Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Future of the Quik 'N Easy Meal

“Eating is an agricultural act.” – Wendell Berry

Because I don’t celebrate Christmas, I had nothing important to do the other day. Because my husband and kids were headed out to a local social event with other Jewish families with kids, and because our van, the only vehicle we own that can get all six of us from place to place is in the shop, I had no choice but to stay home. So I thought I’d cook – specifically, I thought I’d try out three “fast, easy, healthy, local” recipes that were sent to me from a green website that shall remain nameless because I’m not trying to give them a hard time – I appreciate what they are trying to do.

Why? Because my job now is to think about food. That is no hardship – regular readers of this blog will know that the question of how we will go on eating is my great passion. So much so that I’m now working on book #2, co-authored with Aaron Newton, titled _A Nation of Farmers_ and coming out from New Society in spring ’09. The subject of the book is all of the agricultural acts we will need to undertake to survive and thrive in the coming decades – and on how reclaiming food – growing it and cooking it – might preserve or maybe remake our democracy. The title is drawn from Thomas Jefferson’s claim that it was a nation of independent farmers who were best able to create and sustain democracy, because personal independence made it possible for us to make moral and just choices.

My only trouble with my title is that it places so much emphasis on the growing of food, and thus distracts us from something even more central. A lot of people have talked and written about how urgent it is that we change our agriculture, that we move away from the tremendously destructive system and start maximizing production per acre, while reducing the damage of a fossil fueled agriculture which includes global warming (nitrous oxide from industrial fertilizers, methane from industrial livestock production, loss of carbon storage ability in the soil and high carbon levels from energy used in agriculture, shipping, transport, etc… are among the problems), soil and aquifer depletion and a host of other difficulties. I am one of the people writing about these things, and I believe all of us are right to put part of our focus here. But few of us have focused, except in the most superficial terms, on food, cooking and diet as the means to save the world.
And yet I do not think it is overstating things to say that how we grow food will always be secondary to how we cook and eat. If we are to survive the coming crisis, a surprising amount of it will depend on our ability to adapt our diet – and that will depend on our ability to cook and eat differently.

I suspect too many people it seems a small thing to talk about cooking, self-evident that when different things are in the stores or our gardens, we will eat differently. But I think further consideration will show that it doesn’t work that way. Consider the dual problem of hunger and malnutrition in the US. Overwhelmingly, these are problems of poverty, as you would suspect. But also, these are overwhelmingly cooking problems. That is, a number of people have shown that it is perfectly possible to eat nutritiously and cheaply – for example, that a whole grain, vegetarian, even organic and local diet is possible on a food stamps budget. No one in their right mind would rather see their kids go hungry than eat this way. So why is hunger so endemic in the US? Part of it is lack of time – single mothers and their children are among the most likely people to be hungry in the US, and they have little time to cook. Often, as someone noted on this blog recently, older siblings prepare food for younger children, and about all they can handle are boxed mac and cheese. Some of it is dietary preference.

But some of the problem is simply not knowing how to cook cheap foods. For example, my local food pantry observed that flour is one of the last things to leave their shelves – because few of their patrons know how to make their own bread or baked goods. When dried beans are given out, they must come with instructions, and often people don’t seem to follow them.

A large portion of the American poor *DO NOT KNOW HOW* to cook, and because of this, they *GO HUNGRY*. That is, anyone who thinks that when we have different foods available we’ll all just eat them isn’t paying attention to the evidence of their own eyes – in fact, so few of us have cooking skills, particularly skills of the necessary sort, that would allow us to adapt easily to dietary changes. No doubt some of us will – particularly those who are most literate and have the most time to adapt. But the truth is in front of us – people who don’t know how to cook don’t find it easy to learn, even when the stakes are terrifically high.

This brings me back to these recipes. I wanted to test them out because I thought it might be useful to look at the comparatively small class of Americans who do still cook from scratch regularly, and see how applicable what they’ve been learning is to the future. So I took three recipes I’ve recently received from the nameless website – roasted vegetable enchiladas, whole wheat cornbread and apple-cranberry crisp. All were advertised as quick, easy, seasonal and local, a meal to be prepared in 45 minutes or less (I think – I’m not clear on whether the timing was supposed to be cumulative). And I decided to prepare them completely from scratch, using little or no powered equipment, substituting whatever was missing in my home.
Now to be fair, this isn’t really much of a test. Because I store food, I have an extremely well stocked kitchen and all the equipment needed for low power cooking. That is, even if I couldn’t get to the store, or buy much food, it would be a good while before I ran out of ingredients. Still, I thought it useful to describe my experience.

It also isn’t a test because I cook this way every day. I live nearly 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, and in my rural hamlet there are two places that do take out – both make pizza, neither delivers, and my husband and I cook better than either one. We produce 3 meals a day for our family, usually 7 days a week (we do eat out sometimes, but try to keep it to a minimum), and if we run out of something, we don’t go to the store, we make do. But even in my relatively isolated area, I don’t know a lot of people who cook, who cook like I do, like I suspect we may have to. I suspect a disproportionate number of my readers are serious cooks, who do eat and cook as I do - but it can be hard to remember how very unusual that is in our society.

The enchiladas began with roasted vegetables. They called for roasting peppers and tomatoes, neither of which are in season here now, but that was easy, I just left them out. So took sweet potatoes, onions, potatoes and carrots (called for) and added parsnips and turnips (not), tossed them with olive oil and some chili powder and threw them in the wood cookstove. Easy – I could have made these in the sun oven on a warm day, but we haven’t had one of those for a while. The next part was the dried beans, which I’d soaked over night (I’ve left that time out, plus the time getting the woodstove up and hot, plus the time spent splitting wood for kindling), which I put on the stove to boil. The recipe called for canned refried beans, but that’s not the sort of thing I keep around. If I hadn't had oil, I could have roasted the vegetables with water in the pan - I wonder what percentage of the population would know that?

