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