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

Worth Doing From Scratch: Corn Tortillas

homemade tortillas

We do a lot of experimentation here at Root Simple Labs. Some things work out and others fail miserably. I thought I’d periodically look at the projects that have worked in the long term, specifically from scratch. Call this the first blog post in a sporadic series about stuff that’s easy and economical.

Now you should be suspicious of any tortilla making advice dispensed by a gabacho. Let’s just say it’s easy and the results are way better than those dry tortillas you buy at the store. Some things I’ve learned:

  • I have a cast iron tortilla press that works great but my Mexicano friends in the know suggested a wooden press.
  • Making masa from scratch is a huge amount of work and I’ve done just fine with supermarket masa harina.
  • As I like to measure dry ingredients by weight I’ve figured out that for enough tortillas for four people you need to mix 250 grams of flour with 300 grams of water.
  • Cook as many tortillas at once as you can. I can do three at a time on our stove. Cooking one at a time takes forever.

Keep a bag of masa harina around and you’ll be ready for any tortilla emergency. In just a few minutes you’ll have healthy, tasty tacos and save money.

How’s the Sugar Free Experiment Going for Erik?

The Grape Nuts I eat in the morning have about as much sugar as Special K. Image: sugarstacks.com.

The Grape Nuts I eat in the morning have about as much sugar as Special K. Image: sugarstacks.com.

In short, not well. The first day Kelly announced she was going to forgo processed sugar I downed half a bag of chocolate chips. After all, I reasoned, they would go bad if someone didn’t eat them. I have a sweet tooth

Throughout Kelly’s sugar free experiment I continued my usual breakfast of Grape Nuts and rice milk. With neither grapes nor nuts, this cereal is little more than processed carbohydrates with a vitamin pill and 5 grams of sugar (in the form of malt syrup) per half cup serving. The rice milk contains maybe 3 grams of sugar for the amount I’m using each morning. If I go by the guidelines of the American Heart Association I shouldn’t exceed 36 grams of sugar per day.

Before Kelly began the experiment I objected that demonizing sugar is symptomatic of American diet trends that always have to have a villainous scapegoat. Look back at the past 100 years of food history and you’ll see fat, carbohydrates and protein (and, most recently, gluten) taking turns as public enemy number one. Sugar, I reasoned, was the next gluten. I’m sure the big food companies are gearing up to offer plenty of unhealthy low and no-sugar options in response to recent bad publicity. Root Simple reader Rebecca, commenting on Kelly’s anti-sugar post says,

Some colleagues of mine just recently (finally!) published a paper from a huge, ambitious study in mice, where they gave each mouse one of 25 diets containing different levels of protein, carbohydrate, and fat, and tracked feeding and lifespan. It seems to me like Americans really like to cling to stories that single out specific ingredients (see: gluten, sugar). But most foods contain a mixture of things. Evidence from the mouse study and studies in other animals suggest that many animals *jointly* regulate the intake of protein and carbohydrate, but with protein exerting a stronger effect on feelings of satiety – interestingly, the mice didn’t regulate for fat, they just ate whatever amount of fat was packaged along with the protein and carbohydrate. In tracking lifespan, they found that mice given lower-protein, high-carbohydrate diets actually had the longest lifespan and other indicators of better health compared to mice on high-protein foods. They were actually most interested in refuting the “caloric restriction” hypothesis of ageing, which ignores the type of calorie involved. But I think there are broader implications.

I watched Robert Lustig’s video six months ago, and I do think he makes some important points (plus I learned a lot about the biochemistry of intermediate metabolism from him). However…I’d still go back to this whole idea of vilifying a single ingredient. Americans are all still eating way too much processed food overall, and processed food is the larger culprit, in my book, especially because it’s cheap to add fat, carbohydrates, and salt to processed foods, but expensive to add protein.

The study Rebecca mentions is behind a pay wall but you can read the abstract here. Rebecca’s point is a good one. Human nutrition is enormously complicated and current bad health trends are not reducible to one single factor. The fact is that we have limited knowledge about all the complex interactions and feedback loops in human nutrition. This in not even to mention equally important factors such as how nutrition interacts with human customs, rituals and beliefs.

That said, processed sugar is definitely bad. I have no doubt about that. And I don’t think I need to tell the readers of this blog that processed foods as a whole are what are making us unhealthy. But as I discovered in my own life, it’s difficult to avoid sugar. It’s in everything the big food companies make.

Making time to cook from scratch and eating a diverse variety of foods looks like the only way out of the food mess we’re all in.

