I grew up in Minnesota where we didn’t have farmers’ markets in winter. The long vendor stalls that bustle with people and an explosion of fruits and vegetables in spring, summer and fall are turned over to Christmas tree sellers shortly after Halloween. Up until December 24th, they hawk their spruces and firs under the buzzing fluorescents that turn on at 3 pm when the light starts to wane. Still festive, in its way, but nothing like a northern California farmers’ market in winter. Let’s just say I feel very lucky when Saturday rolls around and I trudge down the block to what is normally a fairly bland concrete park near a freeway overpass, and find it transformed into a vegetable mecca.
But not just vegetables, no! There are steaming chafers full of dishes from around the world, Cornucopias (literally) of fresh pastries and crusty breads, jars of homemade pickles and jams, local honey, artisan olive oils and vinegars, milk made from nuts (incredibly tasty, by the way), massages, cool art, music and even – at ours, anyway – an occasional petting zoo featuring bunnies, exotic chickens and a pony you can ride if you’re under 5’ tall. There’s also more color in that one block than you can shake a stick at, in case you’re in need of palette inspiration. It’s like having a culinary paintbox in your backyard.
Most bay area residents don’t need any convincing to frequent their local farmers’ market – it has become entrenched in the culture here, and the praises of the local markets have been sung for decades by the likes of Alice Waters and her many Chez Panisse alums. My mother was an early supporter of local farmers, back in the late 60’s when we lived in Berkeley (before the migration to the frozen tundra of Minnesota). She would get together with our neighbors on a Rockridge block and organize a weekly green grocer stop. Each week, a truck would arrive bearing the fruits (and vegetables) of the season: lettuces, peas and strawberries in April, corn, peaches and plums in July and tomatoes, squash and basil in September. Not only did the green grocer offer the very freshest and most nutritious foods to the neighborhood, but he also offered a gathering point and a means of building connections and community among the neighbors. They could even swap recipes for the ingredients of the week. In August, everyone needed recipes for zucchini, and to this day my mother’s zucchini bread recipe is unrivaled.
For those of you out there who do need some cajoling, there are some pretty compelling reasons to make a trip to the farmers’ market part of your weekend routine. First of all, farmers’ market produce is about the freshest you can get short of growing it yourself, and fresh food is not only tastier, it’s more – sometimes much more – nutritious. After harvest, produce can travel hundreds, and sometimes thousands of miles before it reaches market, and in that time, it can lose up to 1/3 of the vitamins and nutrients. The sooner you eat a fruit or vegetable after harvest, the better it is for you. In general, you can get a much wider variety of organic produce at farmers’ markets as well. However, this is not always the case, so if it’s not specifically advertised, it’s a good idea to check. Unless you’re buying from a commercial dealer, farmers’ market produce is almost always free from the sticky and often fungicide-laced wax that is used on a variety of conventional grocery produce, from apples to cucumbers to melons. And while you may not be able to fulfill your every craving, the goods available from local farmers are sure to be what’s in season now – the best, healthiest and often most economical choices. The variety is sure to put your local Safeway to shame, often including exotic varieties and heirlooms as well as the usual garden variety choices. I’m always delighted when I see an unfamiliar vegetable and can ask the farmer not only what it is, but how to cook it and use it in a recipe.
But perhaps the best reason to visit the farmers’ market is for the sheer aesthetic joy of it. The sensory riches of a farmers’ market on a sunny morning are incredible, and the sheer riot of colors and smells and people an experience to behold. Even in winter.
This week’s project: winter farmers’ market soup (don’t worry, I’ll get you my mom’s zucchini bread recipe by August…)
For more info on Bay Area farmers’ markets: www.nrdc.org/greengate/guides/markets.asp
For information on national farmers’ markets: www.localharvest.org
Winter Farmers’ Market Soup (courtesy of my dear friend Kristina Kessel)
4 Tbsp. Unsalted butter or good olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
2 small carrots, chopped
3-4 small potatoes (Yukon gold work well), diced
1 large bunch broccoli (2 lbs.), peeled and chopped
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
3 cups baby spinach, chopped
1/4 tsp. grated or powdered nutmeg
1/2 cup grated or shredded parmesan plus extra for garnish
1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. Grated lemon zest
several tablespoons olive oil for drizzle
1. Melt the butter over low heat in a large saucepan. Once melted, add the onion and sauté until soft. Add the chopped celery, carrots, and potatoes and cook until wilted, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the broccoli (peeled and chopped stems and chopped florets) to the wilted vegetables and then add the broth, plus one or two cups of water as necessary to cover the vegetables. Cover the pot and cook for 30 minutes.
3. Add the spinach, nutmeg and salt and pepper, and cook for one minute more.
4. Puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender, adding in the 1/2 cup of parmesan. Once smooth, return to the soup pot and add in the lemon zest. Return to desired temperature and serve, garnished with a generous drizzle of olive oil and shaved or shredded parmesan cheese.