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.


Clean Out the ‘Fridge Soup!

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I started poking through the refrigerator last night and realized I had some vegetables that were going to go past their prime if I didn’t cook them soon.  I also had a bit of chicken left from the roasted local chicken I made on New Year’s Day, so it made sense that it was time for a big pot of “Clean Out the ‘Fridge” Soup!

“Clean Out the ‘Fridge” soup is pretty simple.  It’s really just whatever you want to throw in, with some simple seasonings and an hour or two to simmer.  I started by taking inventory of the vegetables that needed to be used – and the ones that I wanted to add “just because.”

Clean Out the 'Fridge Ingredients

I started with a couple of carrots, celery hearts, mushrooms, some of the local tomatoes, and figured it was time for me to cut up and roast the local pumpkin before it got soft.  I decided to add 1/4 of it to the soup, and roast the rest for later.

Cut Pumpkin

Gorgeous inside, right?  This pumpkin came from Sejah Farm.

Soup and Pumpkin Getting Started

I chopped up the carrot, celery, 1/4 of the pumpkin, and left the pumpkin in large pieces to roast.  I put a bit of water in the pan with the pumpkin and then covered the whole pan with foil, and roasted it at 350 degrees for an hour (or until soft).

More Tasty Ingredients!

And here’s the soup with the tomato and mushrooms chopped up and added!  I decided to toss in some frozen green beans as well, and then started getting creative and went out to the garden for some japanese greens, which I gave a quick rinse in the sink before slicing them up and tossing them into the pot.

Japanese Greens and Amaranth

Last, I shredded the leftover chicken, tossed in a can of chickpeas, added some vegetable bouillon paste, salt, pepper, dried oregano, and put the pot on to simmer for a while.  I want to point out that with soup like this, I don’t worry too much about how I chop up the vegetables.  The most important thing is that they are all bite-sized pieces, and that they fit on the spoon when they are being eaten!  So some of the mushrooms are cut in wedges, other in squares…I don’t care.  Save the perfect little diced cubes for when you’re entering a cooking competition, but at home all that matters is that it tastes good and is easy to eat.

Soup Set to Simmer

And here’s the soup at the finish.  I stirred in some tomato paste because I decided to give it a bit more tomato richness, but that’s purely optional.

Clean Out the 'Fridge Soup

And, as a bonus, here’s the pumpkin puree – scooped out of the shell after cooking and popped in the freezer for future dishes…like pumpkin bread…or one of my favorites, pumpkin lasagna!

Frozen Pumpkin Puree

The best thing about making a soup like this is that it carries over for several meals, and is even better the next day.  It would also go well mixed with rice, or pasta, or a loaf of crusty bread.  I had it for breakfast.  🙂

So when your vegetables are starting to wilt, don’t throw them away…make a big pot of soup, and enjoy the abundance of flavors!