Easy ways to make what's at farmers markets right now
On a late-April Friday, the Nashville Farmers' Market was just starting to stir. It was still a few days until the official start of the season, when the covered farm sheds would begin opening at 8 a.m. Friday-Sunday. A few early growers were already there, even if the crowds weren't yet.
Spring produce is some of the most tender and fleeting of the year. Strawberries can easily suffer in the rain and rot quickly. The asparagus is at its best for a few days, though storing the ends in water helps. Pea shoots are at their sweetest during the coolest parts of the spring. Early spring lettuces seem to bolt at any hint of heat.
On this April morning, Plano Produce, located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, displayed giant spinach leaves, collard greens and stacks of emerald asparagus and broccoli crowns — the best of the cold-weather crops. In the freezer were perfect supplements to that early seasonal abundance including Lady Peas, a drought-resistant Southern cowpea with its origins in West Africa.
In the stand next door was Hext Quality Meats, a Middle Tennessee-based producer of pasture-raised Angus beef cattle, lamb and heritage Duroc pork. In the freezer section there, near marrow bones and flank steak, were thin-cut Duroc pork shoulder steaks, which owner Josh Hext can't keep in the freezer.
"When we run out, people are like, 'Where's my steak?'" he said.
Hext had cooking tips, should you manage to score some yourself.
"You treat it just like a steak," he said. "Just a good hard sear on the outside."
Most recipes recommend cooking pork steaks of this quality to 145 degrees with a three-minute rest, which will yield a pink-centered medium-rare. Hext often cooks his steaks to a rare 135-140 because of the unique high-protein and fat content of the pasture-raised Duroc pigs.
They'd be perfect served with the asparagus-rice casserole recipe below, anchored by a from-scratch version of cream of mushroom soup. It's a perfect side dish for the cooler spring months, when asparagus is at its peak but creamy comfort food still sounds appropriate.
You could also add a side of Lady Peas, simmered slowly until soft in homemade chicken broth with some bacon, garlic, chopped onion, carrot and fresh thyme. You should drop a knob of good butter in at the very end for good measure.
And for dessert? Strawberry shortcake. You can take the easy way out and buy premade biscuits (no shame in it), or you can try the recipe below, which was adapted from “The Gift of Southern Cooking” by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock.
Hands-on time: 20 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
For the cream biscuits:
- 5 cups sifted White Lily flour (measured after sifting), plus more for the counter
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons Homemade Baking Powder (recipe below)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled, plus 3 tablespoons, melted
- 1 cup chilled heavy cream
- 1 cup chilled half and half
To assemble the shortcakes:
- 5 cups fresh strawberries, tops removed and sliced lengthwise
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus 1 1/2 tablespoons for the whipped cream
- Small pinch of kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 6 prepared Cream Biscuits (above)
For the homemade baking powder:
- 1/4 cup cream of tartar
- 2 tablespoons baking soda
To make the biscuits: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Put the flour, homemade baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Whisk well to thoroughly blend. Add the butter and, working quickly, coat in flour and rub between your fingertips until about half the butter is coarsely blended and the other half remains in large pieces about 1/2 inch in size.
Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the cream and half and half. Stir quickly, just until the dough is blended and begins to mass. The dough should be soft and a bit sticky, and there should not be large amounts of unincorporated flour in the bowl. If the dough is too dry, add a few tablespoons more cream.
Turn the dough immediately onto a generously floured surface, and with floured hands, knead briskly 8 to 10 times until a cohesive dough is formed.
Gently flatten the dough with your hands so it is of an even thickness. Then, using a floured rolling pin, roll it out to a uniform thickness of 1/2 inch. (If the dough begins to stick to your rolling pin, dust the pin — not the dough — with flour. Flouring the dough at this point will result in dusty-looking biscuits.) With a dinner fork dipped in flour, pierce the dough completely through at 1/2-inch intervals.
Lightly flour a 2 1/2- or 3-inch biscuit cutter and stamp out rounds. Do not twist the cutter when stamping out biscuits. Cut the biscuits from the dough as close together as you can for a maximum yield. Arrange cut biscuits on a heavy, ungreased or parchment-lined baking sheet so that they almost touch. Do not re-roll the scraps.
Bake in the upper third of the oven until crusty golden brown, 8-12 minutes. (Check about 6 minutes into baking and rotate the pan if needed to ensure even cooking.) Remove from the oven and brush with melted butter.
To make the shortcakes: In a bowl, sprinkle strawberries with 1/4 cup sugar and salt and toss gently. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar, if desired. (Remember the whipped cream will be sweetened, too.) Cover the berries and let them sit for 10 minutes or so, until the sugar is dissolved and the berries have exuded some of their juices.
By hand or with an electric mixer, whip the cream, 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar and vanilla until it thickens to a soft consistency that barely mounds and holds its shape.
To serve, warm biscuits briefly, split the biscuits and spoon the berries over the bottom half of each. Spoon the whipped cream generously over the berries and cover with the top halves of the biscuits. Serve immediately.
Asparagus and rice casserole
Hands-on time: 45 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
- 1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup sliced cremini mushrooms
- 1 shallot, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups half and half
- 2 cups cooked white rice
- 2 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Turn the broiler to high. Grease an 8-inch baking dish with non-stick oil spray.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice water.
When the water is boiling, add half of the asparagus and cook until the asparagus is tender, 3-5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to the prepared ice water and repeat with remaining asparagus. When all of the asparagus is cooked, remove from the ice bath, pat dry and cut into 3/4-inch pieces.
Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 5-7 minutes. Add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until aromatic, about 1 minute. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until its raw flavor is cooked out, about 3 minutes.
Add the half and half, bring to a simmer, and cook, stirring, until the mixture has thickened, 5-7 minutes. Add the rice and asparagus and cook, stirring, just until heated through, 3-5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 cup of the cheese until it melts. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Transfer to the prepared baking dish and top with the remaining cheese. Broil until the cheese is melted and golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve hot.