I love to read cookbooks. I collect and read cookbooks like other people read novels. Not just when I need a recipe, either. Last fall my mom sent me three cookbooks from her collection that kept me entertained for the whole winter season. One was called Mediterranean Harvest, one from Mystic, Connecticut, where I spent much of my childhood, and one was a collection of recipes from lighthouse families in and around the Boston area, where my mom spent much of her early life. I learned the differences between soil compositions in olive growing regions in Europe, the history of Cod fishing in the Atlantic and, well, that lighthouse keepers don’t eat very well. The point is that good cookbooks have more to offer us than interesting recipes. They can change how we view our food and shape our relationship with that essential and intricate love affair going on between our mouths and our environment. That is why it is important to buy actual cookbooks, not just look for recipes online. While getting a quick idea for something to make for dinner is invaluable, the knowledge, experience and insight that went into that recipe are usually not included. Without that, we only get half the experience. Becoming a good cook, and a responsible eater, is more than learning how to make something a certain way. It is a process we embark on and develop as we eat, as we read, and as we garden and grow. Go pick out a new cookbook today, and see what you can learn. Do you have a favorite? What have you learned from it? Happy eating!
When I was just a girl, maybe ten years old, one spring evening my dad came home with three tiny pink piglets . We had known they were coming; we had spent the previous weekend renovating our old play house for them to live in. The playhouse, two stories with a rooftop deck and swing set, had to be essentially chopped in half with a chainsaw to house the little squirmers. As per the “Law of Ed”, wherein if one nail is good than two are better, ten being best, the thing had been built like a fortress. We put the modified house on sledges so we could drag it around with the tractor if they made too much of a mess of it. It turned out to be quite a nice setup for the piglets. They had an old pile of blankets in a corner and a nice window, with a ramp up to the door for their tiny legs. We named them sweet things like Daisy and Maisy and Sunshine. We loved them. They were so smart and cute and….pink!
My mother had protested the acquisition of three pigs, saying one pig would be plenty for a family of four. My father claimed at the time, and I still believe this even if it isn’t true, that pigs need to be in groups of three. He explained that one pig alone thinks it doesn’t exist and will not thrive. Two pigs together look at each other and, seeing one pig, think they are alone and will not thrive. With three, a pig can look at the other two and say to himself “that’s me, and I’m in good company”, and they happily go about the business of getting enormous.
And that is exactly what they do. The tiny pink wigglers who we carried around in our arms and fed with bottles of warm milk grew and grew. Their tiny pink mouths got teeth. And they learned how to use them. In just a few short months the baby pigs went from about 20 pounds to about 400. No lie. And in less time than that they became mean. Mean, mean, mean.
At 10, there was a short time when I was able to hold my own with the pigs, but after a time they could out run and out bite me, not to mention out number me. Of course I was the one in charge of feeding them. I can hear my father’s chuckle as he mutters something about “character building” . Well, those pigs got the best of me. They were kept in a large area fenced in with a low strand of electric wire. Pigs are very smart, but the one thing pigs can’t do is jump, so a wire about 18″ off the ground is enough to keep them in place. They ate just about anything; I think we fed them eggshells, along with any other kitchen scraps we threw away. It was all mixed in with a bucket of ground corn. Truly it was slop, and my job was to hop over the wire, run to the trough, dump in the slop, turn tail and make it back over the wire before they could try to knock me down and bite me. And if luck was with me, I’d clear the wire without getting a zap! At least that’s how I remember it. I hated the pigs!
Then one crisp fall afternoon I came home from school and heard a curious sound. It was a beeping sound coming from the back yard. Beep, Beep, Beep. It went on and on and on. Beep Beep Beep. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it was driving me crazy. I wandered around the barn and the yard and the pond until I finally came to what was making that awful beeping sound. It was behind the pig house, a backhoe, driving in reverse. And the backhoe had a chain hanging from it’s scoop that was going down to a steaming 50 gallon bucket. As I watched, the scoop lifted, and out of the bucket came…. Daisy? Sunshine? I couldn’t tell. It was horrible. The sight of that huge porcine body suspended over the bucket was absolutely shocking to me, and I will forever associate the sound of a backhoe in reverse with death.
