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Archive for September, 2010

Since I’ve been on about them so much…

We make almost everything in a single, giant frying pan, or sometimes a wok, which is basically a deep frying pan. You can make anything if your pan is big enough, even tomato sauce, though a pot is usually more convenient for preventing splashes.

The trick to cooking everything all in one is to think ahead. If you add the ingredients in the right order, everything will be cooked properly by the time you finish, and, if you’re quick, you can stagger chopping things up while the first ingredients are cooking. This is another one of those things that bends to personal preference. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to chop everything, and then add the ingredients one at a time, though since often there is only one cutting board this can get tricky. It also depends on how well you want things cooked and what you’re cooking them in. But this is a general rule of thumb:

1. Cook hard things first, ie potatoes of any kind, carrots, turnips, beets, cauliflower, or hard squashes. Most of these you can chop and cook in just enough water to cover them in the bottom of the pan. They only need to be cooked until you can get a fork into them, because they will cook the rest of the way during the actual stir frying. If you get the quantity of water right, most of it will burn off and you can set the veggies aside for when you are ready, otherwise, drain and set aside. You can also put them in a bowl covered with a little water and microwave very briefly. If you are using a lot of liquid in your cooking, you can sometimes cook most of these things through without precooking them, especially fingerling potatoes and carrots, but there is nothing so odd as a really good stir fry with weird bits of uncooked veggies in.

2. Once the pan is empty again, start with the garlic and onion, if you’re using one. Fry in a little oil until they become translucent. You can also add peppers at this point, which shouldn’t cook for longer than maybe three minutes. The idea here is to cook all the crispy things first so they retain their crisp.

3. If you’re adding tomatoes, those should go next, along with your spices. If not, add the spices and liquids with the rest of the veggies. If you are for some reason cooking tofu, it’s often best to add it before the main part of the veggies and definitely before the liquid (except soy sauce or teriyaki), so it has the opportunity to brown and soak up some spices. Often it’s easier to fry tofu separately and add it toward the end.

4. Next you can add any of the medium texture veggies- summer squash, eggplant, that sort of thing. You can also add the hard veggies back in at this point. Once these have cooked for a few minutes, you can add broccoli and some of the more tender things. Beans would also go in at this point, and any canned veggies which will be soft already.

5. Anything leafy goes in last. That includes bok choy, chard, kale, cabbage, anything of that nature, as well as what I think of as accessories, like water chestnuts or nuts. These hardly need to cook at all, since you are mostly just wilting them, and shouldn’t be added until the rest of the vegetables are cooked very nearly to completion.

6. At all stages, stir regularly, unless you are trying to caramelize or seriously brown something. If at any point things start sticking to the pan, add a little more liquid and turn the heat down. There’s seldom a reason to stir fry any higher than medium on most stove tops, unless you are really hungry and in a hurry, in which you really need to stir frequently to prevent burning. This is one of the most versatile and fast ways to cook large quantities of veggies, and once you get the method down, you can cook almost anything, with any combination of seasoning, to perfection.

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I am having a terrible time coming up with things to write about lately, considering I haven’t been cooking, I have barely been eating, and I haven’t even been to the farmer’s market in over a month. The most exciting food related thing that’s happened to me has been a bad fried cheese incident on Sunday. (Basically: fried cheese is never a good idea. I don’t care how good it sounds.)

I spend most of my time dreaming of the months ahead, when all the food will be stored, when two of my jobs will be temporarily over, and when the only thing to do will be to peruse the stack of new cookbooks I’ve gotten in the past few months for ideas (and testing them out).

Speaking of which. Since I am feeling uninspired right now, I am going to use the next week to post various things out of my unfinished cookbook that I will probably never finish. I am going to start with the lists, and see how far we get before I have something more exciting to write about.

