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Free Will and Eating Right

This is the start of an occasional series. We'll start by asking a question: "Why are so many kids and adults fat?" A lot of experts would like to clean up this problem by targetting childhood obesity. The official theory is that if you can change habits in childhood, it is easier than to make adults lose weight. The unofficial theory is that no one wants to admit that normal, healthy, adults are not entirely autonomous. They have some free will, some of the time, but all you have to do is take a walk out by North Lake Mall or any similar shopping area, and what do you see, endless restaurants and conveniece stores, advertised with big signs. Walk into any supermarket, and you will see prepared food all over the place. Shopping on the edge of the supermarket does not fix the problem. Again, you get hammered.

You can say "no," but it's not easy. Even worse, many adults do not know how to cook. I have a colleague at work who has never made bread. I know many people who do not know how to make dried beans. Television and advertising convince you that restaurant eating, where the selection is usually slimmer due to mass production labor constraints, people cooking is a miserable chore, and that they don't have time for it. Sometimes the latter is true, but there have long been solutions for it.

Restaurants have also done away with food taboos. Yes, it's easy to buy and drink over a quart of soda at one sitting. I've done it.

And then we have the misinformation that makes getting on the right road more difficult, even if it is supposedly helpful. Those searching for explanations often say junk food is both cheaper and somewhat addictive. There are medical studies for the addictive part, but any habit is addictive. Habits are hard to break. They are not impossible to break. As for junk food and prepared food and fast food being cheaper, it isn't. There was a cost out on this blog back in April that showed that. Other people have done other kinds of cost outs. Cost outs are bullshit because human beings are not rational when it comes to food, and adults don't always use their free will to their best intrest.

Another great piece of misinformation is that food has to be organic or local to be good. Uh....this does make healthy food more expensive than junk food or prepared food. That there are reasonably priced, commercially produced, healthy choices, just escapes the so-called experts. People hve to be able to afford to eat right in a consistent way.

What we have behind the obesity plague is a perfect storm of three factors sapping a large proportion of the public's will to eat right. First, we have all that advertising. When people get hammered, they can't put up a resistance. We have misinformation that makes eating right harder than it might be. Third, we have a lack of knowledge of how to cook and prepare food. Effectively, a lot of people are unamred against a barrage of bad information that they believe. They lack the knowledge and skills to fight.

What I would do if I wanted to fix the obesity epidemic is look at nonobese, and nonoverweight adults. These number any where form thirty to fifty percent of the population. That's a lot of people who manage to say "no." I would find out how they do it. What do they know? How do they view food? How did they acquire their cooking skills?

Cooking by the way, is mental, physical, and social. Physically, you need time and equipment, though you can make dishes that take less time. Think of the sandwich in a bag lunch. If you hve the ingredients in the house, you can always have a sandwich or a dish of leftovers. Equipment is harder. If you don't have a collander, you can't make pasta or it's much harder. You calso can't make most frozen vegetables on the stove top without them coming out all soggy. You need a big pan for soups and stews, and mixing bowls etc... Then there are the hand skills such as kneeding dough and folding in egg whites for certain kinds of cakes. These last have a big social component, but I'll get to that.

Cooking is very much mental. You have to plan out a week's menus, and make grocery lists, and find the right stores that have this, that, or the other. No store has everything. It does not work well with spontinaeity or impulse. Learning to plan meals and market is a mental skill. Deciding what to make first so the dishes don't pile up and are available for the next stage of preparation is also mental. This is the hardest part of cooking.

Cooking is social. It is easier to cook if you know other cooks. If you can start a conversation wtih: "Have you tried... " and it's something you make from scratch, or "What are you making for...." and find out that others are making stuff too. It is easier to learn to cook certain dishes if you work wtih a more experienced cook. Angel food and chiffon cakes, and yeast breads and cakes are classic examples. Other times, older cooks set norms for younger ones. I remember the Christmas I chopped up raw cranberries for cranberry nut bread when I was none and I remember washing mushrooms and asparagus in the sink when I was six. I learned you have to cut stuff up and wash it to get certain tastes.

The social part of cooking also extends to what tastes are out there. Home cooks have access to a lot more flavors than chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, garlic, onion, and bacon. Knowing all the tastes that are easily available to a home cook, and very expensive for restaurants due to labor costs, restaurant menus look paltry and dull, but taste is social. You have to know what to want.

Yet, there are still some of us who cook. Finding out how we put the physical, social, and mental together might yield results that can guide cooperative extension agents, and teacherse as to what to teach consumers to make them resistant to all those signs and TV commercials and all that misinformation. This isn't easy, but it's not impossible. Happy New Year.

