When Washington chef Ris Lacoste navigates her hatchback Saab into a tight corner space at one of a half dozen farmers’ markets in D.C. and Northern Virginia, there’s scarcely enough time for her to hop out before being met with a bear hug from a smiling, bronze-skinned farmer materializing by her door.
Talk about a warm welcome.
“I still go to the market. I love going to the market. It’s church to me,” Ris says. And you can’t help but notice, as she holds to her nose a ripe peach or fistful of basil, a kind of ecclesiastical intensity, a spiritual joy struggling to be both reverent and unloosed at once. Having purchased top-quality produce direct from farmers for 20 years — ingredients that have, in part, accelerated her reputation and assisted her meteoric rise to executive chef of 1789 and, most recently, the much-lauded RIS — you could say she’s a defender of the faith, of knowing who grew the food on your plate, which makes it all the more sacred.
In a city hemmed in on all sides by farmland, that congregation is growing fast.
New farmers’ markets are springing up almost every year in the District, and like any fad, enduring or not, it is bound to come equipped with buzzwords. So too within the farmers’ market niche, in which you’ll often hear “organic” tacked onto pesticide-free crops, or the “quality over quantity” concept anointing produce with a kind of life force, a value all its own beyond the bulk rate doled out by grocery clerks.
Above all, you’ll hear the word “community,” a vast concept with particular resonance in the world of food, encompassing everything from breaking bread with one another to the symbiotic bond between farmers and those they feed, the cyclical relationship that underpins such a gathering of neighbors and friends.
With Ris as my guide, I visited five of Washington’s markets, on the lookout for the best produce, but mostly with an eye for the men and women who grow it and bring it to our fingertips. Come meet the region’s farmers — and what they have to offer.
Glover Park and Burleith
Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Wisconsin Avenue and 34th Street (Hardy Middle School parking lot)
Through Oct. 30
It’s worth the trip up Wisconsin to this Georgetown newcomer, just two years old but already ahead of the pack in its community outreach efforts, not to mention its role as a hub for Georgetown, Glover Park and Burleith neighbors out for a Saturday stroll with family, friends or the pooch. Executive Director Lauren Biel and team, who manage the market through a non-profit known as D.C. Greens, have worked overtime to make the market an engaging community center, bringing in bluegrass musicians, jugglers and even a road bike technician. The organization is also pitching a program to build gardens at public schools across the District this fall, and staunchly supports the D.C. Farm to School Network, an initiative tapping local — and higher quality — food sources for the District’s public schools. Biel says such an environment will help draw residents away from the impersonal environment of behemoth supermarkets.
“[By moving away from farmers’ markets], you lose the agora, you lose that community meeting ground, so to have this come back … we know that we need these places, that it’s the right way to live life, a fuller, more mutual experience,” she says.
Making the rounds, we were impressed by the selection, ranging from Jason Edwards’ stunning hydrangeas to authentic Parisian croissants, courtesy of Bonaparte Breads’ Claudio Schmidt. Whitmore Farm’s Will Morrow showed us four different color varieties of beet and offered up a few of his game rabbits, raised on site in Maryland and now making a popular resurgence. At Montross, VA’s Westmoreland Produce, Arnulfo Medina’s nonpareil selection of cherry and heirloom tomatoes — including the strange, robust Cherokee purple variety — caught our eye, along with his melons (honeydew and yellow) and grab-bag of chili peppers.
Finally, at Suzanne Smallwood’s Veggie Emporium, we stumbled across something even Ris had never seen before: a lemon cucumber, a yellow, tart variety of the classic salad topper with a loyal following.
Recipe: Blue Goat Cheese Panzanella Salad
3 stalks celery, sliced
1/2 head radicchio, cut into roughly 1-inch squares
2 cups baby spinach, cleaned and dried
1/2 head romaine, cut into roughly 1-inch squares
6 radishes, sliced
48 cherry tomatoes, cut in half, any or mixed colors
1 small red onion, cut into julienne
1 loaf raisin walnut bread, cut into half-inch cubes for croutons
9 ounces blue goat cheese, cut into half-inch cubes
For the dressing:
Makes 5 cups, much more than you need
2 shallots, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
Zest and juice of two oranges
2 tablespoons fresh chopped basil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup Kalamata olive brine
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup walnut oil
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup peanut oil
Freshly cracked black pepper
For the port glaze:
16 ounces port
8 ounces balsamic vinegar
To make the glaze, combine the port and balsamic vinegar in a heavy based non-reactive pan and reduce to a thick syrup. The 3 cups of liquid should reduce to about 4 ounces. Let cool and keep covered in the refrigerator for as long as a month.
