History Repeats Itself: Lessons We Ignore from Ireland’s Great Hunger

History Repeats Itself: Lessons We Ignore from Ireland’s Great Hunger

THINKING THURSDAY: SOMETHING TO PONDER IN THE WORLD OF FOOD AND FARMING.

_________________________________________________________________________

Oh, the 2012 holiday merry-go-round is already churning. We’ve barely finished with the shamrocks & green beer and Easter & Mother’s Day are hot on its heels.  Could I ask you to indulge me for a minute?  Could I tarry just a little longer at St. Patrick’s Day?

Not because I’m so very Irish (I am), but because Ireland offers one of the most memorable and recent cautionary tales about why we should be petrified about the extent of our current American practice of growing just a few varieties of a few crops year after year (monoculture).

It’s hard to imagine famine when you take for granted the endless array of processed foods in the typical American grocery store.  But, do a little Googling and you’ll soon learn that the huge cornucopia of shiny boxes and bags are manufactured from less than 12 crop varieties.

It is so, so dangerous to have your entire food supply invested in one single variety of one single crop, yet it’s unbelievably commonplace and even celebrated as the kind of modern progress needed to feed the world.  We’ve already discussed feeding the world, remember?

I can’t decide if our choice to play agricultural roulette is due to an over-abundance of confidence or ignorance, but it’s frightening. The really crazy thing is how many of us are Americans today because our ancestors were forced to flee starvation and workhouses in Ireland.  The Great Irish Hunger wasn’t all that long ago –  how quickly we forget.

For a while, the potato was a true savior for Ireland. It found its convoluted way from the Andes in South America to the struggling Irish peasants.  The Irish climate suited the tuber perfectly and these poor families were finally able to grow enough food to feed their families well on their tiny plots of land.

In the Andes, as many as 200 species of potato may be planted in the same field.

In the Andes, farmers cultivated diversity in the potato and enjoyed as many as 4.000 varieties. A really good source for learning about agrobiodiversity is the website SustainableTable (dot)org. Here’s a bit of Sustainable Table’s take on the potato situation in the Andes:

“This abundance of diversity is the result of farmers artificially selecting traits over generations for specific purposes, like resistance to disease, tolerance to high altitudes or poor soils, etc. This diversity is important for food security—in the event that a particular crop variety fails due to drought, flooding or a disease, another variety might survive to avoid food shortages.”

Meanwhile the Irish tale goes a little differently:

“In stark contrast to this [Andes] model of agrobiodiversity,  the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s was the result of a fungus that completely destroyed the Irish potato crop because only a few varieties of potatoes had been imported from the Andes to Europe, none of which were resistant to the disease. Because of a lack of crop diversity and over reliance on one crop to feed many of its population, Ireland experienced widespread famine and death.

 

The Irish you see, had a history of diversified farming but were no longer able to grow the variety of crops they relied on before the British occupied Ireland.  The British made it illegal for Irish Catholics to own or lease land and Irish farmland had been repurposed to raise grain and cattle to satisfy England’s insatiable taste for beef.  Irish farmers were forced onto tiny plots of meager land and struggled with subsistence wages. The potato was the only crop that could be counted on to keep a family fed under such restrictive conditions.

A one acre field of lumpers could be counted on to feed a family for a whole year

Irish potatoes were especially vulnerable because they planted just one kind, Lumpers.  And, because potatoes grow from other potatoes, they are like genetic clones – each exactly the same as all the others.  So, when an airborne mold blew into Ireland, the single crop expected to feed about 3 million people was devastated almost overnight, with few backup alternatives.

Of course, the suffering and starvation part of the tragedy was caused by a perfect storm of greed, prejudice and politics which amplified the already bad enough crop failure. I hope I’m wrong about this, but it feels like we may never get the greed + power = politics part right, but the lack of biodiversity?  That we are able to avoid.

Yet, amazingly enough, we don’t.  Industrial Farms plant huge monocultures of the three main government subsidized crops, year after year. They deplete the soil of beneficial microbes thereby becoming more and more reliant on synthetic (petroleum-based) fertilizers and pesticides.

