One of the hardest parts about cooking and eating local food is the need for flexibility. Like the general in an army you need to be prepared with a counter move for anything thrown at you.
Recipes string you along a set of directions. They rely on a specific scenario with a predetermined list of ingredients being at hand. They just aren’t enough for practical local cooking.
With basic tactics for braising meat, throwing together a spread for pitas or sandwiches, and roasting leafy greens you can use to create dozens of different flavor combinations, freely changing in whatever local goodies you have filling your fridge.
Pancakes Were My Enemy
I took me a solid 4 years of cooking pancakes from the same recipe every Saturday morning as a teenager before I could get anything other than a flat, chewy (occasionally burnt) lump of an attempt.
I had to gently pull the spoon through the batter noticing the tentativeness that was necessary, hover my palm above the pan feeling the cooler-than expected optimal heat, and learn to patiently watch as the surface of the pancake populated with tiny craters left by escaping air bubbles before I could understand the recipe enough to make decent use of it.
How to Learn How to Cook
While I was in culinary school my chef professors were fond of pointing out that when they handed 20 students the exact same recipe at the beginning of a class, we inevitably presented them with 20 different dishes at the end.
I went to culinary school, not because I had a love for all things food, but because I had a deficit in kitchen skills. A serious deficit, an embarrassing deficit, think-making-Pillsbury-cookies-counts-as-impressive-baking kind of embarrassing.
The main textbook we lugged around from class to class, Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs, has a hefty recipe collection at the end. The majority of the book, however, is dedicated to teaching specific techniques for creating TYPES of food. The basic technique for soups, sauces, grilled meats, roasted vegetables, muffins.
Recipes are secondary,an afterthought, in the world of learning to cook.
What I received in culinary school was a condensed education in basic kitchen skills. Ideally these would be learned slowly over the years, watching and participating in home cooking. Growing up in a house full of boxed foods the kitchen was foreign, often hostile, territory. Learning the techniques of cooking is what has allowed me to take command in the kitchen. My children occasionally join me as reinforcements (although sometimes it feels more like their mission is sabotage).
The best way to learn to cook is to bypass the recipes, and look at the techniques behind them. We don’t need to have picked up the skills along side our parents in the kitchen as children. Google is the modern replacement, a portal to any skill you have the inclination to learn.
Local foods require techniques, not recipes, and a certain love for fridge foraging.
When you go to the Farmers Market or receive your CSA basket you are not going to be able to systematically pick up everything you need for that new recipe you saw in Gourmet.
Depending on the season, weather, and demand you will get a unpredictable assortment and amount of fresh produce waiting to challenge your culinary abilities (and your ability to make use of seemingly endless leafy greens).
I’ve used this method with two types of beef, blade steak, and cross-rib roast, both are economical cuts of organic, pasture-raised, legit old farm style beef from Wendy’s Mobile Market in Kingston. The textures varied slightly, but the results were both delicious.
Usually onions, carrots and celery make up the base of braised dishes. I opted for onions and tomatoes because they better suited the flavors I was working with.
I made good use of three of my CSA items with this meal, kale, cilantro and garlic scapes.
You could switch the whole tone of this meal and use spinach, chard, collars, mustard greens or beet greens. Cilantro not available? Parsley, or basil could replace it easily. Garlic scapes could be ousted by any green in the allium family, ramps, scallions, spring onions. If you are unsure of flavor combinations, turn to Google for suggestions.
Some quickly sauteed red peppers added colour and crunch. Long batonnets/sticks of carrots would do the same, or parsnips, or anything that retains a crunch after a light application of heat.
- 3-4 lbs of any cut of beef that is high in connective tissue (so any cheap cut)
- 2 or so onions- chopped fine
- 2 tomatoes (fresh, or 2 tablespoons paste, or 1/2 cup canned)
- 3-4 Tablespoons Seasoning (Cajun seasoning here if you would like)
- 2 Limes-juiced (or lemon, or white/red wine, or a vinegar)
- 4 garlic scapes- chopped
A day or two before generously sprinkle the beef with salt, if you can.
Preheat oven to 300f.
Heat up your casserole dish with a generous amount of olive oil over medium-low heat. Gently saute the onions and tomatoes for a good 20 minutes. It’s easy enough to just start them first and let them go at it while you brown the beef.
Heat up another pan over medium-high heat with a bit of olive oil. Brown the meat on all sides. Take the meat out of the pan. Throw in the lime juice and swirl around to grab all the lovely browned bits on the bottom of the pan.
Add the meat to the casserole dish with your onions and tomatoes, add the lime juice and enough water to cover about 1/2-1/3 of the meat. Sprinkle your seasoning of choice on top.
Cover the casserole dish and throw in the oven for 2 hours. Remove the meat, place the casserole dish on the stove top and crank up the heat to reduce the lovely liquid by about half.
When the meat has cooled, shred it apart and mix it with the reduced cooking liquid and garlic scapes.
- Olive Oil
Preheat oven to 325.
Chop kale, place on a sheet pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil. Toss. Place in oven. Greens don’t take long to roast about 15 minutes. Roasting kale helps mellow the flavor and produces a crispy texture.
Sesame Cilantro Spread
- 1/2 Cup Sour Cream
- 1/2 Cup Greek Yogurt
- 2 Tablespoons Sesame Oil
- Handful of fresh Cilantro- chopped
- Salt and Pepper
Mix all together, let sit for a few hours just to let the flavors meld.
Layer all together in a pita or tortilla.