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Archive for November, 2009

Thanksgivings

Of which there were four-ish.

I’m rather intrigued by the concept of Thanksgiving. It can take so many forms- from sit down dinner to going out to dinner to standing around at a buffet to god only knows what. But usually there’s eating. One way or another, this is a holiday that revolves entirely around the sharing of food. In fact, that is the whole point of the holiday. Now, whether we should really be celebrating the dinner supposedly shared by pilgrims and Native Americans who were later slaughtered by said pilgrims is really questionable, but if you take this as an opportunity to celebrate the end of a successful harvest (which is really, I think, the idea) and a chance to share delicious wholesome food with people you are close to, then it’s really what I’m all about.

The interesting thing is how this, like every other holiday, has become commercialized. Bear with me. Christmas is obvious: there’s no way around the argument that Christmas is all about consumerism. And they’re trying their damndest to do the same with Thanksgiving (it’s called Black Friday). Give thanks for expendable income!

But there’s also the whole traditional Thanksgiving food thing. Most Thanksgivings do not vary much in their make up. And most Thanksgivings require a trip to the grocery store. For a harvest-themed dinner, there is remarkable little harvesting involved (at least not in relation to the eaters. Someone, somewhere, had to harvest). I even found myself, for once, in the grocery store, buying canned cream of mushroom soup because that is how-you-make-green-bean-casserole. No way around it. Canned green beans, canned cream of mushroom soup, canned fried onions (and damn are those things tasty).

But I’m convinced there must be a way around it. It felt so weird for me, someone who is OCD about where my food comes from, and only eating things that are fresh and in season, to be making green bean casserole. It didn’t even occur to me during my regular family Thanksgiving, because, well, that’s just how it is. It was when I offered to bring the green bean casserole to another family’s Thanksgiving, a family who barely knew anything about me except vegan/vegetarian/OCD about local foods. And then I brought green bean casserole. It was weird.

First off, I couldn’t have gotten fresh green beans. They do not exist at our farmer’s market in November. If I had driven to Baltimore or something I maybe could have found them, because they are a cold weather vegetable, but most people put them in during the cold weather so they fruit when it starts getting warm (like June), not the other way around. I could have used some of my frozen green beans, since I have like five gallon bags of them in the freezer, but usually they are a little mushy after freezing and I save them for stews. It could be a possibility to explore in the future, however.

Second, I haven’t started growing mushrooms yet, and no one I know is doing it (though we all talk about it endlessly). I don’t even know what else is in cream of mushroom soup. I had a different green bean casserole on Saturday (at our annual vegan Thanksgiving potluck), made with what I believe was canned vegan cream of mushroom soup, and it was definitely delicious (so much more flavorful than Campbells, really), but I’m pretty sure it was still canned. In theory, I’d have to make cream of mushroom soup from scratch, and then use it in the casserole. This is starting to seem like a lot of work, even for me.

Finally, fried onions.

Yeah I’m not sure even how to touch that one with a ten foot pole. The first time I see local fried onions I’m going to pass out. The point being- this is one of those dishes that was designed for people who shop in grocery stores, and use canned foods in their dishes. I will take a bet that it was designed during the same time period that recipes started appearing in magazines for Crisco- post WWII, when suddenly processed foods appeared on the market and the companies producing them had to come up with recipes so that people would actually purchase and use them. And- in fact- just Wikipediaed it and sure enough, this is the history of green bean casserole:
Green bean casserole was invented in 1955 by the Campbell Soup Company test kitchen under the leadership of Dorcas Reilly. Their goal was to come up with simple recipes using Campbell’s foods, to promote the company’s product. It has since become a popular Thanksgiving side dish in the United States. The casserole is typical of 1950s American food in that it smothers vegetables in a ready-made and thick, creamy sauce. Green bean casserole can be made with any brand of canned cream of mushroom soup available or a homemade cream soup. (wikipedia)

Now I feel really weird about making it. Talk about consumerism- I bet thousands of people buy Campbell’s soup to make this for Thanksgiving. There was a big crowd in front of the soup section when I went to buy some.

Well, at least now I have a goal for next Thanksgiving. Learn to make homemade cream of mushroom soup. Though if it turns out to be a pain in the ass it’s possible that cream of mushroom soup will be on the menu, and not green bean casserole.

If you are curious, I also made (for Thanksgiving number one):
– Mashed potatoes and turnips (all local, from the same farm), with soy milk and margarine (totally not local, but it’s hard to get local milk)
– The previously mentioned broccoli and cauliflower thing (totally local)
And my mom made a turkey breast (not local) and my uncle made sauerkraut and kilbasa (not local) and I did not eat them.

