Last week I brought you photos of my friend Alex's amazing back yard farm. And I mentioned that our visit had inspired me to dig in hard with my ongoing efforts to eat more locally, seasonally available food.
I have long eschewed planning as something that other people—you know, the kind who balance their checkbooks, plan responsibly for retirement, and wear shoes indoors—do, but not me. It's not that I will completely defend my disorganization—let's call it my "organic" approach to life—I am a lifelong scatterbrain, and it's one of the things I dislike most about myself. Important things get forgotten; deadlines get squeezed; projects get buried under other projects never to be finished.
But one place where my unplanned way of living has always been beneficial is in the kitchen, especially when trying to go with the seasonal flow. Or so I thought.
About the same time we visited Alex's backyard farm, my little boy started trying to "order" dinner at home, as though this were some sort of short-order democracy. And that's when it hit me. Sure, I was already visiting the farmer's market regularly. I was buying farm-fresh eggs and milk. But after long days at work, with my brain too addled to rifle through the catalogue of ingredients we had on hand, we were opting several times a week for dinners out. Because it was easy. And I was turning my kid, in albeit a very limited way, into a dinner-time tyrant. Holy Priority Adjustment, Batman!
I tried keeping an inventory of good stuff I had in the refrigerator. A have/need list had worked for me when I cooked in restaurants. But when I worked in restaurants, it was my job, and my full attention and creativity were focused on cooking and food cost. Now my job as a lawyer uses up the brain cells that used to be available for those tasks. But what was the alternative? A calendar of rotating monthly dinners? You know I love a good calendar, but that idea has just NEVER appealed to me—maybe it's because of my years of public school cafeteria suffering, but I just don't want to live in a Taco Tuesday kind of world. There had to be another way.
I decided to try a new approach—it's been going on for a few weeks now, and I'm happy to say that it is working and that it feels like something our family can really stick with (at least until the cold months, when but for Mexican produce our entire diet might consist of collards!).
In the end, what I came up with is a hybrid of my old ways—buying every pretty vegetable or fresh fish or cut of meat in sight with no plan at all, heading home at 5:30 knowing there is good food in the fridge and having no enthusiasm at all for cooking it—and of the planning that I have long rejected—buying things with a purpose, saving money, enjoying certainty and reliability. Really, it's just required an extra hour or two a week of being mindful of that part of our lives.
On Saturday morning, I head out early to the Farmers Market. I grab eggs, cheese, fresh produce, and fresh seafood. I bring the haul home and pull out my notebook. And then I ask: What can I do with all this good stuff? What's got to be used soonest? And most importantly, what do we want to eat this week? And then I map it out in my notebook. Whatever I didn't already get from the market, I head to the grocery store to stock up on, usually with my little boy in tow. We talk about all the good food we're going to make and eat in the coming week, and it is really motivating for both of us. Well, really, I think he just goes for the free cheese at Whole Foods—that kid sure can put away the gouda—but it's nice to spend the time together.
And y'all? The food? The food has been consistently some of the best, most enjoyable food our family has ever eaten—at home or anywhere else. And other than one dinner at my dad's house, one pizza night out, and one birthday dinner out, we've eaten at home every night for three weeks. And I have discovered that I can indulge my little boy's desire to watch TV while I get geared up for the week: the boy LOVES a cooking show. And he's putting this knowledge to work, instructing me on proper vinaigrette composition and admonishing me that just about everything "needs a widda bit more sawlt," mostly because he loves using the salt grinder, I think. He is also a master salad spinner, so I have been coming up with excuses to wash all manner of produce for his benefit.
Here's what dinner looked like the last week of May:
SATURDAY - goat-cheese-stuffed squash blossoms; lima beans with olive oil and lemon; broiled shrimp
SUNDAY - shrimp & grits with fresh chicken sausage
MONDAY - pan fried tilapia (sustainably farmed); roasted baby potatoes; cucumber salad
TUESDAY - Moroccan braised chicken with lemon and green olives; chickpeas with spinach and harissa, couscous, flatbread
WEDNESDAY - pizza with pesto, burrata, and zucchini
THURSDAY - carnitas; grilled corn with asiago and lime; smoky black beans
FRIDAY - huevos rancheros
One thing I've been doing before I head out to the market is reading the daily menus of my favorite restaurants. My favorite restaurant in the whole world, FIG, changes its menu daily depending on what's fresh and available. The menus are available online, so I can look over them and se what Chef Lata is doing with the ingredients. Another place I look for inspiration is the menu at Otto in New York, which is probably my second favorite restaurant in the whole world, and which also has a seasonally rotating menu of delicious vegetable dishes. I am not much of a recipe kind of cook, so it is really just to get me fired up and my imagination sparked for flavor combinations, cooking methods, and such.
