Buying Fresh From The Farmers

Jo McGarry
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Friday - August 25, 2006
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I spent some time in the kitchen with Alan Wong a couple of weeks ago. He was trying out some new recipes for an upcoming event, and as we chatted he shared a few tips. Watching Alan work is really quite extraordinary. He uses the simplest, freshest ingredients available, often doing very little to change them from their original state. He’s confident enough in both his own talent and the excellence of local produce to know that the combination is a powerful and tasty one. It was an enjoyable couple of hours, and I learned a lot, but the most memorable thing I took away from the morning was a reinforcement of the belief that using good ingredients is the key to great food.

As a cook, whether an enthusiastic amateur like me or a gifted professional like Alan, the ingredients you use will make or break a meal.

And while the talent to prepare an outstanding meal is not given to all of us, good ingredients are - you just have to know where to look for them. The Hawaii Farmers’ Market is held on Saturdays, Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings, and it’s the perfect place to find the best ingredients on the Island. At the Kapiolani Community College Saturday morning market, for example, dozens of farmers and growers bring produce from all over the Island and come together in a community market that reflects the excellence of small farming.

But the markets aren’t just a great place to find good ingredients - they’re a great place to go to eat.

On any given morning at KCC or Mililani you can buy breakfast plates from a variety of restaurants. Many restaurants participate and you’re as likely to see a well-known chef behind the grill as you are an almost unheard-of catering company. There’s always the aroma of freshly ground coffee in the air, mingling with the scent of Island-grown flowers, fresh breads and - one of my favorite dishes - fried green tomatoes. Jeannie Vanna of North Shore farms grows a variety of tomatoes on her Waialua farm, including a fabulous selection of heirlooms and a new green variety that’s perfect for frying. Dean Okimoto’s Nalo Greens and Life products are always available (Dean founded the market with food writer Joan Namkoong), and there’s even a weekly newsletter and tip guide to help first-time visitors find their way around.

Look for the Lum family (North Shore Cattle Company) if you want a taste of home-grown beef at its best. They bring a range of products from their farm high in the hills above Haleiwa, and the most intoxicating smells of the morning emanate from their grill, where homemade Portuguese sausage, Andouille sausage and burgers are cooked to order. For the Lums and many of the other farmers, the market is a way of keeping in touch with customers and listening to feedback and new ideas.

“This is invaluable marketing for us,” says Ryan Lum, “and we get to hear what people think of our product on a weekly basis.”

The Kailua market on Thursdays has many of the same vendors. The main difference is that it’s held in the evening so the focus of the live cooking booths is dinner rather than breakfast. This week, Da Spot will serve Egyptian fare for dinner at the Kailua Market. I’ve driven over there just to pick up plates to take home and it’s always worth the drive. Not only do you get the chance to buy some of the freshest ingredients in town, but there’s also a terrific sense of community and a feeling that your hard-earned money is staying in the community and helping to support these small businesses.

So, next time you’re enjoying a wonderful dinner at your favorite restaurant take a look at the ingredients on your plate, then take a trip to the nearest farmers market. When you use the best ingredients available, you’ll be amazed how good your own food tastes.

Hawaii Farmers Markets: KCC: Saturdays, 7:30-11 a.m. (Parking lot within the college)

Kailua: Thursdays, 5-7 p.m. (behind Longs in the parking lot)

Mililani: Sundays, 8 a.m.-noon (Mililani High School parking lot)

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