For Thanksgiving number 3 (which will get more press later):
– Beer bread (been using the recipe from here: Foodie Farmgirl. am totally in love with this recipe and will write about it more later)
– My very first pumpkin pie, made from a local pumpkin, with local flour in the crust, and organic sugar and not so local soy milk and vegetable shortening (is there a local alternative to vegetable shortening? I’d love to know)

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Here is an excerpt from a fabulous food post from my sister-at-heart, clickclack gorilla:

In England, dumpster diving is called skipping. It’s a rather indirect way to talk about trash picking, but it feels appropriate in its way. Picture two small children holding hands and skipping through the park. Picture the gleeful expressions on their faces. This is how I look when, wrapped up in multiple jackets and scarves, I rush from a beat-up red van to the house kitchen laden with not-frozen-anymore soft pretzel dough. I was euphoric. Skipping was in order.

I haven’t been dumpster diving in a car in years. Wait, I take that back. I’ve been dumpster diving in a car once in the last five years. My very first food dive was in an old Volvo station wagon, and we drove home with garbage bags full of bread and bagels. But since moving to Germany, I’ve had to limit myself to backpack-sized hauls. It never really mattered—I only had one or two people to feed back then. But now that I live with so many dumpster-food-friendly people, a backpack, even my human-sized army surplus duffel backpack, isn’t always big enough to haul home what we could put away in a week.

Read the rest (plus so much more) at :click clack gorilla.

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I really think I should start taking pictures of all these things I’m talking about. I have to remember to work on that. Normally I don’t believe in taking pictures (except for purely artistic purposes), because I’d rather experience things directly and not through a camera, but I find that people like pictures on blogs.

The point being I’ve found yet another completely unappetizing use of chicken. As per instructions, I took what was left of my chicken and threw it in a pot with some carrots and celery and about twelve cloves of garlic (that was my own addition). I simmered it. And simmered it. And it smelled pretty good. And then, also as per instructions, I left it in the fridge over night so the fat would separate and I could skim it off.

The next morning there was a thick layer of yellow goo on top of the mess, with bits of chicken bone poking out of it. It did not look particularly appetizing. It looked kind of like someone had puked on a chicken carcass, in fact. And then I poked the fat, and realized it was more like a crust. Imagine, for those of you who have never made chicken stock, a thick layer of yellow icing. The kind of icing that gets sort of hard and crumbles when you poke it, but which you can also detach in little sheets. That is what the fat looked like. Skimming was less of an option than breaking the crust and scooping up the pieces. Which I did, and to this added a couple of pieces of skin and fat and a little leftover meat, because one of the online blog/recipes I had read in regards to preparing chicken stock mentioned cats love this delicacy. Chicken fat! And leftover bits of meat! Surely any feline connoisseur would be delighted.

Alas, not my cats. They wouldn’t even get near the stuff. In fact, they seemed entirely disinterested with the chicken as a whole. I offered them pieces of chicken on the first night we had it, thinking any cat who will frantically devour a can of wet food tentatively labeled “chicken?” will roll with ecstasy at the thought of an actual piece of chicken. Surely better than the mush that comes in the can. But my adult cat ate one tiny piece, and then left the rest lying pathetically on the floor, while my kitten kind of vaguely batted at it and wandered off. Given, she also has a short attention span, but for her this was a supreme display of disinterest.

Am I to believe that my cats prefer processed food to the real thing? The thought concerns me. I expected my cats to have the same quality of taste as me (though they do love that processed canned food). Possibly I just haven’t found a dish they prefer. Maybe they didn’t like that I was giving them all the fatty bits. Though they do really, really enjoy eating mice. I have frequently awoken to the sound of tiny little crunching mouse bones as they happily devour their latest victim. Maybe that’s at the heart of it: my cats are like me. They understand the need to be directly responsible for the death of what they eat, and they had nothing to do with the death of this chicken.

I don’t blame them for not eating the leftover bits that came out of the stock pot, however. They really didn’t look like food anymore. I put them straight into the compost, and we’re hoping they will decompose properly. Even the actual stock looked pretty suspicious to me, though it smelled like stock. I think I was expecting it to look more like chicken broth, like what comes out of a can. Instead, it’s thick and kind of gooey. It looked really fatty to me, but what do I know. Maybe it was just the temperature, from being in the fridge, but it looked like a kind of goopy* version of glaze (I’ve clearly got icing on the brain).

I’m just hoping it will look much more appetizing after I turn it into soup. There’s two mason jars worth of it, one way or another.

*As a point of interest, Microsoft Word recognizes “goopy” as an accurately spelled word. Just wanted to point that out.