Think about these statistics also from Sustainable Table:

  • Almost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties available in 1903 are now extinct.
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), humans now rely upon just 14 species of mammals and birds to supply 90% of all animal-derived foods.
  • Twelve plant crops account for more than three-quarters of the food consumed in the world, and just three—rice, wheat, and maize—are relied on for more than half of the world’s food.
  • Reliance upon modern varieties of rice has caused more than 1,500 local rice varieties in Indonesia to become extinct.

For some reason, when Americans embrace new technology, we have a way of kicking the old to the curb so fast it’s lost forever.  Few farmers preserve their old hybrid seeds just in case their new GM crop fails.  I don’t know about you, but I like the security of  knowing I’ve left a popcorn trail to guide me home if the new and improved turns out to not be so great after all.

Have we learned from the Irish potato famine?  Let’s see:

  • Dominant food source invested in extremely few crops of one variety, check.
  • A national food system serving the desires of the few not the needs of the many, check check.
  • Limited access to land discourages initiative and opportunity for people to feed themselves and rise above the limitations imposed by the system: check check check.

Well, it seems to me that what we’ve learned is how to do it again. The saddest thing is that we can’t even blame foreign occupation for our situation.  At least not unless you believe America is occupied by Monsanto, Cargill, General Mills, Dean Foods & Friends.  But blaming things on corporations implies you have no choice in the matter. Which is not entirely true.

So today, on this unusually summer-like first day of spring you can take a small step or two to do your part to restore biodiversity to our food system.

First, consider planting a small garden and growing a few heirloom varieties of your favorite fruits and vegetables. Have you heard of Kitchen Gardener’s International?  Let Roger Doiron’s entertaining TED talk convince you:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezuz_-eZTMI

Or, if gardening is not your thing, consider signing up for a Community Shared Agriculture  (CSA) share from a local farm growing heirloom fruits & veggies. Even better if they offer eggs and meat from heritage breed livestock.  And if they have fresh, locally produced dairy products too, well lucky you.  Go for it, please. Don’t know where to find a CSA? Look here.

And, if even a weekly box of goodness is too much obligation, at least do some shopping at your local farmer’s market. Home gardeners and small, diversified farmers are doing most of the work saving plants whose claims to fame are flavor and hardiness instead of uniformity and ability to withstand processing and shipping. But the success of their work is completely dependent on your commitment to buy from them.

Come ON, you can do it! The future is riding on what you have for dinner….

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

The St. Patrick’s Day Party Never Ends: Creamy Corned Beef Spread

The St. Patrick’s Day Party Never Ends: Creamy Corned Beef Spread

Have I told you yet about my other mother,  Darina Allen?  Of course, Darina Allen doesn’t know we’re related, so shhhh; let’s keep it right here.  But really, who better to eat with on St. Patrick’s Day weekend than “the Julia Child of Ireland” herself?

It pains me to imagine, but if I could only have one cookbook, I think it would have to be hers.  Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best – Over 700 Recipes Show You Why;  well, the ridiculously long title tells the whole tale.

The Allens live on a beautiful 100 acre Irish farm with a herd of Kerry & Jersey cattle, laying hens, a kitchen garden, plenty to forage, and a famous cooking school. Darina can teach you all about foraging, how to amaze your friends by making stuff like butter, ham, rose syrup, separating cream after you’ve milked the cow yourself and a gazillion beautiful things made with eggs warm from the hens. It is the real, old school, farmstead deal.

Of course, I’m looking at my menu, and have to laugh because while the meal (and my life) is totally inspired by Darina Allen, the corned beef recipe is actually from Michael Ruhlman and my favorite cabbage recipe is from Tyler Florence.   I know. But the traditional Irish boiled potatoes and the Irish Soda Bread are straight from Darina’s book.

Corned beef with mustard sauce, traditional Irish boiled potatoes, braised cabbage & Irish soda bread...

