Although Sacramento has a couple of year-round farmer’s markets, yesterday officially kicked off our farmer’s market season, welcoming back the markets at Fremont Park, Roosevelt Park, Downtown Plaza and Cesar Chavez Plaza. From May to September, regional & local produce & flowers are available almost daily in this area, and chefs and amateur foodies (or “eating enthusiasts” as Greg of SacEats prefers to dub us) go wild with the possibilities. Today I experienced a full-on farmer’s market extravaganza, from my own tips on how to make the most of your market experience to an exquisite meal prepared by one of Sacramento’s best chefs with some of the area’s freshest produce.
I started my day at the Cesar Chavez farmer’s market with Wendy from our awesome ABC station, News10. Spotlighting the opening of farmer’s market season, we discussed the benefits of shopping at one’s local farmer’s markets and dispelled a few myths that surround them. What kinds of myths, Poor Girl? Prices, for one. It’s a common misconception that if you go to a farmer’s market you’ll be paying way more for your food than you would at your trusty major chain grocery store. Though this can certainly be the case when it comes to meats & cheeses and a few specialty items like preserved/dried produce, in general you can actually save quite a bit of money for higher quality food. By buying local, sustainably grown produce, you’re eliminating the middle men and lowering the cost of your food. No extra transportation costs by trucking in foods from distant areas; no extra coatings of wax or other preservatives to make produce look “perfect”; no fluoridated water drenching your produce so that if it’s not dried instantly it spoils faster; little to no pesticide use… I could go on for days. And then there is the added benefit of knowing that you’re supporting your local farmers, who, like most of us these days, are struggling to stay afloat in this shaky economy. Keeping your shopping local supports local businesses and, consequently, your local economy.
In addition to these benefits, shopping from your local farmers really does result in more delicious fruits & veggies. Why? Because farmers are going to grow & sell what Mother Nature deems appropriate. Unless it’s purely for crazy profit, you’re probably not going to see a local farmer selling you hot house tomatoes in early December, even if he is based in California. Nor will your farmer sell you oranges in July. Like the weather, food has its seasons, and when fruits and vegetables are in season, they will be more plentiful and thereby more affordable. Not to mention more delicious because they’re at their peak! And when things taste better, they’re easier to turn into tasty dishes that even the most finicky of eaters (read: KIDS!) can enjoy.
One thing I wished I’d discussed with Wendy (but forgot to because I was a li’l nervous….), was how to make the most of your farmer’s market dollar. I suggest the following tips:
1) If you like a better selection, be one of the first customers at your market. Head there slightly before the market opens if you can and you’ll find the prettiest produce.
2) If you prefer cheaper prices, go towards the end of the market’s schedule. By this time a lot of the most aesthetically pleasing produce will be gone and vendors are looking to get rid of the remaining food, so prices can go down quite dramatically.
3) Do a complete round of the market before you commit to buying ANYTHING. Now, if you’re a fresh produce freak like me, this is easier said than done. But it can really pay off if you exercise some restraint. Remember, there will be several vendors selling the same types of produce, so it’s quite possible to find a bunch of cilantro for $0.99 at one stand, with another stand offering the same thing at $1 for 3 bunches. Depending on which market you visit, the stands near the entrances & exits may have higher prices because they’re the first or last folks you’ll visit, whereas the stands in the middle of the market may offer lower prices (sort of similar to how grocery stores are laid out product & price-wise). If you do a quick tour of what’s available and make a mental note of where the cheaper prices are offered, you can save yourself several dollars at the end of your visit.
4) Buy what you NEED. I say this about every place I shop but this really applies to fresh produce. Sure, it can be quite tempting to buy 6 bunches of rainbow chard because it looks absolutely gorgeous and only costs $1/each, but are you really going to use it all? If you don’t think you’ll be able to use or preserve/freeze/dry what you buy, be sure not to buy i n excess. The market will be there next week so you can get more, I promise.
After talking with Wendy a bit more and sharing our common backgrounds in food & cooking, we went our separate ways and I hung around the park until it was time to join the fun of the Follow the Chef Tour with Chef Michael Tuohy of Grange. Many of you may remember Chef Michael from my posts on last year’s Foodbuzz Blogger Festival and my review of the Duck-Off challenge between Chef and Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. Because Grange specializes in local, seasonal menus made with the best of our state’s produce, meats and seafood, and because Chef happens to have an incredible internal seasonal-eating clock, he’s the perfect guide for a tour of the farmer’s market. Today he led about a dozen local writers on a tour of the market, teaching us about seasonal produce and introducing us to his favorite vendors while he shopped. Though I enjoyed learning about the different nuances of the produce that was and ought to have been in season, I personally enjoyed watching his enthusiasm at every stand. Not only did he handle the produce and select it with the casual ease of someone as experienced as he; he also asked questions that I never would have expected to ask the vendors. Usually when I go on a farmer’s market run I’m on a mission, so I rarely stop to do anything except for making purchases and obsessively photographing beautiful food . Having listened to they types of questions he asked, I can’t wait to make my next trip to my favorite farmer’s market (the one under the freeway on 8th & W on Sundays), so that I can start learning from and developing better relationships with my favorite vendors.
