Showing posts with label Cooking from Scratch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cooking from Scratch. Show all posts

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Make & Can Your Own Cranberry Sauce for Holiday Gifting

It’s amazing to me that some people actually prefer canned cranberry sauce to homemade.  I suspect much of the claimed preference for it is irony from the same folks who order PBR in a craft brewery, but it’s not all that: my own sister-in-law truly wants a log of the canned stuff on the Thanksgiving table.  Once a dish gets on that table, it becomes part of the family tradition. Whether or not anyone likes it or even actually eats it, it’s just got to be on that table until the end of time.  Woe be unto the host who decides to stop making great-grandma's black-cherry-jello-with-canned-black-cherries-in-it just because great-grandma was the only one who ate it and she's been dead fifteen years and now it just sits there looking sad and gets thrown into the compost heap every Sunday-after-Thanksgiving.  But I'm not bitter.  
You can't change tradition, but you can add new ones: our Thanksgiving table contains BOTH my own homemade sauce and the canned stuff my mother-in-law probably switched to sometime in the 1950s.

Why she or anyone ever switched is inexplicable to me, because there can be no comparison between grainy red Jello in the shape of a can and real cranberries cooked from fresh.  And there’s no excuse, either: of all the traditional dishes on the table, cranberry sauce is hands-down the easiest and quickest.  Prep time is about three minutes, and the sauce can be made days ahead so all you have to do on Turkey Day is put it into a serving bowl.  But switch they did, and in large numbers.  Ocean Spray sells 72 million cans of the stuff every autumn, a can for 2 out of 3 households.

So let’s see what we can do about switching them back: let’s gift them homemade cranberry sauce.  If you give it to them as a beautifully-presented handmade gift, they’ll probably at least try it, right?

So: easiness?  How easy is this:  You put cranberries in a pot with sugar and some spices, bring it to a boil, lower to a simmer, and let it cook ten minutes, stirring occasionally.  Yes, that’s the entire process.

Cranberry Sauce
makes ~10 pints
6 pounds cranberries (if you can't find bulk berries, 8 12-oz bags equals 6 pounds.)
4 cups orange juice
8 cups sugar
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 t allspice
1/2 t cardamom
1/2 t nutmeg

Place all ingredients into a large pot, bring to a boil, lower to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cranberries pop -- about ten minutes.

What we’re going to do takes it one step further: we’re going to, er, can the sauce.  Go ahead, laugh, but OUR sauce isn’t going to slither out of the canning jar in a gelatinous sliceable mass.  And it isn’t going to contain high fructose corn syrup, either.

Canning instructions:
  1. Fill your canning kettle with 7" of water, place canning rack into the kettle, and bring to a boil on your highest-heat burner turned on high.  Leave it on the boil.
  2. Sanitize 10 pint jars (I usually just run them through the dishwasher.)
  3. Keep the jars hot by pouring a little water into each, setting them into a 13x9 pan with an inch of water in it, and sticking the whole thing into a warm (170 - 200 degree) oven.  
  4. Working with one jar at a time, pour water out of jar, then ladle the hot cranberry sauce into the jar, pushing cranberries down gently into the liquid so they aren't sticking up and adding extra liquid if necessary to cover them.  Leave 1/2" of space between the top of the liquid and the rim of the jar.  A canning funnel (a funnel with a wide bottom) is very helpful to prevent spillage.
  5. Wipe the rim with a damp cloth, place a lid on it, and screw on the ring just until you feel resistance.  You don't want the rings on tight -- they're only there to keep the lids in place while the batch processes, and tightening them can prevent a seal from forming.
  6.  As you fill the jars, set them into the kettle on the rack.  You'll need a pair of tongs for this; canning tongs are extremely helpful in grasping the jars securely.
  7.  Repeat until you've filled the kettle.  Cover, and when the pot returns to a boil, start timing.  After five minutes at the boil, remove the jars and allow to cool on a cookie rack.  You should hear the lids pop as the seals form, and when you look at the lids they'll appear very slightly pushed-in.  Any jar that doesn't form a seal should be refrigerated and used within a few weeks. 
  8. Allow to cool 24 hours before removing the rings, wiping the jars and lids clean with a damp cloth, and labeling. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Long-Simmered Roma Beans with Ham Hock

