Living in rural Mexico, I don’t have access to the specialty stores and products that I used to in suburban Colorado. No Trader Joe’s, Cost Plus or Whole Foods Market — heck, there’s not even a full-size grocery store less than a 2-hour drive from where I live. The lack of access to these Western temples of overabundance means that I’ve had to adapt my cooking style to what’s available locally. Over the past few years, I’ve become pretty inventive in the kitchen and I think a better cook overall.
While there is no Whole Foods Market, what I have access to are actual whole foods like jicama, mango, yaka (jackfruit), avocado, chiles and beans. Lots and lots of beans: black beans, pinto beans, fava beans, garbanzo beans, Peruvian beans, lentils and more. And not canned beans but dried beans you have to actually cook yourself.
We usually make a big pot of beans each week and reserve half in the freezer for future use. So instead of prepared meals from Trader Joe’s, our freezer is filled with tubs of different kinds of beans. These get made into soups, curries, chilis, dips and myriad incarnations of veggie burgers. I could give Amy’s Kitchen a run for its money with my kickass veggie burgers.
I’ve also learned work arounds for making some of our old favorites, such as lasagna without ricotta cheese, hummus without tahini, and salads without leafy greens. And I’ve learned to make some things from scratch such as ravioli, gnocchi, salad dressing, whole wheat bread and even pickles. And I’m not half as resourceful as some of my friends who have learned how to make homemade chocolate bars, kefir cheese, kombucha and sauerkraut.
Back in Colorado, I used to plan out our meals a week in advance, knowing that I could find all the ingredients that my recipes called for from a single grocery store. But here, we shop at little produce stands and mom-and-pop abarrotes. Most are smaller than a typical 7-Eleven. You never know what might be available from week to week. You simply buy what looks fresh and interesting and then take it home and figure out what to do with it.
Sometimes, you are surprised by an odd bag of portobello mushrooms or fresh heads of romaine lettuce hiding in the back of the refrigerator case that someone has trucked there from Costco in Puerto Vallarta. Or you find a crate of tiny, misshapen, yet perfectly sweet local strawberries that would have never made it onto the shelves of a discriminating big box grocery store. Or there is a guy selling fresh local shrimp from the back of his truck. You never know what you are going to find. So while I still make grocery lists each week, I never know exactly what I might end up getting. I’ve become an “Iron Chef” of sorts — give me a few mystery ingredients, and I will make you a good meal.
I’ve definitely had my fails, however, like the fava bean soup I made for dinner last week that neither I or my daughter wanted to eat. My husband put on a good show, eating seconds. But I’m not convinced. At least they love my veggie burgers. So take that, Amy’s Kitchen!