In food and in general, rarely have two trends crashed head-on so badly. The timing stinks. On one hand, you've got the locavore movement, advocating that we only buy humanely raised meat and in-season fruits and vegetables from the farmers and ranchers of our immediate area, for the sake of freshness and respect and flavor and fossil fuel conservation and also, y'know, not killing the earth so fast.
On the other hand: food prices are skyrocketing and many of us who once had jobs and 401Ks are now short one or both. Makes it harder to justify a $10 pork chop served alongside 9-dollar-a-pound arugula on your average Tuesday.
Should we be free-rangers or coupon-clippers? Flexatarian or frugal? How do you reconcile this stuff?
I'm not going to pretend it's easy, because it's not. Especially if you're not lucky enough to live in a major city that offers reasonably-priced farmer's markets along with its superubermegagrocers. (Thank you, Philadelphia!) But as organic and other "specialty" options become more widespread, we all have choices. Here are five tips that should help you find a better match between affordability and sustainability.
1. Meat matters.
For many of us it's the largest food expense, and in terms of living lightly on the earth, it's also the one that's most important. Industrial-scale meat production is inhumane and, if you find out too much about it, pretty gross. I'm not advocating the full-on vegan lifestyle for everyone. That's a very personal choice. But the average American consumes meat as the centerpiece of almost every meal, and that doesn't just fatten the body, it slims down the wallet.
Think about meatless or nearly-meatless meals, like a mushroom lasagna or a veggie-heavy fried rice, more often. If you have access to free-range eggs, consider those as a source of protein for a dinner omelet, frittata, or quiche. While the price per carton will often seem outrageous compared to regular grocery-store eggs, a 5-dollar dozen is still less than 50 cents an egg, and a major bargain compared to meat that will range (no pun intended) from $3 to $20 a pound. Ditto beans from Rancho Gordo, which are way expensive compared to supermarket beans, but way cheap compared to pork or beef or chicken. Also? Delicious.
And when you do go for meat, while organic-style prices can seem outrageous compared to industrial-style bargains, you can often make up the difference by selecting different cuts. A pound of Bell & Evans chicken thighs at my local WholeFoods costs only half of what the boneless skinless Perdue "tenders" at the SuperFresh next door set me back. And there are a zillion things you can do with chicken thighs: from leaving them whole for a sticky, sweet soy-orange preparation to shredding them for feed-a-crowd enchiladas. Kabobs to paella, BBQ sandwiches to Provencal pizza. The possibilities are quite literally endless. Pork shoulder and chuck roast, same thing. If you know how to prepare them, these cuts are more flavorful and far more economical than boneless center-cut pork chops and the average supermarket steak.
2. Don't fear the freezer.
This goes for meat and vegetables both. Though we often hear that fresh veggies and fruits are the cornerstone of a healthy diet, seriously? Buy your vegetables frozen when it makes fiscal sense. That's not a hard switch for a lot of people. (Particularly if you have a local Trader Joe's.) For meat, this might mean buying the meat itself frozen, or it might mean cooking a great big pork shoulder and setting a bunch of it aside in frozen packets for future meals. Also: fish. For health reasons a lot of people are interested in eating more fish, and that's definitely great. Just make sure what you're getting is on the sustainable seafood list, and just buy it straight from the freezer. "Fresh" fish in the supermarket is generally frozen and thawed anyway. Go straight for the coldest aisle. If you buy it fresh you're more likely to end up throwing it out if you don't get around to cooking it the day you thought you would. And that leads us to...
3. Watch your waste.
I know, I know, they say you should plan your menu for the week and shop based on that, but do you know anyone who does? I don't. Instead, if I'm at the supermarket, I shop the sales. When I go to the farmer's market I tend to buy things that keep for a long time, like apples or butternut squash, instead of fast-rotters like basil or lettuce. (I never, ever buy lettuce.) But I still end up with odds and ends, and there are a lot of ways to use those up. My new defense strategy: when in doubt, make an enchilada out of it. Yesterday I used up a few extra leeks, two leftover tomatoes, a cheddar end, some wilty hot peppers, and leftover tarragon cream sauce by making enchiladas with Rancho Gordo yellow-eye beans and some Trader Joe's salsa. Throw in a bunch of cumin, oregano, and ground chilis, and you've got yourself a meal. Or, actually, four of 'em.
(Yes, I know people don't normally have leftover tarragon cream sauce. It was a first for me too.)
The point is, try hard not to throw things out. This isn't about whether the plums were $1 a pound or $10. It's about recognizing that once the plum is starting to get too soft to eat, you cut it up and cook it with sausage... which, of course, you have in your freezer.
4. Defy Big Oil.
A minor point, but I have to get it off my chest. And although the trend predates her, I still blame Rachael Ray. The idea that you should throw olive oil into every pan, every dish... it's just silly. Cooking with canola is fine. Should you have extra-virgin olive oil in the house? Absolutely. To make a vinaigrette, or drizzle on top of a soup. But not to caramelize onions, or toast tortillas (for those leftover-filled enchiladas), or pour into the water when you're boiling pasta. You will not taste the difference. Buy the $3 bottle of store-brand canola to keep your butternut squash from sticking to the roasting pan. Semi-splurge on a $9 bottle of Goya olive oil to drizzle on top of it just before serving. Some things matter to your wallet but not your palate. Save there.
5. Experiment -- with technique.
When you're leading the buttoned-down-gourmet life, it's tempting to splurge on interesting, unfamilar items as a way to liven up mealtime. Leeks. Fennel. Fingerling potatoes. But even as an experienced cook, I'm here to tell you: these things have a tendency to go horribly, horribly wrong. Leeks are a pain in the ass to clean, and if you don't know that, you'll end up with a dinnerful of sand. Fennel is great, but it's generally very expensive stuff, and a regular serving for a couple of people can set you back way more than more typical vegetables. Fingerling potatoes? They're adorable. They also... taste very much like regular potatoes.