Meanwhile, I set about making the cornbread. I took dried corn and put it in the grinder and ground it by hand. Then I ground the wheat for flour, mixed them together, added water, honey, butter and ooops…out of baking powder. Ok, I’ve got baking soda and somewhere, buried in the back of the kitchen is cream of tartar. It took about 10 minutes to find it, but I finally did, and was enormously relieved I didn’t have to figure out sourdough cornbread or wait until summer for grapes from which I can precipitate cream of tartar… Ok, mix it up, throw it in to the oven – nope, the 475 temp that I have it at for the veggies will not do. So we wait 10 minutes with the oven door open to get it down enough to bake bread. Ah well, probably won’t rise well in the oven, but it will still taste good.

Meanwhile, I’m making tortillas for the enchiladas out of purchased masa (yeah, to be fair, I should grow my own, but I don’t). I don’t have a tortilla press, so they come out a little thicker than I like, and I burn one, but not bad. This is time consuming, however, and I wonder how many people consider tortillas “quick and easy” – but I don’t know anyone making local tortillas. My guess is that the recipe authors exempted some parts from their "local" and "quick" distinctions.

Ok, the apple crisp. Plenty of apples galore, but no dried cranberries. I do have dried blueberries and some dried cherries – which to pick? Well, there are more blueberries, so those. I cut the sugar back by about ¼, because it is designed to sweeten tart cranberries, not sweet blueberries. It calls for lemon and vanilla – no lemon. Should I try cider vinegar to make it tarter? Leave the lemon out? I’ll add a little of the vinegar, and some orange zest to try and make it citrusy. It is supposed to be thickened with cornstarch, but I haven’t got any that I can find (I’m pretty sure there is some, somewhere, but eventually I give up so as not to burn the cornbread) and I don’t much like the stuff anyway, so I go and look up how to thicken with flour without getting lumps.

Roasted veggies and cornbread are done and cooling. Now the streusel topping. Grind more flour to mix with rolled oats – the recipe calls for white flour for the topping, but whole wheat will be good too. No nuts, ignore them (actually, I do have hazelnuts in their shell, but I’ve no intention of shelling them – the recipe calls for chopped walnuts, which presumably come from a plastic bag). White sugar only, but I’ve got molasses, and since molasses is extracted from brown sugar to make white, I mix a bit of molasses in with the sugar, sprinkle it over and off into the oven it goes – but I’d better haul more wood, the oven is cooling.

Now it is into the oven and the last step is to take the cooked beans, fry them with oil, garlic, and spices into refried beans . I mash them with the potato masher, then sauté them. A layer of tortillas goes down in the pan, then the beans, then roasted vegetables, then more tortillas, then a layer of tomato sauce that I’ve mixed with dried chiles and roasted garlic and chile vinegar I made – to me it tastes better than conventional enchilada toppings. The recipe calls for “enchilada sauce” or “bottled local salsa” – the former would hardly be local, the latter is unavailable right now - the only local salsa maker I know of that makes it from local ingredients is me, and my family ran out of salsa two weeks ago. Now cheese. I have local mozzarella, which I use. By rights I should have made it, but the last (and only) time I made mozzarella it didn’t melt very well.

Into the oven again. Ok, I’ve timed the whole thing – 3 hours and 46 minutes for my quick, easy meal. It was excellent, by the way. And of course, the whole thing is a little self-conscious - again, I'm not trying to pick on anyone. But a lot of what we've been trained to do as "cooking" in our quick, easy recipes is use items where someone else did a lot of cooking or processing for us. If we are to imagine a diet that depends on our garden economies, we have to imagine that we are doing the work.

I think about all the times I substituted one thing for another – how many people know that baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable, but that you can add cream of tartar to make a passable equivalent? How many people do I know personally who believe recipes appear straight from the hand of some deity and would never, ever consider deviating from them? How many times have I posted a recipe somewhere mentioning “to taste” and had six people email me about exactly what I mean by that? How many people who cook based on Martha Stewart Living and Rachel Ray know how to make a quick, easy, healthy meal *really* from scratch, when you are missing half the ingredients? Most of our cooking is grocery store cooking - it requires no substitution, no adaptability, no understanding how ingredients go together and choosing among choices - they simply prescribe a set of practices. But cooking from a garden, without a trip to the store isn't always like that.

Someone once observed that you can tell what decade you are in by how long the “quick and easy” meals take. In the 1970s, a good portion took as much as an hour. By the 80s and early 90s 30 minutes was it. Amazon now counts 23 cookbooks advertising meals in 20 minutes or 15 minutes or less, and a number of them are best sellers.

Now there are 15 minutes meals in sustainable, from scratch cooking. They are called “salads” – or if you don’t count the time spent to make cheese, can jam or bake bread, maybe a sandwich. Even those who cook on a regular gas range, who have to cook from scratch aren’t going to do it in 15 minutes. That’s not to say there are no quick prep options – a lot of times things take longer, but you don’t have to do anything. I can assemble a pot of vegetable soup in 15 minutes, and set it on the back of the woodstove, ignore it for three hours, and then a meal is provided. Bread takes 10 minutes of attention, max – the rest of the time is rising and baking. If I was pushing myself, I could produce a pot of soup, a loaf of bread and a salad in 20 minutes of actual prep time – but 3-5 hours of advance planning for rising, cooking and baking.

It isn’t that there is no such thing as sustainable, quick food – there are a lot of options there. But there is no such thing as sustainable, *THOUGHTLESS* food – that is, meals we don’t think about until five minutes before we eat them. Either we think about them far, far ahead, when we stock up on pasta and can tomato sauce so that we can have five minute spaghetti come spring, or we think about them that day, when we soak the bulgur, harvest the parsley and tomatoes, dig out the lemon juice we froze when organic lemons were on sale, and sort out a sweet onion for the tabbouleh.

