Ten simple things to do now to eat better and save money.

Ten simple things to do now to eat better and save money.

1. Simplify and organize your food hub (kitchen & pantry), and stock it with simple storage/freezer containers sized for your refrigerator size and usual meal size, masking tape, and sharpie for labeling placed within easy reach. Maybe add a radio or speaker so you can listen to books or podcasts as you work and make it an uncluttered, peaceful space so kitchen maintenance will become a meditative time you look forward to instead of a rushed and chaotic chore. 

2. Cabbage is your all-season Friend. Cheap, delicious, healthful, fresh in all seasons, and good for so many satisfying preparations. 

3. Start a simple kitchen herb garden and/or grow sprouts. Plants are available now from all the best local growers, and you can often buy plants with SNAP benefits. Herbs and spices add up. When you buy fresher foods of more flavorful varieties, you will find you need few expensive spices, marinades and rubs. 

4. You paid for it, get your money’s worth!  Don’t cut fat from meats before cooking, instead cook, and skim the fat to use for later browning and sautéing. When you buy well raised meat, the nutritional benefits of the meat are also in the fat. There is nothing hydrogenated or highly processed, so it is a nutritional, flavor-enhancing, and budget friendly practice.

5. Select foods for nutrient density instead of portion size or habit. Bone-in skin-on meats, Fruit vs juice, whole grains vs refined flour and processed quick seasoned sides, plain frozen fruit and veg instead of those with added sauces or microveable packages, whole milk dairy vs reduced fat, pastured eggs vs lowest price, local in-season produce and fruits, whole cheese vs pre-shredded, minimally processed vs convenience, more basic staples and less ready-to-cook one-offs. 

6. Select whole in-season vegetables grown locally for flavor rather than shipping and shelf stability, with leaves & stems on. Use said leaves and stems right away. 

7. Maceration. Harness the natural juices from your fruits and vegetables and your crock pot roasts and stretch the value of the purchase. This works best with local items grown for flavor, as they are the most naturally flavorful and juicy, and that juice has nutritional value. And, if you find yourself with some fruit or produce about to go bad, chop them up, add a bit of sugar or salt, and put them in the fridge to release their juices. Later strain them, and use the juice separately for beverages or to make syrups, and you have bought yourself a little additional time to use the produce. 

8. Replace bread, rice, processed side dishes, and pasta with whole grains. Simple farro, pearled barley, wheat, spelt,  and rye berries, all can be used in place of rice for risotto, fried rice, and hashes, or as a cold salad, or side dish. Easily batch cooked and frozen for later, or just keep a container in the fridge ready to go.

9. Invest: if you can, level up with even a small additional freezer to enable you more space for buying meat and produce in bulk. Don’t forget to check for Marketplace/Craig’s List used options. 

10. Make simple jams and syrups. This is easily done with most fruits and many items of produce and replaces extracts in pies and baked goods, ice cream and dessert garnish, enhancer of purchased sauces, and is a great way to make your own beverages, kicking the soda/Gatorade habit. You don’t have to become a depression-era full time canner, just a little here and there alongside your regular meal prep and cleanup goes far. 

 

Produce season is about to begin – you’ve got this! 

Solstice Rituals: Seed Cake

Solstice Rituals: Seed Cake

Solstice traditions and magical tales and rituals come from all corners of the world. I enjoy reading about all of them, but mimicking the rituals of peoples exotic to me feels strange, and does not really feel like a receptive mindset for the significance of an important marker of time in my own real life. 

Fire, attention, cleansing, making space, seasonal decoration, silence, spending time with nature, and ritual foods feel more fitting and less forced. Seed cake, while not exactly Yule specific, does feel like a suitable choice for the here and now. 

Today, in the US, grocery bakery goods, frozen cakes, and cake mixes with canned frostings are what we imagine for “cake”.  Light, fluffy, very sweet, often almost gummy, mostly crowned with sugary vegetable shortening frosting and intense artificial coloring and extracts.

Europe however, has retained more of their historic connections to food, and tends towards more dense, heavy baked goods flavored more often from nature than laboratories. Seed cake is one such cake you will not often find in the US.  One reason is because it’s texture is dependent upon a certain inefficient manner of architecting the ingredients.  It’s joy, like that of many British and Irish foods, is dependent upon the sheer exceptional quality of the simple ingredients – pastured eggs, homemade butter from the well-fed family cow, and local flour not readily available or “affordable” in modern times. 

