But all that abundance can be overwhelming-especially when encountered without a suitable strategy. Here are a few timely tips for making the most of your farmers' market experience:
Start with a list. Jot down a few things that you know you will need this week; this might even be a recurring weekly list. Strawberries for breakfast; baby greens, Persian cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes for salads; and carrots and celery for snacks. And then there are categories-dinner vegetables, fresh fruit, root vegetables-where you'll want to play it by ear, looking for the freshest and brightest to enhance your culinary efforts.
Once over, then buy. There's nothing worse than buying the first peaches you see, which look perfectly fine, and then 10 stalls down discovering the most sublime, fragrant peaches ever grown. If you're like me, you then end up with far more peaches than you need, because you simply had to buy those later discoveries. Avoid the frustration and the expense with this simple rule: browse the entire market first for a quick overview, see what's available and awesome today, then buy.
Arrive hungry. I know, I know, you're never supposed to shop when you're hungry, but this is different. Sampling is vital, particularly when it comes to fruit. Those mountain-grown Pink Lady apples may look gnarly and spotted, but one bite can reveal them to be crisp, sweet-tart, and deliciously juicy. Those rosy-blushed nectarines may look as perfect as an Impressionist painting, but a slice slipped between the lips can expose them as mealy, dry frauds. The eyes may deceive, but the taste buds never lie.
Seek inspiration. Get outside your comfort zone, and surprise yourself and your family. Keep an eye out for the unusual, the rare, the singular crop that is available for only two weeks out of every year and never at your local supermarket. Baskets of mulberries, those delicate and sweet fingers of juicy goodness, beg to be incorporated into a port sauce for a rack of lamb. Lobster mushrooms, thick and meaty and orange, make a brilliant vegetarian substitute for meat when sliced and grilled. Plump and achingly sweet Medjool dates can be filled with orange-scented cream cheese and walnuts to provide a perfect light ending to a summer repast. Explore!
The farmer is your friend. I have found this to be the single most important guide-get to know your participating farmers. Chat with them about their favorite crops, grill them about their husbandry tactics, lavish praise upon them for the fruits of their labors. They'll appreciate your interest and your loyalty. Over time, you'll learn who has the most reliable radishes, the plumpest plums, the crispest sweetest corn. And don't forget that many farmers practice organic methods, even if they can't afford the time and money to obtain certification; the only way to find out is to ask.
Pack Smart: It may seem like a no-brainer, but always remember to put the potatoes and beets and corn in the bottom of your bag, with the softer lettuces and stone fruits and such on top, and delicate berries in their own separate sack. I learned that one the hard way, too many times!
Don't overlook the other offerings that many farmers markets provide these days-fresh local fish; breads and pastries; freshly laid eggs; pastured chicken; organic cheeses; and grass-fed beef and bison. All of these and more support local business and contribute to a robust local economy.