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Leave some room for a surprise at the farmers market

Okra, corn, tomatoes and Jimmy Nardello peppers are just a few of the peak summer ingredients at  local farmers markets
Okra, corn, tomatoes and Jimmy Nardello peppers are just a few of the peak summer ingredients to get at your local farmers markets now.
(Ben Mims / Los Angeles Times)

Though shopping at the farmers market ain’t quite what it used to be, it’s still an activity I’m taking on to stay connected to the seasons here in Southern California. This is, inarguably, the best time of year for produce, and I want to take full advantage of it. Instead of aimlessly sauntering through the streets, however, now I’m armed with extra tote bags and a list of fruits and vegetables I know I can find.

I know there will be plenty of summer squashes and zucchini now, which I never get bored of grilling, watching the fire blister them into submission and concentrate their flavor. Heirloom tomatoes, thickly sliced and seasoned with nothing else but flaky salt and cracked black pepper, make up basically every lunch right now, sandwiched between two slices of sourdough slathered with homemade mayonnaise; it’s the sandwich of my Southern upbringing I’ll never shake.

Continuing with that theme, I’ll grab all the corn I can carry in my bags to sauté up plain and eat out of bowls with a drizzle of hot sauce or herby homemade ranch dressing. I’ll grill/sauté/roast okra as much as possible to eat as a weeknight side dish in place of the usual broccoli or green beans; any that I can’t get around to eating soon enough will get pickled.

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And then there’s the peppers. I can’t stomach grocery store bell peppers, but the in-season specimens at farmers markets — striped purple and red and some with a fire-flame mix of orange and sienna — are a different beast (if you can find sweet, floral Jimmy Nardello peppers, you’ll have really won the jackpot). I love to roast pounds of them, chop them, and keep them in my fridge for stirring into my pot of rice or pasta or scattering over whatever roast chicken or pork chop has just come off the grill.

Of course, during my market shopping sprees, I leave a little space for an unexpected ingredient or two. Even if the shopping experience is more rushed and fraught than it used to be, there still needs to be an element of surprise to make it worth the trip out of the house.

Spicy Italian sausage plays the supporting role to a host of lightly charred, tender summer vegetables.

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Wild arugula panzanella

Time 35 minutes
Yields Serves 4 to 6

The juices of ripe tomatoes create their own vinaigrette of sorts in this classic summer dish.

Zucchini, corn and green chile (Calabacitas)

Time 25 minutes
Yields Serves 6 to 8

Green chiles spice up sweet corn and squash for a side dish perfect with grilled chicken or salmon.

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Hungarian pepper salad

Time 1 hour 15 minutes
Yields Serves 6

Use a rainbow-colored mix of peppers for this simple salad that makes a hearty meal on its own.

Spicy quick-pickled okra

Time 15 minutes
Yields Makes 4 pints

Pickling okra rids it of its slime and preserves its unique crunch; serve it on your BLT.

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Ask the cooks

After a lifetime of learning to cook like a carnivore, I’m trying to switch over to a vegan diet. It’s not too hard to just feed myself, but what to feed my carnivorous brothers when they come over?

— Ellen Emery

I, too, go through periods of eating vegan, and I find the best thing to make for non-vegans that you can both eat is some sort of dish that looks like meat but isn’t. Making pulled pork sandwiches or carnitas tacos where you use jackfruit instead of meat is very easy because both dishes come with a very flavorful sauce, and meat-eaters often can’t tell the difference in flavor or texture through all the spices.

Jackfruit comes in cans at Whole Foods and in any Asian grocery stores, but look for young jackfruit if you can find it. A tip from my colleague Patricia Escárcega is that the younger jackfruit is greener and, thus, less sweet, so it will take to more savory applications better than the more mature fruit.

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You could also make something like spaghetti with tomato sauce and leave any meat on the side. And meat eaters might not even notice this Caesar salad is vegan.

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