These days the opening of farmers-market season almost feels like a holiday unto itself. Instead of wreaths and holly or chocolate bunnies and tulips come ripe stone fruits, thick stalks of red rhubarb, pretty peas, and myriad lettuces—most of them found at the many outdoor markets all over Seattle that open this month. With the season comes chefs using that bounty on menus put together based on what they find at their fingertips. And so I wondered what it’s like to take in this summertime splendor through the eyes of the many restaurant chefs planning to use it in special market menus, and how they quickly conceptualize and cook a meal from ingredients they find.
I chose as my guide Shane Ryan from Matt’s in the Market—in part because he’s one of the best chefs in the city, and also because I knew he’d be shopping Pike Place and I figured he’d have some unique insights into that year-round, most heavily tread market of all. Here’s how our morning went down.
I meet Shane at the restaurant at 10 a.m. on a Saturday. He’s a few minutes late because he worked until 1:30 a.m. the night before. But the restaurant is already buzzing as staffers prepare to open for 11:30 lunch. When he arrives, surprisingly bright-eyed, he grabs a bag and we leave the restaurant, heading past the famous Pike Place Fish guys down the hall to the elevator. We come out on the back side, on Western Avenue, because, as Ryan points out, “This side of the market is totally forgotten, and you can avoid all the tourists.” We start at two of the city’s best-kept culinary secrets, The Spanish Table and The Paris Grocery—both veritable oases of Spanish and French delicacies.
At The Spanish Table, we marvel at the outstanding cookbook collection before we move to the cheese section. “This is where I get into trouble, because it’s too much fun,” he laughs pointing to a cow and sheep cheese, “but softer”: Cana de Oveja and Cana de Cabra, which he uses on a charcuterie board or crumbled on greens.” Then he holds up a jar of Piparras, pickled peppers that a guy named Medhi jars—“the best if you’re not going to make your own.” I gawk at a massive 4´ x 4´ paella pan, and Ryan jokes, “A few people can crawl up in there.” He shows me a spice mix from Villa Jerada, “a local guy who grinds smoked paprika for us.”
Next door, at The Paris Grocery, we gravitate again to the cheeses; he suggests the tiny crottins (“perfect for two”) roasted whole for five minutes. “Crottin is fun.” Then we both stare quizzically at a whole iberico pork leg hanging in the refrigerated section with a price tag of $1,077. In his usual blunt way, Ryan calls out to the staffer, “Have you ever actually sold one of these?” Apparently, yes—to companies throwing parties. There are also tubs of duck fat for sale, and Kerrygold butter, advertised as “instant snail butter.” I ask Ryan why Kerrygold for snails. He shrugs: “It’s Irish, like me, so I don’t know.”
Our last stop on Western is at World Spice Merchants, where, Ryan tells me, they make a special chili mix and a chorizo blend just for Matt’s. He points to a glass container of dried roses amid the gallimaufry of spices. “Where else are you going to find that?” Then he lifts the lid of a container with the Syrian chili Aleppo and points out black cardamom, which he tells me is darker in flavor than green, and which he uses on meats. Amid the dozens of garam masalas, he calls out the kashmiri types. “They’re the best. It’s great sprinkled on eggs, over yogurt, or to finish a dish.”
We leave and walk up the back stairs to the front side of the market. “Can we skip DeLaurenti?” Ryan asks, only because it’s so well-known and smack at the main entrance. Instead we head down the cobblestone main street. “You must walk in the street if you want to save time,” he says as we dodge cars and pedestrians, rather than taking to the crowded sidewalks or the covered market.We make our way to Le Panier, where he drops off a check for the baguettes that Matt’s uses in its banh mi sandwiches. The intoxicating smell of baking bread hits us as we continue down the street, passing Piroshky Piroshky, which Ryan says is “where you want to be at 9 a.m. before you start your shopping.” In the Mexican Grocery, Ryan tells me that the tortillas here, though packaged like other commercial ones, “are pressed, the real deal.” He buys 12 fresh tamales for his cooks (“for staff meal”) and a tub of green salsa.
We then start backtracking, eventually hitting Frank’s Quality Produce on the corner. “What up, Shane?” shouts one of the fruit guys.
“Touch me if you know me! You look fabulous,” Ryan yells back while he motions towards Italian summer truffles.
“They’re $400 a pound, but look.” Ryan throws one on the scale. It’s a fraction of a pound, “only $40.”
Then his eyes pounce on a box of tiny green fruits: Super Sexy Sweet Guavas, according to the sign. “What’s up with these?” he asks 27-year Manager Mike Paul. “I’m taking one.”
