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).



24 Responses to “Living the Staple Diet”

  1. Leila says:

    Gives me plenty to think about. My staple grain really is wheat - bread & bulghur - although I eat rice, oats and occasionally quinoa. But if we were to feed ourselves here in the Bay Area we would really have to rely on potatoes I think. It’s cool and foggy a lot, rainy in the winter (or should be); favas grow well here, and potatoes do, too. Green beans and potatoes with lemon, fresh basil and olive oil is one of my favorite summertime dishes; it could be done with green favas as well, in the spring, and maybe a different, seasonal herb like dill or fennel since basil comes later.

    It’s good to know that potatoes are easy to grow. We’ll have to try it this spring, see how we do in our urban clay yard.

  2. Ailsa Ek says:

    “transcendent Thai rice noodles with fried tofu and greens”

    Of all the recipes people have mentioned so far this is the one I want.

    I get wistful about wheat. I love bulghur, I love a good dense whole wheat bread, I would love to plant wheat myself and grind it up fresh for bread. But David (my son) has celiac, and if I plant wheat, I contaminate the field, and if I grind wheat, I contaminate the grinder. I do plan on trying him on oats, though, once I can find some of the gluten free ones. If he can eat them, I can plant them and have them instead of wheat. Oat flour makes a nice bread when mixed with light GF flours.

  3. Marnie says:

    have to pipe up and say - Sharon, if this keeps up, it’ll be the same as going grocery shopping: NEVER read Sharon’s blog when you’re hungry! mmmmmmm…….

  4. susan says:

    When roasting up piles of root veggies, I will put the beets in a separate pan and them combine them all after roasting. That way the pink colour doesn’t take over as much :-)

  5. Shane says:

    You probably should have added in some attention to the importance of fermenting many grain products to get optimum nutrition from them. This is especially important if your meat intake is limited.

  6. Shane says:

    Oh and another invaluable addition to a dry food store is a reliable pressure cooker for preparing grains and legumes soaked from scratch- hours of boiling reduced to just half an hour on a low heat setting!

  7. Leila says:

    Great idea about the pressure cooker - I second that one. If you’re afraid of them because your grandmother had one that blew up, well, look again, and buy a newer (or new) model. They’re safer these days. How about beef stew in eight minutes, and pot roast in half an hour? also beans, unsoaked, in half an hour. I love my pressure cooker and I don’t even use it to its utmost capacity.

    See Lorna Sass’s many books on pressure cooking. I got several from the library - invaluable source of recipes and ideas.

  8. Kiashu says:

    “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.”

    And more to the point, our diet often isn’t as diverse as we imagine. If you write down all you eat for a month, I’d be surprised if you made more than ten different actual meals at home; not counting things like sandwiches, I mean actual meals you sit down to. And we have our favourite restaurants and favourite dishes from them.

    So we’d not be missing out on diversity, just on the theoretical potential of having diversity if we chose to. Sort of like a guy saying that he won’t get married because there are all these women he’d like to sleep with first - but he’s ugly and boring and doesn’t pick up much anyway.

  9. Kiashu says:

    Oh, and for potatoes, you should not forget latkes :)

  10. lavonne says:

    Here in San Diego, I haven’t been able to find any locally grown grain, but I think sweet potatoes would fit the bill in summer, and it’s cool enough in winter for potatoes, I think. I just have a balcony, but I’m going to try growing them both and see what happens. Thanks for this great information.

  11. Sharon says:

    Kiashu, I most certainly did not forget Latkes ;-) . It is in there.

    I’ll be talking about tools, including pressure cookers, next week.


  12. Emily says:

    Sharon- Are you sure about the 700 square foot figure? That’s a tiny space - I think Jeavons’s figure was actually 7000 square feet, including compost crops for soil fertility. That also closely matches my calculations of needing about .25-.35 acres to produce enough calories for 2 people.

  13. AlaBill says:


    I’m new to your website, but this is a GREAT article. Why? It gives me real direction about a long term, sustainable diet plan.

    Thanks a bunch…


  14. Sharon says:

    Emily, check out David Duhon’s book 1 Circle for the low end. Now whether anyone can actually *do* that is another question ;-) .


  15. Kiashu says:

    Yes, but you didn’t give a recipe for latkes! You have to enlighten the poor goyim.

