Thursday, March 2, 2017

Six Weeks of Self Discipline

Lent officially began yesterday. It's a season of fasting and moderation. The length of this Lenten fast was established in the 4th century as 46 days (40 days, plus 6 Sundays). Forty having other historical and religious significance, with Lent probably having roots in pagan ritual. The season of Lent I grew up with meant you were to eat sparingly or perhaps give up a particular food or habit, maybe give up smoking or quit watching television or eating candy or telling lies. You can search the history of Lent and come up with numerous definitions and meanings, understood differently in different geographic areas and different time periods. Basically, though, it's six weeks of self-discipline and self-control, a time of prayer, a time to start again, a time to become closer to God or the Divine. When I was a kid, though, the idea of giving something up during Lent was temporary and once Easter came it was back to usual. Give up candy? Well, on Easter you got a huge basket including the biggest chocolate bunny my parents could find. Hopefully solid, too, not one of those cheap hollow chocolate bunnies. That huge basket of candy only proved that giving up candy for a short while was rewarded big time later on. Abstaining from meat traditionally also linked us to the poor, who could rarely afford it. So, the purpose of abstaining from certain foods, especially meat, was seen as a spiritual link to those whose diets were sparse and simple. 

But giving something up without changing behavior means you haven't really learned anything at all.
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Isaiah 58:6-7
I'm not overly religious or biblically-based, but, as I've mentioned in a previous post, I do feel drawn to observing in my own way certain traditions I was brought up in (no matter where the true roots lie). So here I was, once again, wondering how to observe Lent. I was leaning more toward the idea of spiritual renewal rather than giving up any particular food. Although fasting could also mean fasting from a behavior and not necessarily a food.

Should I blog about it?? Should I give up a particular food anyway?? Then I realized that I've really neglected this blog and a lot has passed since I last posted anything. I type slowly, reflecting on each word, each sentence: is what I’m writing of any interest; is it informative and/or witty, or just another rant; do I need a photo; does the recipe work and is it easy to understand. At the rate I go, a blog post can take me hours, sometimes even a few days. Or, like it did this time, years. Life has a way of getting hectic, but I was taking notes and photos and jotting down ideas. Then we shifted food gears and everything I was working on became moot. So what food I give up for Lent might not make any sense, because, hey, we already gave up meat, fish, eggs, dairy. 

Shortly after the post about the Wonderbag, in January 2015, we decided to quit eating meat. Again. Rick and I have been vegetarians on and off since our high school years. I especially remember the stuffed eggplant we made back then; I can’t remember how long we kept it up, though. I do know that going to college ended it for a time. Living in Texas for a bit after college was also a pretty big meat eating era. I gained 20 lbs. from eating “chicken fried” steak constantly. It took me years, and running up to 40 miles a week, to work that weight off. Anyway, our decision to go vegetarian again was sometime after we got married in June 1979. Rick and I were still living in our first apartment here in New York and we were grocery shopping. I can’t remember specifically what meats were in our cart, except a half pound of salami since it’s my all time favorite. While on the check-out line, Rick picked up a magazine and was reading about CAFO farms and the brutal treatment of the animals. By the time we got back to our apartment, we had decided to ditch the meat. I gathered up all we had, including that salami, drove to my parent’s house, and handed it all over to my mom.

I’m not sure how long we stayed on a vegetarian diet or when we started to “slip up” that time, but it was somewhere around 17 years. Who takes note of things like that really? Life happens. That number sticks in my head because I recall someone asking me “but don’t you miss steak?” and I have this vague memory of responding that I hadn’t eaten a steak in 17 years and, no, I didn’t miss it. Our daughters, even with their younger brains and better memories, can’t remember when meat started sneaking back into our diet. It was a lot of little things. Traveling to perform with our family band and having to eat while “on the road” often meant McDonald’s. As much as we otherwise avoid McDonald’s and condemn it, when you have a car full of equipment and instruments, it’s a quick easy place to stop for cheap fast food while being able to keep an eye on the car. Sometimes we were hosted by a family when we traveled, so we ate whatever they cooked for us. I also remember family gatherings where the assortment of food was an enticement, and distinctly remember the first hamburger I ate again at my brother’s backyard barbecue. Or my mom sneaking me a piece of lamb at my aunt & uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary, so proud of herself because she remembered how I loved it as a kid. We had this dual identity going for a while: no meat at home, but we often had some when not at home, until gradually we started adding it more and more into our daily diet.