As much as I hated those evil pigs, and had prayed for their immediate demise, I was truly astonished and saddened to see on of them actually dead. I vowed never to consume even a mouthful of their flesh, even out of spite.
Until, of course, my father introduced me to thick cut home cured maple bacon. Then I got my revenge.
Tonight we are having Roast Pork Loin with Potatoes. The pork has been rubbed with a mixture of 1/2 cup agave, 3 tbs honey Dijon, 1 tbs thyme and 1 tbs black pepper. Rub the pork with half the mixture and roast for 1 hour at 300 F. Add 3 large cut potatoes dressed with salt, pepper and olive oil to the pan, flip the roast and rub with the rest of the mixture. Roast about another 45 minutes, or until the internal temp is about 150 F. Enjoy with a green salad, or steamed kale or spinach.
I wonder how many people have said or thought that in the last 50 or 100 years. Not many, I’d bet, but perhaps I’m wrong. I’d like to be pleasantly surprised and find that it’s more than I think. I know there is a semi-secretive but emerging group of wild food specialists out there, but I thought they stayed mostly to mushrooms.
Speaking of pleasantly surprised, I was after my recent cattail adventure.
Our pond is overrun with cattails, and up to a few days ago I looked on them with disapproval mingled with despair. Our pond wants to be a swamp again, and the cattails are the first determined step it is taking to revert to its natural state. In the past we have used a backhoe to dig them out when they got to be too abundant, and on occasion my husband will don full waders and attack them with hoe and shovel, but it seems to be a futile attempt: they continue to populate at an alarming rate. Well, yesterday I got my revenge. I went out to the pond, sharp knife in hand, and cut all the new shoots just emerging from the shallows. I peeled off the outer green stalk, took them home and ATE THEM! HAHAHAHA!
The surprising thing was that they were actually good. Really. Good.
Cattails can be great fun, especially for kids. Bashing each other with the cigar-like heads and creating a haze of cattail spores is a treasured summer pastime for those with ponds nearby. The heads can also be used as impromptu torches. They smoke wildly and make a terrific mess, but it’s still fun. Then recently I was killing time reading a book called Foraging New England by Tom Seymour and learned that cattails are edible. I thought I’d give it a try.
Eating something entirely new can be a daunting experience. For a few minutes after I ate them, I thought I might get a stomach ache. Not because I felt funny, but because they were so entirely different. If someone had served them to me on china and called them something fancy, I might have relished them right off the bat, but plucking them out of the mud and scraping off the tough outer layer, then slicing them on a salad, made me a bit skeptical of their authenticity as food. I tried to remember the first time I had had endives, or leeks, as they have a similar flavor, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Then I remembered trying fiddlehead ferns for the first time. Earthy, delicate and entirely delicious, fiddleheads are one of those strange spring delights that my children anticipate, harvest, cook and serve to us each year. Finally, after not getting sick, and realizing they tasted pretty good, I decided that they might have a place in my repertoire of “wild things I eat.”
First I tried them raw. As I had been thinking about endive, I started there, and made a salad with celery, Bibb lettuce, endive, and sliced cattails. For protein I added some chopped grilled salmon and some bacon, and topped it with a crumble of chevre and pine nits. It was entirely delicious.
Then I decided to try them cooked. Everything (in my opinion) goes with eggs, so I decided on an onion and cattail scramble, served with salt, pepper, and a dash of hot sauce. (My favorite is homemade, but Cholula is a good store-bought second). That was a success. The cattails held up well, and didn’t get mushy as I feared. Next time I’ll try sautéed fennel and cattails with garlic cream sauce as a side. I even served them to a young friend of my son in a salad and he gobbled them up, not even noticing they were there.
If you have any nutrition information for cattails, or any tried and true recipes, I would love to hear about them!
