Friday, February 25, 2011

Cooking to Save the Planet: The Winter Kitchen and Oatcakes

I've been saving this important story from early February, because, to be honest, after the rat appeared at the back door when I began to write about this food-related story, I lost my appetite.  Just a little bit.  Back to the rat in a moment.

At the start of February, Mark Bittman published a "food manifesto" for the future in the New York Times. This strikes me as an important document.  Bittman notes a number of ways in which we, as ordinary Americans, can fight back against the growing impoverishment of our national food culture.  We can, for instance, stop promoting processed food through government subsidies, and we can subsidize (and support and buy from) local producers of food grown through sustainable agriculture near our own cities and towns.  We can target the huge animal feeding lots that produce unhealthy and often unhygienic meat for our tables, and, well, see above about supporting local producers.  We can demand that the food we buy be labeled accurately, and empower the FDA.  We can discourage the always proliferating fast-food culture by taxing unhealthy convenience foods more heavily.

Most of all, though, I'm struck by Bittman's eminently sensible suggestion that we need to return to home cooking of our food, if we want to eat healthy meals and encourage the development of a healthy food culture throughout the U.S.  As readers will know from my previous postings on this topic, it's one dear to my heart.  I have posted these "Cooking to Save the Planet" postings on and off for some time now, because I've become convinced--and concerned to discover--that fewer and fewer younger Americans of all social and class backgrounds have much knowledge at all about how to buy and prepare healthy foods.  Our national food culture is on the rocks because younger Americans have grown up in a fast-food culture in which fast foods are incessantly hyped by advertising, and in which eating becomes more and more a matter of "grabbing" some unhealthy, over-salted and chemical-laden, processed mess in a bag through the windows of our cars as we drive hither and yon. 

And so I write these postings primarily to share tips with anyone seeking to learn something about the basics of buying your own food and cooking it at home, or to give readers who are already on the road to more frequent home cooking new ideas about how to eat well, to choose healthy items, and to live frugally as one does so.  And so to the rat.

The last time I began one of these postings with the intent of commenting on Bittman's article, we had just been shopping and had bought a nice selection of fresh things, which I busily (and happily) began to prepare after we got home from the grocery store.  Humming all the while.  Admiring the texture of the miraculous fresh vegetables--they included sugar snap peas, mushrooms, and rapini, all in the dead of winter--as I washed, steamed, diced. 

And then the rat: just as I sat down and began writing, I heard a scratch at the back door, the signal from Crispen, the biggest and laziest of our three dogs, that he wanted inside.  This was one of those exceedingly cold days following one of the several large snowstorms we've had this winter, when snow was still thick on the ground and the temperatures were not high above zero.  

Up I got--humming, taking one more peek at the pots bubbling on the stove, fingers intent on pecking at the keyboard--and what to my wondering eyes should appear as I looked out the back door to let Cris, Valentine, and Flora inside but this: a poor, wee dead rat curled in a frozen rictus of death, with a tiny rictus-grin frozen into its face.  On the top step of the back steps.  A gift from the dogs, who are (the two boys) half rat-terrier, we believe.  And who love nothing more than to bring me gifts of mice, rats, and birds they've somehow managed to trap in our back yard.  And which they imagine I'll be overjoyed to see laid at my feet.

I've gotten the boys to realize that I'm not happy to let them in when I see a writhing tail hanging from the corner of their mouths, or a bunch of flailing feathers.  So now the gifts wait just outside the door for my delectation as I let the three canine family members inside. 

As I say, seeing Brother Rat dead and frozen on my back step, while Brother and Sister Dogs squealed and jumped in delight at the present they'd gifted me with, rather put me off my food for a few weeks.  And here's what I was about to say before that happened:

Here's one of our own particular tricks to assure a constant supply of healthy and easily prepared food in our kitchen, particularly in winter months when good fresh fruits and vegetables are scarce, if you limit yourself to what is locally grown in much of the U.S.  In the bleak, cold months, we tend to hit the grocery store several times a week.  Just to browse.

To feast the eyes, if nothing else, when everything outside is gray or white and cold.  I'm convinced that there's health even in looking at displays of crisp green cabbage, purple and white turnips, handsome orange sweet potatoes.  Particularly for winter-starved eyes.