Another benefit of all this planning? Slow-cooked food, which is pretty much my favorite kind of food. Pork carnitas, braised chicken, chicken confit, even. This is all possible because I've planned ahead, and I can throw the meat in the oven to slow cook when I get up in the morning (don't worry, I'm not gonna burn my house down—my oven has an on-off timer and a slow cook setting), and we can come home to what my son calls "melt-in-da-mouth-meat," a house that smells fantastic, and dinner almost ready. I have NEVER had that kind of presence of mind at 7 in the morning before, so this is a revelation to me.
At the beginning of this, I said that my trip to Alex's farm had inspired me to do better, and it really, really had. But these are also issues that I have been thinking about for years, and there are all sorts of folks out there advocating for the kinds of changes I've been trying to make who have affected my thinking and my motivation.
Jamie Oliver's efforts to remake the way English and American children eat is very relevant to me, as the parent of a small child. He has shone a light on the hideous joke that is the federal nutritional standard in school lunches. He has tried to jolt Americans into reality about the epidemic of childhood obesity that threatens to make our kids lives shorter and less healthy than our own. And while I am completely on board with the changes he is trying to make in schools, I think that unless families make these kinds of changes at home, we will be constantly undermining any gains made in the schools. I see this every day when my son comes home from school reporting that other kids think the spinach fried rice I packed in his lunch (at his request) is weird or gross. Still, Oliver is going directly to the source of one of our problems, and that seems to me the best way to make a dent.
Michael Ruhlman, a writer who spends most of his time thinking and writing about food, has also been challenging Americans to change their status-quo thinking about food and cooking, albeit in a somewhat less charming way and with a less broad platform than Jamie Oliver. Ruhlman is vocally critical of those who attempt to recruit more people to home cooking by promising quick and easy recipes. Though he'll also say that roasting a chicken IS easy, if not quick. He's right, but reading Michael Ruhlman often feels like the food equivalent of getting a lecture from Jack Black's character in High Fidelity about the catastrophically pedestrian character of your musical tastes. I don't believe that shame is a particularly useful motivator of good behavior, so while I stay tuned in to his dispatches, they often leave me frustrated and picked on.
Ultimately, I think there are some key elements missing from the conversation. For one thing, Oliver and Ruhlman—and Ruth Reichl and Alice Waters and Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, and on and on—are all trying valiantly to affect the way our country thinks about food—where it's grown, how it's made, and what it means for our bodies and our communities. And thank goodness for them! But what each of these people has in common is that they are all professional writers or cooks whose chief, if not sole, daily professional focus is food. But see, there are others of us, working moms and dads, whose chief daily focus resides somewhere else. I spend the better part of each weekday (and plenty of weekend hours, too) focusing on the constitutional rights and social needs of criminally accused poor people. But even though I have a demanding schedule that makes me exhausted at the end of every day, because I have been cooking for 17 years, including two years as a restaurant cook at some of the best restaurants in Southern California, I have a huge advantage over lots of moms and dads who want to prepare healthy, delicious food for their kids: I know how to cook, I don't need a recipe to teach me how to do it, and I'm not afraid of the kitchen.
Frankly, all of Michael Ruhlman's choir preaching in the world isn't going to teach the average American to roast a chicken. Because our dependence on mass-produced convenience foods has been going on for over a generation. I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone my age who took a home-ec class in middle or high school. So, if people's mothers or fathers weren't cooking, and they weren't learning at school, they have to learn for themselves. Or rely on someone else to do the cooking for them. People like my friend Heather are trying to change that—without gimmicks or short-cuts.
But even if we isolate the conversation to those of us who already know how to cook, I think another issue has a huge impact on the way we eat and cook: the balance we strike between work and everything else in our lives. The forty-hour work week has become the standard in American life, and, let's face it, with a recession going on, those of us who do have work are probably spending more time there than ever. Not only that, the distance from people's homes to their places of work has never been greater than it is today. So even if we work the same number of hours as our parents did, we spend more time in the car getting there, which translates to less time at home, less time with our kids, and less time cooking, among other things. I have no idea how to change this, or even if changing this is possible for most people within my lifetime. But what I believe is that as long as the discussion of our food habits leaves out a consideration of the challenges posed by these realities, plenty of people are going to tune out, because they will have been left out.