Portland, Oregon Farmers Market

I get a lot of pleasure from going to the garden, filling a basket with vegetables and carrying it back to the kitchen. The colors, textures, shapes, and sizes of this abundance create a vegetable still life, inspiring both in its beauty and in the cooking and eating possibilities it suggests.

This kind of pleasure is multiplied many times over by a walk through a farmers’ market.  Last weekend we were in Portland, Oregon and went to the Saturday market downtown.  It’s one of our favorite farmers’ markets and a highlight of a visit to Portland.  The city park setting with its green lawns, tall trees and rows of farmer’s stalls spilling out gorgeous, fresh produce always makes me think that if I lived here and didn’t have a garden I’d still be fine.

I would face the dilemma that Portland market shoppers face at this time of year though, as the summer produce is winding down and fall and winter crops are coming in.  Do I stand in line for late summer vegetables and make one last batch of caponata?  Eggplant, peppers and tomatoes are still on offer.

Or do I join the lines for fall carrots, beets, celery root, parsnips and sweet potatoes and make the first batch of roasted roots?

Either choice would match perfectly with beans.  What a treat to find fresh shell beans at the Viridian Farms stall.  As their website http://www.viridianfarms.com/ explains, they seek out heirloom seeds from southern Europe.  The purple beans are Alubias de Tolosa, a Basque bean.  The white beans are Haricots Tarbais grown in southwest France and used for cassoulet.  And the beans still in the pod are Fabes Asturianas, so large that the Viridian Farm’s shelling machine can’t handle them; you have to shell them by hand.  They are the base for a classic Spanish bean, pork and sausage stew.  I could be a grateful, regular customer here and at all the other stands.

If Scott’s photos haven’t already shown you why we like this market so much, take a look at the Portland Farmers’ Market website to learn more about the farmers: http://www.portlandfarmersmarket.org/markets/psu/.  It conveys the scope of this market and the Interactive Market Map gives a brief biography of each farm.  Click on it to find stories of the people who grow these vegetables with such care and pride.

If you don’t have a garden, a farmer’s market is a perfect alternative and a very tempting one even for those of us who garden.

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Bean Tasting

We call ourselves bean heads, others call us bean queens, but really my friend Carol and I just like growing and eating beans.  As I wrote a few years ago, beans have always had a place in my kitchen garden: https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/green-living-columns-2/beans/ and as Carol’s story reveals, she is an even more serious bean lover than I am: https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/yes-you-can-grow-dried-beans-on-lopez/. This past week, we drew a few friends into our love of beans with a bean tasting.

The subjects of our tasting were twenty of the 127 varieties of beans Carol grew this year in her trials plus a few from my garden, old favorites and new varieties Carol had given me.  We were focusing on shell beans, beans that are fully formed in the pod but not yet dry, in part because, as Carol said, “I learned about them accidentally years ago when frost was threatening, the beans weren’t dry and I ate some. Get the word out there!  They are wonderful.”

They don’t need to be soaked but just boiled until tender, anywhere from ten to twenty minutes depending on size.  Any bean grown for drying can be eaten at the shell stage but as we discussed during our noontime tasting, many taste different, even taste better, at this fresh, shell stage.

Carol and I cooked the beans just before the tasting and set them out in labeled bowls and jars.  Armed with charts to record the name, flavor and texture of each bean, we all went to work.

Even before tasting the beans, we delighted in their names. Next to homey names like Ma Williams, Good Mother Stallard, Uncle Steve’s Italian Pole and Aunt Jean’s Pole there were Turkey Gizzard, Tobacco Worm, Tennessee Cutshort, Uzice Speckled Wax, Zlatac, Insuk’s Wang Kong, Soissons Vert.  All of these names reflect Carol’s focus this year on beans from Europe and Southern Appalachia. There were also three runner beans, Chestnut, Sunset and White, popular in Britain, Carol explained, and great choices for the Northwest because they are tolerant of cold and they taste good as green, shell or dry beans.

As we tasted, we filled the flavor column with words like earthy, nutty, sweet, fresh, lima-like and the texture column with words like creamy, meaty, mealy, buttery, dry.  Because Carol was growing just a few of each variety, our samples of each bean were small, sometimes a bean a piece, but that was enough to start to differentiate the beans from each other.

The smaller beans tended to be milder in flavor and creamier in texture.  The larger beans were more earthy, nutty and meaty.  Lighter-colored beans tended to be milder while speckled and darker-colored beans were usually richer.

Taking breaks from tasting, we admired the bean pods Carol had brought along, all labeled so we could match the pod with the bean.  Part of the pleasure of growing beans is discovering what kind of bean is hidden within the pod.  Sometimes there’s a match of pod and bean, especially with the dramatically striped red and white pods and beans, but often a drab pod hides a brightly colored bean.

