When it comes to creating a dinner menu for my guests, quality over creativity almost always wins for me. For that reason, heading to the Farmer’s market is the first stop when deciding what to prepare. But, if you consider yourself an amateur chef, venturing into an open air market with a variety of ingredients you may or may not have heard of can be intimidating. And, if you’re anything like me, can leave you with just picking up some broccoli before heading to your local grocery store. But, trust me, it’s worth it to sift through the seasonal options, the obscure herbs and more to create a menu that will make your guests feel honored. Here are just a few of my tips for navigating this process:
HAVE A MAIN OR PROTEIN IN MIND BUT ALSO BE FLEXIBLE
I typically lean towards making fish when I’m entertaining, but if I spot a whole chicken from a free range farm while I’m there, I may just change directions. Remember it’s all about creating a menu you’re comfortable with using the best available ingredients.
TALK TO THE PURVEYORS
If you’re hoping to make a pasta and want to know the best mushrooms to use or you’re making a simple green salad but want it to be just a little bit unique, talk to the farmers. Tell them what you have on the menu and let them guide you to dandelion greens or some exotic mushrooms. They may tell you to keep it simple and use their fresh peppery arugula, or they may guide you towards something you would have never thought to try or known what to do with.
MAKE YOUR STAPLES SEASONAL
I have a few dishes I’ve essentially turned into a formula which allows me to switch out this fruit for another or use this cheese instead of that cheese. This makes creating high quality appetizers, salads or sides, super fun and super easy. For instance, I often serve crostinis for appetizers in a variety of forms. Crostinis are delicious with pears, gorgonzola and a bit of balsamic or perfect with peaches, ricotta and honey. They’re amazing with mushrooms and shaved parmesan or delectable with a bit of fig, honey and sea salt. I do the same with salads. Choose an amazing green, mix in a seasonal fruit and pair with amazing cheese (recommended by the dairy vendor) and call it a day. The result is always something delicious and interesting. With that in mind, what recipes have you perfected that you feel comfortable experimenting with? Take that combo to the market and get creative.
DON’T FEEL OBLIGATED TO MAKE EVERYTHING YOURSELF
I’m personally more of a cook than a baker, but I still love fresh breads and baked goods. Perhaps you’re the same…Maybe you love fresh hummus but you don’t have the time or interest in making it. Or maybe you are obsessed with fresh pasta but know you won’t do it justice. Whatever it is, there’s no reason to feel like you have to make every dish from scratch. But this is just another reason to love the farmer’s market. I’ve gotten the most amazing fresh breads, found the perfect chocolate tarts and even grabbed the most delicious Baba Ganoush to create a simple mediterranean inspired spread with olives, tomatoes, pita and feta. Remember it’s quality over creativity, so when in doubt if you find a high quality product that will make your meal memorable, snatch it up!
LET THE MARKET INSPIRE YOU
As mentioned with the mains, I also go to the market with a loose menu in mind, but I’m not locked into anything. For instance, I might go in thinking I’m going to serve a variety of crostinis for appetizers, but when I get there I find the most amazing oysters or even olives. Whatever it is, I have been known to fully switch gears mid market when something catches my eye. I encourage you to do the same.
DON’T FORGET THE COCKTAILS
I’m far from a mixologist, but I do love a good cocktail. While I’ll probably never perfect my favorite drinks, I do know they always have one thing in common: fresh mixers. So when I’m at the market shopping for dinner, I’m also keeping my eye out for the perfect combination to serve with Mezcal, Gin or whatever spirit I know my guests will love. Sometimes I grab fresh produce and whip up something magical with figs and rosemary, but I’ve also been known to simply pick up fresh squeezed Orange Juice and turn it into a refreshing drink. I personally like to add a surprise element like spicy jalapenos or fresh thyme.
HAVE FUN EXPERIMENTING
Remember that a farmer’s market inspired dinner is all about creating something with the freshest available ingredients and not about perfection. I personally avoid dishes above my skill level and I don’t hold myself to unreasonable expectations when it comes to creating a menu. Start with recipes you’re comfortable with but the only way to get better is to experiment a bit. And the most forgiving way to do so is to start with the freshest possible ingredients.
DON’T FORGET DECOR
Whether you grab a bundle of fresh cut blooms, some potted herbs or fresh produce, the farmer’s market can be the perfect place to inspire your tablescape design, depending on the menu and occasion. Keep your eye out for pretty moments to add to the table or each place setting as you explore.
TELL THE STORY OF THE INGREDIENTS
While you don’t have to go on and on about the nitty gritty of every single dish you’re serving, don’t be afraid to talk about how the corn came from a farm about two hours away in a little town you recommend exploring or how the flatbread came from your all time favorite baker in the area who you’ve been buying bread from for over a decade. Great ingredients make for great conversation and sharing the source of your products is both inspiring to guests and helps them understand the level of intention you put into creating a meal.
Whatever you do, remember entertaining is supposed to be enjoyable. If you’re getting overwhelmed or too stressed, lean back on recipes you’re comfortable with and ingredients you’re familiar with. If you only use one ingredient from the market this time or even just pick up a loaf of fresh bread, there’s always next time. Whatever you do, have fun!