Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Q & A with Paprikahead: Peas and Grapes

Hey Paprikahead,

It's me, the fluffy hamster, wondering about some weird stuff. Really, really weird stuff.

Like Number 1: How come peas seem to be frozen or in cans? What would peas look like in a market? Where are they? They would fit so well in my pouches, making my cheeks soft to the squeeze yet textured to the rub.

OK, Number 2: Can I really use fresh grapes in my bread? I sure hope so. I have so few raisins and rumor is that raisins are really just dried out grapes. Maybe this is true? Oh Jeez. Better get rid of those seeds.

All right Paprikahead. These are just some small queries. I'm going to get back to nest building here in Portland and chasing the cat around.

I'm making a nice stock, by the way, and a soup shall follow. Directions courtesy of, of course.

Your faithful small woodland creature of the night,

Fluffy Hamster

Dear Fluffy Hamster,

I'm afraid I have sad news for you today.

1. Peas, it turns out, are one of the sweetest signs of springtime. In farmers' markets, you can find them inside their crisp green pods. You shell them with a little push to pop their seams and a zipper-like action with your thumb. The little peas roll out, so cute, so sweet. For the shelling, I recommend child labor. Tell them it's a contest to see who can find the pod with the most peas in it. That's how I learned. They don't keep very well once shelled, so that's why you really only see them frozen. See if you can wait till next spring, Hamster.

2. I would not recommend making bread with grapes in it. First, the seeds would be a bit of a pain. Second, grapes are very moist -- much moister than bread dough -- and they would turn your dough to mush. It is true, though, that grapes turn into raisins. You could, if you were patient, pick the seeds out of your grapes and spread them out on a rack set in a black cookie sheet and dry them for several days in the sun, bringing them in before dusk each night so they wouldn't catch a drop of dew. Or, if you're in rainy Portland, you could put them in a very cool oven -- no more than 150, or they'll get crisp instead of chewy, and dry them that way for several days.

Something altogether different, having to do with grapes and bread, is the delightful fact that the dusty bloom on grape skins is actually wild yeast. You can jumpstart a wild yeast sourdough starter by putting a handful of grape skins in it. My coauthor, Ken Albala, has some good examples on his site, but sadly, the wild yeast sourdough recipe is part of our cookbook(!) so it's not on the web anymore.

Happy nest buildling, Hamster!


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Frugality in the Kitchen (No Corners Cut)

These are Mama's scarlet runner beans. They bounce out of their leathery pods when you shell them, hot pink and flaming purple. They're a fun genetic study, too, as they mingle in the garden (purple is dominant -- all the beans on the left grew from seeds of their own color, but the beans on the right were grown from brown and tan seeds, and picked up the purple from their neighbors. I think white might be a different species).

To follow up on my frugality post, I'm putting together ten of my own favorite tactics for spending less on wholesome, satisfying food. I grew up in a household that ate a lot of scarlet runner beans and venison, and we lived very comfortably on a tiny food budget. That said, money is not the only resource worth saving. Your health is much more important. Also, I currently share a communal kitchen with four fellows who spend their days biking to and fro, so I'm not talking about saving money by eating less.

Things to eat:

(1) Dry beans. Canned beans are a convenient waste of money. Plus, soaking and partially sprouting beans increases the availability of their nutrients as the seeds tap their nutrient stores in preparation for germination. Partially sprouted beans take much less time to cook, saving time and energy. I keep a big bowl or two of beans soaking at all times in the pantry. To soak beans, cover them with three times their volume in water. Change the water twice a day for two days. Then drain the beans and either cook them at this point or rinse them twice daily until they've formed 1/4" sprouts.

(2) Eggs. Eggs are one of the least expensive, most thorough sources of high-quality protein you can buy. Even the best pastured eggs cost less than most meat, pound for pound (and they've got essential fatty acids and vitamin D, which you won't find in regular, cage-free, or free-range eggs). In short: the tryptophan! the selenium! the B vitamins! the choline, oh heavens, the choline!

(3) Homemade yogurt. Yogurt is so easy to make. You can buy the highest-quality raw milk for much less than the equivalent volume of mediocre yogurt, and make it into yogurt yourself.

(4) Fresh produce. Fresh produce tastes better, looks better, and has more nutritional value than produce that spends a long time getting shipped all over and stored in warehouses before you eat it. At farmer's markets, you don't have to give money to a middleman. Growing your own veggies is the best option if you have the space, of course.

(5) Lard. Even lard from the healthiest, happiest pigs is quite inexpensive, very satisfying, and rich in vitamins. Put tons of it in all those beans you cook to make them filling and easy to digest. You can get pork fat very cheaply from a butcher and render it yourself if you like.

(6) Organ meats. Not only are organ meats just teeming with nutrients, but they're less expensive than fancy cuts of steak. Personally, I'd take a braised heart or tongue any day over a steak, but even if you don't share my enthusiasm, try making some chopped liver for supper. It always wins over the liver-phobes.

(7) Porridge. Boxed cereal and ready-made granola are some of the most expensive foods you can buy -- especially given that they're half made of sugar and leave you hungry by ten o'clock. Make your own convenient oatmeal by soaking rolled oats overnight.

Things to avoid:

(8) Storebought alcohol. Ever since college, I have had many friends who complain that they have no money for good food, but spend five or ten dollars a day on alcohol. That's a couple hundred a month. Yes, yes, I understand. If you want it every day, brew your own or go get high on endorphins instead.

