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Market inspiration

(article, Matthew Card)

While I heartily endorse shopping at the local farmers' market, the prices throughout the spring are often quite dear, and the tab for a week’s worth of perishables can be shocking. How do you eat well from the farmers' market without blowing your budget?

First of all, shop wisely and buy produce at the peak of its season. When asparagus first debuts, you’ll pay a pretty penny for it. But come back a few weeks later, when practically every vendor is selling it, and you’ll more than likely find more competitive prices. The same goes for cherries, tomatoes, and well, just about anything.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="An herbed ricotta enhances pasta with peas and green garlic."] 

Also, shop around. I like to take a first pass through the market before buying anything to see what’s most abundant and which stands have the best-looking and most reasonably priced produce.

And third? Take only as much money as you want to spend. Since most vendors accept only cash, if you stock your pocket with a limited amount, you'll find it easier to stay within your budget.
 
In the northern U.S. at this time of year, when fields are still getting up to speed, the most attractive and cheapest vegetables tend to be leafy greens. I typically pick up a bunch or two of delicate greens (especially spicy arugula, which goes far with its potent flavor) for sandwiches and salads, but heartier braising greens are something I stock up on and prepare several nights a week. 

Swiss chard might just be the best bargain at the market, as both the floppy leaves and succulent stems are edible. That said, the stems are tougher than the leaves and should be trimmed from the leaves and cooked independently; sautéing is best for the stems, as it maximizes their earthy, beet-like flavor.

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For a simple, nutritious, and economical meal, I’ll pair garlicky sautéed chard with eggs and cheese in dinner-worthy fried-egg sandwiches. Farm-fresh eggs from the market are a world apart from supermarket eggs, and are well worth purchasing for their richer flavor and more intense color. And if you’re lucky, somebody at the market will be selling locally made cheese — a splurge perhaps, but usually worth it. Nothing finishes a fried-egg sandwich like a blanket of tangy melted cheese.

I love the delicate flavors of spring’s finest offerings, such as green garlic and fresh peas, but their prices — and the large amount necessary for a full meal — can make them the stuff of special occasions. To keep these favorites of mine in weekly rotation, I’ll stretch reasonably small amounts of each in pasta dishes designed to carry their flavor. One such dish matches simply sautéed garlic greens with pasta, peas, and herbed ricotta, the richness of which perfectly picks up the garlic’s subtle bite and the peas' sweetness.

[%image sandwich float=right width=400 caption="A fried-egg sandwich with chard."]

Most local markets now have at least one purveyor selling fresh meats — seafood, poultry, beef, lamb, or pork. The meat easily bests that of anything store-bought, and chances are it was raised in a more sustainable fashion. Flavor and ethics, however, come at a price, and farmers'-market meat is typically a third again what it costs at the supermarket.

Instead of buying tender chops and steaks, I purchase cheaper cuts like pork shoulder or Boston Butt that are rich in flavor and can be tender if properly prepared, such as braised in a stew or simmered in a robust ragu. When it warms up too much for me to tolerate a simmering pot, I’ll slice the meat thinly and soak it in adobado, a Mexican-style acidic marinade laced with chiles, garlic, and herbs. These thin cuts of flavorful meat can then be quickly broiled or grilled, tossed with lime juice and coarse salt, and eaten over rice or stuffed into soft tacos with salsa and crisp radishes (from the market, of course). 

In this fashion, a little bit of meat can easily feed a crowd and keep dinner within budget.

p(bio). Matthew Card is a contributing editor to Cook’s Illustrated and writes a monthly column for the Oregonian.


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