Two Food Writers, Totally Different Purchases at a Houston Farmers Market
If two people shop at Urban Harvest’s Saturday Farmers Market separately, will they each find the same treasures? With a long list of produce and products offered by local farmers, ranchers, seafood purveyors, chefs and bakers, it is not likely. This past Saturday, two Houston Food Finder writers did just that, and neither bought the same items.
If you are new to town or haven’t explored Houston’s local food scene, Urban Harvest has been a leader in Houston’s local food movement since 1994. With roots in a Fourth Ward community garden, this nonprofit focuses on supporting community gardeners and educating adults and children about sustainable gardening and farming in the Houston area. As an extension of this mission, the organization opened a farmers market in 2004 with only seven vendors. Open every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., rain or shine, this thriving market now hosts almost 90 vendors in the St. John’s extension parking lot at 2752 Buffalo Speedway (at the southwest corner of Westheimer and Buffalo Speedway). Here is what our writers found while shopping such a vibrant selection of vendors.
David Leftwich, associate editor
I’ve been shopping at Urban Harvest’s Saturday farmers market for 13 years, since my daughter was a baby. Back then, we would first eat breakfast and shop at Monica Pope’s farmers market at the now-closed t’afia before heading over to Urban Harvest’s old location—a parking lot off of Eastside between Richmond and Alabama. Now, almost every weekend, I visit the new location (where, by the way, Pope now sells her goods as Sparrow Cookshop).
Full disclosure: I’m also a longtime volunteer on the Urban Harvest committee that helps operate the market, so I have a stake in seeing it and its vendors thrive. Over the years, as a shopper and a volunteer, I’ve had the opportunity to try offerings from most of the market’s 80+ vendors, which include produce farmers, ranchers and folks who specialize in prepared food. Despite that, I’m always finding new and unique things to try.
Of course, I have my regular vendors that I almost never miss. I usually start my shopping by picking up a half-dozen macarons from Maison Burdisso. My daughter has been eating Jackie Burdisso’s delicate-yet-flavorful treats since she was a toddler, and I’d be in big trouble if I didn’t come home with two chocolates and four additional choices from her ever-rotating selection. I then stop next door to procure some of the lush produce grown by Plant It Forward. On my way out, I usually stop at Animal Farm for beautiful vegetables, buy some Blue Heron Farm goat feta (if I make it before punk-rock goat herders Lisa and Christian Seger sell out), and, finally, I chat with Becca Kerr as I buy the prepared meals and pralines she and her husband Jason make as Little Kitchen HTX.
In between, I usually buy eggs from Renaissance Chicken or Three Sisters Farm; chicken, turkey, and wild boar from Tejas Heritage Farm; jam from Garden Dreams; neighborhood-specific honey from Bee2Bee Honey Collective (this week it was honey from Kashmere Gardens) and Italian-style cheeses from Lira Rossa.
Besides stocking up on staples and longtime favorites and socializing with friends old and new, one of the exciting things about shopping at the farmers market is discovering new products and ingredients. In part to help accommodate increased business as more shoppers have turned to farmers markets as a safer, outdoor option for groceries during the COVID-19 pandemic, several new vendors have joined the market over the last few months. So, there are lots of new things to try. Here are a few fun and interesting foods I bought this past week from new and veteran vendors.
(PS: Apologies to all the vendors I didn’t get to list. If I had my way, I’d list all of you but there isn’t enough room in a single article. However, our readers can find an almost-complete list on Urban Harvest’s website.)
Blackwood Educational Land Institute: Though this beautiful farm and educational center, located outside Hempstead, was founded way back in 2000 by Cath Colon, it is a recent addition to the market. Focusing on sustainable farming practices, the Blackwood team offers a dynamic range of vegetables, as well as products made from the produce they raise, such as pickled beets and dried herbs. This week, I was excited to spot in their booth nopales — the luscious green, paddle-shaped pads from native prickly pear cactus — with the spines already removed. Though you can find this ingredient, which is important to Mexican cuisine, at grocery stores like Fiesta, I rarely see it at Urban Harvest. Since it’s an ingredient I’ve only prepared a couple of times, I experimented by cooking it two different ways. I boiled two small paddles for 10 minutes. I left one as is. The other I sprinkled with salt and brushed with olive oil before broiling both sides for a couple of minutes each. I diced both versions before adding them to a salad with Wood Duck Farm tomatoes, poblano and onions, Gundermann Acres purslane and a dressing made with Blue Heron Farm goat yogurt and Plant It Forward Mexican Mint Marigold. I have some paddles left that I’ll likely boil, broil and use to make tacos.
Cherry Block Craft Butcher + Kitchen: As the ongoing pandemic continues to devastate the restaurant industry, many local and independent businesses have adapted by also selling items such as housemade pantry staples and make-at-home meal kits through grocery stores and area farmers markets. Cherry Block, along with Feges BBQ (see below) and Underbelly Hospitality (a returning vendor), recently started selling an array of items at Urban Harvest.
