Archive for March 11th, 2008

Living the Staple Diet

Sharon March 11th, 2008

  Lord, to those who have hunger, give bread. And to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice’                                                                        -Latin American Prayer

The first question that needs answering is perhaps the most complicated one. If I grow my own food and/or supplement with basic storable staples,  what will I be eating?  That is, how do I store what I eat and eat what I store? And the answer is complicated by all sorts of factors, including regional adaptations, climate, water access and your personal tastes and ethnic origins.   A number of people have mentioned that living on grains or roots and legumes is very alien to the diet they grew up with.  So how do we come to terms with the idea of a staple diet, and perhaps a diet based on the one or two major staples that grow best in your region?

Staple starches and proteins are the basic elements of both every human diet - they are calorie dense foods that, usually in combination, supply carbohydrates, complete proteins and other nutrients. They are usually easily stored without special technology. The starch itself varies based on a number of factors - on what the person in question can afford, what their customs and family staples are (that is, do you come from bread eating, or rice eating, or corn eating people), and what is available at the time.

But throughout human history, every single cuisine of agricultural societies  has had a staple starch (or several) attached to it. Some of these are grains, like rice, rye, wheat and corn, and others are vegetable starches like potatoes, cassava, taro and manioc.  But in most places in human history, there are one or two basic foods that are eaten in some form every day, and often multiple times per day. This might be wheat, eaten as porridge or pudding at breakfast and as bread at lunch and dinner, or it might be rice, eaten with fish for one meal and vegetables for the next. It could be corn, in the form of tortillas, or fried potatoes for breakfast and mashed ones for dinner.

Because staple starches tend not to have sufficient protein for an entire diet, they are combined with a staple protein food - usually beans or legumes, sometimes fish, meat or dairy products, to create complete proteins and a balanced diet. This combination is usually sufficient to sustain life with some greens and other foods.

From our western point of view it would be easy to imagine that eating rice or bread at every meal was a step down from the diversity and wonder of our own habits, where we can have take out Thai for lunch, Mexican for dinner and oatmeal for breakfast, but that is not the case. Most people love their staple foods, find them comforting and pleasurable, and come to believe that a meal without them is not a meal.. In many parts of Africa, the word for “food” refers only to staple foods, rather than snacks and luxury items. In several Asian cultures the question, “Have you eaten?” actually means “Have you had rice” As Margaret Visser points out,

Rice eaters are intensely knowledgeable about varieties of flavour

and aroma in their favourite food; they may be used to eating little,

but they care a great deal whether that little is good. (Visser, 175)

The same is true of any people with staple foods. Varieties of bread are compared and preserved and recipes passed down among those who rely on wheat. Sourdough eaters preserve their starters, those accustomed to dark ryes search the earth for them when they travel, and at holidays everyone enjoys their sweetened celebratory breads. Those whose traditions involve corn preserve ancient varieties, like traditional Mexican and Hopi varieties for making tortillas, because of the remarkable flavors involved. They know a thousand ways to use cornmeal - as breads, porridges and desserts, and never seem to tire of them. And anyone who has ever eaten a buttery, yellow yukon gold potato, and a waxy carola potato know how different they can be, how much a “meat and potatoes person” finds a meal without potatoes an empty dinner indeed.

In fact, you might turn Visser’s statement around, and point out that the only people who don’t care about the quality of their food are us, the people who have so much of it that we don’t know what to do with it. We have allowed our tastes for salt and fat and sugar to override the natural, profound liking for a staple whole grain and its natural partners, and we can no longer taste the subtleties of their pleasures. Or perhaps because we rely on the supermarket we simply don’t know how very diverse these tastes can be. We imagine ourselves as having a tremendously interesting diet, but is it really better to eat lobster, chicken and pork in one week, or to enjoy sourdough, black rye, honey-wheat and salt rising bread?

I want to emphasize that when we call for a return to staple starch based diets, we are not calling for a return to the bland, the boring, the unbalanced or the unpleasant. We have become accustomed to another kind of diet, one that is tremendously energy and carbon intensive and often very boring - in the sense that everything tastes strongly of salt and fat. Becoming a nation of home cooks means, in part, developing a new, but not at all inferior diet. It involves opening ourselves to new tastes, and reconsidering what constitutes novelty and good food.

We imagine ourselves as eating a variety of foods, but in fact, if we eat from the typical supermarket, much of our diet is derived from a single ingredient. As Michael Pollan points out in _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_, corn is a central ingredient in virtually everything Americans eat. We are not aware of how dependent we are upon Zea Mays, but we are, as Pollan observes, rather like Koala bears that eat only one sort of plant. He says,

Corn is what feeds the steeer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds

the chickens and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the

tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that

fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made

 of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from the

 dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins

 that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating


  Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate

  manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn

 upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but

 so do most of the nugget’s other constituents, including the modified

corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter

 that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less

 obviously, the leavenings and lecitithin, the mono-,and di-, and

triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid

 that keeps the nugget ‘fresh’ can all be derived from corn.

