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Yes! We have no tomatoes!
setting expectations and eating in season
Like most of the other markets in this area, we typically open the Ronan Farmers Market in mid-May, which is still usually early spring in terms of Montana weather. Our typical “last frost” date is about the same time that the market is set to begin, which means many growers here haven’t even transplanted their hot-weather vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and melons outdoors yet when the market starts. This short growing season, relative to other parts of the country, is part of life in Montana.
It seems to happen every year, though, that someone comes to the first market, or maybe the second one, and asks if we have tomatoes yet. Like the Greek fruit vendor of the song, I always want to say, “Yes, we have no tomatoes today!”
We start the market this early because, in addition to our locally made arts and crafts and household goods such as soap, we do have some vegetables already. We have asparagus and rhubarb and other perennials.
We also often, depending on the weather, have cool weather vegetables like spinach, lettuce, radishes, and kale early on. And like the Greek fruit vendor of the song, I think our local producers can be plenty proud of what they do have, because that early season growing can be challenging! But sometimes it means that you encounter a vegetable you aren’t familiar with and aren’t sure how to cook; it can feel like it’s going to be complicated to figure out what to do with these things that our local weather and soil can produce in this season. So, today I’d like to talk about what planning your meals around what’s in season — both the “why” and the “how.”
Why should I want to buy what’s in season?
I’m glad you asked! For me there are a number of reasons; maybe one (or more) of these reasons will speak to you.
Community: I like the seasons in Montana, I like the weather and landscape of the Mission Valley, and I like the people around here and want to support them getting outside and doing what they love. Buying and eating the food they can grow right now supports the people and land I care most about. It puts my money where my heart is.
Thrift: Buying locally produced, in-season food means it’s fresher, so it lasts longer. There’s really no comparison here with grocery store produce in terms of how long it will stay good once you get it home. Even those tender spring greens can have a long shelf life when you buy them near where they were produced. With grocery store produce, so much of their edible lifespan is taken up just getting them to their destination, so you end up having less time to use them before they turn gross, which leads to wasted food and wasted money.
Nutrition: Because food is fresher and travels less, it is more nutritious. This goes hand in hand with it being more flavorful as well.
Variety: For many people I understand this part of it doesn’t matter at all, but for me it does: I don’t especially want my food to be exactly the same all year round. I want to taste the new season. Maybe not in every meal, but at least in some of them. I want to be tasting those things that remind me of where I live and what season it is.
But what do I eat now?
I’m a busy person, as I assume many of you are, so I am often looking for good simple meals. Lately my two teen sons are away, so I’ve been making smaller meals by not making so many side dishes, but here are a few sample meals we’ve eaten recently:
Goat cheese and morel mushroom turnover, purchased at the market already prepared, made by Michelle of Bubble Goats. Steamed asparagus on the side; asparagus purchased at the market from one of our founding farmers, Kent Newsam.
A pasta salad. The feta cheese came from the Flathead Lake Cheese Company in Polson. The asparagus is Kent’s again. The fresh herbs (oregano, parsley, mint, lovage, chives, green garlic) came from my garden, Small Talk Farm at the market, and Rene Kittle at the market. Sometimes I put canned tuna in this pasta salad with the feta, sometimes chickpeas, sometimes both. We eat a pasta salad with LOTS of fresh herbs and whatever other vegetables are in season nearly once a week during the summer, and since it’s good at room temperature or cold, I can make it whenever I have the time and set it aside for dinner later if that’s more convenient.
Fried egg sandwiches with lovage soup. Lovage is a type of celery; because it’s perennial, it is easy to grow and pops up earlier than normal celery is available locally. Most of this came from the farmers market: The bread came from Shannon’s Jam Stand. The eggs are from the Magill kids (who, incidentally, sell the most beautiful dozens of eggs you’ve ever seen). The lovage is from Small Talk Farm, purchased at the market. Also, a glass of goat milk from Bubble Goats. Such good soup, and we ate it as leftovers the next day, too, although I considered freezing the leftovers.
Tortellini with a simple tomato-basil sauce. The tomatoes I canned last year; the green garlic in the sauce is from my garden; the basil I bought from Small Talk Farm at last week’s market. Served with a frisée salad with ranch dressing; the frisée also came from Small Talk Farm and was delicious.
Beef and rhubarb stew. The beef is either from Dave Sturman of Shady Maple Farm at last year’s market or from Matthew Whyatt at Glacier Tilth Farm, I’m not sure. The rhubarb and herbs are from my garden, though they are available at the market as well lately. Truly one of our favorite springtime meals. Served on couscous. The stew is also good with lamb instead of beef.
The most time-consuming parts of these meals was when I harvested my own herbs, although wandering around my garden with a basket is not exactly the salt mines. Otherwise, these are all 30-minute meals, with the exception of the beef stew which can be prepared in 30 minutes but then cooks (in a crockpot or on the stove) for a while. And the only out-of-season produce I used was the tomatoes that I canned last summer, although, of course, you could use whatever canned tomatoes you like.
With meals like this, I’m very happy to say, “Yes! We have no tomatoes (except the ones we canned last year)!” Because this all tasted just fine.
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