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Eat Well, Spend Less: The Secrets of In-Season Produce

photo: Rhett Maxwell

Everyone has to eat. But how much you spend in your pursuit of a full stomach is another matter entirely. Enter the Frugal Foodie, a new feature to help you save money on food and drink. Whether you’re eating out or dining in, I’ll show you how to cut your bill — without sacrificing quality.

Want to eat better for less? Start by focusing on what’s fresh and in-season this spring.

Seasonal produce is cheaper simply because there’s a lot of it to sell, with stores and farmer’s markets pushing down prices to grab sales before the product spoils. Much of the fruits and vegetables come from local sources, too, cutting the transportation and storage costs associated with, say, flying in strawberries from Chile in December. Even prices on organics drop. (Peapod.com shoppers in Milwaukee currently pay $4.99 for a four-pound bag of navel oranges, whether they want organic or conventional ones.)

But frankly, in-season fruits and vegetables just taste better. There’s no need for 30-ingredient recipes or preparations that keep you in the kitchen for hours.

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

On the way out:

Citrus

April marks the end of peak season, so enjoy inexpensive oranges, tangerines and other citrus fruits while you can. Those of us up North have to resort to the supermarket instead of the farmer’s market, but deals are still decent — in New York City, lush softball-sized yellow grapefruit are currently 50 cents apiece.

Sub one in for an apple or other fruit as a snack, or add them to a salad. Andy Badgett, the owner and executive chef of Relish and The Fickle Pickle, both in Roswell, Ga., recommends tossing orange or clementine segments with baby greens (another in-season pick) and toasted coconut (cook store-bought shredded coconut in a skillet on medium heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned). For a dressing, mix some of the citrus juice with a tablespoon or so of olive oil.

On the way in:

Asparagus

At its peak in April, asparagus can be as tasty raw as it is steamed, says Kelly Liken, the owner and chef of Kelly Liken Restaurant in Vail, Colo. Her restaurant currently offers a raw asparagus salad with blanched fiddlehead ferns. OK, so the ferns are a bit of a stretch for home cooks, but the rest is simple. Use a vegetable peeler to shave the cleaned stalks into slivers, and then mix them with vinaigrette. Liken uses Champagne vinegar, Dijon mustard and olive oil, but there are plenty of variations you can try, depending on what’s in your cabinets.

Unless you’re cooking to impress, skip pricier white asparagus, Badgett says. Although it can be slightly more tender, you’re paying mostly for looks.

Baby greens

“Spring is the time when salads get really exciting,” Liken says. Arugula, baby spinach and baby bib lettuces are abundant at farmers markets. Instead of turning to a tried-and-true bagged salad mix, experiment with whichever greens are cheapest at your local market.

Photo: damada2

Strawberries

Prices on fresh berries are starting to drop and should hit lows in most areas by early May. (In New York City, for example, prices for a 16-ounce package were $6 in February, and are now $3 to $4. During the early summer, you can find them for as little as $2.50.) Desserts like strawberry shortcake are a given, but savory can be even more satisfying, says Pam Schwartz, the program manager for Sur La Table’s culinary program in Carlsbad, Calif. Pair sliced strawberries with a light drizzle of balsamic vinegar and a shake of pepper. Schwartz has also used cold strawberry slices atop an already cooked white pizza with mozzarella and mascarpone. “That was killer,” she says.

The Frugal Foodie’s personal favorite: Make a salad of spinach, and sliced strawberries and avocado (also in season). If you want, add in cold grilled chicken or shrimp. Top with a dressing of two or three pureed strawberries mixed with a tablespoon each balsamic vinegar, olive oil and lemon juice, and a dash of pepper.

Freezing strawberries can preserve the good deal for some home cooks. Thawed, they’re a bit mushy, so Badgett advises preserving only what you’d use later in cooked dishes like cobbler or pie with rhubarb (yet another pick currently in season).

Spring peas

It’s fairly self-explanatory when spring peas hit their peak, and the best recipes are simple ones. “Fresh peas don’t need much,” Schwartz says. Sauté a few handfuls with a tablespoon of butter for about three minutes, then top with salt, pepper and — if you’ve got it — a little crushed, fresh mint.

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.