With fall in full swing, there are so many delicious and healthy foods in season—Honey Crisp Apples, sweet potatoes, the list goes on. What better way celebrate that bounty than with a guest post on seasonal produce from an expert? Today, Chef Bill Telepan (of the beloved New York establishment, Telepan) is sharing his tips on how to navigate your local farmers market.

How to Shop the Farmer’s Market Like a Chef By Bill Telepan

I’ve been buying produce from local farms for over 25 years. As a chef and restaurateur, I know that the best ingredients are the ones that fuel both a delicious meal and a healthy lifestyle. Much of the food out there is highly processed and grown using a variety of hormones, pesticides and genetic modification. Farmers markets offer affordable options and provide better tasting produce that’s high in nutrients, compared to produce that isn’t in season and is shipped from far away.

As the Executive Chef of Wellness in the Schools, I know how important it is to not only understand where your food comes from but also learn (or even re-learn) basic cooking skills. With FEED Supper in full swing, you have an amazing opportunity to create a beautiful, healthy meal using produce from your local farmers market, and help raise funds for a vital organization.

To help you prepare, here are some of my best tips to consider when shopping at your local farmers market:

1. Have a plan… There is a term, mis-en-place, a French phrase that means to gather and arrange the ingredients and tools in your kitchen needed for cooking. As a father and husband, I also use this planning-ahead concept when food shopping. Farmers markets aren’t open every day but they offer the freshest and most delicious ingredients of the season, so it’s worth the extra bit of effort to plan your week ahead and include a visit to your local market. Think about what you typically eat over the course of the week and write down a list of the ingredients you use. See what might be available to purchase at the market instead of buying from a large grocery store.

Planning a big dinner or social gathering? Make sure you understand the amount of prep time involved and when you might need to buy the ingredient. For example, most of the meat you’ll find at a farmers market is frozen, so don’t think you’re going to be cooking a big steak at the end of the day unless you shop and defrost early!

2. …and an open mind Know that you might end up finding different varieties of vegetables or different cuts of meat than what you’re looking for. It all depends on the producer’s availability that day. Looking for a beefsteak tomato? You might only find cherry or heirloom. Same thing goes for different kinds of peppers, carrots, and cauliflower. Ask about ingredients you don’t recognize and how they relate or differ from the item you originally wanted. Some stands offer samples, so take advantage when they do. Learn if that item is currently coming into season or heading out of season and ask what might be readily available in the weeks ahead so you can start to plan and know what to look out for. Opt for the variety that is currently in season versus one your recipe calls for – there’s typically a good reason why something may or may not be available. Don’t be afraid to switch up plans and try something new!

3. It’s not a beauty contest You know the saying, beauty is in the eye of the beholder? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched someone pick up an ear of corn and rip it open to view its kernels, or choose a clean, colorful vegetable versus one covered in dirt. Guess what? They actually might be missing out on the freshest produce available. Here are some tips to guide you on selecting the best product:

  • Weight is a great and simple way to tell if produce is fresh and ready. If a scale isn’t available, compare the weight of corn or melons in your hands. The heavier ones are fuller and juicier. 
  • Don’t be afraid of dirt! If you walk up to a stand and see there’s a lot of dirt on the produce, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad farm. This is likely a good indication that they’re an organic farmer. 
  • That ugly duckling of a vegetable nobody is touching? Instead of heading straight for the uniform looks, consider paying more attention to the oddest-looking varieties, which not only can end up being the best tasting thing you’ve purchase that day, but will often cost less too. 

4. Embrace vegetables with “tops” Everything from beets, radishes, rutabaga, carrots, and turnips, will soon be arriving at the farmers market. These root vegetables are most loved for their actual roots. The “tops” or stems are commonly discarded – a shame because when prepared properly they can turn into something truly delicious. Many of them add unique flavors and textures to salads or can be sautéed and added to other vegetables. Farmers not only work with chefs all the time, but they too are constantly eating and testing out their own products. Ask them how they like to cook and eat their “tops” and you’re bound to learn something new.

5. Speaking of which, make a friend…or a dozen One of the biggest benefits of a farmers market is being able to learn about the item you’re buying (how it was grown and what it tastes like) straight from the horse’s mouth – a rarity in today’s grocery store culture! Farming is both a science and an art. Many farmers are proud of their products and won’t mind discussing how it was grown or what to do with it, if you ask nicely and are respectful of the fact that they are working and likely have to attend to other customers. Take the time to build relationships and learn about the food you’re eating and sharing with your friends and family. 

Here are a few questions to get the conversation started:

  • How do you like to eat/prepare/cook X?
  • How long is it in season for?
  • What does it taste like?
  • What other varieties are available?
  • Where is it typically grown?
  • When was it picked/harvested? 
  • What does free-range/grass-fed/organic mean?
  • Where’s your farm? How long have you been making X?
  • Are there other ways to purchase X?
    • A great opportunity to learn if the farm offers a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which allows city residents to purchase a share of vegetables straight from a regional farmer. Think high quality, fresh produce delivered straight to your door!

*Report back – If you thought something you purchased was particularly delicious, share a photo or let them know your favorite way to cook or serve that ingredient!

6. You don’t need to empty your pockets There’s a common misperception that farmers markets cost more than supermarkets or large-chain grocery stores. Of course there are multiple variables to consider here, including where you live and shop regularly. But again, if you plan a trip to the market ahead of time, you can benefit from a number of cost saving options like these:

  • Walk the entire market first. Prices can vary from stand to stand and you’ll get a better idea of what’s available that day. 
  • Sometimes you can discover a lesser cut of meat at the market that’s tasty. Research and inquire about different selections. 
  • Many people might suggest buying in bulk to save on costs but the brilliant thing is, you really don’t have to. You can easily purchase one or two items that will stay fresher longer versus a carton of something that may not be used or even needed in the long run.
  • Sometimes arriving late is better than arriving early – you might be able to find less expensive items that farmers are looking to sell and get rid of at the end of the work day. 

7. Say yes to the freshest of fish If you’re lucky enough to have fish available at your local farmers market, it’s a great opportunity to try something new and learn from the expert right in front of you. Fresh fish should smell like the sea and have consistent coloration. Also, fish is seasonal! So ask what the best catch of the day is and how long it might be in season for.

Fish stands will typically have an abundance of wild-caught filets, whole fish, and shellfish. These are fishermen that send their boats out daily – so that the fish you’re looking at was just caught the day before. Some stands even have sushi-grade fish for purchase. Now the only way you can get fresher fish is by catching it yourself!

One of New York’s first and most acclaimed devotees of “greenmarket cooking”, utilizing the freshest ingredients from local markets; Bill Telepan is committed to showcasing the season’s bounty through his cuisine. He insists on understanding where his ingredients come from, how they’ve been cared for, and using the best of what is available—a thoughtfulness that’s reflected in the vibrant dishes he creates at his namesake restaurant.