Greenmarket Strategies: Part II
Tips for Successful Market Shopping
I'm sure I am not the only one who has headed into a Greenmarket or farmer's market only to leave in one of two states: Either I've bought too much of this and that, in amounts that range from tiny samples to big bags. Or else I'm overwhelmed by all the choices and end up empty-handed, with only a couple of summer peaches to eat on the way home.
We can do better. But we need a strategy.
Shopping for Cooking
Shopping at a Greenmarket isn't like going to a grocery store because we can't be sure what will be for sale. We can arrive at a market and be seduced by the gorgeous produce or the chance to buy organic leaf lard to make end-of-summer fruit pies, only to get home having spent a lot of money with no plan for how to make meals out of what we've bought.
It's easier if you're a market regular because you'll have some idea of what to expect and you can actually go with a shopping list (although leave room for the serendipity of changing your mind after you see what's for sale). But absent that experience, here are a few suggestions:
- When you first arrive at the market, walk around to see what's available and what appeals to you. Then make a mental list of how many meals you'll be making in the week ahead. It's usually not a good idea to buy produce for more than a week before you expect to use the foods (exceptions are things like garlic, onions, root vegetables, apples and other more sturdy items). Sketch out a mental plan of vegetable sides, fruits, ingredients for baking, lunch items, etc. and then do a quick hit list of what to buy.
- Form a mental image of your finished meal and think in terms of serving sizes and how ingredients translate. For example:
-- Buy three or four small potatoes per person
-- Leafy greens like spinach cook down significantly so you may need to buy two pounds to produce two servings
-- Use your hand to measure a serving size of green beans
-- A half-to-three-quarters of a pound of fish is two servings
-- Mushrooms also reduce when they cook so buy three or four times the amount you'll want after they're cooked; if you're using them raw in a salad, buy by volume and remember to choose attractive ones that will be appealing when sliced and added to salad greens
-- Vegetables that you will cook and then puree -- such as butternut squash or beets -- should be bought in the same size/amounts as the final dish. In other words, a quarter pound of beets will produce about a quarter pound of purée. But buy extra to have leftovers after doing all that work.
-- A large head of lettuce will produce about 4 servings of salad.
- Keep in mind that salad greens only keep a few days so don't buy too far ahead.
- When you get home, place your produce into your refrigerator, but don't wash anything yet. Rinsing most fruits and vegetables will shorten their shelf life. Instead wash as you use. The exception for this is lettuce which can last a day or two longer if you rinse the leaves and dry them carefully, packing them in plastic bags with a piece of paper towel to absorb moisture.
- Remember to not refrigerate tomatoes. The chill causes the flesh to become mealy and lose flavor. Instead just leave on a kitchen counter, preferably out of the sun.
- Buy meats and poultry both to cook soon and also to freeze. So if you're in doubt about the upcoming week's schedule and what you'll need for meals, remember you can change your mind and just transfer that heritage breed chicken into the freezer.
- When you buy cheese, re-wrap it once you get it home to make sure it's protected from the inevitable refrigerator odors. Many cheese experts say to wrap cheese in paper, but it's fine to wrap cheese in plastic or aluminum foil. If you don't use the cheese immediately, re-wrap it every couple of days to get the best result.
- Eggs and dairy products will last longer than most produce.
- Be flexible. You may head to the market with the idea of getting basil to make a supply of pesto but when you get to the market you may instead find garlic scapes or spring onions or arugula that is so gorgeous that you should change your pesto plan. You can get basil another time.
- Here's where we get adventuresome: try something unfamiliar and then figure out what to do with it. If you're shopping for three vegetables for that week's dinners and had planned on some of your regular favorites but then you see beautiful yellow squash and have eaten it but never cooked it, take a risk. You can ask the farmer (or other customers nearby you who may be buying the same yellow squash) for tips on how to cook it, or you can come home and search Epicurious.com or Foodandwine.com or MarthaStewart.com to get recipe ideas. This is what's meant by "cooking from the ingredients up." Sometimes the best way to learn about an ingredient is to cook it as simply as possible the first time. This way you learn its flavor, texture and how it responds to heat, steam, etc.
- Remember the basics. Greenmarkets are wonderful places to get many of our core ingredients: herbs, shallots, garlic, onions, eggs. Their local flavors can make a big difference in all of our cooking.
- "What can I do with this?" In a kind of that-moment brainstorming, you can ask yourself the same thing when you see a pile of celery (make a salad with a Roquefort dressing), beets (cold borscht), lettuce (risotto with lettuce and peas), eggplant (ratatouille), tomatoes (fresh pasta sauce or just sliced with fresh mozzarella), kale (cook and use as a topping, with fresh ricotta, on pizza), melon (a cold soup), beans (serve with a room temperature roast leg of lamb) … you get the idea. Isolate the ingredient in your mind and think about how to showcase it. Then buy enough to make that dish.
- Do you have storage room? Buy extras and do some freezing or canning. This is particularly tempting in August and September when we can get local peaches or tomatoes at excellent prices.
- Watch for high prices versus value prices. Some Greenmarkets are the place to find unusual or scarce ingredients -- like baby turnips or unusual herbs or the first sour cherries of the season. But the rare and unusual can also be costly. What I do is treat myself to small amounts of certain precious foods; I'll buy a quarter pound of baby salad greens and add them to a less expensive head of Boston lettuce that I've bought at a non-Greenmarket grocer. On value-priced foods, which are usually those at their peak, I'll buy lots and just enjoy the bounty. Like having something with New Jersey tomatoes every day for a week in early September. This is a case of "get it while you can."
- Most of all, think through your upcoming meals before reaching for what's for sale. "How will I use this?" can be your guidepost as you study the farmers' offerings. It may all be good, but that doesn't mean it's on your menu.