It’s the most amazing time of the year when fruits and vegetables can be found in abundance and farmers markets everywhere are overflowing with fresh produce and homemade goods from local farms and vendors. For foodies, it’s like Christmas every weekend! Even at the smallest farmers markets (like the one in Front Royal – we only have 10 booths!), you can find incredible deals and the tastiest morsels to make your week healthier and happier.
Here are my BEST tips for newbies navigating the Farmer’s Markets this summer!
1. Always carry cash. Some vendors accept credit cards thanks to modern technology, but let’s face it, cash is king. Plus, you can strike a better deal if you know you only have limited funds. I always take $60. That will usually get us all the produce we need for the week, plus some extras like meats, cheese, and dog treats. Yes, people sell homemade dog treats at farmers markets! Your 4-legged family member deserves to be spoiled, too.
2. Do some research. Not all farmers’ markets are created equal. Some have more vendors than you could talk to in one morning, and others will take you minutes to walk through. Figure out what you are looking for and Google what is available in your area. Most are open on weekends but some have weekday availability which usually means fewer people. If the location has a Facebook page or website, check them out to see who is selling on the day you plan to go. No one wants to drive 20 minutes to find out their favorite farmer is on vacation for the week. Planning is key!
3. Have a game plan. How much are you going to spend on veggies? Meats? Cheeses? Home products? Set a budget for each. I always hit the meat stand last (we only have 1….I know, it’s a small town) and tell him what I have left. His bacon is $5/lb but if I have $4 left, he’s going to take my money, especially on slow days. They WANT to sell you their goods. Give a reasonable offer and they rarely say no!
4. Be prepared to change your menu. If you’re like me, you have a general idea of what you want to make for the week. Maybe you had too much chicken last week or need to use the leftover mozzarella in your fridge. Have a “guideline” of what you want but be prepared to throw it all out the window based on what’s available. The week I made this recipe I did NOT have a zucchini lasagna in mind. I was thinking succotash, grilled veggies, and a stir fry. Then I saw the tomatoes: a beautiful pyramid of glistening red that you could SMELL as you walked by. Not only did they look good, but they felt perfect. Ripe to the touch and ready to eat. Immediately. The zucchini was right next to it and an idea was born. Be prepared for these moments of inspiration that will make you re-think your week’s meals!
5. Know your limit. I am VERY guilty of this. When EVERYTHING looks good enough to eat, it’s very easy to get carried away. I have come home with more fruit than I can eat in a week and I end up giving it away or tossing it. Produce at farmers markets is usually ready to eat the day you purchase it. Don’t buy an item thinking, I’ll make this in a week (unless it’s squash or non-perishable) because chances are, it will go bad before then. Buy only what you will use or prepare within 2-3 days. If you plan to freeze or can, feel free to go crazy!
6. Peruse first, then purchase. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with a thriving farmers market, walk around before buying something. You may THINK those are the best looking tomatoes but are they really? Are they the best price? Find out first because there are NO refunds.
7. There’s always next week. If you see something you know you won’t eat this week, ask the farmer if they will have the same produce available the following week. They generally have an idea of what crops are producing at that time and should be able to give you a best guess. I LOVE our local cherries but I don’t buy them every week. I just ask if the crops are good this year – a yes will usually indicate more is on it’s way! This will also help you when you are torn. If it won’t be available next week, get it now and save yourself the disappointment. Trust me. There is nothing worse than planning to make a cherry crisp for someone’s birthday and finding out cherries aren’t available.
8. Make new friends. TALK TO THE VENDORS. I can’t stress this enough. Seriously. While you are looking at their table, especially if it’s one you frequent often, introduce yourself and tell then what you plan to make from their selection. Not only do they appreciate your business, they usually appreciate the conversation. I have gotten more free fruit and veggies than I can shake a stick at because I took the time to let them in on my inspiration. I made my zucchini lasagna with FREE tomatoes. All of them. Tell me that’s not worth a friendly smile and a few kind words about the quality. Farmers work HARD and deserve to be rewarded with some gratitude, don’t you think?
Now you know my secrets to working a farmers market and making the most of your purchases. Now to put that produce to work!
First I need to give you my recipe for tomato sauce….
Alaina’s Tomato Sauce
*indicates farmers market purchase
6-8 large tomatoes*, chopped
1 large onion*, chopped
3 tbsp olive oil
6-8 cloves of garlic*, adjust to your taste
3 tbsp Italian seasoning
S&P to taste
In a large saucepan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium heat until warm. Add onions and cook until transluscent, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and S&P, and cook for another 5-10 minutes. If you want a smooth consistency, pour into a blender in batches and puree. Use this as a base sauce for your recipes or freeze and use in small batches for individual portions.
And now for the important recipe……
Alaina’s Zucchini Lasagna
*indicates farmers market purchase
4-6 large zucchini* (depending on the size available you might need more)
2-3 large tomatoes*
2-3 lbs ground meat* (I used fresh ground pork because that’s what was available)
1 batch of Alaina’s tomato sauce*
3 egg yolks
1 c Parmesan cheese, divided
16 oz ricotta cheese (if you are sensitive to dairy, substitute silken tofu or goat cheese)
1/2 c chopped fresh basil*
S&P to taste
Preheat over to 375 degrees. Spray a 13×9 pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
Slice zucchini and tomatoes thinly. If desired, boil zucchini for 3-5 minutes or until just cooked. Remove and immediately blanch. Lay in a single layer on towels and pat dry. Set aside sliced tomatoes.
In a medium bowl, mix egg yolks with S&P. Add ricotta cheese and mix well. Add chopped basil and 1/2 c Parmesan cheese. Mix until just combined.
Brown meat in a pan and drain all excess fat. Add to warm tomato sauce. Continue cooking for 3-5 minutes on low heat.
Layer lasagna as follows:
- meat sauce
- ricotta mix
- sliced tomatoes
- meat sauce
- remaining Parmesan cheese
Cover with foil and bake for 35-45 minutes or until top is slightly golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool for 15 minutes before serving. If you have excess liquid floating around your lasagna (all the watery goodness from the veggies), use a poultry syringe to remove it. Either way, the flavor won’t be affected, just the consistency.
We served ours with green beans and a fresh French baguette……aaaaaaand now my mouth is watering just thinking about it!