As exciting as it may be to see table after table heaped with colorful fresh, local food during the growing season, it can also be overwhelming. And it's nearly impossible to eat all the seasonal produce you encounter, unless you've got a clan whose hunger and numbers are sizable (and tons of time on your hands). You gotta have a strategy and pick out the things that really count.
So, here's our take on the exclusive, seasonal, gotta-have-them items you absolutely should buy at the market when you see them.
It's in season right now and once it's gone, it's gone. Rhubarb isn't something you're likely to find for months on end in the supermarket. It's best paired with strawberries and tucked into pies, cobblers, crisps, and galettes; and works well in savory applications, such as chutneys and sauces. Rhubarb jam is a winner, too.
One of the first signs of life in spring, these wild leeks are often foraged by farmers, coveted by chefs, and have a short growing season. Grill them and use as a burger topping, wilt them over gentle heat with garlic and olive oil, or chop and toss them into an omelet. Many farmers find them abundant on their property or forage them; buy yours from someone who knows how to forage for them respectfully.
Yes, they're called stinging nettles for good reason — they'll bring on a rash if you're not careful. But if you soak them and cook them (or dry them), you remove the stinging-like chemicals and reveal a green leafy veg that tastes like spinach and contains Vitamins A and C, plus iron and potassium, and is thought to contain anti-inflammatory properties. Or bring two cups of water to boil and add fresh leaves for a therapeutic tea. This perennial grows wild, so buy it from a vendor whose foraging skills (and respect for nature) you trust.
4. Local honey
In the summer, local honey is great for sweetening homemade iced tea or whisking into salad dressings. Local honey can be completely unique, too — each batch a slightly different taste of your surrounding fields, flowers, and trees. If your local apiary at your farmers market sells bee pollen, consider yourself lucky; that's also a delicious delicacy.
With long necks and curly ends, scapes are the "flower stalks" of hardneck garlic plants, although they don't flower, per se. Farmers cut the tops off so the nutrients go back down into the developing bulbs; what used to end up in the compost pile now more often ends up at farmers market tables. Swap them for scallions or for garlic; they have a milder taste. Scapes make an assertive pesto, too.
6. Concord grapes
Supermarket grapes have nothing on local grapes. In my market experience, they're typically smaller, more intensely flavored, and don't last long enough to end up in any kind of recipe. Most of the time they have seeds, too — so be prepared to deal with that. It's worth it.
When one of our regular vendors at my market showed up with this last summer, I couldn't believe it. I had no idea you could grow ginger in Pennsylvania. Fresh ginger, which is lovely to look at, with its yellowy-pink hue (it develops that papery skin as it ages) is such a treat. I bought a whole bunch of it and froze some of it.
8. Mouse melons
The first time I spied these little orbs, which look like miniature watermelons but are actually from the cucumber family, I could not resist. Use these sour gems in salads and salsas or pickle them, but I like to eat them raw, tossed in some white wine vinegar with salt and pepper. They're also referred to as cucamelons and Mexican gherkins. (Runner up: Buy white cucumbers, a smaller, sweeter example of the veg, if you encounter them.)
I don't know about you, but I don't want to take a chance on foraging in the woods for mushrooms. And how many supermarkets sell oyster mushrooms, lion's manes, morels, or shiitakes in gorgeous, showy clusters, bunched together like bouquets begging to be picked?
There's a small, fervent culture of sustainable food folk devoted to what author Andrew Moore calls "America's forgotten fruit." Creamy like a mango but aromatic like a banana, the pawpaw is a tropical fruit that puzzlingly grows in North America's temperate climates. Pawpaws are oddly shaped, highly perishable gems with seeds you need to dig out carefully — but attempts are rewarded with a distinctly flavored fruit.
Pawpaws show up at markets (and can also be foraged) in September and October across wide swaths of the United States.
11. Tomatoes, the good ones
Buying supermarket tomatoes in the summer is criminal. Most farmers grow a wide variety, and heirlooms — with their funky shapes, profiles, and varying tastes, from acidic to sweet — are an abundant guarantee of late summer's harvest. You simply cannot have enough tomatoes during the season. It's a mad dash to exhaust our options with them. If we are lucky, we have them for weeks on end and by the time they're done, we've exhausted our options — eating our share of them raw and roasted, plus making jams, sauce, and freezing some, too.
Buy a handful of quince and place them in a bowl on your counter in fall and let its sweet aroma fill your kitchen. They're like an aromatic cross between a pear and an apple. Quinces even look like hard, misshapen green apples, but they won't soften and you definitely you don't want to bite into them. Quinces need to be poached and/or baked in order to make them palatable — and coax their sweet, subtle, spicy flavor. Poach them with the gamut of fall spices in your arsenal; I especially like cloves and star anise.
What seasonal items do you scoop up at the farmers market as soon as you see them?