One of the best things about spending last winter in Oakland, California, was the availability of fresh, locally grown produce. Coming from the frozen Iowa farmscape, this felt miraculous. There’s a farmer’s market for every day of the week and more—four in Oakland and four in Berkeley. Being a fresh-foodie, I decided to sample a different East Bay farmers market every week.
My husband, Tom, and I hit the downtown Berkeley market (Martin Luther King and Center) on a Saturday morning in January. It’s a great place for Asian produce. I saw something that looked like bamboo, but on questioning the Lao farmer, I found out it was sugar cane. I had seen sugar cane being juiced with a hand-cranked press on the streets of Mysore in the 1980s (and one hot afternoon completely forgot the first rule of travel in India: “don’t eat from the street.” The juice was cool and thirst-quenching, but a few hours later I was terribly sick—probably from bacteria). Anyway, not having a handy sugar cane press in California, I passed it up.
But by now I was friends with the Lao farmer, and she told me how to use the lemongrass. This brings me to
Tip #1: Talk to the farmers. Ask them where their farm is, how the foodis grown (sometimes they are not certified organic but are in essence organic), and how to cook the food you’re buying.
I bought winter squash and fresh lemongrass, which my Lao farmer friend instructed me to cut up and add to veggies while they steam. I found more detailed directions on how to prepare fresh lemongrass at About.com. I also learned to make Thai Tofu Noodle Soup using the lemongrass, bok choy and Asian greens that I bought at the market.
And I met a new veggie friend—Broccoli Romanesco, which is the flower of a type of veggie that’s green like broccoli, has an amazing sculpted shape like an artichoke, and tastes like cauliflower when cooked. Which brings me to
Tip #2: Try to bring home one new ingredient from every farmer’s market, one you haven’t seen before. It can open up a new world.
On subsequent weekends we explored the Tuesday afternoon Berkeley market (Derby Street and MLK Drive), which had the sweetest walnuts I’ve ever tasted. At this market you not only bring your big bags to haul off the produce, but you’ll need your own smaller bags for loose items like lettuce or snow peas. Otherwise, you can use the free paper bags (which makes it necessary to rebag your produce for the fridge when you get home) or pay .25 for a bag made from recycled ingredients. Which brings me to
Tip #3: Bring your own bags (big ones and lots of small ones too). This is a great way to use those smaller plastic bags you’re always trying to recycle.
We did the Grandlake Farmer’s Market in Oakland the following Saturday (Grand Ave. and Lake Park Ave.), festive and fun with great music, kids and babies sprawled on the lawn. This is one of the great things about Farmer’s Markets—they make shopping for food a relaxing social event instead of a chore.
By the next Saturday my sister, Cathy, and her daughter Liana, who live in the Bay area, joined us. Liana found some tangelos that she adored, Cathy and I bought the 3-bunches of poppies for $5. Which brings me to:
Tip # 4: Share your finds with your friends and family and they’ll soon be hooked on Farmer’s Markets too. And the more we support local farmers, the more they’ll flourish and grow more healthy and tasty things for us to eat.
At this point Tom and I hit the Sunday morning Oakland Montclair Farmer’s Market (which, funnily enough, was only a half-mile from our apartment), and fell in love. It was the right size, the right day, the right mix of growers, and Cathy and her family loved it too. We got into the habit of meeting them there. Cathy and I would cruise the market first, and then go back for the best buys. So that’s my last piece of advice:
Tip #5: Cruise the entire market first, then go back for the best prices and the best-looking produce.
After the market, my favorite thing is to cook a meal right away using the produce I just bought. At some markets (like the Tuesday Berkeley market), you can get much more than fresh produce—we bought dried cannellini beans, dried cranberry beans, fresh pasta, freshly ground flour and olive oil—just about everything you need for a fabulous meal.