By Anne Danahy MS RD
One of the simple pleasures of summer is visiting your local farmers market and coming home with a bag of super-fresh produce and unique foods made by local food artisans. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet your farmers and learn more about where your food comes from. Shopping at a farmers market isn’t anything like running out to the grocery store though. To make the most of your trip, it pays to learn a few rules so you come home with what you want or need, rather than an empty bag, or one that’s full of who-knows-what-this-is, that will sit in the refrigerator until it goes bad.
1. Know what’s in season. Remember, the farmers at the market are selling the food they picked this last night or this morning, so don’t plan on finding pumpkins in June, asparagus in August, or strawberries in September. Learn what’s in season and what’s coming up, and plan your recipes and meals accordingly.
2. Go with a plan, but be flexible. If you know you’ll be shopping at a farmers market, plan a few recipes ahead of time and make a list, so you’ll be sure to pick up what you need. Cooking magazines and Pinterest are both always full of seasonal inspiration. Pick up your main ingredients like produce, fresh eggs, cheese, meat or fish at the market, and plan on hitting a grocery store afterwards to supplement the other ingredients. Sometimes though, despite your best plans, you might spy a fabulous and fresh fruit or vegetable that you never thought of, so by all means, be flexible! Some produce has an incredibly short growing season, and if you don’t grab it, you may be out of luck until next year.
3. BYBO&C. That stands for bring your own bags and cash! Many farmers do supply small bags for their purchases, but rather than risk trying to balance several ears of corn and a bunch of tomatoes in your two hands, bring a sturdy reusable grocery bag with a strong handle. Many farmers also appreciate cash (small bills especially), since it costs them extra to accept a credit card.
4. Timing is everything. If you want the best selection and the freshest produce, plan to arrive as soon as the market opens. On the other hand, if you want the best deals (because who wants to tote wilted greens back to their farm), go shortly before the market closes, and you may end up getting some extra goodies added to your bag. Just remember, farmers make very little profit on what they produce, so haggling is generally not appreciated.
5. Step outside the box. It’s OK to like what you like, especially when it’s produce, but if you see something unusual, or even something you recognize but don’t usually eat, ask the farmer what they like to do with it, or how they prepare it. You’ll be surprised at what amazing and creative ideas you’ll get. Sure, farmers can grow things, but most are also pretty handy in the kitchen. Some farmers markets also sell community cookbooks with lots of creative ideas for using all types of produce. Proceeds often support the market or the farmers, so it’s a win-win solution to the “what would I do with this” question.
6. Take it all! The ultra-fresh produce at farmers markets is perfect for canning, preserving and pickling, so buy lots and preserve it for later. It’s important to follow the rules and recipes for preserving foods, but once you learn the technique, it’s not as difficult as it may seem, and it’s such a joy to open a jar of homemade tomato sauce or strawberry jam in the middle of winter The National Center for Home Food Preservation has some excellent information on canning, freezing, pickling and any other method of preserving foods.
7. Volunteer. Farmers markets run on a tight, lean budget, and usually rely on grants and donations, in addition to their profits, to be able to stay open, so they really appreciate volunteers. In addition to doing something good for your market and town, you’ll get the inside scoop on what’s freshest, who has the best selection, and what to do with it once you get home.
If you’re not sure where your closest farmers market is, use this directory that lets you search by zip code. See you at the market!