Where can you find the freshest produce in Southern California? For many of us, that answer is our local farmers market. In addition to just-picked fruit, vegetables and other seasonal items, these markets offer customers the opportunity to interact directly with the farmers, asking questions and seeking out tips and recipe ideas.
For the next few weeks, chefs will demonstrate how to pick the best produce, cook with fresh ingredients and expand your knowledge of farm-to-table culture with a series of demonstrations using market produce as part of this month’s Food Bowl. The demonstrations kick off Wednesday at 11 a.m. with Miles Thompson, executive chef at Michael’s in Santa Monica. While the menu may evolve, Thompson plans to demonstrate grilled squash from Fresno’s Her Farms with refried beans from Kandarian Farms in Los Osos, Calif., blueberries from the Central Coast’s Two Peas in a Pod and green blueberry caper salsa verde with green blueberries from Murray Family Farms in Bakersfield.
I caught up with Thompson recently to chat about the market, what produce is currently inspiring his menu and learn a few handy kitchen tips.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thompson is participating in The Times’ second annual Los Angeles Food Bowl. On Wednesday, he will be demonstrating at Santa Monica Farmers Market at 11 a.m. Third Street Promenade and Arizona Avenue, Santa Monica. Free
So how long have you been shopping at the Santa Monica farmers market?
10 years. I started when I was working at Nobu. We would come here — the whole kitchen would come down and we would shop for specials at the restaurant. And that's where I kinda fell in love with everything that was going on here, all of this.
The farmers market is such an easy place to fall in love with.
Miles Thompson, executive chef at Michael's in Santa Monica
And then when I started working at Animal [Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Hollywood restaurant], it was like, everything came from here. It was a total change of mindset for me. It was like, wow, you don't have to get anything from a produce company. Obviously, we're in Southern California, but it's still amazing.
Any recent inspiration that you're using at the restaurant now?
The blueberries from Two Peas in a Pod are stunning. We’re huge fans of Larry Kandarian's beans. We're using seven types right now on the menu — actually seven of his products: We're using lentils, his red silk beans, ayocote beans, ayocote negre, peruviana beans, garbanzo beans and garbanzo flour.
Why do you like them so much?
One reason why is they don't break when you cook them. A lot of beans that you buy, they burst at a certain point and you need to cook them very gently. These are just fresh dried beans, and they're cared for properly. It drives me crazy when you go eat and the beans are all mushy.
Any ideas about what you might want to demonstrate?
A recent inspiration is snap peas. They're pretty stellar this year so potentially something with snap peas. I may also demo something with Larry's beans. We do a bean dish at the restaurant that people really go wild for. There's a lot of elements, but the technique of how we cook the beans is something I could explain. We're also going to be using Chinese cucumbers that we got from Her produce and cherries from Murray to replace the citrus.
First cherries of the season! Have you tried them yet?
I just got two flats.
And what are you using those for?
Those are going to be in the bean dish. We're using three types of citrus in there right now, and we'll swap it out. The dish, so it's a puree of the peruviana beans with creme fraiche and ponzu. It has bonito flakes in it. And then we have a mixed salad of citrus which will become cherries and cucumbers and ayocote beans with a black sesame vinaigrette and chili oil. It's really good.
Any general tips on how to use your farmers market?
You know, I would say don't come with a plan. Come and see. Be flexible and try everything — there's lots of vendors, and ask if you can taste stuff.
People sometimes get timid about asking to taste stuff, but these farmers, they want you to know that they're growing.
And try variety. Buy turnips from three different farmers and try them raw, roasted and boiled, and see like how they all react differently and see what you like. Be flexible and really have fun. And ask the farmers. You always learn something too because they'll tell you something that you would never think of.
What's the latest thing you’ve learned from the farmers market?
I always, I always ask Frank from Coleman Family Farms what he's doing because he always has good tips. One of the things that will soon we'll be getting into is purslane season, and Clarita says she likes pork sauteed with purslane, and it's delicious. Oh, and green almonds.
How do you use those?
Sometimes I like to just pop out the actual almond and use those on a dish. And the the green outer part we'll pickle. Right now we're doing an experiment or making whole green almond capers. We're salting them at room temperature, with the hope that they will ferment slightly and then we will rinse them off and pickle them afterwards. I don't have a destination for those yet, but we'll figure it out.