The basic essentials for a well-stocked kitchen
Goodwill is an awesome place to get cheap kitchen implements. All of the ones nearby have huge kitchenware departments that no one ever seems to venture into, and they are full of knives, pots, and gadgets of all varieties. People also throw these away (imagine!) and sometimes you can find them dumpster diving… inheriting them from older family members is another fine way to create a stock of kitchen supplies.
• A decent set of knives- at least one large chopping knife and a small, sharp one for de-veining peppers, ie a paring knife.
• A cutting board. I like wood but the plastic kind are tolerable.
• A big spoon, and another big one with slots. And a spatula.
• A strainer.
• A really big pot for sauce and for blanching veggies for freezing.
• A big frying pan.
• A big bowl (for everything).
• A baking sheet and/or casserole, presuming you have an oven.
• A grater.
• Lots of Tupperware (or even those cheap Gladware things from the grocery store. They’re great for freezing or for storing veggies). But if you can get real Tupperware, it will last you a lifetime. It helps if you can inherit it from your grandparents.

And then, for kicks and giggles, my favorite kitchen implements that I can’t believe I ever lived without:
• Funnels. I have a set of four or so. They are SO useful.
• Mason jars, just for storing things in.
• A candy thermometer, which I use constantly.
• A magic wand. This combines the concept of blender and food processer into one, magical, inexpensive device, and it is worth every penny you spend on it.
• Rags. And towels. I go through so many of these on a weekly basis.
• A potato masher. This is another one that you will end up finding all kinds of bizarre uses for.
• Cheesecloth. Always good to have on hand. Just because. I go through a lot of it.
• Sea salt. Is not a kitchen implement. But you should always have it in stock, because there is nothing else in my kitchen that I use so often as sea salt.

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It was a lot less magical this time. Wine, aside from, apparently, the dandelion wine I made last spring, is really a simple thing to make. There are many things you can add to wine, from extra sugar (for higher alcohol content, otherwise known as “fortified” wine) to extra acid (to counterbalance the sugar) to sulfites and who knows what else. But after an extended discussion with the guy at the homebrew store, with whom I recommend you speak if you are going to do any homebrewing, I decided to try the same method that seems to have worked for me so far, and which fits best with my general attitude to things like cooking and fermenting: throw it in the bucket and see what happens.

My wonderful next door neighbor, who is going to need a nickname soon (if he is reading perhaps he has some suggestions), is on a bit of a kick with the pressing of various fruits into juice. As far as I know he is just drinking his, but I have taken the opportunity to take a stab at making more alcoholic beverages. The downside of this being that he doesn’t always warn me when he is making juice, or at least not with enough notice that I can happen to get by the homebrew store at a time when I am already on the other shore. Thus both the apple juice and now the grape juice had a sit in my fridge before being subjected to the fermentation treatment, which I’m sure has killed a lot of the flavor. I’m just hoping it doesn’t detract from the ability of the yeast to do their job. The primary fermentation (the vigorous bubbling stage) of the cider did seem to be a lot shorter than really it should have been. And the grape juice had turned an interesting brown color (though it was from white grapes) which the book I picked up at the homebrew store tells me is from oxidation or something. Which is apparently a bad thing. But I’m not sure as I haven’t yet finished that chapter.

This time around I did nearly the same as for the cider. I put the grape juice on the stove for a few minutes, to bring it up to temperature as it was far too cold from being in the fridge to add yeast to. And as my apartment is hovering around a cool 68 or so, it wasn’t likely to get much warmer anytime soon. Proper temperature more or less achieved, I added the yeast packet to a little bit of warm juice:

This actually smells amazing. The hardest part is keeping out the fruit flies, which descend almost immediately when you put something as tantalizing as yeast filled juice on the counter. Hopefully they didn’t manage any damage before I covered the measuring cup. After 15 minutes, the yeast is supposed to be sufficiently rehydrated, at which point it got dumped in the bucket with the rest of the juice. Here it is:

Food grade buckets are hard to come by unless you buy them, but I was fortunate enough to get this one for free. The trouble is, I keep using the same one. As much as I scrubbed it it still seemed to have some apple cider infused into the sides, which worries me, in that it could also have bad bacteria or different yeasts which could then populate the wine and prevent the good yeasts I added from doing their business. Most homebrew instructions say to wash out your buckets with bleach, ammonia, or this nasty sanitizing stuff they sell at the homebrew store, all of which I think are rather disgusting and refuse to have anything to do with. Perhaps this will cause me trouble in the future, but in the meantime I am willing to be experimental. I first wash the bucket really well, and rinse it about a million times to make sure the soap is gone. In theory I shouldn’t use soap at all, but you have to do something to get the dried apple stuff off the sides, and I have no idea what else would work. I then soak the bucket in a mixture of hot water and vinegar, which acts more or less like bleach in that it typically kills bad bacteria (being a very strong acid. this is why you can use vinegar to clean countertops and so on). To be absolutely sure (in my opinion) I follow this up by boiling a gallon of water and dumping it inside and swirling it around. If THIS fails to kill bacteria, I don’t know what will.

The cleaning tends to actually take a lot longer than the brewing. After all that, it only took me the fifteen minutes of rehydrating the yeast to finish the process. Wine, unlike beer, does not have to be cooked, and does not require loads of ingredients (except as I said the flower wines, which require added sugar and acid). The quality of your wine is dependent more than anything on the quality of your grapes. I don’t know much about these grapes, so we’ll have to see. A week or so in the bucket, and then into the carboy. In about a year, if all goes well, there will be wine…!

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What We’re Owed

I made a mention last week of this idea that society does not owe me a farm. I totally agree. I wouldn’t argue in the slightest that “society”, for what that term is worth, owes me much of anything. Society is an abstract concept that has very little meaning and therefore can have very little responsibility attached to it. I’m also not arguing that I’m owed a farm by anyone, really. People don’t have the obligation to go around handing out farms left and right.

They do, on the other hand, have the obligation to not treat each other like shit. This is quite a claim, I know. I’m not going to get into the philosophy of why, right at the moment, other than to point out that to even function as a society over the long term some common decency has to occur or people will just start killing each other or themselves. And lo! Look where we are now. People are damnably miserable, and that is one generalization I am fairly comfortable in making. Just take a look around.

There are many reasons why this is so, one of them being the whole community issue I tend to ramble on about at such great lengths. The other being a lack of meaningful work. I say, quite often, that I don’t want to work, and people get very up in arms about this, apparently because they think I mean I want to sit at home all day watching television and eating ice cream. This couldn’t be farther from the case. There are two definitions of work: on the one hand, the act of working, in the sense that if I go outside right now and dig a hole I will be working. The dictionary has this one as: “activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” I use this definition when I say I have to go home and work, by which I mean I need to clean the floors or can tomatoes or patch a hole in a dress. The second definition, and I think it important to note that it is the SECOND definition in the dictionary, is this: “such activity as a means of earning income, employment.” This is what I mean when I say, “I don’t want to work.”

I don’t want to be employed. I know, gasps all around. In this economy, how can you be so ungrateful for your job, yada yada I hear it all the time. I’m not ungrateful for the opportunities my job has given me. But I still don’t want to work in the sense that I have to go somewhere for eight hours a day and at the end of the week I get a paycheck so I can pay for a space to lay my head (rent).

I want to live my life, and yes, I want to work. I want to work at planting things, and encouraging them to grow, and harvesting the fruits so there is something to eat. There is a lovely passage at the end of the Lord of the Rings where he says, “The fruit was so plentiful that young hobbits very nearly bathed in strawberries and cream; and later they sat on the lawns under the plum-trees and ate, until they had made piles of stones like small pyramids… and then they moved on.” The important thing to catch here (and I have to give the Tolkien Professor credit for pointing to this) is that they just move around eating from the trees. They don’t go to the store to buy plums. They don’t even necessarily go to their own family’s trees. They just find a tree and eat the plums.