Whenever I start to think about food on a more esoteric level I tend to do research on my southern Italian roots. My mom’s family is from a small town outside Bari, Italy. When meat started sneaking back into our diet I looked into the food culture of Puglia, the region that includes Bari. Bari lies on the Adriatic coast, and is an important fishing area, so the diet offers a wide range of fresh fish. Here on Long Island, fishing also has a long history. My mom recalls eating mostly vegetables, grains, beans, fish, and only occasionally meat. Meat being something saved for a holiday or when guests came over. So, okay, I decided we’d eat like my Italian ancestors, including meat only once in the while, fish more often. The first time I bought chicken cutlet I wore those clear surgical gloves while cutting it up because I was so grossed out by the feel of raw chicken. Why that didn’t stop me from keeping meat in the diet, I don’t know. But, again, as life would have it, once the decision was made to include certain foods, and because life was always chaotic with homeschooling, performing, and driving children around to a zillion activities — basketball, soccer, dance class, gymnastics, music lessons, etc. — dinner became whatever I could manage on any given night. The slide went further and the next thing you know, chicken was part of three or four meals a week, beef one or two, fish maybe only once. And it was easy to quit thinking of it as having been a live animal and instead just a hunk of something you buy all nicely packaged at the store, just another ingredient in the meal. Dissociation. 

Flash forward to January 2015. Rick and I had been reading on the issue of food again for a few years, but focusing this time on topics such as eating local vs. eating organic, eating “humanely raised” meat, buying eggs from supposedly cage-free chickens, fermenting foods, making our own cheese, creating healthy soil in the garden, using solar to cook (Sun Oven) or the Wonderbag to save electricity, etc. I had been also researching the idea of la cucina povera — the poor kitchen, or how to eat well, but cheaply — ever since Rick closed his photolab. It made eating based on barely any income sound romantic rather than based in poverty. It was inevitable, though, that we’d work our way back to vegetarianism eventually. One bit of information leads to another and another …

Rick watched as many documentaries as he could find on the treatment of animals raised for food. I watched along. He was also having an ongoing discussion with an old friend who was vegan. Out went meat, but we left in fish as we had done in the past. Dairy and eggs were also still a part of the diet. Rick was never a fan of milk, although he did love cheese. Dairy always bothered his stomach and eating pizza often left him with a night of agony. Many of the documentaries we were watching weren’t just about the big CAFO farms and the inhumane treatment of animals headed for the meat you put on the table, but about the problems with the treatment of dairy cows and the chickens raised for egg production. Rick felt vindicated for always having insisted that dairy was for you, not just from a health standpoint, but because of the treatment of the animals. Eight months later, in August 2015, Rick eliminated dairy from his diet. At the time of his decision, I had just made a half gallon milk’s worth of fresh homemade yogurt, we had an unopened gallon of milk, and some freshly made feta cheese. Rather than waste it, Annalee and I continued eating the yogurt. I used the milk to keep up our kefir, and she and I ate the feta in salads. Once the milk was gone, the yogurt was gone, and the feta was gone, I sadly quit feeding the kefir and joined Rick in the no-dairy decision. Annalee took a bit longer, but eventually decided to also stop having been convinced no dairy might alleviate some of her menstrual problems and allergies. Armed with the knowledge of what was being done to the animals, we couldn’t justify the continued consumption of dairy or eggs any more than we could condone eating meat.

On September 6, 2015, we had a gig at the Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center. It was a long and early drive up, and a long drive home. We got Erica back to her apartment around 7:00 p.m. and decided we were pretty hungry. We picked up her boyfriend and went out for sushi rather than continue on home. During the meal, Rick began telling them about his reasons for cutting meat and dairy out of his diet. Erica has always been a softie when it comes to animal welfare; we often attended the Clearwater Music Festival when the girls were young and she used to drag us around to all the booths so she could sign petitions to end animal cruelty. Watch a sad movie or read a sad story involving humans and she didn’t have much reaction, but if it involved animals she would be sobbing hysterically. It didn’t take much to convince her to quit eating meat and dairy. But, hey, we’d just had sushi!

Once again, I went back to reading up on food from Puglia. Besides all the fresh vegetables, pasta, and beans they eat, this time I thought, hmmm, maybe we’ll keep in some of the fish they seem to eat a lot of, which includes clams, oysters, mussels, and anchovies. Clams, oysters, and mussels have historical significance on Long Island also. Anchovy consumption was recently found to be a factor in longevity. And there's the vitamin B12 problem. Humans need vitamin B12, which we can get that by eating shellfish. There are non-dairy milks and cereals fortified with B12, nutritional yeast with B12, but if you’re not into taking supplements then clams and oysters seemed like they ought to be left in a healthy diet. And anchovies will lead me to long life. Right?

