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Thank you, Mario Batali. January 15, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Wednesday mornings tend to be exciting times here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share with a variety of animals in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. That’s because on Wednesday, our local paper devotes a section to food, and Silence, a rabid foodie, devours it (so to speak) front to back.

She does not, however, do so in silence. Our friend Ben is greeted with an ever-varying accompaniment of remonstrances, curses, directions, and general commentary as Silence makes her way through the section: “Did somebody actually eat this before they wrote about it?!” “Eeewww, look at this photo!” “Why does everyone have to ruin perfectly good vegetarian recipes by adding beef, chicken or fish stock and/or bacon?!” “Want a side of carcinogens with that?” “Ugh, our dog can write better than this. Please stick to the recipe!”

On and on it goes, with all the muttering and sputtering reminding our friend Ben of a kettle boiling over. Generally, I make appropriate grunts of agreed outrage when necessary and try to keep my head down and my nose in whatever section I’m reading.

Today, however, I realized that Silence was actually on to something. Mario Batali had a column in the paper. Normally, Silence enjoys Mario’s columns, with the exception of the “meatifying” vegetarian recipes part. I can’t say that I’d ever heard her say a bad thing about Mario before.

But this morning, she was spitting fire. She explained that a reader had written Mario to ask if he had a light, healthy recipe that would counteract the endless holiday gorging that had just taken place. In response, Mario proposed a dish of linguine with butter, olive oil, Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, and lemons. “Who’s calling this healthy?!” Silence fumed.

For our friend Ben, by contrast, it was a revelation. Just think of putting your favorite foods together—say, pasta, butter, oil, and cheese—and then adding a single ingredient that would transform the dish into something healthy. (Actually, there were two in this dish, since besides the lemons, you have olive oil, which as everyone knows is good for you.)

Yowie kazowie! Let’s say you make fettucine Alfredo and toss in some broccoli. Voila, health food! Maybe this is the logic behind chicken wings served with blue cheese dressing and those healthful crudites, celery sticks. Or, say, a dip that’s dripping with calories but contains those healthful veggies, artichokes and spinach! Sweet potato fries? Bring ‘em on! Apple slices deep-fried into luscious fritters? Hey, there’s fruit in there!

Thanks to Mario, our friend Ben has finally found a way to avoid the whole health-food trap. As I sit here, enjoying my lunch of Tostitos Cantina-Style Thin Chips covered with melted shredded white Cheddar cheese, I know that this is a healthful meal because it includes sliced jalapenos and green onions (scallions). And everyone knows that hot peppers and onions are good for your health, right?

Top ten ways to stop wasting food. March 22, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, pets, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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2 comments

Silence Dogood here. I was shocked and appalled this morning by an article in The Wall Street Journal with the innocuous title of “Leftovers: Tasty or Trash?” (check it out at www.wsj.com). The article turned out not to be about food preferences, as I’d assumed (though there were plenty of comments from men who hate leftovers, including one who said he’d rather eat a spoonful of peanut butter than leftovers).

Instead, it was about the massive amount of wasted food that’s thrown out in America’s home kitchens. Take a look at these stats: vegetables comprise 25% of trash in a typical home; fruit and juices, 16%; grains (presumably including breads), 14%; and milk and yogurt, 13%. Do the math, and it looks like 68% of a typical home’s trashcan is filled with food! In a world where even one person goes hungry, this is a sin and a disgrace. And this doesn’t even touch the food waste produced by restaurants, groceries, and the like. Yikes! 

Mind you, as anyone who’s taken a statistics course knows, statistics often aren’t what they seem, and this proved true in this case: “Trash refers to avoidable waste” was printed in tiny type under the stats. And what they considered “unavoidable” waste wasn’t defined.

There’s not much I consider to be unavoidable waste. It just kills me to see perfectly good furniture at the curb, waiting for the trash as it’s ruined by a downpour. Would it have killed people to call Goodwill or even—gasp—find the nearest thrift store and drop it off themselves?!

People need your old clothes, shoes and accessories. Even clothes that are worn out can be made into rags for rugs, etc. (that’s what they do with the clothing donated to those big dumpster-like bins you see around town). And here’s a tip: Buy clothes, shoes and accessories you actually like, that are flattering, comfortable, and easy-care, not clothes that fashion designers and stores want to sell you so you’ll have to constantly replace them to stay on-trend. If you buy stuff you enjoy wearing, you’ll wear it ’til it wears out (and then just be sorry you didn’t buy two).

Appliances can be donated or recycled. Plastic bags can be recycled at any grocery, paper bags can be used to hold papers for recycling or shredded and composted, and you can always buy earth-friendly grocery bags for 99 cents at the checkout and use those. (Even liquor stores now sell special compartmentalized bags for 99 cents!) You can cut down on plastic waste by purchasing water, milk, detergent, etc. in reusable containers. (Some companies deliver and pick up, you return the containers to other farms and stores, and you buy refills in your original container at others.)

Admittedly, some things do fall into the “unavoidable waste” category. I’d put used bandages, kitty litter, past-wearing athletic shoes, and toothpaste tubes in that category, though used toothbrushes can enjoy a second life cleaning grout, jewelry, or your rock collection. Here at Hawk’s Haven, our friend Ben and I shred waste paper to put in our chicken nest boxes and mix with soaked coir for our earthworm composter. We burn boxes and cardboard in our fire pit, recycle everything we can, and wear our carefully-chosen and much-loved clothes ’til they’re literally unwearable, then part with these old friends with huge regret. We save bubble wrap for winterizing the house and mailing gifts; we return plastic flats and pots to the nurseries where we bought the plants.  

But I digress. Let me give you one more stat from the article before I move on to saving food. It notes that the average U.S. household spends between $500 and $2000 each year on food that ends up in the trash. I imagine that seeing 5 to 20 Benjamins in a trash can would turn most people into dumpster-divers. Just think what you could do with that money! You could put it toward painting the house, paying the mortgage, dental care, health insurance, car repair, college expenses, a family vacation. Think about this as you plan your family’s weekly meals. Did I say plan your family’s meals?! I guess it’s time to move on to those tips.

