At my first restaurant job, cooking at a wine bar in the Lower East Side years ago, I was responsible for shopping for produce at the Union Square greenmarket. The quality of the produce—especially in the peak of summer—was off the charts, and continues to inspire my cooking. My days of riding in cabs with cases of heirloom tomatoes and crates of berries are over, but farmers markets are still a huge part of my personal life, and certainly part of my sausage-slingin’ professional life: Before Brooklyn Cured products became available in specialty food markets and restaurants, I started out by offering sausages and charcuterie at the New Amsterdam Market—the mecca of all regional produce and provisions—when we launched five years ago. We still participate in three weekly farmers markets in Brooklyn and Manhattan because it enriches our sense of community with other farmers and food producers, as well as with people who shop in the neighborhoods that host our farmers markets. Here’s what I’ve learned.
There’s no better time to shop at the farmers market than midsummer. August is peak season for Northeast farmers and producers, and, by extension, NYC farmers markets.
Sweet New Jersey corn, an array of heirloom tomato varieties, bell peppers, eggplant, summer squash, cucumbers, salad greens, herbs, gherkins, spring onions, and bushels of chili peppers are just a bit of what you can find on any given day at a NYC farmers market in August. The heirloom tomatoes and peppers at Eckerton Hill Farm’s stand at the Union Square greenmarket are just stunning. And I’ve yet to mention the bounty of fruits that are available. Just wait ‘til you see the sexy berries, melons, and stone fruits on display.
They’ve Got Answers
One of the coolest things about going to farmers markets is that often, at the smaller stands, the very person selling the heirloom tomatoes is the same person that grew them—and the farmer can be a great resource for information. Want to know how to choose the best cucumber? Ask the farmer. Wondering if the produce was grown without chemical pesticides? Just ask. What’s this cool vegetable you’ve never seen before? The farmer can tell you about it. But don’t try to strike up a conversation when the stall’s packed; wait for a slow moment. You don’t want to be that guy.
Keep It Simple
The beauty of the farmers market is that the colors and flavors of the food speak for themselves. Less is more when you’re preparing vegetables from the market. Some nice olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and a splash of vinegar or lemon juice are all you need to make your meal sing. Fresh herbs are also a great addition to any market salad or grilled vegetables. The market at Union Square has some really cool herbs that aren’t widely available, like bush basil, lemon verbena, pineapple-scented mint, and Thai basil.
Summer fruits can be great in savory applications like salads and charcuterie plates, especially stone fruits such as peaches and plums. You can pimp your yogurt with market strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries. And if you’re into melons like cantaloupe or honeydew, chose ones without any dark green spots on the surface. If a melon is nice and aromatic when you give it a sniff, that’s also a good sign.
Try stretching the bounty of summer by pickling vegetables to have in your fridge deep into autumn. My favorite summer vegetables to pickle are peppers, cucumbers, green tomatoes, and spring onions, but you can pickle so many different things—even the white part of watermelon rinds. You can make a basic pickle brine with 8 parts vinegar (any kind you like), 4 parts water, 2 parts sugar, and 1 part salt. Bring the brine to a simmer with aromatics like garlic and herbs, turn off the heat, and pour the brine over your prepped market vegetables. Cool before you refrigerate. Pickles are great additions to salads and sandwiches, or just for straight munchin’.
Over the years, farmers markets have cropped up all over NYC, so you can definitely get access to peak summer produce even if you’re not near Union Square. Check GrowNYC and Down to Earth Markets for days and locations of farmers markets all over the city. There’s likely one right in your neighborhood.
Scott Bridi is the founder of the charcuterie company Brooklyn Cured and a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education.