Whenever I consider eating something, I try to stick to some basic rules. Each one is not hard and fast, and I do tend to make some exceptions, but I try to stick to them most of the time to ensure that my diet stays at least relatively healthful, wholesome and environmentally sound. My rules are that the majority of what I bring into the kitchen and eat should be from local sources, sustainable, healthful and clean, and by doing this each time I shop or prepare, I know I’m making good choices for myself and my family.
Questions to ask yourself.
Did I grow/harvest/collect/hunt or fish this?
If it came from my garden, or I got it in some other way and know its source, I know it is good for us. Ideally you should be able to answer yes to this question most of the time.
Could I have grown this?
Maybe I didn’t grow it, but it is something that I could have grown if I had the time/space/energy. This is a dangerous one because lots of things might have been grown locally, but were in fact planted with genetically modified seed, sprayed with toxins, picked before their prime by exploited workers, packed in non-renewable packaging, and trucked from 1000 miles away, like most veggies we find in the store. If it passes the “I could have grown it” question, see below. Anything from a farmers market should answer yes to this question.
Did it come from my area?
Is it something that has been eaten in season by people from your area for eons? If it’s a kiwi in December, and you don’t live in the tropics, you might want to put it back.
Did someone I know make this?
This is a good test, and an easy one. It is a pleasure to answer yes to when you have something special, like a gift of honey, or fish. If you know who got it and where, it’s probably safe.
Is it fresh/clean/organic?
Has it been polluted in any way? Is it rotten? Poisonous? Has it been cleaned properly? This question rules out lots of stuff in the supermarket. Most produce items have been treated with pesticides or other chemicals. Organic is a good choice, but not always enough. This question also pertains to things you might hunt, fish or gather for yourself, like mushrooms, squid, or rabbit. I will emphasize that all gatherers should have knowledge about what they are seeking and how to collect and clean it properly. That is one benefit of technology today. All the information we need is at our fingertips.
Is it seasonal?
Most fresh foods should be in season before you decide to put them on your menu. While there are a multitude of ways to store fresh produce and staples for later times, if you will be eating it fresh, you want to make sure it is in season. It is one way to insure that it doesn’t come with too high of a carbon price.
Olive oil is a must in our house, and we try to choose extra virgin organic oil. For important information on olive oils, check out http://www.truthinoliveoil.com/ The book Extra Virginity has some shocking information. A must read for olive oil lovers.
Nuts are another staple. Almonds, especially, are very beneficial to health, so we usually keep a supply of them in the house. Good, fairly inexpensive nuts can be found at Trader Joe’s.
Salt and spices. Every kitchen need a good supply of fine herbs and spices, and I only grow herbs. For salt I always use Norton’s coarse kosher salt or natural sea salt, never table salt. Here is a photo of Trout baked in Salt. Coated entirely, the salt makes a crust that can be cracked off. For the recipe, see here: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/mario-batali/whole-fish-baked-in-salt-crust-recipe/index.html
Today I am out to hunt the abundant cattail root. A delicacy in spring, and a staple for the summer, cattails grow wild in any swampy area throughout New England. The roots are mild and can be eaten raw, while the new shoots, paired down to reveal the white inner parts, are similar to leeks. Sauteed with butter and salt, they make an excellent side dish.
It’s all well and good to say you eat locally in August, when the bounty of the harvest is just falling out of the garden, but when the cool winds blow through the months of spring, and nary a sprout is available at your local farmers market, if it is even open, what do you eat then? Daffodils? Grass? Here I’ll give you some examples of what truly is available that fits the bill for Local, Seasonal, Sustainable, and you can feel good about what you put on the table.
