It's the secret nobody in Washington wants to share with the rest of the world—summer is absolutely bee-you-ti-ful around the Seattle area. The weather is just right, the sun makes an extended appearance and the long days make for double the amount of activities. So when friends come to visit and want something to do, instead of tipping them off to the typical Pacific Northwest amusements, I tell them: check out the farmers markets. It's a great way to get a sense of the neighborhood and truly sample local flavors and goods.
In general, the current season can be described in two words: stone fruit. And glory to the days of summer for this time of year. Delicate-skinned fruit, ripe with juicy sweetness that surrounds a hefty seed. Cherries have come and gone, leaving room for the larger fruit to take their place in the markets. Apricots were the early arrivals as small fuzzy-skinned orbs piled high in baskets and bins, then peaches and nectarines starting to trickle in, and now a variety of plums are being seen at the market tables.
Stone fruits are perfect for cobblers and pies, lending their sweetness to flaky crusts and crumble toppings, but they're also great for grilling, with the sugary flesh caramelizing nicely on the grill. Halved peaches or plums, grilled for a few minutes and then served with vanilla ice cream is a lovely and simple dessert. With a surplus of fruit, cooking them down and making preserves is a good way to capture the essence of the season and use as a topping for scones and biscuits when the chill of the winter months return.
Not to forget the summer vegetables—tomatoes are going full-force (OK, fine, I know they're technically fruits). The early tomatoes raised in hothouses are giving way to the ones growing in the great outdoors. More of the lovely funky-shaped, multi-colored heirloom tomatoes are showing up on market tables. Heirlooms have a lightly sweet flavor and that fresh rawness is especially nice in simple salads like the caprese, with fresh mozzarella and basil.
Plump, white Walla Walla Sweet onions are showing up after months of smaller spring onions. The sweetness of the Walla Wallas is pleasant when sliced raw and placed on a freshly-grilled hamburger, plus they grill up nicely on their own, halved and placed directly on the heat to char and roast to caramelized deliciousness. The grill-roasted onions pair well with summer squash—bins of bright yellow pattypan squash, shaped like mini-UFOs are here, as are the familiar green zucchini. Both have a light flavor that takes different seasonings well, and sturdy enough to grill nicely.
Piles of dark purple eggplant are also bountiful—I prefer the smaller ones with delicate skin, as you tend to not have to peel them and it's not as thick or bitter. They develop a distinct sweetness when roasted or grilled to a pulpy softness. And don't forget the fresh corn—silken mop-topped ears still in their green husks are great for throwing directly on the barbecue. Let the husks char, helping to add flavor and steam the sugary kernels within. The corn being sold right now is sweet enough that you don't even really need butter, and they make for wonderful salads. Slice the cooked corn off the cobs into a mixture of roasted vegetables and black beans.
For those wanting fresh flowers, the dramatic blooms are everywhere, so take advantage of the tall and elegant stalks of gladiolas (buy them with as many still budded and place in water for longer enjoyment of blooms), bouquets of fiery sunflowers, and the incredible colors and shapes of lilies.
More and more, market vendors are getting halved into fresh greens from the local farmers and handcrafted items by local artists. The creations can range from wearables to food-friendly items like handblown glassware and unique servingware. The Eastside cities of country-quaintIssaquah and the lakeside city of Kirkland are two markets that welcome both edible goods and craft items.
Issaquah is a large residential city northeast of Seattle, nestled among the woodsy evergreen trees and many tech company families. The weekly Saturday farmers market, celebrating its 20th anniversary, is held at the Pickering Barn, which is exactly what you'd think it would look like: a large brick-red painted barn surrounded by well-manicured lawn areas, park benches, and a gazebo where live music plays on market days. This market leans more towards the crafts and prepared foods, mostly because it's a big gathering area for families looking for something to do on a Saturday. There are regular demos by artists and chefs throughout the month, plus the last Saturday of every month, children can sell their own handmade goods.
