Monday, February 1, 2016

Eating Omily: the FAQ

"How often do you go to the farmers market?"

"Isn't that expensive?"

"I could never cook that much."

"I'm just not that dedicated."

These are some of the more common questions and responses I get when people get a gander at my insulated tote bag, heavy with wonderful foods from the Union Square Farmers' Market. They're good questions, and they deserve answers! And the myths that lead to those questions and comments should be addressed as well.

First off, let me reiterate that I am a huge believer in baby steps. If you try to adopt my lifestyle overnight, you will likely feel overwhelmed and give up. I didn't adopt my lifestyle overnight; it evolved over time. I was able to slowly discover a system that works for me. The same can happen for you, too, if you give yourself time to do it.

Secondly, the Union Square Farmers' Market has changed A LOT in the ten years I've been shopping there. My habits have shifted to allow me to purchase more of my foods at the farmers market, but the farmers market has also grown, making many more things available to me that didn't used to be there. If you're dealing with a smaller market, no amount of dedication will enable you to do most or all of your shopping there if no one's selling staples that you need. It never hurts to mention what you're looking for to different farmers. If they discover there's a market for it, they may start producing it.

So, lets start with, "How often do you go to the farmers' market?"

I go three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. All three of those days (and most of the other ones, too), I'm within two blocks of Union Square already, so walking through the market and picking up what I need is just a matter of remembering to bring my insulated tote with plastic bags with me, and taking out cash. I leave an extra fifteen to thirty minutes to do my shopping, depending on if I just have to pick up one or two things, or if I'm restocking a lot of basics. I almost always end up picking up one or two things I didn't plan on: a cheese that I sampled and couldn't resist, a piece of maple sugar candy to nibble, a catnip plant for my cat...I'm spoiled: the Union Square Greenmarket is a spectacular market!

Since my trip to the market is never an isolated errand, I have to think about how much I'm buying, and how heavy it will be to carry. If it's time to buy a half gallon of milk, I'm not going to want to pick up a few pounds of apples, and potatoes, and a quart of frozen soup at the same time. I have to plan a head a little bit, and consider what I need, and how soon I need it. I also have to ask for ice, if I know it'll be a long time before I get home, and I have something sensitive like milk, or fresh fish to buy.

Since I shop so frequently, I just keep a loose running tally in my head for most things: how are we doing on onions? Garlic? Sweet potatoes? Potatoes? Seasonal fruits? Green veggies? Bread? Popcorn? Milk? Butter? Yogurt? Cheese? Maple syrup? Honey? Flour? Corn meal? Dried beans? Eggs? Breakfast meats? Other meats? Bone broth?

Does it seem crazy to you that I have all that information in my head at any one time? Every time I'm in the kitchen I do a quick scan. The basket that holds apples also holds garlic and onions. If I get something out of the fridge, I glance at the milk, and yogurt. It's just a habit now. I've been known to let a bag of potatoes rot in the back of the pantry every now and then, but in general, its second nature to be on top of it.

Something that helps me manage my shopping is to meal plan. When I'm really on top of meal planning, my life is a million times easier. On Sunday nights, I go through my kitchen and see what foods I have, and look through my cookbooks for inspiration. Usually I plan a slow cooker meal, a really fast meal for my late night of the week, and then whatever I'm feeling inspired to make for the other three nights (on weekends, we're out often enough that its easier to just throw something together if we end up home). Once I know what I want to prepare that week, I know exactly what I'll need to and when I'll need it by. I make my list, and pick it up as needed when I'm at the market, along with any pantry staples I discovered I was low on during my meal-planning session.

Lets skip the second question for a second, because I think we're bumping right up against the next comment down: "I could never cook that much."

I get it! Cooking takes time, energy, and planning, all things that we're in short supply on when we stumble through the door after a long work day...but if you take the time to do the planning over the weekend, half the battle is over. You can plan how ambitious you want to be based on how your day usually goes, and if your week gets unpredictable, and you need to swap two meal nights, its usually not a problem.

