Farmers' Market Haul, 8/16/08

I always love reading your comments and emails – it brings such a smile to my face knowing that this little blog has touched so many people near and far, and honestly, you guys are what keeps me going at times (like now) when I’m so busy I barely have time to think. And I know I’m not always great at responding to questions in a timely fashion, but I hope to get better at that. To start, I’ll answer a question from Nadia in Calgary, Alberta (Hi, Nadia!) – she writes:

…if you don’t mind me asking, what is your weekly budget for food? Any recommendations for cutting costs without losing your dignity as a chef?

With respect to our food budget, I’ll be honest – we don’t really have a set amount that we hold ourselves to for the week. It varies, depending on the time of year and our circumstances. For instance, things were pretty tight for us in the month after our move since I wasn’t working, and we had to really stretch things, food-wise. I was really grateful at the time that we had moved so much of the contents of our freezer and pantry with us, because I was able to base meals on the beans and grains we had on hand, incorporate meats here and there, and spend most of our food money on fresh produce, eggs, dairy and bread.

There are times when we are able to be a little more extravagant, and it’s those times when you’ll see the occasional gourmet items sneak in – a little foie gras here, tenderloin there, etc. And there are times like now, at the height of summer, when we spend the majority of our food money at the farmers’ markets we frequent. There’s so much good stuff in season right now, so we’re trying to fit as much of it into our meals as possible.

We generally try to have one meatless dinner per week year-round, but in the summertime, we’ll do so more often. This week we fit in three: our squash blossom-topped tomato soup on Monday, a not-very-photogenic casserole on Tuesday, and on Thursday, this summer vegetable soup, loaded with fresh tomatoes, summer squash, kale, and string and shell beans from the farmers’ market, plus some of my homemade chicken stock:

Dinner:  August 14, 2008

We spent about $100 at the farmers’ market yesterday, and another $100 at Whole Foods; last week we spent $140 at the farmers’ market and $120 at Whole Foods. Some of what we bought is “stock up” type stuff that we have stashed away for future use, and some will be used a little at a time over several meals – for instance, a whole duck which Mike will break down after it’s thawed, some of which will be smoked, some prepared as confit, the bones and wings made into stock, the fat rendered and reserved, etc. The $15 we spent on that duck will go a long way.

We do love our meat, and we have no intention of giving it up, but the way we eat meat has changed for both ethical and financial reasons. We try to buy more unusual cuts, like these lamb shoulder chops, rather than rib chops or a rack. They’re far less expensive but just as tasty, which helps us keep our budget in check. Likewise, choosing bluefish, sardines or mackerel instead of salmon or halibut from time to time allows us to enjoy luscious and heart-healthy fatty fish, with less of an impact on both our budget and the environment. And instead of cooking up a steak for each of us, these days we’re more likely to split one, slicing it and serving it with plenty of veggies and other accompaniments to dress it up.

Finally, we try to use as much as possible of what we buy. Heels of bread or hunks that have gone slightly stale get turned to breadcrumbs or croutons; our freezer is filled with bones and trimmings all waiting to be turned into stock; leftovers are either eaten for lunch or given new life in other dishes. Our freezer is always full, with stuff rotating in and out constantly, and periodic inventories taken to make sure things don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Now, we cook for two most nights, and what we spend on food for the two of us each week may seem excessive, but we have made a conscious decision to spend more on the best quality food we can afford – it’s a priority for us, moreso than going to see movies or traveling or buying non-essentials. And we really have no real-life experience with what goes into cooking for a family, with their varied tastes and requirements – maybe we will, someday, and I hope that we’ll continue to eat as locally and sustainably as possible, whatever the cost. Mike and I do realize how lucky we are that we live comfortably and can make these choices; I’ve said before I know that many can’t, but I hope that at least some of the tips I’ve mentioned above are things you can incorporate into your own cooking, regardless of your personal situation.

10 thoughts on “Q&A

  1. I totally understand the need to make the most of the summer veggies. We watched King Corn last week and there was some stat that said we used to spend 25% of our income on food, but now we only spend 15? I think that was it. I’d rather spend my extra income on better food than “consumer goods” so we’re going to change how we shop a bit more as well.. and include more grass-fed meats into our diet. Even if it means going a bit out of the way to get to a decent meat shop. It’s so easy to spend $100 at the market!

