Friday, July 22, 2011

Hungry, Hot, and Humid

Just as air-conditioning has allowed affluent societies to expand into thermally hostile environments, it is now being looked to as a means of extending our current way of life into a thermally hostile future. 
– Stan Cox, Losing Our Cool 

A heat advisory was initially issued over 10 days ago now for Long Island and other areas of the northeast. Cooling centers were opened in several communities due to the high temperatures. What has made the heat worse is the infamous Long Island humidity, not to mention how long the heat and humidity have stayed around. People are retreating indoors. Interestingly, though, no one seems to realize that air conditioning isn't exactly good for you and is pretty bad for the environment, too. Numerous studies have been done, most of which are ignored because, hey, who doesn't want some relief from the heat? I remember years ago reading that, because of heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, people's bodies have lost the ability to adjust to temperature changes making heart attacks more likely. I tried looking that up again and also found that, due to the same combination of heating in the winter and AC in the summer, your body doesn't need to expend any energy in order to heat or cool itself so you end up with increased fat stores, which means, folks, weight gain. Yet another health related study states people are getting sick from the "unnatural coldness," and apparently air conditioners also create mold, which, once established, is hard to get rid of.

In 2008, Joe Klein wrote an interesting article entitled "Kill Your Air Conditioner" in which he laments "the unnecessary refrigeration of America has become a chronic disease." In a more scientific study, Stan Cox, a senior scientist at a nonprofit agricultural research institute, "documents how greenhouse emissions increased and ozone depletion skyrocketed once air conditioners became prevalent, and presents staggering statistics ... and some surprising information as he explores air conditioning as a potential spreader of contagions." More can be found on his Losing Our Cool Web site and blog. Or order his book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths about Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get through the Summer)(I actually interlibrary loaned it—I love the library!)

And yes, we are air conditioner-less. I'm not sure how that explains my extra fat stores, but hopefully I'll have less summer colds and lessen my chances for a heart attack. And hopefully I'm doing my little bit for the planet also. And honestly, I'd rather be dripping sweat and feel connected to nature, be able to hear the birds and the sounds of other people, than be inside a closed up house.

On the bright side (pun intended) it was—and continues to be—hot and sunny. And sunny means solar cooking. If we didn't have the Sun Oven I think I would have skipped cooking all together this past week because the idea of turning the oven on in the house would be a form of insanity. Of course, just because it's been gorgeous solar cooking weather doesn't mean I'm always prepared. Rick tells me there's a certain sense of adventure in cooking whatever you can find in the fridge. It's the modern day form of foraging, I suppose. In a world where food prices are escalating and our income is plummeting I often stand in the kitchen at a loss, though, because I can't possibly stock half of what I would like to. No matter what I say about improvising, there are days—like these—when I'm hot and tired, can't think, don't want to think, and would love to open the freezer or cabinets and have on hand any ingredient imaginable.

So, yeah, it's hot, it's humid, and everyone is a tad bit grumpy. Rick snapped at me and when I asked why he said he didn't know. Erica has been knitting a sweater for a magazine submission and the yarn sitting on her lap makes hot days even hotter. Annalee is being totally hormonal and making no sense, although I don't think that's totally weather related. And I would love to crash someone's pool. But, like I said, we're still hungry.

For this particular dinner I had 3/4 lb. of beef top round cut thin for making braciole. With all four of us home for dinner I couldn't make braciole the usual way because there was only enough meat for two, so I cut those two pieces into eight smaller pieces and made it to go on top of pasta. The Italian name for the dish is Braciole alla Pizzaiola, which means pizza style. This was the version I came up with.

Braciole alla Pizzaiola
• Heat some olive oil in pot.
• Brown the braciole (thin cut, or pound thin) meat for a minute or two on each side
• Add 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, minced
• Add 1/2 medium onion, sliced super thin
• Add 1 28-ounce can, or 1 lb. fresh, coarsely chopped tomatoes
• Salt & pepper to taste.
• Sprinkle 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano (or 2 teaspoons dried) on top
• Cover and place in solar oven.

Braciole alla Pizzaiola on top of pasta
If you're making this inside on the stovetop, bring to a boil then simmer on low for 20 or 30 minutes. But I left this in the solar oven until dinnertime, which I had positioned outside to stay at around 250º for about 4 hours. I served the meat on top of curly pasta, toasted some pita bread that I had seasoned with olive oil and garlic salt, and served with a salad on the side. A perfect, and simple dinner, for a hot summer evening.

