Sarah Stegner shares her tips for shopping Farmers Markets

Sarah Stegner shares her tips for shopping Farmers Markets
Chef Sarah Stegner shopping at Green City Market. Photo by Cindy Kurman

It’s Farmer’s Market season and Chicago’s eclectic line-up of markets are bursting at the seams with fresh produce.

What to buy? Where to buy it? How to pick it out?

Let  Prairie Grass Cafe‘s (601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook). Chef and owner Sarah Stegner help you out.

As a chef and a founding member of Green City Market people often ask Sarah how to improve the quality of what they feed their families & themselves.  If you are looking for the freshest, best-tasting, most unique produce for your family and for the simplest way to prepare it here’s her advice.  

Buy local  

Green City Market Chef’s favoritePhoto: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

Local food that’s in season wasn’t picked weeks ago to be shipped across the country. It is more likely to have ripened into peak flavor.   If I left it at that, it would be unfair, because there’s a lot more to gain from shopping local farmers’ markets.  

Do a little homework before you go
(Chicago Markets often reflect their neighborhoods)  

Daley Plaza Farmers Market Photo: Carole Kuhrt-Brewer

If the market has a website, check out the mission statement and information on the farms. Is it a local farm? You might see farms described as organic and/or sustainable. To over-simplify, organic is a certification that says the farmer doesn’t use chemicals and fungicides that the government deems harmful.  Sustainable has a broad spectrum of meaning, but in this context, it’s a way of life that ensures its existence will be around for future generations.  Sustainability incorporates practices that work with nature, like protecting the water and topsoil, integrating wildlife, and paying fair wages.   

If you can’t make it to the market, know that some growers deliver, and some use various apps for home online shopping and home delivery.  The Green City Market farmers use the WhatsGood app.

At the Market  

Farmers Market Photo: Varole Kuhrt-Brewer

Check out their signage. Ask the person selling the food if they are the farmer. Do they work on the farm?  How long have they worked for this farm stand or at that market?  This should help you determine if the person you are talking to has educated & informed answers. 

On a Saturday at peak time, they might not have time to talk but if they do, ask about the products they have on the table. I might ask how long the season is for the product. Is this the last week or will it be here all summer? I might also ask how long ago the produce was picked. Ask for names when you don’t recognize something. Notice how familiar foods like strawberries have different varieties like Ever Bearing and Sparkle. Why did they choose to grow that variety? What do they think is unique or special about their farm?  

Many farmers are well-versed in ideas for cooking the foods they grow.  Even as a chef, I will ask, what’s your favorite way to prepare this?   

When I decide how to build my menu, I prefer using the foods that have done particularly well this season. Try to stay flexible in your planning so you can be spontaneous.

Don’t plan your menu ahead.  Let the food at the market inspire you and guide what you and your family will eat.  

If you want to connect to the reality of farmers’ challenges, ask how the weather has affected the crops or how far they drove to reach the market.

Most farmers accept credit card payment, but it’s a good idea to bring cash. I do not haggle about price. I pay what they ask. They work incredibly hard, and I know many of them where I shop. They face extreme challenges that only escalate with weather and labor issues. In this day and age, the value of clean, responsibly grown food with abundant nutrition is priceless.  

For chefs

My best advice is to engage in conversation with farmers. Ask for what you need, and how they like to receive orders. Give them your contact info so they can send you an order list. If a farmer can work with you to highlight the special things you offer your customers, it’s a win-win situation.   

Suggest partnerships. For years, Three Sisters Garden has grown a particularly cherished variety of pumpkin just for me.  I usually end up purchasing her entire crop.  It helps me serve the delicious pumpkin pies that are a big part of my business (signature item at my restaurant).    

Listing their names and farms on your menu not only brings goodwill and raises awareness but it also shows respect for where our food comes from and what it takes to bring it to our tables.  

Let Sarah cook it for you

Love fresh produce but not cooking, Prairie Grass Cafe is seasonally driven. They work with a network of farmers–some who have been there since the beginning including 50 certified farmers from Green City Market. Check out some of their farm fresh specials and more here.

Filed under: Farmers Markets

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