Expensive and/or unavailable indeed when measured with our American focus on efficiency and productivity. I wonder though, if my ingredients cost more errands and money, yet also are important nutrients in their own right instead of a guilt-inducing dietary derailment of artificial junk guaranteed to make me feel ill, which is more expensive? 

I love everything about this cake, though I did dial up the fancy a little by pouring syrup over the hot cake, which makes me love it more, and I enjoy eating it with a schmear of good butter.

It is substantial, filling, and the ingredients are not without calories or fat, but are also nutrient dense. There is sugar, which is always going to be a conundrum, and for which I have no natural solution other than moderation. Since the cake is filling in a nutritionally satisfying way, moderation is naturally easier. 

Anyway, this is a really nice tradition to bring into all your winter weeks, not just for Solstice, though in the day, it would be a luxurious choice during months when eggs and butter were scarce. Like now, which is why such cakes in December are so celebratory.

I happen to be rich in pastured eggs at the moment, so, bring on the hobbit-y cakes!

Darina Allen's Seed Cake

Adapted from Darina Allen's wonderful book, "Forgotten Skills of Cooking."
Servings 8

Equipment

  • ` Round cake pan 7” and 3” deep Size matters; a standard loaf pan works well also

Ingredients
  

  • 3/4 Cup Butter Room Temp
  • 3/4 Cup superfine sugar Domino's Golden Cane works well
  • 3 Chicken Eggs Pastured if possible
  • 1/2 tsp Pure vanilla extract
  • 2 Cups All purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 TBS milk or water
  • 1 TBS caraway seeds optional

Optional Glaze

  • 3 TBS Grand Marnier Brandy or whiskey can be substituted
  • 2 tsp water
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 TBS butter

Instructions
 

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease your baking pan with butter and flour. 
  • Sift the flour and baking powder together. 
  • In a separate bowl, using a mixer, whip the butter first, then add the sugar, and continue whipping until light and fluffy. Do not rush this, or combine the steps, it does make a difference to the texture of the finished cake. (In the day this was done by massaging by hand the warmth of your hands creaming the butter faster, and supposedly producing a lighter cake.)
  • Whisk the eggs and vanilla extract together, and gradually add to the whipped butter and sugar mixture. Mix well.
  • Gradually fold in the flour, taking care to not over-beat. Darina Allen calls the desired texture “dropping consistency.” It will be heavy and stiff, but should not be crumbly. Gently mix in the caraway seeds. Add the milk, liquor or water only if the batter is too dry. 
  • Fill into the prepared baking pan, do not worry of it is lumpy, it will spread into the pan as the batter warms in the oven. 
  • Bake 50 - 60 minutes, taking care to not overtake, which will toughen the texture. To make the glaze, simply warm the glaze ingredients gently in a saucepan until sugar is completely dissolved- do not boil. Pour over hot cake and let cool in the pan.
  • Remove from the oven, pour the glaze over the top if using, and allow to cool in the pan.
What to do with a local mushroom share?  Pan-Cooked Mushrooms recipe…

What to do with a local mushroom share? Pan-Cooked Mushrooms recipe…

How great is it that locally raised mushrooms are a focus of local producers now, and they are easily found at farmer’s markets and as add-ons to CSA shares? Mushrooms are delicate though, and prone to mold, so a method to extend their usefulness helps make the most of your fungi.

I love this little appreciated, kind-of-plain book I picked up long ago, and many of my basic kitchen ways are based upon things I learned here. Sadly out of print, and probably often overlooked in favor of more visually beautiful photo books, but if you are truly wanting to learn some foundational kitchen skills and habits, I highly recommend this one. Available used online, for cheap, so it is a good one when the budget is tight.

In the Light Basics cookbook, Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe for pan-cooked mushrooms gives you dense little chunks of deep, earthy flavor, which works for pretty much all mushroom varieties.

I make this recipe as soon as I get my mushrooms, and save them in a jar to add later to salads, greens, accompany steaks, pizzas, omlettes, saucy meats, pasta.  Really, what isn’t made instantly richer and fancier with some herby, garlicky, flavorful chunks of mushrooms cooked in booze? 

