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

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Oil in our food (that ain't canola, or olive)

The Simply in Season recipe of the week, Dilly Mashed Potatoes, is the second in a row from the SIS “Hidden Treasures” list. It’s a favorite at our church’s Sunday noon potlucks. In the morning just scoop the mashers into your (lightly greased) crockpot, sprinkle with cheese, and cook on low instead of baking; it'll hold a few hours just fine. The pleasant tang from the plain yogurt and thin layer of melted cheddar on top give the illusion that the golden mash must be simply loaded with cheese -- when in fact the sunny color comes from mashing carrots with the potatoes. I could eat it every week.

Several folks wrote about other ways they sneak good foods into their cooking. "I put pureed pumpkin in my chili. The kids never know and it boosts the nutritional level," one person wrote. (A similar idea from Simply in Season is to add pureed winter squash to marinara sauces like Basic Tomato Sauce, page 168.)

Another person said, “In my vegetable soups I start with carrot juice -- I simmer all my herbs and spices in the carrot juice while preparing the vegetables for the soup. Also, a friend taught me to stretch my food dollars by making meat loaf using only half the amount of ground meat called for -- and replacing the other half with shredded carrots. Now my family prefers this version.”

It was great fun to be at Eugene’s first “green” home and garden show last weekend. By all accounts, the event was a stunning success, with a huge turnout surpassing that of typical home and garden shows in this area. Eugene has a reputation for environmental consciousness (or should that be “conscientiousness”?), so the only real surprise is that it’s taken this long for a “green” event like this to come here. But the high level of enthusiasm surprised even the organizers. Here’s hoping we’ll see more of this kind of event across the country in years to come.

Prior to the beginning of my workshop, a gasoline can on a table up front drew a number of puzzled inquiries. And it’s true: when we sit down to eat, we don’t place a pitcher of gasoline next to the orange juice and raisin bran.

The fact, though, is that fossil fuels play a major -- if hidden -- role in the story of our food.

In the United States conventional farming uses more petroleum than any other single industry, consuming 17% of the country's energy supply. On average it takes more than a calorie worth of fossil fuels to produce a calorie of food in the U.S. -- maybe as much as 3 calories of fossil energy for every food calorie. This includes fuel for farm machinery and petroleum-laden chemical fertilizers.

(This is one reason why some folks promote vegetarianism. As noted in Simply in Season, most of our meat comes from animals raised in feedlots where they consume grains grown on conventional farms fueled by petroleum. By one estimate, it takes about a cup of gasoline to produce a quarter-pound hamburger patty. This, in turn, is one reason why some folks promote switching over to pasture-raised meats. When cows eat grass, they’re turning the energy of the sun into a food human bodies can use in a process that uses few or no fossil fuels.)

If our food is processed, even more energy is required. To produce a two-pound box of breakfast cereal, for example, it takes about the equivalent of two quarts of gasoline.

Then we have to get that cereal to us, meaning more energy used in transportation. One oft-cited statistic is that to transport one calorie of iceberg lettuce from Los Angeles to London, it takes 127 calories in aviation fuel. Consider that next time you browse your supermarket produce department with its array of internationally produced fruits and vegetables.

To be especially clear: All of us use fossil fuels, and I’m really not interested in trying to be a purist and forego its use altogether. But for unseasonal lettuce? And breakfast cereal?

My point is that I tend to be more aware of my use of fossil fuels when I debate whether to get into a car or take my bike, and when I adjust my house’s thermostat up or down a degree or two. I have been less likely to think about the presence of this limited natural resource in my food. Becoming more aware of the link now affects what kinds of food I eat and when.

During the workshop’s question/answer period, one person asked: What alternatives are there to processed breakfast cereals?

Aside from four pancake/waffle recipes and various egg and muffin recipes, Simply in Season includes two great recipes for homemade granola (if you’re shy about coconut, be sure to try Chunky Crunchy Granola, page 293, which reminds me of gingersnaps). More-with-Less Cookbook is even better in this area, with eight pancake/waffle recipes and 15 homemade cereals.

But my breakfast favorite is definitely Baked Oatmeal (294): a very kid-friendly recipe completely unlike the gloppy stuff you might associate with cooked oatmeal. Even busy households can have it fresh in the morning if you mix your wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls the night before. In the morning, throw on your bathrobe, stumble to the kitchen, stir everything together, dump it in the pan you greased the night before, pop it in the oven (remember to turn it on), and you’ve got a hot breakfast by the time you’re out of the shower. Leftovers reheat beautifully in the microwave. Enjoy!


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