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How to Shop at the Farmers' Market

Turn the greenmarket into your personal playground.
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This Sunday, take your brunch gang to one of the most underrated parties around: the farmers' market. Skeptical? There's free food (samples of jam, pickles) and drink (local organic wines). There are plenty of people -- chatty shoppers and fun-loving farmers. Plus, there's dancing. Well, there could be, if you dare your pals to form a conga line through the baskets of tomatoes. Once your tote bags are bursting, keep the party going: Invite everyone back to your place and slice those jonagolds into a homemade apple pie.

FARMERS' MARKET ALMANAC

Shop the stands like a pro.

1. Come prepared: Bring some canvas totes, sunscreen, water bottles and cash. (Most markets aren't set up to take credit cards.) Because groceries will be stacked on each other, shop for the sturdiest stuff first, says farmers' market expert Deborah Madison. Think potatoes at the bottom, berries on top.

2. Scope out the scene: Take your friends on a loop around the market before reaching for your wallet -- or risk wishing you'd held out for the juicier strawberries five stalls down. Eye the produce (a misshapen tomato is fine; wilted greens are not), smell the fish (if it stinks, keep walking) and follow the crowds -- the most popular farm stands at the market usually get that way for a reason. After your recon mission, circle back with a mental shopping list.

3. Sample strategically: Farmers want you to try their goodies, so expect to find samples. But rather than nibbling mindlessly, use those giveaways to broaden your palate. Dare your friends to taste the pear-chipotle jelly. Have everyone try a different heirloom tomato to see which one comes out on top.

4. Talk to strangers: While it may be easiest to stick with your close-knit crew, this is a great place to widen your circle. Most farmers are happy to tell you how often their blackberries are sprayed -- or where your gang can go next weekend to pick their own. Ask about the difference between white eggs and brown, or how to cook that knobby hunk of celeriac. If the farmer's too busy to answer, no doubt someone in line next to you will pipe up.

5. Time it right: Consult with your crew ahead of time to decide what kind of market scene you're up for. Hit the stalls first thing in the morning if you want the run of the place -- and your pick of the freshest goods. For a more bustling scene, go midday. An hour before closing time, farmers start to slash prices.

SPEND LESS

Farmers may not take coupons, but they still offer plenty of bargains.

Embrace the rejects. Psst! Those cracked, slightly overripe tomatoes are delicious -- and farmers will let you haul them away for a song. "They make a great pasta sauce," says Louisa Shafia, author of the seasonally driven cookbook Lucid Food. Whip up a pot and freeze it for a taste of summer all winter long.

Eat it all. Even the fanciest organic veggies are cheap if you use every last bit of them. Sauté beet greens, turn onion skin into stock, and peel broccoli stalks to reveal their tender insides.

Make friends with a ham hock ...not to mention a lamb shank, beef chuck deckle and pork butt. Unlike expensive steaks and chicken breasts, those often overlooked cuts of meat are priced to sell because they require a little more work on your end. "They need to be slow-cooked, but they are really tasty," Shafia says. Another way to save: Roast a whole chicken (rather than parts) and eat it all week.

Pay for flavor. Any way you slice it, nine bucks for cheese is a lot of money. That's why Deborah Madison, author of Local Flavors, scouts out pungent varieties that add big taste in small doses.

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