cooked garlic and sip a garlic broth.

Interestingly, at this time (2500 years ago) Greek physicians embraced “dietetics,” a holistic branch of medicine focusing on the interaction between diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

By the Middle-Ages, onions were prescribed as a cure for headaches, snakebites, and hair loss. The majority of the vegetable diet then consisted of beans, cabbages (this would have included greens such as kales), and onions. Knowing how onions enhance bean and green dishes, I was not surprised to learn onions were used to pay rent and as wedding gifts.

By the late Middle-Ages (13th century) herbals (the medical text books of the day) were recommending garlic, onions, and leeks—all alliums—for the elderly and to cure coughs, to kill worms, improve the flow of mother’s milk and semen, and to soften the bladder. Onions were thought to improve eyesight, but garlic was said to have the potential for damaging the eyes and brain. I especially liked the recommendation for constriction of the chest which was to use onions baked under embers served with sugar and butter, which sounds just like a delicious concoction of caramelized onions.

In the late 20th century, modern scientific research discovered and “inverse correlation between garlic consumption and progression of cardiovascular disease,” meaning it is good for your heart. Even though this discovery was made very recently via epidemiologic and clinical studies, garlic extracts are now marketed as a “traditional medicine” to reduce hypertension and high cholesterol. Such a use does not appear in ancient texts!

Ancient recommendations on food and health were based on observation. The ability to research the mode of action of chemicals in food is very recent. The molecular nature of matter was only identified in the 19th century, knowledge that has been known for less than 1-percent of our existences as humans. Not knowing about the chemistry of food resulted in the ancients making some colossal errors. They believed women had a tube in their bodies leading from the vagina to the mouth. Thus, a test of fertility for a woman consisted of “applying a washed and peeled head of garlic to the womb, and determining the next day” if it could be smelled in her breath. If so, she was fertile. We now know the bad-breath comes from an Allium’s sulfide compounds coursing through our blood, making us stink a little, but also protecting our cardiovascular system.

But don’t discount ancient knowledge. We are re-discovering the value of the ancient theory of “dietetics” as we examine the consequences of our modern sedentary life and processed food diet.

Does summer vacation exist for market vendors?

Growing up, summer vacation was always a given. Looking back on those long summer months, I probably took for granted the family trips we would take together. Now as an adult, I find myself counting down the days until vacation, looking forward to traveling and cherishing those moments to decompress and explore a new place.

But what about the farmers and market vendors who depend on those busy summer Saturdays to earn the lion’s share of their yearly income? Do they have the opportunity to steal away for a week or so and partake in the relaxation with their friends and family who may not have a farmers’ market work schedule? Impressively, many do take this time. After chatting with a few of our vendors who got away this summer, I learned that it takes a lot of effort and sacrifice to make it happen.

One vendor spoke about how difficult it can feel to leave for any extended period of time because their farm is a living thing. It requires constant attention and care to thrive, much like a child. Because of this, these farmers spend the whole season training their crew to manage the farm alone in preparation for the time they would be away.  This extra effort and foresight builds a stronger, more capable farm crew and gives the owners a needed chance to decompress. I’d say this is a win-win scenario for any business!

Our market also had a vendor who got married this summer, a few vendors who travelled far away from North Carolina to attend weddings, and many who headed straight for the mountains or coast to be with their families. These vacations are invaluable, and the Durham community who supports and shops at the market plays a huge role in making them possible.

There is so much beauty and bounty offered year-round on our vendors’ tables, and the folks standing behind those tables have worked so hard to bring it to you. Thank you for showing up and continuing to make this market strong, vibrant, and sustainable. We have loved sharing our summer with you, and are excited to soon venture into other seasons together. See you at the market!

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!