I've noticed that you tend to hit different vendors in the greenmarket for different items, this one for tomatoes that one for meat etc… Besides the obvious that the guys with meat usually don't sell vegetables how do you know which farmer has the best tomatoes or mushrooms vs. the 5 or 10 others who sell similar items or which butcher to buy your steak or bacon from?
I don’t play favorites. I believe the tendency toward routine breeds apathy. Just like with restaurants, I do my best to immediately try the new guy, compare him to the existing guys, and categorize him compared to the competition. In my experience, people settle once they are established so sometimes the new guy has a welcome refreshing, enthusiastic approach, and sometimes he just gets it wrong, meaning sometimes the old standbys rest easy and sometimes they are rocked and left behind.
There are some guys with obvious specialties – Tim Stark for tomatoes, Keith Stewart for garlic, and so on. But I have a theory that since the chefs of NYC use these guys the best stuff goes to them, and we may find better by turning our back on fame. That being said, when I planned an heirloom tomato salad for the first course at my wedding I introduced a Jersey caterer to Tim so I would know I had the best (or very close to it) on the table, and no fall goes by without Keith’s garlic in our house.
So where does that leave us? We are left milling about the market touching produce; make a habit of touching produce and you will know all you need to know about who has the best what. The best indicator of freshness and ripeness for most all fruits and vegetables is water. Water will tell you all. Pick up the worst tomato at the Greenmarket and the best at Whole Foods, and for the same size the one at the market will be far heavier. Heavier because picked ripe it is juicier, and shorter travel means less time for that moisture to evaporate.
Sure, tomatoes (my whole reason for supporting a Greenmarket system in general, if there is a bigger disparity in the food world than that between the glory of farm stand/home grown tomatoes and the patheticness of every other version (be it organic or not) I have not come across it my general searching) are an easy one to pick. If the fruit is heavy, the skin is tight, the flesh is resilient when you press it with the pad of your thumb, and if the stem pulls or twists away pretty easily, you have a good candidate for purchasing. So now just walk around, see who has the best price and meets these requirements.
For other fruit I will simply say traditional farming breeds much more unique-looking specimens than the industrial monoculture people for some reason call conventional today. I find it reassuring to embrace odd-shaped fruit – the tomato that looks like it grew around a rock or the apple that looks like 1/8 of it was not exposed to the sun and as a result is shorter. When I find parts where animals have been at them I like to take a glass half full approach: cut the parts out, and be thankful that something else found my food appealing enough to eat.
For lettuces, corn, herbs and the like, look at the cut end. Is it moist? If so, it has recently been cut (soon after cutting the moisture will retract into the heart of the vegetable, and no spraying with water will fake this). Then break it. Great produce is so full of moisture even lettuce leaves will snap at the rib rather than bend. Don’t be afraid to tear a leaf from a head of lettuce and taste it, if they don’t have some out for tasting. Just do it because you want to buy, not eat.
Nothing is sillier than habits like peeling back the husk on corn. Unless you hit the exact quadrant that happens to have a worm, you won’t have learned that, so now all you’ve done is make sure there is corn inside, and since the habit for shopping means you must observe at least two ears, the farmer is left with one that has been passed on by someone who knows so little about quality that they thought they could learn something in this manner in the first place.
As far as Union Square goes, there is also the benefit of competition/knowledge of consumer to help cover your bases. Some serious chefs, as well as some people that seriously care about land stewardship, shop at that market, so if a stand isn’t good, it won’t last there. But get there early, for some reason these attentive choosers are also early risers.
So now that we know what to look for and that even if we miss the best possible offering we are pretty safe, what else can we do? Talk to the farmers, talk to each egg person, I once bought a dozen eggs because a little girl helping her parents told me the names of the chickens that laid them. I am sure it was just fun and tales being told, but I like to encourage closeness, with my farmers and by a strange urban extension my food.
I can’t stress price enough. Being at a farmers market is not a license to steal. Food should be fairly priced, and when asked any small farmer will give you a story that in the long run has him about ten thousand dollars a year in the red once he pays his organic dues. Look around the market, see what people are charging for ramps, and buy from the guy with cheaper ones. But know Organic certification does cost more, and promises more at this point.
Which of the neighborhood wine shops do you recommend? I like astor for the huge selection and great prices for everyday bottles but cant pass up stopping in Union Square Wines for those new tasting machines on my way home from work.
Wine is fun; I often wander into wine stores, ask a guy to recommend some juice, get him to tell me all he can about it, take it home and drink it. It is great if I love it. If I don’t, I must consider if it is what he said it would be, and if it is I am still positive on the shop and will just steer things better to my preference next time I’m in. In this way, I find I get the most exposure to what’s going on in the wine world.
Once I have taken someone’s suggestion and decided if they are operating at a good level of information (the web and Oxford Guide to Wine are good tools), taste, and unique approach (a test both Astor and USQ pass), I look at price. In today’s age this is as easy as putting the name and vintage into winezap.com or winesearcher.com and seeing how they stack up (Union Square only beats Sokolin and Park Ave in this game, their prices are pretty lousy, cool kegerator or not).
I am quickly becoming a fan of Bottlerocket, west of Fifth Avenue on 19th Street. They have a unique approach, an intimate feel, a good selection, they seem to see the value in developing regulars, and are always in the fair range when I double-check them on price, plus who doesn’t love a wine shop with a bottle of Ripple at the register?
So I guess in most choices I am happy to pay up for quality, authenticity and uniqueness, but only to a fair price, and the way to know where this is to be found is to spend your afternoons meeting purveyors and sampling their wares. Often when I do it leaves me with a very good feeling of appreciation for my neighborhood, and that is always nice.
I hope you find this helpful, never forget Lucy’s Greenmarket Report, an effort all of us in the vicinity of The USQ Green Market should be grateful for.