Today, the Grower's Market at Lake Ella looked different. Shelves of little tomato plants welcomed the warm weather and quickened the impulses of spring-hungry shoppers. Tables of brilliant yellow and purple pansies defied the warm weather, insistent on claiming their glory through the the last weeks of winter and into spring. Potted herbs promised to thrive if I took them home today. All of this personification of plants betrays a lunacy of Spring Fever in me. I think I am not alone.
Eager for a hint at the coming riches of Spring, I asked Louise Divine of Turkey Hill farm, "What is in-season in March? What is best in March? Her answer half surprised me. She said, "It just depends..." and "I can't really say..." It certainly wasn't lack of experience that prompted her answer. She and farmer Herman Holley know as well as anyone the folly of late winter in North Florida. The weather is fickle -- warm one day, freezing the next, then warm again. The demands of the farm and the amount of help available dictate as much as the weather. Even after seven years, the farm and the elements teach and surprise.
I remembered my own garden: several days ago we had a cold snap, with two nights cold enough to shrivel the tender tips of my azaleas and fell our tropical perennials . The warm weather immediately followed, and my arugula and mustards that had huddled with tiny, bittering, shade-dwarfed leaves all winter suddenly bolted forth and bloomed, as if determined to sow seed before the final freeze of winter (if we do indeed have one more).
At Louise's suggestion, I asked farmer Jack Simmons (Crescent Moon Organics) for his input. His emphatic and pointed answer caught me completely off-guard: "Brussels Sprouts!" I've never heard a person say these words with such passion and enthusiasm! I asked him when they would be ready for market, and he said that they are ready now. I personally love to eat them -- they have a sweet nuttiness about them, and are mild rather than bitter, when you buy them in-season and at the right stage of development. The beauty of local, seasonal, sustainable.
This week at the market: Collards, lettuces, spoon mustard, beets, parsnips, dainty little radishes, turmeric, honey, wheatgrass, potted plants (herbs, nasturtiums, pansies, others), I came too late for the shitakes again, several things I can't remember, some green garlic... I was warned that the green-garlic window would soon be closed; it is starting to bulb and will not be harvested past its juvenile state (until it is fully mature). I eagerly snapped up four last stalks from farmer Jack to savor throughout this week. AND....
Beets. Oh, beautiful little golden and white beets. These were my inspiration of the week. Slicing through the beets to see their alternating light and dark concentric rings made me wish I had one in every color of the rainbow. After cooking, slicing and marinating these jewels in some homemade vinaigrette, I was reminded of a dish from 5 Seasons Brewing in Atlanta -- the source of my practical culinary education (thanks to David Larkworthy). The dish, beets chenel, is a classic cold composition of cooked beets and fresh chenel goat cheese, and what could be more perfect for right here in Tallahassee? Here we have these lovely little beets, beautiful tender lettuces, wonderful chevre from Sweetgrass Dairy in Thomasville, and local pecans (if you're lucky enough to have some in your freezer to pair with these late winter beets). Here's my adaptation for Tallahassee:
Make a simple vinaigrette. Lightly toast the pecans. Boil the beets (covered) in a little bit of water until just tender. Cool, then halve or quarter the beets, and marinate them in the vinaigrette, in the refrigerator, for a couple of hours. Arrange the lettuce, beets, pecans and goat cheese on a dish and drizzle with some of the vinaigrette. Garnish with chives.
Bon Appetite Tallahassee.