By visiting our local grocery stores on and off during the week, we also manage to hit on sales of items that are just nearing the end of their shelf life, and so we often end up buying unexpected lots of fresh fruits and vegetables that we might not otherwise buy, if they're expensive when not on sale.  And since those items usually need to be cooked right away (and/or frozen), here's how we prepare them.

As soon as we get home from the grocery store, no matter the season, we are in the habit of washing all the fresh fruit and vegetables that need to be washed.  We do this right away.  Not everything needs to be washed, of course.  Oranges or grapefruits or bananas--anything with a tough, discardable peel--doesn't need washing.  My aunt is the only person I know who washes her onions as soon as she brings them home.  Since I throw away the brown, white, or purple "paper" covering of onions as I peel them, I don't get the washing step--though chacun à son gout.  Or perhaps à sa névrose.

Some lettuces, especially fragile or watery ones prone to quick browning and rotting, also shouldn't be washed right away, but put away to be washed only as the leaves are used.  Otherwise, I take most lettuces apart when we get home, soak them in a bowl or sink full of cold water, rinse them carefully, shake off the excess water, and then wrap them in a clean, dry old cotton cloth (we have a drawer full of frayed old dish towels for this use) before popping them into the hydrator section of the refrigerator.  Or icebox, as we say.  

Ditto for parsley and cilantro.  

On the day of the dead rat, we had seen several little trays of sugar snap peas on sale.  I wouldn't normally buy these, especially in winter, when they're expensive.  But since they were on sale, I bought them and, after washing them when we got home, immediately steamed them until they were just cooked but still crisp.  Mushrooms were also on sale, since they were near their prime.  I took one box of these and sliced them and, as the peas steamed, I wilted these in butter.  The other boxes went into the freezer just as they were, for a pot of cream of mushroom soup later in the week.  (Since the mushrooms were near the end of their shelf life, they needed to be either frozen or cooked, to prevent decomposition.)

The steamed snap peas and butter-wilted mushrooms then became the basis of a dish in a day or so, tossed with pasta, parmesan cheese, and a few fresh chopped herbs.  The point, I hope you see, of the immediate washing and preparing is not simply to preserve the fresh things you've just bought--especially the very ripe things that you've gotten on sale.  It's also to have a number of items on hand in your refrigerator for quick, healthy, tasty meals later in the week.  And to keep some essential staples always in the larder, including onions, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, pasta, beans, grains, vinegar, dried herbs and spices, salt and pepper, etc.

As I steamed the sugar snap peas, I also steamed several packages of fresh rapini we'd bought on sale at the same time.  About half of these became the basis of a salad I made right away by chopping some sweet onion, celery, and bell pepper, tossing it with the rapini, and adding some chopped garlic and a bit of vinegar with a generous dollop of olive oil.  A marinated salad like that can serve a number of functions during the week--chopped and placed on lettuce as a salad proper, laid alongside or atop another dish as a garnish or relish, etc.

The rest of the rapini became the basis of a soup a few days down the road, one featuring cooked white beans, chopped red bell pepper, onion, garlic, and a bit of chopped ham, along with bay leaf, paprika, and thyme, chicken stock, and the chopped rapini.

The point of all these details is this: no matter the season, if you watch carefully what's available in the produce section of your local supermarket, you can often find some very good deals, and can keep on hand a constant supply of healthy, tasty, and attractive fruits and vegetables throughout the week.  Especially if you do the grunt work of washing and initial preparation immediately after you come home from the store.  The time you save through that investment is time well-saved, when you are able to reach into your refrigerator later, perhaps after a long workday, and pull out something blanched, steamed, marinated, and use it as the basis of a dish.

None of what I've just said deals with the important (and thorny) question raised by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about which I blogged in the summer of 2009.  As Kingsolver rightly notes, for many of us who try primarily or exclusively to use only locally grown products in our kitchens, winter is a tough season.  In many parts of the world, what's available locally in the cold months is sparse indeed--what's available by way of fresh fruit and vegetables is sparse, that is.