(9) Prepared food. Packaged food costs a ridiculous amount of money, and usually contains ingredients you'd never add for yourself -- strange preservatives and whatnot. This includes not just the obvious candy bars, but all sorts of organic faux-wholesome foods. Take packaged instant oatmeal. It's heavily sugared, wrapped in wasteful packaging, and costs ten times as much as plain rolled oats. And tastes like mealy spit-up.

(10) Reduced-fat anything. You'd pay to have someone strip your food of flavor and nutritional value?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Q & A with Paprikahead: Basil

From a big fluffy hamster:

The harvest has come to the north east and my parents wee garden is popping and retracting! It's here! And what to do!!!

Namely, my guru Paprikahead, I must know what to do with all of this basil! I got so big last year (almost like that cat Babette - the 18-pound monolith that frequents the Mission) that I just don't want to make the over-sized pesto. Is there a fine recipe you know to can basil? Perhaps some kind of sauce that I can later use?

Oh jeez. All of this Basil! What to do! I'd really like to use Mason Jars, too, rather than plastic bags. Plastic is so postmodern and shiny.

Salutations from the very end of Long Island,

A Big Fluffy Hamster.

Dear Big Fluffy Hamster,

First, the bad news. As a light fresh herb, basil does not can well. Think about canning lettuce.

It isn't perfectly satisfactory when frozen, either. Should you decide to freeze basil, you can lay it out on cookie sheets and place them in the freezer. When the basil is quite frozen, swiftly transfer it to a bag and keep it frozen until you want to use it. It will thaw within seconds of being removed from the freezer, and will go limp. It will be fine in cooked dishes but I wouldn't try it in anything else.

Now, some good news. Pesto will make you skinnier, not fatter. Look at it this way. Pesto is made of leaves, olive oil, cheese, garlic, nuts, and lemon juice. And a sprinkle of salt. Do you know what that is, Hamster? It's a salad. An extremely dense, mashed, raw, thriving salad. It contains not one empty calorie. You can -- and should -- eat pesto by the spoonful. Your coat will get all shiny and your eyes will be bright. In fact, if that Babette ate more pesto, she would be a svelte little mink, indeed. Furthermore, pesto does, in fact, freeze very well. (No canning -- that's cooking the salad).

One other option would be to make a basil-infused liquor: pack the cleaned leaves in a large jar, pour vodka over it, and let it sit for a week. I'm sure it will be delicious. Sadly, vodka is, of course, nothing but empty calories, and that's the problem you were worried about in the first place.

Other suggestion for our Hamster friend? Feel free to advise him.



Tuesday, October 06, 2009


"Dedicated to Those Who are Not Ashamed of Economy" reads the subtitle of The American Frugal Housewife, which was Mama's birthday present to me this year.

It made me wonder. Am I ashamed of frugality? Frugality's the hottest thing these days among the cruise-canceling set, but for those of us who have always been underfunded, frugality looks like dull work. And even in these straitened days, the prophets of frugality sound like bitter killjoys. Take the advice of the frugal housewife herself:

"Young ladies should be taught that usefulness is happiness, and all other things are but incidental."

She's right, of course -- just a few things are less happy than the feeling of uselessness -- but she sounds so harsh with all her "should be taught"s and "young ladies", and while frankly I think people waste a lot of money out of fear and ignorance and incompetence, I'm not about to tell them so. Am I ashamed?

Let's see. I just voluntarily quit my very nice job as a produce clerk to wing it as a freelancer. In this economy? How embarrassing. I just voluntarily subjected myself to the drudgery of scrimping, the grit of budget spreadsheets, the shameful penury of the unsteadily employed. I also lost my health insurance. (Obama, please hurry up with the health insurance. I'd like some before my beauty marks metastatize). In the meantime, I get to pull a number, grab a seat, and wait half a day in the very-unglamorous public clinic for my health care. (I consider nutrition my best health insurance, but there's always the risk of some drunk SUV-driving teenager running me over when I'm biking home with my eggs and milk). I'm a little ashamed.

As a small girl, I relished my self-proclaimed "weirdness" and delighted in my thrifty heritage. I did! I didn't mind the holes in my shoes, but I did mind that the socks poking out were unfashionably teal. And I didn't like the fact that our laundry hung to dry on a clothesline directly southeast of the outdoor woodstove. When the coldest winds came hurtling from the northwest and we stoked the stove to a fever pitch, we smelled like stale woodsmoke for days. I was a little ashamed. On most days, though, I'm a touch smug about my pennypinching.

For one thing, I can tap into a rich heritage of proud thrift. Every penny saved is a tic on my Mennonite scorecard. Nonetheless, I've had to shift some of my traditional definitions of frugal. Money is not the only resource -- what about health (and our children's health) and time and beauty? It isn't, for example, frugal to save large quantities of white bread even if it's free. Refined flours drain nutrients from your body when you digest them -- they spend health. Nor is it frugal to buy cheap chicken that comes from an industrial poultry farm that spews chicken shit and antibiotics into the drinking water and gives the workers brown lung. Nor is it frugal to spend hours of your time figuring out ways to save a few pennies.

It is, however, quite frugal to "waste" lots of time cooking for yourself and doing chores, even if you could go buy the same food for much less than your hourly wage. Why? Because building varied daily physical activity into your schedule makes you healthy and content. Grinding grain, hanging laundry, kneading bread, sweeping the floor -- these sorts of "boring" chores free the mind and relax the body. They can also be incredibly satisfying aesthetically (sigh for a line of well-hung laundry drying in the sun). And the aesthetics are crucial. It's much more fun to clean a light and lovely home, much more fun to cook in a well-appointed kitchen, much more fun to have people over for supper when the lighting's warm and mellow. This sort of beauty makes you happier and healthier, I do believe -- it's genuinely frugal and nothing to cause shame.