It’s summer and farmers’ markets everywhere are flooded with locally grown fresh produce, herbs, flowers and breads. Diana Rice, our resident Meatless Monday Registered Dietitian, took me a guided tour through the Greenmarket in Union Square, NYC. And being an opportunist, I resolve to leverage her expert opinion to plan a dinner.
To impose a little order, I decide to limit myself to $20. It’s the peak of summer, and without such restrictions, I could end up sore-backed and–with all the choices–sore of wallet. She alleviates my financial woes immediately; I wouldn’t be spending $20 on this meal. The Greenmarket in Union Square is a year-round farmers’ market with over 230 family farms and fishermen participants.
At the first stand, we find “the center of the plate” vegetable—the hearty eggplant. People are often stuck in the rut of eggplant parmesan, but really the eggplant is quite versatile, according to Diana. The smaller, narrower varieties (such as Chinese eggplant) are typically great for stir-fries, while the bigger ones are great for baking or grilling. At this point I’m not certain what my meal will turn into so I go with a bigger Sicilian eggplant—and as I’m not a purist in the kitchen, I’m not worried that this decision will determine the direction of my meal.
Next we add a yellow tomato to the basket. Diana mentions that a big difference between the tomatoes from the grocery store versus the tomatoes at a farmers’ market is that the grocery store tomatoes are bred for appearance; color and roundness matter. At local markets, the old adage, “the uglier, the more flavorful” may be a better approach.
Then we add both a green and a yellow zucchini. She tells me the carotenoids and antioxidants are largely responsible for the orange-yellow color of the yellow zucchini (or yellow squash, if you prefer). But this doesn’t mean that the green squash is lacking in carotenoids and antioxidants, just that the green pigment overwhelms the yellow-orange color.
We check the onions. “This time of year, you never know what you’ll find from one stand to the next.” Diana says, “I always like to do a quick sweep of the offerings before I make final decision.” This is a smart way to combat the dilemma of too many delicious fresh produce options.
The meal is starting to come together, at least loosely. It’s looking like there will be a pasta or grain with fried eggplant and veggies and that there will also be a salad to put the tomato to good use.
At the next stand there are many varieties of lettuce. We decide to go with arugula—it’s more peppery, more bitter than a lot of the other varieties. And what better way to complement that flavor with a little sweet. We head to another vendor to select two peaches. And as almost an afterthought, we also pick up some fresh basil. Later this basil will become the flavor-thread that ties the salad and the main course together.
The total bill ended up being under $12 and with what I picked up at the market and the few spices and pasta I had at home, I fed 4.
Diana’s farmer market tips
• Try things you might not find in grocery stores: heirloom tomatoes, patty pan squash; these options often don’t hold up well over long periods of transport since they’re bred for taste, not durability
• You can always ask the booth attendant for tips on what to cook with unique offerings
• If possible, do a full sweep of the market to see what most appeals to you before you start making purchases
• If one item is priced higher at one booth than the next, there might be a good reason: organic growing methods, a more flavorful, yet harder to cultivate varietal…you can always ask!