How To

The Best Spring Produce for a Frugal Food Budget

Buying in-season produce is a simple way to save money and eat well, and an early spring has brought a few more values to the farmer’s market.

In-season produce is at its cheapest; supermarkets and local farmers compete to fill your basket before the produce spoils. Home cooks have it easy, too. In-season fruits and vegetables are at their prime, flavor-wise, so it doesn’t take much culinary effort to prepare wow-worthy dishes. (Of course, farmers markets can be an expensive place to shop. Make sure you’re employing other strategies to cut the bill.)

Here’s what fresh, cheap seasonal produce chefs around the country are buying now, and their suggestions for how home cooks can prepare it for maximum flavor. (Have more ideas? Post a favorite recipe in the comments.)

Ramps

Most farmers selling these wild leeks haven’t grown them — they’ve foraged for them. You can forage for leeks, too. The best way to use ramps is sparingly. “Ramps have tremendous flavor in small quantities, a large breakfast quiche could be flavored with four or five of them quite easily for a fresh unique gourmet flavor,” says Jonathan Raduns of SimpleFarmMarketing.com. Frugal Foodie encountered a craft stall last year selling “ramp butter” — chopped ramps rolled into logs of fresh butter — and plans to attempt her own version this year.

Asparagus

This spring star can be a crowd-divider, says “Next Food Network Star alumnus” Rory Schepisi, owner of Boot Hill Saloon & Grill in Vega, Texas. She says even asparagus-haters will like this recipe: Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Cut the tough ends off a bundle of asparagus. Roll the spears in a quarter-cup of olive oil and coat with a half-cup sugar and one teaspoon kosher salt. Place asparagus on the grill and cook for approximately 10-15 minutes. Turn to ensure even cooking. The asparagus are done when sugar is caramelized and the spears are starting to look burnt. Sprinkle them with the zest of half an orange and serve. Anne Maxfield of “The Accidental Locavore” has a similarly tasty version marinated in a mayonnaise mix.

Greens

“Watercress makes a delightful base salad for a piece of grilled fish, and in the spring it’s the most affordable,” says Mint.com reader Holly Wolf, who frequents farmer’s markets throughout the year. “Add it to fruit salad for a spicy contrast,” she says. Wolf has also found great spring deals on spinach, which can be used for a salad, added to soup or incorporated into a range of other dishes. “Add [sautéed spinach] to ground chicken, turkey or beef for extra flavor and extra moisture,” she says. “You’ll never eat a meatball without it.
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Rhubarb

It’s more than the namesake of strawberry-rhubarb pie. One of the more versatile spring produce finds, rhubarb can be worked into a wide variety of sauces, chutneys and preserves. (It also freezes easily, for shoppers who want to save it for when better strawberries and other fruits are available.) Many people pair rhubarb with other fruit to tame its tang, but Sheri Silver of “Donuts, Dresses and Dirt” says it also works well as the showcase ingredient for a rustic tart.

Herbs

Spring is the time to start an herb garden, which can help you save cash year round. Frugal Foodie just picked up a bunch of smaller herb pots, five for $15, to start indoors and then transition to the balcony when it’s warmer out. If you’re just looking to cook, not grow, Wolf suggests looking for chives, which are usually one of the first herbs out in abundance. “Take a handful of chives and chop,” she says. “Put in your food processor, add grainy mustard and vinegar of your choice. Drizzle in oil. It’s a delightfully zesty dressing or marinade.”

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie http://www.twitter.com/mintfoodie