But … there’s always a but … in April 2016 we watched yet another documentary — a TED talk by oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle — on the oceans and the depletion of the world’s fish, so out went fish, too. I think, ethically, once you know all the facts about animal cruelty in the food industry, and depletion of the oceans, a vegan diet becomes a no-brainer. Whether humans were meant to be vegan or not isn’t really relevant in the argument. What is relevant is that it’s about compassion and ethics and the environment. We’re not primitive people living in caves and hunting mastodons to survive; we get in our cars and drive to the grocery store. We don’t need to raise animals solely for food causing lives of horrific suffering. I don’t think a vegan diet can apply to all areas of the world, but in this country it should.

This site has a list of what they consider the top ten vegan documentary films that will inspire you to quit eating meat (including the two mentioned above). Rather than list them all, head over here and follow the links for those ten films. Rick’s favorite of the documentaries was Forks Over Knives. Maybe give it a try during this season of Lent.

Reflecting on the quote from Isaiah I think there exists a strong biblical message for the freeing of those who are oppressed and that includes animals. This is a link to a well-written article on the Christian basis for veganism.

Life is a journey and this is where we've been led over the past two years. As for Lent, well, instead of giving up a particular food I think I'll keep a journal on gratitude.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Cooking in a Wonderbag

The Christmas season was really nice this year, fairly peaceful and relaxing with quite a number of family get-togethers, some great food, and interesting (and thoughtful!) presents. Our last holiday celebration came on January 6th — Little Christmas, the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, whichever name you choose for the day — and, as always, I took the decorations down the next day. I was sad to see it all get packed away, but my waistline was probably pretty happy. With the super rich and fattening over-abundance of foods behind me, I turned my attention to one of the presents hubby Rick gave me: the WonderbagTheir Web site claims the “Wonderbag is a simple but revolutionary, non-electric portable slow cooker. It continues to cook food which has been brought to the boil by conventional methods for up to 8 hours without the use of additional electricity or fuel.” I was pretty skeptical about that claim and I think I let my lukewarm response to my present show because Rick kept saying we could re-gift it to someone. I’m a sucker for keeping things no matter what and trying to make them work, though. Think pink fuzzy sweater I received from my grandmother when I was in high school and into wearing tight ratty jeans that I had to lie on my bed to get on while sucking my stomach in until I thought I would faint, then pull the zipper up with all my might, along with t-shirts and beat up Keds sneakers. Not to mention how could you possibly wear a pink fuzzy sweater when heading off to Grateful Dead or Hot Tuna concerts. I wore that sweater, though, whenever she visited just to see her happy.

Anyway, my first attempt using the Wonderbag was making tomato sauce. Instructions for cooking in the Wonderbag are pretty simple. Bring the food to a boil, keep it boiling for 15 to 20 minutes, then put it in the Wonderbag for hours to presumably finish cooking. There’s a lot of flaws there in my mind. First off, I don’t cook a lot of meals with enough liquid in them to boil them on the stove for that long. Seems like you could boil all the liquid away and burn the bottom of the pot pretty easily, and what does that do to the consistency of the food? Second, if I was, say, making soup with carrots and potatoes in it, the soup would be pretty much done after a 15 to 20 minute hard boil without much need to sit in the Wonderbag for any length of time. And third, there’s no heat source except for whatever heat has been trapped in the pot due to the bubbling liquid, which starts to cool down as time goes by. How could it possibly retain heat long enough to actually cook anything? But I had to try despite my misgivings since it was my husband’s main present to me, so I put all the ingredients for a sauce together with some extra wine, brought it to a boil, let it bubble away on the stove for 15 minutes, put the pot in the Wonderbag and left it there for 4 hours. When I took the sauce out it was barely lukewarm. It tasted fine — pretty good, in fact — but I think it would have tasted fine if I’d simply left the pan sitting on the stove covered after that 15 minute boil for the same 4 hours. Rick was pretty disappointed and I felt bad that I thought it was a somewhat useless present.

