Most of my readers know by now that I am an enthusiastic proponent of buying locally produced foods as regularly as possible. Such a goal is particularly easy to accomplish during these late summer and fall months when farm stands are brimming with plentiful harvest. The American harvest, peaking right now, offers an array of the freshest and most flavorful bounty. Such cornucopia presents dishes filled with colorful veggies and pie shells filled with juicy fruits that bubble their way to the lattice-crusted surface. At no other time of the year is the consumption of your daily eight servings of fruits and vegetables so appealing!
I dare you to compare a supermarket tomato to a locally produced farm fresh tomato. People who claim that they despise tomatoes have yet to savor the flavor of a freshly harvested tomato. The differences are apparent with most of the produce, which makes the American harvest a coveted flavor in and of itself. Compare the texture, color and flavor of homegrown corn on the cob to the offerings from the supermarket freezer. Everything that is harvested locally tastes fresher, rewards our palates with more flavor nuances, is more eye-pleasing to gaze upon and if something is supposed to be crunchy, by God it’s crunchy!
The entire eastern north fork of Long Island still bustles with agriculture. The roadsides are dotted with farm stands and welcoming placards to entice your craving for fresh, locally grown edibles. Throughout the summer and fall months, signs that beckon produce picking are swapped out to boast the available bounty. In June, you can pick your own strawberries. Peaches follow, then the autumnal pumpkins and apples. If such labors are not your forte, the farm stands have plenty of offerings for your selection, picking not required.
One of my favorite haunts, because it is so close to home and suits an array of my epicurean needs, is the Pumpkin Patch Farm Stand in Yaphank. Each winter I lament at the flavorless, anemic, mass produced specimens that I am forced to procure from the produce section of the supermarkets. Once April comes around once again, I begin counting down the weeks until I can resume completing my weekly shopping at this friendly neighborhood stand. One spring I happened to drive by and spied the owners placing the letters and numbers on their sign to declare the upcoming opening day. I was instantly elated and bursting to make the announcement to Brian when he arrived home. The first trip to this farm stand every spring is like getting back in touch with some old friends. Likewise, it is always sad to bid farewell on that last shopping trip in November before they close their doors for the winter. This is when we stockpile jars of honey to tide us over, buy out the last of the Arkansas black apples that I so crave and wish them a happy holiday season and relaxing winter sojourn.
What began as a small stand over twenty-five years ago has grown and flourished over time. Don and his wife Pat are the proud owners of the Pumpkin Patch Farm Stand. Don is the third generation in his family to produce farm fresh produce for this area. His grandfather worked the land right here in Yaphank, inspiring Don in his quest to keep the farming community alive and thriving in his hometown today. He and Pat began their venture by selling Mother’s Day flowers from a vending table fashioned from a large wooden wheel. From there, an offering of pick-your-own-pumpkins to the local community followed, and they have seen upward success ever since. Now stands a well-stocked, clean and tidy farm stand that radiates a heartwarming charm, still family owned and operated. Their daughters and granddaughters comprise most of the friendly, helpful and knowledgeable staff.
As farm stands go, I also favor the Pumpkin Patch for its comprehensive inventory of merchandise. When they open for the season during the month of May, you will find most of your garden plants here, from a vast array of herbs to vegetable plants to colorful blooms. Decorative items also abound, from whimsical garden statues to hanging baskets suspended from the hooks and rafters. During this period, jars of local honey and bouquets of cut flowers are available for purchase. In June, local strawberries and asparagus find their way home to my kitchen. By the time July rolls in, I happily switch all of my produce shopping to the Pumpkin Patch. Tables out front are covered from edge to edge with locally grown beets, celery, carrots, leeks, scallions, green beans, yellow string beans, heirloom tomatoes, mushrooms and much, much more. Stands flank each side of the building, boasting colorful tomatoes, grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and even strawberry tomatoes. Inside the building, locally grown onions, potatoes, peppers, zucchini, patty pan squash, plum tomatoes, lettuces, herbs, corn and peaches await selection from culinary shoppers like myself. A refrigerator stands in one corner, filled with locally produced fresh mozzarella, fire roasted peppers that Don creates himself, and a variety of goat cheeses produced at the local Catapano goat farm in Mattituck. The freezer is well stocked with plenty of different flavors of cheesecakes produced by Holy Moses in Westhampton. Other baked delicacies for consideration include cookies, pies and breads to keep every sweet tooth satiated. Shelves are lined with bottles of dressings and jars of jams, jellies, preserves, salsas, hot sauces and honey. Baskets of locally picked berries provide a last-minute temptation at the checkout counter.
It is now almost Labor Day. The fall mums have come on the scene and soon the bins of peaches will be replaced by different varieties of apples and the wagons out front will be brimming with pumpkins. While the beets and turnips will likely remain, other vegetables will give way to broccoli, cauliflower in various hues and locally produced Brussels sprouts. Figs are beginning reclaim their space at the counter. When asked if there is anything he would like to share in this post, Don wanted to pass along this enticing fact: the week that follows Labor Day is the most opportune time to rejoice in the best of summer and autumn combined. “That’s the week we get everything in,” he declared with an enthusiasm that I found contagious as I began to envision cooking up a grand autumn harvest feast next weekend, my mind conjuring every delectable recipe I that know for enjoying the bounty at its best.
