Farmers markets across the province are in full swing, showing off their local food ingredients and products. For some, the choice and abundance can look like a Monet painting. For others, it resembles a Rorschach psychological inkblot test. If you’re stressed and exhausted, the idea of shopping at a farmers market might seem like going into battle for your groceries. My hope is to convince you otherwise. Under the auspices of my business, Seasoned Solutions, I regularly take people on shop-and-cook tours of Edmonton’s Downtown Farmers Market, so I have seen both the bewilderment and delight first hand. The farmers market experience can be as pleasant and gratifying as gazing at an Impressionist painting – and it’s better for you.
Let’s be realistic. Any form of grocery shopping involves planning. It’s not magic; it requires you to think about what you’re going to eat over the next week. Notice, I said what you are going to eat over the next week, not the next month. I put a menu together of foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I determine how many portions I’m going to prepare and write a grocery list based on this list of foods. My list follows a logical order of protein, dairy, vegetables, fruits, etc. I keep that list in hand when I’m shopping. It’s easy for me to get distracted by the colour and array of food choice at a farmers market and the last thing I want to do is to spend my hard-earned dollars on items that may become part of the landfill.
The food you find at at the local farmers market is fresher and has travelled fewer kilometres to get there. That’s very important to me; maybe it is for you, too. For me it means knowing that the food I’m buying is fresher, picked when it’s ripe and therefore has a higher nutritional value than produce picked weeks ago, ripening in a cargo hold or on a truck. Produce from outside of the country has also travelled a long way to get here and has a higher carbon footprint. That’s a concern to me, especially with the rising monetary and environmental cost of fuel. I also prefer to support a local farmer, knowing my dollars are going back into the local economy.
In North America we have become accustomed to shopping once or twice a month, rather than several times a week. We usually shop at a grocery store, where we load up carts with processed convenience foods. Just take a look inside your favourite grocery store. As much as 80 per cent of the food it offers is processed. Chances are, if your great-grandmother walked into a modern grocery store, most of the foods would be unrecognizable to her.
In most other countries, it’s common to market shop daily or several times a week. Whenever I host culinary tours to other cities or countries, I always include the local market as part of the food experience. Inevitably, the market is the heart and soul of a country’s food culture. We are seeing a rise in the number of farmers markets in this province. In my neighbourhood downtown, our outdoor farmers market has become a kind of town square every Saturday between the May long weekend and Thanksgiving. It’s the place to be, to do your grocery shopping and meet friends.
I’ve discovered that it’s better to go grocery shopping at a farmers market in the morning, rather than the afternoon. Products are more plentiful and it’s not as crowded. Take sturdy shopping bags with you. The plastic bags provided by merchants are wasteful and can tear at your fingers as they get heavier. I take an insulated bag with me for frozen items and if I am not going home with my groceries right away, I have a cooler and ice in my car. In the heat of summer, the last thing I want is my groceries to fizzle and wilt in an oven-hot car.
I prefer to shop at a farmers market where the vendors are the actual producers of the products I am buying. Not all farmers markets are set up this way. At a producer-represented market, I can ask specific questions about how the product is grown or raised. Do the growers use fertilizer or pesticide? What type of feed do they give to the chickens, ducks and pigs? Is the beef grass and grain finished? Do the eggs come from chickens that get to roam around outside? To me these are important questions as I believe that what I eat can affect my health. As a survivor of estrogen-positive breast cancer, I’m very aware of foods that can trigger the production of estrogen. By knowing what’s in my food, I can make educated choices about what I eat.
Once you develop a relationship with vendors and discover how their food is grown and harvested, it’s hard to continue shopping at a grocery store. Most fruits and vegetables in grocery stores are tagged with a four-digit code or price. The country of origin may not be labelled and in some cases it can be mislabelled.
Even though we live in a province that experiences a long winter, I am always pleasantly surprised at the availability of locally grown and raised ingredients that farmers markets carry throughout the year. Our greenhouses in central Alberta produce cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes most of the year. Root vegetables are available throughout the year, as well as meat (beef, pork, chicken, duck, bison, elk, and others) and fish protein, fresh baked bread and dairy products: pretty much everything on your grocery list.
So, have I convinced you to at least give shopping at a farmers market a try? You might be surprised at how peaceful and positive the experience will be and it might just become part of your regular weekly shopping routine.
MARKET TIP: Check out a list of farmers markets across the province.
LABEL TIP: Some grocery stores stock and advertise local produce. But be careful. Look at the label or sticker on the item, not on the case it’s in. Local names include Pic-n-Pac for cucumbers and Redhat for tomatoes and other produce.
COOKING TIP: Some producers can provide tips or recipes that feature their produce or protein ingredients. Don’t hesitate to ask.
IN-STORE TIP: When you can’t make it to the market, shop like your grocery store is the market. Fresh ingredients are usually around the perimeter of the store and not as accessible or plentiful as processed foods. Save time by ignoring the middle aisles unless you’re looking for a specific ingredient on your list.
RECIPE: Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup
This soup can be made any time of the year. If local peppers are not available, just substitute tomatoes for the same volume.
|Red peppers, seeded, quartered and cut into 2-inch pieces
|Medium tomatoes, quartered and cut into 2-inch pieces
|Small onion, cut in half-inch slices
|Extra virgin olive oil
|Fresh lemon juice
|Chopped fresh mint
|Sour cream or yogurt
Pre-heat oven to 400°F. In a large bowl, toss peppers, tomatoes, onion and garlic in olive oil and coriander. Transfer to a baking pan covered with parchment and bake until the vegetables start to soften and char, about 30 to 40 minutes. Purée the vegetables and any juices from the pan in a food processor or blender or transfer to a soup pot and use an immersion blender. Stir in the remaining ingredients except mint. Serve warm or cold. Stir in chopped mint just before serving and top with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.
This soup can be served cold or at room temperature and is an excellent soup for a picnic. It also freezes well. Any hearth-style or rustic bread with cheese would be great alongside this soup.