Going unprocessed this October

Do you know how, once a little thing or two have disrupted your routine, it can be incredibly hard to get back into that routine again?

It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted here, never mind blogged regularly. I haven’t been cooking much that’s interesting, so I’ve had a shortage of things to blog about. The past few months have been tumultuous. I left one job, and started another – and even though everything has gone smoothly, and I’m very happy in my new job, I’m only now settled in enough to feel my stress level  going down. Nathan has been embroiled in a massive project at his job. And on top of that, our basement flooded last month, then we had a hurricane and lost power for several days (surprisingly enough, the hurricane was after our flooding), and the repairs have only recently been finished.

With all that happening, cooking has been far down my list of priorities. But now, fingers crossed, I’ll have spare time and energy to devote to food again, and to blogging. Better yet, we’ve found a way to force ourselves back into our cooking-good-food routine: the Unprocessed October Challenge.

I learned about Unprocessed October last year, but didn’t feel like participating. But the idea is simple enough, and perfect for me right now: eat only unprocessed foods for the month of October.

What does “unprocessed” mean? It’s flexible (and you can make your own exceptions), but the founder of the event suggests: “Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.”

There are a lot of words in there that you could qualify or quibble over. Here’s what I want it to mean for me: cooking a lot, from scratch, using mostly whole and local ingredients. Eating nothing refined, no preservatives, no chemicals. Spending time in the kitchen, having fun, and maybe even making things from scratch that I would normally buy. As a bonus, I’ll eat healthier, because if I want something unhealthy, I have to make it myself, and with ingredients that are at least more wholesome than if I bought something processed.

It won’t be a drastic change in our habits… at least, not from what our habits were a couple months ago. We’ll be getting back into the comparatively good habits we usually follow.

We will make some adjustments, though, and lay down some new rules. We will read ingredient lists for everything we buy. If it has ingredients we wouldn’t have in our own kitchen, we won’t buy it. We’ll cook with whole grains. Most “white” food is out: no white flour, sugar, or rice. No corn syrup, high fructose or otherwise. No cookies unless we bake them, but also no store-bought granola bars or energy bars (which we usually keep on hand). For me, no visits to Kripsy Kreme, which my new commute takes me past every morning – no matter how long a day I expect to have. If we eat out (which should be rare), we’ll have to choose very carefully where we go.

Beer, wine, tea, and coffee are all okay, but a pumpkin latte from Starbucks is not. Store-bought tofu is probably okay. Store-bought seitan is probably not. Most cheese is fine (in fact, I make my own cheese regularly, and hope to do so this month). Chocolate will depend on the ingredient list. Spices, oils, and most other common cooking ingredients are fine.

I think avoiding white flour will be the hardest part. It’s not much of a problem at home, because I can happily cook with whole grains, but white flour is in almost every food you buy. Lunches and snacks will be difficult. (I expect to eat a lot of salads for lunch.)

We’ll also be making some specific, planned exceptions. We’re going to a lot of events month: one wedding, several parties, a 2-day conference for me, and a trip to the Renaissance Faire, where everything is guaranteed to be processed (and fried). I have no intention of starving myself or refusing food at these events.

Mostly, I’m looking forward to cooking and baking much more than I have been. I’d like to make things from scratch that I don’t normally make time for: homemade pasta, cheese, bread, granola bars, and maybe even seitan. If this experience forces me to cook more, it will be a win.

Posted in experiment, food in culture | 1 Response

Any-fruit cobbler

I think I have a cobbler problem. That’s the technical term for the condition I’m suffering from, which I just invented. I like how “cobbler problem” rolls off the tongue. Except, the name implies that having lots of cobbler might be a problem, for some reason, so it’s really a misnomer. Cobbler is a fruity, baked thing with a sweet biscuit topping, and really, no amount of it is too much.

Blueberry-Cherry-Vanilla Cobbler

I blame my cobbler obsession on my parents (hi, Mom and Dad!) – maybe it’s genetic, or maybe I just love it so much because they made it all the time when I was a kid. Either way, I’ve carried on the tradition.

