In our hectic, busy world the mere thought of cooking dinner can be a dread, let alone shopping for all of the items needed to pull off a delicious meal. Of course now shopping is supposed to be made much easier by going to one of the mega-stores, the one-stop shop.
The selection is amazing, and the quality of the products is getting better all the time. Recently, the way the food is grown or raised has become a focal point. A few years back, words such as organic, free range, or sustainable would only be heard around the bulk bins of the “natural foods” market. These words have become buzzwords, “the new black,” if you will. The presence of organics on the shelves of mainstream markets has exploded.
The question is - but at what cost? What about the seasons? Yes, you can buy organic asparagus in December, from South America. The next question is - why? The beautiful, fleeting moment of perfection that defines the essence of our produce becomes muted when it is always available. If it were Thanksgiving once a month, it would lose the importance, and the warm celebratory feeling, pretty quickly. If the notion of buying “organic” is for better health, both of our families and our farms, how does it balance out after you think about the petrochemical impact of importing veggies from halfway around the world? Organic is wonderful, a goal even, but buying local is much more important on many levels. Although the veggies may have been grown organically, they are usually of a variety bred for certain traits. In order to make the journey from field to market, the fruits and veggies are harvested underripe in order to extend the shelf life. The flavor becomes a trivial matter. The things that count are durability and visual perfection. The merchandising of food is tremendously important; we first eat with our eyes. The short trip from a local or regional farm to market allows more delicate, ripe, and flavorsome items to be in top condition, for longer, because half the shelf life is not wasted on travel time.
The weather suggests appropriate foodstuffs as well. In summertime, burgers, dogs, and all the usual suspects of the backyard cookout would naturally seem out of place in the middle of December. The pregame tailgate party showcases a departure from these items, even though other elements are intact. Outdoor cookery, over a grill, with natural fuel, doesn’t inform the menu; it is the season and the occasion.
What happens to the smaller producers, merchants, artisans, and shopkeepers? All things being equal, is it not better to keep our dollars here in our community?
When we make economic statements by supporting local food systems, our voices can be heard much more clearly. As we develop relationships with the people who grow or sell the food, sometimes one in the same, they will tailor their operations to the demands of their customers.
Wait a minute, I’m getting off track; this isn’t meant to be a manifesto.
The time spent preparing the family meals can be relaxing, providing a great chance to become lost in thought. Planning a week of meals in advance, and setting aside a few blocks of time throughout the week has economic thrift as well. Sunday roast chicken can easily become chicken salad for a lunch, not to mention the stock to be made from the same bird.
I find that the time I spend in search of these local, seasonal products always yields more than some beautiful flowers, baby herbs, or sparkling shellfish.
It offers time to think, to recreate, to dream. It affords the chance to meet people with like-minded pursuits and interests. I love driving and winding through the back roads, looking for a small roadside stand that might have some limas, local corn, or late summer tomato perfection, the kind of stand that still works on the honor system with the coffee can on the table as a makeshift depository. Others are manned by the farmer himself, always ready to complain about the weather, usually the rain - too much or not enough. Some stands are looked after by the children, which I find the most promising. The joy in that for me is that the next generation is in training to know and love good food. To listen as they point out to a customer to ignore the peaches right now, not local, and to focus instead on the just-picked berries is a beautiful thing.
As we move from one season to the next, the products will change, encouraging different cooking styles and techniques. The braise is certainly one to become friends with; after some prep work, it pretty much minds itself. Oh yeah, it only gets better after a day or two!
The recipe that follows is perfectly suited to share the table with the bounty of the season. The brine can be used for all brining, be it pork, chicken, or turkey.
Salt Air Brick Oven Roasted Chicken
1 Whole, High Quality, Preferably Organic Free-Range Chicken
½ Gallon Water
½ Cup Salt
1/3 Cup Brown Sugar
1 Tbsp. Fennel Seed
1 Tbsp. Crushed Red Pepper
12 Pods Star Anise
½ Bunch Fresh Thyme
15 Whole Black Peppercorns
5 Fresh Bay Leaves
1 Dried Bay Leaf
Mix brine ingredients in a non-reactive plastic or glass container. Submerge chicken for one hour. Remove and roast at 450 degrees for 45 minutes or until crisped skin and fully-cooked flesh. Enjoy with good friends & family. Utensils optional. •
Nino Mancari grew up in Bethany Beach, small wonder he is so fond of this area. He is the proud papa of two, Keller and Hazel James, and the husband of the best mother and wife in the world, Emily. As chef of Salt Air, in Rehoboth, and Salt Air farm & table, in Lewes, he is happily practicing what he preaches.