Thursday, August 4, 2011

$100 a Week--Sniffing out the best market deals in Seattle and Portland

How far would you drive for a good deal?

With my $100 a week food budget goal I've been hunting for local food deals, but frankly I've just about eaten my fill of zucchini. I recall that feeling when I was young and my dad would pop into the kitchen all chipper saying "more zucchini from the garden!" I couldn't even pretend to be interested.

Now, three pounds of zucchini a week for the past four weeks or so is making me quiver, and not in a good way.

This is the most challenging season for my so-called $100 a week food budget, and as a recovering food snob, trying to mend my ways (but not all of them) last week I failed miserably. I'm like a dieter who says "I'll just have one candy bar."

I blame my failure of the week on Oregon farmers' markets and my book-- The Northwest Vegetarian Cookbook.

Ever since I wrote my book, I drive to Oregon in the summer and fall. Other people take in concerts or sports events, but I'd rather drive to Portland, Corvallis, and maybe Medford and Ashland. I go to markets and visit the farmers in my book, and I can't come home empty handed.

Last summer in Medford, I discovered Dunbar Farms and learned all about the farm's history and I found out about these fabulous Farm-to-Fork Dinners at farms near Medford.

And last week, after I read this post on Good Stuff NW about frikeh processing at Ayers Creek Farm, I emailed Anthony Boutard requested 4 bags of frikeh (2 for me; 2 for friends), then I reread his weekly newletter and figured frikeh and some berries would make the trip a fun get away for the day. I hadn't really planned on getting anything else.

But trying to maintain a budget awareness on Saturday I held back spending at the market.

When shopping markets in Seattle, if you're looking for deals; check all booths for bins labeled "seconds" to get the best deals. And check the flower farmer booths for produce.

I spotted these green bean seconds at Mair Farm Taki for $3 a pound.

And Yellow Transparent apples were a deal. I'm not a big fan of these apples, but occasionally I have an urge to make this amazing raw apple cake before apples hit the markets, and these early apples are perfect for that.

I knew I'd blow my food budget at the Hillsdale Market, I just didn't get how seriously I could blow it.

On Sunday I got up at 6am, grabbed a coffee, got in the RAV4, put on an old Hank Williams CD and drove to Portland. I love the scenery, and the drive takes me back to long drives in the family station wagon on tent camping vacations with my family decades ago. It's like that only with a lot more traffic now.

I got to the Hillsdale Farmers' Market three hours later.

The guilt

It feels crazy to drive to Portland for what many people probably consider frivolous reasons. I recalled my dad once saying proudly, "I buy my food at the swap meet." Sure it's a bargain, if you like stale tasting packaged foods.

Well, some people go on wine tours, and people go on food tours in Italy or Paris, why not a farmers' market in another city?

Any residue of guilt I had over the not very green aspects of driving this distance melted away as soon as I headed toward the row of white canopies.

The Market

First stop was Gathering Together Farm where you can sample and buy the best fresh salsa in the Northwest.

Next stop was Ayers Creek Farm, and almost as soon as I said hello to Carol and Anthony, I spotted the pie cherries, I'd glossed over in the newsletter, for $15 for a half flat--6 pints each weighing about a pound. I didn't think twice about loading up. You rarely see organic or conventional pie cherries in Seattle markets. Maybe the weather isn't as favorable. Too far north? The only true pie cherries so far at the U-District Market come from Mair Farm-Taki and they sell for $10 a pound.

I bought them once and when I handed over the money, it reminded me of the $10 a bunch radishes I saw at a farmers' market in Phoenix. And at the time I'd said, "Who would buy those?" Maybe that's how much you pay when it's a different growing zone.

Two half flats of Morello cherries went into my wagon. I'd just stay up late processing them.

Ditto for boysenberries at the same price both of these fruits were less than half the price of comparable fruits found at Seattle farmers' markets.

Who can resist this market bargain? My only regret is I should have gotten more.

Green beans too, were less than half of what I paid last week in Seattle. At Deep Roots' Farm I noticed they no longer had a certified organic sign and when I asked why they had stopped certifying, the farmer said "Because it cost too much and the expense wasn't worth it. People know we farm sustainably." Hillsdale is a know-your-farmer market where people know a lot about how their farmers produce all that luscious produce.

I was in heaven with these more affordable produce prices.

Check out these purple and Italian beans from Sun Gold Farm, another sustainable Oregon farm.

And slicing cucumbers and sweet onions.

What gives with the difference in prices?

I've mused with friends and farmers about this all week. One of the first responses someone in Seattle says is "No sales tax in Oregon." But we don't have sales tax on food here either. Here are a few reason we've come up with.

1. Portland has a longer growing season and it tends to be a bit warmer in spring and summer. Maybe they have better luck with berries than we do here.

2. Much of Seattle's fruit for the markets comes over the mountains--apricots, peaches, nectarines, melons.

3. The two states have different farming spirits and attitudes. In Oregon the spirit seems more cooperative; in Washington farmers seem to have a more independent, competitive spirit.

4. One Oregon farmer mentioned higher market fees for farmers; plus ag regulations and government fees could be different.

5. Oregon has this crazy cool idea that everyone should have the access to nutritious food, so price hikes just to get the highest price for produce isn't encouraged.

6. In Washington it seems generally accepted that the first farmer at the market with an item will have a high price; or if only one farmer grows something the price can be quite high. This isn't really true in Oregon. For example check out the reasonable prices of artichokes from Denobles.

What do you think?

True confession: I left home with $140 and came home with only a few dollars. Might as well make my trip worthwhile I'd said to myself.


Like I said, I blew the food budget big time, but the good news is I returned home bearing gifts.

It's a requirement when you get the stink-eye after the initial greeting.

As soon as I started unloading the treasures, someone was interested.

I popped these juicy boysenberries and loganberries in the freezer as is. It's the easiest way to freeze organic berries. After they're frozen, put them in Ziploc bags and break them up. It's easy to pick out any bad ones when frozen. My Cooking Assistant likes them fresh off the bush or frozen.

These are the Morello pie cherries. The price was so good for these, I'm already planning to do this trip again next year. Seriously--$10 in Seattle or a little under $3 in Portland--both certified organic. What would you choose?

It took me quite awhile to pit them all by hand. After saving enough out for dessert, I froze half and dehydrated half. I made this cool Cherry Pie Crisp, you can make it with berries, peaches or nectarines, if you want.

I complained about the price of cherries last year, too.

Sometimes I whine too much. Maybe if I lived in Portland I'd find something else to whine about.

He found an escaped berry. He likes them too, but can't spit out the seeds so he doesn't get many cherries.

This is the kind of treat that makes my Cooking Assistant melt. I don't get it, but he was so excited, he forgot all about his hours left behind at home.

Hope your week is as magical as my trip to Portland.

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