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How To Shop A Farmer's Market Like a Chef

jeff nathan

We go shopping with Chef Jeff Nathan at Union Square Farmer’s Market—then it’s off to Abigael’s to cook with summer produce at its peak.

We’re standing in front of Barnes and Noble on East 17th St. To the south of us stretches Union Square, and today—a steamy day in June, the Union Square Farmer’s Market graces the park.  Walking on the city streets, if I didn’t divert my eyes to see the rows of brightly colored tents and high mounds of fresh-from the- farm produce—I could most definitely smell it. I’m here with Chef Jeff Nathan, his wife Alison, and my inquisitive friend Rachel.

jeff lavendar

“Alright, c’mon.” Chef Jeff Nathan motions for us to follow him inside. 

“One of the good things about a market is that you know everything is fresh. You don’t get a lot of good deals monetarily, but you’re helping the farmers. There is a lot of sustainability. They will advertise if they are using fertilizers, antibiotics, steroids, or what have you. I always love natural and fresh. Organic, though, is a little tricky—sometimes, a person would buy a cantaloupe because it’s organic. You don’t need to, because it has a thick skin. If you can peel something, you are wasting your money by buying organic."

"We cook what’s in season. I wouldn’t decide to feature a tomato basil salad in the middle of the winter—for what reason? 

jeff and peas

Tomatoes aren’t at their peak. But right now, the beautiful beefsteak tomatoes are amazing. I don’t plan my menu and then go shopping. I go shopping—and then plan my menu. I won’t come here and say, ‘I’m looking for peaches.’ I’m going to look at the peach—is the peach good?

The key here is the freshness—you know the produce is just picked. Taste this sugar snap pea—it’s got flavor, it tastes like a pea. We just passed rhubarb season, which was amazing. We might see a little rhubarb leftover today. Let’s start over here.”  

jeff strawberries

Chef Jeff leads us to the booth that’s closest to us at the Northern end of the market. Pints of strawberries cover the table. They aren’t large and red like the ones you see in the

“Someone who doesn’t know strawberries might say, ‘They’re so small.’ But if you taste one of these babies— they explode in your mouth. Don’t think size is important.  These have the most flavor. Also, when you’re purchasing strawberries, it’s important to know that if one strawberry is
rotten, it’ll make the whole container decay. So if you have one rotten in the bunch, take it out right away.  But—this is the stuff we want to eat. I’d make a salad with bitter arugula and sweet, sweet strawberries. Maybe some jicama, maybe pineapples.”

“Alright, you’re making us hungry,” Rachel says.

Everyone laughs. We’re only going to get hungrier. Chef Jeff has just begun.  “Strawberries are not just for dessert—I love light and refreshing salads. I’d also make a salsa to use over fish—strawberries with cilantro, red onion, cracked black pepper, a little rice vinegar.”

jeff greens

In the stall next to the strawberries are big bunches of lettuces, other greens, and different kinds of onions. “These purslane are very healthy greens. They have a lemony tang to them—they’re great for stir-fries and sautés.” “Are they sometimes used for garnish?” asks Rachel.

“You’re thinking of watercress, they look similar,” Alison tells Rachel, as she grabs some of the purslane to take home.  Lined up next to the purslane are a great variety of leafy bunches. Jeff picks up a bunch of mustard greens. “Mustard greens have a hearty flavor. If you want to sauté, you can cook this without worrying about it falling apart. Now is the time to use different lettuces—mix them up for different textures.

Lolla rossa is amazing. If I have romaine, I want to mix it up with lolla rossa, or boston or bibb that are a little softer, so each bite is a different texture or consistency. When we have a salad, why do we put nuts or fruit in it? Because we are creating a sensation for our palate.”

Jeff isn’t a fan of iceberg or romaine—the latter is only used for Caesar salad on his menu. “I don’t like icebergs for salads either—it has no taste. But iceberg is great for a sandwich—I love that crunch. With soft bread, it adds texture. If you were to take hummos and eat it plain, it would get boring after a couple of spoonfuls. But with pita or a crunchy veggie, you are introducing a different texture and it’s much more interesting.”

union market

“Does it make such a difference if you substitute an onion for a shallot?” Rachel asks. Rows of different kinds of onions abut the lettuces.

“90% of people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” Jeff shakes his head. “Use a red onion if you don’t have shallots.  I don’t believe in recipes—they are there to inspire you. If a recipe calls for a green pepper, and you only have a different color pepper in your fridge, does it matter?”

Across the way, a vendor is selling different types of string beans—there are purple varieties called Romano beans, yellow wax beans, and your typical green been. “Even for a visual—I’d use the three of these together in a basic string bean salad, with one-third of each variety, red onion, a
handful of tomatoes, and vinaigrette.”

“Is there a difference between the different colors?” Rachel asks.

“Can I be honest? Is there a big flavor difference? Not really. They are just different varieties.”  “But it’s not like they took the tomato and made it square.”  We all laugh. “No!” The purple string beans are natural just the same.  It’s the fava bean that’s sitting next to the string beans, though, that gets Chef Jeff excited. He takes a bean and starts to peel. “The outside isn’t edible,” he says, revealing the inner beans. “Cook them slowly. They become like butter, the most tender, amazing thing. I love to make a fava bean hummos.”

Rachel wants to know about summer squash. “To me, it seems the oversized ones don’t have as much flavor.”

“It’s true,” Alison agrees.

