Monday, June 28, 2010

Menu Planning part 2: Food Storage

This is the 2nd part of an on-going series on menu planning.  And you may be asking yourself, what does food storage have to do with menu planning?

The answer is that local food meal planning does not exist in isolation from other aspects of household and community food security.  The local food system does not look like Wal Mart, it does not have all the convenience of a big box  supermarket.  The sooner you get your brain wrapped firmly around that concept, the better and easier your local food adventures will be.  It is not easy to do this, since most of us have known nothing other than a big box supermarket all our lives.  We expect everything to be available all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,  365 days a year.  Here in the United States, we benefit from our position at the top of the world food chain to take food from hungry people around the world to load our tables with the delights of gluttony.  I'm sure that sounds somewhat harsh, but it is the truth.  When we buy out of season produce, chances are very goodr that we are taking food from the mouths of hungry children in countries around the world. 

As the situation with peak oil develops around the world, the days of flying in grapes from Chile and lettuce from Israel will be numbered.  Air freight in particular (which is the freight of choice for perishable produce) is vulnerable to the price and availability of fuel.  We are never more than one terrorist or political incident away from having that fragile system of air freighted produce broken into a million pieces.  And like Humpty Dumpty, once broken, it wiill be hard to put it back together again.

Here in North America, we are in the midst of the summer growing season.  We are all thinking about the great meals we will have this summer from our gardens' production and from the local farmers' markets and local food coops -- but now is also the time to think about what we will eat in December, January, and February, when most of those farmer's markets are closed and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative has no produce for sale.

Which is to say -- now is the time to buy not only your summer food needs, but also start working on what you will need during the winter.

So it comes to pass that food storage is essential to feeding your household more local foods.  Yes, you can also invest in cold frames and a greenhouse and maybe have some greens this summer, but most of us won't or can't do that.

To successfully store summer produce, you will need some equipment.

The easiest method of summer produce storage is the freezer.  Most vegetables can be simply blanched (dipped in boiling water for a few minutes) and frozen.  I typically freeze cooked vegetables (especially the summer greens like chard and collards).

A second method of preservation is dehydration, also easy.  I dehydrate shredded summer squash and carrots and use them for winter soups and sauces.

A third method is canning.  You can make pickles and chutneys and other high acid products using vinegar with a boiling water canner, but other low-acid veggies and meats will require a pressure canner.  That's a bit more involved, but here again, there is a convenience  factor as the pressure canning process cooks them so they are ready to heat and eat.  Your local county extension department can provide you with complete information about home canning, and you can also take your pressure canner there for a pressure test to make sure it is working OK.

This also is a good time to talk a bit about longer-term food storage.  Going forward into the years ahead, which will be characterized by the problems caused by peak oil, economic irrationality, and climate disruptions, all of us should keep some of our family's savings in the form of food.  Buy now, eat later; store what you eat and eat what you store.  I am of the opinion that every household should have a year's worth of basic foods on hand at all times -- beans, rice, grains, honey, etc.  Not many of us could buy a whole year's worth of food at one time, but everyone could buy a little extra each month.  By incorporating these basic foods into your diet, eating more beans for example, and grinding your own grain to make flour and baking your own bread, you can save money on your regular food bill and that would allow you to set aside some extra food each month.  Wheat, for example, is available in large quantities right now, through the Oklahoma Food Coop you can get it already packaged in buckets for long-term storage, and it is certified organic wheat no less.

In recent years, we've had the energy crisis, and the financial crisis, and it may be that a food crisis lurks around the corner.  Like the financial and energy crisis, when it comes upon us there won't be much warning and people will wonder, "how did this happen".  As they say, the time to develop your family's food storage system is before the food shortages begin.

What does this have to do with menu planning?  Food storage simplifies menu planning and helps you stick to your food plan even if you run out of time to go shopping.  It increases the convenience of your local food system, since food storage is like having a mini-grocery store right there in your own house.  It helps you develop frugal menu plans, since you are buying in larger quantities and thus probably saving some money.

Final notes on food storage:

+  Rotate your supplies.  It really helps to write the date purchased on all items in your pantry. 
+ Not all food storage items will come from local production, due to its present limitations.  Dried beans, for example, are simply n ot available from local food production, yet they are an important component of a frugal meal plan.  So some things must be bought from the regular food system, and I will talk a bit about that upcoming in future installments in this series.
+ Don't delay, act today.  Procrastination is the thief of time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Local Foods Menu Planning Part the First

Lately there has been some talk going around about menu planning and local foods, so this would be a good time to review some of the principles I use in menu planning.

The first is -- if you want a menu plan, then you must plan your meals.  I know many people don't plan meals more than a day or two in advance, and for those locked into the supermarket culture, that's fine.  But households that want to move in the direction of eating more local foods have to be a bit more pro-active.  Yes, this takes a bit of time up front, but over the trajectory of a year, you will develop various seasonal meal plans that will speed things up in the future.

