To Market,

To Market

A Baltimore chef shows how to create a three-course meal from ingredients gathered at a local farmers' market.

May 29, 2002|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Summer in Maryland means many things: hot steamed crabs, trips to the ocean, and the fresh and colorful bounty of area farmers' markets.

Whether you want crisp vegetables for salads or grilling, fruit to make a cool summer dessert or freshly cut flowers for the table, more than 70 markets in Maryland offer the best of Mother Nature's handiwork. Add to that bargain prices and the bonus of outdoor shopping in a festive, bustling atmosphere, and it is easy to see why the crowds return every summer.

"They get bigger and better each year," says Tony Evans, who has spent nearly three decades coordinating farmers' markets for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "It's not only the fresh produce that brings people out, but the sense of community, ... being among friends and neighbors."

One trip to a farmers' market can supply most of the ingredients needed for a three-course meal.

To illustrate the kinds of creative dishes that can be made from local produce, we invited Helen's Garden chef Darin Linebaugh on a culinary field trip to the Bel Air Farmers' Market. One of the earliest markets of the season, the Bel Air market features 40 to 50 vendors who set up on Tuesdays and Saturdays in the district courthouse parking lot.

"We're in our 27th year," says market manager Ron McCarty. "For a long time, this market has been important to the town of Bel Air and the surrounding community. It's so old that everybody kind of knows everybody."

Many of the farmers here are second- and third-generation. They bring with them a veritable cornucopia of crops: waxy yellow and green squash, pungent spring onions, plump scarlet strawberries and much more. There are also vendors offering homemade baked goods, fresh-cut flowers, handcrafted wares and all sorts of appetizing prepared foods.

Linebaugh mills among the stalls and tables. It's early in the season, so the stalls are not as full as they will be in a few weeks. Linebaugh takes it all in, sniffing, inspecting, his expert eye making sure that fruit is unblemished and that vegetables are fully ripe.

He pauses at the stand of Donald C. Merritt & Sons, which is loaded with produce picked just a few hours earlier - red sails lettuce, crisp asparagus and strawberries so plump and red, they seems to burst from their crates.

"Once they buy, they usually come back," says Don Merritt while bagging spinach, green onions and three crates of strawberries for Linebaugh.

Then it's on to the table where Snyder's Farm has blueberries, raspberries and crisp stalks of rhubarb. The chef buys the latter.

"I'm already getting a few ideas," says Linebaugh, 30, a tall and cheery man who more resembles a surfer than a chef. He is dressed in cargo shorts and shades and wears his hair in a closely cropped ponytail.

His approach to cooking is as unconventional as his dress.

"We have a sign in our kitchen that says `Cook recklessly and love like you've never been hurt before,' " he says. "What this means is taking chances in cooking and life."

This philosophy makes sense for a guy who earned an anthropology/sociology degree from St. Mary's College but, after a few years of traveling and cooking in youth hostels in Europe, decided to be a chef.

He trained formally at the Baltimore International College and four years ago joined Helen's Garden, a restaurant that has gotten high marks for its New American cuisine.

Linebaugh picks out a few more items at the market before spotting herb plants carried by farmer Andy Bachman of Andrew's Garden in Fallston.

Bachman, whose family has been farming more than a century, is selling rosemary, garlic, sweet marjoram, oregano, curly parsley, chervil and much more.

"Here, try this one," he says to Linebaugh, holding out a brilliantly colored plant called purple ruffles basil. "It has the same flavor [as regular basil], and the color is really interesting."

Linebaugh likes what he sees, and before long has bought 10 different types of plants at $1 each. "I have an herb garden at home," he says. "These will continue to grow year after year, so they're a pretty good bargain."

In less than an hour, the chef has nearly completed his shopping. He has several bags crammed with goodies - assorted lettuces, asparagus, spinach, onions, rhubarb and several crates of strawberries. But on his way out, he spies a table lined with several jars of amber-colored honey.

"Our honey is harvested fresh," says beekeeper Cybil Preston, who runs Cybee's in Jarrettsville.

"It's raw, not pasteurized or processed. It's the good stuff."

By the time Linebaugh returns to Baltimore, he has come up with a menu that he hopes will also be full of "good stuff" to eat.

Back at the restaurant, he tosses a spring salad with two types of lettuce, spring onion and fresh chives, then topped with a balsamic vinaigrette.

For the main course, he comes up with tarragon and oregano polenta triangles stacked with steamed asparagus and wilted spinach. It is served on a plate lined with honey-ginger mustard cream sauce.

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