In the lush evergreen lands of Washington state, for those who live on the Eastside, across the lake from Seattle, you long for the daily farmers' market freshness of Pike Place Market, but feel guilty about that pesky carbon footprint of driving a few cities over for a fresh bit of leafy greens. Thankfully, there are several great neighborhood farmers' markets that are in full swing, offering the latest midsummer goodies and their own unique charm.
Right now, the bright colors of cherries and berries are everywhere, and yes, Bob, the price is most definitely right, so make it a point to have a cherry-berry good time.
The marbled swirls of yellow and orange Rainier cherries are making their splash across the market tables, as are the crimson-red Bing varieties. The Rainiers have a lighter, almost creamy sweetness in comparison to the deeper, wine-soaked richness of their Bing counterparts. Either are delicious on their own, or baked in a pie, but they're also a nice hit of sweetness when pitted and mixed in a summer salad of peppery greens, crumbles of a creamy cheese and crushed bits of hazelnuts.
In terms of berries, strawberries are still in the spotlight but having to nestle over to make room for the raspberries, with their plump, delicate bundles of juicy freshness that seem like they're literally plucked from the sunlight. People are buying them by the box-load. So what to do when you've bought a small pony's weight in berries? An excess of strawberries or raspberries make for great sorbets and are a lovely way to capture the freshness of the berry harvest, since most recipes usually call for a harvest's worth of berries for a single batch of sorbet.
Yes, it's true that summer has been slow to arrive to the Pacific Northwest. The unusually cool and rainy summer has meant a slower rollout of some fruits and vegetables, but the silver lining on the grey clouds still hanging over our heads is a prolonged season for things like Swiss chard, broccoli, and foraged items like dandelion greens. Fat bundles of asparagus have only recently started to disappear from the market tables.
The cooler weather has been a boon for sugar peas—several vendors like Bautista Farms at the Crossroads Market are selling big, fat pods of sugar snap peas. They're plucked when they're nearly bursting at their stringed seams, looking more like shell beans, but when you sample one of the peas and take a bite into its crisp membrane and get a bit of its light, sugary sweetness, it's like a lingering whisper of spring reminding one that it's not so bad the hot days of summer are lazy to arrive.
Several farms like the Kittitas Valley Greenhouse from Ellensburg are offering hothouse items like tomatoes of all sorts, including the beautifully funky shapes of heirlooms, with their wabi-sabi wonderfulness of variegated color and flavor. Their greenhouse tomatoes were one of the first on the scene when the Bellevue Farmers Market first opened in May, and their jewel-toned tomatoes stood out like a bright blaze amid all the mellow springtime hues of green. Their table is now offering a wider variety like lovely clusters still on the vine and plump, oblong Romas neatly stacked and displayed.
A farm from LaConner, a small city located further north, near Anacortes, garnered a bit of passerby attention at the Bellevue Farmers Market with some unique items like Thai eggplant, adorable ping pong ball-sized eggplants in a dappled green that were reminiscent of a tomatillo. More bitter than the typical grocery store variety, it's advised to remove the seeds to curb the bitterness and the flesh is cubed and often stewed in curries. The slender curved lavender-shaded Pingtung long eggplant were also available, which is a pleasantly sweet variety to cook with and the skin is tender enough to not require peeling.
The LaConner farm also had a metal bin full of small artichokes, which brought in many admirers (myself included). I only wish they had a website and an official farmers market name to share with others, but they were a great reminder that half the pleasure behind visiting these markets is meeting the small family farms who spend more time tending to their seedlings than sending emails.
Not to say high-tech farming is a bad thing. Full Circle Farm, located in the Snoqualmie Valley east of Seattle is one of the largest CSA networks and it has a well-known presence across the local farmers' markets, including the Bellevue Farmers Market. Their CSA program of organic produce and artisan grocery delivery extends throughout Washington and as far as Alaska. Big business aside, it doesn't take away from the experience of browsing through their table of bright carrots nestled in a basket, little bouquets of French breakfast radishes, or a bright jumble of sunburst squash shaped like little UFOs, practically screaming, "take me home to meet your dinner!" Which of course, I did.
Another thing I did across both markets was browse. People are picking up on the cachet of farmers markets because they're a great opportunity for unusual gifts: a pot of live herbs like parsley, chives and basil for a housewarming gift. A flour-dusted boule of artisan bread from Tall Grass Bakery and a bouquet of fresh lavender would be a lovely hostess gift. The Crossroads Farmers Market has a large stand for Pappardelle's dry pasta, with unusual flavors like chocolate gemelli and a colorful rainbow of dried orzo. Almost too pretty to eat, the little ruffles of a lemon parsley malfadine would make for a visually appealing for a foodie friend. Consider a trip through the markets as a chance to be inspired for gift ideas.
So what if you're overwhelmed by the farm-freshness and stricken with sensory overload? Sit back, relax, and have a bite to eat. Both Bellevue farmers markets are good spots to have a quick meal or get something to-go. The Crossroads Market opens at lunchtime and there are prepared foods like empanadas from Maria Luisa, and gourmet falafel from 2 Chefs. For dinner, head to the weekday Bellevue Farmers Market for dinner and a show, where they have bands regularly performing and grab a slice of freshly-made pizza. Veraci, a local Seattle favorite, specializes in pizza-to-go, as in they have a mobile wood-fire pizza oven and mini-kitchen that makes every crispy-thin Neapolitan style pizza to order. Make sure not to overstuff with pizza and save room for dessert, as the baby blue ice cream truck from Molly Moon's visits the Bellevue Farmers Market, offering heavenly flavors like Honey Lavender or Balsamic Strawberry.
How to Get There
The Bellevue Farmers Market is open on Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue's parking lot, located on Bellevue Way, and Saturdays at Washington Square off NE 8th Street from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. They offer live music, chef demos (Chef Holly Smith from Cafe Juanita has rescheduled for July 22). Sorry, no pets allowed!
The Crossroads Farmers Market is open on Tuesdays from 12 to 6:30 p.m. at the Crossroads Mall on NE 8th and 156th Ave. NE. The market is in the parking lot in back, where the old Circuit City building is. Notable specialty items include gourmet dried pasta from Pappardelle's, Leave Fido at home—also not pet-friendly.
Cherries, Rainier and Bing
Onions, Walla Walla Sweets
Sugar Snap Peas