Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tales from the Market Part 1: From Farm to Fork

There is a phrase that has been circulating in the food circles for a while now.  It is popular with chefs, trendy restaurants and even foodies.  You may have heard it before.  That phrase is "from farm to fork".  The first time I heard it was back in 2008 when the chef I worked for assigned me to the gourmet salad station.  But what does this phrase mean?  It is quite elegant in its simplicity.  The phrase simply reflects that the food one consumes goes directly from the farm where it was produced/grown/harvested to the plate of the person eating it with little to no go betweens.  This is a nice idea in theory, in practice it is much harder to achieve.  What I mean to say is that not many people (including chefs) have a direct line to farm to get the food they want.  A good way to get that connection is via a local farmer's market.  At a good quality farmer's market you will find a variety of vendors that can satisfy your need for a local connection to your food.

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of being taken to the Rice University Farmer's Market by Rice Dining where I had the opportunity to speak and interact with several vendors there.   This was not my first time here, but this was my first time to really explore and see just what the market had to offer.  One of the first vendors we talked to was Chef Chandler Rothbard from Animal Farm Center.  We chatted about what produce he had brought with him as well as what Animal Farm was all about.  I, along with other chefs from work, were able to procure some choice produce. We got some beautiful watermelon radishes as well as some edible flowers.  I personally got some Swiss chard, green onions and some cremini mushrooms. 

From left to right: Watermelon Radishes, Romanesco, Broccoli, Cremini Mushrooms.
Me with Chef Chandler and our haul.
Right next to the Animal Farm stand was one from Shiner Pork and Beef.  I decided to see what they had to offer and maybe pick something up.  At first I wanted some delicious pork belly, but all that they had brought was already accounted for.  I tried bacon next, but it was the same situation.  Fortunately they did have some ground pork for sale, so I snatched up a package.

Cooler for of deliciousness.

Ground pork I was able to get.
I spoke to several other vendors including Patrick Bierschwale from Katerra Exotics, Jim from Jim's World of Worms and someone from Angela's Oven.  They were all very pleasant and very knowlegable about their particular products.  Patrick informed me of how they raise their animals, the bison in particular.  Jim provides sprouts for several of the chefs on campus and I learn about the sprouts themselves.  During my time at the farmer's market I also tried kombucha for the first time from 3rd Coast Kombucha  and even had a delicious lavender lemonade from Ripe Cuisine.

Bread from Angela's Oven

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when visiting a farmer's market.  You can't go to one with a super market or recipe mentality.  What I mean by that is that farmer's markets don't have a specific set of things that will always be for sale that day.  The thing they sell are often seasonal and dependent on many other factors.  So if you are looking for something very specific there might be a chance it is unavailable.  Keep an open mind and maintain flexibility.  It is better if you let the market dictate what you want to purchase and therefore, what you want to create.

Next, take advantage of the people selling you their wares.  More often than not they had a direct hand in growing, making, cultivating what is in front of you.  Don't be shy and ask questions.  They probably relish the opportunity to talk to someone about what they have.  Be adventurous and try new things.  If you don't know what something is or what to do with it, don't hesitate to ask.  This ties back into my previous point.  Don't be afraid of stepping out of your comfort zone.

Lastly, be prepared to spend a little money.  I will say this, as awesome as farmer's markets are, they are not cheap.  Most of the vendors don't have the luxury of mass producing what they are selling.  That means they have quality premium stuff, but it also means you have to pay a little more than what you might normally be accustomed to.  While a farmer's market might not be an every week shopping trip for everyone, the every once in a while splurge is totally worth it. Houston has several markets throughout the city.  Go out there and experience one.   After all its the only real way to experience the "farm to fork"!

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