7 Chefs' Secrets to Seattle Farmer's Markets

By Leslie Kelly  |  April 21, 2014
Credit: Tom Phillips, U-District Farmers Market

Spring's bounty - rhubarb, nettles, fiddlehead ferns, broccoli rabe and more - is finally starting to show up at Seattle's farmer's markets. While it's a beauty to behold, the presence of all these vegetables can cause a bit of kitchen performance anxiety. Are the best nettles at the U-District or Ballard? How do you pick out and prep asparagus? What can I do with rhubarb? We pulled aside seven of Seattle's most trusted chefs to ask them how they're using spring produce, along with tips for the home cook on how to prepare and where to buy. Read on to see what we found out.

  • Credit: Tom Phillips, U-District Farmers Market

    Maria Hines on Rhubarb

    At the restaurant: "I love the way rhubarb can go sweet or savory," says Hines (Tilth, Golden Beetle, Agrodolce), who uses the veg in sorbets and other sweet treats. But it is Tilth's chef de cuisine Ariel Fishman-Larsch's savory treatment, in a sauce alongside sablefish, that stands out most. "It's got a nice tart quality that punches up the seared fish," she says.

    At home: "Simmer it slowly with a little bit of sugar until it starts to break down. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Add a splash of vinegar and some chopped shallots and you've got a chutney."

    Where to buy: "Ballard, Ballard, Ballard! Great vibe, and it's in my community! Love shooting the breeze with Eiko and Nichole at Skagit River Ranch and going out to brunch after."

  • Credit: Tom Phillips, U-District Farmers Market

    Brian McCracken and Dana Tough on Wild Wood Sorrel

    At the restaurant: The team from Old Sage, Tavern Law and Spur thinks of wild wood sorrel as the Northwest version of citrus. "It's got a wonderful, tart flavor that's a little bit sour," said McCracken. At Old Sage, it's showcased in an inventive fish dish: "We poach arctic char in a hickory smoked olive oil. It's almost like a sous-vide preparation. Then we finish it in a crumble of cocoa nibs and preserved citrus and olives, so you've got a lot of savory and earthy flavors. The wood sorrel sauce really lightens it up."

    At home: The chefs suggest this tender green be pureed raw, like basil used in pesto, mixing in some neutral flavored oil until it's a smooth texture and adding a bit of salt before serving it with seafood, chicken or pork.

    Where to buy: "We love going to the U-District. There's at least one farmer there who always has the most unique ingredients." 

  • Credit: Tom Phillips, U-District Farmers Market

    Chef Renee Erickson on Broccoli Rabe

    At the restaurant: Also known as rapini, this cruciferous veg is a nutritional superstar, but it can be too bitter for some palates. To tame the flavor, chef Renee Erickson (Walrus & The Carpenter, Barnacle, Boat Street Cafe, Whale Wins) has a special approach: "It's soooo green. At Boat [Street Cafe], we blanche it quickly to take away the bitterness and then marinate it in olive oil, garlic and Calabrian chili."

    At home: Erickson loves drizzling broccoli rabe with olive oil and roasting or grilling it. After cooking, she tops it with anchovy vinegar and toasted breadcrumbs.

    Where to buy: "I love Ballard and the U-District."

  • Credit: Chris Curtis, U-District Farmers Market

    Chef Charles Walpole on Fiddlehead Ferns

    At the restaurant: Walpole has never been a big fan of fiddleheads...until this spring that is. That's when New Orleans-bred cook Kenny Gibbs introduced him to a Korean blanching preparation he had learned from family members. At Blind Pig Bistro, "We've been serving the blanched fiddleheads on a cool octopus dish that people have been loving. The octopus is seared a la plancha and served on a kimchi pancake with black garlic aioli."

    At home: "If you blanche the fiddleheads three times, it tones down the funky flavor," he said. Then you can marinate them in soy sauce with a little bit of sesame oil. Serve them as a side dish or a garnish with seafood. 

    Where to buy: "I go to the U-District every Saturday to shop for the restaurant."

  • Credit: Tom Phillips, U-District Farmers Market

    Chef Jelle Vandenbroucke on Young Leeks

    At the restaurant: ART's chef de cuisine grew up in Northern Europe, where leeks were used strictly in classic preparations. "It was all about melted leeks, cooking them low and slow in butter," he said. While he doesn't feature them on the menu at the luxe restaurant at the moment, diners can expect to find leeks adorning some seasonal pasta preparation later in the summer.

    At home: It was his wife's family in Mexico who first introduced him to the sweet pleasures of young leeks. "My father-in-law loves to grill them until they're charred and finish them in a little squeeze of lemon juice. It's really simple, but brings out the sweetness," he said. If you get too much char on the outside of the grilled leek, simply peel away that first layer before eating. It's also good to remember that young leeks aren't as tedious to clean as their older counterparts, but still be on the lookout for grit.

    Where to buy: "Pike Place Market, where I head to Sosio's Produce. It's great because they know what I like and we can have a conversation about what's new and good." 

  • Credit: Tom Phillips, U-District Farmers Market

    Chef Jerry Traunfeld Talks About Stinging Nettles

    At the restaurantPoppy's chef-owner used to cultivate this pesky weed way back when he worked at the original Herbfarm. These days, he sources the distinctive spring green from his former Herbfarm sous-chef Jeremy Faber at Foraged and Found, and now features sauteed nettles on a ricotta gnudi preparation, a "nude ravioli" that appears on the restaurant's multifaceted main course served on a Thali. The tender dumplings are partnered with the sauteed nettles, a lovage sauce and maitake mushrooms. "It tastes like spring," he said.

    At home: "Always wear gloves when handling stinging nettles. Rinse them, then blanche in a big pot of salted water and sauté them right away. Or shock them in an ice bath, purée them and use in a lasagna or any dish you'd use cooked spinach in."

    Where to buy: "These days you’ll most likely see me at the Broadway Farmer’s Market on Sunday. It's nearest to where I live and work. I love the way it feels so much a part of its urban neighborhood."

  • Credit: Leslie Kelly

    Chef Holly Smith on Asparagus

    At the restaurant: Cafe Juanita's chef cannot get enough asparagus this time of year. "We like to keep it simple, just roast it and top with a little toasted breadcrumbs for crunch," Smith said of the sweet stalks grown in the Yakima Valley. At her comfortably elegant restaurant in Kirkland, asparagus is paired with a rich, savory green garlic flan.

    At home: "I could eat a giant plate of it on its own. It's the perfect midnight meal, with a poached egg on top, some shaved Parm," Smith said. "I grew up in a house where we peeled asparagus. Now, I'm a snapper," she said. "Working your way up from the bottom of the stalk, gently bend it until it easily snaps." Smith says she finds the stouter stalks sweeter this time of year. Once prepped, she suggested placing them on a sheet tray and drizzling with olive oil before popping them under the broiler for just three minutes. "They'll continue to cook a little bit when you take them out of the oven while you're plating." 

    Where to buy: "I've always been a Ballard person."