Advice from a magical kitchen to yours—
Every week, the Kitchen Witch answers your culinary questions with an eye towards seasonal, sustainable cooking. Ask your question by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ECkitchenwitch.
Dear Kitchen Witch,
I want to love the farmers market and make it a real part of my cooking life. For my real life, that means using the things I buy there to make easy meals, but whenever I go to the farmers market my eyes end up taking over from my brain. I am starting to feel like those farmers see me coming from a mile away. I come home with all kinds of stuff and no plan and I end up throwing stuff away and then I feel bad. Can you help me strategize about how to shop at seasonal markets without getting tempted by stuff I won’t eat and wasting money?
—The Farmers’ Mark
Show me a cook who hasn’t come home from a farmers market with a bag full of greens they’ve never heard of and don’t know how to cook and I will show you a unicorn. I think this happens so much (to me, too) not just because of the lush bounty on hand at the market, but also because of a certain amount of category confusion. Is the farmers market an activity or a utility? The former is a fun excursion where one enjoys the outing for its own sake and thus, in a spirit of delight and largesse, may suddenly purchase a huge bag of, say, fresh garbanzo beans in the shell, much in the way one throws caution to the winds and buys a new dress on vacation in a style you’ve never worn at home. The latter is a place, like a regular grocery store, to accomplish the basic chore of gathering necessary provisions for one’s continuing need to eat, which implies all the drudgery and sense of dull routine that can come with regular grocery shopping.
Obviously, the farmers market is both a fun thing to do on a Saturday morning or a Wednesday lunch break or whenever your local farmers market is AND a good way to stock one’s home larder. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with buying the food equivalent of that vacation dress on occasion, but you put your finger on the practical problem in your letter: food goes bad; dresses do not (well, not in the same urgent way). So, what you need to do is work a little more sense of the routine grocery shop into your farmers market browsing, but—we hope—not lose the sense of enjoyment that browsing one brings. The key tips for this are much like the tips you read about saving money at the regular grocery store: plan ahead, go with a list, and don’t go hungry. I’d add that if you do weekly or semi-weekly shopping, try to make the farmers market your first stop, so that you can get everything on your big list there that you can, and then fill in at a regular, less fun supermarket.
Let’s break those broad tips down. Meal planning, even rough meal planning, will help with your dilemma. My big local market is on Sundays, but many are Saturdays. Whichever day your market is, take ten minutes the night before or the morning you go to check your calendar for the week ahead for dinners out, guests, evening activities, a potluck you’ll need to bring a dessert to, or whatever. Think about what’s in season and what you’re seeing at the market from week to week, or if you haven’t been in a while and aren’t sure what you’ll find, consult a seasonal guide. Write out a basic meal plan for the days you’re cooking at home and any other cooking plans, like making a cobbler for that potluck. Nobody will hold you to this and you can swap meals around at will, of course, or change your mind, but having the plan will give you a good sense of how much you need and want to buy and what kinds of things will fit into your week of eating. (The volume of such things will change depending on how many people you’re feeding, but the principle works for households of one or many.) I like to do this on a sheet of paper where I make two columns: one for the meals, listed by day, and one for the things I need to buy to produce those meals.
Surprise: now you have a shopping list! Sometimes I break this into categories. Obviously, produce will be most applicable to the farmers market, though many in my area also have meat, eggs, and some shelf-stable items such as olive oil, jam, bread, and of course non-edible things like soap. Since you thought of the list in terms of what you plan to cook and eat for the week, and you’ve already checked your calendar, you’re primed to buy items in a volume that suits your household needs, rather than getting distracted by a bushel of cucumbers you can’t possibly pickle tonight in between your other activities.
You can work your way through the list while also wandering in pleased fashion around the farmers market observing the bounty, like a character in a film who has just made her first trip to Provence or Greece or some other lush Mediterranean destination that awakens her dormant senses. Departing from the list or changing it up in small ways will happen, and (as in that kind of movie) the serendipity is part of the joy. I mean, if you wanted to know exactly what you’d find you’d be at the corner market looking at the withered apples, right? By all means, grab the excellent-looking plums for your breakfast even though you’d planned on peaches. But a plan gives you something to work and adapt from, even if you don’t hold yourself to it strictly.
Let’s also talk about not going hungry, that old tip that prevents you from loading up your grocery cart with cookies and chips because you are so ravenous when you get there. If part of your farmers market routine is to get a tamale or an excellent pastry for your breakfast from that one vendor you love, by all means, carry on. That’s part of the pleasure of the outing, and I’m not trying to deny you that. But maybe get that first thing so you aren’t too tempted by items you won’t use.
If all that planning sounds like too much, but you still want to put on the brakes, I have another trick for you. To curb the volume of your purchases (not to mention your overall spending) at the farmers market, simply don’t bring extra money (or your credit card, since more farmers are accepting them now). Bring a set amount of cash and when you’re out, you’re done, like magic. It’s a great way to stop yourself from getting that $20 box of fruit for jam if it uses up half your market budget for the week when you weren’t even remotely planning on making jam.
If you do make a plan, you don’t need to stick to it too closely, though. I’d leave room for a couple of treats and fun purchases every week, which will help shopping at the farmers market keep feeling like excursion rather than chore. An extra basket of rare golden raspberries or a bunch of greens you haven’t tried before—with some advice from the farmer about how to use them—will keep the magic alive. Might I also suggest a bunch of flowers for brightening up your kitchen and making you want to stay in it to cook the beautiful produce you’ve purchased? Nothing will make you feel more like you’re in that movie set in Provence than wandering beatifically out of the market with a glorious bouquet poking out of your market basket.