The farmer's market is a feast for the senses: the colorful produce, the plentiful samples, and the bustling crowd. With so many vendors and such a bounty of produce, it's hard to know what to pick.
Recently, I learned some helpful tips from Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes and Stories from the Market and Farm.Amelia has a true love and appreciation for fresh, flavorful produce grown with care by small farmers. Her mission is to help families put fresh, simple, home-cooked meals on their tables. For Amelia it starts with fresh ingredients from the farmers market. I was lucky to be on a tour of the Santa Monica Farmers Market with Amelia. What follows is what I learned during our visit.
7 Tips For Shopping at the Farmers Market:
1. Understand What You Are Buying
The produce, eggs, meat, and chicken at a certified farmers market come from small family farmers and ranchers who produce food with the utmost care and attention to detail. They know what grows best in their micro-climate and take much pride in producing high quality food. The produce is ripened in the field. Nothing is mass produced. The food is not irradiated, gassed or waxed. The food has not been warehoused or shipped long distances. What you get is fresher, healthier, and tastier food.
2. Fresher Produce = Tastier Food
Most of the food at the farmers market has been picked in the field the day before. The produce has so much more flavor. Taste for yourself; most vendors offer free samples. For example, I find supermarket carrots so bland and flavorless, but the carrots at the farmers market taste sweet with a bright flavor. Also, everyone on the tour marveled at how much fresher the nuts and raisins taste at the farmers market compared to the supermarket. Kids are more likely to eat the healthy produce if it tastes better.
When the food is this fresh, you don't need a lot of cooking skills to make the food taste good. Using a simple preparation lets the natural ingredients shine. My favorite books to guide this type of cooking are Amelia's cookbookand The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters.
Furthermore, since the produce starts out so fresh, it lasts longer in the refrigerator. If there's something that I don't use right away, it's often still fresh a week later.
3. Buy What's In Season
Produce that's in season usually tastes better and is generally cheaper. While on the tour, my friend Sharon told Amelia that she likes to buy tomatoes for salad year round regardless of season. Sharon said that a salad is not a salad to her husband unless it has tomatoes in it. Amelia suggested that she buy something that's in season now, like persimmon or pomegranate, for the salad instead to see if her husband enjoys it. I find that variety makes meals so much more interesting. Shopping with the seasons provides variety. To know what grows in California each month, click to see these helpful charts for fruits and vegetables.
4. Use The Senses to Select Produce
I often feel overwhelmed by all the choices, so I was really curious to hear Amelia's advice. She suggested that we let taste be our guide. So, I started sampling more and paid careful attention to flavor and consistency. Amelia gave me a little push to just trust myself and to go by how I think the produce looks and tastes. It sounds so simple to say just trust myself, but somehow I wasn't fully doing that before. I was too focused on feeling overwhelmed and uncertain. After all our taste-testing, I now have a new favorite apple vendor, Cuyama Orchards, and have bought from them on subsequent outings. My family keeps raving about the delicious Fuji apples from the Farmers Market.
5. Shift Your Shopping Approach
Often people have a recipe in mind, then go shopping for the ingredients. Amelia suggested that we do this the other way around. She likes to see what looks fresh at the farmers market that day and selects her ingredients first. Then she comes up with recipes based upon the fresh produce that she finds. The idea is to arrive at the farmers market with an open mind and to let the fresh produce shape the weekly menu. Some of the moms on the tour said that it's hard for them to imagine shopping this way and especially hard to come up with recipes to match the ingredients. Amelia talked about how it's hard to change our habits and our conception of food shopping. I don't feel like it's an all or nothing proposition. Often I will come with a general plan in mind and then fill in the specifics with what I find. For example, I might plan on buying 3 proteins, 3 vegetables, lettuce, 4 types of fruit, 1 nut, and soup vegetables.
6. Try New Things
Here are some of my farmers market discoveries:
I love discovering new varieties of produce at the farmers market. To me it's like a sport and a challenge to figure out what to do with an ingredient that is new to me. I feel like an Iron Chef. But I'm not on my own. I always get advice from the farmer about how to prepare a new or unusual ingredient. Really it's not all that daring because I can sample the ingredient before I buy it. On the day of the food tour some ingredients that Amelia recommended included eggs, persimmons, dates, purple baby brussels sprouts, freshly dried beans, and a new variety of potato (Sierra Gold) which is a cross between a russet and Yukon.
7. Talk To the Farmers
Most of the farmers and the people who work for them are knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. Amelia recommended buying from the vendors who are helpful. They can tell you what tastes best now and what the difference is between varieties. The farmers can also advise on how to prepare the produce. They cook with their own crops all the time. Talking to the farmers makes shopping an enjoyable, personalized experience.
Since the tour, we all feel like we have a much better understanding of how food gets to our tables. The farmers market now feels so much more approachable. I hope that these tips help make the farmers market more inviting to you too. I feel inspired and can't wait to go back.
In addition to the wealth of information we learned from Amelia, it was so much fun touring with her. She's like the belle of the ball at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Everyone knows her and stops to talk to her. Being with Amelia we got to meet and chat with many of LA's celebrity chefs. Now that's my kind of celebrity.
This post contains affiliate links.
Amelia Saltsman says
Thank you Dana! It was a great day for me too, and I'm so glad you found useful information to use in future visits to farmers' markets!
Amelia- thank you for sharing your knowledge and for all the inspiration. Hope to see you at the market.