Unusual farmers market finds in Chicago and the burbs

One of the best things about summer and fall in Chicago is the farmers markets that pop up throughout the city and suburbs every week. These markets bring the very best of the Midwest’s farms and orchards right to our doorsteps.

I have been a farmers market devotee since I first moved to Chicago in 2001. Back then, my husband and I lived just down the street from the Lincoln Park farmers market and we spent many of our newlywed Saturday mornings carefully picking out peaches, cherries and fresh corn. When we bought our first home in Bucktown, we switched our allegiance to the Wicker Park farmers market. After our second child was born, and we moved to the suburbs, we became regulars at the Oak Park Farmers Market. (And, yes, the doughnuts there are as good as everyone says.)

The farmers markets start off slow in May with little more than lettuces, asparagus, strawberries and perhaps rhubarb for the adventurous. But by this month, the markets groan with the fruits and vegetables that everyone longs for in the dead of winter: heirloom tomatoes, peaches, Michigan blueberries and of course, sweet corn.

Plus, they offer a variety of unusual and unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.

Some of these crops are highly perishable or have a short growing season; others are ancient varieties on the verge of extinction. Whatever the reason, these are not fruits and vegetables you will see in the grocery store. You may hesitate to buy these unfamiliar items because you don’t know how they taste or how to use them. (If you’re worried, just ask the farmer selling them. He or she will be happy to tell you.)

These long-lost fruits and vegetables are our culinary heritage and a reminder of how our ancestors would never let any food go to waste. If something was edible, they found a way to use it.

Here are some of my favorite farmers market finds for late summer and fall:

Ground cherries: You may have come across these funny little guys once or twice. They look like small yellow cherry tomatoes, but they come in papery husks. Sometimes ground cherries are known as “husk tomatoes” for that reason, but they are not tomatoes. In fact, ground cherries are a cousin of the tomatillo-another unusual farmers market find that we see this time of year-and the gooseberry.

Ground cherries have a slightly mineral flavor like gooseberries, but they are much sweeter. You can eat them raw or add them to salads. You can chop them up with onions and chiles and make an unusual salsa to serve with grilled fish or chicken. Or just bake with ground cherries or turn them into a jam or preserve. An Internet search will turn up plenty of recipes.

Damson plums: Damson plums are an ancient variety of plum, characterized by blue-black skin and yellow flesh. They have earned the nickname “damn Damsons” for their puny size-you have to pit a lot to have enough to cook with-and their mouth-puckering flavor.

Still popular in Britain, Damson plums have fallen into obscurity here. But these ornery little guys make delicious jam. They also work well in baked goods, like the German plum cake Pflaumekuchen, and make terrific moonshine. Indeed, the Slavic liquor slivovitz is made from fermented Damsons. Use Damsons in any recipe that calls for plums, but you may want to add extra sugar to offset the tartness.

Green tomatoes: As summer turns into fall, you often will find green tomatoes for sale for much less than their ripe counterparts. Everyone has heard of fried green tomatoes and they are delicious. I make them for my family once or twice every summer.

My method involves slicing the tomatoes, dipping the slices in buttermilk and then dredging them in a mix of half flour, half cornmeal that has been flavored with salt, pepper and something to give it a little heat, like cayenne. Then I pan-fry the tomatoes in a heavy, deep skillet, which is coated in a thin layer of hot vegetable oil.

Of course, one can only eat so many fried green tomatoes. Fortunately, green tomatoes are also great in chutneys, relishes and salsas. You can also pickle green tomatoes. Old New York delis used to serve dishes of pickled cucumbers and pickled green tomatoes on every table.

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