Whether it’s a problem or not, I’ve been making a lot of cobbler this summer – at least three times so far. Three times that I can specifically remember: strawberry, raspberry/blackberry, and this weekend’s cherry/blueberry. There are sure to be more to come. Peach season is just starting here, and peaches make amazing cobbler.

There’s a lot to love about cobbler, and many reasons why it’s my go-to dessert when I want to bake something with fruit. Almost any fruit works in a cobbler, with few changes to the recipe, making it an easy way to use up whatever’s on hand. Berries and stone-fruit are the classics. (If you’re using a solid, dense fruit, like peaches, you probably want to pre-cook them for a few minutes with the rest of the filling ingredients. For more delicate fruit, like berries, you can just toss them in.) It’s far less fussy than a pie, and keeps better if you have leftovers (though it’s best eaten warm from the oven). It bakes in about 20 minutes, faster than any cake. It’s dead easy to throw together, and uses ingredients you probably have on hand. Beyond that, it’s delicious: warm biscuits, gooey fruit, what’s not to love?

Blueberry-cherry cobbler filling

These are the fruits from today’s cobbler: blueberries and cherries, with the cherries halved and pitted (which made this one more labor-intensive than usual).  I stirred the fruits together with brown sugar, some flour, and for a special touch, one scraped vanilla bean. I thought vanilla would complement the cherries well, and I’ve been looking for excuses to break into my vanilla bean stash. I can now happily recommend adding vanilla bean to just about any cobbler or fruity pie. The flavor is remarkably richer than just using vanilla extract.

This recipe is the one my parents always use, adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. It’s easy and reliable. You can improvise with the fruits and spices, using whatever you have on hand.

Any-fruit cobbler
Recipe type: Dessert
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 

Serves: 8
 

Ingredients
Filling
  • 4 cups of fruit (your choice)
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • ½ cup sugar (can be reduced if you prefer a less sweet version)
  • Seasonings of your choice: cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, lemon juice
Topping
  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup butter (or oil, but butter is better)
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1 egg

Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. If the fruit is large, chop it into pieces. Combine all the ingredients for the filling and pour into an 8-inch baking dish.
  3. Combine the dry ingredients of the topping, and stir well. Cut in the butter until you have pea-sized pieces or smaller. Then add the milk and egg, and stir just until the mixture comes together. As with pie crust or biscuits, you don’t want to over-work the dough – though it will be wetter than pie crust.
  4. Plop the dough by spoonfuls into the baking dish, on top of the fruit. Make sure you get good coverage, though it’s fine if some of the fruit peeks through. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling.
  5. Serve warm. It’s delicious on its own, but heavenly with a scoop of ice cream or real whipped cream. Refrigerate any leftovers, and warm them in the microwave before eating.

 

 

Posted in dessert, seasonal | Leave a comment

Using vanilla beans

I’m more of a planner than a doer. When I see a recipe I like, or think of a food I’d like to try, or a restaurant I want to go to, I will usually think about it for a few days or weeks before acting on it (sometimes making elaborate plans in the process).

Vanilla beans have been on that list for years. Whenever I see a recipe that calls for scraping a vanilla bean, I get excited. But whenever I look wistfully at vanilla beans in the store, the price tag is enough to keep me from getting them this time. And since I never have them on hand, I never cook with them.

Then Marisa over at Food in Jars posted a how-to on using vanilla beans, and it was like she was talking directly to me. I was that person who kept avoiding them because they’re expensive and intimidating, and she linked to a couple websites where you can buy vanilla in bulk so cheaply that it would be a crime not to buy it.

Four kinds of vanilla beans

So I took the plunge, and now I’ve got 40 vanilla beans in 4 varieties (which is approximately 40 more than I’ve ever owned before), and only a couple fledgling ideas of what to do with them. It’s a whole new territory in baking that I’ve never visited before. So I’m looking for help: what should I try? Do you have favorite ways to use vanilla beans?  Favorite recipes?

