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Market Day : If You Grow It They Will Come

COOK'S WALK: SANTA MONICA. One in an occasional series.


Take a walk through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market on a Wednesday morning.

The air, washed with an underlying tang of sea salt, is ripe with passing smells. Here are the cinnamon-spice of basil and the warmth of ripe tomatoes. There's the crackling sharp smell of onions and garlic, freshly picked and drying in the sun. That peppery smell? A couple of bunches of arugula. Then the sweet honey of peaches, the pungent honey of melons. A cool drift of dill.

It's ravishing to the eye as well: gently ascending scales of yellow, orange and red tomatoes and shiny lavender-purple and deep black-purple eggplants. The outrageous white-to-red blush of Bermuda onions next to the delicate white-to-pink fade of French breakfast radishes. A burst of orange and yellow flowers, startling against dark-green herbs. Perfect rows of slim spears of asparagus, stacked like cordwood. The fluorescent hues of one bunch of peppers; the rich, matte Old Master tints of another.

As you walk, you hear snippets of conversations in a dozen languages. There are the early morning sounds of a city stirring to life, the high-pitched beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up and the whoop of a car alarm. Everywhere there's the constant squeak of passing pull-carts and the shouts of farmers selling.

Reach out and touch something. The tender fuzz of a peach, the smooth silk of a nectarine. The taut gloss of an eggplant, the ripe give of a tomato, the decadent, almost melting softness of a black fig. It is so crowded it is almost impossible to walk down the street without jostling the person beside you.

It's enough to send a cook's mind reeling. Do these greens look crisper than those? What is the difference between a late-season Faye Elberta peach and an early O'Henry? What in the world could you do with these incredibly ugly, but tartly delicious Arkansas Red Indian peaches? Here are some eggplant, squash, peppers and tomatoes. Ratatouille? Or maybe grill the eggplant, squash and peppers and serve them with some cool ricotta and just slice the tomatoes as a starter?

It's easy to suffer sensory overload. There are so many things to see, to touch, to cook with. . . . Just navigating the roughly four blocks of the market can seem too much.

The best strategy is to get there early and be patient. The horn marking the day's opening goes off at 9:30 a.m.--try to be there a bit before. First, walk the market once without buying anything. It'll be difficult, but it will pay off. See what is in season--the items (and, indeed, the vendors) change from week to week. Look at everything and make your plan. Then go to work.

Be aware that all farmers are not created equal. It is distressingly easy to find underripe and tasteless fruits and vegetables here. Having purchased one tomato each from 15 farmers on a single day for a tasting in The Times Test Kitchen, we were amazed to find that the vast majority were scarcely better than what you could find in an average supermarket. But the two that were best (Tutti Frutti Farms and Elmer Lehman) were worth the search. The same was true on different weeks when we tasted plums (frequently underripe) and peaches (the safest buy we found).

One good tactic is to ask questions of the people selling the stuff. Ask about the variety, or how it is best used. If they don't know, or you don't like the answer, walk on. Odds are you'll find it someplace else. Do you really want to buy an eggplant grown by someone who doesn't eat eggplant?

By law, sampling of cut fruit is forbidden at the market, though it is still frequently done. One good solution is to bring a supply of quarters and offer to buy one of anything you're considering getting. That way, you'll know if it's good. What's more, you'll probably be able to skip lunch.

Price is not always an indicator of quality, though you ought to expect to pay more for truly great produce. Our favorite tomatoes were selling for $1 a pound and the best peaches were $2 a pound--roughly what you would expect to pay in a major market.

As are all things agricultural, the Santa Monica market is highly seasonal. Farmers drop in (and out) as they have produce available. And the produce changes too. Some varieties of peaches and plums, for example, may be offered only for a couple of weeks before their brief harvest season ends.

But if you go often enough, you will develop a small group of favorite farmers to follow through the year. Here's a list to get you started.


Honey Crisp Farms: When it comes to stone fruit, Art Lange is king. Both the peaches and plums from Honey Crisp Farms won The Times Test Kitchen market tastings. The reason is simple: ripeness. "I wait until the last minute to pick it," says the former University of California agriculture professor. "Sometimes I wait so long it falls on the ground, and then I'm out of luck. Usually, I wait until it's just about ready to fall and get lucky. That way I get every bit of sugar into the fruit that I can."

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