Why real cooks love farmers' markets

Buy locally, cook seasonally. For many years now, this has been a mantra among people who work with food. Many chefs, cookbook authors, and a growing number of home cooks wouldn't dream of eating a tomato in January or cooking with corn flown in from some faraway land.

Of course, this approach can be more limiting in some parts of the United States than others. But many consider it a kind of duty not only to support local farmers and sustainable agriculture, but also to help preserve the world's energy.

An altruistic spirit isn't all that's driving them. Like any foodie worth his or her salt, these people are primarily motivated by one thing: flavor. They insist that buying foods from local growers and cooking with the rhythm of the seasons is the best route to great-tasting meals.

Just ask Richard Ruben, author of "The Farmer's Market Cookbook: Seasonal Dishes Made from Nature's Freshest Ingredients" ($22.95, Lyons Press).

"There's nothing more exciting and flavorful than asparagus cut just an hour ago, as opposed to dried-out asparagus flown in from Mexico two weeks ago," he says. "It's like eating spring itself!"

The New York chef and cooking teacher, who calls food his "poetry," wouldn't think of shopping with a strict list. "In the moment, in the market" is how Mr. Ruben describes his approach. "Today," he explains, "I went to buy fava beans, but I ended up with artichokes. They were at peak-season freshness, and, therefore, much more enticing."

Shopping this way is also less costly, adds Ruben. For example, strawberries, one of his current favorites, have dropped in price by about $2 per pint.

He's snatching up this seasonal bargain with a vengeance, often pairing it with another springtime favorite: rhubarb. Many recipes in his book feature this winning combination and suggest seasonal alternatives, such as a cobbler made with peaches in summer or pears and almonds in winter.

Such welcome versatility is also found in "The Olives Dessert Table: Spectacular Restaurant Desserts You can Make at Home" ($35, Simon & Schuster), by Todd English, chef-owner of Olives restaurants, Paige Retus, his pastry chef, and food writer Sally Sampson. A recipe for pound cake with fresh fruit compote, for example, lists fruits for each season.

Which touches on another argument for eating seasonally: convenience. "The days of toiling in the kitchen are over," says Ruben. "We want to be in and out within an hour -but quality is still paramount. You can't beat this way of eating. The fresher it is, the less it needs, and the sooner you can sit down to enjoy it."

Pound Cake With Seasonal Fruit Compote

pound cake

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1-3/4 cups sugar (or light brown sugar or a combination of both)

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

5 large eggs, room temperature

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour an 8- to 9-inch loaf plan.

Place the butter in a mixing bowl and mix until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and mix until well combined and smooth. Add the vanilla and the eggs, one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the flour and salt and mix until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and transfer to the oven. Bake about 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Set aside for 10 minutes.

Turn the cake out on a wire rack and allow to cool completely before wrapping in aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or a resealable plastic bag. Store at room temperature for up to 4 to 5 days or freeze up to 2 weeks.

This is best served the day after it is baked. If it becomes stale, it makes great toast.

Spring fruit compote

1 pound rhubarb, cut into 1-inch dice

Zest of 2 oranges

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup sugar

2 pints strawberries, rinsed, hulled, and quartered

1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Place half the rhubarb, the orange zest, vanilla, and sugar in a medium-size pot and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the rhubarb begins to fall apart, about 8 minutes. Add the remaining rhubarb and cook until almost fork tender, about 4 to 5 minutes. Off heat, add the strawberries, stir well, and cool. Add lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate up to 1 week. Makes about 1 quart.

From 'The Olives Dessert Table' by Todd English, Paige Retus, and Sally Sampson (Simon & Schuster)

Rhubarb and strawberry cobbler

'This cobbler recipe takes me through the seasons. In the summer, I am likely to slice peaches and toss them in with pitted cherries, a squeeze of lemon juice, and some sugar. Come autumn, I use pears with almonds as my filling. I do tend to make cobber in individual servings as I am not a fan of the way it looks when cut up and served on a plate.'

Rhubarb Strawberry Filling

2 pounds rhubarb - washed and cut into 1-inch pieces (or 2 pounds frozen)

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

2 pints strawberries - hull removed and cut in half

1/2 cup diced dried fruit - such as apricots, pineapples, and cherries

1/4 cup mint leaves - chopped (or substitute 2 teaspoons of fresh lavender flowers)

In a four-quart saucepan add the rhubarb, sugar, and the water. Simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring every so often. Then mix in the strawberries, dried fruit, and mint and simmer another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit for 10 minutes. Transfer the rhubarb mixture to a 8-inch-by-8-inch-by-2-inch baking dish or into 8 individual ramekins.

Cobbler Topping

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoon unsalted butter - chilled

1/2 cup cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

To prepare the cobbler topping, combine the flour, sugar, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large mixing bowl. With two forks (or your fingertips), cut the butter into the flour mixture, until it resembles coarse meal. In a separate bowl, whisk the buttermilk, cream, and vanilla extract. Add it to the flour mixture and blend until it resembles a sticky dough. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spoon the cobbler topping over the rhubarb mixture. Sprinkle additional sugar if desired, and bake uncovered for about 25 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Serve warm or cold with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Serves 8.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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