Home cooking advice?

soup stock

Our talk about the perils of added sugar this past week has reinforced to me how very important it is to cook at home, from scratch. It’s important for so many reasons, and big reasons, too. To name just a few, it’s good for our health, it’s good for the environment, it makes us civilized, it teaches kids what real food tastes like, it reinforces cultural traditions and forges bonds between family and friends.

Sometimes, though, it can seem hard to come up with a meal every night. It’s particularly daunting if you don’t have any experience in home cooking, and if you weren’t raised watching people cook. I was not, myself, so I had to figure stuff out as I went along.

These are a few things I’ve figured out. I hope you all will add any advice or tips you have in the comments, to help other people along on their journey into cookery.

1) Simple is good.  Despite all those over-the-top cooking shows they put on TV, good food can be very basic. A pot of soup and a hunk of bread. Done. Fiddlesticks to side dishes, much less courses.

2) Always make double batches if you can, then either freeze the other half for an easy meal down the road, or eat the leftovers for lunch, breakfast, dinner.

3) Shop with a list. Plan your meals for the week. It doesn’t have to be a tight plan, but maybe just a list of 5 main dishes you will make that week, and the ingredients you’ll need for them, along with the “usual suspect” types of food that you keep on hand for breakfast and lunch.  It really helps. Not just with organization, but also because it helps you set your intention to cook. This wakens your inner cook.

4) For bonus points on your weekly planning, consider how ingredients from one meal might transfer to another, and save you effort. Say you’re going to be making soup stock for something (or something you’re making will yield soup stock) — what else can you make which will use the rest of that soup stock? Same for cooking up a pot of beans, or a chicken, or a loaf of bread. Same goes for opening a jar of olives or splurging on a hunk of good cheese. Multitask those ingredients.

5) Pick a cooking style and try to stick with it. Some may disagree with this vehemently, but  I’ve decided that I can’t competently cook all of the world’s cuisines, nor can I maintain a pantry which will allow me to cook out of any cookbook a moment’s notice.

I’m lucky to have access to foods from all over the world, and have learned to love those flavors, but it’s not so good for my kitchen organization.  I’m sure my great-grandmother never stood staring at a shelf of cookbooks from ten different countries when she was trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

In short, to make my life simple, I’ve chosen to limit my home cooking palette.

I can go out and eat pad thai, waffles, bouillabaisse, sushi, pupusas, bahn mi, chile rellenos, dim sum, extravagant desserts….whatever.

At home now, I’m only cooking Italian and Middle-Eastern foods. (Of course there are many different Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines and cooking traditions, but these broad labels are enough for now.) I am neither Italian nor Middle Eastern–my native regional dish would be a steak with a corncob on the side–but I live in a Mediterranean climate, and the vegetables and herbs and fruits used in these cuisines thrive in my yard, and are easy to buy locally. This food just makes sense here. And we like it.

If I limit my choices like this, my pantry becomes functional. I use everything in it. Nothing goes to waste. Everything matches. It’s like a well organized clothes closet or a professional color palette. The flavors harmonize. The basic ingredients were meant to be together, so it’s easy to look at what’s in my fridge or on the shelf and pull something together without confusion or emergency trips to the store. Meals just happen. The tomatoes want to be with garlic and the chickpeas and the eggplants. They all get along. My spice shelf is starting to make sense.

Leftovers harmonize under this system. If we have a supper of leftovers, instead of the table resembling a low-end Las Vegas buffet at about 3 AM, I can just put everything I’ve got on hand in little bowls and announce, “Meze!”  It’s very impressive.

I like this simplicity thing so much, I’m considering booting the Italian food so that I’m only working with one palette. I love Italian food, and there’s plenty of crossover in ingredients with Middle Eastern food– but I love even more the thought of a perfectly streamlined, specialized pantry.

(I’m imagining some of you might be saying here, “What about the homemade tortillas you’ve been making? What about all that sourdough bread? That’s not Middle Eastern.”  Part of the answer is that the wonder of tortillas is that they’ll wrap around anything.  And another part of the answer is that we’re pretty freeform about what we eat for breakfast and lunch.

What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started cooking dinners from scratch?

trout and beans

On the documentary, Fed Up, and giving up sugar

Last week Erik and I and our friends John and Kendra went to see Fed Up, the new documentary about America’s messed up industrial food system.

