Hunter Gathering in the 21st Century can be challenging!
First, the Fresh…
Local first, fresh is always best!
Produce: Whenever possible, we use fresh, local organic foods, simply grown and stored. Straight-up food that offers no apology for its simplicity. It will be fresh, and it will taste better as well.
That said, it is not always possible, especially if you don’t live two miles from a farm that happens to offer year-round vegetables. Mid-winter, when we turn to the co-ops and grocery stores, there is a limit to the local offerings. But the good news is that even large stores are stocking more organic produce. One shopping trip recently, I found organic broccoli, lettuce, cucumbers, carrots (local) and onions all at prices comparable to conventionally grown. Sometimes you have to go searching for the organic items, but it is worth the few extra minutes. And don’t forget the frozen organic aisle, which is often your best bet. If I have a choice between fresh broccoli shipped from another continent and local broccoli frozen at its best, I’ll often choose the latter unless the raw texture is needed for the recipe.
Eggs: If a recipe says “6 eggs” we mean six large, lovely, local, free-range organic eggs, or whatever you have access to on the availability scale. It might be local, conventional, or it might be organic mass-produced. There is always a pecking order in the search for ingredients, depending on where we live and the season, and we do the best we can with what is available. In Vermont, our hunter-gathering routine can get quite complicated, has many steps, but it is well worth the effort.
Butter: Unsalted butter is generally fresher than salted, and if you are baking or making a delicate recipe or baking, you will want to control the amount of salt you use. If you are buttering toast, go with the salted butter. Occasionally, I splurge on a log of cultured butter. Nothing better if you are making a special compound butter, or a whisky hard sauce.
Cream and milk: Organic milk does not contain growth hormones and it tastes better, especially if it is local. We are lucky here in Vermont because we can get organic raw milk right from the farmer (even tastier), but if you don’t have that option, look for organic varieties which are now available in most grocery stores, and always check the freshness dates.
If you can find heavy cream that is traditionally pasteurized and not “ultra pasteurized” you will have more success with your recipes. Cream that is traditionally pasteurized has been heated to 167 degrees, chilled, and has a shelf life of about 18 to 20 days. It tastes fresher, and whips much quicker. If you are making fresh ricotta or crème fraîche, try to use this. “Ultra pasteurized” cream (which is what you will most easily find) has been heated to 280 degrees and can last for two months! As you can imagine, it does not taste as good, and does not whip as well, its focus is shelf stability and not flavor. Sadly, that is the way of much modern food.
Meats: If you eat meat and want to keep local, you might have to do a bit more work, but again, it will be richer in both flavor, nutrient content, and quality. Make friends with your local farmer and you will get the best prices; you can often get a deal on bulk purchases if you have the freezer space. Coops and farm stands often supply the basics at a higher price. A fresh, local, organic chicken will have so much more flavor than a mass-produced variety, it is like night and day. I’ve roasted a chicken for guests and they found it hard to believe that all I added was salt and pepper! Expensive, no doubt. But certainly worth the expense, and every day need not be a day of eating meat!
Well-Stocked Pantry and Freezer:
I am always proud of myself when I think ahead. During the summer, stock up on what is great at the farmers’ markets and farm stands.
Make your own pesto and freeze it in small containers, it takes only a few minutes. Purchase local wild mushrooms and freeze or dehydrate them. Buy extra corn, cook it, and cut it off the cob and freeze in pint containers. Learn to make jam, it is fun, or at least freeze your berries to enjoy in smoothies all year round. Many of these things are simple, and some of the most appreciated treats when February rolls around and you take something out of the freezer that smells like July at its best! It is also a great memory time to spend with your kids.
Spices: The spice and dried herb rack in my house (fashioned out of vintage soda crates) is essential to meal preparation. Buy small batches of spices from good places and store in airtight, lightproof containers. Don’t try to keep anything that is ground more than a year as it will lose its flavor. Grind your own is best.
Canned goods: The top of the list for the few canned items I buy is tomatoes, diced, whole and pureed. Buy your tomato paste in the little tubes and you’ll have less waste. Use what you want, and store the rest. I have a few recipes that require canned evaporated milk or canned sweetened condenses milk. There are organic varieties available at the health food stores. Canned beans (look for low sodium) of all varieties are essential for a quick supper. Packaged, low-sodium mushroom and vegetable stock are available for a quick supper support system if you haven’t got your own on hand, and I never let myself run out of capers, anchovies, or tuna fish.
A few quirky additions:
In addition to the usual assortment of rices and pastas, beans and grains, flours and sweeteners, oils and vinegars, chili pastes and tahini, one can find a few less than usual items on my shelves.
I’ve mentioned dried mushrooms, and if you don’t have access to the wild and do it yourself, they are readily available. I try to look for Pennsylvania mushrooms, not those from China. Make sure you check the source.
My mother’s old standby “Wondra” flour is a good pantry staple, and still available in its distinctive round, blue carton. This flour is steamed to precook it, and thus it is great when making a roux for a gravy or white sauce because you don’t have to worry about that “uncooked raw flour taste” we’re always hearing about! It is also an amazing flour to use on small pieces of delicate fish since it is extremely fine and browns quickly, preventing your fish from overcooking. No, it’s not organic, but it is a pretty handy ingredient to have on your shelf.
My mother-in-law Pat kept a box of potato flakes on the shelf to use in vichyssoise and as a crust for frying fish (really delicious). There are quite a few organic varieties out there, and while I don’t think I’d use them for mashed potatoes, they have their place (and keep forever) in the pantry.
And the kind of exotic:
We all have those ingredients we love that might not make it on someone else’s pantry shelves…
Salt preserved lemons are unique and delicious. They are also easy to make (for those with patience) or you can purchase them. They lend an exotic flair to everything from rice or chicken or vegetables.
Rose or orange water also lend a unique and unusual flavor to baked goods, teas, and many savory recipes. Use with caution however! The flavor is not for everyone, and easily overpowers. But if used sparingly, it’s quite tasty.
Liquors: Always in the cabinet in my house are a number of liquors that are used solely in cooking. They include orange-flavored Grand Marnier, limoncello, Sambuca, raspberry liquor, and Amaretto. I also keep bottles of dry sherry, brandy, cognac, and dark Jamaican rum. They last forever, and add a lovely spirit to many dishes.
- Fruit toppings – drizzle Grand Marnier over strawberries and top with a little whipped cream or yoghurt. You can also use the limoncello here, or use the raspberry liquor over a mix of berries.
- Sauces – The addition of brandy, sherry, and cognac add a delicious undertone and layer of flavor to sauces and gravies. Just make sure you cook it off as you reduce the pan drippings.
- As an ‘extract’ – add dark rum or a flavored liquor to whipped cream, creme fraiche, yoghurt, or even in an ice cream. Add a little at first, taste, and correct.