I’ve been on the road lately, to a few unfamiliar cities. And I’ve been struck by the fact that whenever I ask the people who live in these places about the most interesting food story going, nine out of ten of them will tell about a restaurant or chef. But 18 rich, full years at Gourmet showed me that food deserves much more than that. It involves what happens in home kitchens and in farmers’ fields, not just what goes on behind a restaurant’s doors.
I got paid, after all, to learn, every single day, and I was fortunate enough to work with some of the best people in the business. It was a very great privilege, and I miss it very much. Still, a year and change down the road, I’ve realized that there are things about that life I’m happy to leave behind. Although having eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world gave me an amazing perspective and an extraordinary education, that sort of thing isn’t really on my personal G.P.S. at the moment. An umpteen-course, four-hour meal? Good grief. Beef cheeks seven ways? I’ll pass. The beef stew simmering on the stove at this very moment is infinitely more appealing.
And here’s why. Aside from the been-there-done-that aspect, there’s—well, there’s the money. Right now, I don’t want to spend money in that particular way.
My parents, who grew up in the crucible of the Great Depression and who weren’t afraid of anything the world could throw at them, get all the credit here; they never spoke of doing without, but of simply making choices.
Both writers, they would have reveled in another inspiration of mine—W. Hodding Carter’s entertaining blog, thefrugalguy.com, which started out as the “Extreme Frugality” series for gourmet.com and then took on a quirky life of its own.
And then there are the broccoli leaves.
Every Saturday morning, you’ll find me at the Union Square Greenmarket with my good friend Kempy Minifie. She headed up Gourmet’s food department, and also happens to be one of the most dedicated home cooks on the planet. (Find her latest recipes at AOL’s kitchendaily.com.) About this time last year, Ron Binaghi, Jr., of Stokes Farm in New Jersey, dragged a huge cardboard box down from his truck and left it next to his crates of beautifully arranged herbs and winter squashes. Kempy and I know our pot greens, but the floppy jade-green leaves were unfamiliar. “They’re broccoli leaves and free for the taking,” we were told. “Otherwise, they’ll be thrown out.”
That day, and for weeks thereafter, we toddled home with fat bags of broccoli leaves. We found that they don’t cook down as much as kale, collards, or mustards do, and their flavor is on the mellow side; they don’t overpower you with broccoli-ness. And although I’d been automatically stripping out and discarding the thick center ribs, Kempy discovered there’s no need to do that: Just chop them along with the leaves and they turn crisp-tender and flavorful when quickly braised with garlic and red pepper flakes.
The weather is once again cool and crisp, and Ron’s broccoli greens are once again free for the asking. This go-round, I’m no longer on automatic pilot; it’s easier to take an interest, a joy, in them. Some nights, they’re an excuse for skillet-seared pork chops or sea scallops. They’re good shoveled over pasta or topped with a fried egg and served with buttery, garlicky toast fingers. Any which way you slice it, dinner often revolves around something that, thanks to a farmer’s generosity and waste-not-want-not philosophy, costs us nothing.
It feels good to have my feet on the ground.