Eileen H. Kramer -- December 31, 2010

The Last of the Soybeans

I did not throw away the last of those soybeans. I did cook them using a bit more heat. Yes, I still think they are old. I also think soybeans are just long term beans, even when they are fresh. They took two and a half hours to cook. I'm making kale and soybean casserole pile with a polenta crust. I made the polenta last night.

Polenta is one of those foods that is basically a walk in the park. Everyone should have yellow corn meal (or if you prefer white or blue) in their kitchen. You can make corn bread, corn pone, breading, and polenta. Polenta is a fancy Italian name for corn meal mush. You can make it utterly pareve. It does not need cheese for flavoring. Salt is just fine. Salt and pepper are even better. Salt, pepper, and other spices are the best. You add the cornmeal gradually to three times the amount of water heated to a boil. You stir as you add. You turn down the heat as you add, because polenta tends to g a bit crazy. Then you stir some more.

When the mixture is thick and reasonably free of lumps, it is ready. put it in a shallow pan or other container and stick the container in the fridge. Overnight, the polenta hardens so you can cut it in squares. It is still fairly mushy, but you can still cut it. There you have it ready to use, and cheap as it comes.

I put pieces of polenta on top of chili, greens and beans or sauteed vegetables and beans. That makes an instant casserole, well not quite instant. Because corn meal is very cheap, polenta is an inflation buster and a recession buster.

The soybeans were not all that cheap. No dry beans are any more. They are just good. When fully cooked I realized they tasted just a bit like peanuts, and their firm texture reminded me far more of peanuts than most cooked beans. It was one of those "ah hah!" moments. Credible nut substitutes for cooked dishes are hard to find, and diverticulosis (once you've had diverticulitis, you are at high risk for a relapse) means I can not eat whole or chopped nuts. Cooked dry soybeans are it! I'm sorry I cooked the last of them last night. I look forward to making string bean or pole bean soybeandine (formerly string bean peanutdine. Think string bean almondine and you get the idea. All nuts have their "dine."), though the cold weather has destroyed the string and pole bean crops in Florida. It has also wiped out the cranberry beans which are a winter delicacy. Oh well, greens and soybeans will be good enough to cook tonight.

And one more thing, I am going to try to make sourdough bread tomorrow. I'll ready the starter when I get home and then get to work on both the polenta pie and the slaw of decadance which is cole slaw with figs and either spanish olives or capers. Sometimes one is just in the mood for slaw.

Eileen H. Kramer -- 12/23/10

"I'm Going to March Those Soybeans to the Dumpster!"

And I mean it! I really am going to toss the last third of the soybeans away. Now dried soybeans taste positively fine when you cook them. The problem is with the particular batch of soybeans I bought at the DeKalb Farmer's market. They took over three hours to cook last night. Dried beans aren't supposed to take that long. Dried chick peas take ninty minutes. I've had pigeon peas take forty minutes. My suspicion is that the soybeans were old and stale. They may have been packed recently, but they were old the day they got packed. This happens occasionally and often turns novice cooks off from making dry beans.

That said, stale beans from the deKalb Farmer's Market are a fairly rare occurance. The last rash of stale beans I remember were whole yellow peas, and I lived in Columbus at the time. That also said, I won't be buying soybeans again for a while. I swore off the whole peas after an encounter with some stale ones. It's back to kidney, pinto, or cranberry beans. Freshly cooked up kidney beans are excellent in salads. Pinto beans are mild, while cranberry beans have more flavor, and pigeon peas are downright assertive. Lima beans are in a class by themselves. The New York Times finally gave them a decent write up, but I have tons of frozen limas. I'll shop for beans this weekend.

If you are curious how the collards came out, my fears were irrational. They cooked up wonderfully and did not stock to their pan. The parsnips and carrots did not scorch. Apparently, I used enough of them to leave the collards sweet. Collards and sweet root vegetables is a very soul-soothing dish, but tonight I'll eat the last of it.

A hubbard squash is ready to go, and so too are some dried pears. The hubbard was hard to split in half. It had a tough rind. That was a good thing because it meant the farmer had left the squashes in the field or in an outside storage area, long enough to "field cure." That is why there were still hubbard squash from Michigan in December. Inside the squash, though, I saw some mould among the seeds. This was an old squash. It is probably one of the last of this year's hubbards, if not the last.

