Cooking

Gifts in Good Taste

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1995
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Extended Family

In large part because of my grandmother's North Dakota farm stories, I spent the first 30 years of my life wishing I lived on a farm so I could bake pies, make soap, churn butter, can peaches, build furniture, stuff sausages. I wanted to be outdoors all day. I wanted to watch the moon wax and wane, and live the seasons as they changed.

At the age of 31, I finally did move to a farm, but soon discovered that to be a farmer you had to, well, farm. As in work hard. All that other stuff was a sidelight. Fortunately, the work has turned out to be as satisfying as the lifestyle.

When people ask why I farm, I usually say it's because I like to cook. But it's also because I and my husband, Steve, want to live simply, and to have so much fun doing it that others might perhaps be tempted to turn off their own televisions and air conditioners. We like being a part of the current experiment in trying to grow more of America's food without poisonous chemicals, and we choose vegetables in particular because there is a strong market for them right now. Through grace and luck, despite quite a few fire ant bites, we've been able to make a living farming in Texas.

From a business standpoint, we can make the most money by spending our time on the farm growing and letting wholesalers do the selling. So twice a week we drive a truckload to a warehouse in Austin, 90 miles from our farm. Felix helps us unload. John gets on the telephone and sells for us. Semi driver Steve fights the city traffic to deliver to stores. Produce managers David, Nathan, Jeff, and Christy stock shelves and answer people's questions (like "Where did this come from?") and even cut samples for customers to taste. Peggy saves boxes for us to pick up later.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1995
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Vitamins the Old-Fashioned Way

VITAMINS THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY

The basil never quite recovered from our good intentions. For four weeks now it has languished, burned and yellow, after we sprayed a mineral solution to correct a supposed manganese deficiency. Apparently, it is possible to be overzealous with nutrient supplements.

It can happen to humans, too. In the early 1980s, some women began taking megadoses of vitamin B-6 to ease symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Within several months many noticed numb feet, loss of sensation in the hands, even an inability to work. Impairments began to clear up after the supplements were withdrawn, but some permanent damage did occur.

Until that time everyone (including researchers and dietitians) believed that, like other water-soluable vitamins, B-6 could not reach toxic concentrations in the body. Then there was the case of a woman who took megadoses of vitamin C while she was pregnant. After birth, the baby developed symptoms of scurvy because its system was used to higher doses of vitamin C and couldn't get adjusted to more normal ones.

It is tempting to ignore nutritionists who would have us obtain vitamins and minerals the old-fashioned way-eating a wholesome, varied diet. It is so much more exciting to join the euphoric crowd of people in the vitamin aisle who wish to slow their aging processes, avoid getting cancer, or boost their immune systems with a fancy little pill. And there are lots of us in that aisle. Fully half the American population takes a nutrient supplement regularly, collectively spending billions of dollars each year.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1995
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In the Company of Nuts

I remember the moment when, as a new apprentice in a retreat center's vegetarian kitchen, I spotted the shelf of nuts in the storeroom. Fifty-pound boxes of walnut pieces, pecan halves, almonds, and a 40-pound tin of pine nuts from China waited in the dark coolness.

"Ah. If this is what being a vegetarian is, I will gladly never eat meat again," I said to myself.

In those days, and over the subsequent years, I have learned how nuts can play a star role in salads, main courses, and vegetable dishes, as well as in their usual place in chocolate chip cookies or cinnamon rolls.

Granted, nuts are expensive by the pound. But they go a long way, since they are used sparingly in most recipes. And they are a substitute for expensive meat protein.

Nuts are oily. But their fat is polyunsaturated, the "good kind" of fat. They contain large amounts of linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that is essential to human metabolism and has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Bet the diet books never told you that.

WHEN YOU THINK of nuts as a way to add richness, crunch, and interest to your cooking, endless possibilities arise. (I acknowledge that many children and some adults dislike finding nuts in their food, so I am mostly writing for those of us who like the earthy flavor and butteriness of nuts.) When walnuts are pan toasted, for instance, with garlic, onion, and black pepper, then added to cooked pasta (along with, perhaps, steamed broccoli or diced fresh tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil) no one will miss the sausage.

