June is typically the most bountiful month for Lowcountry-grown vegetables and fruits, and it is even more lush in the first week this year with the early arrival of produce such as tomatoes, corn and blackberries.
For many local farmers, it feels as if South Carolina had two seasons over the past six months, and neither of them was winter.
This was the fourth warmest winter on record, NOAA reported in April. That meant farmers began harvesting many of their fruits and vegetables several weeks early, leaving them and their customers to wonder if the late spring/early summer produce will peter out sooner than usual.
Time will tell, but the time is ripe to visit area farmers markets and farm stands to see what the locals have to offer.
We wanted to know: What do some of our farmers eat when produce is at its peak? And what is piquing their customers’ interest?
Robert FieldsRobert Fields Farm, Johns Island
Sample of available produce: beets, broccoli, string beans, squash, green peppers, cucumbers, peaches, several types of potatoes.
You may not see him right away as you browse Robert Fields Farm’s stand at the Charleston Farmers Market at Marion Square, but owner Robert Fields is there.
“Hey, boy, you need some peaches? You look around now and tell my girls what you need,” Fields calls from a lawn chair near his produce truck.
The customer thanks him and plucks a few tomatoes from one of the sprawling wooden bins. Fields watches to make sure his employees are helping the man before he picks up his cell phone, which hasn’t stopped ringing all morning.
It’s a busy time of year for any farmer, but especially one who has been in business for more than 40 years.
At the Fields’ home, they’re enjoying the abundance of fresh shell beans. He says many of his wife Rosalie’s favorite recipes have butter beans in them.
The entire Fields family has a longstanding tradition at the farmers markets in South Carolina, and there’s usually more than one Fields stand at any given location.
Louise BennettRosebank Farms, Johns Island
Sample of available produce: Sweet corn, tomatoes, potatoes, yellow and zucchini squash, okra, blueberries, peppers, beans.
“Lots of times everything we have (for dinner) is from the farm,” says Louise Bennett, who operates Rosebank Farms Market on Johns Island with longtime partner Sidi Limehouse.
One night last week, they had butter beans, corn on the cob, sliced heirloom tomatoes, brown rice, barbecue ribs and okra pods, which Bennett cooks in a novel way: steamed in a plastic bag in the microwave. Dessert was blueberries “with a speck of vanilla ice cream.”
On another night, they enjoyed boiled shrimp and cocktail sauce with a big salad plate composed of green and wax beans, Yukon Gold potatoes, tomatoes and Bibb lettuce, dressed with a simple vinaigrette.
“We eat very simply,” says Bennett, and usually the meal includes two or three farm vegetables. About twice a week dinner is meatless.
Is there a vegetable she shuns?
“I’m not allowed to have likes and dislikes,” she jokes.
“Earlier this year we even tried lamb’s quarters, which is a weed,” Bennett continues. Some other unusual greens they’ve cooked this year include parsnip tops and young potato leaves. The latter was recommended by employee Yolanda Gonzalez, who is from Guatemala. “They were not bitter. I was surprised,” Bennett says.
Many of the market’s customers are non-natives, so they have a lot of questions about the produce they see at Rosebank, such as golden zucchini, kohlrabi, Oriental eggplant and the wax beans. “Unless it’s a green bean, they aren’t familiar with them,” says Lonnie Hubbard, who has worked at the market for 14 years.
One man’s mixup over two Southern favorites still brings a smile: He thought the boiled peanuts were butter beans.
Celeste AlbersGreen Grocer Farm, Wadmalaw Island
Sample of available foodstuffs: free-range eggs, raw milk and heirloom grains and rice.
At 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, a woman scurries up to Green Grocer Farm’s stand at Marion Square, leaving bumped and ruffled market customers in her wake.
“Did I miss the eggs?” she gasps.
Celeste Albers laughs and points to a blue cooler, where several cartons of eggs remain. The woman buys a carton of a dozen and retreats peacefully through the crowd.
Albers’ eggs are in high demand around Charleston, and although most of her customers are restaurants, she still sees the regular customers every weekend at the market.
A big advantage for her farm is the consistent production, since warm winters don’t affect her hens.
The raw milk she sells also can be frozen.
But her biggest question from customers isn’t about the eggs or milk, it’s how to cook the Anson Mills Grits she sells at her table. For tourists especially, the art of preparing grits is part of a strange and wonderful culinary world.
To combat that, Albers keeps a stack of recipes handy and gives one to each customer who purchases a bag of grits.
Karen KennertyKennerty Farms, Wadmalaw Island
Sample of available produce: cherry tomatoes, basil, summer squash, squash blossoms.
In case the longest line at the farmers market wasn’t a clear indication, the Kennerty Farms stand in Marion Square is a hot place to buy squash blossoms. Karen Kennerty takes great care with the delicate blooms, placing them side-by-side in plastic containers and tucking the containers neatly into a cooler.
“We’re not the only ones selling squash flowers,” she says, displaying a squash flower graphic on her T-shirt. Still, local restaurants and caterers snatch up her stock each week.
