Sunday, April 22, 2012

Farmers Market: Stockton Edition

Sometimes I forget that I can see the Delaware River from my front porch - set up on a little hill on River Road, flanked by the canal, the river lies right behind, with Pennsylvania vaguely off in the distance.  While I rarely sit admiring the river - though I should start - one aspect of living along the river is that I truly love and appreciate, is driving up River Road; the river and canal on the left winding along with me, the forest on the right, spotted with old buildings in older towns.  I love a warm day with the windows down, breathing in nature - the water, trees, soil, wild flowers - driving on the narrow winding road to Lambertville or French Town, or venturing across the river to New Hope or Tinicum.  However, I adore rainy - no - down-pouring, thunderstorm days.  Oxymoronic as it is, the overcast, grayness of the air makes the greens more vibrant, and everything is suddenly crisp, edges are clean lines, like the lens has been turned and the world brought into focus.  Days like these make for the perfect drives - rain splashing on the windshield, puddles exploding beneath the tires, waterfalls trickling off the rocks into the road, the river churning and bubbling.  This morning - a dark and cold morning that caused me to sleep in far too late - I donned an over-sized ribbed brown sweater and a pair of old wellies, and went for a drive.
Thirteen miles north along the Delaware River lies Stockton, home to one of my favorite indoor farmer's markets.  The Stockton Market features goods from local farms, dairies, bakeries, coffee roasters, chocolatiers, fish mongers, not to mention basket weavers, textile printers, soap makers, pot pie bakers, cheesecake makers, and one vendor dedicated entirely to mushrooms.  The bakers and mongers and roasters and farmers feel like old friends.  They want to help, make you happy, and you talk like you've known each other for years.  They make you nostalgic for the times of the local butcher, who knows the perfect cut for the dinner you have in mind, his favorite way to cook it, what flavors pairs well with, and who even throws in a few ounces extra or a different piece of meat he wants you to try out and let him know how you like it.  There's even a little bit of your grandmother in there - feeding you sample after sample, especially their latest not taking no for an answer, not that you say no to free chocolates or baked custard or cheese or garlic and duck fat bread.  You don't get this personality with the tiled floors and fluorescent lights of the never-changing super markets.
The moment I walked in the door, still dripping wet from the walk from the car, I was hit by a warmth, an energy that only comes from a Sunday morning at the farmer's market.  You don't get this at the super market where the patrons are stressed and rushed.  Here you get the relaxed shopper, sipping coffee bought at The Coffee Scoop, right inside the entrance (I suggest the Ethiopian Yergacheffe blend).  These shoppers meander, taking their time and reveling in every moment of browsing and tasting.  It makes the whole experience that much more enjoyable.
The first stop was The Painted Truffle - not to say that we didn't sample at some other vendors along the way.  This small chocolatier, based completely out of the Stockton Market, makes beautiful small-batch, all natural and organic, handcrafted and decorated truffles.  They are stunning and the perfect treat to start out your market experience.  After being given a sample of their Mayan Bar (dark chocolate, cayan pepper and cinnamon) and their dark sipping chocolate, and few stunned moments in front of a very large display case, I finally forced myself to make a decision.  I settled on La Vie en Rose (raspberries and rose, garnished with a candied rose petal) and Honey I'm Home (dark chocolate, hazelnut praline, orange blossom honey, garnished with a candied violet petal).  When I asked the vendor if she minded if I took a picture of the plastic-bagged chocolates on the counter, she balked and then plated a few on a clean white plate, and then encouraged me to take some snaps of the case and the macaroons...and then gave me more chocolates to sample.
After chocolates and a hot cup of coffee the real shopping began.  I rarely go into the farm market with a set grocery list.  I see what looks good, and then create a dish around what's fresh and in season.  I took a very quick spin around to see what I had to work with, and then dove into the stands to really get a feel for the ingredients and develop an idea.  The first stand I hit was Milk House Farm's.  The first thing that caught my eye were these perfectly misshapen fingerling potatoes, both sweet and white.  They were full of character: some twisted, some straight, some no bigger than my thumb, some as big as my palm.  The rustic look sparked in my eyes, creating an image, a feel, a taste, that I wanted to create: a wooden table, crusty bread, salt and pepper, wine served out of a jug, countryside, family style plating, warmth and comfort.  I wasn't quite sure how that translated to dinner, but I knew that these potatoes needed to be a part of it.  And fish - a small chicken or game hen would have fit my mental image better, but a white fish would have to do.  Looking around Milk House's table, a basket of large green leeks jumped out at me.  I've never cooked leeks before, and only ever eaten them in potato leek soup.  Being completely unfamiliar with them, I sought the help of the farmers running the stand.  I asked if leeks would pair well with fish, and while she didn't cook fish often, the vendor told me that if we liked onions with fish, then leeks should work well.  She explained that the white bottom could be chopped up and sauteed, and that the green tops are really only used in stocks.  So white fish over sauteed leeks with fingerling potatoes.  Now I was getting somewhere.
Heading for the fish monger, I got distracted by Mushrooms Etc., a simple table with large wooden bowls full of mushrooms.  I noticed that one of the bowls was full of Maitake, or Hen of the Woods mushrooms.  My only reference for them was seeing Jamie Oliver use them on television, but I had never run across them in real life.  I took this as a sign - leeks and potatoes and mushrooms.  The vendor assured me that they would work well with the meal I had in mind, as long as I didn't use salmon, since it might overpower their flavor.  She also told me how to prepare them (butter and oil, don't over-crowd the pan), cleaned them for me, and even threw in a couple more ounces free of charge.  She also told me that if I didn't like them, to come back next week and she'd give me something else to try.  Who knew the mushroom lady could remind me so much of the local butcher?
The Metro Seafood proved to be just as helpful and accommodating as the rest of the vendors.  The only white fish they had was hake, another alien ingredient.  However, when I described the meal I was planning, he said hake would work well, and that it was very close to cod in flavor and preparation.  He cleaned and de-boned the fish for me, and when I couldn't decide whether or not one filet would be enough, he threw in a second for no cost.  

