One of the highlights of my week is walking around the flagship New York City farmers’ market — the Union Square Greenmarket (“USG”) — on Saturday and exploring all the stalls. Without fail I always discover newly in-season fruits and vegetables or unique farm-sourced products that get my creative juices flowing. Some of my favorite finds in recent weeks are packed into this mint sunflower seed pesto cauliflower crust pizza (pesto recipe can be found here; the crust is available at Califlour Foods):
- Yellow currant mini tomatoes that are small bursts of flavor in your mouth;
- Freshly made garlic scape goat cheese;
- Two of my obsessions this summer—applemint and squash blossoms—which I have only found at farmers’ markets; and
- Recently picked basil vines with a clump of dirt attached to the roots so they last significantly longer.
I have gotten into the habit of posting photos of my finds on my Instagram account so I can share my excitement about produce and products I often times didn’t even know existed. I love the feedback I receive, having more and more people tell me I inspired them to start checking out their local farmers’ markets and to play around with the vegetables, fruits, and proteins that catch their eye. There are two questions I am consistently asked, however:
- Have you always been such a farmers’ market fan?
- I am always overwhelmed by all the vendors and options. Do you have any tips for making farmers’ market shopping more manageable?
Short answer to both questions respectively—HECK no and yes, I do! Long answer below…
How I Became a Farmers’ Market Fan
For most of my professional life I have been a take-out junkie. The habit developed when I started my legal career working 10+ hour days, 6-7 days a week at large firms and was given my own Seamless ID and password and an allowance to spend as I pleased on dinners, and sometimes even lunch if I was very busy (I often was). Between being tired all the time (probably in part due to poor food choices), barely spending time at home, and having most of my meals subsidized, I had little incentive to develop my cooking skills. Moreover, I was not familiar with the NYC greenmarkets, and higher quality grocery stores, like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, had yet to really break into the NYC market. Not so shockingly, the dingy corner grocery store did not motivate me to spend time in the kitchen.
Even after I left big law and had more time on my hands, the take-out habit stuck. I would try to cook here and there, especially as I become more health conscious. The problem, however, was that I would walk into a huge store, feel overwhelmed, and splurge on a whole bunch of random stuff I did not need and ended up not consuming. I became discouraged and did not try cooking again for a long while, going back to living off healthier, but pricey, take-out (can’t get a salad without avocado…).
Then one day I happened to walk through the USG on a day where the market was packed with a wide and colorful variety of produce, and, for the first time, I felt motivated to prep for the week. It took some trial and error to arrive at my current farmers’ market strategy (which I detail below), but using the seasonal products at the USG as the anchor for my prep gave me the starting point I needed. Over time, my farmers’ market love has only grown stronger for the following reasons:
- It’s my cooking muse: I mean, look at the photos of produce in this post—how can you not feel inspired to experiment with them, even if just to create a funky salad? When I hit a cooking rut, a visit to the USG (which is also open on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays) and all its colors, smells, and tastes snaps me out of it. Case and point—most of the recipes I recently posted on the blog were inspired by the recent herb boom, which includes sage, Thai and regular basil, oregano, tarragon, thyme, and mint.
- Seasonal, regionally grown fruits and veggies taste exponentially better than out-of-season ones: I honestly think the main reason why I did not like most vegetables as a kid was because the ones available in the local grocery store were out-of-season and, as a result, tasted out-of-wack. Fresh, regionally grown carrots taste sweet, not bitter. In-season blueberries are also sweet, not sour. A major reason why simple vegetarian dishes at high-end restaurants are so flavorful is because the chefs use locally sourced ingredients. I know because I often bump into chefs and sous chefs at the USG and sometimes will pump them for the scoop on a particular item.
- I actually crave my own creations over take-out: When you get used to consuming high quality produce and proteins, you become a bit of a snob about how your take-out should taste. I rarely buy egg sandwiches for breakfast anymore because I am used to the richer, creamier taste of pastured eggs. I no longer desire many of the items I used to order all the time because the vegetables and proteins just taste off to me now. The girl that used to put in her Seamless order while leaving the gym at night now actually craves her own leftovers.
- Some of my favorite items are only available at farmers’ markets: Many items that are staples of my diet right now—including broccoli sprouts, sunflower greens, Austrian gold crescent potatoes, and zebra tomatoes—are generally not available at your average grocery store. Some of them are cultivated in such small batches or are so highly perishable that they just cannot be kept in stock at a store.
Yes, developing a farmers’ market shopping habit has been life-changing for me. I feel more energetic, I enjoy my meals more, and I am saving a LOT of money. As I said, though, it took me a while to master the market and to be able to shop in a manner that is both cost- and time-effective, but also results in quality, usable purchases. So learn from my (many) mistakes, and test out my strategy the next time you visit your local farmers’ market.
