Hot summer sun, warm breezes, and stalls of freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, herbs, and local honey gleaming in the early morning sunlight should inspire summer meals, backyard BBQ's, brunches, picnics, and more. You can smell the berries in the air, all jammy and softly sweet. This is the stuff that Chicago summers are made of. For many people this is true, and markets are more popular than ever.
Here are 10 tips for making the most of your next trip to the market so you can embrace the season.
1. We are so lucky we live in the Midwest! When it comes to local produce, we have got it made. We are within hours of many local farms. These small family farms supply markets, restaurants, and local grocery stores with freshly harvested produce, honey, eggs, and more. Take advantage of these small family farms and enjoy berries that taste like jam, honey that tastes like a meadow, and the best veggies that have pronounced flavors and last and last and last in your fridge (the half-life of many vegetables is just days and much of that is spent in transport to chain grocery stores).
2. Understand the growing season. Knowing when to take advantage of each and every item at the market is key to shopping the markets. Plan your menus and know when to load up on deals. Knowing that strawberries start showing up in early June and last through July will help to plan those pies, crisps, salads, and jam-making sessions. Stuffed zucchini blossoms are my favorite treat and I know to start prowling for them in early July.
3. Know thy farmer. Talk to the farmers. These folks run small family farms. Most do not spray their crops with unnecessary herbicides and pesticides, but instead use bio-diversity to control pests and weeds. The farmers can steer to the right berry for your pies, the best basil for your pesto, and the sweetest baby spinach you've ever tasted.
4. Bring your own bags and cash. Going to the farmers market and taking your haul home in plastic bags is cumbersome and not in the spirit of the market. Most of the fruits and veggies are field-harvested and have some of the "field" still attached! Cloth bags are washable and reusable over and over again. Many farmers accept credit cards, but cash is still king at the market and you can avoid processing fees to keep prices lower.
5. Go early or go late. Going to the market as the stalls are opening is my favorite plan of attack. The market is not crowded with strollers and dogs who can clog up the stalls and make a quick trip into a marathon. The farmers are not busy early in the day and are eager to share information, recipes, and often tastes of their wares. At the end of the day, farmers don't want to take back anything. That means good deals on produce. This is the time to scoop up piles of produce for not a lot of money.
6. Cook like a boss . Write your menus before you go and look for key ingredients that will add a lot of punch to your dishes.
7. Think in bulk . Buy large amounts of items you love. Take advantage of the blueberries and freeze some for winter blueberry pancakes. Learn to pickle onions, carrots, beets, and more. When you buy seasonal food, it lasts longer, tastes better, and is cheaper.
8. Be prepared for a spontaneous purchase . I always leave room in my budget and my basket for something extra. Maybe its mushrooms or gorgeous tiny eggplant. I like to try new items and will work it into a recipe somewhere.
9. Keep the food you prepare simple . Summer produce fresh from the field doesn't need a lot of work or extra ingredients. Show off the flavors with simple preparations and simple flourishes.
10. Use the whole plant. Beets come with greens attached. Carrots have tops and herbs have stems. To get the most of your purchases, learn to use the WHOLE thing. Wash and sauté the beets' greens (they are related to and taste similar to Swiss Chard). Soft fresh carrot tops make an amazing pesto for a carrot and pesto platter.
Recipe: Frittata Primavera
Frittatas are a lovely, easy way to showcase herbs and vegetables. Perfect for lunch, brunch, dinner, and late-night dining. Short on time? No worries, the frittata has your back. You can have a healthy and homemade dinner on time in 20 minutes flat.
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced
- Sea salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 2 large shallots, minced
- 1 small zucchini, thinly sliced
- 1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed and sliced thinly
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 8 eggs, whisked
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon chives, chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
- ¼ cup grated cheese (I like cheddar for this)
- tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
- Preheat oven to 350F. Heat a medium sauté pan (nonstick is best), lightly coated with olive oil, over medium high heat.
- Sauté mushrooms until they are starting to turn a golden brown (about 4 minutes). Add shallots and zucchini and continue cooking until the vegetables are golden brown. Be sure to season the vegetables with salt and pepper.
- Add garlic and cook for just a minute or two more until the garlic begins to soften.
- Whisk eggs, milk, parsley, chives, tarragon, and cheddar together. Pour the mixture over the vegetables and stir to combine. Be sure to season the eggs with salt and pepper.
- Transfer the pan to the preheated oven and bake for about 7-8 minutes until the eggs begin to set. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and continue baking for another 5 minutes until the frittata is puffed and golden brown.
- Remove the frittata from the oven and allow to sit for 3 minutes. Shake the pan to loosen the frittata and turn out onto a cutting board. (Alternatively, you can serve the frittata in the pan.) Slice the frittata and serve with a salad and warm bread.