“When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary because it tastes like what it is.” –Alice Waters
Have you ever strolled through your local farmers’ market on a Sunday morning, marveling at the bountiful array of colors, tasting the sweet, seasonal fruits, and crisp, farm-fresh vegetables? This sensory experience, meant to cultivate your relationship with food and celebrate sustainable practices, is also a magnificent foray into the world of plant-based living.
There is a reason that farmers’ market produce is so vibrant and bursting with flavor. Freshly picked fruits, vegetables, herbs, sprouts, lettuce, grains, and legumes from certified growers and/or farmers using organic practices provide the most bioavailable nutrients that you can consume. Freshly picked, “whole” food from the earth truly tastes “alive” and is the real medicine our bodies crave.
Even the fanciest grocery store cannot compare in flavor or freshness. You will find that when you serve your guests simply prepared, farmers’ market finds, they’ll praise your cooking prowess; the best meals really do start with the best ingredients. Knowing all of this, I decided to start my own organic garden – the inspiration behind Garden of Eydie! My only BIG problem is – my garden is too SMALL! Thankfully, I can find the freshest, healthiest, and most beautiful food at my local Santa Monica farmers’ market.
When I first started going to farmers’ markets while living in San Francisco, I was unaware of how to shop at the market. I’d peruse the stands, buying whatever looked good to me in the moment but I didn’t understand the breadth, scope, and quality of farmers’ market produce until I met Alice Waters at The French Culinary Institute in NYC.
What Alice Waters taught me about shopping at a Farmers’ Market:
Known as the mother of the organic food revolution in America, Alice Waters is a legend in the food world. She is the owner of the famous Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, CA and she even introduced arugula to America, bringing the seeds with her from France! During my studies at The French Culinary Institute, we were lucky enough to have Alice as one of our visiting deans. A few of us were offered the opportunity to join Alice on a trip to NYC’s Union Square Green Market to gather food for our cooking class with her later that day. It was one of those unbearably hot and muggy NYC days, but I didn’t care; I jumped at the chance to be with one of my idols – a revered “giant” in the culinary world. This was a dream come true.
When we arrived at the market, Alice advised us on the importance of walking through the entire market to get an idea of the different farm stands and produce available. I found her to be soft-spoken, light, and airy when imparting her wisdom. She was soulful, beautifully feminine, and elated about the miracle of what nature provides. She noted that this farmers’ market was surprisingly different than the ones in Northern California; they lacked the abundance of organic produce found in her home state. I knew exactly what Alice was talking about. The San Francisco farmers’ markets I had frequented, while living there, carried a lengthy list of fruits and vegetables; some that I’d never seen or tasted before. California has this organic food bounty because of Alice Waters! She worked with farmers all around the Bay area, helping them to develop organic practices and planting seeds not grown in the U.S. at the time. New York just hadn’t caught up. But times have changed and the Northeast is now ripe with fabulous local farmers and an abundance of organic farming practices. This farmers’ market trip changed my entire outlook on food!
I watched Alice handle the produce with care, like she was coddling a baby bird. She’d bring the delicate fruit up to her nose and take in its scent; she could smell when the fruit was ripe and decide if it was ready to be used for our class. Being with her felt magical; her love and admiration of nature’s gifts to life was apparent in her every move. We watched and learned while Alice would engage with the farmers, asking them (with great respect) an array of questions: where were their farms located? What produce did they grow year round? What were their farming practices and what were the challenges they faced? How did they use their produce in recipes? The farmers were captivated by her (we were all captivated by her).
Now, when I meet farmers and handle the produce, I follow Alice’s direction. I show how much I appreciate their work in providing the healthiest food on the planet. Part of what I love about embracing the “whole foodie” approach to eating is the emphasis on choosing the most nutrient-rich, plant-based options available. And this is exactly what small, local farms provide; growers bring us the gift of their ripest offerings via the farmers’ market. In a world of factory farms and mega-market chains, these local gems are a saving grace for our surrounding communities.
As Anthony Williams so elegantly states in his book, Life Changing Foods, “The Holy Four food groups (Fruits, vegetables, herbs & spices, and wild foods) are more sacred and powerful than we can even comprehend. Because they grow from the earth and are showered by the sun and sky, enduring out in the elements day after day as they form, they are intimately connected to the holy forces of nature. They don’t just contain the building block nutrients that we need to function. They contain intelligence from the Earthly Mother and the heavens that we desperately need about how to adapt.”
Farmers’ Market Tips:
Now that you’re “sold” on eating local farms’ produce, here is a checklist of what to know before you go.
Timing is Everything
Being an early bird means you will likely end up taking home the very best selection of fruits and vegetables. Heading in at opening hours ensures access to the choicest finds as vendors may sell out of their best or most sought-after products within hours. However, if your priority is finding the best deal, head over just before the market closes. Many farmers would prefer not to haul their bounty all the way back home and may be willing to sell it to you at a discount (some markets discourage this type of late hour negotiating so it isn’t always guaranteed).
