This Thanksgiving after I heartily enjoyed the succulent turkey, moist stuffing and fluffy mashed potatoes, I sat back and contemplated more than just the pumpkin chiffon pie. My full belly had set my mind to thinking about the meaning of food and how our relationship with food is a barometer of how we lead our lives. Food not only nourishes us but provides an opportunity to delve deeper into how we interact and savor the natural world. My ruminations started with flavor...
A really good meal starts with only the finest ingredients.
There is nothing I would rather do than hunt for food. I don't use a bow and arrow or a loaded gun but instead utilize my tactile senses. My eyes, nose, fingers and hands are all working in harmony to find that perfect ingredient. Sometimes if I'm lucky, my mouth gets to participate in the final audition.
I smell the ripe cantaloupe before I eye it up and give it a squeeze testing for a voluptuous firmness. My fingers gently probe the navel to assure just the slightest give. In Iowa, we named them musk-melons and the musky aroma of a good melon wafting aloft is the final requirement before she goes into my shopping cart.
I head over to the thin and tender forest of asparagus idling in a pan of cool water. Lack of smell is a good sign here and these turgid spears with crowns of feathers say break me, wash me and oven bake me with virgin olive oil and pink salt.
Many times I don't know exactly what the menu will bring until I discover the freshest and most flavorful ingredients. It doesn't have to be the most expensive. I don't always require local but indeed it must be fresh and flavorful and if available, organic. If you want a good outcome in life don't skimp on what you put into it!
Knowing where food comes from empowers us.
I realize I'm a special case with my extensive history working with farmers and food systems. I read labels on boxes in the produce isle and look for country of origin because it tells me something about the food that will nourish and eventually become part of me. I know that the Greek sheep feta will be incredibly creamy while the Bulgarian variety will be saltier like the Baltic in summer.
I choose the Ecuadorian fair trade bananas knowing the extra .30 per pound means education, running water and basic social services for the bananeros and their children. They deserve that as they grow my tropical delight.
The local free range chicken beckons me with its memories of homegrown roasted fowl from my childhood. I pay a little more knowing the beast was able to flutter, peck and squawk as nature intended. The life he gave should be well lived.
I am lucky to live in a temperate place where crisp green bunches of kale and chard grows in nearby fields almost all year long. I recite the names of all my local farmers as I sauté their spinach, bok choy and arugula with shitakes, Peruvian Ginger and organic soy sauce. They make a good living and I enjoy fresh nutritious food without using extensive energy resources. I am empowered with the knowledge that everything I do has an impact on the world around me, especially eating!
A good meal involves a plan, ultimate flexibility and true dedication of time. Some of the best moments in life are unhurried and serene. When preparing a meal I first sit and day dream with my taste buds... what will titillate them today? I make a plan and then I go hunting for freshness, flavor and a sense of place. The meal I dreamed of may be altered a bit by those tender persimmons and sparkling ruby pomegranate jewels I spied along the way. Even though I made a plan, the ingredients that presented themselves to me ultimately determine the menu. I remain flexible and also freer to ride cowgirl into a few new culinary frontiers.
Preparation must be mindful and unhurried. I conjure up the French expression "mise en place" which means "put in place" as I dice, slice, chop and peel putting each ingredient aside for the right entry point in time.
Timing is everything when cooking and an impeccable dish will have well-cooked yet tender meats complimenting vigorous vegetables and creamy sauces. Preparing and allowing time for the flavors to marry properly must not be hurried. Like a finely aged wine good things take time and attention to detail. And too a good life requires planning, flexibility and dedication to outcome.
My current ruminations on food taught me several things about life:
-- The outcome you want is only as good as the quality you are willing to put into it.
-- Knowledge is power and allows one to make the right decisions for you and the planet.
-- Planning, flexibility and commitment are essential ingredients to a prosperous and happy life.
Tell me what you learn from food?