To make the vinaigrette, combine all of the ingredients except the oils in a bowl. Slowly whisk in the oils one at a time starting with the walnut oil followed by the olive oil and then the peanut oil. Vinegars and oils vary in strength and flavor. Each dressing is different. You may therefore not need to add all of the oil in this recipe. Be sure to taste the vinaigrette before adding the last of the oil to check for desired level of acidity. Taste for seasoning and adjust. The vinaigrette can be made and kept covered in the refrigerator for up to a month. However, it is best served at room temperature.
Toss 1 1/2 cups of the raisin walnut croutons in olive oil and toast in a 350 degree oven until golden.
To make the salad, combine all of the ingredients in a bowl, including the croutons but not the cheese. Season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Dress to your liking with the olive vinaigrette and divide the mix into 6 bowls. Stud each salad with about 1 1/2 ounces of the blue goat cheese and drizzle with the port glaze.
Wednesdays, 3 to 7 p.m.
O and 26th Streets
Through Oct. 27
Started by the Friends of Rose Park in 2003 under a partnership with D.C. parks and rec, this is the original Georgetown market, run by volunteers and conveniently located for locals and downtown visitors alike. We took a moment to chat with Anchor Nursery’s Jim Breger and his wife Alice, based in Galena, MD. While the nursery specializes in growing herbs (basil is a perennial favorite among customers), the Bregers also stock a variety of exotic veggies, including a flying saucer-shaped squash and the oriental heirloom eggplant, roundish and hued whitish-purple. Fans of spicy will feel right at home next to Anchor’s barrel of hot peppers — jalapenos, poblanos and super chilis among them.
Recipe: Girl Scout CEO Camp Salsa
By Ris Lacoste
4 medium tomatoes (about 1 1/4-inch, diced)
1 small onion, diced (1/4-inch, 1/2 cup diced)
1 small poblano chili, finely diced (3 tablespoons, finely diced)
1 jalapeno chili, minced (2 tablespoons, minced)
1 large clove garlic, minced (1 tablespoon, minced)
3 scallions, diced (1/2 cup, diced)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of 1/2 lime (1/2 ounce, 1 tablespoon)
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Makes about 3 cups
Cut the 4 tomatoes in half horizontally. Squeeze out the seeds into a bowl. Discard the seeds. Puree 4 of the tomato halves in a blender. Cut the remaining 4 halves into 1/4-inch dice. Place tomato puree and diced tomatoes in a bowl and add all of the remaining ingredients. Mix well with a spoon and taste for seasoning. Adjust with more salt, pepper, sugar or lime juice to balance the flavors to taste. Adjustments will be necessary depending on the ripeness and acidity of the tomatoes. Make your own version of salsa by adding other ingredients such as tomatillos, corn, cucumber, other summer vegetables, pineapple, mango, fresh or roasted chilis of any kind. The options are endless. Serve with tortilla chips.
FreshFarm Market, by the White House
Thursdays, 3 to 7 p.m.
810 Vermont Ave.
Through Nov. 18
Part of an 11-market network governing the Chesapeake Bay region, FreshFarm’s White House location serves as an easy midpoint between Georgetown and the city center, its proximity to the executive mansion even earning a nod from the first family (Michelle Obama stood alongside Mayor Fenty during the market’s opening ceremony this spring). Ris and I stopped by Jim Huyett’s Sunnyside Farm, based in West Virginia, for a crate of delicious peaches, perfectly ripe for the season. Across the aisle, Firefly Farms’ Gloria Garrett sliced off a few samples of their “Merry Goat Round,” a mild, creamy goat cheese that took silver at the prestigious World Cheese awards.
Recipe: Peaches and Honey Bread Pudding (serves 12)
By Terri Horn
1 loaf brioche or challah, crusted and cubed
6 peaches, peeled and sliced and tossed with a bit of honey and a dash of lemon juice
8 ounces white chocolate, cut into chunks
Custard: 1 quart heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
9 eggs, whisked just to mix
6 ounces sugar
Whisk together eggs and sugar
Heat cream with vanilla bean just to a boil. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar. Temper the hot cream into the egg mixture. Strain. Fill buttered 6-8 ounce molds half full with brioche cubes. Stud with peach slices. Cover with more brioche cubes. Stud with 3 or 4 white chocolate chunks. Pour warm custard over and let sit for 30 minutes, adding more as it sits to keep mold full. Bake in water bath at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, depending on the size of the mold. Serve warm with crème anglaise, raspberry sauce and/or lightly sweetened whipped cream.
Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Courthouse Road and 14th Street, Arlington (Courthouse parking lot)
Arlington is great for the 20- or 30-something on the go. Located within sight of the Court House Metro stop (and surrounded by ample parking), this well attended gem stacks up to any market found in the District. We first paid a visit to Jesus Ochoba of Laurel Grove Farm near Reston, VA, which offered an assortment of greens, yellow squash, white and purple eggplant, red radishes and potatoes. The next tent over was Ellen Polishuk with Potomac Vegetable Farm, Ris’ favorite for shallots and herbs.
Afterward, we stopped by to visit an old hand at Arlington’s market. Westmoreland Berry Farm, founded by Chuck Geyer and a charter member of the market for nearly three decades, was selling plump tins of blueberries by the pallet and walnut-sized blackberries, true to form. Delicious.
Recipe: Mixed Berry Upside-down Cake
By Chris Kujala
Makes 1 – 8 inch cake
1 1/2 – 2 cups mixed berries
For the topping:
8 ounces unsalted butter
8 ounces light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the cake batter:
1 cup semolina flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 egg whites
1 cup whole milk
1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
8 ounces unsalted butter, melted
Set the oven to 325 degrees.
Spray or grease one 8-inch cake pan and line with parchment paper. Melt the 8 ounces of butter in a heavy based sauce pot. Add the sugar and vanilla and stir until dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Pour into the prepared cake pan and chill until firm.
To make the cake batter, whisk together all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the egg whites, milk, vanilla, lemon juice and zest. Whisk the wet mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until smooth. Whisk in the melted butter.
Add a single layer of mixed berries to cover the bottom of the pan set with the chilled brown sugar-butter mixture. Pour the cake batter over the fruit and tap the pan on the counter a few times to eliminate any air bubbles. Bake in a 325-degree oven about 20 minutes or until a toothpick placed in the center of the cake comes out clean.
Serve warm with ice cream of your choice.
Sundays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (10 a.m. to 1 p.m. January-March)
1500 block, 20th Street
Earning nods from the Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times, the Dupont farmers’ market, also part of the FreshFarm network, is likely the closest thing to a flagship within the Northwest quadrant. Two hallway-like rows of shouting vendors line the street of this already lively neighborhood, letting visitors experience something reminiscent of Old World bazaars. It’s a hoot.
Our first stop was the Pennsylvania-based Toigo Orchards, helmed by none other than Mark Toigo, a gregarious descendant of Italian grappa makers with an encyclopedic command of the science behind his crop. If you can tear yourself away from this raconteur’s captivating stories, don’t forget to check out his produce — particularly unique are his jars of fresh honey (harvested on site) and a Jamaican green called callaloo, stewed with okra and Caribbean spices.
Heinz Thomet, recommended highly by Ris for his figs, had set up shop next door. Across the path, Zach Lester of Fredericksburg’s Tree and Leaf Farm showed us his beautiful, tear drop-shaped Magda squash and heirloom carrots, which, interestingly, are more flavorful in winter.
Tom from Leesburg’s Blue Ridge Dairy showed off his collection of artisanal cheeses and yogurt, including aged smoked mozzarella, mascarpone, Greek yogurt, Honey YoFresh (made with whole milk) and several other delights.
Ris and I made a final stop at Eli Cook’s Spring Valley Farm, located in Shepherdstown, WV. Not to be missed are his wall of corn, a mound of pristine stalks barely a day old, juicy peaches and lush bunches of opal basil, slightly less flavorful than the traditional variety but lit up by a stunning purple color.
Recipe: Crab Cakes with Jalapeño Creamed Corn
6 crab cakes
For the jalapeño creamed corn:
4 ears sweet corn
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 freshly diced grilled or roasted jalapeño pepper
Sugar, if needed
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
For the garnish:
Scallions, cut into fine julienne
Cut kernels off ears of corn (should yield about 2 cups of corn) and place kernels in a saucepan. Barely cover with heavy cream. Add jalapeño pepper and a pinch of sugar, if needed. Cook until cream reduces slightly. Finish with salt, white pepper and a little butter. Feel free to lighten this recipe with milk and/or light cream. Or use corn milk made by covering the shucked ears of corn with milk, bringing to a boil and simmering gently until the corn milk is released from the ears, about 20 minutes
In a sauté pan, heat the oil or clarified butter. Sauté the crab cakes until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side.
To serve, ladle 3 oz. of corn cream on to 8 plates. Place 1 crab cake on each plate and garnish with scallions and basil.
UPDATE: Check out CNN’s spot on Ris and Spring Valley farm [here](http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2010/07/17/natpkg.farm.to.table.cnn?iref=allsearch).