I read an article yesterday about how chefs are moving away from big meat/protein portions and into vegetables more and more. The reasoning is very chef-y: big hunks of meat are boring. There really isn’t much you can do with meat but marinade it, and no matter what you do, it ends up filling before you want to be filled.
So they serve smaller portions, focus more on the sides, and turn their menus around. Instead of eating a filet mignon on a bed of spinach and mashed potatoes, you would be served farm-fresh spinach leaves making friends with a mash of Yukon potatoes, with an accompaniment of filet mignon.
The cynic notes that this seems just a ploy to make portion sizes smaller and force people to eat more dishes if you can’t force them to pay more per dish. After all, the cost of food is negligible in a restaurant, compared to rents, salaries, and accidentals. So making people eat more foods instead of more food is a good way to boost the bill, which means the bottom line.
There is, though, one stand-out feature of this movement: the realization that produce can be very flavorful and much more interesting than the meats. The problem with that notion is that most of us don’t remember that fruits and vegetables can have orgasmic taste.
America in particular is suffering from a second generation conflict. People are so far removed from actual produce, most of us have forgotten how it tastes. Instead, we get fed fruits and vegetables that altogether taste bland and boring. The very idea of eating a salad is numbing the palate. Take one of those prefab salad mixes: it nominally contains three kinds of lettuce, shredded carrots and cabbage. Tastes like fluffy paper with crunchy cardboard mixed in.
Now, when I was a child, my grand-aunt grew vegetables in the garden, and my family had fruit orchards. The best foods I remember were from our garden. I’d wait the whole year for the apricot pies in May, the plum pastries in August. In the late spring, we’d get the asparagus. The summer brought the berries – tiny little things, but bursting at the seams with flavor.
A wild strawberry is about the size of a grape. The mutant monsters we are fed these days don’t pack the flavor of a wild one in a whole pound box. The apples we’d pick from the tree in October were crunchy, juicy, tart, and sweet. Now, you have to choose one of the four.
On the other hand, the best diet is arguably full of fruits and especially vegetables. It’s just that we are used to them being boring, and so we avoid them.
The best salad I have eaten in my whole life was as simple and weird as one can imagine: ripe tomatoes, ripe apricots, lots of whole basil leafs. A little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. End of story. What made it so good was the combination of sweet tomatoes, mellow apricots, bitter basil. Strong, bold flavors, side by side, making every mouthful a new surprise.
I tried that same dish a great many times, and it never works. It always tastes like bitter water. You think adding sugar might help, but it doesn’t. There just isn’t anything compelling about it. It’s like eating cardboard salad.
So, what should you do? First of all, learn to shop. Avoid at all costs supermarket produce. Get used to looking for good sources, and learn to focus on locally grown. That it is local is not important for flavor – but that it is in season, and that there is no reason to pick it before it’s ripe is.
Find farmers’ markets in your area and shop there. Befriend the farmers and visit them at their farms (where they usually sell at a discount). Make sure what they sell is actually what they grow themselves (very often not the case).
Why should you do that? Isn’t it too much work? Well, the benefits are enormous: you will learn to like veggies again, learn what it means to eat real lettuce, real carrots, real peppers. You will start to eat more of them, and leave them raw and unadorned, because anything you do to them will reduce the flavor. You will automatically shift to a healthier diet, and that’s really worth it.
If you have kids, you are probably strapped for time, and the added time for produce hunting seems impossible to obtain. Before you give up, though, realize that it’s a great investment. Teaching your kids what produce is supposed to taste like, how much better it is than any other source of food, means to give them the keys to healthy eating for a lifetime. It is well worth it.