1. Look at what you have. Make some time this weekend to go through your kitchen cabinets, fridge, freezer, pantry, and anyplace else you store food, to see exactly what’s in there. Check out all the cans, boxes, packages, and bottles. This is a good time to think about whether you’ll really use everything you have, or whether you should donate some less-popular items to a food bank or soup kitchen. Our local bank (as in money, not food) has bags in their foyer for donated food, another reason we love them. It will also remind you that you have ten jars of jelly or mustard and don’t need to buy more until all of them are used. And of course, I hope it will inspire you to think about how you can plan meals that use the food you already have.

2. Make a weekly plan. Because OFB and I subscribe to our local paper, each week we get circulars from the local groceries and pharmacies with their discounted items for the week, as well as at least two circulars with discount coupons. Because I shop at local health food stores, I also pick up sales circulars for them. So every weekend, I compare the prices in the circulars, see if anything I want is on sale, see if there are coupons for anything I want, and then make my grocery list based on what I plan to cook that week and where I should look for ingredients. To avoid food waste, you must be absolutely realistic: How many meals will you make at home, and how many will you and yours eat at school, at restaurants, at the company cafeteria, order in, or grab at the fast-food line? This is probably a fairly set schedule, so thinking it through once will probably give you a good idea about how many meals you’ll really cook at home. Use that estimate to decide which meals you’ll need to plan for, and then what ingredients you’ll need to make those meals.

3. Rotate. This means two things, both of which are helpful: First, it means that you should plan for variety. Even if you’ve made big pots of delicious chili, spaghetti sauce, or soup, you should serve them on alternate nights or every third night, not every single night until you’ve used them up. Variety is, after all, the spice of life. And second, you should keep an eye on the use-by dates of your canned, frozen, bottled, packaged, and fresh food. This sounds like a pain, and is one for about 10 minutes, but every time you buy replacements for your go-to foods, you should move the oldest cans, boxes, packages, bottles, and etc. to the front and put the newest ones in the back. Tedious? Sure. But it will not only remind you of what’s available for this week’s meals, but make sure you use what you have with no waste.

4. Share. If you find you’ve cooked too much of any one dish, and you can’t think of a way to incorporate it into something else, consider sharing it. Perhaps your neighbor would enjoy a dish. (And please, perhaps they’d enjoy it even more if you invited them to share it with you!) Perhaps your friends might appreciate a care package. But don’t overlook your pets. Our dog, parrot and chickens love fresh veggie and fruit scraps, nuts, and grains.

5. Morph those meals. Today’s beans and rice can be tomorrow’s refried bean and rice burrito. Or they can be added to a soup or stew. Todays’ side-dish greens like spinach, kale, and Swiss chard can be added to tomorrow’s soup or quiche or omelette or spanakopita or lasagna. Leftover rice, veggies and greens can make a delicious fried rice. Curries use any quantity of mixed veggies. So do salads and stir-fries. I’ve found that homemade spaghetti sauce is endlessly forgiving, so you can toss in that last bit of fresh salsa or a few tomatoes or anything you need to clean out your fridge, and it will blend and taste great. (It also makes a great sauce for lasagna and pizza. Just ask OFB!)

6. Make good food. I have to wonder if the reason so many people apparently hate leftovers is because the food isn’t that great to begin with, and is even worse when it’s nuked as leftovers. (Of course, some folks may hate leftovers because their parents insisted that leftovers were only fit for pigs. Shame on them!) If your meals are luscious and flavorful, and you warm up made-from-scratch leftovers in the oven rather than nuking leftover convenience foods in the microwave, everyone will want more. Why? Because it tastes so good!   

7. Compost.* OFB and I have a simple 3-bin composter out back made from free pallets. We also have an earthworm composter. Anything that starts to go bad before we can eat it, or our chickens can eat it, goes in our kitchen compost bucket to make rich, luscious soil for our garden beds.

8. Learn the art of food preservation. It’s really not hard to learn how to freeze, can, pickle, dry, and otherwise preserve extra food. Yes, it sounds scary, but even I can do it. And if I can do it, you can do it, I promise! It’s incredibly satisfying to preserve your homegrown harvest, whether you’re drying herbs and hot peppers, making your own applesauce or marinara sauce, or making pickles.

9. Talk first, then eat.  That amazing three-for-one deal on collards isn’t going to save you money if your family refuses to eat cooked greens. You know it’s super-nutritious. It will provide essential nutrients for everyone in the family. But nobody wants to eat them. Even I wouldn’t eat a serving of plain steamed collards (or kale, Swiss chard, or even spinach). Tell everybody you’re making a super-delicious dish. Then stir-fry those greens in extra-virgin olive oil with diced sweet onion, sea salt, black pepper, and balsamic vinegar, with some raisins tossed in for added complexity, though, and your family won’t be able to get enough!

10. Be grateful. Slow down a minute, and think what you’re putting in your shopping basket or cart. Look at the beautiful fresh fruits, greens, and veggies. Take some time to savor the cheeses and cut flowers you’re adding to your cart. Take a minute to thank everyone and everything who made your choices possible: the earth, the plants, the people who grew and harvested them, the people who painstakingly bred the varieties you’re enjoying, the processors, truckers and grocers who put them into your hands. If you train yourself to be grateful for every stalk of celery you put in your grocery cart or slice for your family’s evening salad, you’ll be much less likely to waste food.

Be a hero—save the planet. We all want to, but it can often be so overwhelming. A good, manageable place to start is in your own kitchen. Just a look at your family’s food use can start a revolution!

              ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

Food trends 2011. January 10, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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5 comments

Silence Dogood here. Our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, quoted four “experts” last Wednesday predicting what lies ahead for food and cooking in America in 2011. It all sounded rather, forgive me, predictable if you asked me.

