Full Thrift Cooking

Full Thrift Cooking

Originally posted at Substack, 10/24/2020

Pot of soup with carrots, turkey, and pasta shells

It’s been a race around here to get the garden harvested and put to bed. Weekends have been filled with chores like planting 100 tulip/daffodil/grape hyacinth bulbs, along with lavenders and a couple of new rugosa roses in the front yard, to stacking wood, to harvesting the last of the tomatoes, kales, chards, herbs and then burying everything under a layer of straw for the winter. It was a race I think I won, by mere moments, as today we woke up to a full two feet of new snow, with temps projected to go down into single digits or below zero tonight.

I’ve been seeing articles about folks stocking up for another round of COVID, or post-election unrest, and while it’s true that Montana’s virus numbers are shooting through the roof, I’m actually less worried about violence than I was a few weeks ago. The air seems to have gone out of the worst of the Trump-flag jacked-up truck guys. But the stocking up. I have to admit, I’ve been stocking up again.

I have always stocked the pantry when I’m anxious. It was only a couple of years after our parents divorced that my mother put me in charge of shopping and cooking. Our budgets were so tight, and while she had jobs, they were the kinds of low-level clerical jobs that divorced women with no college education could get in the 70s and 80s. And Dad, well, let’s just say that Dad seemed to think the child support was more of a suggestion than an obligation. And so I learned early how to stretch a pot roast, or Mom’s favorite, a cheap frozen turkey, and how to repurpose it over time to make things last. These journeys usually ended with soup.

Someone on Twitter asked for people’s favorite soup recipes the other day and the first thing I thought was recipe? Who uses a recipe for soup? For me, soup is something you make out of what’s at hand. The other day, I made a nice little lentil soup to eat with toast for lunch. I chopped up a leek, and some cabbage, then peeled a couple of carrots and diced them. Into the pot it all went with some olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic and a little salt to sauté down. When the veggies were soft, I added a pint of home-canned turkey stock, a pint of water, a slug of white wine, and then shook in some of those nice tiny French lentils from the quart jar where I keep them. I put in maybe 1/2 a pint? It seemed a little spartan, so I added a slug of soy sauce, and a good shake of fish sauce to give it a little more umami. Half an hour later, there was a lovely little lunch soup. Made from what I have.

Soup is thrift personified. Soup is what you make from those odd bits leftover in the fridge, and, if you work at home like I do, soup is a perfect lunch. When we were so broke after the divorce, my mother’s great friend Maryellen Smith referred to end-of-the-week soup as “Garbage Soup,” a name we found hilarious as children.

Its been several years since I’ve really paid this much attention to household and pantry management. Since Himself won’t eat most vegetables, there were a bunch of years where I just grew greens in the garden for myself, and flowers, but didn’t put much up for winter. This year, I’ve shifted back to homegrown and home-preserved. I cooked down bushels of kales and chards, sautéed with onion or leek, slicked with olive oil, then frozen in blocks in this silicone freezer mold I bought. Once they’re frozen, I pop the cubes out and seal them with the vacuum sealer. I think I have enough greens, chopped scallions, and tomatoes in the freezer to see me through a lot of the winter.

Householding is a real skill, and one we’ve stopped teaching over the past couple of decades. If you look at any of the older versions of cookbooks like Joy of Cooking, they’re largely concerned with how to budget, and plan meals for a week. The chicken you roast for Sunday can become at least 2 more meals, including a delicious soup. Keeping a pantry stocked with dry goods means that if it’s been a long day at work, you can always whip up some pasta with olive oil and garlic, or a quick tomato sauce.

None of this is news. It used to be common sense to keep a stocked pantry, and perhaps one of the reasons we keep seeing these same articles over and over is that planning ahead, and stocking up on raw materials from which you can cook your own meals, goes against the grain of everything that food media and food corporations have told us for the past couple of decades. The primary message has been that cooking is unnecessary when there are prepared meals in the grocery store. The grocery aisles are full of packaged food items that would have been unimaginable when I was a kid. Not just the frozen meals and meal kits, but things like prepared pot roast in the meat aisle. There are whole generations who have grown up on takeout — who have always lived in a world where you could order restaurant meals and have them delivered to your house.

Now I’m not trying to say that all of that is bad. My mother is 80, and doesn’t really cook anymore, and finds the grocery store terrifying and overwhelming, so she orders from places like Panera, or the local Italian place, as a matter of course. But now that we’ve all been sent home again, perhaps we can recast the notion of a full pantry not as some crazy thing that only “preppers” do, but as a normal way of being in the world.

I’d love to see Home Ec put back in schools, in a gender neutral way, so that everyone can learn some basic cooking skills, as well as how to use a sewing machine and do simple home repairs. Throw in some budgeting and consumer education about interest rates and we’d all be in better shape.

We can also push back against the idea that cooking = restaurant food. Samin Nosrat has been brilliant on this topic on Home Cooking, the podcast she hosts with Hrishikesh Hirway. She likes to remind people that when you’re cooking for yourself, you don’t have to be producing the kinds of plates you might order in a restaurant. Home meals can be as simple as rice or noodles with some sauteed veg and perhaps an egg. Or just cheese. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need a recipe to make yourself dinner.

If this pandemic has taught many of us one thing, it might just be that we’re more competent than we thought we were. We can not only make a sourdough bread, but cook ourselves dinner. So many people took up gardening this summer that there were shortages of canning jars and lids. We can take back control of what we’re eating and how, and how we are feeding ourselves and our loved ones. A tiny tiny pearlescent lining, to what has been a very dark time …

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