Thursday, March 29, 2012

Made From Scratch Diet

"If your subsequent encounters with either the process of baking or eating bread is somehow altered toward the good, the noble, and most importantly, the holy, then I will be able to rest more comfortably with the weight of my burden."

Erica has been out of the house and in her own place now for eight months now. She was pretty sure that once she moved she'd lose a little weight because she'd be more active, going up and down the stairs in her townhouse, vacuuming, dusting, doing laundry, grocery shopping—you know, all those things she hated doing here at home, but that would keep her dashing madly about once she moved. It didn't quite happen, though. Well, she does dash about, and the house is always clean, but she didn't lose weight. I did the same thing. When I moved in with Rick I gained twenty pounds that first year. I guess I cooked too much food. And I probably snacked way too much. (We were also living in Texas, really far away from home, and I was totally in love with chicken fried steak with white gravy.) Erica's a great cook, though, so at least she and Chris have been eating scrumptious food. I was just plain lucky I didn't kill Rick in those early years since I made some absolutely awful horrible barely digestible unidentifiable meals. Now I can laugh about backing the car up over "donuts" I attempted to make from poppin' fresh biscuits and not having them break. Seriously, not a dent. I consider my mom a darn good cook, and my mother-in-law is fantastic. I wanted to be like them—and like my grandmother, who was from Bari, Italy—and cook simple and seemingly effortless meals. So, I learned. And probably not a minute too soon for Rick's sake.

As the years passed, knowledge and influences and tastes changed. Rick and I moved back to New York from Texas. We became fascinated with Japanese cooking, became coffee snobs, wine snobs, and then vegetarians for seventeen years. We slowly incorporated meat back into our diet a little at a time and for various reasons. We've had bee hives and collected the honey, made our own beer, and had awesome vegetable gardens, canning and freezing the excess. Rick got his hunting license, but never caught anything although he got really good at tracking (he couldn't shoot the animals). Instead, he had customers at his photolab who gave him venison. We live right near the water, so went fishing often. We've always made our own yogurt and bread. We made fresh juice with a hand-cranked juicer. But there were times when we got lazy and bought processed foods (don't tell, but I've gotten the tiny bags of Fritos at the grocery check out and eaten them in the car ride home), but every so often we'd catch ourselves and purge the house. When we learned about BPA we tried not to buy anything in cans. It's not like we bought a lot, but we did buy tuna and anchovies and tomatoes and pineapple. Now what? Well, we started buying Pomi tomatoes and anchovies in a jar. We tossed all plastic containers out and bought glass. We quit buying plastic wrap and only use aluminum foil on very rare occasions. We also try to buy humanely raised beef and chicken. And organic vegetables. We try really hard to make everything from scratch, if possible. Recently, we began dehydrating vegetables, while they're in season, to last us until the next season. We're fermenting foods all over the kitchen. My Christmas present from Rick was a handcranked mayonnaise maker. (It's awesome!).

Which brings me to the whole foods diet. Erica and Chris are giving it a try (along with a stricter exercise program, which I'm sorta kinda doing, too, in an abbreviated version because I'm older). "Whole foods" refers to unprocessed products, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. It may include meats, poultry, and fish depending on what you read, and by who. On one hand it makes complete sense—eating healthy and whole foods should be everyone's goal—but on the other hand, some Web sites and books on the subject seem just a bit too rigid for me. Some processed foods just don't seem all bad. Life without ketchup? I've actually tried making my own, following recipes from Laurel's Kitchen and another from Nourishing Traditions. As much as I love both cookbooks, I still like store bought ketchup, sorry. I only buy organic, no additives, but to some it's still considered processed. I only cooked brown rice for awhile, and still do at times, but I happen to like white rice a whole lot better. And, if you read my blog with any regularity, you know I love bread, but white flour is a big no no to some whole foods advocates.

I would imagine Erica and Chris will be strict for a while and then settle into what works best for them. Rick and I went through similar decisions and discoveries concerning food. Heck, their enthusiasm might make me and Rick take notice of a few things we've overlooked (like the bottle of lemon juice, which I never thought to check, is loaded with crap). Rather than call our diet a whole foods diet, though, I call ours a made-from-scratch diet. Sometimes it's just plain inconvenient to be too damned fussy. Not to mention, we ain't got tons of money. If I only have $25 to spend on food for the week and I really really want to make sauce, well, then, I'll buy a can of crushed tomatoes for 88¢ instead of the Pomi tomatoes for $2.49 and hope the BPA won't kill me. If the butcher has chicken cutlet on sale for $1.99/lb., I'll pick some up and not ask how it was raised. I guess the thing is to compromise wisely. I carry my dirty dozen/clean 15 fruits and vegetable list with me, and I check the Better World Shopper site every so often, too, to kind of cross-reference what I buy. I do the best I can with the money and resources I have.