In Chef’s shopping bag today: baby artichokes, fava beans, cherries, Medjool dates, young pink garlic, sugar snap peas, and perhaps a couple other items that I didn’t notice him buying because I was too distracted by the blackberry honey at Friend’s Honey stand (O.M.G!!! I almost tripped & fell, it was so good). We had a brief discussion about the fact that he cannot eat tomatoes unless it’s tomato season (which I completely understand, but I’m such an addict I will lower myself to substandard or overpriced, imported tomatoes during the off season just to get my fix; there should be a 12-step program for this) and he talked a bit about this year’s strawberry season thus far. It was great to see what inspires a professional, and the best part was that almost everything he had just purchased was going to turn into our special farmer’s market lunch.
After settling in at Grange, we played the Name Game so that everyone could properly be introduced. I knew a couple of folks from past events, like Brittany & Liz from SacFoodies.com, but everyone else was new to me until today. I finally got to meet Cakegrrl, and Ann from Sacatomato; folks from the Sacramento News & Review and Midtown Monthly (sorry I can’t recall your names! My pen was not working with me), as well as Jonathan from Sacramento Press; and Greg, a.k.a SacEats from the Sac Rag. Introductions over, we struck up getting-to-know-you conversations over our fresh bread & herbed butter and glasses of rosé wine. After a few minutes, our amuse bouche of spring onion & potato soup with creme fraiche & chives was brought out. We all fell silent as we savored our soups, something that amused me throughout the afternoon and hearkened memories of my days as a mental health counselor when I’d have to cook for 20+ people and accept that silence as “this food is goooooooood.”
Our next course was a shaved asparagus salad with marinated beets and Bariani olive oil. The beets were infused with just the right amount of clove essence for me (though some folks found them too clove-y), with the asparagus and delicate shavings of cheese balancing their flavor. The light drizzle of olive oil rounded out the dish beautifully. We got loud again after our dishes were cleared and had great food-related conversations covering beer, local restaurants, and service vs. quality at restaurants. At one point Greg & I started talking about figs and I have to say his tales of a fig-based Nutella-like spread totally trumped my Colombian preserved green fig stories. I’m totally going to bed dreaming of that and the dessert we’d have later, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Our next course was a lovely spring vegetable risotto with asparagus, baby artichokes, fava beans, English peas and morel mushrooms. It was light but thoroughly satisfying, with a lovely white wine flavor infusing the entire dish, and I loved the creative use of seasonal vegetables. A tiny bit more of the rosé and we were on our way to experience the next and final course: dessert.
Now, I don’t know if you remember my raves about pastry chef Elaine Baker‘s incredibly inventive dessert at last year’s Duck Off (I mean, really: who else can make such a delectable dessert using duck fat???), but let me just say that she has swiftly become my dessert goddess. I know, I know, I like to make my own desserts and love them dearly, but my tiny little dessert shots will forever be dwarfed by someone as talented as Elaine. Today she made us a lovely strawberry crostada with creme fraiche caramel, fresh strawberries in strawberry liqueur and even more creme fraiche on the side. I probably should have taken it home as I was already pretty full but that dessert was so phenomenal I couldn’t help but finish the entire thing. When all was said and done, I needed a forklift to hoist me out of the restaurant because I was so full, but I didn’t mind; a fresh strawberry dessert like THAT is well worth it.
It was a wonderful day that gave me just the distraction I needed and I learned quite a bit from the entire experience. It was nice to know that an executive chef like Chef Michael utilizes a similar what’s-on-hand approach to cooking as I do (made me feel like I was onto something, lol), and wonderful to meet so many other Sacramento foodies – er, “eating enthusiasts”. I hope I was able to offer some good tips on keeping regular farmer’s market runs budget-friendly to the fine viewers of News10 and all you fabulous readers, and that the lunch menu at Grange can give everyone some ideas of what you can do with all those veggies & fruits that might appear to have such limited cooking options. As I always say, a little imagination in the kitchen can go a long way, no matter what you may have on hand. And if you don’t feel too confident in your kitchen creativity, especially with seasonal fruits & veggies, don’t fret! Ask your local vendor or farmer for suggestions; a lot of times they work with restaurants or have fabulous family recipes of their own to offer.
Happy farmer’s market season! May you all enjoy the best of what your area of this awesome planet can offer, and if you have some favorite vendors, market locations, or seasonal recipes to share, please do so! It’s always great to learn about what other areas are producing with fresh, local foods.