Updates, Wasted Food, and Being Thankful.

It seems like I haven't been cooking lately. I have, really, but I feel like it has been nothing so exciting to warrant a place here in the chronicles of CakeWalk. All week, I've been wondering if I'd make it to my Vegan Monday, and technically, no I didn't. I have eaten a fair share of vegan foods, namely smoothies and vegetable drinks. I am finally a proud owner of a VitaMix, and feel like I've never eaten so many raw fruits and vegetables in my life. I do have lots of new vegan recipes bookmarked, but haven't embarked on them officially and I'll tell you why.

Part of the reason is that I've been reading American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom (he also blogs at Wasted Food). Well, to be honest, I started it, got a couple chapters in, and then have taken up reading three different bread baking books, trying to see if I can calculate my own flour to water ratios to improve my final bread product... But what I have read so far has changed my cooking habits forever.

I'm always looking for the next thing I can make, and I confess that sometimes this leads me to more waste than I'd like. I have been better this year; it was a bit of a New Year's Resolution last January to make less and consume more of what is already made. But this book sums it up in the very first pages, in fact in the first sentences of the introduction:
Every day, America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. Yes, that Rose Bowl - the 90,000-seat football stadium in Pasadena, California. Of course, that's if we had an inclination to truck the nation's excess food to California for a memorable but messy publicity stunt.

As a nation, we grow and raise more than 590 billion pounds of food each year. And depending on whom you ask, we squander between a quarter and a half of all the food produced in the United States. Even using the more conservative figure would mean that 160 billion pounds of food are squandered annually - more than enough, that is, to fill the Rose Bowl to the brim. With the high-end estimate, the Rose Bowl would almost be filled twice over.
I will say that the rest of the book so far is equally engaging, taking me on a journey from farm waste to supermarket waste, and finally to neglect in the home. I know that a heated political debate could ensue, but I think it's just criminal to have so much waste when we have a real need to feed people. Signs are everywhere in our cities for food pantries, Food Network frequently endorses Share our Strength, and it's Great American Bakesale (sponsored by refined sugar company giants) to help hungry children in our own country. We have this idea in the US that everything needs to be beautiful and unblemished to be consumed - EVERYTHING in our marketing and media focuses on the beautiful, the young, and the airbrushed. Take a head of iceberg lettuce, or a 18 year old model wearing Louboutin shoes, and the treatment is the same: we don't want it if it isn't hyped and wrapped and neatly approved into our massive consumption lives. And we have real need for people who are hungry. (But hungry for fruits and vegetables, or hungry for pre-packaged meals? That is a whole different debate, as well.)

Now, I know that most people I know don't fit into this generalization. We food shop locally, preserve much ourselves, and limit packaged food purchases. But as my Mom was just telling me, gone are the days when the Grandmothers make a soup out of the dregs of the celery.

My Mom's (maternal) Grandmother was the first generation born in the United States. Her name was Laura, but it was supposed to be "Lottie", her mother's accent too thick for the writer of the birth certificate to understand. My earliest memories of soup were from her summer home in the Northwoods, just down the road from our house. Her pea soup, most clearly, I can still taste on my tongue. Surely, it was nothing more than a ham bone and split peas, maybe some onion, but it was so good that it has stuck with me all of these years, and no soup I've ever made has rivaled it. Her husband, my Great-Grandfather Casey, was a DP, also from Poland. Food was especially precious to him, as was his American citizenship. He was detained in a camp during WWII, and when he finally came to America, he brought with him a heel of bread that he kept until he died - a memory of the scarcity of food he came from and the bounty of his new country.

I was very young when I knew them, but remember all of the stories: their foraging for mushrooms that led to the pumping of stomachs, my Grandfather's impossibly thick accent, the rabbit hutches where they kept the pets that I later found to be sources of food, the bonfires and family times that were so important to them both, and ALWAYS contained food.

Waste was never a part of their lives. My Mom would bring us to their little cottage and it would appear there was nothing to eat. Moments later, somethings were made from nothings, and I'm now remembering this daily in my own kitchen. I would never tell someone else what he SHOULD be eating (except my Husband, of course), and would not support Big Brother stepping in to take hold of our food consumption issues. But this waste! It's hard for me not to cook, or to not have many wide, open mouths that want to eat. But, I've been trying to take pleasure in eating my leftovers, and living more reliably out of my home canned pantry.

The trick, I've found, is trying to make much less. My Husband isn't a fan of leftovers, but some things I can get him to eat a second time. Of all of my bread experimenting, I haven't had much waste, but turned what I did have into breadcrumbs. (An infinitely more exciting task since I just got my very own VitaMix! The crumbs are uniform and even the hard crusts are punished into complete dust, and I can't wait to coat something in them and panfry...)

Dinner tonight will be the end of this bread, turned into toasted panino type sandwich. Glamorous, no, but it will be tasty, and then I can make another loaf of bread!