It seems beyond self-evident to say that the ability to cook is tied to our ability to eat, but it has not been in the first world. That is, most of us, except for the 12% who go hungry, have had the money to buy the processed bags of baby carrots, the premade yogurt, the restaurant meals, the canned beans. Now we may not have that money, or we may not be able to get them, or we may not be able to afford the harm that shipping them around does to the planet. And we have now raised several generations of people who do not cook.

And they really don’t – slightly over half of all American houses own a roasting pan. More than 10% do not even own a frying pan. 31% of Americans say they “never” cook. More than half of all thanksgiving meals include premade, restaurant and canned items – the one time of year we cook, we don’t. And this isn’t a class issue – Americans who say they “love” to cook do it slightly less often than Americans who say they are neutral on the subject. One study I saw some years ago (and can’t cite because I can’t find it again) notes that people who own no cookbooks, and people who own 30 or more cookbooks both eat the vast majority of their meals from premade ingredients and restaurants – the only difference is that one group eats at diners and fast food places, the other eats at more expensive restaurants. But neither are cooking, and neither are cooking the way they will need to – even the people who have the best information and who say they love to cook aren’t doing it day in and day out, and they aren’t practiced at the kind of cooking we’ll do in the future.

And even those who grow food have trouble eating it. Bart Anderson, in an essay a few years ago in _Permaculture Activist Magazine_ noted that almost no one has made the connection between *growing* the food and actually eating it. Now I’m growing tons of Jerusalem artichokes and groundnuts too – but they haven’t replaced potatoes as my staple foods yet. If they ever had to, I could do it, and I flatter myself I’m a good enough cook to make it taste good too – but appetite fatigue is a real risk for children, the elderly and the ill. Sudden changes in diet can be so stressful that people simply stop eating – and those who are most vulnerable suffer malnutrition and illness as a consequence. Some even die. It is not enough to say “Oh, I’ll eat like this when I have to.” The learning curve is simply too steep, and the stakes too high.

My own observation is that in many cases, it is harder to learn to eat and preserve what you grow all the time than it is to grow it. That’s even truer as we begin eating less common foods, or moving towards a truly local diet. We are making an enormous change in our diets, and in our society as a whole. Food is more than fuel – It is culture, love, happiness, comfort, a part of who we are. How we eat and what we eat is part of our identity – far more than what we grow. We are about to change our identities in a profound way. And at the root of this transition is the question of time – the quick and easy 3 hour meal requires someone to be around to cook it, watch over it, check on it. With a majority of households working hard to make ends meet, we encounter a bind – we could make ends meet better if we didn’t have to buy our food at restaurants, but cooking quickly and sustainably requires knowledge, experience and the time at least to learn how to do it. Most often, it requires someone at home.

Aaron and I probably won’t change the title of the book, or at most we’ll add “A Nation of Cooks” to the title somehow. But the truth is this – a nation reared on instant and quick and easy is about to make a very hard transition – one that transforms the question of what to have for dinner to “how shall we transform our very society down to its deepest roots." Now the good thing is that I suspect that much of this transition will improve our lives, our health and a whole host of other things. But it will be hard, and harder still until we recognize that as challenging as getting 100 million farmers and gardeners will be the creation of 200 million home cooks.



RAS said...

This is something that bothers me as well. Yesterday I went to a non-traditional Christmas pizza potluck and took a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies. People were amazed at the fact that I made them from scratch -they mostly said that their idea of making cookies from scratch was getting the kind in the tube. I pointed out that it only takes ten minutes to mix the ingredients together and someone said that she'd never even had a bag of flour in her house!

Most of the people I know can not cook, period, and do not want to learn. Warming up pizza is the best they can do. I consider myself only a fair to middling cook -and yet I'm better than at least 95% of the people I know. My adopted grandmother is 87, lived through the depression, the war, and all that, and now there is a cook. I'm been trying to learn how to really cook from her for the past couple of years. It's harder than it looks, and it takes so much time. Most people are going to go hungry for a while before they learn.

Sam said...

Long time reader, and probably first time commenter.

Due to a variety of circumstances I had to learn pretty much all life skills on my own including cooking from scratch which started out very slowly about 6 years ago when I first moved in with my husband. I suspect my distaste toward the kitchen came from the women in my own family. Office work was more glamorous and fun than smelling like garlic and onions. I slowly began learning how to cook everything I liked in my kitchen so I could get the same quality every time. Its disappointing to hear friends say that they couldn't cook this or bake that because I am somehow special or because they don't have the time.

The strangest thing for me has been my growing fondness toward cooking rather than viewing it as just a chore to be done.

I do spend a great amount of time prepping things, so I can have a meal under an hour. For me the most frustrating thing was to find recipes without premade/canned ingredients. I still am not sure what yellow cake mix is, and I wish recipes were more of a guideline than a formula so I could guage better on how something would turn out. Now when I want to cook something new, I have to google the recipe along with words like "from scratch" and "farmer's market" to get the sort of recipe I am looking for.

Unknown said...

we are rural dwellers as well. one of my neighbors (most are redneckish) is a single man, almost 60 yrs - can't/won't cook. he is very kind, always bringing me bags of rice/ beans from the local food pantry. then he gets in his van and drives down the road 6 miles to the country market and buys pre-fried crap out of the hot deli rack.

i try to tell him to just put a pot of water on his already burning woodstove with some of these rice/ beans he brings me, but no.

part of it is just pure laziness - another aspect of current culture as an obstacle.

good luck on with your "cookin' farmers" book project. i am a reader of aaron's work as well. thanks for a timely and most important topic - food/ ag is my focus as well, maybe the most important aspect of this whole powering down trip we're on. best.

Mrs. R said...

Like Beany, I am a long-time reader, first-time commenter.

