Easy farmers market ingredients for the non-chef

Daily Hampshire Gazette. July 22, 2014. By Shaina Mishkin.
NORTHAMPTON – In a world of supermarkets and fast food, it’s easy to write off the farmers market.

“I think a lot of people are intimidated by farmers markets,” says Meg Bowen, a vendor for Sangha Farm at the Tuesday Market in Northampton. “There is this impression that it’s an exclusive club and you can only do it if you’re ‘in the know,’ but a lot of these people are just like everyone else: regular business people who want to come and sell their product.”

For a beginner cook with some spare time, there are many reasons why checking out the local farmers market is worthwhile. The fresh food changes with the season, and shoppers can pay for goods with cash, EBT/SNAP benefits, or credit and debit cards.

“You can come being a professional chef and get all the strange ingredients that you want,” says Bowen, “but you can come being a normal person and get the things that you would get at the grocery store.”

Perhaps most importantly for the burgeoning cook, shoppers at the farmers market interact directly with people knowledgeable about what they’re selling – a perk you can’t necessarily find at a supermarket.

“There’s no reason to be afraid. We’re nice people,” says Tuesday Market manager Oona Coy. “Even if it’s not the place where you think you’re going to buy the bulk of your food for the week, the market is a great place to come and see what’s happening. There is a lot of knowledge about what things are and how to use them.”

Here are some local foods from the Northampton Market that a novice cook can incorporate into an easy snack or meal.

Shiitake mushrooms: Paul Lagrèze didn’t always grow his own shiitake mushrooms. The owner of New England Wild Edibles got his start through wild foraging two decades ago. When faced with a dry spell one year, Lagrèze started growing his own shiitake mushrooms on logs. Now Lagrèze sells his log-grown mushrooms by the pint at the Tuesday Market.

Shiitake mushrooms, Lagrèze says, are packed with antioxidants and make a great meat substitute. When broiled at a low temperature, the mushrooms become crispy and can be used to bulk up salads. Lagreze suggests adding soy sauce and pepper for flavor.

For those who prefer to brew their shrooms, Lagrèze sells a hibiscus tea made with reishi mushrooms, and a coffee substitute with roast almonds, basil, cacao and chaga mushrooms—fittingly dubbed the ChagaLatte.

Ready-to-eat salad: Missy Bahret, co-owner of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, mans a booth overflowing with vibrant vegetables, from forest green zucchini to multicolored heirloom carrots.

For the first-time market shopper in search of an easy-to-prepare food, Bahret recommends starting with the farm’s salad mix. The eight types of salad mix cost between $3.50 to $6, and come in variations from salad greens to baby kale. The newest salad, dubbed “Magic Mix,” is a combination of salad greens, baby lettuce and colorful, edible flowers.

The bagged mix is triple-washed and ready to eat, but Bahret recommends throwing in a few of the farm’s bright red cherry tomatoes to add flavor.

Chevre: Meg Bowen, the farmer manning the booth for Sangha Farm in Plainfield, sells chevre, or goat cheese, at the Tuesday Market. Goat cheese is sweeter than cheese made from cow’s milk, says Bowen, and has been gaining popularity with people who are lactose intolerant. Bowen suggests using the cheese, which comes in variations from cheddar, to guyere, to “goat”-chego, in any way you would use the cow milk alternative.

For those with a sweet tooth, Sangha Farm also sells goat cheese truffles, a small Belgian chocolate-coated candy filled with a mix of soft chocolate-flavored cheese. Picky eaters take note: the sweetness of the chevre ensures that the candy tastes like creamy chocolate, not cheese.

Maple cream: J.P. Welch has been working with maple products full-time for 31 years.

“I haven’t worked a straight job for 27 years,” says Welch, owner of Justamere Tree Farm in Worthington. “I did a variety of different jobs and almost all of them were outdoors. I always liked being outside.”

Welch’s specialty shows; the Justamere Tree Farm owner sells maple syrup, maple granola, maple walnuts, maple candies and more at his booth at the Tuesday Market. Today, the farmer hands out samples of maple cream on wooden sticks. Extremely flavorful, thick and sweet, the cream is the farmers market’s one-ingredient answer to Nutella. Made of pure maple syrup, the product is dairy-free.

“It’s a little bit of a science and your temperatures have to be precise,” says Welch, who heats the sap, cools it down and whips it to make maple cream, “but if you follow the rules of science, the maple cream comes out like that every time.”

For the first-time shopper, Welch suggests maple cream recipes from simpley spreading the cream on toast, to mixing it into yogurt with fresh strawberries, though, he adds, “I have been known to go to the refrigerator with a spoon in my hand.”

Welch says the best thing for a first-time shopper to do is to walk around and ask questions. “We’re here to educate you about what you’re eating and where it’s growing.”

The Northampton Tuesday Market takes place every Tuesday from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. behind Thornes Marketplace until November 11. More information can be found at the Tuesday Market’s website.