Enameled cast iron works best
Either way, one thing was clear: we needed a new pot to use in the Wonderbag if I was seriously going to try and make it work. Apparently glass pot tops are okay, but don’t work as well as a solid lid. Also, the pot can’t be too large for the contents or it can’t retain heat. And no pots with long handles. Since I tend to make sauce in either a pot with a long handle or a larger pot with too much extra space and a glass top, I was striking out right off the bat. Enameled cast iron was said to work best. We took our Christmas gift cards and went shopping at Kohl’s, coming home with a Food Network 3.5 qt. enameled cast iron dutch oven. (Le Creuset or Lodge are both good choices also, but La Creuset is way more expensive and we were taking advantage of gift cards. I love Lodge products, but unfortunately Kohls doesn't sell that brand. So far the Food Network pot has worked wonderfully, though.)

My next attempt was to make (white) rice just to test the new pot. Easy enough. It worked like a charm. I brought 3 1/2 cups of water to a rolling boil, added the rice, let it boil for one minute, put the lid on and allowed it to continue boiling for one more minute to make sure inside the pot was nice and hot, then transferred it to the Wonderbag. All told, after coming to its initial boil, it only boiled on the stove top for two minutes. I left the rice in the Wonderbag for 40 minutes while I made the rest of the dinner. Yeah, I cooked the rest of the meal on the stovetop, but I guess I did save the 20 minutes of propane I would have used if the rice had been left cooking as usual.

Okay, the rice worked. It came out fluffier than normal and was kept nice and warm while I prepared the rest of the meal. I wondered what else might work similarly and thought of mashed potatoes. I peeled and cut up some potatoes (slightly smaller pieces than normal), threw them in a pot of water, brought the water to a boil, covered the pot, allowed it to boil one more minute with the lid on, and transferred it to the Wonderbag. Half hour later I checked on them and the potatoes were nice and soft and ready for mashing. Success #2. 

I decided to get a little more complicated and the next meal I attempted was stew. No way did I believe Wonderbag’s cooking instructions and claims, so I rearranged my thought process and switched up the steps based on how the potatoes had cooked the previous night and the fact the sauce was only lukewarm on day one. I decided to break the cooking into two steps by first cooking the meat alone, then reheating when I added the vegetables. I browned the chunks of beef stew meat on the stove top, added garlic, some wine and beef broth (a little more of both than I would normally use) and brought the whole thing to a boil. This time I allowed the liquid to boil for a full 12 minutes (10 minutes with the lid off and another 2 with it on to trap the steam inside) before transferring the pot to the Wonderbag since I was more cautious about meat cooking properly. I left the pot in the Wonderbag for 90 minutes. When I removed the pot, the liquid was still hot, or maybe really just very warm, but not hot enough to eat if I was planning to serve it at that point. But I wasn’t since I still needed to add the vegetables. In went the onions, celery, carrots, peas, and potatoes, plus some herbs. I added another half cup of wine and a little water mixed, and brought the liquid back to a hard boil. I let it boil on the stove for 12 minutes again (same 10 minutes with lid off and 2 with it on) before putting it back in the Wonderbag for a final 90 minutes. When I brought the stew out I have to say it smelled and looked delicious. Everything was done to perfection. The meat was tender, the vegetables were soft but not mushy. I suppose I saved propane since I used up about 25 minutes worth vs. my usual method of cooking stew in a clay pot in the oven for 4 hours on low heat. However, I did use the stovetop for maybe 40 minutes all told between browning the meat and boiling the liquid twice. I bet everything would have actually been cooked (i.e. safe to eat) in that time. The advantage was that the time in the Wonderbag gave the meat time to get super tender and for the flavors to develop.

Last Sunday, I made sauce once again. This time I used a method similar to the stew since I intended to make a meat sauce. Rick and I were performing that afternoon and were leaving around noon and expected to get home at dinnertime. So I started off at 9:00 a.m. by browning the meat (very thin beef, the kind you use to make braciole) then adding wine, beef broth, and minced garlic. I brought the liquid to a boil for 12 minutes, then placed the pot in the Wonderbag. At 11:00 a.m. I took the pot out, added a can of crushed tomatoes, diced onions, oregano, salt & pepper, and brought it all back to a boil for another 10 or 12 minutes. Back in the Wonderbag it went and it was left there until we got home at 5:30 p.m. All I had to do was cook the pasta. The sauce was still fairly warm (still within the safe range for leaving meat unrefrigerated for the 6+ hours it was in the Wonderbag while we were gone), but I threw it on the drained pasta and gave it all a brief rewarming for a minute before serving since I like my food a bit hotter. I found this a huge success, though, because it allowed me to leave the sauce “cooking” and developing flavor while we were away from home with no worries. Usually we get home from shows and I’m frantically trying to cook dinner even though I feel emotionally drained and exhausted. This had me pretty excited. Technically I suppose I could have cooked it in the morning and refrigerated it while gone, then reheated it once home, but I think this definitely was a much better choice. Less steps, less fuss, less stress, and it was delicious.

