29 Jan Inside the Fridge welcomes the guy behind #lunchboxblues, J.M. Hirsch
J.M. Hirsch is the Dad behind LunchBoxBlues.com, a blog that chronicles the trials, tribulations and triumphs of his son’s lunches. The site was the inspiration for his latest cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues. His previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife and too many cats. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press.
Where do you shop for food?
I shop mostly at mainstream grocers in my town. Nothing fancy, nothing hard to get. Because of my job as food editor for The Associated Press, a lot of my shopping is tied to recipe development or photos we are shooting. So it’s important that the recipes and foods we feature be accessible to anyone anywhere in the country. That’s why I stick mostly with mainstream grocers. That said, the selection at those grocers – even up here in rural New Hampshire – is terrific these days. I can easily get a wide variety of produce (including unusual items), international foods, specialty items, and a huge selection of organic and GMO-free foods. We also have a great natural foods store in town and a seriously robust farmers market scene. I buy almost all of my meat from local producers.
Do you love food shopping or dread it?
I love it. Obviously, food excites me. I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t. I like going shopping because I like being inspired by what I find. I particularly like shopping at farmers markets. You find the most unusual and appealing items there. And I love bringing my son. It’s a wonderful way to expose kids to what food is, where it comes from and what’s involved in getting it from the ground to the table. It’s an important lesson that we all need to spend more time teaching.
How many do you shop for? Ages?
Depends. Generally, it’s just the three of us – my son, my wife and myself. But several times a week I have my team of chefs and photographer here for photo shoots and testing. Then we shop for all the recipes we are working on. We deal with a crazy amount of food on those days. That’s why we have such a massive refrigerator.
How many times a week do you eat out? (based on 21 meals/week)
Truthfully… Almost never. We get pizza maybe once or twice a year. Every now and again we’ll pop down to the gastropub in town or the ice cream stand in summer. I know that makes us kind of freaks in terms of the typical American family. But truth is, I enjoy cooking. So I like sitting my son at the counter to do his homework while I make dinner. And I like coming up with new recipes. So we almost never eat out and rarely get prepared foods. The exception to this is that I travel to New York City about once a month for work. Then I eat out three meals a day, obviously. That’s part of my job. And it’s a wonderful city to eat your way through.
How do you plan your weekly meals? Create a spreadsheet of fly by the seat of your pants?
I’ve always been impressed by people who can plan meals a week or more at a time. I’m just not that organized. Plus, I prefer the serendipity of opening the refrigerator and figuring it out as I go. The most I’ll do for planning is take something out of the freezer in the morning so it can thaw in the refrigerator during the day. But even that is rare for me.
What is the most coveted food in the fridge right now for each member of the household? Why?
For my son, that’s easy. Bacon. He loves bacon. I get a really good, local smoked bacon that he loves. He would live on it if he could. For me, it’s probably the hunk of Parmesan in the cheese drawer. I try not to do it too often, but nothing makes me happier than a glass of wine and a few chunks of that cheese. For my wife, it’s probably my fried chicken. I have a great recipe for it in which it is poached, bathed in buttermilk, then triple-breaded. I make a bunch and freeze it at that stage. You can then fry it or bake it. Either way, it’s nice to have in the freezer for nights when time is tight.
Do you believe in leftovers?
My son would starve without them. I’m a huge believer in leftovers, particularly for his lunches. My one nod to “planning” is to make too much dinner, no matter what I am making. I then use those leftovers somehow in his lunch the next day. I might turn extra pasta into a pasta salad, or extra meat into a quiche filling or roll it in a wrap, etc. Leftovers keep me sane while serving time in the lunch box trenches.
What convenience product can you not live without?
I love “Better than Bouillon,” which is a high-quality, organic chicken broth reduction. It adds incredible flavor and depth to soups. I’ll even use it as a low-fat way of cooking veggies (I mix a little with water, then simmer the veggies in a skillet with it). I go through an awful lot of it this time of year.
What cooking utensil/piece of equipment/appliance do you live for?
I’m not a gizmo guy. I just wanted good knives and a kick-butt gas range. I want lots of heat and fast. That said, I do love my mandoline. I have an Oxo model and it is sturdy and makes such wonderfully thin slices of anything. It lets you use vegetables in whole new ways. I make a butternut-onion-sweet potato tart by using it to slice everything paper thin, then layering dozens of layers in a springform pan. I do nothing but season it lightly and roast it until tender. You then slice it like a cake. So delicious. And it wouldn’t be nearly the same without the mandoline.
How have your cooking/shopping habits changed over the last 10 years?
I’ve been doing my best to eat local and organic for a number of years now. We try to avoid most processed foods. I firmly believe that if you eat mostly whole foods, real foods, you can eat pretty much whatever you want. My son, for example, eats a lot of bacon. In fact, his diet is generally pretty high in fat, including saturated fats. Yet he’s tall and slim and incredibly healthy. I think it’s because while he may eat his weight in bacon and steak, he also eats loads of produce and whole grains, and almost never has processed foods, including soda, chicken “nuggets,” fast food, or so many other staples of most kids’ diets. So what has changed? It’s easier today to shop for healthy, whole foods. I used to have to hunt or make compromises. Today, even my mainstream grocer in town has local organic meats.
What was the last meal you cooked from scratch?
Well, I make dinner from scratch every night. Last night I made a haddock curry and served it over brown rice. It was so simple. I used a blender to make the sauce by pureeing an onion, garlic, fresh ginger, a bit of chicken broth and curry powder. I simmered that for a few minutes, then added diced butternut squash and carrots, then let it simmer until those were nearly tender. Then I added haddock and let it cook until just ready to flake. Add some fresh cilantro, salt and pepper, and it was done in about 30 minutes.
What words of wisdom or advice do you have for other folks who are doing their best every day to fill the fridge?
Don’t be afraid to try new things. You never know what you’ll love. And this is an important lesson to pass on to our kids. I often bring home something strange and make an event out of trying it with my son. The best things in life often are the things we least expect. This is true about everything, not just food. But food is an excellent way to learn this.
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