At Montgomery Farmers' Market this past weekend I bought a quart each of yellow and green Roma beans (also known as Italian green beans, Romano, or flat beans) from White Oak Valley Farm and a ham hock from TS Farms.  This is one of my favorite after-market dishes.  I've made it nearly every week since the Romas started coming in.  It's simple and while the cooking time is long, the prep is quick. 

Long-Simmered Roma Beans with Ham Hock

2 quarts Roma beans (I love it when I can use yellow and green -- they look pretty together.)
1 t olive oil
1 c finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 ham hock
1/4 t cayenne (optional)
1/4 t salt plus more to taste
Ground black pepper to taste

Snap the stem end of the bean off.  The other end you can leave -- it's the end with the little curl on it like this (I forgot to photograph a raw bean, so this one had already been cooked):

Then snap each bean into pieces about 2" long.

In an 8-quart pot, heat oil and saute onions and garlic until the onion is translucent.   Add the beans, the ham hock, 1/4 t cayenne, and 1/4 t salt.  (Don't oversalt at this point -- the pork hock contains some salt, too, which will be released into the broth as the beans cook.) I usually start the onions and garlic, then once they're cooked I turn off the heat and just snap the beans right into the pot.

Fill with water to barely cover the beans (if the ham hock is sticking out, no worries -- just turn it over a couple of times during the cooking process), bring to a boil, lower to a gentle simmer (you want to see the smallest amount of bubbling you can manage while still seeing some bubbling), and let simmer for 3 hours -- yes, THREE HOURS -- adding additional water as needed to keep the beans barely covered.

Amazingly Roma beans won't turn mush with this length of cooking.  They just become very tender. 

Once the meat has pulled away from the bone, remove the hock from the water, pull the meat from the bones, and shred the meat, removing any fat or gristle.

Return the shredded meat to the pot to continue cooking.  Taste and add fresh ground black pepper plus additional salt if needed.  Serve beans in their 'pot liquor' -- the broth.  I like to serve it with a salad and good bread to mop up the broth for a rustic light (and very cheap) dinner.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Green Bean Delivery: a Review

Recently I was contacted by Green Bean Delivery, a local service offering delivery of fresh produce and prepared foods to your doorstep, asking if I would review their service.  Full disclosure: Green Bean provided a one-time free delivery of one of their bins of produce and prepared foods. 

Green Bean Delivery operates in Cincinnati and multiple surrounding cities with a mission of making healthy and sustainably grown local food affordable, accessible, and convenient.  The concept is simple: for each delivery, a customer goes online to make any changes to that week's default order, adding extra items as they choose.  The orders are packed into insulated bins and delivered the customer's doorstep, allowing busy people and those with limited access to fresh produce and high-quality prepared foods to access these items.  The company was a 2007 startup in Indianapolis and has spread to Cincinnati, Louisville, and Columbus. 

Green Bean set up a default single-time produce order for me and asked me to log in to customize it.  Then they selected several of their prepared-foods vendors' products and added them on.  

There was initially some confusion over when the bin would be delivered.  The interface asked me to choose a week, and on July 7th I chose the week of July 16th to give me time to go in and customize the produce bin ahead of time.  But on July 9th, I got an email saying my bin would be delivered July 11th.  I emailed back to point out that on the form I’d indicated I wanted the bin the following week, and that I hadn’t had time to customize my bin yet.  They fixed it and all was well. I suspect the confusion was caused by the fact I was not a new regular customer (who I'm sure generally want their bins to start right away) but was receiving a single special order, so it may not hold true for new customers in general, but I found the process a little confusing.  

