Monday, June 8, 2015

An Ode to Oatmeal

I have always liked oatmeal, but my love affair with it didn't really start until after I realized just how expensive it is to feed two toddlers Cheerios every morning for breakfast.  Not only would my kids (then 2 and 4) eat a whole box in 2 or 3 days, but they were always hungry two hours later.  I liked oatmeal well enough, but felt it was too hard to make up a pot of oatmeal every morning and then to clean up all the glop off the table left after my not so tidy eaters finished up.  We kept oatmeal on hand to make cookies or granola or for my husband and I to eat occasionally, but that was it until I saw that Costco sold 10lb boxes of Quaker "old fashioned rolled oats" for about the same price as their big boxes of breakfast cereal.  I was trying to cut down our food budget at the time and had just discovered how to make my own granola and oatmeal bars so I bought the box.  
Given the choice between homemade granola and cold
cereal L chooses the granola.
Since I had oatmeal in the house I started serving it more and realized that the days that I made oatmeal the kids frequently forget to ask for a morning snack!?!  Not only that, but I realized that I wasn't hungry until lunch either.  When snack time became less important to us all it made running errands and playing at the park easier.  At some point I just stopped buying cold breakfast cereal.  If we wanted something to pour milk over I would make granola, but mostly we started eating oatmeal, eggs or something like zucchini bread or pumpkin bread in the mornings instead.  At first I felt like I was just being cheap and felt a little bit bad that my kids never had Cheerios like all the other kids did, but then I realized that we were actually getting the better breakfasts most days, even if it was a bit more work.  Then came the real epiphany: you don't need to cook oatmeal in a pot, you can just pour boiling water over it and let it sit for a few minutes!!!  My husband was the first to figure this out when he started taking jars of oatmeal and dried fruit to work with him, but we quickly adapted it to home use.  Now the kids may not get to have bowl after bowl of cold cereal, but they do get to pick their toppings and sprinkle the cinnamon over their individual bowls of oatmeal before I pour hot water over everything and send them off to get dressed for the day while it "cooks".  They love this and there are so many variations that they rarely get bored.  My husband loves to throw in some pecans along with his normal salt and cinnamon and then drizzle maple syrup over it.  T and L both love raisins and dried cranberries with brown sugar and cinnamon.  A and I have been really enjoying adding frozen berries along with a drizzle of half and half.  If I want something with more protein I'll throw raisins and walnuts in with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and a pinch of salt and pour some half and half over the whole thing.  Add in a mug of green tea for the perfect start to a cold, grey day (or to pretend that you have a cold, grey day when you really have a hot, humid day).
A chose raisins and dried cranberries while I went with frozen
berries for breakfast.  So much tastier than cereal!
For over a year we bought that 10lb box of oats every few weeks and enjoyed it a ton.  Then we decided that we really needed to take a close look at what we were buying that wasn't organic/local/fair-trade/etc.  When I realized that our grains were a glaring exception to our attempts to buy responsibly raised food I almost had a panic attack.  I could get organic oats at the co-op, but those little bags didn't last very long at all.  How would we survive without oatmeal and bread?  How would we afford paying so much more to source better oatmeal and flour?  The next week I saw organic flour at Costco with a giant "new" sign next to it at a price we could afford, but that big blue box of oatmeal kept mocking me.  Thankfully my husband thought to call our local co-op and ask if they were willing to sell us larger quantities of oatmeal than you could really get in the bulk bin.  Apparently the question wasn't as strange as we expected, they heard it all the time.  Not only were they willing to sell us an entire 50lb bag of organic rolled oats, but they offered a discount!  We ordered the oats immediately and then started looking around to see what else they have in their bulk bins that we might want 50lbs of.  Thankfully we waited to order anything else until our oats came in.  Do you know how much space 50lbs of oats takes up?  
I'm pretty sure I could fit in this bad. Added
bonus is that the bag can be recycled so
no trash went to the landfill!
We need more buckets before we can order more stuff, thankfully we were able to fit the extra oatmeal into some carboys that my husband has for brewing.  That was a month ago, we are now about 1/3rd of the way through the oats and planning our next order.  We are loving this step of our journey as much as the others, especially when I bite into the thick struessel topping on carrot-beet cake and know that there is plenty more oatmeal where that came from.
This is what 50 lbs of rolled oats looks like.  For scale, the
container on the left holds 5 gallons.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Babysteps and Food Budgets

