In a perfectly timed follow-up to last week's post about planting an edible herb garden with your kids, guest blogger and chef Kellan Hori of Kellan's Kitchen offers smart practical tips about how, when, and what to buy at your local farmers' market this season. No more knocking on cantaloupes or smelling their rinds without knowing what to look for! And, score!, he shares pointers for inspiring your children's love of healthy foods.
Spring has arrived! And that means the seasonal produce at farmers’ markets is getting more colorful and diverse. It’s a great time to venture away from what you normally buy at grocery stores and try new and fresh foods that may be foreign to your taste buds. If you’re a farmers’ market novice or go once a week, let this be a good starting point for your visits.
Buying local produce has a lot of benefits. Because it is grown close to your home, it will likely be free of preservatives and hormones used to keep food “fresh” if shipped from further away. And buying local is hugely beneficial to your local economy, keeping smaller operations thriving and producing high quality ingredients! Farmers’ Markets can sometimes seem to be more expensive than your average grocery store, but this isn't always the case. If you go with the intention of buying everything you need for a dinner, then it can get a tad pricey. However, if you are going just to get a few produce items, then your trip can be quite thrifty. Although, it is quite difficult to pass up buying some artisanal cheese or bread!
Research a dish. Whether you’re a seasoned cook or just a novice, it’s always good to have a general outline of what you might want to cook following your trip to the market. It doesn't have to be a detailed shopping list, but more of an inspired idea. For example, let's say you want to cook a dish revolving around chicken. You might want to look at buying some onions, carrots, potatoes, and a veggie for your dish. Instead of your normal brown onions, maybe you pick up a Vidalia, or a ciopollini. For your potatoes, instead of the usual russet, maybe the market has some purple potatoes, or fingerling. And for a veggie side, move away from the standards of broccoli & asparagus, and experiment with Chard, or eggplant. Try and keep an open mind while you shop!
Bring your kids. The offerings at farmers’ markets are colorful and eye-catching, so it’s an enticing way to get kids involved in cooking. Have your kids try different fruits and vegetables and make the selection for dinner. This will ensure they try new foods and expand their palette—even the pickiest eaters are more apt to eat something green if they get to play chef. At the end of the trip, reward them with a stick of local honey (there is almost always local honey stalls at the market).
Bonus: The open market is a great venue to teach your kids about real and organic versus processed foods. To the open eye, the produce from the farmers’ market generally looks different than the produce from grocery stores. First off, there is usually dirt on the veggies, proving first hand that it came from the earth. This also starts a conversation about the life cycle of food that is grown at a farm and then ends at your dinner table.
Talk to Vendors. Don't be shy when approaching a tent or booth. If you’re unsure about an eggplant, or the color of a certain pepper, ask! The friendly sellers most likely grew or had a hand in making the edibles available for purchase, so they’re very helpful in selecting the best piece of fruit or ripest vegetable. I always enjoy talking to vendors because they often will introduce me to new produce, so I end up walking away with something fresher and more delicious that never before crossed my mind until visiting their stall. New discoveries are always welcome and encourage creative cooking!
Taste Everything. If you see a sample, taste it! It is essential in cooking to taste all the ingredients your recipe calls for—don’t assume what flavors they may hold. On numerous occasions I have randomly tried something, say, a blackberry, without the intent of buying it and then purchase an entire carton. I especially enjoy trying greens and lettuces. I recently purchased a bundle of dandelion greens after nibbling on a leaf. I was originally going to purchase arugula, but went home with the dandelion because the bitterness was slight with incredible earthy flavors that would go better with my dish than the standard arugula.
Be Bold. Buy something you have never cooked with before. Taste something you have never tried before. Don't be afraid of a food you have never heard of! Who knows, you might really like it!
Bring Cash. Most vendors don't take credit cards... plus, many of your purchases will be just a few bucks! For a family of four, I like to bring about $40-60 to the market, with the intent of getting some fruit, veggies, greens, and herbs. Tip: Be sure not to overbuy on the produce, as it will spoil faster because it is organic and free of preservatives. You should only buy what you need for 3-4 days tops. And if you find that you can’t go through all those fresh berries your bought, look to make something with the ones that are about to spoil, like a tart, jam, syrup, or smoothie. The same thing can be applied to basil, or parsley. Many times you’ll have to purchase more of and herb than you need for your dish, so look to also make something that you can save. Big bunches of basil or parsley makes for an easy pesto sauce! And, in the spirit of being green, bring your own bags!