On the one hand, we find a continued emphasis on local, artisanal, seasonal, organic, heirloom produce and foods (good), and on the other, the rise of celebrity butchers and a growing obsession with offal (i.e., entrails, guts, brains, eyes, feet, reproductive parts, and other animal parts more generally reserved for pet food). Not that the two trends are mutually exclusive. All this was coupled with what now seems like the obligatory nods to vegetarianism (Meatless Monday) and luxury (the return of cocktail hour, white truffles, and etc.). And, of course, smaller portions! As if we hadn’t had more than enough of that overpriced preciousness and pretension with Nouvelle Cuisine.

I, Silence Dogood, take exception to all this. I applaud the emphasis on local, organic, artisanal, seasonal, and heirloom foods. I have no objection to people following the time-honored peasant tradition in every country of eating “everything but the squeak,” and thus saving both money and resources, as long as no one asks me to join them. And far be it from me to decry the venerable cocktail hour. As Jimmy Buffett would say, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

What I take exception to is all this turning up on trend lists. Surely nobody but Rip Van Winkle could have failed to see the trend towards local, artisanal, organic, etc.etc. of the past decade-plus. Ditto every celebrity chef from Anthony Bourdain to his parody, Ruth Bourdain, screaming about the unending delights of offal, pig fat, pig cheeks, and meat, meat, meat in general. Surely the cocktail had been enjoying a revival since the rediscovery of the martini in what, the 1980s? As for vegetarianism, veganism, raw foodism, cleanses… oh, please. Small plates? Please. Micro-servings predated the trend for microgreens (also old news) by several decades. Luxury goods? There’s never been belt-tightening where high-end trend foods were concerned.

So where does that leave us in terms of real trends? Here are Silence Dogood’s Top Ten Food Predictions for 2011:

1. A bad year for celebrity chefs. Paula Deen adopts Rachael Ray during a heartwarming TV special; Martha Stewart and Guy Fieri are godparents. Then Paula shocks the culinary world by running off with Emeril before Christmas. (Rumor has it they’ve bought an island in the Florida Keys and are starting their own Creole/Cajun casino.) Oprah invites them to star in a cooking show on her Oprah Winfrey Network, tentatively called “BAM! Ma’am.” Highlights of each show will be Dr. Oz having to eat an entire deep-fried meal created by Paula Deen, and Dr. Phil giving a blow-by-blow analysis of Paula’s and Emeril’s relationship and how they can make it better. Unfortunately, the monster hit show is forced to end prematurely after Emeril “kicks it up a notch” and flambes Dr. Phil after the third episode. Fortunately, devastated viewers can console themselves by tuning in to the new Rachael Ray/Dr. Oz show after the couple announces their elopement.

A scandal breaks out after the Iron Chefs are exposed for using all-aluminum cookware. RuPaul reveals that he is the real Ruth Bourdain, and also the real Ruth Reichl. LaToya Jackson announces that, as a renowned psychic, she has channelled Julia Child and Julia has told her that the future is goose liver pate. “Pate, dear girl, that’s foy-grah en francais! And do try not to drop it, but if you do, a few glasses of burgundy and your guests will assume those stuck-on dust bunnies are some nouveau variation on cracked pepper!”

2. Butter is exonerated. First, we learned that olive oil was good and the polyunsaturated oils like safflower oil, which we’d all been told to eat instead or else, were carcinogenic. Thanks, you stupid nutritionists. We’re glad you were eating them, too. Only a brain-dead plankton would ever have thought anything like margarine, aspartame, or Miracle Whip could be good for you, so revelations in those quarters could hardly have come as surprises.

But I’ve been most happy to see other formerly vilified foods besides olive oil raised to food superhero status in recent years: chocolate, caffeine, red wine, even salt. There’s even a movement to make lard respectable as a health food. I’ll let the offal enthusiasts tackle that one. I myself am waiting for the day that butter is finally recognized as a health food. It’s coming, I promise you.

3. People are finally encouraged to eat responsibly. Nowhere in the world is food consumption as perverted as it is in America. Rather than being told to eat until they feel reasonably full, and then stop, people are told to:

A. Chew every unappetizing mouthful 1,000 times like cows. Ever watched somebody chew food, much less chew it and chew it? Ugh.

B. Stop eating before they feel full. Hey, Sherlock: There’s a difference between feeling satisfied—”That was nice, but I’ve had enough”—and feeling like you’re about to blow up. It should be assumed that reasonable people can tell the difference between the former and the latter.

C. Eat low- or no-cal foods in unlimited quantities so as not to suffer from hunger. I’m not clear why common belief holds that people are always terrified of expiring from starvation if they’re not constantly stuffing themselves with food. 

D. Eat every five minutes, but only approved bizarre foods and in approved ridiculous amounts, to offset starvation. See C, above.

E. Eat chemically-laden foods that are low-fat, low-sugar, low-carb, and/or low-cal because it’s “okay” to eat as much of these pseudo-foods (as opposed to real, wholesome, nutrient-rich foods) as you want. Who cares what they’re doing to you? They’re low-cal!

F. Eat an all-protein, high-fat diet and skip those dreadful carbs, aka fruits, veggies, legumes, and grains. You’ll lose weight and keep it off! Never mind if your complexion is lumpy, your skin is grey, and your hair is lifeless and falling out. Hey, you’re thin! And that’s all that counts, isn’t it?

G. Try the latest fad diet. You can eat as much rice, grapefruit, blah-blah as you want, as long as you don’t eat anything else! Wow, talk about an inducement. Sign me up! Ditto those liquid diets, diet bars, or prefab diets with chemical desserts. (Gotta eat dessert, now don’t we?)

H. Take the final road. Forget food. Go for bariatric surgery, tapeworm tablets, or anorexia instead. Or make like Roman banqueters of old and make yourself throw up after every meal.