The post rings so true to me, and was something I was just dwelling on yesterday. In trying to keep our Christmas budget down, I do a fair amount of goody-making for friends and relatives. This is not rocket science: most recipes are easy to follow, and I even (*gasp!*) used some canned ingredients. Yet most of the recipients were in awe and rapture over the thought of homemade treats. While this is an asset to me in terms of joy-power at Christmas, it's disturbing to me in a more general way. Very much so.

I was certainly never taught how to cook. My mother never cooked; my grandmother has switched to so many pre-packaged products since she "moved up" from her childhood poverty that she's lost most of her cooking wisdom. Ultimately, I taught myself. And what a revelation it was! Cooking might not always be fun, but it is surely satisfying to sit down to a from-scratch dinner, to walk into the kitchen and KNOW you can produce a meal. It's a satisfaction almost no one in my life is acquainted with.

Like Beany mentioned, one of the hardest things now is actually finding recipes that don't call for a dozen premade ingredients. I'm sure you know there's an entire series of books dedicated to "doctoring up" cake mixes, for people who have some sort of mental block against bags of flour. You wouldn't believe how long it took me to find a recipe for baked beans that did NOT call for either a can of pre-made baked beans or pork-and-beans. What is so hard about soaking beans??

I worry about all of these people, I truly do.

Matt said...

Fantastic post Sharon. I second Ras' comment about the amazement of people when they hear about the cooking I do. People are so shocked when I talk about making pumpkin bread from real pumpkin (umm, instead of the can use a real one that you steam...) or cookies from scratch. It's one of those things that isn't terribly hard once you get going on it, but it does take some time. Once you get some things down you can really whip some things out in the kitchen. But you have to practice and learn these things ahead of time.

I worry to that by the time people will care enough it will be too late. Great article Sharon.

Anonymous said...

Amen- I basically avoid using cookbooks for the most part- I just use them for inspiration and then improvise..... other than for bread baking- I try to mostly follow recipes for bread but otherwise, even cookies, etc I just do what I want to do with it so I am never "out" of a needed ingredient that way :).

It is so true about most people and their lack of cooking- but there still are people who do cook out there- fortunately most of my neighbors are good cooks and we have pot-lucks! My son loves to cook as well so this is also good.

It is sad though in terms of how cheap it can be to cook from scratch but how many people, especially low-income folks, don't avail themselves of it either because of lack of time, lack of skills, and yes, in some cases laziness. I hate seeing people buy prepared foods, packets of oatmeal, etc when it would be so cheap to just cook from scratch. On the other hand, if you're a single mom, or both parents are working full-time and everyone drags in the door hungry and tired, cooking from scratch can be hard....

Elins trädgård said...

I *hate* recipes that call for pre-made ingredients! I want simple recipes that allow me to substitute ingredients according to what's in season, what my family will eat etc.

Cooking from scratch is still fairly common in Sweden, where I live, but mostly done on weekends as a "hobby". Everyday meals often come from packages, from McDonalds or the local pizza parlor.

Our family cook almost, but not totally, from scratch. We buy things like canned tomatoes (tomatoes don't grow well here, too cold, but we love them!), dry pasta (make our own sometimes), some condiments (trying to make more of these ourselves) etc. This year we have started to work our way towards more local, more home-cooked food, but it's a slow journey, especially with kids. But we're making progress!

Today's dinner was great, made almost completely with local, organic ingredients and cooked from scratch: Honey-and-ginger glazed spare ribs, oven roasted potatoes, kale with cream, sweet-and-sour red cabbage and carrot sticks. Ow - I think I ate too much. But we're celebrating the third day of Christmas, so we're still feasting. Tomorrow I will serve left-overs!

BTW - leftovers are by far the easiest way to fix a quick meal. But many people don't know what to make with them, so they're just thrown out...

Christina in Sweden

baloghblog said...

Sharon, great article as usual. Don't forget roasting as a "quick meal" - Slow roasting a piece of meat, with potatoes, carrots, and other misc. veggies, can take but a few minutes to prep and put in the oven. (though it may have to be in there an hour or two...)

My wife and I made Christmas cookies from scratch this year for gifts for our family and friends. It must be the year of "homemade gifts" as we received a jar of pickles, applesauce, cheese and herbs return. It gave us a great feeling to send and hand out presents to others that we'd made with our own hands.

Anonymous said...

My experience in multi-person households is that everyone loves to cook, as long as they don't have to clean up or acquire the food or do the prep work on the CSA veggies. Otherwise, it's a time-consuming, repetitive, undervalued chore. Not an especially artistic or creative one, either - making rice and beans from scratch isn't more creatively satisfying than making mac n cheese from a box, once you know how.

That said, I learned to cook with/from Food Not Bombs, and the suite of skills that fosters - knowing damaged food from spoiled, having a repertoire of flexible recipes, knowing which extra spices will enhance and which is one too many - are incredibly useful. And so is the confidence that you can do things like look at the ingredient list on a processed food and recreate it pretty well.

And those are all things we have to work on now, while we have the extra food to spare on learning.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it really is laziness that prevents people from cooking their own food. The other day over the phone I walked a somewhat sick male friend of mine through making soup with ingredients he had in his house. He had a pretty nourishing soup in about 15 minutes. If I hadn't done that, he'd have gone for some sort of frozen microwaveable thing. Makes me shudder.

In his case, he's retired so time isn't an issue. He's been single for the last 17 years so knows how to do simple cooking - I've seen him do it. But for now, despite the fact we shared a CSA subscription this summer and he is fully aware of PO and CC, he can't be bothered to pull together a meal from foods he already has.

I think he's the exception. But it still annoys me.

If your friends are astonished by scratch made cookies, try this on some of your better friends sometime. Offer to cook them a "pantry surprise" dinner for them. In essence, you come over to their home and cook a meal based on what foods you find. Extra points for making it up as you go. I've done this three times with three different friends and every single time the food was tasty and the amazement level high.

