Jamie Oliver's 'Food Revolution' can spread to you

The crushing part in Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution comes half-way through the second episode, when the woman who administers the cafeterias for the Huntington, W.V. school district comes to Jamie to tell him that his first few delicious, fresh-cooked meals have cost twice the amount the processed, fried, chemical- and sugar-laden regular fare costs.

Cooking the Oliver way in school, she says, will need to be subsidized privately. In the show, he wasn't given a chance to answer the question sitting heavily in the air (at least for me): if we want to eat food that's made from scratch, is mostly organic and fresh and nutrient-dense, instead of the Party Pizza/chicken nugget/corn dog alternative, how are we ever going to afford that?

The day after watching that episode, I went to my local farmer's market, where I do much of my food shopping. I started chatting with the woman manning the pork stall where I'd bought a $27 pork brisket the week before. I'd slow-cooked it while I was watching Oliver's show, making over two quarts of pulled pork that was probably the most flavorful stuff I'd ever tasted. She knew my budget was tight; I'm feeding five mouths and my family's income is solidly below the "middle class" line this year.

"It's hard, isn't it," she said, applauding my efforts to give them nourishing, fresh, sustainably-grown foodstuffs. I thought for a minute; this whole topic was weighing heavily on me, the Edwards family's freezer packed with cheap junk food pizzas fresh in my mind.

"No, it's not," I said. "Not once you get going, once you figure it out. It's fun, actually." And it is fun, and it's not that expensive, and you can do it too. In a series of posts, I'll show how. Here's the first lesson:

Eat seasonally. Be brutal.
Without unlimited funds, it's impossible to fill your family's diet with fruits and vegetables free of pesticides, and sustainably-raised meats, if you don't become very disciplined about buying seasonally. In other words, buy only the produce that is being harvested in gardens and farms near you this very week; or the sort of food that was designed by its original manufacturer (God, or evolution, or both, depending on your belief system) to last through the winter.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has a handy lookup that will tell you what's in season right now in your state; I found it conservative. For instance, while it's true that the only fresh-picked local produce in many grocery stores around here is rhubarb, the farmers at the markets (and me in my garden) are picking kale, chives, spring onions, green garlic, early spinach and lettuce, and still eating storage onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, nuts, apples and pears from fall 2009.

For the fresh-food-for-less first-timer, eating seasonally can be a little like basic training: initially, it hurts like hell, and even though you know it's supposed to be good for you, it's hard to see it for the pain of deprivation. At least I'm not yelling at you! Instead, I'm going to give you some excellent reasons to do it.

Most importantly, it's typically cheaper to get truly good-quality food in season, especially if you're willing to pick it yourself. Blueberries are $3 or $4 for a half-pint in the winter but I can get them for $1 a pound in the summer. When arugula and collards and kale are going to flower in the spring, I'll buy enormous bunches of greens for $1 or $2 from the farmers at the market, compared to $3 or $4 for a much smaller bunch at Whole Foods.

Price is not just about cents per unit weight.
The price comparison when weighed without any other factors might not always work out for seasonal food, but if you compare taste and nutrients, too, local and seasonal will win nine times out of 10. Face it: you're not going to eat that enormous quantity of bland Franken-strawberries you bought on sale at Winco. They were shipped from Southern California or Mexico and you can taste why it was they made it a thousand or two miles without a nick. And do you really believe you're consuming much Vitamin C when half of the strawberry is still white?

Instead, savor smaller quantities of tastier local food; nutrients are at their height when produce is allowed to ripen on the plant, and the more time between harvest and table, the less vitamins you'll consume. Price is not always just a unit comparison; you've got to balance nutrients, flavor, and waste into the equation, too.

While I love raspberries and blueberries and strawberries just like you, most of the year I only eat them in frozen and jam form. I buy them 20 or 30 pounds at a go in the summer. If you can't preserve much, you can still stay on your budget by choosing apples in the winter and berries in the summer -- and you'll discover a surprising and revelatory taste difference, too, buying the varieties that were grown for taste and not their uniformity or ability to withstand many miles of transport.

Cook from ingredients, up; not recipe, down.
The brutality comes in to menu planning, too. Don't let yourself be swayed by your Mediterranean cookbook's awesome recipe for eggplant caviar this week; don't insist on snacking on celery and peanut butter for spring break. You'll have to pair your toasts with garlic-braised kale, your peanut butter with apple slices. You'll have to develop the ability to cook from the ingredients on hand, and not from whim or a casual affair with a fancy cookbook.

Jamie Oliver would encourage you to choose frozen vegetables, too. I'm more ascetic and try to get creative with fresh seasonal options, as frozen organic vegetables are too pricey for my budget. I often make substitutions that seem crazy at first -- like celery root instead of green peppers or eggplant instead of cauliflower -- because that's what I found cheap at the market that week. In the end, I have more delicious discoveries than obvious screwups. And sometimes I'm inspired to try a new cultural taste or combination that becomes a surprising family favorite.

Yes: you will have to expand your family's ingredient horizons. Take cabbage, a vegetable I once (up until only a few years ago) considered disgusting. One day I gritted my teeth and bought a gorgeous Savoy cabbage at the farmer's market -- it was $6, and enormous -- and found a wonderful recipe for cabbage braised in cream. Ohh! Now my 7-year-old happily asks for a serving of cabbage and (I'm so proud) my 4-year-old can pick cabbage out of a brassicas lineup in one second flat. I use it in place of celery in soups all winter long, and I admit to thrills of joy when I see the first fall cabbages on the market tables. You can do it too. Be brutal. Discover new things. Trust me, you'll thank me some day.
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