Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Challenge - Part 4

So we have reached the point in the story where everything goes wrong. The best intentions and the excitement of new challenges has tapered off. Now is when the dirge plays and our heroine walks alone with her thoughts or runs home (or away from home), devours a pint of Ben & Jerry's while watching sad movies, wistfully thinking about what went wrong.

What went wrong was a day spent out of the house not cooking. A faulty weekly menu that had us eating bread for every meal: toast & eggs for breakfast, pb&j sandwiches for lunch, soup and grilled sandwiches for dinner. It was running out of bread and not wanting to bake any more. It was scrounging around the next day for something to eat for lunch. It was getting home late from running errands. It was hungry children who did not like what I hastily pulled together from the fridge. It was hungry children who did not appreciate the 20 minutes I spent cooking Irish Oatmeal for St. Patrick's Day breakfast. It was the new bread recipe that failed. It was the surmounting disappointment and discontent over the many things I had wanted to do this week besides cooking. It was the dirty dishes piling up and the bread dough needing to be made and the beans to be sorted. Ack!!!

Husband put the children to bed. I washed dishes and grumbled. I mixed the flour and the yeast and the water and the honey into a dough-like substance while thinking of nothing at all. I pulled out the beans and thought about Bible study from earlier that night and Jesus as the "good shepherd." I thought about all the people who made the movie The Gospel of John and I prayed for them. I thought about the sadness I will feel when we get to the part where He lays down His life for mine. I ran my fingers through the tiny black beans and my thoughts slowed down, my breathing slowed down. I thought about my children and my husband perhaps enjoying these beans in tomorrow's dinner. I thought about how whenever I make something for someone, I think of them with each stitch or each stir. I pray for them and bless them all the while.

As I sorted beans, I thought about something my husband said the night before, about mirror neurons. He often watches/listens to TED Talks on his Ipod. One of the recent ones was by VS Ramachandran, "The neurons that shaped civilization." (watch it below) Ramachandran says we can see someone else scratch their arm or their head and "feel" the same sensations in our brains. The touch receptors in our skin keep us from being confused about whose skin is being touched. The only thing that gets in our way of truly feeling someone else's body is our skin. If you remove the skin by numbing it, for instance, you dissolve the barrier in your mind. But what if we simply remember a touch? Is it possible to feel it again?

I thought about how many times I watched and helped my mother sort beans, the sound they made as she would drop them by handfuls into the metal colander. Standing together by the sink time and again, we would talk about things I can't remember now. I can see her and her hands so clearly in my mind. They looked so much like mine do now. Through these mirror neurons, could our movements become intertwined? Could we but touch except for the skin and time?

Together we sort.

Photo by jmccammon

My reverie is broken by my oldest daughter walking into the room. "What are you doing?" she asks.

"Sorting beans."


I begin to explain about dirt, mechanical separation, the lack of a human factor. She begins to help pick out a piece of grit here, a broken bean there. We stand together now, just as my mother and I did then, talking about things I don't remember now, and the circle is complete.

The lamentation ends. The story moves on. Our heroine is emboldened by these insights to once more make another meal, change another diaper, do another load of laundry. What seemed impossible an hour ago, is doable now. A connection is made, a memory, a blessing, a gift. You certainly can't get that from a can opener. I guess slow is better.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Challenge - Part 3

(I'm a bit behind in my posting. This would have been technically last week? I can't remember). New items made this week: 2 loaves of bread, chicken stock, tortillas, refried beans, more yogurt, pumpkin muffins, museli.

I really enjoy shopping in this new regiment. It is much easier. I can skip whole sections of the grocery store, both the weekly sales flyer and the aisles themselves. I mostly focus on produce, meat (sparingly) and dairy. I have often read that that is where we should be shopping anyway, but felt that I was doing well with what I was purchasing. Now I realize what it takes to only shop the outside of the store. All those processed foods! Cereals, canned goods, crackers. I don't miss it as much as I thought.

The thing that has been most difficult is when I try to use my old recipes that included "convenience items" that I must first replicate before I can make the "quick" meal. The example this week was Roast Chicken Chimichangas. A quick recipe, usually, that uses precooked chicken, refried beans, and tortillas. I saved some chicken breast from the roast chicken I made on Sunday. So that wasn't a problem. It was the tortillas and refried beans. I cheated a bit on the beans and used a can I already had in the pantry. I then cooked up some chopped onion and added the canned beans. In no time at all I had some tasty refried black beans. Then we come to the tortillas.

I have made tortillas before. I recall that they took some time, but that they tasted good. Unfortunately, I did not allow myself enough time to make the tortillas. Life got in the way of my best intentions. So I did not start them until 5pm. The dough itself was easy enough to mix together: flour, salt, baking soda, shortening, and dried milk powder. As I went to get started, at 5pm, I realized that I had forgotten to buy the shortening and was pretty sure that butter would not work as a substitute. (This is why it is so important to check the recipes when making the list, Jenn!) So off to the store. By the time I got home, the toddler wanted my attention and was fussy. I quickly made the dough and let it rest while I took care of her. Then I divided the dough and got to work rolling and frying each tortilla.

Now I have seen tortilla making appliances. I really try to stay away from "uni-tasking" appliances and tools. The Baker's Catalogue had one that I've looked at from time to time, but could never justify purchasing it. I can now appreciate how handy one would be. I was able to roll the dough very thinly, but not very uniformly round. All the tortillas ended up looking like Africa or Deimos. They also puffed up as they cooked. The resulting texture was more of a flatbread or roti than the tortillas we are used to buying at the store. They were fairly simple to make and only cook for 1 minute on each side. But that's 2 minutes per tortilla x 16 tortillas = 32 minutes of time spent on one part of the meal. Not terribly convenient when you only have 30 minutes to make dinner.

