January 12, 2013

The Power of (Recipe) Language in a Convenience Culture

As a former English teacher and Literature grad student, I think about language often. I think about language’s power. Not just the overt power of a magnificent sentence or essay that jolts the reader into awareness or awe, but of its more subtle power. The way language not only describes and reflects our world, but the way it shapes our world.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how language’s ability to affect our thinking on certain topics relates to food. I’ve noticed, especially, how recipes come into play. More and more in the past several years, recipes call for ingredients based on how those ingredients are pre-packaged in stores. Foods come in bags, in cans, in packets. Not as an option, but necessarily (or the recipes would suggest). This language frames our food in a certain way and reinforces a convenience culture.

Here are just a handful of real-life examples of what I’m describing—and these aren’t unusual:

  • A recipe for cobbler calls for “Two 12-oz bags frozen mixed berries”
  • A recipe for hummus calls for “Two 3-ounce cans chick-peas, drained and rinsed”
  • A recipe for baked chicken calls for “1 can Campbell’s mushroom soup”
  • A recipe for lasagna calls for “1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes,” “2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste,” and “2 (6.5 ounce) cans canned tomato sauce”
  • A recipe for corn salsa calls for “1 12-ounce bag of frozen sweet yellow corn, defrosted and drained”
  • A recipe for roasted potatoes calls for “1 (1 ounce) packet hidden valley ranch dressing mix”
  • A recipe for peanut-butter bars calls for “1 (18.25-ounce) package yellow cake mix”

Our food has become so far removed from its original state that we now refer to it in terms of its packaging. Just think about that for a second. It’s pretty incredible.

None of the items in the above list need to come pre-packaged from the store. Most could be grown in a garden, or found locally while in season and preserved at home. The beans could be purchased dry and cooked on the stovetop. The roasted potatoes could be seasoned with fresh or home-dried herbs.

A can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup with white background
These types of pre-packaged convenience “foods” are called for in recipes to make cooking simpler. So that there doesn’t need to be much thought involved—nor much time. Grab the can of condensed mushroom soup, throw it on some chicken, pop it in the oven. Simple. Convenient. Right? But here’s where one’s mind might wander while looking at the label of a soup can before dumping the glob of it into the pan: “Gosh, that seems like a lot of sodium. Can that much salt be good for anyone? Yikes, what’s that, I wonder—a preservative? So, modified starch … I think that’s the stuff made with chemical processes and hydrochloric acid. I wonder whether there’s BPA in this can liner. Probably. I think it’s in pretty much all cans now. What’s that stuff supposed to do to me again? Screw with my hormones? What’s soy protein concentrate? I bet it’s from genetically modified soy ...”

And on and on. None of that sounds simple to me. It sounds complicated.

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for grocery stores (preferably smaller, locally owned stores or co-ops that carry goods from local farmers, bakers, etc.), and I’m not going to pretend I’ve never purchased pre-packaged food items. But I get uncomfortable when I see so many recipes describing our food in this way. Language—even the language in recipe ingredient lists—makes a difference. And it has the subtle power to shape the way we see food. (By the way, this trend of using packaging language and even brand names in recipes is nothing but great news for the manufacturers of packaged foods.)

I want to imagine two scenarios. In the first, every recipe out there in the history of the world that calls for berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc.) lists “12-oz bags” of them. In the second scenario, every recipe out there that calls for berries lists just the amount (in cups), and then provides a note about where people can find and pick local berries, and how to freeze them at home. I don’t think if the second scenario were reality that the world would be vastly different. World peace won’t ensue because of blueberry dealings. But I’m willing to bet it would be just a tiny bit different.

The creative act of combining flavors and textures, and the physical acts of chopping, whisking and stirring, involve us in what we’re eating. These acts also feed our souls as human beings. We—a cubicle culture, fast-food nation, and screen-loving lot—seem to need and crave more tactile experience, more room for creative expression. Our food could help provide those things, if only we’d set aside the cans, packets, boxes and bags, and let it.

Photo from campbellfoodservice.com

January 11, 2013

Fresh Meal Ideas Series Is Next on the Menu

A friend of mine emailed me the other day to ask whether I could start doing an occasional post about what I ate for my actual meals. He wants to get more into eating organic, local, sustainable foods, but is at a loss for where to start, coming up with fresh meal ideas, and finding and incorporating good, healthful ingredients.

