|Personal Picture: Salmon sashimi, miso soup and Tomates-Mozza|
After receiving a few questions and comments, I have decided to continue the "Health Files" series, posts mainly around sport and food habits, based on personal experience only as I am neither a nutritionist nor a coach. After the first post on global nutrition ideas, I'd like to dig deeper into the contents of our assiettes, and the importance of quality food, which is more affordable than one may think.
A Tale of Tomatoes and MozzarellaTomates-Mozza is a staple of student food here in France. Based on the Italian tomato & mozzarella salad, it was one of the easiest and cheapest dishes I could reproduce from my mother's kitchen year round when I moved into my studio appartment in Lyon. During my university years, I've eaten countless tomates-mozza dishes, based on the cheapest supermarket tomatoes, cow milk mozzarella cheese and dried basil.
Fast forward a few years, le fiancé and I nostalgically decided to prepare a tomates-mozza, as pictured above. We went to the marché d'Aligre in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, got a selection of mixed seasonal tomatoes and fresh basil from the local farmer's stall, and bought traditional mozzarella di buffala from an Italian vendor from Genova (who also gave us his secret for a tasty pesto alla Genovese). A drizzle of olive oil from my father's olive trees, and voilà!
Only, it tasted nothing like the memory I had of my student years, a different dish altogether. Why? Because in season tomatoes, gorged with sun and juice, are way more tasty than the watery supermarket kind, fresh basil is a quite different deal from dried one, and mozzarella cheese made of buffalo milk actually tastes something.
We were discovering an entirely new dish, despite all these years of eating the - now obviously - tasteless knock-off, and, apart from the Mozzarella cheese itself, none of the ingredients were more expensive than those of my student years. Because in-season tomatoes are cheap and tasty, and a bunch of fresh basil costs cents - even nothing, if you cultivate a pot of basil on your windowsill.
On Simplicity and SeasonalityI can share two lessons from my Tomates-Mozza: the simplest dishes can taste heavenly if ingredients are chosen carefully, and one shouldn't eat a salad based on tomatoes and basil in December. Most of us may not even know the taste of the real thing yet, but once you discover the difference, there is no coming back. Just like the feel of a genuine leather jacket or cashmere knit can turn us away from synthetic fabrics.
Based on exeriences like the tale above, but also, and foremost, the sensible food education of my mother, I use these two simple rules when selecting my recipes and ingredients:
- Simplicity & Quality: I always prefer simple recipes that require few ingredients - allowing to select quality produce without going bankrupt, and to enjoy each ingredient's taste without the interference of too many different flavours. With fresh and qualitative ingredients, one doesn't need to add too much fat, salt or sugar to compensate for the bland taste. Other advantages of selecting quality ingredients: they are full of nutrients for health, we don't need to eat too much to feel satisfied, and it doesn't require much time in the kitchen, as they don't need elaborate preparations to surrender their taste.
- Embracing Seasonality: That may sound obvious, but with the availability of virtually any food year round, we tend to forget that most products are seasonal - that's actually the joy of each season, finding the first asparagus on the market, then the first strawberries, melons, peaches, plums, mushrooms... Seasonal products are abundant, therefore cheap, and their taste is incomparable, since they don't need to be picked early nor to travel the world. Seasonality is the main factor to eating quality without sacrificing budget. Besides, boredom is the worst enemy of healthy eating habits - eating in season allows for a variety of combinations and recipes over the course of the year.
A Few Tips and IdeasThe idea of selecting quality, seasonal ingredients may sound abstract, if it isn't in your habits at all and if you don't know where to start. So, here are a few tips and ideas I'm using myself in my everyday life:
- Favour local farmer's markets over supermarkets - I don't know how wide spread these are outside of France, but maybe you can start with a good old Google search to see what your city offers? If markets don't exist, at least natural or organic grocery stores are much more likely to offer quality, local products than supermarkets.
- Read labels - Where do these come from? Chances are, if these veggies come from the other side of the world, it means it's out of season for you. Never forget to take a look at the price per kilo/pound, especially for pre-packaged goods. And for "prepared" products rather than raw ingredients, always look at the ingredient list - it should be as small as possible.
- There is an app for that - I use a free iPhone app that lists seasonal produce, if I'm in lack of inspiration or am looking for variety. I'm sure it exists on every smartphone OS. Worst case scenario, you can grab a list from the web. This helps selecting what to buy; getting new ideas...
- Look for Local Farmer's Initiatives - in France, we have "AMAP" organization that allow city-dwellers to receive a bag of seasonal products directly from farmers, (almost) sans middle man. There is also La Ruche qui Dit Oui in France, which I just discovered and registered to, and since we often borrow concepts from other countries, this has to exist elsewhere. Among the good points: you get a new selection of produce every week or so, diversity guaranteed, and you support local farmers over big retail chains.
- Prepare More Dishes Yourself: Sometimes, making something yourself is easier and quicker than you may think (as I discovered recently with hummus). My mother does this a lot with her garden's produce, as all the seasonal ones arrive at the same time and rot if she doesn't prepare dishes with them in advance: tomato sauces, eggplant puree, raspberry coulis... Even if you don't have a garden, you can take advantage of the availability of seasonal products while they are cheap and prepare simple dishes or seasonings you'll be happy to find in the heart of winter! For example, at the end of summer, I prepare and freeze a lot of pesto with my basil before it dries and dies in Autumn.
- Start Easy, and Level Up: All of the above are tips, ideas, you don't need to do each and every one of them tomorrow to enjoy better quality food. Like every other habits, small and steady progress is the key - maybe you can start with cooking more veggies, then find an alternative to supermarkets, then start making your own sauces and dips...
I hope this little article will be of use to you. Since it's pretty general, it may still sound abstract, so please let me know if you are interested in any specific focus for potential follow-up posts! I've also been toying with the idea to present easy recipes here on the blog, bearing in mind that I'm nowhere near a good cook, and favour very simple dishes, so I don't know how valuable that may be to you. As usual, feel free to provide feedback!