Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gearing up for farmer's markets

Snow in March - not a dusting, but literally inches overnight. Rain in April - not your "April Showers" of rhyme, but buckets of rain, so much that the Illinois river has been at flood stage for the entire month.

And yet, spring has interminably marched on, the crocuses and hyacinth yielding to the tulips and magnolias, and finally this week, to the heady blooms of apple trees and lilacs. On the last day of April, spring - and with it, the growing season - has finally arrived.

Tomorrow will be the first day of the Metro Centre's farmers market. I will have to do some research, but I am fairly certain that this is the longest running farmer's market in the city. According to their site, they were founded in 1977. At any rate, I certainly have fond memories of going there with my father to buy boxes of tomatoes and fresh Manito sweet corn for Stephanie's, along with anything else that looked interesting and tasty.

Now, there are two other farmer's markets in Peoria, and they are certainly worthy of a mention, but as neither of them open until June, I'll talk about them later.

Metro Centre's farmers market is my favorite of the three. The main reason for this is convenience. The riverfront market is only open on Saturdays from 8-12. The Heights market is only open on Wednesdays from 4-7. The Metro Centre market, on the other hand, is open Monday through Saturday, from 8-2 (although I don't recommend trying to go at 1:30 - they are usually packed up and ready to go by around then). So any time that you want to stop and pick up some good fresh produce, you can usually hit up the Metro Centre market to find what you want.

I'm also a big fan of the location, which is a lot more convenient for anyone who lives on the north end of Peoria, especially if you're just stopping in briefly.

Convenience aside, I'm not saying that the Metro Centre market is perfect. Some of the vendors have an annoying tendency to truck a lot of their produce in from alternate locales, either because they want to sell things that aren't ready in central IL yet, or because their farm specializes in only one or two crops, but they want to display more to draw people to their stand. So you have to talk to the vendors to find out where your produce is coming from. I'm not saying that it's bad or wrong for them to sell these things, but if I want tomatoes from Georgia, I'll just run next door to Schnuck's, where they'll be just as flavorless, but cheaper.

Another downside to the Metro Centre market is lack of diversity of offerings, overall. Unless you go on a Saturday, there are only likely to be a few vendors in attendance, and they know what sells well, and often don't bother to try to sell other crops. Try to find young fresh garlic at the Metro Centre market - it's just not to be had. Because the other two markets are one day events, they draw a larger crowd, and some of the farmers who come to them can offer a greater variety of "funky" vegetables and fruits because they're going to get more people willing to purchase something out of the ordinary.

This is not to say that there are not a few gems at the Metro Centre market. You just need to take a little time to learn who they are and seek out their excellent quality and seasonally changing variety.

I will try, over the growing season, to do detailed profiles on some of the vendors at the different farmer's markets in Peoria, and perhaps some of the nearby markets in other cities like Pekin as well. In the meantime, I'll be heading off to Metro Centre tomorrow to see the first offerings of the season!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Morel Moment

Every spring, they sprout.  From the deep south to the border of Canada, everyone waits for the moment they gauge the conditions to be right, and then the hunt is on.  I am referring, of course, to the morel, among the most prized of wild mushrooms.

Here in Illinois, the season is underway, which you are already well aware of if you are a hunter.  I will admit to being a novice in these matters - this is only my second season hunting for them, but I have already learned a great deal, and expect that experience will hone my skills.  Nonetheless, I will post the necessary disclaimer: DO NOT attempt to hunt morels by yourself without fully educating yourself first; if at all possible, go with someone who DOES know what they're doing before attempting to go on your own.

Ok, now that that's out of the way, I'll get down to business.  The morel is fairly unique in its structure, which makes it easier to identify than many mushrooms.  It is club-shaped, with a honeycombed exterior, and a hollow tube that extends throughout the mushroom.  There are three main varieties - black, grey, and half-free morels.  The half-free morels are considered inferior in flavor to the first two, but are often dried to add a morel flavor to a dish later in the year.  Be sure to educate yourself on how to distinguish false morels, some of which are quite deadly.

The harbingers of the morel season are moist, humid weather and a few good, warm days.  Then, you just need to know where to look.  If you know of any old apple orchards, I would start there, as this seems to be a particularly lush growing area for the mushroom.  Other good places include hardwood forests with dead elms.  I have found that they like growing under blackberry brambles, and have heard stories about finding them in abundance along the banks of streams and creeks.  If you are curious about whether morels are up in your area, there are a couple of great sites you can check out.  Morel Mushroom Hunting has a great map that tracks sightings (in a general area sense) and has regional blogs with discussions amongst fellow mushroom hunters.