A note of warning: Because you don't want to turn into a kitchen squatter you'll have to avoid long prep items like dried beans. Also, you can't freak out when you see nothing but stuff in boxes. The point is not only to work with what there is but to make it into something else - especially if there are lots of canned and boxed items. I made a very tasty asparagus sauce from canned asparagus (ew!), brown mustard and a bit of honey. Lucky you if they have fresh vegies and fruits. No matter what you come up with, most folks will be delighted to eat it.

I've tried this on myself and it doesn't work. I guess that's because I have certain foods that I keep around all the time so there's no challenge. Also, I cook most of my meals from scratch - the meals I don't are ones I eat at restaurants. Which isn't all that frequently, actually.

Food is fun. Cooking seasonally can be fascinating and I wish more folks would be as interested as I. I learned to cook because I wanted to eat food that tasted good anytime I wanted. I haven't always been successful but that's how you learn stuff. I hope to pass on my enthusiasm to others - it's a skill we'll all need soon.


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Anonymous said...

I am another long time reader / first time commenter. (At least I don't recall commenting before.) As usual, another great post! The over-reliance on prepared food products really bothers me as well. We do use some convenience foods (mostly condiments), but are slowly but surely learning to make everything from scratch.

We are going through a very rough time financially right now and so were given a box of food, including a can of sausage gravy with a "recipe" on the back - open a tube of refrigerated biscuits and cook as directed; meanwhile heat gravy in microwave; serve gravy over biscuits. My 15yo son and I got a huge laugh out of that "recipe" but were saddened at the same time at the state of cooking in this country.

Blessings ~ Diane

Anonymous said...

Here's a quick, one pot, mostly local meal I've been doing a lot lately.

-cous cous (non local)
-1 can green beans
-1 can diced tomatoes
-some diced up deer sausage
-any other vegies or meat that is cooked can be added or substituted
-seasoning (whatever floats yer boat, lately i've been doing a cajun mix, if you are uninspired: salt, peper, and garlic)

Toss them in a pot (canned liquid too) and cook till done.

15 min, not including the time to can the vegies

jewishfarmer said...

Just FYI, I don't want to give the false impression I'm morally pure in the food department - hardly. In fact, when we first learned about peak oil, we stocked up heavily on supermarket staples, and we're still eating them, mostly because they are now expired, and we can't donate them. The problem is that we don't *like* canned peaches much, but we do own them and eat them. And there are things - cheerios, popsicles, nutella, peanut butter, etc... we buy like everyone else. We're not perfect - so don't think I'm judging anyone on this subject.

In fact, we ran out of ketchup, which I do make, because I quit canning tomatoes way too early this year for book reasons. So we recently bought some, and my 6 year old said, "Mom, this is way better than yours!." Which put me properly in my place.


Marnie said...

You are so right to point out the time factor, Sharon. I earned a university degree, worked some in my field, am now at home with our little one, and although my friends jokingly/admiringly say how impressed they are by all the homemade cooking going on around here, when they ask the usual "but how do you do it?" I'm almost reluctant/ashamed to say: "by always making sure I'm at home around 3:00 so that there is enough time to have dinner ready by 5:00".

Anonymous said...

My kids do the same thing - they comment either that my food is waaay better than restaurant meals or that we should just buy food because the meals are so bad. One extreme or another!

I plan on most meals taking about 3 hours to make. When I have time (kids happy and house in order), meals are no problem. However, when I am in the midst of trying to balance cranky kids, grading papers, and picking up the chaos following the tornado of children, then I want to turn to an easier (faster) meal. Do you think that some of us try to do too much and then fit in cooking as an after thought - and thus not able to take the time necessary to cook/learn to cook

Anonymous said...

As a single mom always on the edge of not having enough food to last the week (Mommy's not hungry tonight Honey, you go ahead and eat mine). Constant worry over which bills to pay this month and which bills can wait. I used to dream of food- fancy dinners, buying whatever I wanted to eat at the store, going out to resturants. I didn't dream of clothes, vacations or nice cars and houses, just food.
When I left destitution and entered the lower middle class I stopped eating "poor people food" (As G-d is my witness, I'll never eat rice and beans again!) Opps! Spoke to soon. I'm teaching my son and niece to cook healthy inexpensive meals- yes, mostly rice and beans.
Anyway, I think a lot of people feel the way I did. That poverty and "poor people food" go together and hate the thought of eating that way because it reminds them of desperate times. I guess they'll get over that just like I did. I actually like rice and beans now ;-).


Anonymous said...

Good post.What type of grinder do you have? I have a moderate green thumb when it comes to growing dry corn (if dh gets area ready for me).I told him I am desparate to grow corn as feed for my chickens. Chicken feed is getting expensive. I'd also like to make corn flour and I'd like to learn to make is it hominy? Corn soaked in lime and cooked or dried.

How do you make cream of tarter from grapes! I like to make angel cakes and c of t is kind of expensive. You can sustitute an acid like vinegar for the c of t though or so I've read and seems to work. I've also whipped the eggs without c of t and they are also fine (backyard chickens though).

LOL about ketchup :). My youngest ds a long time ago when about five ish said my potatoes were better than the restaurants :).

Beth in Massachusetts

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have been on a 100-mile diet (with a few specified exceptions) for two months, and I am certainly cooking more, but very seldom spend as much as an hour prep time on a meal.

I've been making yogurt and kefir from our local dairy's milk, which comes in handy for recipes.

You can use baking soda instead of baking powder if you use buttermilk/yogurt/kefir as the liquid, because it has its own acid to activate the baking soda.

I've been cooking and pureeing pumpkin (and we get those yummy roasted seeds you can get nowhere else), which takes some time, but then you are set with jars of pumpkin.

Really Easy Foods:
Cole Slaw: cut cabbage fine, or use Napa. Add slivered carrots or other veggies. In a jar, shake together buttermilk/kefir/yogurt (your choice), a little olive oil, a few herbs, a little salt; pour over and stir. Done!