Are these perversions of eating really what we’ve come to as a nation? I keep seeing condemnations of American eating habits based on the presumption that, as a nation, we collectively grab a Big Mac and fries on the way home, then sit down in front of the TV every night and glug a keg of beer, eat a couple of pepperoni pizzas, wolf down a couple of bowls of buttered popcorn, enjoy a giant platter of loaded nachos, and then order out for a couple dozen wings while consuming several bags of chips. Hey, wait, can’t forget dessert! Where’s that gallon of ice cream and bazillion toppings and the plate of brownies? 

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen anyone eat like this, or close. I have to admit, I’ve never even seen anyone order out, much less load up on high-fat junk. I’ve never seen anyone overload a plate. I’ve never seen anyone choose trash when good food was available. I’ve never seen anyone eat dessert after really good, healthy food was offered.

I think it’s time to say “Shut up!” to all the so-called experts and diet gurus and eat with our brains, our taste buds, and our appetites.

4. Cooking is demystified. I can’t tell you how many people I know who are terrified of herbs, spices, condiments, and cooking in general. Why?! Cooking is all about flavor, texture, and temperature. That’s all there is to it. Master those three things, and you’ll be a celebrated cook. In 2011, I’m predicting that chefs and cookbook authors will finally stop trying to complicate things for mystique’s sake and tell it like it is.

5. People finally discover that whole foods taste good. In today’s superprocessed society, this is not just counterintuitive, it’s shocking. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. No chip ever created tastes better than a carrot stick, scallion, or red pepper strip dipped in hummus, sour-cream-onion or -dill dip, or any cream cheese dip. No form of corn on earth—popcorn, corn chips, tortilla chips, corn muffins—can even begin to compare with a hot buttered ear of corn on the cob. Pretty much nothing can stand against a complex, crunchy salad, and nothing at all can stand up to a baked potato, roasted sweet potatoes, or mashed potatoes.

I could go on and on, but you get it: Fresh, whole foods are best. Once people give themselves permission to enjoy them with salt, pepper, butter, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pepitas, onion, scallions, herbs, spices, and the like, this will become obvious: Food prepared simply, and simply delicious.

6. People lose their fear of eggs. OMG, salmonella! Cholesterol! Bunk. Pass up factory-farmed eggs. Put your faith in organic, free-range eggs, and bear in mind that those alarmist nutritionists who squawk on and on about eggs have never, ever actually made a connection between the cholesterol in eggs and the cholesterol in people. Genetics suck. Eggs don’t.

7. Branching out becomes de rigueur. All fresh, all the time is great if you can swing it. But what if you live where the winters are harsh, like me and our friend Ben? I’m predicting that people will finally embrace the whole picture of dried, canned, frozen, preserved, and fresh foods. You can still buy local and put up your own. But for mercy’s sake, embrace the wisdom of your ancestors and make sure you have plenty of usable, delicious food staples stored away for bad weather or other emergencies.

8. Tony rocks the culinary world. Anthony Bourdain announces that he’s going to stop being a globetrotting TV star and get back to his roots as a hands-on chef. Then he turns the culinary world upside down by opening a vegetarian restaurant, Roots & Shoots, in SoHo.

Asked what caused him to abandon the world of meat for vegetarian cuisine, he replied: “I’m [bleeping] sick and tired of having to eat [bleepitty-bleep-bleep] [bleep] and smile and pretend I’m enjoying it! If I see one more [bleeping] piece of artisanal salumi, I’m going to [bleeping] throw up! And don’t talk to me about [bleep-bleeping] pig cheeks, pig fat, pig brains, pig eyeballs… Feed that [bleeping] offal to [bleeping] Rachael Ray. I want to eat something that actually tastes good for a [bleeping] change!  [Bleep] [bleep-bleep-bleepitty] [bleeping] celebrity! Just give me some [bleeping] food for a change!” 

Asked if he’d made any New Year’s resolutions, Mr. Bourdain responded, “Now that I’m a father, I’ve been making a [bleeping] HUGE effort to watch my [bleeping] language!”

9. Heirloom hysteria becomes balanced. Heirloom fruits and veggies have become huge in the past decade as consumers (that would be us) became more aware that many commercially popular foods were created to serve marketing (i.e. packing and industry) needs at the expense of flavor. Unfortunately, the backlash against industry greed and evil has been to vilify every hybrid as a tool of big business.

But it’s been our experience that certain hybrids, like ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes and ‘Juliet’ paste tomatoes, are better than anything else on the market. (Sorry, ‘Yellow Pear’ tomatoes and ‘San Marzano’ paste tomatoes; we still love you, too.) How did we encounter these hybrids? Through our organic CSA, which clearly shared our views.

We see that the mainstream vegetable catalogs have taken note of the heirloom craze and the drawbacks to heirlooms as well: low productivity, susceptibility to pests and diseases, extremely limited range. And we see that they’ve taken steps to combine rich heirloom flavor with hybrid reliability, as in the case of Burpee’s ‘Brandy Boy’, combining the flavor of the beloved heirloom ‘Brandywine’ with the reliability of their own ‘Big Boy’ hybrid.

We’re not suggesting abandoning heirlooms that do well for you for hybrids, God forbid. But if full-size heirloom tomatoes or whatever don’t do well for you, we suggest that you keep an open mind about the hybrids that are now available. We’re planning to try ‘Brandy Boy’ this year and see how it turns out.  

10. What’s in, what’s out. Fried turkey’s out, fried catfish is in. Sushi is out, tempura is in. Bacon is out, fried onion strings are in. Hummus is out, tzatziki is in. Martinis are out, Campari and soda (with a slice of lime) is in. Soy sauce is out, chili oil is in. Raw foodism is out, real foodism is in. Slow cookers are out, rice cookers are in. Cupcakes are out, doughnuts are in. Sourdough is out, no-knead is in. Fresh and pickled jalapenos are out, chipotle is in. Quiche is out, crepes are in. Jelly is out, marmalade is in. Salt and pepper are out, custom salt-pepper blends are in. Williams-Sonoma is out, King Arthur Flour is in. Black-eyed peas are out, butter beans are in. Bland, boring radishes and mustard greens are out, mustard greens and radishes with a bite are in. Lite beer is out, black & tan and porter are in. Chemically-laced sodas are out, flavored sparkling water is in. Caramel is in, chocolate and vanilla are out.