  2. cupcakes says:

    That was really interesting and informative! Thanks for sharing such personal info. What I would like to know -and I hope this isn’t too personal- how do you enjoy these wonderful foods and stay healthy/keep fit? Do you go to the gym or do you just cut back in other ways? The reason that I ask is I enjoy a lot of the same foods, but I hate going to the gym! What to do!

  3. “but we have made a conscious decision to spend more on the best quality food we can afford – it’s a priority for us, moreso than going to see movies or traveling or buying non-essentials”

    That’s how we are. And we don’t restrict ourselves to a budget either. For that, I am extremely and humbly grateful.

    I always enjoy your stuff, tremendously in fact. Even with few words, your food inspires me (especially, recently, that soup). Thank you for continuing to do what you do!

  4. I’m glad you answered this question; it’s something I’ve wondered myself. I love reading your blog and looking at your food photos, and even when I can’t recreate what you have done, I am always inspired by your ideas. I enjoy the way that you balance both extravagance and being frugal and live and eat so ethically and with so much passion.

    I love the satisfaction derived from wasting as little and reusing as much as possible. If I had more time, I’d be better at this myself. But ultimately it is where your passion lies that gets the most of your spare time: yours is food. While I love food, my passion is writing, and this is where my time goes.

    That soup looks beautiful!

  5. Helena says:

    cupcakes: To my mind, Jen’s diet is screamingly healthy. It is extremely varied – she eats just about every available ingredient, and it comprises a lot of vegetables, pulses, grains, fish, and other healthy stuff. Bad stuff such as powdered foods and low-quality processed foods that are packed with transfats, MSG, artificial sweeteners and other things that are bad for you, is completely absent. I think it would be very difficult to NOT be fit, healthy and slender with such a diet – perhaps except if one eats absurd amounts of it.

    I would also like to point out a few cheap ingredients that are both tasty and healthy: Tinned/canned fish such as tuna, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, salmon; canned tomatoes; dried or canned lentils and beans (dried ones are cheaper and tastier, but canned ones are good too); grains and grain-like items such as farro, pearl barley, couscous, bulgur, quinoa and millet; certain types of fresh fish (herring and mackerel in particular); onions, cabbage and swede; and so forth. 🙂

  6. Lamb shoulder chops! I had a couple last week and was surprised at how good and tender they were, and literally less than half the price of the loinchops.

    You do have a nice food non-budget, though…I don’t know what mine is either, so this week will count. I am guessing it’s lower, but then, maybe not!

    I find I save by buying less expensive cuts of meat, in general, when I eat meat, though sometimes I splurge on a mega-porterhouse… which blows any previous savings right out of the water! But I tend not to even look at tenderloin. My bank balance starts crying…

    Recently I have started to save parts of vegetables I would normally keep in the fridge till they morphed into something weird…like the outside leaves of lettuce, outside ribs of celery, green parts of scallions, and make a summer soup with chicken stock and yoghurt or buttermilk, and then freeze much of it. Keeps my conscience clear, tastes yummy and is perfect if someone comes over for dinner – instant appetizer.

  7. christy says:

    I have been reading your blog for about 6 months. So far I haven’t tried anything on it. But I plan on starting soon. Especially things like soup and chicken stocks.
    We have 5 kids and another on the way. They aren’t picky and will eat just about anything. I think they have drawn the line at brussel sprouts.

    We do purchase a side of beef, from a local rancher, that is hormone-free etc. I do try to buy things like that at the store too.

    We also had a garden this year, which the kids loved. We have had homemade spaghetti sauce, cucumber sandwiches (with homemade bread) and lots of other tasty treats.

    Thank you for sharing all the great photos. We enjoy them and can’t wait to start trying some of the recipes!

  8. I’m totally with you about the quality of food. We hit the farmers’ markets as often as we can – serious bounty exists there 🙂 Besides, there is so much that can be done with bits and pieces and leftovers – soups, stocks, sometimes even a veggie hash – all goodness 🙂

  9. I used to be able to feed my family on around $350 per month. There are five of us, but 2 of them are very small eaters. I can only do that when I do a monthly menu plan and live off of that to a tee. Otherwise, when I fail to plan, that budget goes out the window (like it has lately!)

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