“I have a different perception,” says Jeff. “To me, baby squashes are premature and don’t have flavor. I won’t use a baby patty pan or baby squashes. If I close my eyes, I don’t taste anything. Give it a chance to mature.”  When it comes to mature zucchini and yellow squash, though, Jeff agrees. The smaller ones are a little better because they have less seeds.

We come right up to a huge mound of sugar snap peas— they seem to be the star of the market today. 

jeff sugar snap

Jeff takes a pea and demonstrates, taking off the tail at one end, and then peeling off the edge. “There’s two pieces I take off before serving them at the restaurant. I don’t mind the little blemishes—they’re natural. Everything can’t be perfect, but the flavor of these are amazing.”

Walking down the aisles, there’s a vendor selling flowers.  Another has jars of pickles, stacked high. In another booth, there are jars of preserves, made of almost every kind of berry or citrus fruit. There’s also fresh apple cider for sale.

union market 2

“Apple cider is a fermented product. In my cookbook, I have a recipe that is more requested than any other dish. It’s a brisket with black strap molasses and apple cider sauce.”  Later, when I get home, I look up the recipe he’s referring to in Adventures in Jewish Cooking, where the brisket cooks in the juice for hours.

We stroll over to the next stall, where root vegetables, with their straggling tails, are piled the highest on the tables.  

“Different radishes do have different flavors. If you’re using a few different radishes in your salad, cut some on an angle, some square, and some round so it’s more interesting.

Our lesson in mushrooms will definitely affect the type I buy. 

“The portobello is the vegetarian king. They bread it or braise it and treat it like a piece of meat. I take the gills and the stem off, but I don’t throw away the stem.” Next to the portobellos are big, white domestic mushrooms—and the little creminis next to them. “You don’t have to take the stems off the cremini mushrooms.”  

“Are those the same as baby bellas?” I ask.  

“Yes, those are the baby bellas. White button mushrooms—I don’t use. They have no flavor. Cremini and button mushrooms are often the same price, but the flavor you’re getting with the cremini is much better.  “Oyster mushrooms are delicious, they fry up crispy and nice. But this is my favorite mushroom to use in the restaurant.” Chef Jeff is holding up a large, white mushroom that’s shaped like a cylinder. 

And I can cut it into different shapes. I’ll cut it on angles and grill it, or into discs and sauté. It’s very porous, so any sauce I add to the pan just gets sucked up. When it’s cut, you can add it to a dish and no one knows what it is.”  At the end of the row are the shiitakes, which Jeff also calls “a great mushroom.” But—he warns. “You can’t use the stem of the shiitake.”


“Have you ever used sunchokes? They are absolutely delicious. They taste something like a potato. Peel them, cut them into pieces, and stir-fry them with water chestnuts, peppers, or mushrooms. Or—boil them like potatoes and make a sun choke puree. You can also do a puree with two
parts potatoes and one part sunchoke. It’s really nice.”

“What about edible flowers?” I’ve always wondered—could they be kosher? Or are they too difficult to clean? Jeff tells us that he can’t use them in the restaurant—by the time they were cleaned, there would be nothing left.

“I’m surprised I don’t see any heirloom tomatoes,” Jeff says, looking around. I don’t see eggplants or melons around either.

But there are cherries. “On Facebook, I posted several salads with cherries. When there’s one specific item I like that’s only available for a short season, I obsess. When rhubarb was around, I did rhubarb cobblers and crisps. I did a rhubarb sauce for my duck. I also love fruit soups for summer—tomato or strawberry soup. Blueberry soup is one of my favorites.”  As we walk south down the main aisle of the market, Jeff spots one vendor with monstrous looking eggs sitting in two baskets. A sign next to them reads, “Ostrich Eggs. Empty—$20. Full—$30.” Jeff picks up an empty one with a little hole at the top. “Wow! Presentation at the restaurant. Imagine a waiter pouring a vinaigrette out of this thing.”

“Until a waiter tries to squeeze it,” Rachel quips.

“Did you pick up the fresh one?” asks the vendor.   “It’s  heavy?”
“It’s the equivalent of 18 to 24 eggs.” Wow.

“Next is frozen—it hasn’t been adulterated. Next, aseptic is a minimally invasive cooking process, where items are flash pasteurized, cooking for a few seconds at a high temperature so the nutrition isn’t destroyed. Canned vegetables are worthless. Why they have canned vegetables today is beyond me.”  

“Are there any that are ok? Like chickpeas?” Rachel asks.

“Chickpeas are ok—they take so long to cook, so let them do it for us.”  

“I thought you don’t use canned chickpeas!” I turn to Rachel.

“For falafel—no. It turns to mush. But for hummus, yes.” 

“Baking soda will make chick peas cook faster,” Jeff says.  “But will also destroy the nutrition.”

Today, it’s the baby greens that impress Chef Jeff the most. 

“These greens are amazing—look at these. Pea greens, sunflower greens.”

Every farm, he tells us, makes their own lettuce blend. Jeff picks up the tongs to show us, “This is a mixture of baby lettuces. This particular one has very expensive, light, and delicate greens in it.”  On our way out, Jeff spots a lone vendor that is still carrying rhubarb. It disappoints him, though, when he picks up a spear and bends it. “There’s nothing to it. It’s woody. Rhubarb usually snaps.”  Rhubarb season, apparently, is over.

For some fabulously fresh recipes from Chef Jeff, read on.