Eats: Lewiston’s Winter Farmers Market and Cafe — culinary multi-tasking at its best

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There is only one place in town where you can order up a hot, tasty, home-made meal, listen to live local musicians, buy a gift or two, and pick up a month’s worth of fresh food all at the same time. Such culinary multi-tasking can only be discovered at the monthly Lewiston Winter Farmers Market and Winter Market Cafe.

Sherie Blumenthal, food access coordinator for the Lots to Gardens program at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center in Lewiston, plans and organizes the event, which is held on the third Thursday each month.

“I used to work at a soup, salad and bread cafe, so I had somewhat of a vision going in, and a lot of experience making big batches of many different, amazing, plant-based soups.”

Blumenthal is assisted by Kristen Wheatly, market outreach coordinator, Denise Dill, adult cooking instructor and a point person for many of the nutrition center’s projects, and Nutrition Center Director Kirsten Walters, who Blumenthal described as a foodie who grew up in a family that really liked good, healthy foods, “So she’s a good taste-tester!”

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Asked how the group decides on a monthly menu, Blumenthal said, “It’s kind of ‘organic’ how it happens.” She said many of their recipes come from Nutrition Center staff, their families or a person they know. For additional inspiration — if and when needed — they will sometimes refer to www.food.com or www.allrecipes.com.

“Historically,” Blumenthal said, “We try to make our menu very simple. That’s why we usually do soup, salad and bread and maybe a feature or two, like the corn cakes — things that are fairly easy to make, and people can help with, but not mess up.”

The cafe is now in its second year, and Blumenthal said they are trying to be strategic about their menus, keeping them seasonal and using as many locally produced foods and ingredients as possible. Volunteers from Lots to Gardens plan ahead during the summer and fall harvest seasons by preparing and freezing a fairly large inventory of items, which are then incorporated into the soups during the winter.

For the first time, she said, the Williams-Sonoma “Soup” cookbook (by Diane Rossen Worthington) was used as a starting point for two out of the three soups served during last month’s market. She has learned to quickly modify and adapt as necessary, saying, “That’s the beauty of soups. They’re very flexible and forgiving.”

Mostly because it seemed to cover all bases — something hot, something green and a very clever use of avocado — I ordered the tortilla soup with chicken and avocado. A vegetarian version of the soup was also available, minus the chicken. The soup was paired with a delightful side dish of fresh spinach topped with two fun, compact, black bean corn cakes from a recipe supplied by Tina Guenette, hospitality manager at Campus Cuisine, who shared the recipe with readers today. “I love that recipe,” she said. “It’s one we serve at our grill in the spring at Campus Cuisine also.” The dressing is a homemade avocado vinaigrette.

And although Guenette usually prepares one of the items served each month at the cafe, and helps out where and when she can, she is quick to refer to Blumenthal as the mastermind behind the cafe.

The other two soups on the menu in January included roasted cauliflower and mushroom soup and a nice winter greens with white beans and pasta soup. Both were served with a winter salad of red cabbage, carrot, apple and pecan salad topped with walnut Dijon dressing.

The goal of the cafe and the live entertainment is to help draw people in to the market. “It makes us unique.” The center’s goal is to promote healthful eating. “The cafe helps fulfill that mission, with lots of veggie-based food items . . . no preservatives. They tend to be primarily vegetarian or plant-based,” said Blumenthal. Usually one menu option will include meat, she noted.

The cafe team is assisted by adult cooking volunteers, such as Jodi Wentzel, who lives within walking distance of the Nutrition Center. She is a regular attendee at canning classes and is an active participant in their adult community cooking classes “She likes to help out and volunteer,” Blumenthal said. Assistance from Bates College students has been crucial to operating the nutrition center, the market and the cafe, Blumenthal added. They help prep and serve food for the cafe, or tend the credit/EBT machine.

Prices typically range from $5 for a single item to $7 for the soup, salad and bread combo. Proceeds from the cafe benefit the Nutrition Center’s Lots to Gardens Program.

“The last one was both our busiest market and cafe,” said Blumenthal, referring to January. For each market, they typically make room for 24 regular vendors in the re-purposed school. They offer everything from artisan cheeses, pasture-feed meats, eggs, soft pretzels, fresh vegetables and seafood to herbal products, soaps, knitted items, pottery and fiber arts.