A good Irish meal is one that is not particularly cheffed up.  It is more about the very fresh, very flavorful ingredients, prepared simply but with care.  And the dairy products need to be first rate. I’m not kidding – go for the really good butter like Double Devon if you can find it, or Kerrygold, Organic Valley Pasture Butter, or Plugra. One or all will surely be found at most modern grocery stores these days. Even better, if you have some local farmstead butter, well, lucky you.

Don’t balk at the price if you’re not in the habit of buying good butter. The rest of the ingredients in this meal are pretty cheap so go ahead and splurge; you’ll still come out ahead. You owe it to yourself to at least know what butter is supposed to be.

Then, if you think it’s overrated and that you’d rather have some soda or Cap’n Crunch instead, at least I can rest knowing you’ve made an informed choice.

I know that while my meal was lovely and the day beautiful, you’ve been pounded with corned beef, cabbage and green stuff all week. It’s a new week now, and time to move on to something else.  Except for one thing; all that leftover corned beef.

Last year, for St. Patrick’s day I made corned beef tongue and corned beef hash.  This year, I went the tongue route again, but still, while the flavor is great, I just don’t enjoy the texture. The hash worked well because the meat was cubed & crisped with potatoes and carrots.  But that’s so last year.  This year, I decided to go for corned beef spread. Click here for a printable recipe.

The unmistakable taste of corned beef and grainy mustard in a creamy spread.

And I’m glad I did.  Grinding meats to use in sauces, spreads, fillings, sausages and such is an invaluable way of stretching meat as far as it can possibly go. All while concentrating the meaty flavor exponentially.

Do you have an especially good way to put a bit of minced meat to work?

Doing the same thing again and again expecting different results.  Isn’t that the definition of crazy?

Doing the same thing again and again expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of crazy?

THINKING THURSDAY: SOMETHING TO PONDER IN THE WORLD OF FOOD AND FARMING.

_________________________________________________________________________

Don’t you ever wonder about the confidence we have in technology and science? For example, have you ever made a decision based on all the information you had, felt really smart about it, but later learned there was a massive hole in your understanding that made all your genius wrong?

xxxxxxxMilking cows:  then xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxand now xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Let’s get it straight right now: I’m not anti-science. I’m just in favor of pursuing scientific knowledge with a healthy portion of doubt and caution on the side.  Maybe my lack of sophistication is showing, but I’m still pretty darn impressed with the feat of genetic engineering involved in grafting a fruit tree onto hardier roots.  Even though according to this website, it seems to have been used as early as 5000 BC.

“Agriculturalists are charmed. Naturalists are alarmed; ” proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course my work here raising these old-fashioned cattle probably seems kind of irrelevant and quaint to many people who focus on producing maximum output at all costs.  Man is apparently wired to admire things that are complex in procedure and require lots of human tinkering.

Meet Claudia, the High-Tech Cow

Like the breeding program at Fulper Farms, a NJ dairy featured in this NPR article. This is the story of Claudia, a very desirable (and lovely) Holstein dairy cow.  The breeding goal of this farm is to replicate her until they have a farm full of Claudias.  This is the way most modern dairies approach the problem of producing enough milk to pay the bills.

Technological advances like artificial insemination and embryo transplant have made the rate at which humans can forever alter an entire breed of livestock scary-fast.  In just a few generations, we can really make a lasting impact on a breed of livestock and it often takes several generations to know for sure if what you have achieved is good or bad.  And by then, it’s usually too late to take it back.

You see, we still don’t really understand how DNA is bundled.  When you breed animals with a focus on one single desirable trait you’d like to increase, you’re at the same time amplifying several other unintended traits that are likely to be not so nice. And those traits are both physical and behavioral.

Often times, since the animals are intended for food anyway, it doesn’t matter that they can’t reproduce on their own, if they have any parenting skills or if their skeletons and hearts are up to the task of supporting their massive, fast-growing bodies. Doesn’t matter, because these animals aren’t intended to live long enough to be healthy adults anyway.  Which, while I don’t think it’s kind, I suppose the logic is sound.

