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Local farmers’ markets cater to adventurous cooks

By Aaron Kagan
Globe Correspondent / July 7, 2010

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Boston-area farmers’ markets continue to offer new products to keep customers interested. These include vegetables in vogue, such as garlic scapes, pea tendrils, and Asian greens, as well as new trends in farming to extend the season.

The season began early this year. “There was more produce on opening day at Copley than ever in the past,’’ says Jeff Cole, a farmer and the executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets. He cites the increasing popularity of inexpensive, greenhouse-style technology for helping to kick-start the season.

You’ll find unusual cheeses previously available only at restaurants through Somerville-based cheese maker Fiore di Nonno. Owner Lourdes Fiore Smith offers market goers cheeses such as burrattine, which are small balls of mozzarella whose centers contain a burst of olive oil (you order them in advance).

“The little pocket has just enough oil to ooze out when you cut into it, like Freshen-Up gum,’’ Smith says.

Also from Somerville is Taza Chocolate, which has chocolate-covered cashews and two new flavors in its Mexicano chocolate series: coffee and salt and pepper.

In response to adventurous cooks, Dick’s Market Garden in Lunenburg is offering fennel, celeriac, callaloo (a.k.a. amaranth), and okra. Callaloo and okra were planted at the suggestion of Jamaican farm workers; the dark, leafy greens and gooey pods are paired in soups and stews. The farm has planted pea tendrils, whose tender leaves and springy shoots are popular in Chinese and contemporary American cooking. They have a texture similar to spinach but retain the slightly sweet taste of fresh peas. In a quick saute with butter, pea tendrils are addictive.

Thanks to its greenhouse, Dick’s harvested tomatoes in May. This year they’re also using the structure for basil. Red Fire Farm in Granby uses 300-foot-long “caterpillar tunnels,’’ made of plastic sheeting stretched over hoops, to speed the harvest of cucumbers, squash, and peppers by two to six weeks. Though more affordable and portable than a greenhouse, these tunnels are also more labor intensive and less sturdy. “On windy days in the spring they act just like sails,’’ says farmer Ryan Voiland. “It’s a love-hate relationship, I think.’’

Because of these practices, we will see markets open longer this season. “We had about a dozen winter markets last year and we’re planning more for this year,’’ says David Weber, farmers’ market program coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. “I think that’s going to be a trend.’’

Hyde Park sprouted its first market, which is as much about vegetables as it is fostering community. “The market came out of strategic planning that highlighted the fact that a market would be a good way to attract people to the downtown and help build a sense of community,’’ says market manager and Hyde Park resident Tanya Maggi. Weber reports 15 new markets for this year, with more expected.

Procuring local produce has become easier for many low-income households through an effort coordinated by the Food Project and the City of Boston. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program enables participants to swipe benefits cards at portable processors at 22 markets. Those purchases are matched by the Boston Bounty Bucks program, so $10 yields $20 of fruits and vegetables.

Also new is a pilot program that allows shellfish farmers to sell directly to market patrons. Fresh shellfish is now alongside greens and berries at Hyannis and West Tisbury markets.

Anyone could devise a menu composed entirely of these offerings — perhaps a salad of greenhouse basil, balls of olive oil-filled mozzarella, and ahead-of-schedule tomatoes, beside morsels of freshly steamed lobster.

Aaron Kagan can be reached at aaronwkagan@gmail.com.