It’s always busy during May for us. So I’m probably more excited than usual to get to the Mill City Farmer’s Market for the first time this season.
Mill City has been “our market” since we met five years ago. It’s not the biggest, and it’s not the closest to our house, but it’s a fantastic bike ride over the Stone Arch Bridge. The Chef Shack is there. And there’s a ton of really high-quality food to bring home, to boot.
And it offers a list of food that makes my mouth water… case in point, this week’s list of goodies (it’s so helpful that the market is offering a Produce Planner this year!):
- Green garlic
- Spring salad mix
- Fiddlehead ferns
- Salad turnips
- Dried peppers
- Baby bok choy
Drool. That is all.
“How do you guys eat so well, all the time?”
I often find myself equal parts perplexed and flattered when a friend or family member comments on how our household runs what I consider to be the epicenter of life — our kitchen. I’ve fielded questions about why we grow our own food AND participate in a CSA — why we shop at 3 or 4 local food providers, including stops at the butcher, bakery, coffee shop, and fishmonger, pretty much weekly, in addition to the grocery store — how we manage to turn out 5 or 6 home-made meals a week — and do it all within a family of four, average-joe budget.
I realize that our obsession over food isn’t everyone’s passion. And I remember a time when cooking for one (or two) seemed like more of a hassle than what it was worth. And other times, I stop and think: have we as a culture gone soft? Do we, as a race, know how to feed ourselves, without the packaged food aisles in the supermarket and processed meat squares that come from a fast-food window? Don’t get me wrong — we feed the kids mac and cheese; our car can and will be found at a drive-through window on a roadtrip. But that’s not our day in/day out. So how do we make our kitchen happen? We follow these simple rules. And no, it doesn’t take all my time. And no, it’s not my only hobby. But my kids did eat ratatouille from scratch last night (and watched me cook as they watched the movie) — and at ages 2 and 7, sang the praises of couscous and goat cheese. So maybe we’re on to at least a little something…?
Take or leave these tips as they serve your life; they have, and will continue, to serve our family well.
- Get a solid handle on the basics of good cooking and baking. Make time to learn a few crucial things like knife techniques, ratios, herbs and spices, and flavor profiles. If you have ever felt anxious walking into the kitchen because “you don’t know how to cook”… this is where you start. Get a book; take a class; ask a friend who knows this stuff to mentor you (trust me, we love to pass down the knowledge). We won’t all turn out to be epic chefs. But we all have the ingrained ability to feed ourselves well. It is how our species has survived for so long. Don’t let Betty Crocker and Hamburger Helper fool you; we ALL are smart enough to put together delicious meals, all by ourselves.
- Buy a few really great cookbooks you like and know you’ll use; find websites with trusted recipes and make them your go-tos. Try new things from them, and make peace with the occasional failure (there’s a restaurant open somewhere that will feed you if you burn the biscuits or ruin the roast). Donate or sell the cookbooks you don’t use; they’ll only frustrate and discourage you, but they may inspire someone else.
- Invest a little bit of money in quality kitchen tools that make your job a million times easier. A good knife and sharpener, a solid cutting board, high-quality food processor, and top-notch mixer can make what seems daunting pretty easy.
- Plan your meals weekly. Balance the menu (rotate meat, fish, and vegetarian dishes as well as flavor profiles) and plan for specific recipes. You won’t overspend at the grocery store, you are less likely to give up and go out to eat. Incredibly important key to success: plan in one or two days per week where you do nothing — eat a bowl of cereal, reheat leftovers, or grab take-out. Don’t kill yourself in the kitchen every day.
- Keep track of what you have available. We use a simple spreadsheet on Google docs that inventories our freezers, and add or delete as items are purchased or used. We throw away less freezer-burned fruits and unintelligible leftovers.
- Shop around and find the least expensive way you can buy local. This is a big fad right now — and a good one, in my opinion, but this is America, after all, and even the best fads allow an opportunity for someone to rip you off. Be smart. My neighborhood gas station sells the same eggs and milk I’d buy at the co-op for well less than half the cost. Same brands. So yep, I do make the trip into the gas station to save myself 5 bucks on eggs and milk every week. And you know what, everyone wins… I support my neighbors and local economy, I pay less because I don’t have to pay someone to ship it. Also, local food is delicious food. I think of it this way: imagine how you feel after walking to the corner store. Then, imagine how you feel after being on a 8 or 12-hour plane ride. That bag of spinach from Argentina tastes the same way you feel after that plane ride, compared to the bag of spinach from the farmer’s market, picked yesterday and driven 40 miles to get in your belly.
- Buy in-season. Lots of cash (and pollution, and unnecessary plant stress, and chemical fertilizers, and so on) goes into things that are force-grown/mass produced. Besides, in-season food tastes better (when it’s allowed to do what nature programmed it to do). No one wants to eat that mealy peach from Chile in February. Especially not at 3 or 4 bucks a pound.
- Avoid anything that has extra packaging. You pay a (relative) fortune for the packaging – and, when things are packaged, they often need preservatives, which is another thing you don’t need, but still pay for – and, ultimately, you just throw it all away.
- Learn how to grow the things you use most. You’ll save time and money if you’ve frozen a giant green bean harvest for the lean winter months, instead of buying a bag at the grocer’s every week. And again, have I mentioned how much better it tastes?
- Make it yourself (even if you have to freeze, can, or otherwise preserve it for later) whenever you can.
Do not fret.
I have just been tending other things.
Thing’s we’ll soon eat.
CSA season starts a week from today, and with it, meal plans worth posting… but in the meantime, check out my pretty little babies, headed for the garden in the next week.
I love me some sour face. Especially when it comes to pickles.
I’ve been in love with homemade dill pickles since childhood (and in love with pickles, in general, as long as my family’s memory holds out — my grandma tells a wicked story of the time she broke my heart at the tender age of 2 by stealing the pickles off my McDonald’s cheeseburger. Good thing I don’t hold a grudge…)
My husband and I met over pickles. So to speak. I’ve been canning myself since, oh, age 22 or so? I’ll write more about canning as it happens, but a former colleague pinged me today asking about pickles, and I thought it might be wise to preserve my response here:
Q: Is pickle-making hard? Does it take a lot of special equipment?
A: It’s not hard at all; just takes some patience and a little precision. And not a ton of equipment — just a huge soup pot (that holds a couple gallons of water plus room to submerge your jars at least 1 inch underwater).
I’d also recommend a jar funnel, which runs about 2 bucks at any hardware store, and a jar lifter, that runs about 5-7 bucks, same place.
You’d obviously also need to get jars, rings and lids… once you buy the jars and rings you can use them over and over, but you have to buy new lids that seal every year. Not a huge expense after the first year. Or alternately, you can hit up an estate sale or Goodwill; they always have tons of secondhand jars.
I think Alton Brown does a good tutorial: (this one’s for jam, but readily applicable to pickles). come to think of it — I bet he has a pickle episode, too!
If you want to read about it, Ball has a book called Home Preservation that’s super.
And, lastly: The National Center for Home Food Preservation, which is a trove of information (if you don’t mind sifting through government publications in your spare time…)
I’m having a hard time believing I forgot to mention this, but I was accepted into the U’s Master Gardener program for 2010!
(Yes, it’s 50 hours of volunteering. About GARDENING! and learning all the gardening stuff I thought I knew but really didn’t. Yay!)
I’ve been able to see my breath the last couple of mornings. The trees are trying so hard to turn.
And the 5-day forecast calls for a freeze tonight or tomorrow night.
So, pull out your sweaters and pull the last of your produce out of your garden. It’s time for mulled cider and squash and tucking yourself in for the winter.