Have you ever been to a restaurant and thought, How do the tomatoes in this salad taste so sweet and juicy? You might convince yourself that maybe the chef sprinkled crack over them, or that he has a big needle in the kitchen which he uses to inject flavor.
Neither of these things are true. The simple fact is that chefs—well, good chefs anyway—source their ingredients meticulously from greenmarkets, or directly from farmers. They focus on what’s in season and concentrate on the best produce available at that moment, which yields wildly tasty food.
One such chef is Sandy Dee Hall of Black Tree sandwich shop on the Lower East Side. We enlisted Hall to take us around the Union Square Farmers Market and show us how to get the most out of our visit. He also broke down essential spring and summer vegetables you should know about, and how to use them at home.
The farmers market can be intimidating for first-timers, but just a little know-how can go a long way. Once you’re cooking with the same fantastic produce that chefs use, we’re certain you won’t want to go back to those mealy hothouse tomatoes.
Why shop at the farmers market (opposed to the supermarket)?
“For one, fresh food tastes better,” says Hall. “At the supermarket, you’re getting produce three days or a week after it’s picked. The produce here at the farmers market was most likely picked yesterday.
“Also, I know all the farmers, and I have a relationship with them. I don’t walk into Whole Foods and the staff says, ‘Hey, Sandy!’ Even though Whole Foods buys from farmers, it’s still nice to have an exchange and a relationship with the people growing your food. Like, just now, I forgot my check book, so I couldn’t give a farmer money for the mushrooms and she was like, ‘That’s fine. I’ll see you Saturday.’ You can’t walk into Whole Foods and not pay for something. I mean, you might be able to, but you might get arrested for it.
“And in general, it’s just nice to support local.“
Rules for navigating the farmers market
- Get there early. “If you come early—like 8:30 or 9am—you can get a lot of stuff that will disappear later in the morning. This is because the chefs show up around 9 or 9:30am and literally take everything good.”
- Taste before you buy (but know the etiquette). Even great farmers have bad days, or even bad seasons; therefore, not every heirloom tomato and nectarine you see is going to be on-point. For that reason, it’s important to taste before you buy. Hall says, “When you get to know the farmers, they’ll give you a sample of whatever you want to try. And even if you don’t know them, just ask them to cut you a slice or give you a taste. But that doesn’t mean you can go around and pick up and eat whatever you want without asking. And DO NOT touch any of the lettuces at Windfall Farms with your hands—the farmer here yells at me all the time. Instead, pick up a sample with the tongs or ask for a taste.”
- Build relationships with farmers. “It’s really cool that the farmers tend to know the people that come to their stand frequently. If you have a relationship with a farmer, not only will he give you what you want in terms of samples, he’ll tell you about the really good stuff. Farm stands operate like a restaurant or bar in terms of customer service; they know that if they show customers good service and good products, the customer is going to come back. In return, people show loyalty to farmers, and I think that’s awesome.”
- Be flexible. “This isn’t a grocery store, so don’t come with a specific list of ingredients you want to buy. Rather than buying second-rate strawberries because you have to have them, come with an open mind and get the best-looking and tasting products. Maybe you can use raspberries or peaches for your dessert instead.”
- Scope out the chefs (it’s fun!). “If you come in the morning, you’ll get to see a lot of well-known chefs shopping for their restaurants. I saw April [Bloomfield, of The Spotted Pig] here like three weeks ago.”
- Buy hydroponic when you’re yearning for out-of-season produce. “Phyllis Underwood of Shushan Valley Hydro Farm sells hydroponic tomatoes and basil during the winter. She sells summer produce from November until May.”
- Don’t be afraid to pick up girls (or guys) at the market. “This is a great place to pick up on women—although I don’t do it. Also, most of the farmers are attractive. You know, it’s really funny…Mary, who owns Violet Hill Farm with her husband Paul, met him at the farmers market like six years ago and now they have four kids.”
9 spring and summer vegetables you should know
When the warm-weather bounty starts rolling in, the selection can be overwhelming for newbies. Here, Hall shares his 10 go-to pickups, plus tips for simple ways to prepare them at home.
“I get mine from Stokes Farm. This stuff is so fresh and good, you can just blanch it quickly, then quickly toss it in a skillet with butter. Put a fried egg over the cooked asparagus then grate some hard cheese on top. You can even throw a little bit of white wine in the pan with the butter to create a butter-white wine sauce.”
“In early to mid spring, there’s wild baby arugula at Migliorelli Farm that’s super concentrated in flavor; it’s also very peppery. You can really see the difference in color—it’s a much darker green than the mature arugula. On Saturday, I get a little ‘wasabi arugula’ from one of my growers that literally has a wasabi finish. It has little white flowers on it. It’s really amazing.”
“I like to go to Windfall Farms because they have a wide range of produce. Plus, [farmer] Tim Wersan is awesome. The edible flowers are really cool—they’re aromatic and they are rich in vitamins and nutrients. Add them to a salad or use them as a garnish.”
“Fiddleheads have a really short growing season in the spring. They’re kind of weird, but really good. They have a floral and herbal flavor. Cook them then serve them cold in a salad for added crunch.”
“We do a little microgreens salad at Black Tree with sunflower and buckwheat greens. Microgreens are great because there’s tons of concentrated nutrients packed into them. They can be pricey, but you don’t have to use a lot because they’re so flavorful.”
“Oyster mushrooms from Bulich Mushroom Farm are really great. Oyster mushrooms have this cool salinity to them. They’re great with fish. I usually just slice them in half and give them a good sear in a pan with butter.”
“These tomatoes from Shushan Valley Hydro Farm are hydroponic. The prime growing season for tomatoes is summer. When a tomato is really good, you can just drizzle it with olive oil, sprinkle a little salt on it, and you’re set.”
Ramps (note: no longer available)
“These are wild and foraged. Like fiddleheads, ramps have a very short growing season in spring. The ramp green has an onion-y, garlic-y flavor, and you can use it to make ramp pesto. You just chop the greens up really fine, fold in some olive oil, nuts, parmesan, lemon, salt, and pepper. I also make ramp aioli with onion and garlic. At the end of the season I usually buy the bulbs [the white part] and pickle them. I’ll let them sit in the walk-in for like eight months, and use them in October when no one else has ramps on their menu. Pickling is a really good way to preserve produce to use throughout the whole year.”
[Note: Apples aren't a spring or summer vegetable, but they're typically at the market.] “I think apples are good for a lot of things—especially if you get the right varieties—because in the apple itself is this balance of sweet and tart that can bring a lot to a dish. The Cameo is one of my favorite varieties, because it’s super crisp and really clean-tasting. I get mine from Locust Grove Farm. I make a brown-butter apple preserve that I put on some of the sandwiches at Black Tree.”
The Union Square Farmers Market is located at the North and West sides of Union Square Park in NYC.
Hours: Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from 8am-6pm.
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