Now, Root Simple readers know that the system is bad already. This is why we like to cook at home and grow some of our food when we can.  It’s good news that this film, with its celebrity backing and a publicity machine, may get the message out to people who need to hear it. But is there anything worthwhile in it for someone already trying to disconnect from the evils of the industrial food system?

Well, the message about sugar was news to me. Not that I ever thought that sugar was a health food, but this film lays out how very hard it is on our systems, how sugar, not fat, not lack of exercise, is behind rising obesity rates as well as the rise in type 2 diabetes and a host of related diseases–and most worrisome–how sugar is hidden in almost every prepared and packaged food on grocery store shelves, especially those marketed as healthy, low fat products.

They also describe sugar as an addictive substance, pointing out that given a choice, lab rats choose sugar over cocaine.

Call me a rat and give me a wheel. I’ve been off all sugar for 6 days now, and while the first couple of days were easy, the last few have been surprisingly hard. I’m twitchy and moody.

This surprises me, because I didn’t think I was that much of a sugar fiend to begin with. I don’t drink soda. Erik and I don’t keep cookies and ice cream around the house, and we don’t have dessert after dinner. Nor do we eat prepared foods loaded with hidden sugar. We don’t even drink fruit juice.* My sugar intake comes from just a few sources: a) almond croissants from the corner bakery (oh, how I want one right now!), 2) jam on toast, 3) squares of dark chocolate or the occasional salty caramel, 4) dried fruit* and 5) kettle corn.

Is that so bad? I miss it all. I want it back. Now.

And honestly, it’s not so bad. I’m doing this because lately I’ve felt a little out of control, as if I’m seeking sugar more often and more consistently, and eating more of it in a sitting. This fast has been a useful exercise in clarifying my relationship with sugar.

Anyway, as far as Fed Up goes, what it proved to me is what I already know: that you can’t trust the government to protect you from corporate interests, and that corporate interests are not our interests, and that if we want things done right, we have to do it ourselves. No new news, right?

And when I say we have to go DIY, I don’t only mean actions within our own homes, I also mean agitating for change from the grass roots level, whether that be fighting to get junk food out of your local school, to supporting bans on advertising sugar to children, to encouraging local farmers and farmers’ markets, because change is sure as heck not going to come from the top down.

Regarding sugar, Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF and one of the primary talking heads from Fed Up has a long, science-filled lecture explaining exactly why sugar is so bad on YouTube. It’s called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. If you don’t need convincing about the food system as a whole, this may be more useful to you than Fed Up.

I’ll end the sugar fast in a few days. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their intake of sugar to between 6 teaspoons (for women) and 9 teaspoons (for men) a day. That sounds pretty sensible, and I’ll try to keep to that, or less, after the fast. But when you realize a 12 oz. can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar, you know most of us get far more than that on a daily basis.

*Fruit, fruit juice and dried fruit:  This is a little confusing so I thought I’d add a note. According to Lustig, fruit juice is pure sugar, and is no different to your liver than a soda. He’s all for us eating fresh fruit because a whole piece of fresh fruit comes with fiber, and fiber slows the passage of the sugars through the system, and has its own benefits besides. Also, folks don’t tend to binge on fruit, because it’s filling, so it’s a safe treat. Dried fruit has the fiber, but it’s far too easy to eat a lot of it. I might eat one apricot in a sitting, but given a jar of dried apricots, I’ll eat six without blinking. That’s a lot of sugar! Lustig recommends dried fruit as an occasional treat.

Josey Baker’s Awesome Adventure Bread (gluten free!)

glutenfreebread

I figured a gluten free recipe might be a nice balancing gesture after Erik’s gluten post of last Friday. We love our gluten intolerant friends, and want to feed them well.

We are also continuing our love affair with Josey Baker’s new book, Josey Baker Bread. While Erik is the Bread Master in our house, I step up to the oven sometimes, when I really want to try something.

One thing I really wanted out of this book was a loaf of what Baker calls “Adventure Bread” which by the photo looked to be trail mix in loaf form. Baker says he developed it in response to the many requests he received for gluten-free bread. Wisely, he decided that instead of trying to replicate real bread without gluten, he’d make something entirely different.

