Category Archives: Food

What We Spend on Food

I am slowly but surely (during meager lunch hours, when I can) meandering my way through Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an investigative book dealing with the food industry today and how it is — and isn’t — something we need to aspire to.   He is exploring where our food comes from, why it comes from there (vs. other sources), the methods and reasoning behind them for growing, harvesting, packaging, and marketing the food, and attempts to answer the question, “In this modern world, with so many food choices and choices of where that food comes from, how do we properly choose our food?”

I’d like to share a particularly poignant passage that I read today, as it got me thinking:

As a society we Americans spend only a fraction of our disposable income feeding ourselves — about a tenth, down from a fifth in the 1950s.   Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world.   This suggestion that there are many of us who could afford to spend more on food if we chose to.   After all, it isn’t only the elite who in recent years have found an extra fifty or one hundred dollars each month to spend on cell phones (now owned by more than half the U.S. population, children included) or television, which close to 90 percent of all U.S. households now pay for.   Another formerly free good that more than half of us happily pay for today is water.   So is the unwillingness to pay more for food really a matter of affordability or priority?

Omnivore's DilemmaI have wondered about this for a long time, because the fact is, we DO spend an awful lot more on things other than food, and we get really upset when the price of, say, ground beef goes up 30 cents, even though its been birthed, grown, finished, slaughtered, clean, cut, ground, and shaped into a convenient package for us, all for a few bucks per pound.   Bananas are up?  Oh lord!   Never mind the fact that they just got done traveling a few thousand miles to your grocery store, mostly unharmed.

I think part of it is price habit.    As adults, we all have a list of prices in our heads for, say, milk, bananas, meat, bread, and cheese.    Deviate much from those defined levels and we get all put out.   We like our traditions, in a sense.

I also think that we, as consumers, don’t really know what we should be paying for food — so we pay what the majority of the market says we should pay.    Maybe we should be paying $10/lb for good meat, but if the majority of the market says, “We have perfectly fine meat over here and it’s only $3/lb” and everyone ELSE has it for $3/lb, your mind tends to think that $10/lb meat must be exorbitant!  Ritzy.   Overpriced.

And finally, we look at things like food as constant necessities and, much like toilet paper, we haaaaate paying more than we must for something that we have to buy All. The. Time.  Most people feel like they spend the great majority of their time sleeping and eating, let alone having to go into a grocery store and buy food.   Paying more than you think is fair, or what everyone else is paying, simply grates on one’s nerves when you have to do it over and over.    It’s bad enough paying for $3.60/gallon gas, must we break the bank for food, too?

And yet……YET….we probably have our priorities out of whack, like so many other things.   We spend an awful lot of hours in our beds to not be shelling out top dollar for the best mattress money can buy, given that we spend on average almost 122 DAYS out of a year in bed!  That’s a full 1/3 of the year in bed and we still think $1000 for a mattress is akin to slavery.

Are we simply just really, really screwed up?

Of course, I’m not advocating spending $30 per person, per meal, 3x a day.   But is it the first thing we should skimp on when the budget is tight?   Should we be so quick to pass up that organic chicken in favor of the Walmart bulk-pack Trough Pack™ of chicken breasts, just to save a buck or two?   Need we feel so guilty when we buy local and pay twice the price?

Instead, should we be focusing on how healthy the food is for us, what chemicals and compounds were used on or in it, how it was raised, what sort of people in what sort of conditions harvested and prepared it, and….god forbid the audacity of it, how it tastes??

Far be it from me to be a food snob, or a tree-hugging environmentalist, or a food industry fear monger, but, at the same time, I wonder:   Are we being smart about this?

Charcutepalooza February: Bacon/Pancetta

It took me quite awhile to get into the swing for Charcutepalooza mostly because I had to obtain the raw materials — and for February, that meant “pork belly”, which is actually the sides of a hog.    While many of the participants seem to have several hogs each in their backyards just roaming around, locating truffles, and ripe for the picking for a project like this, I had to actually FIND some pork belly.    Although this is Iowa, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Finally, I posted an ad on Craigslist and a local farmer responded, saying he was taking a hog to the locker at the end of the week.    Long story short, what went from asking to purchase a part of said hog resulted in me obtaining the ENTIRE pig, in large pieces, a week and a half later.   I finally had my belly to work with.

