Shop the farmers’ market like a chef

Let's categorize. Visitors to the Baltimore Farmers' Market fall into two main categories. There are the Socializers, identifiable by their Zeke's coffee cups and waddling gait. They tend to be baffled by the bounty, unsure of what they'd do with a leek or a beet if they bought one, and end up leaving with bison jerky, apples or pickles, if anything. Wait, that's me.

The other main group is the serious shoppers, and it comprises the home gourmets, the menu planners and the larder-stockers. A small subgroup of the serious shoppers consists of restaurant owners and working chefs. In a way they're competition for the other serious shoppers, especially when they're buying in bulk.

What follows are some of best practices gleaned from conversations from a few generous minded chefs, particularly Sandy Lawler, the seasonally minded chef at Mount Vernon's Feast at Four East. These tips are primarily intended for those Socializers who are ready to move up to serious shopper in 2010.

Get there early You won't find too many working chefs at the farmers' market after 9 a.m. Typically, they'll arrive at opening time and are out of there by 8 a.m. On the market's busiest days, it's simply too hard to navigate around the crowds, and, it's simply a fact that some things are gone before the latecomers get there. I saw Lawler snare the very last morels of the day. It was coup for her, a tragedy for anyone who came looking for them afterward. Quality is a concern for early arrivers, too, not so much for flourishing and consistent vegetables (like this week's asparagus), but very much for short supply items like mushrooms and, notoriously, the peas, which should be showing up in about two or three weeks.

But don't show up before starting time expecting to do business with vendors who are still setting their stands. It's just not nice. Mike Maraziti, the owner of One-Eyed Mike's, compares this to the people who shop up 90 minutes early for your yard sale.

Know what to expect Chefs know, better than roughly, what to expect at the farmers' market from week to week, and most of this is inside-the-head knowledge. But they'll also ask questions. Friendly vendors will gladly disclose what new produce will be arriving in the following weeks, and also, which vegetables are taking their final bows. Lawler liked my plan to start keeping a week-by-week journal of "What I Saw at the Market," which will help me plan my strategy for next year.

It's worth taking a last-minute peek at local blogs for scouting reports from the Saturday markets. Last Sunday, for instance, Alan Morstein, the owner of Regi's in Federal Hill, posted on Dining@Large ( his round-up of available produce at the 32nd Street Market in Waverly. If he keeps that up, Sunday shoppers will have a better idea of what to expect under the expressway.

Experienced shoppers don't squander too much time with stall-by-stall comparisons. This is the kind of knowledge that only comes with experience. The best thing a new marketer can do is to find a friendly face and ask.

Come with a list, but open your eyes Lawler brings a list, but she's doesn't wear blinders. There are always unexpected treats at the market, things like plucky herbs, unheralded greens. These are safer buys for a chef who can go straight off and fold even unfamiliar items into existing recipes, or get inspired to craft new ones. Home chefs in training have the Internet. (It took me less than a minute to find a promising recipe for watercress pesto.)

Still, a list is essential not only for if you want to strategize your time at the market but for keeping under budget, too.

Buy big and small Stocking your crisper with inexpensive greens makes sense, but to keep fatigue and boredom from settling in, Lawler encourages investing in more expensive greens as accent pieces. In practice, this means making purchases from several different stands. Spot purchasing is also a good way to support organic farmers if you can't afford to buy all of your produce from them.

Take the farmers' market challenge: Submit a recipe that uses only local ingredients sold in farmers' markets. In subsequent weeks, we will publish recipes from readers in Wednesday's Taste section. Check each week to see if your recipe made it. To submit a recipe, click here.

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