Spring is the season for cod fishing, and if you live on the Atlantic shore, or anywhere in the North East, fish caught off the Connecticut Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts are considered local, especially if you catch it yourself! “What?!” You ask? Relax. It’s easier than you think. Many charter boats go out regularly for cod, and provide you with the bait, tackle and knowledge to fish on your own. A Google search will help you find one nearest you and the times and dates they fish. The best part is you might come home with many pounds of cod for the freezer or dehydrator, and with luck you’ll have enough for many suppers to come. Cod freezes remarkable well, and as it is a firm fish, holds its texture and flavor even through vigorous cooking techniques such as stews and casseroles. Try fresh sauteed cod with saffron risotto, or perhaps baked cod with cream, leeks (you might find leeks overwintered) and new spring green onions. If you look for cod in the supermarket, ask if it is caught locally, and with rod and reel (line caught).
It’s also turkey season in Connecticut, and many a hunter is anxiously awaiting opening day. This year my husband has to miss the beginning of the season, and my son, an avid pre-hunter, has asked me to take him out. Having never turkey hunted before, this is somewhat of a daunting request. We’ll see how it actually goes. It would be a miracle if I actually got a spring turkey. Other good protein sources would be chicken, venison, grass fed local beef and rabbit. The chickens are starting to lay again with the warmer and longer days, so eggs are always a good choice. A nice quiche is a perfect light spring meal, especially with sauteed garlic scapes. Scrambled eggs with local goat cheese, roasted garlic and baby spinach would be delicious.
As for dry goods and staples, this morning I had polenta made from cornmeal purchased from Young Farm in East Granby Ct. It is called Canada yellow flint cornmeal, and it is stone ground the traditional way. The corn it comes from is New England open pollinated heirloom variety flint, an “antique” corn that has much higher nutritional value than corn harvested with conventional methods as per agri-business in the Midwest. Young farm is an exceptional company that produces delicious and nutritious, not to mention sustainable and morally acceptable corn and wheat products, as well as vegetables. Lean more about Young Farm here. http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=2752#profile. The polenta, with a spot of honey and some of last year’s frozen blueberries, was a fabulous start to the day. We eat it with salt, pepper and butter and a sprinkle of Parmesan when we want something savory instead of sweet.
“Vegetables?”, you ask. Not many, to be sure, but some. I have started a variety of lettuce in my bathtub, so I can add some micro-greens to whatever organic lettuce I buy at the market. I have had basil growing in pots since January and that always adds a bright spring flavor to any dish. Kale seems to be always available, as it lasts throughout the winter. Cabbage and sweet potatoes, carrots and onions are also over-winterers in the root cellar. Garlic scapes are coming out of the ground now and it’s almost time for the luscious asparagus shoots, the star of spring. I have frozen peas and spinach and tomatoes from last year’s harvest and even some acorn and butternut squash. A lovely squash, kale or spinach soup with some flat bread makes a lovely spring meal.
As for fruit, we have our trusty freezer with its dwindling supplies of frozen blueberries, peaches and strawberries. Not fresh, but still great for smoothies and the occasional pie. I can’t say enough about investing in a good chest freezer. The simplest way to store meat, vegetable, and fruits is to freeze them as soon as possible after picking or harvesting. It maintains the vitamins and nutrients far more than canning or other methods, and in most cases keeps the food safe for months or even years. It is the easiest and fastest way to put up a harvest at its freshest, and to store produce for the winter months. I have a deep chest freezer that I bought new from Sears for about 350.00, and I store thousands of dollars’ worth of fresh meat and vegetables in it every fall to last through the winter and spring months. If you don’t have one, or can’t afford a new one, there are several on-line sites where you might shop for a used one for much less. So much of the excess produce from my kitchen garden goes into the freezer right after picking, and it is such a delight to browse the shelves for a cooking idea knowing that my choices are ripe, delicious, healthful, and clean.
Last night we had grilled marinated venison with sauteed onions. It was simple, and simply delicious. I used a shoulder roast and just sliced it into half inch steaks, mixed it with salt, pepper, olive oil and good balsamic vinegar, left it in the fridge of a few hours and grilled it over high heat. Quick and easy.
