How to shop a farmers market like an award-winning chef

Chef Tony Maws visits three local farmers markets every week.

Chef Tony Maws shopping at a local farmers market.
Chef Tony Maws shops at a local farmers market. –Craigie on Main / The Kirkland Tap & Trotter

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James Beard Award-winning Chef Tony Maws is a regular at several local farmers markets, where he secures ingredients for his two restaurants, French bistro Craigie on Main in Cambridge and gastropub The Kirkland Tap & Trotter in Somerville.

“One of the things I’m very proud of is the fact that I — along with my team — three times a week, am actually at the farmers market,” Maws said. “I’m poking around, I’m looking at the product, and deciding what I’m going to put on our menus.”

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He shops the markets to support the local agricultural community, he said, and because he is passionate about the fresh, local products.

“We’ve become so programmed to identify with certain produce, and meats, too, that they’re going to look a certain way because, commercially, that’s how they’re grown and how you get them in the supermarket,” Maws said. “When you’re dealing with real people, real farms, real weather, real seasons, real variability, all of that is going to be distilled down to a variation of the product. To me, that’s what we embrace.”

Maws, who shops at Central Square Farmers Market in Cambridge on Mondays, Davis Square Farmers Market in Somerville on Wednesdays, and Union Square Farmers Market, also in Somerville, on Saturdays, has the following tips for those looking to get the most out of their own farmers market shopping experiences.

1. Be a critical shopper

The mere fact that a product is offered at a farmers market does not make it worth buying, Maws said.

“Just because it’s a carrot and it comes from a small farm, it doesn’t mean it’s a good carrot,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why I’m so hands-on in the process. I’m trying to find the best carrot that day.”

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If you look closely, you’ll notice that there are differences between the same items grown on different farms, according to Maws. For example, the size of arugula varies from farm to farm, as well as the amount of holes in its leaves.

“Find the things that have the most appeal to you,” Maws advised.

2. Be flexible

When you’re shopping at a farmers market, the local weather comes into play, Maws said.

“You’re dealing with Mother Nature, who today can’t make up her mind whether it’s rainy or sunny,” he said. “That’s real and it impacts everything. If it stays sunny for five more days with really hot temperatures, the arugula is not going to be happy. It doesn’t like heat.”

So if you’re shopping for a specific recipe, you should have flexibility when you head to a farmers market, Maws said, because you don’t know if everything in the recipe is going to be present and/or in excellent condition.

“You should approach it as a guideline, and not written in stone,” Maws said of your chosen recipe. “You don’t know what [the farms] picked that day. Don’t throw [the recipe] out the window because they don’t have arugula. Maybe there’s mustard greens or baby kale or bibb lettuce.”

If you aren’t sure what to use as a substitute, you can always ask the farmer.

“They’re very helpful, in my experience,” Maws said. “They’re getting asked these questions all the time, and they want to be very helpful.”

Organic carrots for sale at the Davis Square Farmers Market. —Essdras M. Suarez / The Boston Globe

3. Use what Maws calls the “general eye test”

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If something doesn’t look pleasing to the eye, don’t buy it, Maws said. Hitting the market later in the day? Avoid items that may have been wilting under the sun.

“If things look bright and shiny and crunchy and the leaves are not wilted, that’s what you’re looking for,” Maws said. “At the same time, right now, we’ve got a couple of months where it’s going to be hard for you to screw it up. Everything is brilliant and fresh.”

It’s currently blueberry season in New England, so it’s a good time to purchase those.

“The blueberries I had last night were unbelievable,” Maws said.

4. Shop for more than produce

Depending on where you go, you can stock up on items other than fruits and veggies. Some markets offer everything from meat to seafood to baked goods to wine.

“You have the opportunity to have farm-fresh eggs that are infinitely better-tasting and better for you than supermarket eggs,” Maws said. “There are cool, small, and seasonal cheeses that are fun to try.”

5. Buy a quantity that makes sense

When trying to figure out how much produce to spring for at a farmers market, be realistic, Maws said. Consider how much you’ll actually need for your recipes and how long you can store it for. Items like zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower will stay in your fridge for about a week, Maws said.

But the leafy greens, “not so much,” he said.

Typically, you should use any leafy greens you buy within three days, he said.

•••

Cucumber and Summer Squash Salad
A recipe you can make with your farmers market bounty, courtesy of Chef Tony Maws

Take this recipe to your local farmers market and try to purchase as many of the ingredients as you can. Remember to be flexible, Maws said. For example, you can use different kinds of cucumbers. This recipe also works well with cherry tomatoes, fresh yellow wax beans, and cauliflower florets, he said.

Ingredients:
1 cup Persian cucumbers, sliced
1 cup mixed summer squashes, cut into triangles
1/2 cup radishes, cut into circles
2 tablespoons of sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 cup mint, chopped
3 tablespoons of Tahini
1 tablespoon of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
1 tablespoon of salt
1 teaspoon of Aleppo chile

To assemble:
Toast the sesame seeds in the oven on a low temperature until they are fragrant and lightly colored. Place all of the ingredients in a bowl and mix gently. You can serve right away or you can chill before serving.

Serving size:
One quart

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