Before you hit the farmers' market in search of delicious summer produce, read these expert shopping tips to get the biggest bang for your buck and make the most of in-season fruits and vegetables.
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Know the Rules
Because every market has its own guidelines that govern what's allowed to be sold, the term "farmers' market" means different things in different places. Some permit vendors to peddle only goods that they've produced or grown themselves, while others have a more expansive criteria that might include any produce items, even ones they've purchased commercially. (That's why in some areas, you might spot obvious imports like bananas or coffee displayed in the stalls.)
"Plenty of markets are augmented with things that aren't necessarily local," says Ruben. "If you aren't sure, it never hurts to have a conversation with the person behind the counter." To find out more about the criteria for markets in your area, Ruben suggests browsing the United States Department of Agriculture's farmers' market database, which offers basic information about each market and a link to its website.
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Don't be fooled into thinking that vendors who use the word "organic" are the only ones following these principles. Ruben explains that because the certification to display this label is expensive, many smaller farms may be growing produce without pesticides or raising livestock without antibiotics, but simply can't afford to complete the paperwork process. "This is where it definitely makes sense to ask about their growing philosophy," says Ruben.
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Walk the Walk
Both Yonkers and Ruben stress the importance of scoping out the scene before opening your wallet. "You never buy anything at a farmers' market until you've walked the entire thing," says Ruben. "That's how you learn who has the prettiest stuff and the best prices."
Ruben suggests writing down the date, either on your calendar or in a list, when you see your favorite ingredients first being sold. That way you can refer to it the following year as a menu-planning tool. "This is really a long-term tip, but it helps you, as a cook, get used to the cycle and what's going on with nature," says Ruben.
Every seasoned farmers' market shopper has her own carrying strategy, but most agree that it makes sense to bring bags from home, either plastic ones you've saved from the store or reusable totes. Yonkers likes a sturdy, flat-bottomed bag (like a Haute Market Bag) for produce and an insulated tote for perishable goods. "If you don't want to bring an ice pack, pack meat, which is usually frozen, in with your yogurt, milk and cheese," she says. It's a matter of personal preference whether you choose to buy heavy items first, since you'll want to pack them at the bottom, or last, because then you won't have to carry them for as long. "And obviously delicate lettuces and berries should go at the top!" says Yonkers.
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Try New Things
To boost their creativity, Ruben tells his culinary students that on every trip to the green market, they should try to buy one thing they've never eaten before. "Make it about playing, having fun and channeling your inner 5-year-old," he says.
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Buy several of the same items from different vendors and have your own side-by-side sampling when you get home. "You'll learn whose you like better, but you'll also start to understand the different qualities of a certain fruit or vegetable," says Yonkers.
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If your favorite tomato grower isn't at the market on a given day, Ruben suggests looking for another purveyor from the same area. "It really pays to keep track of where the products you like come from, because things that were grown in the same area might be pretty similar in terms of taste," he says.
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Savor the Moment
As you move through your errand list for the day, you might be tempted to rush out of the market, but both of our experts say it's worth taking time to admire your surroundings, chat with your neighbors and people-watch. "The farmers' market is the new town square," says Yonkers.
Ruben adds that there is a lot to be learned from a sociological standpoint. "If you watch the day unfold, you'll see that the entire strata of a community tends to walk through a market—from parents pushing strollers in the morning to 20-somethings who've just woken up in the afternoon," he says.
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It's good for the environment, the community and your palate: When you shop at a farmers' market, everybody wins. But the very things that make a green market enticing—the parade of locals, the busy atmosphere and, of course, the seemingly endless array of gorgeous things to eat—can also overwhelm you as a shopper.