Vegging Out

Expert advice on shopping for local produce

From farm fields to markets to CSA baskets, vegetables abound around Madison this time of year. But how do you know what to buy when—and where and from whom? Should you grow your own? What can you do with surplus tomatoes and cucumbers? Mary Carpenter is here to help. Along with husband Quentin, she managed the Dane County Farmers’ Market from 1989 to 2000 and now sells produce under the Carpenters Farm name. She offers some down-to-earth tips on making the most of the local bounty.

Consider the source. “If you’ll be eating foods raw, buy from someone whom you can ask questions. Ask where people are from. Some people define local as fifty miles, others define local as one hundred miles. Buyers have the right to ask.”

Buy in season. “Be aware of seasonality. Freshness is important—you get the most nutrients when foods are fresh. Sometimes very simple foods simply prepared have a wonderful difference when they’re bought locally.”

Shop smart. “Get to the markets early. Things—and vendors—will be fresher. It’s less crowded if you want to ask questions.”

Think about a CSA share. “I recommend anything that supports local buying. CSAs are good for some people and not good for others. Make sure you know what you’re getting, and know you’ll probably have to supplement [at farmers’ markets and grocery stores].”

Grow your own. “Any of the salad greens are very easy to grow. Tomatoes are easy, too. Beans, especially pole beans, kids will enjoy; they’re climbers. Most vegetables are not difficult to raise. They just take a lot of work.”

Find a new favorite. “A lot of Asian vegetables are brought in by Hmong growers. If you don’t know how to use them, ask the vendor. That’s how we learned. Each season, something is unappreciated: parsnips, superb varieties of sweet corn, some heirloom tomatoes because they aren’t pretty. Take a chance and try something new.”

Don’t waste extra veggies. “Feed the hungry. At the end of every single market, an organization comes around and we feed eleven food banks. We have so much abundance and there are so many people who don’t. Or share. I’d love to see neighborhood trades. We do that at the end of the market, too. It’s a lot of fun.”

Mary shares when to look for veggies locally:

Asparagus: May and June

Broccoli and Cauliflower: late June through September

Carrots: July through winter

Cucumbers: July through September

Green Beans: July through October

Greens: April through November

Onions: June through October

Peas: June and July

Potatoes: June through winter

Rhubarb: May and June

Squash: August through winter

Sweet Corn: July through September

Tomatoes: July through October (or year-round if grown hydroponically)

Zucchini: July to October

RESOURCE: Find your own local produce! The City of Madison maintains a list of city markets, while the REAP Food Group has its own guide to area markets and a list of vegetable farms.

Katie Vaughn is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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