    You can get a surprising amount of food from a small amount of land. In my old unit I had effectively 4m2 of vegetable garden and 2m2 of flowers (another 2m2 along the edges was never really productive or well-cared-for), and these 4 or 6m2 (depending on whether you think I needed the flowers to help the vegies along) gave me 25kg of crop in the first year as I was building up the soil and learning to garden, and 75kg in the fourth and final year, with good soil, mediocre skill, and little effort. This comes to an average of 50kg/4m2, or 12.5kg/m2. Essentially 3lbs per square foot. A pound of vegies a day would be very healthy for you, half a pound with some grain product even better.

    I imported organic matter, in that I put all kitchen scraps and lawn clippings on the compost, which I then turned into the raised beds twice a year.

    So if you made yourself a compost heap, and yard square raised bed garden you could reasonably expect to get 27lbs of food from it in a year, 27-54 person-days’ supply. Two such raised bed gardens would give you effectively a day a week where your feed yourself.

  16. Maven says:

    Wow, your site is so synchronicitous for what my family is trying to do. We just purchased a year’s worth of wheat from a local farmer friend. We’re fortunate here in N Tx. This is wheat/corn/milo farming country, but potatoes go in in Feb. & make by mid June too. The wheat and corn made fantastically this year, and the family potato plot gave us about 5 feedsacks (50+lbs) full of nice red potatoes. Last year was very wet and the grains did poorly, but we got twice the potatoes. Now in mid July the summer heat is really kicking in, and the veg garden is just about done save for black-eyed peas and okra - IF you can keep enough water on it. If the tomatoes don’t succomde to August heat and drought, they may perk back up for fall. Herbs suck up the heat and keep on trucking. If our first frost is late, or we cover with plastic we can keep it going through fall though. Last year I had basil and a few tomatoes until thanksgiving!

  17. caelids says:


    Wow! I just found this site and it has everything I’ve been looking for (well, a lot of it, anyway). And written by an intelligent person who isn’t a paranoid nutcase!

    More to the point, I am thinking about ordering the bulk foods for my “disaster kitchen,” and also planting my square foot garden, but these things take a lot of planning. Most people wouldn’t dream of living off of 700 square feet, although I believe it would be possible with certain caveats.

    My question to you about food and nutrition is, have you discovered Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A. Price Foundation? Their big revelation is that, yes, you can live on regional staple foods as people have for millenia, HOWEVER…we need certain fat-soluble vitamins in our diets to be healthy, especially when pregnant, lactating, or bringing up children. Some of these vitamins can be found in vegetable matter, but their most potent and absorbable (concentrated) forms are in animal products, which these traditional peoples went out of their way to get from whatever source was available: seafood, raw milk and other dairy products, organ meats, fish roe, insects, eggs, and fats such as coconut oil, lard, and butter.

    It seems plain to me that you needn’t load up with large amounts of meat in the diet if you take advantage of some of these concentrated foods with their high-vitamin content (whatever is available in your area). Unfortunately, many discussions of vegetable diets shun fats as well as meat. A mistake, I believe. What are your thoughts?

  18. Melody says:

    I’ve been reading over your food storage column and recipes. It’s been quite enjoyable. I will need to drag out and get a printed up collection of recipes that I can draw from to make up my standard everyday menu lists. If computers are down, no recipes or internet.
    I’m also an advocate for Nourishing Traditions and their teachings and viewpoints, especially on fats. A good cookbook lady to draw from is Sue Gregg. She’s also got good bread and food storage plan books.
    I’ve recently seen a U-tube (sp) video for a particularly interesting garden design called a keyhole garden, very productive for small size.
    A good form of long term storage for butter is to make ghee or clarified butter. You can find the how-to instructions with a search. It can sit on the shelf without refrigeration.
    Also, you might try saving back a few phone books like the old-timers used during outhouse days, except those were old catalogs, no phones then for awhile. I can’t imagine washing out re-usable rags. I saw it being done on the PBS series of those pioneer survival shows.
    Baking soda makes for good deodorant, works better than any organic or store bought product except it irritates my skin.
    Sorry to hear books aren’t holding their value. We also have thousands of them, homeschooled also. Kids grown now and hoped to save for them. I’m too old to be dragging excessive stuff around now. In-laws passed away and we’re dealing with their junk, too.

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