Sunday, July 20, 2008

If You Can't Grow It, Buy It

Easier said than done, sometimes, I know. But I'll share something I've learned, just in case there lives a single person on earth slower than me. When I'm building my family's meals around what is available, instead of reaching out into the entire wide world of food, grasping at anything and everything, shopping is actually easier. What I'm trying (poorly) to communicate is that limiting myself to locally-grown (and thus, in season) food actually makes shopping for food easier. Well, simpler, anyway. You still have to find it.

So it was that, this weekend, Bella and I went on a fact-finding mission, visiting two Saturday-morning markets, one open-daily farm stand (fronting a large growing operation), and one fairly standard produce market. I will say this--once spoiled to organic or chemical-free (the only difference being certification by the government) local food, it's hard to think conventionally again. I can't look at something like, say, the bunch of bananas that Bella begged for at BJ's (and yes, I totally caved and got them for her), the same way ever again. I see the fruit for what it is, but now I also see the distance it traveled and the resources that it took to get it here. Similarly, the pail of conventionally-grown peaches, treated with pesticides and fungicides, purchased at the local farm stand mocked me all the way home, taunting me with their "black list" status. Those peaches may wind up being the most expensive chicken feed I purchase this year, since I have yet to be able to bring myself to eat one.

a good haul, mostly from the Cabot farmer's market and the Certified Arkansas Farmer's Market in NLR

This was our haul for Saturday (Click through on the photo for notes labeling everything). You can see that my shopping philosophy isn't very different from what it is with grocery store sales and coupons: aside from your needs for the current week, buy what is abundant (and thereby low-priced), and stock up as much as space allows. The added factor, of course, is that you buy what's available. This was the last weekend, with most farmers, for local corn, so when we got to my favorite vendor's stall at the Certified Arkansas Farmer's Market, I bought all they had. It wasn't a whole lot, about fifty ears, but it was enough. Corn's a nice treat, but it doesn't have enough nutritional value for me to want to devote much precious freezer space to it. We ate ten (that's right: 10) ears today, I froze fifteen or so whole, to be eaten on the cob, and the rest I blanched and cut off the cob, storing in freezer bags--probably a half gallon's worth, when all was said and done.

counting corn

My other "bulk buy," as you can see, was green beans. I bought all the vendor had, and wound up with sacks full of them, at a really great price (in my experience so far, when you tell a seller, "I'll take all you have," they generally make you an even better price than they were charging in the first place). They're a favorite vegetable of mine, so I know I'll use them frequently. I blanched and froze them, as well, and took up a good bit of my freezer space. See that empty bin in the photo below? that bin was full of naturally-grown green beans before I got there. You snooze, you lose, fellow customers of the brand-new Cabot Farmer's Market. Sorry.

kind of loving the produce being displayed on metal TV trays

The freezer situation is interesting--since hunting season is in the fall and winter, for the most part, that is when the freezer got stocked with meat last, and so, here in mid-summer, our meat supply is claiming just a small portion of the real estate in the freezer. There is still wild-harvested venison and turkey to be had at our house, and it will last us until we (and by "we," I mean "Alex") can get some more, but just. I intend to put in some grass-fed beef this year, as well, and try harder to disconnect myself from the feed-lot beef food chain. I may even invest in a little pork, which is not something we eat much of at all...but I'm beginning to understand why so many traditional Southern vegetable recipes start with a hunk of salt-pork. Of course, we'll also be processing and freezing our own home-grown heritage chicken and turkey this fall, as well, so it's looking like we may wind up having to find another used freezer for the basement. Our current cold-storage workhorse was an amazing $95 find. May she live longer than any freezer before her ever has.

While the meat stores dwindle, the opposite is happening with fruits and vegetables. July is a month of plenty, so I'm filling that freezer at an astonishing pace with as much produce as I can put up. Right now, I'd guess the produce:meat ratio in cold storage at our house is at about 3:1, space-wise. And by the time we have meat to store, we'll have eaten a good bit of our fruits and vegetables, and so the ratio will swing the other way until it starts all over in the spring.

