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“Here is how I cook: First I’m at the farmers’ market, looking for fruits and vegetables that are perfectly ripe and just picked. I’m not necessarily thinking about how the ingredients will go together, and I don’t know yet what I’m going to cook—I’m just responding to what I’m finding. I’m letting my senses lead me: smelling the garlic, tasting the pungency of the radishes, feeling the firmness of the apricots. And when I do finally start imagining how the ingredients relate to one another, I’m improvising—trying to capture that moment in time.
“I hope to teach you about discernment. You will learn how to explore your local farmers’ markets and perhaps even your own backyard, using all your senses to find ingredients that are at their peak. You will learn how to trust your own taste, and let it guide you to what is best and most flavorful. The great secret is that when your ingredients are organically grown, are ripe, and are in season, you don’t have to do much to them to make something extraordinary.”
You don’t need to be a cook or own a restaurant to find delicious ingredients. Go to the farmers’ market, ask questions, and try as many fruits and vegetables as you can to help develop your tastes and knowledge. Ask questions at the market about ripeness, perishability, recommended preparation, and the farmers’ upcoming season of fruits and vegetables. If you can’t get to a farmers’ market, apply Alice’s advice at your local grocery store. Ideally, you want ingredients that are both organic and local.
Alice's Guide to Shopping at the Farmer's Market
Don’t go to the market or store with a shopping list. Buy what looks alive and inspiring, and plan your menus when you get home. At Chez Panisse, Alice and the chefs do not work from recipes. The chefs collaborate with farmers and growers—they cook with what the farmers send. They choose what looks the most alive and plan their menus from there. Alice does the same at home.
When you return from the market, ask yourself: What is the most perishable? As Alice unpacks and surveys her basket, she pauses to take in the beauty of the live and vibrant produce she has received from the hands of the farmers.
For Alice, the farmers’ market was the foundation of her edible education. Follow Alice’s guidelines when shopping:
• Engage: Ask farmers about ripeness and for help picking the best produce.
• Follow the seasons: Buy produce that is in season and has been freshly harvested. It should look and feel alive.
• Taste: Ask to taste the produce—it is the best way to evaluate it. For example, when you’re at your farmers’ market, try fruits you’ve never seen before, and ask farmers what fruits they’re looking forward to harvesting. Get to know what varieties are unique to your area.
• Connect with your senses: Take pleasure in the beauty of food. Pick it up, taste it, smell it—it will help guide your intuition about what produce is at its peak.
When buying meat or fish, consider asking:
• Where did it come from? How far away?
• Are the animals certified organic and completely grass fed?
• Are the eggs certified organic from pastured hens?
• Is the fish sustainably caught?
Follow the Rhythms of Nature
Summer starts with cherry tomatoes of all shapes and colors. Later the heirloom varieties arrive—such as Purple Cherokee, Chocolate Stripe, and Black Brandywine—and Chez Panisse begins to put tomato salads on the menu. Late-summer dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes are great for preserving to fill out your pantry with the taste of summer. Alice buys them in bulk to preserve both at Chez Panisse and at home. The restaurant gets summer corn fresh daily. At the farmers’ market, ask when it was picked. The sugars can turn to starch in only a few days and lose the corn’s natural sweetness. Other summer vegetable market staples include basil, green beans, eggplant, shell beans, summer squash, peppers, and garlic. For summertime stone fruit varieties like peaches, plums, and nectarines test for ripeness by pushing gently near the stem. A little bit of give means it is ready to be eaten as-is or used in a simple dessert.
In Northern California, hot summer days come late and the crispness of fall sometimes begins as late as early November. By then the markets will have broccoli and Brussels sprouts, almonds and walnuts, the new crop of olive oil, and wild porcinis. Alice cooks thin sliced Brussels sprouts and sautés them with bacon, thyme, and lemon. Fall is a good time to roast vegetables, and make puréed soups and squash-filled raviolis. After preserving berries and stone fruit of summer, fall fruits such as apples, pears, grapes, quince, persimmons, and— especially—pomegranates are a welcome change.
The variety and colors of winter vegetables at the farmers’ market can be just as beautiful as they are in the summer season. Look for carrots and radishes of all colors, chicories, chard, kale, collards, cabbages, cauliflower, broccolis, beets, and winter squashes. Try stews and braises with Moroccan or Indian spices to add warmth to winter vegetable dishes. Winter fruits like apples and pears are available throughout the winter. There are abundant winter citrus varieties, including some of Alice’s favorites—kumquats, blood oranges, mandarins, and grapefruit.