Eight tips to rock your farmers’ market shopping trip
A short while ago, I spent a weekend at an annual fest hosted by my friends at Organic Valley in La Farge, nestled in the gorgeous Driftless region of Wisconsin. They’re a cooperative of almost 1,800 small farmers who place stewardship of creatures and soil as a priority, and each year they celebrate their community by hosting the Kickapoo Country Fair.
And wow, did I feel in with the in crowd. Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, was there. And so was Michel Nischan, who made his name as a chef and then followed his passion to make good food available as founder of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which I wrote about in Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland. I describe the organization’s efforts to connect local agriculture and underserved communities, in part with grants that help people double food stamp benefits spent at farmers’ markets. My early interview with Michel helped me bond with market organizers across the Midwest, because they all wanted to hear about how
I was in the food adventure tent to talk about how to optimize your farmers market experience. I joined Organic Valley chef Alex Brevik, who cooked up two recipes from my book and showed everyone how to elevate their kitchen skill. We made caponata, a robust eggplant and tomato relish, great on a crusty baguette with goat cheese, from Chef Julie Ridlon in St. Louis, as well as Zingerman’s Deli Chef Roger Bowzer’s “melon-dramatic” salad, an eye- and mouth-popping salad of two different color melons, cucumber, red onions and salty cheese. I’ll be posting those recipes soon.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share my tips for shopping your market. Check out more about the Kickapoo Country Fair over on their Facebook page.
How to rock your farmers market
- Go early. Producers will have more time to answer your questions, and you’ll be able to linger without a crowd pressing in behind you. Fill your canvas bag, then relax with a crusty loaf and enjoy the people watching.
- Research market regs. A producer-only market requires the farmer to be behind the table. Some emphasize organic growers. Understand market regulations and decide what’s important for you.
- Embrace the season. Come with a plan, but be flexible. Know how many meals you’ll want to cook for, how much fruit for snacking, etc. But don’t insist on specific ingredients. An abundance of onions might inspire you to make a savory tart one week, and the next week the first broccoli rabe means a pasta dinner. Try a new food every week.
- Strike up a chat. Ask the producer about growing practices. Some growers are also avid cooks and fellow shoppers will have plenty of tips about ingredient combinations.
- Bring a cooler. If you want fragile greens or perishable dairy products, it’s a good idea to have a cooler in case you’re waylaid on your way home.
- Shadow a chef. In a lot of urban areas the chefs will shop the markets, particularly those on Wednesday, where they can stock up for the busy weekend. Ask them who they like to buy from.
- Ask for seconds. Most vendors only sell first quality food. The second quality offerings, those with little blemishes, are great for sauces and sorbets. When you know your farmer you can ask them to bring you their battered berries and tomatoes, and they’ll probably give you a deal.
- Come home and prep. This will keep you from tossing great food at the end of the week. Sauté your kale with garlic once you get home and store it in fridge containers. Caramelize a batch of onions. Be mindful of what foods might be fragile and should only be washed right before cooking. Only rinse berries right before cooking or eating, for instance, because they have a natural barrier that protects them from deterioration.
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