Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Guest Post: A Cost-Conscious Foodie's Guide to the Farmers Market

Local farmers markets can be a great place to pick up a good deal on fresh produce. Shop with care, however, or you may end up paying more than the local grocery price. The key to shopping the farmers market is to have a good idea of what the average in-season produce costs are at your local grocery store. Knowing the sale prices are even better. So why visit the farmer’s market when it’s a great unknown - especially if you’re new to it and you have no idea how to compare farmers market prices to the per pound costs of the grocery? For me (a self-declared Food Network addict and bargain shopper) it’s a matter of quality AND value.

I’ve found that many items at the Royal Oak Farmer’s Market are at least comparable in price to the regular in-season grocery store costs. In general, the produce at the Farmers Market is fresher - it looks and tastes better. If I am looking for a certain type of produce that is in-season, it makes more sense for me to go to the Farmers Market (where there will probably be several vendors with bins full of whatever I’m looking for) than to head from store to store looking for something that won’t turn to compost before I get a chance to use it. The market often has items or varieties that you might not see at the regular grocery stores. I discovered Shiro plums at the farmers market a full year before I saw them at the high-end grocery stores.

Some general tips on how to make the most of your produce budget at the Farmers Market:
  • Know the general in-season prices (and even the weekly sale prices) of produce. You can always get a cheap notepad and keep it handy so you know when you've truly found a good deal.

  • Shop early in the day for best selection (in the fall, you can snag the biggest pie pumpkin in the $1 bin, and if you’re at the Royal Oak market you can catch a free parking spot without having to wait for one to open up).

  • Shop at the end of the market day to get et the best prices from farmers that don’t want to take their produce back home with them.

  • Though the farmers market is a great place to pick up fresh herbs, make sure to check out the high-end grocery stores for produce and herbs as well. While big chain groceries usually have the herbs in those pitifully small packs at a ridiculous price, I’ve found that Westborn Market on Woodward in Berkley usually has nice, fresh bunches at a very respectable price. Westborn also sometimes has the best prices or freshest-looking produce. Remember not to rule out a place just because most of the items may be more pricey than your usual haunts.

  • Unless you’re going to an absolutely huge market, visit ALL the vendors before you buy. While pricing is usually pretty uniform, often someone will have the best deal on whatever you’re looking for. After taking a walk-through, you can make an educated purchase.

  • If vendors offer samples, try one! While one vendor might sell the cheapest pint of blueberries, the one across the building may have ones that taste a lot better for just a little more.

  • Know how to select the best produce - check for blemishes, soft spots, etc. In general, asparagus is most tender when it is long and thin. Small strawberries usually taste better than the Godzilla-sized ones. Firm cherries keep longer and taste a lot better than ones that are soft. I avoid vendors that don’t let me gently feel the peaches. Peel the husks down off the corn ears a little - you just need to peek far enough to check for bugs and to make sure the tip of the corn has well-developed kernels that are in fairly straight rows and haven’t started to dry out.

  • Look for seconds. The key is knowing why it’s considered a second, and if it really is a much better deal than the full-priced version there or at another vendor. Earlier this year I got a quart of peach seconds - they were small, and though the pit was a little larger in proportion to the fruit than the full-sized peaches, they were just as good as the regular ones. Recently one vendor had half pecks of tomato seconds for $2, not bad if you don’t mind cutting out some soft spots and canning them or turning them into salsa the same day you pick them up.

  • Develop a Plan B if something starts to ripen you sooner than expected. Freshness is a blessing but can also be a curse. In general you'll need to keep a closer eye on farmers market produce because it’s already ripe. On a Saturday I bought a pint of peaches to eat at work for the week, and by Monday most had some small soft spots. I ended up cutting out the soft spots and turning it into a nice peach salsa to have with lunch. Fresh strawberries are an item to watch closely as they can fade quickly - and generally they’re best to use within a few days of purchase.

Looking for a Farmer's Market around Metro Detroit? You'll find a list here.

Many thanks to Becky Stacy for sharing this information! Becky is a working mother of an 8-month-old son trying to cut costs so she can become a stay at home mom within the next year or two. She is a Food Network addict and enjoys playing around with new ideas in the kitchen. Stay tuned to read more from Becky including the lowdown on squash and another great recipe!

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