And then there's the learning curve.  The first time you do anything, it takes longer than the tenth time.  I bet it took 30 minutes for me to figure out how to bake my first pan of biscuits, but now I can turn out home-made biscuits as fast as opening a can of store-bought biscuits and putting them in the pan (faster, if you factor in the time required to go to the store and buy the biscuits).  It may take a while to get into the groove on menu planning, but the effort is worth it.

SO. . . you have something to look forward to.

The second principle is -- eat with the season.  Eat what's available.  We are going into high summer, and the food coop and farmers' markets (not to mention your home gardens) are yielding glorious produce.  Now is the time to use that produce to great effect in your meal plans, and to put aside produce for future use in the winter.  Food preservation and processing will be discussed in much greater detail later, but one way to approach this is to buy two or three times the veggies you will eat each week and store the excess for eating later.  Perhaps the  easiest way to store many vegetables is to go ahead and cook them, and then freeze them.  This has the added benefit of adding convenience, in that all you have to do for a meal is take something out of the freezer and reheat it.

Perennial shortages in veggies available locally include potatoes, onions, carrots, and cabbage, which of course are the most commonly eaten vegetables.  When they are available, it is usually in very small quantities.  They are, however, usually available from sources like the Health Food Center on SW 74 and Atkins at NW 63 and May, organic.  Buy for Less usually has 5 lb bags of organic carrots for about $5, and generally the Health Food Center is close to that price.  Organic cabbage runs $5/head, organic celery $2-3/bunch.  Organic onions I usually don't buy, since the pesticide/herbicide count on commercial onions is the least of all the veggies, whereas celery is #1 on the list of pesticide load and non-organic celery should never ever be bought at a grocery store and consumed.  See the Environmental Work Group's list of veggies and their pesticide loads for a guide as to what veggies should be only consumed in their organic form.  These aren't local, but they are organic, and until our local vegetable production gets up to speed on these key items, unless you intend to forgo these staple foods entirely, this is what your choices are.

Besides vegetables, generally speaking the local food scene in central Oklahoma is well stocked with ground meats, roasts, chicken, organ meats (liver mostly), soup bones, wheat and whole wheat flours, various herbs (which your home garden should also be well stocked with), cheese, and yogurt.  We have minimal potatoes, no rice, little corn (and zero corn meal), no rolled oats.  And of course, corn meal, potatoes, rice, and rolled oats are generally on everyone's shopping list.

There are no locally available cooking oils, but there is a small amount of lard available, also pork fat so you can render your own lard.  Not sure why none of our beef producers sell any of the beef fat, as that can be used to make tallow which is another natural cooking fat. 

Eggs are in moderate availability, depending on the time of year.  You should always plan to buy extra eggs in the summer and freeze them for use in thew inter when they are scarce.

One rule of thumb is that about half the plate should be devoted to vegetables, 1/4 to meat, and 1/4 to something whole grain.  And generally, most dinner plates are too big, so choose dinner plates slightly smaller than the typical dinner plate.

This of course is the exact opposite of what most people end up with for a meal.  3/4 of the plate will be meat and carbs, and only 1/4 vegetables and/or fruit.

Anyway, I digress.

Start by making a list of the meals your family presently enjoys.  List everything -- meat or other main dish, carbs (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc), vegetables, desserts, and of course, DO NOT FORGET the snacks.  Also, list all the times you eat out and what you eat when you eat out.  The reason for this is that you may want to reduce the number of times you eat out, so you will need to think about menus for brown bagging your lunch.  Never forget that the price of a pound of hamburger -- when purchased in the form of hamburgers -- is about twelve to fifteen bucks a pound.

If you never (or rarely) plan meals, start small -- try a 3 day meal plan.

Then, look at this plan and see what you can do with local foods.  For example, the most common meat eaten at our house is ground beef -- locally sourced, grass fed, free-ranging, through the coop.  I buy steaks maybe twice a year.  We eat roast about once a month, and not every month.  This is what we can afford.  Because I can't afford locally-sourced steaks and roast every week, I don't eat them very week (that is, I don't go to the supermarket and buy mystery meat steaks and roast because I can't afford locally sourced steaks and roast every week).  I buy one chicken a month, that is what I can afford. When it was just Sean and I, we got about 3 meals out of that chicken.  Now that our household has increased to 5, we get one meal and some extra broth out of that chicken.  The old saw about chicken having less fat and cholesterol than red meat is only true for supermarket chickens and supermarket red meats.  Meats from grass fed, free ranging cattle and bison are as low in cholesterol and fat as chicken, so there is no health reason in the local foods kitchen for preferring chicken over ground beef.

Which is to say -- another principle of local food menu planning is temperance in your choices.

