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Eight Forty-Eight

Adventures in Food at the Farmer's Market

Now that it's August, local farmer's markets are overflowing with nature's bounty. It's a good time to load up on familiar favorites—like corn and green beans. But it's also a chance to experiment with strange and exotic produce—assuming you're not afraid to take a little risk. For WBEZ, Nina Barrett gathered some friends together to bring us this story.

Related: Recipes from the Farmer's Market

It's Saturday morning, and the Evanston farmer's market is in full swing. The fruits we all know and love are piled high in the stalls: blackberries, raspberries, and fat, juicy blueberries. But over at Teresa's Farm & Herb stall, my neighbor Terry Sullivan is listening to farmer Teresa Santiago make a quirky sales pitch for aronia berries.

SANTIAGO: They're not meant to be eaten just as a plain berry. They're very tannic, they kind of dry your mouth up when you chew ‘em. Take a taste! Maybe you're the one of a hundred who actually like to eat ‘em plain. T SULLIVAN: They're like chewing the inside of a wine barrel, they're great.

As a widely published food and wine critic, Terry's probably tasted worse things than the inside of a wine barrel. But he's tasted better things, too. It doesn't necessarily impress him when Santiago declares that aronia berries have the absolute highest antioxidant levels of any berry on the planet, or that ground up in cookies, they're really stellar. The real reason he plunks down some cash and walks off with these vile, leathery blueberry look-alikes is that I've challenged him and a group of other neighbors to face our Farmer's Market Phobias.

The variety of exotic produce available at farmer's markets has mushroomed in recent years, but even the most adventurous of us don't always take advantage of the diversity. Why take a risk on something intimidating and unfamiliar, when you know you can always just drop an ear of sweet corn into a pot of boiling water and be done with it?

So rather than confront my fears alone, I've organized a sort of group therapy experience among my neighbors. Our mission: to find one item that intimidates us, figure out how to prepare it, and bring it to a potluck supper at my place.

Suzanne Whitely selects a box of patty-pan squash. She's not intimidated by the long, skinny squashes, but these are shaped like little flying saucers.

WHITELY: I still don't know how I think I would prepare these. I mean, to sauté them, you would have to slice them into thin slices.

Terry's wife Monica has bravely decided to engage—for the first time ever—with kohlrabi. She says it's always seemed kind of mystical to her.

M. SULLIVAN: I've heard my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law and gramma talk about it, and I've seen it, so I know what it looks like, but I've never tasted it and I don't know how to prepare it.

I select a bunch of zucchini blossoms. I've only eaten them once, years ago, at an anonymous taverna at the top of a nameless mountain road in Greece.

MUSIC: “Zorba the Greek” theme

Of course, everything you eat in an anonymous taverna at the top of a Greek mountain tastes divine. But there's only one kind of flour I'm comfortable cooking with, and these delicate orange blossoms seem a much better bet for the potluck centerpiece.

At home, I follow the instructions I got from one of the vendors. As I try to coax the gnarled tips of the flowers open to scoop out the stamen inside, I'm mildly terrified of ripping the delicate petal skins. But eventually the blossoms yield one-by-one to my fingers. I stuff them each with a blob of goat cheese, dredge them in egg and flour, and drop them into a pan of sizzling olive oil. Fanned out on a serving platter, they're very impressive: golden-brown fritters on stems, with just a hint of orange blossom poking out the tips.

Suzanne, too, has had to face down party panic.

WHITELY: I found this recipe, and I thought I would be making something just with the patty pans. However, I looked at it and thought, my gosh, that's not going to be enough for all those people. So I had to improvise, and this is what I improvised.

She's combined her patty pans with zucchini, eggs, and cheese—an old Sephardic recipe she found a cookbook. The patty pans, with their crenellated flying-saucer shape, add an impressive decorative element, and they taste good, too.

WHITELY: They're very nice to chew, they're chewy, but very soft in the mouth.
T. SULLIVAN: So you like the mouthfeel, as they say in the culinary game. Mouthfeel is a very big item in the culinary dodge. People work very hard at getting prepared foods to have a certain mouthfeel.
WHITELY: So I did that!
T. SULLIVAN: You have a gift!

Monica, too, has been resourceful. She's gone online and discovered a kind of special support group for kohlrabi newbies. The recipe, which called for layering slices of kohlrabi with onions, butter, and half-and-half, completely transformed the vegetable. Raw, it has the watery crunch of a radish. But baked, it softens and mellows, like a sponge full of butter.

M. SULLIVAN: It's a little like rutabaga.
T. SULLIVAN: What's that root vegetable that everyone's grandmother put one of into soup?
M. SULLIVAN: Parsnips!
T: SULLIVAN: Yes! It tastes like parsnips!

As in any group therapy, there are hard truths to be voiced and confronted. The best thing that can be said for those vile aronia berries is that pulverizing them into cookie dough with copious amounts of butter, sugar, and nuts has masked their flavor entirely. Though the cookies are delicious, we must question whether their antioxidant benefits aren't outweighed by the caloric impact of the vehicle.

Incidentally, Monica thinks my zucchini blossoms look like fried frog legs, and Terry's critique is even more pointed:
T. SULLIVAN: They're better at Villa d'Este. [laughs]

Okay, Terry. Not to sound defensive, because they are a little doughy, but just as it did in Greece, everything tastes better at a 16th century villa in Italy.

So maybe the lesson is that a sense of adventure is all you really need to transform vegetables—and yourself—into something much more interesting. And adding a generous amount of butter never hurts.

MUSIC: Beach Boys “Vegetables”

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