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This old post suddenly become even more relevant in light of this terrifying post: The New MSG. This actually happened to someone I know, and reading this gets me riled as hell at our health care system as much as it does at the ridiculous food system we have. I mean, seriously, are you kidding? Why are these things allowed to be in what is loosely being referred to as food? Argh.

The post below was originally posted 12.1.09 on George Goes Green.

Seriously, that’s the last time I buy something without reading the label.

So I was in the grocery store, and decided to get some nuts or something to keep in my desk drawer, because I’m a grazer and like to eat more or less constantly throughout the day, and what’s better than some healthful, high protein nuts? Only when I was standing in the store I saw roasted, shelled sunflower seeds, which have always been a weakness, and I pounced.

Later on, sitting at my desk eating some seeds, I happened to look upon the label of the jar. Now, you’d think, the ingredients of roasted sunflowers seeds would be roasted sunflower seeds, and maybe salt and a little oil or something. But no. The ingredients of the sunflower seeds are as follows:

shelled sunflower seeds, salt, sugar, modified corn starch, monosodium glutamate, torula yeast, corn syrup solids, paprika, spices, hydrolyzed soy protein, natural flavor, onion & garlic powder.

Ok, I can handle onion and garlic powder. Corn syrup solids? Strange things I can neither pronounce or identify? Let’s wiki some of these and figure out what they are:

monosodium glutamate = MSG

“USE Torula, in its inactive form (usually labeled as torula yeast), is widely used as a flavouring in processed foods and pet foods. It is produced from wood sugars, as a by-product of paper production. It is pasteurized and spray-dried to produce a fine, light grayish-brown powder with a slightly yeasty odor and gentle, slightly meaty taste.” –wikipedia

“Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP, is produced by boiling cereals or legumes, such as soy, corn, or wheat, in hydrochloric acid and then neutralizing the solution with sodium hydroxide. The acid hydrolyzes, or breaks down, the protein in vegetables into their component amino acids. The resulting brown powder contains, among other amino acids, glutamic acid, which consumers are more familiar with in the form of its sodium salt, monosodium glutamate, or MSG. It is used as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods.” –wikipedia

Natural flavors, of course, can mean almost anything. Thanks, Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, purveyors of sunflower seeds.

This is another example of how we can’t just eat whole foods anymore, they have to find all kinds of strange things to ADD to the foods, because otherwise the corn refiners association would go out of business. Well, they can stuff it. I’m not buying any more corn syrup coated sunflower seeds. Seriously.

Serves me right for not reading the label, I suppose. How do most people shop?

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Ok, so I have to explain something. Vegetarians can obviously make side dishes. The problem is that I have a mental block against side dishes.

When I cook dinners, I cook one thing, and maybe bake bread and throw together a salad. I serve chili, or lasagna, or stir fry and rice, or curry and rice, or spaghetti, or chana masala, or fajitas, you should be getting the idea by now. So when it came to serving chicken I was clueless. Chicken and… what? Chicken and vegetable risotto seemed a little much (my risotto has a heavy butternut squash cream sauce). My mom tells me the standard chicken meal is as follows: chicken, starch, vegetable. So I knew I was going to throw a bunch of root vegetables in with the chicken, but I still wanted a side dish. This was the source of my confusion.

It’s easy enough to make roasted root vegetables: take any root vegetables (I happened to have potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, and onions), coat in oil, place in pan. Mine were seasoned with thyme and rosemary and fennel to match the chicken. They also soaked up chicken juice, which was a surprising flavor for me. I am not used to carrots that taste like chicken.

But the side dish. If it was spring, I would happily make asparagus grilled with lemon and a little parmesan or something. I contemplated grilling some brussel sprouts but not a lot of people are down with the brussel sprouts (and unless they are cooked right, I agree). Others suggested just serving a vegetable- just steamed broccoli or something. But in my head this is criminal. You don’t just serve a vegetable. You may as well just open up a can of peas and dump it on a plate.

See, I was raised on oversteamed vegetables. Cauliflower and broccoli cooked so long that they would just turn to mush as soon as you touched them with a fork. And with absolutely no seasoning, not even salt. This made me hate vegetables with a passion. Thankfully I eventually learned how to cook, and thereby not butcher poor defenseless vegetables by steaming them into oblivion (or completely bore the people eating my food by just cooking them and leaving it at that).