King Trumpet and Nameko Mushrooms, fresh rosemary, garlic and thyme.

Personally, I can’t resist nicking them straight from the jar, so preserving them is rarely a problem, but if you find yourself with an abundant haul, this recipe is a good way to extend their life – simply put in a sterilized jar and top with olive oil. Make sure your shrooms are submerged – the flavored oil when the mushrooms are finished is a lovely ingredient in its own right, too. 

Because the moisture has been released, and there is salt and olive oil, your mushrooms are intensified in flavor and much less vulnerable to mold.

Pan-cooked Mushrooms

Deliciously savory mushrooms cooked with a little wine, garlic, and herbs
Servings 4 generous

Ingredients
  

  • 1-1/2 pounds mushrooms
  • 1/2 tsp salt or to your taste
  • 1/2 cup dry white or red wine brandy, or vermouth
  • 1-1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves or 3/4 tsp dried
  • 1-1/2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves or 3/4 tsp crumbled dried
  • 1-1/2 TBS olive oil
  • 2 - 4 large garlic cloves peeled and minced or pressed
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 3 TBS chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

Instructions
 

  • Trim away the tough stemps of the mushrooms or remove the from portabellos, for regular mushrooms just cut the very ends of the stems off. Rinse briefly in cod water to remove any sand and shake or wipe dry with paper towels. Cut into thick slices, halves, or for sall shrooms, leave whole. If using a clumpy variety like oysters, tear in half or cut away the bottom of the stem and separate.
  • Heat skillet over medium-high heat, add the mushrooms and salt. Watch carefully, the mushrooms will soon begin to release liquid. Stir and cook until the liquid has evaporated, which can be anywhere from 5 - 15 minutes, depending on the moisture content and type of mushroom. Stir in the wine, thyme, and rosemary. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring, until the wine has evaporated, 5 - 10 minutes. Add the olive oil and garlic. Cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to color and the dish smells very fragrant, about 5 minutes.
  • Season with pepper, stir in the parsley, adjust salt if needed, serve.
No-cook tomato sauce for the freezer…

No-cook tomato sauce for the freezer…

I don’t have much time, or kitchen space for elaborate preserving projects anymore. So, I have to be really selective and spend my time making the one tomato-y thing that will be quick, flexible, but still remind me in the heart of January that the dark, frozen nights will again be soft and desk, with tomatoes, still warm from the garden. See, that connection to my own Pennsylvania summer is a real spirit lifter – one which canned tomatoes from the supermarket just cannot match.

Elimination thinking makes my decision super-easy; this uncooked tomato sauce, straight from the freezer tastes exactly like summer,  is compact and efficient to store in my freezer, and quick and easy to use in lots of ways later. 

 

Before beginning, I’d like to make this one plea: Resist the urge to chef this one up until you’ve made it once exactly as it is. Yes, it’s a VERY simple, plain recipe, but therein lies the charm. The simplicity allows the special summertime quality of the tomatoes to shine which is exactly why I love it so much. You can add herbs and spices when you use it later if you wish. Oh, and this sauce plain is beautiful with fresh mozzarella… and allows a bit of good olive oil to really shine.

Here’s a link to the more specific recipe.  It makes four servings to be eaten right away but to preserve larger quantities for freezing, simply repeat as many times as you like ( I just figure out how many pounds of tomatoes I have and work it backwards), throw the milled batches together into one large colander, drain over a large bucket then freeze the concentrated sauce in single serving portions.

 

The split skins will peel right away – then toss into your food mill. I use a Roma and run the tomatoes through two or three times to extract every last drop… If you don’t have a food mill, just do your best to skin, seed and chop as finely as you can. The texture won’t be exactly the same, but don’t let that stop you – it’s still going to be awesome.

