If you are a loyal local food eater like me, you carried the flag all winter long. Carrots, parsnips, potatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes and beets all share that glorious characteristic of being good storage veggies. They formed the foundation of many a winter meal, roasted or pureed, steamed or sautéed. Married with apples, leeks, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, eggs and the occasional greenhouse goodies, the market yielded many a delicious meal.
Three weeks ago, I found my first ramps of the season in the Union Square Market; two weeks later, asparagus and spring onions; a week ago, rhubarb and spring garlic; Saturday, fiddleheads; and at my own Hudson Valley farm this weekend, field head lettuce and other early greens are rapidly maturing.
The season is on and it’s time for the market!
Do homework before you go; most markets list the weekly vendors online, which is helpful in planning ahead. I try to get to the market early for the best selection and before specialty items run out (like the first fiddleheads or tomatoes of the season). Take the family – it is a perfect place to connect children to ingredients and new tastes. (It’s the precursor to getting them into the kitchen to cook.)
Bring one or two large canvas or durable bags along with some smaller recycled plastic bags to help you feel virtuous. To lighten the load, consider a small wheel-able cart – there are some durable ones that are not pricey; some are even insulated. If it’s hot out, you might want to bring an insulated bag or frozen cold packs for meat or fish or delicate greens.
Shoppers enjoy forming relationships – at the supermarket, dry cleaners or nail salon. It’s the same in the market. With a little consistency, you can get to know the farmer or his/her staff. I like to hear crop updates as well as snippets about life or family. Once you are a regular, they will readily engage with you. Feel free to put food photos on social media and reference the farm. Farmers work hard and many leave pre-dawn to get here. I often bring my friends a homemade snack – a selection of my pickles or a frittata or cake, with market bought ingredients, a good example of a closed loop.
It can be interesting to compare prices within one market. I am curious about the varying cost of chicken eggs or differences between conventional and organic produce. I do taste comparisons on lettuce mixes and am always surprised by the wide range of flavors. Everyone has opinions on which apples they prefer and from whom.
If you go to different neighborhoods, the variations on price and selection are intriguing, reflecting ethnic preferences or simply what different farmers bring, a reason to shop around and explore other parts of the city.
The produce you buy in the market is typically much fresher than the supermarket, as it is harvested a day or two in advance. For many items, it means an extended shelf life once home. I find that staples like market onions, potatoes and carrots taste better.
Beyond seasonal fruits and vegetables, there are fishermen, a wide range of meat purveyors, pickle makers, bakers, cheese makers, and vendors with honey, maple syrup, wines, beer, pasta, plants, flowers and grains.
Markets offer more than just shopping. You can get recipes from market managers who also arrange cooking demos (get the calendar). Greenmarket has several sites where you can compost your kitchen scraps or bring textiles for recycling. Most markets accept EBT (food stamps) but rarely credit cards.
A word of advice: unlike markets in some other cities, Greenmarket offers little in the way of prepared food. But with a little imagination you can construct an al fresco meal (bread+apple+cheese). So don’t arrive hungry, otherwise you will have to hurry home and start cooking.
Liz Neumark is chief executive of the catering company Great Performances.
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