Get out the shopping bags and your walking shoes. Time to head to the farmers market.
For winter-weary cooks, the reopening of the seasonal farmers markets — more than 170 in the state — is as welcome as any warm-and-sunny forecast.
For those who need a slight prompt to explore a venue of friendly vendors and fresh food, consider what three market experts advise: Susan Berkson, the voice of the Minneapolis Farmers Market (quite literally, she broadcasts weekly Fresh & Local podcasts from the market; find them at www.mplsfarmersmarket.com or on iTunes); Tricia Cornell, author of the new “Minnesota Farmers Market Cookbook” (Voyageur Press, $24.99), and Beth Dooley, author of “Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook” (University of Minnesota Press, $29.95).
• For best selection, go early. Some farmers pick produce at night. The closer you choose your food to picking time, the fresher it will be. Not so incidentally, there are fewer shoppers and easier parking at that time of the morning.
• Bring small bills. Some vendors accept credit cards; many do not.
• Don’t haggle over prices. “Growers are thoughtful about how to price their food, and they’re unlikely to want to reduce prices,” said Berkson. At the end of that day’s market, however, farmers may lower prices on what remains.
• Shop on weekdays if you don’t like crowds. The Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale Avenue is open seven days a week. “In the middle of the season, when the fields are overflowing, lots of growers are here, even on Thursdays when so many are on the Nicollet Mall. You can zip in and fill up the trunk,” said Berkson.
• Slow down and enjoy the experience. The market is a destination as much as a grocery venue.
• Talk to people. Visit with the farmers and other vendors. Chat with other shoppers. “There are lots of conversations that might not take place at a supermarket,” said Berkson.
• Expand your world. Go to a market outside your neighborhood. If you visit one of the downtown markets, you’ll meet people from all over the city. “It’s like a peaceable United Nations,” said Berkson. “People from the suburbs, in particular, are surprised to see the world in one place.”
• Explore many other markets. “I don’t like to be a regular. I love to travel to different markets,” said Cornell.
• Switch up what you buy. Reach for that unfamiliar pepper or herb. Or simply expand your weekly mealtime repertoire with produce you skip over at the supermarket. “It’s a great place to discover new foods,” said Dooley.
• Tell growers what you’d like to see (and buy). “Our growers talk to consumers to see what they would like,” said Berkson.
• Find out about your food — where it’s grown, when it’s picked, how it’s grown. Ask questions. “When there’s not a crowd, farmers love to talk about what they do,” said Cornell.
• Find heirloom varieties of produce. “Many are available only at the market because they’re grown in limited quantity and/or because they’re very perishable and couldn’t withstand the shipping and storage,” said Dooley.
• Plan your menu based on the market. “This time of year, you have to go and be ready to be inspired by what’s there,” said Cornell.
• Don’t overbuy, tempting as it is. “I shop the market with a list just like at a grocery store, so I don’t get more than I can use,” said Cornell.
• First-timer at the market? For the full experience, wait a few weeks until there’s more selection, suggests Cornell, who notes that it’s still worth exploring in the early part of the season, with its young greens and root vegetables that have been wintered in the ground (parsnips, sunchokes), since it’s still the right time, weatherwise, for roasting root vegetables.
I’m hungry already.