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Farmers Market Meals

Here are 7 tips on organizing your shopping, plus recipes from Alice Waters and Deborah Madison.

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Whether your eating plan hails from the Mediterranean or Miami, whether your goal is to up your brainpower and youthful glow, or reduce your blood pressure or weight, greens will definitely be at center stage. But supermarket veggies aren’t always that inspiring: stacked like bricks in drab pyramids, misted at intervals in their air-chilled compartments to look lively after wilting voyages from far-away mega-farms.

See also: Best farmers markets and how to find one near you.

For fresh inspiration, try frequenting your local farmers market, where the changes of season are marked by an ever-unfolding array of new tastes and treats. Spring arrives with a few weeks of rhubarb and asparagus. Berries remind you that summer has come. As late autumn approaches, the last tomatoes hang on, no longer to be found next to stacks of fresh corn, but side-by-side with piles of pumpkins. Just the sheer variety — herbs like lemon thyme and opal basil, wild onions, half-wild strawberries and heirloom tomatoes wildly named “Green Zebras,” “Cherokee Purple,” and “Mortgagelifter” — will whet your appetite.

Local farmers market food can't help but be fresher. I would argue, too, that it tastes better, and some would say it’s healthier (for your spirit, at least, if not your cells). Shopping at the farmers market at the height of summer can be a treat for the senses, but it also can have its challenges: balancing bags and cash, agonizing over which farmer has the juiciest peaches, and trying to understand the signs that tell you how “green” your greens really are. Here are seven secrets to successful farmers market shopping:

1. Plan your route. Walk around the market at least twice: The first time is to scout the produce, taste samples, and decide what you want to cook; the second to do your actual shopping. Wait to buy weighty items, such as melons and potatoes, and perishables like dairy, fish, and meat, until just before you leave. Worried that something will sell out? Ask the purveyor to hold on to your purchase for last-minute pick-up.

2. Have cash in pocket. For speedy transactions carry small bills and change — and keep them in a pocket. There’s rarely room on farmers tables to perch your purse.

3. Double bag it. Bring a large shoulder bag for sturdy vegetables and firm fruits. Use a separate bag to carry by the handle for fragile berries, ripe fruits, and delicate greens. Have a cooler waiting in your car, if that's how you travel and you have a long trip home or other errands to run.

Next: 4 more tips on shopping farmers markets. >>

4. Go late and save. You may miss some coveted items, but this is the way to find bargains. As the end of market day approaches, farmers will make their own bargain packs, putting peppers or peaches into one, two, or three-dollar bags. If they don’t, you can ask (nicely) for a closing-time deal. They don’t want to haul perishable extra product back home.

5. Purchase at the crop’s peak. Want to make a blueberry pie? Don’t buy the fruit the first day you see blueberries for sale. Find out when they’ll be at their prime. Height-of-the-season produce may taste better, but it is always more abundant — and that means lower prices.

6. Ask the experts. Few people know the produce as well as the farmers who grow the greens or sprouts or squash from day one — and serve it at many of their own meals. As you shop, don’t be shy to tap into this know-how. Some questions you might ask: How do I choose a good one? When will it be ripe? How should it be stored? How long should it last? What is the best way to cook it?

7. Get how it’s grown. A local market is an opportunity to understand the impact your eating has on the earth. Pay attention to signs that say something other than “Organic,” the USDA legal language for farms that officially don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Some farmers choose not to pay for the paperwork of certification. Some go beyond (such as “Biodynamic”) and some are on their way (“Transitional”). “No spray” or “pesticide-free” can be confusing, misleading, or both. Ask the farmer for clarification.

Time takes on a new meaning when you shop in season. Treasure each bountiful week by eating the best food you can. And celebrate each bite. Here are recipes (see link to recipes above, left) from two of America’s top women chefs who have made their mark by focusing their cooking on local seasonal farmers’ market finds.

Next: Recipes from Alice Waters and Deborah Madison. >>

Two Dishes to Try. Alice Waters, founder and chef of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse restaurant, where she pioneered “California Cuisine,” has dedicated herself to simple cooking style—Mediterranean in spirit—that shows off the best local produce and meats. The Chard Frittata recipe from Waters’s The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution (Clarkson Potter 2007), is an ideal everyday way to make the most of the sometimes surprising greens you'll find at your farmers' market. Presented in her easy-to-follow style, the recipe looks as simple to follow as it is to make.

Deborah Madison, who cooked at Chez Panisse early in her career, remained veggie-centric and turned into a food superstar for her own pioneering vegetarian restaurant, Greens, and award-winning cookbooks. The Zephyr Zucchini with Opal Basil, Pine Nuts, and Parmigiano-Reggiano recipe from her Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets (Broadway, 2002) shows how simple cooking with market produce can be. A drizzle of oil, a sprinkle of this, and a palm-full of that, does an easy makeover on quickly cooked summer squash.

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