It's stomach season, so we're clearing out inventory."
So says chef Mateo Granados as he dishes up a heaping scoop of embutido de chito, his Yucatan family recipe of baby goat stomach that's stuffed with blood, heart and kidney, then aged for three weeks into an inky black loaf. Baby goat meat is a delicacy in the late spring, he explains, and he doesn't want to waste the tasty offal that other chefs might throw away.
"People love it," he grins, as another customer grabs a plate and hustles over to the shaded picnic table next to his booth at the Sebastopol farmers market.
A few feet away, chef John Franchetti feeds pizzas into a roaring wood-fired oven built onto a portable trailer. Minutes later, he pulls out a crispy, cracker-thin Margherita model laced with pepperoni and roasted mushroom. It looks and tastes just like the exquisite pies produced at his Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar in Santa Rosa.
"Paella!" shriek a gaggle of teenage girls suddenly, converging with flyers to promote Gerard's paella, that Gerard being, of course, chef Nebesky of Occidental, who bested Bobby Flay on Throwdown on the Food Network and now cooks the Spanish rice dish in wading-pool-size pans at North Bay events. From his booth nearby waft the enticing aromas of seafood, chicken and sausage steaming with deeply fragrant spices.
This is all pretty fancy stuff to be eating in a parking lot.
Yet it's the start of the North Bay's 2009 farmers market season, and a recent tour of our larger gatherings found that more and more, dining here is no afterthought. While in years past, market-goers might have been content to snack on taco truck&– or sandwich-style fare, these days, they're snapping up specialty savories and sweets. Indeed, today's temptations are the kind of dishes we might find in a real restaurant, and are often prepared on site by the chef himself.
It's easy to credit Granados with the revolution. After leaving a high-profile position as executive chef at Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen in 2004, he set up a booth at the Santa Rosa Downtown Market, plying us with Yucatan tamales stuffed with slow-roasted suckling pig, Rosie organic chicken, CK Lamb, roasted local vegetables and Bodega Bay goat cheese.
He's now branched out into full meals, offered at three of the major markets around town and sometimes served on china with real silverware. Working with a professional Wolf range outfitted with wheels, Granados sends out a quesadilla brimming with Black Sheep Farm beef, picadillo, Tierra vegetables, grilled cactus, jack cheese and smoked tomatillo sauce alongside a Ridgeview Farm arugula salad. Another popular new offering is a relleno negro of Yucatan-style black mole, Black Sheep Farms meatballs, Salmon Creek Ranch hard boiled duck eggs, fresh favas and La Bonne Terre peppercress piled on made-from-scratch tortillas.
Lately, though, Granados has competition. Rosso's Franchetti and crew just debuted their portable, faux brick-faced pizza oven at four Sonoma markets, firing up pies in combos like asparagus, prosciutto and egg. The staff wears crisp black and white, hand-tossing dough before our eyes and folding artisan cheese, fresh basil and juicy tomatoes into caprese piadinis. To complement: seasonal nibbles like favas and asparagus, freshly made warm mozzarella drizzled with Davero olive oil, and succulent, crispy-skin suckling pig roasted in a La Caja China portable "pit."
The salumi masters of Taverna Santi have set up shop, too, displaying their meticulously handcrafted rillettes, pancetta and sausage at the Santa Rosa Veterans market, plus ciccoli and bratwurst in Healdsburg. Also at the Healdsburg market are espresso brownies from Jimtown Store; salmon cakes (and halibut cheeks, to go) from Fishing Vessel Bumblebee's Fish Sales; fresh spelt and sourdough breads from Full Circle Bakery; goat cheese from Pug's Leap; and silky, sumptuous fish from Paul's Smoked Salmon. You grab your goodies, find a sunny spot to sit, and groove to the live bluegrass sounds of the Hicktones.
Depending on the market, a chef's dishes may vary. According to Granados, diners are most adventurous in Healdsburg. Visitors at the Sebastopol fair may get their chito dressed up in a moist, marvelous scramble of Salmon Creek Ranch duck eggs, smoked tomatillo sauce and La Bonne Terre little gem lettuce, for example, while in Healdsburg, the chito may be simply tucked in a handmade taco.