Other traits affect behavioral characteristics and create animals more difficult to handle, more nervous or aggressive.  Intensely focused programs breeding animals for one trait can interrupt the social patterns relied on by many, many generations causing incidents of suffering and brutality caused by rogue individuals.

I’m no scientist, but I am pretty observant. And the more I observe, the more apparent it becomes that there’s a rhythm and scale to things for a reason.  Nature imposes a system of checks and balances that often seems harsh to us, but serves her purposes well.

As original as we like to believe we are, animal breeding programs, like hemlines and hairstyles are subject to cycles and fashion. Don’t believe me? Look at a few pictures of yourself from the 70’s. How’s that polyester pant suit looking to you today? I dare you to wear it to work tomorrow…

Fashions in animal breeding follow consumer demand for things like all white breast meat, low-fat pork, low-fat dairy and of course the ever-popular larger quantity for lower price. And, like that polyester pant suit, these demands are more likely to be created by companies steering us towards their higher profit choices than by what we actually prefer.

Cows like Claudia serve this dairy well today, but if all cows were like Claudia, without the structured diet and care Claudia gets, her ability to produce huge quantities of milk quickly becomes a liability.  The nutritional requirements to keep a high producing cow like Claudia healthy and fertile even when she’s not producing milk are not easy to meet in a simpler, less manipulated environment.

So, my question is this: Is high production more important than profitability?  If you think it’s painful filling your gas tank each week, imagine being a farmer.  I’m not sure people are aware how reliant conventional farming is on petroleum.

Petroleum is needed to manufacture the synthetic fertilizers conventional farms are so reliant on.  Petroleum is needed to run the gas guzzling machinery needed to grow and harvest the large quantities of grain these cows require. And energy is needed to manage the tons of manure produced by too many cows for their farms to handle. Not to mention the energy requirements of milking and transporting milk.

Please don’t take this as a slam for farmers like Claudia’s owners,  the Fulper family. I have nothing but admiration for what is an obviously well run dairy.  It just seems apparent that by focusing only on this as the single approach to the problem of low profitability, we are eliminating diversity in all areas: genetic diversity of livestock & seedstock, rampant loss of biological diversity and economic diversity as well.  A broader base of smaller, local dairy processors and a variety of applications for milk is needed to offset the market dominance of a small number of mega-processors.

If a cow can eat more simply, be productive longer, require little to no veterinary care and be significantly less reliant on petroleum products, is that not also increasing profitability?  If a dairy makes less milk but that milk is of the highest quality and costs significantly less to produce, are the numbers irrelevant because they lack enough zeroes to impress our Fortune 500 jaded minds?

My old-fashioned cows could not be more self-sufficient.  They harvest most of their own food, stay fat on very simple food we can grow ourselves, require almost zero veterinary care, thrive in simple facilities and remain productive members of the herd for four or more times longer than the typical Holstein dairy cow.

And a dairy farm using cows like mine has not one top shelf product to sell, but two.  Give us time and we’ll come up with even more.  The beef from these cows isn’t an afterthought sold at auction barn prices. It’s a first-rate gourmet product adding a second income stream to broaden the farm’s security.  And in these times of dairy volatility, having milk in more than one bucket sounds like an awfully good idea to me.

If you listened to the NPR clip as well as read the story, you’ll notice that they clearly stated that despite the technological advances, the farm is less profitable than it was in the 50’s and 60’s when they had a fraction of the cows and did more by hand. WHAT?

It’s true. Our industrial system of meat and dairy was productive and useful in its time. But all things run on a spectrum and that time seems to be waning. The system will be around huffing and wheezing for a long time, but shouldn’t we be working on a backup plan?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t count imported Milk Protein Concentrate from China a backup plan…

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

Pink Slime is not my problem. And it doesn’t have to be yours either.

Pink Slime is not my problem. And it doesn’t have to be yours either.

No worries about pink slime when you buy beef from small farms and trusted butchers.

