Tomatoes at the farmers' market

Spring has sprung! And while there is so much to look forward to when the weather warms—wildflowers, patio happy hour, and long walks in the sun—here at the CIA, we most look forward to mornings at the farmers’ market, like the one right here at The Pearl near our campus in San Antonio.

If you aren’t a regular at your local market, look online to find your community’s nearest outdoor market—or a local farm stand—and plan a trip to experience local ingredients at peak season. Pro tip:  get there early for the best selection.

Navigating a busy farmers’ market gets easier with practice. As you learn the vendors you like best, you’ll know the route to take. Bring a sturdy market bag to hold all your goodies and rearrange the bag as you go so your local cheeses don’t squash those beautiful, tender greens.

Talk to the vendors—often the farmers or artisans themselves—to find out more about their process. It’s through these conversations that you can find how the chickens are raised or if these particular tomatoes will be best for sauces or salads. No one knows the ingredients more intimately than the person who cultivated them. Bonus: they may even have a great recipe or two to share!

Of course, not all ingredients are created equal, so take the time to evaluate produce, meat, or other ingredients before you make any decisions. Don’t feel hurried, and make sure vegetables and fruits are in good condition. Keep in mind that local produce may not be quite as “perfect” as what you find in the grocery store. Some blemishes, knots, and discoloring are natural, but keep an eye out for rot or damage that may otherwise affect your finished product.

Some farm stands may offer “seconds,” which are less-than-perfect but still delicious fruits or veggies, sold at a discounted price. This can include slightly bruised tomatoes and odd-shaped strawberries, which are often bought in bulk and used for preparations like jams, pies, and sauces, where the overall look of an ingredient isn’t so important.

If you’re after local meat or fish, take advantage of the one-on-one time with the farmer. If there is a cut of meat you particularly love that they don’t have on-hand, or something you have in mind for an upcoming occasion, they will often be happy to bring it special for you the next week. They may even be able to arrange pick-up at their farm or local delivery. Keep this in mind for your Thanksgiving turkey or next year’s Easter lamb. Some will open pre-orders in the month leading up to a holiday, so make sure you get on their list.

Most of all, don’t overlook the available prepared foods for a nibble while you walk. Any good chef will tell you that some of a city’s best foods are found at the local farmers’ market. I, for one, make a beeline for my favorite empanada stand, and you just might find something you’ve never had before. The market is for more than kale, after all!

Chef April Goess ’03, Managing Director of
The Culinary Institute of America campus in San Antonio, Texas