On any given summer afternoon, you'll likely find Tony Maws shopping for fresh produce at farmers markets in Boston, Cambridge or Somerville. The James Beard Award-winning chef behind Craigie on Main and the Kirkland Tap & Trotter is a big fan of farmers markets for many several reasons. Not only do they provide his home and restaurants with top-notch ingredients, but the produce sold are also better for the environment and help support the local community.
"They’re tastier. They’re better for you. They’ve gone less miles. They’re better for the environment," Maws tells Metro. "For a restaurant, it’s easier to make a phone call, call a purveyor, and they’re going to tell you that they’ve got local this, or organic that. Most of it isn’t that local or you don’t know when it was picked, and that’s certainly the easy way to do it. There are a lot of people who talk the talk who don’t walk the walk, but you will always see myself and our staff at the farmers market."
Ahead, the acclaimed chef and restaurateur shares his tips for making the most of your farmers market experiece.
How to shop at farmers markets in Boston like a pro
Do your research
"I don’t just buy from any farms, because I don’t believe that a carrot is awesome just because it was grown locally," Maws says. "It’s like everything else. There’s good carrots and there’s not-as-good carrots, and different farms do different things."
According to Maws, finding the best produce requires a bit of research and some "trial and error." It's also important to ask questions and develop relationships with the various vendors so you can find the best products possible week in and week out.
"I’ve always asked a lot of questions about how they farm, what’s important to them, how they treat their land and you can see it in the product," he says. "Whose greens look really fresh and vibrant versus some that look really wilted, you know? And then at the end of the day, it’s flavor. I take it home and I eat it. It’s either awesome or it’s not, and if it’s not awesome then I don’t buy it again."
Unlike the grocery store, farmers markets in Boston and around the Bay State are only open during a "five or a six month window," according to Maws. So take advantage of the spring and summer by picking produce that hit their peak during these seasons.
In the summer, Maws recommends picking up rasberries, blueberries, as well as zucchinis. The chef suggests tomatoes and corn as well, however, wait until Auguest to find the "really good ones." Cauliflower is another top pick for summer produce.
"You grab a head of cauliflower from the farmers market, it was picked that morning, and it’s just a different product," Maws says. "It’s vibrant. The water content’s much higher. It’s not sort of soft. It’s crisper, sort of crunchy. It’s almost juicy because, you know, it just hasn’t dehydrated in a refrigerator over time. It’s really fun to watch people’s reactions, not just with the products that they’re not used to seeing but with the products that they are used to. It’s almost a completely different ingredient when it’s this fresh."
As for what you can make with all those fresh veggies, Maws likes to create "raw vegetable salads" with his farmers market hauls.
"Maybe you grab some of that cauliflower, and you grate that on a box grater, or some broccoli and you grate that on a box grater or some zucchini and you grate that, and you grab some cherry tomatoes and you cut them, and some wax beans and green beans and you cut them," he says. "Honestly, it doesn’t require a lot of brain power. You don’t need to follow a recipe, just keep on doing it until you’re there. I’d probably throw in some sunflower seeds for texture, pumpkin seeds, and I love grating some really nice cheese, like reggiano or pecorino, some simple olive oil and a good vinegar and then maybe like a handful of greens like arugula."
Finally, Maws admits that you won't find every ingredient on your wishlist since the produce at farmers markets change depending on the season, what's ripe and other conditions. The chef believes shoppers should be flexible and open-minded, because you'll still find fresh, great produce that you weren't necessarily looking for.
"You have to be a little bit open-minded because you’re not dealing with a commercial commodity product," he says. "They’re not just trying to make sure that they have celery and broccoli and onions on the shelves. They’re picking what is good now. You might have had a too-hot week or a too-rainy week and all these things impact it."
"There’s always a surprise," he adds. "You might get there and they might have sold out of it or whatever. And meanwhile, if you look left and right, [there are] 20 other things you could cook dinner. So it’s not a bad thing."