The success in cooking up a good recipe starts with the quality of food you start with and not necessarily what you cook it in. I love my cast iron cookware but I also own other types of cookware too.
I’ve been to a number of trail cooking events over the years. One thing is for certain, each cook takes obsessive pride in their cast iron and heritage cookware. Boasting to others on how much they over paid for a rare pot, pan or Dutch oven is not unusual, it is a given at these events.
What has always confused me is why do folks spend so much money and time acquiring real Old West recipes, the finest, most rare cookware then use it to cook up a plate of crap? I’m serious, if you spend all this money on cookware, why would you not take the time to understand why a recipe worked in the first place?
I bet 10 to 1 that I can cook up a finer meal in an old tin pot than most cooks competing in trail cooking events do in their best historic cookware.
How? By simply using top quality ingredients!
So what is the secret to finer ingredients you ask? The answer… BUY FRESH!
Spices first. For spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice use a micro plane rasp. The taste and aroma you get from freshly ground or planed spice is unbelievable! Have you ever been to a restaurant and the server asked if you’d like freshly ground pepper on your salad? They do it not only for the flair but mainly to whet your appetite with the strong aromatics the ground pepper corns give off.
For pepper buy fresh peppercorns and a grinder. Try gourmet mixes of peppercorns.You will instantly smell the difference.
Dried and powdered herbs make a world of difference. Buy yourself a small mortar and pestle set for less than $10. Grind up your own dried herbs as you need them and keep the unused herbs properly stored. Again, the aroma of freshly ground herbs will astound you!
Fresh vegetables. I have found the best place to purchase fresh veggies is at a local farmers market. Not only are these folks are your small business neighbors and deserve your support but hands down you will find no fresher produce anywhere else!
Many vegetables are cheaper at a farmers market but meat usually a bit more expensive and here’s why.
A farmers market will generally sell locally grown produce ( 100 mile radius is considered ‘locally grown’) so you may even know the farm it came from. Many farmers markets have great information regarding their produce given to them by the local growers. They can tell you what (if any) fertilizers and pesticides were used and whether or not the produce is a hybrid, genetically modified or whether heritage seeds were used in growing them.
Transporting vegetables is a major concern for large commercial producers and shippers. Therefore, many vegetables have been hybrided, genetically modified (GMO) or picked early to survive long distance transportation. Produce such as tomatoes, watermelons, peaches, apples, bananas are some that I’m talking about. Locally grown vegetables do not have such concerns. There is a big difference in a 3-4 day truck ride versus a two hour drive to the market from a local grower. When fruits and vegetables are picked ripe, they contain more flavor and nutrients.
There is one more reason to buy from a local farmers market… variety. Living in Florida, I can purchase locally grown citrus, pineapple, avocadoes, Dragon and passion fruit, fresh tamarind and even coffee just to name a few! What exotics do you find at say… Wal Mart?
Beef and other meats
The beef and other meats sold at many farmers markets are organic and or grass fed. No corn is used in feeding. While corn is the catalyst for forming fine marbled meat, it is also responsible for the production of Omega 6. Omega six is not healthy in the quantities found in corn fed beef. Grass fed and free ranged beef is becoming extremely popular again.
There were 3 main reasons for the decline in grass fed/free range beef availability.
1- With the advent of fast foods and large grocery store chains, raising and caring for individual cattle became cost prohibitive. At McDonalds alone, it is estimated that 10,500 cattle are consumed each day. Modern mega slaughter houses can process up to 36,000 head per day and up to 100,000 pigs. At that rate, inspecting each and every cow for health issues is impossible .
2- Local butchers found it cheaper to purchase pre aged sides of beef from large producers. This limited the public consumers ability to even purchase free range or grass fed beef. The beef purchased from large stockyards and are corn finished, produce a more tender cut of meat. Free range beef is not as marbled so it lacks the ‘melt in your mouth’ texture but it is much healthier for you.
3- Cost of feed. Corn is the largest grown crop in the United States. It is also the most Government subsidized crop in the United States. These crop subsidies keep the cost of feeding cattle down. There are no subsidies for free range grass fed beef. Government subsidies come from the taxpayer. When you purchased that pound of ground round for $3.99 a pound, did you forget to add the increase in taxes you paid for subsidies?
The local seller below in the photo, purchases their beef, chicken pork etc. from local ranches and farms that can prove by their paper trail, all the vet care, feed types, bills of health, age of cow and breed. Few if any slaughter houses can do that. Some local ranches sell only 3-4 cows to be slaughtered a day in Florida. Most small ranches selling free range grass fed beef now practice ‘humane slaughtering’. By raising and slaughtering an animal in a humane fashion, certain hormones such as adrenaline are not produced. These cows are sold by folks like those below and small family owned butcher shops. Ask a hunter what his venison taste like after running the shot creature down for a couple of miles. I’ve had venison that was not worth eating it was so loaded with hormones. There is a very well made movie about a young girl who is an autistic genius, Temple Grandin. She revolutionized single handedly, the humane treatment on cattle ranches and slaughter houses. It is truly an inspiring film even if you do not eat meat you can respect her for her contribution to the humane treatment of animals. If you want an enjoyable ‘at home’ evening, Netflix the movie ,”Temple Grandin”. It received a 94% or 4.45 stars out of five.
Now, speaking of beef. While grass fed beef is now being sold at WalMart, BJ’s and other big box stores, I still have my doubts about them. There is a million ways to get around the truth in advertizing laws. While a cow may be ‘grass fed’ on the ranch, was it finished off in corn at the slaughter houses holding pens? Is it even North American beef to begin with? Who knows? That’s why I trust people like my friend Maya pictured below. She is more than proud to tell you everything she can about your purchase of her meat products. From beef to chicken to pork and more, she and her husband Steve are knowledgeable and truthful in their dealings.
Below are a few of the local farmer markets in my area. Some are once a week while others are open every day. Some are roadside, seasonal or permanent markets.
Whichever you visit, buying local keeps your neighbor in business!