When Leah Wagner of Carlea Farms plans dinner, she doesn't head to the grocery store for ingredients. Her pantry extends for 10 acres around the family home in Millingport, North Carolina, about an hour's drive northeast of Charlotte.
Like many area farmers, the Wagner family eats primarily what they grow. "If it's not in season, we don't eat it," Wagner explains as she places quartered potatoes in a pot of water and drops sausage into a pan on the stove. Tonight, she's putting together her 20-year-old son Chet's favorite casserole. Normally a fall dish made with sweet potatoes and October beans, a request to make it in summer has her substituting Yukon golds and purple-hulled peas.
During the school year, the filling mixture of meat, starch and fiber invariably accompanies Chet, a rising N.C. State junior, back to Raleigh after a visit home. Today, it will help nourish him after an afternoon spent pitching hay bales with his sister Jennie, 17.
Chet and Jennie's father Carl is part of a small army of local farmers bringing fresh local produce to our markets year-round. On their own dinner tables, these area growers know how to make the most of each season's crops, enjoying them at their peak. We asked four local farmers to share their favorite seasonal recipes highlighting the best of our flourishing local agriculture. Spring asparagus, summer squash, fall sweet potatoes and winter pumpkin each take their turn in this calendar of cooking.
Leah Wagner, Carlea Farms (New London, North Carolina)
You can find Carl Wagner selling the farm's produce and eggs every Saturday at Matthews Community Farmers Market.
2 cups October beans (available in late summer and early fall)
6 medium-sized sweet potatoes
1 pound sausage
1 bunch kale, cleaned, stemmed and chopped
Place October beans in a large saucepot and cover with water. Season liberally with salt and bring to a boil. Lower temperature and simmer until tender. Drain and reserve cooking liquid.
While beans are cooking, peel sweet potatoes and cut into large pieces. Place in sauce pot and cover with cold water. Season the water with salt and bring to a simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. When potatoes are tender, drain thoroughly and mash with a potato masher. Season to taste with salt, pepper and butter (optional).
Brown sausage in a medium sauté pan. When the sausage is almost done, add the kale and cook until crisp-tender. Drain excess fat.
To assemble, spread mashed sweet potatoes in the bottom of a casserole dish. Top with beans, then cover with the sausage and kale mixture. Ladle about half a cup of the bean cooking liquid over the top.
Bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes.
PUMPKIN CHEVRE CHEESECAKE
Michele Lamb, Bosky Acres Goat Cheese (Waxhaw, North Carolina)
Michele's daughter Ivy gets credit for adapting this recipe by adding the extra character of goat cheese to a classic dessert. You can find Bosky Acres cheese at the Matthews and Charlotte Regional farmers markets.
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
6 tbs unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Place mixture in a 9- or 10-inch springform pan, then press another pie pan of the same diameter firmly into the dough. Trim excess, or just pat back into the pan.
Pre-bake 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees.
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp grated nutmeg
8 ounces cream cheese
8 ounces chevre goat cheese
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 cup cooked pumpkin
Combine first five ingredients in a small bowl, set aside.
Beat cheeses together in a large bowl just until smooth, 30 to 60 seconds. Scrape down the bowl and beaters, then continue beating while gradually adding sugar mixture, until smooth and creamy.
Beat in the eggs and yolks one at a time until well-blended, scraping the bowl and beaters after each addition. Finally, add pumpkin and beat just until mixed.
Scrape batter into the pre-baked crust and smooth the top. Place foil-wrapped pan in oven on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees for another 10 or 15 minutes, or until the edges are puffed. Center will still look moist and will jiggle when pan is tapped.
Set cake on rack to cool gradually, covered with a large inverted bowl or pot. Do not remove from mold until completely cooled. Cover and refrigerate for minimum 6 hours (preferably overnight) before serving.
GREEN GARLIC & ASPARAGUS SOUP
Kim Shaw, Small City Farm (Charlotte)
This soup is a tasty celebration of spring's first green harvests in the Carolinas. Kim and her husband Rohan grow green garlic on their 3-acre farm just six miles north of Uptown, and sell produce and flowers at the Salisbury and Davidson farmers markets.
2 medium carrots
2 ribs celery
2 bunches green garlic
2 pounds asparagus
2 quarts chicken stock
1 small onion
4 tbs butter
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Dice carrots, celery and onion. Finely slice green garlic, discarding the dark green leaves. Snap asparagus to remove tough stem bottoms, cut off and reserve the tips.
Steam asparagus tips until just tender, then shock in iced water and reserve.
In large pot, heat butter and add carrots, celery and onion. Sauté until soft, then add green garlic slices and cook two more minutes. Add asparagus stalks and stock and bring to a simmer, cooking for 25 minutes.
In batches, purée vegetable mix in food processor until smooth, returning to pot. Add cream and heat through on medium. Add salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, place asparagus tips in individual bowls and ladle soup over them. Serves 6.
RAW SQUASH RELISH
Jenifer Mullis, Laughing Owl Farm (Richfield, North Carolina)
This simple no-cook relish is an easy, colorful way to use a lot of summer produce in one dish. You can buy most of the ingredients from Mullis at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market.
2-3 medium summer squash
1 medium red onion
1 red bell pepper
1 jalapeño pepper (optional)
3 tbs red wine vinegar
1-2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1/2 bunch fresh basil, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the squash, onion and red pepper into 1/4 inch dice. If using jalapeño, mince before adding to other ingredients. Toss with the vinegar, olive oil, and basil and season to taste with salt and pepper.