Market Report: Cuba
The little turnip that could
Only about eight booths long, the Cuba Farmers’ Market has a big heart. And since there’s not always enough booty to go around, getting there early is recommended.
Getting there late (in my case, 10:15 a.m.) has its advantages, too. As the day’s market was losing steam, Don Jamison and his son were giving away turnip greens from their Regina farm. I took a big sack. Having just returned from New Orleans, the turnip greens at Mother’s were fresh in my my belly memory. The Jamisons were also selling gallon bags of fresh spinach, immaculately washed, for only $2. I bought two bags and should have bought out their entire stock, especially at that price. At home, I made a monster batch of spinach and turnip green saag paneer.
The market starts at 9 a.m., but people start lining up an hour early in front of some stalls, like Vallecita Gardens run by Ray Sisneros. Word is that people had been fighting over his calabacitas before I got there. Sisneros also raises a full assortment of vegetables and fruit on his spring-fed farm in the western Jemez hills above Cuba. This year his fruit crop was hammered by the cold snap, but he’s supplementing the offerings with grapes from the family vineyard south of Belen. He says the mountains of paperwork are almost finalized, and wine from Alamo Vineyard will be on the market within a few months. At other stalls, I scored some nice dill at Sue Shultz Gardens and potatoes and onions at Walter’s Wonders.
Cuba is a hub for a large, beautiful and funky area. The market is a distillation of the surrounding mountains, canyons, valley and scrubland, and it foments a sense of community that’s been waiting to happen. Locals are “over the moon about it,” says Shari Smoker of the UNM Prevention Research Center, which helped create the market last year. “They just love it so much. It’s giving people a place to have a sense of community and talk to their neighbors and get to know their growers.”
The market is part of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Cuba project, funded by a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant and administered by UNM. The project’s goal is to improve the area’s public health through increased access to healthy food and exercise. The market goes down in a field by Cuba’s St. Francis of Assisi Park, next to a playground and a gazebo where bands often play. I have fond memories of shopping to the bright reggae of Strike, a Navajo band from Torreon, when I was early enough to get some of Sisneros’ calabacitas last year. Smoker hopes to have Strike back in the coming weekends, as well as an “acoustic cowboy get-together” with four guitars going. Aspiring market musicians, and those wondering who’s playing in the coming weeks, would do well to contact her at (575) 289-0244.
The Jamisons were also selling gallon bags of fresh spinach, immaculately washed, for only $2. I bought two bags and should have bought out their entire stock, especially at that price.
Everyone else would do well to bring a cooler for your produce, so it will survive the inevitable distractions, like a hike in the wet (and unburned) side of the Jemez, or a scramble up Cabezon on the way home, or just a bowl of green at El Bruno’s in Cuba.
For a bowl of green of a different sort, here’s how I made that saag paneer I mentioned earlier:
I put rinsed and chopped turnip greens in a steamer. When they became soft, I added the quicker-cooking spinach, also chopped. As the dark green leaves steamed, I sliced up a package of halloumi “grilling cheese,” purchased at La Montañita by mistake in a losing effort to get feta for a salad. I put the chunks of cheese in a sputtering puddle of oil at the center of a wok on medium heat. Since halloumi doesn’t easily melt, I was able to cook it, stirring often, until it browned. I then added chopped onions, garlic, crushed red chile, salt and garam masala powder. When the onions softened into sweet translucence, I transferred the greens from the steamer basket to the wok, bringing a lot of moisture with it. I stirred the whole thing together and simmered it until the excess water cooked off, leaving behind the cheese-flecked greens.
A few days after my Cuba shopping trip, I added turnip leaves, chopped, to a long-cooking pot of New Mexico-grown lentils. And I still have to try Nola-style turnip greens with pork. Luckily, Mr. Jamison gave me enough to cook every way I like. The Cuba market takes care of me every time. My only regret is that I didn't get more spinach. And get there earlier.