Some things I'm buying in smaller amounts, and stocking up on more gradually, because it takes a lot of time to get this stuff put away once you get it home, and certain plants will be producing abundantly for a while. Tomatoes aren't going anywhere in a hurry, and neither is anything in the squash family. I'm going to try to pick up more beans and peas this week, having been inspired by the beautiful purple-hull peas that are currently pouring out of bursting bins all over the state. At one market on Saturday, they even had the automatic sheller running non-stop.

giving the automatic huller an assist

After researching recipes, I think I'm going to want some more of these peas (even though it took Bella and I a couple of hours to shell the ones we already bought), because, doggone it, there are gonna be plenty of cold, dreary nights this winter when a good helping of Hoppin' John will hit the spot. I wish I'd paid closer attention to the difference in price between the peas we bought with their hulls on, and the ones available already naked at the larger markets. Of course, the shelled peas were grown with chemicals, so all things considered, it was probably worth our labor in shelling them--plus it was a fun thing for me to get to do with my little daughter.

Some things, we'll mostly just enjoy now (I may freeze one or two meals' worth), while they're here, and just wait until next year to enjoy them again. This list would include somewhat fanciful items, like the pictured Fairy Tale eggplant and pattypan squash, as well as items that just scream, "SUMMER," like green tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, and okra. Although, when I buy okra, I have been buying the small, baby pods to roast or grill now, and the larger pods for slicing and frying...and then I find myself thinking how good some gumbo might be later on in the year, and putting that sliced okra up in the freezer after all. My point is, while I'm going to pretty much want things like green beans, spinach, broccoli, and carrots for most of the year (and thank goodness those things all freeze well), I will probably live through the winter and spring without suffering severe okra cravings.

I'm really new at this, so please, tell me what to be on the lookout for in the coming weeks. Do you have a favorite summer food that you look forward to all year? Is there something that you love so much, you simply can't do without it all year long? Does that drive you to preserve it yourself, or do you just hope it'll be available when you want it?


  1. We recently discovered a frozen food CSA in our state. Really, it's a novel idea. The organizers partnered with seven growers, and will freeze 28 bags of food per share this summer. In November, we can start picking up the food, either all at once (my choice, but I have a deep freeze) or in four weekly installments. It adds up to about $4 a bag, which is pretty economical, considering the work that's gone into it. It won't carry us through the winter, but it'll be a very nice addition to what we've stored.

  2. Was the guy in the hat for sale? I'd have bought him, too, as I'm sure he's yummy.

  3. I have a hint for you in freezing okra for future frying. You can slice the okra and toss it in cornmeal/flour mixture just like you are going to fry it. Place the slices on cookie sheets in a shallow layer and slide them into the freezer for about an hour, or until frozen. This freezes them individually, keeping them from sticking together in clumps if placed in the bags. Then, after frozen in the shallow layer, scoop them up and put them in bags of. When you crave fried okra this winter, just open the bag and dump it in the skillet....with very few big "chunks" to deal with. Of course, it's not as good as fresh...but works pretty well especially since okras is so plentiful during the season.

  4. What do you do with your patty pan squash? They are always so lovely, but I never know what to do with them.

  5. I'll tell you what we do with patty pan... we slice them then dredge them in flour and cornmeal, add a little salt and pepper and fry them. If you use butter for pan frying, the cornmeal makes it taste like buttered popcorn. It is better than anything! We also do this with yellow squash and zucchini. These are the flavors I look forward to all year, and when mid-summer comes, it is all I want to eat. I also look forward to all the cherries and berries, and to all the fresh corn and beans. OH! And melons! All kinds!

    I guess I love all the summer grubs. LOL!

    Good haul at the market, btw. We don't have corn here yet, but we still have peas, strawberries, and radishes :)

    Gumbo sounds good right now, btw....

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