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Caught up in the moment

Chefs go wild at farmers markets -- and so do their imaginations. The season's latest will inspire you too.

May 24, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Special to The Times

THIS time of year, a chef in a farmers market is like a kid in a candy store. Among all the stands overflowing with gorgeous produce, chefs' eyes -- and often their arms -- grow as wide as their imaginations.

Last Wednesday at the Santa Monica farmers market, Ortolan chef Christophe Eme's arms were indeed open wide, holding zucchini flowers, fava beans and summer savory -- and he was just getting started. That night, the savory and Oregon morels went into a stuffed saddle of rabbit; the zucchini flowers were stuffed and paired with a soft-shelled crab. You could measure the time from market to plate in hours.

"Going to pick out fresh vegetables and herbs at the farmers market gives me inspiration to try new dishes," says Eme. This sentiment is echoed across town, as the late spring ingredients of the moment show up on menu after menu as suddenly as the new crops themselves.

Ammo chef Amy Sweeney has a forthright take on her market vegetables. She scatters them across thinly rolled pizza dough that gets baked in a very hot oven for a stunning market pizza. Baby zucchinis from Tamai Farms, yellow sungold tomatoes from Harry's Berries, purple spring onions from Weiser Family Farms and a rain of fresh marjoram, feta and mozzarella roast together into a glorious combination. And it's incredibly simple too, especially with her trick of making foolproof pizza dough in a food processor. There's something beautifully sudden about the dish, as if she found what looked the very best that day and brought it to the tables as soon as possible. It's an adaptable idea too: You can substitute whatever you happen to find at the market that morning.

At Campanile, chef Mark Peel devotes his Wednesday tasting menu to what's just in season. Right now he's stuffing his squash blossoms with morels before deep-frying them, and rolling white asparagus and seared scallops in grape leaves. He's also particularly fond of nettles from Maggie's Farm, in season for another month. Peel pairs them with sauteed fluke and fingerling potatoes; he also purees them into a soup topped with chive creme fraiche. "I love the counter-chic of using something that's a weed," Peel says gleefully.

Sona chef David Myers has been experimenting with the English peas he finds at Chino Farms. Myers' English pea soup may take a mountain of peas -- and some very patient people to shuck them -- but the result is a glorious paean to the season; the color is astonishing, a deep vibrant green that almost glows. Myers starts with a stock made by simmering water with shallots and fresh thyme from Coleman Farms. He then purees the blanched peas with the stock, strains it and finishes it with fresh basil and a drizzle of mustard oil.

Myers' English pea experimentation doesn't end with soup: He's making wasabi peas too. Look for them next to his signature lotus chips at Sona's bar any day now -- just as soon as he's perfected his recipe.

Joe Miller of Joe's Restaurant in Venice is pairing Pink Lady apples from Pudwill Farms with crispy chicken, spring onions and smoked chicken jus. Wild arugula from Maggie's Farms and white asparagus combine to form a salad that accompanies tea-smoked duck; heirloom fingerling potatoes from Weiser Family Farms become thin chips that garnish a dish of Northern halibut over a morel and artichoke stew; ramps get pickled before they're paired with Scottish salmon.

At the Hungry Cat, almost every one of chef David Lentz's dishes these days has something from the markets. Or a lot of things. His pan-roasted halibut comes perched atop garlicky white grits, morels, spring onions and a fragrant and brilliantly green gremolata. And Lentz's marinated raw gray snapper with wild arugula, Fresno chiles, avocado, fresh mint and cilantro reads like a list of what's just in at the market.

Worth the effort

GOOD thing Lentz's restaurant is a stone's throw away from the Hollywood farmers market. "It's a lot more work when you get most of your produce from the farmers markets, having to go and load your truck with enough produce for two to three days," he says, "but the product is superior -- and we're supporting the farmers."

And at Literati II in Santa Monica, pastry chef Kimberly Sklar has pounced on the cherries that have just come into the markets. She roasts the Burlat cherries from Barbagelata Farms in a vanilla, brandy and sugar slurry, then she serves them with an almondy polenta cake. The flavors are a spectacular combination -- the faint hint of corn and the almond notes in the polenta play beautifully off the deep rich cherries. Roasting the cherries is a perfect way to finesse the season, as the fruit hasn't reached its peak yet and the flavors still need a little coaxing.

"Cherries are the first to arrive of the stone fruit," Sklar says, "which is just the beginning of so much more to come. This is my favorite time of year."


Polenta cake with roasted cherries

Total time: 1 hour

Serves: 8

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