Life's peachy when you live near a good farmers market. Seeing foods you don't often encounter at the grocery store — purple cauliflower, yellow watermelon, Brussels sprouts still on the stalk — is one of the best parts. But even the most familiar foods at the farmers market may look different or cook differently once you get them home.
To find out why, I talked with some of the farmers at the popular Montclair Farmers' Market in Montclair, New Jersey, now in its 27th season.
If you see apples, pears, peaches or other stone fruit with brown spots, don't feel the need to hurry on to the next stand. Here's how Ginger Kesler of Treelicious Orchards in Port Murray, New Jersey, explained the phenomenon.
"We are low spray, and that means we're not spraying every fungicide possible. The consequence is that our fruit will have exterior blemishes. I describe them as freckles because they're just skin deep; they make the fruit look different on the outside but there's nothing wrong with the fruit on the inside. The benefit is you can eat the fruit right off the table, out of hand, without scrubbing everything."
The ultra-fresh eggs you buy at the farmers market feature deeper-hued yolks and more flavor, but that's not the only difference. The first time I hard boiled one and tried to peel it, I struggled mightily. Why? The egg was "too fresh."
As eggs sit, the shells become more porous, letting more oxygen in and more carbon dioxide out. This ultimately raises the acidity of the egg white, making it come off the shell more easily. The egg also shrinks as it dries out, creating an air gap between it and the shell.
To prevent your hard-boiled eggs from resembling the surface of the moon post-peeling, bathe them in a bowl of ice water for a few minutes after boiling or add baking soda to your water before you boil them.
Peaches with cemented-in pits
If you've ever brought a peach home from the farmers market and failed to wrest the flesh from the pit after you cut it, you bought a cling, aka clingstone, peach. Grocery stores don't usually sell these; they sell freestone peaches instead. Clingstone peaches ripen early, so you'll typically find them at the farmers market in spring and early summer. After that, you'll see freestone peaches.
You can't tell the difference by looking, so if it matters to you, ask the farmer. Some say clingstone peaches are better for canning, some say freestone are. It likely depends on the particular variety.
Early peaches may be subject to "peach pit split." Pits may split or break when the peach grows too rapidly or ripens after a period of excessive rain. Hints at a split pit include misshapen fruit and an opening at the stem end.
Dorothy's slippers have nothing on the strawberries at a farmers market, at least those in the Garden State. You won't find strawberries this red — or this sweet — at the grocery store. Here's why.
"That's a local variety that's not meant to be shipped," explained Anthony Vacchiano of Vacchiano Farm in Washington, New Jersey. "The ones you buy in the grocery store that come from California, it's a certain type of strawberry that can be shipped across the country." Farmers market strawberries, on the other hand, "are meant to be picked and eaten."
Because of their high sugar content, they bruise more easily. A less-sweet berry won't bruise. "When you see a bruise on something, it's the sugar coming out," said Vacchiano.
White eggplants and other produce of unusual color
The riot of colors at a farmers market is a treat for the eye and a health boon, too, thanks to the phytochemicals those hues represent. Why don't you find the same rainbow at the grocery store? Stores buy in bulk and stick to the most popular items. The giant factory farms that typically supply them are happy to grow only one type of corn or carrot because it's efficient and therefore benefits their bottom line.
But there are other reasons. Take white eggplant, for instance.
"The white eggplant is not meant to be shipped because if there's a little mark on it, you can see it. When it's black, you obviously don't see any marks," said Vacchiano. "Everybody buys everything based on looks."
I marveled at some truly oversized carrots — they reminded me of prize-winning pumpkins. When I asked about their size, Vacchiano explained.
"The carrots are wintered over from last year. We leave them in the ground and they just keep on getting bigger. The winter makes the sugar in them unbelievable sweet. We're just pulling them out now."
Yes, sometimes you'll encounter bug holes, but that arugula is still perfectly fine to eat.
"People say they want organic, but when you see true organic you're going to see bug holes, you're going to see little buggies," said Jeannie Matarazzo of Matarazzo Farms in North Caldwell and Belvedere, New Jersey. "When you see that, you know that it hasn't been sprayed."
Worried some critters might remain? Do what you'd do anyway: Give the leaves a good rinse before eating.
Heat-scorched broccoli and other imperfections
"Real" food — food grown on a smaller scale, with fewer chemicals — often has imperfections. On the day I visited, which was a scorcher, some of the just-picked broccoli sported brown spots at the crown. The farmer explained that this was due to the heat. Still fine to eat. If the scorch bothers you, you can skim it off with a knife.
Similarly, zucchini can be affected by a fungus that thrives in humid weather. "If you get a piece of zucchini and there's a section of it that's affected, if you cut that off, it's not affecting the rest of the zucchini," said Matarazzo.
When you do see imperfect produce, consider buying it. It will still taste good, and you'll be doing the farmer — and, indirectly, the economy — a favor. Matarazzo explained the hit farmers take when consumers shy away from imperfections.
"I can't tell you how much I have to give to the soup kitchen, or it goes to the compost pile because people will not buy that." She added, "We are a society that says it has to be perfect or we won't eat it. If it's not perfect, grocery stores don't put it out, and it goes back to the produce wholesaler, and they get credit for it."
Embrace the idiosyncrasies. And if you're wondering why a food looks a certain way or how to handle it at home, ask the farmer. I've found that most are more than happy to share the story behind that peach, parsley or parsnip.