Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Meal Planning with a Garden

I've been thinking lately about the ways that producing our own food has changed our eating and cooking habits. Although fresh foods are somewhat scarce for us right now, in the depths of winter, in some ways I have more freedom to choose what I feel like cooking. When the garden has passed its peak output for the year, and much of what it produced has either been eaten or preserved, the pressure eases off. Oh, there are still things out there to harvest; parsnips and a few hardy plants in the cold frame. But all these things can hang out for a while. They don't present themselves with the same urgency as summer crops, which will rot, bolt, turn tough or bitter, get eaten by varmints, or simply overwhelm through sheer numbers if not harvested promptly.

What arrives in fall and stays through early spring is a measure of free choice in what I cook and what we eat. Sure, there are the harvested pumpkins, and squash, and potatoes to use up, but they too give me more latitude than summer's bounty. All summer long and into early fall I cook and preserve food in a race to keep up with what's coming in. That comes about from - and requires - a change in the way I think about cooking, and this was no small thing for me.

See, I trained as a chef. After mastering the fundamentals, we were taught to approach cooking as a creative challenge and as an expression of "personality." It was about sexing up a chicken breast to make it seem less trite, or assembling flavors in novel ways to tickle a jaded palate. We weren't taught to think about seasonality or regionality very much, unless it was something that could be translated into marketing text on a menu. And yes, we were very much taught to look at menus as marketing tools. Back then, the concept of local food was nowhere near the surface of national consciousness; it had only a small novelty value to a few menu-scrutinizing gourmands. Food miles never entered the discussion of my culinary training - not once.

That way of thinking took hold strongly in me. I've lived in areas where high quality ingredients were available to me at any time, irrespective of food miles or season. For years just about any exotic ingredient you could imagine was at my fingertips, ready tools at the service of my artistic vision in the kitchen. When thinking about meal preparation, it was routine for me to thumb idly through a cookbook, looking for a recipe that caught my fancy. Or I might simply sit back and ask myself what I felt like eating that night, and then proceed to acquire the necessary ingredients from the store. This was a deeply ingrained habit of thought, and it's one that runs counter to the realities of a food garden. This meant that when I gardened back then, I was a dabbler, and the food I produced myself was always adjunct and secondary to the "real" source of food - stores and farmers' markets. If I didn't feel like eating what was ripe in my own garden, I didn't. And I did no preserving in those days. I'm ashamed to say that (while some of it got eaten and some given away) too much of that homegrown food simply went to waste.

When I became more serious about producing my own food and frugality in general, the harvests soon collided with my habits of thought around cooking. It was no longer about what I felt like cooking; wasting home grown food was no longer acceptable. The game had changed, and the challenges were now based in real life and not the creative life of a "culinary artist." It took a while, but I came to consider the garden and my pantry my primary sources of food. Purchased food, from any source, is now secondary. The differences are significant. I now understand the value in single-ingredient-themed cookbooks. When you're getting upwards of 25 eggs per week, or have just harvested 100 pounds of potatoes, cookbooks devoted entirely to egg or potato dishes seem like a really good idea. I used to find such cookbooks boring. Not any more.

Now meal preparation begins with an assessment of what needs using up, whatever the season. That's not to say my cooking is a constant state of triage in which I find ways to salvage food that's beginning to go off. No, I'm talking about staying ahead of the curve and eating or storing foods at their peak. I still have plenty of range for creative expression in my cooking. But now I start with the given of the foods we have, and I take pleasure in finding interesting things to do with these high-quality building blocks. I still use cookbooks, but I'm much more likely than previously to substitute ingredients based on what we have.

Even in winter, the food put up in canning jars, the freezer, or simply hanging out in cool storage needs to be tracked and eaten. Those foods have a shelf life like any other (natural) food. Even if they aren't about to go off, I need to know what I have on hand in order to plan the next year's garden crops and how they will be eaten or preserved. We got almost no tomatoes in 2009, so this year I'll try to put up two years' worth of sauce, just in case we get hit with blight again. On the other hand, we made enough jam to last us a couple of years. So we'll use up the fruit we produce in other ways.

