Eating our way through farmers market bounty

It's a milestone, I suppose, when fresh zucchini and rainbow broccoli become the stuff you daydream about. When stuffing a market basket with heirloom tomatoes and local olive oil gives you a significantly bigger thrill than your birthday. As the bountiful season approaches, we (OK, I) rush to the markets to see what the harvest gods have left this week. Call it a sort of Christmas morning for the foodie set.

So, OK, maybe kale and honey is still a hard sell for a 6-year-old. But as April meanders into May and piles of kale and radishes become berries, lettuces, beans and citrus fruit, it's hard not to get a little giddy. Maybe even a little overwhelmed by all the choices. How does one cook dandelion greens, anyway? Which is why local markets are evolving from simply offering produce, fresh eggs and just-picked lettuce to more convenient ready-made baked goods, freezer-friendly dishes and ethnic meals that feature that best of the county's bounty.

Regardless of your kitchen ability, now's the best time to familiarize yourself with your market. It's as simple as grabbing a basket, some cash (many stands don't take checks or credit cards), a hearty appetite and exploring your way through, one stand at a time. Get there early because the good stuff goes fast and if you love a vendor, ask when and where they'll be next week, because they sometimes move around to different markets. Right now, the Sonoma Farmers Market (Depot Park), Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market at the Veterans Memorial Building and Sebastopol Farmers Market are in full swing, with Windsor, Healdsburg, Petaluma and Santa Rosa's Wednesday Night Market set to open in May.

What's on the menu? Come along for an early taste of the markets:

Faraway flavors

Prepare to queue up for Mateo Granados' tamale stand. The former Dry Creek Kitchen chef serves up seasonal tamales wrapped in banana leaves, stuffed with suckling pig, lamb and goat cheese. Or, fuel up with a plate of huevos rancheros and fresh agua fresca at the communal table (a perfect spot for comparing notes on what's best at the market today). Saturdays at the Santa Rosa Original Farmers Market, Sundays at the Sebastopol Farmers Market and May through November at the Healdsburg Saturday farmers market.

Ethnic home-cooking doesn't get much more authentic than the mom-and-pop stalls that line the markets. Among my favorites is Lata Pagare, who does double duty in Santa Rosa on Saturday and Sebastopol on Sunday, serving up impossibly light Indian samosas, coconut milk curry and homemade lassis at Lata's Indian Cuisine.

Also worth a stop are Mommy's Yammys homemade beef and lamb gyros with couscous salad or fish tacos on fresh tortillas (and posole) at Nellie's BBQ Oysters.

Fish and meat

One of the most entertaining spots at the Santa Rosa market each week is the ever-expanding fish stall of Santa Rosa Seafood. One week, fresh (as in still wiggling) sea urchin and crabs amused onlookers while the line for smoked salmon and sushi-grade tuna snakes around the tubs of fish on ice. Don't miss their prepared spreads and (as the weather cools) chowders. Saturdays in Santa Rosa, Sundays at the Marin market. Santi Restaurant (which will soon relocate to Santa Rosa) sells its house-made salumi in both Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. Its newest creation is a spicy Cajun boudin.

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