Spiced apples: core and cut up four apples, add a tablespoon of butter and a little cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg (or your choice). Simmer 10 minutes. Dish up. If you have heavy cream to put on top, it is really ambrosia. Why bother with pie crust? (especially if you need to grind the flour :-)

Pureed parsnips and carrots: Peel and chop 2 parsnips and 1 carrot. Put in pan with milk to not quite cover. Simmer till tender (maybe 10-15 minutes). Pour into blender, puree. Add more milk if too thick. Season with salt and pepper and butter. Done! My hubby, not a vegetable lover, loves this.

I've been fixing big pots of soup that we can make lunches and dinners from for several days. Also roasted chicken, the source of a multitude of tasty quick meals.

I guess I'm lucky to have a shelf full of cookbooks from older days, with hardly a processed ingredient mentioned. The Joy of Cooking is still out there. Mollie Katzen's books are readily available. I like the Monastery Soups book. Soups are super! Use those CSA veggies, bits of meat, fresh herbs; satisfying, filling, and not time-consuming.

Lynnet from Colorado

Anonymous said...

It is relevant that people today live in much smaller family units. Cooking and baking entirely from scratch, with all the prep and clean-up work, consumes several hours per day. Even a full-time housewife will find that burdensome if she must also provide such services as cleaning and laundry or even the making and repair of clothing.

However, if multiple domestic workers are available, kitchen tasks can be shared, or one person can handle the cooking while another does the cleaning. Also, it takes longer to cook for twelve people than for three, but not four times longer, so the net effort required to feed each person is reduced. (Restaurant cooking is actually pretty efficient.)

Farmers used to handle this by having ten kids and making them work, but that is not a sustainable approach. To me, this is a powerful argument for multigenerational housing or cohousing to reduce the per-person burdens of domestic work. In many agricultural societies a woman's lot has been unpaid hard labor every day from before dawn till after dusk, and that's a paradigm we need to avoid at all costs.


Anonymous said...

It must be a joke: looking for a recipe for cake?!

In case this really is serious, here's the traditional Dutch version of (pound?) cake. Made for years by my grandmother, mother and myself:
200 gr. butter
200 gr. sugar
200 gr. flour
4 eggs
combine butter and sugar and stir until creamy (about 3 minutes). Then add the eggs one by one, beating them in completely before adding the next one. When done, beat for about 10 minutes more to make the cake light and airy. Then carefully fold in the flour, stirring as little as possible. Bake for 1 hour at 150*C.

When done completely by hand, this is a good workout recipe ;-)

Don't know how to make cake! LOL!

Anonymous said...

Hey Sharon, not-quite-enjoyable-plain canned peaches make an excellent base for sweet rolls.

Puree or mash them, add yeast & flour, let rise, either make them into cinnamon spirals or little round rolls with a citrust & sugar (or reserved-liquid & sugar) glaze on them. If you use the syrup from the can for glaze, you have to add some milk or water to the dough.

I had a roomate whose favorite food was canned fruit salad. When he got called up to active duty, we ended up using all that nasty fruit salad to make confetti rolls, which are much less nasty.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post that I really needed!

I'm used to cooking from scratch (e.g. flour, eggs, sugar, beans, farmers' market veggies, but not homegrown stuff), but I learned a hard lesson when we signed up for a winter CSA this year. We could not keep up with the vegetables, and I was disgusted by what we threw away. There were mustard greens we couldn't get ourselves to eat, countless carrots that rotted before we could get to them all, and changes in eating habits that we needed to make (more potato- and less grain-based meals, regular applesauce eating instead of other deserts or snacks).

It really made me realize how much we need to work on and just how difficult this local, in season, from scratch eating idea is going to be for people. I feel educated, enjoy cooking, and was eager to try this out and it was still hard for me!

Mrs. R said...

As far as recipes and learning to cook in the way we will have to, try to find antique cookbooks. I got a box of books at an estate sale that included an 1880s cookbook and a 1915 one. As a rule, the recipes are far less strict, more like methods or guidelines, and almost every recipe uses unprocessed ingredients. The older one is formatted in such as way as to A)use seasonal ingredients, and B)make use of leftovers. I love it! ...despite some of the stranger dishes, using animal parts I never intend to eat. But who knows? That infomation just might come in handy someday! ;)

Anonymous said...

Ah, an idea is hatching!!! Combining the serene sense and knowledge I gained from your newer "Hallowing" post... with this wonderful post... I'm thinking of a wonderful way this "lots-of-time, low-strength/energy grandma" can help families in the near future.

FIRST ! I have to become a much better cook and user of local resources... then I think a lot of us older folks can use our knowledge and time by helping out younger families with cooking and learning to cook.

Not that a "Grannie Brigade" is really a NEW idea. Just one that needs to reappear I'm thinking.

Multi-generational support will be more and more important in the coming days and changes, don't you all think?

Misi, Pacific Northwest

Anonymous said...

I found this (probably unintentionally) a very funny post - I started chuckling at about the point when you started grinding the second bunch of flour. Your earnest efforts being in such obvious contrast to the "quick and easy" mission. (Also because whenever we eat out and it takes a long time, my dad usually says, What, are they grinding the flour for my pie??)

You're so right, though. I remember in high school 20 years ago bringing in some homemade brownies and a classmate angrily challenged me, saying it was "not possible" to make brownies other than from a box. She truly believed it.

If Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray's quick and easy solutions strike you as dissembling, I can't imagine what you think of Sandra Lee's "Semi Homemade" (though, I don't think you have cable, and I'd be surprised if she expected her viewers to read).

Mrs. R said...

Oh, I SO hate Semi-Homemade... just admit it's from a box already!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sharon,

"The subject of the book is all of the agricultural acts we will need to undertake to survive and thrive in the coming decades.."

