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Plan ahead to make most of farmers market

Monica Eng

With summer's crops starting to show up at Central Texas' farmers markets, now is a good time to resolve to shop smart and to cook smart.

No more aspirational farmers market shopping sprees that leave us with a kitchen full of wilted arugula, moldy berries and severe guilt by week's end. No, this year we resolve to plan ahead, shop smart and embrace the realities of our busy schedules — while still making an array of spectacular meals from the finest local produce, of course.

And just how will we pull this off? With the help of authors Laura C. Martin ("The Green Market Baking Book"), Janine MacLachlan ("Farmers Markets of the Heartland") and Anna Blessing ("Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farmers in America's Heartland"), we have some advice on how to make the most of fresh-produce shopping.

¦ When you arrive at the market, take a leisurely trip around to survey the offerings before you start buying.

¦ Make a plan and think realistically about how much time you will have to cook in the coming week.

¦ Take your recipes (or cookbook) with you so as things catch your eye, you can determine how best to use them.

¦ Talk to the farmers about produce to learn how to store it, which parts are edible and how long it will stay fresh.

¦ Don't overbuy. It's easy to get carried away when you're surrounded by such wonderful produce, but only buy what you think you'll be able to use.

¦ Arrive early for the best selection and freshest products. Or arrive late for last minute deals on the produce farmers want to move before heading home.

¦ Ask to see the "seconds," or imperfect, bruised produce. These less than perfect items are great for saving money and using in pies, sauces or jams.

¦ Before you leave home for the market, put out all the bowls, colanders, cutting boards and salad spinners you'll need to wash and prep your purchases for use. Once you return home, put on some good music and have yourself a produce prepping party. You're much more likely to use the produce if it's prepped to eat and cook.

¦ Avoid waste by bringing your own bags; don't forget insulated bags for meat and dairy. Tote your reusable plastic takeout or yogurt containers to protect berries and other delicate produce in your bag.

¦ Don't dismiss a farmer who doesn't have organic certification. Some follow organic practices but opt to avoid the paperwork involved. Others — such as some tree fruit farmers — deal with certain climate and bug issues that make pesticide-free farming extremely difficult. If this is an issue of concern, talk to the farmers about it.

¦ Each week explore a new area of produce to see which varieties/farms you like best. Put together a sampling of melons, tomatoes, peppers, squashes etc., then come back for your favorite.