 To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink

in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the

1980s virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the

supermarket have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup

(HFCS) - after water, corn sweetener is their principle ingredient.

Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you’d still be drinking

corn in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from

corn… (Pollan, 18)

Wow, doesn’t that sound yummy! It turns out that the American diet isn’t nearly as diverse as we’d like to be, and changing to devote ourselves primarily to a few staple food might actually be an expansion, rather than a contraction of our experience and our palates.

I would encourage people to think about what is likely to be their own natural staple starch(es), and how to provision themselves with them, to learn to cook them well and in multiple ways, and to enjoy them. That does not mean this is the only food you will eat, but it may be, if things get hard, the basis for many of your meals. For many people farming on small lots, growing a lot of grain is probably not feasible, although you certainly can grow a surprisingly large amount with intensive methods. There are good reasons to grow some staple grains and vegetables. One of them is as a hedge against famine in hard times, and also as a means of creating complete local food systems. If the basis of your diet has to come from far away, there are limits to how food secure your community can ever be, or how free you can ever be from corporations.

It is probably true that much grain growing will still take place on a field scale, on larger farms, and those of you who plan to take up farming on a larger scale than in the backyard should consider, perhaps, creating CSGs - something like the traditional CSA, but with staple foods at the center of the thing. You might provide several subscribers with their year’s worth of wheat or rice or barley and beans. But even those of us who get most of our grains from larger farmers should try to grow a little of our own staple foods, so that we can get to know them, and develop an intimacy and understanding of what it takes to produce these things that give us life. Doing so also means that if our sources ever dry up, we are still able to provision ourselves.

For much of the US, corn and potatoes are the most accessible staple starches. Corn grows pretty much everywhere in the US, and there are varieties adapted to every region and climate. There are short season varieties of dried corn that will make a crop in 80 days, varieties that are good for both fresh eating and grinding, drought resistant varieties, and varieties suitable as animal feed, or for roasting, parching, making masa and popping. Even in a cold climate like upstate NY, where I live, it is possible to grow two varieties of corn with different maturation dates in most seasons.

 We are most familiar with corn in its fresh “green” phase, as sweet corn, but what we’re talking about here are flour and dent varieties that can be ground for cornmeal. Some of these, like Black Aztec are good in their green stage as well. If corn is central to your diet, you will need to nixtamalize it, that is, cook or soak the corn with something alkaline, like baking soda, or wood ashes or lime to unlock the niacin in corn. Without nixtamalization, people who eat corn as a major staple of their diets often develop pellagra or kwashiorkor.

The discovery of nixtamalization was an enormous revelation for the early peoples of the Americas. Food historian Sophie Coe has argued, “it is tempting to see the rise of Mesoamerican civilization as a consequence of this invention, without which the peoples of Mexico and their southern neighbors would have remained forever on the village level (Schenone, xxxi).” Instead, the Mesoamericans based an enormous civilization on corn.

Corn does have the disadvantage of being extremely nitrogen intensive, and cannot be grown over and over on the same ground. In order to grow corn, you must have enough land to rotate your crops, and allow the soil to recover from the heavy requirements of corn. In America we have taken to growing “continuous corn” - that is, corn grown over and over on the same fields, made possible with heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. This has been an ecological disaster for us. So those of us who are “corn eaters” must be especially careful of how we treat the land, and of what kind of diet we have. It may be that we cannot be corn people every year, but will have to choose less hungry foods, like wheat, rice or potatoes to fill our bellies in the years in which we rest our soil. Fortunately, dry corn lasts a very long time, so we need not grow it every year. The American quest to grow ever more corn could be described as the history of our conquest, and the origin of some of our failures.

 Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose experience as a young pioneer has taught many of us a great deal about the history of American food, watched her mother make hulled corn, or hominy for their family. She wrote,

For supper, now, they often had hulled corn and milk. That

 was good too. It was so good that Laura could hardly wait for

 the corn to be ready, after Ma started to hull it. It took two

or three days to make hulled corn…

When at last the corn was done, Ma put all the soft white

kernels in a big jar in the pantry. Then, at last, they had

hulled corn and milk for supper.


Sometimes they had hulled corn for breakfast, with maple

syrup, and sometimes Ma fried the soft kernels in pork

drippings. But Laura liked them best with milk.

 (_Little House In the Big Woods 218-221)

Laura, who in summer ate a varied diet of game, vegetables and other treats looked forward to this simple staple food, and so can we. There is a recipe for hulled corn in Barbara Walker’s excellent Little House Cookbook that does it as Ma Ingalls Did.

