Where can you get the season's best produce at reasonable prices? Where can you chat up the strawberry grower himself, and talk about the crazy winter we just had? Where can you sample a plumcot or a white peach for the first time?
The farmer's market, that's where! I look forward to it every summer. It is, after all, where I buy flats of berries to make my signature ''less-sugar three-berry jam.''
Every community farmer's market is going to be a bit different, because each market reflects what the local farmers can grow in that particular part of the country. I don't often see blueberries at my market, for example, but I'm guessing there are hoards of blueberries at farmer's markets on the Eastern seaboard. On the West Coast where I live, you do see other berries, with California strawberries being the consistent star.
If you haven't yet made it to your local farmer's market, I've got six reasons for you to do so. And before you go, read up on my five tips for farmer's market shopping.
6 Reasons to Love Farmer's Markets
1. Free samples. Generally, farmers have samples of their produce out and ripe for the picking! This is your chance to sample fruits you're curious about before you buy them. I tried a plumcot (a cross between a plum and an apricot) the other day, and I loved it!
2. Organics abound. You can usually find at least some organic produce at your farmer's market. In my experience, it seems that the flavor in organic produce tends to be pleasantly strong. Often your taste buds just go ''wow!'' after a taste. Don't underestimate the popularity of organics, either. The natural/organic foods business is expected to grow 63%, to surpass the $46 billion mark, by 2010, according to a report from Packaged Facts, a market research publisher.
3. You can support local farmers. Supporting local farmers is a good thing. I respect this profession immensely, and smaller farms need all the support they can get to keep things going.
4. Everything's in season. Most everything you'll see at your neighborhood farmer's market is in the peak of its season. From week to week, you never know for sure what produce items will show up at a given market. But if it isn't in season, it's probably not going to be there.
5. You can ask an expert. At the individual fruit or vegetable stands, you can often ask the growers or helpers about the produce they are selling. You'll learn something every week. On my last farmer's market shopping spree, I learned that it's going to be a poor cherry season here in Northern California. It seems the unusually heavy rain we had in spring washed too many blossoms off the cherry trees.
6. Inspiration. There is nothing quite like the vibrant colors, fresh smells, and fabulous flavors of a farmer's market to get you excited about incorporating the gorgeous bounty of produce into as many meals and recipes as possible.
Tips for Farmer's Market Shopping
Here are 5 things you should know before you hit the farmer's market:
- Be spontaneous. See what looks good and is priced well, and then plan lunch, dinner and/or dessert! It's your chance to be spontaneous.
- Bring cash. Cash is the currency du jour at most farmer's markets, so bring a bundle of small bills and you are good to go. I usually bring about $40 and spend around $30.
- Take one lap first. Tour the market, and comparison-shop and taste before you start buying. There could be three stands selling strawberries, and there could be a difference in price and taste between them. See which stand you like best before you commit to your flat of berries.
- BYOB (bring your own bag - with handles). You'll find it easier to carry around your produce purchases (a basket here and a 1-pound bag of zucchini there) if you're carrying them around in a bag with handles.
- Look beyond the produce. At your typical farmer's market, it isn't just about the produce. At my town's market, there are items like honey, bread, cookies, flavored olive oils and vinegars, jams and preserves, and nuts. And how can I forget the intoxicating smell of freshly popping kettle corn? (I'm usually good for a small bag of the cinnamon-flavored kettle corn.)
Farmer's Market Recipes
Here are some recipes in which you can use those fabulous farmer's market finds.
Strawberry Light Lemonade
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1/2 cup canned fruit in heavy syrup or 1 portion fresh fruit
Add more or less Splenda and sugar depending on your taste preference.
2 cups sliced or halved strawberries
5 tablespoons superfine sugar (regular sugar will work, too)
8 tablespoons Splenda
12 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Ice cubes as desired
2/3 cup club soda, mineral water or seltzer water per glass
- Puree strawberries and 1 tablespoon sugar in blender or small food processor.
- Spoon 3 tablespoons of strawberry puree into each glass, then add 2 tablespoons Splenda and 1 tablespoon sugar to each glass.
- Add 3 tablespoons lemon juice to each glass; stir to blend well. Stir in 2/3 cup of club soda (or similar) into each glass, add some ice, and serve.
Yield: 4 glasses
Farmer's Market Pasta Salad
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 cup ''entrée salad with starchy foods, light salad dressing'' + 1/2 cup ''vegetables without added fat.'' OR 1 1/2 cups ''hearty stews, chili, bean soup.'' OR 1 portion ''frozen dinner light, pasta or rice dish with meat or fish or vegetarian with light sauce'' + 1/2 cup ''vegetables with 1 tsp fat maximum.''
Feel free to add or substitute ingredients to incorporate the items that you find this weekend at your farmer's market.
About 8 cups cooked, drained, whole-wheat blend pasta (rotini or penne)
1/2 cup pesto (like fresh or frozen pesto from the supermarket)
2 large, ripe tomatoes, diced
1 cup finely diced bell pepper (use yellow, red, or orange for a color contrast)
3 cups lightly cooked and cooled in-season veggies (zucchini or carrot slices, broccoli or cauliflower florets, green beans, or whatever veggie looks good)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts* (optional)
*To toast pine nuts, just add to small nonstick frying pan and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until they are lightly brown. This takes only a few minutes.
- Add pasta to large serving bowl along with the pesto, diced tomato, bell pepper, and in-season vegetables, and toss to blend well.
- Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over the top if desired and serve. If not serving immediately, cover well and keep refrigerated until needed.
Yield: 6 servings
Per serving: 370 calories, 16 g protein, 58 g carbohydrate, 11 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 6 mg cholesterol, 6-10 g fiber (depending on whether your pasta is partial or full whole wheat), 171 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 25%.
Grilled Chicken with Pretty Peach Sauce
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 serving of ''lean meat and moderate fat meat without added fat'' + 1 portion fresh fruit.
1/2 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup diced peaches
6 tablespoons diced red pepper
6 tablespoons minced red onion
6 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 24 ounces raw)
1 teaspoon olive oil
- First, start the marinade: Add orange juice, lime juice, and olive oil to medium sized bowl and stir.
- Put peaches, red pepper, red onion and cilantro in a small bowl and toss to blend. Add half of this mixture to a small food processor and pulse briefly (4 seconds) to chop and blend. Add the pureed mixture to the orange-lime marinade.
- Add balsamic vinegar to the remaining peach mixture in the small bowl. Cover and place in refrigerator until chicken is ready. This will be your peach sauce.
- Add the chicken breasts to the orange-lime marinade, cover well with the marinade. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and up to 8 hours.
- Preheat grill. Lift chicken from marinade and grill until cooked throughout. Place on serving plate to rest a few minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat a small, nonstick frying pan over high heat. Brush the bottom of the hot pan with a teaspoon of olive oil. When the oil is good and hot, add the peach mixture from the refrigerator and sauté for exactly 1 minute. Serve each chicken breast with a spoon of the peach sauce over the top.
Yield: 4 servings
Per serving: 253 calories, 40 g protein, 5 g carbohydrate, 7.4 g fat, 1.7 g saturated fat, 108 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 95 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 27%.