Farmers’ market fans are accustomed to seeking out fresh tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, peas and peaches, but community markets often offer our palates an adventure outside the proverbial box as well. One of those taste excursions could be Vilma Widner’s booth at Columbus’ Hitching Lot Farmers’ Market.
Flanked by baskets of colorful zinnias she grows and sells, Widner adds a touch of the exotic to traditional market fare with vegetables more typically found growing in her native Philippines. The archipelago’s hot, humid climate is similar to Mississippi’s summer, except that, in the Southeast Asian country there is little relief via a change of seasons. Long beans, water spinach, alugbati and bitter melon are among produce Widner is able to grow in the Deep South. The cheerful first-year vendor has been in America for about 30 years — since meeting her husband, Kenneth, in the Philippines when he was serving in the military. Kenneth’s current position as director of Internal Audit at Mississippi University for Women brought them to Columbus. No matter how many decades in the U.S., Vilma Widner still appreciates the foods she grew up with in her native land.
“I’ve got so many plants in my garden that come from in my country,” says Widner, bustling in her farmers’ market booth Monday. She spends a lot of her time there good-naturedly answering “What is that?” and “How do you cook it?”
Long beans, Widner tells the curious, are also known as yard or yardlong beans, asparagus beans or several other names. “In my country, they call it sitaw, but here in the states they call it yard beans or long beans. It is a typical crop (in the Philippines); almost every home had a few long beans. They taste, more or less, like green beans, only milder.”
Long beans can be cooked with oil, sauteed, stir-fried or deep fried. Their flavor intensifies and their distinct texture remains in tact. They are often prepared “adobo.” In Filipino cuisine, adobo means cooking with vinegar, soy sauce and garlic.
Widner’s water spinach is aptly named: it grows in water or in very damp soil. It’s sometimes known as swamp cabbage, water morning glory or Chinese spinach. In Southeast Asia, it’s also referred to as kangkong. This prolific plant is used in many standard Asian cooking methods, especially stir-fry with garlic and chiles. It can also be steamed to accompany soup or tempura battered and fried.
Chinese eggplant and bitter melon are sometimes available at Widner’s booth. The warty-exterior melon was touted for its medicinal properties long before it became an ingredient for flavor. The melon’s meat can be steamed or pan-fried like zucchini; some cooks leave it whole and hollow it out to stuff, like a squash. Its bitterness is a good match for chiles or a spicy curry.
On the spot
A savory aroma from Widner’s booth signals there is more than fresh vegetables and flowers to be found there.
“They love lumpia,” she grins, meaning market visitors. “It’s kind of like a spring roll.” Widner prepares lumpia at home but fries them on the spot. Her husband, who accompanied her to Monday’s market, recommends enjoying them fresh from the fryer, while they’re hot and crispy.
“These were the favorite of our kids, any time they had a party or celebration,” he says. Stuffed with fillings of chopped veggies and sometimes meats such as chicken, shrimp, pork or beef, lumpia are wrapped in a thin crepe pastry and make a tasty appetizer or snack.
Another popular Philippine treat Widner makes is ice candy — heat busters she prepares with fresh fruits. “It’s between ice cream and a popsicle,” she explains. “My mom used to make it for me all the time.”
Market visitors can usually also find a Filipino version of empanada as well as fresh-squeezed lemonade at this energetic vendor’s booth. It’s all indicative of the variety of finds waiting at your community’s farmers’ market. The season is in full swing and filled with possibilities.
The Hitching Lot Farmers’ Market at Second Street and Second Avenue is open Mondays 4-6 p.m. and Thursdays and Saturdays 7-10 a.m. Search Starkville Community Market and West Point Farmers’ Market for information on those Golden Triangle markets.
STIR-FRIED LONG BEANS
1 bunch of Chinese long beans (about 1/2 pound)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon soy sauce (or to taste)
ADOBONG KANGKONG (WATER SPINACH ADOBO)
1/2 pound kangkong leaves (water spinach) with thin stems
2 ounces fried pork rinds (chicharon)
4 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons white vinegar
3 to 4 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon granulated white sugar
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon cracked peppercorn
3 tablespoons cooking oil
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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