If you add toasted cashews to a chilled green pea salad or to stir-fried cabbage with soy sauce, all of a sudden you have a main course instead of a side dish. Offer a bowl of nuts at a salad bar or potato bar type of meal and the fare will seem gourmet. With roasted nuts stirred into bread stuffing, who needs turkey? Jello salad, homemade rice-a-roni, muffins-all benefit from the company of nuts.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1995
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Let Them Bake Cake

It takes love to bake a cake. Cakes cannot be baked indifferently or in a hurry. When you look at a triple-layer German chocolate cake with its caramel chock-full of pecans, or a moist carrot cake with creamy icing swirled in soft peaks, you say to yourself, "Someone spent a lot of time and effort on this. This is special." Maybe that's why cakes are the centerpieces of occasions such as birthdays, graduations, and weddings?

Cakes are not just baked. Their flavor is carefully chosen to match the occasion. Then they are measured and beaten and stirred. They are tipped out of their pans with breath held in check until the pan safely releases them. They have to be cooled. Iced. Decorated perhaps. Refrigerated. Then transported safely to festivities.

Cakes take lots of eggs-an egg is a symbol of new life, a new beginning. And they take a lot of butter or oil, symbols of blessing and richness. Their frosting is an extra bonus, "like icing on the cake," a favorite figure of speech in the English language.

Therefore, cakes are not particularly ferial (everyday) cuisine. They are festal! To do them honor, both the cake and the occasion they grace, eat one piece. Not two, and not zero. And be the baker of a cake once in a while. It does indeed feel like giving a gift, like being the baker of bread for a Communion service.

I HAVE MOSTLY BEEN a spectator in the cake-baking arena, relying on three tried-and-true family recipes: a chocolate cake, a lemon cake, and a nutmeg sherry cake. I admit freely that two of the recipes are based on box mixes. But I would like to expand my horizons.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1995
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All Things in Moderation

It is fitting that this morning, after paying bills and moaning about another increase in our health insurance premium, I came across a Russian proverb in a nutrition magazine: "Drink a glass of wine after your soup and you steal a ruble from the doctor."

The first hard data supporting the benefits of a glass of wine a day came in 1974 when researchers at Kaiser Permanente in California found that teetotalers suffer more heart attacks than drinkers. Critics questioned the validity of the data because ex-drinkers and non-drinkers were put in the same category. So in 1977 another study excluded former drinkers.

Rather than invalidating the California conclusion, the Honolulu Heart Program Study showed that, indeed, lifetime abstainers had more than twice as many cases of cardiovascular diseases as people who drank moderately. Likewise, two Harvard studies showed moderate drinkers having less heart disease than either abstainers or heavy drinkers.

How? A striking correlation exists between moderate drinking and higher HDL cholesterol ("good" cholesterol) levels. Drinking with meals, particularly, seems to prevent fatty platelets from forming in the blood. Ethanol is the key, whether in the form of beer, wine, or spirits.

When the news program 60 Minutes presented the "French Paradox" to American viewers in 1991, crediting wine drinking as the reason French people have half the heart disease Americans do despite eating more butter and cheese, U.S. wine sales increased by 44 percent. It seems we were waiting for nutritional permission to do what many of us do anyway-lift our glasses of fruit-from-the-vine to the health and cheer of everyday life. (Many of us also were delighted to continue eating butter with a clear conscience.)

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Sojourners Magazine December 1994-January 1995
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The Berry With Bite

Someday I would like to see a cranberry harvest: crimson fruit floating on flooded coastal fields, skimmed off like a school of tropical fish.

Any food that brilliant, that hardy, that distinctive in flavor deserves its place at the holiday table. Cranberries’ tartness may not make for solo fare, but

it serves as the perfect compliment to savory main dishes, starchy vegetables, and yeasty rolls. Put another way, the cranberry is like an outspoken aunt who keeps conversation grounded with her tart practicality.

A spoonful of orange-cranberry relish, a slice of jellied cranberry sauce, or a pre-dinner glass of cranberry punch all serve the same purpose: to wake up your tongue, clear your head, and keep you in the present moment.

I AM SO FOND of that wake-you-up bite that I begin stashing one-pound bags of fresh cranberries in my freezer as soon as they show up in the grocery store, sometimes a month before Thanksgiving. I pull out my favorite cranberry recipes and feast with them on even the most ordinary days.

One cup stirred into a sweet batter makes outstanding muffins or a coffeecake. A cranberry relish—made perhaps with the spices of Indian cooking—goes with all manner of sandwiches. Cooked whole with sugar, cranberries make a fine sauce to serve with meats or baked vegetables. A creamy cranberry jello dish fits right in at a November or December potluck; kids love the bright pink.