I cannot help but be amazed by how many Google searches there have been for pink slime since Diane Sawyer’s report about this most charming of meat industry secrets. At first I was blushing with the new popularity my little blog had found until I realized it was all just a sad misunderstanding.

I had written this post about the marketing of meat by our local grocery store chain and the carefully crafted language used to head off growing interest in humanely raised grass-fed beef by the grocery store, The Cattlemen’s Beef Board and The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

Little did I know, but this week, my article contained all the right words to become an overnight Google sensation: Giant Eagle, pink slime, and beef.  I don’t know why this is just today such big news; pink slime has been public knowledge as early as 2002. But, thanks to ABC, today it’s a big deal.

I don’t want to get too scientific here; I am not a scientist.  I’ve read quite a few of the articles and I do suspect the indignant exposés are guilty of a little sensationalism of their own.  Does pink slime contain the household cleaning agent we’re all envisioning? Or is it just a hazing of ammonia gas? Or maybe a different form of ammonia with a bark much worse than its bite?

This online article, published in 2009 by Food Insight, is a very level-headed explanation about the use of ammonium hydroxide in the food industry. Before you get too lathered up, I recommend you give it a read.

After you’re done getting mad about your ground beef, better check to see if you’ve got any baked goods, cheeses, chocolates, candies like caramel or puddings in your pantry because ammonium hydroxide is commonly used to manufacture those too.

Oh, and:

 “Ammonia in other forms (e.g., ammonium sulfate, ammonium alginate) is used in condiments, relishes, soy protein concentrates/isolates, snack foods, jams and jellies, and non-alcoholic beverages.

The World Health Organization has listed hundreds of food types that may be processed using ammonium hydroxide when used in accordance with good manufacturing practices.  These include dairy products, confections, fruits and vegetables, baked goods, breakfast cereals, eggs, fish, beverages such as sports drinks and beer, and meats.”

Yawn.  I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter. Doesn’t matter, not because it’s unimportant, but because this is the sort of thing I expect from industrial food.

Do you really expect big packers to NOT be stretching to feed you every scrap they possibly can? And if they can’t feed it to you, you can be sure they’re feeding it to your pet.

I suspect that the pink slime enhanced beef isn’t all that much more dangerous than any of the other highly processed crap foods we’re eating. But what does bother me, and I think everyone else, is the breach of trust.

They have taken a processed product with massive ick factor, pink slime, and added it to a supposedly unprocessed product, beef. Without labeling it as processed. All government approved.

If you want to be big industry, be proud of your big industry.  If your science adds value to your product by making it safer, then that’s great. Share it with pride. Inventing pink slime is no small feat – I wouldn’t couldn’t have done it, could you?

But, big industry isn’t satisfied with targeting their segment of the market and serving it well.  They want to squash and dominate everyone else’s market share too by claiming to be something they can never be; capable of providing the same degree of quality and attention to detail as small artisan craftsmen.

So, they manipulate labeling, crush marketing differentiation by small craft companies, and obscure practices they know don’t sound so friendly or farm-fresh. And they spend millions on media,  lobbyists and campaign contributions helping enforce secrecy, silencing competition and buying government support.

Like the old Aesop’s fable about the frog and the scorpion, I suppose to a point I have to accept that’s just the world I live in.  I don’t need to know any more about pink slime because I won’t be eating any of it. Or any more than absolutely unavoidable of any other processed foods either.

I buy meat, cheese, eggs & dairy only from farmers or butchers who can tell me all about the provenance of the animals and how they were processed.  And I highly recommend you do too.

We’ve seen it again and again,  and fortunately for corporations, we Americans have short memories.   We’re about to see a circus of  backpedaling, distancing, and holier than thou vowing to not serve beef with pink slime from a bunch of restaurants & grocery chains.

And The Cattlemen’s Beef Board and The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association?  Well, I’m not sure how they’ll spin this one.  I do expect to see plenty of the latest heartwarming Beef Checkoff campaign designed to focus our attention on family cattle farmers and away from the Big Industry hiding behind them.

OK people. Your mission? Go find some well raised meat asap!

