Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
When my little girl and I head to the farmers market, we leave the house with an empty market basket and open minds. Of course, she already has her list in her head — cheese bread from the local baker, honey sticks from Joli’s bees, and fresh sheep’s milk cheese with rosemary. It’s a great list for a 6-year-old, really.
As for this bigger kid, I’ve finally learned not to make a list, mental or otherwise. What ends up on the dinner table on Saturday night just ... happens. Almost always, it’s one ingredient that catches my eye — one flavor that makes my imagination work, and the recipe comes to me in that moment.
One of the first farmers we visit at the market is a Thai family. Over the years, they have added new ingredients to our menus weekly — small green Thai eggplants, water spinach, fiery peppers, amaranth leaves, and some kind of greens that have no name in English and taste heavenly sautéed and paired with fish. Their table is a weekly source of inspiration for me, and this week is no exception, offering up lemongrass and cilantro.
Across the way is one of my regular stops, heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow of colors. The farmer knows me well because of my pumpkin addiction. Come fall, I’ll buy over 100 lbs. of his exotic squash. He nods at my kiddo and puts in an extra pint of heirloom cherry tomatoes just for her along with my four ears of corn and 3 pounds of heirloom tomatoes.
Two more stops, one for a head of red Russian garlic. I promise the farmer there that if he would just bring in the scapes in spring, I would buy these. For now, he’s been giving them away to restaurants, not realizing consumers would buy them. The last stop is the farmer on the end who only comes to market in August with 50 different varieties of peppers. I get a basket of the sweet ones that include chocolate-colored peppadews. He hands a curly, red sweet one to my kiddo and puts in a couple of extra hot pepper varieties for me.
Along with the ingredients for my recipe, somehow my basket is overflowing with a tiny heirloom melon that smells heavenly, a larger watermelon, peaches, berries, and beans to shell later.
On the way home, the kid and I stop at the grocery store. We won’t even need a hand basket. We’re here for just limes, ginger root and fish sauce, and a pound of sustainable seafood — a few things that cannot be sourced locally. The final ingredients come from home: okra from a friend’s garden and three kinds of basil, lemon verbena and mint from my own.
As I serve dinner that evening — a tangy, tart and spicy Lemongrass and Tomato Fish Soup — I realize our meal is a reflection of all my Eat Local food values in single bowl:
Lemongrass Tomato Soup Recipe
Smash a bit with a mortar and pestle:
2 cloves garlic
4 stalks lemongrass
1/2 bunch cilantro
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into three pieces
8 cups vegetable stock and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain off the solids and return liquid to the pot.
Mix in a small bowl:
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
Juice of three limes
1 pound sustainable white fish, cut into four portions. Add to the infused vegetable stock. Bring back to a boil, then lower heat to simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes until the seafood is cooked.
4 large tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped into small wedges
Kernels from 4 ears of corn
4 okra, sliced
Add to the soup, simmering for another 10 minutes. Place one piece of fish in each bowl, add soup and vegetables.
Leaves of basil, mint, cilantro, lemon verbena, sliced hot peppers, and wedges of lime.
Cover image from Storey Publishing; photo by Beth Bader
Beth Bader, co-author of The Cleaner Plate Club, has been a photojournalist, writer and shark wrangler. As much activist as cook, she is most of all a mom determined to make the world a better place for her child, one meal at a time. She is a food blogger at Expatriate’s Kitchen and contributes to EatLocalChallenge.com and EatDrinkBetter.com. She lives in Kansas.