Notes on Farmers' Markets

Notes on Farmers' Markets

My first clear memory is of a farmers' market. There I discovered intoxicating bushels of ripe, fuzzy peaches tilted just at my four-year-old nose level. They looked so velvety, so soft that I couldn't resist sticking my chubby hand out to feel them, and then, while Mom bargained over some tomatoes, touching one with my tongue to taste the fuzz.

Pfftphhth. . . Pfffffffpthhth!

I sounded like a cat with a hairball.

You might think that experience would turn me off farmers' markets forever, but for me it just started a lifelong fascination with them. Be it a fancy one like many cities now sport downtown, a simple stall beside a state highway or even just produce piled in the back of a pickup parked in a vacant lot, I find them all irresistible. It's not just the produce--I love the banter, the bargaining, the feasts of color, the old farmers in overalls and the toddlers in diapers and cowboy boots--I love it all.

I love them because it offers me the opportunity to try a new variety before I grow it. My vegetable garden has limited space, and the farmer's market is a great place to shop for next year's crops.

Of course, some people shop farmers' markets for the unbeatable prices. Others swear by the quality: truly fresh produce picked at least the day before, if not that very morning.

And, for people too busy to garden or those whose gardens are limited to their imaginations, farmers' markets are a paradise of pre-grown, pre-picked produce. Even those lucky folks with huge gardens are sure to find something they can't resist. Something they've always wanted to try. Or something so intriguing they just have to try it. Now.

Things like sweet yellow-fleshed watermelons. Oriental eggplant. Tender young squash and zucchini of all colors and shapes. Tiny Thai peppers. Baby okra and blue potatoes. Greens so fresh you'd almost eat them raw. Shitake mushrooms and fresh herbs like basil and dill. Tomatoes so ripe and full of flavor they'd never survive a cross-country shipment; tomatoes perfect for combining with glossy eggplant as in this dish. It's full of the sunny flavors of summer--tomatoes, eggplant and fresh basil--and reminds me of the fun I had shopping for them at my favorite outdoor store.

Sunny Summer Casserole

8 cups eggplant, cubed (about 1 large eggplant)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
6 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/4" thick
1/2 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese
1 bunch fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried
1-2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup lemon juice
16 ounces uncooked pasta (optional)

Toss the eggplant with the olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, then spread it on a baking sheet, cover tightly with foil and bake at 400°F for 25-30 minutes, or until the eggplant is soft. Remove from the oven and turn it down to 350°F.

Next, cover the bottom of a 9 x 13 dish with a layer of eggplant, add a layer of basil and then one of tomatoes. Strip thyme leaves from the stem and distribute a third of them over tomatoes, sprinkle them with lemon juice and cover with cheese. Repeat layers until all ingredients are used, ending with the cheese, then cover the dish with foil and bake for an hour. You can serve it over cooked pasta or alone as a side dish. It will serve eight with only about 300 calories per serving (including pasta). If, like me, your eyes bought more than your refrigerator will bear, don't worry. This casserole freezes very well.

Stalking farmers' markets is a habit I just can't break myself of. Okay, so I haven't really tried. Okay, so I don't want to. Everywhere I travel I try to visit the local one. Years ago, when the folks I was with were exploring some historical facets of New Orleans, I snuck away and spent hours in the farmer's market.

There were acres of vegetables, stalls with Mardi Gras masks and Cajun and Creole seasonings, but what I really remember is the aromatic bundles of fresh bay leaves. I bought all I could carry and crammed them in an already over-stuffed suitcase for the flight home. Everything packed with them carried the scent for days. Even now, years later, with a little help from my imagination I can open up that suitcase and still smell their faint aroma.

And if I close my eyes I can feel the peach fuzz on my tongue.

Pfftphhth.

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