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Monday, July 9, 2012

Cooking the Whole Foods way

Fresh, local field peas hatched the idea for a David Sweeney-esque grain bowl
  • Brad Kaplan
  • Fresh, local field peas hatched the idea for a David Sweeney-esque grain bowl
Lately I've been letting my trips to Whole Foods determine my meals. No, I'm not pigging out at the new dessert bar (though it is tempting). I have a simple approach... Start in produce. What looks especially good? Is it local (and seasonal)? Is it on sale (goodness gracious Whole Foods can be expensive)?? Can I figure out what to do with it??? If the answer to at least three of those questions is yes, then there's a good chance that fruit or vegetable will end up in my cart. It doesn't HAVE to be on sale. But it sure helps. It doesn't HAVE to be local. But I really prefer that it is - both in concept and for the fact that it's inherently fresh and in season.

Once I'm through in the produce section, I usually have a few ideas simmering. Those peaches? Maybe a grilled peach salad, or a peach salsa. Those field peas? Definitely into a grain bowl with some quinoa a la David Sweeney. That corn? Hmmm, cold corn soup? Or an accent to an unusual salad?

Georgia peaches, grilled, in a summer salad with beets, fresh corn, watercress and goat cheese
  • Brad Kaplan
  • Georgia peaches, grilled, in a summer salad with beets, fresh corn, watercress and goat cheese
Then I make my way to the seafood counter. I don't often cook meat or poultry at home, mainly because I have an inherent preference for the taste and "healthiness" of seafood. Not always the case, true, but that's my bias. So... is there wild salmon on sale? Oh, there's some fresh caught swordfish. Swordfish... peach salsa. Back to the produce section to get some mango and serrano pepper and red onion to fill it out.

I love letting the market decide the recipe. Yes, it means going back and forth between the sections of the grocery, and it does become a bit of a high-wire act to pull it all together at home. And, no, it doesn't always work out perfectly. Those fresh English peas I decided to toss with lemon zest and dill alongside some seared scallops (on sale, of course)? I should have cooked them longer instead of just quickly blanching them in salted water. They were way too firm. Live and learn.

Swordfish with peach mango salsa over beet greens
  • Brad Kaplan
  • Swordfish with peach mango salsa over beet greens
And that's the thing. When you cook like this, you will definitely learn through trial and error. And it's a very different kind of learning than the home cook can attain through trying out cookbooks or magazine recipes. Sure, it's cool to look up a recipe for ideas or to make sure the technique you're thinking of makes sense, but, in the end, cooking without a net, letting the ingredients do the talking, just feels better. After I made a crazy salad that featured grilled peaches and roasted beets and watercress and green onion and corn, all to wonderful effect, I even had the thought that this is probably the first time anyone has ever put together those exact ingredients (maybe for good reason, but I thought it turned out great). You can't get that kind of feeling following a Paula Deen recipe or the latest Saveur magazine.

Of course, we're in the middle of summer produce season, when just about everything looks good enough to serve with minimal interference. When February comes and the winter vegetables are wearing out their welcome, the best reward might be forgetting all of the above and stuffing my face at the dessert bar. There's nothing wrong with that either, right?

P.S. Yes, I know I could join a CSA, or shop every week at farmers markets rather than Whole Foods. I do when the timing is right, and wish it were more frequently aligned with my schedule.

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