This one, I kneaded until it felt smooth and elastic. I haven't been making much "kneaded" bread lately, in part because I wasn't sure my starter was vigorous enough. Now, I am certain that my starter is active, and strong enough to lift dough. I started this bread at 11 AM, and it rose, was shaped, rose again, was baked, and came out of the oven at 10:30 late last week. One more notable thing about sourdough, is that it seems to have preternatural ability to be fresh. I made this on Thursday, and though not technically "fresh", it is still absolutely tasty - especially as toast. I used this recipe from King Arthur Flour, but omitted the commercial yeast and sugar. After all, I went through the trouble to raise up the starter, I don't mind waiting around for it to do it's job. Yesterday I was reading in Bread by Jeffrey Hammelman, that the incorporation of air into the dough is essential to the raising of the dough. You can do this too much, and run into problems, but I found that this kneaded loaf did rise more quickly than the wetter doughs I just mix and let rest for 18-24 hours. I feel I have volumes to learn, but that's half the fun.

Fall also brings with it low-light photography that challenges my camera...

I also decided that the brotform is best suited to kneaded, 'drier' doughs. I had no problem tipping the loaf out of the basket, and then carefully lowering it into my dutch oven by hand. I was even able to slash into it with the lame, another KAF purchase that was going largely unused. My next several loaves will likely be kneaded, and I may even try to approach my scientific side and pay more attention to the temperature of dough, air and water and the ratio of water to flour.

It still completely amazes me, and it probably always will, that bread is flour and water. That's it. A union that immediately begins the fermentation process when combined, and can satisfy the world over. Almost no bread is ever "inedible", as well. I baked kind of a brick last week, since the dough was too wet and stuck to my brotform so much that all of the air was knocked out of it. It ended up a flat discus of dough, and was still edible. Honesty permits me to tell you, that we ate a little of it, but then I ditched the rest. Waste. That's the price I pay for bread snobbery - and for never being hungry enough. I should not have thrown away that loaf. My Great-Grandparents wouldn't have. My Gram wouldn't have. My Mom was here, and was eating it. But me, bread-snobbish me, decided that I needed to make a better one, and tossed it out so I wouldn't have to think about it.

On my last library trip, I also picked up One Magic Square, in hopes to learn a bit more about packing more into my raised beds next spring. The author, Lolo Houbein, begins the book with her own family history in the Netherlands. As a child in 1944 and 1945, her family survived a famine - and she tells of eating grass scavenged from beneath the snow to "steady her stomach". At 5 foot 8 inches tall, she withered to 75 pounds, but survived. She has tended her own food sources ever since, and inspires others to grow at least a small percentage of their own foods. Another reminder never to take for granted all that America's food has to offer us, and to be responsible and diligent with what we do have. That probably includes that loaf of brick-ish bread I tossed out.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for enough food and the knowledge of how to prepare it. I'm thankful that I am the only one in my house that likes squash, and I have 9 (!) of them to figure out how to eat myself thanks to my CSA the past several weeks. I am thankful that as the season grows colder, we can heat our house (and that my baking bread warms the kitchen so that I keep the thermostat a bit lower). I am thankful for my picky-eating family, and never abandon hope that they will someday also like things like squash. I am also thankful that I have many everyday reminders not to waste food.

That Vegan Cashew-Cheese Frosting Experiment. And On Diet.

I did take that leftover cup of cashew "ricotta cheese" from yesterday's adventure and tried to turn it into delicious vegan frosting. I felt that I succeeded, but then I really did want it to taste just a bit like butter. I didn't add any mind you, but here is what I did:

I was obviously in an Aleppo pepper kind of mood...

First, I made some vegan chocolate cupcakes. Then, with my immersion blender, I took 1 cup of leftover cultured cashew cheese from Tal Ronnen's recipe and blended it to near perfect smoothness. It took me a few minutes. He does include recipes in his book for actual Cashew Cream and Whipped Cashew Cream, but I figured that I didn't want to waste (or end up eating entirely myself) a rather large amount of cashew cheese and besides we all know that I'm always up for tinkering around in my kitchen. Had I started with one of these, I would have had a smoother product from the beginning, and certain success.

After smoothness was obtained, I began to think about sweetener. I do have some agave syrup that I needed to use up (and do not and will not purchase it again after reading so much on it's huge amount of over processing. A quick search gave me this article - as it pertains particularly to vegan eating - that sums up quite a bit of what I've been reading elsewhere...), so I added maybe a tablespoon or two and tasted. It was a bland and awful taste, quickly corrected by about a 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar. Now I was getting somewhere! A heavy pinch of salt, a pinch more brown sugar - and still immersion blending... It was beautiful, thick, and creamy, but frosting-like it just was not.

I added 1/2 cup of Spectrum Organic Shortening and switched to a hand mixer, and then, I decided that the flavor was just too strange, so I added the last of my cocoa powder, maybe a 1/4 cup. Now I was REALLY getting somewhere. It finally had a bit of character, and the cocoa masked any strangeness that I was getting before. Cocoa powder works hand in hand with espresso powder in my kitchen, so I sprinkled some of that in as well. My final decision was that I am indeed a sugar addict, and yes I know it is something I need to work on (and I am!), and I added more sugar, this time I used confectioner's sugar. I figured the cornstarch in it would act as a bit of a thickener. I called it finished, and filled a piping bag to give it the proper test:

It still looks a bit granular, but really, it was very creamy and mousse-like. If you are looking for a way to use up leftover cashew cheese, I'd recommend tinkering with it. I let the Boy-O eat one for dessert, and he had no qualms, proof that perhaps I was over thinking (and over tasting) the entire project.

