Chickpeas at the marketChickpeas have a fibrous husk you’ll want to remove before eating.(Bonnie Powell photos)

Last week, I vowed to escape my farmers market rut and cook outside my comfort zone in honor of National Farmers Market Week Aug 1-7.

Farmers markets are spreading like (edible) weeds around the country. There were 5,279 as of 2009 by the USDA’s count, up 13 percent from the previous year. The new figures will be released tomorrow. I’m betting it’s gone up at least another 10 percent, to more than 5,800. What about you? Do you think locavores are still loco for fresh food, even in this recession? 

For my first walk on the farmers market wild side, I fried up some squash blossoms. My friend Marc, meanwhile, turned up the heat on some turnips and greens.

Encouraged by just how good those squash blossoms were, I next picked up fresh, in-the-pod chickpeas, aka garbanzo beans, also from Catalan Farm of Hollister, Calif. Though I often make a vat of hummus for parties using dried chickpeas and use the canned ones occasionally in bean salads, I’d never seen this legume in its intact, fresh-picked form before, let alone prepared it.

Shopkeeper in OaklandSaid Cherkaouia in his newly opened shop in North Oakland, Calif. 

Chickpeas, a staple of Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, are apparently one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. They grow one or two to a fibrous green pod, which you’ll want to remove before eating. When I asked around how to cook them, mostly I got variations on hummus or some sort of curry or stew. But I wanted to really taste the beans, so I was holding off until I found something that would let their flavor shine through.

In a happy accident, while on a walk in my North Oakland, Calif. neighborhood, I noticed to my shock that a tiny new grocery store had opened on the major thoroughfare on which I live. The American Natural Food & Café offers a limited, somewhat random selection of dry goods, including beans and pastas, along with essential household items, and serves coffee, pastries, and some Middle Eastern salads and sandwiches. My husband and I started chatting with the very friendly owner, Said Cherkaouia. Because I’m nosy, I asked him where he was from: Morocco. A chickpea-shaped lightbulb went on in my head.

I explained my bean dilemma and asked for advice.

Cherkaouia became quite animated. “You should steam them, just a little bit, in their shells,” he said. “Then just toss them with some olive oil, garlic, salt, lemon, and parsley. That is all they need. They will be delicious.”

That sounded about my speed. Cherkaouia offered us Moroccan tea, and while he made it I looked around. I noticed something odd. In marked contrast to the other small groceries in the neighborhood, there was no mass-produced junk food in this store: no Skittles, no Fritos, no 2-liters of Coke crowding the cash register. I asked Cherkaouia why.

“Because that food is poison,” he said. “Why would I want to poison my customers? No. Here I will only sell real food. You see the bananas?” — he gestured to a small display of rather green specimens — “I will have more fruit soon.”

Chickpeas cooked The beans were delicious steamed and dressed with olive oil , garlic, lemon, salt, parsley, and mint.Resisting the impulse to hug him, I wished him well in his quixotic quest. I have serious doubts that such a shop can make a go of it around here, but I hope I’m wrong.

A few days later, I followed his directions, or almost — I decided to add some chopped mint from my garden as well. Quite honestly, the chickpeas were a pain in the ass — almost as time-consuming  to prep as fava beans — but even more of a revelation, taste wise. The fresh version blows the dried and especially the canned kind out of the water, literally: they are firm-fleshed, not at all mushy, with a nutty flavor that stands up well to the raw garlic and lemon.

I only wish I had bought more.

What about you? Have you cooked something farm-fresh outside your comfort zone this week?