Chicago is famous for its abundant farmers markets. From Andersonville to Beverly and all through the suburbs, practically every neighborhood and town has its own market. Whether you are looking for flowers, bread, cheese or fruit, you can find familiar and unusual varieties-all fresh and locally grown or made. Some of the larger markets even have entertainment, such as chef demonstrations, programs for kids and live music.
Yes, the Chicago farmers markets are truly one of the city's gems. But, boy, can the produce be expensive! If you have ever balked at paying $6 for a tiny half-pint of berries, you know what I am talking about. It can cost more to eat local, and while that is a trade-off some families are willing to make, what about folks with a tight grocery budget? Are farmers markets off-limits for them?
Absolutely not! Farmers market produce isn't always more expensive than its supermarket equivalent. In fact, farmers market produce often is cheaper than organic supermarket produce by as much as 40 percent, according to a 2011 study. There even is farmers market produce that compares favorably in price to conventional supermarket produce.
So, if you love the idea of eating locally but aren't willing to pay more for the privilege, look for these farmers market bargains:
Fresh herbs are very pricey at the supermarket but usually you can score a huge bunch for only a few dollars at the farmers market. Combine herbs-not just basil!-with oil, garlic and nuts to make pesto.
Corn usually costs 50 cents an ear at the farmers market, but if you buy a dozen, it's only $5. Cut the extra cooked kernels off the cob and use them in corn pudding, salsa or salad.
You typically can buy three zucchini for $2 during summer and fall. Don't be tempted to buy the biggest ones though. Smaller, younger zucchini taste sweeter.
One of my favorite farmers market bargains! In season, red peppers sell for 75 cents-$1 each at the farmers market. At the supermarket, they often are twice that. Throw peppers on the grill and use any leftovers in pasta, on pizza or on sandwiches.
Studies have found that melon, peas, lettuce and cucumbers are good buys at farmers markets.
The other way to save money at the farmers market is to buy in bulk. A flat of strawberries, which is eight quarts, is often the same price as six individual quarts. Buying in bulk is only a savings, however, if you use or preserve what you buy before it goes bad.
Canning and pickling is one way to preserve fresh produce, but if that seems a little too involved, try freezing. Whole berries and pitted cherries freeze exceptionally well and taste great in baked goods or smoothies. Or, consider joining together with a friend or neighbor and splitting what you buy. Toward the end of the season, stock up on root vegetables and squash, which will keep for weeks in the refrigerator.