Spring has arrived! And that means the seasonal produce at farmers' markets is getting more colorful and diverse. It's a great time to venture away from what you normally buy at grocery stores and try new and fresh foods that may be foreign to your taste buds. If you are a farmers' market novice, or go once a week, let this be a good starting point for your visits.
Buying local produce has a lot of benefits. First off, buying food produced in your region ensures the highest quality of freshness and likely the highest quality in taste. Because it is grown close to your home, it will likely be free of preservatives and hormones used to keep food 'fresh' if shipped from further away. And, buying local is hugely beneficial to your local economy, keeping smaller operations thriving and producing high quality ingredients! Farmers' markets can sometimes seem to be more expensive than your average grocery store, but this isn't always the case. If you go with the intention of buying everything you need for a dinner, then it can get a tad pricey. However, if you are going just to get a few produce items, then your trip can be quite thrifty. Although, it is quite difficult to pass up buying some artisinal cheese or bread!
Talk to Vendors! Don't be shy when approaching a tent or booth. If you're unsure about an eggplant, or the color of a certain pepper, ask! The friendly sellers most likely grew or had a hand in making the edibles available for purchase, so they're very helpful in selecting the best piece of fruit or ripest vegetable. I always enjoy talking to vendors because they often will introduce me to new produce, so I end up walking away with something fresher and more delicious that never before crossed my mind until visiting their stall. New discoveries are always welcome and encourage creative cooking!
Taste Everything. If you see a sample, taste it! It is essential in cooking to taste all the ingredients your recipe calls for -- don't assume what flavors they may hold. On numerous occasions I have randomly tried something, say, a blackberry, without the intent of buying it and then purchase an entire carton. I especially enjoy trying greens and lettuces. I recently purchased a bundle of dandelion greens after nibbling on a leaf. I was originally going to purchase arugula, but went home with the dandelion because the bitterness was slight with incredible earthy flavors that would go better with my dish than the standard arugula.
Be Bold. Buy something you have never cooked with before. Taste something you have never tried before. Don't be afraid of a food you have never heard of! Who knows, you might really like it!
Bring Cash! Most vendors don't take credit cards... plus, many of your purchases will be just a few bucks! And, bring your own bag!
Research a dish. Whether you're a seasoned cook or just a novice, it's always good to have a general outline of what you might want to cook following your trip to the market. It doesn't have to be a detailed shopping list, but more of an inspired idea. For example, let's say you want to cook a dish revolving around chicken. You might want to look at buying some onions, carrots, potatoes, and a veggie for your dish. Instead of your normal brown onions, maybe you pick up a Vidalia, or a ciopollini. For your potatoes, instead of the usual russet, maybe the market has some purple potatoes, or fingerling. And for a veggie side, move away from the standards of broccoli & asparagus, and experiment with Chard, or eggplant. Try and keep an open mind while you shop!
Bring your kids. The offerings at farmers' markets are colorful and eye-catching, so it's an enticing way to get kids involved in cooking. Have your kids try different fruits and vegetables and make the selection for dinner. This will ensure they try new foods and expand their palette -- even the pickiest eaters are more apt to eat something green if they get to play chef. At the end of the trip, reward them with a stick of local honey (there is almost always local honey stalls at the market).
Below is a guide to spring produce you might begin to see at your local farmers' market:
Apricots come into season towards the end of spring in the warmer areas where they grow.
Artichokes have a second crop in the fall, but the main harvest takes place in the spring when the largest thistles are available. Look for artichokes with tight, compact leaves and fresh-cut stem ends.
Arugula (a.k.a. rocket) is a cool-weather crop. Long days and warm weather make it bolt, or flower, and bring an unpleasantly bitter flavor to the leaves. Wild arugula is foraged in spring and again the fall. Cultivated arugula is grown year-round, thanks to coastal, temperate growing areas and winter greenhouses.
Asparagus is harvested from March through June, depending on your region.
Beets are in season in temperate climates fall through spring, and available from storage most of the year everywhere else. Fresh beets are often sold with their greens still attached.
Carrots are harvested year-round. True baby carrots -- not the milled down versions of regular carrots sold as "baby carrots" at grocery stores -- are available in spring and early summer.
Cherries are ready to harvest at the end of spring in warmer areas. Sweet cherries, Bing and Rainier, varieties are available from May to August.
Fava beans are available in the from early spring through summer.
Fennel has a natural season from fall through early spring.
Grapefruit from California, Texas, Florida and Arizona comes into season in January and stays sweet and juicy into early summer.
Green onions/Scallions come into harvest in the spring in warmer areas.
Greens of all sorts some into season in warmer regions.
Kiwis are harvested winter through spring.
Leeks more than about 1.5 inches wide tend to have tough inner cores.
Lemons are at their juicy best from winter into early summer.
Lettuce starts coming into season in cooler climates
Mint thrives in the spring.
Morels are foraged in the wild in the spring.
Navel oranges hit the end of their season in the spring.
Parsley flourishes in the spring.
Pea greens are sold in big tumbled masses in spring and early summer. Look for bright vines with fresh, vibrant looking leaves.
Peas (garden, snap, snow, etc.) come into season in the spring and continue in most areas well into summer.
Radishes are at their best in the spring.
Rhubarb is the first fruit of spring in many areas. You should look for heavy stalks with shiny skin.
Strawberries The growing season runs from January through November. Peak season is April through June.
Sweet Onions have slightly different seasons, but in general they are available in spring and summer.
Turnips have a sharp but bright and sweet flavor. Look for turnips that feel heavy for their size.