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How to Pick Farmers’ Market Produce
by Kristen Desmond
If you like eating fresh, local, flavorful food, you’re in luck. Farmers’ markets across the country are teeming with produce from local farms. With a little knowledge and pre-planning, your next trip to the farmers’ market can be fun, educational and fruitful — literally.
A trip to the farmers’ market starts at home. Before heading out, gather reusable bags to carry your produce and make sure you bring cash to pay for your produce, as credit cards typically aren’t accepted.
Make a Shopping List
A little planning goes a long way. It’s helpful to have an idea of which produce you need to try new recipes, make salads and have meal-ready vegetables on hand. Of course, part of the fun of going to the farmers’ market is being inspired in the moment by the beautiful berries, fresh spring greens and weekly specials. Adding some structure to your farmers’ market produce shopping helps you spend wisely and reduce waste by buying what you need, with a little room for spur-of-the-moment purchases.
Find the Fresh Stuff
Selecting the freshest farmers’ market produce is easy when you keep a few simple guidelines in mind.
Greens: Spring brings a variety of greens to market including arugula, spinach, broccoli raab, chard, watercress and baby lettuces. Look for greens with healthy leaves and stems with a clean, fresh scent. Choose asparagus that has tight, closed tips, firm stalks and bright color. Select peas that appear fresh, green and plump.
Fruits: Summer fruits such as apricots, peaches, plums and nectarines should beplump and well-formed, with a smooth skin that is soft to the touch. These stone fruits continue to ripen when stored on your kitchen counter, away from heat sources such as the stove or oven.
Melons, on the other hand, do not continue to ripen after picking, so choose ripe ones. If you see a bald patch where the melon sat on the ground, it’s usually an indicator that the melon was allowed to ripen on the vine — which is a good thing. Smell the melon at the root end; it should smell aromatic and sweet. A ripe watermelon will sound hollow when you thump it with the palm of your hand.
Herbs: Farmers’ markets usually have a wide variety of fresh herbs including thyme, oregano, dill, rosemary, basil and tarragon. Select herbs with green, healthy leaves and stems. Avoid herbs that are brown, wilted or have slime on the leaves or stems. In addition to looking clean and fresh, herbs should smell clean and fresh; choose herbs that have a nice, fragrant aroma.
Summer squash: Summer squash come many varieties including zucchini, yellow crookneck and patty pan. They should feel plump and firm and appear unblemished with glossy skin. When it comes to squash, smaller is better and they should feel heavy for their size.
Corn: Nothing says summer like fresh corn. When choosing corn, look for stems that are fresh and green. The husk should also be green and tight, with lots of moist gold corn silk coming out the top.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes should be bright in color, whether yellow, green or red. They should also feel soft to the touch, but not squishy.
Root vegetables: Root vegetables such as beets, parsnips, rutabagas and turnips should be firm and smooth with fresh, bright greens attached. If the greens have been removed, the cut stems should appear moist, green and fresh.
Berries and cherries: Berries of all kinds should appear firm, plump and bright. There should be no evidence of bruising or seeping juices. Cherries at a farmers’ market should appear bright, firm and glossy, with stems that are fresh and green.
Most small farms practice organic farming, which means that in addition to being fresh and flavorful, the produce has been grown using practices that are good for the earth, the produce and your health. Don’t assume, however, that all farmers’ market produce is organically grown, whether certified or not. If you want to purchase onlyorganically grown produce, ask the vendor about their farming practices.
Don’t Be Shy
If something catches your eye but is unfamiliar to you, don’t hesitate to ask the vendor questions. What is this? Is it ripe and ready to eat? Can I taste it? How do you suggest I prepare it? Most vendors at farmers’ markets like to talk about their food. Other shoppers are also a great resource for learning about produce you’ve never seen before.
As a trained chef and competitive runner, Kristen Desmond doesn’t want to choose between being fit and being a foodie. She wants it all. Read her blog at www.getyouryummyback.com.
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