It's peak farmers market season and the stalls are overflowing with piles of attractively arranged yummy fruits and veggies. Buying local and eating organic sounds good, but there are so many choices, and it's easy to overspend.
Here are five tips to help you get the most bang for your buck at the stalls this fall:
Is it really local?
Not all farm stands represent your local farmers. There are a few ways to tell. The market in our town features an online newsletter, and every week, they send out a list of farmers market vendors. Most have a link, and it's easy to see which ones are truly local family farms. Other ways to tell if the vendors aren't local include large produce distributor trucks, or produce that's out-of-season, packaged in plastic, or from another climate. If you see any of those things, then chances are Big Agro is muscling in on the local food movement.
Is it really organic?
It's okay to ask. Many farms use pesticides, for many reasons. Organic farming is hard. Natural produce is also natural-looking, and customers used to seeing perfect produce in the grocery store can be turned off by irregular shapes and harmless spots. Here's the thing: flawless and shiny fruits and veggies are more likely to contain pesticide residue, as well as be coated with chemicals like petroleum jelly and mineral oil.
Does it matter if it's organic?
There is evidence suggesting that pesticides not only interfere with fertility, but also are harmful to the developing brain. For women desiring pregnancy, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and young children, it's a good idea to avoid pesticide residues in food by choosing organic. (The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has a good review on this topic.) But some plants accumulate more chemicals than others. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) has researched pesticide accumulation in various conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, and has published lists of the most contaminated that should be avoided (titled The Dirty Dozen), as well as the least contaminated and safest (The Clean Fifteen). Here's a summary of both lists for late summer/early fall: Stick to only organic tomatoes, apples, peaches, sweet and hot peppers, but feel comfortable with conventional sweet corn, eggplant, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Do I have to spend a lot of money?
No! If you have a plan and a set spending amount, you're less likely to bust your budget. My family and I go the market with a $20 limit, and a strategy (which I've also written about on my own blog). Buy only a few items, such as produce that is in peak season, high-quality cheeses, or hard-to-find specialty products. Have a plan for how you will use your bounty: I often go in with a specific recipe in mind. There are also bargains to be had: look for fresh herbs, which tend to come in bigger bunches and cost far less than at the grocery store. Some stands will also have markdown items, such as perfectly ripe tomatoes with squishy spots, or bruised peaches. I'll snatch these up and make marinara sauce and peach cobbler!
How do I find a market?
The United States Department of Agriculture features the National Farmers Market Directory. Check it out!
Not sure what to make with what's in season? Here are a couple of simple recipes that use only a few ingredients:
Simple Southwestern Salad
This bright, light salad lets sweet corn, flavorful tomatoes, and fresh cilantro shine. This goes very well with grilled food or your next taco party. What we do: When we make sweet corn on the cob, we make extra, so that leftover can be used in salads like this. Cheating is OK here too: If sweet corn is not in season, you can use plain frozen corn niblets.
- 4 large tomatoes (about 1 ½ lbs), diced. (This will yield about 4 cups diced tomatoes.)
- 1 medium bunch fresh cilantro, stems removed, finely chopped. (This will yield about ½ cup packed chopped leaves.)
- 1 small head Romaine lettuce (about 3/4 lb), trimmed and chopped. (This yields about five cups chopped lettuce.)
- The juice from two large limes (reconstituted is fine). (This yields about 4 tablespoons juice.)
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- A pinch of salt.
Put the corn kernels, tomatoes, cilantro, lettuce, and lime juice in a bowl and toss very well. The goal is to get everything coated with lime juice.
Add the olive oil and salt and toss. Serve immediately.
Lemon-Marinated Kale and Carrot Salad
This simple salad is rich in flavor and nutrients. Better yet, it can (and should) be made ahead, so it's the perfect choice next time you're invited to a potluck, picnic, or barbecue. If you'd prefer a vegan version, omit the Asiago and add in an equal amount of toasted nuts of your choice.
- 1 head (approx. 1 lb), kale, trimmed and roughly chopped. ( After trimming and chopping, this will equal about 5 packed cups.)
- 2 large carrots (approx ½ lb.), grated. (After grating, this will equal about 2 cups.)
- The juice from two large lemons. (This will yield about 1/3 cup juice.)
- 3 tbsp Asiago cheese (grated) ((Parmesan or Romano can work well here too))
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Put the chopped kale, grated carrots, and lemon juice in a very large mixing bowl and mix together. There is no need to "massage" the kale, as is often called for in kale salad recipes. Just ensure it is well-coated with the lemon juice. Cover and let sit for at least thirty minutes and up to overnight.
Just before serving, toss with the olive oil and then sprinkle with the cheese. Serve.