Even for an experienced home cook, the vegetable world can be daunting — especially at a farmers market. So how do you approach produce shopping without fear and keep healthy eating interesting?
“The good thing is when you’re at a decent farmers market, you can’t really make a bad choice,” says Richard Blais, the winner of “Top Chef All-Stars” and a judge for the show’s 12th season airing now on Bravo. “Shop in a great place where the farmers are, and then you know it’s in season so you’re not worrying about grabbing that ingredient that’s from South America.”
We brought Blais along on a trek to the market for some professional advice. First, we got his game plan:
1. Hit the ATM: “Bringing cash is always a good idea.”
2. Be patient: “Give the market a good stroll, give it a good once-over. You know you want strawberries, but they’re going to be a little different at each stall. And most places are going to have samples, so take advantage of that.”
3. Take notes: “We’re always telling a story with food, so you want to come back and say, ‘It’s from Blankity-Blank Farms, it’s right up the road, they have a goat.’”
4. Make it a game: “Pretend you’re on a TV show. Take your favorite TV show — ‘Top Chef,’ obviously — and play the Mystery Basket Game. Don’t be afraid to get a couple of ingredients that you haven’t cooked before.”
5. Make conversation: “Ask the farmers, the people working the stalls, because they want to sell their stuff. They’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what to do with it.”
6. When in doubt, find the common bond: “No matter what the ingredient, use similar ideas. A parsnip kind of looks like a carrot, so they’re going to cook in the same way, just as a pork chop is going to cook similar to a rib chop in beef.”
7.Set your alarm:“Show up earlier, whenever the market is getting ready to open, because you’ll find that crafty chefs with small restaurants like to empty things out.”
Blais has a couple of starter ingredients for the newly adventurous. “I like turnips, and usually you can find turnips,” he says. “[And] Kohlrabi, which is something that’s in the turnip family — and the name is fun to say.”
For preparation: Roast, boil or steam? “They all have their advantages, but you can coax a little more flavor out of roasting, it’s easier for most people,” he says. “Chopping something up, throwing it on a tray with a little olive oil and some torn herbs is never a bad idea and is always going to work.”
Maybe you didn't have as much time as you'd counted on to cook, and aweek after your shopping trip those formerly cheery green veggies are looking a bit sad. “Soup is a save-all for anything. I’m stealing this from another chef buddy of mine, but he said, ‘You’re always four ingredients away from good soup.’ And I like that. If you don’t know what to do, you can always make soup out of it. [If] you cook something long enough and puree it, it’s going to be a pretty good soup.”
We gave a Blais a couple of market ingredients that the average cook would find challenging and asked him what to do with them.
“Use your instincts like you would for any other leafy vegetable. I’ll cook kale or spinach, and dandelion greens are probably somewhere in between those two,” Blais says of the bitter, vitamin-rich plant. “Treat it like broccoli rabe; serve it with a piece of grilled meat. But just barely cook it: a little olive oil, butter, lemon, chili, that’s a good classic for me with any sort of wilty green. Or get creative with it: Throw it in a blender. Make a chimichurri out it, make a pesto out of it, and then all of a sudden you’re modern. Then you’re winning a ‘Top Chef’ Quickfire Challenge.”
“Persimmons are pretty cool, and they’re just in season,” Blais says. “To me, they’ve always had that kind of tomato-like quality. They have a little bit of caramelized sweetness, but they’re not super-sweet. So I like to treat them like tomatoes. My first go-to is caprese salad — replace the tomato with persimmon, add mozzarella or burrata, and that’s a pretty fun dish. It’s a pretty tough fruit, but put them in a bag and they’ll ripen up.”