Early on a recent Saturday morning, Chef Brian Parks, of Coast Restaurant at the Canary Hotel, arrives at the farmers' market in Santa Barbara. The market isn't yet open for business, but he like to beat the crowds. "Some of the vendors will let the chefs shop early. Then by 9am the market gets really busy."
Our first stop is at an unmarked stand with tables filled with Chinese vegetables and leafy greens. It's a bit mysterious, even to a repeat customer like Parks, "I don't know their name. They don't like to give out much information." He asks a man carrying the cash drawer about the farm, but he would only offer up a name: Her Produce.
Parks smiles. "I love this vendor; I could spend the whole morning at this booth. There are so many things to explore that I can't get anywhere else." Parks buys spring onions, okra, and small colorful chiles for his staff to make some extra spicy salsa for themselves and for the restaurant's weekly Thursday taco night.
Next, Parks heads over to Gordita Seafood to buy Ridgeback prawns, a locally-caught shellfish pulled in from the Santa Barbara Channel that morning. (Santa Barbara Spot Prawns are more famous, but they aren't available in the fall.) Gordita employees pass out cooking instructions: they're on a mission to end the overcooking of seafood. At Coast, Parks also serves local sea urchin on bruschetta, as a garnish for soups, and on toast with garlic. His restaurant doesn't have a lock on locally caught Santa Barbara seafood, though: he recommends Brophy Bros., down at the harbor, for well-prepared creatures of the sea.
In center aisle we stop at BD's Earthtrine Farms, from Ojai and Carpinteria. "This farm grows great herbs and has a big selection," says Parks as he digs into the piles of produce. The tables are full of herb varieties. For basil alone they offer opal, lemon, lime, holy, and Thai. Parks picks out a case of fresh figs to make a fig and blue cheese tart with caramelized spiced pepitas. He also buys stevia and lavender for table decorations, and a bunch of lemon verbena for custard.
Next stop: Shepherd Farms, to buy herbes de Provence for a current Coast menu item: whole roast rainbow trout seasoned with herbes de Provence, salt, pepper, butter and market tomatoes.
The last stop at the morning market is Ormande Farms of Arroyo Grande. Parks picks out some bright red cherry peppers. "We pickle these for spicy bar snacks. They're delicious."
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