In today’s Seasonal Pantry, which you can read here, I look back fifteen years, to the inaugural column. As promised in the column, here it is:

Farm Market Strategies: First published, 23 April 1997

 Is it just me, or is spring particularly intoxicating this year? Northern California has rarely seemed more vibrant than it has the last few weeks. The air is saturated with the scents of spring, perfumed with the promise of a harvest that is already beginning to unfold. The lean days of winter are behind us and nothing can hold back the bounty already in evidence everywhere.

There may be no better place than a farmers market to gain an immediate and visceral sense of the seasons. Today, it is so easy to become alienated from the seasonal ebb and flow of the land. Supermarkets offer abundant produce displays year round, and although there can be something initially seductive about all those bright and shiny fruits and vegetables, before long the year-round sameness becomes dull and deadening.

For many people, it is impossible to remember what is in season when. A few visits to your local farmers market will remedy the situation for one simple reason: The produce at farmers markets is grown by the farmers who sell it. It is not purchased from distributors, imported from the southern hemisphere, or shipped from Mexico. It is grown in California, in its own season, and brought to the market shortly after being harvested. You don’t need to memorize any lists; simply open your eyes, look around, and there you have it: Spring’s offerings, or summer’s, or fall’s.  The market speaks to you in one true language.

It is a pleasure to shop at a farmers market, too, under the open sky among farmers who can tell you stories of the asparagus you’re taking home, or perhaps share a recipe or two. Strangers smile and if you attend regularly, do not stay strangers for long. At the farmers market, you are part of an intimate circle of growing, selling, and consuming that encourages agriculture at its best.

There are a few strategies that can make farm market shopping even better and more productive. The first begins at home. A well-stocked pantry makes seasonal shopping and cooking a breeze. Think of your pantry as providing the basic grammar of your cooking, or if musical analogies work for you better than linguistic ones, think of the pantry as the bass line, the rhythm section. Seasonal produce provides the melody.

Your pantry may be simple or complex, depending on your needs and inclinations. But regardless of whether or not you are enamored of heirloom beans, say, or an aficianado of dried chiles, there are certain essential items. You should have at least two olive oils, an inexpensive one for cooking and a premium condiment olive oil for flavoring. I have my favorites and if you taste olive oils you’ll discover your preferences, too. A selection of dried pastas—small shapes and long strands, both thick and thin—is essential, as is rice (Arborio, basmati, and brown, at a minimum) and polenta (which should be stored in the refrigerator). I must have kosher salt, coarse-grain sea salt and whole black peppercorns, too, along with a mortar and pestle for crushing the pepper. Finally, I find it a tremendous help to keep simple stocks in my freezer—chicken and beef, certainly, and if I have a particularly ambitious weekend, I’ll make duck and veal, as well. I prepare enough to last a single season and freeze them in pint containers.  With these stocks handy, making soups, sauces and risottos using seasonal produce is remarkably easy.

“The first mistake people make at the market,” Linda Cornelius, manager of the Santa Rosa Original Farm Market, says, “is getting excited and buying the first thing they see.”  I agree. Always walk the market first, surveying the offerings and comparing not only price, but variety.  As I look, I begin to plan meals for the days ahead, knowing that everything I need to accompany my selections is tucked away at home.

When I asked Linda Cornelius if any other mistakes were common among shoppers at the market, she laughed. “Yes,” she said emphatically. “Something catches their eye, they bend over, set their car keys on the ground, and then walk away, leaving the keys behind.”  Guilty as charged, I thought to myself, remembering one long day searching on each farmer’s table, and promptly added a final point to my list of farm market strategies.

 Strategies for Successful Farm Market Shopping 

  • Take a cooler with ice (for dairy products, poultry, seafood, and strawberries) and a bucket of water (for flowers).
  • Keep several strong cloth or string bags in your car.
  • Remember to take small bills and plenty of change (in larger markets, guard against pickpockets, a potential problem as markets become more popular).
  • Go early and walk the market before making your purchases; taste and compare whenever possible.
  • Don’t shop with a list—look for what is at its peak, then build a meal around it.  A well-stocked pantry of staples (olive oils, vinegars, spices, pasta, beans and other legumes, and frozen homemade stocks) back home makes this a breeze.
  • Take large or heavy items to your car immediately, or ask the farmer to set them aside for you.
  • Don’t barter over small items, only large quantities (lugs of peaches, for example) near the end of the market day.
  • Remember to bring sunscreen in warm weather.
  • Ask questions even if you think you know the answer (it’s often not what you expect).
  • Relax and try not to hurry.  The pleasure of being at the market is nearly as important as your purchases.
  • Put your car keys in your pocket or purse before you begin shopping.

Sautéed Chard with Garlic and Lemon • Serves 3 to 4

In California with our long growing season, we have chard year-round, though it is usually thought of as a winter vegetable, largely because it is often one of the only selections available during the lean months of a hard winter.  This dish, and its variation with pasta, is delightful year round.

  • 2 bunches (about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds) Swiss chard, rinsed (not dried), tough stems trimmed
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • lemon wedges
  1. Cut the wet chard leaves into crosswise slices about 3/4-inch thick. Chop the stems into 1/2-inch pieces.
  2. Place the olive oil in a wok or a large sauté pan, set over medium heat, add the garlic, and sauté 1 minute, stirring constantly so that it does not brown or burn.
  3. Add the chard stems and sauté for 3 or 4 minutes, stirring frequently, add the chard leaves, toss quickly, cover the pan, and cook until the chard is wilted, about 3 minutes.
  4. Remove the lid, add the lemon zest, salt, and red pepper flakes, toss together and cook, stirring frequently, until the chard is completely tender, an additional 2 or 3 minutes.
  5. To serve as a side dish, remove from the heat, transfer to a warm plate or bowl, garnish with lemon wedges, and serve immediately.

Variation with Pasta:  To serve 4 to 6 people as a main course, cook 1 pound of dried spaghetti or spaghettini, drain it thoroughly, and place it in a large bowl.  Add the cooked chard, toss together thoroughly, and then drizzle with 2 tablespoons condiment-quality olive oil.  Serve immediately, garnished with lemon wedges.