Okay, that’s it for us for 2011.  Please share your food trends predictions with us!  

           ‘Til next time,

                          Silence

Luverly lentil stew. December 6, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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4 comments

Silence Dogood here. Cold weather makes me crave a rich, warming lentil stew. So I made one up for our Friday Night Supper Club, and it turned out so well  that some people (who shall remain nameless) went back for third helpings, and everybody demanded the recipe. Since I had to write it down for them, I thought I’d share it with all of you, too. It makes a flavorful, satisfying, and inexpensive meatless meal, served with hot-from-the-oven bread and a salad or over pasta or rice. And, like meatless chili, refried beans, and black bean soup, it keeps beautifully in the fridge, so you can serve it for dinner, then store the rest for lunch or dinner later in the week.

While the stew thickened, I made up a batch of my baked caramel apples for dessert. (If you missed the recipe for this super-easy, delicious dessert, see our earlier post “An early Christmas present.”)

Let me say a word about the spicing and flavorings that I put in this lentil stew. Some of them may strike you as odd or even downright bizarre. Trust me here: You’ll be very pleasantly surprised! I should also point out that your spicing options are very broad with a lentil stew (or any dried legume dish). I could have added a little cinnamon, but I didn’t simply because I’d made Mexican Night for our friend Ben on Thursday night and I always put both cinnamon and cloves in my refried beans. Much as I love cinnamon, I didn’t want to taste it two nights in a row! And I might have added curry powder and/or garam masala, but I refrained because I know our friends Carolyn and Gary aren’t too taken with Indian food. All of which is to say that you should feel free to experiment and to use what you have! My lentil stew is different every time I make it, and it’s always good. Go for it!

Now for that recipe:

           Silence’s Luverly Lentil Stew

extra-virgin olive oil

2 large onions, diced

3 large cloves of garlic, minced

2 cups dried green lentils or more to taste

4 large carrots, sliced, slices quartered

9 new potatoes, sliced, slices quartered

large box vegetable stock (any brand)

half a large bottle tomato juice or more to taste

dried basil

dried oregano

hot sauce (we like Pickapeppa)

Trocamare, Herbamare, or salt (we like Real Salt)

whole cumin seeds

whole black mustardseeds

ground fenugreek

handful of raisins (about 1/4 cup)

1/4 jar mango chutney (I happened to have an almost-empty jar of mango chutney in the fridge last night; otherwise, I might have opted for orange marmalade, ginger preserves, or even apple jelly)

shredded Swiss cheese for topping

Pour a generous amount of olive oil in the bottom af a large, heavy stock pot or Dutch oven. (I love my enamelled cast-iron LeCreuset Dutch ovens, and used my largest one for this.) Saute the onion, garlic, spices, and hot sauce in the olive oil until the onion clarifies, adding a little veggie stock if needed to prevent sticking. Lentils can take a lot of spicing and I use a very generous hand with my spices—say, a tablespoon each. Add the raisins and chutney (or marmalade or whatever). The purpose of these is to add depth and richness to the stew’s flavor, and trust me, it works. Nobody will turn to you at the table and scream “There’s jelly in here!”

Rinse the lentils and add them to the pot, stirring well to mix. These are called green lentils, but they’re actually just the ordinary brownish-olive drab lentils you can buy bagged in any grocery store or in bulk at any health food store, co-op, or the like. You don’t want to use any of the small, delicate lentils in this stew! Go for the plain old everyday variety, which will hold up well to the other ingredients.

Now, add the veggie stock and tomato juice, and then fold in the carrots and potatoes. Let the stew cook for an hour or so on low to moderate heat until almost all the liquid is absorbed and the lentils, potatoes, and carrots are cooked through. You can actually make this earlier in the day and keep it perking away on the stove until supper, but if you do, keep it on low heat and add more veggie stock and/or tomato juice as needed to make sure it doesn’t completely dry out. You want a rich, thick stew, not soup, but you don’t want a dried-out, burnt-on mess! So keep an eye on it.

Serve up your lentil stew as is or over rice or macaroni, and top with a generous amount of shredded Swiss cheese. Yum! Thank heavens we were able to bring home leftovers despite those third helpings. Serves 8 to 10 (or maybe 6 if everybody keeps going back for more).

Try it, you really will like it. Promise!

          ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

The age of innocence. October 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

“Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood proved the truth of this saying, as we do every week, when we went to our local farmers’ market yesterday. There we were, standing in front of the bread baker’s stand, once again agonizing about whether we should get a perfect, crusty, chewy, nutrient-free white-flour baguette, or the much healthier but much less baguette-like (forget crusty and chewy) multigrain version. The white-flour baguette would be bliss; the multigrain baguette would be wise. Aaaarrrggghhhh!

Walking glumly away from the stand without either kind of bread, we passed by stand after stand of delicious desserts—cream puffs and eclairs, brownies and bars, just-made doughnuts—not to mention stands stocked with locally-made potato chips, French fries still hot from the oil, the best regional chocolates. At last reaching the produce stands, we bought mushrooms, sweet onions, sweet potatoes, green onions, Concord grapes, and winter radishes, which we knew our CSA wouldn’t be offering. (Oops—trouble! One veggie stand was offering their own homemade pumpkin rolls. Run away!!!) We swung by the Mennonite cheese stand for some locally-made herbed yogurt cheese. We bought this week’s addition to our Hallowe’en display, the most astonishing, breathtaking deep red pumpkin with black (probably actually dark, dark green) mottling. Then, with all the delicious scents of baking and frying still haunting us, we fled.

