It’s farmers market time again, a time of rebirth and renewal for local agriculture but also resolutions for smarter shopping and cooking.
No more aspirational farmers market shopping sprees that leave us with a kitchen full of wilted arugula, moldy berries and severe guilt by week’s end. No, this year we resolve to plan ahead, shop smart and embrace the realities of our busy schedules — while still making an impressive array of spectacular meals from the finest local produce, of course.
And just how will we pull this off? With the help of authors and farmers market veterans who offer expert advice on how to make the most of fresh-produce shopping.
These authors include Laura C. Martin (“The Green Market Baking Book”), Janine MacLachlan (“Farmers Markets of the Heartland”) and Anna Blessing (“Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farmers in America’s Heartland”). We’ve combined their paraphrased tips with some of our own to prepare a heaping bushel of advice for your best farmers market shopping and cooking season ever.
Some advice may seem contradictory (such as make a list versus be inspired by the offerings) but you’ll know which tips to follow based on your market priorities.
• When you arrive at the market get yourself a cup of coffee and take a leisurely trip around to survey the offerings before you start buying.
• Be flexible. Instead of making a shopping list, wait and buy what looks the best and freshest.
• Make a plan and think realistically about how much time you will have to cook in the coming week.
• Take your recipes (or cookbook) with you so as things catch your eye, you can determine how best to use them.
• Talk to the farmers about produce to learn how to store it, which parts are edible and how long it will stay fresh.
• Don’t overbuy. It’s easy to get carried away when you’re surrounded by such wonderful produce but only buy what you think you’ll be able to use.
• Arrive early for the best selection and freshest products. Or arrive late for last-minute deals on the produce farmers want to move before heading home.
• Ask to see the “seconds,” or imperfect, bruised produce. These less-than-perfect items are great for saving money and using in pies, sauces or jams.
• Before you leave home for the market, put out all the bowls, colanders, cutting boards and salad spinners you’ll need to wash and prep your purchases for use. Once you return home, put on some good music and have yourself a produce prepping party. You’re much more likely to use the produce if it’s prepped to eat and cook.
• Avoid waste (and sometimes fees) by bringing your own bags; don’t forget insulated bags for meat and dairy. Tote your reusable plastic take-out or yogurt containers to protect berries and other delicate produce in your bag.
• Scope out which farmers take checks and credit cards before you spend all of your cash.
• Bring small bills and correct change for easier transactions.
• Don’t dismiss a farmer for not having an organic certification. Some follow organic practices but opt to avoid the paperwork involved. Others — such as some tree fruit farmers — deal with certain climate and bug issues that make pesticide-free farming extremely difficult. If this is an issue of concern, talk to the farmers about it. If they don’t want to talk about it, it’s not a good sign.
• Attend chef demonstrations that many markets host, or ask friendly chefs on-site for produce cooking tips.
• If you are buying meat or dairy, ask the vendor to hold it for you until you are ready to go so it can stay cool for as long as possible.
• Each week explore a new area of produce to see which varieties/farms you like best. Put together a sampling of melons, tomatoes, peppers, squashes etc., then come back for your favorite.
• If a certain item is just at the beginning or tail end of its season, it will be more expensive.
• Those on a budget are best off buying it when it’s at its peak and prices come down.
• If you have more than one farmers market in your area, consider visiting a few each season. Selection and prices can vary from town to town and even neighborhood to neighborhood.
©2012 the Chicago Tribune
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