What if you don't know how to cook?? You can learn. Don't get too ambitious right off the bat! Learn to scramble eggs. Learn to sauté onions and garlic. Saute garlic and onions, and then add eggs and scramble. Try the same thing, but wilt in spinach. Buy pasta at the farmers market. Buy sauce at the farmers market. Make yourself a delicious pasta dinner. Try making your sauce taste more aromatic and fresh by sautéing garlic, onions, and herbs, then adding the sauce just to heat through.

Watch cooking shows (look for shows on netflix and youtube). You might try some of the new services that ship you fresh ingredients and recipes that you cook yourself. They could help you learn basic techniques hands-on in a more fool-proof way. Invite your friends over for dinner, with the caveat that you help them cook, and they teach you what they're doing.

Take baby steps! Try to cook once a week until you're comfortable with several different kinds of recipes, then step it up to more and more often.

At first, you'll treat recipes like gospel, and panic when you can't find a certain ingredient, but keep trying, and start experimenting. You'll soon learn the basic techniques behind recipes that will enable you to see substitutions that are easier for you to come by at a glance. Eventually, you'll use recipes for inspiration and guidance, but you'll rarely follow one start to finish.

You also don't have to cook every night. Frozen quarts of soup, the afore-mentioned pasta, pre-mixed bags of salad, and ready-to-eat meats like duck confit, and smoked trout are all available to bail you out.

Once you're comfortable cooking, there are also dishes that are so easy and quick to make, you won't mind except on the roughest days: scallops sear over high heat in just a couple minutes per-side, and pair beautifully with whatever veggie's easiest: sautéed greens, roasted root vegetables, a simple salad. I put fish fillets in a paper bag with corn meal, and shake to coat, then cook till brown and crisp in ghee, with a sprinkle of salt and old bay seasoning blend.

And don't forget about your slow cooker! Chop and drop things into the slow cooker in the morning, add water, turn it on, and when you get home dead on your feet, not only do you not have to cook, but an incredibly warming, comforting, nutritious dinner is waiting for you! It's pretty much the best thing ever.

Don't underestimate the power of left-overs. If you're cooking more often than not, a surprise crazy day that leaves no time or energy for cooking can be covered by enjoying whatever tasty dishes you made earlier that week! I eat most of my leftovers for breakfast, but they make great packed lunches, or easy dinners, too.

"Isn't that expensive??"

It can be. If you lean hard on those ready-to-eat meats, and pre-made meal options, you'll have pretty expensive meals. If you cook whenever its feasible, and take advantage of dried beans, eggs, and tough cuts of meat (much cheaper main courses), it's more manageable.

If you already choose sustainably raised options at the grocery store, your bills won't go up much. If not, take the time to learn about what you're paying for with that extra money, and you may find you're willing to give up a couple cocktails and lattes to make it work.

If you're relying on seamless (or however you order takeout in your neck of the woods), even with the higher rates you'll pay over the grocery store, you'll save money by buying foods and cooking them!

"I'm just not that dedicated."

Start picking up what sounds delicious to you and that fits in your budget when its convenient, and you might surprise yourself. Seared duck breast and broccoli rabe? Skip the expensive restaurant and make it at home in about half an hour, dirtying only two pans, a stirring utensil, and whatever you eat off of. Take whatever baby steps work for you. Don't push yourself to overwhelm, but also don't tell yourself that you could never do that. Leave yourself room to grow and change.
Chili with all local ingredients (with the possible exception of the beer)! Saltisfying, and healthy with of veggies and beans, and pasture-raised beef!
Fresh rainbow trout pan-fried in corn meal with sautéed Brussels' sprouts! 
Now that you know how I make it work for me, I hope you're feeling inspired to try to make it work for you! Any burning questions I missed? You can ask them in the comments...

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