Simply in Season

News and reflections on all that's good about local food
from the co-author of Simply in Season,
a World Community Cookbook in the spirit of More-with-Less

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Eating: a political act? and leftover cranberry relish

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Cranberry Nut Loaf, makes a pretty addition to any Christmas brunch. It’s one of several SIS recipes that calls for flax seed meal. You can skip this ingredient if you don't have it on hand, but it’s an easy way to add a powerful nutritional punch to your breakfast. Hooray for Omega-3s!

Whole flax seeds do not digest well because of their hard shell, so you need to crack it -- just wait to do this step until you’re ready to use it, as the cracked seeds quickly turn rancid. Check a natural foods store for whole flax seed in bulk and grind it as you need it in a blender or coffee grinder. Zip, zap, ready.

My favorite cranberry side dish these days is not the cooked sauce but a relish like SIS’s Cranberry Salad, made with raw chopped cranberries, oranges, sometimes nuts, lemons or apples. If you have leftover relish of this sort, try folding it into your favorite quick bread dough. In Cranberry Nut Loaf, for example, omit the orange juice, orange peel, sugar and cranberries and add 1 1/2 to 2 cups of Cranberry Salad.

(Recipe changes weekly. To get on our recipe e-mail list, go to the SIS website and click on "Register.")

* * *

The November issue of the MCC Washington Office newsletter, Memo, includes a few of my musings on eating as a political act. Several other articles from this issue on global food and farming are also available online.

Global food and farming issues will be the focus of Washington Office’s annual spring seminar, slated for March 5-7, 2006. Stay tuned for more information about “Voices Around the Table: Stories of Food from CAFTA to the Corner Store.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

(All) foods have a story

When I was a little girl, I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books about life in the pioneer days. Two stand out as especial favorites. The first was Farmer Boy, and I think part of what I liked so much in this book was the description of everything they ate:

“Father’s spoon cut deep into the chicken-pie; he scooped out big pieces of thick crust and turned up their fluffy yellow under-sides on the plate. He poured gravy over them; he dipped up big pieces of tender chicken, dark meat and white meat sliding from the bones. He added a mound of baked beans and topped it with a quivering slice of fat pork. At the edge of the plate he piled dark-red beet pickles. And he handed the plate to Almanzo.”

Ruth Reichl, eat your heart out.

My other favorite book in the series was The Long Winter.

For those who don’t remember, The Long Winter recounts the year blizzards prevented the trains from reaching Laura’s little town on the South Dakota prairie. Supplies of coal and food dwindled until the community was on the brink of starvation.

When all the flour in town was gone, Laura’s Pa brought home seed wheat. Using a little hand-cranked coffee mill, the wheat could be coarsely ground, half a cup at a time, to make sourdough bread. Ma baked it in a cookstove fueled with hay twisted into sticks. And that’s how they survived that long winter, on bread and baked potatoes with salt and hot tea. Most of each day’s labor went into making each day’s food.

It’s quite a memorable story.

Today we tend to lose sight of the fact that all our food has a story, a story much longer than the last few chapters when the food makes its journey from supermarket to table. Rather than a story set only in our own kitchens, backyards and local communities, the story of our food is a national story and even an international story.

The first several chapters of our food’s story would explain where it was grown, by whom, under what conditions, and for whose profit. They would detail the story of the seeds’ origin, the planting, watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying and harvesting. The next chapters would go into the transporting, storing, packaging, processing and marketing of our food.

By the story’s end, we would see clearly the impact of our food on environmental health, on our local economies, on our local neighbors who farm and on people around the world.

I recommend Northwest Environment Watch’s book, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning. In it you can read much of the story of one familiar meal: fast-food hamburger and fries. The story of the burger begins with the story of grains fed to cows in a feedlot. The story of Idaho russet potatoes cannot be told without the story of water usage and salmon habitat.

An excellent introduction to the complex international story of our foods is Mennonite Central Committee's 17-minute video, "Food: A Plate Half Full." It may be borrowed through MCC's online catalog.

When we know the more complete story of our foods, then we are better equipped to make choices that feel good to us: choices that help our neighbors and leave a healthier earth.

With Thanksgiving coming this week, here is a prayer from a beautiful collection by the Iona Community, Blessed Be Our Table (Wild Goose Publications, 2003):

Loving Creator God,
We thank you for this beautiful earth from which our food comes.
We thank you for the long chain of people
who grow, harvest and transport it,
who sell, buy and prepare it,
and for those who now serve, share and eat it.
Bless the world and all its people, ourselves and this food,
to bring life and harmony
within your whole creation.
We ask it for your love’s sake.

* * *

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Kale Potato Soup, is a soothing way to follow Thanksgiving feasting. “Starting with Advent, soon after a hard freeze, I begin to make kale-potato soup once a week,” the contributor writes, noting that kale sweetens after a frost. “This is warm, comfort food. It is green and fun to serve with a swirl of something red, like spaghetti sauce.”

