By Jane Black and Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
It began with a crisis, at least by farmers market standards. Pritha Mehra was planning to make her Cilantro-Mint Chutney, and, at 10 a.m., there was no more regular mint to be found at the Arlington Farmers Market. A small bunch of chocolate mint wouldn't do. And purple Thai basil, while delicious, wouldn't create the authentic Indian flavor she was after.
Mehra, who teaches Indian cooking through her part-time business, Mystic Kitchen, took two more turns around the market and at last, to her relief, found a small mint plant to buy that she could snip the leaves from. Her plan was saved.
These days, it's food heresy not to love the farmers market. But trying to shop local can be stressful. Vendors run out of mint. The chicken guy doesn't show up. It made us wonder: Even at the height of the summer season, how easy is it to make a meal mostly from market ingredients -- and without spending a bundle?
To find out, we invited three Washington area cooking teachers to the 35-vendor Arlington market on a mid-August Saturday morning to take our challenge: Spend no more than $50, cook for no more than two hours and create a dinner for four using what was available there. Our participants were Chinese-cooking expert Rebekah Lin Jewell of Fairfax, jack-of-all-cuisines Frank Linn of Silver Spring and Mehra of Falls Church. They were allowed to use pantry items and perishable staples -- dried spices, nuts, olive oils and vinegars, the odd lemon or lime -- that we thought most people would have on hand, as well as specialty condiments required for ethnic cooking.
There were hiccups, for sure. For example, at $4.75 per pint, the berries were much more expensive than Jewell had anticipated; she decided to skip dessert. And there was much debate about whether a lemon is a pantry staple. (In the end, we relented and allowed Mehra to squeeze some juice onto her delightfully fresh Kachoomber Salad.)
Still, each of our teachers made the grade. Two out of three came in under the $50 mark; the third nailed it, to the penny. And all three prepared their meals simultaneously, within the time allotted, in the cooking/demonstration space at Sur La Table in Pentagon Row, which holds more cooking classes than any other Sur La Table in the country. Their food showcased decidedly different flavors and styles, and all their recipes were keepers: flavorful and easy to make.
They were good sports, too, readily offering up their revelations about meal planning and farmers market shopping. (One of them turned out to be a critic, finding the produce fresher -- and much cheaper -- at Asian supermarkets.) The lesson we learned: The main ingredients for successful one-stop shopping at the market are a little inspiration and a lot of flexibility.