Some particularly unique vendors at Issaquah's market include Ramon Ayala and Son's Farms, from the city of Outlook. Along with their garden greens, they offer pickled vegetables like onions and asparagus, but it's a limited supply, so if you see any lingering jars on their table, grab them up!
Westover Farm in Maple Valley had a table full of beautiful tomatoes, and in the winter they offer cut-your-own Christmas trees and fresh wreaths. For the prepared foods, Judy and Brandy Jensen of Golden Glen Creamery in Bow, Washington, supplies the market with milk, butter and a variety of cheese that includes gouda, a variety of cheddars, and seasonal mozzarella and feta. On the day I visited their table, they were selling little containers of cheese curds, also known as "squeaky cheese," for the way they squeak against one's teeth when you eat them. There's also North Shore Hawaiian BBQ, offering truly local "Island Grindz" like Spam Musubi (like Spam sushi) and an egg and hamburger with gravy dish called Loco Moco.
Further west, towards the edge of Lake Washington, is the city of Kirkland. Their farmers' market takes place every Wednesday afternoon on their busy waterfront, with a view of Seattle in the distance. The vendor tents are literally strewn in a line by the shore, it's a great destination farmers market with its proximity to the water and a nice balance of fresh produce as well as prepared foods and specialty items.
Definitely chat with the farmers—they know their business and clearly love their work. I enjoyed talking with the Martin Family Orchards gal about their latest display of gorgeous peaches, nectarines and apricots. Their farm is located in Cashmere and Orondo—small cities out east, where the sun coaxes honey-sweet flavors from their stone fruit. They had some of their first crop of nectarines, along with massive-sized peaches. They also had adorable doughnut peaches which were catching everyone's eye. Five Acre Farm located in Whidbey Island had a lovely showing of vegetables like bright beets and gigantic zucchini, along with some cantaloupe and corn from Alvarez Farms in eastern Washington. They promised to have watermelon from their own farms very soon, so keep an eye out for that. Tiny's Organic from Wenatchee had a unique fruit to sample called cherry plums—small, plump cherry-sized plums that taste like coconut! I had to taste to believe it, and sure enough the initial juicy bite has that rounded sweetness of coconut, but a pleasant, familiar bitter finish of a plum's skin.
Kirkland's prepared foods included Seattle's Grand Central Bakery—beautiful breads and pastries, along with a chance to peruse their new cookbook. New confectioner, Seattle's Goat Milk Candy Co., had a table covered in goats' milk caramels and decadent goat cheese-stuffed figs dipped in chocolate. For Filipino food lovers, Lumpia World had a table, offering, of course, crispy fried lumpia stuffed with a variety of meats and vegetables.
And don't forget man's best friend (Kirkland's farmers market is dog-friendly) with Methow Dog setting up a table to encourage a crowd of four-legged friends sampling their healthy, locally made dog treats.
Visiting the markets and helpful tips:
Issaquah Farmers Market
Every Saturday: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
April 10 to October 9
Pickering Barn, 1730 10th Avenue N.W., Issaquah, WA 98027 (map)
If Pickering Barn lot is full, there are surrounding business parks that you can park in, since it's the weekend. Remember the last Saturday of the month is when you can buy crafts made by the local kids—support the local, little business owners! Issaquah farmers' market is NOT dog-friendly, so leave Fido at home.
Kirkland Farmers Market
Wednesdays 2 to 7 p.m.
May 5 to Oct 13
25 Lake Shore Drive, Kirkland WA 98033 (map)
Construction in the area is making parking a little tricky, so if the waterfront parking is full, park over at Kirkland Library on 308 Kirkland Avenue—visitor parking is good for four hours. Market is dog-friendly, so bring your fuzzy friend!
More Market Scene reports from the Pacific Northwest—I'll showcase additional city farmers markets very soon!
Onions - Walla Walla