 

The tomatoes after processing. Add kosher salt and ladle into your cheesecloth lined colander. Maybe you’re not like me with large pieces of cheesecloth lying around. Not to worry, you can use a simple cotton dish towel or pillow case but be prepared for it to be forever stained. I toss my clean cheesecloth into the boiling water for a few minutes before using. Line a colander with the cheesecloth and you’re ready to pour in your tomato mixture. Place the colander over a large bowl or bucket and drain for at least a couple of hours or overnight

 

For me,  one cup portions in freezer bags is the perfect size. One cup feeds two with plenty of  leftovers for the next few days.  Looking at the chicken scratch I wrote on my recipe, apparently I used 24 pounds of tomatoes last year and today I know it was not nearly enough. A word of warning: a little of this sauce goes a long way. I use 2 or 3 Tablespoons to dress a serving of pasta. Really.

Fill your freezer bags, squeeze out any air, and stack flat on a baking sheet or plate to freeze. Onse frozen stiff, the packages can be stacked upright in a container, and are easy to see and access in your freezer, and take little space. 

 

Pouches of finished sauce, in my freezer stash. I freeze this in one cup portions in small freezer bags to use all winter. Thaw it in the bag and gently spoon over cooked pasta tossed with olive oil or butter. If you must heat the sauce, simply warm a little olive oil in a sauce pan and stir in the sauce until just warmed.

 

Because you are straining away most of the water, the volume will be greatly reduced.  I started with a nearly full 5 gallon bucket of tomatoes, and ended up with about 5 cups of sauce. This will vary based on the water content of the tomatoes and the amount of time you leave them drain.

Use your sauce to make summer-fresh Margarita pizzas, toss in the crock pot or dutch oven for a stew or braise, soup, with a pot of beans, anything that can use some fresh tomato flavor. Since the star of this project is the tomato, I wouln’t bother with thick walled, tough-skinned, weak flavored commodity varieties. This is meant as a celebration of the flavor of local, peak-of=freshness, sloppy, flavorful old-fashioned and heirloom varieties.  

 

Home made pasta, uncooked fresh tomato sauce frozen from last summer’s harvest and some good quality parmesan or pecorino – perfection in its simplicity!

 

Also, when you’ve finished making this sauce, especially if you made a bunch for freezing, you’ll have lots of nutritious tomato essence (the water left after straining the tomato solids for the sauce) left.

  • Base for Bloody Marys
  • Braising liquid
  • Reduction for intensely tomato flavored sauces
  • Added flavoring for beer or vodka
  • Base for gazpacho or cocktail sauce
  • Poaching liquid for seafood, shrimp, calamari or lobster
  • Dressing for fresh oysters
  • Marinade for white fish
  • Vinaigrette mix-in
  • Liquid for cooking rice or grains
  • Refreshing chilled beverage served over ice, with basil

 

Or, simply use it in place of any liquid next time you make stock, bread, rice, bulgur, barley or risotto. These are kitchen basics you know you’re going to do anyway, so why not add a little free flavor & nutrient booster?

An icy glass of tomato essence…. yummy and refreshing straight up, and so many great uses in coctails…

The most complicated part of this approach is using a food mill if you have never used one. It makes for a really nice texture and removes the peel and seeds. A food mill is not necessary though, and this sauce will be just as tasty finely chopped by hand.

If you could only do one, what would your single tomato preserving project be? 

Build a bigger table

Build a bigger table

I have been thinking, even harder than usual, about the affordability of well raised food for those who need it most, the marginalized and low income. And today finds a whole new group of hard working people struggling to put food on the table. Some of us are prospering more than usual, or are maintaining normal, while others are completely devastated.

Honestly? I wish I could simply gift away every single bite of what I raise. This is in fact, a mission driven farm, as much as anything, and the mission is to build a Giving community.  Stories and news features of people waiting in lines for food is seriously killing me. 

At Auburn Meadow Farm, I have always wanted healthful food to be available to the marginalized segments of society. The single parents struggling to access and afford nutrient dense food, those financially struggling because of illness who need clean food more than ever but cannot afford it, or are too ill to even think about cooking. Our seniors, who are seeing their pennies pinched by increased fuel, isolation,  and increased cost of food. So many instances of people in newfound levels of need. 

It is crystal clear that generations will starve waiting for the Powers That Be to create workable programs all Americans will agree upon.  What is inspiring me at the moment is those people who are just sitting down, having an idea, and going out, face to face, and doing it.

Person to person, eyeball to eyeball. Simple solutions.  Why not us?  So, here’s what I’m thinking. A direct, person to person, extension of understanding, solidarity,  and hope. 

