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Chef John Foster: Don’t just wonder about the strange things you see at the market, try them

Ever wonder about some of the strange things you see at the market? The odd little basket of this or that that never fills a table, because very few people will even know what it is much less purchase it. The colors are different, the shape is strange, sometimes the smell drives people away.

Your farmer will know what it is, may even attach some sentimental value to it. They won’t grow it to feel good, it will be to serve the purpose of creating a new market or bringing back an ingredient that may be all the rage in the big city.

I can remember looking for bok choy in the markets when I first got to Lexington in the early 1990s. No such luck, it just wasn’t grown.

Same for something as simple as carrots, celery, and onions, the building blocks of cooking.

I told local growers that if you could give me those three ingredients plus tomatoes and herbs, they could build an entire business around just that. Of course, it’s never that easy, and there are obstacles like soil, temperature, and rainfall that make growing even the simplest ingredients difficult and not cost effective. There was also no demand for anything other than tomatoes, squash corn, and melons. Chilies were a side gig, fresh herbs could be grown in your backyard, and who buys eggplant anyway?

Bok Choy

The limited scope of things was by design and needed a large push to gain any momentum for the “new items”. Never mind that in most larger markets those new items were the norm, bought by the very customers who knew what to do with daikon and turmeric root, it was their heritage.

The changes are occurring, driven by a variety of factors, and when I found the aforementioned turmeric at the market on Saturday, I had to chuckle.

What do you do with fresh turmeric? As it turns out, there are a lot of ingredients that have gradually found their way into a conventional market and by just being there have shifted the food landscape a bit more.

As the grower quietly markets these new additions, they need to be careful not to expose their faithful to a leap that is too large. I heard one grower describe the turmeric as a cousin to ginger with a lot of the same applications. Good call as it turns out because she’s right, and ginger has become a pretty standard item at the markets, so the connection is made.

It’s this type of gradual introduction that will benefit farmer and cook alike and bring a bit more “juice” to the market baskets and CSA’s. It might also bring some more local chefs in as they search for ways to boost their menu options and explore more creative dishes. Part of the creative method involves new items or items unfamiliar to chef and customer alike. How we employ those items as chefs increase the difficulty of the dishes and also their creativity. When I see a new item at the market that I’m not familiar with or might not have seen in years, it always sparks the “what if” game. I start my research, do my homework, and then take the plunge. I’m hardly ever disappointed.

The next step in the process is the hard sell. After a few seasons of not showcasing a new item, and simply having it displayed on the table, then it’s time to move it. A sample to the chefs, a giveaway in a CSA basket may be all you need to get the word out. Good product once identified as variable and tasty doesn’t sit around for long. If I serve it in the restaurant to positive reviews, it’s simply a matter of name-dropping, and the customer goes back to the source next Saturday.

If it’s a short season the demand seems to pick up. Those who know paw paws jumped on them in late September, and it was a pretty good year for them. Typically associated with tropical fruits, the paw paw grows very well in Kentucky and makes a great jam, butter, custard or ice cream. They are one of the items I mentioned earlier that has a distinct smell when ripe. Don’t let that throw you off, the smooth creamy meat of the paw paw will translate into some wonderful dishes.

This marketing method is not uncommon in a lot of businesses but food, particularly local food is very exposed and open.

A regular market customer, just like a regular in a restaurant will note subtle changes and new additions. They are apt to give feedback freely, and like all consumers, they vote with their pocketbooks. The thin margins shared by grower and chef alike need to be tweaked carefully, but there is no doubt they need to be tweaked. That’s the way farmers grow their markets and the way we chefs keep customers coming to our restaurants.
So how do you use fresh turmeric?

As it turns out the root is very similar to ginger in its clean taste with a bit of a bite. The skin on fresh turmeric is very thin, almost like Thai ginger or galangal. Don’t expect the fresh to have the same brilliant color that the dry creates, but by the same token, it’s also much more refined in the dish, bringing a clarity to heavier dishes like curries and just a touch of clean heat and grassy aromatics to stir-fry and noodle bowls. The ingredient with the highest amount of beta-carotene it is susceptible to light but very heat tolerant.

That bok choy I spoke about earlier is in the market in Lexington at several stalls. Combined with the fresh turmeric, local garlic and radish it can be a quick stir-fry, a healthy vegetable soup or a delicious and quick curry. Pick the small bok choy and all of it will be edible. It steams well, sautés and stir-fries quickly without losing texture, and is surprisingly good on the grill.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.  

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