Summer at the Improv

It’s the farmers’ market. Shop first. Ask questions later.

Early on a Saturday in mid-May, I met my friend Ann at the farmers’ market. She looked slightly aghast at my enormous haul and asked what on earth I planned to do with it all. “Um, I have no idea. It’s the Greenmarket. I shop first and ask questions later.”

There are times when I crave a particular dish and shop with that meal in mind, but most weeks at the market I just drag home slightly too much of whatever looks best and try to figure out what to make. Ann was drawn to this idea but she found it a little daunting. “This living on the market requires a lot of nimbleness and breadth,” she emailed a week later. It’s true, but here your best friend, especially at first, is the huge class of flexible dishes meant precisely to make use of what is at hand—things like salads, ragouts, and aioli in hot weather; soups and platters of roasted vegetables when it’s cool. The structure stays the same, so any recipe will do, but the meal changes with the ingredients, and the ingredients change according to what’s freshest or what the cook likes best. Summer is an especially good time to improvise, since there’s so damn much good food to be had. Ann now sends frequent word of her successes, like this recent winner: “I made a frittata with spring onions, shelled peas, and thyme, finished under the broiler with parmesan. It had this child-like geometry and color scheme (bright yellow circle riddled with brilliant green spheres), but it was great and I couldn’t help making precisely the same thing the following week.”

Improvisation relies on your ability to trust yourself, to know what you want to eat and how you want it cooked. It requires paying attention to your ingredients and your mistakes and—most importantly—learning to see recipes not as algorithms, but as inspiration. Not long ago, for instance, I looked up Bill Telepan’s recipe for Pea Pancakes because I had a lot of shell peas and, really, sometimes breakfast is what you want for dinner. I followed Bill’s recipe for the pancakes closely since I didn’t want to wind up with pea crepes or pea biscuits, but when it came to the topping, where Bill calls for more butter-glazed peas, I winged it with a mixture of peas, white baby turnips, young carrots, and tiny baby fennel. Why? Because I saw them in the market, and they looked beautiful, so I had them in my fridge. They were delicious. Now I’m emboldened, and plan to try this with green beans when they come into season. I feel certain Bill won’t mind.

Bill Telepan’s Pea Pancakes
Adapted from Inspired by Ingredients (Simon & Schuster, 2004)

1/4 lb sugar snap peas, strings removed
1/2 C shelled peas
3 Tbs milk (or replace 1 Tbs with cream)
An egg
1/4 C flour; 1/4 tsp sugar; 1/4 tsp salt; 1/2 tsp baking powder

Blanch the peas separately until they’re soft but not mushy; refresh in cold water. Puree the shell peas in a blender with the milk until smooth. Pour into a mixing bowl, mix in the egg, then the dry ingredients. Smoosh the shell peas into chunks and stir into the batter. Make 3” pancakes. Top with assorted vegetables to taste.

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