Pike Place Market Prunes–A Love Story

Pike Place Market‘s neon sign and clock backdropped by a typical grey and cloudy Seattle sky.

Prunes.

That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Pike Place Market. Not golden Rainier cherries blushing with rouge; nor freshly-foraged morels hiding under a light dusting of dirt; or, the blinding flash of silver-skinned salmon soaring overhead.

I first encountered Pike Place Market in 1992, a year of many firsts. It was my first time in Seattle, and in the United States. It was my first autumn. It was my first year at the University of Washington.

Everything was frighteningly foreign and excitingly new at the same time.

I was attending day one of the international students orientation organized by FIUTS (Foundation for International Understanding Through Students, it’s a great organization btw) and a trip to Pike Place Market was on the agenda. Besides a hike to the Ice Caves, the market excursion was one of the highlights of the weeklong orientation. That morning, I was nodding off during most of the presentations thanks to jetlag and also because they were, quite frankly, boring.

After lunch, a group of us headed downtown on a Metro bus: Annie, our soft-spoken group leader from Taiwan; Sabine, a German Claudia Schiffer lookalike, all blond hair and mile-long legs; Top, a Thai guy who went everywhere with his camera slung around his neck; Yuki, a bubbly Japanese girl with curly—very curly—hair; Luwei, a smart and sassy Indonesian; and Hsin, a Singaporean gal who became one of my best friends.

We dropped off at Westlake Station and Annie told us our first stop was Pike Place Market. I didn’t know what to expect. In Singapore and Indonesia, markets were wet, dark, dirty places teeming with crooked vendors, squawking chickens, and foul odors. They weren’t my favorite places, let alone tourist attractions!

As we approached the market heading west along Pike Street, the “Public Market Center” sign loomed in the distance. As we drew closer, my eyes grew rounder and my jaw dropped.

People were snapping photos left, right and center and everyone seemed more interested in browsing than bargaining. The market was sparkling clean (relatively speaking) and the only aroma my nose sniffed out was that of summer’s last chance peaches mingling with the fresh sea scent from Elliott Bay.

The market is always busy, no matter the season or day of the week

I stopped to pet Rachel the Pig. I jostled with the crowds watching grown men play with fish. I marveled at the glorious blooms grown by Hmong farmers. I oohed and aahed at peaches, apricots, squash, Brussel sprouts–all fruits and vegetables I wasn’t accustomed to seeing at a market.

Hmong farmers grow and sell the most beautiful blooms year-round

As we were wandering the market, I spotted a stall selling deep purple, almost black, oval orbs with wrinkly, leathery skins. Prunes! I don’t know about you but when I travel I always have issues with you-know-what so I lingered, perhaps hoping to absorb the fruit’s magical properties via osmosis.

Prunes and lychees together at the market, what a juxtaposition!

I hesitated to open my mouth. Just the day before, I had an embarrassing (if only-to-me) kerfuffle at the University Bookstore. I had asked the sales person if they sold “cohk boahds” in my British-inflected English and I repeated myself several times before I realized what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t pronouncing my ‘r’s.

“Corrrrk boarrrrd,” I trilled. Only then did her eyes register a flicker of understanding. Who knew English could pass for a foreign language?

I took a deep breath, pointed to the prunes and squeaked, “Half pound please.” Then I grabbed the brown paper bag held out to me and shuffled off in a hurry.

I dug into the bag and brought a prune to my lips. I was so startled I stopped to a halt. This was not the rubbery-medicinal- Sunsweet-supermarket kind of prune I was used to. This prune was pillowy-soft and tasted of sunshine and sugar. It had obviously spent its last days happily basking in the sun, concentrating as much of its pluminess/pruniness as possible.

By the time we left the market, only seeds remained in the brown bag as evidence. I enjoyed those prunes immensely, and needless to say, I achieved my initial goal.

The stall I used to buy my prunes from is no longer at the market. Now, I buy them from “From Garden to You”

