Ever feel excited to go to a farmers' market, only to be totally overwhelmed once you get there? Me, too. My go-to routine is: admire the fruits and veggies, and then, when it comes time to make decisions, stress out over the abundance of options and leave without buying anything. In the hopes of curing myself of these farmers' market woes and becoming the sustainable grocery shopper I know I was born to be, I chatted with Lenny Russo, farm-to-table chef at Heartland Restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota.
"There are lots of reasons to go to farmers' market, and for me it's knowing where my food is from." —Chef Lenny Russo"
It quickly became clear to me that Chef Russo was everything I aspired to be at the market: confident, inquisitive, knowledgeable, and outgoing. He also excels at the culinary balancing act I've always dreamed of mastering: on one hand, he is unyielding in his expectations for how his food should be farmed; on the other, he is completely flexible about what he cooks with, adapting to the fruits and vegetables that are best on any given day.
Realizing that I had found the farmers' market mentor I've been so desperately needing, I made sure to listen extra-closely to the wisdom Chef Russo was dropping. Here it is!
Farmers' Market Basics
The farmers' market is the key to getting fresher, healthier produce.
"People always ask: is the food really better? The answer is yes. Fresher tastes better, and it has more nutritional value. When carrots are pulled from the ground, the natural sugars they contain begin to convert to starch immediately. The faster you can eat them, the sweeter they will taste. They also haven't been hybridized to remove the nutrients that make them unstable, such as Omega 3's, which are really good for you. Often, produce found at a grocery store has been bred for a longer shelf life, but that results in the removal of many health benefits.
"Ask to taste. They're happy to let you taste stuff." —Chef Lenny Russo
If you make a connection with a farmer at the market, you can keep going back to them, and you'll find that a relationship will begin to develop. That just isn't possible at a grocery store! In all likelihood, the person behind the counter at a supermarket has no idea where the food came from, so there's no give and take. There are lots of reasons to go to the farmers' market, and for me it's knowing where my food is from, connecting with the farmer, and asking questions about how they raise their crops. I'm interested in issues of agricultural sustainability and preserving the land."
Great ingredients mean less work in the kitchen.
"Right now we're getting beautiful potatoes from our farmers that are fresh out of the ground, the first of the year. I did a corporate party yesterday and, on the way out, the guests said to me, "What do you do to those potatoes to make them taste so good?" And I said, "You eat them." We just buy really good ingredients and try to get out of their way; it's not magic. We're just using really good food and being nice to it."
It's important to know the real farmers' markets from the poseurs.
"If you go to a market in a northern climate and see vendors selling oranges, you can go ahead and assume that these people are actually buying stuff from some sort of clearing house or packing house, and then reselling them. Or, even if they're connecting directly with the grower in California, it's not really a farmers' market; it's not local. At a farmers' market, the produce should still be warm from the soil, and you should be shaking the hand of the farmer who grew it. Otherwise, what's the point? You might as well be at a grocery store."
Know Your Approach
Always take a lap.
"I always like to walk through the entire market at least once, and look at everything before I buy anything. I can guarantee the first thing that catches your eye is not going to be the best—I like to see critical mass. I like to go someplace where there are six people selling tomatoes, all in a row, pretty close to each other—because then I can compare, always on quality. Ask to taste. They're happy to let you taste stuff."
Either go in with a very specific list, or no list at all.
"One strategy is that if you want something in particular which may be available in limited quantities, you have to go early. For example, if you want some sweet, fresh garlic that just came out of the ground, you want to get there first thing and find that item before it's gone. If you are in search of the best price, but don't have your heart set on any one thing, you're going to want to go at the end. Find what looks good, and say 'I'll take 'em all! ow much? Cut me a deal!' This is a great approach to take if you plan to do some canning, or are going to throw a dinner party and need large quantities. Farmers are getting ready to pack up and leave, and they don't want to take that produce home with them. They are happy to sell things to you at a lower price."
Decision Time: What to Look For
Not all grains are created equal. Here is how to find the most nourishing ones.
"There are different levels of processing for grain. If it's white bread, the truth is that they have taken all the protein out of the bread. So if it's a whole grain, it will be much more nourishing. If it's a sprouted grain, even better. And, again: always ask to taste."
Don't judge a book by its cover! Sometimes the ugliest produce is the best.
"Heirloom vegetables haven't been bred for appearance or uniformity and, as a result, taste better and are better for you. For me, the uglier, the better. I'm looking for stuff that looks really grotesque. My approach is: 'That tomato looks really lumpy, it must taste really good.'"
Don't sleep on the non-produce items.
"Pay attention to the items you can find at a farmers' market that aren't available at your local grocery store—usually artisanal goods, like pickles, honey, syrup, or cheese. Those are things to zero in on if you really want to have a special experience, or if you are entertaining guests. Show them what a gourmand you are! You can't find these things everywhere, and that's what makes them special."
The Truth About Organic
An "organic" stamp doesn't mean everything.
"I see the organic movement as a really good thing. If farmers see the market moving in the organic direction and, as a result, convert hundreds of thousands of acres into organic farmland, that's a good thing. However, my personal standard for our produce is beyond organic. I like to see farms that rotate crops to keep the soil healthy. I like to see livestock eating the bramble, tilling the soil as they move through it, and then fertilizing as they digest. That's not an organic standard, though. And, at the same time, jumping through hoops to receive organic certification can be costly and cumbersome for farmers. So you need to clarify things with your farmer and ask questions about the specific matters you're concerned about. I think having the 'organic' standard is really important to get us all thinking about what we eat and how it's farmed; I use it, but it's just a benchmark."
The Bottom Line
The biggest point I took away from Chef Russo is that I need to talk to the farmers at the market. Not only will I learn more about where my food comes from, but I'll also form relationships with the farmers if I keep going back to them, which is a win-win for both parties. When I asked Chef Russo if there was an etiquette for talking to the farmers, he said, "Uh, yeah, go up and say hello. Introduce yourself." Noted. Chef Russo says that the farmers will appreciate my interest in them, and I know he's right. Not everyone can dedicate their life to sustainable food, but getting out to local markets and talking to farmers is an easy way for everyone to feel more connected to what they're eating.