“They’re baby guavas. They need to ripen still,” Paul replies.
I point at the apricots, which look lovely but, as I say to Paul, “Are fresh apricots really ever any good?
“Yeah, they can be mealy,” he acknowledges, to which Ryan exclaims: “Anything mealy you just want to punch in the face.”
Frank slices open a white peach, one of my favorites. They’re just getting sweet, and that floral note is right there. Ryan turns my attention toward the heirloom tomatoes. Currently they’re from Mexico, he tells me, pointing at the label. In two weeks, they’ll be from California. In September, they’ll be from Washington. Ditto for the cherries. “You need to read those labels,” he says. He also points out that if you talk to these guys the way he does, honestly and directly, they’ll steer you away from the stuff that’s not good, that’s out of season. Ryan buys wholesale from Frank’s, but will often come down here to see what’s new.
Right across from Frank’s, in the covered part of the market, is another produce stand, Mama Melina’s, that sells mostly organic. Both are owned by the same people, I learn, and the Mama Melina’s crew knows Ryan too. We look at the big bunches of garlic scapes. “Thanks, chef! You make a garlic-scape pesto before?” shouts the worker as we head off.
“No man, I’m scared!” Ryan jibes back. The guy rattles off the ingredients as we turn the corner and head toward the middle of the covered market to City Seafood, which Ryan buys from “in a pinch” and whom he trusts because they use the same purveyors he does.
“I recognize those clams,” Ryan says, “and that’s all Washington smelt; their run just started. The halibut is likely from Alaska. Lou Piniella still orders his crab from here and has it shipped to Florida.” He notices my silence.“You don’t know baseball, do you?” he chuckles, and tells me that Piniella was the Mariners’ manager for 10 years.
He also mentions that City Seafood is cheaper than Pike Place Fish Co., home of the tourist fish toss, though he says that the latter’s product is “totally sustainable.” When we hit their stand, he points out the labels which tell exactly where the seafood comes from and whether it’s been frozen or not. “What up, dog?” yells one of the fishmongers.
Ryan tells me that today is the first day of the Copper River salmon season. The famed fish is $25 a pound here, $21 at City Seafood. I ask him if the Copper is really all it’s purported to be. “It depends,” he says. “Last year, Washington salmon had better flavor than Copper. The year before, Oregon’s was better.”
He’s more excited about the spot prawns. “They’re fresh and legit. It was opening season last week. You want to get them here.” We pass the salmon collars. “I love the way you touch those collars,” Ryan teases the fishmongers. “I wish you would touch my collar like that.” Hoots of laughter follow. One of them offers us some smoked salmon. “It’d be rude to not want it,” Ryan says to him. “Yeah, you don’t want to be that guy just standing there.”
Two hours later, I’m with Ryan in Matt’s tiny, narrow kitchen where every few minutes someone calls out “Behind you!” Ryan somehow manages to set up a tiny station with a portable butane gas range. A huge plate of white corona beans sits precariously on the edge of a nearby counter. A basin beside us is filled with a broken-down pig, snout and all. Right here, right now, Ryan is going to whip together a meal before me, with ingredients mostly inspired by our market walk—a challenge he’ll face this summer at his “Planes, Trains, and Traveling Chefs” suppers.
It starts with sunflower oil with the right sizzle, just beginning to smoke in the pan. In go two beautiful, big scallops, which Ryan tells me you must “move constantly” as they sear. A few minutes later, each side has that golden brown, caramelized goodness. In another pan, he’s-heating up some “faro grits” he made: toasted faro, blended until they looked like corn grits. He adds some milk and a bit of honey and tosses in some chopped garlic scapes and a pinch of salt. The scallops are plated atop the creamy, sweet grits.
Then he grabs a handful of pork from the basin and places that on the scallop. Next comes a plastic container of Rainier cherries—ones that weren’t quite sweet enough yet. Until they come into full season, they’re floating in a sugar/water mixture. He plucks one for each scallop. Finally comes a garnish of sea bean (crunchy, naturally salty, and totally in season) and the finishing touch of a Bing cherry/Cabernet relish. The result is truly brilliant; truly delectable. I ask if he really didn’t think of this in advance, and he swears to me he didn’t. I believe him because, well, he always shoots from the hip—and because he’s that good. This is the magic I was looking for—the inspiration from a market walk.
As we say our goodbyes and I thank him for the tour, I remember those baby guavas. “Hey, let me know how they taste,” I call out.
“Oh, they’re going to suck!” he yells back. “I knew it when he said they weren’t ripe yet.”