The default order for July contained limited local (which their website defines as from Indiana, Kentucky, or Ohio) produce -- cabbage, bell peppers, summer squash, and cucumbers.  As locally-produced food is my primary interest and I placed my order when local produce season was in full swing, I would have loved to see a default order that focused on local, seasonal items rather than on produce that was being sourced from further away.  

By customizing the bin, I switched out the non-local items the default bin contained to instead choose local sweet corn, new potatoes, bibb lettuce, and kale, but it would have been nice if these were in the default bin.  I would also have liked to see more locally sourced produce among their offerings -- the farmers' markets had a lot more than just cabbage, peppers, squash, cucumbers, corn, potatoes, bibb lettuce, and kale in mid-July.

Having their online interface default to locally-grown items would also help educate people on what's in season locally.  They note in their online descriptions which items are local, but to me it felt as if there was an education component lacking.  If the default setting were the locally-produced items, it would encourage people to at least think about using those items while still allowing the haters out there to choose bell peppers instead of kale.  I suspect a lot of people think of Green Bean Delivery as similar to a CSA -- I know I did -- and it's really not focused as much on sourcing local produce as I'd assumed.  

The prepared-foods items they selected for me were intriguing.  Some vendors -- Fab Ferments, for example -- I'm familiar with, but I'd never tried their Cosmic Curry Sauerkraut.  (Delicious, as is most everything I've tried from this terrific artisan fermented foods maker.)  Others were new to me but also very good -- the Frog Ranch Hot and Spicy Pickles were fantastic, crisp and garlicky, and the Five Star Foodies Artichoke Burgers was something I'd seen around but never tried because while I like artichokes and I like veggie burgers, "artichoke burgers" just never sounded appealing.  But they turned out to be much better than I expected -- I'd definitely try them again.  Green Bean also included Sweet William's Bakery breads, Dean Farm chicken breasts, Seven Hills coffee, Carfagna's vodka pasta sauce (the only thing I haven't gotten around to trying yet, as it's been too hot for pasta), Grateful Grahams Cinnamon Raisin Graham Cracker Bites (get thee behind me, Satan!  These are like crack!), Carriage House Farm honey, Hartzler Family Dairy milk and butter, and Blue Jacket Dairy chevre. All were uniformly excellent products and delivered in excellent condition with perishables well-chilled. Likewise the produce I received was well-packed and fresh and arrived in excellent condition.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Cooking Classes

Jolene Struebbe, an adjunct culinary instructor at the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State and after school cooking instructor at Norwood High School, is offering a series of classes stressing the use of local, seasonal and cleanly grown ingredients. 

Quiches and Tarts
Monday April 5 or Monday April 19
6 - 9pm
Learn to make a homemade pie crust, form and fill the crusts to make a variety of seasonal and savory tarts, mini tarts, tartlets, free form tarts and quiches.  Class is vegetarian friendly.  $55.

Mother's Day Tea Celebration
Monday May 3, 6 - 9pm (if demand supports it, class will repeat Saturday May 8, 10am - 1pm)
Finger sandwiches, scones, miniature desserts.  $55.

Sensational Summer Entertaining
Monday June 21, 6 - 9 pm or Saturday June 26, 10am -1pm
Two complete menus: Southern Frogmore Stew, cornbread, fresh fruit trifle, fish tacos, farmers' market-inspired side dish, peach pie.  $65.

All classes held at Jolene's home in North Avondale.  For registration call Jolene at 513.221.4018 or contact her via email.

Monday, November 30, 2009

King Arthur Flour Bakers' Banter

King Arthur Flour has a fantastic scratch-baking blog, a boon to anyone trying to eat more locally -- which pretty much requires the willingness and ability to cook from scratch.  Their recipes are extensively tested, and as a (former) non-baker, I can attest to their excellence.  Each online recipe page also includes a link to a chat window where you can ask questions in real-time from their experts.  Well worth a visit.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Winter Squash Addiction: A Confession

Okay. I admit it. I can’t walk away from winter squash. I love ‘em. All types. All sizes. My sideboard is filled with pumpkins of varied lineage, also acorns, butternuts, spaghetti squash. And when I go weekly to pick up my winter CSA share, I feel compelled to buy one or two more squash over the few included in the share already. Perhaps it’s a way to stay connected to that bounty of fall, especially now that the stark winter weather is here and the trees are bare. Perhaps it’s because I love to eat any dish or baked good that has pumpkin or winter squash as part of its makeup. Soup, pasta, chili, muffins, pie, cake, pancake, pudding…..oh, stop me now!

