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Photograph by Kathleen Olson
Hot Tomatoes: Todd Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. pours spicy tomato juice samples for Dani Killam (left) and Blair George.

Freaky for Alfresco

The joys of dining at the Farmers Market

By Denise Vivar

Eating outdoors is a primal urge, articulated in Homo sapiens by the chemical affinity of testosterone to lighter fluid, propane and all things grill-related, as well as the attraction to the picnic typically exhibited in the chromosomal double X, or female, genotype. Who among us doesn't harbor some fantasy of being fed mangoes on the beach in Fiji? OK, perhaps that's just my own articulation, but you've got your own, I'm sure.

For me the urge generally hits during the longer days and warmer weather. Sitting under a heat lamp and scooping up my meal quickly before it gets cold in the brisk Santa Cruz evening does not satisfy the hunger. My DNA calls for heat. Recently I've noticed a correlation of this hunger to roaming among the stalls at the farmers market.

Those who frequent the Downtown Farmers Market may have noticed that the temperature rises 15 degrees once a body crosses that line from "outside" the market to "inside" its official boundaries. I attribute this to the combination of sun on asphalt and the energy expended lugging large bags of produce from vendor to vendor through the teeming sea of humanity. Whatever the reason, it makes me tingle with that old alfresco feeling.

Last week I decided to submit to said appetite and sample the wares at the Farmers Market. I was drawn first to the Indian food, perhaps because the heat and the multitude of bodies are reminiscent of the vibrant streets of Bombay. I can't recommend actually eating on the streets in the subcontinent, but it's easily possible to imagine oneself on a corner somewhere in India, sans dysentery. India's Clay Oven offers a number of curries in wraps and rice bowls, and while standing in line trying to decide, patrons can taste-test all the curries over small slices of naan. I sampled the spinach, eggplant, mixed veggie, chickpea, chicken and lamb curries. I found them all overly salty, and instead ordered a samosa ($1) and mango lassi ($1). The yoghurt and fruit lassi was as delicious as any I have had in India, very refreshing and, at just $1, worth standing in line for.

I then headed to Sukhi's, just a few stalls down, to compare samosas. Sukhi's samosas ($2) are a bit greasier, slightly larger but twice as expensive, and the potato/pea/spice mixture is more of a mash, while the India's Clay Oven samosa filling is less an amorphous amalgam and more chunky (the visual of whole peas somehow seems more appetizing to me). The dilemma, however, is that while I prefer India's Clay Oven's samosa, I much prefer the chutneys at Sukhi's; the tomato and tamarind chutneys are among my favorites. The bags of moong dal (hulled, fried and salted mung beans) are a tasty, crunchy and highly addictive treat—and, at $5, a bargain.

At this point I was well sated and retreated for a couple of hours of rest. Upon returning I first stopped at the Companion Bakery stall, where I purchased a half loaf of pumpernickel bread ($4) and sampled the local cheeses. The bread was sturdy, hearty, full of whole grain rye, nuts and seeds—about the best bread in the county, and organic, too. My favorites among the cheeses are the raw sheep's cheeses, notably the Bellwether Papato from Valley Ford, full-flavored, earthy and sweet-salty.

While at Companion Bakery I spied a Meyer lemon bar ($3) that I could not resist. It was full of sweet Meyer lemony goodness and just enough tartness spread upon a thin crust and kissed with a dusting of confectioner's sugar. From the Frog Hollow Farm booth I chose the risotto tartlette ($3.75) from among the sweet and savory assortment. The risotto, sun-dried Bing cherries and candied naval orange zest nestled in a crusty tart is a fantastic treat—creamy sweet rice with a sweet citrus zing and just enough buttery crust to keep it all together.

The foraging possibilities themselves are dizzying: almonds from the Stackhouse Bros.; peaches, pluots and nectarines from Frog Hollow Farms and others; pickles from Dirty Girl Farm; watermelon at Happy Boy Farms; berries galore; honey, olive oil and pasta to go; plus tea and coffee drinks. Gabriella's popular tamales return to the market in about a week.

Those who don't care to eat among the stalls and masses might just choose to take their market gems and steal away to some locale that suits their inclinations. For me, it's in the genes—I'll stay out of the kitchen and take the heat.

SANTA CRUZ FARMERS MARKET, downtown, corner of Lincoln and Cedar streets, Wednesdays 2:30pm–6:30pm, year-round;

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