For the Native Americans, the process of nixtimalization could be simpler than the one Ma used. They simply added culinary ash (that is, burned from hardwood) to their corn, such as in the stew posole, a mix of corn and beans with dried chiles. Or they made masa and dried it for winter, to be eaten as flat breads or porridge. But regardless, corn was at the center of many native cultures, and it would be a horrific mistake to view this centrality as making a virtue of necessity. Corn was not just necessary to live, corn actually was life in many native faiths. One prayed to the Corn Mother, and told stories of the birth of the world through scattered corn seeds.

This reverence for a staple food as the basis and source of all life is duplicated in almost every culture in the world. In many Asian cultures, the Rice Mother is, like the Corn Mother, the origin of all human life. In ancient Judaism, the central religious ritual, the Sabbath is based upon prayers for the bread given forth from the earth. In British folk music, one can hear the story of “John Barleycorn” and the spilling of his life in order to enable the lives of others in the form of beer and bread. In folk stories the world over, those who throw away their beans or grains are impoverished and those who preserve and love them are enriched. All over the world, staple foods are the thing that gives us life, enables us to go on, creates and sustains the world. That we in the industrial culture have lost the notion of the sustaining staple should be an indicator of our failure to remain connected to the roots of our humanity.

Corn was ordinarily eaten with beans, and for many of us in the world, the combination of beans or other legumes and grains will most likely be our staple protein sources. Meat production is energy, carbon, land, water and labor intensive, and most of us will be eating less of it over the coming years. So when we think about staples, of meals that center on grains,  roots and legumes, as well as fresh produce, and use meat, eggs and milk as seasonal and occasional accents.

Grain and bean dishes are often quite delicious, whether they appear as Chili and Cornbread in the Southwest, Cuban Yellow rice and beans, Brown Rice and spicy garlic Tofu from China, Boston Brown Bread and sweet Baked beans, British-style Split pea soup with Whole grain breads, Peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches (peanuts are a legume), Italian style Pasta Fagiole, a Middle Eastern meal of lemony Hummus or falafel with pita, Tuscan kale and fava bean soup with Italian breads, A classic British Stew of Lentils and Potatoes, Red lentil Dal and Indian Naan Bread, Ethiopian Injera Bread and fava bean stew, Little rice beans and sticky rice in Indonesia, Russian Beet and Bean Borscht with Black Bread, Black Bean Soup with Tortillas or even Green Soybeans and Beer, as eaten in Japanese bars. Legumes and staple starches together are what the whole world eats, and the food is delicious and worthy of exploration. 

For those of us who live in the northern half of the US, potatoes, rather than corn are likely to be your staple starch.  Among other things, potatoes yield extremely well with hand cultivation in small spaces - hand cultivation of potatoes outyielded commercial cultivation well into this century.  We can grow corn too, but cool summers sometimes prevent good maturation.

The good thing about relying on potatoes is that they are amazingly easy to grow, even on land that won’t grow much of anything else. They are sometimes subject to potato blight, the disease that caused the famous Irish potato famine. But there are disease and insect resistant varieties. Most cultures that rely on potatoes have historically mixed them not with beans, but with peas, which also like cool weather, or with milk and sometimes fish. Think Ireland, Scandanavia, etc… That is because potatoes thrive in cool, wet climates, such as often found in northern coastal areas, and are easily grown on land too steep and rocky to grow other crops, or land too cold for hot weather crops like many dry beans. The other best use of such land is grazing for dairy animals, or the growing of cold weather crops like dry peas and fava beans, so these combinations are natural ones.

We natural potato eaters might enjoy them as lefske, a classic scandinavian potato pancake, or Colcannon, a mixture of mashed potatoes, milk and greens. We can eat them fried for breakfast or baked with cheese for dinner. We can boil or steam or grill them. Potatoes are high yielders and easily grown on almost any soils, producing much more than a comparative amount of grain. Our family enjoys mashed potato cakes, scalloped and roasted potatoes, vichysoisse (potato leek soup, potato frittata (potato omlet), hashes (potatoes mixed with a small amount of meat, fish or mushrooms), latkes (classic potato pancakes eaten among Jews particularly at Chanukah), Mashed potatoes with roasted garlic, or horseradish and goat cheese or butter and carmelized onions, Shepherd’s pie (a stew of root vegetables and a little meat or mushrooms, topped with mashed potatoes), baked potatoes with broccoli and horseradish cheese sauce, and various stews that stretch flavorings like meat, strong spices and bits of fish with potatoes and other roots as primary ingredients.

