Monday, October 13, 2008

Eating Well in Hard Times

CNN’s dubious news-you-can-use on Depression cuisine (via Mills) and Steve Almond’s “recession garden” (via Cathy) got me thinking back on my “year of eating historically.”

There weren’t any recipes for squirrel, but there are some lessons.

Not so long ago, most people prepared nearly every meal as though they were in a recession. Meat was expensive. Affordable produce was seasonal. People “put up” canned fruits and vegetables for the winter. There were a few staples that they bought in bulk. Way back in the ’80s — the 1980s — I remember playing in my grandma’s cellar. I loved picking at the little white sprouts that grew out of the potatoes she kept down there over the winter.

Nowadays, we have cheap meat and cheap bananas and expensive asparagus all year round. In many cases, we’re not paying the true cost of our food: the carbon footprint of growing it on factory farms and then transporting it many, many miles to our kitchens. And although the global economic markets might have our attention, the true crisis — the one we’ll be dealing with for the rest of our lives — is environmental.

So here are a few suggestions that might be cheaper and will definitely be better for the planet….

  • Nut Loaf: a substitute for meat loaf. It’s improbably delicious. I made a “classic” version, as well as one with squash, carrot, and ginger. Unfortunately, nuts are expensive, unless you buy them in bulk. But their impact on the planet is much smaller than meat — and that’s important whether the stock market is up or down.
  • Apple butter (or apple sauce): if you pick them yourself, you can get 20-25 pounds for $20 — or less, if you’re not in NYC. That’s more than enough for several jars of apple butter, which you can eat throughout the winter and give as very thoughtful, very inexpensive holiday gifts.
  • Shit on a Shingle: eggs, flour, butter, milk, bread — all (still) affordable. If it was good enough for American G.I.’s, you better believe it’s good enough for their coddled grandchildren.
  • Bake a cake: ‘Causecupcakes are a rip-off! How about a nut cake (if you can’t get those wonderful hickory nuts, try walnuts) or that 1966 classic, the Tunnel of Fudge cake?
  • Rice Pudding: the price of grains has soared, but if you buy a big bag, rice is still very inexpensive. This is one of the most comforting desserts I can imagine. There’s a bonus recipe — my extra-special Rice Krispie treats — which are, unfortunately, too expenisve to make these days. Boxed cereal is also a rip-off.
  • Beans!: they’re cheap, especially when you buy them dried and in bulk. How about some spicy moong dal, tasty “unbaked” black-eyed peas, or heart-warming lentil soup?
  • “Working Girl’s Tuna Burger”: I mixed expensive yellowfin tuna and inexpensive whitefish — delish.
  • Irish Potato Pudding: don’t make this recipe. I repeat: don’t make this recipe. It was awful. You’d have to be in the middle of a famine to appreciate it. BUT there is a lesson: potatoes are cheap. They’re filling. And we’re so over that dumb no-carb thing, so give ‘em a try again!
  • Lobster Dip: lobster during a recession? Remember, it’s about moderation, not suffering. This recipe makes a delicious spread that serves about six.
  • Chicken Chartreuse: like the lobster dip, this is a way to make a little bit of (ideally) farm-raised, hormone-free chicken feed a crowd.
  • Tripe: ‘cause nothing says hard times like offal!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

October Surprise

On Wednesday, September 24th, I turned 27. We celebrated with homemade pizza, wine, and five varieties of cupcakes. Three days later, I had a marvelous 2050 A.D.-themed party, in honor of my newish blog about sustainability issues. But you could say my year really started when I was thrown into the air by a Chevy S.U.V. as I was walking across the street in Midtown on Sunday evening. I hit the asphalt hard on my right side and ended up in an E.R., where they gave me a bag of Morphine and looked inside my body every which way -- X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan. Satisfied that my organs were working as they should from where they should, they sent me on my way. I spent a painful but cozy week recuperating at home.

As becomes an invalid, I've wanted to eat little but soothing soups and tasty teas, and fortunately, I have wonderful friends who supplied me with both. But I'm a cook. The space between fridge, chopping board, and stovetop is where I simply am, where my elements are in harmony -- and it's where I start to put those elements together when they come undone. I am lucky, indelibly. Not only did I survive what a friend called "a blatant assassination attempt by Big Fossil Fuel," but I survived with the ability to cook. Happy birthday, indeed.

Earlier this week, I made tortellini in brodo with homemade broth, something I remember my Dad, a great cook, making in my childhood. It is my ultimate comfort food. And today, I made lentil soup -- perhaps the soup I most enjoy making at home. It's so delicious, so nutritious, so filling, and, unlike other legumes, lentils need no soaking and cook quickly, in about half an hour.

Before I started, I checked Mark Bittman's lentil soup recipe in How to Cook Everything, as I am wont to do, but improvised from there, adding potatoes we had on hand, and loading up on extra carrots. In a fit of inspiration, I sprinkled in nutmeg, then -- why not? -- cinnamon. The spices lent natural sweetness, an unexpected foil to the earthiness of the root vegetables and lentils. The thick soup was revelatory: an October surprise, no mud-slinging involved.

October Surprise Lentil Soup

Sometimes I like a lentil soup so thick even the label "stew" doesn't do it justice, other times I like a brothy soup. I generally prefer the latter when I'm using good, homemade stock. Adjust this recipe by adding more stock at the end if it gets too thick for your taste. Play with the recipe -- add spinach or celery, substitute shallots for onion, skip the potatoes, maybe even the carrots (though I do think some vegetables are crucial). The thing that makes this soup unique is the seasoning: thyme and (surprise!) nutmeg and cinnamon. The taste is pure comfort, whether you're recuperating after a run-in with a two-ton vehicle -- or just warming up on a blustery autumn day.

1 1/2 cup lentils, washed and picked over
1 pound carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch coins
1/2 pound small white potatoes, scrubbed, sprouts removed, and sliced into 1/2-inch chunks
2 bay leaves
4-6 sprigs of fresh thyme or 2 big pinches dried thyme
1 big pinch ground nutmeg
1 pinch ground cinnamon
8 to 10 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped to a 1/4-inch dice
1 tablespoon minced garlic, or more, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  1. Place the lentils, carrots, potatoes, bay leaves, thyme, cinnamon, and nutmeg, in a medium pot with 8 cups of stock. Bring to a boil, turn the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally.
  2. Meanwhile, swirl the olive oil in a skillet and turn the heat to medium-low. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat.
  3. When the lentils, carrots, and potatoes are tender -- about 30 minutes -- remove the bay leaves and the thyme sprigs and pour the onion mixture into the soup. Taste and adjust the seasonings. It should be faintly sweet, with just a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg.
  4. Add more warm stock if necessary. I like a very thick lentil soup, though it can be nice with more stock, especially if the stock is homemade. Season with salt (if needed) and black pepper and serve.
Serves 6.