A farmers market field guide

Local food writer Beth Dooley's "ingredients first" approach to farmers market shopping and cooking

Beth Dooley, author of "Minnesota's Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook." Credit: Submitted image

Beth Dooley’s most recent cookbook, “Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook,” is filled with over 200 recipes based on her “ingredients first” philosophy. In those pages, Dooley coaches shoppers on making the most of their Minnesota farmers market experience.

Dooley covers the local food scene for several Minneapolis media outlets, has authored three other books and often teaches cooking at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Two months after the April 19 release of her book, she took time to speak with The Southwest Journal.

Southwest Journal: What got you started with cooking in the first place?

Beth Dooley: I grew up in New Jersey and at that time Jersey really was “the Garden State.” I had a grandmother who loved to cook, so I cooked with her a lot. We’d drive down to the Jersey Shore and we’d stop at all the farm stands. My grandmother knew all the farmers and we chatted with them and we’d get this great food.

So, when I moved here about 30 years ago, the farmers markets were the first place I looked, and I just fell in love with them. I realized the difference then between the food that comes from close to home and the food you get at supermarkets. So that’s how I got started.

So how did this lead into your roles in teaching and critiquing food?

I’d been writing about food for a while. I worked for a number of public relations agencies doing recipe booklets and manuals and things like that. I loved cookbooks and I’d always wanted to write one. So I started reaching out to publishers with ideas that I had and that’s how I got my first couple of books.

Then I teamed up with Lucia Watson, who owns Lucia’s Restaurant. She and I wrote “Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland” together, and that book did really well. That was sort of my entry into writing more food-related articles. Once you begin writing about food, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about restaurants or markets or any of that. You’re really evaluating and communicating and sharing.

How often would you say that you go to the farmers markets around here? Do you prefer certain ones?

I do and I don’t. For this book, I was going to all of them, and I love them all. It was really fun to force myself to go beyond my favorite markets. There are some markets up north that I really love: the Duluth market and the Grand Marais market. Sometimes I go up to the market in Ashton [Wis.]. There’s one in Cornucopia [Wis.]. There’s another in Bayfield [Wis.].

Of course I love the Minneapolis market; it’s huge, it’s confusing, but I love it for its mish-mash of things. The Mill City [Farmers] Market I think is a gem. It’s just a beautiful market and I love going there. Kingfield is great. Midtown is great. Fulton is great.

They’re all different in their own ways, so a lot of it depends on where I am or what my traffic pattern that day is going to be. If I’m heading one way I’ll go to one market; if I’m heading another way I’ll go to another market. It’s a lot of great options.

Why did you decide to write a book on the topic of farmers markets, specifically?

I think because there have been so many new markets that have opened, and I think people need to understand the place that they hold in our food system. Back in the mid-1800s when the city fathers wrote the charter of St. Paul, they built into it a farmers market, so the city must always have one. That’s really cool because they understood the importance of bringing together the rural part of the region with the urban part of the region.

For me, farmers markets are a fundamental part of the city. I wanted to write [“Minnesota’s Bounty”] because of their importance and their importance in our food system. I wanted people to understand that the markets aren’t only a great place to buy food, but they’re also a place where a lot of food entrepreneurs have begun. So you see companies like Cedar Summit Farm dairy, who got their start at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market. … A number of entrepreneurs have started by just selling at the market and then moving beyond that.

So, [markets] are important for a lot of reasons.

Can you explain your ingredient-first philosophy a little?

So, the idea is that you go the market, you look to see what’s beautiful, you buy what you like and then you come home and cook. The reason why I did it by ingredients instead of by season is that — look at our seasons now — our seasons are so out of whack, they’re all over the place. So, you see what you have, and then you look it up in the book. It’s kind of a field guide to the market.

Aside from the concept of ingredients first, what are some of the main ideas in “Minnesota’s Bounty”?

To showcase our wonderful small farmers. To get people to pay attention to the markets for all the reasons beyond being a cool place to go. I wanted the book to be really user friendly, and I wanted people to also recognize that there’s a lot of local food that is at the market that they may not think of as being market food, like dairy and meat breads and things like that.

What do you hope your readers will take away from “Minnesota’s Bounty”?

I hope they’ll want to cook, and I hope they’ll also realize how easy and quick it is. Part of what I tried to do with the “quick ideas,” which are in each small chapter, is show that you don’t have to have an elaborate recipe for each ingredient. Really, there are lots of ways to use this food that will be quick and easy. You can shop the market just for the fun of it and come home and it doesn’t have to be a big production. You can just make a quick and really casual meal.

What are some of your techniques for when you shop the farmers market?

I’ve been doing it long enough that I have favorite vendors, so I always go and check in with them. But I think what I usually do is just buy a cup of coffee, take a big swoop and walk the market first to see what’s there and then go back and shop.

Do you have a favorite dish from the book that you like to cook?

It depends on what the season is. Right now my favorite dish is grilled asparagus with shallots and orange. That’s really fun to make. But when the asparagus are gone, it’ll be the pea soup.

Is there anything else that you wanted to add?

I just hope that what this does it make the markets feel more friendly and easy and not a big deal. I hope that people will get more like Europe, where you just go in, you make it part of your weekend routine. It’s just fun and relaxing. And the cooking is part of it, but it shouldn’t take over your whole day. It should just be really fun.