Saturday, January 3, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: New Year's Notes

Cooking tonight's supper--in the middle of today--has made me think about how we cook as an act of cultural choice, as a commitment to core values. I'm including in "how we cook" the foodstuff out of which we choose to make our meals.

I don't usually put a lot of thought into what I cook on any given day. We cook and eat seasonally, so that tomatoes in January are out of the question, unless they're canned. Cabbage and other greens like collards, mustard, or turnips might show up often on our table, however, since they're plentiful (and good) at this time of year.

What I choose to cook at any given time also has much to do with what's there--in the icebox and pantry, in the baskets holding fresh vegetables, fruit, and nuts around the kitchen and in the sunroom. I look around, I think about what might go well together or how these ingredients might be turned into that dish, and I prepare.

And as I did that today, it occurred to me that there's an entire history of cultural information in the background of that act of choosing food for a daily meal, and of the act of preparing food. No one cooks in a cultural vacuum. We have taken in--from family, from friends, books, and other cultural influences--a vast library of knowledge about how various foods taste, about their nutritional value, and about how to prepare them.

And that knowledge is being transmitted only intermittently, I suspect, to the next generation. That's definitely the case in my family. And it's worrisome. It's worrisome, because people have to continue cooking and eating, if they want to live. And much depends--for their own health and for the health of the planet--on whether they do so well or badly.

A case in point: our meal tonight will center on two dishes, a salad of lima beans and a dessert of rice pudding. It will center on those ingredients because they were there, already cooked and in the icebox from previous meals. When we cook dried beans (and we do so often), we almost always cook enough to have one or more subsequent meals of the beans in question--as soup, as salad, or as another main dish of beans matched with cheese or grains.

Beans because . . . well, because they're a primary foodstuff in my cultural heritage. I can remember my mother's sister Pauline saying that she had grown so tired of pinto beans and cornbread during the Depression, she vowed to herself as a girl to eat steak every day when she grew up. Instead, she learned to love beans and cornbread and almost never had steak.

As was the case with my family as I grew up. Steak was not something I even relished, since we had it so rarely. Beans and cornbread were the stuff of everyday life, and delicious stuff at that, with relishes like chow chow to point up their earthy flavors, and with other vegetables to round out the meal, give it eye appeal, and fill in the corners. Meat was, for us, what Jefferson said it should be: a condiment to season vegetables. Not the main dish.

Beans are everyday fare. They should be everyday fare, a wide range of pulses, far more than they are in most of our households. In a nation in which we worry about too much consumption of fat, we seldom think about how meats themselves provide the majority of the fat we eat on any given day--and an unhealthy source of fat both for our bodies, when eaten too frequently, and for the planet, since production of meat usually requires an enormous amount of grain and other vegetables, which could feed us as well or better than the meat we believe is essential to our diet.

Beans, and, in particular, the instinctive rightness of combining them with grains and thus complementing their amino acids to make a high-quality protein, also connect us, our American tables, to the cultures of many other nations. A frequent summer supper for Steve and me is a dish of pinto beans cooked and mashed up with some garlic and salsa, and perhaps some olive oil--refried beans, to be precise--served with tortillas, grated cheese, more salsa, chopped lettuce or cabbage or cole slaw made with vinegar and oil, chopped onion, cilantro. We spread the tortillas with the beans, add the toppings we like, and that's our main dish.

And it's a meal whose inspiration and ingredients come to us by way of Latin America, where the virtue of consuming beans with corn has long been known. And where fresh vegetables and fruit, particularly tomatoes, chiles, cilantro, avocado, limes, are added for piquancy and additional nutrition.

Because of our African heritage, we in the American South are also fortunate enough to know of and consume routinely a wide array of other dried pulses that came to us from Africa. These legumes include black-eyed peas, cowpeas, and the numerous other beans and peas that fit into that large category of cowpeas or field peas. It was also probably Africa that taught us, along with our neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean, to combine beans with rice to make a nutritious main dish.

