Nature’s wheel just keeps a-rolling, which means that round about now, as we ooh and aah over newborn greens, last winter’s old—but still robust—root crops are right there beside them. Portentous pause. It’s like life. You might have noticed this if you joined the crowds at last Saturday’s East Vancouver Farmers Market at Trout Lake Community Centre, the first of the season. You may also have come across produce that you weren’t too familiar with.
As well, you might also have wondered, as you wandered from stall to stall, cappuccino in hand, why people aren’t out there slicing, cooking, and handing out samples. I’ll tell you why. The city’s health cops don’t allow it. In a civilized city, chefs would be doing demonstrations and offering mouthfuls so you could see, taste, and understand what you were about to take home. But this is Vancouver. Theoretically, there could be cooking demos, but the food would have to be thrown away, which, seeing that a farmers market is all about local resources and sustainability, does rather defeat the purpose.
Right. That done and dusted, the easiest way to educate yourself before you stick something odd and knobbly in your basket is to begin with the obvious and ask the people who grew it. Susan Davidson of the Organic Farm Connection in the Fraser Valley provides recipe cards for such weirdities as sunroots—another vegetable to go on your “Huh?” list, one that you may know as Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke. “Sunroots”, Davidson says, is “a more appropriate translation of the First Nations word for that plant”.
This is one of those crops that overwinters, she says. Davidson grows two varieties, with the red-skinned variety having an earthier flavour. The smaller ones she sells are meant for planting, the larger ones for the kitchen. You can enjoy their sweet and nutty flavour raw, Davidson says, describing them as “crunchy tubers related to sunflowers”, and adding that they’re suitable for diabetics because the body doesn’t convert the carbohydrates into sugar. Scrub but don’t peel them, she advises. Grating them into slaws is one possibility; so is cutting them into batons to dunk in your favourite dip. Either way, you need to prevent them from turning brown once you’ve peeled them by dipping them in water mixed with lemon juice.
In order to get their hands on fresh, organic ingredients, the savvier chefs around town have hooked up with local producers. Chef J C Poirier says farmers often stop by his restaurant, Chow (3121 Granville Street), with a delivery on market day. He likes to use sunroots in soup, simmering them in vegetable stock, puréeing them with a little bit of milk, and then adding butter, salt, and pepper.
Recently, Poirier has been serving roasted sunroots in his early-bird prix fixe ($38) as an accompaniment to Sloping Hill Farm organic pork, along with fresh peas, shiitake mushrooms, slow-cooked bacon, and shallot-tarragon pork jus.
Onward. Rhubarb is usually among the first spring crops to show up. Even if you’ve never cooked it, you’ll know it as those long stalks that look like bloodshot celery. Rhubarb has the piercing sharpness of an alarm clock. Poirier likes to turn it into sorbet to serve with a mille feuille that’s layered with rhubarb cooked sous-vide and a pistachio crí¨me. “Rhubarb?” says Davidson. “My favourite is roasted rhubarb, because it doesn’t dismantle itself. Just add raisins, candied ginger, and a little sugar Chef Jor stevia, and serve it as a dessert with yogurt.”
On to leeks. Any you see at the farmers market will have been stored through the winter. Long, pale green and white, and tasting like a well-behaved onion, this veggie becomes a classic French soup when you cook it with potato (which, when chilled, is equally classic vichyssoise). Poirier featured leeks on his last menu, building a base of smoked fish, either sablefish or salmon, he says, then layering on poached leeks dressed with a light, mustardy vinaigrette. Davidson chops leeks up with sorrel (just as undersung, and sharp, lemony, and marvellous with salmon), pours on beaten eggs, and adds cornmeal to make a sorrel-leek bake. Sound good? Ask her for the recipe when you go to the market.