One of the things that I constantly run into when someone hears that we eat a lot of locally produced food that is either organic or naturally grown is the idea that you can't eat this way on a budget.  For some reason everyone seems to assume that you have to spend an arm and a leg in order to eat a healthy diet and one trip to Whole Foods generally confirms this.  However, there are more ways to source good food than from the aisles at Whole Foods and even more ways to eat well while saving up to eat even better.  The first step we took in our journey to eating a more organic, local, humanely-raised, socially responsible diet was to cut our grocery budget.  I know that this seems a strange step to take, but the grocery budget was the only place we really had enough wiggle room and we were, after all, saving the money we cut to play for food (aka groceries).  This begs the question of how to cut the grocery budget without sacrificing nutrition.  For us that answer was simple, I cooked simpler meals and everything I could I made from scratch.  If you aren't used to cooking from scratch this can be a rather drastic step, but I'd had practice when A was tiny and had issues with any food containing even the slightest trace of cow's milk, soy, or corn.  Let me tell you, compared to avoiding corn, cooking basic meals with no food restrictions from scratch is pretty easy.
This simple, one-pot pork and greens dish takes maybe 15
minutes of prep followed by 30 minutes simmering on its own.
About now I'm sure that some of you are envisioning me slaving over a hot stove all day or us sitting down to skimpy meals and going to bed hungry.  All I can say is that this was not the case.  In many ways we actually started eating better because the tighter budget forced me to plan better and made it almost impossible* to buy much junk.  I know that there are a lot of people out there who claim that junk food is the cheapest form of calories, and it is.  However, I budget by the meal, not the calorie when it comes to making my food choices.  And seriously, how many people really sit there and count the calories on the cookies, candy and soda that they buy?  Do you really feel as satisfied after eating a whole bag of potato chips as you would after eating a nice meal, even if the meal has fewer calories?
Sloppy joes on homemade buns and broccoli slaw
 When you are buying by the meal you realize that a bag of apples costs the same as a big bag of chips and will cover several snacks where the potato chips have to be doled out carefully if you don't want them to be inhaled by the kids the second you open the bag.  You realize that a bag of dried beans costs $1 and will cover 2 or 3 meals while that box of Hamburger Helper also costs $1, but will only cover one.  Furthermore, you realize that a complete meal with the beans can be made by adding brown rice, cabbage, cilantro and tomatoes which works out to being WAY cheaper than the ground beef you would need for the Hamburger Helper, not to mention better for you.  When you are budgeting by the meal you might even realize that water is not only better for you than juice or soda, but also far and away a cheaper beverage option.  When you are budgeting by the meal you walk down the cereal aisle at Costco and notice that the 10lb box of rolled oats costs about the same as the giant boxes of sugary breakfast cereal, but realize that the rolled oats will cover breakfast for several weeks instead of a few days when your kids insist that they are hungry by 10am despite eating 3 bowls of Cheerios just a couple of hours ago (or maybe that's just my kids).

Eggs on a bed of sauted greens with
sliced oranges from our CSA.
 The hard part, of course, is that we have all gotten used to thinking of the dried beans and the rolled oats as an ingredient that will require a lot of work before it turns into food while we think of the Hamburger Helper and the breakfast cereals as ready made meals that save us time and money.  In truth, this is really all just a product of marketing.  You can toss old-fashioned rolled oats in a bowl with some brown sugar, salt and cinnamon and pour boiling water over it just like you would instant oatmeal.  Within 5 minutes you can stir it and start eating, just like you would with the more costly packets of "instant" oatmeal.  If you cover the bowl after you pour on the water you can grab a shower and get dressed and come out to a nice, hot breakfast waiting for you.  If you have a lot of busy mornings you can even make up several containers with oatmeal, sugar, spices and dried fruit to grab on your way out the door.  Either add water, seal it up and toss in your bag to eat when you get where you are going or add hot water from the office water cooler when you get in and eat it while checking your morning email**.  Beans are just as easy.  Simply rinse them off toss them in a pot on the stove with water and seasonings for 2ish hours or throw them in the crockpot on low all day so dinner is waiting for you when you get home.  Save some of your beans in 2 cup containers in the freezer for recipes that call for canned beans or to bail yourself out when the day gets away from you and eat the rest while they are still nice and hot.  Beans keep and reheat well and can be dressed up so many ways.  Below are two of my favorite recipes.  We eat them so often that I can't believe I can't find a picture so you'll have to deal with pictures of other meals we've eaten recently.
Humanely raised pork roast with applesauce and greens.
This is a 100% local version of longtime favorite meal.
Black Beans and Rice                             
1lb black beans
1tsp salt
1tsp cumin
1/4-1/2 onion (dice or leave it as a big chunk that you can fish out later)
1 dried chili pod (optional, but good)
2 cloves garlic (optional, but good)

