A couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of participating as a local "celebrity" chef in the "Local Taught, Market Bought" cooking demonstration series at the Hopkinsville-Christian County Downtown Farmer's Market. These entertaining events are where a local personality, restaurant owner, food writer, etc. leads a live cooking tutorial using ingredients that can be bought onsite at the market.
The series is sponsored by the Downtown Farmers Market and the Christian County Cooperative Extension Office. The featured recipes have a seasonal focus and are Kentucky Proud certified. Boxes are available for purchase that contain the recipe's ingredients sourced locally that day at the market. It is kind of like a Food Network show with local flair. I highly recommend attending one.
I cracked up laughing when I was approached to lead a demonstration as a "celebrity" chef because I am very much so an amateur home cook who just has a passion for studying foodways, regional cuisine histories and all things from the culinary world. I have never worked in a restaurant or had any sort of professional training. Cooking is only my hobby. However, it was a wonderful experience to be able to share that love with others just as I get to do each month with this column. When I finished the demonstration and I stood there reflecting on the culinary performance theatre that had just taken place, I thought about how incredibly lucky our community is to have a vibrant farmers market.
I began cooking in college because I quickly realized I had to feed myself, and my broke student wallet could only get me so far if I continued to rely on fast food. I started out slow with familiar recipes, but I was a pretty awful cook. I was only cooking for sustenance. It was not something I enjoyed. However, one day that all changed when I walked into a Whole Foods for the first time.
Growing up in Hopkinsville, the current Downtown Farmers Market had not been established, or I wasn't aware if there was some previous form of one, and rural communities often do not have access to a bounty of quality seasonal ingredients. As I strolled down the aisles that day, I was introduced to so many new things. I was able to experiment with a multitude of varieties of produce, seafood, cuts of meat and ingredients from faraway lands. Every time I went shopping there, I felt like I was on an adventure, and it sparked an interest that developed into a passion.
When Melanie and I decided to move back home, I had a concern that I wouldn't have access to quality ingredients, but I was quickly proven wrong. One of the first things we did was go on a date to the farmers market. I specifically remember purchasing the most perfect green tomatoes and peaches I had ever seen. That evening we gorged ourselves on fried green tomatoes and roasted fresh peaches with homemade cream. That is all we ate, and it was one of the most satisfying meals we had ever prepared. I don't think I will ever forget it. The dishes were delicious not because of how amazing our recipes were, but because we were able to use locally sourced seasonal produce. I personally believe using the best ingredients gets you 75% of the way to a perfect dish, and because of our farmers market, we were that close to excellence before we even heated a pan.
After the demonstration, I thought about that day and again how lucky we are to have this gem in our community. We have access to locally sourced fruits, vegetables, proteins, eggs, honey and even flowers to brighten up our tables. The farmers market has given me the ability to grow as a home cook and to continue on my culinary adventures. I am so thankful for that.
For this month's recipe, I am going to share a dish where I first really began to feel like I could prepare outstanding food. It taught me the lesson that a recipe doesn't have to be complicated, and if you have good ingredients, they will do all the work for you. Also, we are in the height of tomato season, which we all know is the best part of the farmers market.
Cherry Tomato Caprese Salad is simply ripe heirloom cherry tomatoes, red onion, fresh mozzarella cheese pearls, fresh basil and a honey balsamic vinaigrette. Slice the tomatoes and onion, toss with the rest of the ingredients, place in a beautiful bowl and perfection is achieved. I like to top it off with Shell Bee's Bourbon Garlic Smoked Sea Salt to take the recipe up a notch. This salt is from a Louisville-based company, and I purchased it at the Museums of Historic Hopkinsville downtown. The unique smoky flavor adds another layer that keeps you guessing the secret ingredient. I love the vibrant colors of this dish, and there isn't anything much better than a ripe tomato, especially if they are paired with a sweet and tangy dressing, cheese and fresh herbs. This is a common staple at our summer table, and I hope you enjoy.
CHERRY TOMATO CAPRESE SALAD
2 1/2 pints heirloom cherry tomatoes (as colorful as possible)
1/2 red onion
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese pearls
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
Fresh cracked pepper
Shell Bee's Bourbon Garlic Smoked Sea Salt
Honey balsamic vinaigrette, to taste
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
Pinch of salt and pepper
Quarter the cherry tomatoes. Cut the 1/2 red onion in half and slice thinly. Whisk vinaigrette ingredients together. Toss tomatoes, sliced onion, cheese and basil with the vinaigrette. Top with a pinch of freshly cracked pepper and Shell Bee's sea salt. Chill an hour before serving.
Cody J. Noffsinger is an accountant at Hopkinsville Electric System and EnergyNet. Away from the books, he enjoys gardening and feasting with friends. He has a passion for old-style cooking and learning the history behind the dishes we eat. Email him at email@example.com.