5 Ways to Be a Farmers Market Pro

Chef Amy Huo’s Tips for a Successful Trip to the Market

Amy Huo

Who doesn’t love the farmers market in the height of summer? Fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruits harvested (much of the time) that very morning and friendly producers and farmers proud to talk about their products. But sometimes, navigating through what the best choices are in a sea of pop-up tables and tents can be daunting. Here are a few tips to make your market experience just a little bit better this summer.

1. Don’t buy the bolted herbs.

What does it mean when an herb bolts? And how do you know what this looks like? Cilantro is the most obvious herb that bolts during the summer. You will see a long stem on the top of the bunch with skinny leaves that resemble normal leaves but look as if they have been slightly starved of nutrients. When any plant “bolts,” the energy is transferred from making big, fragrant leaves to producing seeds. This changes the flavor of the herb, making it slightly more bitter and not as strong. Look for bunches of herbs that are full of fatter leaves and that look succulent. And just like those peaches in the grocery store, SMELL before you buy – the stronger the herbs smell, the better they will taste!

2. Get your farmer’s info.

See something you like? Into canning? Chances are, every farmer at each table at the farmers market (especially vegetable growers) have a boatload of produce they didn’t bring to the market. Sometimes time and space constraints limit what farmers can physically take to sell. I usually give my farmers my cell phone number and they text me when they have an abundance of any one item. If you’re into preserving or canning in any capacity, make friends with that guy who has the best beets at the market, or the little old lady who grows amazing mint. The bonus is that you can contact them at any time during the season and find out if they have something no one else has. Corner the market!

Chef Amy Huo of Locavore Mobile Kitchen.
Chef Amy Huo of Locavore Mobile Kitchen.

3. Get there early.

Get there before 9am if you want the best choice of everything at the market. It’s also cooler and quieter and you can talk to all of the producers without feeling that you’re bogging down the line.

I know that many have recommended getting to market later in the day, when vendors are apt to give discounts to rid themselves of leftover produce. I do not advocate for this practice. Not only does it undercut the farmer and their prices, most vendors are nearly sold out by the end of the day and some even pack up early, meaning you miss out on the best stuff (that’s another reason I advocate for getting your farmers’ phone numbers). Herbs wilt in the heat by the time the market ends, the lamb chops are usually gone, and even the strawberries begin to shrivel. Get there before 9am if you want the best choice of everything at the market. It’s also cooler and quieter and you can talk to all of the producers without feeling that you’re bogging down the line.

4. Try something new.

Two weeks ago, I saw a green I did not recognize at one of the vendor’s tables. Turns out, it was a cross between a mustard green and a bok choy. It was flavorful and really added some extra punch to the breakfast potatoes we serve at the Locavore. When trying new things, a bunch or pound at a time is enough. Don’t buy 5 bunches of an unfamiliar veggie only to let it rot in your fridge. (I see you, I know, I’ve been there – everyone’s busy these days!)

5. Watch for Extras.

Most farmers sell per bunch rather than per pound these days. But either way, keep an eye out for bunches or pounds that look more voluminous than they are. This is especially important for things like rhubarb. Sometimes, the ends of the stalks have remnants of leaves that were cut off, increasing the weight slightly but also increasing your waste. Asparagus that must have the tough part of the stalk trimmed off will decrease your yield when cooking. Keep this in mind if you’re buying for a recipe. You may need to buy another bunch or pound to ensure you’ve got enough.