Besides potatoes, there are other vegetable crops that are dense in calories, highly nutritious and keep well in many climates with a minimum of food preservation. John Jeavons, author of several books, including _How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible…_, is perhaps the world’s greatest expert on how to grow an entire human diet on very small amounts of land, and his foundation, Ecology Action, have created a system of sustainable farming that allows people who to be food secure on as little as 700 square feet of land for a single adult (if you have trouble visualizing, 700 square feet is about the size of a basketball court). He suggests a division of 60% carbon crops, which produce some food, but are also returned to the soil to maintain fertility, 30% calorie crops, most which are roots like beets, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, and parnsips, and 10% flavoring crops. While many of us have more land than this, some do not, and it is worth knowing how to feed yourself a balanced and secure diet this way. There are very few fats, not an enormous amount of protein, but you will live and be full. Ecology Action has had quite a few volunteers live for extended periods on these diets, and regular medical checkups document that they are healthy.

Other roots, including burdock (bet you didn’t know you could eat it - it is delicious and also known as gobo), turnips, beets, rutabagas (swedes), parsley root, parsnips, carrots and daikon (among others) are also significant sources of nutrition and calories, and are also quite delicious. Most Americans have never eaten a turnip, carrot or parsnip kept in the ground after a frost, and have no idea how sweet these vegetables can be. It is worth noting that in much of Europe during the middle ages, humans and animals survived winters to a large degree on root crops. Many of these can be cooked in much the same ways potatoes can.

Other than potatoes and sweet potatoes, few of us eat a lot of the above vegetables, and probably fewer still can imagine a diet based upon them. But it is worth getting comfortable with root staples, and being able to enjoy them, lest we need them. In any case, they can add variety to our staple foods. If you think you don’t like beets or turnips, try growing them yourselves and eating them at the baby stage. Laurie Colwin converted dozens of beet haters into beet lovers with her beets with angel hair pasta, which she described as “weird but good.” And my children will happily eat slices of raw turnip, recently dug from the ground, which are sweet and crisp and almost appley.

If you live in the south, sweet potatoes are almost as easy to grow as potatoes, and are even more nutritious. Although in my climate they are not reliable enough to use as a primary food stock, even those of us in cold climates can grow some sweet potatoes, and should, because they are both delicious and an excellent source of vitamin A. My favorite way to eat them is roasted in the oven of our cookstove until the sugars carmelized. They are delicious this way, simply prepared with no additional fats. We also mash them with lime (or vinegar) and cinnamon, and stuff them with just about anything. They make a terrific pie, of course, and in parts of Africa are often eaten in the form of soup, sometimes mixed with peanuts.

Many of us derive from bread and pasta eating European cultures, and the thought of relying on another staple food can be overwhelming. It is certainly possible to grow patches of wheat, rye, barley and oats in the home farm. In an Ecology Action style system some straw plants must be grown, and the grain can be harvested while the straw returned to the soil. Harvesting and threshing most grains (except buckwheat, amaranth, corn and quinoa) is considerably more work than growing root crops or corn, but it is worth remembering that millions of people throughout human history lived on their own grain crops. It does take some land to do. Gene Logsdon, whose _Small Scale Grain Raising_ is the definitive work on human-scale grain production notes that the amount of space required to grow a bushel of wheat is about 10 feet by 109 feet, and a bushel of wheat will make 40 loaves of bread. A space 10 by 200 (approximately 1/20 of an acre) will give you bread to eat every week of the year, and a little leftover for cookies and piecrust. And wheat is a grass, so it is comparatively easy to sow and raise.

But even if you can’t grow wheat, if it grows in your area, someone is probably growing it, or would if they knew there was a desire for local grains. Tell a local farmer or even a neighbor with a couple of acres of yard that you’d like someone to grow good wheat (or rye, or barley or rice), and that you will get together to help them harvest and thresh the grain. 

Whatever your staple grains, you will want a grain mill, designed to grind corn, wheat, rice or rye into flour for bread, porridge and other foods (more on this coming in tomorrow’s post).  If oats grow locally or you grow them, and your local grower does not have an oat roller, you might want one of those too, since oats make a wonderful breakfast food are are highly digestible and nutritious. We should not forget less common (in the US) grains like amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa. They are easy to grow, do not require the same threshing effort as wheat or oats, and can be added to wheat to make breads, ground and made into porridges or flatbreads, used like rice in pilafs or can even be popped like popcorn.

It is not merely a saying that bread is “The Staff of Life” which means that it holds us up and keeps us going. In bread eating cultures, life is organized to a large degree around the growing of wheat, much as rice cultures and corn cultures organize around the needs of their basic crops. Wheat is less nitrogen intensive than corn, and has the additional benefit of being (in many cases) a fall sown crop, so it helps keep soil stable over winter. Wheat does require threshing, winnowing and grinding, as well as harvesting, but much of this work can be put off until cold weather, and done in the shelter of a barn or shed during quieter times of year.

Good bread is made from good wheat, and home grown and home ground wheat makes flour that is as different from what you buy in the supermarket as the tomato you grow in your garden is from the one in the supermarket. Good bread does not taste like the pasty white stuff that many of us have become accustomed to. It has taste, and texture and strength, and bite, and it fills you up. We especially enjoy sourdough and a molasses bread we found in an Amish cookbook. Our family celebrates the sabbath with a honey-sweetened challah every week. And, of course, there are pancakes, quickbreads, wheat porridge, biscuits, and celebratory cakes and cookies.