Below is the picture gallery of the experience.    Although I whizzed RIGHT by the Feb 15th deadline to be considered for participation in the contest, I nonetheless am having a great time with it and will keep it up, and am starting to reap the benefits of my efforts.

Meet My Meat: Charcutepalooza

CharcutepaloozaMost of you by now are used to my semi-infrequent posts on this blog concerning food.    I find food to be one of the truer things in life; it’s generally hard to hide things from the senses when it comes to food and it presents a multi-dimensional challenge to the chef to create something that assails you from every direction and not simply taste.

Meat and I go a long way back.     Born and raised as a farmer’s son, I was whelped on a wide variety of animal proteins, ranging from simple mince to an involved, family traditional sausage.    We’ve always gotten along well.

I have, however, in recent years become enamoured with those who take the use of animal bits to a whole new level of taste and respect. While I’m not vegan by any means, I do understand the sentiments and cannot discredit those who have taken that gastronomical angle.     That being said, it isn’t for me, and so I’m more interested in exploring how to make the meats I consume not only taste better, but used better.  With more care.    With more love for the animal and the product.

Enter stage-left charcuterie, the craft of salting, smoking, and curing meats in old-fashioned traditions using simple ingredients, time-honoured methods, and waste-not want-not practicality.  Originally derived because the world lacked such wonderful devices as refrigerators and freezers, a growing trend in culinary circles has been to turn back to these methods of preparation because they result in extraordinary flavors and textures, to say nothing of the pride of creating an end product over the course of days, weeks, or even months of careful work and patience.

For Christmas, my lovely wife bought me two tomes of knowledge in the subject, Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson and Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.   Since then I’ve been pouring over them in earnest and have been super-eager to try out some of these recipes.

The Founders

The Founders

What better motivation than an online community of charcuterie enthusiasts to motivate you!     CHARCUTEPALOOZA, started by the talented Cathy Barrow of Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen and Kim Foster of The Yummy Mummy started this 12-month challenge to make and show off preserved meats of all sorts.   After lots of consideration and thought, I decided I had nothing to lose and tossed my spoon into the pot — twelve months of taste, here we come!

Now I just have to find some meat!

The effort has attracted a lot of attention. More than 180 bloggers and food enthusiasts are signed up.   There is a Facebook group and a Twitter hashtag (#charcutepalooza) and a Flickr group.     Tomorrow Charcutepalooza will be featured in the Washington Post and the online story is here.    Michael Ruhlman himself has endorsed the project and has contributed to the articles and instructions.      The grand prize is an all-expenses paid trip to Paris and Camont, France, where the winner will spend a week learning charcuterie skills in one of the regions most known for its original development.

Come join me as I participate as best as possible and learn all I can about this fascinating art!

Flax Honey Sunflower Half & Half Bread

Flax Honey Sunflower BreadEveryone should make their own bread at least once in their life, because the sheer experience of it is not only so dang fulfilling, but the end result can be astounding to a level of mental orgasmic bliss.    Add to that the fact that you’ll know everything that went into it and you have a wonderful recipe for success and good feelings.

This bread is adapted from a bread machine recipe I found on AllRecipes.com and adjusted for a handmade system instead.   Vegetarian compatible but not vegan unless you get into honey, then you’re ok, too.

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup water between 120F and 140F
  • 4 tsp honey
  • 4 tsp canola or olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 3 cups white flour OR 1 2/3 cups white + 1 1/3 cups whole wheat or any combination thereof (hence the half & half bread)
  • 3 Tbsp ground flax seed
  • 3 Tbsp whole sunflower meats (or you can lightly grind them if you prefer)
  • 1 1/2 tsp active yeast



Directions:

Mix the water, honey, yeast, and about 1/2 of the flour together in a mixing bowl.     Stir well with a whisk or fork to get well-combined without lumps.    Leave it sit for 15-25 minutes or until the mixture is bloomed well and bubbling like mad.

