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.