If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, contact us for our summer beef offering.

Not from Pittsburgh? Visit www.localharvest.com, or www.eatwild.com to find your local farmer today.

Think Good Food is Elitist? Think again.

Think Good Food is Elitist? Think again.

Thinking Thursday: something to ponder in the world of food and farming.

____________________________________________________________________________

Oh, the difference a well stocked larder makes…

I could not be more thrilled to see the new wave of cookbooks about buying meat directly from farmers and farmers markets and widening our horizons about using more parts of the animal.

I don’t like to focus on the negative, but I have one fairly big complaint. 

Many of these books, while making a heart-felt plea for us to change our meat buying priorities towards less quantity and better, more humane quality, are offering proof to many that non-industrial food is elitist. Which is not exactly true.

For example, I recently made a stew from Deborah Krasner’s beautiful book, Good Meat.  Yes, it is exactly what it claims to be: a complete guide to sourcing and cooking sustainable meat with more than 200 recipes.  A very useful and enjoyable book in many ways.  But, I’m a little disappointed about one thing.  The recipe for stew called for a little used and affordable cut of beef, but then it also called for many expensive ingredients like capers, black olives, 1 anchovy fillet (which of course came with a few close friends – more ceasar salad anyone??), and red wine.  And, it was laborious and time-consuming.

I could have bought a nice rib-eye and called it a day.

I get really frustrated by righteous, flippant comments on Facebook and blogs dismissing the idea of non-industrial food because it’s too expensive. People push back hard when their ways are criticized, and this topic is no exception.  Now, don’t get all touchy about what I’m going to say next, but I think we’re firing off our defense before we’ve given the matter real consideration.

It is absolutely true; non-industrial food is more expensive, especially if your approach is to simply swap each item in your standard American diet with its equivalent in artisan, organic goods. Or when you choose recipes like Deborah Krasner’s as your source of everyday eating. Time and time again, people stubbornly trot out this argument in order to be right.

And if you insist on believing this is your only alternative to industrial food, then yes, you are correct. Game over, ding-ding-ding; you win all the Con-Agra foods you can eat. 

But as Dr. Phil likes to say, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to get better?”  There are other options. We’ve just not been taught to give the matter much thought beyond dutiful reliance on advertisements, talk shows and popular ad-driven magazines for ideas and solutions.

These days, I go to the grocery store less and less. Instead, I hit up farms and farm markets. I grow a kitchen garden. I have a freezer & I can. I found a great local source for grains, flour and organic bulk foods where I buy staples and dry goods in bulk.

And, this is important, I begin by stocking my pantry well with things I like.  Then I cook what I have instead of approaching it backwards by wondering what I feel like, finding a recipe then buying a bunch of random and expensive ingredients to follow it.

By stretching the limits of my thinking, today it doesn’t take any longer for me to cook a meal from my pantry than it does for you to call for take out, drive wherever to pick it up and bring it back home.

I fully acknowledge that behind every quick and easy dinner was a project like gardening, canning, or freezing leftovers for future meals.  Still and yet, the time investment averages out with fewer random errands here and there. And the quality for the price – well, there simply is no comparison.  With a very few exceptions, your home version can always beat the industrial version.

I admit I’ll probably never make a better a twinkie, I’ll leave that one to Hostess. But pop-tarts? DE-lish. Most requested pastry I’ve ever made.  Beats that foil-pouched frosted cardboard six ways ‘till Sunday.

A recent peek into my kitchen:

Polenta with tomato sauce:  I buy Bob’s Red Mill polenta, make a big batch following the recipe on the bag, let it firm up in a bowl, cut it into quarters and freeze each quarter separately. Later, when I need a quick supper, I thaw what I need, slice into 3/4 inch slices and fry them up in oil in my cast iron skillet. Serve with tomato sauce & parmesan or maple syrup if you like yours sweet. Crispy crusted outside, creamy and comforting inside… good, quick food on the cheap. One quarter serves two, or dinner and breakfast for one.

