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Farm Stands of Mercer County, NJ

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The Joy of GPS
Yes, I understand that most people use their GPS to get from A to B. Pity. The true joy of a GPS is its stubborn determination to get you to your destination -- regardless of the deviations and detours from its directions. This is very liberating to the intentional meanderer. No longer do you have to worry if the lure of an un-programmed left turn will leave you hopelessly lost -- and, God forbid, have to ask for directions. Your GPS cares not. It will simply re-group and provide you with a new path -- and never pout or be resentful of your willful disregard of its instructions.

Mercer County, New Jersey
Into the hot soup that is our summer of 2010 we drove - across the Burlington Bristol Bridge and north up Rt. 206. Mercer County strides north and east of Philadelphia along the Delaware River in the crux of the elbow that is New Jersey. Compared to my prior destination of South Jersey's Salem County with its population of about 65,000, Central Jersey's Mercer County is home to 370,000 people. And with a population density of 1,552 per square mile, it is eight times more dense.

Mercer county has an entirely different feel from the more hard-scrapple South Jersey. Mercer County is home to elite private prep schools and Princeton University as well as numerous multi-national corporate headquarters. While there are pockets of farmland, Mercer County offers little in the way of Salem County's long isolated country roads. And Mercer county's roads provide small allowance to drivers going nowhere in particular -- slowly. Here, riding lawn mowers that maintain manicured lawns surrounded by painted white fences far out-number farm tractors. Lush, clearly wealthier, and less tranquil, our trip included a mid-afternoon traffic jam through Princeton. No clothes drying on lines in the sun. Pools more likely to be in-ground than above. While there were occasional broad vistas across open fields, more likely those fields have given way to housing developments, garden apartments and country estates. It is of note that while Trenton is the state capital, the governor's residence is in Princeton.

On the other hand, its farm stands are more fully stocked.

First, Hot Dogs!
A cardinal principle of intentional meandering is to not let your destination deter you from a detour -- especially if a hot dog is involved. And so, as we drove north through Burlington County on Route 206, we passed an eye-catching sign on the opposite side of the road. A U-turn brought us to Russ Ayres Hot Dogs, 680, US Rt. 206, Bordentown.

This just goes to show the importance of a good sign. The pastel yellow shack and bold sign were eye-catching and said something good was going on inside.

Guests are greeted by this slightly scary character who is dispensing ketchup as well as mustard despite the store's admonition that ketchup is just for hamburgers -- a product unavailable from Russ Ayres. Russ sells just hot dogs - $2 with the works - onion, sauerkraut and mustard. Bigger appetite? Try the more elaborate chili dogs, cheese dogs and chili-cheese dogs. Get them to go or find a seat at the six person counter. The standard assortment of bottled beverages is available. We went for a pair of hot dogs with the works. After all, this was really a late morning breakfast with a full day ahead of us.

It was in Russ Ayres Hot Dog Stand where we learned that despite our apparent proximity to Philadelphia and the Phillies, the Go Yankees sign declared we had left home and our Phillies behind.

Nestled behind Russ Ayres was Gelato's, a stand that offered the ideal follow-up to our hot dogs. Think of it as a mini-food court. Christina likened the scene to something you might find along the road in Italy -- a notion I thought was quite a stretch. Still, the brace of conical evergreens, red umbrellas and wrought iron tables and chairs provided some distraction from the awning reminiscent of Rita's Water Ice.

My preference to try their homemade ice cream yielded to Christina's preference for a black cherry ice layered with soft vanilla ice cream -- something that is available at your local Rita's.

Our GPS setting to avoid highways took us through the streets of Trenton as we headed to our first stop, the Trenton Farmers Market. As we journeyed along we noted a Trenton pierogi shop that we would have visited, but for our recent hot dog detour.

Trenton Farmer's Market
960 Spruce Street, Trenton
Seemingly out of an era that preceded glizt, the Trenton Farmer's Market, open daily except Monday, is home to a combination of farmer's and ethnic stalls with an occasional craft or thrift table - a sort of 1950's Reading Terminal Market in miniature. As a farmers' market is a collection of farm stands, it provided a preview of the produce we would find on the road.