A very young me attempting to make gravy
for my first Thanksgiving dinner. I think
this was one meal that actually came out okay.
Rick apparently documented the occasion.
Odessa, Texas 1978.
Eating is about nourishing yourself; to foster and sustain good health and support life. There are times, though, when food needs to feed the soul as well as the body and nothing does that better for me than a loaf of fresh baked bread, white flour or no. Or maybe, like tonight, homemade pizza. I guess I'm addicted, as Brother Juniper so eloquently writes, to the religious and spiritual aspects of baking bread. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

We received a very thoughtful and much appreciated present of some King Arthur bread flour from Rick's sister, and Rick wanted to give it a try, substituting all bread flour for his usual combination of unbleached white and whole wheat flours. The bread was awesome (I love King Arthur's flour, but had never bought the bread flour), but while he was shaping the dough and heating up the clay pot, Rick began ruminating on the parallels between today's mass produced food—or in this case, bread—and music. Click on the caption under my favorite photo of Rick's delicious bread to go on over to the blog Rick writes so you can read his musings on the subject.
Nothing beats peanut butter and honey on warm homemade bread!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Comfort Food and Job Loss

I'm not really prone to depression. Sometimes that actually bothers me. I can cry over the most ridiculous things (the story of Nestor, the long-eared Christmas donkey, always has me reaching for a tissue), but a full blown funk is bit difficult. Yet there are times, like now, when I wish I could wallow in a little self pity and eat my way through a bag of Fritos, drink a bottle (or at least a glass) of wine, eat an entire pint of gooey ice cream and maybe some chocolates, and generally brood. Okay, my family will tell you I am quite capable of getting seriously cranky, but that's just not the same. 

For the past eighteen years I have worked for the same people doing desktop publishing/layout design. And now, after all that time, I had to go apply for my own job. Well, to be more precise, the editor's job and my job were combined. We were both "invited" to apply. Neither of us quit, neither of us got fired. An ad was simply placed for our jobs and we were told we had the same chance as anyone else who applied. Times is tough, they said. Budgets ain't what they used to be. This new combined position requires a physical presence in the New York City office, which only happens to be a 3 hour commute each way. I gave it a try. I went for the interview. I was one of four people applying. Annalee bought me a new outfit to wear. A 40-minute drive to the train station, a drive around the parking lot looking for that rare open spot, a panicky dash to the ticket booth, a 90-minute train ride, and then a 30-minute dash (while eating a hot dog bought from a street vendor!) across the City because I had no clue how to ride New York's subway system, had me arriving at the office with 5 minutes to spare—and completely sweaty. I barely slept that night, scared to make the decision to take my name of the list of candidates yet knowing a 6-hour-a-day commute was just too much. I was exhausted after one day. But I had to wonder at the total lack of concern or compassion from people for whom I had worked for so long. I wanted to look everyone on that interview committee in the face and tell them what I really thought, with their questions all lined up, smug in their position of power and the knowledge that they can make someone do both jobs for less pay, less time. Two days later I sent that e-mail.

The rolls made the kitchen smell heavenly.
With a need to do something I woke up early this morning and cleaned the house, did two loads of wash, made a batch of rolls, put some country ribs out in the solar cooker for a pulled pork dinner, made homemade mayonnaise, and shredded cabbage for coleslaw. It wasn't the best of days for solar cooking; in fact, it was pretty darn cloudy. But, damn, I was set on using the solar oven. Today. Luckily, despite the clouds, the solar oven hovered between 200º and 250º for several hours before it dropped down to 175º. I finally took the meal inside at 4:00 pm, by which time it had been cooking outside for six hours. When I baked the rolls, I heated the pulled pork back up in the oven. I have to say, the meal made me feel a whole lot better about things, at least for the moment. Homemade rolls, solar cooked pulled pork, homemade coleslaw made with homemade mayonnaise, and some of Rick's refreshing kombucha. Comfort food. When we're stressed food is a gift we can give ourselves. Or in this case, what I can still give my family.