Two days before Thanksgiving, my friend Kathleen and I pureed two types of winter squash to make pies. We sliced up a large musque de provence squash (otherwise known as fairytale), and roasted each slice until a fork slipped through the outer skin easily. Then into a food processor, into a custard, and, finally, into a homemade pie crust (courtesy of Kathleen!). We also halved a Long Island Cheese pumpkin (so named because of its resemblance to a wheel of cheese, pictured above) and roasted it. Looking at the two types of puree, it was apparent which would make the better pie. A taste test clinched it. The Long Island cheese puree had a creamy texture, golden color, and a sweeter taste. The fairytale was a more vibrant orange (oh, the beta-carotenes!), but a more watery texture and the taste, though good, wasn’t as sweet as the Long Island. We made pies from both, and while both tasted wonderful (oh, so much better than a pie from that fast-food restaurant I shall not name….), the Long Island Cheese pumpkin pie was heaven!

I am aware that not many people would choose to spend precious hours taste-testing pumpkin varieties right before Thanksgiving, but I skimp on the table decorations. (You guessed it: I put a few of the prettier squash in the center of the table and have done with it!) Anyway, I plan to use the gallons of winter squash puree in my freezer in just about every way I can think of. Kathleen suggested the pumpkin pancakes – I substituted the puree for mashed banana in one of our favorite pancake recipes, added cinnamon and a little ginger, and the kids couldn’t eat enough of them! We’ll make pumpkin bread to hand out to aunts, great aunts, grandparents, etc.. And I’m looking for a good pumpkin scone recipe…..

The one type of winter squash that I don’t puree and freeze is the spaghetti squash. These last a good while – though we’ve been eating ours weekly in a dish, Spaghetti Squash with Sausage Filling, that’s become a family favorite. Below is the spaghetti squash recipe. Enjoy!! I’m off to continue my winter squash odyssey......

Spaghetti Squash with Sausage Filling
1 spaghetti squash (3 ¾ - 4 lb), halved lengthwise and seeded
1 lb bulk Italian sausage
1 cup chopped bell pepper
1 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ cups marinara or tomato sauce
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Place squash halves, one at a time, with a little water in microwave safe container with cover slightly askew to allow steam to escape, cook on high for about 8 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork. Cool slightly. Meanwhile, sauté sausage, pepper, onion, and garlic in a skillet until sausage browns and vegetables are tender. Break up sausage with spoon. Mix in marinara sauce. Using a fork, pull out squash strands from shells. Mix strands with sausage mixture. Season mixture to taste with salt and pepper. Place in casserole dish and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese (alternately, you can leave skins intact and place filling into the shells for a fun presentation). Bake uncovered in a 400° oven for about 20 minutes, or until thoroughly heated and bubbly.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Last week was the final pick-up for my CSA’s summer season. It’s always (I admit) something of a bittersweet time. It’s usually a bit of pressure, once school and all the fall activities start, to find the time to fully embrace the farm experience. And by that, I mean putting in the hours on the farm and putting all those vegetables to good use on the dinner table. (I love to cook from scratch, I love to eat what I cook from scratch, but, let’s face it, it’s a time killer!) I freeze whatever takes minimal processing at this time of year - tomatoes, soybeans, greens, pesto. I have yet to make the foray into canning – though next year is my year. I’m sure of it. Really.