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Sojourners Magazine November 1994
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Texas Heat

It’s hot. The yard needs mowing—the grass is so tall I have to wear rubber boots in the morning dew. And three lugs of tomatoes, getting riper by the minute in the heat, await canning.

But if Texas seems to have a few drawbacks this time of year, food is not one of them. After sporting Texas license plates for two years, perhaps I

can take a few minutes to contemplate the appeal of Tex-Mex cuisine, popular not only here, but in every corner of the United States, from the bustling blocks of New York City to the misty streets of small Northwest college towns. Despite the recent rap by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which reported that Mexican restaurants do Americans no favor in the fat and salt departments, I think this spicy cuisine will continue to satisfy a need for inexpensive yet interesting and filling food.

Living in the north most of my life, I thought the "Number 1 Combination Plate"—enchiladas, burritos, tacos—was something northern restaurants made up to imitate the spicy, fill-up-the-gut food of colorful countries south of the United States. So it has been very fun to see and taste and learn how these very authentic dishes came into being in Texas over the past 200 years.

Actually Tex-Mex has roots older than either Texas or Mexico. Long before Europeans arrived in the New World, ancient peoples settled both American continents, developing agricultural specialties quite different from those in the Old World. Four staples evolved—corn, beans, squash, and chili peppers—changing costume as contact with different conquerors and peoples occurred. The Spanish, for instance, brought pigs, cows, sheep, goats, wheat, and vegetables such as onions to Mexico, transforming local eating habits.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1994
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A Potato in Every Pot

What can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; is grown in all 50 states; and had a war named after it? The potato of course. (The 1778-79 War of the Bavarian Succession was nicknamed "The Potato War.") The Incas of Peru, who cultivated hundreds

of ancient potato varieties in terraced highlands, measured units of time by how long it took a potato to cook.

This marvelous crop provides more calories per acre than any grain or vegetable. While potatoes can be grown in a dazzling array of shapes, colors, and sizes, these days most of us rely on the russet Burbank, the white Katahdin, and several red varieties. "Yukon Gold" is gaining favor rapidly, probably because its creamy yellow flesh gives the impression of having lots of butter when it’s served.

In Texas, red potatoes are the passion, fittingly planted on Valentine’s Day and harvested in May. That is, if the weather permits. This year a capricious heavy rain, combined with 80 degree temperatures, doomed my farm’s potato crop to a rotting morass. So I am somewhat forlornly sitting inside today writing about potatoes instead of digging them.

I admit I was really looking forward to "new potato" season. I had the menu all planned out—boiled potatoes with butter and parsley, cream of potato soup, leftover potatoes fried for breakfast, potato salad, and shepherd’s pie. And I wasn’t the only one. Our neighbors were over twice last week to see if the potatoes were dug yet. Elderly family members who used to have farms of their own have been reminiscing about past potato harvests and lamenting the fact that senior nutrition centers these days don’t serve enough potatoes.

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Sojourners Magazine August 1994
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Food for the Road

Highway food can be fun for a while—eating forbidden french fries at a fast food joint or sipping iced tea in the cool muffledness of a restaurant. Normal dietary restraint often takes a vacation when we do. (The only time I ever saw my father drink coffee was on road trips.) But after a few such meals, home cooking starts

sounding mighty good.

Food is not something to overlook when you are packing for a trip. Because eating on the road often tends to provide desperately needed breaks from cramped quarters, it fosters psychological as well as physical refreshment. Thankfully, it is possible to eat nutritious, winsome meals on the move.

While traversing the wide open spaces of America via bus, bicycle, Vega, and, most recently, Amtrak, I have been collecting ideas for delectable travel meals. Possibilities multiply when you push the range of "portable" food.

First, the basic kit: You’ll need some sort of insulated tote bag to keep cold things cold for the first two days. Find two plastic quart jugs with screw tops, one for water (which will be frozen before departure), and the other for mixing juice or storing wine later on the trip. Wrap up some silverware and include a sharp paring knife for cutting fruit, cheese, onions, and tomatoes. Don’t forget a can opener.

Bring mugs to use for cold or hot beverages as well as for soup. Find portable containers (film canisters, perhaps) for salt, pepper, chili powder. Tuck in a few old bread bags and twist ties for trash or leftovers. A cloth, nice or otherwise, is good to have for padding, a tablecloth, or for wiping up spills. Round up various sizes of sealable plastic containers. These are the treasure boxes you will fill with good things to eat for your trip.

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Sojourners Magazine July 1994
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