When I first started my cooking life, my fridge was almost invariably full of leftovers. Each day, I would flip through my cookbooks (which all had pictures accompanying every recipe) and decide what I felt like eating. One night might be coq au vin. The next might be burgers. On Wednesday, we might have spaghetti carbonara.
So I’d head to the grocery and buy all the ingredients, come back and get to work. And the next day, I would do the same.
It wasn’t until we were on a ski trip with our 79-year-old friend John Bailey (who beats us all down the mountain) that I realized the folly of my ways. John is a column waiting to happen, so I won’t spoil his story in just a paragraph, but suffice it to say he came into the kitchen one snowy evening wearing his signature ascot and striped rugby shirt.
That night, it was my turn to cook for our 10-person group. I’d decided on prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, which ran completely counter to what the other couples had made when it was their turn to make dinner, but I thought it would be a nice, hearty meal after a lovely day on the slopes.
John sat down at the bar and thoughtfully watched me peel the carrots I just bought and whisk the eggs for the pudding. Finally, he clearly couldn’t stand it anymore and said in his Australian accent: “Tara, darling, how do you intend for us to eat all of this food? We leave in two days. I don’t know about you, but I can’t eat that many carrots.”
It was right then that I knew why I always had so many leftovers in my fridge and consequently why on trash day I was guiltily throwing them out. Rather than linking together day after day like monkeys out of a barrel, my meals were on an island of their own. And I was wasting a lot of food.
Since, I have amended my ways and gotten great joy out of finding new recipes to rescue nearly every last ingredient in my fridge before it spoils. Given that we’re lucky enough to live in the age of the Internet, this is a relatively simple process, with thousands of recipes always at our fingertips.
Still, I didn’t get truly tested until a few months ago when I signed up for a CSA basket. CSA stands for community-supported agriculture, which unfortunately doesn’t mean very much but I mention it because it’s almost always referred to as that. Basically, I paid my money for the growing season and now get a share of the harvest at a local farm. In my case, I’m part of the CSA at Wilson’s Cedar Point Farm in Pulaski County, but I happen to know Sustainable Harvest Farm, run by Ford and Amanda Waterstrat, does a great one in Laurel County too.
Anyway, every Thursday since April, I go to the pickup spot and pick up my basket for the week. When it started in the spring, that meant we got strawberries — a whole lot of beautiful, ruby red strawberries. At first, my stepdaughter Gabrielle and I just delighted in eating whole handfuls of them. But as the weeks passed and I kept getting a gallon every Thursday, I had to get creative. Soon our freezer was full of strawberry buttermilk ice cream. The pantry shelves swelled with jars of preserves. And we had a whole lot of shortcake.
Then, all of a sudden, the strawberries were gone and we were on to green onions, radishes, cauliflower and broccoli. Now it’s baby zucchini, yellow squash, cucumber and beans. Like, a lot of them.
All the while, I’ve got to keep up. Right now, for example, I’ve got 10 zucchini in my fridge — and probably more to come this Thursday. So tonight I’m making a zucchini tart with goat cheese. To get rid of the cucumbers, I’m making cucumber-buttermilk soup. Tomorrow, it’s brisket and cabbage to make use of the huge head I only put a dent into when I made coleslaw a week ago.
While it’s keeping me on my toes, it’s one of the most satisfying, gratifying things I’ve ever done in the kitchen. We’re supporting a local farmer and eating some of the best produce I’ve ever put in my mouth. Dinner is being dictated by the ingredients we have available. But the best part is our meals are intimately reflecting the season.
And that, I’ve finally learned, is what cooking well really means.