Survival Cookery, for sport
by Ari LeVaux
Some people dedicate their entertainment budgets to the re-enactment of Civil War battles. Others enjoy watching “Survivor”. My hobby of choice is something of a hybrid of the two, but with plenty of imagination, historic leeway, and, most importantly, flavor.
My hobby is to eat seasonally, and, when possible, locally. Some people do so with an air of piousness, as if they are saving the earth with their immense sacrifice. I do it for fun, and for a sense of satisfaction that’s hard to quantify, and for the challenge. As it happens, now is about as challenging as it gets.
Early spring is when recreational seasonal eaters like myself must bring our A-games to the kitchen, because it’s the trickiest time of the year to practice our craft. The buds may be out and the green shoots are shooting, but the garden has nothing to show for it.
And in root cellars and supermarket produce sections alike, the dregs of last fall’s harvest are rapidly dwindling. Garlic and onions are developing green shoots inside. Potatoes are sprouting on the outside, and winter squash is about to get soft.
It doesn’t matter if the produce in question came from Washington, California or Mexico. If it was grown in the northern hemisphere, the clock is counting down. Our options have been whittled to a precious few.
Our pioneering, homesteading forefathers faced this challenge every year at this time, as did inhabitants of northern climates throughout the globe, from Europe to Siberia. The rules of my little game only apply to produce; if some soy sauce adds the right kind of flavor to something that resembles a Polish peasant dish, I’m all in.
This game is hardly limited to hobby homesteaders who grow and store their own food. Eating seasonally out of the grocery store can save you some money if you’re savvy - that’s a game we can all get behind. And seasonality trumps locality. Citrus, for example, is in season right now, and I’m all over it, even if it doesn’t grow where I live.
So if you want to have a little tasty fun that’s historically, seasonally and geographically relevant, here are two recipes for dealing with the dregs of last year’s northern hemisphere harvest. For most of us, they may not make the difference between life and death, but neither does the re-enactment of centuries old battle.
But like the study of history, knowing where you’ve been is a good way of understanding where you are. Acknowledging the the precariousness of our delicate food chain can give us an appreciation for our food security. And when the bounty of summer comes, it helps us appreciate that too.
That said, these recipes hardly amount to deprivation. I’d happily devour them at any time of year.
Our first recipe is on the authentic side of the spectrum. Until my little (optional) flourishes at the end, it’s made entirely of ingredients that could be found in a peasant’s larder somewhere in the UK a century ago. I found all of the produce ingredients last week at the winter farmer’s market.
Irish Potato Salad
1 medium cabbage, cut into 6 or 8 wedges
3 large potatoes (or more smaller ones), cut into inch-thick pieces. Peeling optional.
4 or so slices of bacon, chopped
1 cup chicken stock
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 large onion, sliced thinly
Preheat the oven to 375. While it heats, brown the bacon, and add the onion.
Add the cabbage and potatoes to a baking dish. When bacon is crispy and onions translucent, gently toss them with the potatoes and cabbage, along with the raw garlic slices. Add the stock. Cover with a lid or foil, and bake for one hour.
Remove from oven and cool 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve as a side dish, alongside your corned beef, or underneath a fried egg, or atop a bed of lettuce. It’s versatile, and delicious all by itself.
Me, I sprinkle with a little vinegar, mix it with a little mayonnaise, and make Irish potato salad. One can also add beans and salsa, for a Mexican version.
Our next recipe comes from the Halley VI research station in Antarctica. The scientists who inhabit the base aren’t homesteaders or wannabes, but due to long periods of isolation during which they must fend for themselves, they have much in common with the seasonal food snobs.
In February, a boat brings a shipment of food that has to last until Christmas for the 10 or so crew members who’ve signed on to overwinter at the base. Then it leaves.
That final February shipment consists almost entirely of fresh produce that must be stored and stretched for 10 months. Lettuce and greens wouldn’t even survive the journey to the base, much less the winter.
“We stick to hard, dense stuff that lasts a lot longer,” John Eager, a former chef on the base, told me. “Potatoes, carrots, onions, squash and turnips ... store incredibly well.”
But not forever. Eventually, like all storage provisions, they start to go ... south. Eager says that before this produce turns to shriveled mush, the kitchen staff prepares and freezes it for future meals. He shared this recipe for butternut squash tartlets made with squash that was frozen before it spoiled. The same recipe works in the northern hemisphere too, as the last of the winter squash is put out for sale, often at a generous discount.
Butternut and Feta Tartlets
(sorry for the unusual quantities, as they are converted from the metric system.)
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ pounds butternut squash, peeled and diced
¾ pound puff pastry dough
1/3 pound feta cheese
1 dried red chile, seeded and chopped finely
2 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper
aged balsamic vinegar
Preheat the oven to 400 (F). Put squash cubes on a baking dish, toss in 1 T olive oil, and roast for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally until soft. Allow to cool, place in freezer bags, and freeze.
Six to 10 months later, roll out the pastry and cut into six equal-sized pieces. Arrange them on a nonvstick baking tray and chill. Divide the squash onto the six rectangles. Top with crumbled cheese, thyme and chile flakes. Drizzle the remaining 2 T oil upon the tarts. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve hot, drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar.