Thursday, May 10, 2012

Shopping the Farmers' Market: Be Savvy and Stock Up

The Hardest Part is Waiting for the Good Stuff
Seasonality is an especially difficult adjustment for new market shoppers. You can buy sweet peppers year-round in your supermarket, but at your farmers’ market, you can buy them only when they’re hanging on a plant not far from where you live. This timing takes a little getting used to, but you’ll get the hang of the seasonal crop flow as you shop, and committed market shoppers soon become attached to the taste of produce at peak freshness. You’ll learn to wait for the arrival of each fruit or vegetable and then eat it until it’s gone.


Let your farmer be your teacher. Your best lessons come from the farmers’ market and its community, so look around you, watch or ask farm vendors (and shoppers). These observations will teach you how to select and prepare foods. And of course, your farm vendors have been asked about storage and preparation tips a thousand times, so they know the answers!

Learn the food seasons. Take your cue from what’s abundant. If it’s in peak season,
load up on it. Observe what comes in and out of season, overflowing and then dwindling. By the last market day, you’ll understand basic crop flow for next year. Take notes or print out your own seasonal chart. Even I sometimes miss the short cherry season when I don’t pay attention.

Learn new ways to cook. Keep an eye on the displays, which often teach you how to use specific foods. The maturity of a plant may also tell you how to prepare it: Small, young beet leaves sit in a bin next to other salad greens, signaling you to use them in a salad. Larger beet leaves may be bunched separately with other cooking greens, such as collards or kale, or sold still attached to the beets, signaling that they should be cooked. Written signs may also tell you how to prepare ingredients: cooking greens may be called “braising greens.” So braise ’em.

Shop by category instead of by ingredient. Freshly harvested produce appears and disappears as it goes in and out of season. Ingredients you expected to arrive may have fallen prey to nature — a heavy rain finishing off the berries or deer eating the butternut
squash crop. Make these uncertainties an asset by adopting a new shopping style. Rather than looking for specific ingredients, shop in general categories. Put “salad” on your list rather than specific salad ingredients. Shop for the best ingredients available rather than for specific kinds, selecting fruits or vegetables that are fine on their own or might also combine well. Shop for any grain, rice, or pasta, then pick out combinations of ingredients that could be thrown into any of these. You’ll often find that nature makes sense; foods in season blend well together. Read recipes if you must, or just experiment!

Try something new. Certain foods get popular at the market and shoppers get into a rut, asking for Honey Crisp apples, Macouns, or whatever the current darling is, even after their time is past. Be willing to move on to what’s next and might be better in its time. I know it’s hard. I mourn the end of Macoun season, when the apples have lost the complexity of taste they had at the beginning of their run. But part of the pleasure of shopping at the farmers’ market is the ephemeral nature of produce. And the mouthwatering wait until next season.


  • Buy both perishable foods, like raspberries, and produce that naturally holds well, such as carrots, onions, cabbage, and winter squash; slightly unripe ingredients; or value-added foods, such as cheese and maple syrup.
  • Simple rule: eat what’s likely to go bad first. Enjoy perishable items early in the week and move on to less perishable ones later on.
  • Buy ample amounts of one or two staple items. The easiest for me is mesclun mix (baby salad greens), which you can throw anything into and make a meal.
  • Prolong food’s lifespan. After you’ve finished the most perishable items, make a simple prepared dish that’s a good keeper, such as soup or stew, a potato or grain casserole, or a hearty vegetable salad.

Excerpt from The Locavore Way © 2009 by Amy Cotler
Illustrations by © Marc Rosenthal To learn more about eating, cooking, growing, and supporting local food, check out Amy's blog.

See previous post from The Locavore Way on Inside Storey: Market Time

To find a Farmer's Market and other local food retailers in your area, go to Eat Well Guide.

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