By the time I finished, I opted to not make them into the baked chimichangas that we usually have. Instead we just topped the tortillas with the beans, chicken and cheese and cooked them up quesadilla style. Quite tasty in the end, but more work that I had anticipated.

So the lesson learned from this week was to stop trying to duplicate store-bought items. Stop trying to make it look and taste like what I can buy, but rather look for and make recipes that rely on simple cooking of real food. That is not to say I will not be making tortillas again, I just won't be thinking that it is a quick and easy dinner that I can throw together in less than a half and hour.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Challenge - Part 2

During the first full week of making things myself, I made yogurt (which was much easier than I had anticipated), granola, three loaves of bread, banana bread, ice cream (more on that later), and freshly squeezed orange juice.

Many of these things I have made before, except for the yogurt and the ice cream. I have been wanting to make my own yogurt for some time and found a way to make it in the crockpot over a year ago, but still I resisted. Why? It only takes less than five minutes of hands on time. The rest of the time is spent waiting. The consistency was a bit runny, especially after I mixed in the sugar and vanilla that my family likes. I'm looking for ways to make it thicker and easier for my toddler to eat.

The ice cream....good heavens! Technically it is frozen custard. The recipe is the one that came with the ice cream maker I bought on clearance at the end of last summer. (That was a saga in and of itself. I didn't realize that the summer shopping season ended on July 4th. I went to every store in town that might carry one and had no luck. I nearly ordered one online when chance would have it that I found one in the clearance aisle of Wal-mart. If you need an ice cream maker or a swim suit, now is the time to buy one... yes, I realize that it is just the middle of March, but really... you won't find one come June!) But back to the making of the ice cream, aka frozen custard...

First, the custard. I love (to eat) custard. Jell-o pudding has nothing on homemade custard except that pudding takes 5 minutes and custard...a bit more. If you've never made custard or pudding from scratch, let me tell you that it is agonizingly slow going. Get a good audio book on the mp3 player before beginning. After about 15-20 minutes (okay...more like 30) of slowly stirring the flour and milk and sugar into a thickened mass, you add eggs and get an even thicker mass which is creamy and delicious in its own right. But then, you add vanilla and heavy whipping cream, churn it in the ice cream freezer and...

Now I made ice cream for a church event last summer that tasted and looked like melted ice milk. Not terribly satisfying. Truth be told, I was expecting the same sort of thing when the ice cream freezer motor signaled that it was finished. I took off the lid and saw the mashed potato consistency that the directions said I should. I dipped in a spoon to sample my creation and nearly swooned the moment it touched my tongue. I've never tasted anything so creamy in my life! I sampled again. The kids came in and were equally speechless with the results.

So was the time spent stirring and mixing worth it? Yes. The time it takes to make bread, yogurt, ice cream...well, just about anything myself...has given me a greater appreciation for what I eat. I read somewhere, that when we eat good quality food, we tend to eat less of it. After my experiences these last few weeks, I must believe that it is true. When one works hard to prepare something, it must be slowly enjoyed. We live in a culture where everything is fast and easy to get. If I'm out of something, I can run to the store and get it. If I don't feel like cooking, our little town has a couple of dozen places to get something prepare for me. Need a new shirt? Just buy one. Plastic dishes, silverware, cups...use it once and out it goes! That quickness and facility leads to excess consumption of food and other goods. We waste, we hoard, we gorge. We don't respect, appreciate and savor! One of the reasons I wanted to do this project for Lent this year was to really focus on my consumption. I already recycle and reuse what I can, but to reduce my consumption at the store was something I hadn't done to my fullest ability. It has been a challenge, to be sure, but the rewards have been worth it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Challenge

I know that Lent is an old-fashioned tradition that many modern Christians do not practice, but it is one of the traditions from my Catholic upbringing that I like and hold on to each year. I enjoy the challenge and the commitment that it brings to the end of winter. It make the celebration of spring all the sweeter. Last year I gave up sugar and and limited my computer time to just 30 minutes a day. A fruitful challenge, but not with any lasting benefits.

This year for Lent, I have set for myself the challenge of making due with what I have and making everything I need. I want to reduce my consumption of processed foods and mass produced "stuff." If I can make it myself, I will or will go without. If I cannot making it myself, then I must question whether it is something that I really need. My short list of things I will be making instead of buying:
  • bread -- I have a bread machine in the bottom of the pantry that has been unused for about six months. I will also be experimenting with making it by hand.
  • yogurt - I have been wanting to make my own yogurt for a couple of years now. I keep chickening out on it, however. Not any more! I will first try it in my crockpot and perhaps try other methods.
  • tortillas - I've made these before but recall that they are quite labor intensive. I'll be on the look out for easy ideas.
  • soup stock (chicken, beef, vegetable) - I have always made these in the past, but never consistently. Those little cans at the store are so convenient!
  • breakfast - We usually have cold cereal for breakfast during the week. It's quick and the children like it. I like all breakfast foods, so this will probably be hardest on them and a treat for me!
  • juice - We usually have orange juice, apple juice or cranberry juice on hand. During this time we will be eating fresh fruits instead of juice and squeezing our own, if we must have it. Good thing oranges are on sale.
For all of these things, planning ahead will be crucial. I have made most of the things on the list before, but not consistently. We don't consume vast quantities of processed foods to begin with, but I really want to tweak to the extreme, for a short time, anyway.

By Easter, I hope to have reduced both my grocery bill and my trash production (fruit and veg scraps will be composted), increased my nutrition by eating more whole foods and improved my culinary repertoire by trying new things. I also hope to be made more mindful of what I eat, where it comes from, and how it is prepared.