Anyway. Many of the vegetables in my share at this time of year keep for a good while. As I sit here, I’m looking at two Amish pie pumpkins, one very nice-sized musquee de Provence squash (that's the pretty squash pictured above!), a pink banana squash, and three spaghetti squash of a variety known as Hasta la Pasta (just love saying that). I can enjoy those in the weeks, and months, to come. Turnips and sweet potatoes will stick around. So, there’s more to look forward to.

And yet, at last week’s distribution, I found myself lingering. Buying extra. Chatting. One of my fellow sharers remarked how much will have changed when next season starts up in May, 2009. So true. I am a simple person. I can tell when I need to turn off the radio and put down the newspaper. Stop trying to make sense of it all. And head to my kitchen – where things do make sense to me. Not to get too esoteric, but it feeds my soul to create something in the kitchen that looks good, tastes good, and IS good for me. For me, it’s an antidote to the craziness of our 21st century lives. Like I said, I’m simple.

So this year seems like a good year to join the Winter CSA at Turner Farm (it’s a smaller, informal, relaxed version of the summer CSA with mostly greens and root veggies). I have a feeling I’m going to need that regular connection to the good kind of dirt and what grows out of it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Killer Canning, or How to Avoid Poisoning Anyone

Home canning is all the rage. Eating locally is in, and doing so year-round pretty much requires some kind of food preservation. No one's freezer space is unlimited, and home canning is a great way to preserve the harvest. It seems every food blogger is canning and offering recipes for the foods she's canned.

Unfortunately I'm seeing a large number of unsafe canning recipes posted on various food, recipe, and local eating blogs, and we aren't talking about just the kind of unsafe canning that gives you a few days of gastrointestinal misery. We're talking serious neurotoxins, botulism, paralysis, and death.

Here are a few key bits of knowledge, useful whether you're canning yourself or are the recipient of a home-canned gift.

Canning Fruits. In general, canned fruits are safe. Almost all fruits (exceptions include bananas, figs, and tomatoes) are high-acid, which means both that spoilage is less likely and that any spoilage is likely to be evident -- you'll see mold, or the jar when opened will have an off smell, or the seal will be broken. This is why so much home canning is about jams, jellies, marmalades, and other fruit spreads. HIgh-acid fruits are all safe to can in a boiling-water bath using a wide variety of recipes.

Canning Vegetables. This is where the serious food-safety issue comes in. All vegetables are low-acid foods and are unsafe to can in a boiling water bath unless sufficient high-acid ingredients, generally in the form of vinegar, bottled lemon juice, or citric acid, are added. The proportion of high-acid to low-acid ingredients must not be altered from that specified in the recipe. The problem is that often an experienced-cook-but-inexperienced-canner picks up a canning recipe and assumes her cooking experience can be used to adapt and improve the canning recipe. It can't.

Tested Recipes for Canning Vegetables. Unlike cooking recipes, which the cook can adapt to her own tastes -- increasing the proportion of one ingredient, omitting another entirely, using an unspecified technique such as sauteeing the veggies -- the canning of vegetables should be done using a tested recipe (that is, a recipe that has been tested by the USDA -- or the equivalent, in other countries -- and found to be safe for home canning) with no changes in the proportion of high-acid to low-acid foods. To be sure the recipe you are using is a tested recipe, use a trusted resource such as the Ball Blue Book (use a new edition, as canning recommendations have changed over the years), the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving , the Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving, or the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

When you discover a delicious-sounding boiling-water bath canning recipe online and think you'd like to try it, ask the person providing the recipe where he got it. (Most foodies are happy to talk about the source of their recipes and won't take this as an insult if you ask in a way that indicates curiosity rather than mistrust.) If he did not get the recipe from a trusted source, or if he adapted it in any way that changes the proportion of vegetables-to-acids, or if he added oils, fats, or animal products, don't use the recipe. Find another similar recipe from a trusted source and use that instead. The same goes for gifts of home canned vegetables, including combination recipes such as salsas, sauces, chutneys, and relishes. I cannot stress this enough. When canned vegetables go bad, one likely culprit is botulinum, which is the neurotoxin that causes botulism: if it doesn't kill you, it can leave you paralyzed. It is a seriously nasty bacteria and nothing to fool around with. Worse yet, unlike mold, you can't see, smell, or taste botulinum. The seal on the jar may not even be broken.