For tonight's bean salad, I took a dish of about two cups of large white lima beans (dried beans before we cooked them) we had cooked for new year's day, and mixed them with several slices of onion chopped fine, two stalks of celery and one bell pepper also minced fine, and some finely chopped garlic and parsley. I then took two carrots and sliced them lengthwise, slicing them across into half-moon shapes, and parboiled those a minute or so to take away their rawness.

To these ingredients, I added wine vinegar in which I had steeped several sprigs of dried thyme, from fresh thyme in a pre-Christmas food basket we bought from our local food co-op. When I saw that we weren't going to eat all the fresh thyme quickly enough, I put the uneaten sprigs in a black skillet that I placed over one of the stove pilots (we cook with gas, and that makes drying things like the thyme easy). When it was dry, I then heated wine vinegar, put the thyme into a bottle and poured the vinegar over, and let it sit. To flavor salads . . . .

After I mixed the vegetables with the vinegar, adding salt and pepper to taste and taking care not to break the soft beans up, I then poured in a good bit of olive oil, tossed, and arranged in a colorful bowl. To be served over beds of mixed spring greens, with five-grain toast . . . .

Since I also found in the icebox about two cups of cooked arborio rice from a risotto I had made recently, I decided to make a rice pudding to go with the salad. I might at some other time have mixed the rice into the bean salad.

I went the pudding route today because, well, I don't really know: rice pudding just felt right on this winter evening. And there were those nice slices of preserved pineapple left from the Christmas sideboard, to give folks who found too much candy, pie, cake, and too many cookies cloying something else to eat.

I chopped them, added them to the rice, and mixed in a handful of raisins, a handful of chopped pecans, and some sugar, with a large pinch of mixed ground spice that was the tail end of a box of spices from Sri Lanka a friend gave us several years ago. I had baked with these until I had a hodgepodge in the bottom of the box, which I ground together to season this Christmas's fruitcakes. And, oh yes, come to think of it, I also added a packet of vanilla sugar that German friends who stayed with us winter before last had bought to bake with, and left behind when they returned to Germany.

Then I added to the fruit, rice, and spice several beaten eggs and a good bit of milk. Many people think they dislike rice pudding because they have encountered it only in the stodgy, stingy unimaginative form served at school tables: big wads of tastless rice stuck together with a tiny bit of custard and no other ingredients. Rice pudding should be a creamy dish, a pudding, that tastes rich without an abundance of fat: a dish in which a bit of cooked rice is suspended in a sea of well-seasoned custard.

So that will be it tonight: bean salad, rice pudding, some lettuce greens, nothing that stretches our budget to the extreme, nothing that radically depletes the earth of resources. At some level, I suspect we cook this way, in part, because we know it is earth-friendly to eat fruit and vegetables in contrast to meats and other products higher up the food chain. It is part of a commitment to live simply that we made long years back, which has us going to thrift shops for most of our clothes and many household items, using things others have discarded because they are still viable and good.

I suspect we also cook as we do because we've spent a good bit of our lives together making do, without a plethora of resources. Now, we don't even think a lot about saving or avoiding extravagance as a primary motive for how we choose food: we have just learned to cook with care for ourselves, the earth, and our pocketbooks at the same time. It makes sense to us to live that way, and not only for ourselves, but for others--for what we hope for others.

Nor is this really penurious cooking. We do not starve and stint. We eat very well, I fear. Even if we cook beans frequently, we buy the best quality of olive oil we can find, because we use olive oil so often--and nothing can substitute for good olive oil. Eating well towards the lower end of the food chain need not be eating like a Puritan who despises savor and gustatory delight.

But we also eat as we do because we have learned, from our families of origin and our families of choice, that choosing what we eat wisely and preparing it well is good for our bodies and souls--an expression of cultural heritages in which people made do with what the earth provided, and nonetheless managed to live very well. It worries me that the younger folks in my own family don't always seem to be learning that lesson--and that other younger folks may not be learning such lessons, because my generation is not taking time to pass the lessons on.

What, after all, can be simpler than beans and rice? And easier to acquire, cook, and talk about? And what might be more necessary in these hard time, particularly for younger folks and younger families struggling to survive?