I have written about this before and will write about it again. Try to imagine a world where you can walk outside and eat as many plums as you want off a tree, so long as there are plenty of plums left over for everyone else. I mean really, try. Try to imagine that your “work” for the day is to go outside and putter around and maybe pull some weeds and maybe spread some compost and feed the chickens and do a little sewing or wood working or whatever you prefer, and then come in at the end of the day and help prepare a meal and eat and sit after to talk or tell stories or play music. Am I the only one who thinks this sounds like paradise? I know I’m not the only one who believes it to be possible. It’s just that we’ve built up a lot of impediments to making this happen. One of the biggest of course being all the people who insist this is an impossible dream. To them I say no, it’s not a dream, it’s a fundamental right. You have the fundamental right to live your life, and to do so without selling your hours away. Look at octopuses or something. Don’t octopi get along splendidly without selling their hours away for pay? They just go about their business, and everything is fine.

Why is it that people believe we don’t have the same right?

I have heard so many arguments against this idea, and every time I just stare at the person who is usually getting red in the face telling me the arguments, waiting for them to wind down. And then I ask them, “are you happy?” And most of the time they say no, but will quickly follow with “but that’s the way it is.” NO. THAT IS NOT THE WAY IT IS. You can be happy. There is another way. But as I’ve been arguing in the past few days, we become complacent. We forget that this is not the only way to live. We forget that we have power. We forget that government is an abstract term, and that the people who are doing the governing are just that: people. People who are not infallible, people who are not omnipotent and invincible. People. We forget that we have the right to stand up for ourselves. We tell ourselves that it has always been this way, and anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so no, I don’t believe I’m owed a farm. But I am owed a life, as is everyone else on earth. And if that means some other things have to be sacrificed so that we can all have our lives… well. I’m willing to make that sacrifice. Government is an abstract, after all. No harm in sacrificing an abstract. Not if it means that real, tangible people, and the rest of the very real, tangible planet, can finally go back to living.

Anyone else with me?

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I can’t believe I’m going to say it, but I’m starting to look forward to fall and winter. I said it last year, as well, I think because last year the same thing happened where for the few months where I’m working (in the employment sense) 7 days a week and usually 10-16 hours per day, getting to January where all I have to do is the one job and then come home and hang out starts to look pretty good.

Also, I am looking forward to fall vegetables. I love summer vegetables the best, but there are only so many things you can do with eggplant and zucchini- especially when the handsome fella refuses to eat either of them. This week, in a desperate attempt to make something other than stir fry (which I’m starting to get pretty tired of), I tried the zucchini au gratin again, but this time added eggplant.

The basic concept of this is to quickly fry the slices of eggplant and zucchini in butter, and then to layer them in a casserole. Then I make a veloute sauce, which is basically butter, milk, flour, and vegetable broth, and pour it over the lot. Then I shredded some cheese over the top, and ta-da! Casserole. You are supposed to drain the zucchini and eggplant first, but considering I always wait until the last minute to decide what I’m making for dinner at this time of year, there usually isn’t time for draining. Didn’t seem to matter too much since I dry fried them, more or less. I used the raw swiss cheese I brought back from PA, which worked out kind of awesomely. It’s a little too strong just to sit and eat, but shredded over casserole it adds a nice tartness.

So there you have it! In another month or so I will be back to my normal cooking routine and there will be much more food to talk about.

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So what do you do when they don’t want to talk? If it’s an issue of two friends arguing, and the other person doesn’t want to talk, then usually there’s not a lot you can do. And I could write at length about appropriate ways to approach people who probably don’t want to talk to you, and how doing so in a way that does not make you sound accusatory is usually step one. No one is going to respond well to being attacked. But that doesn’t address the problem of the people who won’t listen, and most of the people who are deforesting, alas, will not listen. Assuming we can even get in to talk to them. I was going to write about this, but now I’m thinking I’m going to wait until the podcast comes out, because so much of that is on this subject, and really I don’t want to spoil it.

I’m going to keep up with the inspiration thing, instead. One of the things I get very little of, unfortunately, is contact with new ideas. This is largely the result of being so busy, and partially the result of not wanting anything to do with the news. And also hating to leave home. Fortunately some strangers have taken to posting comments on this blog (keep up strangers, keep up!). And even more fortunately they have said some thought provoking things, which, even if I don’t respond in the comments, are certainly on my mind.

