Up on the farm

Markets are a perfect Twenty Spot
By TODD RICHARD  |  August 2, 2006

Even the best planned adventures can get altered mid-flight. Such was the case when I set out to explore the local bounty here in Southern Maine. I had a field trip of spectacular proportions set to visit the area’s best purveyors of local produce and Maine-made gourmet foods. Then, it happened. The Farmer’s Market waylaid me, in a big way.

Every Wednesday morning in the summer, Maine’s best produce vendors set up shop right on Monument Square to sell their homegrown fruits and vegetables, herbs, flowers, and other delights. The Wednesday happening, with a more circus-like quality than Saturday’s Deering Oaks market, reminds me of my favorite European outdoor bazaars.

My brother Travis and I set out to plunder this wealth of gastronomic goodness, once again with designs on heading from there to several other locales. Little did I know that we were not going anywhere else that day.

The best technique is definitely to give everyone a once-over to check what’s available that day, and see who is offering the best deals. There were about a dozen and a half vendors that day, all with unique spreads of what their farms brought forth. I found way more than I had hoped for, at amazing prices.

After a survey of the cornucopia, Travis and I began with fresh basil. A beautiful white eggplant somewhat like the tusk of an exotic animal was next. Three green tomatoes, a clutch of spring onions with bulbs the size of plums, and a small bag of arugula came from different vendors. Two petite and perfect chili peppers of undetermined variety looked great, so they joined in. A small bag of mint and a half-pint of fresh blueberries were the last to make the cut.

After this, we ran back to my abode and the prep for our light bite began. We sliced the tomatoes in rounds about a quarter-inch thick, and did the same with the eggplant, salting them and setting them on a platter. We chopped the onion tops, leaving the bulbs for a moment, and set the chili peppers directly on the open flame of the stovetop until their skins blackened.

Then we pulled them off the flame (yes, with tongs) and scraped the skins off with a knife, putting the chilis in with the onion tops, some salt and pepper, and a spot of olive oil, before chopping and mixing them to form a relish. We sliced the onion bulbs, setting them in a nonstick pan on medium-low heat with olive oil and butter, and a little salt, pepper, and balsamic vinegar, to caramelize for a while.

I am partially of Southern roots, so I obviously have a bag of Martha White self-rising cornmeal in the cupboard. I pull this staple of soul cuisine out and dump some in to a shallow dish. I coat the green tomato slices in this, and fry them in a little hot oil in a cast-iron pan until browned, when I set them aside on a brown paper bag. At the same time, I sauté the eggplant slices, browning them and topping with a basil leaf. To serve, I spoon the onions, now fully caramelized, sweet, and soft, over the eggplant and basil, with a separate platter for the fried green tomatoes with the chili and green onion relish.

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