As much as autumn ranks as my most preferred season, it is also bittersweet; for I know that the end of cooking and savoring the best of the local harvest is coming to an end. My only complaint about this farm stand gem is that they close for the winter. Sure, they may not have fresh local produce available, but I would most surely continue to buy other locally produced goods from them. They so look forward to their winter rest and recreation, however. They do such a phenomenal job keeping our dinner plates loaded with delectable foods all summer and fall, how can they be denied a well-deserved vacation? Every November, I feel like a kid again, being told that the fun is over, wanting to plead “Just a little longer, PLEASE??”
Going to the Pumpkin Patch is like visiting friends. When they see me approaching each week, they know that shopping basket after shopping basket is going to be filled and hoisted onto the counter to be tallied. I am probably dubbed ‘the one who cooks and buys a lot.’ That’s okay. I take great pride in my home island, and I am far happier and better rewarded when I support their local business. I would rather allocate my food budget to their stand than to any corporate supermarket. The biggest dilemma is finding the willpower not to buy everything in sight, because I know that all of it is so delicious. The other customers always seem happy, as there is something about shopping for provisions grown in your own town from the same friendly faces that you come to know, and even about paying the bill when you know that it stays within the community. Once in awhile, another patron will notice some unusual vegetable making its way into my basket and enquire how I prepare it. I think I would be in my glory if a little table was set up where I could work as a culinary consultant, enlightening people about the joys of roasted beets, grilled patty pan squash and sautéed medleys of colorful vegetables!
No matter where you reside within the continental United States, agriculture abounds. Some areas have a dense proliferation of farm stands; others feature bustling farmers markets every weekend throughout the growing season. In some areas where such venues may not be as prevalent, the option of joining a community supported agriculture program may be available. When it comes to maximum flavor and enjoyment, embrace the flavor of the American harvest all season long, bringing not only fruits and vegetables to the family table, but other locally produced edibles as well, such as eggs, cheeses and other dairy products, baked goods, condiments, wines, craft beer and locally raised meats and poultry. As you frequent the grower or producer regularly, you will develop a rapport just as European shoppers share with their street market venders. If you reside on Long Island, take a leisurely ride to the Pumpkin Patch at some point over the course of this holiday weekend. Your family will appreciate it from the moment they experience that first flavorful bite at the dinner table.
Over the past year, I have shared several recipes with you for easy preparations of seasonal vegetables. Now is the opportune time for making ratatouille As the winter squashes make their appearance, try stuffing one: stuffed spaghetti squash You can find four additional vegetable recipes of mine here Don’t forget dessert, trying baking up a cranberry-apple and pear pie This time, I will pass along a recipe for serving up a colorful and artfully arranged heirloom tomato salad.
Heirloom Tomato Salad Platter
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar
½ tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1 head red leaf lettuce
3-4 heirloom tomatoes in different colors
2 pints total grape, teardrop, cherry or strawberry tomatoes, varying colors
1 red onion, very thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, cut crosswise into ½-inch slices
½ pound blue cheese, crumbled
Combine first seven ingredients in a small mixing bowl or glass measuring cup. Set aside.
Slice the larger tomatoes into ¼-inch thick rounds. Halve most of the smaller tomatoes, leaving the smallest ones whole.
Line a serving platter with the lettuce, allowing some of the leaves to overlap the edge of the dish. Arrange the sliced tomatoes over the platter. Make it pretty! Create overlapping rows or circles of alternating colors. Next, scatter the sliced onion over the tomatoes, and then add the smaller tomatoes and the celery. Then sprinkle the blue cheese over the platter. Before serving time, whisk the dressing so that it emulsifies as it mixes. Drizzle the dressing over the entire platter. Serves 3-4.
Note: I never make this salad the same way twice in one season. There are many ways to vary the ingredients; the only constant in all variations will be the tomatoes. Even those will vary depending on which colors you happen to find at your farm stand. I try to buy a green, an orange and at least one shade of crimson, and I like to pair yellow grape tomatoes with some other red smaller specimen.
Some winning alternatives include:
- Mesclun greens, spinach or arugula instead of the red leaf lettuce
- Thinly sliced fennel in place of the celery
- Goat cheese, fresh mozzarella or feta can stand in for the blue cheese
- Toss in a handful of walnuts or pecans for added crunch
- Sprinkle some fresh, chopped basil, oregano or parsley
- For a heartier dish, arrange the tomatoes over slices of garlic bread
Food for Thought
As summer begins to wind down, start shopping around for a professional quality roasting pan. While many of summer’s vegetables are flavorful when served hot off of the grill, these same vegetables as well as those consumed throughout the fall and winter months can be roasted. I find roasted vegetables to be the tastiest; they begin to caramelize and the process really brings out the true flavor of the vegetable. Little more is needed in the way of seasoning than a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Cut larger vegetables into smaller chunks, add the seasoning and roast at 450-degrees for 20-30 minutes, depending on the firmness of the vegetable. For an occasional change of pace, you can add a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, plain or flavored, to the olive oil. If you like fresh herbs, stir in a generous handful of chopped herbs when the vegetables have ten minutes remaining in the oven.