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Seasonal Produce Beckons at an Illinois Farmers’ Market

The thrill of an outdoor market

Our Urbana farmers’ market opens early on Saturdays in the Lincoln Square parking lot that borders the federal court house.

Rain or shine, from spring to late fall, vendors set up and sell vegetables, fruits, and cheeses, as well as flowers, still-warm loaves of home-baked bread, honey, and organic fresh meat. Colorful arts and crafts, T-shirts, wood carvings, and jewelry make for tempting gifts. Community groups set up information booths and you may see local kids playing various musical instruments. Wandering into the scene, you get the idea that this is the way life should be: neighborly hellos, generous samples, farmers rubbing elbows with university folk, and people pedaling home with purchases in their bicycle baskets.

You must learn the market’s rhythm.

The market offers a feast most of the year, but especially in late summer and fall as we realize that soon we’ll be back to the often plastic-tasting produce of winter, regretting that we didn’t eat more of the fresh local produce during summer and fall. We forget how easy it is to cook when ingredients are at their best and seasonings are almost an insult. This time of year it seems a crime not to shop at farmers’ markets or farm stands. As fall winds down, wonderful produce beckons, from sweet ears of corn, to mounds of bright green beans and broccoli, piles of sweet peppers and orange pumpkins, to squashes of every shape and color—including green and white striped swan squashes, the long necks very reminiscent of swans. Fall’s new crop of apples entices with unknown names and watermelons are still piled high.

On a recent weekend, I arrived at the market as early as I could. The eggplants were gorgeous; so many different shapes, sizes, and colors. I started planning a menu in my mind.

At the end of one row of stalls a farmer offered corn brought in from the field just the day before. People picked happily through the mounds of juicy sweetness piled on the back of his pick-up truck. Another stall had wicker baskets of fall squashes, green, yellow, orange, striped, round, long, acorn-shaped. A feast for the eyes. Close by were piles of green beans, sweet red peppers, and mounds of Asian greens tied in bundles. Masses of long-stemmed multi-colored gladioli in buckets of water and a stall dripping with baskets of gorgeous mums formed the colorful backdrop to local entertainment. A man with long grey hair and grey bushy beard was playing drums and percussion, a group of kids sitting on the ground around him. Further along, someone had set up an impromptu Punch and Judy show, a puppet talking on a stage with a black curtain—the kids loved it! An amazing mélange of color, tempting smells and sounds, as people chattered above the drumming.

Cooking is much easier (and faster) if you use seasonal fare. I think there is no excuse (including time) not to cook fresh when raw ingredients are this good. As I picked up fat green beans, a fresh head of broccoli, and firm red bell peppers, my menu was taking shape. I went back to the eggplants, as I couldn’t resist them.

Want a quick salad inspired by Provence? Cut green beans in half and blanch for one minute, then cool. Lightly sauté sliced mushrooms in a little olive oil, and cool. Chop fresh tomatoes into chunks. Mix tomatoes, mushrooms, and green beans in a salad bowl, toss with one to two teaspoons of Herbes de Provence, and drizzle with olive oil. That’s it.

Serve with a potato dish with red bell peppers (capsicums) and prosciutto (see below), new crusty bread and chilled white wine for a casual meal you won’t easily forget.
For something with a Greek flair, try eggplant dip (“melitsana,” see below). I guarantee it’ll be better than anything you can find in a jar. Eat it with crusty new bread, chunks of feta cheese and black olives, and chilled dry white wine (Greek retsina, if you know and like it), followed by slices of those new apples, and you’ve got another perfect casual lunch. If you’ve got extra tomatoes, use them with eggplant and onions for a quick pasta sauce (see below).

Many people don’t like broccoli, and yet, besides being very good for your health, it can be very tasty. My family really likes it served cold as a salad with oranges and almonds (see below). Give it a try and I think you’ll be a convert!

Potatoes with Red Capsicum
Makes 4–6 servings:
Six large potatoes, peeled and cut into thin slices
Three red capsicums, seeds removed, cut into thick slices
Two large onions, cut into thick rings
1/4 lb Prosciutto, cut into thick strips
1/2–1 teaspoon dried rosemary
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl so the vegetables are well covered with oil. Put in a greased baking dish and drizzle with a little more oil. Bake in oven at 400° F for an hour, stirring every twenty minutes, or until potatoes are golden.

Eggplant Dip
Peel one large eggplant and cut into chunks. Put in microwavable dish with a few spoons water and microwave on high about five minutes until soft. Drain, then mash (with a fork, or a potato masher). Add two cloves minced garlic, 1–2 teaspoons dried origanum (depending on taste), 1/2 teaspoon salt, generous amount of freshly ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and lemon juice. Mix and voila!

Eggplant Sauce for Pasta
Makes 6 servings:
One large red onion, diced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Five cloves garlic, minced
One large eggplant, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
Five or six large ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks
1/4 cup white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup fresh torn basil leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried basil

Combine the onion, olive oil, and garlic in a large skillet on medium-high. Sauté for about five minutes, stirring frequently so onions and garlic don’t burn. Add the eggplant and sauté, stirring frequently, for about ten minutes, or until eggplant begins to soften. Add the tomatoes and wine. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about fifteen minutes. Stir frequently. If the mixture begins to get dry, add some more wine.
Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, sprinkle with basil.

Broccoli Salad
Makes 6–8 servings:
One head broccoli, cut into florets and steamed about four minutes (so still a little crunchy), then cooled
Two green onions, chopped
One orange, peeled and chopped into small pieces
1/4 cup almonds, lightly toasted in a frying pan until just turning brown (about two minutes)

For dressing, mix together:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 tablespoon dark balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon dried mustard powder
1/4 teaspoon dried tarragon

Mix vegetables together in a salad bowl, then toss in dressing.