So I dove into the huge shelf of cookbooks I have (and never, ever use) and found side dishes. Hence the broccoli/cauliflower au gratin, which will be making a second appearance at Thanksgiving. It is super simple. You cook the broccoli and cauliflower (just enough to make them tender, seriously), put them in a casserole pan. Mix together about a half cup yogurt (I use Seven Stars organic, I highly recommend it if you live in the relative vicinity of southern PA) and a cup or so of grated cheese (I use Eve’s Cheese, a Kent County farm product- I quite enjoy the garlic and chive cheddar) and whatever seasoning your heart desires. Lump it on top of the broccoli. Throw on some bread crumbs if you have them around (or nutritional yeast), bake for about twenty minutes. It goes faster under the broiler but we were baking the chicken so we just put it in during the last twenty minutes the chicken was cooking. Voila. Side dish.

As a side note, I am going to be talking about local food a lot. It would probably make sense to point out where I live, so when I’m rambling about things that are in season and local farmers, it puts it in context. I won’t be specific, but I live in Kent County, MD, which is here: Kent County.

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Ok, now about actually eating this chicken.

Once most of the aforementioned people got over their shock, they were quite pleased to share their techniques for roasting chicken. I think I heard at least seven different ways to roast a chicken last week, and ended up only listening to half the advice- but the ultimate “recipe” was some sort of amalgamation of all those people’s stories, plus my “souse chef” and I making it up as we went along. People really love to talk about food. And people really love to give advice. And when you ask for advice on preparing food you had better be prepared for an earful.

My favorite was an exchange with my neighbors, who are semi-foodies like me, with whom I frequently exchange tips on jamming, fermenting, and making booze in your home. They told me to put a lemon in the cavity, turn the temperature down a little lower than most of the recipes call for, rub it with salt and pepper, the usual, and then she said, “well, you know what it should look like when it’s done, that’s all you really need to know.”

I gave her a blank look.

Her next line, delivered with a tone of genuine concern, was, “is someone going to be with you??”

I did have a great helper, who I think was confused by my constant laughter as my hands got covered in chicken goo and margarine and salt- which was a really interesting look, because I was using this fabulous fancy black sea salt that dyes everything it touches (including the crust of the bread I made) a dirty looking gray. The outside of the chicken really did not look appetizing. After the salt, it looked kind of like something you would see on the side of the road. This is a major difference between meat and vegetables- there are not many stages in the lives of vegetables where the vegetables simply look unappetizing. Carrots pulled out of the ground look like carrots. Carrots chopped and arranged (I thought rather artistically) around a chicken look like carrots. This lumpish thing in the roasting pan, that kept falling over because it was unbalanced, with its long bloody looking neck, did not look like a chicken. I think that was why I couldn’t stop laughing. I was a little disturbed that the fluffy white chicken I had been holding had turned into this weird lumpy yellow thing, and I wasn’t sure I was ok with the change. But in theory roasting a chicken is one of the most normal activities in the world- everyone had told me so.

I had spent two weeks beforehand dreaming about this meal (this is a totally normal activity for me). I imagined what the chicken would look like finished (or what I thought it would look like), what side dishes I would make, agonized over what type of bread to make, deliberated over the wine options, and asked everyone I knew the best way to roast a chicken (and spent an hour with my mom debating side dishes. vegetarians don’t know how to make side dishes). The final product was a result of many more minds than mine. It was really a community effort- the effort of many people passing on their knowledge and their experience toward my very first roasted chicken, a story I will likely be telling again and again over the years. This is really what eating is about, I think. The sharing of stories, of experiences. The passing along of traditions, of the random implements I had to borrow from family and friends (I certainly didn’t have a roasting pan sitting around my house), and the final moment when we all sat down to eat and toasted to the life of this chicken that was about to feed us all.

The chicken turned out beautifully. I had imagined it a bit browner, but it was a lovely golden tan, and the roasted vegetables around it added a bright bouquet of color- mostly helped by the deep, rich, blood red of the beets. I can never get over the color of beets, the same color as the heart of a glass of heavy cabernet held up to the light (and neither can my fingers, which are still stained from cutting them up yesterday). As we sat down, I went through the places where the meal had come from. The chicken, from my friend, the vegetables, from the farm where I used to work (both of the current farmers were present at the meal), except, as they were quick to point out, the carrots, which came from another farm down the road. The cheese and yogurt in the side dish (I made a broccoli-cauliflower au gratin) were from a local dairy owned by other acquaintances of ours and from a farm up in PA, respectively. One of the other people at the table had been up to the dairy where the yogurt was made and told an anecdote about the owners. The flour in the bread was from our co-op in PA, locally grown and milled, making the only thing not local in the entire meal the beer I used in the bread, which probably could have been local if I’d thought to run out to the liquor store. Same with the wine, which was Californian. We finished with a from scratch pumpkin pie brought by my friends- who are also local nuts who had locally sourced all their ingredients. And home made whipped cream, which is heaven in a bowl if you ask me.