Off to figure something out for tonight. Probably chicken, although I'm kind of liking the idea of just ice cream at this point.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sweet Potatoes, Apples, and Simplicity

We often get an idea of what simplicity should look like and then we proceed to push and shove until, bruised and battered, we "fit." But that is not the way simplicity comes. It slips in unawares. A new sense of wonder, concentration, even profundity steels into our personality. We change our lifestyle, even taking up the ministry of poverty when it is clearly right and good, out of inner promptings, knowing that when the call is made the power is given. The tailor-made fit is perfect. Simplicity is grace.
–excerpted from Freedom of Simplicity by Richard J. Foster

I suppose we've always identified most with the testimony of simplicity. For us, it also meant no tv (still don't have one), and no dishwasher, air conditioner, mixer, clothes dryer, microwave, etc. We did most everything by hand. Playing music, books, food, homeschooling, gardening, running, dance, arts & crafts . . . these identified who we were, not fancy houses or expensive cars. And we did things together, as a family.

Rick worked as a fine arts photographer when we first got married, then opened a photolab. After 21 years, he closed the store in January 2008, death by digital photography. We were/are also performing as a family band, The Homegrown String Band. We've been playing together as a family since 1997 (the girls grew up in front of an audience), and have played some pretty cool venues, like the Appalachian Fiddle & Bluegrass Association's bluegrass festival in Wind Gap PA, the National Theatre in Washington DC, and the Festival of American Music in Branson MO, to name only a few. Like everything else, though, the arts were hit hard these last few years, gas prices have made traveling difficult, and so this year we seem to be surviving on a limited amount of library shows. Which is okay because library audiences are fantastic—they come to listen and to learn, and really appreciate our music.

Deciding to close the photolab was a hard decision—to go from a set weekly income to being dependent on an iffy amount of shows for an even iffier amount of pay was incredibly scary. But also kind of liberating. When your income level meets poverty guidelines, though, it's tough to stand up and say, yup, this is where I want to be right now. Family and friends tend to look at you in pity, like you're crazy. Did we really want to get this simple, does it hold meaning for us, and is simplicity really grace? 

I read tons of books (well, it seemed like it) these past few years, trying to find . . . hmm, others to identify with, I guess. Books I really enjoyed, and read several times over, were Radical Homemaking, Deep Economy, Un-jobbing, Simplicity: the Art of Living, and Not Buying ItWe've also all learned new skills or expanded on others: Erica has become a published knitwear designer; Rick has learned to do kumihimo braiding, cast pewter buttons, make Navajo spindles, and is right now learning to weave on an inkle loom (along with much muttering); Annalee makes soap, has taken numerous herbal and wise woman courses, and started a blog; and I'm trying to learn to sew, I designed a cookbook for our Quaker meeting's 50th anniversary, and did go almost an entire year without buying anything except groceries (I gave in at Christmas and bought presents). Oh, I learned to woodburn, too, and decorate Rick's spindles. Erica, Annalee, and I were certified in Reiki level I. 

Each day is a wonderful blessing. Sure, the girls fight and argue and complain and whine, I get hot flashes and grouchy, and Rick gets moody at times. But it's all good. It was a gorgeous day, the sun was shining, and the solar oven was loaded with sweet potatoes & apples sprinkled with brown sugar. And, hey, we also got a practice session in.

Sweet Potatoes with Apples
(Sorry, I forgot to take photos)

• Peel two medium sized sweet potatoes and cut into rounds, about 1/4" thick
• Peel, core, and cut an apple (or two depending on size) into similar size slices as the sweet potato
• Toss with a few dabs of butter (about 2 tbl.) and brown sugar (about 1/4 cup)
Optional: Add a tablespoon or two (or three) of boiling water
when making in a solar oven, stir to mix, then continue on to next step.
(I've made this recipe without any liquid and wasn't as happy with the results,
so now I add a splash of water.)
• Drizzle the top with some maple syrup, and a dusting of cinnamon and another pinch of brown sugar
• Cover and put in the solar oven until the sweet potatoes and apples are soft
This should take 50–60 minutes at 350º in a regular oven, so adjust time accordingly.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Plantain Pot Pie

Not all food needs to look good in order to taste good, does it? That's what I told myself when I saw the cooked pot pie. I consider myself a pretty darn good cook—Erica even once did a photo essay for a college paper on just my hands making homemade pasta—but I guess I tried to cut some corners here. So, although this dish was delicious, it wouldn't exactly pass a magazine photo shoot. Well, unless the photographer is your husband or the subject was how not to make pie crust.

