Local Surprises

August 25, 2008

My infatuation with farmers’ market-going began in high school, when I would relish Saturday mornings, waking up at a ridiculously early hour and hopping in the car with my step-dad. We’d head to Minneapolis and roam the rows of stalls at the farmers’ market, some selling the produce you’d expect at a Midwestern market; others pushing their hand-crafted cheeses, honey, eggs or meats; and even a few providing exotic (to me) vegetables key to Hmong cooking, all in the shadows of the beautiful Basilica. We’d grab a couple cups of steaming coffee (I’ve been a coffee drinker for a long time; I don’t really believe the stunt-your-growth theory, but I do measure a mere 5’4″, so you be the judge) and do a reconnaissance sweep of the market, keeping an eye on the tastiest morsels, familiar purveyors and most beautiful flowers. Before our second lap, we’d each devour a grilled breakfast sausage—peppery and succulent, nestled in a good quality hot dog bun and striped with ketchup and mustard. Thus fueled, we’d gather armloads of tomatoes, corn, fresh fruit and flowers “for your mother,” as my step-dad would always say.

I’d hit up the Evanston Farmers’ Market every now and again in college, but I mostly looked forward to revisiting the Minneapolis market when I’d be home for a weekend visit or, even better, an entire summer in Minnesota. I didn’t fall into a regular market routine again until I moved to D.C. after college. I was immediately smitten with the Dupont Circle market, conveniently located smack dab in between Kevin’s apartment and mine our first year in D.C. It was a miniature market, in comparison to the bustling market in Minneapolis, but it was charming. And I loved that the warmer climate brought an earlier arrival of peaches, tomatoes and other typically late summer delicacies.

(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos & the recipe.)

Back in Chicago two years later, I began to explore the markets that pop up around the city all summer long. There are the markets in the Loop, one of which I’d wander through during my lunch hour the summer I worked at the Daley Center, and another of which I’d wake up early to visit before arriving for work the semester I worked (“externed,” it’s called) for a judge in the Northern District of Illinois. There are also markets in many of the Chicago neighborhoods, including my old one and my new one. The grand-daddy of them all sets up shop in Lincoln Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays—you might remember it from an episode of last season’s Top Chef.

This little trip down farmers’-market-memory lane is all to say that I’m afraid I’ve always taken a rather tunnel vision approach to farmers’ market shopping. I become transfixed by the big ticket items: asparagus and strawberries in the spring; corn, tomatoes and peaches as summer hits its stride; apples and squashes when the leaves start to turn come autumn. But lately, I’ve been noticing all kinds of other treasures, things I had no idea grew in Illinois or thereabouts. Things like hot peppers (can something so fire-y really thrive in a place that spends half the year hovering around 32 degrees?), okra (surely we are on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line for that kind of thing?), melons (too tropical, no?). And also tomatillos. Actually, I was downright shocked to see the little green spheres, sheathed in their papery skins, last weekend at the Wicker Park market. I’m not really sure where I thought tomatillos grew, but I suppose not right here in the Midwest. Nevertheless, I swooped up two little baskets and began to scheme about what I’d do with them.

In the end, I paired them with another get from the same market, one that’s inarguably indigenous to this area: fresh sweet corn. I grilled both the corn and tomatillos, along with a quartered poblano pepper. Once charred, I stripped the cobs of their kernels, minced up the pepper and stirred both into a bowl full of the grilled tomatillos. Next, I drizzled the whole thing with a simple dressing of lime juice, olive oil, cilantro and sea salt: fresh, simple, smoky. It made a lovely addition to last Wednesday’s birthday fiesta—and was a great way to marry one of my farmers’ market standbys (corn) with a newfound treat (tomatillos). It was also a reminder to keep my eyes open at the markets, scanning for ingredients I might not expect to find there.

Grilled Tomatillo-and-Corn Salad

10-12 tomatillos, husks removed, washed and halved
3 ears corn, husks and silks removed
1 poblano pepper, quartered and seeded
1 tablespoon plus two teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 teaspoons cilantro, minced, plus more for garnish
1/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt, divided
1/8 teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper

Prepare a grill or grill pan. Brush the halved tomatillos with 1 teaspoon olive oil and the quartered poblano with another 1 teaspoon olive oil. Sprinkle the tomatillos and poblano with 1/8 teaspoon of salt and pepper.