Tips for Effectively Shopping at a Farmers’ Market
- Go early: I cannot emphasize this one enough. Even though the USG is open until late afternoon on Saturdays, I always try to visit it during the first two hours it is open when the products are fresh and there is a full selection. There is only so much that each vendor can transport to and store in their limited stall area at the market, so that means popular staples and highly seasonal products often run out within the first two hours. For example, I know that if I don’t get to the USG before 10 am (it opens at 8 am) some of my usual purchases for the week—including my beloved broccoli sprouts and sunflower greens, and a soothing ashwagandha tonic—will be sold out by the time I get there. The mini Tristar strawberries, which are a hot item right now, once sold out in the time it took me to do a quick initial loop of the market at around 10 am. Also, if you are crowd-averse like me and prefer to shop in a more leisurely manner, the market usually does not start getting packed until around 9-9:30 am. So if you can swing a visit on the earlier side, do it!
- Bring cash: I have yet to visit a farmers’ market where using a credit or debit card is not a huge inconvenience for everyone involved. The gross majority of vendors are cash-only, though from time to time a vendor will be equipped to accept card payments, and the USG has a system whereby customers can use their cards to purchase tokens and then use those tokens as currency at the stalls. But do yourself a favor and expedite your trip by making a quick stop at the ATM in advance.
- Bring a cooler bag: A roomy cooler bag is a must for farmers’ market shopping, especially in the summer to protect highly perishable purchases such as dairy, eggs, seafood, and meat. It also is a cost-saving (and earth-saving) measure since some vendors add a small surcharge to your bill if you request a shopping bag. I use this one I found on Amazon since it looks pretty chic for a cooler bag, but has ample space and does a good job of protecting all my purchases from the summer subway heat.
- Conduct an initial walk-through of the market: This is key to not being overwhelmed by all the options available from the various vendors. Especially at this peak point in the summer in areas like the Northeast, where farmers are flush with a wide variety of recently harvested produce, the only way to ensure you make cost-effective, quality purchases is to take a few minutes to evaluate your options. For example, right now many USG vendors are selling multiple types of eggplants, ranging in shape, size, and even shade of purple. I triage by comparing pricing and assessing the quality of the eggplants at each stall using sight and touch. If there are a ton of options, I take photos on my phone of the stand-outs and their price signs to jog my memory after I complete my loop of the market, when I make my final purchasing decisions.
- Ask the vendors about their farming, fishing, and manufacturing practices and read up about the market’s vendor requirements: A corollary of the bullet above and an important part of the purchasing decision process is asking the vendors about their practices. Ask whether they use genetically modified seeds or synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, or engage in organic or biodynamic farming practices. If you are considering purchasing eggs or meat, ask how the animals are cared for (e.g. with respect to eggs, whether they are pasture-raised, free-range, cage-free, or caged) and what they are fed. With respect to fish, ask whether they were wild caught or farmed. You should do your homework to determine what practices are important to you, but my main point is feel free to ask these questions. Based on my experience, vendors that are engaged in best practices are usually pretty vocal about it, down to posting signs detailing their methods. In addition, check whether the market itself has any requirements that its vendors must abide by. For example, GrowNYC, the non-profit which manages the New York City greenmarkets, requires all potential vendors to complete a detailed application demonstrating that their products are truly regional and bars the sale of irradiated or genetically modified produce.
- Ask the vendors for prepping and cooking tips: A huge bonus of shopping at a farmers’ market is that the vendors are fonts of knowledge about how best to clean and cook their products. Whenever I see a new item of produce or a protein that I am not familiar with, I always ask the vendor for tips and they are more than happy to oblige, offering advice about what you can or should not do with it. Several of the USG vendors who sell a variety of greens even have a little sign above each type, detailing its taste and texture and recommending how to cook and season it.
- Brainstorm about what you can make and proceed accordingly: I have mentioned this before, but when you see an item that piques your interest, formulate a rough idea on the spot for how you are going to use it. This way you don’t buy too much or too little of a product, or even worse, bring it home only to throw it away at the end of the week because you never had a game plan for it. Ask the vendor for ideas or even Google the item on your phone to see what types of dishes come up. If a particular one appeals to you, proceed from there with deciding what other items you need to prep it.
- Complete any supplemental shopping ASAP and clean and prep the same day: This is a surefire way to ensure that all those gorgeous purchases turn into food for the week and not a bag of garbage at the end of it. After I make my purchases for the week at USG, I run across the street to Whole Foods to get any items I may need to get started on my meal prep when I get home. Even if you decide to put off cooking for a day, cleaning any produce as necessary and properly storing them ASAP is a must to ensure they last for days. These articles from Real Simple provide helpful information about how long specific types of produce last and how to store them and how to select, store, and cook certain summer ones.
So, if you have always avoided shopping at a farmers’ market because you think it is too crunchy or hippie or just too much work (believe me, I felt the same for a long time), give it a try in the next week. Make it super manageable by only buying one or two basic items that you can just throw into a salad or roast, and go from there. I would love to hear how it goes either via the comments section or tag me in an Instagram post about it (my handle is @ahealthysliceofpai)!