Saturday, February 03, 2018

Living the Pantry Lifestyle - Peasant Food


I have been interested in the subject of peasant food for as long as I can remember.  These are dishes prepared by the poor in various countries that have usually become a part of their culture.

I think I first became interested in the subject because my mother often told me of being a poor widow with seven children to feed (before she met my father) and how their supper was quite often bean soup.  You would think as the kids grew older, they wouldn't touch the stuff.  However, it was a nostalgic favorite for them. Especially with the luxury of cornbread on the side.

What reminded me of this was watching a Michelin Star chef demonstrating on a cooking show how to make his favorite dish.  This was a man who had access to the very best of ingredients from around the world.  However, his favorite meal was the garlic and bread soup of his childhood called Sopa de Ajo. 

He said that Sopa de Ajo was what his mother made often the last week of each month.  By this time the food purchased at the beginning of the month would have been used up and this dish was made from what they had on hand... leftover bread (at least a week old), garlic, and olive oil.  To him this simple dish was home.

Chef Lydia Bastianich was born in postwar Europe and often talks about how they would not throw any food away when she was growing up.  One of her favorite foods, made once in awhile on her Italian cooking show, is Panzanella (Italian tomato and bread salad). It is a favorite among Italians, long after they have become more affluent.

When Christopher was still in college, we would meet once in awhile at a favorite Middle Eastern restaurant where we would share a bowl of hummus and I would have my very favorite salad... fattoush.  It is the Middle Eastern version of bread and tomato salad albeit the bread used is stale (and toasted) pita.

My mother made her own recipe using bread to stretch tomatoes, a Southern dish called Scalloped Tomatoes (a type of stewed tomatoes).  It sounds terrible to heat tomatoes and dried bread together, one would think they would be a soggy mess.  However, I thought them delicious.   Just like the Michelin chef.  Just like Lydia.  Just like those of us who crave fattoush from the restaurant.

If peasant food is anything, it uses the cheap ingredients one has on hand in that little space on earth they call home.   That's why I've long thought that knowing how to cook from scratch with what is locally available is just as important (if not more) than storing food just for an emergency.

Yes, I know... I do have some freeze dried pouches "put back" but to be honest, only because I know in an emergency I may not feel like cooking from scratch like I usually do every day.  My pantry looked different when I was younger, more healthy, and had kids at home.

It is also why ethnic and vintage cookbooks can be treasures of good recipes made with items from the pantry.  Those recipes that mothers and grandmothers (and sometimes the men in the family!) made for hundreds of years.

Some examples, please?  I'm glad you asked.  Let's say any form of beans and rice which marry together to form a good protein source.  I once went to a catered event where I was given a half of a burrito filled with a little meat mixture and a lot of rice wrapped in a burrito shell. 

Brilliant and delicious (I have since played around with making similar items at home).  It is also why I keep soft taco and burrito shells in the refrigerator or freezer for planned leftovers.  Anything wrapped in such seems to make it more special than just plopping it on a plate as a rerun from last night's meal.

Emilie Barnes often shared her favorite lentil rice casserole recipe that she would serve as a meatless meal (she always warned that it was delicious despite the fact it looked like dog food).  Edith Schaeffer often wrote about how she learned over the years to stretch a meal when unexpected guests stopped by.  For instance, a roasted chicken would become chicken stir fry.

I suppose the main reason I was thinking of this post this weekend was that I was in the midst of my stock up at the beginning of the month, just as the chef's family did all those years ago. I have a grocery budget and most of it gets used up front with items that can either go in the freezer or will be used sooner in the refrigerator.

The menus are planned after the meat purchases are made for the most part.  It helps that I have the same menus rotating seasonally with something special thrown in now and then.  I actually bought a steak for the first time since last summer.  They were half price due to the Super Bowl, I'm sure.  So I bought one fairly thick stead and put it in the freezer for when I want to make a special meal someday.

Unless the meat is already in a freezer proof package (such as the frozen tilapia), I slip the unopened package in Ziploc bags for extra protection from freezer burn.  Larger items like ham are slipped inside a few plastic grocery bags for extra protection. (I already had purchased one ham on clearance but bought a spiral ham for the freezer when they were marked down to 89 cents a pound.)

By having the basics in the pantry, whether spices or canned goods or meat or veggies or beans or rice or what is needed to bake anything... I can plan on basic menus, a special meal now and then, and even perhaps a special dessert that has been requested. 

After all, the pantry is mostly for everyday meal planning and secondly to deepen for an emergency situation (we have had two different years of unemployment when having a pantry saved us!).

I think this week I will get out a few of my favorite "ethnic" or "vintage" cookbooks and see if there is something new to try. 

Image:  Cookbook and Applies: allposters.com

10 comments:

Vee said...

Oh there is always something new to try! I always fall back to egg meals. This having only myself to cook for has been most dull. What a boring dinner companion I am. I can attest to the fact that stewed tomatoes and bread crumbs can be very delicious indeed.

carolee said...

Loved this post! I'm a huge believer in waste not/want not, so leftovers always get saved and renovated into something new. I can usually get 4-5 meals from a beef roast (on sale, buy one get one free at our local grocery) or a pork tenderloin on sale. Actually, I only buy meat (or pretty much anything else) on a good sale, otherwise we do without, which is fine with me but hubby thinks he needs meat. If I get a ham on sale, I bake it, then after the first meal, slice it and package into small amounts for the freezer. All the smaller parts get diced for future omelettes, frittatas, casseroles, etc. I save all bits of leftover vegetables and throw them into a bag in the freezer for upcoming soups, frittatta, or whatever. Blessings to you, dear friend!

Ian's Girl said...

Stewed tomatoes and saltine crackers is also very good! I love peasant food. The potato is one of God's wonders!

Cheryl said...

This is such good, common sense advice! I think we make things so complicated sometimes (okay, I know I do), but wise stewardship is not so very complicated. It just takes intention and a touch of creativity. Thanks for this reminder to keep it simple!

Little Penpen said...

And a lot of those meals are healthy! My mother in law used to make scalloped tomatoes in a casserole. I loved them!

Laura Lane said...

This is really interesting. We ate peasant food for many years while my kids were little, and we decided it was a priority for me to be home with them. I'm still home, but they're older now, and money's not quite as tight.
Laura of Harvest Lane Cottage

P.S. Sharing this as a favorite post tomorrow, Monday the 5th, on the blog.

Deanna Rabe said...

This week we had a simple dinner of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. It was so tasty. Why do I always think I have to make a fancier meal? I’m really busy these days and simple is better and I’m more likely to actually cook, than grab a pizza.

Linda said...

We ate a lot of 'poor'people meals. Milk toast was one. Also, boiled egg in cream sause. Corn bread and milk with salt and pepper. Corn beef in jar put in cream sauce on toast. We loved them.

Senkyoushi said...

I loved this post. When I was growing up grits were a real treat. I still love them today. I had the privilege of going to see Emilie Barnes speak when my kids were young and she talked about her lentil rice casserole. I started making it from that day forward. Still make it today. It makes the house smell divine while it is cooking. When the kids would ask what we were having, I would say "dogfood casserole." HA! It was great in a taco or burrito. :)

Anonymous said...

Same here with the bean soup and cornbread. My depression-reared parents and grandparents ate this ALL the time. When I was a kid growing up, bean soup was just a wonderful dish on the week's menu. I love it today and so do my grown kids who loved it growing up as well.