Once upon a time, I was a young single mother, too busy to do more than microwave something from the freezer on those nights when I actually "cooked" at all. I bought things like Hamburger Helper; I considered fish sticks, boxed mashed potatoes, and frozen peas to be a balanced meal. I had no patience for things that might go bad in the fridge if left unattended. I was also, I must confess, embarrassingly phobic about vegetables and other suspect new foods.
So then I met my husband, who has one of the most adventurous palettes I have ever encountered. He was awfully good-natured about eating Hamburger Helper with Cassie and me, but I knew he would have preferred a more varied cuisine. I started venturing out of my comfort zone, cooking things with fresh ingredients, reading cookbooks, trying new things at restaurants. I made startling discoveries, like: zucchini is delicious! Homemade pizza tastes 1,000 times better than Domino's! Woah!
As I started to cook more, and I started to cook better, a few things started happening. We started eating more healthfully, for one. And not because I was trying, but because cooking from fresh ingredients seems to automatically lead to a healthier diet. And the more I really cooked, the more I got creative with food, the more I really enjoyed the act of cooking. The first time I made a zucchini frittata, the smell of the onions and zucchini and chard sauteing was absolutely intoxicating. As our family expanded, the new little ones got the benefit of having fresh, healthful food prepared for them every day... and they didn't eat like typical American kids. They eat hummus and goat cheese and fruit. And then of course, there is the reaction of my husband to all this creativity coming out of the kitchen. The joy of watching him savor the food I've prepared... it may sound quaint, but it is a true joy of my life. This man loves food. He loves good food. And the fact that he truly appreciates my cooking makes me... proud.
So, somewhere along the line, I learned to cook. And once you know how to cook, once you start to really understand food and flavor, ingredients start to matter. I started noticing the difference in taste and texture between the conventionally grown produce and organic. The vast difference in the quality of the meat. I started buying organic whenever possible just for the taste alone. When my husband bought some conventional grapes this past week, four-year-old Susie bit into one and asked, "why do these grapes taste like water? Do we have any of the grape-tasting grapes?"
So, as a cook, this is one of my favorite times of year. All the hard work I've put into the garden, starting in early spring when I double-dug the soil and worked in the compost by hand... it all starts to bear fruit (ha!). I plan meals around what's ripe. Tonight's fajitas were inspired by the harvest of the first bell pepper. Yesterday's watermelon gazpacho contained the first cucumber of the season. I am watching the first two tomatoes ripen on the vine and already scheming what delicious dishes to put them in. It seems like such a rare gift, to be able to cook foods right as they come out of the garden. All my years of apartment living, I couldn't even keep a pot of basil alive on the windowsill. Not that I would have known what to do with basil. But now that I do know, I feel utterly blessed to have a bit of earth in which to grow my own. It's a simple pleasure I know, but sometimes the best things are.