As we drove home, Silence and I had the discussion we have pretty much every time we go shopping or go out to eat. It’s the “Why is everything that tastes so good so bad for you?!!” conversation. Obviously, some things that taste good, like fruits, veggies, yogurt, and, yes, homemade multigrain bread (just not multigrain pseudo-baguettes), are also good for you. But, basically, if it’s sweet, fried, fatty, or white, it’s baaaaaaad.

Yet another case where the Information Age, for good or ill, has stripped us of all innocence. Our triple obsessions with being thin, looking young, and living forever have resulted in a barrage of media bulletins on health and healthy living. We are endlessly reminded that unprocessed is good, processed is bad; fat-free is good, fat is bad (unless it’s the couture oil of the month, doled out, of course, drop by drop); raw is best, steaming for five seconds is okay, as long as whatever you’re steaming is still rock-hard and not too hot, and every other method of food preparation is bad; plain is good, sweetened (or buttered or salted) is bad; brown is good, white is bad.

No religion could be more demanding, more intolerant, more certain of its certainties (no matter how often new data disproves or amends them), or more guilt-inducing than the creed of the health and diet gurus. There are doubtless many who embrace this new creed with fervor, but our friend Ben and Silence are most unwilling converts. We pass up the gleaming jars of cherry jam and marmalade at breakfast, practically with tears in our eyes. Our friend Ben has not had a piece of hard candy, which I love, since reading eons ago that studies had found that hard candy was even worse for your teeth than chocolate. Just thinking about it makes my teeth hurt. Silence and I watch dolefully as boxes of chocolates are passed around by our friends. (Yes, the health gurus now claim that a teensy, tinsy bit of bitter chocolate is good for you. Well, I don’t know about you, but we don’t have friends who dole out teensy, tinsy pieces of bitter chocolate, and we’d frankly resent it if they did.) And, oh, God, the seismic guilt we feel on the occasions when we do actually eat a warm, yeasty, buttered dinner roll at a restaurant, make white rice for dinner, or succumb to that white-flour baguette!

As I write, Silence is reading a book on the food history of the 1950s called Something from the Oven, which brings all our modern guilt over nutritionless and overprocessed foods into sharp perspective. (We were at first confused by the title, since the book basically chronicles the rise of convenience foods, but apparently there was a famous Pillsbury jingle from the era that said “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven.”) Silence has been updating me nightly about what she’s been learning through her reading.

Though it was certainly not author Laura Shapiro’s intention, hearing about the relationship of people to food in the Fifties makes our friend Ben long for the age of innocence, the age when nobody had a clue about the health consequences of their diets and welcomed food that tasted good and/or kept well with innocent joy.

Picture the arrival of white rice and white flour, which didn’t go rancid immediately like their brown counterparts, back in the late 1800s. There was no electricity, there was no refrigeration, and here you had rice and flour that weren’t bitter and kept until you could use them up. The joy! And of course that white flour made light, delicious breads, cakes, and biscuits, contributing no flavor of its own so you could add whatever flavor you chose, rather than supplying the dominant flavor to be complemented by your additions. Picture the appearance on the scene of sugar and salt that poured, so you didn’t have to chip it off cones or blocks every time you wanted some. And abundant white sugar, which again contributed sweetness without flavor, allowing everyone to make the luscious candies, cookies, pies, cakes, and other sweets they craved rather than hoarding whatever sweeteners they could get their hands on, feeling like bears jealously guarding a honey-filled hive, and doling it out bit by bit. Think of how ecstatic families must have been when canning was developed, allowing them to put up otherwise perishable produce so they could eat every bit of their garden’s bounty and enjoy fruits and vegetables out of season!

Those, our friend Ben maintains, were the days. I challenge you to try to imagine ripping open a bag of your favorite chips and filling a bowl with a decadent dip, or picking up a bowl of hot, buttered popcorn, and just eating and enjoying it, without giving one thought to its cholesterol or caloric content. Grabbing a bag of soft white balloon bread and making a big old sandwich, piling on as much cheese and full-fat mayo or peanut butter and marshmallow cream or whatever the hell you wanted and just biting in without giving a thought to anything besides how good it tasted. Grabbing a triple cheeseburger and a huge bag of fries; eating as much fried chicken and salted, butter-drenched mashed potatoes (made with cream, as they should be), or pork barbecue with all the fixin’s, or pasta or pizza as you could hold, piled high with your favorite toppings. Or savoring a sundae with lots of hot fudge and caramel and marshmallow cream and whipped cream, or a malt or milkshake, or a dish of (oh, no, chemicals!) soft ice cream, with a hot-from-the-oven brownie or some warm, gooey chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies on the side.

Do you feel sick, guilty, disgusted just thinking about it? Thank you, science. Thank you, medical juggernaut. Thank you, diet industry. Thank you, health reporters and websites. Unquestionably, your hard work has kept us younger, thinner, and healthier longer. It’s also made us question every god-damned bite we put into our mouths and every drop we raise to our lips. It has made shopping an agony rather than a delight, as we pore over labels and avoid whole sections of stores rather than enjoying the abundance around us. It has made it impossible to go to a restaurant or eat at a friend’s house without guilt if you eat what you want and dissatisfaction and regret if you eat what you should.

Our friend Ben is lucky. Nobody has to urge me to eat my vegetables. I love a big salad and a piece of fresh fruit. But please don’t insult my intelligence by trying to pretend that whole-wheat pasta—that abomination—bears any resemblance to real pasta, or that anything at all can taste like (and substitute for) butter or salt or whipped cream, or that brown rice can be switched interchangeably for white, or sweet potatoes for baked potatoes. (I actually love sweet potatoes and enjoy brown rice, but they are what they are, not a substitute for something else.) Or that, say, a multigrain baguette shares any characteristics with a real baguette beyond its basic shape.

