Manteo Farmers Market, Saturdays 8 to 12
You just have to love a farmers market where you can pull your dinghy up at the dock and get farm-fresh provisions. In Manteo, NC, every summer Saturday morning, farmers and their brokers set up tables under a huge sprawling oak and tents, and barely have time to display the blueberries picked from 50 year old bushes, or cantaloupes from Rocky Hock, or creamer potatoes from Camden County before customers like myself starting buying. Note, go early.
Usually I come home from the Outer Banks laden with freshly picked crabmeat and heads-on shrimp from the Pamlico Sound, or soft shells if they're in season, or fresh blood-red tuna.
This time space in my ice chest was shared with Mattamuskeet Sweets, the sweet Spanish-style onion grown near Lake Mattamuskeet where tundra swans and Canadian geese congregate during the winter. This sweet onion's season was cut short this year due to the hot, hot weather, and then rain that July brought. None were available at any of the markets I checked, and so I called. Out of luck, I made a note to go online and order a box early next summer. www.alligatorrivergrowers.com Thank heavens my friend Della had a big bag on her porch and shared a few with me.
Not terror, as in pirates swarming the waterfront, but terroir, a French term that essentially means the growing conditions - the "where," the type of soil, the amount of moisture perhaps from being close to the sea, and breezes, the amount of sunlight, etc.
North Carolina's coastal plain, particularly those counties that abut the sounds created by the Outer Banks, our "barrier islands," have a terroir that's particularly good for melons, onions and potatoes.
Rocky Hock is a small community near the banks of the Chowan River, right before it dips down and becomes the Albermarle Sound. The soil there is light and dry, sorta like beach sand, and doesn't hold water. That could be a problem for other veggies, but it's perfect for melons. The last week of June and usually through the end of July is their prime harvesting time. Rocky Hock cantaloupes are sweeter, like I remember the Charentais or Cavaillon melons of France. Their flesh is firm and crisp, and a bit longer-lasting. Ditto for watermelon. I have almost eaten a whole 10-pounder all by myself this last week! Sweet and juicy...dribble down the chin juicy....and did I say sweet, esp in the heart of the watermelon? And with seeds that could help me win a spitting contest (I think seedless varieties are not as flavorful.)
Rocky Hock melons are just about gone for the season, for the same reasons - July was so very hot and wet.
TATERS and PEACHES, TOO
But you can still stock your larder with some of the creamiest creamers and white potatoes from Camden County, a skinny sliver of land that juts from Virginia, bordered by the Pasquotank River which flows into the Albermarle. This northeastern corner of North Carolina is potato country, with over 5,000 acres devoted to growing the tubers. The terroir is similar to that in Rocky Hock, with sea breezes and sandy soil.
Currituck County is tucked between Camden Co and the Albermarle Sound, and faces the beaches up past the last real road in Corolla. Take a ferry over to Knotts Island, and you can find "peaches at the beaches." The last weekend in July is when the annual Peach Festival is held. I apologize for not letting you in on it sooner :>(
My favorite treat this summer is SUN GOLD TOMATOES. Tiny, sweet, "pop them in your mouth now" treats, they made a terrific gazpacho. I was thrilled to find a recipe using them in Thomas Keller's latest cookbook, AD HOC AT HOME. The founder of the famed French Laundry in Napa, Keller is of course a proponent of cooking local and seasonal, although he doesn't mind searching the globe for the very best ingredients and spices.
I took some liberties with his recipe for Sun Gold Tomato Gazpacho, substituting our wonderfully crisp, sweet Southern pickling cukes for Armenian or English cucumbers, the Mattamuskeet sweet for a regular onion, and used a combo of smoked sweet paprika and hot chili pepper in place of the piment d'Espelette, and champagne vinegar instead of sherry. In other words, I used what I could find at my markets and in my pantry.
The result? A gazpacho made in heaven. Creamy and smooth, redolent of that sweet tomato taste. We all loved it.
****RECIPE**** SUN GOLD TOMATO GAZPACHO
1/2 cup cold water
1 medium garlic clove, crushed and peeled
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped sweet onion
1 pint sun gold tomatoes (12 ounces)
2 small pickling cucumbers
1/2 large yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/2 large red bell pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon sherry or champagne vinegar, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon chili powder (or use 1/2 teaspoon piment d'Espelette
freshly ground pepper
about 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced chives
1. Place water in a medium bowl and add onions and garlic. Pull out 2 tomatoes per diners, then cut the tomatoes in half, over the bowl, catching any drips. Add tomatoes to the bowl.
2. Peel the cucumbers. Slice one cuke in half, then coarsely chop. Add those to the bowl. You'll use the other cuke as a garnish.
3. Add yellow pepper to the bowl, and toss all together. Let sit and "marinate" for at least five minutes.
4. In the meantime, prepare the garnish. Cut the remaining cuke into a very fine dice. Ditto for the red pepper. Refrigerate, separately, until ready to serve.
5. Transfer the vegetables to a blender (or as Keller recommends, a Vita-Mix). Start on low speed, then increase the speed until the mixture is thoroughly blended.
6. Put a fine meshed strainer over a bowl. Pour the tomato mixture into the strainer and press until all the juices are out. Discard the tomato skins and other veggie remains.
7. Rinse out the blender jar, and then add the strained tomato mixture. Add the vinegar, the paprika/chili powder, and season with salt and pepper. Blend to combine.
8. Then, with the blender running, slowly add the olive oil through the top opening, blending until the gazpacho is "velvety smooth."
9. Taste, and add more vinegar or spices or salt and pepper if needed. Refrigerate in the blender jar until cold, or for up to 2 days.
10. When ready to serve, give it a whirl or two to blend again. Pour the gazpacho into individual serving bowls or cups. Garnish with a sprinkle of the diced cucumber and red pepper, and the tomatoes, halved, saved for the garnish. Serve and enjoy!