Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Being Cheap at The Farmer's Market

The familiar image of the farmers' market can be discouraging to people on a budget: trendy suburban professionals, walking their dog and baby, picking up fresh eggs, grass-fed beef, and some heirloom tomatoes, carried home in their SUV. If you examine the prices paid, it hardly feels like the bargain it allegedly should be. As per usual, though, it's because people are buying the wrong things. Farmers' markets are about getting closer to your food and improving efficiency for everyone involved.

For example, our last trip to the farmers' market (and our first trip of the year... it's been a late spring), we picked up a bunch of arugula, two bunches of asparagus, a bunch of green onions, and a few small yukon golds. Total cost was around 12 bucks, which is actually a good portion of our weekly budget. With our usual process, we'd scratch together one salad, a couple of garnishes before the onions went bad, and maybe some oven fries. Quality, natural produce demands a slightly different approach, though, so here are some techniques we've found useful to take advantage of the farmers' market.

First off, greens are going to come in a much more natural form. That batch of arugula only makes one salad, but that's because you're using it wrong. Farmers' market greens will generally be much more potent, because a lot of those things are really weeds. Most herbs, in fact, are really just Mediterranean weeds. The secret is that weeds are delicious, if you aren't too puritanical about it. The stems contain some delicious bitter compounds that really deepen with a bit of heat, and the tiny leaves have a colossal amount of flavor. You'd never find these parts in a supermarket, because the quality isn't immediately visually obvious, but they're well worth the extra preparation. Saute the greens with a bit of garlic and toss with pasta, or toss a couple handfuls on top of a just-cooked pizza, and the flavor will absolutely explode 3 bucks for a salad sucks, but for a huge handful of flavorful herbs, it's a fantastic bargain.

Second, if like us, you're only cooking for two, the quantities at the farmers' market can seem prohibitive. You buy huge amounts of produce pretty much anywhere, but the natural stuff goes bad way faster. The trick is to learn to be flexible with an ingredient, so you can use it in seven straight meals without it getting tired. Our green onions went into pasta carbonara, Chinese steamed dumplings, classic French omelets (with an American spelling, to confuse purists), and some fantastic improvised Asian lentil pancakes. Thus we blew through a whole bunch before they wilted to inedibility. Most of the cheaper ingredients you can get at these farmers' markets are things that grow practically everywhere with little effort, so they fit into a wide number of cuisines. Learn to cook in a number of styles, and you'll be able to take advantage of the easiest ingredients there are.

Finally, accept that sometimes you'll have to violate diets and schedules when you have fantastic produce around. A big pile of asparagus sauteed in butter has minerals and vitamins, but no caloric value. Spring asparagus is amazing, though, so sometimes it's worth it to eat a huge amount of asparagus for dinner, and have to make it up later with some hummus or carrot sticks. Especially in the upper Midwest, take advantage of delicious veggies while you can, and use staples to compensate for anything that lacks. You'll be eating beans and root vegetables all winter, so give yourself a break and eat some meals that have virtues other than protein and fiber every now and then.

Of course, the heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef are delicious too. I'm not proposing that you avoid them entirely (unless you're vegetarian or sensitive to tomatoes, like our household). You can't subsist entirely on them without seriously depleting your bank account and your digestive system, though, and this blog is really all about filling in that gap. So we'll keep you updated as more things come into season around here, but that's a pretty solid start to the bargain ingredients.

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