By Charlyn Fargo
Walk through a farmers’ market, and for most of us, it’s sensory overload – the bright colors, the feel of fresh-picked produce, the smell of soil still clinging to the produce. It can be a bit overwhelming. It all looks so good, but what to do with all that produce once you get it home?
Michael Higgins, owner and chef of Maldaner’s Restaurant in Springfield, does cooking demonstrations at the city’s Old Capitol Farmers’ Market and often buys produce to use in the restaurant.
“For the restaurant or for the cooking demos, I go the Wednesday before and scope out what’s there – what’s fresh and ripe that week,” Higgins says. “The last thing you want to do is plan on doing something with fresh green beans for a demo or having them on the menu, and there’s no green beans. You have to know what’s available.”
He makes his menus for the restaurant based on what is available, then goes back and purchases the produce a few days later. In Springfield, the downtown market is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“It takes another trip, but I always look before I plan because sometimes the produce changes,” Higgins says. “Sometimes on Wednesday, I will ask the farmer if he’s going to have that at the next market. Even though it takes another trip, it’s worth it.”
A recent trip resulted in thoughts of a slaw made up of various greens and colorful vegetables sliced like matchsticks with a coleslaw-type dressing; a summer stir-fry of asparagus, peppers, carrots and garlic shoots (available early spring before garlic has matured); and a quick and easy pickle from early cucumbers. Later in the season, he’s likely to pick up fresh strawberries for a homemade strawberry shortcake and squash for a tapenade, similar to a bruschetta.
Higgins isn’t convinced that a trip to a farmers’ market will save money – fresh produce isn’t necessarily cheap – but it’s certainly a great option for healthy eating and to improve the quality of your food.
“You can save money because what you buy stays fresher longer,” Higgins says, “and you can save money by buying in season.”
Higgins went to roadside stands – the predecessor of today’s farmers’ markets – while living in California. “A lot of the farmers’ markets developed in the mid-1980s in the San Francisco area, part of a ‘buy fresh, buy local’ movement,” he explains. “With the rise of the dot-coms in California, a lot of younger people had disposable income, and they wanted to improve the quality of their food. Alice Waters and other chefs’ popularity grew with the dot-coms as did the farmers’ markets and demand for organic produce.”
In Central Illinois, Springfield’s downtown farmers’ market first started in 1982 on the plaza of the Old State Capitol. Later, it closed because of concern over farmers’ trucks driving on the Old Capitol mall bricks.
“About 10 years ago, the farmers’ market came back,” Higgins says. “It’s been strong ever since.”
Whether it’s your first time or weekly trip to the market, Higgins offers these tips:
1. Go with an open mind – don’t make a plan until after you see what’s there.
2. If you can, jot down what’s available and go home and think about what you can do with the produce. Then go back and make your purchases.
3. Try something new. Ask the farmer who grew it his or her ideas on favorite ways to prepare it.
4. Ask questions. If you’re not sure what something is, just ask.