One of them I will have to thank profusely for giving me something I’ve apparently been mulling over for three weeks, according to the date on the comment. Cycling in Hollywood said “just because you want to farm doesn’t mean society owes you a farm.” At first this comment annoyed me because, well, obviously I don’t think society owes me a farm (or maybe it isn’t obvious in my posts. I’m not sure). I do think society owes everyone the opportunity to do meaningful work, but that’s another thing entirely.

What this did eventually force me to realize, however, is that I’ve been so blinded by my obsession with the farm (which I should be candid and point out is more than anything a desire to live nearby to all of my friends so we can all hang out and play music and make dinner), that I’ve missed an opportunity that’s smack dab in my face. Aside from the desire to have a cool place for us all to hang out, I’ve been obsessed with the possibility of helping young people to learn to farm, and hopefully, eventually, connecting them with the means to actually start farms. This is what I wish was in place now, so that when the many aging farmers that Cycling in Hollywood refers to retire, they’d have someone they could pass the farm on to without dealing with the immense tax burden that makes this almost impossible. Alas, there are two things standing in the way, and one is the expense, while the other is the simple fact that most of the farming that goes on around here does not work, is neither economically or environmentally sustainable, and needs to be replaced- but there again the expense comes into it. Young people, myself included, come in with all these upstart ideas, and tend to trample on the experience of farmers who have been doing this for generations and know what simply can and cannot work. I am convinced, however, that there is someway to combine the two- the ideas of the younger generation, that could lift the shore out of the inevitable decline of grain farming, and the knowledge of the older generation, who actually know the business of farming.

I’m getting off track again. The point of all this is that I am far more stubborn than most and tend to get blinded by the long term goal, while missing what is happening right in front of my face (which also applies to personal relationships and the fact that I was so short sighted I missed the grommet I was attempting to hit and hit my finger instead. What can I say, it was a wake up call). And I’ve been so stubbornly set on farming that I’ve missed that the students who I work with on a daily basis were asking for the same kind of help that I had envisioned giving on the future farm- except that they had developed a plan for it to happen right here on campus.

I should stop here and say I try not to talk about work much, because I am afraid people from work will read it. I will suffice to say that I typically am not looking for inspiration from campus, for all the reasons outlined in yesterday’s post. But here the students have opened my eyes, to see that there is an answer to the needing to stay in this position but wanting to farm question. Now it just remains to see how it will work out.

Apologies again for being so vague. I’ll talk about it more when I can. My point was not to tell you about this new idea I’ve suddenly realized was right in front of me all along. My point was that the inspiration came from the most unlikely of places. This has always, ALWAYS been the case in my life. When I am worried about something and can’t seem to find the answer, suddenly all these strange seeming coincidences will point me in the right direction: research for the podcast we recorded combined with a conversation with an acquaintance combined with hitting my finger combined with finally sitting down to read the proposal from the students and a single sentence said by a new colleague and all of that topped off by that comment on the blog three weeks ago.

The trick, I’ve come to believe, is not to ignore it when it comes along.

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I have been asking myself variations on the same question for years now- for as long as I can remember, really: Why don’t people do anything?

By this I mean, why don’t people do anything about all the problems in the world. Lots and lots of bad things happen that could be averted, but people don’t do anything. Why do college students in the US let their administrators raise tuition? Why do any of us allow the people in charge of these decisions to clear cut forests, and dump nuclear waste into the oceans? A lot of it has to do with not knowing who is making these decisions. It’s hard to go on the attack when you don’t know who you are attacking, when the culprit is a big vague “they.” And I will be talking about that in relation to the Lord of the Rings on an upcoming podcast. Stay tuned.