Below is a pocket guide to Spring Produce you might begin to see at your local farmers’ market (print it out and stash in your bag for future reference!):
- Apricots come into season towards the end of spring in the warmer areas where they grow.
- Artichokes have a second crop in the fall, but the main harvest takes place in the spring when the largest thistles are available. Look for artichokes with tight, compact leaves and fresh-cut stem ends.
- Arugula (a.k.a. rocket) is a cool-weather crop. Long days and warm weather make it bolt, or flower, and bring an unpleasantly bitter flavor to the leaves. Wild arugula is foraged in spring and again the fall. Cultivated arugula is grown year-round, thanks to coastal, temperate growing areas and winter greenhouses.
- Asparagus is harvested from March through June, depending on your region. Note that thickness in no way indicates tenderness, which is related to how the plant is grown and how soon it is eaten after harvest rather than spear size. Look for a good firm stock, and not something that is beginning to wilt.
- Beets are in season in temperate climates fall through spring, and available from storage most of the year everywhere else. Fresh beets are often sold with their greens still attached. The fresher the beet, the generally sweeter they are, so if you are trying to introduce beets to your kids, the fresher the better!
- Carrots are harvested year-round in temperate areas. True baby carrots - not the milled down versions of regular carrots sold as "baby carrots" at grocery stores - are available in spring and early summer.
- Cherries are ready to harvest at the end of spring in warmer areas. Sweet cherries, including the popular Bing and Rainier varieties, are available from May to August.
- Fava beans are a Mediterranean favorite available in the U.S. from early spring through summer.
- Fennel has a natural season from fall through early spring.
- Grapefruit from California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona comes into season in January and stays sweet and juicy into early summer.
- Green Onions/Scallions are cultivated year-round in temperate climates and come into harvest in the spring in warmer areas.
- Greens of all sorts come into season in warmer regions.
- Kiwis grow on vines and are harvested winter through spring. You want to look for a kiwi that is beginning to be tender, but not soft.
- Leeks more than about 1 1/2 inches wide tend to have tough inner cores. The top green leaves should look fresh - avoid leeks with wilted tops
- Lemons are at their juicy best from winter into early summer.
- Lettuce starts coming into season in cooler climates.
- Mint starts thriving in the spring.
- Morels are foraged in the wild in the spring. Look for firm specimens at specialty markets and foragers' stalls at farmers’ markets.
- Navel oranges hit the end of their season in the spring.
- Parsley may seem to be season-less, but this cool-weather herb flourishes in the spring in warm and temperate climes.
- Pea greens are sold in big tumbled masses in spring and early summer. Look for bright vines with fresh, vibrant looking leaves. Avoid vines with brown or mushy ends or damaged leaves.
- Peas (garden, snap, snow, etc.) come into season in the spring and continue in most areas well into summer.
- Radishes are at their sweet, crunchy best in the spring.
- Rhubarb is the first fruit of spring in many areas - look for heavy stalks with shiny skin.
- Strawberries are mostly grown in California or Florida, where the strawberry growing season runs from January through November. Peak season is April through June.
- Sweet Onions have slightly different seasons, but in general they are available in spring and summer.
- Turnips have a sharp but bright and sweet flavor. Look for turnips that feel heavy for their size.
~ Kellan Hori
Kellan is a self-taught cook who is extremely passionate about food. He believes there is nothing better than a delicious meal with family and friends—good food enjoyed with good people. Influenced by where he has lived throughout the years, his cooking reflects who he is and how he likes to eat. From cooking classes at a villa in Tuscany, to living in San Francisco, to his Japanese heritage, his food is diverse and flavorful. If you are interested in having him cook for you, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 858.945.1324. Serving Lake Tahoe & San Francisco Bay Area. Los Angeles by special request! Otherwise, find him at Twitter.