Another difference is that for most of the year we eat fresher, more nutritionally dense food, and we eat in the seasonal sequence of produce gluts. During the winter, we eat food that was processed (by me, at home) at optimal nutrition and freshness. I'm working on making fresh foods more available in the cold months through season extension with cold frames too.

Here are a few ingredient-themed cookbooks I've found useful in helping me cook from both the garden and preserved or stored foods.

Simply in Season
The Compleat Squash
The Bean Bible
The Good Egg
One Potato, Two Potato

If you can recommend any other cookbooks that help use up garden gluts or commonly stored foods, please let me know in the comments.


The Mom said...

I'm not a trained chef, but do consider my self a bit of a foodie. The one channel on tv that I watch regularly is the food network. What has been very encouraging to me, is that they seem to be focusing more on the in season, 100 mile sustainable foods.

Patricia Neal said...

This post mirrors my journey recently. I too used to thumb through cookbooks and then buy what matched the recipes. Now, what is regional, what comes in my CSA box and what is in season dictates what dinner is. One of the biggest changes for me is more repetition. Thank goodness my DH doesn't care. But I love variety and having the same thing or things made out of the same thing often is a new concept for me. Actually, it has brought me more in touch with the reason for food - nourishment rather than entertainment.

However, I still love to puruse cookbooks!

Jennifer said...

Isn't it a better way to cook though - with fresh foods that you grew? I can't wait to start planting!

Amy @ River Rock Cottage said...

Great post, Kate. I think I had forgotten you were trained as a chef. My own Kate has considered that as well. This topic is one that I've been thinking about a lot lately. I posted on this earlier today.

Besides amassing a collection of cookbooks that focus on a single ingredient, the idea of storing two years of crucial items such as tomatoes is a great idea. Last year it was squash for us. No one I know has yet to identify what it was that hit all of us on the mountain.(And I thought squash was fool-proof!)

Personally, I find eating in-season a wonderful challenge and not restricting. It requires the best of creativity.

Aimee said...

Very very interesting.

I would say I have come a long, long way when it comes to seasonal and local eating (all of our meat, milk, cheese, and eggs comes from our own farm; I trade for fruits and veggies and preserve by canning and freezing, we all go to the U-pick farms in season and pick enough to preserve for the year, etc) but I certainly have not become a total convert.

Tonight, for example, I am making Mexican - style shrimp (farmed from thailand - ick, but I couldn't find either wild or local and I had a craving) sauteed with veggies and wine (at least the wine is local), rice, refried beans (leftovers) and corn tortillas (probably GMO - have you TRIED to source and price organic tortillas????) The only truly local element in tonight's meal is the lard in which I am frying the beans. That is from last year's pig.

I would like to claim that this meal is atypical, even in the dead of winter. For breakfast, for example, we would probably have something like oatmeal with our own cream and blueberries. And in the summertime, I cook whatever I can create from the avalanche of fresh produce that my trade network throws up. Ratatouille, caponata, salad after salad,, tabouli, and of course, anything that uses up eggs.... quiches, souffles, etc.

Hopefully, and this is what I like to believe, eating nearly 100% locally and seasonally during 2/3 of the year buys me a little slack in the winter.

Leigh said...

It's a different sort of creative dilemma, isn't it? Even though we had a small garden last year and don't have a lot put by, I've been trying to cook with more of the foods we'll be growing and have available next year. I think most of us are accustomed to eating what we want, no matter the time of year. It's a change of thinking as well as eating habits, but still, the natural rhythm of it seems more natural.

Wendy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Karen said...

I have and like Simply in Season very much. Two others that I also turn to often are The Practical Produce Cookbook by Ray and Elsie Hoover. (See it here: It is widely available at Amish and Mennonite markets as well as some garden seed catalogs such as Jung's.

The Market Fresh Cookbook by Taste of Home magazine is good too. (See it here:

Please excuse my use of Amazon. It is not meant as an endorsement of them but they are great for seeing pictures and descriptions of most books.

Kate said...

The Mom, that's good to hear. I don't know how much cooking shows really influence eating/cooking/purchasing behavior. But it can't hurt to have these ideas circulating.