A little more research or curiosity would have taken us to the Halo Farm Store -- famous for ice cream and dairy products, located just across the parking lot from the Farmers Market.

It's not the White House, but it does have an East and West wing. Actually, shaped like a cross, there is also an un-named north and south wing. Local farmers truck their produce to their stalls in the Farmers Market.

Jersey is famous for corn and tomatoes. Nearby fresh picked Jersey corn. Despite the searing heat, most Mercer county tomatoes were still a week or so away.

Our July 16th visit was Jersey corn give-away day.

You can buy by the piece, by the pound or by the bushel. Peaches, hot peppers -- never sure what to do with an entire bushel of hot peppers -- zucchini and cucumbers are in abundance.

And it's berry season. Not strawberries -- they are an earlier season fruit, but lots of blueberries and luscious blackberries -- the best of the berries though often needing a touch of sugar to pick them up.

In addition to farm fresh produce, the Trenton Farmers Market is lined with ethnic stands including Pulaski Meats.

And an Italian bakery that reminded Christina of sweets her grandmother baked.

A cheese case worthy of sophisticated big cities.

It's not showy, but it has a gritty authenticity.

A Pennsylvania-Dutch stand sells fried chicken, roast pork and spare ribs -- eat in or take-out.

Included among the farm stands and prepared food stalls was a modest table sampling and selling wines from Unionville Vineyards. Unionville Vineyards is located in nearby Ringoes, in north neighboring Hunterdon county. Very drinkable and fairly priced, we bought three bottles: a 2006 Heritage White (mostly semillon grapes), a non-vintage Big Red Fox, mostly syrah grapes and a 2008 Fields of Fire, an attractive dry rose from Pinor Noir grapes.

Nestled in a separate building across from the Framers Market is a fresh fish store called The Crab Shack.

A Saturday's trip to the Trenton Farmers Market will provide you with everything you need for a delicious low-stress Sunday dinner for friends and family -- the freshest of produce, butcher-worthy meats and fresh fish to grill and just-picked fruit and fruit pies for dessert.

Terhune Orchards
330 Cold Soil Road, Princeton
Farm stands exist on many scales. Some are modest mom and pop operations. Mom and pop toil long hours doing the lion's share of the work. They may get some help from sons and daughters and grandpa and grandma - but they are mostly family affairs. Marketing consists principally of a roadside sign and a kind of "build it and they will come" approach. Others, like Terhune Orchards, are larger in scale with more employed workers and differentiated tasks that include more aggressive marketing.

A pretty as a picture entrance welcomes you.

Terhune has an outpost in the Trenton Farmers Market, a large farm store at the farm -- not simply a stand -- a substantial website and even publishes a "newspaper" and regular recipes geared to its wide selection of seasonal produce.

There is an area of the store dedicated to organic produce. It lead me to wonder what the opposite of organic produce is...inorganic?

A sign shows the wide variety of fruit and produce that Terhune grows and when it's available. The red bars indicate when you can pick-your-own at the farm. Pick-your-own was a feature of nearly every farm stand we visited.

Zinnia's summer rainbow of colors are as much a part of summer's harvest as peaches and tomatoes.

My goal in visiting farm stands is to find things that I cannot find at my local Whole Foods Market. At Terhune's, these included fresh currants that I have combined with sugar to create a currant syrup to combine with seltzer for a fresh fruit spritzer.

Petral apples, small sour and green, are Terhune's first apples of the season. Mine went into a rice salad with almonds and shiso leaves. More about shiso leaves later in the blog.

Since I'm not a baker, I love the sight of fresh-baked fruit pies -- baked by someone else.

And it's impossible to resist a cinnamon and sugar-coated cider doughnut. Well, apparently it is possible as Christina did resist. Maybe it's just me?

A pair of yellow labs enjoyed their "apple-a-day."

With the temperature in the mid-90's, a frozen cider slush was an ideal summer cooler.