Rinse beans and pick out any discolored beans, stones, etc.  Put beans in a pot or crockpot and cover with 1"-2" of water.  Add seasonings and give it a quick stir.  Simmer on the stove for ~2 hours or in a crockpot on low for 7-9 hours or in a crockpot on high for 4-6 hours.  If you have lots of extra broth you can boil it down, discard it or just pour it over rice to add extra flavor.  If you don't have enough water towards the end of the cooking time just add more and give it a quick stir.  You will need to keep a closer eye on it if you are cooking on the stove instead of a crockpot as more water boils off.  These are great in burritos or served over brown rice in a bowl topped with just about any veggies you would put on a taco.

White Beans
1lb navy beans
1tsp salt
2 cloves garlic (peeled, but left whole)

Rinse beans and pick out any discolored bits, stones, etc.  Put beans in a pot or crockpot and cover with 1"-2" of water.  Add salt and garlic cloves.  Simmer on the stove for ~2 hours or in a crockpot on low for 7-9 hours or in a crockpot on high for 4-6 hours.  If you have lots of extra broth you can boil it down, discard it or just pour it over rice to add extra flavor.  If you don't have enough water towards the end of the cooking time just add more and give it a quick stir.  You will need to keep a closer eye on it if you are cooking on the stove instead of a crockpot as more water boils off.  I also made these in our new solar oven and they were amazing.  Baby L ate them straight from the pot, but they were also great added to a pork stew and would make a wonderful side for anything mild like fish or chicken or even served cold with a big salad on a hot day.

*I use a cash budget for my groceries.  It took some getting used to, but it really forces me to keep track of how much I'm buying or risk the embarrassment of standing in the check-out line digging in my purse for enough to buy what was just rung up.  It also forces you to buy the basics first and only get treats if you have enough left which encourages smart choices.  I started by giving myself a bit of a buffer to ease the transition. 

**I know, I don't have an office and rarely check my email, but my husband has both and he regularly takes jars of oatmeal in.  Sometimes he'll even keep a bottle of half and half in his office fridge to pour over the oatmeal for that extra layer of tastiness.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Story of a Meal

I have been terrible about getting back into this space to talk about how our journey into the world of eating food grown by people we know has been going.  It isn't that we have stopped eating local food, in fact we are eating more than ever with more and more of the remaining grocery store buys being organic.  There have been two nights in the last week when I look at the dinner table and realize that except for the salt and pepper I know exactly where every ingredient of every dish on the table came from and most meals I at least know something about the sourcing.  I keep meaning to come back and write a post about how lovely "grocery shopping" has become for us now that the vast majority of our food comes from small, local farms.  Someday I will write about picking up our CSA share in a lovely, shaded courtyard with friendly people, live music, and space for the kids to run a bit while I stop to chat.  Someday I hope to write about how much easier it is to "shop" the freezer for meat instead of wrangling 3 kids out the door and into carseats to go to the grocery store.  I'd love to share how nice it is to knead bread at the kitchen counter or mix up a batch of granola bars while watching the kids playing in the living room until I call them in to lick the bowl.  I've already shared how easy it is to make granola at home, and let me tell you, even fancy granola is cheap compared to how much breakfast cereal 3 growing kids can eat.
L enjoying homemade granola for breakfast

