Tuesday, September 18, 2007


"It's not just about cooking, decorating, or entertaining - it's about enjoying all the small details of domestic life. It's about making time for family, growing some vegetables in your garden, chatting with the butcher, and cooking for your family and friends." Robert Arbor, from Joie de Vivre

I'm the first one to admit that I am not a great cook. I was raised in a very citified family, who absolutely loved all the modern conveniences that the local supermarket had to offer. I grew up thinking that mashed potatoes came out of a box, and asparagus came out of a can. When I finally realized just how inadequate my skills were, I tried to compensate by collecting great recipes that weren't too difficult. The only problem was that I never learned to be spontaneous or to improvise. I followed the recipes verbatim, spent hours each week making out menus and grocery lists, and another couple of hours each weekend at the supermarket, trying to buy everything I needed in one fell swoop. Invariably I would forget something, and would end up in an absolute tizzy when I discovered I was missing an ingredient. After 25 years of this, it eventually became a major pain in the rear. I was starting to dread it more and more, we were eating out more and more, and we were becoming less and less healthy. So, I started looking for ways to simplify the process, eat better, and enjoy it more. According to all my favorite books about living the good life, seasonality was the answer.

"In the end, seasonality is the key to the French woman's psychological pleasure in food - the natural pleasure of anticipation, change, the poignant joy we take in something we know we shall soon lose and cannot take for granted. Such heightened awareness of what we put in our mouths is the opposite of routine, mindless eating that promotes boredom and weight gain." Mireille Guiliano, from French Women Don't Get Fat

The next step was to set up some rules, to define what it means to cook and eat with seasonality:
1. Use whole foods, rather than processed, whenever possible.
2. Use foods that are in season.
3. Use foods that are grown, or produced, as close to your home as possible.
4. Keep it simple.

"The most important environmental decision you can make is where you get your food...eat seasonally, buy locally." Ann Harvey Yonkers, Advocate for community farmer's markets

So why is that important? Well, think about it. According to Victor Hansen, author of The Land was Everything, "We cannot rail about pesticides and bland-tasting fruit and then expect to eat peaches in March, asparagus at Christmas and oranges in August." Also, if you are concerned about pollution and global warming, consider how much fuel is burned in order to transport these fruits and vegetables to you from growers in other climates. I nearly fainted the first time I tasted fresh asparagus and home-grown tomatoes. Hard to believe I grew up thinking I hated them both. So where do you get good food that is in season? Make a habit of going to the local farmer's market for your produce, and seek out vendors who actually grow what they sell (as opposed to shipping it in from other growers). Better yet, join a C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), where members buy shares of a farm's harvest before the season begins. Experience the joy of weekly deliveries of fresh produce straight from the farm. Take your kids to the farm when they hold open house, so they can see where their food actually comes from, and maybe even pick some themselves. Not only will it taste better than what you get at the supermarket, you'll find that you are a much more adventurous cook when you start looking for new ways to use the items in each delivery. Check out www.localharvest.com to find out what's available in your particular area. If all else fails, do as the French do and plant your own little potager, or kitchen garden. In Joie de Vivre, Robert Arbor says "I think that sometimes people don't grow fresh food because they think that it is too much work. So my advice to you is to grow a tiny thing that pleases you, and enjoy that tiny thing for all it's worth."

When I first decided to try my hand at growing a few vegetables, we were living in a Dallas suburb. Because of urban sprawl, our neighborhood was being overrun with rabbits that were feasting on all the pretty flowers I planted in my yard. Just to be on the safe side, I decided to plant my lettuces in big whiskey barrel planters, to keep them away from marauding bunnies. One day, as I was watering the barrels, I noticed a pile of grassy stuff in the middle of one. I thought it must have blown in when my husband was mowing nearby. Then I noticed that the grass pile seemed to be moving, every time the water from my hose got near it. Wondering what kind of ghastly creature could be lurking under there scared the bejeebers out of me, and sent me screaming for John. While I kept my distance, he used a broom handle to lift up the grassy mat, then he burst out laughing and said "You're not gonna believe this!" What was hidden under the grass? A nest of baby bunnies. Some brazen hussy of a rabbit, not content with having the run of my whole yard, had managed to climb up into my barrel, build a nest, and lay her bunnies right smack dab in the middle of my lettuce patch! Damn, they were cute though.

"Everyone knows that chefs go to the market and see what's fresh before deciding what to cook...The key to cooking from ingredients is using a few basic recipes and techniques. Ina Garten, from Barefoot Contessa Parties!

"Good food in season responds to the simplest preparation; you really can't go wrong when you start with quality. The key to cooking, and therefore living well, is the best of ingredients." Mireille Guiliano, from French Women Don't Get Fat

So, now that you've found a source for wonderful, fresh ingredients, what are you going to do with them? Follow Ina Garten's advice, and learn some basic recipes and techniques that adapt to a variety of ingredients. Here is one to get you started:


3 cloves garlic, minced
assorted firm veggies (carrots, green beans, broccoli, etc.) cut into bite-sized pieces
assorted soft veggies (bell peppers, mushrooms, onion, etc.), thinly sliced
12 to 16 oz. uncooked chicken, beef, or pork, thinly sliced
soy sauce and fresh ground pepper
about 1 tablespoon oil - can be all vegetable oil, or can add a few drops of sesame oil for flavor or chili oil for spice

Bring some water to boil in a large saucepan as you prepare the vegetables. Cook the firm veggies in the boiling water for about 3 minutes, then drain and set aside. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan on medium heat. Add garlic to the oil. When it starts to sizzle, add the soft veggies to the pan. Increase heat to med-hi. Stir until softened, then add meat to the pan. Stir gently, until it starts to get some color on the outside. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of soy sauce and some freshly ground pepper. Continue to cook and stir until meat is almost cooked through. Add the remaining veggies and turn heat to low. Can add more soy sauce if desired. Cook and stir until all veggies are heated through. Serve over rice.

Our kids are both grown now, and sometimes I wonder how we managed to get this far with so little trauma. Friends and family kept making dire predictions of "just wait till they turn...", but each stage came and went without them turning into monsters, and with them still thinking that as far as parents go, theirs weren't half bad. A lot of that was luck I'm sure, but there is one thing that I think contributed greatly, and which I take full credit for, because I really had to fight for it. What's the big secret? This!

The Key to a FUNctional Family

1. Eat together around the table at least 3 or 4 times per week.
2. No TV, phones, games, headphones or reading allowed at the table.
3. No criticism or disciplining allowed at the table (teaching good manners is encouraged, but do it in a fun, positive, reinforcing way, not in a nagging, negative manner, that will only make them want to escape from the table at the earliest opportunity).
4. Learn to ask questions that will get them talking. Instead of asking "How was your day?" (guaranteed to get a single word response), ask questions like, "What was the best/worst/most interesting part of your day?"
5. Laugh together a lot (but never at one another's expense). Make your home a haven - the one place where your family knows they will always be nurtured and supported. Be the wings that lift them up, rather than the arrow that shoots them down. They will run into plenty of other people who will be more than happy to fill that role, as they venture forth in the world.

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