“If we are what we eat, then regular trips to the farmers markets help us learn not just who but where we are, in time and place,” writes Beth Dooley in “Minnesota’s Bounty” (University of Minnesota Press, $29.95), her richly observed paean to the state’s farmers markets and the small-scale farmers that make them possible.
For her eighth cookbook, Dooley celebrates the wide range of fruits, vegetables, grains, cheeses, meats and poultry (vividly depicted by Minneapolis photographer Mette Nielsen) available to local shoppers, then channels each ingredient into original, accessible and appealing cooking ideas.
In a recent conversation, Dooley, a frequent Taste contributor, discussed her introduction to farmers markets, shared shopping strategies and revealed her surprising — given her occupation — aversion to recipes.
Q: You write, “Every farmers market is a glorious Mardi Gras that engages our senses and lifts our spirits.” Where does that full-throttle enthusiasm come from?
A: When I first moved to Minneapolis from New Jersey 30 years ago, I was really lonely. I kind of stumbled into the Minneapolis Farmers Market, and I couldn’t believe how exciting it was. I’d never been to the kind of venue — at least not in my adult life — where I could talk to the person who handed me his carrots. His hands looked like carrots, and he could tell me how to cook them. When I was a kid I did that with my grandmother along the Jersey shore, we’d stop at farm stands. I realized that I really missed that kind of interaction.
And the market is such a rush of color, and smells, and activity, and people bumping into each other. I’m always surprised by what I find, and it’s different every week. It became the thing that I do on my Saturday mornings. It was the way I got to know the area and its food.
Q: What makes for a successful farmers market?
A: We shop with our eyes, so look for the farmers that are savvy to that, the ones that put their best stuff out and are willing to engage with people and talk about farming practices. That connotes that the farmer is happy with what they’re doing.
Knowing that it’s locally grown — and not coming off a truck from California — is a good thing. With hoop house technologies, we’ll be seeing early greens right away — that’s exciting. And as afraid as we all are of climate change, we’re also seeing things we’ve never seen before in this area. Later this season we’ll see ginger, for example, and it’s wonderful.
Q: Do you have any farmers market shopping strategies?
A: Always bring a bag, and leave the shopping list at home. Keep the dog at home, but bring the kids. It’s always good to bring cash. I always like to grab a coffee and walk the market first to get a sense of what’s out there. Part of it is to just slow down a bit. It’s not charging into the grocery store. It’s better to go in with an open mind and being OK with that.
Q: Why no shopping list?
A: It goes along with my feelings about why I love having a CSA [community-supported agriculture, a crop share]. I’m forced to respond to what’s there. I may have an idea that I want to make a soup, for example, and I’m pretty sure peas are in, but then you get there and the peas don’t look good, but the lettuces do. So you’ll tweak your plan, and you’ll soup the lettuces rather than the peas.
It’s about not being so strident, about not assuming that you’ll always find what you want at the market but instead letting the food that’s currently coming out of the ground inform what you’re cooking.
More people are used to this idea today, and of course many chefs work this way, but it was sort of a shock when I first started thinking this way. You know, “What do you mean, you don’t have tomatoes? The recipe says that I have to have tomatoes” [laughs]. For a gal from New Jersey who is used to being in charge, that was a big change.
Q: When you travel, you must visit other markets. How do Minnesota markets compare nationally?
A: Minnesota is so very, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [laughs]. I mean, we just don’t value what we have, and what we have is astounding. Our markets are doing a phenomenal job; they can certainly rival the markets in any big city in the country. OK, Madison, Wisconsin, might be better than ours. Maybe we can get some Badger-Gopher rivalry going, to up our game a little bit [laughs].
Q: It’s a fairly radical statement for a cookbook author to write, “I don’t like recipes. Period.” Or not?
A: That’s making myself pretty clear, isn’t it? [laughs]. I’m hoping that people will use my recipes as a guide, so when they get home from the farmers market with their bundles of stuff, they’ll look through the book for ideas.
The great thing about cooking is that the more you do it, the easier it becomes to fly on your own. I’ve really learned about this from my kids. They’re pretty good cooks, but they’re constantly asking for concrete directions. I say to them, “What does it smell like? What are the colors like?”
When Lucia [Watson, owner of Lucia’s Restaurant in Minneapolis and Dooley’s co-author of “Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland”] and I were working with Judith Jones, a legendary editor at Knopf, she said, “You have to tell me what the bread is going to smell like, or how the bread is going to sound if you tap it.”
Cooking is really about engaging in the process with all of your full senses, and trusting what you already know.
Q: The book’s recipes all seem disarmingly approachable. Is that the way you cook?
A: I tried to keep things simple and quick; I didn’t want to put people off. When I go to the market, I spend the morning there, so I don’t want to come home and do anything too complicated.
So yes, this is simple, intentionally so. I like to tell people that you don’t have to do too much to this food. I’m not that good of a cook, but I’m a very good chopper.
Q: Beth Dooley, not a good cook? I don’t believe that for a second. Do you have a favorite month during the Minnesota growing season?
A: I’ve got to say that it’s tomato season. It astounds me that you can get so many flavors out of a single plant. I’m blown away by that.
I also have to say that I like the capstones of the season. It’s always thrilling in the spring, the asparagus and the peas and everything else are all so wonderful. Then we get a little jaded, and then at the end of the season we get nostalgic. You get the kales, the chards, even the late-season corn, and you begin to know that it’s over, and there’s this longing for it, because you know it’s not going to be around for much longer.
We live in this cold, hard climate, so every time I come across something new it’s like, “Wow, where did that come from?” I mean, we’re starting to see ramps now, and people are going ballistic, it’s so exciting. That’s part of the joy of living here.
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