Painting depicts food items procured in weekly grocery shopping

The Groceries. 12″ x 12″ gouache. Sharyn Dimmick.

Last week I checked Riverdog Farm’s weekly online newsletter to see what vegetables we were going to get: tangerines, navel oranges, spring onions, cauliflower, carrots, dandelions. Dandelions! Oh, they didn’t! I read on to see that what they were really giving us was young leaves of chicory. The only thing I know about chicory is that you can make coffee substitute from it or add it to coffee for that New Orleans flavor. I Googled it. The coffee substitute is made from chicory roots. Shucks.

My mind goes back to salads we ate in Italy where they dug every bitter shoot out of the ground and dressed it in olive oil. But before I start whining in earnest I realize that a limited palette of ingredients is a test of cooking skill and creativity and that with a cabinet full of spices and a refrigerator containing milk, butter and cheeses I have more to work with than many people have had. What needs adjusting beyond the seasonings is my attitude.

This week I sufficiently adjusted my attitude to cook the chicory. I tasted it raw the day I got it: bitter. Before I cooked it I checked to see what will be in Wednesday’s box. The contents are not much different. For twenty dollars a week I am getting three pounds of fruit (oranges and tangerines) and six pounds of vegetables, including leeks, arugula, spinach, cauliflower, carrots and potatoes. That is the basic early spring produce palette here in Northern California.

This morning I went with my mother on her weekly shopping foray. This week we went to Food Maxx for canned cat food for our three cats and coffee beans for Mom. While we were there, we picked up two boxes of rolled oats, a bag of raisin bran, four boxes of whole wheat rotini, a jar of molasses, a box of Mexican chocolate, a small jar of Prego and a number ten can of hominy for posole. The food for humans in that came to $26.28 and we got a dime back for bringing our own canvas bags. Total: $26.18

We went on to Canned Foods Grocery Outlet, variously known to our friends as “Half Foods” and “Groc. Out” (before you turn up your nose, let me remind you that it was there I first found a bottle of Mosaic blood orange olive oil). There we picked up our dairy products for the week: half and half, buttermilk, sour cream and cheeses: jalapeno cheddar, a two-pound block of mozzarella for pizza-making, and a jar of marinated feta. We added in meat protein with a package of turkey sausage and one of Canadian bacon. Mom scored a 2 lb. bag of organic frozen green beans for $3.00 and a big bag of  fresh red potatoes for $2.00. I treated myself to a three-pound bag of Bosc pears from Washington State for $1.50 because the annual citrus glut is getting to me again — I will use the pears in desserts and soups and eat them as snacks. We bought a couple of cans of diced tomatoes for our winter-spring pantry, some flaked coconut and maple syrup for baking, a large package of English muffins and two different brands of commercial ginger snaps. Total for Canned Foods food: 44.83.

Adding up the food we purchased this week from all sources, I get $91.01. We will not shop again until next week and with all of this in the house we may not buy much next week beyond bread, milk and more cat food.

Now, we never start from a house empty of food. We keep a running pantry of baking supplies from butter and eggs to flour and cornmeal. We usually have walnuts and almonds and some dried fruit: right now we have dried peaches and apricots, sour cherries, raisins and home-dried apples and pears. When I get around to it, we will have home-candied citrus peels as well. We also stock rice, both brown and white, polenta and pasta. We make our own chicken stock, which we store in the freezer, and keep condiments such as mustard and red wine vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil. We try to replace all of these items during sales to keep our costs down.

The chicory? I cooked it for dinner, after trimming all of the stems. I pulled out all of the stops. First I boiled it for fifteen minutes. Then I poured off the water, hoping to have leached out some of the bitterness. I tasted it again: still bitter and not quite dull in color. I put in a little more water and cooked it for ten more minutes. Then I pulled out a skillet, heated some olive oil and sliced up half a sausage into half-coins. I browned those while I microwaved about a quarter cup of raisins in some water (This green is seriously bitter and needed the help from the dried grapes). I added the drained chicory and some pressed garlic, then the raisins and soaking water. Even with the raisins, oil, garlic, sausage and blanching the chicory remained bitter — not slightly bitter, but majorly bitter. It is the kind of thing that gives vegetables a bad name. We ate it alongside some bland Kabocha squash gnocchi in (not bland) gorgonzola sauce. My first attempt at winter squash gnocchi lacked lightness as I had to work in extra flour to handle the dough: if I revisit gnocchi more successfully I will post the recipe later. We were grateful to have the Mexican chocolate as an after dinner treat: I prepared that with a square of bittersweet chocolate, an extra tablespoon of cocoa powder and a dash of vanilla extract in each cup, perfect for the rainy March night.

P.S. Mom, trooper that she is, reheated and ate the remaining chicory for breakfast. She said it was better after sitting overnight. I said I would never complain about kale again, knowing we could get chicory instead. We both shuddered.

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