Heaping Helpings: Zachary Matson – Kitchen to garden to grocery, lessons I hope I don’t forget

A samplings of fresh garden produce, including tomatoes, peppers and onions
A samplings of fresh garden produce, including tomatoes, peppers and onions

Around early April, my craving for fresh greens starts to grow out of control. A salad with a simple vinaigrette. Sauteed chard mixed into fried rice. The peppery bite of mustard greens.

The hearty and heavy meals of winter don’t offer the same comfort they did months earlier, but the overflowing freshness of summer is painfully slow to arrive. Signs of better culinary days abound: Every fresh shoot of green is a step closer to a sunny August day at the farmers’ market, but nary a farm stand can be found.

Patience, I suppose, is the watchword.

It’s a time to appreciate those first tastes of the season, just how much some chives or other fresh herbs can add to simple scrambled eggs. It’s a time to clean the pantry and fridge (still on the list), and prepare for a new season of fresh produce.

At this time last year, my wife and I were hunkering down at our Corinth home for the months of pandemic isolation to come.

But those greens starting to pop out of the ground in our backyard raised garden beds were a reminder that every season returns anew and solace can be found in so many home-cooked meals.

This year, fortunately, feels more like a true spring as vaccination rates climb and places start to gradually reopen. But as life begins to inch back to something that at least includes the possibility of restaurant visits, I hope I don’t lose sight of the fundamental kitchen lessons forced on us by an unwanted pandemic.

That garden, for starters, is the linchpin to a kitchen full of fresh ingredients, freshness that fetches top dollar at restaurants. So plant a wide range of varieties — it turns out there are dozens of different types of greens — and try cooking them in different ways and combinations.

Don’t be afraid to swap ingredients in recipes liberally and figure out what works best for your taste buds.

More recently, I learned that the kale that somehow manages to make it through winter and grow before much else makes an appearance in the garden is not as sweet and crisp as in its first season. (Maybe I need to cook them down? Maybe I need to be patient and wait for the fresh stuff?)

But there is still so much to learn. The bounty of the home garden can quickly cascade into an unmanageable crush of ingredients.

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Recipes I browsed in the winter — only possible with the kitchen of summer — never crossed my mind as I struggled for a new take on … greens, again. I either need to give plants more space or thin seedlings more ruthlessly. I’ve got a decent handle on canning dozens of jars of tomato sauce, the one taste of the garden I can effectively stretch into winter, but how can I extend the life of beans, squash and other produce? (It’s too bad we aren’t much of a pickle household.)

The pandemic also laid bare another fundamental reality: Grocery shopping is essential. (Also, grocery store workers are essential.)

No longer could I drop by a store on my way home from work to pick up one or two ingredients of a fresh piece of fish.
Where in the past I might have strung together three or four days of meals without a visit to the grocery store (if I was lucky), now I have to think about whether I can go two or three months.

Even at the peak of lockdowns, I never made it that long without a grocery store trip, but the eerie feeling of shuffling down one-way aisles while trying not to infringe on anyone’s personal space (defined broadly) forced me to adopt a more economical style of grocery shopping.

That means buying staples such as rice and flour — and larger quantities — but it also means expanding what qualifies as staple ingredients and thinking through the many different ways one product can be put to use.

Take rice. But what kind of rice?

I’ve tried white rice (Basmati, Jasmine, Carolina Gold), brown rice, red rice, sweet rice, wild rice and I still have some black sticky rice sitting in the pantry.

Corn and its derivatives can go in similarly endless directions: grits, polenta, cakes, muffins and hush puppies can all play an understated by refined second fiddle to a main course.

I bought a wok, a wildly affordable and versatile pan to have on hand, and learned that stir fry is the fastest path to a fresh plate of crispy-charred vegetables you can take.

I learned that you can buy high-quality chocolate from the internet and have it shipped to your house. Also nuts. And coffee beans. And specialty grains.

I expanded my cookbook collection. I continued to search for the best method to get crispy potatoes — actually, the wok comes in handy.

When you can’t travel, the kitchen can take you anywhere you want to go. Grits and shrimp from the South. Spicy stir fry from China. Roasted chicken and cheesy potatoes from France. A grandma pie from New York.

I hope I don’t ever take for granted opportunities to visit new cities and taste their cuisine.

But I also hope I don’t forget that the cooking lessons forged in the pandemic can be put to use even when dropping by the grocery store doesn’t feel like playing an extra in a movie about the end of the world.

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Categories: Food, Heaping Helpings, Life and Arts

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