My advice is to start your meal planning with foods you already eat and like, and then over time introduce local foods and substitutions for items you have to buy at a regular supermarket.  People are very conservative in their food choices, and a radical change in diet is rarely welcome at the dinner table.

One interesting factor about local foods is that they are so good, that you can serve the same thing basically for several days in a row and not get bored.  We eat ground meat -- in different forms -- nearly every day.  There are about a gazillion ways to cook ground meats (beef, bison, lamb, pork) and the reason for that is that the majority of the meat from a steer ends up as ground meat.  Only about 10-15% goes to steak, which is why they are so expensive.

Some common substitutions at our house include --
  • Yogurt cheese instead of mayo or miracle whip or sour cream.
  • Home made bulgar instead of rice or potatoes (see How to Make Bulgar for my recipe, I used to make and sell it through the coop, but the realities of the processing and sale system were that I had to price it high in order to make enough money to make it worth my time and effort, this is really an item that should be made in the home, and it is dirt cheap when you do it that way in say monthly batches of a few pounds of wheat). 
  • Walking onions from my garden instead of regular store bought onions.
  • "Cream of bulgar" instead of oatmeal (after you grind the bulgar, sift it, and cook the fine bulgar flour like Cream of Wheat).
  • Home-made gravy instead of cream of whatever soups for casserolles and "galopie".
  • Whole wheat pancakes made from scratch instead of white flour pancake mix.
  • Home-made breads instead of store bought (during the summer, I make stove-top flat-breads using regular whole wheat bread dough).
Four local food convenience tips:
  • Bread dough in bowl in the refrigerator for daily home-made bread (stove top or oven baked).
  • Frozen home-made stock.
  • Frozen cooked veggies.
  • Frozen cooked hamburger (freeze in meal size portions).

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Visit of the Mayors

The Mayors have come to Okie City.  Unfortunately, they are meeting at our government owned convention facilities.  That means they will have to go elsewhere for a good meal.

I attended a convention at one of our government meeting centers downtown a while back and went to the banquet.  It was perhaps the worst banquet meal I have ever eaten, and given the well-deserved bad reputation of convention fodder, that's saying something.  The meal consisted of half of a baked chicken (so seriously under-cooked I did not eat it, bright red inside a chicken is not appetizing), "encrusted" with slices of slightly warm/mostly raw potatoes and sprinkled with maybe 3 or 4 flecks of  herbs, 4 small pieces of vegetable, some rice-out-of-a-box, also undercooked, a salad and a roll.  The roll was good, the salad was acceptable, and I did eat my four small pieces of indifferently cooked veggies, but I refused to touch the chicken and its coating of nearly raw potatoes.

And yes, I did file a complaint with the health department, and ended up in a three way phone converation between someone from the health department and two people from the convention center and that mostly consisted of them assuring me that nobody ever complains about our convention centers' food, and they could not imagine what happened for my chicken to be so undercooked.  Why, according to them, that was almost impossible.  Maybe I imagined the rivers of blood streaming from my undercooked chicken, but as I hadn't had anything to drink, I don't think so.

The problem with convention food is the monopolies wielded by contractors to these facilities.  If you are allowed to bring in someone else, there is usually a stiff tax to be paid to the concessionaire, so high it is obviously designed to keep people from using outside caterers.

Since convention people are here one day and gone the next, and since we are dealing with a government enterprise, and since nearly universally across the country, the food at government convention centers is only marginally edible, there's no financial incentive to do anything other than feed convention people the lowest quality food at the cheapest possible price.

The Oklahoma Sustainability Network faces a similar problem with its annual meetings.  The food concessionaire at the University of Central Oklahoma is pretty bad.  The last meeting I went to there I had a sandwich on stale bread, lol. 

There's no reason that convention food has to be bad.  When I went to the Slow Food event (Terra Madre 2004) in Turin, Italy, they fed 5,000 people at a time and the food was wonderful!  Well cooked, hot foods were served hot, cold foods were served cold (instead of the typically room temperature of both hot and cold foods at goobermint convention facilities).  All it takes is competence in execution, imagination in menu planning, and access to good quality foods.

Alas, Oklahoma's government facilities lack all three.

Despite our growing 21st century reputation as one of the go-to locations for local foods in the United States, our convention center caterers are stuck in a 20th century industrial food model that considers food as nothing more than fodder, the cheaper the better.

My advice to the mayors coming to town is "bring a lunch" or at least avoid the noxious foods of our convention center and explore some of the restaurants in the area.

My advice to Okies who are tired of being embarassed by our government facilities' so-called "food" is somewhat radical.  Maybe we should have a FREE MARKET for the food at our government facilities, including the convention centers, the State Fair grounds (don't get me started on those people and the harm they do to local foods by their catering policies), and even (shudder, gasp, horrors) our college food services.