Why You Should and Can Cook at Home

Sometimes, an afternoon spent playing in the dirt with your son seems like a much better idea than cooking dinner.  In my eyes, practically any afternoon spent playing with my children was not time well spent, but time best spent.  When I speak to people about food, I get many defensive responses.  At the top of the list are: 1) I can’t cook, mostly because I never liked cooking and have grown to hate it, actually, which is very uncool these days because I can’t post a picture of what I just cooked on Instagram; 2) I can’t afford organic food.  It’s ridiculously expensive, and 3) I don’t have the time.  But there are many counterarguments for why you should and can cook at home.

Yes, You Can Cook

I am about to begin publishing a series of posts with recipes that are simple and straightforward, that even the most culinarily-impaired person can prepare.  I promise to include ingredients that most people use and eat on a regular basis.  No special kitchen tools, no ingredients that you have to buy at a specialty store or purchase online.  The goal is to encourage you to get into your kitchen.  Bring your children; bring your wife; bring your husband; bring your dog (ours are very good with clean-up when stuff “hits the deck”).  If you know how to turn on your stove, you are qualified to prepared these recipes.

Yes, You Can Afford Some Organic Food

Organic food is more expensive than conventional food.  I discuss this in another post.  But if you eat at a fast food place, and are feeding a family of four, you will probably spend about $25.  A pound of grass-fed organic beef runs about $6.50.  Add on $2.00 for rolls, $1.29 for organic leaf lettuce, less than a dollar for an organic tomato (less if you grow a tomato plant in a pot on your patio).  And maybe you get frozen fries for $2.50 (Not hard to make your own, but intimidating, so we’ll go with the frozen food section) and a bottle of soda for $1.99 (but you should drink water – it’s a lot better for you and much less expensive if it comes out of your tap and you filter it), you have spent less than $16, had some good bonding time with your family, and eaten organic food, and saved $9.00.

And you’re thinking, ‘Nine dollars?  All that for a nine-dollar savings?”  But let that add up.  Let’s say that you get fast food once a week.  Now it is $9 x 52 weeks a year, which is over $400.  Still not enough to get your attention? What if it also meant that your cholesterol levels returned to the normal zone and you could stop spending money on a prescription or two?  We tend to look at these kinds of things in a small context, but the truth is that what we eat and how we eat affects our physical and mental health.  So factor in time spent at the doctor – what is your time worth an hour?

Time is Relative

And speaking of an hour, the biggest complaint/defense I hear is “I don’t have the time.”  This is also a matter of perspective.  Some days are ridiculous.  We have them, too.  But many days are not; they are more I’d-rather-crash-on-the-couch-than-cook.  Let’s see if we can start to change that.

We can start with

Simple Burgers

  • 1 lb. of ground meat (you choose what you want to use, beef, lamb, turkey, etc.)
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ t ground pepper
  • ¼ t onion powder

Mix all of this together and form four patties.  Fry them in a pan over a medium heat, about 6 minutes a side.  Put them on a platter in a warm spot.

If there isn’t any fat in the pan, add 1 T olive oil or butter and heat it.  Add 1 T flour and stir it around in the fat.  Add ½ C of milk, and stir until it thickens.  If you have some Worcestershire sauce, you could add a dash of that, but it isn’t necessary. Pour the sauce over the patties and take it to the table.

You can serve this with a salad that you have one of your family members make, or just slice up a head of lettuce and put some dressing on.

Start to finish, this takes about 25 minutes.

Field Day at Polyface

TJ

According Joel Salatin, Polyface is the farm of many faces, but to the people who follow grass-based farming, people who are involved in farming politics, or people who have seen the film, Food, Inc., it has become a farm associated with one face – Joel’s.

I had never met the man.

He gave me permission to copy his material, sent me two cases of books to use in my classroom, responded to my letters, encouraged me, and wrote a forward for my book. All of this for someone he did not know.

