If you’re like me, this time of year is a celebration of summer – backyard barbecues, picnics and the occasional restaurant patio dinner.
Alternatively, when it rains, it’s always nice to dive back indoors with steaming plates of flavourful food cooked from freshly harvested ingredients.
As much as I enjoy sharing a plate of pasta or roasted chicken with my family, it’s always much more fun to invite friends over for a deck barbecue or plated dinner.
Whether chowing down on cowboy grub or dining on global cuisine, we all like to impress guests without the stress. Part of reducing stress is realizing true friends are pretty understanding. They simply like to hang out with you.
Everyone realizes food and drinks are the framework for a fun social get-together. So if your aim is to make guests feel special, simply add something different to the menu and don’t skimp on the ingredients.
Gearing up for chef mode and planning a party that allows your individual flair to shine through while satisfying everyone’s tastes is no easy feat. Applying a bit of creativity and smart shopping ensures everything will come together like clockwork. A quick and easy party solution is a trip to St. Albert Farmers Market to pick up specialty items.
Fortunately at this time of year, Mother Nature offers heaps of options from crunchy vegetables and sweet succulent fruits to cured fish and locally raised meats.
Not only are market ingredients fresh, allowing flavours to pop on the palate, but occasionally it’s easy to spot a distinctive item that can be used as an ice-breaker.
Ever heard of Moose Milk? I hadn’t either until I dropped by the Elk Island Spirits booth. But the crazy cute Canadian moniker for an alcoholic beverage turned out to be a great conversation starter.
It turns out Moose Milk, with the emblematic Canadian Maple Leaf, is a velvety sweet cream liquor made with rum, rye and maple syrup.
Strathcona County’s John Stubbington is a distiller who tinkered with different recipes for years, said his daughter Rebecca.
“When the laws changed and made it possible for little guys to sell at markets, we came to this market,” she said.
Just a few stalls down, Barrhead’s Shady Lane Estates boasts a line of hard teas with six per cent liquor, wines and beers. What really stands out is their trademark gluten-free Moonshine made from Alberta sugar beets. Shoppers tended to do a double take when checking out White Lightning which comes in five flavours.
“People are very surprised at how smooth it is,” said John Zdrodowski, whose two sons Nathan and Caleb are the spirit’s creators.
Zdrodowski mentioned that different customers who return to purchase seconds pour Moonshine on ice, flavour ice caps, slip it into coffee or add it to a White Russian or Brown Cow.
“You can put it in tea, lemonade or ginger ale.”
To prevent guests from slurring their speech too quickly, make the market a one-stop shopping venue for pre-meal nibblers from nuts and pretzels to jerky and designer doughnuts.
Traditionally we serve salads or soups as an appetizer. Why not try something different. Sgambero’s Signature Seafoods sells a tasty salmon paté that when spread on crackers is delicate and flavourful without an overpowering fishy taste.
The seafood company also sells in-house made salmon burger patties, salmon sausage and salmon jerky. And the smoked salmon marinated in brandy, vermouth, olive oil, salt and fresh dill served on a cracker is difficult to top.
Further down St. Anne Street is Sunworks Farm. It is easy to pick out from the fragrant aromas of grilled chicken sausage wafting from the stall. Ron Hamilton, a grizzled farmer with a 450-acre operation near Armena, is the grill master and in true showman style encourages onlookers to taste slices of perfectly cooked sausage.
It turns out the Hamilton family are celiacs with severe allergies and they have dedicated their lives to raising certified organic chickens, turkey, ducks, geese, beef and pork in a humane way. Even their eggs are certified organic.
I sampled a sausage bite and I can safely say it’s one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Free of gluten, egg, dairy, corn, nitrates, sulphates and MSG, it far surpasses the big-box stores offerings. The warm and comforting sausages pair neatly with beer or wine, and are a perfect addition for a barbecue night around the campfire or a sports night watching TV.
Organization and smart make-aheads are key to any multi-course dinner. An easygoing restaurant-quality dish that fits that label is a salad. Gull Valley Greenhouse from Lacombe has a long-standing reputation for attracting dedicated shoppers and inspired local chefs.
Picked the day before market, all the vegetables retain a garden freshness. On display are an array of veggies ranging from crunchy peppers and cucumbers, sweet lettuces and bok choy to kale, mint and seasonal herbs.
But what catches the eye are eight varieties of juicy tomatoes grown in three colours – red, orange and yellow. Perhaps the most unusual is a zebra tomato that grows to the size of an oval ping pong ball. Distinctive in colour it is dark green with reddish stripes and is more tart than regular tomatoes.
“They’re great for grilling shish kebabs. The skin is a bit thicker than other tomatoes so it holds nicer and doesn’t turn to mush,” said Francine Kwantes, daughter of owners Levi and Carmen Tiemstra.
Dessert is always irresistible. After the entree what could taste better than a sweet confection such as Sandra’s Macarons? Owner Sandra Lazareva, a culinary teacher for Edmonton Public School Board, bakes about 140 different flavoured European styled macarons.
However, she only offers about 10 gluten-free options at any given time at the market. The rotating flavours range from mouth-watering salted caramel, pistachio, triple chocolate and strawberry rhubarb to pink lemonade, cotton candy, pina colada and apple pie.
The secret to these dainty, delicate cookies is the almond flour.
“I fly to Turkey and get almonds twice a year. I buy a ton and one-half and hand-grind them. If I just bought the flour, the quality would not be the same,” said Lazareva.
For anyone who has waited all year for a delish fruit salad, Steve and Dan’s fresh B.C. fruit booth packs the season’s best from their West Coast family farm. Last Saturday they carried nectarines, peaches, cherries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries.
For either an outdoor or indoor event chop up a variety of fruits and let them soak in their own juices for an hour or so. If there’s not enough juice, simply throw in a small can of pineapple and its juice for added zing and colour.
At times the St. Albert Farmers Market seems overwhelming. But there are also many captivating foods to discover. There are ethnic and heritage dishes: Ukrainian, East Indian, Thai, Persian, Mexican, Chinese-Canadian, Italian, Scandinavian and Greek to name a few.
But the market also encourages you as chef to step out of the box and try new things such as vegan cheese, specialty olives, bison products, locally made barbecue rubs and spices, nut offerings and wild mushrooms.
Whether you’re hot-weather entertaining or staying cool in a mosquito-free environment, the market offers more than a few secret weapons to make you and your event a success.