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Fresh finds at Farmers Market Coop in East Liberty

| Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 4:18 p.m.
Olga Watkins cooks a shoulder steak and asparagus for the farmers' markets story Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
A dessert tray with Pennsylvania raw millk bleu cheese, an apple, and dates from Olga Watkins Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Olga Watkins' shoulder steak with sauteed onion and peppers, grilled asparagus, grilled potatoes, and a brandy horseradish sauce Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Asparagus at the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty Saturday, May 5, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
An assortment of goodies at the Farmers'Market Cooperative of East Liberty Saturday, May 5, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
An assortment of family-made cheeses await customers at the PA Made Cheese stand at the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty Saturday, May 5, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Revew
John Kennedy waits on Dorothea Becker of Shadyside as she buys some meat from the J.L. Kennedy Meat Stand in the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty Saturday, May 5, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Fresh eggs from the Greenawalt stand at the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty Saturday, May 5, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Rhubarb and asparagus at the Greenawalt stand in the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty Saturday, May 5, 2012.
Owner David Lagnese of PA Made Cheese shares a laugh with customer Jess Williams of Garfield at the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty Saturday, May 5, 2012. In rear is David's mother in law Ellen Changco. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Throughout the country, you can't even pretend that your city is the least bit hip if you don't have a good farmers market.

In recent years, the popularity of urban farmers markets has increased. The product offerings, number of vendors and popularity of the markets grows by leaps and bounds every year.

As people become more aware of the benefits to their health and the environment that come from eating fresh, local, chemical-free produce and meat, and more appreciative of the quality of small-batch, carefully and lovingly crafted artisanal products, farmers' markets become an increasingly essential part of our routines.

Pennsylvania raw-milk cheese, grass-fed beef, artisanal olive oil, local honey, fresh herbs, starter plants, homemade canned goods and seasonal produce are just a few of the culinary treasures that you will find at the Farmers Market Coop of East Liberty. The oldest continuously operating farmers market in Southwestern Pennsylvania -- open since 1941 -- is open year-round. Located off Penn Circle, at 344 North Sheridan Ave. in East Liberty, the market is open from 5 a.m. to noon Saturdays.

The coop is owned by four farming families; The Kennedy family, who operate the J.L. Kennedy Meat Stand; Rick Zang, owner of Zang's Greenhouse; Tim and Suzanne Hileman, owners of Kistaco Farm; and Ina and John Greenawalt, owners of Greenawalt Farms. Additional vendors include Better Maid Donuts, California Olive Oil Connection, Mrs. Jones Multi-Purpose Sauce, the Greek Gourmet and Wood Street Bread Co., as well as several others that together offer a diverse selection of products.

The purpose of my visit to the Farmers Market Coop of East Liberty was to purchase the ingredients necessary to make a quick dinner for four.

My first stop was the stand run by David Lagnese, his wife, Christy, and their children, Maria and Marco. The PA Made Cheese stand offers a dozen or more artisanal cheeses each week from a handful of Pennsylvania farms. The Lagnese family also sells superior quality, direct-from-the-farm items such as coffee and fruit juice from Kew Park Farm in Jamaica and olive oil from several small farms in California.

David Lagnese is passionate and knowledgeable about cheese and about good food in general. By day, he works for a human-resources management firm, but on Saturdays, his work is at the market. His presence there and his products make people like me happy. He also volunteers to handle the online marketing and promotions for the market.

From the three stands that the Lagnese family rents, I purchased a small bag of dates and a piece of one of the most wonderfully balanced, creamy and amazing blue cheeses I have ever tasted.

The blue cheese and one other cheese that I sampled, a mushroom-and leek cheese, both from Common Folk Organics in Lancaster County, were nothing short of incredible. Both are raw-milk cheeses and, therefore, not common. Until 2010, it was illegal to sell raw-milk products in most states. That no longer is the case in Pennsylvania, where some raw-milk products now can be sold in retail stores.

Raw milk is milk that hasn't been pasteurized. And, while pasteurization acts as insurance against the possibility that a batch contains harmful bacteria, it also destroys most of the healthful bacteria and stunts the development of the most-interesting and complex flavors that blossom during the aging process of a raw-milk cheese. If you love cheese, but have not experienced raw-milk cheese, arrive early at the coop and head straight for the PA Made Cheese stand, where you can sip Jamaican tangerine juice and coffee while you sample your way through a half-dozen or more delicious cheeses from counties throughout our state.

In search of an entree item for my dinner, I moved on to the J.L. Kennedy Meat Stand. John Kennedy, his wife, Val, and their children run the stand and the Valencia farm, where the humanely raised beef, pork, chicken and lamb are hormone-free, antibiotic free, grass- and grain-fed and USDA certified. They occasionally offer turkey, capon, duck and pheasant and monthly features such as 100-percent grass-fed beef.

On sale in the meat cases this day were "griller" steaks. The griller steak is a beef shoulder cut, and not one you will find in the meat case in a chain grocery store. The first thing I noticed was that griller obviously was fresh. The steak had a nice lighter-red color indicative of an animal that lived without much stress; hence, there was less adrenaline in the bloodstream and in the meat. The animal that lives a high-stress life, typical of industrial-type, conveyor-belt meat-processing farms, releases high amounts of fear- and stress-induced adrenaline into its bloodstream, and that results in a dark-red meat color.

The griller steak was evenly marbled throughout and weighed approximately 2 1/2 pounds. For $10, it was the perfect price and size for my center-of-the-plate item.

