From appetizer to dessert, course after course reveals itself as chef Sandy Dowling browses local farmers markets.

From appetizer to dessert, course after course reveals itself as chef Sandy Dowling browses local farmers markets.

Sampling as she strolls — always one time through before buying anything — Dowling composes an entire menu on the spot, based on the freshest flavors and most vibrant colors without a single recipe in hand.

Baby radishes and carrots practically compose themselves into a salad with microgreens. Halibut fillets need only a bath of clarified butter with a side of sautéed kale. And berries so sweet and juicy fairly beg for a complement of fresh local cheese to conclude the meal.

"It's really spontaneous and, I think, a lot of fun," says the owner of The Willows Cooking School in Central Point.

All in a day's work for chefs with access to farmers markets, the ritual isn't reserved for culinary professionals, says Dowling. The average home cook and conscientious consumer, she says, can adjust their vision of farmers markets to procure the best produce, farm products and artisan goods.

"It's better than a grocery store," says Dowling.

And the resulting chef-worthy meals require only the most basic cooking, adds Dowling, who planned a June class around the market's bounty. Because farm-fresh ingredients already taste so good, there's little reason to rely on recipes, she says, explaining that she focuses on teaching techniques transferable to a wide variety of dishes.

"If you have those basics "» they can then mix and match," says Dowling. "You have to be a little bit flexible on a recipe. Then go and learn what the substitutions are.

"And that's what a chef does."

The chef's intended farmers market excursion to provision a dinner party didn't entice enough participants, she says, perhaps because she's been extolling the market's virtues for more than a decade, as long as The Willows has been in operation.

"I talk about it so much," she says. "This farm-to-table concept is something I've been preaching for years."

Recent years have brought plenty of growth for local farmers markets. Medford added a Saturday market last year at the downtown Commons. Talent gained a market Friday evenings in the summertime, while Jacksonville hosts a Sunday market.

"We're really lucky here, and we should be eating everything local," says Dowling.

Strawberries, asparagus, fennel, heirloom peas and baby vegetables are proliferating along with mountains of chard and kale at Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Markets, says manager Mary Ellen DeLuca. New this year are fresh-squeezed vegetables juices and sustainably caught, high-quality tuna in cans, she says.

The question of higher food costs at farmers markets is one Dowling answers with an affirmation for freshness, which equates to better nutrition and overall value. Farmers market prices, she says, are very similar to local grocers' organic produce.

"Pound for pound, apple for apple, there's very little difference," says Dowling. "You can't not afford to eat like that; it's healthier for you."

Oregon Trail cards are accepted at all Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters markets. And the first $4 in nutrition assistance that each shopper spends weekly at Saturday markets in Medford are matched under a yearlong program called Fresh Rewards. Providence Medford Medical Center, Ashland Food Co-op and Soroptimist International of Medford contributed funds to the effort.

Taste is the ultimate reward for shopping at farmers markets, where locally grown vegetables and fruits usually are sold the same day they're harvested, says Dowling.

"I would rather have it just picked out of the garden."

For more information on times and locations of local farmers markets, as well as seasonal produce availability, see

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at