To the casual observer just passing through, the Union Square Greenmarket may seem like a grim place in early spring. There are fewer stalls, for one thing, and a sparser crowd of shoppers, many still bundled up against the morning cold that persists despite warmer afternoons. Missing are the wide range of fruits and vegetables, with their bright colors, that will arrive later in the year. Instead, the offerings are mainly wintered-over vegetables harvested the previous fall, in dull, attenuated colors: the browns and grayish reds of potatoes, faded orange sweet potatoes, purplish beets, stark white cabbages, and thick leeks, along with carrots, kohlrabis, parsnips, sunchokes, and other roots and tubers, long kept in cellars and begging for sunlight. But there are surprises in store, too, including veggies grown hydroponically, and some fairly unusual herbs that one wouldn’t expect till much later in the season, if at all.
There are apples, too, the kind with hard flesh that may outlast the winter, while their softer cousins have turned brown and rotted. Look for Macoun, Mutsu, Granny Smith, Jonagold, and Honeycrisp, which also provide welcome splashes of color. To the true seasonal eater and those whom like to use local ingredients, this farmers market phase is as exciting as any other, and the home chef will be have to use ingenuity to squeeze a great meal out of the raw ingredients found here as the sun struggles to come out through an overcast sky. Soon enough there will be fiddleheads, ramps, morels, and those other spring produce that cooks routinely get excited over.
For this locally sourced meal, one needs also search among the stands that don’t concentrate on fruits and vegetables. Any time of the year is an exciting time for the market’s fish stalls, most of which are run by vendors originating on Long Island. The fish don’t care if it’s the dead of winter, and a handful of stalls persist through the coldest months, selling nothing but seasonal seafood: clams in their shells, black sea bass, bargain porgies and whiting, cleaned squid, monkfish, tuna fresh enough to carve into sashimi, and lobsters already steamed, which are easy to pick up for DIY lobster rolls at home that are often better than those bought in restaurants.
There are chickens, too, and goat and lamb meat sold as sidelines by cheese outfits that specialize in products made from the milk of goats and sheep. The cheeses, by the way, are one of the early spring glories of the farmers markets. Poke among the mongers from Connecticut and elsewhere in New England and find varieties that originated centuries ago, cheddars and similar cow’s milk products that flaunt the funk of centuries-old flavors. Some gloriously stinky ones are fit only for crackers, but there are milder types in a brie, gruyere, and barely aged cheddar vein, perfect for melting in a sandwich or making a mac and cheese.
Eggs are always available, in irregular sizes and colors with bright orange yolks, which set up high in the pan as you fry them. And pork products are being sold by different vendors to go with those eggs, plump sage sausages and thick slabs of bacon, untrimmed of delicious fat that can be rendered and saved for further cooking. Some stalls sell grains grown in the Catskills, and loaves of bread baked there, too. Others flog hard-to-find dairy products, like the full-fat buttermilk necessary for baking killer biscuits.
But this past Saturday I saw further signs of life. Fruit branches ready to blossom were being sold: cherry, apple, plum, and pear. Buy these and take them home if you can find a vase or jar big enough, cut off the bottoms (or have it done at the stall, where they have the tools), and plunk them in warm water. The buds will pop in a week or so, I promise. And don’t worry that you’re depriving someone of the tree’s fruit; cutting off these branches is part of the pruning process at orchards upstate.
Don’t neglect the hothouse and hydroponic produce grown indoors that is just starting to appear. I bought a couple of hydroponic tomatoes, one yellow and one purple, to enliven a salad. Yes, they were expensive, but probably worth it as a reminder of what’s to come later this spring and summer. Hydroponic lettuces are far less expensive, and every bit as fleshy and opulent as their later-season, dirt-grown counterparts, especially butter lettuce and romaine, the earlier perfect with a light vinaigrette and the latter begging for a thicker dressing.
But perhaps most indicative of spring’s arrival are the flower sets that have begun to appear at a few stalls. The pansies, johnny jump-ups, primroses, petunias, hyacinths, geraniums, and miniature roses are all ensconced in little plastic pots and fit for planting in a window box or on a fire escape. I probably don’t have to tell you pick the plants that haven’t bloomed yet, and they will last longer with more flowers after you get them home; don’t be seduced by the plants already in brilliant flower.
Buy herb plants, too. Get rosemary, oregano, or sage. You can snip a few leaves to use for cooking, and continue using them through summer and autumn, especially if you remember that herbs like dryish soil, so let the plant dry out before you water it again. And pick the sunniest window for your herbs, and their wafting fragrance just might help you jump out of bed in the morning with a smile on your face.