A chronicle of Mike and Julia's adventures creating a home on the Missouri range...

Saturday, July 1, 2017

What to eat?


     I was flipping through a magazine a few weeks ago and was shocked to read an article about pacific small fish populations plummeting due to overfishing and sea temperatures rising. These are fish like sardines, anchovies and herring, and they are at the bottom of a whole marine food web, so declining numbers are causing seals, pelicans, puffins etc. to starve or face adversity like never before. Crap! I thought, this is the last straw!  Earlier in the year I read an article about very high levels of arsenic in rice that sent me into a panic. All rice. Even the organic stuff. I read about it just when we started feeding our baby rice gruel exclusively. Cross that off the list. Now sardines…. Sardines are the one meat I can reliably get my picky toddler to chow down on, and given that just about every other type of fish is now considered too toxic or endangered to eat, I thought we were safe sticking with sardines. But it turns out our consumption is part of the problem. And now it just doesn’t seem right to eat them anymore… my child growing chubby and healthy, while a baby puffin slowly starves? Ack!

     The sardine dilemma is just one piece of a huge food conundrum… what are we supposed to eat anymore? The ethics of food just seems increasingly complex once you start factoring in the footprint of fossil fuels used to grow and transport it, the varying level of toxins that could be in or on it, how humanely it was raised and killed, not to mention whether it is healthy or going to give you a coronary heart attack. Or diabetes. Or celiac disease. Or just a headache standing in the grocery aisle trying to decipher a long and complicated ingredients list. What to eat and what not to eat seems to be one of the most confusing things facing us poor Americans these days.

    Strangely enough, one question that people ask Mike and I a lot when they hear about our off-the-grid lifestyle is whether we are vegetarians or not. The answer is that we are not (you, clever reader, probably figured that one out from all the pig butchering references!) I have finally come to understand the vegetarian question to mean, “you live a lifestyle deeply motivated by ethics of decreasing your fossil fuel use, so do you also base your diet on a similar set of stringent ethics, i.e. vegetariansim?” In that case, yes, we do think a lot about where our food is coming from and make choices accordingly. We aren’t alone. Just about everyone in our community eats with a different health or ethical philosophy in mind, ranging from extreme paleo-style to vegan. Some people eat meat from only local, grass-fed sources. Some people don’t eat any food that isn’t local or organic because it has a smaller footprint ecologically (even coffee and chocolate are out!) There are a range of wheat, dairy, and nut allergies that factor in too. It all makes for one heck of a confusing potluck. Increasingly I find myself bringing salads to be on the safe side of everyone’s preferences because I simply can’t remember it all. And I am not alone—I remember one potluck when someone proudly announced their “vegan burgers cooked in lard from their pigs!” before realizing their error and apologizing to the disappointed vegans.

Mike making pizza in our neighbor's wood fired oven

     I know we aren’t alone in our food confusion. Food writer Michael Pollan pins the blame on the pseudo-science of “nutritionism” (and the poor journalism, manipulative food industry and government policies that prop it up). He says we are so “anxious and confused about even the most basic questions of food and health, [that we have] a steadily diminishing ability to enjoy one of the great pleasures of life without guilt or neurosis.” Unlike the rest of the world, we  Americans don’t have the weight and guidance of a long food tradition either, the way other cultures do to simplify their choices.
     I learned this first hand years ago when I was hired to be a cook for some diplomats in Italy, along with another young Italian woman. We would make elaborate traditional meals out of dusty, old Italian cookbooks, fetching our ingredients from shops in town—fresh meat from the butcher, bread from the baker, divine pecorino cheese and olives from another shop, and all the vegetables and fruits we prepared came from the garden and trees of the estate (figs, peaches, and plums, oh my!)  Even the wine and olive oil was local and bought in bulk direct from the vineyard. If I ever tried to deviate from a recipe and improvise a bit, my Italian friend would scold me and say, “you Americans always ruin food!” She made things the way her mother did, and her grandmother, which was the way the cookbooks said to make them too. A surprising number of recipes started with melting a chunk of pancetta in the skillet before adding “tritate” (finely diced onion, celery and garlic) and seasonings to get things going. At the time I thought pancetta was a bit gross (a hunk of pork fat just melting in the pan?), but now Mike and I have come full circle to doing pretty much the same, often cooking with lard. Yet being the confused American I am—tossed this way and that by food trends over the years—I grew up on butter, then margarine, then a blend of hydrogenated oils in a little tub, then olive oil, then coconut oil to finally graduate back to pork fat from our pigs. Full circle back to good old saturated fats.