Morels tend to grow in the same areas year after year, and morel hunters all have their favorite spots.  Don't expect them to tell you where to find such spots though - they tend to be guarded with almost fanatical secrecy.  If you do discover a spot, use a few common sense rules when picking them.  First, if it's a large find, leave a few mushrooms to spore for future seasons.  Second, when picking the mushroom, try to cut it or pinch it off above the base - mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the plant beneath the surface, and by minimizing the damage to said plant, it is likely that it will produce more fruiting bodies which will again produce more spores.  Many serious morel hunters also put their morels in mesh bags, in order to sow the spores as they walk.

One note - morels for sale.  Most morel hunters never sell their morels.  They only find enough for themselves and maybe a few friends or family, which is just fine.  But there are a few who make serious money off of morels every year.  I have no problem with this - especially as I can obtain wild morels, rather than farmed ones, for my restaurant.  However, some people seem to think that people will pay anything for morels, and set the prices at rather obscene levels.  In the past, I have come across them at Whole Foods for $35/lb and had them offered to me by mushroom hunters for $40/lb.  I consider these prices outrageous, and personally, will not pay more than $20/lb.  But, if you have no way to hunt them yourselves, be aware that they are occasionally for sale.

Once you have found the morels, treating them properly is paramount.  While it is true that mushrooms absorbing water is an old wives' tale,  soaking your morels will remove some of their delicate flavor.  I suggest just brushing them gently to remove loose dirt and cutting them in half to look for errant insects.   If you must wash them, a quick rinse is still a better idea than a long soak.

Morels do contain some toxins, at least according to wikipedia, which are eliminated through cooking.  So as long as you make sure to cook them thoroughly, you should be fine.  

Now, I can think of lots of great uses for morels - battered and fried, in a sauce or stew, or sauteed in a pasta.  But in this, I must defer to my childhood memories for a recipe that I consider perfection, perhaps because of associations with our ritual family Sunday breakfast that my father prepared without fail every week.  I'm not going to give proportions, because I just eyeball this sort of thing anyway.

Morel Omelet  

Morels, cleaned & halved
Asparagus spears, woody ends removed, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
Vidalia or other sweet onions, sliced thin
goat cheese

Over medium-low heat, saute your onions in melted butter until they begin to soften.  Add your morels, and saute for several minutes more.  Add your asparagus and saute for one or two minutes longer, until the asparagus softens but is still crisp.

In another pan, melt butter over low heat.  Whisk your eggs, salt, pepper, and either a splash of water or milk to thin the mixture slightly.  Pour your mixture into the melted butter and let the eggs begin to set.  With a spatula, gently loosen the edges and tilt the pan while lifting a edge to let the raw egg run underneath.  When the eggs are nearly set, add the sauteed mixture and crumble some goat cheese, and close the omelet.  Cook for just a few moments more and then remove the omelet from the pan.  Serve immediately.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Culinary Adventures In The Heartland

Fast food chains.  Overweight Americans.  Genetically modified foods.  Giant portions.  Bland, uninspired menu choices.  Really bad wines, both imported, and especially local.

These are all things that we have come to associate with food in the midwest.  Such stereotypes are not without merit.  I mean, anyone who has driven on a state highway knows that you can distinguish the relative sizes of a small town by whether they have enough people to support a Huck's Gas and Food Mart or a real fast food chain restaurant.  With larger cities, such as my own, Peoria, everyone knows that your dining options expand to more upscale chains, and maybe even a steakhouse or Italian restaurant.  But the general perception is that, outside of major metropolitan areas, like Chicago, that there is virtually nothing for a foodie to live for.  This perception expands to any sort of grocery option as well.  

But, as Bob Dylan once sang, the times, they are a changin'...even in the bland and boring midwest.  National trends are slowly changing the consciousness of the American public, and that even includes Middle America.  There are a lot of gems that people miss, and food trends that are stealthily advancing, for the better as much as for the worse.  I intend to talk about them.

Why should you bother to read this blog, you might ask?  Information, pure and simple.  If you are a midwesterner, particularly in the Peoria area, you will find this blog particularly useful, as I seek out interesting restaurants and ingredients available in the area.  

Some of my entries, regarding said ingredients, will aim to provide useful food geek trivia in general.  For instance, did you know that there are three main varieties of blood orange, and that the Moro, the most visually attractive and least flavorful is the primary variety grown in the US?  If that is the type of random trivia that interests you, then this is your kind of blog. 

Then there are the recipes.  Did I mention that I am a fully trained chef?  With nutrition as a hobby?  I will aim to create, or at least share, useful recipes for the ingredients under discussion.

Finally, there are the politics of food.  This country has an incredibly conflicted relationship with what we eat, and there are plenty of opinions and policies regarding food to discuss.  If you aim to become more informed on these issues, you may enjoy reading some of my entries, whether you agree with my opinions or not.

So please join me on my quest for the best foods that the midwest has to offer, where to look for them, what to do with them, and in general, food geekiness.