Farmers' Market Finds, Demystified

Photo by Dana Roos Last week, we took a new look at morels, and read as they were transformed from a scary, unknown ingredient to an easy, delicious dish. The alien-appearing mushrooms aren't the only unknowns at the farmers' market, however, and there's always more to learn. This weekend, take home one of these intimidating, in-season produce, and try your hand at something new. And if you're in the area, check out the ever-growing 125th Street Farmer's Market, opening today and will be open every Tuesday and Friday throughout the summer.

Figs: you might think of them as a winter fruit, but you’ll be able to find ripe, fresh figs as early as June. That said, figs don’t ripen after picking, so take your time while choosing them. Because the different varieties can have yellow, brown, red, purple, and black colors, it’s easier to identify the good ones by texture: a ripe fig has the feel of a ripe peach. (Soft, but not mushy.) Unfortunately, they don’t last longer than a day or two after being picked, so eat them fresh right away (in Prosciutto Wrapped Figs with Goat Cheese, perhaps?), or preserve them.

They’re on their way out now, but you can still find these beauties at the market. Fiddleheads, with their shocking looks and bitter taste were a mystery to me for a long time. The cute, little rounds come from young ferns, before the fronds unfurl. You can find them from a variety of different fern types that vary slightly in flavor, although they’re all bitter. The trick? Cooking them substantially. This is also important to avoid potential carcinogens in the bracken variety, and possible toxins among others. Roasting them takes care of both, but if not, it is also recommended that you boil them twice, changing the water in between.

The first time I saw dandelion greens at a farmers' market, I was shocked to learn that people were willing to pay for them—are they not one of the most common plants around? I’ve since been converted. Like fiddleheads, the greens are very bitter—blanching them helps—but their strong flavor can make them even more useful. Pair them with something that needs a bitter counterpoint to another sour, sweet, or bland flavor.

kohlrabi, farmers market

Squash may seem simple, but their varieties are endless and often exotic. Among summer squash types are the standard yellow and zucchini, and the lesser known pattypan (flat, round, and pale green), tromboncino (long, bent, light green), crookneck (bumpy, bright yellow), cucuzza (long, thin, light green), and cousa (short, thick, light green) varieties.

Kohlrabi, the name of which means cabbage turnip in German, resembles a mix between the two. A spherical, light green base with large greens resembling the top of a turnip, this vegetable is strange but fun to try. Treat the greens as you would collards or chard. But the base? Peel away two thick, fibrous layers for the crisp flesh in the center.

Photo: Seeminglee

You can find plums in a rainbow of purples, yellows, oranges, even greens, and that’s only the color of the skin—the flesh can be entirely different. And, so can the flavor. The varieties are too plentiful to list—there may be as many as forty. It’s worth asking the farmer about the variety and flavor.

Perhaps they’re better known in their pre-cut size, but full, fresh carrots are a farmers' market staple. Look for the smaller, more slender ones – they’re sweeter and more tender than the biggest carrots. (If you find only the very large ones, take off an outer layer with a vegetable peeler for a notable improvement in flavor and texture.) What’s really special about farmers' market carrots is the colors you can find—look for purple, and then shave them lengthwise for a beautiful salad addition.

Photo by Steven Depolo

For more reasons to check out your local farmers' market:

Perfect Picnics Picks From Your Farmers' Market

Weekend Activity: Walking Around the Farmers' Market: Get Moving, Get Healthy

Ready To Eat: 5 Great Vegetarian Farmers' Market Snacks

Fiddleheads Are Almost Here! Learn About This Rare and Delicious Spring Ingredient

It's almost May, which for many foragers means fiddleheads are coming. These are tightly coiled green ferns that emerge for only a few weeks in spring. Vermont is fiddlehead heaven; foragers head out into the fields in search of the elusive vegetable, carefully distinguishing between edible and poisonous varieties. Filled with antioxidants and asparagus flavor, these ferns make a delicious addition to spring dishes.

You can usually find fiddleheads at farmers' markets. Let experts do the collecting, since there are carcinogenic look-alikes in the wild. Once you've got a basketful of ferns though, how do you cook them?

Remove any "silk" from the outside of the ferns-just peel off the brown, papery husk. Wash the ferns to clean off any residual dirt. Dry them and get your pan ready.

Some controversy exists about how long to cook fiddleheads. Health Canada recommends boiling the ferns for 15 minutes or steaming them for 10-12 minutes to avoid any chance of gastrointestinal distress. Fiddlehead devotees claim that the best way to prepare fiddlehead ferns is to saute them in a little butter or olive oil-this preserves their crunchy texture and delicate, nutty flavor. Butter, lemon, garlic, basil, and morel mushroom are classic accompaniments.

To hear more about a chef searching for fiddleheads, listen to this NPR story. For another taste of spring, check out this recipe for spring-inspired crostini.

Photo: ctd 2005 on flickr