Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Using the Farmers' Market
Until well after I was married, my only meal planning experiences revolved around putting together a list of what we wanted to eat based upon what we could afford, followed by a trip to the grocery. Incorporating the farmers' market into my routine has added a little time to my shopping and the decision to eat in tune with the seasons has changed my cooking habits, but in the long run, I think we're healthier and I find we spend less on food than we used to. Even so, those first forays into the farmers' market were a little intimidating.
How do I know which booths to pick from? What questions do I ask the vendors? What in the world is that mystery veggie and how on earth would I cook THAT?
Here are a few tips to get you started:
1.Find out which markets are close to you. You can find information on local farmers' markets in your local paper or if your town has a visitors' center, they will often have the information. If you prefer to research online, Local Harvest is a great resource for finding markets, produce stands, and pick-it-yourself farms.
2. Find out what's in season. In order to plan your purchases for the week, you'll need to know what your options are. As a general overview, I sometimes find Eat the Seasons helpful as it will give one a general idea of what is in season right now. For readers in the United States, there are also state-specific produce guides. And there is another at Field to Plate.
3. Once I know what's in season, now what? Use your "in season" list to plan out your meals for the week. For instance, my local market is enjoying the last of the bell peppers and I'd like to use a few before they're gone. We're also overrun with squash of all kinds, so I'll be pulling out all my recipes that use squash - squash casserole, spaghetti squash with pasta and garlic, chicken stew and so on. And...you get the idea.
4. Figure out which booths to patronize. At the farmers' market, I try to stick with vendors selling local goods. My local market restricts itself so that all vendors must be selling local goods, but not all do this. I will also do a quick walk through the market to see what prices are being charged on items. You'd be surprised how much price variation I see from stall to stall. I also like to check out the various stalls so that I can see which produce looks best. I can't tell you how many times I've snapped up tomatoes at one stall only to see much better ones a few stalls down. It pays to take the extra time to comparison shop.
5. Asking Questions If you aren't sure how to tell which apples are best or whether the winter squash is quite reip enough yet, don't be afraid to ask the vendor. The good sellers want your repeat business and I've had many folks walk me through how to pick the best items and what to look for with different fruits and veggies. Also, if you spot something that you've never eaten before, they can tell you what it should taste like and how to prepare it.
And those should be some good basics to get you started. In coming weeks, I'll try to post more about how to use your farmers' market goodies and what to do with some of those out of the ordinary vegetables (kohlrabi, anyone?)