And so, much as we try on the whole to buy local foods and to eat what is available seasonally, we do find ourselves buying many items in the fresh sections of the supermarket in winter that we know full well have been grown elsewhere and shipped to us from those places, many of them at quite a distance.  And I'm happy to have these items, if only to break the bleak monotony of the wintertime, and to revive my spirit as much as my body, as I look at them, smell their fragrance, work with them in the kitchen, and see what magic they might work in this or that combination in a main dish.

Since I don't want to leave you with only a jumble of food ideas and cooking suggestions, a quick recipe: this is one I've hobbled together from several sources (primarily from several classic Scottish cookbooks I have on my shelves, including Marion MacNeil's The Scots Kitchen [1929] and Janet Murray's Traditional Scots Recipes [1972]).  It's for oatcakes.

I had forgotten what a passion I have for oatcakes until we went to London at Christmas time, and I could buy them easily at any supermarket there.  I simply don't find them in my area, and my attempts to bake them in the past had never been satisfying.  Until recently.

When we returned from England and I continued to hanker for oatcakes, I began studying a number of recipes and decided that the following combination/technique might just replicate the oatcakes one can buy in packages in stores in the British Isles.  And it turns out I'm right: these are wonderful, tasty, crunchy, just the kind of oatcake I love.  We have been baking them constantly since our return from England, and eating them almost every night with soup and cheese, as our supper.

Here's how I make them: heat the oven to somewhere between 200° and 250° F.  I'm not being deliberately evasive here.  Our oven thermometer is cranky at best, so we're never quite sure if the heat is 250° when it's set at that number.  We experiment.  And the baking of these oatcakes is as much a matter of slowly drying out the dough as it is browning.

Meanwhile, in a blender, grind three cups of rolled oats into a fine oat flour.  Then grind, coarsely, one cup of steel cut (unrolled) oats.  The texture you should have when these are ground is something between the original texture and a very rough cornmeal--tiny nubbins of oats throughout.  Mix the two oat flours well.

Into your upraised palm, pour just enough salt to fill the well in your palm--perhaps a generous teaspoon?  Take as much baking soda as you can pinch between your index finger and thumb, and add this with the salt to the oat flour.  If you think your pinch is too scant, pinch again.

With a spoon or your well-cleaned hands, mix and sift these dry ingredients until you are confident that all is well-mixed and the salt and soda are distributed throughout the flour.  Make a well in the dry ingredients.  Into the well put two generous tablespoons of butter, cut into pieces.  Pour over that just enough  water just off the boil--say a cup and a bit more?--to moisten the dry ingredients fairly well.  But do not stir the water into the dry ingredients immediately.  First let the butter melt into the hot water.

When the butter has melted, pull and stir the dry ingredients into the water.  You should end up with a fairly moist dough that still has bits of dry oat flour which won't fully incorporate into the dough.  Now add a glug or two of buttermilk to the batter and mix well until you have a soft and slightly moist ball of dough.  

I can't really give accurate measurements; in baking, much depends on the particular kind of flour you have on hand, and on your own ability to look at what's happening, feel the food products with your hands, know when dough is "behaving" as it ought to for a particular dish.  When adding liquid to dough like this, it also pays to add in slow increments, to avoid adding a deluge all at once.  Add, stir, mix, and then if you need a bit more, add a bit more and repeat the stirring and mixing.

On a pastry cloth or pastry board well sprinkled with more rolled oats, roll the dough (which you'll have formed into a ball) out into a round about a quarter inch--you want the baked oatcake to be about the thickness of a shortbread cookie.  Cut out with a biscuit cutter or other shape and place on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Since by cutting the dough into shapes, you'll have more dough to roll out, shape the remnants into a ball again and roll out on a bed of rolled oats.  Then cut this batch of dough into triangles by cutting across four times (producing 8 triangles of dough).  Put this batch onto a cookie sheet, too.

Bake until the oatcakes have just begun to brown--about an hour or so, perhaps more.  You can tell when they have begun to be done because you can smell the smell of roasting oats wafting from the oven.  Cool on racks and store.  Wonderful with cheese, butter, soup, etc.  And delicious by themselves. 

A wonderful-looking recipe that I haven't yet tried, but intend to try, which is somewhat like mine but different in some key respects, is at Jenn DePiazza Campus's marvelous Left Over Queen blog.

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