If the Sebastopol market is the most relaxed in mood of the markets (it's common to see naked children at play in the fountain, and the "Laughter Yoga" booth always draws a crowd), the food is just as serious. Here's where you'll find BBQ Smokehouse and Catering's handmade chicken andouille and "the world's best strawberry shortcake"; Patisserie Angelica's fresh-baked galettes and brown butter tarts; and to wash it all down, steaming cups of joe from Run Around Brew Mobile Espresso.
At the Santa Rosa Veteran's Building market, meanwhile, you may browse Ecco Cafe, a small stand draped in burlap and selling Ethiopian Bonko or cachoeira coffee. Or perhaps you crave Sisterpie Pot Pies of beef burgundy mushroom in cornmeal crust, apple butter beef stew, or turkey tarragon in lemon citrus pastry crust. Squisito Dolci lures with biscotti or ricotta poundcake, and one can idly wonder what it will be at Flour Creations: a veggie hand pie (plump with brown rice, mushrooms, zucchini, Swiss chard, pepper jack, sweet onions, green chiles and garlic) or Nicky's breakfast burritos (fat and spicy with scrambled eggs, jalapenos, black pepper and garlic sautéed in butter)?
Across the asphalt lot, the folks from Sebastopol's French Garden restaurant showcase good green stuff from their 30-acre organic, bio-intensive farm (gorgeous rainbow chard, chives and romaine), while Santa Rosa seafood does brisk business with Pacific Fanny Bay oysters, live lobster, crab, and salmon grilled on barbecues belching forth a seductive, smoky perfume.
Even the downtown Santa Rosa market is fancying things up. Serious marketers may typically avoid this Wednesday night gathering because it's too popular (read: loud and rowdy), and seems more geared toward festival folk, with its cotton candy, kettle corn, snow cones, funnel cakes and corn dogs. Yet the other week, between a man with sign reading "I Can Prove There Is a God" and a drunken woman waving a giant Willie Bird turkey leg in the air, Donna del Rey of Relish Culinary Adventures and Franchetti calmly conducted an open-air class on making hand-pulled mozzarella.
Tempting selections, actually, are enormous, here. Cattlemens is promoting a new dish, a gaucho steak of grilled sirloin with chimichurri sauce, grilled onions and peppers on grilled ciabatta. Grandpa's Fish Tales moves past fish sticks to clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, ahi poke or crab Louie, while Thai House throws the gauntlet down to California Thai, dueling their fried bananas with coconut ice cream against CT's spicy lime salad.
Home Maid Italian Marketplace offers pillowy ravioli- and anchovy-stuffed olives, while Hector's Honey of Sonoma hands out fresh cactus pads and star thistle honey. The Hummus Guy dunks garlic pita chips in baked tofu salad, while Viola Pastry Boutique & Café beckons with dainty cupcakes and whoopie pie.
At Ellene's Handmade Brittle, there's a choice to be made between cashew, peanut and almond, while at Mommy and Me Cooking Co., pumpkin bundt cake seems to be the clear favorite. C'est Cheesecake often sells out of its mini cakes, while Dominique's Sweets fills in some gaps with gluten free macarons.
The Killer Baking Co. has just one simple threat: Brownies to Die For.
If diners are finding more to love at the farmers markets, so too are our chefs and artisan purveyors. A gang of white-jacketed gents from Dry Creek Kitchen strolled the Healdsburg gathering recently, browsing tables groaning with Oak Gate Farm garlic, ruby-red strawberries, favas the size of sausages, Italian parsley and tight-leaved artichokes.
At the Sebastopol market, Lesley Brabyn of Salmon Creek Ranch of Bodega breezed by, pausing to explain the difference between duck and chicken eggs (ducks have bigger yolks, and, she swore, taste a whole lot better).
As she chatted, chef Mark Malicki sidled up, taking a break from his St. Rose to shop for ingredients for a special party he was catering. High on his list was goat, and Granados had just what he needed: an entire baby animal, frozen solid, wrapped in plastic and waiting in an Igloo cooler next to his booth. Malicki bought it, belly and all.
For all North Bay farm markets, go to F&D in our calendar, p46.
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