Get the Lay of the Land
Your first order of business as a savvy farmers’ market patron is to do a bit of footwork. Take your time to tour the place; get a good look around and see what’s what. There may be multiple vendors selling the same thing and you will want to check out variations in pricing, quality, and even growing practices. If you’re really lucky, you may stumble on an unusual item that has you asking yourself, “what the heck is THAT?” The best way to get the real scoop is from the people who grew this incredible selection. Which leads us to…
Befriend the Farmers
Farmers’ markets offer a valuable opportunity to learn more about how and where your food is produced. By establishing a good rapport with farmers and food artisans, you’ll learn about the people themselves, and feel connected to your food and your community on a whole new level. Want to find out about their organic growing practices? Looking for tips on how to pick the best melon? Appreciate a heads up on the heirloom beans coming to market next month? You’ll be amazed at the wealth of knowledge available to you if you just ask.
Engaging with growers is also a good way to expand your produce repertoire because you’ll likely stumble upon items you wouldn’t find at your local grocery store. Perhaps it’s an unusual winter squash, a hard to find mushroom variety, or the elusive fresh sour cherry. This is a great way to sample new-to-you produce and get recommendations on how to prepare it.
Go for Seconds
What you’ll see tantalizingly lined up on the farmers’ market tables are a bevy of the most gorgeous, vibrant offerings of the week. Yet, sitting somewhere outside the produce pageant spotlight are “seconds.” This term refers to produce that is visually imperfect but otherwise just as good as its aesthetically blessed counterparts. “Seconds” can be had at a lower price and are an excellent option where appearance is inconsequential. Think about the items that you will chop finely, puree, or cook down – salsas, soups, sauces, smoothies, and juices – all great candidates for perfectly imperfect “seconds.” Ask your favorite growers what they have available.
Bring your own bags – reusable shopping bags, insulated bags, wheeled carts, or even a basket. Have a general idea of the volume you intend to purchase and plan accordingly.
Bring cash – Preferably in small denominations; most vendors can make change for larger bills, but it’s easier and faster to make small purchases this way.
Bring a list – It helps to plan in advance based on what you intend to make. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ended up with WAY more food in my bag than I had planned – all because it looked too good to pass up. A list will help keep you focused as you wade through the myriad of stands displaying enticing foods. That said, leave a little wiggle room for that delightful discovery that inspires you to try something different.
Bring the family – The farmers’ market is best enjoyed when it is encountered as an experience, not an errand. Kids have a natural inquisitiveness about food and the market provides plenty of opportunities to touch, taste, and observe. There’s often music and other forms of entertainment that make it a perfect place for family fun. However, unless your dog is of the service variety, leave your canine friend at home. Many markets are no-dog zones.
Get Season Savvy
One of the main perks of shopping your local farmers’ market is access to the freshest seasonal offerings. We have grown accustomed to finding many types of produce available year-round when we shop at supermarkets. This is because large chains receive products shipped from other parts of the world or keep them in cold storage for extended periods. If you’re looking for tomatoes from local growers at the farmers’ market in January, you’ll be out of luck. Getting the 4-1-1 on what’s in season will help you get the most out of your shopping trip. To make things easier for their patrons, many markets post a list online of what’s in season for the region.
You may notice how pricing can vary at the market as the season shifts. The very first strawberries to appear in season will likely be priced higher than the strawberries you find several weeks later. That’s because of supply and demand. Lower volume is available at the get-go, which commands a higher price. When more berries flood the market as the harvest hits full tilt, prices generally dip.
We’re all familiar with buying in bulk from warehouse club stores. Likewise, you may be able to save money by going for quantity at the farmers market. For example, when your favorite berries hit the stands, ask the vendor if you can get a discount for buying in volume. This is a great way to save some coins while loading up on your top picks.
Buying in bulk also means that you’ll be able to enjoy some of your favorite foods long after their growing season has ended. Freezing, canning, and drying are all excellent methods to preserve these fabulous flavors at their peak and continue enjoying them all year-round.
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FARMERS FOR YOUR HEALTH AND THE HEALTH OF OUR NATION!
The more we purchase from our local farmers, the more they can provide. It’s a win-win for all. These farmers don’t have the government subsidies that keep “Big Industry” afloat. We vote with our dollars and if we demand fresh, organic, chemical-free produce, the more opportunity we have to greatly diminish our country’s foodborne illnesses, save healthcare costs, save the planet, and save our loved ones.
We’d love to hear more about your farmers’ market finds. Did you try a vegetable or fruit you’ve never had before? See a bean that you can’t find at the grocery store? Taste a carrot that is far more sweet and delicious than you’ve ever tasted? Did you discover any unique recipes during your visit? Do you need an idea of how to prepare an item that eludes you? Ask Garden of Eydie and we will assist!
Let’s help each other ignite our passion for nature’s food; the most delightful and healthful food available!