Friday, October 25, 2013

Cooking to Save the Planet: Buying Fresh, Cooking What's on Hand, and Ending up with Arroz Con Pollo and a Salad of Sautéed Mustard Greens

I haven't done a food posting in a while. I'm not sure why. I suppose at some level I think they're trivial, when so much that's important deserves attention--in the U.S., the government shutdown, in the Catholic context, the abuse situation and Francis's promise of reform (or not?). 

As this work week ends, though, I find myself tired and more than a little despondent, and I'm inclined to talk about food today simply because doing so consoles me. It cheers me. And I hope it won't be a bore to readers.

Here's how we tend to shop/cook: here's how we shopped/cooked this week: (and as with previous postings in this series, I'm hoping that by sharing these personal details, I might provide hints to readers who are looking for ways to learn to cook and eat seasonally, reasonably, well):

I think I've told you all before that we tend to do much of our shopping for food weekly, on the day in which the supermarket closest to us offers a discount to folks up in years--a senior discount for which we qualify. It's not that we don't also enjoy shopping at local farmers' markets, including one held during the summer just up the street from us, in front of one of the neighborhood churches. We do go to those on a regular basis, and to some of the supermarkets around the city that specialize in offering local and organic food, but which are national or semi-national chains--e.g., Whole Foods and Fresh Market.

Still, because there's a "regular" supermarket very near us, a store that's part of a national chain, which offers a discount to seniors, we do end up heading there once a week to replenish some staples that we use regularly, and to see what might be fresh, on mark-down, and local. Though we usually shop with a list we've prepared, a list of items we need, we also always shop flexibly, with a willingness to shift our list if something looks particularly good or is being offered at a good price--particularly in the produce section of the supermarket.

As in most parts of the country, this chain store now tries to carry locally grown items. These are usually displayed in a special section as one enters the produce part of the store. During the summer, for instance, one can find good, organically grown local tomatoes there, or in the few weeks that strawberries are in season, really nice local strawberries. At other times, there are good local onions, green beans, squashes, and so forth. This week, there was a good display of local apples with names  (e.g., Arkansas Black) never found among the nationally-marketed apples produced in other parts of the country.

We bought some of those, and have been enjoying them sliced on top of our oatmeal in the morning. In addition, here are things that caught my eye both because they looked particularly good and were being offered on sale this week: bunches of mustard greens, summer squash, turnips, red bell peppers, and green beans. I bought some of each. 

My pattern when we return home from shopping is not only to unpack all the groceries and put them away, but also to wash all of the vegetables that require washing, and then cook as many of these as possible. We always wash parsley, cilantro, lettuce, and greens, for instance, by soaking them first in a sink full of water, then lifting them out of the water and giving each leaf a careful wash under running water before we store or cook with these.

(Our kitchen sink has three separate basins. The middle basin is smaller than the ones on either side of it, and is connected to the garbage disposal, which grinds and disposes of green garbage. We've arranged things such that this sink drains directly into the compost heap beneath the house on the kitchen side of the house. Since all the water from this sink goes into the compost heap, along with all of the ground-up green garbage, I use that sink for this vegetable-washing, in order to direct the water in which I've washed vegetables into the compost.)

Another tip, one I learned from my mother: after I've carefully washed parsley, lettuce, greens, etc., if I don't intend to cook these immediately, I shake as much water from them as possible and then place them on (clean!) old dishtowels until they are completely dry. I lay these out on the kitchen table during the afternoon after we've shopped, turning the leafy items repeatedly to help any remaining water drain away. Then I store them in the hydrator section of the refrigerator wrapped in their cloth wrappings. They keep much longer, treated this way, and remain very fresh. 

Not all lettuces like being handled this way. I find, for instance, that romaine objects to being pre-washed, and sections of leaves often rot when it's pre-washed and stored in the refrigerator. In the case of lettuces that don't handle being pre-washed well, I simply wrap the whole head of lettuce in one of my old frayed cloths, and then wash each leaf as I need it.

When I say that I try to cook as many of the fresh vegetables as possible on the day of our weekly shopping, here's what I mean. Here's what I did this week: after I'd washed the summer squash (we have a bamboo scrubbing brush that hangs above the sink and is used only to scrub vegetables and fruits under the tap whose water then heads down to the compost pile), I put them, whole, into a steamer and let them steam as I worked on the other items.

When they were finished, I set them aside in a bowl to cool. I do this with most of the vegetables I prepare in my afternoon of marathon cooking. When they've cooled, I cover the bowl with a plate of the right size to fit the bowl, and then put the vegetables into the refrigerator until I need them. This avoids my having to use something made of plastic for storage of these food items. 

I have my doubts about whether the use of plastic containers or plastic wrap to store food is really healthy, despite the assurances of the industries producing these items that they're safe. And I also question the need to use items like plastic containers for food storage, when these items consume non-renewable resources and when they also pollute the environment as they're discarded.

As the squash steamed, I gave the green beans a good wash, adding to them a handful of green beans from our own garden, the last of the crop, which had managed to climb from the trellis we built for them this summer up into a nearby apple tree. After the summer squash had steamed, I put the beans into the same steamer, using the water from the steamed squash to steam the green beans. These, too, I put into a bowl to cool when they were done, keeping the cooking liquid.

While the green beans steamed, I prepared the mustard greens I'd just washed. I tore them into small pieces, saving the stems (in an old dishtowel in the refrigerator, a dishtowel into which I had previously tucked the stems of parsley whose leaves I'd chopped; in a few days, these items will become a green soup, with some of the outer skins of onions I've saved and some asparagus stems). The old rule of thumb in Southern kitchens as one prepares greens (mustard, collards, turnip greens, poke sallet, etc.) is to tear the greens into pieces around the size of postage stamps.

