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Markets bustle in the fall

I have been continuing my efforts to support the farmers in the area, especially the ones near the fires in Santa Rosa. I hope you are too.

This week I visited with Stokes Rucker who owns Ludwig Farms in Santa Rosa. Stokes has been farm gardening for more than 50 years. He used to farm in New York, where he grew vegetables on 50 acres of land. Now he and his son farm on 10 acres on Ludwig Avenue, which is located between Stony Point and Llano on the outskirts of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Stokes specializes in eggs, and when his ducks are laying he will have duck eggs as well as chicken eggs. He also grows potatoes, cabbages, broccoli and best of all in my opinion, collard greens. He is always at the Eastside Farmers Market on Tuesdays, and sells directly at his farm on Ludwig Avenue as well as going to a market in Santa Rosa each week.

Collard Greens

I have never met a green that I didn’t like, but it took me many years to understand how great collard greens are. Now they are one of my favorites.

One of the best ways to enjoy collards, especially if you have never tried them, is a Brazilian dish called Couve a Mineira or Garlicky Collard Greens. The keys to this dish are to use lots of finely minced garlic, and to cut the greens into very thin strips, which helps to break the fibers.

I pull the stems out, lay the greens on my cutting board, and then cut them crosswise into strips about 1/8 to ¼-inch wide. I also make a couple of cuts lengthwise so the pieces end up being about 2 inches by ¼-inch. This sounds so precise as I write this, but they don’t need that degree of precision. Just make them very narrow, and easy to get onto a fork.

Heat the garlic in enough olive oil to film the bottom of a large saucepan, add the garlic and just sizzle it a bit but don’t let it brown. Add the collards with some of the water that clings to it from washing, and some kosher salt, and give them a quick sauté until they turn bright green. Don’t overcook them.

There are a number of other ways to enjoy collards. I recently made a Mexican-inspired pork and hominy stew and finished it with some handfuls of collards.

On another day, I made collard green tacos with beans that were outstanding. The collards in this case were cooked longer, and the long cooking helped them take on a smoky taste that went great with the beans, some homemade tomatillo salsa, avocados and handmade corn tortillas. This is a super recipe to try if you are having a dinner party that includes some people who might be vegans, but really anyone will enjoy this lovely dish.

Escarole

Last week I went to the Saturday Farmers Market at Walnut Park and spoke to Min-Hee and Damon Hill who own Min-Hee Hill Gardens in Sebastopol. They caught my attention because of the gigantic head of escarole that they had for sale. I adore escarole, and this was labeled Batavian Endive with a cute sign that said “sweet and slightly bitter,” but Min-Hee was holding it up saying “very sweet” with great enthusiasm.

I spoke to both Min-Hee and her husband Damon about their crops, and any problems from the fires, and it seems that the biggest issue they have had was the drop off of traffic to the farmers markets. So if you care about these lovely local farmers, get yourselves to the markets, or to their farm stands and spend some money.

Of course I could not resist this huge head of leafy goodness, so I added that to my purchases and took it home to cook my two go-to recipes that I usually make, and one new recipe that I wanted to try.

The new recipe I tried is a salad, so I used the innermost light green escarole leaves. This salad is layered with Fuyu (the flat, crisp style) persimmons, pomegranate seeds, shaved fennel and a medium-bodied semi-firm cheese, dressed with shallot vinaigrette. It was wonderful.

The first of my two standards is a side dish of escarole braised with same olive oil, garlic and a few hot red pepper flakes and sometimes a few raisins or currants. The rest I blanched in boiling salted water, and then shocked to stop the cooking.

I then added it to some homemade chicken soup with onions and some sweet locally grown carrots for one of my favorite soups. It is so good when finished with some Pecorino Romano cheese, and some sourdough bread toasts for dipping in the soup.

If you want to make this a more substantial meal, you can add some pieces of cooked chicken to it. If you are a vegetarian, just substitute some homemade vegetable broth and add some tofu to it at the end.

It should be carefully noted that the size of this head of escarole was by far the exception. Mostly I find it to be about the size of a head of red lettuce or romaine. It seems to be one of those vegetables that no matter the size, it is all edible and lovely.

Spaghetti Squash

Spaghetti squash is one of those vegetables that should be in a category all by itself, and not be called squash, at least in my opinion. Squash generally has a reputation as being a soft vegetable, and if you only like crisp vegetables, you might never even try something called spaghetti squash because that name mashes together two relatively soft things.

This is also a vegetable that seems to be unknown in many other parts of the world. Since my husband and I have hosted 19 exchange students, we have learned that none of them knew spaghetti squash. So now we have a couple of strikes against this lovely vegetable — no imported culinary history, and a weirdly unapt name. But do not let any of that deter you.

Here is how to fix it so you will love it. First, try to buy one that is smaller as it is easier to handle. Next, cut it in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds. I like to use my butter curler, melon baller, or a grapefruit spoon or knife. Anything that is curved and sharp works great.

Then turn the halves cut side down in a flat-bottomed shallow microwave-safe dish. Add just enough water to coat the bottom of the dish, and then cover with plastic wrap or your favorite microwave covering, vented of course, and microwave on the vegetable setting or for about five minutes. Check it to see if you can pull the strands out of place with a large fork. If they still don’t easily move, microwave it for a few more minutes at a time until you can.

This is an inexact timing method, because the size of the vegetable, and the power of the ovens can vary so much. But it is better to undercook than overcook them.

Remove from the microwave and let cool until you can handle it. Then using the fork scrape out as much of the flesh as will come out. You can do this step ahead of time. When you are ready to serve it, heat a little bit of butter in a non-stick fry pan and toss the spaghetti squash in it with a touch of salt. Cook just long enough to heat it through. Top with your favorite pasta sauce — I like homemade Bolognese — and some good grated cheese and there you have it.

Another way to top it off is with cubes of eggplant that are sautéed in olive oil, finished with some finely chopped garlic and lots of Italian parsley. This is a tip I learned from a Julia Childs’ cookbook.

If you want any of these recipes, or if you ever have any cooking questions, feel free to email me at JuliLederhaus@gmail.com.