When it comes to farmers’ market fare, chefs know which foods have the most ephemeral growing seasons, how to tackle unusual or unfamiliar items, and ways to maximize the season’s offerings. After all, it’s a chef’s business to know what finds are worth snapping up when they start appearing at farmers’ markets.
Of course, chefs don’t have exclusive designs on smart market shopping. Any dedicated home cook or produce junkie who routinely asks farmers and vendors lots of questions knows when to anticipate the next wave of their favorite farm-fresh fare. Here’s how to be totally on top of the top picks at your market.
Get there early
Sometimes 10-15 minutes before the market starts, if necessary, to nab the coveted items. At my farmers’ market, the best herbs with the most limited supply go fast; farmers can’t seem to grow enough of items such as cilantro and dill.
Your market will likely be different. Other coveted items may include the produce that a particular grower only brings a small yield of because it’s just starting to come in; I’ve seen this happen with cauliflower (which is apparently more persnickety than broccoli), edamame and Brussels sprouts.
Arriving early is ensures first dibs on prepared foods made from market-fresh produce: I’ve also watched 6-inch strawberry rhubarb pies fly off the table of a local baker within minutes of a market opening.
Buy the small items
It’s not just because small things are twee and cute, but good chefs know that shorter, stubbier carrots are often sweeter and make for easier prep. And small turnips are easily sliced into crisp coins for salads, bringing crunch and contrast; they’re also less bitter than their full-size counterparts. Smaller zucchini, clocking in around 6-8 inches or so, typically have better flavor and are less pulpy and watery than their larger siblings. Bonus: Small zucchini and yellow squash make for symmetry, and therefore beauty, on the plate.
Buy the unusual or uncommon
Don’t be afraid of what you’ve never seen before. I’m talking about any mushroom other than the most common varieties, brassicas such as kohlrabi, mouse melons (which look like tiny watermelons and taste like cucumbers) and foraged items such as ramps, nettles and knotweed. (I bought knotweed a few weeks ago after my piece about rhubarb ran on this site; it is somewhat reminiscent of rhubarb). Ask the farmer what to do with it. They might suggest grating the kohlrabi into a slaw-like salad with cabbage and tossing it with a zippy citrus dressing. As for the ramps, wilt them on the grill and add to a sandwich, which you then also grill. And the knotweed? I’m angling to mix it with rhubarb for a quick bread.
Think outside the box (or the jar, bottle or tube) when it comes to condiments
Sure, you can buy from the jam vendor and spread the season’s best on your toast, but jams are great in salad dressings, whisked into marinades, as a flavorful add-in to muffins or cookies. Local hot sauce gets doused on eggs and Mexican fare, for sure, but what about adding it to hummus? Salsa needs chips—it’s pretty much the law to pair these two together—but it also livens up scrambled eggs in a jiffy.
Buy in bulk, when applicable
Chefs buy in bulk not only because they feed more people, they’re familiar with the ephemeral nature of growing seasons, and they know this stuff is not going to be around forever. The height of the season often turns me into a tricky combination of excited and stressed out—it’s a mad dash to do as much as possible with nature’s bounty. When you become spoiled by juicy, tree-ripened peaches at your local market or pick-your-own orchard, off-season supermarket purchases will taste flat and mealy in comparison.
That’s why you should scoop up seconds—those imperfect versions of the fruits or tomatoes that have a slight blemish here or there—and preserve them. Last summer, I found organic plum tomatoes being sold for a whopping $1.50 a pound. Freeze them, can them, jam them up, or put ‘em up for when they’re out of season. You’ll love cracking the lid on a jar of homemade tomato sauce in January; it’s like you’ve cheated the seasons. And yeah, it’s definitely a homesteading move, but grandmas and home canners, like good chefs, know how to economize and maximize ingredients.
Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.