Labor Day’s signal is loud and clear.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, we respond to the first Monday in September with a wave of sadness as the date proclaims that summer is over. Not so fast!
I’ll take this Labor Day to give thanks to those who advocate for fair wages, better working conditions, and fair trade. Now is a good time to re-state our commitment to honoring those who grow our food with concern for our environment and better nutrition for our families.
I’ve come closer to my food sources this year, through an all organic, GMO free, guaranteed local farmers’ market in my hometown, in Westport, CT. As a result of the persistent efforts and support of town leaders, a visionary and super smart (and strict) market manager and tireless volunteers, I can now turn to my local (within 120 miles) market for farm fresh deliciousness each and every week.
As a regular, I like to chat with my favorite farmers who labor long and hard to grow crops without pesticides. Chefs and bakers offer their inspired dishes, preparing imaginative dishes the right way.
They respond to the season’s offerings, trying not to source from much further than their neighboring farms. When they source outside of their foodshed, they make conscious choices, paying close attention to easily accessible information about business practises and sound environmental choices.
When I can’t make it to my weekly market, I stop at one of the few surviving farms in town. I recently met two brothers, owners of Stahursky Farm, as they took a break under the generous canopy of the old oak tree that shades a plank topped table. They pick it and sell it right by the flower fields. I have visited, here, regularly, since moving to town 22 years ago.
The brothers are 79 and 81, and the farm has been in their family since 1927. They seemed surprised by my interest in their family’s story. I suspect they were simply too busy to chat for long.
They farm three acres of their seven acre property with the help of a 20-something relative. It’s just the three of them doing it all. A neatly lettered sign, with interchangeable linked boards, simply states what they are selling each day.
The bright red cash box sits on the tabletop, alongside a pile of paper bags to nestle our purchases into. A scale sways in the wind, just above a penned list of offerings and their prices.
The cash box is unattended. They trust us to be trustworthy.
When the sign is missing out front, I worry that something has happened to these old timers.
And just as we surprise ourselves by allowing the fleeting thought that we really can’t/shouldn’t/won’t eat tomatoes 3x a day, the glorious array of apples, pears, and gourds appear in the markets, punctuating the end of the tomato season. Impossibly vibrant sunset hued oranges and pinks contrast with faint greens and replace the color palate of summer.
Today, mounds of thin-skinned eggplants overwhelm the markets, ranging from striated lavender and milky white to the deepest plum imaginable. Their shapes are oblong or bulbous, rotund or miniature . Tomatoes range from jubilant orange to sultry crimson and even deeper to aubergine and back to green. Irregular, heavy and deceptively unattractive or firm and tiny as olives, their range beckons us to experiment with salads, sauces and preserving the flavors for the tomato-less months ahead.
On this Labor Day, share the abundance of your farmers’ market with family and friends. Reach for something new and ask your farmer how she likes to prepare it. Gather the bursting flavors of the season’s best.
And remember to give thanks to those who labor to bring you the fruits of their fields.
Recipe by Melissa Roberts
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 tsp kosher salt (use ½ tsp if fine salt)
- 6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large eggplant (1 lb), cut into ½” thick slices
- 2 medium zucchini and/or yellow squash (1¼ lbs), cut into ½” thick slices
- 2 large ripe tomatoes (1½ lbs), cut into ½” thick slices
- 4 (3”) sprigs fresh basil
- 3 (2” to 3”) sprigs fresh thyme
- 3 Tbsp finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano (*optional if making gratin parve)
- Equipment: a shallow 2½ to 3 quart gratin or baking dish
- Preheat oven to 425F with rack in middle.
- Mince and mash garlic to a paste with salt using a large heavy knife. Combine with olive oil and pepper in a large bowl. Add eggplant and squash and toss to coat.
- Alternately layer eggplant, zucchini, and tomato slices, in a single overlapping layer in dish. Drizzle any remaining oil from bowl over the top and scatter herb sprigs, tucking them in between vegetable slices. Cover tightly with foil and bake until vegetables are softened, about 1 hour. Sprinkle top with parmesan (if using) and continue to bake, uncovered, until top is golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes more.
**Gratin can be made 1 day ahead, covered with foil, and chilled. Served hot, warm, room temp, or even cold.