My first thought is to scrape one and mix it with the mascarpone I’ve got in the fridge, and eat it with strawberries. It should be hard to go wrong with that.

Posted in tips | 2 Responses

Thai Coffee Popsicles

It’s hot out.  I was away for the weekend at my college reunion, which was delightful in every way, including the weather.  Not so in DC. When I left last week, it was still spring. Now, with the temperature breaking 95 degrees this week, it’s officially summer.

I am not excited about summer in DC. But I have been inspired with some creative cooking in my attempts to keep cool.  Iced tea. Quinoa tabbouleh.  Kale slaw.  (More on that later.)  And especially popsicles.

Thai coffee popsicle

It’s hard to believe it was 2 years ago that I bought my popsicle molds, and raved about the possibilities of homemade popsicles. But this week, the day after I got back from my trip, I was mixing up a new flavor, inspired by my friends Thomas and Liz who carpooled with us. On the trip, Thomas told us that his favorite new thing was coffee ice cubes, which make the best iced coffee ever, because they don’t dilute the coffee as they melt.  I rarely drink iced coffee at home (though I occasionally indulge in a too-sugary icy thing from Starbucks), but freezing beverages makes me think of popsicles, and I started thinking that coffee pops sounded like a really good idea. Flavored coffee, like thai coffee, sounded even better.

There’s only one trick to making these, and that’s the sweetened condensed milk.  Not every liquid gives you the right consistency for a popsicle when you freeze it.  If you freeze tea straight (and I’m pretty sure coffee is the same), you get something you can break your teeth on, basically an ice cube.  The best you can do is suck on them as they slowly melt. Juices freeze better, presumably because their sugars break up the ice crystal. Same goes for the fats in milk and yogurt.  That’s the role that sweetened condensed milk plays here.

All ingredients are to taste – but they should taste strong, because all the flavors will be more subdued once the coffee is frozen.  Cardamom is the most traditional flavor, but I added a couple others to make it more chai-like.  You can also use tea or chai in place of coffee. This works best if you have your own popsicle molds (and I highly recommend them), but if you don’t have them, well, you’re a resourceful person; I’m sure you can find a way around that.

Thai Coffee Popsicles
Recipe type: Snack
Prep time: 
Total time: 

 

Ingredients
  • Strong coffee (enough to fill your molds)
  • Sweetened condensed milk (or milk and sugar)
  • Ground cardamom
  • Ground cinnamon (optional)
  • Ground cloves (optional)

Instructions
  1. Brew the coffee. Pour it into a bowl and let it cool slightly. Start stirring in sweetened condensed milk, a spoonful at a time. The color of the coffee will lighten dramatically. Keep adding until the coffee is a little sweeter than you’d want to drink – I used 3-4 tablespoons of condensed milk in about 2 cups of coffee, and that was more than I needed.
  2. Add cardamom and other spices to taste (again, just a bit stronger than you’d want to drink). Stir well, then let the coffee cool to room temperature. Stir it again before pouring into the molds, as the spices may settle to the bottom.
  3. Freeze overnight, or until solid. They’ll keep in the freezer indefinitely, but if your weather is like ours, they won’t last that long.

 

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I give up (on lettuce)

What’s a girl got to do to grow lettuce in the greater DC area?

Spring is a fleeting season in DC. If you blink (or, because of pollen allergies, you sneeze), you’ll miss it.  Case in point: I started experimentally sowing seeds for cool-weather plants, like radishes and peas, in February. The first ones that actually came up were in mid March, because before that, there were too many freezing nights.  I also bought some lettuce seedlings at a nursery, just so I’d have some.

But by mid April, in DC, we’re already having 80-degree days. Not every day, but it’s hardly uncommon.