Tonight, I get to scrape the cooked meat out of the pieces and mix it with the syrup from the canned apricots and I'll layer the cooked squash with cut up dried pears and canned apricot pieces. It's nice to play around with different squash and fruit combinations. It is nice to toss that ugly, hard rind. Squash and fruit is a fairly consistent guest at my Shabbos table. If there really is a Shabbos bride, she gets good food at my house!

Eileen H. Kramer -- December 16, 2010

Bag 'o Collards

It's in my refridgerator. I have a bag of collards. I wanted a bag of kale, but one pound bags of kale are often a figment of the DeKalb Farmer's Market's imagination. I got collards instead. Once, long ago, I said I could see God in a bag of collards. Greens in the winter are a gift. There is something comforting about this dark, bitter vegetable. It is a rich, substantial food. One eats greens to build oneself up. That is where the dvine gift part comes in.

This time though, the bag of collards looks quite ordinary. It even looks a bit sad. Collards here in the South are every day fare. Up north, back in Utica, they were a delicacy. Tonight they are a beta side dish. This means something to tide me over until Shabbos. I am making them with carrots and parsnips, and for some reason I can't visualize anything but the prasnips sticking to the bottom of the big blanching pot.

I want to think about the bread I made over the weekend instead. It was Roman meal bread, whole wheat bread that is thirty percent rye flour with some soy flour, oil, and molasses thrown in for good measure. It is ordinary stuff, but I was nearly running out of bread. Sunday night with the bread cooling in its pans on the stove, I felt secure. Running out of bread is a scarey thing, and all I had left was a handful of pumpkin rolls I baked for Thanksgiving. These were also 100% whole wheat, but they were also getting old and they felt small and sad.

The new loaves rose like nobody's business. They did not fall back in the oven. They felt warm whenever I shaped, kneeded or touched the dough. That meant the yeast was hard at work. On a cold night, warm yeast reminds me of something. Those little mould spores are hard workers, a simple creation that makes home fermentation of bread routine. True, humans bred and refined them to do their job, but way back when they were a gift discovered in the bottom of brewery vats.

The Bible doesn't mention it, but the Egyptians craved beer as well as bread. Everyone back then drank beer so much and so often, it was not worth mention. The Bible also does not mention the cats that guarded Joseph's granaries. Of course my cats who do not really hunt perfume the cupboards and kitchen with their scent. Any mouse that ventures into my kitchen, learns that he/she is in a danger zone. They do not know that Lysistrata can no longer deliver the killing bite, and I don't tell them. The flour sits in containers on a high shelf. There is whole wheat flour, not enough for more bread. I'll need to buy another bag. There is rye flour, also well depleted, and corn meal and soy flour bought long ago and in a now battered bag.

The magic yeast, gift of HaShem, sits in my fridge in suspended animation. I can bake anything I need, though tonight, I will need collards. In a day or two, I'll start eating the Roman meal bread.

Eileen H. Kramer -- December 14, 2010

Why not? Why not?

I've got a case of the "gonnas" but not really. I have a pan of corn bread on my stove. It lacks sugar, but has plenty of oil and mayonaise in it, and looks like the craters of the moon. I expected it to taste awful. For some reason it does not. I don't care if it gets stale. It is intended for corn bread and green pea dressing. Now there is nothing that unusual about this dish. I have made various versions of dressings or stuff-treats (stuffing flavored dishes) for holidays or as part of the Shabbos rotation. If I had a family or children, I'd make them a lot more often, because face it, after a turkey dinner, it's the stuffing that is the first leftover to disappear, and it always tastes much better than the bird. That's why there are vegetarian stuffing dishes because the stuffing (the stuff treat or dressing) is what everyone misses.

Somehow, everyone does not include those up in Toco Hills. Maybe kashrus derails people from mainstream, American food. Maybe today's crop of kids is picky, but one would think with all the young children, and considering how good stuffing/stuff treat/dressing tastes, there would be pan upon pan of it on Shabbos tables. I finally had bread dressing two weeks ago at a friend's house. That was my first stuffing in Toco Hills.

And shortage of bread is no excuse. There are rice and barley drsesings. One can also purpose bake a pan of corn bread, and there is often leftover challah that goves begging after Shabbos. Who knows why. It makes fairly good sandwiches. Why not use the old challah for dressing?

There is another dish closely akin to stuffings, dressings, and stuff treats, but instead of being meat or barely dairy (Corn bread dressing is definitely dairy) this dish is dairy wtih a vengance. It is called chese strata. Welsh rarebit is a close relative, but the strata is a casserole of cheese, eggs, and leftover bread that one can reheat or let get a bit overcooked. One can add vegetables. The texture is that of moist stuffing or dressing, though the taste is cheesey. With all the leftover challah, one would think cheese strata would make it to menus. I've never seen it in Toco Hills.

