Tired of eating plates of beans as a salad course
September 22, 2012 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Can you give me step-by-step instructions on how to pick out salad ingredients after arriving at a supermarket or farmer's market?

I would love to come up with a creative salad plan upon inspecting the available produce at my grocery store and considering all the ingredients for best freshness or low cost. Fully examining the whole produce section before beginning, and then creating a plan for optimum results, seems a bit overwhelming. It is probably an NP-complete problem. It's worse at a farmer's market where I have to contend with multiple stands selling the same ingredients. It would take forever to exhaustively consider all the ingredients available from every vendor before beginning to shop. As far as trying to consider which vegetables are "the freshest," it's easy to compare one vegetable against others of its own kind, but comparing carrots to peppers is like comparing apples to oranges (so to speak).

So what do I do? What sorts of things work for you?

I'd like to maybe branch out but here are the sorts of things I've liked on salad before: lettuce (romaine, green leaf), spinach, carrots, celery, bell peppers (green, red, yellow), cucumbers (English, traditional), tomatoes, avocado, parsley, onions (red, green), snap peas, green beans, cheese (goat, Parmesan, blue, feta), walnuts, olives. I usually make my own dressing.

Not interested in a mystery box community-supported agriculture plan. I asked a version of this question on Seasoned Advice earlier where I perhaps did not explain well enough that I really want a step-by-step algorithm rather than generalities.
posted by grouse to Food & Drink (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
it's really not clear what you're asking. it sounds like you're looking for something like an AI expert system for grocery shopping, which of course does not exist.
posted by facetious at 11:38 AM on September 22, 2012

I'll tell you what I do, but it seems a bit more haphazard than maybe you want.

I go to the produce with a budget.

I do a circuit to see what's on sale/looks good/I haven't had in a while

I buy whatever is on sale/looks good/I haven't eaten in a while

I try to think if I know any recipes off hand that use the ingredients I put in the basket.

I never, ever succed at this, so I say "fuck it" and just buy whatever's in the basket.

I go home and cut it up and put it in a bowl. Then I eat it. It's usually pretty good regardless of what's in it. This is because I only buy things that I like.

More organized people than me decide what to buy by bringing a small list of favourite recipes/ small cookbook to the grocer's. It seems to work pretty well for them. Really organised people have an idea of what's in season before they go, and choose some recipes to bring based on that.
posted by windykites at 11:38 AM on September 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Texture before taste, works for me, on general principles. Somewhere i'd read that japanese meals tended to be a carefully balanced and harmonic compositions of texture and taste.
posted by infini at 11:39 AM on September 22, 2012

Oh, to solve the "who has the freshest veggies" problem:

Each time you go to the market, buy from a new vendor. Rate the produce in a notebook when you get home. When you've gone to each vendor, start over from the beginning and give each one more chance. This might take an entire season, but at the end you can select who "your" vendor will be based on your notes.

Or, you could buy one item that's currently in season from each vendor on the same day. (This would probably be more fair). Keep careful track of what you got where and the cost. Buy the same variety if you can. This will be a horrible shopping day but you can rank all the whatevers (let's say apples) and use that to decide who to go to.

(Personally I just go to whoever doesn't have too long a line unless i dont like the looks of their product or i notice a really good sale but you asked for systems.)

Hinestly though, the problem with this kind of test is that it's not going to be valid for very lobg. Joe who has the best apples this week may have the shittiest lettuce next Tuesday but much better mustard greens in a month, you know?
posted by windykites at 11:50 AM on September 22, 2012

1. Take multiple weeks to become familiar with your local farmer's market. (Every farmer's market I've become familiar with has the same vendors every week, in the same booths.) Whose lettuce do you prefer? Whose tomatoes? Etc.

2. Before visiting the market, determine what is in season this week (depends on what time of year it is). This sort of thing is google-able and your farmer's market may even have an information page that features this.

3. Again, before visiting the market, brainstorm what in-season ingredients you want in your salad. Based on your prior experience with the market, decide whose booth you will visit for each.

4. Visit the farmer's market according to the plan you developed in step 3.

5. Make the salad with the ingredients you purchased.

(I far prefer just wandering through the market each week, plucking whatever looks good and just tossing into a salad, but it sounded like you wanted a concrete plan. To me, following steps like these take the relaxation and fun out of market-shopping, which is the whole point for me.)
posted by sallybrown at 11:55 AM on September 22, 2012

I agree that there may not be the complete answer that you want. However, I might be able to help with parts of your question.

Based on my farmers' market experiences: 1. all produce is generally of the same freshness, 2. farmers price their produce similar to other farmers, down to the penny, but may offer different sizes, or price breaks for buying in bulk, and 3. you don't have to inspect the whole market; instead know what's available ahead of time. In reference to #3, my farmers' market has a website that lists what's in season for each month and while it's not complete, if you pay attention, you'll be able to know and remember what's available for September in your given locale.

So based on those conclusions I've made, I do make a quick stroll looking for the more unusual produce, or the things I want to buy in bulk for better prices, but then I try to buy as much as looks interesting from a given vendor instead of smaller orders from several. I find that when I'm buying a lot of stuff and paying in cash, they often are friendlier and add a bigger bunch to my herbs than I picked, or something like that.
posted by artifarce at 11:58 AM on September 22, 2012

What I did this morning at my local farmers' market - I had a short shopping list of things I needed to get, but also planned to see what was in season today. I go regularly enough so I have favored vendors for specific items. When those vendors are out of the items I want, or the particular items don't look that great to me, I will seek out other vendors. In the process of going through my shopping list I am also doing a general circuit of the farmers' market. I will take note of what's that I didn't see on my previous visit, as well as stuff in other shoppers' baskets. Today, the big find was green ginger (fresh whole ginger plants, roots and all).

