Filling the wooden tables at the farmers market, baskets overflowing with tomatoes, blueberries, blackberries, okra, peas, squash, eggplants, peppers, sweet potatoes, peaches and cucumbers spilled onto the floor and into the beds of the dirt-speckled trucks lining the downtown Decatur pavilion.

“This year started off pretty slow with all the rain and the cold temperatures. We had a really hard time in the spring, but it’s picked up. God is good,” said Marilyn Champion of Champion Farms in Falkville.

The return to more normal temperatures and rainfall translated to a bounty of local vegetables and fruit at farmers markets for summer’s peak growing season.

“No complaints here,” said Lawrence County’s Bill Hagood as he surveyed the table of green beans, new potatoes, green tomatoes and blueberries. “Blueberries love water and, well, heck, we certainly have had a lot of it. Now the weather is great for everything else.”

Farmers across north Alabama agree. Evidence of the season’s uptick appeared in the colorful rows of freshly picked produce at markets in Decatur, Hartselle, Athens, Moulton and Huntsville.

For tips on the best ways to cook the produce, just ask the farmers.

“I prefer my cabbage fried. Now, is there any other way to eat it and have it taste oh so good?,” said James Hanserd of East Limestone with a wide grin.

“If I was making a meal with what’s on my table, I would have fried squash, green beans, baked eggplant and some fried green tomatoes. Hey, I’m a big guy and I like to eat and you can’t beat the taste of fresh vegetables,” Andy Chambers of Chambers Farm in Holly Pond said.

“There’s no bad way to eat corn. It’s as sweet as sweet can be,” said Randy Bowerman of Moulton, standing in front of a table of husked ears. “From raw on up, that’s your choice. It’s all delicious.”

“I love eating our tomatoes straight off the vine,” Champion said, pointing to red softball-sized tomatoes. “There’s nothing like a tomato sandwich. We are very excited about and ready for tomato sandwich day.”

A southern staple, the tomato sandwich — typically made with sliced tomatoes, white bread and mayonnaise — will be celebrated at the Athens Saturday Market on Saturday and the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market on July 21.

Themed days, such as tomato sandwich day and corn day, help celebrate local farmers and introduce people to the decade-old farm-to-table trend still sweeping the nation. From homes to restaurants, cooks across the Tennessee Valley embraced the farm fresh movement, creating seasonal menus to reflect the availability of locally grown fruits and vegetables.

More than connecting eaters and cooks with the farmers and providing fresh ingredients, the markets promote healthy eating through community outreach programs.

“Kids need to try fruits and vegetables, but getting them to try something new is hard at times. So, we give them an incentive,” said Donna Shanklin, the Lawrence County Extension Coordinator.

On Saturday, Lawrence County Extension Office will debut a Power of Produce program for children ages 12 and younger at the Lawrence County Farmers Market.

Depending on the produce available at the market, Shanklin and Jennifer Palmer, the extension office’s supplemental nutritional assistance program educator, will prepare a dish created for children to try. In exchange, participants will receive $2 to spend at the market.

“We might make tomatoes with salsa. The idea is that they will use that money to pick up some tomatoes and fix the salsa at home. But, even if they don’t like tomatoes, they will find something they do like,” Shanklin said. “It’s important to introduce them to fruits and vegetables when they are young because that’s when they develop healthy habits.”

At the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market, manager Elizabeth Thompson also created events to connect with children. For the second year, the market organized Kids Days aimed at introducing children to the roots of farming through fun activities. Held every Wednesday at 11 a.m., the free one-hour sessions included planting sunflowers, a scavenger hunt, meeting the farmers, pea shelling game and food Jeopardy. The weekly events will continue through the end of July.

Celebrate the taste of summer with these dishes featuring freshly picked produce.

For home gardeners with an overabundance of fruits and vegetables, Limestone County Master Gardeners will hold a canning and preserving class Monday at 12:30 p.m. at the Limestone County Extension Office, 1109 W. Market St. in Athens.

Tomato Salsa

1 small red onion, coarsely chopped

1 medium green bell pepper, coarsely chopped

8-10 sprigs fresh parsley

2 large tomatoes, cored

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Combine the onion, green pepper and parsley leaves in a food processor. Process for 10 seconds, scrape down the sides and process again until mixture is finely chopped. Halve the tomatoes and squeeze out most of the juice and seeds. Chop the tomatoes coarsely. Add to processor. Pulse several times. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in vinegar and lemon juice. Put cumin in small saucepan and toast over low heat, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir it into the salsa. Salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until serving. Will keep for a week in the refrigerator.

Florida Tomato Committee

Asian Style Cucumber Salad

2 large cucumbers

¼ cup red onion

1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon lime juice

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon ginger

Pinch of garlic powder

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

Deseed and grate the cucumbers. Salt and set to drain. Thinly slice the red onion. Prepare the dressing. Mix together rice wine vinegar, lime juice, canola oil, sesame oil, sugar, ginger, garlic powder, salt, pepper and sesame seeds. Stir red onion slices into cucumbers. Add the dressing and mix well. Serve.

Athens Saturday Market

Eggplant Parmesan

2 large eggplants

1 cup water

1 teaspoon salt

16 ounces canned tomatoes

1 medium onion, chopped

¼ teaspoon pepper sauce

¾ teaspoon oregano

½ teaspoon garlic salt

Pepper, to taste

1 cup mozzarella cheese, sliced

¾ cup Parmesan cheese grated

Preheat oven to 350. Wash, peel and cut eggplant into quarter-inch slices. In a pot, cover slices with water and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Drain. In large bowl, combine tomatoes, onion, pepper sauce, oregano, garlic salt and pepper. In a baking dish, layer eggplant, tomato mixture and mozzarella. Repeat layers. Top with Parmesan cheese. Bake for 30 minutes.

Marcia Plaster for “Farming Feeds Alabama”

Squash Casserole

2 pounds squash, cut into rounds and cooked until tender ¼ cup butter or margarine, softened

1 teaspoon sugar

1 egg

½ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup green pepper, chopped

½ cup onion, chopped

1 small jar pimentos

1 teaspoon salt

8 ounces canned sliced water chestnuts, drained and roughly chopped

1 cup cheddar cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350. Drain cooked squash and mash with butter or margarine. In separate bowl, mix sugar, egg, mayonnaise, pepper, onion, pimentos, salt and water chestnuts. Add to squash and stir. Pour into greased casserole dish and top with cheese. Bake for 35-40 minutes.

— Sandy Carroll Ward for “Farming Feeds Alabama”

cgodbey@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2441. Twitter @DecaturLiving.

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