In the end, a few favorites emerged.  One was Good Mother Stallard, a beautiful medium-sized nearly round red and white bean that reminded people of the flavor of pecans or hickory nuts.  Another was Soissons Vert, a gorgeous green pole flagelot bean with a buttery flavor.  And everyone liked the runner beans, perhaps because they were the biggest bean and usually the most colorful.

Good Mother Stallard

Soissons Vert

White, Sunset and a medley of Runner BeansAt the end of our tasting, we mixed the remaining beans together, added them to a skillet of sweet corn kernels and enjoyed a lunch of succotash, one of the best reasons to grow shell beans.

Carol plans to add the results of her 2011 bean trials to the 2010 trial and seed source information on file now in the reference section at the Lopez Island Library.  If you want to grow dried beans on Lopez, and even start to call yourself a bean head, look for this useful information and start planning for next year.

Drying Orcas Pears

We have half-a-dozen different varieties of pear trees in our kitchen garden orchard. Red Clapps and Ubileen are early season pears good for eating soon after picking. Comice, Conference and Highland are late season storage pears, creamy and full of pear flavor by Thanksgiving and Christmas.  And mid-season there’s Orcas.  If I could have only one pear tree, it would be Orcas.  We actually have two.

This variety originated on Orcas Island, hence the name, and is listed in the Slow Food Ark of taste with this description: “A fall pear suitable for fresh consumption, canning, and drying. Discovered on Orcas Island, Washington, by Joseph C. Long in 1966. Roadside seedling of unknown parentage.”

What good fortune that horticulturist Long noticed this tree.  Perhaps he was drawn to it because the pears are so beautiful.  Or maybe he took some pears home and let them ripen and found how delicious they were, juicy with a mild pear flavor.  Perhaps he watched the tree over several years and saw how vigorous and productive it was.  All of these qualities are true of the descendants that grow in our garden and I’m grateful that Long shared his discovery with other orchardists and nurseries.

Each year since they started producing, our Orcas pear trees have set a heavy crop that’s ready to pick by mid-to-late September.  Scott thins out about half of the pears in June, leaving a tree that’s still loaded with fruit.  Over the years, yields have ranged from sixty to one hundred pounds. This year Scott picked them on September twentieth, filling three boxes with sixty-six pounds of fruit.

Deciding when a pear is ready to pick is challenging.  We rely for guidance on a tattered page saved many years ago from Sunset magazine.  There’s a harvest calendar based on Mt. Vernon, Washington research, but the writer adds this useful advice: “You can double-check the harvest dates by seeing how easily your pears come off the stem.  Lift them and tug.  If you have to twist and pull hard, as if breaking a green twig by hand, you’re too early.  If the pears snap off cleanly, they’re probably ready to harvest.  If they’ve begun to drop and you haven’t started picking, you’re probably on the last side.”  Scott starts checking early for that clean snap.

The pears are still hard but that’s because like most pears, Orcas pears ripen off the tree.  We put them in a cool, dark room and in a week or two they start to ripen, but not all at once, fortunately.  They are ripe when they turn yellow and the area at the stem yields to light pressure.  I check on them daily and find a couple dozen ripe pears each day, just the right amount to peel, slice and put in the dehydrator to dry.  We enjoy them fresh, too, but drying has become our favorite way of preserving the flavor of these lovely pears.

To dry them, I cut each pear in quarters, remove the core from each quarter, peel off the skin, and then slice each quarter into thirds or fourths and lay the slices on the dehydrator tray.  (I have a NESCO Gardenmaster food dehydrator model FD 1010 that takes up to thirty stacking trays; I have eight trays.)  They dry in about eight hours and are ready when they are still supple but no longer moist. Each dry slice is full of concentrated pear flavor.  I store them in gallon jars and use them throughout the winter for snacks.  Scott also cuts up a cup or so to add to each batch of granola.  And along with apples which I’ll dry later, they make a Christmas gift my family looks forward to.

Drying pears is labor-intensive but only for about an hour or so a day for a week or two.  And there’s a pleasant rhythm to the task.  Pick up a pear and admire its shape, each one a variation on the classic pear shape, some more elongated, some squatter, some a touch asymmetrical. Notice the color.  The skins of ripe Orcas pears all have a warm yellow undertone with a very light stippling of green and brown but differ one from the next in the amount of red/orange blush. Decide where to cut and move through the steps of coring, peeling, slicing, arranging and then move on to the next pear. Each task takes some attention but the mind can also wander.

I think of fall as a time for this kind of work.  Shelling beans is another task that takes a little attention but leaves most of the mind free to contemplate the beauty of the fruit or vegetable, perhaps take in the view from where you’re sitting or standing and enjoy the end of the busy summer season while anticipating the quieter days of fall.