But the other part, and a part that we only somewhat touched on, is the tendency of people to be insular. It becomes glaringly obvious in a place like this, where I live, where it is such a small town to start with, and beyond that almost everyone works for the same place. It’s very like high school in that you have classes with all the same people, and then you hang out with the same people, and have very little exposure to any other people and therefore end up being somewhat complacent in terms of what goes on within your circle. Many of the people who work where I do have been here for ages, and went to school here, and are friends with other people who work here, and therefore have very little exposure to the outside world, and thus become very complacent.

It’s a human tendency, and I’m not knocking it in general. It’s really nice to have friends that you know really well and that you spend time with and see all the time. I really enjoy it. But I had an inspiration today when it suddenly occurred to me that I was doing the same thing as everyone else- I was getting so set in my ways that I didn’t see when relationships were becoming toxic, when I wasn’t getting enough exposure to the outside. It’s an awful risk to put all your eggs in one basket, and it’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a relationship (or group of relationships) when you have no other means to vent.

Just imagine what tends to happen to most everyone in high school (and college, and life). You develop a close friendship. You spend all your time with this person (or group of people). And so when something happens, you turn to them. This is all well and good, unless they are the only person you are turning to. If that becomes the case, then not only are they dealing with all of their own emotional baggage, but suddenly they are dealing with ALL of yours. And because you are only turning to one person for help, you are only getting one perspective, and so are getting locked into reacting in the same way to every crisis. This limits new thought on both sides, and puts a terrible strain on what otherwise could be very fruitful relationships.

Now how does all of this relate to changing the world? We all get locked into our patterns. I, without realizing it, was behaving like everyone else I’ve been criticizing for the past few years. I was getting caught up in the small, circular battles of everyone else on this campus. I’ve been repeating the same behaviors, over and over, because it had never occurred to me to do otherwise. When this happens, you can’t see outside the box, so to speak. You just keep reacting in the same way to every crisis, because you literally cannot see, usually until it is too late, that this is just digging the hole deeper and deeper.

When the podcast comes out you will hear us talking a lot about the Scouring of the Shire, one of the last chapters of the Return of the King, which is sadly one of the bits not covered in the movies though it is one of the sections used most regularly by scholars because it most nearly reveals Tolkien’s own opinions on the world (or so we all argue). In it, to be brief, one of the hobbits has taken to shipping the agricultural products of the Shire out of the Shire (which was never done before on a large scale). Eventually, to facilitate this, he hires “ruffians,” ie men with clubs, to come in and enforce the new policy of collecting what everyone else grows so it can be shipped away, while the small portion remaining is redistributed to the Shire. When the hobbits who have been away (the stars of the movies, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin) come back, they are appalled that things have gotten this way. Most of the hobbits of the Shire are appalled too, but they haven’t done anything about it. From the description, it sounds largely as if it simply didn’t occur to them to do anything about it, not until the outsiders came back and pointed it out to them, at which point they rose up and took back the Shire.

Within our own relationships, and by relationships I’m also meaning neighbors and friends and coworkers, not just partners, we often need something from the outside to make us snap out of it and realize what a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. When it comes to something like the destruction of the environment, this is a much bigger mess. And even if we realize we’re in a mess, and need some new ideas, where do they come from? Where is outside, when pretty much the entire planet is in the same predicament?

Daniel Quinn suggests looking outside of civilization, in his books. One of his characters describes going to an alien planet to find out the solution to this mess- and is told not to look to aliens for the solution, but to look at the rest of life on the planet. At elephants and sharks and wombats and beech trees. At humans who haven’t become civilized. But this is a hard pill for most people to swallow. Take advice from elephants? But they don’t have televisions. Are they going to tell me to give up the internet?

The hard truth is that we don’t want to hear the answers. Much easier to sulk and play the victim and imagine the world is against you, then to realize it’s at least partially your fault and get up and do something about it. But I will tell you this, dear readers: EVERY time I have decided to do something about it, and the other person has opened up enough to discuss what’s going on so that we can move forward (and yes, even in cases like deforestation, somewhere there is another person who you can talk to), it has worked out. We’re all just afraid they’re going to be mean to us or something.

The problem, of course, comes when they aren’t willing to talk to you. But I’ll save that for tomorrow.

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