The charm of an open-air market

For city dwellers, the idea of a farmer’s market is a novelty.

market 521 (photo credit: Toby Melville/Reuters)
market 521
(photo credit: Toby Melville/Reuters)
There’s something special about shopping at openair markets, whether it’s the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk in Jerusalem, the rue Cler market in Paris or the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market in California.
A stroll through a shuk or a farmer’s market is like a minivacation in the middle of the day. The colorful scene is usually more social and animated than the supermarket, with people walking by and chatting as they select their produce.
The setting is conducive to communicating with other shoppers and is a stimulating environment for planning new ways to use vegetables and fruits in our menus.
When we lived in Bat Yam, we enjoyed our weekly shopping trips to Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, even though we had to take two buses. The atmosphere at the market was always changing. One week, the air would be fragrant with strawberries. Another time, persimmons seemed to be everywhere; it was in that shuk that I saw and tasted a persimmon for the first time.
In Paris, we lived only a short walk from the celebrated rue Cler market street, which is known for its top quality produce. When wild mushrooms were in season, it was fun to try them in omelets or with pasta and fresh herbs, which were always plentiful at the market. From the fabulous fromagerie, which featured different cheeses each month, we learned that even cheeses have seasons.
When we moved from Paris to Santa Monica, we were excited to learn that a farmers’ market had just opened.
The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, which was founded in 1981, is one of the oldest certified farmers’ markets in California and one of the largest and most important in the US. For the residents of the area, the idea of a farmer’s market was a novelty, as most had shopped only in supermarkets.
Walking to the market became a highlight of our week.
Part of the charm of these markets is that there can be new discoveries, like the fresh, green fenugreek sold by a Persian vendor, which we bought at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. Yakir’s mother used fenugreek seeds to make hilbeh (Yemenite fenugreek dip), but we had never seen its fresh leaves. A shopper suggested an Indian way of cooking the fenugreek greens with sauteed potatoes, and this turned out tasty and very aromatic.
Describing the cultural impact of the market, our friend Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook, writes: “With today’s global air freight, we have forgotten when and where things want to grow. It’s time to undo our years of seasonless, solitary shopping experience and replace it with a willingness... to relearn the seasons and the joy of anticipation. The key to knowing your farmers’ market is to remember that all crops have seasons. And the best way to learn about the seasons is at the market.”
If you like to be organized with your menu planning, here are some of Saltsman’s guidelines for shopping at the market: • “Make your list but keep it loose: Leave room on your list for surprise finds, as the chefs do.... If you find something amazing, buy it on the spot and change your cooking plans. Some varieties or even whole crops are in the market a fleeting week or two.”
• “Look at what’s available: If it’s not there, it’s not in season or locally grown. Notice the waves of crops as they appear.... Learn to distinguish a fully ripe tomato... from its paler cousin that needs a couple of days on the counter to finish ripening (buying some of both is a good way to extend your purchases through the week in prime condition). Note the differences in color depth between citrus picked early season and late season: the longer it sits on the tree, the more it ‘colors up.’ Look for the fresh leafy tops and juicy appearance of just-dug root vegetables.”
• “Listen to the snap and crunch of fresh produce”; if you’re at a farmer’s market, “listen to the farmer. Growers are proud of a particularly great harvest and willingly teach how to choose and store their crops, when they will be ready to use, and how to prepare them.”
• “Store your purchases carefully: In general, never wash produce until you are ready to use it, and never refrigerate it until it is fully ripe.”
After a visit to the market, it’s nice to begin a meal with a fresh vegetable appetizer. Vegetable pâtés, spreads and dips are delicious and easy to prepare, and there are many possibilities beyond humous and eggplant salad. Saltsman’s winter squash puree, for example, makes a delicious starter or topping for bruschette – Italian style grilled bread slices flavored with fresh garlic and olive oil. Saltsman also spreads bruschette with white bean puree flavored with onions sauteed in olive oil, garlic and rosemary.
Another tasty topping is greens sauteed in olive oil with onions, garlic and chili flakes, or prepared as a creamy spread like the spinach pate below.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning book Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
When I prepared this easy-to-make meatless pâté in France, I enriched it with some of the luscious crème fraîche that was ladled from large buckets at the fromagerie; but the spread is also delicious with sour cream or labaneh instead. Serve this bright green pâté with fresh or toasted French bread, with bruschette (see Note 2 of recipe following this one) or with whole grain crackers. You can keep the pâté, covered, for one day in the refrigerator.
700 gr. (11⁄2 lbs.) spinach (weight of leaves with stems; see Note below) 2 Tbsp. butter Salt and freshly ground pepper Freshly grated nutmeg About 1⁄2 cup crème fraîche or sour cream 1 Tbsp. minced parsley (optional)
Remove spinach stems and rinse leaves thoroughly by immersing them in a bowl of water, removing them and repeating until the water is clean. In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook spinach, uncovered, over high heat, pushing leaves down into water often, until very tender, about 3 minutes. Rinse with cold water and squeeze dry by handfuls.
Melt butter in a medium saucepan. Add spinach, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 2 minutes, or until spinach absorbs butter and any excess liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
Puree spinach in food processor with 3 Tbsp. crème fraiche. Stir in remaining cream by spoonfuls, adding it to your taste. Add parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning; the spread should be generously seasoned with nutmeg. Serve in a bowl or a ramekin at room temperature.
Makes about 1 cup, or 4 servings
Note: If you are using cleaned spinach leaves, use about 550 gr. (11⁄4 lbs.).
This recipe is from The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook. Author Amelia Saltsman writes: “There’s no need to add sugar to already sweet winter squash. Instead, play up its natural attributes through contrast – savory herbs, cheese, chiles.... Roast and freeze winter squash such as...butternut... so you can easily make this spread all winter.”
If you like, you can finish the puree with a tablespoon of pumpkin seed oil instead of olive oil.
1⁄2 cup finely chopped onion 1 large clove garlic, whole 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage 1 small dried hot pepper, or pinch of red pepper flakes Kosher salt or sea salt 3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 2 cups roasted winter squash (see Note 1 below) About 1⁄2 cup vegetable stock 2 to 4 Tbsp. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or sharp Gouda cheese, plus cheese for shaving Bruschette (see Note 2 below), for serving
In a skillet, saute the onion, whole garlic clove, sage, hot pepper and a little salt in 2 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-low heat until the onion is translucent and soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the squash, a little more salt and 1⁄4 cup of the stock. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook to a thick puree, about 15 minutes, stirring frequently and adding stock as needed to keep the mixture smooth and prevent sticking. If the mixture seems too wet, uncover during the last few minutes of cooking.
Remove the pan from the heat, discard the whole hot pepper, and mash the garlic clove into the squash. Stir in the grated cheese and salt to taste along with the last tablespoon of oil. The puree can be made a day ahead and refrigerated. Top with cheese shavings and serve at room temperature with bruschette.
Makes about 2 cups Note 1: To roast winter squash: Preheat oven to 190ºC (375ºF). Cut a long squash, such as a butternut, in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and strings. Brush the cut sides with olive oil and season with kosher or sea salt. Place cut side down on a baking sheet with at least 2.5 cm. (1 in.) between the halves, and roast until the skins are browned and shiny and the squash is easily pierced with the tip of a knife, about 40 minutes.
Note 2: To make bruschette, lightly grill or broil country bread slices on both sides, then rub one side with the cut side of a garlic clove and brush it with olive oil.