Columnist: When farmers come to town

Margaret Maples

After a couple of outdoor shopping sprees, just making lunch can cause farmers market flashbacks: Like a chef gazing lustfully at spigariello and cavolo nero, organically grown cooking greens on display in Kinnikkinnick Farm’s booth at Green City Market. He adds a potted basil plant to his selections and dashes off to his restaurant. Moms push strollers or chase toddlers through Green City, which sprawls lazily at the south end of Chicago’s Lincoln Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The outdoor market ( continues to Oct. 28, then holds winter markets in November and December.

The whole enterprise seems busy yet relaxed, maybe because so much planning has gone into it. Green City’s mission includes supporting local farmers and giving people a better range of high-quality food – worthy goals as production costs and grocery store prices climb. At first glance, this market is a cascade of asparagus, tomatoes, greens, strawberries, cheeses, herbs, petunias, even Piedmontese beef. But don’t bother shopping here for pineapple; it doesn’t grow in this area. No corn or apples in June; they aren’t in season.  “I had to pull an apple bread last week,” says Sheri Doyel, the farm forager for Green City and the Chicago Farmers Markets system. She sounds regretful but firm:  Green City runs on tough love.

More than two dozen other markets are in full swing throughout  Chicago. Each sells fresh produce but reflects the character of its neighborhood. Green City has a leafy park background, but head south to Daley Plaza in the Loop, and the grass becomes concrete. Office workers, executives, salesfolk, lawyers and other type-A’s  zip in, and you can almost feel their mood change. Maybe their blood pressure drops as they stop to enjoy clouds of pastel peonies or sample goodies like honey from Kress Apiary of Burns Harbor, Ind. 

At some booths, lunch-hour shoppers cluster. The apple cinnamon bread at Delightful Pastries, a local bakery, might tempt a staunch seasonal fruit fan, and Provo’s Bakery of suburban Addison offers pineapple upside down cake. 

But some of these vendors, such as River Valley Ranch and Kitchens of Burlington, Wis., sell in both neighborhoods. A River Valley sales clerk displays beautiful oyster mushrooms and shiitakes, and points out that River Valley supplies well-known Chicago restaurants. His own preference for River Valley’s lovely  portobellos is to slice the cap into thin strips, dip in tempura batter and fry. He serves these with horseradish sauce.

At home, I slice my portobello, dredge it in flour, egg and panko, those crisp Japanese bread crumbs. Even after sizzling in peanut oil, these “portobello fries” taste of sunshine and earthy good cheer. A demonstration that the closer your table is to the soil, the better you’ll eat.

Margaret Maples is a freelance writer in Chicago and a frequent farmers market visitor.