Patricia, yes, this idea is even more applicable with a CSA box. At least with my garden, I choose what to plant and sort of know what to expect at harvest. With a box, you get what you get, and sometimes without much notice. I still think of cooking as enjoyable, but I see your point about nourishment too. Good point.

Jennifer, I agree. I've got my seed orders in and will start planting very soon. Gonna stock up on motivation at the PASA conference coming up next weekend. That'll carry me through till late spring, at least.

Amy, that was a good post. Far more organized than I'll ever get. But I'm sure some of your readers will be inspired.

Aimee, I have found organic tortillas, but only the whole wheat variety, not the corn. I am half-tempted to buy a tortilla press. Then we could grow our own flint corn, grind it, and make our own. But we eat tortillas only occasionally at this point, so it doesn't seem like a very cost-effective way to go. I think making "good" decisions about diet is the way to go. "The perfect is the enemy of good." I keep reminding myself of this. It's a journey, not something we arrive at by clicking our ruby slippers together.

Leigh, I agree. It really does become a rhythm. There are certain dishes that only seem to happen once or twice in the year now. But I kinda like that. It personalizes and punctuates the calendar.

Karen, no apologies necessary for Amazon links. I use them myself even though I prefer to shop at Powells. Thanks for the book recommendations. I'll check them out.

Anonymous said...

Two thumbs up on this post. I couldn't agree more about eating local (my garden) and in season. We've been doing it for the past year and a half and haven't felt deprived in any way. It helps that we live in CA and anything (in season) we can't grow (or is slow to grow, darn spinach and chard this year) is available. I'd like to recommend the Greens cookbook by Deborah Madison- it's vegetarian and outstanding. Every single recipe I've made from there has rocked. And it's organized in a subtle way by season/ingredients.

Kate said...

Anon, California is indeed blessed with a mild climate and excellent foodstuffs. Thanks for the recommendation on the cookbook.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Kate -- That's a very interesting take on just what training as a chef trains you to do -- start with the recipe you want to make, and work backward to procure the necessary ingredients. I think that, somehow, American cooks have internalized the idea that that's what cooking is. Find a great recipe, make a list, go to the market, follow the instructions.

You have turned the order on its head -- start with the ingredients, and work forward to the recipe -- which is what I think our mothers did. Dinner doesn't start with a cook and a book, but with a cook and whatever is growing in the garden and what was put up from last year and the leftovers from yesterday, and you keep the process going by growing, freezing, canning, and cooking every day. (In a book I wrote many years ago I called this 'pantry momentum.')

I think more people would cook if this is what cooking was thought to be -- not the special-event cookery of a recipe, but the daily-craft cookery of using what you have, and using it well.

Kate said...

Tamar, that's the general idea, yes. I think we'd be better off as a nation if people had their own garden produce and felt compelled to eat it up. We'd be better cooks, less dependent on industrial food, more confident in our own skills, and probably would weigh a bit less on average. I'm mighty impressed you wrote a cookbook. That's quite a notch in your belt!

Jeri said...

What a great post! It's taken me a long time to get my thinking right on using what I have instead of running out to buy all the extra ingredients. I couldn't understand all the people commenting on recipe blogs--they'd make substitutions to ingredients the recipe called for and it wasn't the original recipe anymore! I thought, "Why bother?" Now I'm doing the same thing by trying to use what I have. So many times the additional ingredients aren't things in season with the main ingredient.

I got a few good recipes out of "The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest" by Carol W. Costenbader.

Kate said...

Jeri, I'm quite guilty of substitution in recipes. I think I always have been, but now I actively go looking for ideas that I know I'm going to change. I think that's fine. Most people who offer recipes do so in order to share the love of cooking, and not out of some weird authoritarian or proprietary drive about "their" recipe, or how things "ought" to be prepared. Of course, when it comes to method, there are a few rules based on a lot of trial and error. But with ingredients there's usually plenty of room for variation from the original, except with the more science experiment types of preparations such as souffles, and consomme, etc. But how often do we prepare those things?

Dea-chan said...

I was going to link to you the Potato Cookbook (which I love) but saw in the header notes that it was also published under the name "One Potato, Two Potato" :-P

I love the fact that it has DESSERTS using mainly potato. Or potato water from boiling them. Or whatever!