Farmers Market Finds: Mayan Jaguar Lettuce

The Start of the Season and the Start of Discovery

With the advent of my local farmers market (Minnetrista in Muncie, Indiana) holding weekly markets, I look forward to the thrill of culinary discovery, of the delight of finding a new-to-me variety of vegetable or fruit, or of a vendor offering me new locally produced treats. This past Saturday, I ventured to (and through) the market, with its wares. The pickings, and the number of vendors, were rather slim—it’s been a very challenging spring for planting. The average high temperature in February was followed by a lower one in March. Following on the heels of a relatively colder March, April turned warm again. May, what few days of it we’ve had, had been a cold, soggy, sodden mess. Copious amounts of rain interspersed with frost. As an organic farmer I know said, it’s been a most challenging spring for a farmer.

Still, on that morning of May 6, it wasn’t raining, despite being forecast. I ventured over to one of my favorite produce stands (Christopher Farms, a local organic operation), so see what farmer and all around wonderful person Wendy Carpenter had to present to her customers, both loyal and new. Knowing that I was looking to eat more salads, I was drawn to one of the more striking lettuces I’ve ever seen—Mayan Jaguar.

Mayan Jaguar Lettuce

With its dappled maroon and green, a head of Mayan Jaguar lettuce certainly commands a second look. This has the ability to form the foundation of a seriously interesting looking salad (interesting as in good, not weird). So naturally, I had to buy some.

Mayan Jaguar lettuce belongs in the romaine/cos family. The head is tall and the spines of the leaves have that characteristic romaine crunch. Its leaves are gorgeously ruffled. It is a beautiful lettuce.

Flavor-wise, Mayan Jaguar is sweet with a hint of bitterness. In a salad, it pairs nicely with balsamic vinegar and walnuts. Add some dried fruit and blue or goat cheese for a delicious dish. I will share a salad recipe which uses Mayan lettuce to its advantage in my next post.

Start Your Own Voyage of Discovery

If you have a local and treasured farmers market, find a vendor with unusual varieties of produce. In my experience, I’ve found that organic farmers are likelier to offer something different than conventional farmers (but I am a sample size of one). If you are unsure, just ask—most farmers would love a chance to talk about their products! It’s a great chance to break out of a standard-supermarket-variety rut.

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Why-owa? My Thoughts on the Farmers Market State

My Connection to the Hawkeye State

In the early aughts (2002-2003), I spent a year as a visiting instructor at the University of Iowa, which meant living in the Iowa City area. Having known very little about the Midwest (except that it was some place I never imagined living in), I was beyond pleasantly surprised by Iowa City (although, as a student told me, “Iowa City is not what you think of when you think of Iowa”). I really loved my year here, even those winter mornings featured a few too many temperature readings below 0°F.

In Which She Marvels at the Food Available to Her

Let it be said at the time, I was (and still am) what would be termed a “healthy eater”. Definitely a food lover (why else would I write this blog?), but certainly leaning toward the healthy end of the spectrum. At the time, that was high-fiber, low-fat, semi-vegetarian (today such a diet is no longer the sin qua non of healthy eating, as meat and butter and such have made quite the comeback). But I had no trouble finding organic vegetables, tofu, tempeh, exotic cheeses, interesting grains and the like. In fact, I joined the New Pioneer Food Co-op within 6 hours of moving to Iowa. What a magical place that was for me! Two branches—one (complete with a bakehouse turning out marvelous and inventive breads) within a short walk of my apartment and one within a short walk of my campus office. I was in gustatory heaven!

Then there were the restaurants. Spanning the globe in terms of cuisines, as well as ways of eating (e.g. vegetarian), I had numerous choices on the days I opted not to cook (which were many, given that I was finishing a dissertation at an East Coast school and teaching a full load of mostly new classes at Iowa). Granted, Iowa City is a Big Ten (or 11 or 12—I’m out of touch with this now) with a large medical school (and dental school and law school) to boot, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But (and this was probably some residual East Coast elitism) I was nonetheless pleasantly delighted at my options!

But one of the things I really loved were the farmers markets. Yes, plural—I shopped at the Iowa City one (open twice a week) and the Coralville one (once a week). And now there’s a third one in the old Sycamore Mall location. Anyway, the array of produce options and other goods (breads, etc.) was wonderful. So, when I ran the numbers for farmers markets, I really wasn’t that surprised. There’s clearly a market for farm-fresh products in Iowa. Iowa has a food-aware populace (why else would my coop—and I’m still a member—have two locations, with a third on the way). And, also important, there are actual farmers there as well. So to me it makes sense that Iowa leads the farmers market charge!

SeedSaversGiantZittauOnion

And Something Else: Seed Savers Exchange

Iowa is also the home of the United States’s premier organization devoted to the preservation of heirloom varieties of produce and plants, as well as heritage breeds of animals, Seed Savers Exchange. This nonprofit has been around since 1975. I’ll post about it some other time (as I was fortunate to visit this past summer), but to me it is another indication of the food (and food-issue) cognizant people you find in Iowa. No, it’s not all heirloom peaches and heritage cream (I drove by a Monsanto plant and did give them the finger), but there is a critical mass there.

SeedSaversFlowers

Why-Owa? Iowa!

In short, finding Iowa front and center in the number of farmers markets per capita is almost expected. There’s farmland, farmers, and a ready (and educated) populace—ingredients for a successful farmers market locus!

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Dane County Farmers Market, Part 2

Okay, the Dane County Farmers Market is a riot of color, from potatoes of every hue to a veritable psychedelia of mushrooms,

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Somewhere Over the Potato Rainbow
OysterMushrooms
Make that Somewhere over the Oyster Mushroom Rainbow
from blazingly golden sunflowers to the rich rubiness of cherries.
Sunflowers
These flowers just look so HAPPY!
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Door County is known for its cherries. Not surprising, given that it’s a peninsular county by Lake Michigan. It’s across the lake from Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, the subject of previous cherry posts.
It’s also a riot of local color, in the form of people and events. There’s the bee man Dale Marsden, whose beekeeping and honey-producing have kept him busy for decades!

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I say, Mr. Marsden, that is a mighty fine chapeau you are sporting!
There’s the annual Paddle and Portage, with pairs of canoers paddling across Lake Mendota, foot-racing with their canoes (the “portage” part) across Madison (and crossing Capitol Square), then finishing by paddling across Lake Monona. There’s even the occasional protest or demonstration!

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And you thought hauling all of your market produce was difficult!
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The Speedo Tuxedo Team
You see, a good farmers market can be more than just a place to purchase food—it can (and should be!) a community center!

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