(Recipe changes weekly. To get on our recipe e-mail list, go to the SIS website and click on "Register.")

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Food that satisfies body and soul

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Pear Custard Bars, makes me a bit wistful, as our area didn’t do so well with pears and apples this year. My husband Dave and I have been spoiled by some local friends who have a huge pear tree in their yard. It’s become a fall tradition to bring home a few sacks of their pears. We spread them across the utility room floor to finish ripening, and then spend a few evenings with a card table set up in front of the TV, peeling the pears and thinly slicing them to dry. No such luck this year.

But we still have a few dried pears left from 2004, and I took some on a recent trip to the East Coast. Airlines don’t give away meals in the main cabin these days, so I also grabbed a hunk of homemade oatmeal bread and a chunk of cheese on the way out the door. Not a bad lunch.

As it turned out, the woman sitting beside me opted to buy the $3 snack box offered by the airline. It contained:
-- Single serving of Name Brand tortilla chips
-- Single serving of Name Brand salsa
-- Single serving of fluorescent orange Name Brand cheese sauce
-- A Name Brand turkey stick
-- A package of Name Brand cookies

Please let me be clear: Under some circumstances I too would have bought the snack box. I strive to eat local foods, whole foods, minimally processed and packaged foods, but I’m nowhere near to being a purist. On the way to the airport for another cookbook-related trip not so long ago, I stopped at a fast food chain on the way because I had forgotten to plan ahead for a missed meal. The sandwich I bought tasted good and filled my stomach and I was grateful for it.

But munching on my bread and cheese and dried pears en route to Baltimore, I had to think about why that meal was so much more satisfying to me.

I knew it was healthier for me than those high-sodium snacks -- that felt good. I suspected that it was going to fill me up better -- also good, as I still had a long day ahead. For what I was getting, my sack lunch certainly was cheaper. Further, I knew the production of my meal had a lesser impact on the environment, compared to the resources and energy that went into preparing, packaging, shipping and marketing those snacks.

The heart of it is this: I knew and liked the story of my food. I knew exactly what was in the bread which I had made myself from mostly organic ingredients purchased at our local co-op. I knew something about the company, Tillamook, which produces the cheese -- using milk that is rBST-free. I knew our friends had not sprayed pesticides on their pear tree.

For me, all of these things go into food that truly satisfies, food that satisfies more than the most basic experience of physical hunger. When my choices have a positive impact on God’s creation and on other people, that feeds my spirit.

As Thanksgiving approaches, many people in this country will remember with grateful hearts how privileged we are to have access to enough food. It is my hope that more and more of us also will come to experience the joy of choosing foods that feed our souls as well as our bodies.

More next time on the stories behind our food.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

People's Choice Awards!

By the way, a humble WHOO-HOO to Ten Thousand Villages for winning Co-op America’s “People's Choice Award for Green Business of the Year”! As they put it, “Ten Thousand Villages is one of the oldest and largest fair trade organizations in the world and a pioneer among fair trade businesses in the U.S.” Ten Thousand Villages is a sister nonprofit to Mennonite Central Committee.

Placing #10 on the People’s Choice list is Equal Exchange, my favorite fair trade coffee company. Check their website for the fabulous Simply in Season recipe for Hazelnut Coffee Brownies:

Picky eaters

One of the most delicious ironies of authoring a cookbook is that I was THE pickiest eater as a kid. Didn’t like anything good. Not corn-on-the-cob, not fresh strawberries, not peaches. (This last was a texture thing -- I claimed they tasted like frogs.) You can forget about vegetables -- I think potatoes (in various forms), cooked (but not fresh) tomatoes, and fresh (but not cooked) carrots pretty much composed my entire list of edibles. My survival apparently depended on macaroni and cheese and the occasional banana.

My mother thinks it’s quite a hoot to see me now: the most adventuresome eater in the family.

With such a background, I remain quite sympathetic to those with narrow parameters of acceptable foods. I just know that change is possible.

For me, the turning point in my eating habits was when I went to college and started eating in a cafeteria with my peers three times a day. I just got embarrassed by all the things I conspicuously “didn’t like” and started (while drawing as little attention to myself as possible) choking things down, no doubt with big glasses of water. And lo and behold: I found that I was growing to like cucumbers, green peppers, broccoli, grapes, melons, mushrooms -- and yes, corn-on-the-cob, strawberries and peaches.

Once the door was open -- once I learned that I might like different foods -- it was with great delight that I discovered foods I had never been exposed to as a child: asparagus, kale, sweet potatoes (without the marshmallows), rhubarb, butternut squash, parsnips, lima beans! I never could have dreamed how much more rich my eating life would become.

I think Mom did me a service in not making a big fuss about my pickiness as a child; I didn’t build up a lot of resistance that would get in the way later. As I remember it, she did insist that I drink orange juice for breakfast (which I grew to like) and I think we had the “two-bites” rule (eat two bites of everything before filling up on peanut butter), which is a good way to keep kids at least continuing to try healthy foods as they mature and tastes change.