Kerr's Kornstand
317 Pennington Rocky Hill Road, Pennington, NJ
Thanks to the generosity of a friend and former Mercer County denizen, I had already previewed Kerr's sweet signature corn - dropped of at our apartment two weeks ago. It's tiny first of the season kernels were now plump with sugar.

Kerr's stand was modest enclosure supplemented by a farm table.

In addition to their own produce, Kerr's offered Circle M Peaches from Salem County. Though Salem county is only about 75 miles south, Salem county's peaches...and tomatoes arrive several weeks earlier than Mercer county's.

There are scores of tomato varieties. Here are Kerr's first of the season, called July 4th because they are ready by Independence Day. Kerr's was also my source of bell zucchini -- a fat, round variety. I stuffed these with grape tomatoes and roasted them. Stuffing over-sized zucchini -- common as summer progresses -- is an excellent way to use large zucchini that have an unappetizing pulpy interior that benefits from being scraped away. A recipe for this will be forthcoming.

Lee Turkey Farm
201 Hickory Corner Road, East Windsor

How did Lee''s Turkey Farm promise of the "sweetest" corn compare to Kerr's? Despite buying a dozen ears from Kerr's, I had to add four ears from Lee's for an at-home "corn tasting." Unlike Kerr's white, Lee's corn is yellow.

Though Lee's farm goes back six generations, it holds the distinction of establishing New Jersey's first "pick-your-own" option in 1964.

Ronnie Lee is the sixth generation Lee. He works with his fifth generation dad and seventh generation children. Different farms -- especially those that endure for generations -- employ different strategies to extend their business and season. For Lee's. it's 3000 turkeys! Lee's sells 90% of its turkeys in November. I suggested to Ronnie that he promote his turkeys for summer grilling. When we provided the food services for Philadelphia's Mann Center as we did for a decade of summers, turkey "flank steak" was a staple of our Bravo menu. With that, I found my farm stand recipe for this week.

Look for the Grilled Marinated Turkey "Flank Steak" recipe on my blog.

Stult's Farm
62 John White Road, Cranberry

From the road, Stult's Farm Stand looks as though a tornado had picked up a Lancaster county PA Dutch farm and plopped it down in Mercer county. This was primarily the result of the distinctive black carriages that marked the entrance to the stand.

Stult's primary commitment was clearly to the Pick-Your-Own set. For those less intrepid, the pickings were slimmer and for us included just a few soil-covered onions that turned out to be a sweet addition to a weekend cucumber salad. (I'm still trying to use up Mr. Tkrach's cucumbers. Thirty eight down, two -- the one's that got buried in my produce bin -- to go.)

Many years ago, the great retailer and founder of Crate & Barrel, Gordon Segal taught me that the key to merchandising is massing and simplicity. (At Home book owners see page 363.) While the produce in the fields may have been outstanding, the produce displayed on the tables got the simplicity part but was missing the massing. Here's Christina -- not fully satisfied with Stult's.

Z Food Farm
3501 Princeton Pike, Lawrence Township
Z Food Farms has a small stand at my neighborhood Rittenhouse Square Saturday Farmers' Market. I like it because they have produce that I don't see at other stands. A few weeks ago it was tiny yellow wax beans -- similar to haricot vert, and kohlrabi -- a crisp cabbage-tasting vegetable perfect for a simple summer's crudite. This past weekend I bought shiso leaves. Shiso is a leaf typically used to garnish sushi -- usually bright green, heart shaped, with lots of little spikes around the edges. (If you should be lucky to get a shiso leaf with your sushi, wrap it around some shredded daikon -- another familiar garnish, and dip it into your soy-wasabi. Yum.) It is one of my favorite flavors and a leaf rarely seen in markets. My first encounter with shiso was many years ago at Omen -- a Japanese restaurant in Soho -- that's still around and still wonderful. A meal at Omen would not be complete without a bowl of shiso rice, steamed white rice scented with the distinctive anise flavor of the leaf.

