Farmer’s Market Challenge!

The Red Bank farmer’s market is building up to its annual colorful crescendo right about now. The variety of fruit and vegetables available is pretty good and the prices are reasonable.

The popular stuff abounds — tomatoes, zucchini, peppers — but you can also find some a few examples of strange-looking, less-widely available varieties of eggplant and even daikon and other veggies that you don’t often see available fresh and local at the grocery store.

In past years my trips to the farmer’s market with my youngest son in tow were too frenetic for me to really spend much time shopping so I’d end up spending about $10 on produce that I would be using in the next couple of meals. 

As my son’s patience improves (that, and I bring a backpacking chair so he can sit and watch for trains, brilliant!), this summer I’ve got more time to walk around at the farmer’s market.

With the luxury of time to shop, I’ve constructed a bit of a challenge for myself while shopping: I bring $30 cash with me and make myself spend the entire amount on produce. I just buy whatever looks good or interesting and stuff that isn’t already growing in my garden. Then my challenge is to figure out something to make with it during the week.

So as I walk around the market on Sundays, I still don’t know what i’ll be making for dinner for the next few nights. Even as I leave with my Xtracycle bags or my car’s backseat fully loaded with vegetables (it is amazing how much produce $30 gets you!), i have no idea what I am going to do with it.

I just make sure not to waste it.  So far it has usually all been used up by Wednesday night, which is fine since Sea Bright has a farmer’s market on Thursday if i need to restock.

Over the past few weeks we’ve done pretty well and have had a several amazing dinners that came together as a result of random stuff in the produce drawer:

  • grilled fingerling eggplants and sliced tomato with shaved parmesan with grilled sausage
  • beets/balsamic vinaigrette with goat cheese and basil
  • breaded and fried zucchini served at room temp with fresh moz and sliced tomatoes and basil from the garden.
  • All amazing stuff that i probably wouldn’t have thought to make were the produce not staring up at me from the produce drawer of the fridge.

A side effect of all of this is that the sheer volume of vegetables we are eating in a given week is just massive right now (and, btw, our grocery bill is a bit lower as we seem to fill up faster on veg and serve it with smaller portions of cheese/meat/protein).

So the first part of the challenge for me was just making myself spend some percentage of our weekly grocery bill on produce from the farmers market. ($30 works out to roughly 12% of our weekly grocery bill for our family of four, in case you’re interested.)

The second part of the challenge occurred to me as I walked around last weekend — namely, to try to buy with that budget the widest possible variety of produce I can e.g. as many different items as possible.

SO instead of blowing $30 on the usual suspects (eggplant, zucchini, spinach), i’m buying smaller quantities of those items and more of the less common items like different varieties of radishes or fresh garlic or squashes.

Now, this is purely non-scientific, gut-level intuition speaking here but maybe i’ll try to find some research to back it up: It seems to me that eating a wide variety of produce has got to be a good thing.

Good for us as eaters because, well, variety tastes better and i wouldn’t be surprised if there is some relationship between the diversity of vegetable intake and gut microbiota diversity.

But also good for the planet because — as plays out each summer in my garden where some tomatoes get diseased and others don’t — diversity of crops is key to healthy farming.

When i get home and lay the bounty out on my kitchen table my head immediately starts to combine the stuff I’ve bought with items out of my garden and cheese and meat that I can buy downtown.

It’s a blast and i’ve really enjoyed make dinner for the past few weeks as a result.

Also, and i’ll try to detail this at some point, maybe try taking some fraction of what you’ve bought and just ferment it right away. I’ve got some killer red cabbage and hot pepper kraut bubbling away right now from my trip to the farmers market a couple of weeks ago.

Last week I supplemented my garden’s anemic kirby cucumber output with 2 pounds (for under $3!!!!) of kirby cukes from the market and now have an enormous crock of cukes getting pickled on my counter.

Anyway, to recap my two-part challenge:
• Pick an amount of money (roughly 10% of our weekly grocery bill in our case) and spend it on produce at the farmers market
• try to buy the widest possible variety of items you can, maximize diversity
• (implied third part of the challenge): FIGURE OUT SOME AWESOME STUFF TO MAKE WITH IT ALL!