Still, if I had any Fritos or gooey ice cream . . . 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Leftover Chicken Dilemma

Frugality without creativity is deprivation. –Amy Dacyczyn

A typical question as you clean up after a roast chicken dinner, is what in the world to do with the carcass: throw it away (wasteful) or make soup (typical). Making use of the carcass, though, is a must when cooking on a budget. And there are so many creative ways to use that leftover chicken. A favorite of ours is gumbo. Many years ago we befriended another old timey fiddle player, whom we met at a festival, and who made us his version of chicken and sausage gumbo in exchange for coming over and jamming with him. Personally, I think we got the better end of the deal, but I know he sure appreciated the chance to create a little music with newfound friends. I have to admit, it was hard to concentrate on the music with the delicious smell permeating the air. Anyway, he sent me the recipe via mail (the old days!), neatly typed on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, which I carefully folded and placed in my recipe box. After so many years the creases are close to tearing and the paper is splotched with oil, attesting to the many times we have made this recipe since we first met James. He's since moved off Long Island and out of our lives, but whenever we make this meal we remember fun times as we sat around making music, only stopping to eat some warm and delicious homemade gumbo.
In our younger days!

A salad and some cornbread make this a super filling and absolutely delicious meal. 

1 large onion
1 large green pepper
2 celery stalks
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup flour
1 can whole peeled tomatoes
2 – 8 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 kielbasa
leftover chicken (or you can buy and cook some chicken just for this, if you want)
chicken broth (either from simmering the leftover chicken or chicken bouillon cubes)
1 bay leaf
chopped fresh parsley
dash of cayenne (anywhere from 1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. depending on taste)

1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon garlic powder


1. Put leftover chicken carcass in a large stockpot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat and simmer for 4 hours. Strain the broth into a bowl and save. Remove the chicken meat off the bones and set aside. 

2. Before you make the roux, chop the onion, green pepper, and celery. Set aside.

3. Slice and cook the kielbasa in a frying pan (I slice the kielbasa on the thinner side). Set cooked kielbasa aside. 

4. Time to make the roux. Roux is made from equal parts fat and flour. In a large pot heat 1/2 cup oil on medium heat. Stir in the flour. Keep stirring. Do not leave the pot alone. You want the roux to turn a reddish brown and be smooth. As soon as it's a good color, turn off the heat. Roux is said to be the soul of the gumbo, so treat this step with care. In his instructions, James said to stir the roux, without stopping, for the time it takes to drink two cans of beer. Well, I never did drink beer to test that out, but I'm guessing I would have to stir for two days since I drink beer pretty darn slow. If you want to drink beer, let me know the results time-wise!

5. As soon as you turn off the flame, put all the vegetables into the pot. Stir them around until the roux stops sizzling.

6. Add the can of tomatoes, squeezing and crushing the tomatoes with your hands as you add them in. (Be careful not to squirt the juice all over the place like I usually do, creating a Jackson Pollack tomato painting on my walls.) Add some salt, pepper, the bay leaf, the chopped garlic, and the individual teaspoons of herbs listed above. Add the chicken broth—either what you simmered the leftover chicken in or use water and chicken bouillon. I never measure the liquid amounts, so use your own judgment. 

7. Bring to a boil, then lower and simmer until the vegetables soften. (I never remember to actually time this step.)

8. While that's simmering, get some rice cooking. And mix up some cornbread and pop that in the oven, too.

9. Back to the gumbo! After the veggies have softened, add the kielbasa and chicken. 

10. At this point you can add more chicken broth if you need it. Check your seasoning (oh, go ahead and taste it). Adjust the amount of seasonings and broth and tomatoes until it suits you. Keep simmering to blend flavors. 

11. When everything is done, put some rice into a bowl and ladle the gumbo over it. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Blogging from the Dentist's Office

