IN SOUTHERN California, where we enjoy lively, vibrant farmers markets year-round, on every day of the week, in almost every neighborhood, deciding what's for dinner can, perhaps even should, be less about careful planning than serendipity. Maybe epiphany.
There's a reason why chefs obsessively troll these stands, why farmers shrug when you ask what they'll have next week, why shopping lists often end up crumpled and forgotten. Farm conditions change without warning -- suddenly absent asparagus, then a jackpot of cherries -- and a cook's inspiration can arrive like unexpected weather with a shift of the crowd, a change of light above an artichoke stand -- or a recipe tip from a passerby.
So the next time you're at the farmers market, try starting a neighborly cooking conversation. Turn to the farmers, the vendors, the person next to you buying a bag of English peas or sampling a ripe Gaviota strawberry and ask them what they're making for dinner.
At the Venice farmers market on a recent Friday -- an early morning so pale and rinsed it seemed as if it had blown in from the Pacific just blocks away -- shoppers milled around, chatting over bins of avocados, baskets of blood oranges and flats of strawberries laid out like outsize garnets onjewelers' trays.
Marcie Zelicow of Century City had her arms full of wild arugula and radicchio from Maggie's Farms as well as some Bacon avocados from Rancho Santa Cecelia. They were all going into a dinner salad, Zelicow said. "I'm a great assembler." And what was she assembling with the strawberries she'd just bought from Harry's Berries?
"We're having the Gaviotas with this balsamic vinegar I brought back from Italy, drizzled over ice cream."
The floral sweetness of strawberries juxtaposes perfectly with the winey bite of the vinegar. If you don't have Italian vinegar, try taking a bottle of the less expensive stuff and making syrup: Just add a little sugar and simmer it on low heat until reduced by half. Or macerate strawberries in sugar and a few tablespoons of balsamic, then spoon the results over a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
ANY BERRIES not destined for dessert could also go into a salsa. Dice the berries with one of the meaty avocados now loading the stands and neighborhood trees, add a squeeze of lime juice, a handful of minced mint and cilantro, and a fine dice of jalapeños. Then, for a play on the traditional chips and dip, match the salsa with chips made from purchased whole-wheat tortillas that you've brushed with a little cinnamon and walnut oil and crisped in the oven.
And when cherries arrive in mid-May -- the season's first stone fruit -- try making a cherry salsa (trade the avocados and mint for red onions and basil) and using corn tortillas for the chips.
On a sun-shot Thursday afternoon at the downtown Fullerton market, you could see evidence of the burgeoning tomato season at Jaime Farms' stand. Gorgeous Black Prince heirloom tomatoes -- one of several varieties of black tomatoes now available -- sweet and low in acid, filled a big box next to little baskets of purple cherry tomatoes. Myra Lookabill of Anaheim Hills decided on the latter.
"They're so much more interesting than the red ones," she said. Lookabill had come to the market to find something for a friend's boat party: "I'm going to hollow them out and stuff them with sour cream, bacon and parsley."
Another way to finesse the early tomato season, when the flavors of the fruit may not be as heady and full-on as they'll be later but when you simply can't pass them by, is to put your tomatoes into a panzanella. The classic Italian bread salad is a terrific way to showcase whichever tomatoes catch your fancy, whichever herbs and salad greens look the most enticing. Try fresh oregano, peppery watercress, a generous amount of garlic and a hit of red pepper -- or make your own combination.
At Kia Farms stall at the Venice market, Karen Knudson of Santa Monica had paused over the lush bulbs of green garlic. "I don't know what to do with this," she said. "I'm making myself buy things I don't usually buy."
Fragrant and supple, the palest of green, the green garlic was too pretty to pass up. "It's mild, right?" Knudson asked the farmer, who assured her it was. The sugar snap peas Knudson knew what to do with: Braise them simply in a little butter with some fennel and carrots. And probably the garlic, she decided.
At a recent Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market, Samuel Galici knew exactly what he was doing with his sugar snap peas too. "A chicken fricassee," he said.
'Better than Rome'
GALICI HAD driven down from Ventura that morning just for the farmers market. "This is better than Rome," he pronounced as he paid for his vegetables. He said he'd make his fricassee for a small dinner party that night, with mirepoix ("you know, carrots, onions, celery"), thyme and parsley, lots of rosemary and garlic, wine "if someone brings it," maybe turnips. And of course plenty of peas.
A fricassee is the perfect dish for market produce, an easy sauté of chicken cooked on the bone in a simple broth loaded with fresh herbs and vegetables. Time the addition of the ingredients to the pot right and you can put in just about anything that catches your attention at the market -- just match the cooking time to the vegetables.
Brown the pieces of chicken, then add some of the fennel and leeks that are everywhere now, a footprint or two of late spring. The green garlic that Knudson liked so much can go in too. Instead of turnips, try fresh favas, baby carrots (at Weiser Family Farms and McGrath Family Farms stands in orange, purple, even white), gorgeous spring onions, a cup of sugar snap peas -- or English peas, if you find them first.
And, rather than adding the cream or flour that thickens a classic fricassee, stir in a little Greek yogurt. The faint tang adds a subtle counterpoint to the delicate dish.
Of course these are just friendly suggestions, ideas floated like conversation above a flat of Camarosa strawberries, a table spilling fava beans. Go with what you find. Think on your feet.