By Mary MacVean
Husband and I live in an urban neighborhood, which in our part of L.A. means we have a very small backyard. We have no grass, but we have a big dining table and two raised bed boxes Husband built for me. Growing some of your own food is peaceful, empowering and economical. It’s also a radical act. And it can break your heart or send it soaring once you’re attached to your plants.
The days around Labor Day were outrageously hot, and the skies full of the residue from horrific fires. Our air was among the top 10 worst on Earth — no contest to win. I lost a couple of beautiful Suyo long cucumber plants — obviously nothing compared with those who lost everything.
The heat ate my cukes
Not unrelatedly, I’ve been reading and listening to talks about soil and about climate change, which gets me thinking about what most of us can do, every day, to help save the planet. Caveat: I believe in science. I watched Kiss the Ground, a hopeful if narrow new film based on the notion that our way out of the climate crisis could come from the soil’s ability to sequester carbon, if we change to regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming and grazing that focuses on soil health and thereby the ecosystem.
And there’s composting — one response to the fact that we waste a third of the food we produce in this country. We have a small compost bin in our yard, but if you live in an apartment, some cities have compost services — private or public. Or, perhaps you can put your scraps in the freezer and then drop them off with with compost organizations. L.A. Compost, for example, has hubs around the county at such spots as farmers markets for collection.
I’m a bit of a broken record on the notion that our food choices every day are among our most effective political acts. What companies, producers or farms we support with our dollars on one end, and what we throw out on the other.
In the film Wasted, the late Anthony Bourdain tells how restaurants see wasted food as discarded money, and so try to use everything. Most of don’t have all the skills to reuse everything the way the professionals can, but here are a couple of easy — and delicious — ideas. (There’s even a book, Cooking Scrappy by Joel Gamoran, which you can buy through your local bookstore.)
Pickle juice. I know people who drink it. Keep on if that’s you. But the rest of us can do something revolutionary: Make more pickles — and use produce you might not otherwise eat. Prepare whatever vegetable you’d like to pickle: small onions or peppers, carrots, asparagus, green beans. Put them in a clean jar, fitting them tightly. Pour the juice into a saucepan and bring it to a boil. You don’t have to add anything, but you could add cayenne or herbs or a clove of garlic. After boiling for a minute, pour the brine into the jar. Put a lid on it, and leave on the counter to cool, then refrigerate. The pickles will last about two weeks.
Corn cobs. We have been eating wonderful corn this year from the farmers market. And I can never eat it directly from the cob without remembering sitting at the dinner table with my siblings pretending the cob was the roller on a typewriter. But no matter how well you clean them, you’re leaving lots of flavor behind.
One way to extract some of the flavor is to use the cobs to make stock — especially for shrimp and grits or corn chowder, or any dish that would benefit from a deeper corn flavor.
If you like cooking, or even if you love it, you may still be really sick of figuring out dinner every day. I know I am. Now I understand why my mom had a supper schedule and made the same dish again and again; no thought required. With plague and fires and injustice and cabin fever, I’ve not been very creative on many days. A big salad with some cheese or another one-dish meal has been the norm; I’ve saved my inspiration for bigger-deal meals, such as Rosh Hashanah, which we shared at a distance outside with our friends Diane and Chris.
Those ordinary meals can still be delicious. Here’s one we liked: I sauteed some onions, celery and carrots in olive oil. And I added a whole bunch of the greens I’d frozen when our farm box had more than we could eat. I mixed that with some wild rice and a handful of leftover roast chicken. Thyme, salt and pepper and it’s a satisfying dinner, with leftovers for lunch.
The twisted life
I made my first challah bread for Rosh Hashanah. If you have been feeling reticent about joining the hordes who are making sourdough breads and bagels and fancy focaccias, I say: Get out your yeast and flour and make challah. A definite gateway drug to yeast breads. It is really easy, even the braiding, thanks to a zillion how-to videos out there. The recipe I used came from thekitchn.com, through my friend Amy Martinez, who makes enviable challah every Friday.
Find joy, wear a mask and be good to those around you. Thanks for reading.
Mary MacVean has been cooking for half a century. And writing about food for a few decades. She also has been an urban farmer. When her day sucks, she finds her equilibrium by coming in the door and starting to cook.
Photos by Mary MacVean/ post design by Sam Landsberg