Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Special Farmers Market Edition

I went to the Farmers Market on Saturday and got some great bargains. I want to give you a heads up on them, especially the produce that won’t last long. (Can you believe it’s Fall already?!) And don’t forget that you can exchange a dollar’s worth of food stamps for two dollars’ worth of market vouchers, so, if you have food stamps, you can get stuff at the market for half price! I know there’s probably not much left of this month’s food stamps, but you may be able to find the same things there the first weekend in October, too. I’m sure there are a lot more bargains at the Market. These are just the ones I happened to come across when I was looking for stuff for me. I was almost done before it occurred to me that there might be a column in it.

The first place I stopped was at Tom’s Produce, on the north (at least I think it’s the north – I’m terrible with directions) side of the Market, next to City Hall. He had quarter bushels of canning tomatoes (about 14 pounds) for $6, or half bushels for $12. That’s less than 50 cents a pound! Canning tomatoes are just tomatoes that aren’t quite perfect, though I had trouble finding anything wrong with most of the ones I got, except that maybe they were a bit small. I got 49 tomatoes, so they cost 12 cents each. Don’t have a need or room for 49 tomatoes at a time? Share a box with a friend.

I also got some red and green bell peppers from Tom, at 3 for $1. They were a bit larger than what I would consider an “average” bell pepper, but then I picked out the biggest ones he had. Some were a bit oddly shaped, but I didn’t see any bad spots, at least on the ones I picked.

Tom had potatoes, too, either white or red, 30 pounds for $12, or 40 cents a pound. I have no idea how this compares to supermarket prices, but it sounds good.

Tom expects to have the tomatoes and peppers for at least another couple of weeks, and potatoes for a lot longer. Subject, of course, to the weather cooperating!

The next place I stopped was the stall where I get big oddly shaped peppers for 50 cents each. They had a bunch of them again, red or green, but not yellow. These were really big and heavy, and, other than being oddly shaped, were in fine condition. The peppers I got weighed between 12 and 16 ounces, compared to about 4 ounces for an average pepper. A few of the peppers they had had small soft spots, but I just didn’t pick those peppers. This stall was, I think, in the second row of stalls from the parking lot. I didn’t see a name on the stall.

I got some big green and yellow zucchini for 75 cents each. The big zucchini work great for casseroles, soup, and omelets, which is what I use them for. Smaller ones would work better for cooking up sliced.

Three other things I got were at “market price” but still a good price. One was pie pumpkins for $2 each (there were also small ones for $1). Pie pumpkins are smaller than field pumpkins, or Halloween pumpkins, and the flesh tends to be less stringy. They’re great for making pies, of course, but they’re also good in savory dishes. I use pumpkin in chili, in stew, and pumpkin soup, and in several other dishes. I’ll do a column on pumpkins before Halloween. You can also use regular Halloween pumpkins for most things, even after you have carved them up for jack-o-lanterns. And be sure to save the seeds to eat! I’ll include directions for roasting the seeds in a later column. You can use the seeds of spaghetti squash the same way you would pumpkin seeds. In fact, you can use the seeds of any of the winter squashes that way. I got some big green and yellow zucchini for 75 cents each. The big zucchini work great for casseroles, soup, and omelets, which is what I use them for. Smaller ones would work better for cooking up sliced. And finally, I got a big spaghetti squash for $3. I didn’t like spaghetti squash when I was using it as a substitute for spaghetti. It is not the same at all, even if it does look the same! But as a vegetable in its own right it’s pretty good.

The other two places I want to talk about both sell meat. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Kip and Whitney’s Marble Hill Farm and their grass-fed ground beef. Again, it’s a good price, especially if you can get it for half price by using your food stamps to get market vouchers. They also have beef soup bones for $3 a pack. The packs range between about a pound and about two pounds. You have to be really careful with soup bones. Some places sell bones with practically no meat at all on them and call them soup bones. Kip and Whitney’s soup bones are slices of the leg, with lots of meat. The leg, or shank, has very flavorful meat. It needs to be cooked “low and slow” and in liquid (like in soup!) or it will be tough. But simmered slowly, or gently braised for a long time, the meat is wonderfully soft. Kip’s stall is roughly the middle of the middle row, facing Seventh Street.

Dove Farms has a stall along the north side of the Market, a few stalls from Tom’s Produce, alongside City Hall. They sell produce and eggs, but what I’m talking about today is their grain-fed beef. They have ground beef for $3.50 a pound, ribs for $2.79 a pound, and heart, liver and tongue for $1.69 a pound. They also have the rest of the animal, but these are the inexpensive cuts that they had on Saturday. Their animals are raised almost entirely on grain, so the meat will taste and cook more like you are used to. It’s local, and they don’t use hormones or antibiotics.

