Birmingham's Pepper Place Saturday Market was in fine form last weekend, and I’m happy to say I rousted myself from the sleep of the righteous early enough to take full advantage. Generally on a weekend, nobody is going to accuse me of being Johnny-on-the-Spot. But when you hit the market late morning, the goods have been pretty well picked over. And organic, locally grown, heirloom dregs are dregs nonetheless.
Thing is, even when you beat the crowd to a farmers’ market, you need to be selective. Yes, the stalls bulge with fresh-picked produce. Tables groan under the weight of the season’s bounty (particularly mid-summer, when we’ve had our fair share of rain). Stay calm, breathe deep, and remain a discriminating consumer. It takes some discipline, but you’ll be happier when it’s time to eat.
Peach season is in full swing here. I’m from Massachusetts, so it’s fair to say I hadn't truly eaten a peach in my life until three years ago, when I first tasted a Southern peach in its natural habitat. I bought a small basket at the Saturday market, and I’d honestly never tasted fruit so sweet and juicy. The next week, I bought a large basket, and I’d honestly never been so disappointed. I’d grabbed a bad bunch, part of the trial-and-error process.
It was an important lesson: Fresh local produce is not necessarily going to knock your socks off. You learn that if the peaches are vaguely green toward the stem and putting off no aroma, you pass. Same holds true (with differing criteria) for all other produce.
Last Saturday’s market had its share of lackluster peaches, but it also had some beauties the color of a Caribbean sunset with enough fragrance to fill up the car on the ride home. I also picked up some half-green, half-yellow zephyr squash, taxi cab-yellow zucchini, peaches-and-cream corn, and a few gorgeous lavender and white eggplants called Listada de Gandia, a delicate Italian variety with sweet flesh. And of course tomatoes from the good folks at The Tasteful Garden, including Cherokee Purple, Black Cherry, and candy-sweet Sun Gold varieties. Then, naturally, basil for the tomatoes. And then purple okra, which I can’t really explain. I don’t even really like okra, but this was purple and in great shape and by that point, I was frankly out of control and in need of an intervention. Suffice to say the week’s menus at Chez Cebula will be vegetarian.