I find all this strange since Shabbos is supposed to be a celebration and stuffings and kin are such tastey dishes that one would think parents would go out of their way to fix them for the sake of the small children. What could make Shabbos more pleasant than enjoying a real treat instead of something traditional that you are supposed to have on Friday and Saturday. Oh well, I'm having dressing. I next want to make some pot pie with a rye crust, and I also want to try adopting those corn bread recipes with cream style corn for some other sort of vegetable puree due to my diverticulosis. It can be done. I'm going to stay out of my cooking rut, and yes, I'm looking forward to cooking tonight.

Eileen H. Kramer -- December 8, 2010

After the Hecscher Vanished

When I started to keep kosher, I did not even think this would happen. I said I would keep kosher if canned tomatilloes had a Kosher certification or hecscher on the can. They did and it was from the Vaad of Mexico City which is quite well respected. Then the hecscher vanished. I checked several times to see if it would return, but it's gone and canned tomatilloes are not a part of my life any more. I still make tomatillo soup but have to use fresh ones. I haven't made tomatillo soup in ages, and may make some over Christmas break.

I did not even think about Veg-All (Sorry, they're not getting a link on this blog, and you'll soon know why!) at the time began keeping kosher. I always assumed that like most name brand, canned vegetables they would always have a hecscher. Canned vegetables require a hecsher due to extensive processing in a plant that might also produce pork and beans or clam chowder. What a mashkiach or kosher inspector does (He's a rabbi and he's almost, always male.) does is make sure the canning factory follows the same procedures for making vegetables or vegetable products each and every time. He makes surprise visits has 24/7 access etc... And yes, I trust rabbis more than I trust canning factories.

Well, a couple of months ago, Veg-All lost its hecscher. It seems permanently gone. I missed Veg-All. It's one of those in-case-of-emergency-break-glass foods. My mother put it in meatloaf. I included it in salads. One of my favorite salads was cole slaw made with ranch dressing and canned mixed vegetables. Home Style Veg-All even came without corn, which for someone who has had diverticulitis, is a godsend. Well, that's all past history now...

....Until I got inspired. Why not make my own Veg-All. I wouldn't have to can it, just use similar ingredients, carrots, celery root (better than celery when used as a cold blanched vegetable), boiled potato (The potatoes in Veg-All were divine.), and blanched scallion bottoms. Last night, I made Veg-All and macaroni salad with Ford Hook lima beans and ranch dressing. It was delicious. And yes, my pseudo Veg-All tasted better than the canned, or maybe just different. It has a lot less salt, so the potatoes are sweet. If you use boiling potatoes, they have a slight sweetness to them, and for a salad like this, you'd use only boilers, red, white, or Yukon Gold. Boiling potatoes have the world famous, waxy texture.

And yes, I cool my ingredients before throwing them in the salad bowl, but I do it because cooled ingredients are easier to handle. I just don't like getting burnt. A salad like this uses a fair amount of salt in addition to what is in the mayonaise, because all ingredients are unsalted. And the Ford Hook limas cook up "pretty" as lima bean enthusiasts here in the Deep South like to say. All in all, I don't really miss Veg-All any more, now that I can make my own any time.

Eileen H. Kramer -- December 6, 2010

The Ancient Cabbage

I almost took the cabbage for a one way trip to the dumpster. It was a three pound drum head of regular white cabbage. It was nothing special, except at one point, cabbage was very expensive, so I wasn't buying any. Then the price came down. I bought two cabbages and used one for slaw for the The Open Door and left the other one in one of the vegetable drawers to rot. This was beore Thanksgiving. The cabbage did not rot.

Because my mom has digestive issues, I couldn't make cole slaw for Thanksgiving. I made celery rooot remoulade instead. It was wonderful. The cabbage did not rot. I decided that I might as well make it into stir fry. I had missed the opportunity to make cabbage soup on Sunday. I made winter melon soup instead.

Then I began to wonder. Was at least some of the old cabbage good enough for cole slaw? I tasted it when I got home last night. I had the biggest craving for cole slaw with Duke's mayonaise you have ever seen. It was an unholy craving, and the cabbage was still fresh enough. Suffice it to say there is now a bucket of shredded beet and orange salad in the fridge and a spicey, elegant slaw with Mancini's fried peppers, a can of green olives from Publix, and one very old but still very tastey cabbage in it. I guess the cabbage is not going to the dumpster after all.

Eileen H. Kramer -- December 2, 2010