Grass-fed beef like Kip and Whitney raise and grain-fed beef like you get from Dove Farms are quite different. They are both local and raised without antibiotics or hormones, but how they are fed makes a big difference in the meat. Grass-fed beef is very lean, to the point that you really need to add some fat to it. Because it is so lean, it can turn out very dry if you cook it too long or at too high a temperature. You probably want to add some chopped veggies or an egg or something to the ground beef to help make up for the lack of fat. It also tastes a bit different than grain-fed or grain-finished beef. There are some health advantages to grass-fed beef – it has more Omega 3 and less Omega 6, and more CLA, both of which are supposed to be good for you. Grain-fed or grain-finished beef, on the other hand, will taste more like you are used to. Because it has more fat, it cooks more like you are used to, too, and is less likely to turn out dry or tough. Some people flat out don’t like the taste of grass-fed beef. Other people think it tastes better than grain-fed beef. I can’t say that one is “better” than the other, or that you “should” eat one instead of the other. It’s up to you. The beef from both Dove Farms and Marble Hill Farm is better for you than what you get at the store, it’s produced locally, is raised without hormones or antibiotics, and, at least for these cuts, is cheaper than you’ll usually find in the stores. The ground beef costs more than the cheapest, fattest ground beef at the store, but it’s about the same as or cheaper than the super lean ground beef there.

I’m sure that there are other bargains at the Market, but these are things that I was looking for for me. I wasn’t looking at the prices on the rest of the food there, or at the prices at each stall for things I did buy. (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they published the prices so you could comparison shop like you can with the grocery stores?) If you have time on a Saturday morning, go down and check it out. You’ll probably find some bargains of your own. And don’t forget to exchange your food stamps for market vouchers! But be quick about it. Tomatoes and peppers and zucchini and other summer produce won’t be around much longer, though fall produce is moving in. And Tom’s Produce, Marble Hill Farm, and Dove Farms won’t be at the winter market.

Instead of the usual recipes and menus, I’m going to give some ideas for preserving the wonderful summer produce.

CANNED TOMATOES – Talk to Kayte about this. I’ve seen home canned tomatoes at the Pantry, so I’ll bet she knows how to do it. It’s been years since I’ve done any home canning.

FROZEN WHOLE TOMATOES – This is the easiest way to preserve tomatoes, but you do need freezer space. Don’t expect to end up with chunks or slices of tomato after it’s cooked. It cooks down to pretty much nothing, but leaves behind its color and its tomato flavor.

FROZEN DICED TOMATOES – Easier than canning them, but, again, you do need freezer space. 

OVEN DRIED TOMATOES – Have you seen the price for sun-dried tomatoes in the stores? They’re way too expensive for me. Oven dried tomatoes work just as well. They have a really intense tomato taste and collapse down so they take up practically no space. Most recipes say to dry plum or Roma type tomatoes, because they are less juicy than regular tomatoes and also because they are smaller. Regular tomatoes work fine, too, though they don’t get as dry. These are incredibly easy to make, and take almost no preparation time. They just need a long time by themselves in the oven.

FROZEN DICED PEPPERS – Easy to do, but like frozen peppers are best used in cooking. They're not much good for salads and eating raw.

ROASTED RED PEPPERS – Like sun dried tomatoes, commercial roasted red peppers are expensive. Fortunately, they’re also easy to make. It’s usually red peppers that are roasted, but you can use any color, including green. Use them in any recipe calling for roasted peppers, or for pimentos. Or add them to scrambled eggs or omelets, or to soups or casseroles, or any time you want a mild pepper flavor and some color.

ZUCCHINI – Zucchini doesn’t freeze or dry very well. It has too much water in it to dry, and if you freeze it you end up with a little bit of zucchini and whole bunch of water. It’s fine for putting in soups, but that’s about it. To freeze, either slice or shred it, and put it in plastic freezer bags. Refrigerate until cold, then freeze. To use, just dump the zucchini out of the bag into the soup.

PUMPKIN AND SPAGHETTI SQUASH – Pumpkin and spaghetti squash are winter squash, and store well. Wash them and let them dry thoroughly, then put them on newspapers on a shelf. Be sure they don’t touch each other. You should be able to keep them in a cool place for at least a few months.

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