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By Emily Paster
The Oak Park Farmers' Market has been open since May 18, but, as always, the market started slow. The first few weeks offered little locally grown produce beyond lettuce, asparagus and rhubarb. Don't get me wrong: I can do a lot with asparagus and rhubarb. Like grilled asparagus, asparagus pesto, rhubarb jam, and rhubarb-ginger buckle, just to name a few. But those crops really just whet our appetite for the abundance that is to come. I love the farmers' market best in the heady days of summer when I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of different fruits and vegetables on offer and can't decide what to buy first.
Today, it felt like the market was truly coming alive. The local strawberries had arrived. Asparagus were at their peak and we had the tail end of the rhubarb. The English peas made their first appearance. You could even find curly garlic scapes if you knew where to look. I bought all these things and more, including two dozen farm eggs, fresh basil, cultured butter, and even a small bunch of early-bird zucchini blossoms. My arms ached as I hauled my bags to the car and I knew that summer was really here.
Soon we will be drowning in berries and stone fruit; corn and tomatoes; peppers, green beans and zucchini. Those who come to the market before 8 am will be lucky enough to find just a few pints of such rarities as gooseberries, tayberries, and currants. There will be so many locally grown fruits and vegetables that the supermarket will seem superfluous. And then, before we know it, the early morning sun won't be as bright and there will be a chill in the air. The market stalls will be offering Damson plums, apples, cranberries and root vegetables. Maybe one or two farmers will even bring some quince. As frost threatens, farmers will start selling their green tomatoes cheap – anything to get them off the vine and out of harm's way.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I start dreaming about what July, August and September will bring, I am determined to enjoy the best of the late spring/early summer crops. Having already put up six jars of Rhubarb-Vanilla-Earl Grey jam (recipe from the Food in Jars cookbook), I plan to try my hand at rhubarb jelly or rhubarb chutney this week. I was so enamored of the asparagus pesto I made last week that I definitely want to make more this week — and share the recipe, of course. The English peas will become Cold Pea Soup with Mint and the scapes may garnish some white bean dip.
This is not my week to go wild with strawberries, however. A flat was selling for $40 at today's market; I expect it will be more like $30 next week. And then I will pounce and spend the following days frantically trying to use up 8 quarts of berries before they go bad. Look out for the 2013 edition of How to Use a Flat of Strawberries in Five Days – an annual tradition on West of the Loop.
Did you go to the farmers' market this weekend? If so, what did you buy?