Come fall, the farmers markets are overflowing with an abundance of great produce: corn, tomatoes, stone fruits, squashes, apples, beans, greens, root vegetables, peppers and more. In New York City, the Union Square Greenmarket is the greatest of them all. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, farmers drive into the city to set up shop along the west and north sides of Union Square.
Arriving at the market early, around 8:00 am, you can see the morning crews from many of the city’s finest restaurants. Clad in their white jackets, they are picking up produce from Hudson Valley and New Jersey farms to schlep them into restaurant kitchens. These cooks come from the real farm-to-table restaurants. A number of restaurants in the city pretend to have market-oriented menus, but if you want to know the truth, just show up at the market in the morning and see for yourself. There are some farmers who deliver directly to the restaurants, but restaurants need to go to the market for last minute items if they want to have a true market menu.
This is the best time of year to be a cook. So many fruits and vegetables are at their peak right now; it can be overwhelming. Tomatoes are abundant and at their lowest prices of the year. Stone fruits of every variety are begging to be bitten. The first apples are just hitting the market, bursting with juicy sweetness. Corn, some of the best in years, is selling at fifty cents an ear. For both the home cook and the professional, inspiration is everywhere.
For a successful trip to the market, you have to do a little planning. First and foremost: bring your own bags! Heavy duty insulated bags that will keep your produce cool and prevent wilting are important. Stronger construction of these bags also keeps fruits from bouncing around and mashing together, which can leave you with a bag of bruised mush. If you buy a nice duck from Fazio’s, you’ll be glad that your insulated bag will keep it cool until you get home.
Not all farms are at the market every day. It’s worth checking the schedule to find out which farms will be at the market on the day you’re going. If you want to see Giovanna from Berried Treasures (she is one of the most popular people at the market), make sure she’s going to be there.
If you love delicate herbs and greens, be prepared to get to the market early because those items tend to wilt during the day, especially when it’s warm. Purveyors of meat, poultry and fish bring coolers to keep their goods fresh, but there is no refrigeration for the vegetables.
When you arrive at the market, take a quick walkthrough to see what you’re interested in. There are many purveyors and you don’t want to miss anything. It’s also worth knowing a couple of things about pricing. Farmers with the least desirable locations, like at the far, northeast corner of the square, sometimes have slightly lower prices. Do some comparing. Also note that highly perishable produce can be cheaper near closing time, later in the afternoon. Farmers don’t want to carry tomatoes back to their farms if they don’t have to. It never hurts to ask as long as you do it respectfully.
When you start to buy, be strategic and purchase the most delicate fruits and vegetables last so they are at the top of your bags. It’s no fun to get home and have your delicate greens and fruits smashed by heavy root vegetables.
If you see something that catches your eye, but aren’t sure about it, don’t be too shy to ask. Most of these farmers are passionate about their produce and fairly knowledgeable about cooking. They want to share their love of the land with you and get you to try new things.
So Fresh and So Green
Wherever you find a farmers market, it’s a real treat to have fresh food that is more delicious and nutritious than the shelf-stable variety you find in your supermarket. Shopping directly with the farmer helps to support small family farms; it helps to preserve flavorful heirloom varieties that large commercial growers won’t plant; it also keeps valuable farmland under cultivation rather than having it developed into yet another shopping mall. Get to the market and start cooking.