The “Perils” of Cooking in a Small Town

by Britta on March 24, 2011

in Alaska Escapades,Food For Thought,Shopping Tips

How I Organize the Home Test Kitchen

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that I developed The Traveler’s Cookbook so I could cook while I traveled, and yet, since I’ve written it, I have not traveled, nor have I even made any travel plans (except for the trip to visit my relatives over Christmas, which doesn’t count because I stayed with my aunt, who also loves to cook and has a very well-stocked kitchen). So I’ve had to apply my travel-cooking principles to my home kitchen, and, since I live in a very small town, they’ve actually proven to be quite useful.

Quiet Little Town

Quiet Little Town

Girdwood, the town I live in, is very small. It takes 45 minutes to an hour to get to Anchorage from here, depending on the weather (and this is Alaska, so weather could mean anything from bright midnight sun to white-out blizzards or blinding rainstorms). Some people who live in Girdwood work in Anchorage, so they make the drive every day, but those of us who live and work in Girdwood don’t make it to “town” quite as often. I usually get there once a week or so myself, and sometimes only every couple of weeks, depending on what’s going on in my work life.

There’s a market here, and it’s well-stocked for being so small, but the items are also more expensive than they would be in Anchorage. I can almost always find what I need at “The Merc,” as locals call it, but I can’t always buy it in a quantity that suits me. Almost everything at the Merc is pre-packaged and bundled, and sometimes it’s even more than a family can use, let alone a single cook. I head down to the Merc for emergency ingredients and those few basics I can’t live without between trips to Anchorage. I don’t do my regular shopping there — I’d be throwing away more than I ate.

We have well-stocked supermarkets up here, especially in Anchorage — I can usually get what I want, including tropical fruit or exotic ingredients. However, I also pay out the nose for it if it’s something that had to be shipped a long way or something you don’t usually get fresh out of season. I also pay more for ordinary fresh fruits and veggies like apples and oranges, especially in the winter, and a little more for other everyday items as well. This being Alaska, one of the remote outposts of America, everything has to be shipped or flown in.

The unfortunate thing about the remoteness of Alaska, despite our well-stocked stores, is that few things come un-packaged. Fruits and veggies are bagged and bundled in preparation for shipping, and so I find I can’t always buy a single-serving of anything. I have noticed this is changing — even just between this summer and this winter, I’ve seen more items available un-bagged — but it’s not quite there yet to make things easier for me. I do have a fridge and a freezer in which to store things, and I utilize them probably more than most, but I’m still only one person, and things are packaged in family-sized quantities. Fresh veggies often go bad in my crisper drawer before I can use them, and I get really upset when I have to throw away fresh herbs that have gone bad.

I have a separate freezer, and I use it, in those situations when I just can’t get small quantities of ingredients, or to save ingredients from being thrown away. I’ve learned how to blanch veggies and preserve them, and even when I make half-recipes of baked goods, it’s still too much for me, so I freeze the bulk of the recipe and thaw the individual pieces as I need them. But I don’t like having to do that. Frozen veggies are never as good as their fresh counterparts, and I’d prefer to be able to use what I purchase.

Plus, there’s one more reason I hate buying large quantities: they just won’t fit. I have a mini-fridge in my tiny kitchen, so I simply don’t have room for large quantities of anything. I can’t keep large quantities of dry goods like grains and pastas, either. I have about as much cupboard and shelf space as I have fridge space, and some of that space is taken up by dishes and pots and pans, though I have few of those, too.

So, coming up with the shopping tips and tricks in my book has helped me survive being a single cook in a small town as much as it has helped me as a cooking traveler. I can buy for more than one meal at a time, true, but I still can’t buy pre-bagged items, nor can I buy big quantities of ingredients. I’ve learned how to use the bulk bins to buy less bulk, I spend time in the organic produce section because individual items are smaller, and I separate pre-bundled ingredients whenever possible so that I don’t have more than I can eat.

I don’t have to be traveling to be putting my travel-cooking principles to work. In fact, it’s the perils of cooking in a small town that have inspired me to use them more and more in my daily life, and to be not only a better cook, but a better consumer as well.

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