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!)

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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.”

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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.”

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image: Wikipedia

What is that black and orange bug in my garden?

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The suggestions on a recent “what’s this bug? post on this blog made me realize how hard it was to tell apart several common garden bugs: the harlequin bug, the bagrada bug, the milkweed bug and the boxelder bug. They are all flattish, orange/red and black, under an inch long, and seem to always be mating.

After doing the research, I really wanted to see all the bugs side by side, so I made this picture and this simple reference chart. It is now my gift to you. You are welcome.

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A Year after The Age of Limits: 5 Responses to the End Times

donkey

photo by Sansculotte on de.wikipedia

Ever since Erik and I and our friend John attended the Age of Limits conference a year ago, I’ve been meaning to offer some kind of measured response to the conference.  (The Age of Limits conference is a sort of woodsy fiesta for doomers held annually in Pennsylvania. For more info, follow the link.).  I’ve hesitated to do so, though, for two reasons.

The first reason was that I wasn’t sure if I should engage with the topic. Erik will rant now and then, but overall neither of us likes to preach or “opinionate.” We’d rather just focus on the lifestyle, and let people find their own reasons for reading whatever it is we happen to be blogging about.

The second reason was ambition. In my head, a proper response to such complex topics required long, thoughtful essays with footnotes.  That was a surefire way to keep myself from writing anything at all.

Yet a year out, memories of the Age of Limits conference nag at me. I wish I were an excellent long form journalist so that I could describe the entire event in detail, because it was such a strange trip, full of interesting characters, unforgettable moments, and strong emotions. We met some really good people there.

I can’t describe the event,  not unless you come over to my house and let me ramble on for about two hours, with many asides and breaks for snacks. But I can distill my overall reaction into a handful of concepts which relate more to the overall “doomosphere” than to the conference in particular.

And since this is the Internet, the home of unfounded opinion, I’ve realized I can say whatever I want, with no footnotes. So, if you want to keep reading, I’ve whittled my responses down to five points, but it’s still long.

N.B. This is what I think, not what Erik thinks. He has his own post to write.

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Loquat season is here!

loquat tree

photo courtesy of wikimedia

Loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) season is upon us here in our neighborhood of HaFoSaFo (that is, one special corner of Los Angeles).

This post will not have much relevance to those of you who do not live in a subtropical or mild climate, but for those of you who do, I highly encourage you to get to know the humble yet mysterious loquat.

Loquat trees abound in our neighborhood, and I don’t know if this is a purely local phenomenon or not. Loquats are hardy evergreen trees with thick, glossy leaves that remind me of citrus leaves and magnolia leaves and avocado leaves all at the same time, meaning it’s vaguely tropical looking.

They don’t seem to require much water or pruning–so they do well under benign neglect, though I’d suspect the fruit is best on trees which are not completely ignored.  This is the time of year when the fruit comes ripe, and it’s always kind of an exciting time because the loquats bridge the “fruit gap” between winter citrus and stone fruit.

The thing about loquats is that they are really suited only for fresh eating. And I mean fresh off the tree–they don’t keep long after they’ve been picked, which is why they never appear in stores. We’ve tried to figure out things to do with them, but they defy preservation because they are made mostly of water. They are also small, have skins which are impossible to peel (you just eat the skins), and large pits, all of which makes processing difficult. Yet they can be really tasty. The best ones taste a little like citrus honey and have a nice floral fragrance. Their light, watery flesh is refreshing on a hot day

(If anyone has figured out something to do with loquats other than eat them out of hand, please do let us know! The best we’ve been able to do is to infuse them in vodka, and that was not all that thrilling in the end.)

They are highly prolific, too. So right now all of the loquat trees in the ‘hood are studded with hundreds upon hundreds (thousands, maybe?) of little yellow-orange fruits. These fruits seem to be nuisances to most homeowners–I rarely see a tree which looks as if it’s being harvested, or if it is, the harvesting does not make a dent in the bounty. After all, how many fresh loquats can you gobble down in a day? All of which is to say I feel no guilt about snagging loquats off of accessible trees as I walk around.* On-the-hoof snacking is one of the pleasures of walking at this time of year!
Ripe loquats tend to be a little larger and fatter than the unripe ones, and the color is darker. They also have a tiny bit of give under the fingers. You’ll get a sense of how to tell which ones are best with experience. I usually rub the fuzz off the skin before eating, which, in my book, counts as washing. Beware the pits! Some trees have better fruit than others, so if you try a loquat and find it less than thrilling, try fruit from another tree. You may find a new favorite seasonal treat.
ETA:  Days after posting, I just got around to reading the Wikpedia entry on loquat. (ahem) Turns out there are over 800 cultivars of loquat, some of which are bred for smaller seeds and sweeter fruit, others which are bred for white or orange flesh, others which are bred for backyard production, meaning they fruit in waves, a bit at a time, while others are bred for commercial production, meaning their fruit appears and ripens all at once.  Some trees are meant to be ornamental. Methinks some of the trees in our neighborhood are commercial producers, and others downright feral. All of this is to say that there is going to be a huge variation in the loquat experience from place to place–which is reflected in the comments below.
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*Re: fruit foraging: I consider it fair/legal to snag fruit from street trees, those trees growing on the strip of public land between the street and the sidewalk, and fruit which overhangs the sidewalk. Now, of course, you don’t want to be a jerk about this–I pay attention to context, and won’t take fruit that people seem to be using, or which seems precious in any way. (Loquats I classify as a weed/borderline nuisance.) It’s never okay to step onto someone’s land to take fruit.

