With the return of the Dane County Farmers' Market to the Capitol Square next Saturday, April 21, and outdoor markets up and running soon all over town, it's time to work on The List. You know: Gather canvas bags: check. Stockpile one dollar bills: check. Oil wheels of fold-up shopping cart: check. Ready garden plots for bedding plants: check.
I added a new task to the line-up this year: Haul food dehydrator from basement to back porch. Why am I thinking about dried foods when the season of fresh has just arrived? Because after using a friend's Excalibur-brand dehydrator a few times, I finally acquired my own, and this year I'm going to use it on market produce to help extend the local harvest from three seasons to four.
If dried fruits and vegetables don't sound appetizing to you, then you probably haven't tasted the concentrated savor of reconstituted, sautÃed morels or the sweet, candy-like chewiness of dried pear quarters. I've tried both, and they have convinced me that winter actually flies by if I fill it with dinners of morel shallot risotto or bison morel stew, and breakfasts of granola or oatmeal with dried pears and maple syrup.
Larry Johnson, manager of the Dane County Farmers' Market, says there'll be lots of variety during the early weeks of the market ' greens, cheese, meats, greenhouse tomatoes, baked goods, asparagus, eggs, cut flowers and more ' but what I'll be paying particular attention to is herbs, mushrooms and other items that I can put to the dehydrator test. In summer I'll go for cherry tomatoes, berries and hot peppers, and in fall it'll be apples and cranberries. Who knows? Eventually I even may try my hand at yogurt taffy, fruit leather and my own grass-fed beef jerky.
This may all seem like a lot of work, but drying food is uncomplicated and undemanding. The hands-on part ' peeling fruit, trimming mushrooms ' can be accomplished while watching a DVD, or lounging on the front porch, sipping G & T's (and many ingredients need nothing more than a quick rinse under cool water). Lay the ingredients on the dehydrator trays, set the dial, and your job is done ' except for the part a few hours later when, after transferring the product to an airtight container, you find yourself spending long minutes gazing with satisfaction at summer in a jar.
Dehydrating is particularly suited to students and other apartment- or budget-bound folks because no freezer or canning equipment is required. Even the dehydrating appliance itself is optional, for many foods can be dried in a regular oven, at its lowest setting with the door slightly open. (If the oven has a convection fan, that's even better.)
And in that case, all you'd need to make the most of this market season is a well-oiled shopping cart ' to load up with edibles for the whole year ahead.
Finding local food
The best things in life are free, and proof of that is the 2007 Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas, a 40-page booklet that lists more than 150 farms, farmers' markets, restaurants and specialty stores in the area that offer locally grown crops, products and meals. Available this spring at the Dane County Farmers' Market information booth (top of State Street on the Square), the Atlas can also be picked up at libraries and dozens of businesses. For a list of locations and to learn about similar atlases in other regions of the state, visit www.reapfoodgroup.org.