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Playing the MarketThroughout the growing season, your local farmers’ market is the best place to find fresh, healthy produce, often picked within the last 24 hours. But if this outdoor shopping experience seems like an overwhelming bazaar with too many choices and intimidating, unusual foods, follow these tips from Chef John Schaefer, formerly of New York’s Irving Mill restaurant, to get the most out of your market.

  • Be an early bird. Many farmers sell out of prime products early. Arrive early in the day for the best selection.
  • Buy in peak season. Produce sold in its peak season is not only superior in flavor, but also abundantly available and reasonably priced.
  • Follow the white coats. When you spot a chef buying a large amount of one product, it’s bound to be fresh and delicious. Pay attention and trail her around the market.
  • Stock up when you can. Great produce may be available one week and past its prime the next. When you see what you like, buy it in bulk. Then pickle, preserve or freeze it to enjoy fantastic flavor throughout the year.
  • Keep the list loose. Unlike supermarket goods, the favorites on your market shopping list may not be consistently available. Rather than focusing on specific items, keep the list general and have the flexibility to buy the best produce available.
  • Don’t dis the ugly duckling. Some of the tastiest produce at the market may not look so pretty. But the best market flavors may be found in gnarled potatoes, tiny berries and pockmarked pumpkins.
  • Inquire about organic. Many small farmers follow organic agricultural practices but haven’t undergone the expensive certification process. Even if a farmer has no certified-organic seal, ask questions about his farming methods.
  • Say no to negotiation. Bargaining isn’t a common feature of U.S. farmers’ markets. Still, you can find some good deals at the end of the day, when farmers may offer discounts on remaining items rather than trucking them home.
  • Bring the kids. The market is a great place to get children excited about fresh fruits and vegetables. Involve them by creating a botanical scavenger hunt (find a root, leaf or stalk).
  • Try something new. The market is perfect for experimenting with new foods. Chef Schaefer had his first experiences with nettles and burdock at the market—now they’re regular menu items.
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