Grill the tomatillos (cut side down) for 4 to 6 minutes, until the cut sides have begun to char and the tomatillos have softened. At the same time, grill the corn, rotating the corn 90 degrees every 2 minutes (8 minutes total). Also at the same time, grill the quartered poblano, 4 to 6 minutes, turning once. Once grilled, allow the tomatillos, corn and poblano to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, whisk together the remaining oil, lime juice, cilantro and salt in the bottom of a medium bowl. Set aside.

Once cooled slightly, shave the kernels off the grilled corn; slice the halved, grilled tomatillos in half (to create quarters); and mince the grilled poblano. Place the chopped vegetables in a the medium bowl with the dressing at the bottom. Stir to combine. Garnish with additional cilantro leaves.

Serve warm, at room temperature or chilled.

13 Responses to “Local Surprises”

  1. I’ve yet to hit the Minneapolis market but have twice managed to hit the St. Paul market by timing my Minnesota-Missouri trips just perfectly.

  2. Amanda Says:

    I think that a trip to Chicago is definitely in order. That market in Lincoln Park looks so diverse and interesting, at least from the picture. Care to be the Chicago tour guide ?! 🙂

  3. Tiffany Says:

    I was excited to find tomatillos this summer at one of my farmer’s markets, too.
    Isn’t it so easy to just buy the popular fruits and veggies, though? They’re so good. But those little odd treasures can be such an adventure.

  4. tiffany Says:

    I was so excited to see your salad, as my garden tomatillos are starting to ripen. (We grew them from seed!) Also, i agree, the coffee-stunting growth theory is out, I’m rather tall and a coffee lover. Coffee plants are really pretty, by the way.

  5. Maria Says:

    I love tomatillos! Your salad is gorgeous!

  6. Kim Says:

    Farmers Markets are the best aren’t they. It has been ages since I have had tomatilos. Thanks for the post.

  7. pipee Says:

    I love farmer’s markets also – I must say though, ours in Omaha is not the most exotic of markets. It is getting better, so I cross my fingers every year as it grows larger that I’ll be able to find new treasures.

  8. Beth Says:

    I’m a long time reader, but first time commenter. Two things: I love the idea of this recipe as fresh, late-summer salad, but I can’t find a tomatillo to save my life. Any good substitute suggestions?

    And, I’ve been a coffee drinker since I was 11 (blame my grandfather) and at 23 I am 5’10”. I think that blasts the whole stunt-your-growth theory out of the water!

  9. Alanna: You know, I don’t even know where the St. Paul market is. I guess we’ve just always gone to the Minneapolis one. Also, well done on the road trip timing! That is something I would do. : )

    Amanda: My secret wish is to be a tour guide. I always wanted to be one for the prospective students in college, but—frankly—I simply do not have the coordination for all that backwards walking. That said, I would happily be your tour guide. Provided I don’t have to walk backward.

    Tiffany: I sometimes feel blinded by the huge bins of gorgeous tomatoes and corn. Once I can get past those, there are definitely little treasures tucked away in the smaller corner bins.

    tiffany: Home-grown tomatillos?!? Well done!

    Maria: Thanks!

    Kim: They sure are.

    pipee: I’ll cross my fingers for you too! : )

    Beth: Hmm, no tomatillos, huh? That’s surprising because I can find them (though never a huge amount of them) in my regular (Jewel) grocery store. If you can’t find them, though, I think you could use firm cherry or roma tomatoes (firm so they’ll hold up on the grill). I would reduce the grilling time a bit, though, as the tomatoes will soften up more quickly then tomatillos. If you give it a try, let us know how it goes! Also — thanks for commenting!

  10. Corinne Says:

    I’ve never considered grilling tomatillos, but this salsa looks amazing. And timely, too–you should submit this recipe to the root source challenge.

    Check it out:

  11. Corinne: Thanks! I will certainly submit this for the challenge.

  12. Beth Says:

    Finally got to try the recipe. My mom brought me down some garden fresh tomatoes: a bunch of green and 3 Romas. On a whim, I grilled one of the green at the same length as the tomatillos, but cut a lot of the time off the Romas. It was fantastic and the green tomato actually was closer in flavor to the tomatillos. Thanks for a great recipe!

  13. Beth: I’m glad you gave it a go! And thanks for reporting back about the green tomato substitution too. I bet that’ll be helpful for others.

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