Home made bread: Store bought bread is a big source of commercial yuk. I rarely eat bread unless I’ve made it myself. I’m not an exceptionally skilled baker and my bread is more everyday than special, but makes the best toast ever. I love the Buttermilk Bread recipe from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, bake several loaves at once, freeze all but one and I can go for a week or more. It makes a hearty and filling breakfast.  Didn’t eat it all?  Easy.  Repurpose the stale bread into ready-to-go breadcrumbs in the food processor.

Pickled Egg Sandwiches: I’m a little addicted to these at the moment. It does take some extra time to make a big batch of pickled eggs, but they last for weeks. I’m always trying new ways to eat my yummy eggs and have settled on this as a favorite. Lightly toasting a thick slice of my homemade bread, I slather it with mayonnaise, top with a sliced pickled egg and a generous grind of coarse black pepper or a drizzle of Indian pepper chutney. Yum.  They’re good too sliced over a bowl of slaw when I’m suffering from winter fresh veggie blues.  Check out Punk Domestics for a bunch of great pickled egg recipes.

Italian Cole Slaw: cabbage is a cheap and nutrient dense vegetable. About this time of year, I am dying for crispy, crunchy, salad-y things.  Mayo-free slaw is so fresh, easy, lasts for days and is useful in so many ways. When I’m craving it, I can’t get enough. I eat it plain, slice pickled eggs and carrots on top or add some tart green crunch to a sandwich.

Apples & peanut butter: We’re lucky to have two large orchards nearby. The Ida Reds are still nice and fresh – I like mine small & crispy. One of our orchards also sells fresh ground peanut butter too – a perfect quickie meal.  A good store of apples helps get through the lean winter months.

Cheese:  Soft cheeses are like a blank canvas – this buttermilk cheese is one of my favorites.  It requires no exotic equipment or ingredients. And no extraordinary skills. You can drizzle with honey or maple syrup and serve with fruit, use in baked goods, stuff ravioli or shells, smear with savory things. I like to top saucy dishes with a slice – the sauce and the cheese together make a pretty perfect bite. Or drizzle my cheese with some olive oil, a splash of vinegar & some freshly ground pepper. Have some pickles or preserved peppers & some crusty bread? Yum.

Meatballs:  Who doesn’t love meatballs? Always good to have on hand, they freeze easily.  Make sure you always have some good sauce, a box of your favorite pasta and some meatballs in the freezer & you’re never unprepared to put a meal on the table fast. Here’s my go-to recipe – Tyler Florence’s Ultimate Spaghetti & Meatballs. One thing I do differently: I prefer to use all ground beef.  Taking care to brown the meatballs gently, then finishing in the oven is the secret to a tender, tender meatball.  If I have it, a nice splurge is adding grated Parmesan to the meatballs. If I don’t, they’re still pretty awesome.  You can also stretch your ground beef further with grains like bulgur or brown rice and I’ll bet nobody will know…

Stew: I happened to have beef so that’s the stew I made. All meats are good for stew and the long, slow braise allows you to use a less expensive piece of meat and still enjoy a top shelf meal. Stretching the meat by adding extra potatoes, carrots or other root vegetables makes it last longer.  Use up leftovers from the fridge, make a big batch, eat half and freeze half for later.  Stretch it further by serving over grits, rice, pasta, mashed potatoes, pearl barley or bulgur.

A Beef Stew Secret: Oranges are not grown locally in Pennsylvania. For me, they are hard to resist. When I do buy them, I make sure to use every part – peels & all. With a vegetable peeler, peel one continuous spiral of just the orange part of the peel. Toss it on top of your stew as it cooks, removing before serving.

I can go on and on, but you get the picture.  As long as my pantry is reasonably well stocked with staples, I don’t even have to do much planning; I always have a fast meal available when I need one.  And it costs less. Less in every way; less time, less gas, less indecision.

I’m sure you won’t even have to tax your brain to identify at least one habit you could easily change that would decrease cost, increase nutrition and support local farms.   What are some of your favorite pantry standbys?

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!