Mix in the rest of the ingredients sans the flour.    While mixing, add the flour slowly until it becomes a pliable ball of dough.    If too sticky, just keep adding flour slowly until it isn’t.   This isn’t rocket science, folks, and bread is fairly forgiving.

Flax Honey Sunflower Bread CloseupTurn it out onto a floured surface, stretch your muscles, and get to kneading.    This is not a light, fluffy, unicorn-filled bread and will require some muscles to get it properly kneaded.   It will also be somewhat stubborn about getting the gluten strands linked and holding together; don’t be surprised if you are still kneading after 10 minutes.   It WILL come together, I swear, and when it does, you’ll know it because the texture and feel and response will drastically change.

When you reach that important point, take the ball and tuck it under itself — roll the edges under until the top is a beautiful, smooth ball of dough.   Flour the inside of the mixing bowl so it won’t stick, slap that ball down in the center, pretty side up, and give it two pats for good luck.   If you have a child, this is a good opportunity to let them pat it, as their inherent good luck will seep into the dough and help it along.

Flax Honey Sunflower Bread CloseupCover with a damp cloth and put in a warm area for anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half, whatever it takes to double it in size.    Since it’s winter and this is a heavier bread, it might not go past double and it might take awhile to get there.    Heat the oven to 150F or so and shut it off and put the bowl inside if you need to give it a boost.

Flour up your hands and gently pull it out of the bowl, do NOT punch it down.   Good lord, if I had a dime for every time punching down dough screwed it up, I’d be a happier man.    Not necessary, because in the time you’ll reshape it into a loaf, it’ll get all the punch-down it needs.    Shape it into a loaf and put it into a lightly lubricated loaf pan.    Toss that damp cloth back over it and put it in a warm spot or your warm oven for another 30-40 minutes until it’s risen so it looks like a loaf.   This recipe WILL NOT get huge and overflow the sides, just a nice pretty loaf, so don’t wait all day.

Take the cloth off, shove it in the oven, and turn it on to 350F.     Bake exactly 30 minutes and pull it out.    Let it stand at least 20 minutes to cool if not more before cutting into it.

Thoroughly enjoyable and wonderful for kith and kin alike.

A Lingering Taste

“Hrm,” I reflected as I got into my car this morning.  “That wasn’t exactly the flavor I had hoped to be tasting all morning.”   The pseudo-buttery taste of the margarine from my cinnamon-and-sugar bread lingered on my tastebuds as I pulled away, making me wish I had eaten that first and then had my apricot-pineapple-chipotle salsa-covered fried eggs last.   I eventually drowned it out with some pop and time, but it took awhile.   It’s funny what lingers on for tastes, isn’t it?

MouthOf course, we all know the classic culprit:  GARLIC.   Powerful enough to knock the hair off a sideways yak at 30 yards, this zippy little demon is a sure-fire way to ruin Date Night if one or other other did not partake in the strongly-flavored pasta dish that was served.   Long after you have ceased to taste it (mostly because your tastebuds have been overpowered and now lie gasping in the corner), it is assured that your partner will wrinkle their nose and forcefully deprive you of any joy in the Close-to-You Department.

We can easily pick on other ones, too:   Chocolate, eggs, tobacco, wine, beer, onions, vinegar — any number of other foods fall into this category of, “lasts longer that you do”.   Every cigar smoker knows that it’s a pleasure during but the aftertaste is something akin to sucking on men’s athletic socks.

The question is: What do we like to taste long after?

Garlic is not something I desire to taste for any longer than I must after the meal.    Its powerful, commanding flavor often matches very nicely with the rest of the food and really enhances the experience of eating, but when it’s several hours later and you can still peel the paint, it can get frustrating in a hurry.

On the other hand, if that death-by-chocolate cake is still hanging out and dancing on my tongue several hours after I push away from the table, I’m generally ok with that.   Other flavors of the sweet variety we seem not to mind — fruits, pastries — and some of the stronger flavors can be ok if tempered by something.   A straight-up curry might not be good by bedtime but if it was a peanut-butter-laced one?   The result can be hours of pleasant memories to behold.

What flavors, if you have a choice, are the ones you’d like to taste over and over, long after the meal has come and gone?   Which ones turn you off in ways you cannot describe lest you frighten the children?