Archive for the ‘The Well Stocked Kitchen’ Category

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We’ve all had a fancy schmancy meal that would have been impossible without a food processor. Or even just a milkshake or fruit shake from a blender. So many of our foods are processed by machines; in fact, most TV shows that promote “fast and easy cooking” tout machines as the best way to save time and effort. Sounds good to most of us on the go.

Feng Shui principles may point us toward a more traditional way of preparing our foods. Taking a closer look, we see that many “old world” ways of growing, hunting, gathering, and preparing food emphasize the role of food as integral to psychological ties with the land we live on, as well as health-related and social aspects of our lives. These traditions consider food as more than just items to be purchased on sale, rushed and wolfed down so we can hurry to the next thing on our to do list without even fully knowing all of the ingredients and additives that are in what we eat.

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Produce as dessert can be as tricky as it is temporal. There are plenty of vegetables we consider fruits, fruits we consider vegetables, “accessory fruits” that don’t really fit into either category, and, of course, other parts of the plant that we may or may not desire as dessert. Presenting produce as dessert can be as simple as rinsing, chopping, and mixing fruits as a salad, to blending them into a shake, to adding other ingredients and boiling, baking, and/or chilling them as a more complex dish.

Then there is the matter of marrying the textures and tastes with “accent” ingredients such as cream or chocolate. Or making a new texture by adding the fruit as the accent, such as in cakes, pies and other pastries, ice creams and sorbets, mousses and puddings. So, we can have one fruit and have endless ways to make it into something unique and delicious, if we just keep in mind the capabilities and boundaries offered by that particular fruit.

Apart from applying our creativity to the process of going from plant to sweet treat, the short shelf life of produce demands that we think relatively quickly after, if not during, purchase. Many fruits don’t last more than a couple of days after arriving home, especially if they are not stored in the fridge. Some of the “tougher” fruits, like bananas and granny smith apples for instance, stay up to a week out of refrigeration; on the other hand, berries and thin-skinned fruits such as plums don’t last quite as long.

The typical food patterns we usually associate for fruit-based desserts include:

Flavor: pineapple and melon, strawberry and banana, orange and strawberry, apple and pear, and berries generally go well together (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, blackberries, etc.). The red currant and its cousin, the lingonberry, go well with other fruits, in preserves, and they also complement meats very well, as we tend to see in Nordic cuisine. Cloudberries and gooseberries, also prominent in Nordic dishes, are less common in the middle latitudes and lend subtly sweet overtones to a dish.

Texture: fruit and cream, fruit and bread, fruit and honey, fruit and ice, the list goes on and on. However, how the fruit is added makes a difference. For instance, lemon-flavored Italian ice sounds good, but why does the idea of drizzling honey over lemon wedges 1) make me want to grab my Vicks Vapo Rub and 2) sound like a rather unappetizing dessert for most? Replace the lemon wedges with baked apple, pear, or even banana, and the dessert is suddenly divine. While we value the lemon for its juice and occasionally its zest, most folks do not like to bite into the meat of the lemon itself, which, admittedly, may have something to do with the bitter taste. But the acidic citrus flesh also simply doesn’t work with everything (again–this is for most people; there are always exceptions). Using lemon with cream is a great idea; but again, you probably wouldn’t serve the lemon itself with the cream; you’d blend the lemon juice or grated zest with the cream and perhaps a few other ingredients in order to neutralize the tartness and offer a smoother texture.  But strawberries with cream is a whole ‘nother story.

Keeping in mind flavor, texture, and longevity, it’s fun to play around with new ideas and push the envelope by investigating and experimenting with the various cooking options for almost every edible plant out there. To help us along, we can look to world cultures for inspiration. We can also borrow (or else fully adopt) the vegan and vegetarian options that have been developed in many parts of the world and that offer us new possibilities for almost any type of cuisine out there. Even if you’re not vegetarian, the techniques cultivated in this branch of culinary thought are very useful in applying to other dishes. And it’s always helpful to have a few recipes on hand if you have vegetarian or vegan friends or family coming to dinner. In the coming weeks I am hoping to flesh out the vegetarian/vegan section of this site (poor pun) with the help of a friend who has already done a lot of the leg work to modify old favorite recipes–stay tuned!

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Whether you buy local and organic or conventional produce, the fact remains that some fruits just don’t last quite as long as others. After all, they are plants that have been recently cut and transported for consumption. A general rule of thumb is 5-7 days, refrigerated. Obviously, some can last a bit longer, and some a bit less. What this means is that you either 1) need to have the dish in mind whilst buying the ingredients at the market or store; or 2) need to have enough “helper ingredients” on hand to use whatever may be in season or whatever may have caught your eye that day.

