Archives for category: grocery shopping

In 1997 and 1998 I was sculpting large dolls — three feet high — out of porcelain clay and painting their heads, hands and feet. It was then that I acquired my painting palette, a cheap round plastic palette with a clear plastic top. This morning as I passed my desk I checked to see whether I had closed the palette properly and a large piece of brittle plastic broke off in my hand. I slapped some masking tape on the top and went on about my business, but the incident reminded me that I wanted to write about plastic.

painting shows grains, pulses and sauce stored in glass jars

Storage Jars. 6″ x 6″ Gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

Now, some of you will already be wondering why I didn’t immediately throw the broken plastic in the trash and go out and buy another palette, perhaps even a better one. The answer is two-fold: the lid that broke serves only the purpose of covering the paint so that it will stay moist and, with tape, still serves that purpose, but also plastic is problematic to dispose of properly and I feel it is best to limit plastic acquisitions whenever possible. The bottom of the palette where the paints sit is undamaged and I do not often have guests in my painting room, aka my bedroom. I also prefer to reserve what money I have for travel and other treats instead of using it to replace shabby possessions. If I did a self-portrait in the house jeans I am wearing right now it would tell you a lot about me: they have frayed hems and a side seam that is about to go on the inner thigh. I cannot remember when I bought them or at what thrift store but I can assure you that I have had them for more than five years.

Ahem. Why do I want to talk about plastic? Well, first of all, I read Beth Terry’s blog, My Plastic-Free Life, and follow her attempts to live free from plastic. She lives not far from me and does more than I will ever do to eradicate plastic from her life. I believe she is like a canary in a mine or a Cassandra we do not want to listen to as she chronicles the evils of plastic and its ubiquitousness. She goes to extremes that you might not want to go to — but you might: have a look at her blog and see what you think. She was talking about the amount of plastic packaging at Trader Joe’s the other day. Coincidentally, I had just stopped at Trader Joe’s for a couple of things (coconut milk, limes, dried apricots) and had had to make the unfortunate choice between limes coated with “edible wax” without packaging and organic limes in plastic netting. Which would you choose? Beth would tell me that the cans of coconut milk I bought are lined with plastic and frown that I would even consider buying apricots in a plastic bag. All I can say is that my Mom prefers apricots from Turkey to California-grown and Trader Joe’s meets her price point.

Painting shows refrigerator contents stored in paper, glass and china.

Refrigerator Storage. 6″ x 6″ Gouache on paper. Sharyn Dimmick.

I believe that people want to do the right thing and that the right thing varies according to person and situation. I also believe that many of us are wanton in our use of plastic, that we use it unthinkingly and discard it unthinkingly. Many a young person has probably seen little at the store that is devoid of plastic packaging: it is in my lifetime that we got plastic tamper-proof seals on every bottle of pills, plastic film on cottage cheese and yogurt cartons, plastic bottles of soft drinks, plastic bottles of drinking water. It is in my lifetime that Quaker Oats went from selling rolled oats in a cardboard carton with a string you pulled to open it to the current carton topped with two plastic lids (one you remove to open it, the other reseals the carton). In my lifetime, the Ziploc bag went from something that did not exist to a required item at airports.

I am fortunate to have learned some of the old ways: my grandmother taught me to place a dampened tea towel over rising bread dough and my mother to store leftover pie crust in waxed paper. Plastic wrap often seals poorly anyway, so you will see me rubber-banding paper, wicker plates, cardboard or tea towels over the top of bowls to bring dishes to potlucks. You will see me washing plastic bags and drying them on the line so that we can continue to use them to store food. Like many of you I carry a backpack and canvas totes to pack my food at the grocery store and farmers’ market. I have a marked preference for buying food in glass, which I can re-use, and cans, which I can at least recycle. We use ancient Tupperware around the house, which seems to have the virtue of lasting forever with little degradation. We do our best to re-use those yogurt containers, bought mostly in quart-size, handy for storing soup or taking it on the road. And I carry a quart-sized water bottle with me, which I refill from taps and water fountains everywhere.

Painting shows bag of flour and steel bowl covered with striped dish towel.

Bread Rising. 6″ x 6″ Gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

I reserve the worst of my spleen for single-use plastic: since I am not going to wash and re-use plastic wrap it is better not to use it in the first place if I can possibly avoid it. I can store food in cooking pots. I can cover a bowl with a plate or a clean cloth. Some foods, for example, cucumbers and mushrooms, keep better if they are not stored in plastic.

How many of you work to minimize the use of plastic in your kitchens? Please raise your hands and share your tips with me and with Beth. The world will thank you for it, although not the plastic-producing corporations.

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.