Heaps of butternut squash, bushels of apples, mountains of leafy greens, and bouquets of fresh herbs dazzle the eyes of the first-time greenmarket shopper when the autumn harvest is in full swing. If you're used to supermarket shopping, where fruits and veggies are clearly marked, perfectly green, red, yellow, and orange under bright lights, a farmers' market looks improvised—and slightly intimidating: Handwritten signs tout items you've never heard of (quick: what's a quince?); bruised, oddly shaped fruits stand unapologetically on display; and busy farmers are bagging, making change, and answering shoppers' questions all at the same time.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed. Should you arrive with a pocketful of recipes and look for only the herbs, fruits, and vegetables you need? Or would it be better to wander aimlessly, waiting for, say, a bunch of kale to whisper, "Sauté me"? And if you need help, whom do you ask? So many shoppers and farmers have the determined look of people who know what they're doing and don't want to be interrupted.
"There are no stupid questions at the farmers' market," insists Isa Chandra Moskowitz, coauthor of Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook (Da Capo, 2008). To help make your first farmers' market foray—and every subsequent one—fun and productive, we asked Moskowitz and other cookbook authors and chefs to share their top greenmarket tips.
1. Find one nearby. At localharvest.org, key in your zip code to find farmers' markets in your area plus a brief description, days and hours of operation, contact information, and a listing of what's available year round. You can also ask around—word of mouth is a reliable way to find a market.
2. Leave the list at home. "Let what you find drive your cooking," suggests David Anderson, chef at the vegan Madeleine Bistro in Tarzana, Calif. "The best meals come from that attitude." As chefs like Anderson search the market for inspiration, follow them, says Darlene Wolnik of New Orleans' Crescent City Farmers Market. "Watch local chefs as they talk to vendors and listen to their exchanges," she suggests. But whether you're birddogging a busy chef or just roaming around, stay alert to the sights and sounds around you. "Keep your eyes open," advises Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets (Broadway Books, 2002). "At a market in Wisconsin I found amazing hickory nuts and black walnuts—something we don't have at home in Santa Fe. When I tasted them—ohmygosh!—the flavors were so deep, perfect for my banana cake."
3. Talk to the farmers. Veteran shoppers like Anderson and Madison don't hesitate to ask questions—and neither should you. If you don't know what something is, or don't know how you might use it, ask. "Get to know the farmers and workers—they're usually really excited about what they're doing," says Anderson. "I know a farmer who will call me to say, ‘You gotta taste this fruit—it's only in season for the next three weeks!' They'll tell me honestly what's great that day." And farmers aren't the only sources available: Madison suggests that, in a pinch, "Just ask out loud, ‘What do I do with this?' and someone is bound to answer. Enthusiastic cooks are not shy."
4. Go easy on organic. As important as organic certification is, it is also an arduous process for some growers. Instead, ask farmers the names of the varieties they're growing, or how they control pests, suggests Jeff Cox, author of The Organic Food Shoppers Guide (Wiley, 2008). "You can usually tell right away if they're selling conventional produce or using chemical pesticides if they don't know how to answer those questions."
5. Buy what's in season. A farmers' market is, by definition, a great source of seasonal produce, but knowing what's in season in your area, and when a favorite fruit or veggie is at its peak, will help you bring home the tastiest ingredients. The manager's table at many markets will offer fact sheets on what's in season, often including recipes. "Seasonal ensures the best flavor and the best value," says Cox. "And you can enjoy the produce all year round—just buy fruits and vegetables at their peak, eat some fresh as soon as you get home, then freeze or can the rest for use later in the year."
6. Visit a farm. When you strike up a conversation with a grower, ask if you can visit their farm. "Farm tours give you a picture of how difficult farming is," says Madison. "Outside Santa Fe, one farmer was living in a teepee," she recalls. "Another farmer gave me a tour and showed me where his parsnips were growing. I asked how long they'd been growing and he said, ‘Five months.' And they weren't even ready yet! It helps you understand why they're so expensive once they reach the market."
7. Pay for the best. As Madison's farm tour suggests, the price of food at a greenmarket reflects many months' work and growing time in the fields. "Good food isn't cheap," she observes. "But the money you spend at a farmers' market buys so much more than produce—you're supporting local farmers, and getting the freshest, best-tasting food."
8. Cook simply. "With really fresh vegetables, you don't need to add a ton of ingredients," says Moskowitz. "You want to coax the most flavor out of what you have. Once you've learned to sauté, roast, and grill, you can apply those methods to anything and invent your own recipes."
WHEN TO SHOP: "Early is best for variety, before everything's been picked over," says David Anderson. For best value, shop late, he says. "A half hour before closing, farmers are looking to make deals; they may cut prices in half."
WHAT TO BRING: Bring small bills—ones and fives—and your own cloth bags, advises Darlene Wolnik. And if you have a long drive home, bring a cooler.
HOW TO SHOP: Don't be shy about asking for a taste, especially if a farmer offers. "Taking a bite doesn't commit you to buying," says Deborah Madison. At a market where tasting is encouraged, it can and should be part of the inspiration process.
HOW TO BUY: Unlike at a supermarket, food at a farmers' market runs out every single day. "When it's gone, it's gone," says Madison, who recommends buying anything you crave as soon as you see it. And when you find something you really love, remember to ask the farmer how much longer it will be around.
Make the most of your local produce with one of these must-have resources:
- Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romeo (Da Capo, 2007). Dozens of easy, delicious vegan recipes are preceded by useful how-tos on getting the most flavor out of vegetables, grains, and beans.
- Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America's Farmers' Markets, by Deborah Madison (Broadway Books, 2002). Inspired by Madison's travels across the U.S. and visits to hundreds of farmers' markets, this volume brings together shopping tips and seasonal and regional recipes along with gorgeous photography.
- The Organic Food Shopper's Guide, by Jeff Cox (Wiley, 2008). This miniature encyclopedia of produce lets you look up the fruit or vegetable you want and learn when, where, and how you should go about buying and cooking it.