Ask a Chef: Picking Produce at The Farmer’s Market

Mj 618_348_ask a chef picking produce at the farmers market
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Have you ever seen a chef shop at a farmer’s market? It’s mesmerizing. They’re constantly smelling things, feeling things, turning them over and looking for something that seemingly cannot be named. The next time you go, take a moment to spot the people zooming from one stall to the next like bees, asking questions and cracking jokes with the farmers. Maybe follow them around for a while and see what they’re buying. That’s my plan for the farmer’s market anyway, which is not always great, since 1. there might not always be a chef and 2. I am not great at being inconspicuous.

Instead of coming home from the farmer’s market with a restraining order, how about we just learn how to navigate the market like a chef? Tamara Reynolds is part of Van Alst Kitchen catering, host of the Sunday Night Dinner supper club, and co-author of Forking Fantastic!, and makes local, seasonal cooking the cornerstone of everything she does. Her gameplan for entering the farmer’s market depends on what time of year it is, with winter being a little more difficult. Usually she’ll bring a list, but “will also linger and touch and smell everything that looks good, and then purchase things based on what really looks the best. I mean, you may not show up thinking you HAVE to make a green tomato anchovy tart or a duck breast with sour cherry sauce for dinner, but when you see how ridiculously gorgeous those ingredients are, well… that's what ends up happening.”

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Okay, but how do you become the type of person who recognizes when the green tomatoes are just so ripe and juicy that they need to become a tart? First, take your time. Reynolds will do a “first pass” of any farmer’s market, getting a sense of what’s out there and what looks good from a distance, and will then go in and check out the produce. You can learn what’s good by touch and smell, but “developing relationships with certain farms over time is a great way to go,” since you can sometimes make requests, or ask advice on the best way to use their products. Also, if you’re ever dissatisfied with a product, you can let the farmer know, since that kind of feedback can be helpful. Whatever you do, “DON'T be that person slowly strolling down the middle eating a cider doughnut while the rest of us are trying to shop for work!” Yes, the farmer’s market is a meeting place for the community, but it’s also an actual market, and business must be done.

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Right now it’s winter, so if you live in California you might already have some great produce, but for most of us, options are looking a lot like turnips and more turnips. When she first moved to New York Reynolds said she “tried to be 1000% true to the season but it was too limiting for me,” and that it’s best to use winter markets “as a root vegetable, bread, honey, meat, fish and cheese stop, and get greens at your local grocery store.” Still, that’s a lot that you can pick up, and chances are, it’s better than what you’ll get at Shop Rite. “For me it all comes down to distance,” says Reynolds. “Yes, there will be organic tomatoes in your local Whole Foods year round. But because they have to be picked so early to survive the length of travel to get halfway across the world to us, they usually taste like nothing. And what is the point of putting something in your mouth that isn't bursting with ripe flavor?”

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