I was getting a haircut recently when I overheard a woman in the next chair talking about the farmers' market - the indoor one held on Saturdays downtown at the Madison Senior Center. "I've never been there," she said. "I doubt there's much to buy - maybe some meat, but that's about all."
Poor woman, I probably startled her as I about leaped out of my salon cape to correct that misconception.
Meats and poultry - and a great variety of them, as I explained - are just the beginning of what's available at the winter version of the Dane County Farmers' Market. There's eggs, cheeses, fresh and frozen fruits, cider, root vegetables, mushrooms, fresh greens, tomatoes, dressings, preserves, salsa, sauces, maple syrup, honey, breads, pastries, cheesecakes, flowers, herb-infused sea salts...need I go on?
Furthermore, vendors keep adding new items to the mix. One I'm excited about is the sunflower oil introduced this season by Driftless Organics of Soldiers Grove. Cold-pressed from sunflower seeds, it's the first locally grown salad/cooking oil to hit the farmers' market. And it is delicious: rich, pure-tasting and distinctly "sunflower seed" in aroma without coming on too strong in flavor. Like top-grade olive oil, it complements salads and raw veggies, but can also be used for baking, sautéing and light stir-frying. (Deep-frying is about the only application I wouldn't recommend, as it can burn at very high temperatures.) While the folks at Driftless sold out of their fall pressing a few weeks ago, they'll have a new pressing ready when the outdoor market opens in April.
And clearly the idea is one whose time has come. Cindy and Leroy Fricke of Cherokee Bison launched their own oil at the market last weekend. Cherokee Sun Sunflower Oil was conceived when Cindy Fricke learned that sunflower oil has a lot of the same health benefits as olive oil and said to herself, "We can't grow our own olives, but we can grow our own sunflowers." She adds that the oil is "local, natural and sustainable and has added 'coolness'" because the residues from all three parts of the oil-making process - harvesting the sunflowers, pressing the seeds and clarifying the oil - become nutritious fare for the bison they raise.
Another stand with new items this season is Cabbibo's Bakery. Joe and Ruby Cabbibo have begun packaging breadcrumbs, croutons and biscotti crumbs made from their signature semolina bread. I think their bread makes the best toast on the planet, so I'm not surprised that the crumbs crisp up light and crunchy on baked fish, or that the croutons put the boxed grocery store varieties to shame. As for the biscotti crumbs, I substituted the chocolate almond variety for graham crackers in a torte I made last month, and all I can say is, wow.
The Cabbibos, on vacation from the market right now, will also launch two new items when they return on March 7: scaccia, a savory rolled bread, and 'mpanata, a sort of giant calzone that's filled with vegetables and is vegan.
Also look for Silly Yak Bakery's gluten-free pizza crusts, a new blue cheese from Bleu Mont Dairy, fresh-cut rosemary from Snug Haven Farm and potted lettuce plants from Indian Trail Greenhouses.
Terese Allen and Peter Robertson of RP's Pasta will be the chefs at the Winter Farmers' Market Breakfast, hosted by REAP Food Group, on Saturday, Feb. 28. On the menu: bacon, egg and spaghetti pie; mixed green salad with sea-salt-and-honey-spiced hickory nuts; crostini with blue cheese and pear butter; and hickory nut butter cookies.