Vegan Cupcakes with Chocolate Cashew "Ricotta Cheese" Frosting? Pretty edible and tasty for a vegan cupcake... but I'm not suggesting that you rush out and make them instead of the real deal. Unless, of course, you are vegan - then I would say do it now!

I'm trying to identify what it is about vegan and non-vegan foods that appeals to the practitioners of each style. Vegan foods seem so noble and clean, minimal and beautiful. Conventional "American" diets seems by comparison seem fat-laden and heavy with both wheat and sugar, which I know they really are. While vegan cookery is very appealing to me, strange vegan dessert preparations that feel like they are just lacking something in my mouth do not. I know there is someone that can prove me wrong, and I'm sure I'll try many more things and let you know if I manage to prove it to myself.

This obsession of vegan foodstuffs is really causing me to stop and think if nothing else, about all of the flaws in my own diet. My copy of Sproutman's Kitchen Garden came this afternoon, and it would be worth noting this paragraph which is sticking out in my brain (I was actually one paragraph, I just split it up for emphasis):
The "Standard American Diet" suits its acronym, S.A.D. It is synonymous with unhealthy eating habits and lifestyle. It is founded on what looks, smells, and tastes good... ...We are most concerned with its presentation and convenient availability. We freeze it, can it, preserve it, artificially flavor it, color it and otherwise separate it into parts and reassemble it in different ways to pique our interest and pry open our pocket books. Advances in technology serve mostly to improve production and distribution. We have largely ignored the multitude of ways that food influences our health. America's most popular foods are steak, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, poultry, cold cuts and canned tuna. We are also dairy and refined wheat addicts. We consume excessive amounts of hard cheeses...

...We drink milk well beyond our ability to digest it and consume mountains of ice cream. In regard to wheat, we have taken an important grain and over indulged it. Our bodies respond to this excess with all kinds of alarms and signals: chest coughing, nose blowing, sinus dripping, palate itching, skin breaking out and pimpling. What does it take to get our attention?...

... Breads, cookies, crackers, cakes, pretzels, pastries, bagels and pizza are not poison. But their ubiquitous presence and the daily intake of such low quality wheat products takes its toll. Bread companies proclaim the virtues of their brand by the number of synthetic nutrients they add. What irony that we remove natural vitamins and then seek praise for replacing them with synthetic substitutes. Breakfast cereals also make the same claim. America literally wakes up and launches the day with a cup of coffee and a bowlful of sugar and refined flour in designer shapes. Then, at dinnertime we pat ourselves on the back for eating a meatless meal in which we again consume refined flour, this time in curls, squiggles and pillows with excess salt instead of sugar. It never dawns on us that pasta, pizza, pretzels, crackers, cookies, breads and cereals are different forms of the same food.
Sproutman (a.k.a. Steve Meyerowitz) wrote this book in 1983! Yes, I know that he has a broad and generalizing view and not everyone in America eats this way, but I know I am guilty of eating more sugar than I know is good for me. Part of it is because I love baking, but part is because it is an addiction. Sproutman goes on to say that the typical American diet consists of 42% fat, 12% protein, and 46% is made up of carbohydrates - of which more than half comes from sugar! Wow. Serious thinking needs to be done.

I know this seems like a huge soapbox for me to be up on, but really it is a funny topic to me. It would be easy for me to seem piously against all of these things, but sometimes, I do just want to walk into a joint like Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh and chow down and not worry and wonder about the detriment of my diet and how it is affecting both myself and others. I want to be connected to the American food culture that varies from state to state. I want a hamburger, and I want it without having to think about factory farming. I am reminded of this scene in Barcelona (which I haven't seen in like 10 years, and due to the miracle that is the Internet, I can find the scene and insert it here!):
Take hamburgers.
Here, hamburguesas are really bad.

It's known that Americans like hamburgers,
so again, we're idiots.

But they have no idea
how delicious hamburgers can be.

It's this ideal burger of memory we crave...

...not the disgusting burgers
you get abroad.

We can't even call ourselves Americans.
I guess where I'd have to go with this, since a wrap-up should be in sight, is that I really do need to go sit in a corner and chant my Mantra. To "do the best I can and trust God with the rest", as my Gram always said. She also once told a doctor who asked what was the secret to her good health: "I don't drink or smoke, and eat all the ice cream I can hold". That was the quote I liked most when I was younger, and I guess I still do. In fact, I whipped up another ice cream base this evening, just before all of this vegan talk... To add to my moderation, I suppose it is best that I am eating ice cream I make myself. Zero preservatives, and with organic milk, fairly low in chemical pesticides, and truth be told, I cut the sugar in half. I'll let you know how THAT worked out for me. I sure didn't cut back in this frosting.