A locavore’s edible treasure hunt for Utah delicacies.
Eating local” has become a drumbeat for a new movement. Backyard chickens have become a fad, the new urban chic pet of choice. Coops are popping up in the backyards along with victory garden-style veggie plots. Urban farming has become a common pursuit for the hip neo-environmentalist—and a whole lot of other people, too.
There is such pleasure in eating the flavors of my garden, season by season, that I anticipate each new weather pattern bringing me a new delicacy ready to try.
In my urban garden, we grow artichokes—mostly as a kind of symbol. They are not at all like an artichoke from California where the conditions are favorable to grow them. My garden artichokes are tiny, and usually crawling with earwigs who love them more than I do. Just because an artichoke has come from my backyard, I can attest, does not make it better; personally, I would rather eat a big artichoke from a coastal region. However, for a diehard locovore adherent, there is a certain pleasure in knowing you can keep some of those more exotic items in the dietary mix, with a little searching and some DIY dedication.
Here is a start on a locovore edible treasure hunt for some of Utah’s delicacies, including seasonal opulence and hard-to-find rarities for our climate.
Utah claims a fruit heritage we should be careful to support and preserve; once an orchard becomes a subdivision, it’s hard to get it back. What would summer be without peaches? The freshest and sweetest varieties have been developed and grown by generations of orchardists who are sadly disappearing. It is a fruit many Utahns know about as a pick-your-own adventure. I recommend making the time to drive Highway 89 along the northern Wasatch Front around Brigham City to find the fruit stand treasures and eat your fill. This month Brigham City hosts the 97th annual Peach Days Celebration September 7-10.
As a delicacy, honey has become rather common, available in the grocery stores alongside the flour and sugar staples, or with the other common “delicacy,” peanut butter. A highlight of my childhood diet included an endless supply of alfalfa honey straight from Granddad’s hayfields. Most of the time we had a stash of crystallized raw honey sitting in reused ice cream buckets in the cellar, waiting to be scooped out and gently melted into a honey pot for eating. The ubiquitous plastic honey bear is full of a processed watery honey nothing at all like the thick nutrient-rich substance in a hive that can drive a bear to brave the stings of hundreds of defenders. True raw, thick honey is more of a challenge to find, outside of robbing a hive yourself. Fortunately, Utah has several smaller bee keepers who sell their local honey with minimum processing and full of complex flavor. A favorite of mine is Slide Ridge Honey; it satisfied my own nostalgic cravings. Several other area honey bee operations sell their goods at farmer’s markets and Cali’s. www.slideridgehoney.com
If you start eating fresh spring asparagus, your tolerance for consuming a spear of any other kind will vanish, and your local grocery selection will be unlikely to fulfill your need. Asparagus spears are the immature flower shoots of a perennial plant, which will sprout from the roots for many years. Good, fresh asparagus is plump and tightly closed. You should not be able to see any of the ferny greenery opening at the top of the spear, and they should not look dried out. You will not likely see an early spring crop at any farmer’s market because the harvest peaks before the outdoor markets open for the summer. However, Utah farmers do grow bundles of the tender, juicy prize in April and May. If you are lucky, you know a gardener who might share some with you. You can also ask around at grocers or pick some up from a farmstand—Day Farm in Layton grows a lot of asparagus. They let you pick your own, too, if you prefer.
Fall root crops
When autumn harvests begin, there is one treat I anticipate that comes as a double-edged sword. Just when the first frosts set the stage for winter, signaling the end of feasting in the garden, they also touch root crops in the ground, making them magically sweeter. I ate carrots and beets for years never realizing how much amazing sweetness gets packed into them after a good frost. Now that I know what happens to the starches in the roots, I have to patiently wait and hope I’ve timed my garden right for the end of fall and the delight of my favorite golden beet. Being the impatient sort, I will also be checking with Ranui Gardens at the farmers market; their mountain farms freeze well before the lower valleys.
For many fleeting delicacies, their rarity drives a high price. The next two items fall into that category.
There is absolutely nothing I know of that can imitate the subtle earthy flavor of a fresh morel. The fresh mushrooms you find available in the stores year round suffer the necessary limitations of having been grown commercially, which for many species is not even possible. The variety available in the produce section is sadly pitiful compared to the true variety of flavor to be found in the mycological wild. Mushrooms are decomposers; their underground mycelium bodies tear apart the very molecular structures of dead organic matter. Some of the tastiest, such as the morel, have very specialized life cycles and conditions, leaving specialty mushroom suppliers to rely on hunting them in the wild.
A dedicated gastronome knows where to find a good many dried and fresh fungi for sale in many seasons, for a price. Successfully cooking with fresh rare varieties is quite a feather for a chef’s hat. Mushroom kits, built for indoors or for inoculating an item to decompose in the garden, are available for order through most seed supply and mushroom specialty catalogs. A quest for the tastiest mushroom varieties, however, will lead you to hunting for the delicacies in the wild. If you decide to look for wild mushrooms, be sure that you become a committed steward of those wild places left to us. Consider taking a field trip or a class (University of Utah’s Lifelong Learning program offers one), and check out the Mushroom Society of Utah, http://sites.google.com/site/utahmushrooms/
Saffron is known for being an expensive and exotic spice, grown in foreign countries and used in foreign cuisine. Perhaps traditional use in cooking might always be exotic, but saffron doesn’t have to come from a foreign country. With a little hunting and harvest work, this is a spice you can grow in a Salt Lake garden.
Saffron is the stamen of a crocus, the Crocus Sativus, which flowers in fall. This bulb is easy to find at area nurseries. Each flowering bulb offers three bright orange stamens which are to be delicately tweezed and carefully dried into threads for storage. If you miss the harvest (or decide the labor really is worth what you pay for the miniscule threads in the store), there still is the visual harvest of a fresh-faced dainty flower in the face of winter frosts.
For the DIY folks
Besides the pursuit of intoxicating seasonal flavors, another reason I shop at farmer’s markets is the price for fresh produce in bulk. You can freeze, bottle and dry your delicacies for another day.
There are plenty of extravagant things I won’t find at a farmers market for any price, however, or if I do, they are in rare quantity. This is how I ended up with artichoke plants and saving seed from my favorite rare varieties of tomatoes. Some things I want to ensure my own supply for, and others I grow just because I can. If you have spare tilth, try growing something new. u
Tiffin Brough is a passionate locovore living and gardening on downtown Salt Lake City’s westside.