Everyone has their own idea of what should be on a frugal grocery list. Mostly, whatever’s on it should be nutritious, inexpensive, AND something you’re actually going to eat within the week, so it doesn’t go to waste. The other obvious rule is that it should add up to enough food for a week’s worth of meals without busting the budget.
Fresh fruits and vegetables seem to be the hardest thing for most people to buy cheaply, but they do the most for your diet and your tastebuds if you treat them right. I live in the Los Angeles area and when I first moved here, I suffered horrible sticker shock–not just because rents were 50% higher than back east, but because fresh produce hovered at or above the $2/lb mark–just about double what I paid in Maryland. $2/lb for tomatoes? In California? Sad and inexplicable, but true.
It took me a while to realize supermarkets are the least good deal on fruits and vegetables here. The long-running supermarket checkers’ strike forced me to break out and change the way I shop. Farmers’ markets are fun, but they can be chi-chi expensive too. The best bet for me is at my local mom-and-pop Armenian corner grocery a few blocks away, or else the Latino market with the huge vegetable section in the next town over. Those stores buy their wholesale produce in smaller quantities and closer to ripe than the supermarkets do, so they pay less and sell it for less with quicker turnover. Sometimes the produce is either smaller or less beautiful and shiny than what you see in the big chains, but often there are great ingredients you can’t even find in the supermarkets. Sometimes the owners bring in vegetables from their own gardens. And when they overstock, they slash prices like crazy.
My best deals so far:
- an entire flat of yellow tomatoes on the vine (about 50)–3 bucks.
- Butternut squash, 9 cents/lb. Yes, I thought it was a typo too. I ate it for a month.
- Navel oranges, 10 lb/$1.00 (in winter, when the orange harvest comes in)
- Lemons and limes, 10-20/$1.00. I bought a bunch and froze most of them.
But regular fruit and vegetable shopping can yield good deals too. I lean toward fruits and vegetables high in bulk (i.e. more solid cruciferous vegetables, not iceberg lettuce), vitamins A and C, iron, fiber, and potassium, and low in starch (i.e., not all-potatoes-all-the-time). By coincidence–either good fortune or a sad commentary on our nation’s average food preferences–many of these tend to be reasonably inexpensive. Red cabbage (or green, I just like the purple color), carrots, winter squashes (butternut, spaghetti, acorn, kabocha…) Broccoli and cauliflower run cheaper in the winter, as do most hard squashes and citrus fruits. I personally like eggplant as well as okra whenever I can find it fresh. But I’m well aware (the comments from my best-beloved…) that not everyone gets into those. Well, so I hate cooked beets, and they hate me back. What can I tell you?
Cooking vegetables right can save a lot of money and time, and can keep them tasting good, so that you’ll actually enjoy them. Eggplant and winter squash can be microwaved whole on a pyrex plate in about 10 minutes. Some things I prefer raw–cabbage and green beans come to mind here. If I were a decent gardener, I’d grow lots of green beans and never cook them at all.
But for any solid green or cruciferous vegetable whose taste and color you want to keep from ruining–broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, baby bok choy, Romano flat beans, etc.–microwaving very lightly in a very small amount of water, with a lid, seems to be the best way to cook them. It turns them jewel green (or perhaps purple, for the new strains of broccoli hitting the novelty market) and crisp-tender within 2 1/2 minutes. They taste lively, not overcooked, brownish-graygreen and sulfurous. They go well with a variety of simple sauces–or none. And you’ll never go back to boiling or steaming them again.
Cruciferous types: Put 2 to 2.5 cups of cruciferous-type vegetables plus a scant quarter-inch of water in a lidded microwave container. Seal the lid down tight and shake so the water droplets hit the vegetables at the top–this will help prevent scorching. Nuke for 2.5 min on HIGH. Fork-test: often the vegetables at the top will be a little more tender than those at the bottom. If they’re not soft enough for you, cook another 20-30 seconds covered and test again. Drain the water out (there won’t be much) and serve reasonably quickly.
~1 lb. (1/2 kilo) green or flat beans or asparagus stalks: Lay flat on a Corelle/pyrex-type or other microwaveable plate, drizzle with a few spoonsful of water, cover with microwaveable plastic wrap or another plate inverted, and nuke 1.5-2 min. Fork-test the thickest ones carefully (watch out for steam) or let them have another 20 seconds or to taste. Drain, serve, etc.