[David Hammond is sitting in for Vital Info, who is taking the day off]
I went to the Oak Park Farmers Market with two things on my mind: mushrooms and tomatoes.
At Nichols, catch of the day was a pair of puffballs (reminded me of an old King Kong joke). There was one hacked-up ball on display as a bad example: it was rotten, the core was yellow, and it was there for demonstration purposes (portions had the plasticine quality Rene referenced). The other one was almost gone I bought two of the few remaining $3.00 portions, amounting to about 2 ounces. The young Nichols man told me they had pulled over 250 pounds of puffballs from their land this year. So lets do the math. $1.50 an ounce, $24 a pound, for a total take, so far this year, of $6K -- and thats for a crop that theoretically requires no cultivation or care (though the Nichols guy told me sotto voce that he spreads spores in hopes of encouraging the natural process got to maintain the mystery, though, of spontaneous generation, unaided by human intervention). Puffballs dont need the rotten wood thats preferred by morels and other finger-lickin fungi they tend to grow in large fairy circles in normal-type land (or so Im told; Cathy, confirm?). That may account for their subtle taste: unlike the deep tang of the earth I expect from morels, Lepiota and other fungi that thrive on death and decay, the big white fluffy puffball fajitas I had this morning were exceptionally tender, with a light nutty taste, almost smoky, and a marshmallow-y texture thats firmed and enhanced by butter browning.
At Skibbes of Eau Claire, I got 25 pounds of #2 tomatoes (beat-up, blemished and bruised for gravy). I also got a half-a-peck of heirlooms: green zebras, yellow romas, and a big red brandywine. I took all these home to eat right away. The zebras were slightly acidic, but very good, and I love the color. The yellow romas were okay, but my feeling about yellow tomatoes is similar to Unknown Joans feeling about yellow sweet peppers, which is similar to Gertrude Steins description of Oakland, California: theres no there there. The brandywine, however, was my dream of the perfect tomato: deep red, tender, and without the wagon wheel interior of store-bought tomatoes instead of spokes, there was a dense matrix of fleshy fingers separating very tender pockets of soft seeds. The taste was an excellent balance of sugar and acid you could feel the acidity on the tongue, but it was not in the slightest sour. Brandywine may be the #1 eating tomato for me, the archetype of everything a good tomato should be.
With the other 25 pounds of #2 tomatoes, Im going to do a slow-cook gravy with Nichols fresh Italian garlic, Caputos hot sausage, oregano from The Wifes herbarium, all served over polenta with a nice, cheap Chianti (no fava , per favore). My experience indicates that its best to have Sinatra on the stereo when making marinara seems to create the right mood for the cooks and the cooked. Not sure its essential, but it also seems to help when I wear a cocked-back hat, strap shoulder t-shirt, crucifix, boxer shorts, black socks with garters and dress shoes. I'm not 100% certain that this can be scientifically demonstrated, but this sartorial support seems to enhance the sauce and the overall experience.
[Tune in next week for regularly scheduled programming]