Created by chef Jessica DeSham Timmons, often using meat sourced from co-owner Felix Flores’s Falcon Lake Farms, Cherry Block is offering everything from andouille to burger-making kits complete with buns. This week, I bought some pepper-encrusted bacon and a tea-brined, sous-vide chicken that I just needed to warm up in the oven before crisping the skin under the broiler. I paired it with steamed Wood Duck Farm green beans and Gundermann Acres potatoes boiled with garlic and Blackwood rosemary, and then smashed and fried in Feges BBQ’s smoked beef tallow with more garlic and rosemary.
Feges BBQ: Selling barbecue from the food court of a once-thriving but now COVID-closed office complex has been difficult for Erin Smith and Patrick Feges, the husband-and-wife team who own and operate this highly acclaimed joint. To survive, they have focused on hosting regular pop-ups — including at their forthcoming second location in Spring Branch — and selling brisket, turkey, whole hog and other smoked meats at the farmers market. Though I bought some tasty smoked sausage, what really caught my eye this week was a quart container of smoked beef tallow. Instead of throwing away all the fat from the meat they prepare, the Feges team renders it in the smoker and then sells it to other restaurants and home cooks. I’ve already used it to cook the above-mentioned potatoes and to braise beef cheeks from another Urban Harvest vendor, Shiner Pork and Beef.
Gundermann Acres: With 500 acres in Wharton County, this family-owned operation may be the largest vegetable farm in the Houston area. From a sprawling booth on the east side of the market, it sells a large variety of seasonal produce. This week, tucked between piles of sweet potatoes and containers of eggplants, I spied the bright green, tear-dropped shaped leaves of purslane, a native succulent that thrives in Houston’s heat and that you can often find and forage from the cracks of our sidewalks. Early indigenous people enjoyed this nutritious green, which can be eaten raw, and it is also used in Mexican cuisine. Inspired by local food historian and cookbook author Adán Medrano’s recipe for guisado de verdolaga (braised purslane), which can be found in his cookbook Don’t Count The Tortillas, I added a bunch to the previously mentioned braised beef cheeks. I also tossed another bunch into the above-mentioned salad.
Tatemó: I have long dreamed of finding fresh tortillas made from heirloom corn at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market. Now that Tatemó has joined the market, I no longer have to dream; I can buy. Each week, Emmanuel Chavez and Megan Maul nixtamalize different varieties of heirloom corn from Mexico, which they grind into masa and then form into thin disks. Be sure to get there early, because they tend to sell out. This past Saturday, I was fortunate enough to purchase the last package. I used the tortillas as the foundation for tacos made from those braised beef cheeks that I keep mentioning.
Wood Duck Farm: Van Weldon, chief farmer and owner of Wood Duck Farm, which is in Cleveland, Texas, has been an Urban Harvest vendor for many years. He grows and sells, depending on the season, everything from strawberries to tomatoes. This past Saturday, he was selling some deep green poblano peppers. Despite finding a whole array of hot peppers from various farmers all summer, poblanos are surprisingly less common, so I had to buy them. These also found their way into the aforementioned braised beef cheeks and salad.
Sandra Crittenden, Food & Restaurant Writer
I hate to say it, but I am a bit of a fair-weather farmers market attendee. I am a native Houstonian, and while I do love to buy local, I tend to only go to the markets from the first cool days of fall until the late days of spring before the serious heat begins. This year, the pandemic shutdown stopped me from attending as early in the year as I normally would. I live in Sugar Land now, and while there is a farmers market here that I also go to, it does not have nearly as many options as Urban Harvest’s Saturday Farmers Market. The low temperatures this past Saturday morning lured me into town for the start of the fall season. Since the beginning of the pandemic last spring, I have primarily opted for curbside pickup at the grocery store. So, I was pleased to learn that Urban Harvest is also offering pre-order drive through pick up in the on-site parking garage for those who prefer to shop this way. However, after witnessing the new safety protocols, plus experiencing the enjoyment of shopping in the open-air environment, I was sorry that I had waited so long to return. I felt very safe, and it was nice to be able to talk with people that are intimately knowledgeable about what they are selling.
While there was a beautiful array of fresh seasonal produce available, it was other offerings that got my attention on this trip.
Cake & Bacon: Until recently, this well-regarded bakery exclusively sold “to the trade” — selling to about 150 restaurants — but the COVID-19 crisis required owner Jeff Weinstock to start selling directly to consumers. After my recent article, The Best Bakeries in Houston for Freshly Baked Bread, I had received several recommendations to check out Cake & Bacon’s products. According to Weinstock, while the bakery does not have a storefront, it is now available to purchase all week at eight different farmers markets across Houston. The recommendations were right, and Cake & Bacon did not disappoint. At its Urban Harvest table, there were several different types of bread along with a mix of breakfast pastries — including some of the best brisket and plum kolaches I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, due to the market’s Covid-19 safety requirement of not allowing any food consumption on the market grounds, I did not know that I needed to purchase more. I intend on getting at least a dozen on my next visit. Cake & Bacon also makes a phenomenal loaf of chili cheese bread, which has proven to be great for sandwiches as well as on its own with butter.
