(BPT) - Local. That's the buzzword when it comes to healthy eats these days. From the farm to the city, locally grown goods are keeping menus fresh and food lovers satisfied. This trend is on the rise in hot-spot restaurants around the nation and now it's never been easier to make fresh, culinary magic happen in your own home. Here's the trick to getting it done: learn the facts and become a produce professional.
The most obvious benefit of shopping local is taking garden-fresh, flavor-packed goods home for your family to nosh on. 'You'll get the highest nutritional value foods by buying in season,' says chef Lynn Krause, culinary academic director of The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of St. Louis. If that's not enough to get your juices flowing, consider this: 'Purchasing crops from various community farmers boosts local economies and enhances sustainability practices by keeping food import/export needs down,' according to chef Linda Trakselis, culinary instructor at The International Culinary School at The Illinois Institute of Art - Chicago. Buying produce cultivated within a 150-mile radius of your location may also increase the likelihood of ingesting products with fewer pesticides and protective coatings typically added during the shipping process.
When it comes to buying regional fruits and vegetables, chef Clare Menck, academic director of Culinary Arts at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Wisconsin, recommends cruising farmers markets. 'It's best to arrive early and do a lap for price checks, product quality and available options. From there, let your menu be guided by seasonal items and begin picking your produce.' Menck also suggests you develop a relationship with the farmers - ask for their pick of the week, recipe tips and preparation suggestions.
'Purchasing medium sized, darker colored fruits and veggies is your best bet for flavor and nutrients,' says Trakselis of hand-picking products at the week-end pop-up shops.
Farmers markets are also a great spot to pounce on the freshest proteins. 'I always head for the specials; seek out the fresh catch of the day, fresh cut steaks and chicken specials to feature in meals,' says Krause. Local poultry and shellfish is often inexpensive when compared to goods imported from other regions.
Another convenient way to secure the season's freshest crops is to order produce boxes from community supported agriculture (CSA) programs. Boxes offer a variety of the season's crops straight from the farm on a weekly, bi-monthly or monthly basis. 'The problem may be that you're getting something in the box you're unfamiliar with, but that's not such a bad deal. You learn how to incorporate new vegetables into your meals and can ask for the farmer's cooking tips,' says Trakselis.
Your bounty will vary by season as crops are harvested for the market. Summertime finds include berries, melons, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini, green beans, asparagus and dark, leafy greens. As the season shifts to fall, you'll score root veggies, Swiss chard, kale and the last crop of sweet corn and melons. Winter brings citrus and hearty vegetables like beets, turnips, winter squashes, Brussels sprouts and leafy greens to your market. Stock up on more bitter veggies during this time as the hard winter frost releases sugars in the produce and sweetens up your goods. Finally, springtime means peas, lettuce and the first berry buds.
Proper storage will ensure the longevity of your loot. 'Don't ever put your tomatoes in the fridge - it breaks down the fibrous membrane and you'll notice a steep decline in taste and texture,' says Menck. Natural sugars turn to starch in the fridge and it also stops the ripening process. She also recommends keeping onions, potatoes, garlic and even carrots in plastic containers in cool locations, like on a shelf in the garage, especially in the wintertime.
Look no further than your local farm for the freshest and most nutritious meals. Knowing your way around the market will benefit your week's food haul, your health and your wallet.