I just spent the day preparing all my vegetables for the week. Keep in mind that I grew half of them and got the rest from an organic farmer that I have an agreement with. I know exactly how these vegetables were grown, and when they were picked. This is an important goal for me, so I am happy about that part of it.
What is “food prep”?
Here is an excerpt from a job description:
“Prep cooks do much of the preparation for the dishes that are served. This includes chopping vegetables, breaking down, cutting or grinding meat, weighing and mixing ingredients, washing and preparing vegetables, storing food, and more.”
My first lesson: It takes time
The problem is, it took me most of the morning, because I was experimenting with different preparations; sautéed greens, roasted root vegetables, zucchini fritters (my breakfast) and a southwestern salad to boot! Lots of food that we can easily heat up with something else, and have an easy meal. At the end, though, I felt like I hadn’t accomplished much, because I stuck it all in the fridge and it looked like I did nothing (until you open the refrigerator).
I started thinking how this is such an important part of our meals, and we seem to want to cut it out of our lives. Then I thought, even the restaurants that we love to frequent have employees who spend most of their work shift doing the exact same thing (with less than healthy ingredients).
Someone has to do all that chopping, grating, slicing and cutting. Even if it comes in a can, someone somewhere did it. Hopefully they even got paid for it.
My second lesson: I need to value that time
Do you ever find yourself not valuing the work that you do? I do that all the time. Partially because no one in my family is going to say “hey great! I’m so excited to eat all these healthy greens with my meals.” If I were getting paid to do it, somehow it seems like it would be more important. Why is that? If I make cookies, my family will be thrilled, but not so much with the veggies. It’s the lot of a vegetable to go unrecognized by most consumers. So it’s a humble time to spend with these under loved ingredients.
One of the things I do if I find myself not valuing what I am doing, is I ask myself how much I would have to pay to have someone do it for me. It puts it in a different perspective. When you go to a restaurant, you are paying someone to prepare the ingredients, then someone else to cook the meals, someone else to serve it to you, someone to wash the dishes, as well as for the manager of the restaurant and the building. You are only paying a portion, but those are all included in the price of your meals. Yes, sometimes it is well worth the price, but so is the time you put into all the meals you prepare.
Why do it? Weekly food prep can save time throughout the week.
This food prep for the week is fairly new for me. I tend to find it very easy to throw some vegetables into a steamer, or roast them for a meal. Doing an entire week in advance was an interesting task. I have been taking it on because I have been getting lazy at the daily vegetable task, and too many of them have been sitting in my refrigerator waiting to be used. So I alleviated that problem, at least for this week, now we just need to eat them. That is the second challenge.
Food for thought: Food Preservation
I am also quite interested in preserving the food from my garden. I would love to make some salsa and can it. It occurs to me that this used to be a normal endeavor. I have canned in the past. I happen to love blackberries, and the best way to preserve them is in jelly, so as a child, that was my first canning experience. I was fortunate to learn canning skills at a fairly young age. More recently, my kids have helped me make crab apple jelly from our neighbor’s crab apple tree. We did it for fun. They climbed the tree to get the crab apples, mashed the cooking apples, and did all the taste testing required. I have not done it on a regular basis, because we can buy any jelly and canned goods we want at the local grocery store. It didn’t always used to be that way. It used to be, if you wanted to eat during the winter, you had better store something.
When it was a matter of survival, there was great appreciation for the skills of canning, preserving, and anything that made food available in the winter. Grains were also important because they could be stored until they were needed. Now we don’t even see what the grain looks like, we think oats are flat, and wheat is white and powdery. We have come a long way, and I am not sure if that is a good thing. We have lost a lot of skills, and we have lost the art of those skills as well.
A couple years ago, I was given some blue corn. We all know blue corn, now; those famous blue corn chips that everyone thinks are more healthy. This corn was dried on the cob; as most farmers would have gathered it through the centuries. So I did some research, and thanks to an online forum, learned that there is an essential process required to make the nutrients in corn more readily available for assimilation; it is called nixtamalization (yes, that is a real word). Apparently corn has been processed that way for centuries (at least), but we don’t seem to have time for that in our modern food industry. You may have heard of hominy being leached in lime or lye, well, that is nixtamalization, it is considered “old fashioned”, but there is an important reason for it. Yet another unglamorous food preparation skill; I was lucky I could learn it on the internet. I was lucky the internet translated the video for me—it was in Spanish!
Food prep. Unglamorous skill, but I am starting to think it is much more important than that extra job we take to earn the extra money to go to that latest restaurant. Maybe we need to appreciate ourselves for doing it, or learning the skills, even if the latest advertisement would rather have us at the mall shopping for yet another shirt that we don’t need and may never end up wearing, or makeup that no one will notice that we are even wearing.
I believe we should re-evaluate food preparation. I think we need to appreciate what it takes, and those who do it, especially if it’s ourselves. I have had people ask me if I had thought about doing prep work for people. How much do you think that is worth an hour? It takes a different turn when we think how much we would be willing to pay to have someone do it.
The Good News-It doesn’t have to take so much time
The good news is that as I do this more often, the quicker it goes. Several weeks later, my prep time is much shorter. I don’t have to experiment with several different dishes. I just sauté what I want to use for the week, then if I have more, I cook it up and freeze it for the winter. It is as easy as I make it. Now my experiments have more to do with “healthy desserts”!
Changing with the Seasons
Another fun thing about the weekly prep work is that it changes drastically with the seasons. The past few weeks I have received cucumbers in abundance. So I made pickles. I made them with two different methods, to see how I would like them. One is quick pickles, with vinegar and a bit of sugar, and the other is fermented in a traditional way. The jury is still out on what I like the best. I love the salty, traditional ferment. The quick pickle has more of a vinegar and sweet flavor, but that is a refreshing change. Before that I had a plethora of basil, so pesto was in the works quite a bit. When you make foods that are fresh and in season, you are forced to change your patterns, and sometimes be a bit creative. With eggplant I made Baba Ganouj, which is a delicious dip for pita bread if you can eat bread, otherwise you could use the cucumbers to dip into it.
I am looking forward to fall, when pumpkin, apples and root vegetables are in abundance. In the winter I will be eating more meat, in the soups and stews I will be making with the long lasting fall harvest vegetables of onions, potatoes and winter squashes.
When you choose to prepare your own food, to gather from the current harvest, it gives you a different view on your food. Perhaps it could slow us down, help us appreciate where our food comes from, and allow us to truly enjoy the food we eat.