The folks I hang with in the local food system are focused on product.
Is the asparagus ready? What about the rhubarb? When should I plant peppers and tomatoes? How much should we put into a member share?
I’m interested in the answers, yet those aren’t my questions. My work in the local food system is to inform and supply culinary endeavors in our kitchen. Technique and creativity seem more important than the fungible commodity fresh produce is becoming. Objectifying and standardizing things, an American obsession, plays a role in the kitchen. At the same time inspiration, creativity and technique seem more important than consumable objects. That’s where I live.
My questions are different from farmer friends. What food can be sourced locally? How can I use an abundance of spring greens before they spoil? What seasoning tastes best with scrambled eggs? What is the best way to preserve food in the ice box? How many pints and quarts of tomatoes shall I can this year? How do I combine bits and pieces from the pantry with fresh food to make satisfying meals? At some point, questioning must yield to creativity.
There is something about Saturday afternoon in the kitchen. It’s partly immersion into the cooking process and partly reliving memories. Saturday was a time to work in the yard and garage, then cook a meal while my spouse worked in town. I used to listen to Iowa Public Radio all day. Due to budget priorities, those programs are gone. Cooking time came with the beginning of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion which is gone too. I now draw life from the task at hand without musical accompaniment.
I made an Iowa version of pad thai last Saturday.
The dish has been in the works for a while. A couple of months ago I noticed the warehouse club sold USDA Certified Organic pad thai noodles for about $0.37 per serving. I bought a box on Friday.
With cabbage, onions and carrots from last season; a drawer and more of cooking greens from the farm; spring garlic from the garden; and bits and pieces stored in the ice box and pantry, the dish came together. The resulting meal was tasty, filling and seasonal — satisfying on multiple levels.
My kitchen experience made the dish as much as the ingredients.
I stock basic kitchen staples — high smoke point oil, salt, extra virgin olive oil, celery, onions, carrots and cabbage. Sources included retail merchants and local farms, however, the essence of cuisine is using what’s ubiquitous and on hand. It’s a fine distinction. Regardless of source, what’s in the pantry, ice box and garden now is what’s on hand. Creativity is in that moment.
Except for the noodles, no specific shopping was needed to prepare pad thai. Canned black beans and a jar of fermented black bean sauce were the only prepared foods used and I stock both in the pantry.
Inspiration for the meal occurred at the intersection of discovery of a small patch of spring garlic in the garden and the memories it aroused. I recall a paper sack of garlic cloves brought home from the library and planting them more than a decade ago. The scent was intoxicating. I harvested enough for a meal.
Where is the creativity? Thinly cutting vegetables, sorting ingredients by cooking time, and measuring seasonings can all be taught. With an eye toward plating, carrots can be cut on the bias, green leaves julienned and celery stalks cut thick. Pad thai noodles are to cook 5-6 minutes, according to the package, then immersed in an ice water bath to stop the cooking. These techniques are like loading a palette with paint.
Creativity begins once the noodles are on and the wok is heated to high temperature. There’s no going back.
Using a high smoke point oil, onions, carrots, celery, cabbage go into the wok first. It’s “stir fry,” not “occasionally stir” fry, so full attention is required at the stove. Season with salt. Once the timer for the noodles expires, strain and dump into the ice water bath. When the first round of vegetables is tender and add plate two (spring garlic, garlic chives, sliced bok choy stems, and julienned bok choy leaves, stirring constantly. Add the drained and washed black beans and a generous serving of cooking greens. Once the greens are wilted, add a couple of tablespoons of fermented black bean sauce. Strain and add the noodles last, garnishing with a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Toss gently until heated. Plate and serve with your favorite sweet chili sauce.
Cheap, prepared food is everywhere in the United States. It’s convenient. It reduces time in the kitchen. It is engineered to appeal to our senses. Most of us eat at a restaurant or get help from the industrial food supply chain from time to time. However, there is no substitute for inspired cooking.
It provides engagement seldom found elsewhere in life. It’s a source of satisfaction hard to replicate. It sustains us in a turbulent world. This kind of inspiration and creativity is needed more than ever.
Some ingredients for Iowa-style pad thai