Savvy strategies for farmers market shoppers

The month of May brings more farmers markets to the local mix, with a downtown site for Medford’s Saturday market as the latest wrinkle. This time of year, everyone hungers for fresh produce, even as market vendors sell lots of plant starts for the home garden.

When my own garden is going full-swing, I’m less likely to visit farmers markets. When I do, I look for things I don’t grow myself or are peerless products.

It’s also sometimes painfully obvious that I stand no chance of making a particular purchase if I don’t arrive early. Case in point, I’ve been skunked on Pennington Farms strawberry-rhubarb turnovers for weeks because I can’t manage to make it to the market before 11 a.m.

An alternate strategy is arriving late for last-minute deals on the items farmers want to move before heading home. This is less likely to be the case, however, if farmers have multiple points of sale throughout the week and can carry over sturdier fruits and vegetables.

Some, however, will designate bruised or otherwise imperfect produce as “seconds” and sell them for less. These are great for using in pies, sauces or jams. Shoppers can even reap savings on prepared foods — like candies and baked goods — that aren’t quite up to snuff.

Here are a few farmers-market tips from a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, which gleaned its information from “The Green Market Baking Book,” by Laura C. Martin, “Farmers Markets of the Heartland,” by Janine MacLachlan, and “Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farmers in America’s Heartland,” by Anna Blessing.

Make a plan and think realistically about how much time you will have to cook in the coming week.

Before leaving home for the market, put out all the bowls, colanders, cutting boards and salad spinners needed to wash and prep purchases for use. Once you return home, put on some good music and have a produce-prepping party, which sets the stage for the week’s cooking and eating.

Avoid waste (and sometimes fees) by bringing your own bags; don’t forget insulated bags for meat and dairy. If buying meat or dairy, ask the vendor to hold it until you are ready to leave, so it can stay cool as long as possible. Bringing along some reusable, plastic, takeout or yogurt containers can protect berries and other delicate produce in your bags. 

Bring small bills and correct change for easier transactions.

When you arrive at the market get a cup of coffee and take a leisurely trip around to survey the offerings before buying.

Be flexible. Instead of making a shopping list, buy what looks the best and freshest.

Some sources recommend bringing recipes or a cookbook to determine how to use produce, but I think farmers often have the best suggestions, and some even hand out recipes. They also know how best to store it and how long it will stay fresh.

Don’t overbuy. It’s easy to get carried away when surrounded by such wonderful produce but only buy what you’ll be able to use.

If a certain item is at the beginning or tail end of its season, it will be more expensive. Budget shoppers are best off buying when something is at its peak and prices come down.

Each week, sample a new type of produce to see which varieties/farms you like best. And if you can make it to more than one farmers market, consider checking out a few each season. Selection and prices can vary from town to town.

Here’s a recipe to consider with spring greens, including the roots-attached “produce packs” available from Rock Field Farms, profiled in this week’s A la Carte. The farm grows a variety of Asian greens that could be substituted for watercress.

Chopped Watercress Chicken Salad With Orange Dressing

1 1⁄2 cups orange juice

2 teaspoons honey

1 tablespoon sesame oil

4 teaspoons soy sauce

3 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar

1 teaspoon peeled and grated, fresh ginger

2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

1⁄2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

1 1⁄2 pounds chicken tenders

4 cups watercress, washed and chopped (arugula may be substituted)

2 cups washed and chopped romaine hearts

1 bunch green onions, sliced

1⁄4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped peanuts

In a small saucepan, bring the orange juice to boil over medium heat. Reduce liquid by half, for about 5 minutes.

In food processor or blender, combine juice reduction, the honey, sesame oil, soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, garlic and 2 tablespoons water. Process until smooth. Place half of mixture in a large, sealable plastic bag. Add the pepper flakes and chicken tenders. Marinate for 30 minutes.

In a large serving bowl, combine the watercress, romaine, onions and cilantro.

Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add chicken and marinade. Cook, stirring occasionally, until marinade evaporates and tenders are cooked through and caramelized, 3 to 4 minutes per side.

Toss greens in reserved juice mixture. Top with grilled tenders and garnish with the peanuts. Makes 4 servings. 

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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