Over several weeks of visiting their stand on the Square, I learned from mom and dad "Z," who manned the stand, that their son's farm was in its first year. I decided that it should be included on my Mercer county tour. Though our GPS insisted that we had arrived at our entered address, Z Farm Foods was nowhere to be found. Undaunted, we circled back and forth until we discovered a sign-less location with nothing for sale. It was not until this past Saturday, when we reported our attempted visit to mom and dad, that we learned that for now, Z Farm Foods only operates it farm stand on Wednesday afternoons. But, a new walk-in refrigerator is due this week that will enable Z Farm Foods to expand its farm stand hours.

This past Saturday I did buy some of Z's garlic that I used - thin slivered and not chopped -- in my "What to do when you buy too many small tomatoes" Sauce. Z's garlic is seen here curing at the farm. It's a lot of garlic. But mom and dad say it will all be gone by fall.

Little Acres Farm
238 Federal City Road, Pennington, NJ

Little Acres was a modest and unassuming stand befitting it's name.

Half a watermelon -- from Salem county and a local cantaloupe were added to our produce haul. In years past I despaired of local cantaloupes -- always finding them tasteless and mealy. But I have had repeated good luck this year including at Little Acres.

Along the road there were occasional no-name stands.

Here down a narrow road.

And the occasional unmanned stand operating on the honor system.

As our day stretched into early evening and our car packed with produce, we decided it was too late and we were too tired to head home for dinner. Instead, we headed for Lambertville, NJ -- along the Delaware just north of Mercer county in Hunterdon county. There we met an old fellow restaurateur -- Reed from Astral Plane, who was holding down the floor at the Hamilton Grill. Astral Plane, long a fixture on the 1700 block of Lombard Street and a veteran of the first Philadelphia restaurant renaissance, opened just a few months after Frog in 1973 and provided years of warm welcomes and fine dining -- thanks to Reed.

The Hamilton Grill is a BYO so be sure to stop at the Unionville Vineyards table at the Trenton Farmers Market. We were very glad we did as dinner without wine after such a nice day would have been a disappointment.

Tip: Of course our white wine was not chilled -- having been a passenger in our car for hours. The waiter stuck our wine in the freezer to get it chilled. FYI: The fastest was to chill a bottle of wine is to place it in an ice bath in an ice bucket -- lots of ice plus enough water to surround the bottle fully, and then add lots of salt - regular table salt is fine -- to create a brine -- just like the old-fashioned way of making ice cream. The salt hastens the melting of the ice which has the effect of rapidly chilling the wine.

I'm like the kid in the candy store - except my candy is farm stand produce. Here is our day's haul.

From left to right: Grape tomatoes, radishes, Lee's yellow corn hidden under the radishes, currants, watermelon, nectarines, doughnut peaches, bell zucchini, Lee's boneless turkey breast, cantaloupe, onions, more grape tomatoes, Petral apples, Kerr's white corn, and just off camera, Kerr's 4th of July tomatoes. In the background, partially consumed Unionville Vineyard wines. All Jersey Fresh!

They're Back!
It's Pimientos de Padron season. These amazing peppers, that I first discovered in Madrid a few years ago, are available in the United States for a short summer season.

I bought mine via the internet from La Tienda, the site that specializes in Spanish and Latin foods. Here's the link to last summer's blog about these little devils along with a recipe. I strongly suggest ordering a pound or two - a pound will easily serve four, buying some very good bread, lots of beer, some excellent cheese and watermelon and inviting friends and family over for an easy dinner they will not forget. An alternative to cold beer is iced sangria. See At Home page 51 for my Sangria recipe.

Pimientos de Padron were the centerpiece of a recent dinner at home with Christina and Noah -- along with Turkey "Flank Steak" and Roasted Grape Tomato Stuffed Zucchini.

Recipes from this week's harvest:
Grilled Turkey "Flank Steak"
Roasted Grape Tomato Stuffed Bell Zucchini - coming soon
"What to do with too many grape tomatoes" Quick Tomato Sauce - coming soon

Next week -- On the Road: Farm Stands of Chester County, PA
Next week I head south and west of Philadelphia. I hope sharing these experiences encourages you to take to the road to visit farm stands or, at least, to visit your local farmers market and enjoy this bountiful harvest with friends and family...At Home.

Reminder that all of At Home's blog recipes are available on the blog site -- accessed through the recipe index.

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