     So we are trying to take a card from the Italian’s book by eating mostly local things we grow or raise ourselves (or our Amish neighbors do). We aren’t too rigid about it though, because, let’s face it, some things are worth importing! So we do buy some specialties from the grocery store and we also have a wild card, an Amish run “Bent and Dent” store a few miles away, carrying a very random assortment of food items that are rejected for whatever reason from grocery stores and sold at a steep discount. You never know what you will find there, but fancy organic fair-trade coffee is a reliable bet. Another sector of our diet comes seasonally from our land—we have a sizable wood nettles patch and wild mushroom and wild berry harvests are frequent. This year, our community is planning on conducting a big acorn harvest experiment, to see how hard it will be and what yields we can get from the many oak trees surrounding us. Mike and I are also experimenting with growing some varieties of corn—flint corn for polenta and grits, and flour corn for pancakes and breads. Our neighbor John is experimenting with popcorn. Our friend Iuval is experimenting with growing and pressing sunflower seeds for oil. Another neighbor, Brian, has been tinkering with cured pork products and hard cheeses. Some of them are really good… I bet they would even pass muster with my Italian friend! As a community, we are slowly recreating a regional cuisine tied to the land and its seasons, and relearning a set of skills that have mostly been forgotten in recent generations.

Andrew giving a fermentation workshop on wild wines

    In that same vein, a former community member, Andrew, is visiting us now and inspiring us in the direction of fermented food and beverages, which he now makes and teaches about professionally. Fermenting things and eating them is a great way to feed your gut microbiome, which the latest health research seems to be indicating is linked to myriad health issues—as in, a robust microbiome is a good thing! So after delving in with Andrew on some recipes over the past few days in our newly finished kitchen, I thought I would share with you his kraut recipe—my answer to the question of "what to eat?" It is infinitely adaptable, something you probably can’t buy in the super market, and super delicious and good for you. Make that GREAT for you.

Sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions and kale in the garden
     We just happened to have lots of cabbage, carrots and beets ready to go in our garden, so we got to work chopping those up for this recipe, but it will work with any type of crunchy vegetable really: radishes, onions, kale or chard, cauliflower or broccoli, kohlrabi, chinese cabbage, bok choy, etc. You will also need a few spoonfuls of non-iodized salt (look for kosher salt, canning salt, or sea salt) and some jars or crocks to pack it in.


Kraut Recipe- 

1. Start by chopping or shredding up your vegetables into a big bowl. You can experiment with bigger or smaller chop size.

2. Once it is tossed together, it is time to measure and sprinkle on salt. You want just enough salt to keep certain kinds of bacteria from growing, but not enough that the good bacteria can’t grow. Andrew recommends 2 1/2 Tablespoons per 5 lb. of cabbage (or whatever).

3. Now that it is salted, squeeze the vegetables and mash them a bit until it starts looking like some liquid is coming out of them. Andrew gives it the “squeeze test” to check. If you are working with something too firm to produce liquid, like a bunch of carrots or radishes, Andrew recommends making a separate brine that he pours over the vegetables in jars. For this, he uses 1 Tbsp salt: 1 cup water.

4. The next step is packing the jars. We decided to experiment a bit with blends of different veggies, adding some fresh garlic to one jar and more beets to another. Andrew then packs quart jars full of the juicy vegetable mixes, sort of mashing them down as he fills to eliminate air space and make sure the liquid gets in everywhere.

5. To keep everything safely submerged under the brine, Andrew folds an outer cabbage leaf into a square and tucks it down on top of the rest to help keep it all from bobbing above liquid level. The liquid should cover everything. If you don’t have enough because, say you used an older, drying-out cabbage, then just make a bit of brine to make up the difference.

6. Now you can either rubber band a piece of cloth on top of the jar, or screw on a lid and place the jar in a bowl because it may overflow a bit as it gets fermenting. You should put it aside and check it maybe once a day or two to “burp it” (if you went with the lid), and check for bubbles. By day 3 or 4 you can taste it. It will likely be pretty salty and young still—crispy and mild. You can eat it at this stage, or let it go longer. Maybe by one month, you might start noticing a white scummy something on top. Don’t freak out, this is normal. Just skim it off and let it keep going, making sure that everything is still below the brine level.

     We Americans tend to be a little mold-phobic, but consider that this very vegetable ferment is what Captain Cook packed into barrels and brought to sea to feed his crew for two years. They were fine. They didn’t get survey because of it. Eastern Europeans consider any kraut younger than six months to be pretty much just coleslaw—too crispy. It softens as it ages, which is where you get the type of soft, stringy kraut often piled on brats and such. If you are the type of person for whom the very thought of some living, burping, blooming thing in a jar gives you the creeps, then you can always ask someone else who knows what they are doing to check your stuff out for you. Or you could just buy some from someone else who makes it. But at any rate, don’t short change your GI system, eat fermented vegetables! Kimchi is basically this recipe with some different things added— ginger, Korean hot pepper powder, fish sauce, and usually daikon radishes too. But I think the fun is in the experimentation, and if you make small batches, you have less to lose if something goes wrong or doesn't taste that great.

Mike making a batch of elderflower wine in our newly finished kitchen

     Happy fermenting! And if you are intrigued about trying out more fermented things, Sandor Katz is the best source for more information-- Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, his books, are staples in our kitchen. Andrew Cobb, our friend who guided us through this recipe, ferments and brews kombucha in the Houston area and sells his delicious stuff under the name "Sipping Sister," perhaps one day available at a store near you!