Freestyle cooking with NAAEE

I don’t compost, unless you count The Hub’s desk, and I can hardly tell a good bug from a bad one (they’re all dead bugs if they enter my house). That’s why I was a tad puzzled when I heard from the North American Association for Environmental Education via the friend of a friend. The NAAEE is holding its annual convention this week in Raleigh, N.C. I was asked me to take a small group on a field trip to the State Farmers Market and talk about how to shop from a market. That I can do.

I rarely decide what I specifically want to cook before I arrive at the market, and that seemed surprising to many in the group. I urged them to free themselves from the tyranny of recipes. But that doesn’t mean going in with no thoughts whatsoever. Here are some suggestions I made:

Know what’s in season and what you can expect to find. Think about your favorite ethnic flavors.

Keep staples in your pantry and refrigerator. Rice can compliment a stirfry of summer vegetables, or become fried rice packed with greens or a cold rice salad with fruit. Penne pasta can become an Italian meal or spaghetti can become a cold or hot Asian noodle dish. Canned beans (black or white. Tortillas. And eggs. More people should make frittatas – you can put anything in them: artichoke hearts, fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs, green onions, peppers. It’s like an egg pizza. Soy sauce and sesame oil. Your favorite pasta sauce. Peanut butter – toss noodles and vegetables with it.

Wonton wrappers can become ravioli or potstickers. Yes, ravioli. Any filling is great: cooked kale and Parmesan, cooked butternut squash and goat cheese. Just don’t over-fill  – that’s the biggest mistake I made when I started making filled dumplings. A heaping teaspoon is enough.

Like selecting art, let the market’s offerings draw you in. If you see it and love it, buy it. Our group went for two kinds of tomatoes, kale, red banana peppers and – because the gentleman from the West Coast requested it – okra. We turned the tomatoes, peppers, some basil from my yard, olive oil and Parmesan into a fresh pasta dish: Chopped and placed in the bottom of a dish, then hot penne poured on to wilt the vegetables. (You could add drained canned cannellini beans or cooked shrimp, too.) I was going to add the kale, too, when someone mentioned kale chips. I grabbed a baking sheet, salt, garlic powder and olive oil, and we whisked the leaves into a 350-degree oven until they were nice and crispy. The okra pods were small, so I dipped them in buttermilk and a mixture of flour and cornmeal and fried them whole. Our Californian pronounced them slime free.

To me, that’s the way to cook. Even if I don’t compost my kale ribs.