“What tips would you give to someone wanting to avoid GMOs?” That query, which preceded my post last week on the Food, Inc. Facebook page, sparked loads of comments—and awesome advice—from readers. A few of you mentioned farmers markets or the benefits of knowing who grows your food.
Given that farmers markets everywhere are swinging into high gear, I thought it made sense to write up a “Farmers Markets 101” guide as well as some ideas about what to do with all the fabulous stuff you buy.
Location, location. Today there are more than 7,200 farmers markets in all 50 states, and many remain open year-round. Thanks to the USDA (and our tax dollars), you can find a market near you based on product availability, zip code, or even nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP, WIC, or the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. RealTime Farms, Localharvest.org, and Locavorenetwork.com are great sources as well.
Lotsa bang for the buck. The prices at farmers markets are usually equal to or lower than those at the supermarket, even for organic produce. As TakePart’s Barry Estabrook wrote last year at his own Politics of the Plate site, “It’s getting harder and harder to be an elitist these days.” And practicing household economy goes beyond the wallet. Just-picked produce is nutrient-dense, and it lasts longer in the refrigerator. Simply having it at the ready makes cooking healthful meals more convenient. You’ll be surprised at how less frequently you order takeout when you have a fridge full of vibrant-looking food that makes you want to cook
Be prepared. I’m usually only shopping for two, so a collapsible rolling cart is more trouble than it’s worth. I opt instead for the cross-training approach—a couple of market baskets or tote bags. In the summer, I also take a smaller, flat-bottomed basket with firm (uncrushable) sides for fragile berries, stone fruit, tomatoes, and eggs. Plenty of smaller, reusable plastic bags come in handy, as does an insulated bag for anything that must be kept cold. Lastly, take a little more cash than you think you’ll need (you’ll be tempted by something that’s not on your shopping list, I promise), and small bills are greatly appreciated by purveyors.
The organic thing. If a small-scale producer has jumped through the (expensive, time-consuming) hoops required for organic certification, you better believe that information will be displayed with pride. As I mentioned last week, some farmers aren’t certified organic, but follow—or go beyond—USDA organic protocols. If they don’t, and buying organic is a top priority for you, then ask them why they aren’t certified or what their crops are sprayed with. To help put that information in perspective, check out What’s On My Food? as well as the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 shopping guides to pesticides in produce.
Some seasonal finds: The beauty of young garlic, onions, and shallots is that they are building blocks for many a weeknight meal. Get them working in a pan of olive oil, then add a few handfuls of sliced zucchini and/or summer squash—all those ingredients are so thin-skinned, they’ll cook in no time. If you are lucky enough to have access to vine-ripened tomatoes, gently stir in a few slices. Pull the pan off the heat, toss in a few leaves of basil—jeez, that smells wonderful—and serve over rice or pasta. Embellish with crumbled, crisp-cooked bacon if so inclined.
And although it’s easy to gorge on this year’s first fava beans, asparagus, and sweet garden peas, it also makes sense to reconsider vegetables usually relegated to the winter months.
Kale is a great example of what I mean: I wrote about how to quick-braise it earlier this year, but the young leaves available now make a wonderful salad. This is by no means an original idea; one of my favorite recipes comes from the SoHo restaurant Lupa. Tender shreds of raw kale are also delicious with toasted pine nuts or nutty, crumbly slices of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Half the time, I don’t even make a vinaigrette; a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil is all I need.
Beets are another overlooked vegetable this time of year. The ones I’m buying are small and so juicy and thin-skinned, I don’t peel them. Instead I scrub them well, cut out the gnarly bits, and slice or dice. Then I cook them in a generous swirl of olive oil over moderate heat until they start to soften, then add a little water and simmer until the beets become tender and the water evaporates. A little butter spiked with fresh ginger or miso is lovely on beets. And don’t forget about the greens! They are luscious when quick-braised (see above) or simply steamed, then tossed with vinaigrette.
Hungry yet? I sure am.
What’s your favorite farmers market strategy?