Saturday Linkages: Broody Hens, Killer Gardens and Salt-Rising Bread

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Surveillance camera bird-feeder http://boingboing.net/2014/05/27/surveillance-camera-bird-feede.html …

Broody Hens and the Meaning of Life. My new blog post on The Tangled Nest. http://thetanglednest.com/2014/05/broody-hens-and-the-meaning-of-life/ …

Coping With Heat in the Garden: Drought-Tolerant Crops, Resilient Perennials and More http://garynabhan.com/i/archives/2467

The whole world has a weight problem, new report says http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/28/world-obesity-report/9675267/ …

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary: http://jsomers.net/blog/dictionary

While the Economy Grows, Americans Continue to Drive Less http://usa.streetsblog.org/2014/05/28/while-the-economy-grows-americans-continue-to-drive-less/#.U4fYr_rOBGc.twitter …

Killer GARDENS | Garden Rant http://gardenrant.com/2014/05/killer-gardens.html …

The Disquieting Delights Of Salt-Rising Bread http://po.st/RRay7W

Ruins on New York’s abandoned island reclaimed by nature http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-27509955 …

For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:

Update on Hedge Fund Billionaire Crispin Odey’s $250,000 Chicken Coop

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British hedge fund billionaire Crispin Odey has done for chicken coops what Laibach does for popular music. That is to say, take a simple form and do it up in grand dictator style.

Odey’s coop also managed to exceed Marie Antoinette’s fake farm in the questionable timing department. He got a lot of bad press for beginning his $250,000 marble chicken coop in the midst of an economic downturn. An article in the New York Times, A Hedge Fund Highflier Comes Back to Earth, indicates that Odey has had to do some damage control,

Never one to sit still, he is also repositioning his poultry palace, which he said had “morphed into a library.” So what is the deal with the coop anyway?

“For me it’s more of a folly than a chicken house,” he said, referring to the ornamental buildings that adorn some of the grand English estates of past centuries.

He gamely showed photos of the nearly completed structure on his iPhone. “Once I started thinking about what I wanted to have there, it was a Schinkelian temple.” Karl Friedrich Schinkel, he explained, was the architect who worked for the Prussian royal family, “and built almost all of that stuff you come across in Brandenburg and in Berlin.”

Mr. Odey pointed to a relief visible along one wall. “I have the chickens and egg having the age-old fight of who came first,” he smiled. “It’s carved in stone,” and there will be a Latin inscription, “Quis primus venit?”

Meaning?

“Meaning, ‘Who came first?’ ”

So is it a chicken coop and a library? Perhaps Odey is familiar with the poultry housing described in Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura. In this early Roman agriculture manual Cato details a live-in chicken coop that provides housing for a worker who collects the eggs and keeps predators away. Maybe he can read Cato while admiring his hens. Just look out for those peasants with pitchforks . . .

001 Transplants vs. Seedlings, Josey Baker Bread, Gluten Intolerance and Rats in the Compost

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As they say in Silicon Valley, if you’re first release is perfect you’re too late. With that in mind, I’m finally putting up the first (after a few false starts) Root Simple audio podcast.

Right now the format is Kelly and I recapping recent blog posts and going into greater detail. Plus we answer some long overdue reader questions. When we get more comfortable with podcasting we’ll start having guests.

In this episode of the Root Simple podcast we discuss transplants vs. direct sowing, the book Josey Baker Bread, gluten intolerance and answer a listener question about rats.

Let us know what you think and what you’d like us to cover. If you want to leave a question you can call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected].

The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho.

A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store.

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.

Bees Like Mochi

This viral video proves two things:

1. Bees like sugar.

2. Foraging bees aren’t likely to sting.

And I love the way this street vendor keeps on working. If this were the US, there’d be a major freak out, the fire and health departments would be called and an exterminator would show up to spray poison. If you keep calm and carry on you get your mochi and the bees get a free lunch.

Thanks to Winnetka Farms for the tip. 

Pakistan Mulberry Fever

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Let me just say Pakistan mulberries. Now let me say it again. Pakistan Mulberries.  Let’s all repeat that as a mantra.

What are they? The tastiest fruit in the know universe. Imagine a longish, very sweet but ever so slightly exotic tasting berry. The problem: they go bad so fast that you practically have to eat them off the tree. The other problem: we have no more room left to grow a Pakistan mulberry tree. Thankfully fruit tree guru Steve Hofvendahl sold me two small strawberry cartons full of them over the weekend.

Now I need a regular Pakistani mulberry fix. If I wanted to plant one Bay Laurel Nursery has several varieties. It’s mostly a warm climate plant but some varieties do better in lower temperatures.

Here’s what Steve had to say about his six year old tree which he thinks is the “Cooke” variety:

It has totally thrived and become huge.  I have to top back huge vertical branches every year after harvest season and tie limbs down laterally.
And the harvest goes on and on and is not easy, you cannot shake the tree without bringing down loads of green fruit and stubborn ripe berries won’t fall.  You have to hand pick and it takes about 2-3 hours of combing over the tree from all the different angles with the orchard ladder.
Then I soak ‘em in a vinegar water solution and rinse and lay in flats refrigerated and finally weigh the good ones up, the not so good ones get made into delicious juice for jellies and my Jamalade with cumquats and/or habanero.
So it would probably maybe still be worth it to you but know what you are maybe getting into!

Again, the taste is so amazing that if I had the room I’d say it’s worth the hassle of harvesting.

Note from Mrs. Homegrown:  I wanted to add that the odd things about these mulberries is that they have a green stem which runs all the way through the center of the fruit, so when you eat them your sort  of scrape the fruit (drupes?) off the stem with your teeth, then discard it. Not that this is a problem–they’re delicious! I guess the stem is necessary to support their length.