So when Fred Walters, my publisher from Acres USA in Texas, said he was going to be at Field Day at Polyface, we decided we should go and take advantage of the opportunity to meet both of these men.

We stayed just outside of Staunton, VA, and had about a 25 minute drive to Polyface. The farm is situated down some narrow, twisty back roads. We arrived around 7:30, and I could not believe the line of traffic coming into the farm. I knew it was a big event, but I hadn’t realized exactly how big. When I saw an RV pull in, my jaw dropped. All I could think was that it was a good thing there wasn’t a vehicle coming in the other direction! I do not know how the driver navigated those roads.

About a minute after we got out of the car, I saw Joel. He was headed toward the barn. Many people were stopping him and from the posture, it looked to me like they were impeding his progress – he had someplace to be and couldn’t get there. Instead of pursuing him, we went to the registration table and got our name-tags. One of the cool things about the name-tags is that underneath our names, it stated a place, towns and states, so we knew where everyone came from. My daughter started a list and came up with 30 out of the 50 states being represented, plus a guy from Australia.

The tour started at 8, and we walked out to the pasture where the meat birds were living. Since I have read Joel’s books, seen him in a few documentaries, and buy from farmers who use Joel’s techniques, I was familiar with how much of this worked. However, to hear him speak was amazing. He has a great energy and passionate enthusiasm for his craft. He calls himself a lunatic farmer, and sometimes passion that borders on zealotry can look like lunacy, but in reality he is talking sense. The problem, the reason others make him sound like a lunatic, is because, in a sense, he is saying that the emperor (Industrial Ag) isn’t wearing any clothes. And he isn’t using metaphors.

As we walked to the next stop on the tour, the beef pasture, I noticed the variety of people who were in attendance. There were Amish and Mennonite, obvious from the traditional dress; there were a lot of John Deere caps, and Cabela’s T-shirts; there was a woman wearing monogrammed mucks (who knew they even existed), on her blinged-up cell phone; there was a family that looked like the Von Trapps, with all 8 children in matching outfits (jeans and red-check shirts – not a bad idea in a crowd that size); there was a man in a t-shirt advertising his radical Right Wing politics, assuring me that he votes; there was a couple with dreadlocks in tie-dyed shirts; there was a group from New York City who we overheard discussing how to scale down Joel’s processes to fit on abandoned urban lots; there was a couple from Oil City, PA, in line behind us for lunch who were living on a farm and ready to give some of this practice a try. Joel spoke a lot about diversity in the biomass… there was amazing diversity in the population mass!

We walked off the tour a little early and headed back to the book tent, so I could introduce myself to Fred Walters. There were but a few people looking at books, and we spent a good half hour chatting. I walked away from Fred and it finally hit me that I wrote a book that is being published. He was showing me different formats that they do, and what their books looked like. There was a sense of pride in each volume that he showed me. And I thought that next year, my book will be on the table at some event or other. Next year. My book. It was a little overwhelming.

Then we went to where lunch was being served. That was when the magnitude of the crowd really hit me. It was double the size I thought it was. And I kept saying, “How do you prepare a meal for this many people?” I was exhausted doing a cold supper for 80. As I mentioned earlier, in line behind us was a couple from Oil City, PA. It turns out that she is also a teacher, and we spoke about the need to “Salatinize” the education system. That will be a series of upcoming entries on my other blog, On Education. My only regret is that I lost track of them after we went through the lunch line. So, if you are the woman from Oil City, please contact me! You are so interesting!

Just as I finished my lunch, Joel was walking by to go get his lunch. I stopped him and introduced myself. Fred told him (warned him?) that I was there, so he knew who I was right away, which made me feel really good and he congratulated me on my book coming out next year. Hearing that come out of someone else’s mouth was very cool. That the someone was Joel Salatin was mind-boggling. I thanked him profusely for all of his help. I knew that a handshake was not enough and asked if I could give him a hug, and he said, “I would never say no to a hug.” And we hugged, and my daughter took a picture, and then he went off to have his lunch and I floated through the rest of the day.

