When people compliment me on my cooking, I frequently tell them that I cheat: I use the best ingredients I can manage. People look offended when I say that, as though the ingredients can’t possibly be that important. But I gotta tell you, reader, they are.
I was raised on my abuelo’s farm. I didn’t live there, but I spent practically every free minute possible there, every weekend and many of my summers (I spent the other summers on my other grandfather’s ranch, where he raised cattle and gardened). Abuelo raised beef cattle, tended orchards first planted by his father, and grew tons of fresh vegetables. From time to time, we also had other farm animals: goats, sheep, pigs. The vast majority of what I ate as a child came from that farm. When I went off to college, I was shocked to discover that the same foods in the supermarkets tasted radically different. Tomatoes were watery and flavorless. Chile peppers weren’t hot. And the beef… the beef was awful. Grain-fed beef all tastes like liver to me.
On my honeymoon in Ireland, I had another revelation. I’d never liked eggs. My abuelo wouldn’t raise chickens; he considered them the dirtiest, stupidest animals ever. (His opinion, not mine; I’ve since known some lovely chickens and rather miss the rooster that used to live across the street from us.) But you can’t have an Irish breakfast without eggs, so I gave them a try. They were amazing! Rich and flavorful and utterly delicious. In fact, nearly everything tasted better in Ireland. Why? Because nearly all food there is local and fresh. Those eggs had been laid within a day or two of being eaten. I am now a serious egg-lover, but I’m very picky about the eggs I eat.
In my experience, the quality of the food you cook with deeply affects the end result. Making tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes will always taste better than using canned tomatoes, and using vine-ripened tomatoes will always taste better than store-bought. But that doesn’t have to mean expensive. There are three ways to get good quality ingredients at reasonable prices: grow your own, buy direct from a farmer, or buy from a farm cooperative. Today, I’m going to talk about growing your own food.
If you have enough yard space or even a good-sized balcony or porch, you can grow your own ingredients. There are several advantages to this.
- You can grow varieties that you would never find in stores, mainly because they’re too
fragile or spoil too quickly, but these varieties have far superior flavors. Heirloom tomatoes are a classic example, but also lettuce, strawberries, eggplants, and mushrooms. If you live in the northeastern U.S. or Canada and you have the space, consider growing a pawpaw tree. These native plants produce delicious fruits that taste like bananas – really, they do! – but they spoil within a day or two of being picked. Pawpaw jam is a New England delicacy, and it can be had every year for the price of a single tree and an afternoon of planting it.
- Freshly picked vegetables are far more flavorful and much more nutritious. Most store-bought vegetables are picked well before they’re ripe because they will continue to ripen during shipping. Tomatoes are the most egregious example of this, but this is also true of virtually all fruits with the exception of apples bred for longevity. Root vegetables are also generally shelf-stable, but the quality of green beans, peas, and all greens degrade rapidly after being picked. Cooking with vegetables at the peak of ripeness gives your dishes much richer flavor and freshness.
- You know exactly what goes into the plants you grow. You control the soil, the water, the fertilizer, even the seed quality. If you’re planting in your backyard, be sure to test your soil first. Every state has at least one organization that provides this service. In Massachusetts, it’s the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This will tell you whether your soil has acceptable levels of heavy metals such as lead as well as whether the soil needs more organic matter or an adjustment to pH. For high quality seeds, conventional and organic, I recommend Johnny’s Selected Seeds if you garden in the Northeast, Seeds of Change if you garden in the Southwest.
Don’t want to start your own seeds? Find a garden center near you that offers organic seedlings, check with your local 4H Club (they often run seedling sales as fundraisers), or wait for the first farmers’ market of the year. If you don’t have enough space in your yard for a garden, consider building an EarthTainer for your driveway, patio, or balcony. I’ve built three so far with relative ease and have grown lettuce, kale, peas, green beans, cucumbers, and hot chile peppers in them.
Last year, I had a 2200 sq. ft. garden and a greenhouse. This year, I may get a 6 sq. ft. garden bed, and I have my three EarthTainers. That’s a lot less growing space, but it was a necessary change for me. I spend most of my time writing now, and I just don’t have the energy or stamina for a large-scale garden anymore. This means I have to prioritize what I grow and focus on things I can’t get easily anywhere else. Here’s my plan for this year:
- Winterbor kale – my husband’s favorite variety, this kale continues growing even in the middle of harsh New England winters, so we can eat it all year around. I’ll likely put this in the garden bed. Winterbor is a hybrid, so you can’t save its seed, which means I ordered it from Johnny’s last week and just need a spare moment to start it in some egg cartons saved for this purpose.
- Highlander chile – the best producing hot pepper for this climate that I’ve ever found. Most New Mexico peppers don’t develop any real hotness in this humid climate, but Highlander consistently produces great chiles anyway. Also a hybrid, which I ordered from Seeds of Change. I will likely put this in an EarthTainer where I can better control the moisture of the soil and easily cover it in case of a cold snap.
- Snap peas – I prefer Sugar Anne, but Johnny’s was out of them, so I got the standard Sugar Snap peas. I’ll plant these in the EarthTainer on my balcony today, to be replaced by kitchen herbs in May.
- Cucumbers – I’ll buy seedlings from 4H or a local market. Small pickling cukes are better for us, my daughters will eat them right off the vine, so snack size is good. These will likely go in the bed alongside the kale. If I’m really on the ball, I’ll replace them midsummer with broccoli or spaghetti squash.
- Sweet peppers – another I’ll buy as seedlings, probably only one or two plants specifically for Nora, who loves them and eats them right off the plant all summer long.
- Sungold cherry tomato – another kid favorite, wildly prolific, and easily found as seedlings at any market. Be warned, they grow all over the place, so either have a good space available or be prepared to stake or prune a lot. I’ll put them in an EarthTainer with a good sturdy tomato cage.
- if i have space, I’d like a good sauce tomato. Juliet is a mini plum that I love, plump and versatile and disease resistant, good for salads but also hearty enough to make sauce. I may have to construct another EarthTainer for this. We shall see.
If you have a large garden space and want further recommendations, I suggest you browse through my old gardening blog.
Next week: Buying direct from farmers