I really can’t figure how to express the joy of eating a meal like this with close friends. I’ve been trying to do it all day, and the words simply won’t come, which is why I’m describing the process of creating the meal in such detail. I spent most of the day on this meal. I woke up early, went to the farmers market for all the vegetables, chatted up most of the farmers and ran into at least ten people I knew, and came home and made the bread and chopped vegetables and puttered around the house cleaning and rearranging the furniture. I even fit in a bike ride. And then my helper came over and we laughed over the black stuff on my hands and he turned the faucet on and off for me so I wouldn’t get chicken goo all over everything, and I fed my cats scraps of chicken, and we sat on the couch with the cats drinking wine and breathing in the heavy aroma of a roasting chicken. And that, capped with a night spent eating and drinking and staying up late talking and talking, is a perfect day.

There’s really not much more to say, except thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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There is something strangely amusing about basting a chicken.

Or at least I think so. I couldn’t stop giggling while I was doing it. And rubbing margarine all over the outside, and rubbing the inside with salt and pepper- it sounds strange but I was a lot more disturbed by the prospect of touching this weird yellow-white carcass thing than I was by eviscerating the chickens when they were fresh dead. I kept trying to reconcile the two images- the live chicken, and this weird lump of meat sitting on top of my stove- and failing miserably. And every time I did I would burst out laughing.

I’m not sure if it was just the thought of the looks on people’s faces- my family, mostly, but also people at work, neighbors, even strangers. Anyone who knew I was a vegetarian, upon being told that I was roasting a chicken this Saturday, would respond with this mingled look of shock and what I think was almost horror. They would immediately ask, “for who?” And I’d say, “for me, and some friends. I helped butcher the chickens, you know, so it’s only right that I eat one.”

That’s when the real faces come out. You did WHAT?

Yeah, yeah, I butchered a chicken. I guess they figured I wasn’t eating meat because I thought animals were cute.

The thing I don’t get is why this is so horrifying. These are all meat eaters. It’s not like I’m shocking vegetarian friends with news of my impending fall from the wagon. All of these people regularly eat chicken- and yet were shocked and disgusted by the fact I helped to butcher the chickens, and swore up and down they would never do the same. This, I think, is a problem. I don’t have an issue with people who eat meat. I really don’t. Guys I’ve dated have always been afraid to order steaks in front of me like I’m going to faint away or something. It’s not the meat that grosses me out, really. And I do my best not to judge, and I’m by no means perfect, but I will say that despite this I don’t think you should eat meat if you can’t face where it came from. The chicken on your plate was a chicken, a live one. It probably looked something like this:

If you are eating a Perdue or Tyson or whatever conventional chicken, it was raised in a place that looked like this:

Though that one has windows, so that’s pretty nice for a typical chicken house.

When it was slaughtered it was in a place that probably looked like this:

Again, I have no problem with people eating meat. I ate meat last night. I have a problem with people NOT LOOKING AT IT.

If you can’t look at that, if you can’t face the reality of where your chicken came from and what it went through to get to your plate, you have no right to be eating that chicken. And it’s not just about the death of an animal, though that’s part of it- it’s disrespectful to the life of that animal to want to ignore the details of its death- it’s much more about not wanting to face the consequences of your actions. Whether you like it or not, when you eat a chicken, there are consequences. One of them is the death of that chicken. And if you are afraid even to watch- even to think about it- what are you doing eating it? At the foundation of my morality, I believe everyone is responsible for the consequences of their actions, whether they want to know about them or not. You are especially responsible if you turn away. It means you deliberately chose to allow something to continue to occur that you may very well disagree with. And “I don’t want to know” does not absolve you.

This was not the original direction I intended to go with this post, and as I’m writing (thinking: I was supposed to be writing about our dinner last night and how great it was) I’m realizing this is a much bigger issue than me just laughing over the shock on people’s faces. Most of those people literally could not wrap their heads around the concept of me, a sworn vegetarian, killing, cleaning, and finally roasting and eating a chicken. I think even if I had been a meat eater the killing and cleaning part would have shocked them. And I think the reason is that our culture is SO ENGRAINED with this dissociation- with the habit of looking away- that it is actually impossible for most people to begin to look. And to force that, to put it right out where they can see it- “oh, I butchered this chicken”- is to suddenly acquaint them with something they have worked very hard to block out. Something has to die for you to eat a chicken. And it’s not very pretty.

Also, this website just freaks me out. You realize how hard it is to find a picture of a live chicken on there?
Perdue Official Website. The wonders of marketing.

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