Simple meals that center on bread include soups with bread for dipping,, sandwiches made from whatever is ripe in the garden along with sweet or spicy condiments like onion-garlic jam or pickled hot peppers, bread with jam and homemade peanut butter, bread puddings, summer puddings, all made with old bread, tomato and bread salads, and, of course pizzas and the polycultural items wrapped in bread, from empanadas to russian cabbage pie, to English meat pies.

 Other grains make traditional breads of other cultures. Teff makes injera bread, without which Ethiopian food would never be the same. Oat breads and oatcakes define Scottish cuisine. Buckwheat pancakes are typically Russian and spelt and other breads were the food of the ancient middle east.

Rice is typically grown in wet, warm, humid areas, and could be grown in much of the deep South in non-drought years. I have made several attempts to grow rice here in upstate NY, with little success, but it is worth remembering that rice is the staple food in Korea and Northern Japan, so it is probable that rice could be more widely grown than it is at present. Rice is well adapted to small scale culture, and can be combined with fish production as well if it is grown in a paddy system. When Eric and I visited Indonesia on our honeymoon, we saw rice terraces that had been productive for thousands of years being farmed in the same ways they were hundreds of years ago. 

Rice is a demanding crop, one that requires a great deal of attention and water throughout the growing season. But has many virtues - it is delicious and also nutrious. It is virtually impossible for people to be allergic or sensitive to rice, so if digestive difficulties run in your family, rice is an excellent crop. When rice comes off the plant, it needs to be hulled to be eaten. Brown rice is rice that has had only the outer hull removed, while white rice has had the germ and most of the nutrition polished off. Once rice is hulled, brown rice lasts only a few months, so white rice, despite its lower nutrition, is better for long term storage, although unhulled rice stores best of all, and allows you to enjoy the nutty taste of brown rice after hulling. There are plans on the internet that allow you to make a rice huller out of a simple grain mill.

 Rice comes in a tremendous variety of types and flavors. Sticky rice has a slightly sweet taste and a glutinous texture that is wonderfully filling and tasty. Short grained rices, such as are used for risotto, sushi and other foods absorb a lot of liquid and have a smooth, creamy texture. Most Americans are familiar only with long grain rices. The best of these are jasmine or basmati, or other fragrant varieties. And there are red rices, and black rices, all with their traditional flavors and uses. Wild rice is not a grain at all, but a grass, and is native to North America. It can be used in many of the same ways as rice, or cooked into porridges, fried as pancakes and used as a stuffing for vegetables.

My family loves rice in every form, and we eat a lot of it, even though we haven’t had much luck growing it, and are relying increasingly on more local starches. We eat it as risotto in the spring with fresh new greens and cheese, as rice and pigeon peas with hot Jamaican sauce, as pumpkin rice soup in the French style, stuffed in grape leaves, as paella, in Iranian style stuffed vegetables, for dessert in lemon rice pudding, in Indian style pulaos, or as kheer, a rice pudding flavored with cardamom and ground nuts, as fried rice both Chinese and Indonesian style, in sushi, or as rice noodles and rice paper wrappers in dozens of dishes including Vietnamese fresh spring rolls and Eric’s transcendent Thai rice noodles with fried tofu and greens, the dish we managed to pry out of the Thai owners of a restaurant we patronized more or less constantly when we lived in Lowell, MA.

Regardless of what staple food or foods you are most likely to have in your life, it only makes sense to begin to delight in the bounty of a comforting food staple. Get used to your staple foods. Experiment with them. Try different varieties, different tastes, different cuisines. Think of them as most traditional people have, as the origin of our well being, something to be honored and eaten with gratitude. The ground that we grow these foods on is sacred, no matter what our beliefs, and deserves nurturance, and attention, and our staple food deserves space and attention in our gardens. Thus, we ensure both food security and maximum pleasure.


Springtime Bread Pudding

(This recipe is adapted from one in Georgeanne Brennan’s Potager cookbook.  It is a bit rich, but a nice treat when you’ve eaten so much asparagus raw or lightly steamed that you want to fancy it up a little)

15 slices of stale bread

3 cups of milk

4 eggs

1/2 lb of asparagus (if asparagus is not available, you can use all greens)

1/2 lb of young dandelion greens (before flowering)

salt and pepper to taste

8 cloves of garlic

2 large onions

1 cup mixed fresh herbs of your choice - we use parsley, chives, tarragon and thyme usually.

