Saturday, March 31, 2012

Santa Monica Farmers Market - Wednesday Mornings For the Pros

Santa Monica Farmers Market - the Wednesday morning one - had always been the stuff of legend among food lovers. The one that pro chefs go to.  The one whose inaccessibility to mere (i.e. working) mortals who don't live/work in the area adds all the more to its near mythological appeal. No, it wasn't inaccessible because of some elitist VIPs only rule or some financial filter of an astronomical admission fee.  It's just that it's open only during hours that most people are at work - and if your office doesn't happen to be within walking/short driving distance of the market - then you're just out of luck.
So it was, that when I found myself with a few weekdays off, in between a job in the Valley I had poured nearly four years into, and a new one I was incredibly excited about to kick off a new chapter of my life - that Santa Monica's Wednesday market came to mind as something I can finally do, before I plug back into the 9-6 work day!

I'd be remiss not to start the tale of my adventure with a confession though: still not a morning person (never was, never will be), I didn't get up at the crack o' dawn to go.

I arrived at the market - a block from the beach, under sunbathed blue sky and shiny happy towering palms - in time to catch the last hour of the market, when lunch was being served.  So the first stall I noticed of course was FIG Santa Monica, super appropriate as its Executive Chef, Ray Garcia, is known for his farm to table approach to seasonal California cuisine.  So what better place to have an outpost, than at the nearby Farmers Market, close to sources of the amazingly fresh ingredients of his dishes?  The descriptions on the blackboard alone made me drool, but you can also watch the chefs in the tent cooking on portable grills in the open kitchen.  Loved this, but as I was going to have lunch elsewhere soon - and I knew I could always hit the lovely Fairmont Miramar down the street for FIG's fare, I didn't end up eating from the stall that day.  But many locals did, in their shirts and ties and pencil skirts, perched on bar-tables set up closeby for the lunch rush.
Perhaps befitting the neighborhood, or just because I got there around closing time, I didn't really see any other cooked food stalls beyond that. Moved on to check out the produce and other offerings!  There were a few things that I haven't seen at other markets - like Zutanos, a type of avocado with skin that's a lighter green and thinner than what you normally see at grocery stores.  And prices are not that bad at $1 each!
There were also kumquats at $1.50 a basket!! 
Flower vendors offered all kinds of herbs in planters, and some flowers I haven't seen before.  Like the huge blossoms of cabbage flowers - apparently not for the plate as they're not edible, but great as table or garden decor. 

I actually did expect to see a more eye-opening assortment of exotic produce, herbs, fruits etc. - unusual things that would catch your eye on a menu at a fine dining place.  I guess I may have romanticized the SM Farmers Market in my mind as sort of this Shangri-La of markets, overflowing with greenery and surprises.  But again maybe I just missed all that earlier in the morning - perhaps the pros and all the good stuff are both gone within the first few hours.  In any case, I was still excited to have been able to experience the place. 
Where SMFM was more impressive than other Farmers Markets in the city, was in the meat 'department'.  There was lamb, rabbit, and grassfed bison!  Would have loved to grab some fresh lamb and bison - if only I hadn't been on my way to lunch elsewhere and missed grabbing my cooler bag in my rush to get out to the market before it closed!
Seafood of course is also for sale, though I'm sure most restaurants have their own private suppliers for that.  It was nice to see Ventura Fish Company at SMFM (they are also at Studio City Farmers Market Sundays) - and this time they had more info on their quarterly(ish) buy-fish-fresh-off-the-boat events (which will be a seaprate post coming soon!).  Their rep was kind enough to provide a bag with ice, so I was able to grab some of their Spicy Smoked Skipjack to take home (so delicious spread over crackers!).   
Another vendor I've seen at Hollywood Farmers Market, Yasutomi Farms, was also there with their lovely Japanese produce from Momotaro tomatoes (less acidic than beefsteak ones) to Komatsuna (spinach), to Mizuna (water greens).  The difference was, at least with the Mizuna - every leaf was impeccable, and the greens seem to be grown in individual bunches, each with a sponge attached: its roots are embedded in it and constantly retains moisture - so that they last a lot longer!  I couldn't believe these perfect greens were only $1.25 a bag - I bought some to put in semi-fresh ramen from Nijiya Market, and they stayed perfect in my fridge (no wilting) for a week, and were delicious!!!
At other Farmers Markets, I love visiting LAFunghi for their exotic mushrooms.  There wasn't any other vendor as big / well branded as them at SMFM, but they did have a purveyor of exotic mushrooms offering Yellowfoot Chanterelles, Black Trompettes, and...wait for it...
...domestic white truffles!  I almost missed it, as they needed to be kept cool and out of sunlight, so the vendor had them hidden away in a small cooler, with a small signpost above it, the only indication of their existence. 
So there was (in my overactive imagination) an element of intrigue, almost like you're buying contraband or something, as he carefully lifts the cooler lid just a tad, enough for you to 'see the goods' which are still out of sight from other guests strolling through the market.  These babies are from Mount Shasta up in Oregon, for $20/oz.  I got a small pebble-sized one for $6 to shave over soft scrambled eggs and was in HEAVEN.  You do get what you pay for, so it wasn't the most fragrant white truffle I've ever had, but for $6 an affordable splurge for a foodie in between jobs!
One more stall I was excited to check out was Two Peas in a Pod: purveyors of all kinds of beans, many of which I had not seen before - like 'mauve runners' and 'money beans' (white with purple speckles)!
They also had cute little jars of mixed beans that would look great sitting on a counter - before you turn it into something delicious.  I was intrigued by this and the free recipe that they gave out for soup (and I don't even normally like beans! Or recipes with lots of steps as I just don't have time after work!).  But this one looks so good I just might try it one weekend.

Two Peas in a Pod Bean Soup
1 pound dried beans
4 cups sliced yellow onions (about 3)
1/4 cup olive oil
2-4 garlic cloves minced
1 large rosemary branch (6-7" long)
2 quarts chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2 tsp kosher salt to taste
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper to taste
1. In medium bowl, soak beans in water covered by at least 1", and leave in fridge for 6 hours to overnight.
2. Drain
3. In large stock point over low to medium heat, saute sliced onions with olive oil until onions are translucent, about 10-15 minutes
4. Add garlic and cook over low heat for 3-4 minutes
5. Add drained beans, rosemary, chicken stock and bay leaf
6. Cover and bring to boil. Simmer 30-40 minutes (bean should be very soft)
7. Remove rosemary branch and bay leaf
8. Blend soup with hand blender in pot or place in bowl of food processor/blender and pulse until coarsely pureed
9. Return soup to pot.  Reheat and add salt & pepper to taste.
10. Serve hot.  Makes 6 servings.


All in al, though on this visit I didn't find the legendary SMFM Wednesday market life-changing, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to go and check it out for myself (and scored a $6 white truffle plus flawless mizuna to boot!).  If I ever happen to have another Wednesday off I may go again, and try to get up earlier in the day to see if it's any different.

Until then, Hollywood Farmers Market (aka "The HFM") remains my favorite farmers market in LA for representing the flavors of LA: its abundance of produce and fresh herb selection, diverse and large variety of street food, and entertainment value (with people watching and street entertainers).  The peoples' farmers market.

[Feast on more photos from fantastic farmers market finds around LA at my Facebook page!]


Santa Monica Farmers Market 
Wednesdays 8:30am - 1:30pm
Arizona Avenue (between 4th & Ocean), Santa Monica, CA 90405  
Parking: Public parking structures free for two hours (closest on 2nd St between Santa Monica & Broadway)


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