It is currently the height of summer in New England, and the heat and longer days are finally, quite literally, yielding fruit. The shorter growing season in the northeast limits the kinds of fresh produce we can enjoy and when it is available, so it becomes that much more exciting when the farmers markets suddenly replace their regular offerings of potatoes and beets with brightly colored greens, radishes, and cucumbers.
Our local farmers market operates year-round, snuggling indoors at the Armory when the temperatures drop and reemerging like new shoots after Memorial Day. Our local vegetable farmers, too, seem to hibernate for the winter, with one or two stalwarts persevering to provide the neighborhood with potatoes, apples, and other hearty storage crops. Tables once heaped with greens are taken over by livestock farmers, fishermen, bakers, and chocolatiers.
With the market back out in its place in the sun, the fruit and vegetable sellers dominate once again. Here is where the home cook can find the ingredients that can change an everyday dish in to something new and novel.
One of the major factors that distinguishes a meal at a fine restaurant from a something prepared at home is the variety of ingredients. At a recent visit to a local wine bar, we ordered a radish salad – a very simple dish on its own, but the chef utilized three different kinds of radish, each prepared in a unique way and combined on one plate in a way that both accentuated the differences of each radish and melded in to a unified experience. On our next trip to the grocery store, I looked around the produce department interested in what kinds of radish I might be able to pick up, only to find the common red-skinned golf ball as the only option.
The farmers market, however, has radishes. French breakfast, watermelon, pink ones, white ones, even black ones that almost look like truffles. The farmers market has these, along with a multitude of squashes and tomatoes and greens, because they may be too delicate to survive our long food logistics chain, or they are not produced in sufficient quantities to interest the grocery stores, or the farmer felt like it would be interesting to try a new crop. The farmers market opens up the opportunity to experiment.
The simplest way to punch up a home-cooked meal is to make simple substitutions, because there is pleasure in novelty. All those fancy adjectives that restaurant menus charge extra for can become the domain of the home cook when a simple tomato salad becomes an heirloom tomato salad or grilled zucchini becomes grilled Cousa squash. A small change of ingredients requires no additional cooking knowledge beyond the understanding that varietals all will handle cooking in largely the same way.
And if you find something that you really don’t know what to do with? There’s a qualified expert standing right there, ready to answer all of your questions about the produce that their farm (possibly even their own hands) grew, harvested, and laid out on the table you are in front of.
I had no real goal at our last trip to the farmers market, but I immediately eyed the pints of multicolored cherry tomatoes at one stall and knew what had to be done. One of our favorite summertime meals is a simple “deconstructed caprese,” a dish of fresh garden tomatoes and gooey buratta, sprinkled with basil and fancy olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Here, I decided to turn that into something more of a traditional green salad after buying some lettuce on a whim. When it came time to prepare this meal, I also had a leftover end of bread (also purchased from the farmers market) – I sliced this up and toasted it for croutons, but you could also cube and lightly brown a whole loaf and convert this salad in to a fattoush.
Caprese-inspired tomato salad from the farmers market
1/2 pint cherry tomatoes
1 small Bibb lettuce
1/2 bunch basil (about 1 cup)
8 oz mozzarella
~4 oz bread (this was leftover sourdough)
Good olive oil and balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 425F. Cut the bread in to small pieces (these are about crouton sized). Toss with some plain old olive oil and salt, then spread on a sheet tray and pop in the oven until toasted, about 5-7 minutes.
Halve the tomatoes, chop the lettuce. Remove basil leaves from the stems and chiffonade. Cut mozzarella in to ~1/2 inch chunks. Toss all of this in a bowl.
To serve, place salad in plates or shallow bowls. Drizzle with olive oil (you know, the good stuff) and balsamic vinegar (you know, the good stuff) and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place croutons artistically on top.
Fattoush variant – drastically increase the bread and tomatoes (maybe a good half loaf of bread and a pint of tomatoes). Cut bread in to ~1/2 inch cubes and only lightly toast, just enough to give it a little color.