How to talk to a farmer

Build a relationship — and gain expert knowledge of the foods you’re eating….

How to talk to a farmer
How to talk to a farmer
How to talk to a farmer 1

Week after week, season after season, farmers markets offer up a beautiful bounty.

But what is some of that stuff? And how do you use it?

Go right to the source and ask the farmer. You’ll learn a lot and get excellent value for your money while supporting the “eat local” movement.

“The most important thing is to get to know your vendor/farmer,” says Olivia Hubert, who farms with her husband, Greg Willerer, at their Detroit-based Brother Nature Produce, which specializes in organically produced salad mixes and herbs. “You want local products that are actually fresh, that you can ask questions about so you can be exactly sure what you’re getting, be it cheap in bulk, chemical-free, non-GMO, grass-fed or whatever.”

Don’t be shy. “It’s on us to be open,” says Brother Nature associate Christina Ponsaran.

Remember, there are no stupid questions.

“I find most farmers to not only be extremely friendly, but also very eager to discuss their farms and the produce they’re so passionate about,” says Brian Christie, chef de cuisine at Chartreuse in Detroit.

These questions can get the ball rolling.

1.   When was this produce harvested? In some cases, it may have been picked within hours of display.

2.   Is the flavor of non-traditional produce (e.g., purple, carrots/potatoes/cauliflower, yellow tomatoes, etc.) different from standard varieties? If so, how? If greens are labeled “spicy,” what makes them spicy?

3.   What’s in the mix? Seasonality and variable growing conditions mean not everything’s always available. Ask what’s in salad mixes, produce bundles, etc., each time you shop.

4.   How does this produce compare nutritionally to what’s commercially available? “I wish people would ask this,” Willerer says. “Some people don’t know the difference between lettuce they’d get at Whole Foods and what I sell. It’s not just stuff that looks good in a bowl, it’s what’s tasty and beneficial.”

“Arugula, purslane, sorrel, pea tips and mustard type greens are nutrient dense superfoods high in A, C, K and B vitamins, calcium, iron and dietary fiber,” adds Hubert.

5.   What’s next? What’s in the ground? When will it be ready? “Knowing when things will become ripe for picking helps chefs plan ahead,” Christie says. “The same is true for home cooks.”

6.   What’s the best way to use this? “Your vendor/farmer knows how to pick the perfect product for what you want to do, how to prepare and preserve it, and what it goes nicely with,” Hubert says.

7.   How should I store this? “Some things may be best left out on a table, others in the fridge,” Christie says. “The farmer knows best.”

8.  What stage is this produce at in its growing season — and how does that affect its flavor? Swiss chard, for example, can be a bit bitter at the end of its growing season. If that’s a factor in your enjoyment of a plant, then you may want to find out.

9.   What are your farming practices? Organic? Non-GMO? Free-range? Pastured? Are your fertilizers petroleum-based?

10.  Where’s your farm? “You may find you’ve been driving past a local urban farm every day on the way to work and never even known it,” Christie says.

The bottom line?

Cultivating connections with local farmers offers a satisfying experience on and off the plate. When you find a producer you like, become a regular, just as you would at a restaurant.

“Farmers know a lot about what they grow, including how to cook it,” Christie says. “I’ve picked up plenty of tricks from asking farmers how they like to eat the things they grow.”

“As a farmer/vendor, I say the best part of the market is the relationships with my customers,” Hubert says. “There is a bond between us based on trust.”

Breakfast Salad

Yield: 1 serving

1¼ to 1½ ounces mixed seasonal field greens or spring mix, washed

4 or more strips bacon, cooked and cut into pieces

1  duck egg, poached

8  thin apple slices

To taste:  Herb Balsamic Vinaigrette

Arrange the greens on a dinner plate. Gently place the poached duck egg onto the center of the greens. Arrange the apple slices and bacon on or around the greens, as desired. Serve with the Herb Balsamic Vinaigrette.

Recipe concept courtesy of Greg Willerer, Brother Nature Produce.

Herb Balsamic Vinaigrette

Yield: Approximately 4 ounces

“This simple vinaigrette has the power to take greens to another level,” says Jeremy Cohen-Tannugi. “The lemon juice keeps the other ingredients in check.”

½ ounce   red balsamic vinegar

A few drops (or to taste)  white balsamic vinegar

1 clove  garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon  whole grain mustard, Maille preferred

To taste  freshly ground black pepper

To taste salt

Lemon juice  a few drops (or to taste) from ½ lemon

3 to 4 ounces olive oil, Greek preferred

3 inch sprig  fresh rosemary*

In a medium bowl, whisk together all the ingredients except for the olive oil and fresh rosemary until thoroughly blended. Remove and finely chop a few leaves from the rosemary branch and add them the mixture. Whisking constantly, dribble the olive oil into the bowl until all of it is incorporated. Continue whisking vigorously until the mixture is completely emulsified. Place the dressing in a lidded jar, add the rest of the rosemary sprig and serve. Refrigerate any unused portions.

*Fresh basil or a sprig of fresh thyme may be substituted.

Herb Balsamic Vinaigrette recipe courtesy of Jeremy Cohen-Tannugi.

 Arugula Salad with Mock-Caesar-Tahini Dressing

Yield: 4 servings

With peppery arugula or spicy field greens and a rich tahini dressing, this riff on a Caesar salad makes it easy to change up a classic. Rich and hearty, it’s satisfying without being heavy.

4 tablespoons   lemon juice

3  anchovy fillets, crushed

1   garlic clove, crushed

½ cup  tahini

1 teaspoon  champagne vinegar

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Pommery or Dijon mustard

To taste  salt

To taste  ground black pepper

½ cup  olive oil

½ cup  grated Parmesan, plus more for serving

5 ounces   arugula or field greens, washed, dried, wrapped in a tea towel and chilled

To taste  toasted croutons

Chill 4 salad plates.

Combine the lemon juice, anchovies, garlic, tahini, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Blend until completely smooth. With the food processor’s motor running, dribble in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream, until all the oil is incorporated. Transfer to a bowl and whisk in ½ cup of Parmesan.

Hand-tear the arugula or field greens and place in a large salad bowl. Pour the dressing onto the greens and gently toss until they’re all coated. Divide among the chilled plates and serve with extra Parmesan on the side.

Recipe by Robin Watson.

Strawberry Vinaigrette

Yield: Approximately 1½ cups.

This is just one more way to use this year’s crop of beautiful strawberries. Be on the lookout for heirloom varieties and ask farmers which they’d recommend for this and other uses.

1 cup strawberries, stemmed and chopped

2 tablespoons  pomegranate molasses

1 teaspoon  honey

5 tablespoons  Moscato or champagne vinegar

1/3 cup  extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or chili flakes

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. If you want the vinaigrette to be seed-free, strain it. Serve. Cover and refrigerate any unused portions for up to 2 days.

Recipe by Robin Watson.

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