You are one of two kinds of people. Either you go as early as possible, you skip breakfast, you buy the best of the lot as each farmer unpacks. You then go for pancakes and get home by nine. I can't tell you about that.
Or you take the whole morning. Park in the shade. You put an ice chest in your trunk, a bucket of water. You buy a hot drink that means that as one hand is full you can't carry much, so you walk the whole market once or twice through, just looking and sipping.
Here's the exception: If the people of the first type have left only four boxes of berries, you buy what you need without waiting. Same with flowers: you buy what you like right away. Put them in the bucket. If you're on a bicycle, you ask the vendor to keep them in their bucket until you leave.
But mostly you just look. There's also touch and smell. And hearing: you eavesdrop if someone is explaining why there are no beets (they bolted) or how to prepare fennel. Overheard: "Trim off the feathery parts, cut the bulbs in quarters. Peel all the cloves of a whole head of garlic. Place these in the interstices." (Yes, the vendor uses the word 'interstices'.) "Dribble with olive oil" (wiggling his fingers). "Bake until they're all soft."
You don't throw away the feathery parts.
You think about what goes with what. What takes what time to cook. What colors go together. Fennel can bake, so can garlic. Or carrots or turnipsorange spears and white ovals. Then you wouldn't add greens and your kitchen will heat up. In winter, you want this. All can also be sautéed if you time it right. Vegetables fall along a spectrum of preparation: raw, steamed, simmered, stewed, broth. Some of what's eaten raw goes with what's steamed (lettuce and asparagus, tomatoes and green beans). Some can be sautéed in butter together, added in order of density: leeks, carrots, chard stems and mushrooms, then the chard leaves. All covered with oil and glistening: orange and brown, red stems, two kinds of green. If the chard stems are yellow the effect is then different. Beets can be added after they're simmered or baked and then peeled. The beet leaves go in with the chard leaves. Pink-and-white striped Chioggia or Golden beets don't color the whole dish.
When long-time friends gather, cook up foods ahead: little chickens, fresh corn and red pepper soup, artichokes, lentil and mint salad, olives. You pull it all out of the fridge and so don't miss a word, lay it outside on a table, bring chairs out, sit there for hours, until you need candles. Then bring out the chocolate cake, topped with berries.
Never hurry. Plan as you walk up and down. Even when cooking, the colors will feed you. You do all your chopping up front, putting the pieces in separate bowls which also have color.
Save all of the trimmingsthe leek leaves, the onion skins, the ends of asparagus, those fennel feathery partsfor broth. Not the brassica (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli). In winter the trimmings will include squash skins and seeds, yam peelings. When you cook potatoes, you save the water for broth base. The same with the water from lentils or from cooking (not soaking) dry beans. Throw in the cuttings from ginger, herb stems, basil flowers.
Freeze all your broths in old yogurt containers. Mark masking tape on the tops: "Veg broth 2/99." "Potato Broth." "Bean juice."
As you wander the market, anticipate great things: cherries in May; all summer, tomatoes you pop in your mouth; a few weeks of pluotshybrid plum-apricots; months of peaches; if you can catch them, Black Arkansas apples; by late Fall, Satsuma mandarins in five-pound bags, skins so loose you can take them off in one fragrant spiral.
You can make broth with fish heads, if your market has a vendor. Late in the summer, ours has salmon. You put three heads in the pot with an onion, a carrot, a whole garlic, halved across, exposing the cloves. Feathery parts of the fennel. For herbs, only bay leaf. Three quarts of water, two cups of white wine. A small palm of peppercorns, salt. Boil until the jaw falls apart, the skull separates. When the broth is done, pick at the carcasses. Peel off the skin with its layer of fat; think of the depth of the sea. Even the eyeballpull it out of its socket, notice its layers. It's as big as your own, behind the flat pupil. Know how this thing that you eat is composed. Carefully pull the orange flesh from the bones, the light chunk of meat from the cheek. Save this and eat it, roll your eyes and make groans at its goodness, thanking the salmon again for its journey: up the bypass, the toe drain, the turbid January waters, for the fingerlings heading back out to the sea.
Use this broth to cook cut up potatoes, fennel bulb, celery; or to poach salmon steaks. Buy potatoes, keep broth in the freezer, so that this can be done on short notice, when a friend needs a hot meal and listening.
Buy things from more than one vendor. Take a child with you or talk to their children. Learn their names: Jeff and Annie, Zack, Alison, Claire; Martin; the two Pauls; Ramón and Lucy.
Then when your heart breaks and you have no appetite, when you listlessly open the fridge, you can realize that you have broccoli from Jeff and Annie. Feel that you live in community. Eat.
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The material on this page is copyright © 2001 Laurie Glover.