Unexpected romance at the Ohio farm conference
Of the 37 years the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) has been hosting the state’s largest sustainable food and farming conference, Ben and I have attended twice. Each time, the two-day conference fell on Valentine’s Day weekend, a fact that doesn’t seem to impact attendance, which makes me wonder how many couplings are sparked at the evening contra dance social hour. Farming may hold romantic notions for many but, to me, it’s not the sexiest occupation in the world. The day Ben turned in his Jeep Wrangler for a more pragmatic pick-up truck and dialed up the bluegrass while layering on his Carhartt bibs, I threatened to fill my lingerie drawer with granny panties in spite. But our love affair with the land warranted it all, including the road trip to central Ohio to hang out with fellow farmers at what can warmly be described as a “low-deodorant” event. Plus, Ben was invited to speak, and the organizer agreed to waive his fee for free family admission. Bonus.
Ben’s talk, Every Veggie Has its Plate, took on his typical format: part cooking demo, part soapbox speech. Attendees included a mix of seventy-five farmers, gardeners, and local foods enthusiasts who arrived eager to learn clever ways to sell and prepare lesser-known vegetables. The cramped crowd oooohhed an aahhhed over Ben’s well-honed cooking skills. The free samples didn’t hurt, either.
Kohlrabi and daikon radish were the features of the day. Stout and hearty, both are polar opposites of more becoming fruits like lipstick-red, heirloom tomatoes or juicy, in-season peaches. Some daikons are grown for cattle feed, effectively disqualifying it from the top of most grocery lists. But when dressed in a little shaved ginger, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, and molasses to round out the palate, it was love at first bite. The farmers in the audience appreciated the inspiration for simple farmers’ market samples while the home cooks scribbled fresh side-dish ideas in their notebooks. The woman next to me ignored my attempts to pass the samples without taking one for myself, insisting that I experience these new taste sensations. “It will make your mouth sing,” she whispered, before reaching for a second.
The samples — eagerly munched by the hungry crowd — proved Ben’s PowerPoint thesis: People are drawn to less attractive produce when it’s presented at its best.
I enjoy watching the crowd when Ben speaks. His magnetism is irresistible; his energy and credibility command full attention. Folks have often told him that he would do well on Food Network, a compliment he shakes off with a sly grin. He might have the face for TV, but lacks the requisite narcissism, which only makes me love him more.
Daikons and their humble kin don’t seek the spotlight either. Get to know them a little better, however, and you’ll find that they could easily play a supporting role on any plate. Their bright crunch and bold, peppery finish send sparks flying, especially when balanced with oils, herbs, and spices in a sassy slaw or a quick pickle.
Most attendees seemed surprised to hear that such bold flavor profiles could be created with nothing more than a well-stocked pantry: extra virgin olive oil, cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, sesame oil, and honey, and a spice kit filled with chili flakes, sweet and smoked paprika, and cayenne pepper. These basics make it easy to explore endless combinations that brighten up a salad or sideline a charcuterie plate. Simply rough-chop your chosen veggie and give it a thoughtful toss of wet and dry ingredients with a flavor theme in mind:
- Mediterranean: Lemon juice, black pepper, chili flake, olive oil, oregano
- Asian: Rice wine vinegar, brown sugar, chili, garlic sesame oil, ginger
- Salty & Sweet: Soy sauce, brown sugar, lime
- Classic: Cider vinegar, honey, garlic, black pepper
Unconventional pairings often yield the most memorable results, like a diced, salted radish skewered alongside slice cantaloupe. It may not be a traditional match on the surface, but the opposition of taste and texture creates a yin and yang effect on the palate. Other attractive ideas include Kalamata olives with watermelon and deviled eggs topped with pickled sweet corn.
Sometimes it takes a clever cook — and a bit of adventurous spirit — to find the unexpected joys of humble foods. But plants, like people, have many layers and love can hide in mysterious places. After class, as Ben transformed back from teacher to farmer, removing his crisp white apron and donning his faded baseball cap, I realized that farming, unglamorous as it is, only adds one more dimension of flavor to an already rich relationship.