The idea is that, unlike, say, roots and tubers, produce really does need to be used in a “revolving door”-type fashion and should always be on its way through the house rather than stored as a staple that can be kept for weeks or even months. If this option is not going to work for you, frozen, canned, vacuum-sealed, or otherwise preserved produce may be a good solution for you. But it’s never quite as tasty or as healthy as the fresh option. Usually, you’ll have to add more sugar to frozen fruits.  On the other hand, usually people keep the sugary syrup in which many fruits are canned and consider that useful flavoring.  But you may need to rinse off any legumes or veggies that are jarred or canned as those are often treated with some sort of preservative that isn’t quite as tasty or useful.  But it’s your kitchen–your call.

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Potatoes and other root vegetables or tubers, such as sweet potato, yam, yuca, taro, ginger, onions, carrots, radishes, beetroots, shallots, tigernuts, and turnips.  Celeriac is a less starchy alternative.

This group of foods often serves the same purpose as grains and grain products.  Almost everyone has heard of the role of the potato in saving Ireland from famine; anyone who has had Polynesian food knows of taro.  Yuca is wildly popular in Latin American cuisine; sweet potato is known nearly worldwide.  Ginger is used medicinally and also to sweeten; onions, carrots, radishes, beetroots, shallots, and turnips are generally used to season or in salads.  Tigernuts are not available everywhere but are used to make an amazing drink called horchata, a fabulous alternative to milk, originated in Valencia, Spain.  (Note: this is not the same horchata from Mexico, which is made from rice and usually topped with cinnamon.)

This group of foods is also incredibly easy to keep on hand; a sack of potatoes can last weeks, even months, in proper storage conditions.  If you maintain a supply of root vegetables in your home, you will almost never find yourself wondering if you should run to the store for a last-minute meal.

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For thousands of years, humans have created different kinds of diets, many of them largely based on grains and cereals.  Wild grains, and later cultivated grains, supplied necessary carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and even some proteins.  Grains have been ground crudely to eat as gruel, blended directly with meat, put in salads, and ground as flour for cakes and other pastries, or to absorb sauce and complement meat or vegetables.  In some form or another, grains still constitute the base of most (though not all) of the world’s diets.

Typical grains around the world include wheat, oats, barley, corn, and rice.  Less universally popular are alternative strains of the typical grains, as well as spelt, quinoa, sorghum, spillet, rye, buckwheat, amaranth, teff, and fonio.  Some are more easily accessible than others, depending on where you live.  Most can usually be found in natural food stores.

A particularly useful benefit of most grains and grain-based foods is their long shelf life (breads excluded).  This is one of the easiest categories of food to maintain a steady stock of in the pantry, and almost guarantees that you will always be able to “throw something together” even if you are almost completely out of foods in other categories.

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A large part of how we view food supply  is based on where we live.  For instance, when I lived in Costa Rica, it was easy enough to get fresh roasted coffee beans from an organic farm that grows its coffee in the shade.  When I went to the beach for a weekend, it was not difficult at all to go for a walk and pick up a coconut that had recently fallen from a tree.  (The difficult part is splitting the coconut, which a good friend of mine showed me requires only a little strength and a lot of persistence.)  When on a road trip in Mongolia, we stopped by a very simple, low-technology cheese farm, and I am not exaggerating when I say that was some of the best cheese I’ve ever had in my life.  In short, there is something to be said for getting an ingredient straight from the source.

But maybe you don’t happen to live near a rainforest or a crop plantation.  Maybe you don’t live down the street from a cheese farm.  Some places are easier than others to find farmers’ markets, and especially affordable ones.  In any case, it never hurts to research what local farms may exist near you.  Growing up in Las Vegas, I always heard of a pig farm somewhere north of town, and we could smell it sometimes, but that was about it.  Most of our produce and meats came from California.  And most of it was pretty tasteless.  Now, Vegas has a few farmers’ markets but they are not particularly convenient or affordable.  Whole Foods offers a much less financially practical alternative.

The good news is, Vegas is kind of unique in this sense, because it is in the middle of the Mojave Desert where almost nothing grows.  So, unless you also live in the middle of a desert, chances are good that you can get at least some of your produce and other goods from local sources.

Why is local important?  Well, if you have ever had a fresh piña colada in the tropics, you know the difference.  The taste is absolutely incomparable to anything that has been imported and sitting on a shelf for who knows how long in cold preservation.  Especially with tropical fruits, it seems like the sweetness has just been sucked right out of the plant.  There is an obvious, added freshness benefit for most dairy and meats.  Some Eastern philosophies place great importance on the freshness of ingredients and attribute good overall health in part to clean, simple cooking.

So.  A general rule of thumb is to seek out local products where possible.  Environmental responsibility and animal-friendly farming (I know, a contradiction in terms for some) are important factors that impact how “pure” the product is.  Try to get pesticide-free, crop-rotated produce, and steroid-free, open range (not just cage free) meats and poultry, wild-caught fish with honorable fishing practices (no long line fishing for example), and non-hormone dairy from un-penned, grazing cows will not only help the world in some small way and bring you some good karma, but it’s simply better for you as well.

In some areas, co-ops will give a decent price to paying members who request a weekly bag full of whatever is in season.  Worth looking into!

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