Looking forward to your new endeavour...hoping you will also include gauging qty of food to put by for different size families etc. Am just reading David Holmgren's book, page 62 and am struck by his description of most people who are part of the "drip-feed culture", not knowing how much to keep on hand as we transition to seasonal eatery, cooking from scratch as well as food budgeting.


steve said...

Recipes are nice for special occasions, but 70% of my meals consist of the following (and OK, yes, I'm not counting the time spent growing rice, pureeing tomatoes or making pasta here):

Boil water.
Put rice / pasta / potatoes in water.
Peel / chop up veg (in different shapes, sizes and combinations from yesterday..).
Put veg in pan with oil or water - starting with the ones that will take longest to cook and working down.
Put in spices or herbs or sauce or all of the above.
Put food on plate.
Eat food.

Max 20 minutes every time. 10 years in and I'm still not bored!

The point: I think recipes put a lot of people off when all they really need to know is the basic principles of cooking, i.e. add heat and food. Then play around until - well, you never stop playing and you never stop learning. Once you have the basics down you can start to pick up recipes, pies, cakes etc in your own time.

From the lion's mouth said...

By sheer coincidence, I made scones for dad's birthday last week, and substituted baking soda with cream of tartar for baking powder because we'd run out. Works fine, I can report.

I'm amazed that so many American recipes seem to contain processed things like cans of this, and packs of that - Australian recipes don't tend to, perhaps if you're looking for from scratch recipes you should use instead of I always find tons of things when I search (also in my many recipe books, and we nearly always cook meals at home, from scratch (although not quite as from scratch as grinding my own flour)).

I have some fantastic vintage recipe books from the 50s and 60s - they have some great recipes for using up sour milk and stale bread for example, which you really don't get these days.

Anonymous said...

I am 60 years old and have cooked from scratch for decades much along Steve's lines. However, I am looking forward to learning how to cook using a solar cooker/oven.

Anonymous said...

I would love to have a cookbook that gives 'from scratch' recipes for commonly used prepared items. For example, my mother taught me how to cook with recipes that begin "Take one can of Cream of _____ Soup . . . " I would love to have a recipe for a from-scratch Cream of _____ Soup, so I can continue to cook these nostalgic recipes, but with fresh and local ingredients.

I'm sure these recipes are out there, but it would be nice to have them all gathered in one place. One book, full of recipes for things that most people buy in cans. Wouldn't that be great?

Anonymous said...

Sharon, I was thinking of you today. I wonder if the Quick & Easy Meal issue isn't the same as the cheap food issue in general - the general problem that lots of people's work, growing, picking, processing, and transporting is disregarded and undervalued to the point where it's not reflected in price. Maybe in the short term, on top of carbon taxes on transportation, we should make the minimum wage apply to farm workers and actually enforce it for factory workers in the industry.

I got a pressure cooker for Christmas! Hooray! Tonight we had dal and rice. The dal cooked for 20 minutes. (It took about 5-10 more to wash lentils and cut everything up.) Of course, somebody had to grow the rice and harvest it and dry it and haul it up here, where it doesn't grow. Same with the lentils - I've hand-harvested a few rows of legumes and fed them into a separator, and it's not fun. Let alone doing it without the mechanical separator. I actually don't mind weeding bean rows, but it's a ton of work too - how many lentils do you get off a quarter acre? Because one time I was in a 5 person crew that spent half a day on our hands and knees weeding pigweed vines out of a quarter acre of soybeans. That's not quick or easy.

Onions are a little less work, but someone had to plant and cultivate and harvest and clean and sort and store them.

I canned the tomatos myself, but I didn't grow them - they're from summer before last and I know the woman who grew them hand-watered every plant, every day, through a 6 week drought.

But anyway, tonight, the meal took an hour total(because rice takes an hour) with some cleanup time wedged in while stuff was processing.

Anonymous said...

Cream of _____ Soup . . . " I would love to have a recipe for a from-scratch Cream of _____ Soup, so I can continue to cook these nostalgic recipes, but with fresh and local ingredients.

Anything that requires a cream soup can be made with a white sauce: butter, flour, milk. If its cream of mushroom put in some mushrooms etc.

Whatever packaged product a recipe calls for can usually be decontructed (read the cans label).

For my CSA I write a weekly newsletter in which I included recips many call for canned this and dried that. For example the recipe may say one can of whole tomatoes I'll write next to that use x fresh tomatoes and I may go on to give instructions on how to remove the skin.

I also give instructions of freezing tomatoes etc. I have never canned tomatoes only frozen.

Canning so far for me is "vinegar" or "sugar" things, pickled or jams.

I have a few cans of salsa :).

Beth in Massachusetts

Anonymous said...

Tomatos are one of the few things still recommended for hot water bath canning (plain tomatos only) because they are so acidic. Canning is surprisingly easy, but it takes a long time compared to freezing, and is a lot of work compared to drying. But I think some things just taste a lot better canned than dried, and you don't lose your canned goods if the power goes out.

The USDA has excellent canning instructions online, and you can pick up hot water bath canning supplies at almost any thrift store.

Anonymous said...

i've only been gardening and cooking from scratch for the last 10 years and still do not have all my systems down, especially this time of year when the first step in everything includes digging veggies out from under the snow, and I am only cooking for two and maybe some guests. Last week I was able to gauge how many carrots, beets, potatoes, parsnips, collards and salad I needed for the full week, hopefully I will guess correctly for this next week.
I would like to start keeping notes on this whole process including pounds havested and time spent cooking, etc. Are you keeping notes? Any format you are using to keep track?
It is very wonderful to know people that understand the time commitment/lifestyle change it takes to eat local home spun meals. Most people just question what I could be doing this time of year.

salt lake city, ut

Anonymous said...

I have three excellent cookbooks that cover a LOT of "how do I make this item that is normally purchased ready-made". If your local library doesn't have them, the interlibrary loan will come to the rescue.

