Saturday, February 20, 2010

To market, to market

I do this all year round. In summer, when it’s sometimes like a sauna, even at seven in the morning. In winter when it’s still dark when I leave home and I wear a ski jacket and gloves and a hat and boots and a scarf. On days when we’re lucky enough to have rain and I get soaked and have to dry off and change when I’m done.

Before work. On the weekend. Sometimes I sneak out in my lunch break, for a quick fix.

The market* is both familiar and unexpected. Predicable in its seasonal rhythm, the static location of the Meat, Fish and Rabbit Building, the Deli Hall and the open air fruit and vegetable aisles, the familiar faces of the regular stall holders and providores**. Unpredictable in so far as the seasons are a little unpredictable – blink and I’ll miss the five week season of the cox’s orange pippin, my favourite apple in the whole world. Fickle in that stall holders will carry hot-housed out-of-season produce (oh the horror of mid-winter tomatoes). Surprising: the unusual and uncommon – salsify and purple Congo potatoes and fresh pistachios and rabbit and guinea fowl. Pine mushrooms and slippery jacks. Red wine washed manchego. Rabbit and prune ravioli.

When I first moved here, a little over four years ago, the market was first place I saw that little flash of recognition in someone’s eye. In an unfamiliar city full of strangers and new things, in a new house without even a coffee table, I felt at home at the trestle tables stacked with green things and the glass cases full of cheese and olives. The day my kitchen ceiling fell in, after the bathtub exploded (it was a serious leak) I went to the market before I called a plumber.

Shopping at the market makes some things easier. We hear about ‘eat local’ and ‘organic is better’ and ‘think about food miles’. Sure, not everything sold in markets is local or organic or ethically produced. And I’m not a slave to these principles. But if and when I do think about these things, the personal interaction between me and the stall owners makes it easier to make informed choices. I can ask where the tomato / cheese / garlic / lettuce is from and the person behind the cash box can tell me because they know. Chances are they bought it from the person who grew it. Unlike at the supermarket, where the person behind the cash register often can’t even identify the vegetables for the purpose of scanning it for price***.

Occasionally I go with an idea of what I want to make only to be completely flummoxed when whatever it is I want isn’t available (what, no watercress? But it was here last week! No zucchini flowers? Only on Saturdays? Dill? Just sold out...). But mostly I go without a shopping list, without an idea of what I’m going to cook. I’m really not a very methodical person. I walk there, I browse, I connect, relax, unwind and find inspiration. I buy enough food for the next few days, knitting together in my head a menu, mentally adding up the cost (much cheaper than the supermarket. And so fresh!)

When I get home from the market, I spread everything out on the bench, and survey my horde.

Today: a bunch of radishes, smallish and red; Italian flat leaf parsley and dill and mint; five very small zucchini; lemons; navel oranges; two bulbs of fennel; shallots; red pepper; small cucumbers; sheep’s milk feta cheese; a small chicken; natural yoghurt; unripe pears; six ripe tomatoes; mixed olives.


1. Finely slice zucchini into rounds. Pour over boiling water and then refresh in ice water. Drain. Finely chop parsley, dill and mint – about 1/3 cup in total. Toss zucchini with herbs, sea salt and a dash of olive oil and lemon juice. Pile into a shallow bowl and crumble over a little feta cheese.

2. Shave fennel, radishes and pears with a mandolin. Toss with olive oil and finely chopped dill. Season to taste and serve scattered with shaved parmesan or pecorino cheese and poached chicken.

3. Make Greek salad. Roughly chop into similar sized pieces: cucumber, tomatoes, capsicum and red onion. Toss with torn parsley, mint, dill, olives and crumbled feta. Drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil. Season. Eat.

And in a few days time, when the fridge and the fruit bowl are empty, I’ll walk back over and do it all again.

* It is always the market. I do live in a city of many open air and covered markets, but this particular market is my market, the closest and most familiar to me, therefore it is ‘the market’. I have been to other markets, including the giant pan-Asian markets that are half an hour away by bus and the posh more expensive ones south of the river. When I have serious cravings for Vietnamese food in particular I will stock up on dried lotus beans and Thai and Vietnamese herbs and green pawpaw and mango, banana flowers and other bits and pieces less easy to find at the market.

** I have a poulterer. I love that I have a poulterer. I have a cheesemonger. Cheesemonger is such an old fashioned word. Is it because there are hardly any cheesemongers anymore? Is there a better word that I have just forgotten?

*** I’m told I can be a little snipey with the checkout staff sometimes. But it’s not like the things they sell in supermarkets are even that exotic. It’s broccoli for goodness sake. BROCOLLI.

Pear and fennel salad

2 just-ripe Williams pears
1 1/2 bulbs fennel
4 small salad onions
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp verjuice (verjuice is a bit sweeter than vinegar and lemon juice)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup frozen peas
1 tbsp finely chopped dill
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley
2 poached chicken breasts (I poached a whole chicken the day before*)
Pinch sea salt
Shaved parmesan cheese

Quarter pears , remove core and finely slice lengthways. Quarter fennel , remove core and finely slice lengthways (if you find the taste of raw fennel a little strong, blanch by pouring boiling water over and then drain). Halve onions and finely slice length ways. Toss in a large bowl with vinegar, verjuice and oil.

Cook frozen peas, drain and add to salad, along with the sliced poached chicken.

Toss through herbs and sea salt.

Serve, scattered with shaved parmesan. I finished mine off with a little parsley oil.

* To poach whole chicken, place chicken in a large saucepan and cover with water (you can add chopped onion, carrots, celery etc if you like, but not necessary. Do not add salt). Bring to the boil, and then lower to a slow simmer. Cook for about 20-25 minutes, then turn off heat and cover with lid. Cool until just warmer than room temperature – remove flesh from chicken. I retain the cooking liquid and carcass to make stock. Or just poach chicken breasts – simmer in water or stock until cooked, about 10 minutes.

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