How it works:

  • Priority is on seniors, those struggling due to health issues, single moms struggling to feed their kids, and our seniors. 
  • All meats donated are USDA processed, top quality goods – no cast offs. 
  • Update:  Square gift cards are apparently a bad approach for this. Sorry if I confused you, but I’ve gotta go outside and tend the beasts, so stay tuned. I will create a Venmo or other simpler account for this purpose.  If you have already donated, no worries, I  kept track and will forward the money to the new account.  Redeem it with the code BIGGERTABLE, and those funds will be used to gift Auburn Meadow Farm meat to those struggling from economic hardships brought on by COVID.
  • Auburn Meadow Farm will make the most of your dollars by filling the need according to a discounted price scale. 
  • Accountability and transparency – this is a simple idea, finding its legs. A donations newsletter seems to be the most effective way to communicate our progress, though obviously I do not wish to violate anyone’s privacy.
    I would love also to donate meat to an organization capable of turning the meats into cooked meals, easier for those lacking kitchen facilities and time, as a collaborative project.  If you are that organization, reach out. 
  • The first meat will be ready to distribute in January, but funds now to pay for butcher and distribution fees will help kick this off faster, and enable us to go further. We have plenty of pork coming in January, and with enough help, we can be filling pantries by the end of the month. 
  • And, if your food bank or church is in need, and you are able to accomodate frozen meat safely, that is an avenue we can pursue as well.  If you know of someone or something, let me know.

I hope you love this idea as much as I do, and if you would like to work with me to help solidify it into a regular thing, let’s talk!  We need kind and helping hearts on the ground and I can’t think of a better goal for 2021. 

 

 

Phone-it-in Orange Beef

Phone-it-in Orange Beef

 

Some cuts of beef just are never going to be Ruth’s Chris caliber. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good, they are just something else.

A disappointing, tough, lean Delmonico makes a damn fine Chicken Fried Steak, or pepper steak. Ditching the supermarket has made me step up and learn a few things, and now I see how truly cheated we have been.

I kid you not, a well raised chicken fried steak is ten times better than an easy supermarket commodity-raised wet-aged steak. Regaining those food skills is well worth the effort, and honestly? Not even all that hard.

Restaurant style Orange Beef is an amazing treat, involving steps for dredging, frying, and otherwise giving your beef strips an amazing, crispy, tender texture, coated in rich, sticky, delicious orange-flavored sauce. 

This quickie is not that.  It has the flavors, but not the oil, the deep fried stickiness, the deep fry smell or fussy steps. It also doesn’t have that ethereal texture, or glaze, but being so  quick, easy, delicious, healthy, and tasty, it’s exactly what a weeknight needs. Pleasing and satisfying fuel for mind and body, and a non-burger way to honor  and enjoy the more complex parts of the animal. 

I struggle a little with the sourcing of the frozen veggies, the Bird’s Eye I used are Conagra, which is… Conagra. But we live in the world we live in, and one battle at a time.

Makes about four servings

  • 1/2 – 1 pound of some type of everyday beef steak; flank, round, sirloin tip steak, something chewier and not-too-fancy, thinly sliced across the grain and cut into 2-by-1/2-inch strips 
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda 
  • 3 tablespoons orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce 
  • 3 tablespoons white vinegar 
  • 2 tablespoons sake or white wine
  • 2 tablespoons sugar 
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch 
  • 2 tsp cooking oil (I use lard or olive)

Rub the beef strips in the baking soda, and refrigerate, approx 30 minutes. 

Mix together the orange juice, soy sauce, vinegar, wine, sugar and cornstarch. 

Rinse the beef strips well, pat dry on paper towels. Heat the cooking oil in a skillet, add beef strips and brown, about 4 minutes, turning to brown all sides. Remove to a plate. 

Add the package of frozen stir fry veggies to the hot skillet, with 2 tablespoons water, and cover. 

Simmer for about 8 – 10 minutes to allow larger pieces to cook through, then remove lid. 

Allow the water to simmer away, then add the soy mixture to the skillet and simmer until thickened and nicely coating the veggies. 

Return the beef strips to the mix, combine well, and serve warm, alongside rice.

Sustainably and attainably delicious, twenty minutes or less.