It’s been 20 years since my maiden encounter with Pike Place Market. Since then, I’ve returned to the market again and again, and brought home salmon, strawberries, tulips, Dungeness crab–all the bounty the Northwest has to offer. They’ve all been fresh and fabulous. But it’s only prunes that I always make a beeline for, if not for nostalgia’s sake then just because.

~~~

This post is dedicated to my friend Jess Thomson (yes, this is a disclaimer, I know the author) and her new book Pike Place Market Recipes (Sasquatch Books, May 2012). Jess compiled 130 fresh recipes, many from market vendors and restaurateurs, and tossed in smart tips and tricks for utilizing the varied products the market has to offer. For everyone who’s had the pleasure of visiting Pike Place Market, it’s a wonderful way to bring the market home with you, whether you visit every week or once in a lifetime.

I wish I could share a recipe with you but there are no recipes using prunes in the cookbook (I know, whaa?!). But what I can do is share Jess’s cookbook with one lucky winner.

Do you have memories of Pike Place Market, or how ‘bout them prunes? Just leave a comment and I’ll pick a winner through some complex randomized system, or just by eeny meeny miny mo-ing.

Winners will be announced on June 30th!

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Hello? Seattle?

Seattle Center as night falls. Français : Le c...
The Space Needle and Seattle Center as night falls. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been in a pseudo state of déjà-vu since we returned to Seattle two months ago.

Considering how long I’ve lived here (albeit off and on), I expected to ease into Seattle life as effortlessly as shimmying into a favorite pair of well-worn jeans.

Everything I love about this city still exists. The crisp, cool air that makes believe I’m living and breathing spearmint and wildflowers. Delectable dim sum at Jade Garden, including their pillowy-soft har gao (shrimp dumplings) and sweet and savory char siu sou (bbq pork pastry), for less than $15 per person. A spectacular view of snowcapped mountains in triplicate.

Then, there are the things I don’t love as much. A freeway that is a perpetual parking lot whether or not it’s rush hour. The slate-grey concrete slab that passes for sky and the 50-something temperatures … it’s April for goodness sake! (Although last weekend was fabulously sunshiney!)

Yet somehow, I don’t feel like I’m in my Seattle. My Seattle doesn’t have a toll bridge (paying to cross beautiful Lake Washington is just wrong!). My Seattle doesn’t have a dozen hip restaurants I’ve never been to. Add to that the friends who have moved, or drifted, away.

More likely, I’m feeling the pang of my husband’s absence. He was a huge part of what made Seattle my Seattle.

No sense pining. I figured the only way to remedy the situation was to be like a tourist and reacquaint myself with the city of my past.

A couple of Wednesdays ago, my friend Ivy and I paid a visit to new-to-me Melrose Market. Stepping into the series of conjoined buildings, I was transported to another time and place. What used to be a series of repair and rebuild shops for foreign autos is now a covered shopping arcade housing, among other (mostly food) retailers, Homegrown sustainable sandwiches, Taylor Shellfish Farms, The Calf and the Kid cheese shop, and Rain Shadow Meats.

At the back corner of the market sat a sweet little flower shop called Marigold and Mint. While the blooms were attractive enough, I ended buying a clutch of flowering kale rapini from Oxbow Farms for the one reason that they ping-ponged between being familiar and not. It was my first encounter with these greens but their thick purple stalks and serrated leaves reminded me of purple kale, and the yellow flower clusters, gai lan (Chinese broccoli). I already knew exactly what I was going to do with them. I was going to prepare them the same way I would gai lan.

kale rapini
These gorgeous greens belong as much in a floral bouquet as on your plate!

At home, I gently unraveled the bundle–careful to keep the fragile flowerheads from falling off–to find the inner stalks still glistening. Droplets of morning dew perhaps? I’d like to think so!

I steamed the vegetables in the microwave and plated them. A few lashings of oyster sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, plus a flurry of fried shallots later, lunch was ready.

As I took a bittersweet, herbaceous bite of my first kale rapini, I decided that even though Seattle this time round feels different, that’s OK. If I can use tried and true techniques to tame novel ingredients, why not approach life in the same way, by weaving the comfort of the familiar into the foreignness of what’s new.

~~~

Steamed Kale Rapini with Oyster Sauce and Sesame Oil

This is more a method than a recipe as I don’t usually bother measuring and eyeball everything, as can you! If you prefer, use an asparagus steamer or simply a pot of boiling water to blanch the vegetables. Just don’t overcook them. Try this with broccolini, kale, or asparagus; the medley of bitter greens, salty-sweet oyster sauce, and nutty sesame oil cannot be beat.

Makes: 1 to 2 servings as part of a multicourse meal
Time: 10 minutes

2 tablespoons oyster sauce
8 ounces flowering kale rapini, trimmed
Sesame oil
Fried shallots

Take your oyster sauce out of the fridge (that’s where I keep mine) and let it stand at room temperature. It will warm up a little, making it easier to drizzle.

Wash the kale rapini and spread the stalks in a shallow dish. Sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons of water and cover with a damp paper towel or microwave food cover (I love these!).

Microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes until the vegetables turn bright green and are tender to the bite. I like the stems crisp, not soft and floppy. Microwaves vary in power so keep microwaving in 30 second increments until the vegetables are cooked the way you like.

Arrange the vegetables on a large plate. Drizzle with oyster sauce, sesame oil and sprinkle with fried shallots. Serve with freshly steamed rice.