Monday, March 7, 2011

raiders of the lost greens

I dig farmer's markets as a cultural phenomenon. But before I can hope to turn the stuff they sell into dinner, I first have to start convincing myself that it's actually food. Backwards, even inerudite, you say? Of course, but read on.

Let me confess that it wasn't but a few short years ago that I ever ventured into the 'produce' section of the grocery store. That scary, open area on the right-hand side, with all that fresh from the garden stuff? I couldn't even name anything there. And besides, there were no high, comforting walls -- anyone could just look up across the center displays and see me! And, heaven forbid, they might even walk up to me and tell me the name of this green thing I was scrutinizing, as though holding it up to the light might reveal some sort of secret bat decoder! No, the other isles, with food-like stuffs neatly labeled in cans and boxes, was much more inviting. No guessing there. If the big shiny label proclaimed it contained processed cheese food, well, then, that must certainly be what's inside.

Like many other kids raised in Generation X and beyond, I grew up preferring the flavor of artificial grape powder to actual grapes. Real grapes just weren't ... purple enough. And having spent days or weeks riding in a crate across a continent, whatever flavor they might have once have possessed had fled for the homeland long before those grapes got to me. Friends sometimes wonder why I never learned cooking from my mother. Let me tell you -- I did. But my mother, like so many others in America, cooks primarily Hamburger Helper, frozen pizzas, and chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs. It's not that she can't cook wonderful meals from scratch; it's that her time is so limited, she saves those meals for a special occasion.

For me, learning how to make meals 'from scratch' had to begin with something simple, something not too terribly different in taste from the processed, MSG-laced fare that awakens nostalgia for a freezer-pop and bologna roll-up youth. (I'm told that bologna roll-ups -- a slice of Oscar Mayer with ketchup in the middle, rolled up like a tiny burrito and eaten -- are unheard of outside of Pittsburgh. Anyone in the audience care to weigh in on that? We are the home of Heinz ketchup, you know.) And so one of my first adventures was homemade Hamburger Helper. After all, how difficult can that really be? It's a bunch of noodles, some ground beef, and a spice packet. If I could figure out what was in the spice packet, I'd be set. That's really the only processed part of the whole thing. Following the advice of Chickens in the Road, with a bag of egg noodles and a jug of milk in hand, I had soon created my own meal. It was cheaper than if I'd bought a cardboard box with all the ingredients measured out ahead of time and hardly a bit more work.

But then, of course, some of those recipes require actual ... well, you know ... produce. Stroganoff in the box comes with dried mushrooms. Our military commissary doesn't generally carry dried mushrooms, and the squishy wet canned kind I didn't think would agree well with the recipe. That left only one option. Armed with dark glasses, an upturned collar, and some backup, I plunged in.

"Mushrooms are over here," said my backup, pointing towards the end of the row.

"Shh! You're diminishing the scariness. This is supposed to be like a quest into the cave of death."

"Well, I figured we'd spend less time in the cave if you knew what things are where."

"Oh?" I countered, brandishing a leafy green something. "Then what's this?"

"Kale?" he offered tentatively. "Actually I have no idea."

At that very moment, a large busty woman burst out of the stocking room to our rescue. She positively identified the green in question as something other than kale, and patiently explained to us the reasoning behind the placement of vegetables according to their humidity requirements. When we joked that we needed to carry a field guide to vegetables, she steered us over to that very thing. A think binder, complete with color photographs, had sat waiting for us in the center of the produce section the entire time. It outlined what things were called, when and where they grow, what to check for when you pick them up, and what kinds of dishes they might accompany. A holy braille for the blind and uninitiated! Why hadn't we found this earlier? (They do, of course, make an actual Field Guide to Produce, if you're so inclined.)

Since Colorado farmer's markets don't open till June, we have all winter to learn what things are called and how to cook them. Knowing what you want to eat is, of course, the first step in learning what you want to grow. I'll keep you posted.

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