It was fortuitous that we attended. In the literature we received, we found out that this is probably the last Field Day event that Polyface will host. While he will still do Lunatic Tours, and maybe that is a better small group learning environment, for me, to see the number of people motivated to come and learn from Joel, makes it more real that this movement toward better food is on a roll. The more people who commit themselves, even in a small way, to better food, the more likely we are to see a change in the food industry.

If you ever have the opportunity to see Joel Salatin speak, take it. If the man hadn’t been a farmer, he could have been a master orator.

Spiritual Uplifting from the Strawberry Patch

The strawberries are done for the year. With a little sadness and the help of my daughter, I removed and rolled up the bird netting for another year. We had a good crop, about 15 quarts, which I think is pretty respectable for a bed that is 1 ½ feet deep and 25 feet long.

We also get strawberries from our CSA. It is one of the U-pick crops, so I like to get out there on the early-side, and crawl around the rows while it is still fairly quiet. I had two funny experiences in the strawberry patch this year. The first one was me being that CSA veteran, who always has something to say in reference to what to do with all the food we take home. It can be a little overwhelming, I think. This woman was saying that she didn’t know what she was going to do with all of the strawberries she was picking (2 quarts), that it was more than her family could possible eat before they got mushy. I commented that she could jam them, or put them in the freezer to eat frozen, make smoothies out of, or make jam later, which is what I do, that I had frozen most of the strawberries from my home patch because I didn’t have time to make jam.

Another woman was in the row next to me and she stopped picking, looked up at me and said, “If you grow your own strawberries, why are you picking these? There could be more for the rest of us.”

I replied, “I am picking these because the CSA doesn’t offer a ‘No Strawberry’ share.”

At the time, I was a little perturbed by this woman’s attitude – I paid for my share, and I will use all of the produce I bring home. Where did she get off even thinking that I shouldn’t have my share of strawberries?

But I realized that people come into the CSA with all kinds of preconceptions about how the community functions. In some respects, this woman is a theoretical communist – we all take only what we need. I can imagine her thoughts pertaining to the first woman’s initial comments, “If you aren’t going to eat them, leave them for someone who will.” But what was most interesting about this woman was what I saw when she left the strawberry patch, balancing her quart containers. Not overflowing, mind you, but exactly level with the top of the dry quart. She took exactly her share, unlike many people who try and balance as many strawberries on top as they possibly can. It can be amusing to watch them tip-toe out of the patch.

The next week, I was out there early again, and a mother was out there picking with her daughter. I am guessing the daughter was about three or four years old, very patiently crouched next to her mom, picking berries. It was one of those ‘wish I had a camera’ moments. The mom said, “Oh! Don’t pick the little ones. Only pick the big ones.”

I looked over and said, “We love the little ones. We call them sugar bites. They are usually really sweet.”

She replied, “Shouldn’t they stay on the plant until they get bigger?”

“Once they turn red, they don’t get any bigger.”

“Oh. Thanks!”

And we returned to our picking. So here is someone who knows nothing about how food grows. She only knows that she has never seen a tiny strawberry before because the only strawberries she has ever seen came from the grocery store, where they have to be a certain size and certain shape to make it into the basket. It was an awesome moment. A door opened. And not just for the mom. But for the little girl, who will grow up with an entirely different perception of food, and where food comes from, and how it is produced.

I find these two experiences uplifting because it illustrates how the CSA can work to shape cultural attitudes. In the first example, the woman is concerned with the people who take more than their share. It is an issue. I have seen people pick ¾ of a bag of green beans and call it a ½ a bag. Stand up, shake the bag and say, “That looks like ½ a bag.” I don’t say anything, figuring that the farm manager probably low-balls the amounts to consider that some people will high-ball the level in their U-pick bag. And while that woman was upset that I was picking berries even though I grow my own, I applaud her sense of being part of a larger community and her willingness to speak her mind.