Also, I would never take vegetables from any part of a yard, public or not. That’s just different. To take a random example, I would never, say, help myself to someone’s giant squash.

And it’s important not to be greedy. I don’t take more than one fruit from a tree at a time (or maybe two or three, in the case of loquats). But if the tree is burdened with fruit and rotten fruit is splattering on the sidewalk, it seems more a favor than anything else to take one or two.

Of course, it is always best to ask the homeowner for permission. In the case of loquats, we’ve done this in order to harvest them in quantity for our preservation experiments. Homeowners are usually happy to share, even let you onto their land, to make use of their fruit. It turns out most folks just don’t know what to do with the bounty of fruit trees, or just don’t have the time/equipment/mobility to deal with harvest. In return, if you get permission to take lots of fruit, you can return some to them in the form of preserves or whatnot. This keeps the good will flowing.

Easter Lessons

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So, facing an overabundance of eggs, and having hard boiled a dozed out of desperation and having espied a charming post on naturally dyed Easter eggs, I decided to have a go at dyeing eggs on Saturday night.  The eggs our ladies deliver are all shades of beige to brown, so I worried that they’d not take dye as well as white eggs, but the post promised good results with brown eggs, and the dyes were deep and earthy enough that it seemed it would not matter.

The technique was simple–a one to one ratio of organic matter to water, boiled 15 minutes or more, cooled, and then spiked with vinegar. The eggs soak in this mix for as long as you like, perhaps overnight, refrigerated. I tried out onion skin (russet dye), red cabbage (bluish dye) and hibiscus flowers(purplish). All looked well. I went to bed imagining the rich, solid colors I’d find the next day, the arty pictures from the original post dancing in my head.

This morning I pulled my eggs from the fridge, all excited, only to find something had gone wrong. The onion skin eggs looked all right at first, a nice rusty shade, but when I touched them the color came off, a thin layer of colored slime peeling aside to reveal a much paler egg below–an egg perhaps still of its natural color. Same for the cabbage. The hibiscus was a total nightmare–for some reason its slime was thick and bubbly and black and utterly disgusting. I mean, like Black Plague-level disgusting. Easter buboes! Zombie eggs!

Here’s my theory: chickens coat their eggs with a protective coating before the eggs leave the “factory.” Just like auto manufacturers! This protective coating is called the bloom. The bloom is washed off in industrial egg production facilities because the eggs have to be washed and sometimes bleached to get the filth off them before they go to market. So bloom is never an issue when dyeing store-bought eggs. I’ve never tried dyeing our own eggs before, and I believe the bloom was interfering with the dye’s adhesion. If I try this again, I will give the eggs a thorough washing first.

What do you think of this theory? Any similar experiences?

Anyway, all was not lost. When I washed all the slime off the eggs, I found that some color did get through, and it came through it truly random and marvelous ways. My eggs don’t look so much like Easter eggs, but more like rocks, or dinosaur eggs. I didn’t get what I was expecting at all, but instead I got something kind of wonderful. That’s DIY in a nutshell for you.

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Anagallis monellii : A New Favorite

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Last fall we planted Anagallis monellii “Blue Pimpernel” in a bed of mixed flowers and herbs. This plant is neither edible or medicinal, but we hoped the bees would like its many blue flowers. Anagallis monellii is a Mediterranean native, so it is well suited to the California climate, and it follows that it does not need much water. It is perennial in zones 9 to 11 (that’s us), but can be grown as an annual elsewhere.

If you see Anagallis monellii without blooms, it is not much to look at. It’s a rangy, low-slung plant with uninteresting foliage. What it excels at is blooming.  I believe it comes in a few colors, but “Blue Pimpernel” makes 1″ flowers in a rich gentian blue with magenta eyes, and it makes lots and lots and lots of them, so much so that you can’t even see the foliage through the flowers. It’s insanely tough and cheerful, and the blue contrasts well with our profusion of volunteer California poppies and Calendula.

Basic factoids:  Grows about 10″ tall and spreads up to 20″,  low water, likes rich soil, blooms most in full sun, can be propagated from seed, self-sows. It blooms for a long time–spring through fall, in frosty climates, that is. We’ll see what it does here in the winter. We bought ours as seedlings from Annie’s Annuals, which is pricey but worth it, because the plants are beautiful, impeccably shipped, and never root bound!

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