I shop at the farmers markets at least once a week and up to three times a week. I live in between the Columbia University and the 97th Street markets on Manhattan’s west side. In the last three years, I've watched them grow from an apple stand and a baker to real, usable destinations, which have nearly displaced the grocery store entirely (for me anyhow). I buy most of our food at the market -- dairy, meat, produce, cheese, pasta, eggs, grains -- and fill in gaps at the grocery store.
While I love New York's Union Square Greenmarket, it can be incredibly overwhelming especially for those who are new to the market scene. There are so many people, I find myself having to go with the crowd rather than leisurely strolling from stand to stand. However, there's also an incredible variety of products and purveyors at Union Square so I recommend arriving early. When baby girl was a colicky newborn, I'd head down there at 8 a.m. just to have something to do. It turned out to be the golden hour before the crowds and before everything sold out.
How to Plan for the Greenmarket
I don't usually carry a recipe or even have one in mind. For me, it's all about seeing what's fresh and then, once I've gotten a feel for what's available, putting a meal together. I once chatted with Nach Waxman, owner of the fabulous Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore on the Upper East Side, and he said, when Americans are deciding what to eat, they think, what do I want to eat? For Europeans, they think what do I have to cook with?
I think seasonal eating is all about the European philosophy, using what's on hand and working from there. That being said, I had an urge to make spaghetti with meatballs the other day and shopped the market almost single-mindedly so there are exceptions to every rule.
How to Navigate the Greenmarket
My general strategy at any farmers market is to walk through the market first, see what's available and compare prices. I have certain go-to stands I hit first and move on from there. At 97th street, among others, I worship Ray Bradley and his offerings. While he isn't certified organic, his produce is raised free and clear and his eggs and pork are pastured. The friendlier I've gotten with the farmers, I've realized just how willing they are to share their ideas.
A few weeks ago, Rick Lofstad of Pura Vida Fisheries described a Spanish fish casserole comprised of flounder, potatoes, parsely and other ingredients. I found myself immediately inspired and rushed all over the market scoring ingredients. It was amazing and will soon be up on Almost Slowfood. I would never have thought of a fish casserole otherwise. I recommend going slowly at the market and chatting up each farmer. Ask him or her how the produce is raised: is it organic, is it sprayed, low spray, high spray, how are the animals raised, are they pastured. Once you find a few who share your philosophy, the market will become a cozy place where you feel comfortable and you'll know exactly what you're eating, where it came from and how it was raised.