The trouble with lettuce is that it’s a cool-weather plant, and if the weather gets too hot, even for a day, it bolts.  “Bolting” is a technical term for what members of the lettuce family do when they go to seed, and it’s very descriptive, as I’ve recently found.  I walked into my garden one afternoon this week to find that the central stems of my greens were all 6 inches taller than they’d been that morning.  A couple days later, the stems were taller still, and flowering.  They had bolted; it’s as if the plants all said “Dude, it’s hot out. Let’s get outta here.”  And away they went.

So if March is too cold, and April too hot, when oh when should I grow my lettuce?

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A cheerful outlook on the organic movement

I try to read the news and stay informed. Sometimes it’s hard to do it, especially lately, when I’d rather press my hands over my ears and talk to myself to drown out the news from the outside world. There’s war in Libya, the Republicans are convincing the country that health care reform is evil, and as for the sustainable food movement, we can’t even keep genetically engineered crops from contaminating organics.  Really, how do we get out of bed every morning?

So I appreciate Mark Bittman’s effort to put a positive spin on things, and remind us that not everything is so bad. Though change is slow and cumbersome, there are good things happening for the food movement. Not quickly. Not every day. And the changes that happen aren’t perfect. But over time, he says, things are getting better. And that makes me feel a little better about the world.

Posted in food politics | Leave a comment

Around the web on a Saturday

Mark Bittman must have read my post on oatmeal last week (he must have, right? Why else would he be thinking about oatmeal?), because he’s written a surprising post about oatmeal at McDonald’s.  Granted, it’s really, really hard for McDonald’s to do anything that surprises me – but would you have guessed that their version of oatmeal costs more than a double-cheeseburger, and has 21 ingredients to boot?  Ok, I could have guessed that, but it’s disappointing. You would think they could at least make it cheap, if they don’t make it good. He explains in some detail why eating oatmeal from McDonalds will never be faster, cheaper, or healthier than making your own oatmeal at home… and I couldn’t agree more.

Also in the New York Times, Michael Tortorello tries to start a garden with foods from his kitchen.  There are two “surprises” in this article that shouldn’t actually surprise you, if you think about it.  The first is that a whole lot of foods in your kitchen – spices, beans, fruits – are basically seeds, and you could in theory plant a bunch of them and make them grow.  (This is the same surprise I feel every time I open a seed packet of peas, beans, or dill: “Hey, this is the stuff I cook with!”)

Unfortunately, the second surprise is that most kitchen foods have been specially treated – irradiated, freeze-dried, etc – especially to keep them from sprouting and growing.  Some of the fruit has even been bred to have tiny, non-viable seeds.  That’s why you would bother to buy packets of seeds in the first place, instead of planting your spice collection in the ground: seeds are cared for so they’ll grow up to be plants; their kitchen counterparts are supposed to stay food as long as possible.  It’s logical, because food producers don’t want their products to start sprouting when they meet moisture, but it does mean that the food we eat has been removed rather forcibly from its own lifecycle.

The best way to plant your garden from your kitchen, is if your kitchen came from your garden.  Seed-saving is a big part of organic gardening and farming (though it’s too involved for me, with my tiny patio garden), and if you’re careful about how you grow your vegetables, you can in theory save their seeds for next year’s crop.

Have you ever tried saving seeds? What about planting food from your kitchen?  I can’t say that I ever have.

Posted in food in culture, gardening | 3 Responses

Our new kitchen

We did it!

We have our new kitchen! And when I say “we did it”, I mean “we survived with no kitchen for two weeks while builders did all the work.”  But it feels like quite an accomplishment. Plus, the builders did a much, much nicer job than we would have. It looks gorgeous.

(Secretly, I think the winners here are the cats, who were NOT PLEASED to be locked up all day while the builders were here, and they know we owe them one. They declined to be photographed for this post.)

As you saw from my last kitchen post, we replaced almost everything. New cabinets. New counters. New floor. New dishwasher and microwave. We even widened the entryway, making the kitchen much more open to the living room.