The age of innocence. A time when food was welcomed, enjoyed, appreciated, devoured. A time when, if something tasted good, it was good, end of story. No guilt, no fear, no frantic calculations.

Would our friend Ben return to such a time? There is, after all, a lot to be said for eating the freshest, most flavorful, locally-grown food that you can find and afford. Our modern lifestyles enable many of us to make this choice, and I applaud it. But I would like to cook my fresh, locally- and organically-grown broccoli until it is cooked through and thoroughly hot, and I would like to put butter and salt on it as well as lemon juice. And if I wanted to serve it up over an ample helping of regular or artichoke pasta, both of which have the springy, resilient texture that makes pasta worth eating, with a topping of shredded Parmesan, a big side salad with as much balsamic vinegar and olive oil as I chose to put on it, and a glass of wine, I would like to do so without so much as a molecule of guilt or a censorious glance or thought from anyone. Is it really too much to ask?

The age of innocence. When people grew up and grew old while gaining status for their life wisdom rather than losing it for their altered appearance. When people lived their lives and thought their thoughts and raised their families and took their place in their many generations and their communities, and felt their value in doing so. When people assumed that they would slow down, gain weight, develop wrinkles and white hair or less hair as they grew older, and it would never have occurred to one human being that the desirable life goal was to try to look like a seventeen-year-old for their entire lives. When death was viewed as a passage rather than a disaster, a chance to be reunited with all your loved ones rather than a single, isolated, irrevocable ending. When the goal in cooking was to make food as flavorful, rich, and delightful as possible, whatever your means, and good food meant good health.

I suppose it’s impossible to truly recover innocence, to “go back” to that pre-knowledge mindset no matter what changes we may make in our lives and lifestyles. After all, now we know. But our friend Ben maintains that, no matter what we know, we don’t necessarily know better. I doubt that I will ever find that innocence in my own life, or be able to eat an eclair or a French fry or a slice of crusty, marvelous baguette without a little voice telling me I’ve made a bad choice. But I have an ultimate fantasy: In my dreams, I want to eat like a Victorian. Whatever I want, whenever I want, however much I want, enjoying every, single, delicious, perfect, guilt-free bite.

The day I ate whatever I wanted. September 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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9 comments

Silence Dogood here. Here, in fact, to tell you that, in this Puritanical nation, food is the new sex. It’s the thing everybody loves, and everybody loves to hate. It’s the national obsession.

You can’t open a paper or turn on the computer without being barraged by the latest on the obesity epidemic, presented alongside the latest about some skeletal model or anorexic celebrity. Only in America would every women’s magazine feature some larger-than-life, over-the-top dessert on the cover and the leading headline “Lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks!” Only in America would overweight people be so universally mocked and reviled while, simultaneously, every diet pill that had ever proved effective was systematically removed from the market. Only in America would weight gain be turned into a sin, and weight loss made into a punishment.

I, for one, am sick of it. I’m sick of seeing articles on how you should eat portions the size of a quarter and weigh and measure every last grain of rice or lettuce leaf. How you should eat salads the size of Texas, but God forbid that you should use more than a thimbleful of (fat-free, of course) dressing. How you should replace real food with godawful-tasting chemical conglomerations of fat-free, carb-free, calorie-free whatevers. How you should chew each bite until your ears explode. How you should never, ever salt your fat-free, flavorless food, since after all, salt might lead to water retention, which of course you don’t want since you’re now drinking your own weight in (plain, don’t even think about trying to flavor it) water every hour. And you’d damned well better spend every waking hour counting calories, counting carbs, rating every mouthful—no, wait, don’t ever, ever take an actual mouthful—on the Glycemic Index. And, oh, I almost forgot, write down every single thing, to the last almond sliver, that you eat.

Part of America’s enduring Puritanical streak is that we like to keep busy. “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground,” isn’t that how it goes? (I thank God I’m a Southerner, brought up in the last bastion of American leisure, but even there, I fear the ability to enjoy that simplest of pleasures, relaxing, is dying out.) But insisting that dieters obsess about food to the extent that their entire day is filled with eating required foods, drinking required amounts of water, and endlessly tabulating and recording every calorie, seems parodic to me. Surely we as a nation have better things to do with our time!

I’m also sick of the demonizing of people who are overweight. “It’s all your fault, fatso!” seems to be the national refrain, and everything from rising plane fares to—I could not believe my eyes, but yesterday I actually saw this—global warming is being blamed on people who are, I assure you, desperately trying to lose weight. I know lots of people in this category. I see them exercise, I see them try to eat modest portions of healthy foods. I’m sure there must be people who buy gallons of ice cream or those horrible store cakes and eat the whole thing, but they’re not people I know. It enrages me to see these people ridiculed and reviled by a society that exalts fast food and fills ad pages and grocery aisles with super-processed, chemical-filled “foods.” A society that has trained its citizens to expect meat at every meal, dessert at least once a day, and chips, candy, and other fat-drenched, fiber-free fare between meals, washed down by soda and beer.

Not to mention holding up 13-year-old stick figures as the ideal body image for adults. There’s a reason 13-year-olds look like that: They’re growing. And they look cute with their long, coltish legs and ruler-straight figures, because—drumroll—they’re kids. They also look cute in clothes made to flatter their figures. The same can’t be said of adults who starve themselves and work out ’round the clock to attempt to duplicate a pre-adolescent figure.

Moderation, please. Is it too much to ask that women look like women, with shapely hourglass figures and curves? How about guys that look like guys rather than bodybuilders or rulers (as in measuring sticks, not monarchs). Why are we so obsessed with the extremes?

