Photographed by Janelle Jones.
This past summer, my sister and her husband relocated to New York City from Shanghai. One weekend when I was out of town, she texted to ask if the Union Square Farmers Market was "worth a visit."
"Yes!" I told her, but I left out the part about how on my first visit, years ago, the staggering variety of fruit, vegetables, meat, and cheese overwhelmed me so much that I failed to purchase anything.
I have successfully shopped the market since that empty-handed time, but I still find myself anxious if I haven’t planned ahead. Looking for pro tips, I sought the help of Matt Benero, chef de cuisine at Battersby, a farm-to-table restaurant in Brooklyn. I met Benero and his sous chef Danny Conkling at Union Square market one Friday this fall.
Our purposeful jaunt around the market, coupled with advice from Michael Hurwitz, director of the city's green markets, helped me compile a shopping primer — tips anyone can use, no matter how comfortable you are in the kitchen.
Come With A Recipe "Have a list of ingredients, a plan," Benero instructed (despite the fact that he and his sous chef had none). When asked what they planned to buy, they shrugged and then said, “Potatoes." But, they're pros, and I'm not. Just as it's ill-advised to go to the grocery store hungry, neither should you enter a vast greenmarket without a game plan. Bringing recipes/menu ideas will save you random wandering time. (The exception would be if you're eager to try a new vegetable or protein and have time to chat with the farmer or purveyor about recipe ideas.)
Comparison Shop Once you know what you're looking for, browse the different vendors (if time permits). Many of them offer the same items, some at noticeably lower prices than others. Hurwitz sees the greenmarkets as competitively priced and wide-ranging, and shares that at one of the markets in the Bronx, those same tomatoes are going for $2 a pound! Different markets, different prices.
Meet the Farmers (& Your Neighbors) Benero and Conkling have built up relationships with different farmers over the years — and you should, too. In fact, the market experience aims to connect you with farmers personally, to enable them to help you make the best purchasing decisions based on your budget and cooking skills.
Market shopping is a time to "see your neighbors, get ideas, meet the farmers," take in a cooking demonstration, and smell and taste samples, Hurwitz says. You don't get that community aspect at the average grocery store.
Pick & Choose Unless I arrive early at the huge Saturday farmers market in Brooklyn near where I live —before it's overrun with Park Slope parents, strollers, and dogs on long leashes — I'm often overwhelmed: the neat jars of pickled vegetables, the exotic mushrooms, the micro-greens, the produce I don't even recognize. What if my recipe only calls for a tablespoon of parsley for my salad? Must I buy the entire bunch? Benero says to skip it.
However, when one item is the star ingredient of a dish and you need a lot of it, Benero advises you seek out the vendor whose specialty is that item, because he's probably going to have the best variety and quality. If dessert is a homemade pear tart, you can be choosy about your pears.
Understand What Farm-Fresh Means Farmers' market items may indeed cost more than traditional grocery stores. Of course, you're going to pay more for proteins that aren't mass-produced, because meat and fish with integrity cost more to make. And, that head of lettuce from your local farmer is likely to taste better and last longer because it's more recently picked than supermarket lettuce, Hurwitz says. Sometimes it doesn't even look the same as what you'd get at the greenmarket. Take, for example, a bunch of farmers' market celery: It's grassy, herbaceous, earthy — like a whole other species than what you see wrapped in plastic.
And, proper care of your produce will ensure that it lasts even longer. Herbs should be wrapped gently in a wet cloth or paper towels. Vegetables should be removed from the plastic bag you brought them home in, rinsed, and placed loosely in the fridge, not among the fruits.
Know When To Bargain Unless you're a chef willing to get to the greenmarket when it opens to get the best of the best, your shopping can be a little more carefree. Want tomatoes for a sauce or canning? You don't need the most pristine specimens. Hurwitz says bargaining at the market isn't off-limits; it's something you should consider on a case-by-case basis. If you ask around to see if there's anything they want to get rid of, you might get a great deal. And, several stands offer discounts at the end of the day.
After a few more shopping trips, your favorite farmers may start recognizing you as the woman who always buys spinach, and wave you over to let you know it's a dollar less a pound than it was last week, and here's the bag he put together just for you. And, that's service.