The first farm box of 2010 is just around the corner and I can't believe how fast it came around! Over the weekend, I was reminiscing about how difficult I found the first few weeks of the season last year and how much easier it is for me now that I have a system. I admit I was pretty overwhelmed by my first box last year (4 types of lettuce? what do I do with 4 types of lettuce?) and it took several exasperating mornings for me to sort myself out those first few weeks. About mid-summer, I got a good rhythm going and now I've got Saturday morning market visits down to a well-timed routine. I thought it might be useful to share the things I learned that help me maximize my Saturday market time. I'd also like to hear about your food philosophies or how you keep up with the market.
In full disclosure, I think it's fair for me to disclose my approach to food in general. Everyone has different food strategies and expectations for their market experience. I have seen people come to the market, stroll around for an hour and leave with one little melon. My eating philosophy is not nearly so calm or esoteric. I am usually on a mission when I get to the farmer's market and I have lots of energy and enthusiasm for food. Lots. My food philosophy is to eat food that is as fresh and tasty as it can possibly be. To that meet that end, I try to eat as locally as possible. If organic is available, I like that but I won't pay double for it (for veg). I am very particular about meat and want the animals to be treated sensibly (without irresponsible dosing of anitbiotics or hormones) and humanely. I also want sustainability in most of the food that my family consumes. Finally, I want to eat with the seasons as much as is possible so I can savor the gifts that come along during the growing season.
So that's my philosphy. It's not rigid and I don't beat myself up if I eat a highly processed hot dog or something. The reality of my life is that I have two small children, I work a full week, and I live in a suburban/urban area. My family goes through 2 gallons of milk and a staggering amount of assorted cheeses in a week. We also use common western staples like rice, pasta, and chocolate chips. I am not a tee-totaller. I won't get up from a meal if I'm served food of unknown provenance and I love Biscuitville (who I'm certain doesn't use free-range, hormone free ANYTHING). I believe that the way I eat is realistic for the society that I live in (although many people think I'm an extremist and others think I'm a light weight foodie. egh......I just want to eat food that tastes great).
I try to put about half of my weekly food budget into the farmer's market. I buy all vegetables, meat, and eggs from the market. I also get most fruit and some dairy/bread options from the market. I usually have to make a stop on the way home at a storefront grocery store to pick up milk and assorted staples. Once a month or so I do a run to a wholesale club or an importer for things we buy in bulk (wine) or specialty ingredients (like spices) that I can't get from a local source.
A typical Saturday morning involves getting up the whole family, packing the car w/reusable bags and a large rolling cooler w/a handle. We go to the farmer's market to pick up breakfast and coffee. The North Hills market has a Starbucks and several bakers. The Western Wake market has a coffee roaster who will sell samples. We eat breakfast together and then hubby and kids usually go to listen to the music or start to stroll while I begin hunting.
I take one pass through the market, pick up my box from Edible Earthscapes and then go back to fill in any gaps. Since what's available at the market changes weekly, it's difficult to write a menu or a list and stick with it. I find it's easier for me if I think in terms of weekly 'servings' or sources. In any given week, I need to leave the farmer's market with the following or else I'll end up having to go to a normal grocery store mid-week:
8-10 vegetable sources
1 dozen eggs
1-2 loaves of bread
3-4 meat sources
1-2 cheese sources
We get most of our vegetable sources from Edible Earthscapes but I sometimes need to fill in some things to suit my recipes or our family's individual tastes. I also try to get several fruit servings-this year I'm going to try and freeze some since fruit has a shorter growing season than the vegetables. Everything goes in the big rolling cooler to keep it from wilting or getting crushed.
Before we go home, we stop off to get milk, cheese, etc. Then we head home for the real work. The biggest lesson from last year that I learned: It is imperative to deal with the produce as soon as possible. What do I mean? I mean that you can't treat farmer's market produce like produce that has been grown for its ability to sit on a shelf. Farmer's market produce is typically not treated with preservative and the farmer chose to grow it because of it's taste-not because it won't bruise easily. This is not produce that can sit on your counter all day.
Go ahead and wash the lettuce, spin it and put it into gallon ziplock bags with a dry paper towel. In fact, you should wash everything and make sure you don't have some passengers. Most produce from the farmer's market is not treated with pesticide so bugs like it as much as you do. That's a good sign! (You just don't want to put your stowaways in your fridge for later). Take the greens off of root vegetables and store them separately if you want to use them. If you don't take them off, the root is likely to get mushy as the leaves pull out energy and water. If you really want to leave them attached, you can put the whole thing into water-similar to putting flowers in water and then stick that in the fridge. Just don't stuff those carrots into the bottom drawer with the leaves still attached and expect them to be firm in 4 days.
If you already know what's on the menu for the week, it's a good time to do some sou chef prepwork too. Chopping a gallon of strawberries took me 10 minutes last week. But once they're chopped and safely stored in the fridge, snacks are easy. I usually use this time to make up any condiments that will be needed that week-refrigerator pickles, salad dressing with herbs and pesto are handled at this time so that I don't do 'double duty' when putting away the components and then have to repack them again once the condiment is made.
By the time I'm finished, it's lunch time-just in time to sit down to a nice, local meal.