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Visit the Farmers' Market with a Menu in Mind

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A fresh produce guru shares his shopping strategies and six recipes for a sensational summer dinner

When I first started cooking professionally—a long time ago—I was lucky enough to work as a stagiaire (a chef apprentice) in France. I cooked at a little country restaurant and inn with a French friend of mine, and each day we would go to the market early in the morning and pick up whatever looked best. It was an idyllic experience, but it also taught me how important it is to have some sort of plan before going to the market. At first I was tempted to buy everything—as I still am at my local farmers’ market—but what saved us then, and still saves me now, was having a rough plan of the kind of dishes we wanted to prepare that evening. I use this same strategy now at home so that I don’t get carried away and wind up with too much of some things and not enough of others. The farmers’ market is just too seductive.

To avoid being overwhelmed, ask yourself a few questions before heading out. Are you buying for a specific meal (maybe a special dinner party this weekend)? If so, then how many courses do you want to have, or will it be an alfresco buffet? How many different dishes do you want to offer? In the late summer, you might ask yourself, do you want to make this an all vegetable- and fruit-based menu (like the one I’ve suggested here) since the produce is so spectacular right now? How much cooking do you really want to do? Maybe you want to serve almost everything fresh and uncooked, supplemented by some wonderful cheeses, breads, and salsas.

By asking yourself these questions, you’ll begin to form a plan. Jot down a few notes if you want to, just to remind yourself of your ideal courses. When I do this little bit of noodling before I go, I don’t wind up getting carried away by all the goodies. I can still be inspired by what looks best—and I can certainly be flexible about making substitutions—but I can also tell myself, “Okay, you’ve got the salad covered, now look for some vegetables for the main course.”

With a plan in mind, have a market bag in hand. I keep a basic kit of items in the trunk of my car so that I’m ready whenever I go to a market. A large canvas or mesh bag with comfortable handles or a shoulder strap is a must. If possible, get one that has a flat, square bottom so that you can more easily stack delicate, bruisable items. I also include a stash of extra plastic bags from the supermarket—a great way to recycle. Remember to bring along lots of cash in small denominations: $1 and $5 bills, plus a few dollars in change; most of the sellers at farmers’ markets operate pretty simply, without the aid of a cash register. I also include a small hand towel and a folding knife in my kit.

Once you’re at the market, take a look at everything before you start to buy. With your menu in mind, walk around and see who has the best quality and prices. Before buying, don’t be afraid to ask for a taste. Like cooks, most growers and producers are very proud of what they do, and they love the opportunity to tell you about it. Remember not to buy more than you can use, but at the same time, don’t constrain yourself too much. One of my favorite things about the farmers’ market is that I almost always discover something I’ve never seen before. And if you’re anything like me, finding something  new is an instant challenge to see what you can do with it.

For this time of year, start dreaming of tomatoes and corn, beans and zucchini, berries and melon before visiting the market. Since this season is such a blockbuster for fruits and vegetables, one of my favorite late summer menus features them in every course (see the recipes starting at right). Polenta with fresh corn and sautéed beans, squash, and peppers has a smoky tomato sauce so intense that it’s practically meaty in character. Along with a salad of spicy greens with a warm tomato vinaigrette and two refreshing melon drinks—not to mention a homey dessert of fresh blackberries with little dumplings—the whole menu takes advantage of the season while leaving plenty of room for improvisation. Sauté your pick of fresh vegetables to top the polenta, or substitute blueberries for blackberries in the grunt. Add a handful of your favorite herbs to the salad, use any sweet fruit for the drinks, or buy a wonderful-looking freshly made cheese to have with the drinks or salad, or on its own. Just try not to buy more than your refrigerator can hold or your friends can consume in the next few days.

Buying the food is half the fun

Visiting a farmers’ market is always an adventure for me. I love the opportunity to rediscover “real” foods, and to talk directly to the folks who produce them. And I love the feeling of being reconnected with nature and the movement of the seasons. Depending on the time of year, my market in northern California might have fava beans, green garlic, and asparagus (spring), or it might have melons, tomatoes, corn, squash, and wild berries (late summer). To add to the excitement, I can now find fresh fish, artisan cheeses and breads, flowers, and enough freshly made salsa, mustards, vinegars, honey, and other condiments at the markets to fill a pantry.

The number of farmers’ markets around the country has really exploded. I travel a great deal—teaching cooking classes and at wine and food seminars—and I’m amazed at the number and quality of markets that exist, often in the most unlikely locations, like an abandoned city lot or a shopping mall parking lot. If you’re new to an area, it’s a great way to get a feel for the people and “flavors” of your new home.

To find a market in your area, check with your state department of agriculture or your county extension agent, or visit www.ams.usda.gov/ farmersmarkets. Click on your state in the map displayed and you’ll get a list of farmers’ markets.

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