Sections

Sarah Waldman

8.1.17

Second Act

I was strolling through the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market with my two hot and sticky little boys in tow when we stopped to chat with our friend Meg, who manages one of the produce stands. We patiently waited in a twelve-person-deep line to pay and say hello, my older son with arms full of corn and the younger one cradling an oversized zucchini. What we were going to do with that mammoth zucchini, I wasn’t sure, but I knew better than to argue with a sweltering three-year-old in a crowd. When it was our turn, Meg rang us up and then handed me a small brown bag that she pulled out from under her truck. We were all immediately curious – was the bag filled with a hand-me-down bathing suit, a half-eaten muffin, squirt guns!? Happily, it was filled with something more precious: a half dozen ruby-red, grapefruit-sized summer tomatoes. “Do you want these? They’re slightly bruised so we can’t sell them, but I know you won’t let them go to waste.” Ummmm, YES. For a pathetic gardener like myself, a gift of Vineyard tomatoes, still warm from the sun, is about as good as it gets.

We got home and unloaded the tomatoes. Sure, they all had a blemish or two, but 90 percent of the fruit was in perfect condition. This got me thinking: how much otherwise good summer produce is overlooked because of its imperfections? How can we get bruised tomatoes, wonky melons, and flowering herbs into the hands of people who will love and appreciate them? It turns out many of our Island farms have taken steps to make sure this less-than-perfect produce, known as “seconds,” doesn’t go to waste behind the scenes.

Seconds, loosely defined, are produce that aren’t pretty enough to be put on display for sale. These fruits and vegetables are blemished, bruised, or bug-eaten. Many are overly ripe, oozing with flavorful juices, and need to be eaten immediately. Almost all have a nick or scratch and some are downright ugly. All of these foods have the same nutrient value as a picture-perfect farm-fresh fruit or vegetable; they’re just not as pretty to look at.

I quickly adjusted my outlook. Rather than seeing the bumps and bruises as turnoffs, I saw them as signs of healthy plants with plenty of life left to give. After all, local seconds are always fresher and more flavorful than the perfectly smooth tomatoes and hole-free leafy greens picked ages ago and flown in from far-away places. And once you’re home in the kitchen, does it even matter if your cilantro is flowering or your bell peppers are a little funny shaped? Not really.

To get a better sense of how Island farmers deal with second-rate produce, I spent a morning on Morning Glory Farm’s porch chatting with Chief of Operations Simon Athearn and Farm Chef Robert Lionette. “It’s true, the public is not interested in imperfect produce,” said Athearn. “We sort through everything once it is picked and set aside pieces that stand out. It could be an undersized onion or a few beets that were nicked with the tractor.” Morning Glory Farm puts all of the farm’s “number twos” to good use. “We package groups of small onions or small potatoes and sell them as a bundle so the units look the same. If a small onion is put in a bin with larger onions, it’s going to look inferior.” Morning Glory also offers large quantities of overgrown herbs and dropped tomatoes to restaurant chefs to break down and use in their kitchens.

Much of Lionette’s job is coming up with creative ways to use seconds in the Morning Glory Farm kitchen. “There is a difference between imperfect and rotten,” he said. “We use imperfect fruits and vegetables in a hundred different ways, from making juice, soup, corn relish, pesto, salsa, jam, and chimichurri sauce. We preserve over twenty thousand jars of food a year.”

Of course, it is rare for a farm to have a kitchen and crew ready to transform overlooked produce into delicious things – this responsibility often falls on the consumer. Which is why, in the late summer, when tomato production is at its peak, many Island farms sell large boxes of blemished tomatoes at a discount, perfect for making soups and sauces. (If you don’t see them on display, don’t be afraid to ask.)

Inspired by Lionette’s ability to turn pounds of less desirable summer produce into sauces, meals, salads, and smoothies, I figured I could surely make a satisfying dinner out of a few bruised tomatoes. I decided to turn them into salmorejo, a simple soup from Spain. Salmorejo is a smooth blend of tomatoes, cucumber, bread, garlic, vinegar, and olive oil. It tends to be thicker than gazpacho, and typically doesn’t include diced vegetables. This recipe is one my sister brought back from Spain eight years ago and has been a family favorite ever since, especially in the August heat.

So, the next time you’re shopping at an Island farmers’ market or farm stand, grab that funny-looking pepper and make a beautiful meal with it. Don’t be one to judge on appearance.

The following recipe was originally published with this article:
Salmorejo