Farmer's Market Finds

Headed for your local market in search of farm-fresh produce? Check out these tips and recipes.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

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.)

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