Look for:
Better than Store-bought. A cookbook of foods that most people never knew they could make at home - and without preservatives
by Helen Witty and Elizabeth Schneider Colchie
published in 1979 by Harper & Row

Cheaper and Better: homemade alternatives to storebought goods
by Nancy Birnes
published 1987 by Perennial Library

Make your own Groceries
by Daphne Metaxas Hartwig
published 1979 by Bobbs-Merrill

In addition, big fat all purpose cookbooks have lots of hidden stuff but you have to go through the index carefully to find them. Laleche Leauge has a very nice cookbook that has lots of "I didn't know you could make that".

Teresa from Hershey

Anonymous said...

The missing link between foodstuffs and recipes is called "cuisine". Traditional regional cuisines were a collection of recipes built upon locally grown foodstuffs. That is what we have got to build.

We have gotten used to the idea of being able to prepare ANY recipe, using ANY foodstuffs. Subtract out foodstuffs that are not locally available, and that knocks out a lot of recipes, too. Rather than trying to adapt the recipes, maybe the more sane approach is to just let go for them. You don't go to Italy for Japanese cooking, why expect to recreate both of them in your own kitchen.

We do have a start toward a number of regional cuisines in North America. These have been mostly submerged for the past few decades, but they are still there under the surface, just awaiting rediscovery.

A good project for people would be to re-discover their regional cuisine. What recipes were commonly prepared and eaten by people in your local area BEFORE airlifted refrigerated foods and chain restaurants became the norm?

There are advantages in this. For example, in my area of the southern Appalachians (which has a very well-defined regional cuisine, btw), folks never did eat tortillas. Thus, no need for a tortilla press in our kitchens.

One does give up some variety in one's diet by focusing mainly on one's own regional cuisine. However, there is something to be said for specializing on a smaller number of regional classic recipes and getting REALLY good at making them.

WNC Observer

Anonymous said...

There is another issue related to poverty (or even low to moderate incomes) and from scratch cooking in cities.

Many city dwellers live in apartments with endemic insect problems that fail to respond to even heroic cleaning regimens. Roaches are able to live within walls between apartments and in the void spaces under streets and around plumbing. In many areas (like where I live) they have been exposed to pesticides for so long that they have developed resistance to most poisons. They move into dark spaces like refrigerator mechanisms, the space under stove burners(I lift my stove top to clean underneath almost every time I cook), inside microwaves, and into any food supply that is not aggressively sealed against them.

What does this have to do with cooking? It is very difficult to cook when every step in the cooking process requires vigilence against insects. Cut vegetables must be immediately sealed into a container rather than left on a countertop while meat is cut. Foods that are not ordinarily refrigerated, like bread, onions, and potatoes, are placed there to keep insects from eating them. This reduces the shelf life of some items.

Worst for real do it yourself cooking, any item that must rest uncovered is a real challenge. Homemade yogurt, breads that need to rise, even cakes and cookies that just need a half an hour to cool uncovered on a counter are vulnerable to contamination.

The mere presence of yucky bugs all over the kitchen discourages cooking as it makes the kitchen an unpleasant place to be. My own kitchen is not as bad now as it has been, but I only work a dozen hours a week (home with a child while my husband works days), but that's only because I spend a lot of time hunting down and removing food supplies. How many working poor mothers of toddlers have the time to wipe down their counters three times a day or more, hand wash dishes religiously as they are made dirty, sweep and wash the floor on hands and knees every day to get the corners, and vacuum at least every other day to keep food out of the rest of the house? (Hand wash dishes because dirty dishes sitting in a dishwasher are essentially a buffet table set for bugs.)

I think that people will learn to cook more for themselves, but it is likely that they will first gravitate to "no-brainer" natural foods like winter squash, baked potatoes, stir fried vegetables with rice, and we will probably see a lot less bread on the menu.

Which makes me wonder if one of the problems we will begin to see is protein deficiencies, as the high protein grains and legumes are often less familiar and require more preparation.

Or maybe we'll just eat the roaches. ;P

Anonymous said...

You write beautifully, Sharon. I'm glad I found your blog. I have trouble juggling the notion that we are in a serious time crunch with the fact that the average family watches 20 hours of television each week. The key to being able to become more self=sufficient may be exactly what you touched on - like our grandmothers, we need to think about our food at at time earlier than 20 minutes before dinner.

Enjoy life, you are blessed! said...

I grew my first garden this year. My solution was soup when I was faced with garden level abundance of a few veggies.

I thought of all the households in the middle ages brewing a pot all day in the fireplace in a huge black kettle.

On a weekend, I washed, and cut the garden veggies and placed in pot. The "bad" spots and stems went in my compost pile.

The soup boiled on the back burner through the day as needed. I threw in meat or items from my fridge that were near spoilage. After the soup was finished, I added sour creme, cheese, flour, cornmeal or whatever was already in my kitchen to transform the soup into a filling meal.

The excess soup was packaged in individual plastic containers and placed in my freezer to later microwave as a single meal whenever desired.

I am eating my soup through the winter now whenever I need quick food.

As a working mother, weekend cooking and freezing is a time solution. Soup is a low skill solution to cooking what you have from your garden.

A great cookbook is The Complete Food Allergy Cookbook. Author: Marilyn Gioannini.

She covers how to bake without eggs, wheat, etc. to avoid allergic foods. In the process, she creates a masterpiece of how to substitute ingredients. She explains food chemistry as to what the allergic ingredient adds to the recipe and why the substitute can add the same function to the recipe. (Such as gluten acting an a binder in wheat flour for which tofu or eggs or other flours plus an added ingredient can substitute including how to make your own flour in your blender)

Sharon,I love you and your blog. I loved hearing you speak in gorgeous Yellow Springs this year. Surely Americans will remember boiling when hungry and faced with garden excess.

Anonymous said...

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