Instead of setting yourself up for disappointment, find ways to stretch your usual ingredients into something you're not used to. Caramelize your onions into a sweet gooey jammy condiment. Make rosemary roasted potato wedges instead of mashing or baking your Idahos. Whether or not your cauliflower is organic, it's going to taste different roasted on a baking pan so it gets crispy and brown, or steamed and drizzled with dill butter, or mashed up in a little chicken broth and milk as if it were potatoes. The same old same old can be something new if you make it that way. Because the most important ingredient? Is you.
Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry
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11.5.08 @ 12:01p
I may not plan my menus for a week and then shop specifically for those things, but as a single who travels, I often buy food based on a plan for today and tomorrow and just maybe the next day...and often frozen, because my plans might change. (Much as I like bananas, I think they start turning the moment I pick them up.) Unfortunately, I have only so much freezer room, and it seems that most frozen foods are based around feeding a family, and there's just one of me.
11.5.08 @ 12:49p
I find myself going back to my Midwestern culinary roots, learned from my Iowa mother and grandmother (both survivors of the Great Depression). I'm braising and using other slow-cooking techniques to use cheaper cuts. I also vote for using chicken thighs instead of breasts in many things--they have a heartier chicken flavor and are moister. I cook for only two of us, but use the freezer to break down big packages of bargain meats--steaks, pork chops, etc. Also, we're both watching our weight, so we are settling for small portions of meat and lots of fresh veggies. I've also added more winter squash (like acorn) and sweet potatoes or yams to our diet, because of the lower glycemic index compared to more refined carbs. I'm also doing a lot more cooking and baking from scratch--especially things like bread pudding (uses up slightly stale bread), apple crisp (uses up apples that are getting a bit soft or mealy), etc.
I've thought it would be fun to teach a class on how to cook nutritious and delicious meals without spending a lot. Thanks, Mom and Grandma!
Brian, freeze bananas that are turning. They are wonderful in smoothies (used frozen) and in banana nut bread (thawed). You can also use them to replace part of the shortening in muffins and other quick breads.
Instead of enchiladas, when I have lots of small quantities of veggies, etc., left in the fridge, I make "kitchen sink" soup. You throw everything in but the kitchen sink. A typical soup consists of some leftover veggies, some cut up left-over beef, pork, or chicken, a package of chicken or beef broth, and additional veggies from the freezer, as needed, and a can of beans or chick peas from the pantry. Season well and serve with warm bread and butter; you have a feast.
11.5.08 @ 2:42p
Lucy, I certainly have to respect a Midwestern-trained cook who loves to braise! I haven't quite started with bread pudding yet, but just about everything you list here is right up my alley. Braising is definitely the best way to treat these big, tough cuts like pork shoulder, chuck steak, etc. Makes 'em all tender and fall-aparty. Throw it in a pot, pour liquid halfway up, simmer for hours, it's all good.
Brian, I sympathize. When I lived alone and had a busy work schedule I sometimes had to choose between dried mangoes and frozen tater tots for dinner, because there was nothing else in the house. And forget buying milk, certainly. Is there a Trader Joe's near you? I find it handy to have their packages of turkey or chicken burgers on hand, because you can just thaw one or two at a time. In a hurry.
11.5.08 @ 8:27p
this is great, jael. good tips that are also timely given our crap economy. well done (sorry, couldn't resist).
11.7.08 @ 9:35a
Great article! As my schedule calms down (hopefully) I'm planning to look into braising and other cooking methods that take longer than my usual half-hour. Also, thanks for the link to the sustainable seafood list. I was wishing I had something like that the other day when I was contemplating Trader Joe's frozen seafood section.
11.17.08 @ 10:05p
Nicely done. I like your commitment to eating well. I don't think any of us likes the idea of harming the earth, ourselves, and animals. It boggles my mind to think of what a mess we (human beings) can get into when we think others are looking the other way. My sister brought over a documentary about corporations (being psychotic - or psychopathic) and the food industry fits nicely. It seems to be the one that Americans have chosen to impact themselves directly with.
Gardening at home -- love it. Make it organic. See what you can grow in pots if you are limited on space. I have been maintaining a raised bed at the YMCA through a community (organic) gardening group funded by Monsanto. Growing things is great for kids.
Collard greens .... like leeks, very sandy. Follow the directions, but cook them. They are so healthy. We grew those this year. Russ is a bit tired of them, but there is a bag left in the freezer.
I read recently in Real Simple (March 2008?) that it is better to eat conventional if you cannot afford organic. In other words don't buy organic chips instead of carrots, because you can afford it. The chips are after all mass produced and don't usually count as a vegetable. I like the idea of buying organic frozen better, but you cannot always get what you want that way. Generally we buy a mix. Primarily we buy conventional, but I will splurge as often as I can on better food especially when the price is close. I keep hoping that more demand will bring costs down. On some items it seems to be better.
The last conventional item I bought was "homegrown" farmer's market apples vs. "organic". Price was close enough, but the only variety of organic represented was a sweeter type. I love the tart and wanted to make pies. The organic was also not recommended for pies. What are you going to do? Plus all the local orchards spray their trees. If it wasn't for that I might not have even eaten a conventional apple. The ones sold in the grocery store a typically terrible. It kind of saddens me to think that people like them that way. Can they taste the difference? My boys know. Boy do I hear about it if I don't deliver quality.