Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Time, Money, Recipes: Experience is the answer

For most of us, our first foray into local eating immediately reveals three problem issues: time, money, and finding appropriate recipes. For all three, experience provides the lion's share of the solution.

Time. No two ways about it, using local ingredients requires cooking from scratch, and cooking from scratch requires more time than using convenience foods. Time to shop for local ingredients from a variety of sources instead of simply picking up prepackaged items at the supermarket. Time to prep and cook. Time to clean up after prepping and cooking -- while a supermarket frozen lasagna requires only the cleanup needed to store the leftovers, a homemade lasagna can require cleaning up cutting boards, bowls, knives, a cheese grater, a pot for cooking the sauce, and the baking pan.

Time issues become less onerous as your experience increases and you learn to think ahead. For instance, if you're making a pot of lasagna sauce, why not triple the recipe and freeze the extra in two recipe-sized portions? And once you've found reliable sources of local ingredients and develop the habit of thinking ahead, your time spent shopping will decrease immensely. But even the most experienced shopper and cook will never be so efficient that scratch cooking equals the convenience of simply unwrapping a package and sticking it in the oven. If food is a priority for you and your family, experience will help but time will always be a required element.

Expense. Until you learn when food items are cheapest (hint: when an item is in season, there's a lot MORE of it available) and unless you're prepared to buy those foods cheap and store them for later, eating locally can seem more expensive than conventional supermarkets.

But once you learn you can buy fresh whole chickens for $2 a pound from late spring through early fall while the same chicken purchased frozen in winter is $3.50/pound, you can buy fresh all summer, stock your freezer late in autumn, and roast a chicken once a week year around. Using that chicken's bones to make stock each week will actually save you money as you no longer need to buy commercial chicken stock.

The same goes for produce -- the time to buy tomatoes is from mid-August through late September when farmers are practically giving them away. Spend a few hours canning (there's that time factor again) on a late summer day and you can put up enough tomatoes and tomato sauces to see you through next July when tomatoes once again appear in the farmers' markets in abundance. If you've got a lot more time than money, consider picking your own.

(A personal note on a related subject: I've found that paying the true cost of meat instead of the government-subsidized supermarket price has encouraged me to treat it more as just another ingredient rather than as the star of the meal, which is a much healthier way to eat.)

Recipes. Eating locally requires finding recipes whose main ingredients are either in season together in your local area (such as green garlic and asparagus, both of which are in season in spring here in SW Ohio) or are easily stored well into the next season (such as butternut squash, which will keep for several months and so can be paired with other autumn-ripening items and with late winter/early spring items.) But in an age when most people have lost the knowledge of what's in season when and most cookbooks ignore seasonality completely, such recipes can be few and far between. Instead, many recipes call for ingredients that are wildly out of season with one another in most areas of the country.

There's actually a lot of help out there at places like Seasonal Chef and River Cottage, and I've found a lot of help from vintage (pre-1940) cookbooks, but once again it's a matter of gaining the experience: as you build your collection of good seasonal recipes, you'll find it becomes easier to feed yourself using local foods.

Don't be daunted when you're first getting started. Plunge on in. Each step makes the next step easier, and each bit of new learning builds on the last. Visit a farmers' market. Buy what's there in abundance. Ask the farmer if he has any recipes -- many of them have a stack with them somewhere in their stalls. And be ready to learn to think of food seasonally, the way your great-grandmother did.


Amber said...

I am so guilty of conveniences and taking some shortcuts. I was deboning my store bought rotisserie chicken from the grocery store the other day and told my husband that I could

1. Buy a fresh chicken for half the price
2. I should use the carcuss to make a stock

Oh, I wish I did things like that! Maybe I will set aside time on the weekend to roast a chicken. I will let yall know! :)

valereee said...

Cin Twin, with chicken it's truly just a matter of planning ahead -- you don't really even need to set aside time. Use a Romertopf (best invention ever for roasting a chicken) and spend about six minutes in actual hands-on prep/cooking time and you can have a roasted chicken in under an hour and a half. I stock my freezer with locally-raised processed-that-day chickens when they're cheapest (mid-spring through mid-autumn) and my cost per pound is $2.00 or $2.60, depending on whether I drive out to the farm on a Friday or pick them up at Findlay during the farmers' market the next day.

Amber said...

Hey Val,

What size pot do you have? I found the website, and I want to make sure I get a big enough one for a whole chicken, but not too big so I have somewhere to store it. It might replace the crockpot I never use. Thanks again for the advice

valereee said...

CinTwin1, my Romertopf is the same size as this one. Mine's 13.5" x 9" and I have roasted a 5-pound chicken in it.

valereee said...

Oh! Here's my exact one in an ebay auction. I guess mine (which I've had for over 20 years) has been discontinued. Mine's marked 111 on the bottom.

Anonymous said...

Yet another great post Val, you are really getting good at these concise yet through posts. There is never enough left on our chicken bones to make stock! We like the Cooks Illustrated short stock recipe, about an hour start to finish and wonderful stock. We used to use the Romertopf more but love Marcella Hazan's Lemon Chicken recipe.
We love to can and usually do pickles, relish and tomatoes. Would love to learn to do more refrigerator pickled veggies like Lavomatic.
Cooking oatmeal ahead is a big time saver, just reheat, we add almond milk, fruit and cinnamon. Cooking double batches and freezing is great for my lunches.
Cooking two chickens or turkey breast on Sunday helps get us into the week. What to store in is a pain, I have not done the research yet so for now we use the plastic containers the vendors use, they all use the same size lids, ask your friendly vendor to sell you some.
Every Saturday morning I go threough the fridge, clean out, find out what we need to use up and what we need, then we make talk recipes, make a list and go to Findlay. This is a big time saver.

Anonymous said...

Forgot one, we don't eat a lot of bread and I got tired of throwing it in the compost pile so what we do is buy Rudis burger buns at Trader Joes and Shadaus whole wheat from them directly, this way you can get it sliced. Then we freeze it, when you need a couple of buns or slices just chuck it in the toaster.

valereee said...

vudutu, we do that freezing thing, too -- we're not huge bread eaters, but the kids do take sandwiches in their lunches many days. With whole grain bread I find that often the loaf sticks together when frozen whole, so I open loaves when I buy them and put 2 slices into sandwich bags, stick the pile of sandwich bags back into the loaf bag, and shove the whole thing into the freezer. When someone needs a sandwich for school, I pull out a sandwich bag.