Although Elinor Klivans might have a hard time recognizing this, it's a solar cooked version of her Costa Rican Spicy Picadillo & Plantain Pot Pie. You can find the recipe in her book Pot Pies: Yumminess in a Dish. I found the book several years ago while browsing through Borders Books. Actually Erica saw it first and brought it to my attention. I kept looking at it and putting it down only to pick it back up. I had never made a pot pie before, they didn't exactly interest me, but something about the book kept saying "buy me," so I did. I'm not sure I'd classify all the recipes as pot pies per se—or not what I always thought of as a pot pie—but so far every recipe I've tried has been delicious no matter how you classify them.

Rick and I were eating alone last evening and I wanted something a bit different. I opened the freezer and we had one pound of ground turkey (managers special, no less), several packages of various types of sausages, loads of frozen vegetables, two homemade hot dog rolls, some homemade frozen stuffed shells, and two half filled ice cube trays. I was kind of tired of sausage, so the ground turkey it was. Next, I opened the Pot Pie cookbook. I flipped through the book several times and each time passed this recipe by, thinking ick, plantains in a pot pie, sounds gross. Now, don't get me wrong. I love plantains. I usually diagonally slice them in rounds and sauté them in butter until they're golden brown, then sprinkle lightly with salt and serve on the side. But this recipe calls for chopped onion, chopped green pepper, garlic, ground beef, crushed tomatoes, raisins, green olives, parsley, wine, crushed red pepper, and plantains. Seemed kind of an odd combo, but I kept staring at the delicious looking photo and thinking, well, maybe it's not that weird. And I just happened to have two plantains on hand.

Interesting pie crust, but delicious nonetheless. photo by Rick
To change a dish like this to be cooked in a solar oven I often start it inside on the kitchen stove. (i.e. by browning the beef, adding the vegetables and sautéing 'til soft, then adding all the rest of the ingredients before covering it with the pie crust and placing it in the solar oven to finish cooking.) But, it was supposed to be gorgeously sunny all day and we're in prime solar cooking days here on Long Island, so I chose to do it all outside. I broke up the ground turkey (no ground beef in my impoverished freezer) and added the chopped onion and green pepper, stirred to mix, then placed the covered pot outside until the ground turkey looked cooked through (close to an hour today, and you know I went running during that time). Next I added the crushed tomatoes, raisins, olives, plantain, crushed red pepper, parsley, and wine and placed back outside to meld the flavors while I showered and then made the pie crust. This is where I fouled up. I have to admit to being in a rush and not handling the crust with care. I didn't let it chill at all, and pie crust really does need to chill so you can roll it out, so it broke as I tried to get it off the counter. I scraped it up, sort of patchworked it on top as best I could, and set the whole thing back outside for the third and last time. Between the initial patchworking of the crust and the juggling from the constant repositioning of the solar oven around the yard, the crust took on a life of its own as the juices bubbled up from underneath. But, hey, it still tasted great. I left the pot pie in the solar oven until dinner time, around 6:30 p.m. The pie was still all hot and steamy and smelled delicious. I nervously scooped some up, scared to taste olives, tomatoes, raisins, and bananas (plantain) in the same bite. Amazingly, it tasted as wonderful as it smelled and I had second helpings, as did Rick. I wanted to go back for thirds, but I restrained myself and left it for, well, leftovers for lunch today.

Not only is this dish yummy, as the cookbook claims, but it's also very economical, especially when you factor in the manager's special $1.99/lb. ground turkey replacement for the more expensive ground beef the recipe calls for. The two plantains cost $1 (and can often be found for less). The rest of the ingredients I always have on hand, making the true cost hard to figure. 

So, although Klivans takes liberty with her definition of a pot pie, she made me a pot pie convert. They're quick and easy and taste delicious, and work wonderfully in the kitchen oven and the solar oven alike. Pick up a copy of Pot Pies: Yumminess in a Dish for loads of great ideas. (But please, chill the pie crust before rolling!!!!)