[Photograph: Carolyn Cope]
Shopping for the bulk of your fruits and vegetables (and beyond, if you're lucky) at the farmers' market takes a handful of different skills than cruising the Piggly Wiggly. Because the availability of individual foods ebbs and flows in a wonderfully non-industrial pattern, you'll have to go with the flow MacGyver-style instead of pre-planning every detail of your meals for the week. Duct tape (while never discouraged) is not an essential tool for your market tote, but here are a few ideas that are.
1. Go Hungry
I know, I know. This piece of advice goes against everything your mamma ever told you about not heading to the supermarket on an empty stomach. But Toto, we're not in canned-sas anymore, and things are a little different out here in the wild world of fresh, seasonal foods.
The best tool you can take to the farmers' market is a little bit of creative energy, which, over time, you'll hone into an Iron Chef's ability to turn unusual ingredients into beautiful meals for a panel of judges (such as your family and friends). One of the best ways to ensure those creative juices start to flow on arrival at the market is to let your hunger work in your favor. An empty stomach has a magical way of turning a head of cabbage into fish tacos. Just don't go so hungry that you head straight for the vegan donut truck.
2. Trust Mother Nature's Taste
Arugula and strawberries. Poblanos and cilantro. Eggplant and tomatoes. It's amazing how foods that pair perfectly together seem to spring up from the ground at the same time. In our micromanaging world, it can be hard to cede control over the details of our existence. But if you step back a bit and let Mother Nature do the multitasking for a change, half the work of meal planning will be done by the time you arrive on the scene. All you'll have to do is supervise. Just don't let it go to your head.
3. Can you hear me now?
If you have a smartphone, don't leave it behind when you head to the farmers' market. There are lots and lots of free or inexpensive apps out there to help turn your recipe inclinations into documented realities on the fly. Type in the ingredients that appeal to you, and choose from dozens of finished dishes in the time it takes to say "a quarter-pound of morels."
4. Stock Staples
Especially if you're just getting started with this type of shopping, it pays to keep a few versatile ingredients on hand. Eggs, pasta or grains such as farro and stone-ground cornmeal, dried or canned beans or lentils, and a bit of meat, poultry or fish to throw on the grill will turn your farmers' market finds into a quick, complete meal.
5. Shop, Cook, Repeat
Once you're comfortable shopping off the cuff, it can be fun to embrace the anarchy and eat something different every day of the year. But for now, don't be afraid to come up with a few meals that work for you in each part of the season and repeat them every couple of weeks. Before you know it, you'll be tweaking and tinkering your way to something new. Until then, a little routine can be a beautiful thing.
What about you? Do you have any favorite tips for cooking from the farmers' market? Please share them in the comments.
About the author: Carolyn Cope is the voice behind the popular food blog Umami Girl. In July, she'll trade the life of a CSA manager in New Jersey for the lively farmers' markets of London. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.