Look for me Thursday — I’ll be there, stocking up.

Tortilla Soup with Chicken and Avocado

Based on the Williams-Sonoma “Soup” cookbook recipe

Serves 6-8

Ingredients:

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 cup drained canned plum (Roma) tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

4 cups chicken stock or prepared broth

1 skinless, boneless whole chicken breast (about 1/2 pound, cut into bite-sized strips)

4 corn tortillas, preferably stale and dry

1 dried chili, such as ancho, seeded

1 avocado, pitted, peeled and diced

1/4 cup shredded Monterrey jack or cheddar cheese

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

Optional: 1/2 butternut squash cubed and cooked in broth

Directions:

For soup

1. In a frying pan over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon of the oil.

2. Add the onion, garlic and the 2 teaspoons cilantro and saute just until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

3. In the same frying pan over medium-high heat, warm another 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the tomato mixture and cumin. Cook, stirring frequently, until thickened and darkened, 5 to 6 minutes.

4. Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan over medium-low heat and add the stock.

5. Cover partially and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the soup is slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.

6. Add the chicken strips and simmer until they are just opaque throughout, for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Tortilla Strips

1. While the soup is cooking, cut the tortillas in half and slice each half into thin strips.

2. In a frying pan over medium-high heat, warm the 1/2 cup vegetable oil. Drop a tortilla strip in the oil, and if it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready.

3. Drop handfuls of the tortilla strips into the oil and fry, turning with tongs, until crisp and browned, about 3 minutes.

4. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain.

Serving

1. Ladle the soup into warmed bowls.

2. Divide the tortilla strips, cilantro, avocado, cheese and lime juice evenly among the bowls. Top with soup and serve immediately.

Black Bean Corn Cakes

Provided by Tina Guenette of Campus Cuisine

Ingredients:

1-1/4 cup diced sweet onions

1-1/4 cup corn kernels (fresh or thawed frozen)

1/2 cup diced red bell pepper

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced jalapeno

1/8 cup vegetable oil

1-1/2 cups canned black beans, rinsed & drained

4 cups crumbled prepared cornbread

1 cup dry breadcrumbs

1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss onions, corn, peppers, garlic and jalapeno with oil and mix well. Spread onto sheet pan and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring often to prevent browning.

In a large bowl, combine roasted vegetables with beans. Add cornbread and bread crumbs and mix well. Stir in eggs, cilantro, salt and pepper; adjust flavor to taste. Shape into 12 (2-inch) patties. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook.

In a skillet or grill pan, heat 1-1/2 tablespoons oil over medium heat, add cakes and cook 3 minutes or until heated through and golden brown on each side.

Avocado Vinaigrette

6 ounces prepared guacamole

4 ounces fat-free or low-fat sour cream

1 ounce seasoned rice wine vinegar

2 ounces skim milk

Salt, to taste

Combine ingredients and whisk well; salt to taste (will thicken upon sitting; thin with more milk or water if desired.)

To serve, place two black bean corn cakes over your favorite greens, sprinkle with crumbled feta or queso fresco. Serve with avocado vinaigrette.

FMI

The Winter Farmers Market and Winter Market Cafe, organized by the Great Falls Farmers’ & Artisans’ Market Association and sponsored by St. Mary’s Health System, is held every third Thursday, November through April, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the St. Mary’s Nutrition Center, 208 Bates St., Lewiston. The market accepts credit, debit and EBT cards.

Winter Market Cafe menu for Feb. 16:

Soups:

— Seafood Chowder, featuring shrimp from market vendor Luscious Live Lobsters

— Tomato Bisque with Cheese Tortellini and Spinach (vegetarian)

— Winter Squash and Pear Soup (vegan)

Cafe Special:

— Spiced Rabbit Pot Pie from market vendor Bubier Farms of Greene, served by the slice.

Salad:

— Spinach, Apple and Candied Pecan Salad (vegetarian)

Breads:

— Mediterranean Herb; Sunflower & Flax; from market vendor Bread n’ More Bakery of Mechanic Falls

Live entertainment:

— Jan Kendall Mayes

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