1 tbsp oil or melted butter

1 cup of cheese (parmesan and swiss are a good mix, but this works well with others)

Melt butter and sautee onions and garlic over low heat until they begin to carmelize.   Steam asparagus until just barely tender.  Lay the first layer of bread in a large baking dish, and pour 1/3 of the milk over it, and let it soften.    Layer in onions, asparagus and greens, cover with the remaining bread.  Mix eggs and remaining milk together, and pour over mixture.  Press down to absorb liquid evenly - make sure all bread is saturated.  Put cheese on the top and bake 45 minutes at 350, until a tester comes out clean.


Pumpkin-Rice Soup

1 1/2 lbs of pumpkin or squash, peeled, cooked and mashed

2 large onions

3 cups of vegetable broth (or meat broth of your choice)

1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme

1/2 cup long grain rice

salt, pepper and bay leaf to taste

If using fresh pumpkin or squash, roast until tender.  Scrape out and mash with a fork.  Cook rice with 1 inch of water above the rice until the water is just absorbed.  Add pumpkin and herbs to broth, and simmer for 20 minutes.  Puree in blender, or whisk (depending desired texture and available tools), add rice, and serve with garlic bread or other grain of your choice.


Rustic Potato Loaves

- This recipe is taken from Julia Child’s _Baking With Julia_ book, and adpated for whole wheat flour.

3 medium potatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs), boiled with skins on until mashing texture

4 tsp salt

1/2 cup lukewarm potato boiling water

1 1/2 tbsp dry yeast

3 tbsp good olive oil

4 1/2-5 cups of whole wheat flour

Drain the potatoes well and mash them.  Stir yeast into potato water and let it sit for 5 minutes, until creamy.  Add the yeast and olive oil to the mashed potatoes, mix and while beating steadily add salt and gradually, flour.  When you can sno longer stir it, use your hands.  When it become dough (not sticky anymore, smooth), start kneading and knead for 8 minutes.  It starts out quite dry, but gets a better texture as it goes. 

Put it in a warm place to rise, covered with a clean damp dishcloth (this shouldn’t be touching it - put it over the bowl, otherwise it will stick).  Let rise until doubled.

Punch down the dough, and flatten it out into a disk.  Then, starting from the long side, begin rolling it up to form something like a football.  Place it on a greased and floured baking sheet, let it rise in a warm spot for about 20 minutes.  Put a pan of water on the lowest shelf of the oven, and put the baking sheet on top.  Bake at 375 for about 50 minutes, or until the bread sounds hollow when you thump it.  Cool and eat.  The recipe claims it keeps 3 days, but it never lasts that long here.


Wheat Balls

-I know it doesn’t sound that appetizing, but these are GOOD - my step mom started making them when I was a kid, and they are far better than any meatballs.  I’ll note variations at the bottom.

1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs

1/2 cup wheat germ or bulghur

1-2 beaten eggs

Lotsa garlic, minced

1/4 cup plain yogurt

dash of soy sauce

1/2 cup of parmesan cheese, grated

oil, salt and pepper

Mix everything together, roll into balls and fry in oil until brown.  You can take out the parmesan and add a bit more soy sauce and the second egg - the flavor is a little less complex.  Soy yogurt is a bit thinner tasting, but works ok.  These are truly great, and many people who believe in meat really like them.


Roasted Root Vegetables

We jokingly call this “the base of all meals” - because we eat it so much in the cool weather.  We like these straight, or wrapped up in tortillas or flatbreads with mustard and cheese, we use them in enchiladas as a filling, and as a side dish.  They can be flavored anyway you want - spicy with powdered chiles, with any herbs or spices you like, tart with vinegar in the marinade.

Enough root vegetables, chopped into medium sized pieces to fill up a pan - anything will work, except daikon and other radishes which IMHO, come out weird.  But potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, shallots, carrots, parsnips, beets (will turn everything pinkish, but still nice), celeriac, parsley root, you name it (mushrooms are good too). 

Olive oil, garlic, and herbs with the possible addition of balsamic vinegar and a little brown sugar, or some worcestershire sauce.  Honestly, it doesn’t need much.

Roast in a hot oven, stirring occasionally, until slightly crisp and carmelized outside, soft inside.  Devour.


Tuscan Kale and White Bean Soup

If you use a lot of broth, this is a soup.  If not, it is more of a stew texture. Up to you. It does, howeve, require *good* olive oil - the oil makes this.

1 lb tuscan (also known as lacinato or dinosaur) kale - other kind work, but the leaves may not hold up quite as well

4 tbsp very good ollive oil

12 large cloves of garlic (no, I am not kidding ;-) )

1 cup dried white beans

1 sprig fresh or dried thyme

1 small onion

1 carrot

1 small celery sprig or fresh or dried lovage or cutting celery

3 sprigs fresh parsley

2 bay leaves

12 whole peppercorns

1 tsp salt plus to taste, 1 tsp black pepper, plus to taste.

