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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Food Economics

I am always surprised when someone tells me they hate to cook. I understand that not everyone has a food-gasm over creating that "perfect dish" as I do. But, we all have to eat. And lately, what we eat seems to be a big, bold question mark over our heads. During a recent radio interview, a woman called in claiming "It costs more to eat healthy than not," and I was stunned. Was she right? Looking at the vast options of burgers, tacos,  pizzas and more, and comparing them to the fresh produce and meat, I realized, she is right. But it doesn't mean that cooking great food relies on having heavy wallets.

In fact, the vast majority of culinary delights come from "peasant food." From anchovy based pasta sauces, to the finest cheeses, the richest stews, the tenderest of greens, it is the "working poor" who have managed to transform the simple, and turn it into the unbelievable. Take the cheapest cuts of beef. Short ribs, chuck roast, flank steak - all tough, undesirable pieces of meat in many regards. Until, you put it into the hands of someone who knows what they're doing. Braising, slow roasting, pan-searing, all methods of bringing out the very best in taste and texture of these unwanted cuts. Recently while dining in Beverly Hills, I had the pure joy of eating one of the best pot-roasts I've ever had. Sure it was a $30 plate, but it was sincerely worth every bite. The meat had lost all knowledge of it's former life. Succulent, moist, soft, silky, rich, dissolving into a rapturous after-taste that kept me wanting more. Which shows that in the hands of the capable, magic is possible.

I think that eating well versus eating in a parking lot of a fast food restaurant has less to do with money, and more to do with time, knowledge and a willingness to try. While I cannot blame anyone for craving that double-stacked extra cheese and bacon burger with a side of curly fries, I do blame them for not finding some level of balance in between. Our society is creating a new food culture, not one that is backed by great-great-grandma's secret recipe, but one that requires instant gratification, larger portions and disposable containers. America is a melting pot, which means that identifying one single food culture is difficult in itself. I grew up eating a slew of mixed meals, from spaghetti to Spaghetti O's, from sushi to Top Raman, from a roast beef hoagie to a six pack of crunchy beef tacos. For me, having my own family was enough motivation to want to do better in the food department. However, like everyone else in our country, money is getting harder and harder to come by. Which has caused me to really take a good look at our food budget, our food goals, and our personal food identity. We don't want to eat poorly, while being poor. I don't want the lingering, greasy, MSG-after-tasting feel of eating take-out constantly, either.

So ingredients became my focal point. Did I need the $12 bottle of extra virgin olive oil, or could I suffice with the $4 one? Are organic, pasture raised chicken breasts the only white meat option I can buy, or would I be willing to experiment with the much cheaper thigh meat and even lean cuts of pork? Our family loves greens, and have always bought them prewashed, precut and prepackaged. I can by five times the amount of greens if I buy them loose, then wash and cut them myself. - That wasn't the funnest task, although it did provide a great opportunity for family bonding over the kitchen sink! Organic, pasture raised beef is a passion of mine. I love knowing where my meat came from, and how it was raised. However, $20 filet mignon's are no longer in budget, so I've therefore opted for the same farm-raised cow, just a few different, cheaper cuts. I've even found some delicious, all-beef natural hot dogs at my local butcher! Our family has even taken to incorporating more seasonal vegetables and fruit into our meals to reduce our overall meat intake. Not because we don't love meat, but because we cant afford it every night. I have found that dishes like Gigandes Plaki (Greek style giant baked beans in a rich tomato sauce) literally cost pennies on the dollar and feed my entire family well. Slow simmered Indian curries, rich in beans and vegetables are inexpensive to make, especially when you buy the pre-made spice mixes at a local Indian market. Casseroles, while not my favorite, are great ways to maximize minimal ingredients and save time by cooking everything in one pan. The same goes for slow-cooking roasts and soups. Cheap cuts of meat, long hours of simmering, a few slender veggies and you've got a meal.

When it comes down to it, eating well is a choice. And we all have a right to make our own choice. But we need to remember that eating well does not mean eating expensively nor outrageously. It means creating a food tradition in your home that warms your belly, and makes you smile, all while keeping a few extra dollars in your pocket.


Sarah E. said...

Every time I read your blog I get so inspired. I agree with you that eating well is a choice that every one can make and it can be an affordable option with the right knowledge. I do have to tell you that I think you should do some tutorials in the kitchen on youtube and post them. I would love to be able to see you in action in the kitchen! :) Love to you! :)

University Chick said...

I appreciate your willingness to "dumb it down" for me even more now. Food and cooking are your passions, and while you head scratch over my unwillingness to delight in anything related to the kitchen, you still try to come up with 3-5 ingredient recipes that will fill me up and not require that all my dishes be clean!!

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