But in general I continue to be all in favor of hiding scary foods. The SIS recipe of the week, Pumpkin Sausage Pasta, is on what I call the Simply in Season “hidden treasures” list: recipes that pack in the nutrition of vegetables but mask their appearance and/or taste.


-- Zucchini Yeast Rolls (you don’t taste the shredded summer squash but it creates pretty flecks of green and gold in these soft rolls)

-- Sweet Potato Soup (people who say they don’t like sweet potatoes enjoy this pureed soup flavored with orange juice and tomatoes)

-- Dilly Mashed Potatoes (people think the golden color of these spuds comes from loads of cheese but it’s actually just a little cheese and plenty of whipped carrots)

-- Slow Cooker Enchiladas (shredded summer squash and carrots cook in a flavorful meat sauce; blindfold your family if you must and they’ll never know the veggies are there)

-- Pumpkin Sausage Pasta (a delectable creamy sauce provides the background for sausage and sage in this elegant dish; tasters can never guess that the base of the sauce is pureed baked winter squash or canned pumpkin)

-- Rhubarb Sorrel Crisp (sorrel -- a leafy green sort of like spinach -- adds wonderful lemon flavor to this dessert but disappears in the cooked rhubarb; the crisp can be made without sorrel but it’s well worth looking for)

-- Zucchini Brownies (moist with plain yogurt; the shredded squash vanishes)

-- Secret Chocolate Cake (moist with yogurt, applesauce, and pureed beets)

-- Green Surprise Dip (people tend to think it’s guacamole -- how easily we are fooled by appearances -- but it’s actually made of steamed chard, kale or spinach pureed with chickpeas)

(Recipe changes weekly. To get on our recipe e-mail list, go to the SIS website and click on "Register.")

On page 110 Simply in Season lists a number of ideas for tempting the taste buds of reluctant eaters and for encouraging children to eat healthy foods. What are some practices that work for your family?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Dinner co-ops

Shortage of time is one of the greatest obstacles to eating well. We might want to choose fresh, whole foods but it’s easy to reach for highly processed foods or stop for a fast food meal when time is short.

Responding to the time crunch takes creativity. One of my favorite ideas is the dinner co-op or supper club.

A dinner co-op can take any number of shapes and forms, but the basic idea is that a group of people cook for each other -- allowing everyone to eat more home-cooked food but saving time (and often saving money) in the process.

Several years ago I was part of a group that came to be known as the “Monday Night Supper Club that Meets on Tuesdays” (see Simply in Season page 218 for my version of the most memorable dish of that experience, Pumpkin Chocolate Cheesecake). The supper club was made up of six single folks and one couple. Each week one person would cook and host an evening meal for the rest.

Meals were not fancy and neither was the atmosphere; as young adults with minimal furniture some of us barely had enough chairs to go around. On at least one occasion I recall everyone eating pancakes on the floor of my apartment with crates for tables, and for a while everyone needed to bring their own tableware. Everyone understood that it was fine to come, eat and then hurry off to other activities. Yet often we lingered over tea. For those who live alone, it can be difficult to bother with cooking, and it was nice to know that at least once a week we would have a “real” meal with others.

This past weekend I heard of another model. Six families in Portland get together once per month. They eat bring pre-portioned entrees, divide them up, and everyone takes them home for the freezer. Each portion serves about two adults; there’s no need to worry about having different numbers of small children in the different households. Most often the meals are toppings for rice, polenta or pasta, but casseroles, soups, enchiladas, lasagna, etc., also freeze well. What a better way to go than buying heavily packaged TV dinners! And what a nice way for parents of small children to get to enjoy more “grown-up food” with minimal effort. Make one meal, get six!

Co-op America offers several good tips for starting a dinner co-op:

This is a link to a dinner co-op website (with a completely different type of organization) that includes lots of recipes:

These links describe more ways that dinner co-ops can be structured:

If you’re part of a dinner co-op, tell us about your experience. What works well for your group?

* * *

The SIS recipe of the week, Greens in Peanut Sauce, makes a delicious, easy side dish to a curry meal. Speaking of saving time: A few weeks ago I helped to make a huge batch of Red Lentil Coconut Curry (page 206) for the Oregon Mennonite Festival for World Relief. After we finished making the red lentil sauce, we realized that we had overestimated: this was too much! We decided to remove several cups of sauce before adding the cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and cabbage.

We found that the sauce freezes well -- much better than freezing the completed dish, which would have resulted in mushy vegetables. It’s going to make a super-simple meal later: just add the fresh vegetables, cook and serve!

Next time, I’m going to make extra curry sauce to freeze on purpose.

(Recipe changes weekly. To get on our recipe e-mail list, go to the SIS website and click on "Register.")