From the neighboring farm stands, I purchased a yellow onion, 2 banana peppers, a dozen redskin potatoes, a piece of horseradish root and about 1 1/2 pounds of asparagus. Now, I was ready to do some cooking.

I'll be visiting various farm markets throughout the Pittsburgh area during the upcoming growing season and sharing recipe ideas from each trip. In season right now are asparagus, leeks and rhubarb. Try thinly slicing the white ends of the leeks, and reserving the green for vegetable stock, if you do that kind of thing. Saute the leeks in butter or olive oil to use in omelets and recipes that call for sauteed white onions.

Clean them carefully: Leeks usually retain some dirt between their layers. I like to slice them first, then rinse them in a colander. Make sure to clean the knife and cutting board thoroughly afterward.

The East Liberty market sends a weekly email with product updates and features. You can register for updates from their website, order J.L Kennedy meats in advance for pick-up at the market, and make a shopping list in advance of Saturday's sunrise.

Details: www.farmersmarketcooperativeofeastliberty.com

Griller Steak With Sauteed Peppers and Onions

For the Brandy Horseradish Sauce:

• 1 cup mayonnaise

• 1/4 cup mustard

• 2 tablespoons ketchup

• 4-inch piece of horseradish root, peeled and grated

• 1 teaspoon lemon juice

• 1 teaspoon red-hot pepper sauce

• 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

• 2 ounces brandy or bourbon

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To prepare the Brandy Horseradish Sauce: Whisk all of the ingredients together and serve. This can made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for seven to 14 days. If you like the sauce, prepare larger batches to use with other items. Keep it covered and refrigerated.

Makes 4 servings.

For the Herbed-Roasted Red-Skin Potatoes:

• 3 pounds red-skin potatoes, cleaned and quartered

• 1/4 cup olive oil

• 1 teaspoon salt

• Fresh ground black pepper, to taste

• 1 teaspoon each: dried oregano, dried thyme, dried basil, granulated garlic, granulated or dehydrated onion

To prepare the Herbed-Roasted Red-Skin Potatoes: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the quartered potatoes in cold water and transfer them to a large mixing bowl.

Drizzle the olive oil and sprinkle all the dry ingredients evenly over the potatoes. Toss or gently stir until all of the potatoes are coated. Lay the potatoes flat on a baking sheet.

Transfer to the oven and roast or bake for 45 minutes. Give the pan a shake occasionally so the potatoes turn and don't stick to the pan.

Makes 4 servings.

Grilled Asparagus With Lemon Butter:

• 1 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus, rinsed and trimmed

• 2 tablespoons butter

• 2 tablespoons lemon juice

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To prepare the Grilled Asparagus With Lemon Butter: Place the asparagus on a grill on high heat. Cook for 8 minutes, turning constantly to get an even color on all sides.

Melt the butter in the microwave and add the lemon juice, salt and pepper, stir then drizzle over the cooked asparagus.

Makes 4 servings.

For the steak:

• 2 1/2 pound griller steak

• 1 cup classic Italian salad dressing (with chunks of garlic and pieces of dried herbs)

• 1/4 cup olive oil

• 1 small sweet red and 1 small sweet green bell pepper, seeded, stems removed, thinly sliced

• 2 small banana peppers, seeded, stems removed, thinly sliced

• 1 small white onion, thinly sliced

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• Brandy Horseradish Sauce (see recipe)

• Herbed-Roasted Red-Skin Potatoes (see recipe)

• Grilled Asparagus (see recipe)

To prepare the steak: Trim any unwanted fat from the steak. Place the steak and the Italian dressing in a gallon-size zipper bag, and allow the steak to marinate for at least an hour in the refrigerator.

Turn the grill on high heat or ready the charcoal.

Heat a saute pan with the olive oil, saute the peppers and onions on medium to medium-high heat until slightly caramelized and softened, adding salt and pepper to taste.

When the grill is hot, remove the steak from the marinade and place it on the grill. Flip the steak 3 times so that it cooks for about 3 minutes per side the first time and for 2 minutes per side the second. The finished steak will be medium rare at the thickest parts.

Serve the steak with a side of Brandy Horseradish Sauce, Herb-Roasted Red-Skin Potatoes and Grilled Asparagus With Lemon Butter. The fresh asparagus cooks in the same amount of time on the grill as the steak.

Makes 4 servings.

PA Blue Cheese With Apples and Dates

• Blue cheese

• Apple slices

• Lemon water

• Dates

• Sliced baguette

• Honey

This doesn't require a recipe. Just set blue cheese out on a cutting board, serving plate or tray and allow it to come to room temperature before serving. This will bring out the flavor. I served the blue cheese with apple slices, tossed in a little lemon water so they don't discolor. I also served dried dates and sliced baguette. A little honey on the side to drizzle on the cheese is nice.

Rhubarb Chutney

Asparagus, rhubarb and leeks are the first local offerings of our Southeastern Pennsylvania growing season. I didn't buy rhubarb on this trip to the market, because I'm waiting for some from my mom's garden.

Here's a recipe for delicious and remarkably simple Rhubarb Chutney from my friends the Ruskins, of Beaver. This chutney is great on roasted pork loin, turkey breast, ham or grilled chicken. It's also perfect to add to a cheese board.

• 4 cups rhubarb, chopped

• 1 cup sugar

• 1/4 cup coarse-grained Dijon mustard

Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan until well mixed. Heat to boiling over medium heat, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until thickened. Remove from the heat and cool before serving

Olga Watkins is the head chef at Hollywood Gardens in Rochester, Beaver County, and leader of the Olga Watkins Band.

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