I look forward to the opening of farmers’ market season the way a five year old looks forward to Christmas. It usually hits just as I have reached my limit with winter root vegetables and am aching for something delicate, vibrant, and decidedly not wintery. Rhubarb and asparagus may not excite many people, but they are my glimmer of hope that good things are coming.
Eating seasonally is exciting in that some seasons are more plentiful than others, but for the majority of us not living in extreme climes, there is almost always something good growing around you. Stepping away from the grocery store and into the farmers’ market is a great way to discover what your area has to offer, and it can turn grocery shopping from feeling like a chore into an enjoyable experience. Here are a few pointers on how to make the most of your trip to the market.
1. Have a plan, but be flexible.
Arrive at the market with a general idea of what you want on the week’s menu, but let what you see there dictate the details. Eating by seasonality is a wonderful way to eat, but it sometimes requires you to think on your feet. You’ll be more successful cooking through the week if you shop with “grilled protein with a side of summer vegetables” in mind rather than “grilled chicken with a grilled ratatouille.” If you are the type who needs a recipe to look at before you do your shopping, learn a few basic, standard ways to prepare vegetables (pretty much anything can be roasted or tossed in a salad) so that if those zucchini you really needed for Tuesday night are all sold out, you can easily grab something else to improvise.
2. Go early for the best quality.
The earlier you get there, the better your choices will be. Things like eggs and meat tend to go quickly in many markets, and produce is usually pretty well picked-over after the first hour or two. If you’re looking for the best the market has to offer, the early hours are your best bet.
3. …Or go late for the best deals.
This isn’t true at all markets, but many vendors who are left with excess produce at the end of their day will sell their goods at a discount. Picking may be slim, but who knows- you might walk away with a great deal.
4. Realize that the organic label is not as important as you may think it is.
“Organic” is not the end-all label of good produce, eggs, dairy, or meat; in fact, there are some small farms who aren’t certified organic but practice sustainable farming in a way that far exceeds the usual standards set for an organic farm. The organic label isn’t a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the only deciding factor about who gets your business.
5. Know your farmer, know your food.
Confused by words like “organic,” “free range,” “cage free,” “pastured,” and whatever other holistic-sounding terms you hear batted around in food talk these days? The best way to learn about how your food is grown is to talk to the people who grow it. Market vendors are generally happy to chat with you and answer any questions you have about their farming practices, and many of them will take time to explain the pros and cons of how they run various aspects of their farm. It’s also beneficial for farmers to hear what is and isn’t working for their customers and to know what their customers’ desires are, so make sure you compliment them on what they are doing well and (kindly) let them know if something is off.
Further, you’ll be surprised at how willing some of them are to provide you with something they usually don’t carry if it is possible for them to do so. Case in point: after a conversation about how I couldn’t find good ground pork anywhere, my local market sausage vendor offered to sell me ground pork, something he usually doesn’t offer. I just had to let him know ahead of time, and he would set some aside for me to pick up at the market. It was convenient for me and profitable for him- win, win!
6. Learn something new.
Make a morning out of your market visit- don’t just breeze through with an agenda. Stop for samples and touch, taste, and smell different produce, and let the kids do the same- they are far more likely to eat all of that healthy produce if you familiarize them with it first. Use the opportunity to learn more about what grows in your area. You might be surprised at what you find: I had no idea how easily figs and persimmons grow in my area until the first time I saw them at the market. Now, I notice the trees in backyards everywhere!
Also, chat with the farmers and other shoppers about their favorite ways to eat what they are offering that day. See someone loading up on eggplant? Chances are they know what they are doing with it, so if you need some ideas, head their way and ask what they plan to do with it! A farmer who sells specialized or uncommon ingredients, like gooseberries or quince, probably has several ideas for how to use them, so don’t be shy with the questions!
7. Most of all, have fun!
Even when I’m away from home, I still make a point to visit the local markets- they’re a great place to get a pulse on what is happening in the area. Shoppers here are usually a bit chattier than their grocery store counterparts and, if asked, will likely tell you what it going on in and around town that week. Conversely, I like to take my guests to a market or two in my area, especially if they don’t routinely shop at one back home. Many markets have several options to grab fresh juice or homemade soda, crepes, sandwiches, pastries, and other foods for breakfast or lunch, making them great places to meander with friends while you taste everything along the way; even better, due to the seasonal nature of things, you will likely find something new every week or two. On top of that, children usually love the relative freedom they have to meander and taste things, and if you’re really lucky, you’ll end up shopping somewhere with space to picnic or kick a soccer ball around for a bit after you finish shopping. Find a good market, and you won’t even realize you’re knocking something off of your list of weekly chores when you shop there.
Local friends, you can find a listing of farmer’s markets in the area at www.buylocalhamptonroads.org.