The Saturday morning ritual around my house is to rise early, drink coffee, put on comfortable shoes, grab a canvas bag from my collection, and drive down to St. Paul Farmers’ Market. Once there, I have another ritual: walking around, and up and down, each aisle to inspect several varieties of newly picked produce, berries, flowers, and other goods. I retrace my steps. Then, Chad pays, and carries the bags.
The market promises that all items have been locally produced. The majority come from within 50 minutes of St. Paul. You won’t find pineapple in these aisles. St. Paul Growers’ Association bylaws dictate that no middlemen are allowed. It’s the market’s guarantee that customers are offered the best and freshest items possible.
But that doesn’t mean every item is the same or at its freshest. This always has been the fun part for me—choosing the best for my recipes, and canning and preserving. It has become a sort of game.
Things get under way each spring when the market first opens. We purchase several varieties of herbs that I then plant in my garden and along garden paths. I put sage and mint where people walk along the garden or into our backyard. As the plants grow and become large, stalks of mint or branches of sage fall into the paths. When stepped upon, they release their oils, perfuming the air.
We purchase heirloom vegetables for my garden, as well as beautiful flowers. During the spring, delicious cheese is available from Eichten Cheese. It produces many varieties, but my favorite is Dill Gouda, while Chad enjoys Chipotle Pepper, Herb ’n’ Spice, and Tomato Basil.
During the summer months, fresh-cut herbs and spring onions begin to arrive, along with strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries. I actually have a list of recipes that follows the market’s seasons, so that when these items are ready, so am I.
Each year, I eagerly await sweet corn. This year, it has been late. We purchase a baker’s dozen each week from Joe Zywiec Vegetable Farm for eating and freezing. A couple of weeks ago, the corn we bought had been handpicked at 5 AM, so it was only hours old. This is important, because sweet corn sugars begin to turn to starch as soon as it’s picked. We purchase the corn, then get it in the refrigerator immediately to slow that process.
The best stop hands-down is River Chocolate Company. Its chocolate truffles and confections, desert sauces, toffees, fudge, brownies, pies and tarts (not apple), marshmallows, and cocoas are simply the finest. Its Moroccan Orange Chocolate Sauce, which uses the incredible flavor of blood oranges, is to die for. We purchase two jars—as one always ends up with a spoon in it for snacking—before the other goes into the intended recipe.
After our chocolate stop, we head to the northeast corner of the market for the best beans, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, melons, squash, pumpkins—and farmhand eye candy—at the Jordan Ranch stand.
In the center of the market is a fantastic locale for breakfast bagel treats. You select a bagel flavor, they grill it for you, and you add fillings. I usually pick ham, fried egg, and cheese, then top with sprouts, tomato, cucumbers, and red onions. It’s a lovely way to begin the day while shopping the market.
Chad and I like to find a spot by the entertainment area to listen to singers and musicians. Local talents are brought in 9 AM-Noon each Saturday. My favorite is Appalachian music and clogging. If you love the combination of fresh produce, stuffed grilled bagels, and local talent, this is nirvana.
Before leaving, I purchase a bouquet of sweet peas from a kind elderly Asian woman. She carefully places it in a small bag of fresh water, and closes it tightly with a rubber band. It’s $5 of kindness and fragrance you cannot spray from a can. Every time I look at the bouquet sitting next to my laptop in a small white creamer, it makes me smile.
Last stop is to purchase eggs, poultry, or beef from Callister Farms. It offers organic beef, chicken, turkey, and eggs. Its turkeys are the best. I order one every Thanksgiving. I add no spices or herbs, but simply truss it up with cooking twine, and place it in the roaster or in my rotisserie. The flavor and moist meat are what everyone dreams of.
Loaded down with bags filled with freshness, Chad and I walk back to our car.
Next Saturday, create your own ritual. It’s fun, and gets you out of the house. Go to www.stpaulfarmersmarket.com for your plan of action.
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Italy and the Caribbean. Visit www.GardenCounty.info. Check out his “Word of Mouth” Blog under Extras at LavenderMagazine.com.