We went with wood cabinets, and granite countertops. The difference between this and the laminate countertops we had before… it doesn’t bear comparison.  There are lots of little nice things, too, like a deeper sink, and a much quieter garbage disposal – things we’re only just beginning to appreciate.

My favorite touch may be the floor. We decided on cork flooring, which came up when we were researching our options and didn’t really like any of them.  We had tile before, and it was cold and hard – no fun to stand on more than a few minutes. We weren’t eager to get tile again. The alternatives, like laminate or linoleum, just didn’t look right to us. Not that anyone was going to be scrutinizing our floors, but we wanted something that would fit.  Cork was the winner.  Not only is it sustainable, but it’s warm to the touch and naturally springy, very easy on the feet. I’m looking forward to cooking something elaborate this weekend so I can start enjoying it.

Which leaves me with just one question left to answer: when I haven’t been able to cook in over two weeks, and I want to celebrate a big accomplishment… what do I make?

Posted in eating in | 1 Response

Oatmeal, many ways

Oatmeal is a quintessential winter food, but it sometimes gets a bad reputation.  If you describe something as “the consistency of oatmeal”, it’s not usually a compliment. Oatmeal is mushy, often bland, and when it’s not bland, it’s because it’s over-sweetened.  There’s one traditional way to prepare it, which is with raisins and brown sugar. How creative, right? The phenomenon of instant oatmeal hasn’t helped: the little microwave-friendly packets are mushier and sweeter than anything that came before them.

There are two ways to make oatmeal delicious: creativity, and good oats. I’ve been eating a lot of oatmeal this winter. It’s my weekday morning standby, and I’ll often make a more elaborate version on the weekends when I’m not cooking up pancakes or waffles. Good ingredients and variety and both key in keeping it tasty.

First, the oats.  There are lots of kinds of oats out there, starting with instant, followed by quick-cooking, regular (or “old-fashioned”, as if regular oats were no longer cool enough), and finally steel-cut. There are also various fancy or multi-grain varieties. Instant oats cook the fastest – instantly, like magic. Steel cut oats take the longest to cook, about 45 minutes on the stovetop (and they don’t do well in the microwave).

As a general rule, the longer your oats take to cook, the healthier they are for you. This is because quick-cooking varieties are made by stripping out the slow-but-nutritious parts of whole oats. The more you strip out, the less nutrition remains. The longer cooking kinds also have more flavor and character, for the same reason. Considering that the “long” cooking time for “old-fashioned” oats is 3 or 4 minutes in the microwave, there’s no real reason not to use them.  You don’t have to do anything – just wait 3 minutes longer while you go about your morning.

Steel-cut oats are another thing altogether, and they take both time and attention (in the form of occasional stirring). But they have as much resemblance to instant oats as bears do to teddy bears. They have texture. Character. A nutty flavor. They’re worth the extra effort for that alone, when you have the time.

But oats alone aren’t good eating, no matter how good the oats are.  There are a thousand ways to spice up your oatmeal, and almost all of them are more interesting than raisins.  My favorite source of inspiration for oatmeal is Trader Joe’s, where they have a huge selection of dried and frozen fruits, almost any of which could be a good addition.  I like to use these better than fresh fruits, because they’re easy to keep on hand, less expensive, and once they’re cooked up, the difference isn’t that noticeable. If you’re using dried fruit, just add a little more water; if you’re using frozen, use slightly less water. Don’t limit yourself to fruit, either, though it’s my most frequent choice.

You’ve got choices of sweeteners, too.  Brown sugar is most traditional, and has a nice flavor, but any sugar substitute will do well.  The sweetener can add as much character as the main ingredient: I like to use maple syrup, with certain kinds of fruit.  Honey can also be a nice touch (though, personally, it’s not usually my thing.)

Here are a number of oatmeal variations that I really like.  (No pictures this time – my kitchen is still out of commission.)