With the sharp increase in canning by inexperienced canners, we are likely also to see an increase in home canning-related food poisonings. Done properly, home canning is very safe and a great way to preserve the harvest so you can eat locally all year around. But do take the necessary steps to make sure you know what you're doing.

The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great resource for home canners, new and experienced alike. The recipes posted there are all USDA-tested and approved, and they have a ton of information for home canners -- even a complete home-canning course you can download in pdf form.

Your county extension service is an excellent resource for information about canning. Many are offering canning classes geared to new canners.

Another great resource for canners is the Harvest Forum on GardenWeb. You can search the forum archives to find answers to many questions.

Originally posted at Eat.Drink.Better.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

How did you learn to cook?

A lot of us learned to cook from Mom (or maybe Dad) and Grandma. Some of us learned in school, or in 4-H. I hit the trifecta -- I was raised by scratch cooks (thanks, Mom & Dad!), went to school at a time when every student was required to take Home Economics, and had a great neighborhood 4-H group, Penbrooke Pots 'n' Pins. Our long-suffering leaders, Mrs. Wokasien and Mrs. Bartol, probably did as much to drill into my brain the basics of cooking, baking, and canning as any other source, and I'm grateful to them to this day.

I love to hear how others learned to cook. Did you learn in school? An organized program like 4-H? Are you self-taught? Did you pick it up at your mother's knee?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Time, Money, Recipes: Experience is the answer

For most of us, our first foray into local eating immediately reveals three problem issues: time, money, and finding appropriate recipes. For all three, experience provides the lion's share of the solution.

Time. No two ways about it, using local ingredients requires cooking from scratch, and cooking from scratch requires more time than using convenience foods. Time to shop for local ingredients from a variety of sources instead of simply picking up prepackaged items at the supermarket. Time to prep and cook. Time to clean up after prepping and cooking -- while a supermarket frozen lasagna requires only the cleanup needed to store the leftovers, a homemade lasagna can require cleaning up cutting boards, bowls, knives, a cheese grater, a pot for cooking the sauce, and the baking pan.

Time issues become less onerous as your experience increases and you learn to think ahead. For instance, if you're making a pot of lasagna sauce, why not triple the recipe and freeze the extra in two recipe-sized portions? And once you've found reliable sources of local ingredients and develop the habit of thinking ahead, your time spent shopping will decrease immensely. But even the most experienced shopper and cook will never be so efficient that scratch cooking equals the convenience of simply unwrapping a package and sticking it in the oven. If food is a priority for you and your family, experience will help but time will always be a required element.

Expense. Until you learn when food items are cheapest (hint: when an item is in season, there's a lot MORE of it available) and unless you're prepared to buy those foods cheap and store them for later, eating locally can seem more expensive than conventional supermarkets.

But once you learn you can buy fresh whole chickens for $2 a pound from late spring through early fall while the same chicken purchased frozen in winter is $3.50/pound, you can buy fresh all summer, stock your freezer late in autumn, and roast a chicken once a week year around. Using that chicken's bones to make stock each week will actually save you money as you no longer need to buy commercial chicken stock.

The same goes for produce -- the time to buy tomatoes is from mid-August through late September when farmers are practically giving them away. Spend a few hours canning (there's that time factor again) on a late summer day and you can put up enough tomatoes and tomato sauces to see you through next July when tomatoes once again appear in the farmers' markets in abundance. If you've got a lot more time than money, consider picking your own.

(A personal note on a related subject: I've found that paying the true cost of meat instead of the government-subsidized supermarket price has encouraged me to treat it more as just another ingredient rather than as the star of the meal, which is a much healthier way to eat.)