It seems like “What I Ate” blogs/posts are the Interweb topics du jour, but, still, this sounds like a fun, useful idea. I figure it will be a way to share meal ideas while I take a closer look at my own ingredient choices. On my About page, I say I believe in not trying to pretend I’m perfect. (Disclaimer: I’m not. The person I live with could provide excellent evidence to back this up.) And of course this applies to what I eat. While I try hard to make sustainable food choices much of the time, I don’t always succeed.

A simple, clean place setting with dark background

Here’s my plan for how to format the posts in this upcoming series:

  • Each will have “Fresh Meal Ideas” at the beginning of the title, for easy identification. (I’ll also tag each post with “fresh meal ideas.”)
  • I’ll include explanations of how I prepared each part of the meal, so that you can try these foods at home if you wish.
  • Each post in the series will conclude with brief notes on these five categories: Local, Sustainable, Healthy, Delicious, and Simple. I’ll give the meal a rating of sorts in each category. 

If there are any specific foods, tips or notes you’d like to see in these posts, please leave a comment to let me know. I hope to get the first “Fresh Meal Ideas” post up in the next few days. Thanks for reading!

Photo by Flickr/Dinner Series

January 07, 2013

Winter Carrots, and Why Succession Sowing Is Legit

We’re a week into January (as in, the middle of winter), and I just harvested the very last of the carrots from my garden. Harvesting carrots in January is awesome.

Carrots harvested in January from an Oregon garden

I probably wouldn’t have these extra-sweet winter carrots (exposing some veggies to frost—including carrots—actually makes them sweeter) if it weren’t for my dedication to succession sowing. This technique simply means sowing a crop not all at once, but in succession. I planted carrot seeds about five different times during 2012. I planted some in really early spring (those didn’t make it for some reason—I think because of heavy rains right after planting), in early spring, in mid-spring, in later summer, and in fall. Some I harvested young, and some I left in the ground longer. All in all, I had carrots ready to harvest at multiple times throughout the year.

I highly recommend succession sowing. Anytime a space opens up in your garden, for the love of all things holy, plant something else there. Use every square-inch of your space strategically to get the most food out of your soil.

Now, admittedly, these carrots aren’t gigantic. Someone (deer, rabbits, I’m looking at you) munched much of their tops off several weeks ago, stunting their growth. But they are beautiful. The burgundy-skinned ones are called “Cosmic Purple,” a variety available from Botanical Interests seed company. Also: January. (I love you and your mild ways, Pacific Northwest.)

Slices of Cosmic Purple carrots on a cutting board

Aside from taking advantage of a mild climate, you can achieve a four-season harvest by growing crops under season-extension helpers such as cold frames, row covers, or a hoop house.

If you garden, did you keep anything growing past the “typical” gardening season? Are you still harvesting anything right now? If so, I’d love to hear about it! But right now, I’m going to go eat some carrots while dinner is still in the oven ...

January 05, 2013

15 Helpful Food Tips: Save Money, Waste Less

We’ve all been there: Paying too much for a food item for the sake of convenience; feeling guilty at throwing away food that went bad in the fridge or fruit basket; possessing a vague notion that there are 15 tips out there that should be compiled by a blogger and that we should absolutely, definitely find and read (and then share on every social media channel ever invented).

I get it.

That’s why I recently called on my Facebook friends to share some of their favorite tid-bits of kitchen and grocery-shopping wisdom. I asked for creative ideas related to smart cooking, not wasting food, eating sustainably produced food, and/or saving money on good food. I’ve given credit below to the tip-givers (first names only—one must work to protect privacy in this digital age). (That last part was sarcasm, by the way. There’s no privacy in the digital age. You’ll know that if you’re Facebook friends with any high-schoolers.) A huge thank you goes out to those who provided helpful food tips for this post.

Oh, one more note: If we were to choose a golden child from the foods discussed in these tips, it would be beans. Beans got a lot of mentions. Beans are clearly a big thing, people. Take heed.

1. From Lindsey: Buy large quantities of almost-spoiled organic bananas that are on sale (because the supermarkets want to get them off their hands), and then immediately peel them, tear them into chunks, put them into large freezer bags, and pop them in the freezer. Then, when you want a smoothie, you’ve got frozen bananas waiting for you. As a bonus, the almost-spoiled bananas have a pleasantly strong banana flavor. They can also be defrosted and mashed for use in recipes such as banana bread or banana muffins.