The night before soak the beans overnight in cold water.  Drain, place in a deep pan and add 3 inches of water.  Bring to a boil, skim and add onion, carrot, celery (all chopped fairly finely), 10 garlic cloves (halved), and herbs (you can put these in a tea ball or cheesecloth bag if you don’t want to deal with picking around peppercorns later - I don’t bother). Simmer for 30 minutes, then add salt.  Cook until beans are tender, and the skins come off when you blow on them.  Meanwhile, chop the kale leaves into 4 inch pieces.  Wash and pat dry.  Sautee the kale in hot olive oil, until the leave wilt.  Add the (chopped) garlic, and reduce heat, and cook until leaves are just tender.  Add the beans and as much bean broth as you want (you can stretch this out with vegetable broth or meat broth, or just use the bean broth as you choose - we like both) until you make a thick soup or a stew.  Serve warm with a drizzle of olive oil and black pepper.


No Stir Polenta

I love polenta, and after I learned Paula Wolfert’s wonderful, easy method of making it (in her terrific book _Mediterranean Grains and Greens_, I really like it even better.  We like polenta with stews over it, but even better baked, fried or grilled with stuff on it. 

2 cups coarsely ground cornmeal

2 tbsp butter or oil

2 tsp salt

Water (varies by texture - soft polenta is 5 parts water to 1 part cornmeal, medium 4 - 1, thick polenta is 3-1) 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.   Grease a wide, oven proof 4 quart dish (give or take) .  Add everything and stir it up.  Bake 1 hour and 20 minutes.  Stir, bake 10 minutes more.  Remove from oven, let set 5 minutes.  Serve, or pour into a greased loaf pan and chill overnight.  Cut into slices and grill, bake or fry, and top with anything from carmelized onions to preserves and cheese to sauteed wild greens.


Finally, the incomparable Dmitry Orlov has been kind enough to mention this series, but also to offer a recipe of real value - Vodka - over here .  Its a food!  Its a liquor!  Its a dessert topping!  And remember, you can eat the grain after you ferment grains for booze (I don’t know if that’s true if you use potatoes).



Eliot Spitzer Reads My Blog!!

Sharon March 11th, 2008

I hate to interrupt the flow of useful food storage information, but I must note that my governor apparently reads my blog and takes it very, very seriously.

 A while back, I posted an essay about what you should do with your tax return, and one of the choices was “Hookers, lots and lots of hookers.”  If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that Spitzer apparently was concerned about the financial and environmental collapse of society and took this opportunity to use his Bush tax rebate (which I gather is significantly larger than my own, since this was no cheap prostitute, and there were inter-state flights involved) for one last hurrah. 

I’m sure we’re all shocked, shocked and appalled that an American politician would have sex with a prostitute.  But let us be sure and take the right lessons from this.  1. Always listen to Sharon, but do be aware, sometimes she’s joking. 2. If you are going to listen to me, show you have the brains G-d gave a squirrel, and do it in an environmentally sound way - had Spitzer used a local, homegrown, sustainably produced prostitute, rather than flying one around the country, he might never have gotten into trouble.

Ok, back to your regularly scheduled food storage class - and remember, important people are listening.  Shouldn’t you ;-) ?


What Food Storage Can and Can't Do

Sharon March 11th, 2008

In the first post in this series, I said that it is important to think about the “whys” of food storage.  I argued that there were a lot of good reasons to buy in bulk and to store food, and that emergency reserves were only part of it. 

That’s true, but I want to talk here about how to think about those emergency reserves in an extended crisis.   I know some participants here don’t think an extended, widespread crisis is possible or likely.  I know some other people think one is immanent.  I don’t pretend to know the answer - I only know that I will be a lot happier in an extended crisis if I have a food reserve than if not.  I also know that it is possible to have a purely personal extended crisis - a sudden major illness or extended job loss. 

Also early on, I said I’d talk about how to both adapt your storage to your diet, and your diet to your storage.  Both are essential parts of this project, and figuring out which one you need to do is part of understanding what an emergency food reserve can and can’t do.

In a true emergency, food storage CAN provide a cushion or a hedge, allowing you to go for an extended time without depending on stores, or to extend limited food dollars by relying primarily on stored food.  Depending on how much reserve you have, it might be enough to get you through a shorter term crisis.  If, for example, a crisis occurs during a dormant season (cold in the north, hot and dry in some parts of the south), it can help you get from one planting season to another.

Food storage CAN’T get most of us through a long term crisis - we will have to find some way to refill our stores and meet present needs.  Food storage DOES NOT obviate the need for gardening, or supporting local food systems.  Thus, if a crisis occurs during a growing season, it is probably wise to rely as much as possible on your garden and local food system, and save your food storage if you can. 

Because you are eventually going to have to rely on local food systems that means Food Storage CAN NOT and probably SHOULD NOT reproduce a conventional Western Diet precisely.  By this I mean that for most of us, neither a diet that relies primarily on stored foods nor one that can be produced sustainably and locally is going to look like a conventional Western diet.  So we need to begin adapting our diets now.  You might look back at my first post in this series on appetite fatigue and other reasons to eat now (at least some of the time) the way you may have to eat in the future.

