After our Building A Better Pantry series on dairy products, I thought it fitting to expound upon the cheese plate. Even if you don't care to make cheese of your own, I'm sure most of you still...
The Dirty Dozen and Buying Organic
Even if you haven't bought into the organic lifestyle wholesale (and there's much debate over how accurate/honest the organic label really is), you might be wondering if there's something to it. I mean, even if you're not paranoid about pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and the like, there's just something slightly worrisome about the thought of invisible toxins lurking on your salad greens or strawberries.
Of course, you should always, ALWAYS wash your fruits and veggies before you eat them, whether or not they're organic, conventional, pre-washed, or ripped-from-the-earth-dirty. Even consciously grown produce can harbor surface contaminants that a quick wash will remove.
Also bear in mind that eating lots of produce, organic or not, is much healthier than not getting enough fruits and veggies. So if you can't afford organic at all, don't let that get you down. Just take the time to wash your produce before cooking with it or eating it.
For those wanting to go the extra mile without having to sell their firstborn to go totally organic, there is middle ground. As it turns out, some produce is more likely to have higher pesticide residues than others. What this means is that you can spend a few extra bucks on certain items and save money on others.
The aptly named "dirty dozen"--produce more likely to have higher pesticide residues--changes slightly every year, so it's a good idea to keep on top of which fruits and veggies make the list. A quick search on the Internet will tell you what this year's dirty dozen is, and often, right beside this list is another telling you which fruits and vegetables tend to have the lowest pesticide residues.
Some produce you may want to buy organic includes apples, celery, bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries, potatoes, green beans, and cooking greens (kale, collards, and the like). Copy the names of these vegetables onto an index card that you keep in your wallet or pocketbook, or keep them on your smartphone. This way, you won't be struggling to remember them when you're at the supermarket and strapped for time.
Try to find a farmer's market near you. In all likelihood, you'll find a predominance of organic produce, and it will likely be cheaper than at a supermarket. Many farmer's markets these days accept food stamps and credit or debit cards, too. Not only that, but you'll have a much better time stocking up on beautiful produce in the open air than you ever would at a grocery store. As spring approaches, look into CSA programs (Community Supported Agriculture) in your area. The concept is simple: you pay up-front for a season's worth of produce which you pick up every week at one of several drop off locations of their choosing. This is a great way to cook your way through the season, and often, farmers will give their CSA customers dibs on the prettiest produce.
If you're even more hardcore (I suppose in this instance my grandfather qualifies as "hardcore"), you might consider planting a small garden. While some of the dirty dozen crops can't be grown just anywhere (grapes and nectarines, for instance), others are well-suited to the home garden. What's more, you'll learn a lot more about produce than you thought possible, and you'll appreciate the food you've grown way more than something you just throw in your buggy at the grocery store. Even city-dwellers and those with busy schedules can plant an herb garden or a small salad garden.
Most importantly, do what suits your family and budget. Make small changes as you can and take advantage of your local farming community. You'll learn and taste a lot in the process.