Thursday, March 12, 2009

Peasant Food


Read a wonderful article in the Spring 2009 edition of The Natural Farmer by Robin McDermott. In essence it's about what we can learn from peasant cuisine to make Northeast meals more local and affordable. The immediately article brought me back to my Italian grandmother. She grew up in the Italian countryside on a farm. The woman was a master at making delicious, hearty meals and never wasted anything. She was able to feed her family good, affordable food. It's because of her influence and my mother for that matter, that I often make what would be considered "peasant" dishes even when entertaining.

Since there's not a digital version of the article available just yet, I'm reprinting here with the author's permission. Take a minute and check it out.


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LOCALVORES BY NECESSITY
by: Robin McDermott
from: The Natural Farmer, Spring 2009

While many people claim that local food is "elitist," some of the world's great cuisines - Chinese, Italian, country French, Indian - come from people who had the least to work with - peasants. However, few of us are farmers or homesteaders, so unlike peasants, our livelihood is not directly focused on feeding ourselves. Still, there are many things that we can learn from peasants and peasant cuisine that can help us lower our food bills and eat food produced closer to home.

Peasants are small-scale farmers, ranchers, herders, hunters or fishermen and this means that they are close to their food source - they are Localvores by necessity. By US standards, peasants appear to be poor and many of us feel sorry for the "meager" lives peasants lead. In fact, peasant culture is rich in traditions passed down through the generations along with recipes for Cassoulet, Osso Bucco and Roghan Josh.

These classic recipes are typical of peasant cuisine with often translates into hearty one-dish meals that combine "lesser" cuts of meat cooked in a savory broth with seasonal vegetables and some form of bread. Think Beef Bourguignon and a French baguette, Ribolita which is a Tuscan bread soup, or Huevos Rancheros and you are thinking peasant food - YUM!

So, what can we learn from peasants through the world to make Northeast meals more local and more affordable at the same time?

First, carnivores like me need to learn how to work with the less expensive cuts of meat - leave the expensive steaks and roasts to the "nobility" just like the peasants do. Serious cooks will tell you that a chuck roast is much more flavorful than a filet mignon and it is usually a third to a quarter the price. But, you can't just throw a chuck roast on the grill. It needs to be slowly cooked in broth to make it tender which can easily be done with a crock pot, on a wood stove or in the oven.

Second, we need to use a little kitchen creativity to cook with what is both seasonally available and on hand. Missing an ingredient or two from a recipe? Ash yourself, "what would a peasant do." Since the answer is not "run to the grocery store," do as chefs in even the finest restaurants do everyday and improvise - substitute yogurt for buttermilk or saute vegetables for a stew in saved bacon fat if you don't have any bacon available to infuse a baconey smokey flavor into your dish.

Third, we need to make the most of everything we have. Maybe the thought of making turkey soup after eating Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey for three days isn't all that appealing, but to me it is a crime to throw out the bones. Make turkey broth and put it in the freezer. In January a piping hot bowl of turkey soup will mean a free and delicious meal for you and your family. Most peasants don't have freezers - lucky us!

In the cold and dark New England winter months who doesn't crave a big bowl of soul satisfying soup, the cornerstone of peasant cuisine? so, when your next retirement savings statement shows up in your mailbox, don't cry about feeling like a peasant. Instead, get into your kitchen and start cooking like one.
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So, What do you think we can learn from peasant cuisine and apply to the present times?

And since my thoughts are never far from dinner: What are you going to make for dinner tonight? Last night I made cabbage and beans with garlic bread. Tonight I'm thinking of a hearty Bolognese over polenta. Yup, peasant food all the way.
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