Good food starts with good ingredients

Credit: Hilary Henegar

Cooking! Feasting! Gathering with family and good friends! The holidays offer casual chefs and foodies alike a delicious excuse to indulge in one of man’s greatest pastimes: eating.

As anyone who knows me can attest, food and eating are my favourite hobby. But not just any food. Even from an early age, I’ve always been a stickler for fresh, homemade cooking. Hot dogs? No, thank you. Pizza pockets? Gross. The thought and smell of anything processed and packaged are enough to take away my appetite—which, according to my partner, is no easy feat.

When you cook from scratch, especially when guests are expected, you’re not only nourishing the body but also the mind and spirit. I like to think of myself as an artist in the kitchen—summoning my creative juices and the powers of my senses to guide me toward the final product: a dish so delectable I feel sad to think it will eventually end even as I’m taking my first few bites.

My friends know me for my salad dressings and sauces, which I’ve always found curious because, while of course I think they’re good, I’m shocked how impressed people seem by them, which tells me how few people actually make their own. But, I’ll clue you in on a little secret: it’s easy…as long as you have fresh, good quality ingredients to start.

But then, really, to make any dish well, you have to start with good ingredients. Yes, yes, there are plenty of examples of making something out of nothing (hello, noodle casserole!), but if you’re going for “delicious” and you want your dish to be nourishing, you have to start with the proper building blocks.

When selecting ingredients, consider the hierarchy of:

1. Your health and that of your family in the long term. When faced with the task of food shopping, look first for organic products to protect your body from harmful pesticides/herbicides, off-gassing from over-packaged products (often covered in plastic, Styrofoam and other synthetic materials) and genetically modified produce, which as yet have not been studied for long-term effects on human health.

2. The sustainability of that food source, which includes the amount of water used to produce the food, the fuel calories burned to get that food to you, the amount of chemicals used to grow the food (which contaminates the soil and groundwater and affects beneficial insects and other agents in the food production process like bees and worms), and the integrity of the seed source (i.e., heirloom varieties versus genetically-modified hybrids). Heirloom, or heritage, fruits and vegetables are not only a better option for the sustainability of our food system but are also higher in flavour, vitamins and minerals, and are often more colourful. Find them at local markets and food co-ops.

3. Social responsibility considerations, such as workers’ rights at the source and at every level of the distribution system. You may wonder how workers’ rights affect flavour and nutrition, but the truth is food is a part of one big complicated system, so without taking care of our food producers we risk losing those fresh, nutrient-rich, diverse varieties of food plants forever. Also, when buying fair-trade or locally produced foodstuffs—from coffee to chocolate to spinach to coriander seeds—you are supporting smaller businesses with smaller-scale operations so quality control is often higher. This is especially true where animal products are involved (remember listeriosis?).

Yes, we’re all busy and we all wish we could do it all—including cooking from scratch for every meal. But the point is not perfection, it’s doing the best you can.

And if the best you can do is a frozen pot pie on a stick—and that’s okay with you—then, really, you’re not a foodie. And you probably wouldn’t care too much about homemade dressing either.