|photo: Eric Diesel|
Nothing stirs a cook's soul like a walk through the farmer's market. In the city, these are an oasis of the freshest produce. In New York, our best-known farmer's market occurs in Union Square. Growers, butchers, bakers and dairy farmers fill the northern end of this bustling city park, while at the southern end political activists vie with artists for their fair square of concrete. Yes, the food and the discourse are great, but I have a theory that there is more to the farmer's market's popularity than commerce. I believe that city folk, for all of our rush and urbanity, nonetheless resonate with the earth -- just as country folk don't mind a weekly trip into town. The knowing looks in the eyes of the vendors as they exchange one kind of green for another tell me I'm on to something.
As enticing as these fresh vegetables and fruits are, we need to know how to take advantage of them. In our urban home, the simplest answers are the most satisfying. When the heirloom tomatoes appear, the most beautiful get sliced and served as a simple, spectacular salad. Those fresh lettuces are combined with whatever ingredients call from bushel baskets for insalata mista. Fresh corn is steamed or grilled and served with chili-lime butter. Fresh fruit brightens a lunch pail, either on its own or as a cup of sparkling fruit salad. And, as mentioned above, fresh produce, such a treat during summer heat, begs to be canned against winter chill. For inspiration and instruction, here are some cookbooks to help you make the most of that abundance, whether it is calling to you from your own garden, the roadside stand, the greengrocer's, the produce aisle, or, yes, the farmer's market.
As one might expect, Williams-Sonoma's Cooking from the Farmer's Market is the big, sexy holy book of obtaining and preparing fresh produce. It begins with a section on navigating the farmer's market, including discussing buying locally, by the season, and organically. Make a copy of the chart of fruits and vegetables by season to take with you on grocery day. The cooking section is organized by type, beginning with an explanation of what to look for to ensure the best, freshest food and followed by recipes to plunder it. Thus you can learn how to choose the best of, say, the sugar snap peas, and how to prepare them (Chicken and Sugar Snap Pea Stir Fry, page 37). Nearly every vegetable and fruit is included, and all of the recipes are well-performing. In our urban home, Italian Sausage with Broccoli Rabe (page 51), Parsnips Glazed with Sherry and Ginger (page 95) and Tangerine, Fennel and Olive Salad (page 207) are already staples on the menu.
The respected food writer Janet Fletcher organized Fresh From the Farmers' Market by season, with descriptions of what's typically available followed by recipes for using it. In spring, we can make Artichokes Roman Style (page 36), roast our asparagus (page 37) and serve it with scrambled eggs (page 40), or make one of three fresh salads (page 58). It's a good way to organize as, while farmer's markets peak during the summer, they sustain us throughout the year. As befits a cook who trained at both the Culinary Institute of America and Chez Panisse, the inventive recipes highlight the individual qualities of fresh ingredients. If the photography, writing and the recipes themselves don't make you want to buy, cook and eat fresh local food, then the introduction by no less than Alice Waters certainly will.
As discussed elsewhere in the Urban Home Blog, the L.A. Farmers Market is not a farmer's market per se but it is a local institution. JoAnn Cianciulli's L.A.'s Original Farmers Market Cookbook gives both the history of this venerable institution and visits its cornerstone businesses to steal their best recipes. I doubt I'll ever try to replicate the perfection of Bob's Doughnuts, though the recipe is there for those brave enough (page 12), but I will definitely try to replicate the huevos rancheros from Loteria Grill (page 26). Each section also discusses these historic businesses; thus you get the story of such legends as Du-Par's along with the recipe for their signature dish(es). This wonderful book is especially appropriate for students of California cooking.
Finally, to preserve some of this abundance, turn to The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. This comprehensive guide to home canning and preserving contains foolproof recipes along with directions for the canning process that are understandable and usable enough for even the most nervous jar wrangler. There are recipes for jellies, jams, preserves, conserves, butters, sauces, syrups, pickles, relishes, chutneys, salsas, condiments and just about everything else guaranteed to turn you into a home-ec teacher before Labor Day. Canning is easy and very rewarding, and though many other books are nice, this is the only book you need. And, if you're in New York City, stop by Broadway Panhandler after your weekend trip to the Union Square farmer's market -- they sell canning supplies, and offer canning demos.