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Once the sugar snap peas have come on like gangbusters and local refrigerators are bursting at the seams with a plethora of strawberries, rhubarb and fresh baby greens, you’re reminded of what the Willamette Valley really is: One big happy garden. As you walk by the Corvallis and Albany Farmers’ Market stalls, with a melange of sights, sounds and aromas tempting your restraint, you feel lucky to be living in the center of such bounty.

The personality of the markets are dependant upon those who choose to participate. Growers come, and growers go. But the colorful, crazy-quilt array of farm-fresh produce, flowers and baked goods is always an enchanting sight.

I can’t think of a more thorough, more pleasurable way to track the treats Mother Nature provides than at the local farmers markets. Indeed, right here in the Willamette Valley, we all reap the benefits from having so many farmers who are willing to arise before dawn, load up their trucks and drive to town to ensure that their field-fresh produce will pass directly from their hands into yours.

Of course, this time of year when you will encounter the early phase of harvests-yet-to-come: tomato starts, young herbs, tender bean and pea plants, onion sprouts — to name a few. If you’re contemplating a plot of specialty melons, then this is the week you should head to the Corvallis Saturday Market where Red Hat Melons will be selling their precious starts. (See accompanying sidebar “Red Hat Melon Starts...”)

TIPS FOR FARMERS’ MARKET SHOPPERS:

• Keep your eyes open for the really unusual items — items that are extremely seasonal that you know won’t be available later in the year. This time of year, that would be green garlic, for example. The thinnings from fields of garlic have turned into an actual crop once growers figured out that folks like cooking with this mild-mannered vegetable with the creamy-white stalk that hints at the potent vegetable yet to come. Now savvy shoppers pick it up when they encounter it in late spring because it brings a unique flavor to their seasonal meals.

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• It’s easy to get swept into the spirit of shopping al fresco, but it doesn’t hurt to remind folks to be considerate: bring your own shopping bags; bring plenty of change and small bills (having to handle three $20s in a row can really cripple some of the smaller operations); be gentle when handling the produce.

• If time and energy permits, do a general sweep of the entire market to see what’s available before you begin to buy.

• Have a plan for your purchases, but be flexible. In other words, it helps to have a week’s worth of menus mapped out before shopping the market to forestall frustration later in the week (“Why didn’t I buy that extra pint of sugar snap peas???”), but be flexible so that when you encounter something truly wonderful and delicious you can take advantage of it.

• If you know you won’t be going straight home from the market, stash a cooler in your car to keep your produce from suffering.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or find additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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