Learning at the Market
Written onSeptember 01 , 2011
Shop, Learn, Connect— that’s our market’s slogan, and this summer we emphasized the second word “learn” with 15 teaching demonstrations held during market hours. Intended to match the spirit of the market (local, seasonal, and affordable), the demonstrations helped customers learn how to preserve foods to enjoy year-round, how to prepare a variety of dishes from local produce, and how to stretch their food dollar. We partnered with Montpelier-area chefs, our market vendors, and food educators to lead these almost-weekly demonstrations.
New England Culinary Institute (NECI) Executive Chef Tom Bivins led six of the demonstrations, giving NECI students a taste of how to teach outside the classroom, and giving market customers some delicious samples to try. At the zucchini bonanza demo, Tom proved that it’s possible to make a creamy vegan sauce without cream. (Just what was his secret cream stand-in? Cashews.) His tall chef’s toque (hat) drew kids to the demo tent, and some of them came back many times to taste the different foods that were prepared.
Dave Moyer a chef at the Vermont Foodbank, bought a market chicken to cook for one meal and then used the leftovers to make a second meal of chicken gumbo. He spoke about all the ways shoppers can save money on groceries, including buying in bulk, planning menus in advance, and making a shopping list. At one demo, he showed that meat doesn’t have to be the center of a meal but that rice can be used as the meal base. He cooked a cherry tomato risotto that cheaply fed a large group using what was fresh at the market that week. The crowds were scarce at first, Moyer says, but once he began chopping and stirring, people got interested. “I guess to get somebody’s attention, you gotta start cooking.”
Jane Tucker of Highland Gardens showed how to can dill pickles and bread and butter pickles. Lisa Mase of Harmonized Cookery showed how to make chutneys and relishes. We scheduled our ice cream demo on our Youth Market Day, when kids get a chance to vend their own food products and crafts. Mark Simakaski of Artesano mead did the demo, and because adults love ice cream, too, he sold ice cream at the market that included a basil ice cream—a big hit.
Demonstrations gave customers a chance to try unusual new dishes they probably haven’t ever cooked at home, such as blackberry ketchup and coconut-mint chutney. At a demonstration highlighting pea dishes, Tom Bivins encountered a customer who adamantly refused to eat any foods that were green—not too easy to find at a farmers’ market. He managed to persuade her to try the pea risotto and she even liked it. (Tom thinks she liked the risotto because only the peas were green, not the whole dish.)
The teaching demonstrations also offered shoppers opportunities to ask questions and to learn new cooking techniques. Peggy Thompson, who led most of the canning demos, notes that most people came to learn about general canning techniques. During her strawberry jam demo, one man asked her why his jams never set, even though he had carefully measured the correct amounts of sugar, fruit, and pectin. Thompson showed him the jam-making process from start—pulling the caps off the strawberries—to finish—sealing the jam in a water bath. After watching her, the man was able to figure out what he did wrong. Peggy wished him luck and sent him home with new instructions, free pectin samples, and discount coupons for buying canning supplies.
Ball Fresh Canning and Preserving awarded 50 grants to farmers’ markets across the county to teach canning. The Capital City Farmers’ Market was the only market in Vermont to get one. At each demo, market staff handed out free recipe booklets, coupons, and samples to encourage people to preserve their fresh produce. At the end of each canning demo, staff drew names from the market’s newsletter signup to give away canned items, canning supplies, and recipe books. (If you want to try canning just about any vegetable from a farmers’ market, Ball Fresh Canning and Preserving has an excellent website with recipes to help you get started: freshpreserving.com.)
Learning doesn’t end just because the weather turns cold. Demonstrations will continue at our winter market, which is held inside from December through April. Last year, the winter market offered demonstrations on meats, maple syrup, and fermented foods. This year we’d like to focus on specific cooking techniques. We hope to schedule demonstrations on how to carve your holiday turkey and use every part of the bird, as well as how to use all parts of a meat animal (think: organ meats). Demos don’t have to involve lots of time or money. Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier paid the food costs for the Vermont Foodbank demos, as they fit the store’s mission.
Photo by Caroline Abels