Another success was our Wednesday band practice. I made some sausage and peppers using my now familiar steps: brown the sausage, saute the green peppers and onions on the stove. Keep the peppers and onions out, but toss all the makings of the sauce on top of the browned sausage in my enameled pot, bring to a boil, boil for 12 minutes, put in the Wonderbag by 3:00 p.m. I took the pot out at 4:30, put the peppers and onions in, brought it all back to a boil, and placed it back in the Wonderbag. We practiced from 5:00 until 6:30. When we were done, I put the salad on the table, which I’d made earlier in the day, cut up the sourdough baguettes I’d made the day before, and took my pot out of the Wonderbag. It was still plenty hot to use straight from the pot, and the sausage was incredibly delicious. Again, after band practice everyone is usually clamoring for dinner and I have to hustle to cook or reheat the food. This time all I had to do was set it all on the table and we were eating in a matter of minutes. Everyone's tummies were pretty happy.

I don’t know the math on how much energy, and therefore money, you use when you boil something on high heat on the stove top for 25 minutes vs. slow cooking in the oven at a low temperature for a longer period of time. That’s my next project since, ultimately, you want to know that you’re saving money also. For this post I was just looking at the ways I could use the Wonderbag to my advantage and how to make sure the food is cooked through and safe. I did learn over the past few weeks that it helped in various ways to save time, stress, and can be a handy addition in the kitchen. I use it almost every evening. If nothing else, it can keep a dish warm and free space on the stove top. Since I make rice often, using it for various rice dishes has worked extremely well. If I’m making a more complicated dish — think the beef stew or meat sauce or certain soups — I have found that breaking it into two steps so the liquid is brought back to a boil halfway through yields better results than doing it all at once, especially where meat is involved. Some days I make a one pot meal and other days I simply make a side dish that I can leave in the Wonderbag until I’m ready to serve the rest of the dinner. I’ve learned to use it to cook potatoes to make potato salad, too. I found the ideal time to take the pot back out and have the potatoes ready for cutting into potato-salad-size pieces. 

Maybe others will have different experiences cooking in a Wonderbag. There are numerous positive reviews on Amazon. Many people claim to let rice boil for 10 minutes before placing in the Wonderbag. I’ve never done that. White rice normally cooks in 20 minutes on the stovetop, brown rice a little longer. Why boil it for 10 minutes just to save 10 more minutes? So far, my short boil with rice has yielded perfect results. Yesterday I made a rice and lentil dish, so I did boil the lentils in the water for a few minutes before adding the rice then boiling another minute. Still, I think I only boiled it for 5 minutes all told, but left it in the Wonderbag for maybe 50 or 60 minutes for the lentils to soften. I’m still very very skeptical about Wonderbag’s exact cooking instructions and claims, and there are quite a number of meals that don’t call for enough liquid to boil for 15 or 20 minutes so how to rethink those dishes? But so far I have managed a number of recipes and it has definitely come in handy in numerous situations. Rick is happy to see it put to use and happy that I now enjoying using it. I keep thanking him all the time now. He enthusiastically took the photo below for me.

I crocheted a pot cosy and lined it with felt that acts as an extra heat retainer and a trivet in one, which I placed inside the Wonderbag and that I place my enameled cast iron pot into when cooking. The Wonderbag is a bit big to store in any kitchen space I have, so it has become a permanent fixture in the bathroom. I have a blue and green Wonderbag, which matches my green bathroom perfectly. It sits on the rug in the corner by my basket of folded towels. Any guests going into the bathroom probably thinks it’s a fancy cushion to sit on while putting on makeup or maybe even a small hamper (?) or storage basket. Or maybe they even think it’s a cat bed. I’m actually surprised the car hasn’t discovered it and tried to sleep on it. Maybe she knows better. 

The last thing I should mention is that every time you buy a Wonderbag one is donated to a family in need in Africa. You can read more about the history of the Wonderbag and their mission to create healthier cooking environments on their Web site. It's a wonderful goal and every time I read about it I think I should try harder to utilize it even more and use the propane less. I'm adapting as many recipes as I can. I'm wondering if I'll be able to combine the Sun Oven and the Wonderbag come summertime for even more energy savings. 

My Wonderbag Christmas present alongside my new enameled cast iron pot, ready to rock & roll!