COOKING CHALLENGES: TIME, MONEY, AND HEALTHY (BUT DELICIOUS!) FOOD

Two big challenges facing home cooks are money and time. Sure, you can buy store-brand boxed macaroni and cheese, but as my daughter Dee used to say, “Where’s the fun in that?”  Boxed macaroni and cheese might be quick and cheap, but its flavor and nutritional value pretty much erase the quick and cheap part. Still, what to do in a household where both parents work, the children have outside activities, and the income is modest? 

Mark Bittman, in the New York Times, has an interesting take on this dilemma. In his piece “Chop, Fry, Boil: Eating for One, or for 6 Billion,” he takes on the role of a finger-wagging teacher as he exhorts his “students” to buck-up. Americans don’t have time to cook? Then how come they can find the time to watch, on average, thirty-five hours of television a week? No money for good, healthy food? Nonsense! Meals cooked with lentils and rice or cabbage or even chicken and broccoli are far cheaper than most fast food and much better for you. 

Cooking, of course, requires equipment—stove, pots and pans, knives—as well as a pantry stocked with basic food and spices. While Bittman acknowledges that some people might not have these things, he continues his stern lecture by adding, “These requirements cannot be met by everyone, but they can be met by far more people than those who cooked dinner last night.” 

Mark Bittman concludes “By becoming a cook, you can leave processed foods behind, creating more healthful, less expensive and better tasting food” that is better for the health of people and the health of the planet. 

Bittman is right, and his article, which includes three recipes, is well worth reading.

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RICHARD OLNEY: A LIFE CENTERED ON FOOD

Here is something inspiring—for foodies—to start the New Year. It’s piece written by Tim Adams in the Observer, and it’s about Richard Olney, a cook, food writer, editor, and artist who lived in Provence. Olney died in 1999, but his home, “on a hill, and built into solid rock” has been kept as a sort of food “shrine.” In his piece, Adams describes the home and the countryside as well as writing about Olney. 

Through humble stew, Olney cooked his way into the good life, first in Paris and then in Provence, where he found his place. What he discovered, of course, along with the beautiful countryside of southern France, was that good food and the sharing of it, was the center of a good life. 

Adams piece is beautifully written, and he includes quotations from Olney’s work—also beautifully written. Taken together, both provide a sort of guideline for cooks everywhere. Maybe we will never write as well or cook as well as Olney (or Adams), but maybe we don’t need to do so. Maybe the devotion to home-cooked food using fresh ingredients (when available!) is enough. 

I like to think it is, anyway.

WELCOME 2011!

beef stew and BreadLast night, my husband, Clif, and I spent a quiet but oh-so-nice New Year’s Eve. Our daughter Shannon and her husband, Mike, came over for a simple supper of homemade bread and beef stew. Although this was not a fancy meal, I decided to make Marjorie Standish’s oven beef stew—which is made in stages—rather than just throw everything into the crockpot. Because we seldom eat beef, it was worth it to spend the extra time on the stew. Simply put, this is the best beef stew recipe I have ever tasted—a rich broth with meat so tender it literally falls apart when you put in your mouth. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a copy of this recipe on the Internet, so readers will have to seek it out from the great Maine cook herself in one of her many books.

Shannon baked what is coming to be known as her “signature” chocolate cake, using a recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Then, we rolled up our sleeves and played a trivia game called Foodie Fight, a present from our eldest daughter, Dee. This kept us happily engaged until midnight, when we toasted in the New Year.

All in all, this was a New Year’s celebration that didn’t cost us much. We stayed close to home—my favorite place—ate good food, and played a fun game.

On a similar note, this morning I was tickled to get an email—one of my first of the New Year—from my friend Kate Johnson. In it she described making ginger banana scones from ingredients she had on hand. She knew I would like that part, making good use of what was in her kitchen. As Kate put it, “How many times do you have 1 banana, a bit of heavy cream left over from Xmas cooking, a lemon, and crystallized ginger, all at the same time?!!”  Kudos to Kate for using these ingredients rather than letting them go to waste.

