Big, messy, cold freezer: our best investment for the local diet
So today is February 1st. The darkest of the dark months are here: the Janebruary month of this slagging winter. What the heck have we been eating?
I have always had a keen interest in la cucina povera (Italian for: dang, there ain’t much to cook here in this pantry, is there?). I also have an absurd fascination with Depression and/or world-ending narratives of any stripe: I think I got hooked very young on the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Dickens, frankly; the notion of plenty was all around me in life, but it was mostly absent in my active young imagination. Those “what if’s” of my early dreaming have carried into adulthood, and they (I think) have served me well with the notion of feeding ourselves locally in the depths of winter.
So, how are we doing. All that canning and freezing has paid off, is the short answer to my tale.
The second answer is my new meat-eating. CERTAINLY I could prepare meat for three meals a day every day and be quite thankful that the meat I get is both humanely raised and humanely killed: I feel quite fortunate in my sources. But I don’t prepare that much meat. Fleshy things have extended the menu around here, truthfully; and they’ve become…another personal challenge. But I will tell you this. I am not preparing tenderloin, steak and pheasant here. Meat is not the headliner of any meal. Instead I am preparing things with parts, like oxtail stew, or roasting one tiny cornish hen for the three of us. We are eating parts; we are eating bits; we are indulging in lots of stews and roasts and braises…but it’s not that often. Maybe one meal a week.
Where meat has helped has been in pairing with other dishes. A couple of slices of bacon or simple leftover bits is all a pot of my Old Soldier beans need; that, and all the other things I normally throw in there. A cup of browned ground meat helps with a tomato-based pasta sauce or a huge pot of chili, but it’s not necessary to enjoy either dish. The fat and drippings left in the pan from roasting a chicken becomes gravy for biscuits at another meal. Meat, around here, is just the ultimate condiment.
It’s the bread-y things that come to the fore in these dark days. Spaetzle will pair nicely with that oxtail stew; gnocchi, made from the previous day’s mashed potatoes, are a nice backdrop to a sage/butternut squash/browned butter sauce. My ubiquitous loaves are usually paired with our weekly soup. Cornbread, polenta, and (just made my own!) posole are nice corn-y dishes that back up stews or stewed greens. And the off-farm items like California rice and Michigan barley, farro (a kind of wheat), quinoa, millet and cracked wheat are used really sparingly but feature in about one dinner a week. And I am a new fan of buckwheat groats: I’ve made a couple of batches of Russian kasha (thus fixing my love of all things Russian in winter).
Eggs. Eggs are breakfast, eggs are lunch, eggs are dinner (sometimes). If I am feeling really lazy, I’ll scramble a few for dinner, maybe with some home fries.
Frozen vegetables. I still have lots of them. Every dinner features one dish of green beans or summer squash or broccoli or edamame. These things freeze quite well; the texture might be “off” but the taste is not.
And fresh greens. We are squeezing two, maybe three salads out of the greenhouse per week. One dinner a week is just salad (usually paired with a leftover from the day before of whatever is on hand) with a poached egg on top. But I did have the foresight to can a couple of batches of beet greens: these, with garlic, are nice on their own.
Sprouts. Sprouts are now daily fare, atop the salad, atop an egg sandwich, etc. Love them, and so does everyone else here.
Dried beans. Still have loads of dried lima, black, cranberry, soldier, and cowpeas. I have maybe only a couple of meals of some of the rare beans (canellini, flageolet, Hutterite soup, Tiger Eye, kidney). One dried bean dish is usual for one dinner a week, then the leftovers are nice, especially mixed with rice or atop a salad or with some greens.
So it’s the fresh vegetables that are getting the short shrift with this all-local diet. Isn’t that funny, considering what a vegetable whore I am? The tables have turned and they have become RIDICULOUSLY precious. Parsnips will be the feature of a meal; the cabbage downstairs (steamed, tossed with browned potatoes and brown butter) is positively golden. Those carrots, those winter squash are as rare as hen’s teeth. Those beets? I’m still the only one eating the beets. But I do have tons of potatoes, onions, and garlic. (Whew!)
Fruit: Still have apples in the root cellar and they’re still great. Some even improve with time, which sounds hard to believe but that’s what heirlooms were grown for: things like long-term storage! I have lots of frozen fruit (peaches, blueberries, cranberries); we have rows of canned peaches and plums, and lots of jam, butters, and applesauce. Lots of frozen juice, too, from our grapes and apples.
Breakfast: either hot cereal or toast and eggs. On long weekends I might be persuaded to make pancakes or waffles.
Lunch: Leftovers. The kid’s lunch is usually the night before’s dinner, or a grain or pasta that she likes, or a sandwich, along with one of those rare carrots and ubiquitous apples. Or applesauce.
SO! What am I telling you here? I’m telling you that I cook a lot. That is no surprise, though; I have always cooked a lot. I did discover one surprising thing: I did a bit of a search on how much money we spend monthly on food now compared to before all this madness happened. If I look back to January of 2006, despite the home-grown supplementing of the freezer and the canned stuff, I spent about $270. on my California organic vegetables and Tom’s CAFO meat, and our organic milk/butter. This January, we spent $42 on dairy at the grocery store and $75 for meat at the co-op…and most of these purchases went to our daughter’s birthday brunch. Everything else was here. (I made one big push for flour, breakfast grains and rice/quinoa/farro in November; that bill was $240 for 5+ months of Michigan-grown dried goods. I also buy olive oil twice a year.) So I am also telling you that doing things this way was cheaper, too, than the way we ate before.
It’s still a long time until Asparagus Season rolls around, though! But we certainly aren’t starving.