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A shopper with a mask in the foreground carries some hydrangea.
Flowering boughs to brighten your apartment are a popular purchase this time of year.

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How to Navigate the Union Square Greenmarket Right Now

Market fan Robert Sietsema offers some tips and offers a rundown of the best of the season

As the weather warms up and more evidence builds that outdoor space may be safer than enclosed spaces, the Union Square Greenmarket is more valuable than ever as a source of fresh produce and other groceries. Social distancing is enforced, and plastic tape and other barricades prevent shoppers from getting too close to the farmers and other workers in the stalls. Usually, the stall operators select the products for shoppers, and some items are now pre-bagged. Fortunately, farmers market shoppers are a cooperative bunch.

For those now looking to revel in all the spring produce that’s popping up, here are a few hacks to note before heading out. Keep in mind, the market offers a wide range of goods — produce, bread, dairy products, cut flowers, grains, and meats among them — and in fact, it’s possible to do nearly all one’s food shopping there.

The market, which has been running since 1976, appears on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, though Saturday is by far the biggest, with about 60 vendors running along the west and north sides of the park.

What to Know

The attendance at the market has zoomed, not only because of fine weather and increasing availability of lovely spring produce, but also because shoppers have become increasingly hesitant to join the lines at the Whole Foods across the street and at the Trader Joe’s one block east. On this past Saturday at 9 a.m., there were already long lines to get into the market, and no lines to get into Whole Foods.

A line of shoppers wearing masks.
The line on the northwest corner may be shorter, but the one on the southeast moves much faster.

The market is currently fenced off from the rest of Union Square, and entrance is via three portals, at the southwest, northwest, and northeast corners of the square. There are block-long lines at each on Saturday. If you’re serious about market shopping, consider going to the market on one of the weekdays instead of Saturday.

Still, the Saturday market is the best. Try going at 8 a.m. or at 3:30 p.m., and find the lines shorter. A week ago, and on the previous Saturdays, I’d sought out the lines on the northwest and northeast, reasoning that fewer customers enter by those routes. Yes, the lines are shorter than the one on the southwest, but since the same number of waiting shoppers are let in at the same rate as shoppers are seen to be exiting, fewer shoppers leave by these portals, so lines move slower. In other words, get in the line at the southwest side of the square, which doubles back on itself, and prepare to wait 15 minutes or more to enter the market.

See a full map of the Saturday Greenmarket here.

One more suggestion: There are other smaller Greenmarkets on Saturday that are not nearly as crowded. Abingdon Square has one, and so does 82nd Street on the Upper West Side, and Inwood. Check here for Saturday markets in other boroughs, and markets on other days. The Fort Greene Saturday farmers market is another favorite of mine, and the Grand Army Plaza market is nearly as well known as Union Square’s.

Spring produce and other items to seek out right now

This is the most exciting time of the year at the Union Square Greenmarket. The spring produce, some of it grown and some of it foraged, is now appearing in lavish displays. Ten days ago the first ramps appeared — swamp foraged alliums sometimes called wild leeks, perfect to make a vinaigrette, flavor a stew, or bake into breads. This last Saturday, there were four vendors selling them, though this had not caused the price to dip below $5 a bunch. Maybe this coming week that will happen.

A hand holds a bunch of asparagus.
The season’s first asparagus
Green onions and leeks on a table.
All sorts of alliums are available.

The very first asparagus appeared at the northeast corner at the stand of James Durr Wholesale Florist (Chesterfield, NJ), in the midst of a profusion of cherry blossom boughs, fragrant lilac branches, and cut peonies in three colors. The asparagus were tucked away at the rear of the stand on a table and not advertised, since the supply was limited. Nothing better than spring’s first asparagus stalks, briefly steamed — these were so tender, the bottom of the stalks didn’t need to be peeled. The market will explode with asparagus this coming Saturday, and it will probably be available on the weekdays, if you go very early. It sells out fast.

A table covered with foraged plant products, including wild arugula.
Flowering wild arugula makes a nice salad addition.
A blue tray of carrots, radishes, and other root vegetables, some cut open.
Norwich Meadows Farm specializes in roots and tubers.

A broad range of other alliums are available in the market at this moment. Some that were spotted include spring onions, spring garlic, baby leeks, chives, and purple scallions, in addition to ramps. All of these can be used to make omelets, incorporated into cornbread, grilled to garnish tacos, sauteed with mushrooms, tossed into a stir fry, or pureed into pesto. In fact, ramp pesto was prominently advertised at two stalls, suggesting there may be a glut of ramps, and prices may indeed come down.

Now is the time that wild foraged products begin to appear. From one stall I bought a bag of wild arugula, much smaller and more flavorful than the product found in supermarkets. These are great in salads, but one must use a very light dressing so as not to overwhelm the little serrated leaves. Other wild plants available — some of which had doubtlessly been cultivated — ran to sorrel, chickweed, baby mustard, shepherd’s purse, and shallot cress. Salad fans, take note. Fiddleheads, the furled fronds of young ferns, have also just appeared. What to do with these? Do some experimentation.

Root vegetables of all sorts are appearing, including beets in multiple colors, turnips, and radishes. Check out the breakfast radishes, which are half white and half red. They are mild compared to bigger radishes, and are often eaten dipped in butter.

Speaking of dairy products, the Greenmarket has the field covered. Buttermilk is available at two stalls, an ingredient I find indispensable in pancakes, biscuits, and cornbread — and, with some crushed garlic or chives, it makes an excellent salad dressing.

A couple of stalls were selling fresh mozzarella and other cheeses, and one stand has ricotta. Full fat milk is everywhere, but even more prevalent are eggs. If you’ve never had farmers market eggs before, these are a revelation, often with harder shells and yellower yellows.

In fact, an omelet of market greens with some sliced hydroponic heirloom tomatoes on the side is one of the most satisfying meals one can eat during this pandemic.

The curly top of young ferns in a plastic bucket.
Foraged fiddleheads have just appeared.
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