When I started this blog in 2009, I didn’t really envision a direction for it other than a focus on food, of course. But over the past year and a half, some things have become more and more obvious to me. That is, our species is confronting “a perfect storm” that includes peak oil, climate change, and overpopulation. (We are almost at 7 billion, up from 6 ½ billion when I first started the blog.) Add environmental pollution, and we have a very serious situation. As Sandra Steingraber exhorts in her excellent Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, it is time for humans to play “the Save the World Symphony.”

To carry on with the symphony metaphor, we can’t keep playing the same old tune of overconsumption, burning fossil fuels, and pumping gargantuan amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To put it bluntly, we have to change our wasteful, polluting song. This won’t be easy because in many ways it is a sweet life, at least for those of us in affluent countries, to run through resources as though they are infinite.

Yet I refuse to give up hope. Perhaps it is because I am an American, but I have a perverse optimistic streak that allows me to believe that not only can we overcome these tremendous challenges, but we can also flourish and have a good life while doing so. It will take determination, creativity, and hard work. We will face adversaries who are either willfully blind or who are making such a big profit with the way things are now that they will do all that they can to stop change. We will face our own reluctance to change the way we do things. Still, I believe it can be done. It must be done.

As I see it, my part in “the Save the World Symphony” is to write honestly but optimistically about living an environmental life. The focus, naturally, will be on food, and I plan to profile people of all ages who are doing what they can to live sustainably. I’ll link to articles and other blogs that might be of interest. I’ll ask questions, and occasionally, offer suggestions. I might even set forth some challenges for myself, and I already have a “Let them Eat Bread” project, where I have vowed to give away at least one loaf of bread a week. (I’m off to a good start. Last night, after midnight, I gave Shannon a loaf of bread to take home.)

So welcome 2011 and to the challenges ahead! Today is a binary day—1/1/11—and as my friend Sybil wrote, “A very auspicious sign for a happy, happy, happy-happy year mayhap?”

Yes, indeed!

Addendum: 

Kate Johnson is apparently better at finding things on the Internet than I am. Here is the link she sent me for Standish’s oven beef stew: http://books.google.com/books?id=3OGR11aYBs8C&pg=PA28&lpg=PA28&dq=Marjorie+Standish‘s+oven+beef+stew&source

One more bit of advice: At the end, don’t add the flour/water mixture all at once unless you want a really, really, really thick stew. Add a little at a time until you get the consistency you like.

Finally, the recipe calls for browning the beef in margarine. I never use margarine. Never. For me, it’s always butter.

CHRISTMAS, THE STORM, AND THOUGHTS ABOUT TRADER JOE’S

The year is coming to an end, and for those of who live in the Northeast, last weekend’s blizzard was certainly a dramatic conclusion. For Mainers, the weather was not terribly extreme, and it slowed us down only for a day or so. For New York City, where my eldest daughter Dee lives, it was quite another matter. Twenty inches of snow in a city the size of New York is a real challenge. But New Yorkers, plucky souls that they are, seem to have dealt with it just fine.

The storm meant that Dee had to delay her travel plans back to New York City, and we were happy to have her for an extra day. She had come home a week before Christmas to help me get ready for the big event, and I’m not sure what I would have done without her help. (Unfortunately, my youngest daughter Shannon had the flu and spent the entire week on her couch.) I suppose I would have somehow slogged through if Dee hadn’t been here, but the radiation treatment has left me extremely tired, and even with Dee’s help, I was exhausted by the time Christmas was over.

Anyway, it was a great gift to have Dee help me make toffee and shortbread and ice cream pies and stuffed shells and cheddar cheese soup. None of these dishes are complicated, but they all take time. And energy.

On Tuesday, I brought Dee to Portland, to the bus station, so that she could head home to New York, and I decided to stop by Trader Joe’s, which opened a month or so ago. Because I went midafternoon, parking was no problem, the way it is at the end of the day.