The second woman and her daughter are the reason I will continue with this blog, and to continue to teach the Politics of Food unit in the classroom. Our American culture, for the most part, has no idea how food gets to the table. And there is so much political maneuvering, and corporate manipulation, that it seems nearly impossible for the simplest of processes to take place. In the classroom, the Food Politics Unit is something of a metaphor – for students to see that something as simple as grow food, harvest food, prepare food, eat food has become an extraordinarily complicated and cut-throat business. I think this is true for many things in their lives: my childhood was much less complicated; education was much less complicated; my working parents’ lives were much less complicated. The more technology makes things “easier,” the more techno-dependent we become, the more steps we create to get from start to finish, the less energy and drive we have to accomplish anything.

Taking the First Steps

Once upon a time, my husband and I ate a lot of take-out.  We both work.  Our house isn’t air-conditioned.  So you can imagine a hot day in June (or September), when we both got home from work, not wanting to turn on the oven or even light a grill.  It is so easy to pick up a phone and call someone else to deliver a meal to our door.  The thing is, if you can motivate yourself, there are some meals that are easy meals — easy to make, easy to eat and easy to clean up after!

Ask yourself this question, “Why do I eat so many pre-made and fast foods?”

Many times the answer to that question is something along the lines of either not having time to cook, or not knowing how to cook.

When budget time rolled around, we noticed how much we were spending on take-out food.  And then we considered how much food we were wasting each week because while we shopped with intention to cook, we didn’t cook.  So we paid double for this laziness. And we came to this conclusion: we ate a lot of fast food because we didn’t feel like cooking.

How did we overcome this?  Slowly.

One positive change we made was by “double cooking” on the weekend.  On Saturday and Sunday, we would make extra dinner and put it in the fridge.  That way, at least two days during the week, we would be able to have a homemade meal with no muss or fuss.

But Natalie, I don’t cook at all.  So maybe that is where you begin.  By cooking one meal a week at home.  And start simple, based upon the equipment you have and your kitchen skills.  If you are a novice, don’t begin with some technically complicated that requires special tools.

Here’s an easy do-it-yourself meal:

1 2 lb. pkg boneless chicken thighs

1 pepper

1 medium onion

1 clove of garlic

Olive oil to sautee

Salt and pepper
1/2 C red wine (optional)

How to handle the food:

Work with the vegetables first to reduce the chance of cross-contamination.

(WHAT IS THAT? Cross-contamination refers to germs and bacteria that may be on uncooked meat that could be transferred to the vegetables via the cutting board).
1. Cut the top and bottom off of the pepper. Remove the seeds and core. Cut the “tube” that is left in half, and then cut it into 1/8″ strips.
2. Cut the onion in half. Cut the “stem” and “roots” off. Remove the yellow papery skin. Slice both halves in 1/8″ slices.
3. Slice the clove of garlic.
4. Put the vegetables aside and wipe the cutting board.
5. Cut the chicken thighs in bite-sized pieces, put them in a bowl, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss the chicken to mix in the seasoning.
6. WASH YOUR HANDS!
7. In a medium skillet, heat up the oil over medium high heat. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds.
8. Add the onion. Stir about every minute or so, for about 5 minutes, until the onions change from white to transparent.
9. If you are using the wine, add it now, and stir until all of the liquid has evaporated.
10. Push the onions to the outside of the pan and put the chicken in the middle. Let it cook for a few minutes before stirring it around. I usually flip it over and then separate it.
11. When the chicken is cooked (10 minutes or so — they are small pieces), add the peppers. Stir everything together. You can add a little more wine here and scrape up all the yummy caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan.
12. Put it on a plate and enjoy.

No. It isn’t as easy as calling for take-out. Yes, there will be dishes to clean up. But it puts you in control of the food you eat. Is this my best recipe? No. Not even close. But it is one of the easier ones.

So be bold! Be daring! Cook it yourself!