Next time you go to a farmers’ market, take a careful look around. Not just at everything on the tables—look under the tables as well. You may find bundles of corn waiting to be unpacked, a fellow shopper’s bags laden with produce from another stand, even a guide dog stoically resisting the temptation to snatch up the morsels rolling around under his nose.
You may also find a few sad-looking peaches or tomatoes rolling around in a cardboard box. The box grows stickier by the minute as juices seep out of the bruised fruit, and by late afternoon it will be filled with table rejects: victims of shoppers’ poking fingers and careless elbows.
These rejects or “seconds” may not be the most beautiful produce at the market, but they are usually still packed with flavor. Cooking, pureeing, freezing and canning will bring out the best in these fruits. And the farmers will usually be happy to sell them to you at a good price.
Unlike the hardier winter squash and potatoes on the tables in October, summer produce is often delicate and highly perishable. Yesterday’s slow sales on blueberries may result in a spread of half-price boxes on today’s table. Some of the larger stands regularly put out a boxes of peach or tomato seconds for shoppers to purchase during the last couple hours of the market, sold by weight at about half the price of their above-table counterparts.
Other stands don’t advertise their seconds, but do not be afraid to ask in the coming weeks. If they can unload an armload of bruised fruit for a few dollars, everyone wins: you get a good deal, and the farmer doesn’t have to take a complete loss. And if you’ve cleared your schedule next week to make gallons of tomato sauce, it won’t hurt to ask at your favorite stand whether they can pack up a box of rejects for you to pick up on the next market day. Just keep in mind that you are getting a deal; this is not the time to pick through for the least damaged fruits or to haggle over an already-lowered price.
Whether you bring home two pounds of market seconds or two boxes, be prepared to deal with them right away: as soon as you get home, later that night—certainly no later than the next morning. The softening brown spots indicate cell damage, and as time passes the damage will spread and the fruits’ flavor worsen.
What should you do with your seconds? Sauce is the obvious answer for a big box of tomatoes; just be sure to snag some garlic and basil on your way out of the market. Day-old berries can go directly into a bag in your freezer for later use in jam or pies, or freeze individual berries on a tray lined with parchment paper and then transfer to a freezer bag once they are frozen solid.
Things get a little more complicated with peaches, nectarines, plums and other large stone fruits. Deal with these one piece of fruit at a time, working over a bowl to collect any juices released as you peel and cut the fruit. First cut away and dispose of any areas that are brown or appear stringy. If desired, slip off the peel (it should come away easily) and discard. Next, cut off any mushy or slightly overripe flesh and let it fall into the juice bowl. Cut the remaining firmer flesh into slices or chunks suitable for baking and set aside in another bowl. Continue this process until you have worked through all the fruit, then take a moment to admire the sticky mess on your counter and your hands.
The firmer pieces can be used for baking immediately or frozen in zipper-sealed plastic bags with a little bit of their juices. Plan to use this cut-up fruit in cobbler or pie; after freezing and thawing it may not be suitable for an artfully-arranged tart. Puree the softer flesh and accumulated juices in a blender or food processor, and then freeze the puree in an ice cube tray or mini muffin pan. Dip the bottom of the tray in warm water to loosen the frozen puree and transfer the pieces to a zipper-sealed freezer bag. Use these flavorful chunks in smoothies, fruit soups and homemade ice cream, or add an interesting flavor twist to applesauce when (bruised) apples appear later in the season.
These are good techniques to have in mind even if you don’t want to commit to handling a twenty-pound box of seconds. I often find myself sorting through the blueberries midweek, knowing that my kids will reject any mushy berries that turn up in their lunches (and who can blame them?). Each day I toss a handful of squishy, overripe berries into a bag in the freezer; over the course of the summer we collect enough berries for a pie or two and a big batch of muffins. Raspberries, peaches and tomatoes past their prime—even an extra ear or two of corn—can expect similar treatment in my kitchen. It’s not enough to replace commercially frozen frozen in midwinter, but when I want a handful of chopped tomatoes for a curry in November, it’s nice to have my own little bit of summer hiding back there amid the frost.