Thinking Outside the (Recipe) Box

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A Local Dinner

Before I moved to St. Croix, I was an adherent recipe fanatic.  For me, cooking a nice meal involved three steps:

  1. Find a good recipe
  2. Go to the grocery store or market and shop
  3. Cook.

There was often also a fourth step, which was – what do I do with the leftover ingredients I didn’t use?  For example, if a recipe called for a half of a head of cabbage, what did I do with the other half?  Generally it just languished in my fridge in the back of the crisper drawer, like some lonely forgotten thing, until in a week or so it was no longer recognizable and – out it went into the compost pile.

This was not only a very wasteful way to cook (do you know how much food is wasted in the United States?), but it was also very sad!  Food should be a joy, cooking should be love, and a home cook should be in harmony with her ingredients.  And once I moved to St. Croix and was faced with the daily task of – what to cook?  A lot of my recipe fanaticism went out the window.

Recipes for me now are guidelines.  I find a recipe I like and examine it, and then I pull it apart – I first ask, “hm, what can I replace in the recipe with a local ingredient?”  This is generally pretty simple.  Most tender vegetables substitute pretty easily for each other.  Don’t have asparagus?  Use local squash or zucchini.  Don’t have cabbage?  Use local bok choy.  Don’t have spinach?  Use local greens like kale or mustard greens.   You can also substitute honey for agave nectar, and coconut oil for most other oils (be aware it does add coconut flavor).  Jalapenos can be replaced with local hot peppers.  Peaches can be replaced with mangoes.  Apples can be replaced with sopadilla.  Local honey vinegar goes well in salad dressings instead of wine vinegar.  The possibilities are endless!

Meats can be a bit more of a challenge (and this year part of my advocacy goals is to increase local meat awareness), but you can buy local beef at Annaly farm, or local chickens, lamb, and rabbit at Sejah farm.  A local chicken comes whole, so learning basic butchering skills if you want to cut it up into parts is simple and fresh, and can be done for any chicken recipe.  Or you can roast the bird whole and then flake the meat for a recipe.  It isn’t hard to do!

The key to this method of cooking is simple – it is TASTE.  Taste your food, taste your ingredients, and consider what goes well together.  And if something doesn’t work out, don’t be upset, change it up in the next recipe.  I have a compost pile here at home and and area in our back yard where I make “offerings” to the local mongooses and iguanas of food that we aren’t going to eat!  So now, I’m throwing out as little as possible.

And that is the other side benefit of this type of cooking – now, when I have half a head of bok choy left to cook, instead of throwing it out because I don’t have a recipe, I am now seeking a way to add it to the next dish I prepare.  Much less waste!  And much more taste!  This is the delight of cooking with fresh, local, seasonal St. Croix ingredients at home.  So now my steps are:

  1. Shop for local foods
  2. Consider how to add them to dishes/find a recipe to use that can include them
  3. Cook.

And my cooking life is much more simple and joyful, and closer to the Earth.  As it should be.

*For a wonderful read on how to shop at your Farmers Market and prepare your week’s dishes in a simple and sustainable fashion, I recommend “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” by Tamar Adler.  Read this book.  It will change your cooking relationship with food tremendously.

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Braised Lettuce and Peas, Cucumber Salad, Avocados, and Grits

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For the next meal from Saturday’s shopping trip, I wanted to use up all the lovely butter lettuce, as it wilts quickly!  I found this recipe on Food Network (a site I go to quite often):  Braised Lettuce and Peas.  I’ve never cooked lettuce before, so I was willing to experiment – I wanted to do something other than simply make a salad.  And since I had some frozen peas in the freezer,this seemed a perfect way to use them both!  The recipe calls for shallots, though, which really can’t be found on St. Croix (at least not very fresh), so instead I substituted the last of the organic onions.

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I also had some organic grits, and I thought those would go well with the lettuce and peas, so I got that out too.

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I chopped up lettuce, tossed in the pot with the peas.  Grits on to boil.

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Chopped up the cucumbers, tossed with pepper, salt, and a splash of white wine vinegar…and then I noticed the lovely ripe avocado just waiting to be eaten (doesn’t it look lonely in the photo?).  So that was sliced up to add to the meal.

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And done.  A simple weekend meal.  Doug likes hot sauce on his grits and avocados, so I sprinkled a bit on top before serving it to him.

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The butter lettuce was very good cooked!  I think next time I’ll wait a bit longer before tossing the lettuce in to cook with the peas so it doesn’t cook down so much.  It seems to me that maintaining a bit more of the “leafiness” vs. a spinach-like texture would be nicer.  But it still was very tasty, and another experiment done.  So don’t be shy about experimenting with food, especially for a daily meal…you just might surprise yourself with how good it turns out!