Brown banana on table

2. From Robin: Eat beans as an entrée (lunch or dinner) twice a week. Make a big batch and freeze them in portion-sized containers. Take them for lunch or reheat for dinner. Beans provide cheap, excellent protein, they’re good for your bod, and eating them reduces your meat consumption. I just made a batch of black beans with half a ham hock that lasted me through four delicious meals.

Cooked dry beans in colorful bowls

3. From Mary Beth: Use dried beans. Cook them in the slow cooker, and then freeze in portions equivalent to what comes in cans. Four cups of dried black beans equals about 5 “cans.” This is much cheaper than buying cans each time you need them. Plus, the beans are easily on hand, with very little effort.

4. From Lindsey: When you chop green onions for use in a recipe, go ahead and chop ALL of the green onions, and then freeze the rest. Then when another recipe calls for green onions, they are there in the freezer.

Close-up of chopped green onions on cutting board

5. From Lindsey: Try to use bread that you haven’t eaten (and thus has gotten stale) in recipes like bread pudding or ribolliti (an Italian soup with stale bread in it).

Note from Shelley: Totally. And remember that bread puddings don’t have to be dessertsthey can be savory dishes perfect for dinner. French onion soup and homemade croutons are more good uses for stale bread.

6. From Lindsey: You can freeze avocados! They won’t spring back to life in an astonishing eat-me-in-slices sort of way, but they can be defrosted and used to make kick-butt guac. You can also freeze cheese and hummus.

7. From Shelley: Buy whole meats instead of select cuts of meat. I’m truly amazed at how incredibly cheap it is to buy a whole local, pastured chicken when you consider how much you get out of it (including the rich, delicious homemade chicken stock made with the bones and scraps). One whole chicken costs about the same as one package of organic boneless, skinless chicken breasts from the store (and just as I explained in my post about the best eggs to buy, an “organic” label on chicken isn’t the most important thing to look for anyways).

8. From Lindsey: Buy dry beans in bulk. Period. Cheap protein source and unlimited recipe potential.

Note from Shelley: Keep your bean purchases local if you can, too. Check at your farmers market to see whether any of the farms sell dry beans. Here in Corvallis, Ore., Matt-Cyn Farms offers more than two dozen varieties of gorgeous dry beans at the downtown market. These are three varieties I got from them last fall:

Three varieties of colorful dry beans from Matt-Cyn Farms

9. From Ben: I’m a big believer in using an ice cube tray to freeze lemon juice (if you have too many lemons, and they are starting to turn, but you don’t want to waste the juice), and also cubes of frozen pesto made from stuff in the garden. That way, in winter, you can just use a couple of the pesto cubes to make a sauce.

10. From Heidi: In terms of not wasting food,  I know that making menus, shopping for what is on the list, and including the leftovers in the menu saves a lot of food that might otherwise be wasted. I’m amazed by how much healthier and more cheaply I eat when I make a weekly dinner menu!

11. From Hannah: I put a lot of my cooking scraps into a big freezer bag to make soup stock about once a month. I save onion skins, carrot tops, spinach leaves, you name it!

Note from Shelley: Hannah, I do this, too! I got this tip from a friend a few years ago. When I have any meat bones (for instance, bones from cooking a whole chicken) and I’m not ready to make stock, I throw those in the freezer as well. Anytime I want to make homemade chicken stock, vegetable stock, etc., it’s so simple. Just toss some of your freezer scraps in a big stock pot, add water, and simmer for a few hours. Strain the finished stock and put it in freezer-safe containers, and freeze. Following these methods, no one should ever have to buy overpriced stock or broth of any kind from the store.

12. From Robyn: Buy food from bulk bins and store it in glass jars. This allows you to minimize packaging waste and buy only the amount of food that you need, ensuring that it won’t go bad before you can use it.

Note from Shelley: Great tip. Many stores will allow you to bring in your own glass jars or other containers to fill up at the store. Before filling the jars, get their weight (this is generally called “tare weight”) so you don’t have to pay for the cost of the containers at the check-out. Every time I go to our co-op, I bring all sorts of jars, containers, and bags to use for bulk goods and produce.

13. From Robyn: Do a weekly meal plan, leaving one or two meals at the end of your week that are frozen and/or made from food that can carry over into next week’s plan if needed. That way, if you end up having leftovers or going out to eat, you aren’t letting food go bad in your fridge.