Recipes. Eating locally requires finding recipes whose main ingredients are either in season together in your local area (such as green garlic and asparagus, both of which are in season in spring here in SW Ohio) or are easily stored well into the next season (such as butternut squash, which will keep for several months and so can be paired with other autumn-ripening items and with late winter/early spring items.) But in an age when most people have lost the knowledge of what's in season when and most cookbooks ignore seasonality completely, such recipes can be few and far between. Instead, many recipes call for ingredients that are wildly out of season with one another in most areas of the country.

There's actually a lot of help out there at places like Seasonal Chef and River Cottage, and I've found a lot of help from vintage (pre-1940) cookbooks, but once again it's a matter of gaining the experience: as you build your collection of good seasonal recipes, you'll find it becomes easier to feed yourself using local foods.

Don't be daunted when you're first getting started. Plunge on in. Each step makes the next step easier, and each bit of new learning builds on the last. Visit a farmers' market. Buy what's there in abundance. Ask the farmer if he has any recipes -- many of them have a stack with them somewhere in their stalls. And be ready to learn to think of food seasonally, the way your great-grandmother did.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What would you do with an unlimited food budget?

Inspired by this comment from Kelly and this one from Jen on a previous post about cooking from scratch, I thought I'd ask:

If you had an unlimited food budget -- that is, you could spend as much as you liked on feeding your family but had to spend it feeding yourselves and couldn't use if for any other purpose no matter how much you'd prefer to give it to charity or save it for a rainy day or buy other things -- how would you eat?

Would you eat nearly every meal in restaurants?

Order pizza or pick up Thai food most nights?

Buy convenience foods because that's what you really prefer?

Shop for the best ingredients and cook most meals from scratch?

Hire a personal chef?

I guess the bottom line is: how does our food budget affect our eating decisions? As food prices continue to increase (and prognostications say it's going to get worse), how will that change our food choices?

For me, my food budget is one of the less important issues in my food choices. That is, it affects the details (Chicken vs. beef? Hamburger vs. steak? Go meatless a few nights a week?) but there are other things I'd cut out before budgetary concerns spurred me to buy cheaper, lower-quality food.

And if I had a truly unlimited food budget? A personal chef sometimes sounds like a tempting idea, but then I remember I live in my kitchen anyway. I might as well cook. So even with an unlimited food budget, I'd probably do pretty much what I do now.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Because scratch-cooked food is just better, that's why.

I've been thinking a lot about cooking from scratch since I posted here. Eating locally pretty much assumes you're willing (and able) to cook from scratch. But it doesn't seem as if many people are actually cooking from scratch, and when they are it's not so much because they want the best food possible on their tables. I have a regular google search set up for the term, and every day I get a few new hits. And every day, by far the majority are for mentions of cooking from scratch for reasons of frugality, not for food quality or taste.

Why are so few people talking about cooking from scratch because scratch-cooked food is just better food?

It's better because you know all the ingredients. No butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is needed for freshness or calcium proprionate to reduce mold growth or any other food additives to make up for the fact the basic ingredients had no flavor or to improve texture or mouth feel or color or palatability.

You know the ingredients were top quality and in prime condition. As compared to prepared foods, which contain ingredients so highly processed you have no idea what condition they were in when they started down the assembly line. That whole chicken you bought at the farmers' market just looked fresh. What does chicken look like before it's made into Tyson chicken fritters?

You know how the ingredients were prepared because you prepared them. You know the tomato peels weren't removed by spraying them with carboxylic acid because you peeled the tomatoes -- or decided not to remove the peels. You know the person who diced your carrots wasn't coughing all over them because you diced them.

You know what proportions the ingredients were in. You tweaked the recipe to your own family's tastes -- you used more garlic, less cayenne, butter instead of olive oil, left out the tree nuts, added extra veggies, whatever. You didn't need to add MSG to make the recipe universally appealing because you only needed to appeal to a small group, not the entire country.

You end up with something on your plate that you know, intimately. You know it's good food because you made it that way.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Jamie Oliver: Scratch Cooking

Jamie Oliver, the British television cooking-show chef, is starting a new series in which he plans to teach people how to cook from scratch.

