When I go to a grocery store, I am faithful to my nature and I always carry a list in my pocket. Farmers’ market is a completely different story. I bring an oversized canvas bag, preferably equipped with wheels, and meander around the rows waiting for inspiration to hit me while I ogle all the beautiful produce seductively spread across the wooden stalls. I never buy just what I need. There is invariably an immaculate eggplant too pretty to ignore, a gnarly celery root proudly displaying crisp greenery on top, or a bunch of elegantly slender leeks too long to comfortably fit on the counter, pleading to be saved and taken away.
I leave only when my bag cannot hold another ounce, rushing by the stalls displaying hundreds of items I did not purchase. Almost every time, I guiltily stop at some point and allow a farmer to coerce me into buying something I really do not need, that definitely will not fit in my bag… a cup full of juniper berries, a bucket of Cornellian cherries, a big black radish, a sack of spicy, colorful peppers, a baggie of hawthorn berries… I sometimes scold my parents for hoarding, but I am as culpable as they are. I collect food. I cannot help it, as my greed and addiction are too hard to resist. It has become a standing joke with my family and friends. I cannot lie and I empty my bags feeling contrite on the surface, but impatiently waiting for everyone to leave me alone just for a moment, long enough to think of all the uses for my beloved produce.
Mother thinks I am crazy for piling more and more obviously unnecessary work. Father is amused when he finds me buried in the yellowed pages of Veliki narodni kuvar.* My sister just looks at me with her famous “I am speechless” glance. My best friend indulges my addiction by bringing baskets full of Swiss chard and red currants, boxes of his home-rendered lard, bouquets of dill, and since the hunting season opened a few weeks ago, a hefty piece of wild boar and a skinned and thoroughly cleaned rabbit. But nothing can stop me from finding the perfect ways of preparing everything that ends up on my kitchen table, regardless of whose hands delivered it there.
For several weeks now, farmers’ market has been full of people gathering the goods for the incoming winter. Middle-aged men push their bicycles with canvas bags full of green tomatoes and cauliflower hanging from the handles. Old ladies shuffle along with their backs arched in a hump, toting heavy sacks of red peppers. The young men, displaying their entrepreneurial spirit, walk around proudly weaving their hand-made dollies where the bundles of onions and shiny cabbages rest comfortably. Everybody is scurrying around, like the ants from Aesop’s fable, afraid to welcome the icy northern winds with their pantries not adequately stocked.
I feel the call of the preserving season and I join the crowds, grabbing every opportunity to once again walk through the market. I am returning to the U.S. pretty soon and leaving behind sick Mother who barely eats, and elderly Father whose dinner portions are smaller then my eleven-year-old’s. But I made sure that they will not lack food for another decade, labeling the jars clearly to make hunting for them as easy as possible. I visit the jars several times a day, admiring their beautiful colors, proud of my accomplishments. Day by day I progressed on my culinary journey, picking Mother’s brain and learning how to preserve, pickle, and can.
I picked every vegetable that ended in those jars, and Father provided the fruit from The Hills. In the U.S. this would be luxury. Here in Serbia, it is the way of life, a consequence of living in a country that has not reached the dreaded standards of the west. I am convinced that in the years to come, Farmers’ Market will inevitably change, reflecting the European Union’s strict agricultural principles and that all the stalls will offer straight cucumbers without tiny thorns, perfectly matching in size, falling between seven and nine inches, with tomatoes uniform in color, immaculate in their roundness, hard and unappetizing, completely void of their sweet summer essence. But in the meantime, I’ll take advantage of all the colors, sizes, and shapes my beloved, hard-working farmers are offering every day for mere pennies, feeling eternal gratitude for them and their toil.
*Veliki narodni kuvar is an old Serbian cookbook that is considered the Bible of cooking.
This is a universal method that can be applied to any vegetable in season. I have pickled sweet red peppers, hot peppers, and cornichones following the recipe. It differs from many as it does not ask for any preservatives and chemicals and produces perfect pickles, firm, sour, and crunchy. The amounts given are for every 1 kg (1 quart) jar.
- Vegetables of your choice (small cucumbers, sweet red peppers, Hungarian yellow peppers, hot peppers of any variety, green tomatoes)
- 100ml white vinegar
- 1 Tbsp coarse salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- several peppercorns
- fresh dill sprigs (for cornichones only)
Wash the jars in hot water, and boil the lids for a few minutes (if you run the jars and the lids through the dishwasher, they should be sterilized).
Carefully place the vegetables in jars, lining the edges first and then filling the middle. Press them in tightly, trying to squeeze in as many as possible. Mix all the ingredients except for water and pour into the jar, atop the vegetables. Fill with water almost to the top, leaving a bit of space (1cm or ¼ inch) to the top. Screw the lids on tightly and place in a deep pot. Cover with water to reach all the way to the lids and heat to boil. Once it reaches boiling temperature turn the heat down to medium and simmer for 15 minutes until sterilized.
Using the canning tongs, carefully pull the jars out and place them upside down on a kitchen towel to cool of and seal. If they leak at all, the seal has broken and the jar needs to be used immediately or processed again.
Last year at about this time I wrote a post about my sister and her German husband with a recipe for his Grossmutter’s Oxtail Soup.