I of course had to stop by Gravity Hill Farm stand, since it's two minutes from my house and my favorite farm in the area.  I picked up arugula for a salad - not only is it in season, but I thought the peppery bite of the green would prove to be a nice change to our standard mixed spring greens.  I also bought two tomato plants (Black Cherry and Cherokee) to kick-start my veggie garden I'm going to attempt to start this spring, despite the deer's strong front to use said garden as their personal snack source.

The last stop was to the Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse stand for the final piece to my dinner puzzle - a loaf of their crusty rustic wheat bread.  With all the fixings for dinner collected, and a belly full of chocolates, I headed home to bring the meal created in my mind's eye to fruition.
A few notes: 
+ The potatoes smelt like earth and summer while I peeled them.
+ Sauteed leeks taste like combination of onion and apples, and add a wonderfully sweet component to the dish.

+ While I've never had them before, the Hen of the Woods mushrooms taste ridiculously familiar.  I could not place it, but the whole meal I kept tasting something laying in the background of those mushrooms.  And no, that familiar taste isn't "mushroom", as my family so kindly suggested.
+ I cooked the hake over the leek greens so as not to waste them, and to infuse their flavor into the fish as it cooked.
+ This entire meal (save for the seasonings, oil, wine, and butter) was fresh, local, seasonal, and all bought at the Stockton Market.

A Rustic Farm Market: Hake over Leeks with Hen of the Woods and Fingerling Potatoes

1½ lbs hake
3 large leeks, green and white parts separated, whites sliced thinly
1 small bunch scallions, sliced thinly
1 large bunch Hen of the Woods mushrooms
1 lb mix of sweet and white fingerling potatoes
½ cup coconut milk
1 cup dry white wine
5 tbs butter
1 tbs herbs de provence
olive oil
salt and pepper

+ Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  
+ Peel the sweet potatoes.  Halve the larger of the potatoes, then place all potatoes in a large baking dish.  Drizzle with olive oil, season with salt, pepper, and herbs de provence.  Mix with hands making sure that all the potatoes are well coated.  Bake for an hour, or until fork tender and just beginning to brown.
+ Once the potatoes are finished, remove from oven and cover with tin foil.  Raise oven heat to 350 degrees.  
+ Wash the green tops of the leeks, making sure all grit and dirt is removed.  Lay the greens on the bottom of another baking dish - if they are too wide, cut in half.  Pour ½ cup of wine over the leeks.
+ Drizzle hake with olive oil and then season with salt and pepper.  Rub the oil and seasoning into the fish, making sure its completely coated.  Flip over and do the same to the other side.
+ Place the hake on top of the leeks, then bake for about a half an hour.
+ While the fish is baking, heat a splash of oil and 1 tbs of butter in a large sauce pan.  Add scallions and leeks.  Saute for a minute or two, then cover and let sweat.  Once soft, lower heat and add ½ cup white wine. and re-cover, cooking until most of the wine has cooked off.  Then add the coconut milk, stir, and cover.  Cook for about five minutes, or until liquid has thickened.  Take off heat and set aside.
+ In another sauce pan, heat 1 tbs and splash of olive oil on high.  Add mushrooms, making sure not to crowd the pan.  Cook for about two minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add 2 tbs of butter, then continue to cook until mushrooms are crispy and brown.
+ Serve hake over sauteed leeks, topped with mushrooms and surrounded with roasted potatoes.

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