So, the algorithm:
1. Identify small number of must-have items for your salad; identify optional items for your salad
2. If you have favored vendors for the must-have items, make one of them the starting point for your farmers' market circuit
3. If you don't have any favored vendors, follow windykites' procedures above
4. As you make the circuit, pick up optional items if any of the vendors have them particularly fresh or low-priced
5. Stop when you have purchased all the must-have items and all the optional items you are satisfied with
posted by research monkey at 11:59 AM on September 22, 2012

I'm not very clear on the overall question either. (I usually just pick whatever I feel like and seems good, and make a salad out of it. I guess this isn't the kind of algorithm you want?) But this subquestion at least has some answers:

It would take forever to exhaustively consider all the ingredients available from every vendor before beginning to shop. As far as trying to consider which vegetables are "the freshest," it's easy to compare one vegetable against others of its own kind, but comparing carrots to peppers is like comparing apples to oranges (so to speak).

I find it more productive, before comparing individual vegetables, to know what is locally in season, because this in my experience really sets a baseline for quality, and also leads to variety in salads over time. E.g. local in season asparagus >> chilean asparagus. Your farmer's market (or some local farm) probably has a chart like this one.
posted by advil at 11:59 AM on September 22, 2012

You might browse some recipes before you shop to get an idea of what ingredients work well together, and then you can shop with these combinations in mind. If I was creating an "algorithm" for salads, I'd pick a star ingredient based on season - say, beets - and then build a salad around the star ingredient by picking a base (a combination of greens), adding some protein (cheese &/or nuts), adding some complementary vegetables for flavor and texture (peppers don't go well with beets, but if I was seeking some crunch, I might try jicama here) and then create a simple dressing (acid + oil) that highlights the flavors (lemon would be nice with beets, also maybe something like a walnut oil). Mark Bittman's 101 Salads is a good list to start from to get a sense of what combinations might be appealing.
posted by judith at 12:19 PM on September 22, 2012

When dealing with multiple vendors, you cannot break produce procurement into a branching logic tree. Find out what's in season, start with that, and build your salad backwards from that based on taste compatibility. You can also walk into the market with a specific salad in mind, like Spinach, Walnut and Orange or something and just... shop for it.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:21 PM on September 22, 2012

This is my procedure for making a salad, and at the market or wherever I just try to go in with an idea of what is in season or what I might really want to try (for example if I know that a cheese vendor has really good goat cheese, I might try to build an idea around that) - so I guess my advice would be to do a bit of research on the market and what is in season before setting foot in the place.

1. Usually I try to get whatever I know to be in season that looks freshest and try to go for having a colorful plate.

2. Some type of protein and/or grain- could be any of these:
-some type of chopped nuts.
-Occasionally add something like orzo/cous cous/quinoa.

3. Vinaigrette - it is usually based on acid(usually citrus juice for me) + oil + add-ins(could be herbs, garlic, shallots, etc, or sometimes I add things like raspberries)

4.. Extras - marinated artichokes, chopped herbs, scallions, croutons, anything else that might go with your salad theme.

Sometimes if I want to try something new and have no idea whether I'll like it or not, I buy it and then otherwise stick to ingredients that I know I will like, so that if I don't happen to like this one thing then at least I will probably like the salad as a whole.
posted by fromageball at 1:30 PM on September 22, 2012

Find a chart/graph of local vegetables and their season. If you stick with what is in season then they should be fresh. Learn about the ingredients - learn how to tell if they are at their peak - and learn how to properly store them.

Tips on deciding which fresh vegetables to purchase depends on a number of criteria. The wisest course of action is to have a few recipes in mind which you have chosen because of seasonality, your cooking style and budget.

If you prefer to wing it then try to choose an array of colors and textures. This will help you get a wider array of vitamins and allow many options in serving.

Cookbooks which would be helpful for you are:
*Raising the Salad Bar by Catherine Walthers (a wide variety of recipes, not just lettuce based)
*Vegetable Harvest by Patricia Wells
*The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market Cookbook (organized by season)
*Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference by Elizabeth Schneider is a wonderful reference about all aspects of vegetable. There are many preparation ideas - few actual recipes.
posted by cat_link at 1:35 PM on September 22, 2012

My local farmers market has a blackboard where they provide a short list of what is in season and particularly fresh that week. It is not associated with any particular stall. They also have an information booth that often features cooking demonstrations and printed handouts of recipes featuring seasonal items.

Also contrary to what someone said up thread I've found that often the stand with the longest lines has the best produce or at least the best selection.

Finally, I've had some success translating really great sandwich combos into salads. My favorite example comes from a great sandwich that included goat's cheese, roasted butternut squash, thinly sliced apples, and arugula. I used all those ingredients, but I cubed the squash instead of mashing it into a spread. I only added roasted walnuts and dressed the salad with walnut oil and balsamic vinegar. I have also substituted pomegranate seeds for the the apple slices. If I do say so myself, this makes a beautiful and delicious fall/winter salad.
posted by kaybdc at 3:29 PM on September 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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