SMOKE POURED FROM THE OVEN and Grandma started having a conniption. Mom wrenched open the oven door and began beating back the flames with a dish towel. It was nothing, she insisted, just a little fire. It was lunchtime on a Saturday a few decades ago, and Douglas Merriam’s mother had attempted to reheat Friday night’s pizza—only she neglected to remove it from its cardboard box. On those Friday nights when Mom opened the cabinet and asked the kids what they wanted for dinner, it was not to show them the provisions stored there, but to display the delivery menus taped to the inside of the cabinet door. Suffice it to say that Merriam did not grow up with a farm-to-table ethos.
Today, he’s a photographer who has tested, styled, and shot recipes and food features for New Mexico Magazine since 1994, a job that combines his highly cultivated passions of gardening and home cooking. His pantries overflow with organic food, nary a take-out menu to be seen. Were he a millionaire, Merriam says, he’d be a farmer—but only if he were a millionaire. He’s seen up close the toll that farming in a desert takes on people: the calloused hands, the twisted backs, the dirt-blackened feet, and the unsteady cash flow. He spent the better part of a decade seeing the life of New Mexico’s farmers through his viewfinder on the way to putting together a new self-published, photo-heavy tribute, Farm Fresh Journey: Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Cookbook.
Merriam has come to know the farmers of northern New Mexico, and it shows. In 312 pages bright with sun-dappled photos, he explores growing in New Mexico, season by season, composing simple recipes inspired by Santa Fe’s beloved farmers’ market—with ingredients that can be supplied almost completely from any farmers’ market in New Mexico. Writer Lesley S. King contributed short essays describing a chile’s transformation from seed to sale, making it what Merriam calls “a true seasonal cookbook.”
IF YOU HAD TOLD MERRIAM 20 years ago that he’d end up in Santa Fe, trolling the farmers’ market for photos and recipes, the energetic kid from suburban Long Island wouldn’t have believed you. In the 1990s, after plowing his way through night school and a degree at New York’s St. John’s University, he ascended to the position of account executive at one of the world’s largest ad agencies. All he got for his suit-and-tie days in Manhattan was a stay in a hospital bed with an ulcerated colon. That was enough for him. Antic and creative, he realized toiling away on Madison Avenue wouldn’t sustain him. He quit, moved to Maine to pursue lessons in photography, and spent his days eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. “I felt like the richest man in the world.” He nurtured his creativity at the Maine Photographic Workshops. When Reid Callanan, then employed at the workshop, said he was heading to Santa Fe to start the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, Merriam followed. He had no intention of staying, but he met a woman, and the visit turned into the next 25 years and counting.
In 2001 Merriam walked into his tiny, parched backyard and decided to build a farm. Not a farm, exactly—call it a very well-tended garden, a new creative outlet. He put in eight raised beds, took down an old fence to build a potting shed, and began meticulously documenting the seeds he used, just like a real farmer. “It was a dirt lot, and I turned it into this lush mini-farm,” he says. Merriam became a devoted regular at the Farmers’ Market, talking with growers about how they managed various crops. As he passed through the Railyard week after week, getting his own hands dirty in the backyard, Merriam’s love of New Mexico soil soon inspired the book.
But little is simple when it comes to farming. Droughts cancel monsoons. Machinery breaks. Tax bills descend. Even collecting recipes proved a challenge. “I thought—very naively—that I’d get recipes from the farmers.” What he got instead was vague descriptions and sparse directions. Farmers are farmers, after all, not chefs. So Doug and his wife, Shannon, spent hours in their kitchen, conducting experiments on what instructions like “cook all day” really meant. He kept going to the market, where growers started asking him how the book was progressing. He let himself melt into the place, like a big joint of meat in a slow braise.
A New Mexico farmers’ market is a sensory carnival. The sharp, earthy smell of roasting chiles in the fall, the humble sight of a farmer’s hands holding root vegetables in winter, tomatoes of every size and color all summer long. There are fresh-baked breads, grass-fed meats, cheeses, honey, and herbs. All across the state, each market reflects its time and place. It feels especially palpable in Santa Fe, where everything comes from the 15 counties of northern New Mexico. Early Saturday morning (plus Tuesday morning and Wednesday evening in the summer), tents are pitched, purple bell peppers, tiny shishitos, and glorious Big Jim chiles are neatly arranged, and lists of the day’s freshest and finest are scrawled on chalkboards. The growling of saxophones and the rasping of fiddles flutter through the air. You can wander right up to the woman selling summer squash, ask for a sample, and inquire, “How do you like to cook yours?”Those personal interactions led Merriam to what he calls the larger story, the story of farmers nurturing a plant or animal through life—the long journey to market. He began trekking far afield, shooting grungy greenhorns and seasoned old hands. He followed a narrative of creation—from farmer to market—that eventually filled the pages. “It would have been really easy to walk away, but I felt like I had to keep my word,” he says. Last year, he finally finished testing recipes that any home cook can master, taking the photos, weaving in the stories, and designing the book. After years of work, his ambition is simple. “I’m so happy to give this book to the farmers.” As a reverent ode to farming, a case study in bringing simple, delicious things to market, the book delivers more than that. The culinary know-how gathered up in that process, like so many armfuls of deep green kale, is also a gift to hungry readers ready to put that knowledge to use in their own kitchens.