Well, here’s a secret: It’s class-based, and it’s apparently a universal human failing. When the poor were starving and thin, as has been true through most of human history, only the rich could get enough to eat. Only the upper classes had a chance to actually carry excess weight. So fat was the old thin. Rubenesque women and portly men were the fashion worldwide. Fat was a status symbol. Now, the reverse is true. Starchy, calorie-dense foods are cheap, and most jobs are sedentary. Only the (comparatively) wealthy can afford the gyms and personal trainers, the prepacked low-cal meals or low-cal, high-protein meats and seafood or personal, calorie-conscious chefs that make being thin in. Thin is the status symbol, as in “you can never be too rich or too thin.” Plumpness and relative poverty now go hand in hand. But if access to adequate food once again became a global issue, you can bet that, once again, fat would be the new thin. Strange that we never seem to learn, or to embrace the middle ground.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just accept the weight our bodies were meant to carry at every age—no more, no less? Wouldn’t it be a relief to enjoy our food, when it was time to eat, rather than obsessing about it, worrying about it, vilifying it, and letting it occupy every waking hour? Wouldn’t it be delightful to actually relegate food to its proper place and give most of our thought to other things?!! Sheesh.

All this explains why I was so delighted to see a book on our local library’s new books shelf the other day called The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted. It’s a new collection of short stories by Elizabeth Berg, and the title story involves a woman who flees a Weight Watchers meeting and spends the rest of the day eating exactly what she wants to. I loved the idea of this, since I felt like it flung a gauntlet in the face of the whole diet and fashion industry. I’ve tried since then to find the time to think about what I would eat if I could spend a day eating whatever I wanted.

Actually, it’s been harder to bring my dream foods into focus than I thought it would be. Maybe that’s because I’d love to eat a lot of food, but the truth is that I can only manage pathetically small amounts. (Don’t hate me, please—I wish I still had the 17-inch waist and concave stomach I took so totally for granted through my 20s, but forget that—it’s not like eating a few bites at every meal is keeping me slim and trim or anything, far from it.)

If I could eat anything… hmmm. Maybe I’d have grits slathered in butter and salt and a hot, fluffy biscuit for breakfast or a couple of hot, buttery croissants, crunchy apple slices, and a little cheese. A club sandwich and sweet potato fries or an oven-fresh, crusty baguette with plenty of butter and good cheese and an arugula salad with almonds and mandarin oranges or caramelized pecans and pear slices for lunch, washed down with lots and lots of iced fruit tea. A slice or two of really good grilled pizza with a side of roasted veggies and a salad of mixed greens, green onions, black olives, and goat cheese, with iced tea (unsweetened, with lots of lime) and wine for supper. And, the ultimate fantasy, dessert—soft vanilla ice cream with hot fudge, caramel, marshmallow cream, and whipped cream; a slice of hot pecan pie or banana cream pie, both topped with real whipped cream; really good tiramisu; flan; fresh blueberry tart in a shortbread crust with tons of whipped cream; or even a slice of the great-looking Chocolate Shadow Cake from the latest issue of my favorite cooking magazine, Cook’s Country.

Gack, for me, this is indeed a fantasy. I can’t eat both breakfast and lunch; I can’t manage both supper and dessert. Our friend Ben is constantly berating me for putting ample food on my plate and then eating three bites. (At least it doesn’t go to waste, since Ben and/or the dog and/or the chickens get the leftovers.) But it’s fun to think about, isn’t it? A delightful liberation from the tyranny of the Puritanical diet gurus. So what would you eat if you could spend a whole day eating whatever you wanted? I want to know!

        ‘Til next time,

                    Silence

The Friday Night Supper Club April 13, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, pets, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love a congenial gathering. And we especially love a congenial gathering on a Friday night, to celebrate another week well lived (or at least survived) and to kick off another wonderful, too-short weekend. But our little cottage, Hawk’s Haven, was not designed with entertaining in mind. There is no dining room. There is no parking. And don’t get us started on the plumbing!

This situation had frustrated our friend Ben for years. Then some good friends did a major renovation on their house, creating a big dining room, a huge, cozy family room with lots of light and a fantastic fireplace, and an enormous deck for outdoor entertaining. As it happened, a number of our other friends lived near this couple. Our friend Ben had a bright idea, and the Friday Night Supper Club was born.

Here’s how it worked out. Friday night seems ideal for a get-together, but of course everybody’s wiped out after another grueling work week. So our friend Ben suggested a division of labor. Our hosts provide the setting for our dinners. Silence usually brings the main dish and sides, while our friend Ben is responsible for the salad. (During the laying season, we also bring colorful little six-packs of Hawk’s Haven eggs for everybody.) Another friend brings wine; a second, flowers fresh from her garden; a third, dessert; a fourth, sparkling water or an appetizer; a fifth does the dishes. Our good friend Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame is an accomplished baker, and often appears with a crusty loaf still warm from the oven.

While the festivities are getting underway, kids and grandkids take over the family room, creating massive Lincoln Log fortifications that are quickly demolished (amid squeals of outrage) by an armada of toy bulldozers and trucks. The latest Disney movie is usually playing, though occasionally the kids surprise our friend Ben by choosing more grown-up fare like The Lord of the Rings, or even, once, the Bollywood classic “Bride and Prejudice.” One particularly talented friend occasionally brings his guitar and amuses young and (ahem) older alike by playing his specialty, which happens to be, believe it or not, garden-related songs. Meanwhile, Binx and Jones, the resident cat and dog, are usually lurking under the dining table, hoping against hope that somebody will get careless and drop a scrap or two for them.

For most of us, these are not late nights (it is, after all, the end of a very long week), but they are good nights: Cozying up to the woodstove or fireplace with a hot cup of coffee or mulled cider in winter; venturing out to see what’s ripening or blooming in our hostess’s phenomenal garden in the long, firefly-lit twilights of summer. (Or just admiring her garden soil. Our friend Ben is not usually prone to envy, but years of composting have given that soil the exact texture of chocolate cake.) Hearing the murmur of quiet conversation or the sudden laughter of children.

Higher math is not our friend Ben’s forte. But here’s a simple equation we can all appreciate: Good friends + good food = good times!

  

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