Just about every weekend, you can find Sheree Clark at the Downtown Farmers' Market in Des Moines, Iowa. "It's a Saturday morning staple," says Clark, who navigates the market like a seasoned veteran.
"That's Jennie over there. She has the best heirloom tomatoes," states Clark. Next, she introduces Jordan, a local farmer with the freshest, crispest kale. Making her way past more vendors, it's time to meet Diane, whose herbs compliment many of Clark's culinary creations.
Clark, who is host of her own healthy lifestyle show called "Fork in the Road," plans her weekly summer menu based on the food she purchases at the market. Spending time with Clark, it's clear that her weekly venture to the farmers' market is about more than food. It's about relationships. "That's part of the fun of it," she explains. "It's that connection. You know where your food comes from. You know the person who grew it. You understand the hard work that went into getting it here."
Farmers' markets vary in size and breadth. Most farmers' markets focus on locally grown, fresh produce — often picked the same day you buy it. At some, you'll find a variety of items, including flowers, farm-fresh eggs, local wines, cheese, honey and baked goods.
"If you're new to the farmers' market, you may want to pick up a map to help you get around. A trip to the information booth is a great place to start."
Some farmers' markets are carefully managed, adhering to strict guidelines for pricing, quality and vendor selection. Others are more relaxed in their vendor criteria. Some farmers' markets allow vendors to purchase a certain percentage of products to resell, which is something to keep in mind if you are there to purchase locally grown produce. "I always ask where — and how — the food is grown. If the answer isn't clear, I simply move on," says Clark.
Whether you're a novice or a frequent visitor to farmers' markets, here are a few more pointers to help you get the most for your time and money:
- Plan ahead. Think about how many meals you'll be preparing in the coming week and buy your produce accordingly. Try to avoid bringing home more than you need; it's not a bargain if you end up throwing it away.
- Dress in layers. If you're going to a big market, wear removable layers to help you transition from chilly early mornings to warmer later mornings.
- Pack Right. Insulated coolers are helpful for transporting certain types of produce.
- Consider a Cart. "At larger markets, a small cart is a bonus," says Clark, who purchased her own foldaway cart just for the farmers' market. "Produce can be heavy and easily bruised. With a cart, you can easily haul around melons, pumpkins and everything else you pick up."
- Bring Cash. Preferably small bills. Many vendors do not accept credit cards or checks.
- Go Early. Or, arrive late. For the best selection, Clark recommends arriving at the market soon after it opens. Many top vendors sell out of produce early. If you want to sleep in, show up just before the market is about to close. Sometimes you can get good deals on produce the vendors prefer not to haul back. Be aware, however, that there might not be as much selection.
- Establish relationships. Get to know the farmers and helpers who work the stands. Tell them what you're looking for. Bring them samples of dishes you make with the items they've grown.
- Ask polite questions. Ask growers for tips on food preparation and storage. Inquire about discounts on bruised produce. Ask what tastes best, where they sell (other than at the market) and what other vendors they would recommend. Ask them what they're planting in the season ahead. If you want organic produce, ask if they are certified organic — or at least chemical-free — growers.
- Accept imperfections. "Produce at the farmers' market may look a little different than what you'll find at the grocery store," says Clark. This is partly because the varieties grown may vary. An heirloom tomato, for example, is often a different shape from a "hothouse" or typical grocery store tomato. "Try to look past blemishes and imperfections," says Clark. "Personally, my priority is to purchase the best tasting produce that hasn't been treated with chemicals."
- Ask where the food was grown. If you don't want food that was bought from a wholesaler, don't buy foods with a sticker on it. Also, keep in mind that certain produce, like citrus and avocados, cannot be grown in the Midwest.
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A peppery kick to your summer menu
Rich in vitamins and minerals, arugula contains about eight times the calcium, five times the vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K, and four times the iron as the same amount of iceberg lettuce.
Arugula can be used like any other leafy green. Technically, it's classified as a cruciferous vegetable along with broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.
Bunch or baby?
- Baby arugula – More delicate with smaller leaves and a toned down taste. Use in salads or as a pizza topping.
- Bunch arugula – Larger leaves, a more peppery taste. Toss into cooked dishes, because the bigger leaves retain their shape and crunchy texture. Try them in a warm pasta dish or stir them into a soup.
- Be sure the leaves are firm and bright green.
- Yellowing and tearing are signs that the greens are past their prime.
- Buy bunches with intact roots. They will retain their freshness longer.
- Loosely wrap bunches of arugula in paper towels, then place in a closed plastic bag. Refrigerate for up to three days.