Kennerty doesn’t cook her vegetables — she doesn’t have time — she eats all of them raw. She prefers to toss the leaves of squash flowers with salad, and her customers tell her about their adventures with the bloom.
Some mash the bright orange petals to brighten table butter, while others stuff the blossoms with vanilla creme and deep fry them for dessert. The latter is turning up at wedding receptions.
The squash blossom has a season, but Kennerty says they’ll continue to sell them at the market until it gets too hot.
Fritz AicheleMaple Ridge Farm, Canadys
Sample of available produce: blackberries, blueberries.
Virtually fat-free and chock-full of antioxidants, blueberries are a popular treat among foodies. At the Maple Ridge Farms stand at Marion Square, Fritz Aichele touts an ample supply of the round fruit along with large, lush blackberries.
Aichele offers the Southern Highbush blueberry, a hybrid between Rabbit Eyes (a reddish blueberry) and the Northern Highbush. They grow wild and pest-free, a perfect addition to any orchard.
A warm winter resulted in an early harvest this year — and the subsequent loss of Maple Ridge Farms’ peaches and pears. “It’s just one of those things,” he says. “Doesn’t happen often but when it does, it’s bad news.”
Still, Aichele is trying to capitalize. Regular customers show up with cloth bags and buy bushels of berries for parties and canning, while tourists walk around munching them.
He chats with each customer, new and old, like a friend and hands each one a recipe for fresh blackberry pie as they walk away. On the bottom of the recipe, scrawled in red pen, reads “Enjoy with Maple Ridge Farm blackberries.”
Teresa Taylor of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.
Recipes show off local produce
Recipes from farmers and other sources show off local produce:Fresh Blackberry PieMakes 1 (9-inch) pieIngredients1 package refrigerated pie crust for 9-inch pie (available in supermarket dairy sections) 6 cups fresh blackberries, divided use1 cup sugar1/4 cup cornstarch1/8 teaspoon salt1/2 cup water2 tablespoons lemon juice2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into piecesDirectionsFor the top crust, size 1 sheet of the pie dough to the pie pan before baking. Following package directions for heat settings, bake the other sheet of dough in the pie pan and the top crust on a baking sheet.Puree 2 cups of berries in a blender or food processor.Whisk sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan. Add water. Stir in the pureed berries, lemon juice and butter. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Put 2 cups of fresh berries into baked pie crust. Cover with 1/2 of the pureed mixture. Top with the other 2 cups of fresh berries and pour remaining mixture on top. Make sure all berries are coated evenly.Top with baked pie crust. Cool before cutting.Recipe from Maple Ridge FarmGreen Grocer GritsServes 2 to 4Ingredients1 cup water1 cup milk 1 tablespoon butter2/3 cup stone-ground gritsSalt and pepper to tasteDirectionsIn a saucepan, bring water to a boil; add milk and butter.Stir in grits, stirring until it comes back to a boil. Turn heat to low; cover. Stir occasionally, adding additional milk and butter as needed. When grits are thick and creamy, about 45 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste. (Don’t add salt at the beginning because it will interfere with the corn’s ability to absorb liquid.)Recipe from Celeste Albers, Green GrocerFarmer’s EggplantMakes 2 generous servingsIngredients1 Italian or Oriental eggplant, ½ to ¾ poundOlive and/or canola oil1 cup bread crumbs, divided use1 large clove garlic, finely chopped1 large tomato, about 1 poundFinely grated Parmesan cheese to taste (optional)1 large fresh basil leaf, choppedDirectionsSlice the eggplant ¼-inch thick lengthwise or crosswise depending on their shape. Coat the bottom of a frying pan with oil and heat over medium high. Salt the eggplant slices and brown on both sides. Oil a baking dish and cover with some of the bread crumbs. Place browned eggplant slices in the dishLightly brown the garlic in the oil and sprinkle it on eggplant slices. Slice tomato ¼ inch thick and place on eggplant.Mix enough olive oil with the remaining bread crumbs to moisten them. Add Parmesan cheese if desired. Sprinkle bread crumbs over tomatoes. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or so until tomatoes are tender. Sprinkle chopped basil over before serving.Recipe from Louise Bennett, Rosebank FarmsButter Bean and Bacon HummusMakes 5 cups“Everything from boiled peanuts to black-eyed peas is showing up in hummus recipes all over the South. ... I serve this with just about anything: crackers, sliced tomatoes, celery and baby carrots.”— Author Rebecca Lang, “Quick-Fix Southern”Ingredients2 pounds fresh butter beans3 slices bacon3 tablespoons diced Vidalia onion3 tablespoons olive oil2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice2 tablespoons tahini 3/4 teaspoon salt1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepperChopped fresh chives, for garnishDirectionsPlace the beans in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally until the beans are tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain well again.While the beans cook, prep all the other ingredients.Place the bacon slices between layers of paper towels and cook until crisp in the microwave, about 3 minutes. Crumble the slices after they have cooled.Place the bacon and onion in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse 3 times. Add the beans, olive oil, lemon juice, tahini, salt and pepper. Process until smooth, about 1 minute.Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with chopped chives.