The food we eat and where it comes from have been hot topics for the last couple of years. The release of Michael Pollan’s latest book, as well as Wednesday’s piece in the New York Times about the lengths chefs are going to to raise awareness of how the meat we eat is raised and slaughtered, have stimulated a lot of discussion this week both online and in my own home. I feel strongly that the decision about what to feed yourself and your family is a complex and personal one. People need to decide for themselves what they’ll eat based on their income, ethics and lifestyle. I would never judge or lecture someone about their food choices, but I would like to discuss how we shop, cook and eat here at Chez Dietschyblossom, and what changes we hope to make going forward.
Over the last couple of years, Mike and I have tried to eat seasonal, locally grown or produced foods more often. I don’t expect that we’ll ever be true locavores – we like our citrus fruits, San Marzano tomatoes, wild Alaskan salmon and runny French cheeses too much – but we still try to buy the bulk of our fresh foods direct from the Greenmarkets or via FreshDirect’s local foods department. The fact that Mike works just blocks from Union Square makes it easy for us to shop this way – on market days, I’ll often send him off with a shopping list, or he’ll make a pass through the market on his way into the office, report back any interesting finds via email, and return at lunchtime to make his purchases.
Most Saturdays begin with our “food safari,” where we hit the Greenmarket in Union Square or Fort Greene or Greenpoint, then make the rounds of our favorite little specialty shops for cheeses, butter, eggs, wine, bread and pantry items like Frankies olive oil or Carolina Gold rice or Rancho Gordo beans or those imported canned tomatoes we love so much. This is our big shopping day where we try to purchase the bulk of our grocery needs for the week, and it is a fairly large commitment of our time and energy, but it’s fun to be out and see what’s in season, to talk to the people who produced what we buy and to find out what’s particularly fresh or tasty that week. I realize that shopping and cooking this way isn’t a realistic thing for many of you, but it’s what we do and while it can be exhausting, it has been fun and very worthwhile.
Shopping this way often leads to me changing up our meal plan for the week. Sometimes we’ll find something unexpected that I’ll want to buy and use right away, so dinners I had planned for the week will get shifted around or put off to the following week to accommodate new ingredients. It’s because of this that I’ve cooked guinea hen and chicken liver ragu, and it’s why when I make a lamb stew I now use neck bones rather than the cubed stew meat I would have selected previously (Karen from 3-Corner Field suggested it to me once and I haven’t looked back since). With meats in particular, shopping this way has made Mike and I start to look beyond steaks and chops and begin to experiment with more interesting cuts of meat; we hope to stretch our boundaries even more this year. We are meat eaters, and though I don’t anticipate that will change any time soon, we have given a lot of thought to the kinds of meat and other animal products in our diet and where they’re sourced from.
Mike has been vegetarian at various times during his life. I was a vegetarian from age 14 to 21, for reasons of squeamishness and taste – I just physically couldn’t tolerate the smell or texture of meat. Thankfully, it was during that time of my life that my love of cooking was blossoming, and with the help of The Moosewood Cookbook and other books and magazines, I was able to make myself soups and salads, pasta and bean and grain dishes, and not depend on processed faux-meats or prepackaged vegetarian dinners. My taste buds changed over time and I eventually added meat back into my diet, though I wasn’t giving much thought to how it was raised. I was a city kid, after all; the closest I ever got to cows and sheep and chickens was at the petting zoo, and the meat I grew up on came wrapped in plastic on Styrofoam trays.
My husband had a different experience growing up in southern Indiana. Mike’s grandparents raised hogs when he was a kid; he has memories of the butchering, and of eating ultra-fresh pork afterward. The only pork I had ever tasted had little to no flavor, so aside from bacon, I avoided it. Things changed after our first meal at Marlow and Sons. (Yes, I know I like to wax poetic about that place, but it really has had a huge impact on how we cook and eat at home.) Our neighborhood doesn’t have much of a dining scene, so we head to neighboring areas when we eat out. We had read about the oyster happy hour at Marlow and shortly after we moved to Bushwick, we decided to check it out.
I don’t remember what I ordered that night, because the memory of Mike’s entrée is burned into my memory (and probably his as well). Braised pork belly. I will never forget when he took that first bite – he closed his eyes and said “Oh my God,” and just sat there for a minute, eyes closed, slowly chewing. “This is what pork tastes like – this is what I remember pork tasting like.” That bite of pork had taken him back to his childhood, to the flavor of that ultra-fresh pork he’d eat at his grandparents’ place. I had to try it, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a revelation.
The chef was standing near the exit that night when we left, and we profusely and rather embarrassingly thanked her for the meal, for the gift of that pork, and from that point on, we decided that we would seek out the good stuff, and as it turned out, the pork that we found that actually had that flavor that Mike remembered from his childhood is the pork that is being produced by people who sell at the Greenmarket. Not only does it taste the best, as it happens it’s also raised with respect for the animal and for the environment. Talk about a win-win situation.
We started with pork, but we have since arrived at a point where almost all the meat we buy is meat that was raised on pasture, our seafood is local or harvested in ways that don’t damage the environment, our eggs are from chickens who roam free and eat what they like, and our butter, cream and milk are from grass-fed cows. These foods do cost more than their factory-farmed equivalents purchased at a supermarket, but it’s a price we’re willing to pay, and we feel very lucky that we are able to do so – not everyone can afford to shop this way exclusively if at all.
2008 is going to be a year of big changes for us, and as such our food budget will need some tweaking. I’m already thinking of ways that we can continue to buy the types of animal products we want, but stretch them so that, for instance, one $30 pork shoulder can go into several meals. We’ve played with ingredient cycles a bit already, but I expect we’ll do so even more in the coming months. We have and will continue to try to use as much of every ingredient we bring into our kitchen as possible, to buy less and use more. We already save vegetable trimmings and bones to make stocks, turn old bread into croutons and crumbs, freeze parmesan rinds to toss into soups, but I want to reduce our food waste even more, and we would both like to make our meals a bit less meat-centric.
Last Night’s Dinner came about as a sort of progression from the photos I had been taking to catalogue our dinners on a day-to-day basis, and it’s interesting to me to look back and realize just how often we eat meat. While I’m very comfortable with the kinds of meat we eat and where it comes from, I do feel that we can reduce our footprint (not to mention improve our health) if we rely more on the great beans, grains and vegetables available to us, making meat a component part of a meal rather than the main focus more often than not.
I guess you could say this is the official Last Night’s Dinner position on the subject; I thank you for indulging me and I certainly encourage questions, comments and further discussion. On a completely unrelated note, Mike and I are celebrating our second wedding anniversary this weekend, and we’re kicking it off tonight with dinner at Hearth. I wish you all a wonderful weekend – regular posting will resume next week!