The springtime recipes in Farm Fresh Journey accentuate the vibrant colors and flavors that emerge after the land shakes off a long, cold winter and producers bring their tender greens and remarkably sweet strawberries to market. Douglas Merriam selected a three-course menu featuring the season’s first bounty.
For the dressing
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon, or more, raspberry jam
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Fresh, seasonal herbs (optional)
- Put all the ingredients in a 1-pint mason jar, close lid, and shake well.
- Taste the dressing and adjust the flavor—the more jam you add, the more intense the raspberry flavor.
- Add fresh mint, oregano, or any appropriate in-season herb.
For the salad
- 1 pound mixed spring greens
- 1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced
- 1 bunch radishes, greens removed, sliced thin
- 1 small block Romano cheese
- Clean the greens with a salad spinner, or place them in a bowl of water and swirl them around, allowing grit and dirt to sink to the bottom. Remove the greens and pat dry.
- Gently toss the greens, strawberries, and radishes together in a bowl and plate four servings.
- Drizzle the salad with the raspberry dressing. Use a vegetable peeler and shave the Romano cheese over each salad.
Boneless Leg of Lamb with Spinach
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 boneless leg of lamb, about 3 pounds
- 1/2 pound spinach
- 1 small onion, chopped fine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Combine 2 tablespoons of olive oil with 3 cloves of minced garlic and mix well. Rub this mixture all over the lamb, then sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in a roasting pan.
- Cook the lamb in a preheated 450° oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350° and cook another 30 minutes. Check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer. It should read 130° for medium rare with a pink center. A reading of 150° will give you medium well with no pink meat. Remove the lamb from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes before carving into thick slices.
- While the lamb rests, wash the spinach, and gently shake to remove excess water. Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the onion 3–4 minutes until translucent. Add the remaining garlic and sauté for another minute. Place the spinach on top of the garlic and onion and put a lid over the skillet. Wait a minute or two, allowing the heat in the skillet to build up, then turn off the heat. The spinach will wilt nicely in 5–6 minutes. Mix the spinach, onion, and garlic, add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with carved lamb.
Honey-Glazed Carrots with Thyme
- 1 pound baby carrots, whole, leafy tops removed
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 teaspoon thyme, chopped (4–6 sprigs)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Place the carrots, butter, honey, thyme, salt, and water in a skillet, cover and bring to a simmer.
- Cook the carrots until they’re tender, about 5–7 minutes depending on the carrot size, then remove the cover and cook over medium-high heat, occasionally stirring, until the water has evaporated and the carrots are glazed. Serve with lamb.
For the strawberries
- 1 pound (3 cups) strawberries
- 1 tablespoon honey (optional)
- Take one cup of the strawberries and crush them in a small bowl using a fork or potato masher.
- Slice the remaining strawberries and mix them in with the crushed berries. Taste the strawberries for sweetness. If they’re not as sweet as you’d like and there’s not a lot of juice, mix in the honey.
For the cakes
- 1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
- 1 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/2 cup goat milk
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/2 tablespoon butter, softened
- Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix with a fork or whisk.
- Beat the egg yolk and whisk in the goat milk and honey.
- Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix well until you have a nice doughy batter.
- Butter six slots of a muffin pan and divide the batter equally.
- Bake about 15 minutes in a preheated 400° oven until muffins rise and tops are browned. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out dry and clean.
For the spread
- 1 5-ounce container chèvre
- 1 tablespoon honey
- Allow the cheese to reach room temperature. Stir in the honey and mix until evenly distributed and the chèvre has a creamier consistency.
- Cut the cakes in half, placing each bottom in a shallow bowl.
- Divide the strawberry mixture evenly and place it on top of and around each bottom.
- Put a dollop of the chèvre onto the berries, and top with the other half of the cake.
Douglas Merriam spent years roaming the stalls of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, getting to know growers, tasting the freshest produce, and harvesting a crop of good ideas. Here are his top tips. Find the New Mexico farmers’ market nearest you at farmersmarketsnm.org.
Be prepared: Bring a list of what you need for the recipes you’re going to cook. It’s easy to get distracted by the color and atmosphere.
Rise with the sun: Get to the market early in the morning, before the crowds get too thick. Nix the negotiating: You wouldn’t try to haggle for a lower price at the supermarket. Don’t do it at a farmers’ market.
Shop around: Try products from different farmers. Ask them how they grow, taste their samples. Eventually you’ll find your favorites and develop personal relationships.
Try something new: Ever tasted lion’s mane mushrooms? Cooking your way through Farm Fresh Journey will expand your palate.
Purchase Farm Fresh Journey: Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Cookbook (Farm Fresh Publishing, 2016) at farmfreshjourney.com. The website includes profiles of 17 farms written by Lesley S. King and photographed by Douglas Merriam.