Wow, two blogs so close together! I haven't done that in a while. Okay, so Annalee had an impacted wisdom tooth that had a pretty bad infection and the dentist wanted it out fast—like within 24 hours fast—before the infection hit her bloodstream. It was scheduled for 2:00 p.m., but the oral surgeon called at 9:00 a.m. asking how fast we could get there since they had a cancellation. Annalee and I had just finished breakfast, but we were still in our jammies. She jumped into the shower, and I ran around gathering things to do while sitting in the lobby waiting. I took crocheting, a book, my laptop, a magazine, a sudoku, and some income tax stuff to sort through. I was set. It was a 45-minute drive in the rain, which made it seem longer, but we made it there by 10:15. I spent the first ten or fifteen minutes looking through the gossip magazines, but decided to finally finish reading Chasing Chiles, Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail instead. Once I finished, I went on to the next thing on my list: calling my mom and Rick's mom to see how they were. I thought this was a good opportunity. I managed to talk with my mom for about 5 minutes, but she was on her way to church for a meeting. Next, I called Rick to let him know what was up, but he was riding the exercycle, so the call was short. I did confirm that we had pastina and farina for Annalee to eat, though. Then I called Rick's mom. No sooner had she answered when the receptionist yelled, "no cell phones allowed in here, can't you read?" Oops. I missed the tiny sign by the window, and since I am new to cell phones, I didn't realize it was an issue. After profuse apologizing, I opened my laptop. With no internet reception, I stared at it for a bit and then saw an e-mail, already opened so no internet connection was needed, from Rick about the printing of his banjo book and a reference to a cookbook. Well, okay, then—I'll write a blog!

In preparation for the banjo workshop he will be leading at the end of the month, Rick began compiling information to make a small handout for the workshop attendees. Since I'm so nice (ha, I had no clue what I was in for!), I volunteered to help design and lay the pamphlet out. Only problem is, it turned into a 40-page book, and more work than either of us anticipated. I think the final product is pretty awesome, though. Okay, I'm prejudiced because most of the time I think Rick is pretty darn awesome. Of course, now that it's done, Rick has thought of a zillion more things he could add. Hmmm, maybe some day he'll write a much longer, more in-depth, book on the banjo. Although I teasingly tell folks that I ought to teach him how to use InDesign first, it was actually kind of fun to work with him, and I think we managed to do a good job together. Check it out: Ragged but Right: the Ungentle Art of Clawhammer Banjo.

With the arrival of his proof, though, Rick mentioned that I should post something more on the cookbook I designed for the Quaker meeting, Conscience Bay Monthly Meeting, that we attend. Conscience Bay had its fiftieth anniversary last May, and held a celebration open to the wider community, with music (us—the Homegrown String Band), craft booths, food, labyrinth walks, and talks on Quakerism. And, of course, the cookbook, Recipes from the Quaker Garden. Included is a no-knead spicy bread recipe by Rick, a red bean and rice recipe by Annalee, a few recipes by me, and pumpkin soup by Erica, not to mention many other recipes from Friends (Quakers). At the Christmas potluck at the meetinghouse, the pumpkin soup was a huge hit. Luckily, Erica brought a huge crockpot of it, because people were going back for seconds and thirds. The spicy bread recipe and the pumpkin soup make a great cold weather dinner. (Annalee's red beans and rice is pretty darn tasty, too!) And I just happened to have all the info on my laptop as I sat and sat and sat and waited.

See those hot pepper flakes? Spicy!
Rick's Spicy Sandwich Bread
For more complete directions on how to make this no-knead bread, please visit my June 25, 2011 post. Rick made slight variations in the ingredient amounts, and added the red and black peppers, but the rest of the process is the same. Remember, you need to start this the night before you intend to eat it!

3¼ cups unbleached white flour
¼ cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons sea salt
¼ teaspoon instant yeast
1½ cups filtered (unchlorinated) water
(chlorine will inhibit fermentation)

Hard to photograph, but yummy!
Erica's Pumpkin Soup
30 oz. pumpkin puree
1 cup light cream
1 onion, minced
2 celery stalks, minced
½ carrot, minced
28 oz. chicken broth
1 tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon curry powder
¼ teaspoon cumin powder
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
½ lb. prosciutto, cut to ¼" dice
2 tablespoons butter
• Sauté onion, celery, carrot, and prosciutto in butter until soft.
• Add cumin, curry, and coriander. Stir for a minute a two, so vegetables absorb the flavor.
• Add pumpkin, chicken broth, and brown sugar. Bring to a boil, then lower & simmer for 15 minutes.
• Add cream. Simmer until warmed through.
Serves 4 

I hope you enjoy the bread and the pumpkin soup! As for Annalee . . . well, she came through the oral surgery like a trooper. She iced on and off every twenty minutes all day, took some Advil, and surprised everyone including herself. She was all set to be in pain and whimpering in bed, ringing a bell to summon us, and ready to write requests out. Instead, she's starving and bored and managing to chatter (or maybe mumble) up a storm.