It works. It’s made of nuts, seeds and oats, moistened with oil and water and held together with chia and psyillium husks…

[Psyllium what? We’d never used psyllium seed husks before, but they are apparently used in gluten free baking to help bind ingredients–like chia, they are mucilaginous. We found them in the dietary supplement section of Whole Foods, for what it’s worth. Be sure to get the husks, not powdered psyllium seed, which is a laxative.(!) ]

…No yeast. No grain other than oats. It is tasty and moist and sliceable. Better still, its easy to make! Seriously, it’s foolproof. If you have bread baking anxieties, just leave those behind. Making this “bread” is easier than making cookies.

In texture, Adventure Bread  could belong to that camp of dense Nordic/Germanic breads, like Vollkornbrot, but its nutty nature sets it apart. The only thing I don’t love about it is the pumpkin seeds–I don’t like their slippery texture so much in this context. Next time I may switch those out. I’m going camping this weekend, and am taking this “bread” with me. Now that I’ve baked it, I suspect I could take this bread and nothing else to eat, and I’d never be hungry.

Geek moment: You know how in the Lord of the Rings the Elves have a travel food called lembas? One bite will fill a man’s stomach, etc.?  When I cut the first slice of this loaf, I cut the slice in half and gave one piece to Erik. It was first thing in the morning, before breakfast. We both nibbled our halves thoughtfully, and then I said, “Well, I guess I don’t need breakfast.”  It’s that filling. It’s our lembas.

(N.B. Despite being tall and skinny, Erik has the stomach of a Hobbit and managed to eat our lembas bread and breakfast that morning. And second breakfast. And elevenses.)

legalos with lembas bread

The heartiness of this bread drove me to an Internet calorie calculator to figure out how many calories I might be downing with every slice. The loaf weighed about 2lbs, 11 oz./1230 g. (I have to guesstimate because we ate a slice before I weighed it.)

Adding up the calories for all the ingredients for one loaf,  I arrived at 4974 calories. As a comparison, a plain loaf of bread made with 500 g. of whole wheat flour has about 1667 calories.

Figuring out the number of calories per gram for the Adventure Loaf, and then weighing a 1/3″ slice of the bread, I arrived at a calculation of roughly 300 calories per slice. So yeah, lembas.

But this is good! This is healthy, efficient eating. Thing is, if you eat a slice of this stuff,  and you seriously are done with food for a while. It’s not like lesser foods which you just keep eating and eating, searching for satiation. Nor is it something your stomach will burn through in an hour or so, sending you back to the kitchen for more snacks. No siree. One slice of this and you’re good to go for a long time.

For the actual recipe, I’m going to direct you to davidlevoitz.com, because he got actual official permission from the publisher to reproduce the recipe–and as a bonus, there’s also a write up on Baker himself. Scroll to the bottom for the recipe.

Update after living with loaf for a few days: I second Baker’s recommendation to serve it thinly sliced and toasted, smeared with a little something sweet. It’s best that way. But I did just get back from a camping trip with the bread, and it’s fine un-toasted. It got a little damp in the cooler, and so lost some charm, but still fed me very well. It shows no sign of getting stale, or even knowing the meaning of “stale.”

Continue reading…

Kintsugi: Creating Art out of Loss

Many thanks to reader Maribeth for turning us on to this subject, and sharing a great video. I liked it so much I had to share it with you all in turn.  She sent us this nice short article on Colossal, which has an overview, more photos and some good links to explore, as well as the video I’m embedding here.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken ceramics with gold or silver lacquer patching which emphasizes rather than hides the break patterns. The resulting piece is often more beautiful than the original, an embodiment of wabi-sabi, and an invitation for meditation on beauty, loss, transformation, wounding, scars, entropy…  The responses, I suspect, would be as individual as the viewer.

This art-of-mending seems related, somehow, to the “oh no, it’s the end times!” stuff Erik and I were blogging about last week (here and here). Kintsugi is such a subtle, wise practice. It’s not about fixing something good as new, as if it had never broken, but acknowledging that breakage, and making something new and beautiful out of disaster, via the practice of mindfulness. Perhaps we can learn something from this.

Please do check out the video–it’s short and beautiful. In it, a young craftsman explains the rising popularity of this 400 year-old art form in Japan, says, ” …people are realizing that chasing after money and new stuff and new technology will not make us rich in (s) spiritual way.”

bowl-1

image: Wikipedia