'Tis the season to be jolly, indeed. Sound like "Christmas in the Springtime"? Well, it certainly is to chefs and amateur cooks alike throughout Texas. Produce is coming into season all across the Northern Hemisphere, and there's simply nothing like cooking with fresh ingredients, or having that amazing blackberry-based fruit salad first thing in the morning. Doctors and health insurance companies alike recommend diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and now is the time to maximize on that healthy produce.
The best way to buy produce is, of course, through the local farmer's markets. Texas has some of the country's best markets, partially due to the state's long growing season and ability to produce a wide variety of fresh goods. Not only can customers feel good about buying directly from the farmer who grew it -- thereby giving him or her a higher profit margin in a competitive business and helping the local economy -- but they can also leave knowing they're buying a healthier product.
Farmers' markets are also wonderful social venues, bringing together members of the population that may not normally meet -- those from a variety of ethnic, economic, and educational backgrounds. Cities like Dallas, Houston and Austin are great places to witness many cultures coming together to share good food, recipes, cultivation tips, and excellent company.
Many markets feature live music and local craftspeople as well, providing regulars an even better chance to get to know their community, and to honor those who still make products by hand. To meet the person who grows your family's food, or to have a conversation with the one who made your favorite hand-carved oak chest is incredibly enriching.
A recent study showed that an average piece of supermarket produce travels 2,000 miles before it reaches its destination -- and that's a national average, so it includes produce in agricultural states like California and Texas. It may seem silly for an avocado to be shipped to Texas -- a state that can, and easily does, grow it -- but it's all a part of the efficiency-first systems of mega corporations that literally collect, handle, and redistribute tons of food a day. In order to survive such a journey, much of this produce is sprayed with preservative chemicals. Such preservatives reduce spoilage and maintain the product's fresh appearance, but many of the plants' nutrients will still be lost.
In addition, there is serious debate on the health effects of agricultural pesticides. A strong organic farming movement has developed in response to the last several decades' increasing use of artificial chemicals on food products. The issue extends across the national border; certain pesticides that are legal in Mexico, and other countries from which produce is imported, for example, are banned in the U.S. due to known toxic side effects. Because the chemicals are not actually applied in this country, however, the food is allowed to be marketed here, sometimes with measurable levels of the banned substances.
In contrast, produce at a farmer's market only travels an average of 50 miles. Not only does this mean fewer chemicals on the delicate, absorptive skins of most fruits and vegetables, but also that a higher nutrient value will be maintained. A selection of organically grown foods is also available at most farmer's markets. The fresher the food, the more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals are present -- not to mention providing a much better taste. These nutrients aren't simply a way to eat healthy; they also serve to fight cancer, heart disease, aging, stress, depression, and many other ailments.
Texas is an unusually wonderful place for farmers markets. In fact, even residents of cities like Houston, Dallas, and Austin have access to a plethora of locally grown produce, a luxury in any urban area. With its long growing season and varied climate, an array of fruits and vegetables is easily cultivated throughout the state. A short list includes apples, avocados, beans, berries, blackberries, black-eyed peas, blueberries, cantaloupe, citrus, cucumbers, figs, flowers, garlic, grapes, greens, herbs, honey, melons, nectarines, okra, onions, peaches, pears, peas, pecans, peppers, persimmons, plums, potatoes, pumpkins, raspberries, spinach, squash, strawberries, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, watermelon.
The Texas Department of Agriculture's website lists regular farmer's markets, children's activities, and provides a searchable database of all the produce listed above, including farms where the goodies can be picked by hand. Whether you're in Houston or El Paso, you can track where your local farmers markets are, as well as actual nearby farms. Keep in mind that not every small farm, and not every farmer's market, will be listed on the site, so watch for local opportunities to buy and pick locally grown produce.
Here are a few tips for buying fresh produce from the farmer's market, as adapted from a recent publication of the University of Nebraska's Cooperative Extension:
- Carefully check for signs of spoilage or mold. Pick up the fruit, handle it gently, smell it, and inspect the piece from the front, back and sides. Fresh produce spoils quickly, so you want to make sure it hasn't started to degrade before it even hits the fridge.
- Handle all food gently. Bacteria grow quickly in a bruised area.
- Travel home soon after purchasing the produce. If proper storage conditions and temperatures aren't maintained, wonderful food can begin to degrade within hours.
- Store potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter squashes, bananas, and melons in a clean, dry, well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight.
- Avocados, kiwi fruit, peaches, nectarines, plums, mangoes, and pears can be ripened on a counter, outside of a plastic bag, and out of direct sunlight. After they ripen, it's best to refrigerate the fruit until they're ready to be consumed. To accelerate the ripening process, place several pieces in a single layer at the bottom of a paper bag. The insulated off-gases will speed the aging process.
- Most other produce is best stored in the refrigerator, below 40degrees F. Use commercial, food-grade perforated bags, or punch about 20 holes in a non-ventilated produce bag. This will maintain moisture, but provide needed airflow.
- Store fruits and vegetables in separate refrigerator crisper drawers. Fruits give off ethylene gas that can shorten the lives of vegetables, and certain vegetables (like onion) produce odors that will reduce the quality and taste of the fruits.
Here are a couple of great recipes to try with your fresh produce, provided by the Texas Department of Agriculture's website:
Easy Cajun Grilled Veggies
2 Texas zucchinis, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 large Texas white onions, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
2 Texas yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1/4 Cup light olive oil
1 Teaspoon Cajun seasoning
1/2 Teaspoon. salt
1/2 Teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Place zucchinis, onions and yellow squash in a large bowl.
In a small bowl, mix together light olive oil, Cajun seasoning, salt, cayenne pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Pour over the vegetables. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator at least 30 minutes.
Preheat an outdoor grill for high heat and lightly oil grate.
Place marinated vegetable pieces on skewers or directly on the grill. Cook 5 minutes or to desired doneness.
11 Ounces Granulated sugar
4 Ounces Fresh water
1-1/2 Quarts Texas cantaloupe juice
Ice Cream Maker
Directions for the Cantaloupe Sorbet
Combine sugar and water and bring to a boil. Mix with cantaloupe juice and freeze according to your ice cream maker's specifications. Form as needed.
Choose a Texas white wine such as Blanc du Bois as the perfect complement to this cool, sweet treat. (Provided by Pastry Chef Derek Poirier, Four Seasons Hotel, Houston, TX)
So go check it out. Farmer's markets are amazing resources, and they should be used to their fullest advantage -- and for the betterment of your health. You'll be surprised how much variety you'll find, how beautiful simple foods can be, and how eager you'll be to eat!
How you eat when you're young will certainly affect your health as you age, and eventually affect your wallet as well.
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com