Why can’t food storage or local diets work like the way you eat now?  Well, technically it is possible to eat a conventional Western Diet out of food storage.  How?  Buy a lot of icky things - powdered eggs, bleached flours, shortening.  Spend a lot of money on canned meats (or raise your own and can a *lot* of meat).   Buy a ton of ramen noodles, canned tuna and twinkies.  But there are two problems - some of this stuff is expensive, most of it is bad for you (and the badness will show up quickly if that’s all you are eating), and sooner or later you are going to run out.  And when that happens, you’ll have to make a major dietary transition quickly - which will not be pleasant.

In the meantime, the sheer quality of your food will be really, really poor.  That is, if you’ve been drinking lots of local, organic milk, you are going to notice the difference when you try and drink powdered milk - something I’d only touch at all for baking (this is a personal preference - I don’t drink much milk anyway).  If you’ve been cooking with good olive oil, a transition to shortening is going to be quite unpleasant.  Think of it not so much as keeping your conventional diet, but mimicking it, creating cheap knock-off foods that look vaguely like the originals, but don’t have the nutritional value or taste.  Food Storage CAN be used to get you a really crappy Western Diet that is probably worse than what you’d eat normally, but I don’t recommend it.

On the other hand, it is possible to eat an extremely high quality, nutritious, good tasting diet out of your food storage that is not a knock-off of anything - it is the real thing.  But this is different than how most Western people eat now. It relies on whole grains, roots and legumes at its base, with some preserved supplements.  Meals based on these foods take advantage of things that don’t lose quality in storage, that do taste good when kept dry.  That is, instead of forcing things that don’t store well into the shape of your diet, this centers your diet around foods that do store well.

Meat, milk and eggs, if you include them in your food storage, CAN BE USED as supplements, but generally not as centerpieces (I am speaking here only of storage, not of home-produced versions of these foods).  The reason for this is that meat, milk and eggs simply don’t preserve all that well - there are substantive losses in quality in any method of preservation.   So if we store these items (obviously, some people will want them, others won’t) it is to use them as a supplement, a taste of something desirable and familiar, not as an everyday centerpiece to a Western-style meal.

Everyone will have to decide for themselves how important these foods are to them.  But as they are doing so, they should also think about how their food storage integrates with the diet that their region is likely to provide them with when their food storage runs out.  There is nothing wrong with eating rice or grassfed meat or whatever while you have it.  But if you don’t know how to cook what does grow well in your region, and how to eat and enjoy it, you will have to adapt to a difficult dietary change at a difficult time. 

And the reality is that people in the US at least, do actually go hungry because they don’t know how to cook and eat the foods that they have access to.  That is, many poor people in the US don’t stretch their food dollars optimally in part because they do not know how to cook inexpensive staples.  (There are also a host of reasons why poor people who do know how to do these things can’t do them, but that’s another post).  Lack of cooking skill actually leads to hunger in the US.  So it isn’t just enough to say “Ok, if we ever get reduced to Corn and beans, I’ll learn to cook with them” - the truth is that if corn and beans are what grows well in your region, your family needs to learn to cook and eat them now.  Eating out of your Food Storage now CAN prevent real hunger and illness later.

Food storage CAN help you make that transition - it can ease you over to a diet heavy on root crops and peas, while still allowing you some rice and salmon to smooth things over.  But you can’t live on it forever.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have value - but  FOOD SECURITY depends on the creation of local food systems - systems that start at your garden, but go outwards, across your local foodshed.  Because no one can store enough food to last forever.

Thus, Food Storage SHOULD as much as possible be built on a foundation of supporting your local food systems - that is, some of us may not have much choice about where we get our food.  But those of us who do have some leeway in our budgets and do have choices should build our food storage as much as possible from local farmers - or at worst, direct from farmers that help build someone else’s local food system.  Dollars spent building up your food storage at the supermarket or Costco are dollars that are working *against* the thing that we most need to rely on in the long term - local food producers.  I’m not suggesting that we won’t buy some things that support the industrial food system - we’re all bound up in it to a degree.  But every dollar we can spend locally on things that our region grows well, or every thing we can can, dry and grow ourselves,  makes possible not just your short term food security (that is, the stuff you’ve got in storage) but the long term possibility of security in a crisis.

So what’s the gist of this?  We should be thinking about what food storage can and can’t do for us, what it should and should not do for us.  Yes, it can save our lives - in the short term.  But think of it as a bridge to the local food systems that are our long term security and hedge against disaster.

 Ok, coming up: Learning to Love Your Local Food Staples, Help Transitioning to a Lower Animal Product Diet,  a Tour of My Food Storage, The Chatelaine and Learning to Manage Your Stores - not necessarily in that order.