If it’s Saturday morning, odds are I’m at the Royal Oak Farmers Market. Back in the days when I was chef and proprietor of Inn Season Cafe, the market was our main source of seasonal produce. Three days a week I rolled flatbed carts stacked with produce through the aisles and into my truck for the short journey to the restaurant. Sometimes at the end of the market day, farmer friends would pull up to our back door with their extra corn, squash, pumpkins and zucchini which we gave to customers and local soup kitchens. Sharing this connection with the farmers who work the land was a foundation of what we did at Inn Season Cafe. The Cafe was farm to table from its inception in 1981. The current owners remain committed to this now-popular approach to food in restaurants and homes.
Since its establishment in 1929, the Royal Oak Farmers Market has played a key role in the community. Like the venerable Eastern Market in Detroit, it supplies chefs, serious cooks and canners with a wide variety of local produce and agricultural products. Anchors such as Cinzori Farms, Hampshire Farms and Nature’s Pace Organics make it the best market for certified organic produce in Metro Detroit.
Today, each visit to this bustling market continues to fuel my culinary passions as they did during those Inn Season Cafe years. Every Saturday exciting discoveries await me on the rows of tables that stretch from one end of the market to the other–fresh produce picked only hours before: Jimmy Nardello peppers, okra, corn, beans and heirloom tomatoes–just to name a few.
September is the final hurrah of the Michigan summer harvest and watermelons of all kinds are plentiful providing an opportunity to squeeze in refreshing beverages–ok, pun intended. Remembering the Agua Frescas I enjoyed so much last year in San Diego, I felt inspired to make a local Michigan version with a Cuban Mojito accent. This week, Don Cinzori helped me pick a beautiful yellow watermelon which I used along with the abundant mint growing in our kitchen garden to make my version of Agua Frescas for dinner guests that evening.
In hotter climates, tradition has long embraced a variety of fruits and spices for thirst-quenching drinks. Like the limonatas of Italy and the Sharbats of India, the Agua Frescas help balance the intense flavors in the often fiery cuisine of Mexico, but this drink is so refreshing, it goes well with any food any time of the year.
Yellow Watermelon Agua Fresca
Serves four to six
Cut rind off yellow seeded or seedless watermelon. Cut into large chunks, place in blender and grind until smooth on slow speed without breaking seeds. Strain into a bowl using a coarse wire strainer with holes large enough to stop seeds. A juicer will also work for this. Yield depends on size of melon-10 inch diameter will yield 4 to 6 cups of strained juice.
Simple lime syrup
1 cup water
1 cup organic cane sugar
¼ cup fresh squeezed lime
In a 2 quart sauce pan, simmer sugar and water until sugar is dissolved. Cool and then add lime juice.
Option: Substitute sugar syrup with organic light agave syrup.
1 cup mint leaves
2 cups ice
Place 2 cups watermelon juice, 2 tablespoons fresh mint (8 large leaves), 2/3 cup ice and 2 tablespoons lime syrup in blender. Pulse until ice and mint leaves are crushed. Pour into two 8 ounce glasses, garnish with a fresh mint leaf and serve. Repeat as desired.