There’s been a lot of fuss about Trader Joe’s, and since I had never been to one, I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be. As it turned out, I had mixed feelings about it. There is a lot of organic food—fresh fruit, vegetables, packaged food, meat. Readers of my blog know that I am keen about organic food and try to buy as much as I can, even though my husband and I live on a modest budget. As someone who has had breast cancer, I feel that organic food is good for the body as well as for the planet.

At Trader Joe’s, the prices for organic food can’t be beat, and for those on a very limited budget, it is the place to shop. I bought three pounds of grass-fed, hormone-free beef, three pounds of organic chicken, a pound of hormone-free ham, organic pasta and sauce, organic eggs, and some other items. The bill came to $59, which was so reasonable I could hardly believe it.

But, and this is a big “but,” as far as I could tell, there was no local food at all—no Kate’s Butter, no Oakhurst—and indeed most of the food seemed to be shipped from across the country, which gives the food a huge carbon footprint. (Readers, if you know otherwise, please let me know.) While I am concerned about my own personal health, I am also concerned about climate change, local food, and local economies.

So…here is what I would recommend for those with a comfortable budget: Shop for local food at other stores or markets and then fill in with nonlocal food at Trader Joe’s. For those on a tight budget, shop at Trader Joe’s and then buy as much local, organic food as you can afford.

There’s no way around it. Food has become a complicated issue. (The Far Right has started grumbling about healthy food and how it’s a socialist plot.) But it certainly gives me plenty to write about, which I will be doing in 2011.

Happy New Year to you all. May you have a year of good cooking, good food, good friends, and family.

BRINGING REFRESHMENTS FOR BOOK GROUP

Shane-Malcolm Billings

In late summer, Shane-Malcolm Billings, one of the librarians at the Charles M. Bailey Public Library in Winthrop, organized a book group, with September being the starting month. I like reading just as much as I like eating, and with a slight hesitation, I signed up to be part of the group. My hesitation stemmed from the fact that I was diagnosed with breast cancer in late summer, and I knew I’d have surgery in September. A busy time, to say the least, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel or look. But I decided to give it a try, figuring I could always drop out of the group if I didn’t feel up to it.

What a good decision to join this group. As it turned out, I didn’t have chemotherapy, and aside from being tired, I felt pretty well. In addition, book group gave me something positive to focus on—it sure beat thinking about cancer—as each month we read a challenging book and then had a discussion about it.

Aside from Shane, the group comprises about twelve women with varying opinions on the books we’ve read—Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen, The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall, and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Differing opinions, of course, make the group lively, and there was an especially lively discussion about Cutting for Stone, a book about doctors set in both Ethiopia and the United States. (At book group, a question has emerged over the past few months: Do readers need to like the characters in a novel in order to like the book?)

With all the women in the group, Shane might be outnumbered, but he never seems overwhelmed. His wit, his love of good literature, his good humor, and his outgoing personality help keep him from being overpowered by so many women with strong opinions.

Over the months, I have really come to look forward to book group, to hearing what Shane has to say about the books—sometimes I pop into the library to have a little pregroup chat with him—and what the others have thought. Therefore, for the December meeting, I volunteered to bring refreshments. I figured it was a way to give something to a group that has given me so much.

refreshmentsI made crackers using half unbleached flour and half whole-wheat flour from Aroostook County; a cream cheese spread with olives and rosemary; and toffee bars topped with semi-sweet chocolate and walnuts. For balance, I brought apple cider and clementine oranges. I was gratified to see everyone dig right in, that this book group has good eaters as well as good readers. There were few leftovers, and nothing can be more pleasing to a cook than empty plates.

So thank you, Shane, and thank you, book group. I look forward to 2011’s books and discussions. Speaking of which…our January book is Exley by Brock Clarke, who teaches at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He will be speaking at Bailey Library on January 11—a week before book group meets. It will a bonus to hear him speak about the book before we discuss it.

