Katsuya Fukushima is accustomed to working with unusual ingredients, using liquid nitrogen or high-tech whipping canisters to make "snow" or "air" from otherwise solid ingredients.
But when he came across a long-stemmed plant with scalloped leaves at his local farmers' market, he was stymied.
"I had no idea what it was," Fukushima -- who at the time was chef de cuisine at Jose Andres' now-closed cutting-edge restaurant minibar in Washington, D.C. -- said of finding what turned out to be the herb known as stevia. Stevia most often is seen in powdered form and used as a sweetener. "The farmer let me taste it, and it was super sweet, but it was a leaf. Something that tiny and that sweet was very exciting. It was a great discovery."
So he laced it with fresh mint and balanced it with tangy yogurt for a dessert at the minibar. Now he is considering a salad of sweet stevia and bitter arugula for Rabbit, the Arlington, Va., restaurant where he is consulting chef.
Farmers' markets have grown like tomatoes in summer during the last five years, with an increasingly food-savvy public pushing their numbers up more than 60 percent to 7,175 today. But after the spring onions, snap peas and new potatoes, many consumers -- and even some chefs -- find items that leave them baffled. What do the pros do with their enticing yet exotic finds?
Andy Ricker, who won the 2011 James Beard award for best chef in the Northwest, shops the stalls of Hmong farmers at his Portland, Ore., market to find fiddlehead ferns, such vegetables as "phak khanaa" or Chinese broccoli, exotic, untranslatable herbs and crucial ingredients like cilantro root for the innovative Asian cuisine he turns out at his restaurant Pok Pok.
Foraged mushrooms and turkey eggs were recent finds for Nicholas Stefanelli, executive chef at Bibiana in Washington, D.C., but he also recalls stumbling on wormwood, the legendary ingredient in absinthe liqueur. He had high hopes for that.
"It didn't have the flavor I thought it was going to have," he said about the bushy blue-green shrub. "I thought it would be anise, but it was herbaceous. It was a little woodsy." He tried making tea from the leaves and using its branches for smoked meats, but he never found a place for the flavor on his menu.
At Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., Andrea Reusing has been using horseradish leaves in a beef sashimi, treating the tender young shoots like shiso, the Japanese basil often used in sushi. Fresh green coriander seeds -- brought to market by farmers whose plants are going to seed -- lend a lemony, peppery tang to cubed, raw salmon. And fresh fig leaves offer a perfumed accent to grilled chicken or mullet.
The curly little tails her pig farmers bring get braised, then grilled with a five-spice barbecue sauce.
"If people are doing meat, often they have odd parts of animals in their coolers," she said. "The meat is very succulent, like on a rib."
Like many home cooks, chefs also look to farmers' markets for the freshest ingredients and for a greater variety than they might get from purveyors or supermarkets.
"I'm not into searching out strange things," said Daniel Giusti, executive chef at 1789 in Washington, D.C., and a self-professed "psycho" about onions. "I really like to find what's good and what makes sense to me. Those are the things I want to buy a ton of."
During the summer, Little Rock chef Lee Richardson from Ashley's in the Capital Hotel, who recently won Food & Wine magazine's award for People's Best New Chef in the Midwest, buys purple-hulled peas by the bushel at local markets, incorporating the mahogany-centered legumes into side-dishes, salads, even -- remember, this is Arkansas -- deep frying them.
"They're an amazing bar snack," he said, adding that he sprinkles them with salt and cayenne pepper. "They're really addictive."
Like many home cooks, chefs say they also appreciate the one-on-one relationship they develop with farmers by browsing the market, asking questions and seeing their growers face-to-face each week.
"You find you get a lot more of the hidden treasures," Bibiana's Stefanelli said. "They might only have two quarts of figs, and they save them for customers who come buy for them every week."