However, all of that will wait.  Right now I want to tell another story, the story of the meal we ate tonight.  Tonight I planned to take my first dance class since A was born.  Since the class wasn't until later we had time for dinner together as long as I made sure to have everything ready a touch early.  For me this means using downtime in either the morning or early afternoon to get something going that can simmer because once we hit the "witching hour" all bets on punctuality are off.  After a quick rummage through the fridge I planned on making beef stew.  I should have started making it this morning, but I forgot to thaw the beef and then promptly forgot again.  This left me with a frozen hunk of meat and a sudden sinking feeling at about 3pm.  Luckily L was still napping and the big kids were playing happily so I grabbed the beef and thawed it partway in the microwave and started chopping veggies.  Once the meat was reasonably thawed I reached into the fridge to grab some lard to brown the beef since it is really stable at high temperatures.  That was when I started thinking.  As I spooned some lard out of the jar I remembered the grey day when I rendered lard for the first time occasionally texting my sister for advice on how to go about this arcane practice.  The lard I was using to brown the beef tonight had started out as pig fat from a pastured pig in the next county over that I'd picked up at our CSA.  Then I tossed in the beef and it reminded me of meeting the farmer in a parking lot to pick it up and also of visiting his farm 1.5 hours away.  I can still picture the tall grass of the pastures against the backdrop of beautiful mountains.  As I chopped the vegetables I smiled at the turnips that I grew myself, the first success I have ever had growing root vegetables.  I also remembered just a couple of weeks ago walking through the fields where our CSA veggies are grown with my family.  I will admit to grinning as I remembered my shy 3 year old running up to give the farmer a giant hug because, in his world, Farmer Frank is where all the good vegetables come from.  As I poured in the last of a bottle of wine to deglaze the pan I thought of the friend who had brought it over on Friday and the fun that was had that evening.  I added some water and herbs from my garden that had been dried on the dehydrator that my husband's grandmother had decluttered in our direction (for which I am still thankful) and then I put the lid on and went to spend time with my kids.  As I was working I realized how much nicer cooking was when making a meal for my family is a trip down memory lane instead of one more chore.  In many ways, even more than the health benefits that we gain from eating better foods, these connections and memories make it worth the effort we have put in to sourcing our food.  This was a story that I felt I should share.  As we sat down to eat I warned my husband that I wanted to carve out a chunk of time to blog this story, then we ate, I hugged everyone goodbye and went to dance.
A wants everyone just how good homemade breakfast
sausage can be.

In the car I took advantage of the kid free car ride to listen to NPR.  One of the news blurbs mentioned that glyphosphate (a major ingredient in the herbicide Roundup) has been labeled a "probable carcinogen" by the WHO.  I know just how heavily this herbicide is used in conventional agriculture and my knee-jerk reaction was to worry about what kind of exposure my kids were getting and what I might do to reduce that exposure until the science was more firm one way or another.  That was when I realized, not only are dinners like the one we had tonight more enjoyable to cook and to eat, but they also mean that I don't have to worry.  I know for a fact that my kids (as well as my husband and myself) are getting little or no exposure to glyphosphate or any other pesticides.*  I know the farms where our food comes from and I know how the farmers that grow our food approach things like weeds, problem insects, and animal husbandry.  I was suddenly so thankful that I wanted to share.  More importantly, I wanted to encourage anyone who would listen to at least consider the moving down the path that we are on.  Your path doesn't have to look like ours, but even the smallest steps add up.  Even if you don't ever see yourself baking your own bread or sticking with what produce is available locally and eating strictly seasonally (which we don't do yet), you can still take small steps away from a system that puts a lower priority on the health of workers, consumers, land and animals than on making money.  I only hope that if you do your journey will be as good for you as our journey has been for us.  Our journey hasn't been a fast one, but it has slowly added joy, health and simplicity while reducing worry and even (to some extent) cost.  And really, what could be better than to add joy to your own life while doing better by the plants, animals, people and land in this world?
A dinner from last week that also brought on similar memories.
It may not be the prettiest, but it was both easy and delicious!

*Pesticide is the generic term for both herbicides and insecticides as well as things like fungicides and pretty much anything other chemical that gets rid of something that might hurt a crop.