Summer is, by far, the easiest season to shop the farmers’ market. Markets are in full swing this time of year, and it’s not hard to dive in and get started. But there’s a lot more to the farmers’ market this time of year than piles of tomatoes and zucchini, and beautiful bouquets of zinnias.
If you want to move beyond the basics in a hurry, here’s your shortcut guide to savvy summer farmers’ market shopping:
1. Sample what summer has to offer.
Where I live, tomatoes, zucchini, sweet corn, peaches and melons are abundant. The bell peppers are just starting to turn from green to gold to red and the hot peppers are starting to flood in. And the cut flowers are fabulous!
2. Keep your eyes open–you may strike gold.
Our favorite farmer had beautiful squash blossoms for sale on a recent Saturday morning–a delicacy you don’t often see. But he grows them for a local restaurant (a very, very fine local restaurant) and his field’s supply outstripped the chef’s demand, so he brought the extras to the market and sold them for fifty cents each. We watched delighted customers snap up his surplus for their Saturday night dinner parties. (The market opens at 8:00; those pretty squash blossoms were gone by 9:30.)
3. Buy the garlic.
The garlic at my local market is completely different from what I buy at my local grocery. Get it while you can. (The music variety is my favorite.)
4. Don’t write off zucchini.
The first year we ever did a CSA we were swamped with the fruits of an over-abundant zucchini harvest. That August, my 5-year-old literally cried when we served him zucchini for probably the tenth time in three weeks, and we decided right then that he didn’t have to eat it anymore. But since I’ve discovered these two (very different) recipes he calls himself a zucchini lover. They are that fabulous.
5. Be savvy about buying in bulk.
The past few years I’ve bought a bushel of bell peppers at summer’s end to store away for winter, and it’s been well worth it–great product, great value. But I can’t say the same about the tomatoes I bought last year. We bought tons for a bargain price and made homemade crushed tomatoes. It was a big project. The finished product was only okay, and twice as expensive as anything I could buy at the grocery. This year, I’ll do the peppers, but not the tomatoes.
6. Pickle it.
Pickling is a great way to cope, er, enjoy summer’s bountiful offerings. My personal favorites are Michael Symon’s pickled chilis, these slightly sweet dill refrigerator pickles, and the Zuni Cafe’s zucchini pickles.
7. Strike a deal.
Many farmers are happy to give you a discount for a bulk purchase–on everything from flowers to bell peppers to ground beef. It’s easier for them and it’s cheaper for you. Just ask.
8. Take advantage of the market.
It’s summertime, and the shopping is easy. At the farmers’ market, many of the best purveyors in the region come to you. Now’s the time to enjoy those local foods that you just can’t get (or can’t get without a lot of hassle) the rest of the year. Now’s the time to enjoy the produce, taste the cheese, sample the coffee, buy the steaks. Take advantage of the farmers’ market while it’s open!
9. Get contact info now for your favorite suppliers.
It’s easy to take your farmers for granted when you see them at the market all summer long. But when summer turns to fall, do you know how to contact your favorite suppliers?
Get their contact info now: find out if they’re participating in year-round markets during the winter months, get their phone numbers, subscribe to their newsletters, bookmark their websites. If you want to participate in a farm’s CSA next year, or buy a side of beef locally, you’ll need to be able to reach those people in January. Make sure you know how.
10. Just do it.
Summer is a great time to try new things: dive in and try something new. It’s hard to go too far wrong; at the very least, you’ll get to mingle with your neighbors.
Do you shop your summer farmers’ market? What’s your best tip for savvy shopping?