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

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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!