"We spend over £2bn a year on ready meals, and that's not even counting junk food and takeaways," said Oliver. "Millions of people up and down the country are really busy, they're on tight budgets, and no one has bothered to teach them how to cook. It's no wonder that the last thing they want to do at the end of the day is cook a meal from scratch."

He's taking his inspiration from the British government's hugely successful propaganda campaigns during World War II, which included the Ministry of Agriculture's Dig for Victory, a series of posters advocating planting home gardens, and the Ministry of Food's The Kitchen Front, a series of BBC radio shorts which through vignettes of life with the Buggins family instructed housewives in how to feed their families well despite food rationing.

"I hope that once people see how quick, cheap and easy - as well as rewarding - it can be to prepare good food for you and your family, the ready meals and takeaways will be straight in the bin."

Here at Cincinnati Locavore we're big fans of cooking from scratch, and not only because it's literally the only way to manage eating locally. Scratch cooking means knowing your ingredients and being able to pronounce them! So we'd love to see this series. Unfortunately the intense focus on the UK will probably keep it from crossing the pond, same as his Jamie's School Dinners series. Guess we'll have to wait for the DVD!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Finding an alternative to a 'Local Foods Pledge'

I've been asked by a group of folks who are putting together a local foods directory for Greater Cincinnati to write a 'Local Foods Pledge' to include in the directory. In general, I disagree with the concept, but I do want to help this group. So I'm trying to come up with something.

I'm thinking along the lines of providing a list of steps folks might take in trying to eat more locally, putting them into some general order of easiest and least time-consuming to most challenging, and then inviting folks to choose a point on the local eating scale they're going to aim for this year.

For instance:

Choose local over non-local when offered
Learn what produce is in season when
Switch to local honey & maple syrup
Switch to pastured eggs
Switch to local wines
Visit a farmers' market once a week
Add seasonal recipes to my collection
Freeze a frequently-used item during the season (berries, applesauce, tomatoes, corn, onions, peppers)
Can a frequently-used item during the season (preserves, tomato sauce, tomato paste, enchilada sauce, chile sauce, pickles)
Join a CSA
Purchase a side of grass-fed beef (or half a pastured pig)
Join a herdshare

This is just off the top of my head, and I'm not sure I have them ordered correctly. For instance, is joining a CSA, which requires a weekly trip to pick up the CSA box, more onerous than purchasing half a beef which then must be fitted into the home freezer? Is canning more of a challenge for most people than where I've placed it? Is visiting a farmers' market weekly easier than switching to local wines? I put 'switch to local honey and syrup' ahead of 'switch to pastured eggs' because I figure people only buy honey/syrup every once in a while but many buy eggs weekly, but maybe eggs are easier?

What other steps could folks take? Where would they fit into the scale?

All suggestions and advice gratefully accepted!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Scratch cooking: the new luxury dining?

From UCLA: this study of the time spent by Americans on basic household tasks.

The big surprise? Those relying heavily on convenience foods didn't save much time (they saved about 10 - 12 minutes per dinner, according to the researchers) over those using fewer convenience foods.

The non-surprise? Hardly anyone is actually cooking from scratch. Even those who were counted as doing 'home cooking' were mostly relying on preparing convenience foods rather than actually starting with a recipe.

"With almost all of the home-cooked meals, families served some sort of packaged convenience food. Frozen entrées (such as stir-fry mixes, potstickers, chicken dishes and barbecued ribs) were the most popular products, followed by vegetables (canned or frozen), specialty breads (ready-to-eat, parbaked or from mix), canned soup and commercial pasta sauce. [Researcher Margaret] Beck did not consider dried pasta and tortillas to be convenience foods, but she did count bagged salads and hot dogs."

Beck's study focused on 'working families,' which she defined as two-income families. I'd be interested in seeing if the same results would be found among families with at least one at-home spouse/partner. I can understand how families in which both spouses are returning home near dinner time would find it necessary to rely on convenience foods. Is a truly from-scratch meal now a luxury?