I had that conversation again. You know the one: “I’d love to eat more healthy, but it’s just so expensive.” I certainly don’t fault the people who say things like this. In fact, I prefer to think of these declarations as hopeful signs–these folks have at least thought about changing their diet, and that’s farther than a lot of people have gotten.
What makes this conversation amusing for me is that it usually happens while I’m eating an absurdly cheap and tasty meal–in this most recent instance, I was enjoying some red beans & rice (courtesy of the Crock Pot… home cooking really doesn’t get any easier than that, people!) and some steamed red kale. The entire batch cost less than ten bucks to make and fed the two of us for a week, meaning the portion in front of me cost maybe a dollar, and probably less. Sure, that $7.99 block of raw goat milk cheddar is pricier than Kraft, and the local, organic lamb is a splurge, but all told, I eat pretty cheaply. It helps that I do the vast majority of my shopping in the produce section, and I buy the bare minimum of processed foods (Lara Bars being a notable exception–sometimes the only food I have time for at work has to be the packaged, eat-with-one-hand-while-charting variety).
But that doesn’t mean I miss out, or that I subsist on twigs and berries. I suppose if I were accustomed to a steady supply of hyper-seasoned, heavily salted, processed foods, this diet would come as a shock. But the palate, like everything else about the human body, is remarkably adaptable. And once adjusted to the subtle, rich flavors of real food, I guarantee you’ll never miss Micky Dee’s again.
This afternoon, I unpacked the groceries on the kitchen counter, and stood back to admire the view before I stowed it all. The co-op’s produce section makes me giddy in the way other women only feel inside a shoe store, and today’s haul showed it: purple-black figs, emerald greens, and blushing apples nestled alongside jewel-like cherry tomatoes, wine-dark beets, pale jade artichokes, and the deceptively neutral tan of a fat butternut squash. A mauve-pink chunk of ham, a jug of local goat’s milk, and a few creamy nubs of cheese rounded out the take. To my thinking, we’ll be eating like kings for the next few days, and the tab was less than we’d spend on the average dinner-drinks-and-a-movie date night.
Tonight, in preparation for the coming work week, I put on some good music, poured a tasty beverage, and set to cooking. Most of the work is prep, trimming and seeding and chopping. With the windows open and cool air swirling around the hot stove, I indulged (and it really does feel like an indulgence rather than a chore) in some serious–and seriously simple–domestic therapy.
Vegetables shouldn’t be toyed with. Most (might I venture all?) of them are terrific just lightly steamed, highlighting their flavor and bringing out their natural colors. The simplest rule of healthy eating that I know is this: make a rainbow on your plate. Just get as many colors in there that you can, and you’re doing it right. This photo is partway through my steamfest, while the artichokes and beet greens are still on deck. In my favorite serving bowl, the sunset-orange of the squash plays off the high-summer-green of the broccoli, and the beets, messy kid sister, bleed onto them both. Channel Bob Ross: make a palette on your plate, different every time, and you can’t go wrong.
And a word about that squash… Butternut squash orange might just be my favorite color of all.
Did you ever get to lick the beater after your mom put a cake in the oven? I tell you, it’s like the prize before the dessert. In our house, licking the beater was a time-honored tradition, complicated by the fact that there were two beaters and three kids (the spoon saved the day as the handy third in the lick equation). Tonight, half of that gorgeous, tangerine-flame-copper-gold butternut got folded into a generous helping of butter, and when I handed a beater off to the Man Friend to lick, he asked if I was baking a cake. A vegetable that tastes like dessert… what’s not to love?
And a word about that butter… until I get around to making my own, Kerrygold is my butter of choice. Years ago, I went to Ireland as a WWOOF volunteer. The farm I worked at gave me many firsts: my first dip in the frigid Irish ocean, my first encounter with peat fires, my first in-country Guinness, and my first taste of Irish butter. The last was, without question, the biggest revelation of all. A child of America, a child of progress and the modern way, I’d never tasted such butter. It rocked my world, and still does. When I found it for sale here, all these years later, I think I teared up in the dairy aisle. I may not be able to enjoy it on a thick slice of soft, chewy, warm bread anymore, but it still holds an honored place in my refrigerator.
And so, to return to our original topic, it’s hard for me to fathom how this diet seems out of reach for so many people. My plate of gem-hued vegetables fills me like no combo meal ever could. The nub of real butter slowly melting into the sunset-colored flesh of a squash feels decadent; likewise the artisanal cheese, the organic meat, the local fruits. I find that smaller portions of this food fill me up, and the connection I get to the food producers expands my little world in ways that few other things can. When every meal feels like a treat, deprivation is the last thing on my mind. And the price tag for a week’s worth of food? Smaller than two trips to Carl’s Jr for a family of four. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the steaming plate of rainbows over the drive-thru bounty any day.