I Ain’t No Yokel, I Eat Local: Market Meals from the Union Square Farmer’s Market

Chapter Two of my book is called “Master the Market” and it’s all about food shopping–particularly the challenge that awaits the neophyte at farmers markets around the country. For me personally, I’ve always been a farmer’s market nincompoop: since I grew up in mainstream grocery stores and since my mom never cooked, I go to whatever’s close by with a recipe in hand. That’s how I normally shop.

After writing the chapter, though, things changed. Now I frequent the farmer’s market on a regular basis. Since school ended and spring began, I’ve been there almost every day it’s open: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It’s convenient to where I live and I much prefer strolling through there than jamming a cart through the crowded Whole Foods on 7th Ave. (Though I drop into the Union Square one now if I need a quick staple like pasta, canned tomatoes, or a lemon.)

What follows are three meals that were inspired by ingredients I found at the farmer’s market, a total revelation for me since I almost always shop recipe-first. This new “ingredient first” approach to cooking makes shopping much more fun: now I stroll the market and wait for inspiration. When it strikes, it’s like striking gold. You feel that much better about the food you cook. Plus you’re supporting local farmers as opposed to Big Business (which became much more apparent to me after reading the article about Whole Foods in last week’s New Yorker.) Whole Foods? Out. Farmer’s Market? IN.

Meal #1: Spicy Turkey Burger with Curried Green Tomatoes, Sauteed Asparagus and Sugar Snap Peas, and Honey Roasted Sweet Potatoes

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That meal above is my pride and joy. It’s the first one I made with my new market mentality. I strolled down the rows of stalls and picked up sugar snap peas, asparagus, sweet potatoes, curried green pickles from Rick’s Picks (an award winning stand)–

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–ground turkey meat and several buns.

When I got home I looked up an easy turkey burger recipe. Basically, I took the ground turkey meat put it into a bowl, added a drop of oil, salt, pepper and some cumin. Heated up olive oil in a non-stick skillet, made some patties, and let it all sizzle away.

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Meanwhile, I pulled the stems off the sugar snap peas, cut the asparagus into quarters and put them in a saute pan with olive oil, salt and pepper.

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(Ok, you caught me, some minor credit is due the Barefoot Contessa who has a recipe for sauteed sugar snap peas and asparagus in her book. But c’mon: I still get credit for buying them without the recipe first, right?)

The sweet potatoes were sliced thin, tossed in honey and cinnamon, placed on a baking sheet in a 400 degree oven for I think 20 minutes. (This came from an epicurious recipe but it’s a pretty standard technique. Works really well.)

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And that’s how I assembled my first farmer’s market inspired meal! That wasn’t so hard, was it? By the way, check out the romantic table setting. Who was I being romantic for? I don’t kiss and tell…YET…

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Meal #2: Sauteed Broccoli Rabe with Garlic and Penne

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Broccoli rabe is one of the most celebrated greens in the foodie community. You often hear tell of self-congratulatory home chefs sauteeing broccoli rabe for their family. “Oh, I love to saute broccoli rabe for my family,” they will tell you. This often causes me to wonder: what’s the big deal?

After watching Lydia Bastiniach boil broccoli rabe and then saute it on her show, I picked up a big bunch at the market (she tells you to look for “tight” florets–you don’t want the broccoli head to be open.) This is what it looks like far away and up close:

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To prepare, fill a bowl with cold water and dunk the broccoli rabe until the dirt settles at the bottom of the bowl. Dump it out, fill it again and repeat until the broccoli rabe is clean. Then dry the best you can (Lydia puts it in a kitchen towel and shakes it out, but I don’t like to dirty my kitchen towels. I know, I know, that’s lame.)

Lydia says the stem is highly enjoyable and should be used in the saute with the top part of the greens. If the stem is thick you need to peel it. I tried doing this with a peeler and it didn’t work that well. If you have a paring knife use that, otherwise I’d say get rid of the really thick stems and keep the smaller ones. Chop the whole rabe into 1-inch pieces.

Now slice some garlic, put it in oil with some chili flakes and after the garlic turns golden…

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…add the rabe all at once. It’ll sizzle loudly (that’s the water) but as long as you add the rabe all at once it shouldn’t splatter. (Lydia also taught me that technique.)

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Put the lid on for about a minute.

Meanwhile, you should be cooking pasta. I chose penne (she suggests any tube pasta.) After the minutes up, add about two cups of the pasta water to the broccoli rabe and stir it all around. Let it cook until the rabe is fully cooked and the liquid has created a sauce. If the sauce is too soupy, let it evaporate some. If it’s too dry add more water.

And that’s it! You add the pasta to the rabe, take it off the heat, grate some cheese over it and it’s a delicious dinner. I’m a broccoli rabe convert: another farmer’s market triumph.

Market Meal #3: A Very Weird Salad Plate

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Today was a strange day for me at the market. The flowers you saw on my lovely table setting above died (I bought them last week) so the first thing I did at the market was I searched out lilacs. My mom actually told me to buy lilacs if I went to the market (I suppose there was a time in her life when she bought lilacs) and it was because of her that I bought lilacs last week. And they smell sublime–if you haven’t smelled a lilac lately, go do so. You’ll love it.

I saw a friendly woman selling lilacs for $5 a bunch so I approached her and said: “One bunch please.” She began to lift lilacs out of the huge tub. “I’m going to give you THREE bunches,” she said, “because you’re very sweet.” I was deeply flattered and honored and I gave her $5 and she handed me more flowers than I’ve held since that time I was a flower girl at Liza Minnelli’s wedding. Here are 2/3rds of the lilacs from when I got them home (the other third is in my bedroom in a big water glass):

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[I also bought a rosemary plant the other day for my windowsill.

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Will I use the rosemary soon? Stay tuned!]

Anyway, back to the lilacs. Well after she handed me three bunches of lilacs, I was virtually handicapped for the rest of my farmer’s market jaunt. I was carrying around a miniature jungle.

So let’s blame the lilacs for the strange salad you see above. It’s not really that strange a salad: it just has eclectic components. The greens in the middle are baby arugala which I washed, put in the salad spinner, and then tossed with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. The radishes–

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–are breakfast radishes and I prepared them in a way that I hear is delectable and that I’d never tried. I dipped them in butter and salt. Strange no? But it did indeed taste wonderful. I recommend it. It’s fun.

The beet I had left over from a rhubarb tart that I’m going to tell you about tomorrow. So I boiled the beet–and let me tell you: boiling a beet is SO much easier and faster than roasting it in the oven. If you do it in the oven, you have to clean a baking dish, use foil, oil, and a bunch of other junk. When you boil a beet you just fill up a small pot with water, bring it to a boil, add the beet and you’re done. Sure, people say the flavor suffers but I honestly didn’t think so. This is the end of my beet spiel.

I sliced the beet and layered it with goat cheese I purchased a few weeks back from a goat cheese stand.

Today I bought cheese from a man whose table had a blurb from Saveur. I forget the name of the cheese I bought (I’m bad about such things) but the man told me it tasted like a smoky gouda and it was their most popular. I served it sliced on top of the baguette you see above.

And so, my friends, that concludes my presentation of three meals prepared after shopping (without a recipe!) at the Union Square Farmer’s Market. Let’s hope as spring turns into summer that inspiration continues to strike and I promise to document it all here for you to savor. Hope I inspired you a little.

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