There is nothing more inspiring to an Italian cook than to walk through a market in the summer, packed full of the season”s freshest produce. Since Italian cuisine essentially uses the freshest of ingredients as a basic principle, what better place could one choose to shop than at a local market or vegetable stand where the produce has been freshly picked?
While living in Italy, I spent many hours each week browsing through the market stands overflowing with the vibrant colors of each seasons bounty. Unfortunately here in the North America, many of us do not have access to a large fresh produce market and must make do searching out the best grocery store in the area until summer comes around and we are all rewarded with local seasonal produce.
I seem to walk around the city in a daze lately as here in downtown Toronto we seem to have produce markets or specialty food stores on every corner and all presently are overflowing with fresh seasonal produce grown locally. I seem to lack the ability to prevent myself from stopping to browse through the market’s vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables so ripe and fresh that it is hard to choose between them. I stop to smell and pinch the tomatoes, admire the shiny skins of the colorful peppers, and yes, even drool over the large variety of eggplants. It seems on a daily basis lately I am bringing home yet another bag brimming full of vegetables which caused my husband to ask just yesterday, “What are you going to do with all those vegetables? You bought zucchini AGAIN????” My reply was (as it always is), “Don’t worry, I have it all planned”, and then I snuck into my office to look through my cookbooks and recipe files to find a new way to prepare zucchini for the 3rd time this week. I ended up making a delicious Summer Squash Saute that we both enjoyed so I stopped feeling guilty about my week’s zucchini obsession. See my recipe for Summer Squash Saute.
I am very lucky to have the opportunity to spend Saturday mornings strolling through St Lawrence market while living here in Toronto, and the experience closely reminds me of my market days in Italy. Throughout the years, Italian have shopped at their local markets for their daily meals, often not even deciding what to prepare until after they have checked out what looks the best for that day. They may often have a few ideas in mind before they arrive at the market as they know each season what they can expect to find, but until they see something that catches their eye, they won’t make that final decision. It may be a basket of ripe, red tomatoes whose earthy freshness radiates an aroma as they walk by, or perhaps it is a bunch of baby zucchini with flowers still attached and with the morning’s dew still sparkling on the bright green surface that catches their eye and determines what their menu for dinner will be. Whatever is chosen to create that days meal, it may not be something they even knew they were looking for, but rather something they couldn’t resist taking home after spying it freshly picked and glistening in the sunlight at their local market.
Every town, village and city in Italy have out-door markets, often revolving on different days through the local towns. As well as each seasons freshest produce, they may also sell freshly caught seafood, a wide selection of cheeses and cold meats, freshly baked breads and baked goods, seasonings and fresh herbs, and just about anything else you could imagine related to the Italian kitchen. The bustling market days are easy to spot as the streets are packed with people carrying home their shopping treasures, anxious to get started cooking their daily meal for their family.
Vegetables play an important part in the Italian diet, reflecting back to poorer times when meat was scarce and the garden was the most important area of a family’s home. In many cuisines, vegetables are more of an afterthought, while in an Italian kitchen they often take center stage. Italians have perfected the cooking of vegetables, resulting in dishes full of imagination and flavor. In the summer months, we have many fresh vegetables to choose from including tender purple eggplants, crisp fresh green beans, summer squash of almost every shape and color and an almost unlimited choice of salad greens. When buying these vegetables, choose only those with firm skins, bright colors, and a fresh aroma. Avoid any vegetables that appear droopy, dull, or that are spotted or discolored.
This summer, check out your local farmer’s market or take a drive out to a countryside produce stand, then browse through my Vegetable Recipe Collection to get a few ideas, and you too can be inspired by summer’s market bounty!
Deborah Mele 2011