It's no wonder that farmers markets have become community gathering spots, places where you run into friends and neighbors and hear bits of news. There's often live music and a surprise or two.
On a recent Saturday, the surprise at the Hillsborough Farmers' Market was Alamance Community College's Culinary Competition Team (with culinary technology professor Brian Bailey) serving tasty samples. The food was delicious and, best of all, used at least a dozen ingredients from the current growing season, all available at our local growers' stands.
Sweet potatoes, okra, eggplant, summer squash—exactly the produce I'd just purchased—had been transformed into mouth-watering tastes and textures. It proved that eating locally can become the foundation of everyday meals. Recipes were available for sweet potato hash, sautéed pork tenderloin with apple chutney, fried goat cheese and a Cajun spice fall vegetable ragu similar to ratatouille, among other dishes.
With fall bumper crops of summer vegetables, it's the season to eat richly and put up some for winter. Since sweet potatoes (like apples) are harvested in the fall but available year-round, I buy cured ones by the box to keep my household stocked in vitamins A and C. The aforementioned vegetable ragu I cooked, froze and defrosted just to see how it would fare. It was still delicious, though the individual veggies weren't as firm as on the first round. So if you make a large batch or two, freeze some. Reheated and served over cheese grits or polenta, the ragu makes a hearty winter dinner. Of course, cheese and frozen meat from our area is also available year-round.
Several farmers have assured me that their okra will keep producing until frost (usually late October in the Triangle). I am more in love with the vegetable every year. I grew up eating okra fried in cornmeal and I still fix it that way for my family, but we mostly eat it roasted whole, sautéed, stewed with fresh tomatoes, and now in ragu. My daughter brought me some pickled okra this summer that has become a favorite. Served alongside a green salad made with goat cheese and North Carolina pecans, pickled okra is a crunchy, tangy contrast, a perfect fall side dish. Get a basketful at your market, stuff some half-pint jars, and enjoy our harvest during the cold months ahead.
Professor Bailey's Cajun Spice Fall Vegetable Ragu
Serves 6 as a side, 4 as a main dish
1 average onion, diced
1 leek (or small bunch of green onions), white part only, chopped
1 bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 tablespoons butter or olive oil or a combo
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Cajun spice
1 eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 tomatoes (about 3 cups) chopped, with their juice
1/2 pound green beans, stems removed, cut into 1/2-inch segments
1 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 medium yellow summer squash, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 pound okra, sliced into 1/2-inch segments
In a large lidded skillet, cook onion, leek and pepper in butter or oil until soft, about 5 minutes over medium heat. Add garlic and Cajun spice, and bring to the point of fragrance. Add eggplant and tomatoes and gently simmer on low heat for 25 minutes. Add green beans and simmer 10 minutes. Add squashes and simmer 10 more minutes. Add okra and simmer 5 more minutes, then season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature. Don't forget the option of cheese grits or polenta.
Chef Bailey's note: Use whatever combination of the above veggies you have access to.
Sweet Potato Hash
Serves 6 as a main dish
4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 pound ground breakfast sausage
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Place cubed sweet potatoes in salted water and bring to a boil. Cook until just tender (about 5 minutes after reaching the boil); do not overcook. Meanwhile, cook sausage in sauté pan until brown. Remove sausage from pan and set aside, then drain all but about a tablespoon of rendered fat from the same pan and add pepper, onion and garlic. Sauté until soft then add sweet potatoes; cook until ingredients are incorporated and potatoes are soft but still hold their shape. Fold in reserved sausage and heat through, until hash starts to brown. Serve immediately with a side of sautéed greens.
Megan's Pickled Okra
If you're a newcomer to okra and don't like its viscous middle, pickling (which mitigates this quality) is a great way to eat this generous vegetable. I always buy the smallest pods for all cooking purposes. They're more tender with less viscosity: 2–3 inches long is ideal.
2 to 3 pounds just-picked okra, or enough to fill 6 half-pint jars (stuffed tight)
1 teaspoon dried dill (fresh is not an option due to bacteria possibilities)
6 whole cloves garlic, peeled
6 whole hot red (for color) peppers, such as cayenne (or sweet red bell pepper strips)
2 cups water
1 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher or pickling salt
Heat hot water bath canner to a rolling boil. Sterilize jars and lids in the dishwasher or on top of the stove covered in boiling water. Wash okra and pat dry. Put okra in jars in an alternating top-to-tail pattern as tightly as you can fit them. Distribute dill, garlic and red peppers among the jars. Meanwhile, bring water, vinegar and salt to a rolling boil. Pour over okra in jars, leaving a half-inch head space. Apply lids and rings, twisting only as tight as you naturally would put a lid on a jar.
Place jars in the rack of the canner and lower into the boiling water bath. Return to full boil and "bathe" the jars for 10 minutes. Remove, and while jars are cooling listen for the "ping." Pickled okra will keep until next summer, if you don't eat it up before then.