Hive Bee Farm: This farm specializes in raw honey while supporting local bee colonies and sustainable farming practices that promote bee health. It alsos provides bee removal and rescue services should an unwanted hive or swarm appear on your property. I purchased a special batch of its new Bourbon Barrel-Aged Houston Honey, which was created in partnership with the Houston Bourbon Society. Aged for 90 days in a cask that once contained Elijah Craig bourbon, I plan on primarily using this rich, dark honey in cocktails.
Honey Child’s Sweet Creams: This Houston-based business makes all-natural, locally sourced frozen custards in unique, seasonal flavors. Intrigued by the short list of fresh, local ingredients such as milk, cream, raw cane sugar and egg yolks, I decided to purchase some inspired by the Texas flavors that I grew up with: Dewberry and Pecan Praline.
Pain Train Salsa: This product was created by a former teacher in Tomball who had to retire from education in order to keep up with his now-flourishing salsa business. He makes Spicy Avocado, Roasted Red Medium, Roasted Red Perfect Hot, Tiki Thunder, Roasted Corn and Black Bean and Green-Go Mild Creamy Avocado, which I bought. I wanted the Spicy version, but it sold out before I made it to that booth. Regardless, the mild avocado salsa made for a great game-day snack on Sunday.
Scotty’s Stout Sauerkraut: At this booth, you will find locally made, delicious condiments. I bought the Garlic Sauerkraut, which is touted to contain beneficial, probiotic bacteria. It is made from locally grown vegetables that are fermented in specially designed ceramic crocks, and it has never been pasteurized or had any preservatives added. As it is a living product, it is only sold in the Greater Houston area. Scotty’s also makes Green Apple and Caraway Seed sauerkrauts and three kinds of kimchi. The garlic sauerkraut was the perfect flavor boost for our at-home, Sunday-football hot dog lunch.
Texas Black Gold Garlic: This San Antonio-based business transforms Texas-grown white garlic into rich black cloves, which are naturally aged to triple the antioxidants found in raw garlic. Used in both Asian medicine and as a culinary ingredient, its consumption in America has grown due to its unique flavor profile and potential health benefits. Sold in different forms, I bought both the powdered version, which I have already used to season French fries, and the jarred purée, which I have not opened yet but plan to use in soups, pastas and as a spread for bread.
Thirdborn Ginger Beer: As a bit of a cocktail aficionado, I was pleased to discover Houston-made ginger beer that was created with far less sugar than is typical and made with organic ginger root, organic cane sugar and other organic fruits. This company, which uses a traditional brewing process, was founded by Erin Simpson, a Houston mom of two who considers this business her third “baby.” I bought a mixed four-pack that included Classic Ginger Lemon, Extra Ginger, Ginger Jalapeno Lime and Ginger Pineapple. These come in 12-ounce bottles and there is a discount for buying four. I used the Ginger Lemon and some of the Hive Bee Bourbon Barrel-Aged Honey mentioned above to make a bourbon cocktail recipe that was recommended at the Thirdborn booth.
Wagyuru: I have known the family that owns this business for over 20 years, so I have total confidence in the quality of their product. They raise their Wagyu beef near Edna, just 85 miles from Houston. By the time I arrived — shortly after 10 a.m. — they had already sold out of several options. I was told it is best to place an order in advance to ensure getting the most in-demand cuts. Wagyuru offers 30 cuts of beef and three price tiers, which reflect the grade of marbling and the percentage of Wagyu. The least expensive is half-Angus and half-Wagyu, while the most expensive is 100% Wagyu. Every weekend, the family tries to bring a wide variety to the market, but there is variance from week to week. I decided to splurge on the platinum-level boneless strip steak, which is the closest in quality to the Japanese imports. The beef was beautifully marbled, very tender and incredibly flavorful when cooked for dinner that evening.
I am already planning my next trip to the Urban Harvest Saturday Farmers Market. I am looking at landscaping options from Morning Star Prairie Plants, going back for more kolaches and getting some Italian-style cheese from Lira Rossa to pair with pasta from Casetta Cucina. That tea-brined chicken that David found at Cherry Block Craft Butcher + Kitchen sounds intriguing, too.
I am also thinking about the holidays. At Katerra Exotics, I was told there would be humanely raised turkey in time for Thanksgiving, and I am also planning some Christmas gift baskets filled with local items. With all the options at Urban Harvest, it is easy to plan a variety of unique meals at home while supporting Houston’s agricultural and food communities.