14. From Lindsey: Make your own hummus. Do so really cheaply by using organic dry chickpeas (let them soak overnight and boil), 3-ish tbsp of tahini, some lemon (or lime juice) (juice of one fruit), some water, some olive oil, some cumin, and (the secret ingredient) hot sauce. Delicious hummus with a very low per-serving-size cost.

Making hummus in a food processor

Note from Shelley: I love making hummus and using dry garbanzo beans instead of canned is a must for me; it saves money and I don’t dig the idea of consuming anything out of a can because of the chemicals that have been shown to leach into foods from can linings. It’s important to note, however, that hummus should never (never) be made without ample amounts of fresh garlic. Lindsey, I love you, but: garlic.

15. From Lindsey: We shop at discount markets to save money on organics. In Colorado, Dacono and Loveland both have excellent discount markets (stores that carry recently expired/damaged carton/random foods). It’s so cheap and easy to get quality gourmet cheeses, Organic Girl salad, Wallaby organic yogurts, etc., there. Also, they carry what would normally be really expensive teas that they can get away with selling for $1.50. I have some great Oregon Chai caffeine-free chai from there. Yum!

Do you have any helpful food tips of your own? How do you save money on good food? Please comment and share!

Banana photo by Flickr/Michael Bentley; cooked beans by Flickr/cookbookman17; onions by Flickr/iriskh; dry beans by Shelley Stonebrook; hummus by Flickr/izik

January 01, 2013

A Month-by-Month List of Food Goals for the New Year

Happy New Year, everyone! The fresh start of a new year—the kind of blank slate that nudges us toward new challenges and experiences—provides a great opportunity for thinking about the fresh foods that will nourish our bodies in the months ahead. After all, something has to provide the fuel that will keep us going while we work on all of those other exciting resolutions. And because goals are so often easier to tackle in chunks, here are ideas split up by month to help you eat and live well this year.

A big harvest of homegrown food from the garden

January


Spend just 30 minutes browsing Local Harvest, PickYourOwn.org, and EatWild. Search for your ZIP code to see what local farmers are offering in your area. Make a folder for “Local Food” in your Internet browser bookmarks. When you find a farm on one of these sites that’s offering something you might like to buy from them, bookmark it in your Local Food folder.

February


Order some garden seeds. Even if it’s just one packet of something. Resolve to grow at least one thing—somehow. It might be in your yard; it might be in a pot on your patio; it might be in a pot not on your patio, but just somewhere that gets some sun.

February is a great time to order seeds, and, for many reasons, I’m a fan of ordering them instead of buying them from a mainstream retailor. Local companies generally offer local seeds, meaning the seeds will be well-adapted to your region. Also, the really cool, small companies that are all about sustainability are usually only available via mail-order. One of my very favorite gardening activities is to browse seed catalogs (physical ones I get in the mail or the catalogs available on the seed companies’ websites), decide what varieties to grow, and order my seeds. There are super-cool, small seed companies all over. This year, here in the Pacific NW, I want to try Uprising Seeds, Victory Seeds, and Wild Garden Seed. If you don’t know of or can’t find a local, sustainable seed company in your area, leave a comment on this post and I’ll try to help.

Some of the easiest crops to grow—and ones you sow directly in the ground—are greens such as lettuce and spinach, and root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes and turnips. If you’re just starting out, try growing one (or some) of those.

Ripe leaf lettuce growing in the garden

March


Do a bit of research on the crops you plan to grow. Most importantly, figure out when to plant the seeds in your area. These days, there are apps for that (When to Plant is an iPhone app that will give you that info for any fruit or veggie), but simply looking up your frost dates online and reading the seed packets should also give you the information you need. Mark your planting dates on your calendar.

Also, get any other supplies you need, such as a large container or pot if you don’t already have one.

A harvest of homegrown beets and turnips on kitchen counter

April


Set a goal that by the end of April, you will have bought one thing directly from a local farm that you bookmarked back in January. This might be a dozen eggs, a bag of potatoes, a whole chicken, some garlic, a sack of locally grown and ground flour—anything. These farmers list their farms and offerings online because they want people like you to find them. They generally list their phone numbers and addresses online, and details for how and when you can contact them or stop by the farm. Every time I’ve ever called a farmer listed on a site such as Local Harvest, it makes my heart happy. The people I talk to always end up being about the nicest people in the world, and they want to hear from me. It’s easy to think, “Oh, gosh, I don’t want to call this person and bother them about buying a chicken,” but, trust me, it’s not like that. Selling the products they produce is their livelihood, and I can almost promise you’ll enjoy the experience.

