Fresh foods this time of year start taking on more bulk, amassing great energy in their girth. Pumpkins, winter squash, thick carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes and kohlrabi replace the more lean and lithe foods of summer. Dried beans, like our famous local Anasazi beans, supplant the green bean. The slender summer squash are outweighed by the massive zucchini lying on the ground like sleeping animals at the feet of their market vendors. The thin bunches of early summer scallions are eclipsed by onions the size of baseballs and their companions, the flirtatious leeks sporting their dark green fibrous stalks. Food, like the people who eat it, knows intuitively when it is time to gather energy from the weakening sun and when to begin preparing for the inevitable winter ahead. And it is the wise cook who understands how to transfer that energy from the garden onto her table.
Fall is also a time of soups and stewpots, casseroles and crockpots and when many of us start adding more meat back into our diet. Our instincts tell us that a beef stew is more satisfying on a crisp autumn night than it is on the 4th of July. Carnitas pulled from a pork roast are more befitting a tailgate party before a football game than eating it poolside while watching the kids play in the splashpad.
Perhaps you didn't know that the farmer's market offers locally grown meat in addition to the abundant produce, breads and pastries, herbs and medicinals, crafts and artwork. I stopped in at one farm stand on a recent Saturday attracted by the unusual offering of homemade rendered lard from naturally raised local, USDA-certified pigs. Used in everything from soap and candle-making to piecrusts and sausages, rendered lard is an old-time household essential. German brats, diced pork, hot sage Italian sausage, ribs, and a whole lot more are all available for hearty meal-making as well.
Here's a family favorite recipe that I like to make in the fall when I can get fresh corn, locally grown and roasted green chile, potatoes, and combine it with high quality sausage, all available at the farmers' market. It warms and fortifies from the inside out. See what you think.
Southwest Corn and Potato Chowder
5 large russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, washed, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes. Save the peels.
3 to 4 leeks or 1 large white onion
1 additional onion for soup stock
4 to 6 (depending on size) ears of fresh corn, uncooked, with the corn shaved off the cob with a sharp knife. Set the kernels of corn aside and save the cobs.
4 to 6 cups vegetable broth (see below) or chicken stock, enough to keep it all covered. You may need to add more later.
Several roasted, peeled, and diced green chile (the hotter you like it, the more chile)*
*Note: It is easy to roast your own either under a broiler or on a grill. Keep them very close to the heat and roast until the chile are blistered and browned, but not blackened, on all sides. You will need to turn them at least once. Listen for the happy “pop” as the chile bursts open and releases its fragrance. Avoid roasting to the point of being black and crispy; the skins should still be pliable, with a brown and blistered skin pulling away from the chile. Cool, wrapped in a cotton cloth or towel to keep the skins soft and easier to peel (Bluebird flour sacks work great). Once cooled, peel, remove seeds and stems with a paring knife. Do not rinse with water as this destroys it's characteristic smoky, roasted flavor.
1/2 pound to 1 pound bulk or link sausage, whichever you prefer (sage or Italian sausage is great in this recipe).
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Fresh thyme, 3 or 4 sprigs, or 1 Tbs. dried (Fresh herbs make a world of difference when making soup stock. They're still available at the farmer's market.)
Fresh garlic, 1 to 2 cloves, squeezed or minced, also available locally
1 tsp. cumin
1 Tbs. butter
1 cup whole milk or cream
Take the potato peels, the naked corn cobs, one onion cut up into large chunks, the bay leaf , 1 teaspoon salt, the thyme and the garlic and add all to the water or the chicken stock. Simmer for at least one hour, cool, then strain.
While the stock is cooking, fry up the sausage, drain on paper towels when done and, if using bulk sausage, crumble it to your preferred size. My husband and I have an ongoing disagreement: I like my sausage served in a medium-fine uniform crumble; he prefers manly hunks staring back at him from his bowl of chowder. It's a matter of visual artistic taste. Crumble the sausage according to your own artistic temperament, knowing that you'll never be able to please all the people all the time. Or you can avoid the argument altogether and use link sausage, sliced into 1/2 to 1 inch thick chunks.
Wash the leeks thoroughly inside and out and chop them up well, discarding the tough green ends. Alternatively, dice the onion. Add to the strained stock, along with the diced potatoes and chile. Cook about 1/2 hour or until the leeks or onion are tender, the potatoes begin to fall apart, and the soup starts to take on a rather thick consistency.
At this point, add the cooked sausage, the cumin and freshly ground black pepper. Cook a few minutes longer over low heat.
Next, add the milk or cream, the butter, and the fresh corn. Heat through, but don't allow it to come to a full boil. Now is the time to add any additional liquid to suit your desired consistency. Let cool slightly before serving; it will taste better when not served piping hot and cooling will also allow it to thicken further.
Adjust seasonings. Serve with a garnish of chives, parsley, or a sprinkle of thyme.
This chowder, when served with crusty bread and hunks of sharp cheddar, is guaranteed to fill up anybody's root cellar.
Looking ahead, there are pumpkins, parsnips, and potatoes on the horizon, as early as next week I am told. Parsnip fritters and pumpkin pies, made of course from local produce, are promises of how the best is yet to be. So now is the time to savor the last few weeks of our thriving farmers' market, Cortez. While you're there, breathe deeply and inhale the aroma of living things freshly unearthed. Let the warm, yeasty smell of fresh-baked goodness set your mouth to watering. Feast your eyes on the palette of colors laid out before you like a box of crayons. Listen to the chatter of happy people going about the daily business of feeding themselves and their families. Dip your toes into the stream of local life as you look around and smile. This is you, Cortez. Your home town.
The Cortez Farmer's Market is open Saturdays from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. at 109 W. Main (www.cortezfarmmarket.com).
The Parsnippet is supported by Livewell Montezuma, a healthy eating active living (HEAL) community.
Wendy Watkins is the owner of S'more Music, a private Suzuki piano studio in Cortez. She can be reached at 565-4129.