SOME BRIGHT NEWS FOR THE DARK DAYS OF DECEMBER

As we head toward the darkest day of the year, after a very challenging fall, here’s a bit of bright news for Mainers for the holidays. It’s from Health.com, which is featured on Yahoo!, and it’s a piece about “America’s 10 healthiest grocery stores.” For Mainers, the good tidings are that Hannaford, a New England chain, made number five on the list. For those who live in or around southern Maine, the news gets even better: Whole Foods (no surprise) and Trader Joe’s (ditto) also made the list at #1 and #4, respectively. 

The criteria for healthy included a large selection of organic as well as minimally processed foods without artificial ingredients. Clear labeling also garnered points, and so did locally grown food. 

Now, my favorite places to shop are either farmers’ markets or vegetable stands, but in Maine in December, these places are pretty hard to find. (However, some indoor markets are starting to sprout here and there.) This means that trips to the grocery store are a must.  

As a native Mainer who remembers the old days when supermarkets in Maine had nothing organic, I find it encouraging that they have come so far. I know there are many counterarguments, ranging from concerns about cost to questions about organic food becoming big business. The concerns are real but so is this fact: The more people eat organic food, the better it is for their bodies and the planet. My friend Sherry Hanson, who once lived in rural Illinois, has described the big machines spraying pesticides and herbicides over the fields. A rain of poison leaching into the dirt and water, and what is sprayed in Illinois does not stay in Illinois.  

So this holiday season, buy some organic food. Carrots, oatmeal, dried beans, even popcorn are all reasonably priced and are affordable for people who live on a modest budget.

When you buy organic, you’ll be giving a gift not only to yourself and your family but also to Earth. And that, dear readers, is certainly a cause for holiday cheer.

AN INCREDIBLE CELEBRATORY MEAL AT SHANNON AND MIKE’S

Cornish game hens, salid, and moreThis summer, three of our daughter’s Shannon’s friends came from Washington, D.C., to attend her wedding. Shannon lived in D.C. for six years and made many good friends while she was there. When my husband, Clif, and I visited her, we met and become fond of some of those friends, in particular Matt, Alvaro, and George, the ones who came to her wedding. Matt and Alvaro have even stayed with us in Maine while visiting Shannon.

While in D.C., Shannon earned a reputation of being, shall we say, an indifferent cook. Therefore, at the wedding, when I told Matt and Alvaro what a good cook Shannon had become, they were incredulous. Well, if only they could have had dinner at Shannon’s place on Saturday. It would have made true believers out of them.

fennel and green bean saladAny meal that family and friends cook for me is a good meal. I love to cook, but I also love it when people cook for me, and while I appreciate good food, the act of cooking, the loving-kindness behind it, is just as important to me as the quality of the food. So when Shannon invited Clif and me over for a meal to celebrate the end of my radiation treatment, I immediately said, “Yes, please!”

I have watched Shannon’s progress in the kitchen and have tasted the results, so I knew I was going to get good food. However, I was totally unprepared for the meal she (and Mike!) made for us: Cornish game hens, moist and delicately flavored with lemon and fresh thyme; roasted carrots and fingerling potatoes; a fennel and green bean salad with feta and olives; and, the grand finishing touch, a homemade chocolate cake (Shannon’s specialty).

celebration cakeThere couldn’t have been a better meal at any of Maine’s good restaurants, and we have quite a few of them, especially in Portland.

This fine meal also goes to show that where there is a will there is a way. Shannon and Mike live in a very small apartment with a tiny kitchen. They have an oven that cooks on screech—suitable for roasted dishes but not so much for a cake. Therefore, Shannon had to make the cake in two batches and cook the layers one at a time in her toaster oven. The results were everything you could hope for in a cake—light, fluffy, and, most important, not dry.

So when people whine that they can’t cook because their kitchens are too small or they don’t have the right equipment or something isn’t working quite right, I think of Shannon and one word comes to mind: balderdash!

Time and time again, Shannon has proved them wrong.

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