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updated: 6/1/2011 8:47 AM

It's farmers market season, and the livin' is easy

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  • Bill Zars/bzars@dailyherald.com  Deb Pankey new column mug for food front.

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I'm so lucky to live in Palatine where the town's farmers market opened last month. That first morning was cool and a bit gray, but the smiles on shoppers' faces couldn't have been brighter. We knew it was too early in the season for bountiful spreads of sun-kissed tomatoes and tree-ripened fruit, but still we happily picked up leafy lettuce, microgreens and radishes, ribs from locally raised pigs and organically grown seedlings for plots planned for our suburban yards.

Farmers markets certainly have evolved over the years. A decade ago a handful of towns brought in a handful of farmers selling their fruits and vegetables. Today, a town that doesn't host a market is the exception and the offerings have grown to include locally raised meats and locally produced breads, jams, condiments and more.

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You'll find a list of markets throughout the area today in the Daily Herald's special Farmers Market supplement. I suggest tucking that list into your purse, or adding the web link in the favorites bar of your mobile device.

You might live in Lombard or Des Plaines, but if business or pleasure takes you near Elgin on a Friday, you'll be able to stop by the Harvest Market and return home with fresh ingredients for dinner.

If you find yourself in Palatine on a Saturday morning, stop by the farmers market and if you spot me, say 'Hi.'

Fresh recipes: Learn how Chicago's top chefs build relationships with small growers and producers throughout the Midwest and find recipes created using those local resources in the pages of "The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook."

In the book, Heather Lalley (who left the journalism world in 2007 to attend culinary school) shares the stories of farmers who bring their produce, meats and cheeses to area markets and the chefs who take their work and create stunning dishes for their restaurant menus.

You'll find out how Prairie Grass Cafe chefs Sarah Stegner and George Bumaris turn portobellos from River Valley Ranch and Kitchen into Mushroom Asparagus Ragout and how honey from Heritage Prairie Farm near Elburn works into the Chocolate Beet Cake made by Hot Chocolate's Mindy Segal.

The book (Voyageur Press, $30) comes out this month and is worth adding to your marketbasket.

MO' better wine: While it would be nice to jet off to Portugal and wander the country's vineyards or bike through Napa Valley resting at roadside tasting rooms, if your travel budget limits you to the Midwest you can still enjoy a wine-country vacation.

Little-known varietals, such as Norton, Chambourcin, Traminette, Vignoles and Vidal Blanc await curious oenophiles who visit Missouri's nearly 100 vineyards.

The Missouri Wine & Grape Board can help you plan a gourmet trip through the Show-Me State, pointing out wineries, festivals, events and restaurants, and the board's new Winery Passport & Tasting Journal rewards you along the way.

Like a traditional passport, the Winery Passport & Tasting Journal includes spaces for visitors to collect stamps and codes from participating wineries, as well as room for visitors to record tasting notes and favorite food pairings. Rewards range from a Missouri Wine bar towel to a weekend getaway for two.

The Winery Passport & Tasting Journal costs nothing and is available at the Missouri Wine and Grape Board website, missouriwine.org.

It might not be rocket science, but cooking is a science -- chemistry, to be precise.

While it celebrates 2011 as The International Year of Chemistry (don't worry, I didn't know that, either), the Illinois Science Council will help you understand the science behind things even nonscientists like, namely chocolate and beer.

You'll learn what affects beer's alcohol content, why flavors vary so greatly and what makes good beer go bad from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 7, at Metropolitan Brewery, 5121 N. Ravenswood Ave., Chicago.

The workshop will be led by Shelby Hatch, chemistry professor at Northwestern University, with brewers from Metropolitan Brewery. No science prerequisites necessary (thankfully!) but you must be 21 or older. On June 15, the group will look at the Chemistry of Chocolate with Blommer Chocolate Co. from 6 to 9 p.m. at O'Callaghan's Pub, 29 W. Hubbard St., Chicago. Blommer's Chocolate Co. is the source of that delightful aroma that greets drivers on the Ohio Street ramp on days when the wind blows just right.

Discussions with Professor Hatch and Melissa Tisoncik, research specialist with the Blommer Chocolate Co., will cover how chocolate is made, the distinctions between dark and milk chocolate, what "white" chocolate really is, the role of emulsifiers and incompatible fats and chocolate's health benefits.

The group also will look at the science behind whiskey on June 9, but I'm running out of room. Space for all events is limited, so sign up soon at IllinoisScience.org.

Eat and greet: Enjoy dinner with Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of the food-driven memoir, "A Tiger in the Kitchen," at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 2, at Town House Books & Cafe in St. Charles.

In the book, Tan, a Northwestern University graduate and New York City-based food and fashion writer whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal and Every Day with Rachael Ray, chronicles her return to her birthplace of Singapore and her attempt to reconnect with her culinary heritage. The three-course dinner costs $40; a book signing reception at 6 p.m. is free. Make a reservation at (630) 584-8603.

• Contact Food Editor Deborah Pankey at food@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4524. Be her friend on facebook.com; Deb Pankey Daily Herald.

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