May


Learn all about one food you eat. I get that the whole “sustainable food thing” is overwhelming. There are infinite things to learn, and so much of the information about food is bad news. It’s also really tempting to play the avoidance game with food info. For instance, if I start talking about conditions in the industrial system related to a particular kind of food, I sometimes hear from friends, “Stop! Don’t tell me. I don’t even want to know. I know it’ll just freak me out”). But where does avoidance get us? Even if we look the other way, this stuff is still going into our bodies, and all kinds of crazy stuff is going into our air, water and soil.

To help prevent info-overload, just learn about one thing at a time. Choose a food you eat a lot of for this goal. Maybe for you that will be apples, bananas, chocolate, coffee, salmon, chicken, beef, broccoli, milk, or almonds. Just choose one food and learn about how it’s produced and some problems associated with industrial production. Look into the chemicals, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics used in the food’s production. Read about any problematic labor practices associated with the crop. You could check out a whole book on this food from your local library or just spend some time doing research online. Watch YouTube videos (watching YouTube videos of factory farms actually played a huge part in my ditching industrial meats several years ago). Dig into the bad news, and make sure to look up sustainable, healthy, or local alternatives.

June


Go pick something on a u-pick farm (this is when your bookmarks from PickYourOwn.org will come in handy). In many areas, June is a great time to pick strawberries. Ask before you go whether whatever you’re planning to pick is no-spray. Go nuts cooking with and preserving whatever you pick.

Shelley picking strawberries at a upick farm in Corvallis, Oregon

July


Freeze something. Whether it’s a few bags of green beans, some roasted tomatoes, or some berries, get something in the freezer that you’ll be able to enjoy later when that crop is no longer in season. Freezing is a simple food-preservation method, and a quick search online will give you any instructions you need.

August


Can something. Canning is admittedly more involved than freezing, but if you’ve never done it, it’s so worth learning. And August—with its abundance of ripe foods—is a good time to can. Last year was only my third or fourth year as a canner. I was intimidated by the process at first, as I know many people are, but now canning a batch of something seems no more difficult than making a pot of soup. Start with water bath canning, which is the method you can use for higher acid foods (such as jams, pickles, tomatoes, pickled beets, applesauce, etc.). Check out books such as the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving or Put 'em Up! for recipes and instructions.

If you don’t yet want to invest in your own canner, can with a friend or family member who already does it every year. He or she will be glad to have a helper, and you can learn the process before you decide to dive in and try it solo at home.

Jars of home canned tomatoes, pickles, juice, jam and applesauce

September


Buy something in bulk from your local farmers market. This might mean ordering ahead of time: One week you might talk to someone at a farm stand you particularly like about getting a bulk order of something, and then pick it up the following week. Ask the farmers if they offer bulk discounts.

Good storage crops such as onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are great candidates for a bulk order. Get them now, and you’ll have them on hand during the winter months—meaning you won’t have to rely on the grocery store for these foods after your farmers market shuts down for the year. If you hope to order in bulk to preserve the crop, consider apples for applesauce, pears for pear butter, or tomatoes for tomato sauce. Bulk ordering is a great goal because it reinforces the idea of farmers market as grocery store.

A large basket of yellow onions

October


Make October all about your kitchen. Try new recipes, new foods, new meals, new techniques. Experiment with recipe deviation (use what’s available or on hand, not necessarily exactly what a recipe calls for). Make it a goal to cook from scratch and limit eating out.

November


Read a great book on healthy, sustainable food. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is my favorite in this genre, but there are plenty of choices out there. Browse TreeHugger’s 7 Must-Read Books for Sustainable Eating for more ideas. Share the interesting things you learned in the book with at least one person you love.

December


Give a food gift for the holidays. I did so last year (giving homemade granola and jam), and it was so much fun.

These goals, of course, can be swapped around, added to, and subtracted from, but I hope they give you a starting point for jumping into the new year with food—one of life’s most basic necessities—on your mind. As nutritionist and whole-foods advocate Ann Wigmore said, “The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” I believe that to be true, and it applies to us and to our planet. And if there’s one thing I can guarantee about your year, it’s that food will be a part of it.

Top two photos by Shelley Stonebrook; onion photo from Flickr Creative Commons/mhwolk; other photos by Doug Snodgrass