  • Dried blueberries and brown sugar (my current favorite)
  • Raspberries and maple syrup (perhaps flavored with Earl Grey)
  • Dried cranberries and brown sugar and ginger
  • Cheddar cheese, a pat of butter, and fresh ground pepper (kind of like grits)
  • Pumpkin pie: a large spoonful of canned pumpkin puree, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pecans, and sugar
  • Mashed banana, honey, and walnuts
  • Tea of any kind, like chai, Earl Grey, or fruit teas

There are also a number of things I’ve seen, but haven’t tried yet:

  • Nutella and peanut butter (saw this on a menu over the weekend, but didn’t order it, and now it’s haunting me. I will be making this when I have my kitchen back.)
  • Dried cherries and vanilla extract
  • Jam of your choice
  • Chopped peaches (with honey, and optionally with cream)

I especially like the idea of savory oatmeal, which Mark Bittman first made me thing about, but it’s far outside my usual idea (and most people’s idea) of what oatmeal is. (Here’s an idea from Bittman for oatmeal with olive oil and tapenade, which would either be awesome or gross, and I can’t decide which.) I haven’t explored this idea much, but it seems like it has potential – though it doesn’t lend itself to a quick breakfast.

Do you like oatmeal, or do you think it’s weird? If you like it, how do you like to dress it up? I know I’ve hit on only a tiny fraction of the tasty possibilities that are out there.

Posted in breakfast | 5 Responses

Surviving a kitchen remodel

It’s been busy around here, with one project in particular eating up lots of our time: we’re remodeling our kitchen.

We’re replacing almost everything: cabinets, counters, floor, lights, some appliances.  After a wild few weeks of decision-making – which we survived somehow, even though, under normal circumstances, we could have spent that long deciding about any one thing, never mind picking out everything at once – the builders started working this week.

So, while our kitchen looked like this last week…

Kitchen - before

… after one day of demolition, this is what we have left:

Kitchen - during

Goodbye, kitchen. There’s basically nothing left. I always find it a little disturbing to see behind the walls in my house – it’s a reminder that the structure I think is so solid is really just a few boards and some drywall.  Fortunately, they’ve already started patching up the walls, and any day now it’ll start to look like a room again.

Living kitchen-less hasn’t been so bad, though. We put a lot of thought into how to deal with it, and 4 days in, it’s working all right. We set up a mini-kitchen in our living room: fridge in one corner, and next to it, a little kitchen cart holding our microwave, toaster oven, plates, silverware, glasses, and a few useful odds and ends.

We did some cooking in advance to help us through. The weekend before we had to pack everything up, we spent a day baking empanadas (stuffed with potatoes and cheese) and spinach pies. We froze them, and we’ve been reheating them in the toaster oven for dinners. They are super tasty, especially the spinach pies, and filling enough that two count as dinner.

Spinach pie

Will we get sick of them?  Probably.  The question is how long it’ll take. The builder has told us it’ll be 8 business days to get it all done.  My ever-cheerful friends and coworkers have used this to make their own predictions, ranging from 10 days to a month.  (If it takes a month, I swear I’ll be eating catfood before it’s over. It had better not take a month.)

So depending on how long it takes, here’s our strategy for feeding ourselves while we have basically no kitchen:

  1. Homemade freezer food. So far, the spinach pies and empanadas are just fine. We will eat them until we’re sick of them.
  2. Pre-packaged freezer food. We’ve already made a preliminary trip to Trader Joe’s, and stocked up on a few handy, microwave-friendly dinners.
  3. Mooching. Last night, we had a great dinner with some friends at their house, which has such great amenities as a working stove.  I’ll make an open offer here: anyone who wants to make dinner for us while we’re kitchen-less, I will return the favor once our kitchen is done.
  4. Restaurants. This is the most expensive choice, and the one that we’re trying not to do too much. But as long as we can’t really cook, we might as well enjoy some good dinners out.

We won’t starve. We might even have fun with it. But, in all seriousness – any suggestions of good freezer food we should try?

Posted in eating in, tips | 1 Response