Contrary to popular myth, venison, if well treated and well prepared, is neither gamy nor tough. While it has an unmistakable rich flavor altogether different than beef, it is a succulent and delicious addition to our menu. Miss-treated it can be an awful chore to eat, and I am reluctant to eat venison unless I personally know the hunter and the manner in which it was killed and dressed. More about venison in particular and hunting in general later. Happy spring!
Time sure flies, doesn’t it? How did I get this old? I look in the mirror and am amazed that inside I still feel twenty six, but outside I look every bit of my forty (uh…) ish years. And it keeps getting faster and faster. I’ve satisfactorily explained this phenomenon to myself in terms of a mathematical theory involving ratios. It works like this. The amount of time we have been alive is directly proportional to the speed of time. So in my head I understand it, but in my heart it’s still a mystery. Why does time fly? Why can’t I slow it down?
It seems to get worse the older I get. This should be obvious as per my theory, but I believe it is also related to our new love/hate relationship with technology. I mean, one hundred years ago, and for ages before that, when you needed to speak to someone who lived far away, you wrote them a letter. And then you waited hopefully until they responded by mail to hear their reply. Often the mail was at the whim of weather or war, and depending on how far away they were, you might wait weeks or months to hear from them. Fifty years ago you picked up the party line and politely asked the operator to connect you through to whomever you were trying to reach, and hoped that Mrs. Miller from down the street was not only not using the phone, but that she wouldn’t listen in on your conversation. And then you waited till they came to the phone. Now what? If someone doesn’t respond to your text within a few minutes, it’s not only bad form, but it’s highly irritating. You might even feel like you are being ignored. How dare they! Humph!
Technology has cracked our world open and united us in ways we haven’t begun to understand. We have more immediate access to anything on the planet than ever before in the history of mankind. Information, ideas and products are all at our fingertips in seconds, or in our homes within a matter of days. This brings with it a host of reactions; socially, biologically, functionally, economically and emotionally. Good for us, on many levels, but bad for us, I think, in more ways than one.
The way in which it concerns me, and what I attempt to address, is the way in which we are related to our food. What and how we eat has changed more in the last one hundred years than it has changed in the last 5 million years. And that is affecting who we are, what we do and how we feel. It would be absurd to assume that biological evolution can keep up with the speed of technological evolution. Eighty five million years of walking upright and we are essentially the same size and shape. We eat, we poop, and our organs function in much the same way. Yet in only 30 years our sociological environment has changed so fast that our bodies can’t keep up. We are already learning that listening to noise with ear buds can alter the development of the growing ear drum, and that typing on a computer keyboard for hours a day can destroy the finely made insides of the carpel tunnels in our wrists. We know that spending too much time looking at small print materials will negatively affect the shape of our eyeballs and that breathing particulates from certain manmade toxins will cause lumps to grow in our lungs. The way we relate to our environment, as a culture, is harming us. And yet we continue to assume that all food is good food, and the more the better.
The government isn’t helping us, either. The Food and Drug Administration has taken on the role of dietary counselor for the nation, and they seem to be the last ones to get on board with healthy trends. While they are currently advocating more whole grains and lower fat, which is good on some levels, they refuse to address the issues of where our food comes from, what is hidden in it, and how it was produced.
I am not a doctor, a nutritionist or even a dietitian, and lay claim to no professional insight into the working of human metabolism, agribusiness, food economics or any other thing. My techniques, theories and insights are based on common sense and basic civic morality, as well as my experience cooking with whole, natural and healthful foods. This blog is an introduction to moral, healthful eating and a place to start on the journey to become responsible for the things we put in our mouths.
There are plenty of very detailed books that explain how sugars, proteins and carbohydrates work in the body, describe which nutrients are best for us and why. There are insightful books that explain in detail the multitude of reasons we should eat mostly food from our own area. There are many books and documentaries that show how and why the American meat industry is bad for America, bad for Americans and downright disgusting and immoral. All of these should be explored and internalized when choosing a method for your style of eating. I hope here to lend support to a method that is based on the principles of eating locally, eating seasonally, and therefore living sustainably. Look for more about these issues, and recipes that support them, in the weeks that follow.