IN the cool pre-dawn hours, long before New York City rumbles back to life, dozens of intrepid farmers drive their trucks into the depths of Manhattan carrying a precious cargo.They pull into Union Square and set up rickety tables, piling them high with produce picked just the day before. By 8 o'clock, urbanites giddy at the sight of ripe tomatoes are swarming and ready to buy. Union Square Greenmarket is the biggest farmers market in the city. At this intersection of three subway lines are colorful reminders of rural bounty: red peppers, violet eggplants, and golden squash. Frost-blue Concord grapes exude their perfume. Strawberries - a variety that's still in season - are shockingly sweet. Snap beans really snap. Farmers from the fertile hinterlands drive for up to six hours to sell their produce directly to New Yorkers. That may seem irrational to the corporate mind, which lauds the efficiencies of mass-production and long-distance shipping. But to chef LLoyd Fiet, Union Square Greenmarket is a necessity, not just a nostalgic throwback. He and many local chefs shop here regularly, carting away bags of bok choy, zucchini, broccoli, and lettuce. In cooking, "fresher foods just seem to come alive," says Mr. Fiet, head chef at Cafe Loup on West 13th Street. "I was here at 7:30 this morning and I grabbed some celery which was absolutely phosphorescent green and was very leafy. I'll take the leaves off the tops of those and use those as a garnish, deep fry them, and they'll turn bright evergreen." That can't be done with "industrial" celery, he says, which always comes trimmed. He prefers the smaller, more tender ribs of the market celery, too. Dressed in his whites, Fiet stands under a tent at Greenmarket showing shoppers how to make his recipe for Long Island Corn, Clam, and Bacon Chowder (see recipe). He uses ingredients from the farmers stands. Fiet says farmers markets are growing in popularity. The freshness and variety of items is the draw, he says, as are the organic meats, eggs, and produce that are often available. "I think people like the idea of coming out to this Greenmarket with a mesh bag. They feel they're doing right. They know they're eating products that haven't been tampered with," he says. Fiet's restaurant is a modern French bistro offering traditional as well as experimental fare. Fiet comes to the Greenmarket for Long Island crops such as potatoes, corn, and peppers, and for specialty items like edible flowers, "heirloom" tomatoes, mazuna (a Japanese mustard green), and salsify, a white tuber. Besides Fiet, other neighborhood chefs, such as Michael Romano of the popular Union Square Cafe, are also big boosters of Greenmarket, a program of the city's Council on the Environment. Many of the chefs participate in food-preparation demonstrations hosted by the market each fall (see below). Greenmarket was founded in 1976 to support regional farmers hailing from eastern Long Island, the rich "black dirt" areas of New Jersey, and the Hudson River Valley and Finger Lakes region in upstate New York. Union Square Greenmarket, at Broadway and 17th Street, runs year round on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Forty to 75 farmers come, depending on the day. "We're making it profitable again to remain in farming close to the city," says Barry Benepe, director of Greenmarket, which has about 20 other locations in New York City. The price of Greenmarket produce is competitive with supermarket chains, he says, and often lower on major items in season. "Whenever I can do anything for the farmers ... I'm forthcoming," says Fiet. m willing to give a farmer a great price. The farmer's going to say, 'Hey, we can grow salsify, and he'll give us $4 a bunch, and that stuff grows likes weeds!' I've paid as much as $11 a pound for hand-washed mazuna.... It's enabling them to live a way of life, and that's really what it comes down to." During his 12 years in business, Fiet has enjoyed getting to know the farmers and their families. One farmer's children "pull the feathers on my birds.... His kids bring the birds down to me in coolers, I take them, and send the kids back upstate with a Gatorade in their hands. It's just the way I dreamed the restaurant business should be." Always, though, farmers and suppliers have to be certified by government agencies, Fiet says. "A fisherman pulling up to your back door with a local tuna or something isn't kosher." On his restaurant menus, Fiet says he likes to give as much information as possible about where the food comes from. Listings might include "Vinnie's 'Black Dirt' Lettuce" (grown by farmer Vince D'Attolico) or "Grilled Local Sardines, Served on Hughs Variety Yellow Heirloom Tomatoes." The "heirloom" tomatoes, which Fiet says are especially sweet, are old varieties that were popular earlier in the century, and are sold by Fox Hill Farm in Sugar Loaf, N.Y. "There are [restaurant customers] for whom it's important to see the farm name, to see that it's organic, to see that a piece of poultry is 'free range,' or that my ducks come from New York State, my poissons [fish] come from New York State," Fiet explains. m finding people tremendously interested in food." Fiet was trained in Virginia, after years of teaching elementary school. "One of these days, maybe I'll go to Europe and be validated!" he says, laughing. Anyway, he'd rather not talk about his cooking techniques. m only as good as my ingredients are." At Cafe Loup, "we just take perfect ingredients and execute correctly, and there is our food - with very little in between."
Greenmarket chefs series: Sept. 27 (102nd St. and Amsterdam market), Sarabeth Levine (owner) and Steven Picker (chef) of Sarabeth's Kitchen. Sept. 28 (Union Square), Peter Hoffman and Susan Rosenfeld, chef/owners, Savoy Restaurant. Oct. 12 (Union Square), Frank Arcuri, chef and food writer.