I am sure I’ve said before that Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle changed my life. It is the second book by Barbara Kingsolver that changed my life, as Poisonwood Bible also had a huge effect on my thinking about what was possible in a novel. But it was Barbara Kingsolver, more than anyone else, who convinced me that I, too, could garden in a meaningful way and actually eat regularly from my garden.
I know that the book Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan has also had this effect on people, but for me that book was more exotic, more an adventure than an actual blueprint for a way of life. After reading it, I did some serious research into mushrooms, but decided that I’m lucky enough to have access to a local mushroom farm and don’t need to “grow” them myself. I love the idea of moving chickens around from pasture to pasture and letting the pigs grind up the manure in the cow barn in the spring, but not enough to get chickens, pigs and cows. Luckily, I also have access to lots of local, natural meat sources as well!
As a teenager, my mother suggested that it would be a good idea for me to learn to cook, and she could teach me. I answered as a typical, heartless teenager: ”Mom, I think I can figure out how to pour a can of cream of chicken soup over some meat, and for the rest I’ll use a recipe.” The domestic art I focused on in high school was sewing, and I sewed most of my own clothes. I figured if I could follow a pattern, I could follow a recipe.
The truth is, my mother was a good cook, albeit a product of her time. She kept a 2-week recipe calendar on the fridge to make sure we had variety, and we always had a meat, vegetable and starch. The vegetables were almost always frozen, as was the custom in the 1960s and ’70s. There were packaged seasonings and packaged side dishes (I loved Rice-a-roni), and sauce for the au gratin potatoes came in a foil packet. She made an amazing lasagna and good meatballs with sauce from a jar. We ate well, and our food was varied, flavorful and balanced. Along with Mike and Carol Brady’s kids, we looked forward to pork chops with applesauce once a month.
When I went to college, Indian curry was all the rage. In my freshman year I attended an off-campus potluck where every single person brought a curry dish. This was what I wanted to learn, and this is what I thought my cooking would be like– full of exotic, ethnic dishes. I introduced my mother to fresh garlic cloves (as opposed to garlic powder or salt) and passed along how you smash them with the side of a knife. One of my friends who attended Northwestern University and volunteered helping a Vietnamese family on the north side of Chicago introduced me to Asian markets and gave me three recipes. Thus began a lifelong love of Thai red curry paste.
I still make Thai stir-fries and regularly go to the Asian market in St. Cloud. Thai basil is a revelation, and my prolific little plant was one of the best surprises of my 2012 garden. I set my sites on learning to cook Indian food a few years ago, and now have a repertoire that includes a fantastic red pepper dish I made at least four times with my Jimmy Nardello peppers in the fall.
But what surprises me are the simple foods I eat now that I never ate anywhere– not at home and not in college and not in the various places I lived as an adult. The big three are beets, kale and butternut squash. But I could add to that leeks (too expensive), swiss chard (which I’d never even heard of until five years ago), and beet greens.
I saw occasional pickled beets from a tin can on our table growing up, but did not like them. Kale– or any green except iceberg lettuce and spinach; and butternut squash– or any squash except zucchini and pumpkin (strictly in pie), were unknown to us.
The first years of the garden, I grew kale but cut it off when it was young and pulled it out early. I sauteed it once or twice with garlic, onion, a little white wine and white beans, per Deborah Madison’s instructions, and then was done for the season. To tell you the truth, it scared me.
As for the butternut squash, well, I roasted a few, but most of them went bad in the basement storage and were tossed on the compost pile in the spring. They were seemingly impenetrable, not very flavorful, and basically turned to mush once roasted. I’m not really a fan of “mashed” things, including mashed potatoes. After a few servings of roasted squash with butter and parmesan, I was done for the season.
I just finished reading the February issue of Food & Wine magazine, and there are five recipes that feature kale and/or butternut squash. These include two salads: Kale Caesar with Rye Croutons and Farro, and Roasted Squash Salad with Bitter Greens; and a butternut squash and kale strata for brunch.
I’m filling my Paprika App recipe box with butternut squash recipes (last night we had one with a mushroom cream sauce and bow tie pasta; last week, one with spicy pepper sauce and sausage), and hoping our supply holds out until March! And I can hardly wait to get that kale going again! I’ll be slipping the skins off some gorgeous beets again tonight and serving them with feta, orange slices and nuts.
It’s a brave new world, and I’m so glad the restaurants and food magazines have gotten on board! Now I can’t get enough of recipe reading, and I’ve even warmed up to peeling squash and dicing. One thing I don’t have in my pantry, though, is Cream of Chicken soup!