So Close You Can Taste It

If it were really possible, I would never buy fruit, vegetables or herbs from a grocery store again.

Think about it, wax apples go bad faster than the variety in the produce section of a major chain.

Buy the dark green, shiny cucumbers stacked up like fire wood and you’d have enough wax to make a candle Bath & Body Works could market.

The basil encased in that plastic coffin with the squishy lining is about as limp as the clientele living on the power of that blue pill.

Growing up in Florida there was no shortage of roadside produce palaces. Flea markets offered locally grown goodies all year round. All. Year. Round.

My dad took me to a swap meet type dealio where there’s table after table of fresh, food group friends. They even had fish. Plus, there was a stand grilling locally-born sweet corn. Forget light sabers, that charred corn gave me the hand-held power and appetite to conquer the world.

Living where I do in South Carolina gives me access to two wonderful farmers’ markets (and several farms) within 35 minutes of my house. When I go to one of them, I feel like I’ve landed on the colorful game board in what would be my version of Candy Land.

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There are two reasons I love a farmers’ market.

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It’s a wonderful feeling knowing you’re supporting a hard-worker who puts their blood, sweat, tears and life-savings into growing the taste of any given season.

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Plus, it’s so easy to come across something you’ve never seen or tasted.

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Two weeks ago, we passed by the usual, but beautifully tempting, eggplant, tomatoes and squash and found a table that looked like the prosthetic table in the makeup department of a movie featuring the life and times of a wicked witch.

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These green, pimply, wart-struck cucumber outcasts had me at, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too!”

A man and a woman behind the table didn’t speak much English, but she told him what I needed to know, and he translated. The Emerald oddities were bitter gourds. He told me scoop out the insides and cook. He said they were bitter, and slightly sweet. I had to have one, and at $1 each, I couldn’t
resist. I later realized that Chopped on the Food Network featured these gourds in a mystery basket under the name Karela.

Next to the gourds, there was a pyramid of lemongrass. I’ve always wanted to cook with it, but never found myself in the mood to track down an Asian market.

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For $2 I got one bunch.

Front that point on, I ignored the fact that it was 400 degrees outside and decided I’d be making one of my favorite Thai treats, Tom Kha Gai, or spicy coconut soup. My mind also wrapped itself around the bitter gourd and envisioned a stir fry of sorts. It was a plan, and I couldn’t wait to get it going.

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If you’ve ever ordered Tom Kha Gai at a Thai joint, you’ll know that picking out, or flat out avoiding the lemongrass, is one of the signature steps of swimming through it. Lemongrass is a stalking spear that has greenery on top and almost a bulb at the bottom. Think of it as a tea bag. Steep it in liquid and get rid of it. If you bite into a piece, even if it’s cooked, you’ll feel as though you swallowed a can of lemon scented Pledge. Yeah, Thai furniture polish. It’s that potent. That’s also the reason good ol’ lemon juice won’t give you the same citrus sucker punch you need.

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You peel the greenery off until there’s a light yellow, almost white stalk. You can slice it very thin, or cut it into penne pasta like pieces. I do that, because it’s easier to avoid, and pick out if that’s your thang.

For my Tom Kha Gai, I used:
2 1/2 inches of fresh ginger, chopped
1 large garlic clove, chopped
2 stalks of prepared lemongrass
1 large red jalapeño, sliced. Seeds removed (tradition calls for Thai chiles, but I didn’t have those)
2 limes & 3 bay leaves (tradition calls for Kafir lime leaves. I didn’t have those, so I used the zest of 1.5 limes and the bay leaves as a substitute)
1 can of coconut milk
1 32oz container of salt-free chicken broth
5 sliced baby Bella mushrooms (tradition calls for straw mushrooms. The Bellas are meatier and cheaper)
2 chicken breasts sliced thin

In a pan, add a squirt or two of non-stick cooking spray and add the ginger, garlic and lemon grass. Once your nose starts to salivate, add the chicken broth, sliced pepper, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-high and simmer for 10 minutes. You’re steeping the flavor at this point.

Add the juice of both limes, the zest, and bay leaves. Stir.
Add chicken and lower the heat to medium-low.
Add the coconut milk and the mushrooms, cook for 10 minutes at medium low.

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For the bitter gourd, I cut it open and used a spoon to scoop out the seeds. Then, I sliced it on the diagonal, and sautéed it for a few minutes in a pan coated with cooking spray.

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To that, I added a Frozen mix of peppers and onions. I made a sauce of oyster sauce, peanut butter, soy sauce and Sriracha. When that mix became good friends, I made a well and sautéed some shrimp.

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The bitter gourd was tender and tasty. It had its namesake zing. The gourd gave the stir fry a pop of texture and color. We loved it. If you see it, snag it.

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I got another batch of lemongrass, cut it up, portioned it out into resealable bags and stuck it in the freezer. Now I have it whenever I need it.

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Try to find lemongrass and bitter gourd in your neighborhood grocer shop. I dare ya.

I’m dreading Winter, when the freshness and availability of locally grown love is gone…

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…and my only options are as sun kist as my rear end.

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Tip: To clean mushrooms use a wet paper towel. Wipe off the dirt and set ’em aside. If you run them under the faucet, they’ll absorb the liquid and it’ll come out in the pan, preventing a nice, golden crust. Mushrooms are little sponges, not the kind you want around your sink.

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