In addition to the mustard greens, I had a good handful of Swiss chard leaves I'd found in the garden on the weekend, when I also found the green beans that had escaped into the apple tree. This was chard we'd planted among zinnias and marigolds, and I hadn't realized until I was picking some of the flowers that some of the chard had managed to linger through the heat of summer and was still producing. I heated some olive oil in a skillet and quickly tossed the mustard greens and chard in the oil until they had become limp and tender. They, too, then went into a bowl to cool, be covered, and be saved in the refrigerator.

As I worked at these tasks, I also peeled and cut up three potatoes, cooking them in another pot. We had simmered two chickens on the weekend to make stock for use in soups, and I intended to turn some of the chicken meat into a shepherd's pie that evening. As the potatoes simmered, I used the skillet in which I had just cooked the mustard greens to simmer chopped celery and onion for the filling of the shepherd's pie. Then, after I'd drained the potatoes and set them aside to mash for the shepherd's pie, I saved the water in which they'd cooked to cook chopped carrots in it to add to the filling of the shepherd's pie, as well. (Before cooking the celery and onion in the skillet in which I'd fried the greens, I did wipe it clean with a paper towel, by the way, since mustard has a strong, pronounced taste and wouldn't mix well with the more delicate flavors of the shepherd's pie filling.)

Finally, I took the two red bell peppers I'd bought and roasted them over an open flame on the stove top. I use a long cooking fork to do this, and simply turn the peppers until they are black on all sides. I set them aside to cool, and after they had cooled awhile, I scrubbed off the charred skin under the faucet (yes, again, using the middle sink whose water goes into the compost heap for that task). I sliced the two bell peppers in half, removed their seeds, and put them into a bowl to cool and then be stored.

Final steps: the water in which I had cooked the potatoes and carrots then got mixed with the water from the steaming of the squash and green beans, and as I made the filling of the shepherd's pie by mixing the fried celery and onion with the chopped carrots and some frozen English peas, parsley, nutmeg, a pinch of cayenne, salt, pepper, butter, and some flour, I added the vegetable waters to the filling. All that remained for that dish was for me to mash the potatoes and then put the shepherd's pie together.

The things I'd prepared, the squash, green beans, greens, and roasted peppers? Because we still had chicken from our weekend soup-making, the four or five small summer squashes became stuffed squash with chicken as part of their filling. I mashed the steamed squashes, added to them celery and onion I'd chopped and fried in olive oil, some of the roasted red pepper chopped up, breadcrumbs, some raw egg, grated parmesan, salt, pepper, chopped parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, along with chopped chicken, and they became a Creole stuffed squash dish that we ate several nights this past week. (In New Orleans, the more finicking way to prepare these would have been to scoop out the tender flesh of the middle of each squash, saving the skins, and then return the stuffing mix, the forcemeat, to the shells before one grills them.)

The greens we've simply enjoyed as a side dish with both the shepherd's pie and the stuffed squash. Another week, I might have made a salad of them by dressing them with a tangy, garlicky vinaigrette and topping them with a few walnuts, some sliced onion, a few olives--whatever we have on hand that might complement their flavor. The week before, I bought a bunch of beets and cooked their greens, and that's precisely how we ate them--as a salad topped with some of the boiled beets, sliced, with onion, walnuts, slices of pears, and crumbled blue cheese along with the vinaigrette.

The green beans and peppers from this week's shopping were a natural combination for a salad: I simply sliced some of the roasted red pepper and mixed it with the steamed green beans, adding sliced onion, garlic, parsley, and a vinaigrette dressing. This, too, was an accompaniment to the other dishes during the week.

And today, the last of the chicken: I've turned it into arroz con pollo, and have snapped a picture of the results for you. We learned how to make arroz con pollo Colombian-style from Colombian friends in New Orleans. They taught us to wash a handful of raw rice well under running water, rubbing the grains together to remove the starch until the water runs clear.

Then they instructed us to fry the rice in a large, heavy skillet with a goodly amount of olive oil, adding chopped onion and garlic as the rice reaches a golden-brown stage, and then quickly adding ladles of tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes, along with ladles of chicken broth, and whatever seasonings one wants. I've added cumin, dried chile peppers (ground), salt, and pepper. Cooked chicken also goes into the mixture at this point, of course, chopped up.

When all is well-mixed, one turns the heat very low and covers the skillet. It's hard to give a rule of thumb for how much liquid to add. The amount depends on the amount of rice you've used. I find that one should err on the side of adding too much, since the rice will absorb generous amounts of liquid as it cooks--but it's best to add liquid a bit at a time as the arroz cooks, adding liquid only as you see it's needed, as in making a risotto.

Our Colombian friends caution against stirring the arroz as it cooks, so we avoid doing so, but we do check periodically to assure that it's not burning on bottom--and we scrape the bottom of the mixture to keep it from sticking too much. The rice mixture that does stick to the skillet will, of course, soften and amalgamate with the rest of the arroz once the cooking is finished, if you let it all sit awhile in the skillet.

As you can see, I've topped the arroz with the last of the roasted red peppers cut into rajas, and have topped everything with a handful of chopped cilantro. And because we have one last serving of the mustard greens mixed with Swiss chard, I'm pretty sure that the greens will become a salad this evening, to be eaten with the arroz con pollo.

Down the road--perhaps this weekend--I'll tell you about a book I've meant to recommend for almost two years now, Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal, which describes her own way of shopping and cooking, a way that's in very many respects close to what I describe above.

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