The New Home Economics


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Goodbye microwave

A few months ago, we got rid of our microwave. I was convinced that I couldn’t live without it, so I moved it to the basement. Turns out, I haven’t missed it a bit.

Many of my favorite food and nutrition bloggers are very against using a microwave to cook foods, and the Weston A Price Foundation recommends against it, since it was never used any traditional societies.

However, I’m having a really hard time finding solid scientific evidence that says, without a doubt, that microwaving food causes real, immediate harm.  But! BUT!  It all depends on how you look at it.

What is true: microwaving food in plastic containers causes the plastic to release toxic chemicals into the food. Also, from one of the more reliable sources I was able to find, scientists don’t all agree on how microwaves actually heat food. There’s also the issue of “popcorn lung,” i.e. highly processed foods specifically made to be microwaved that release airborne chemicals.

Additionally, as everyone knows, microwaves heat food really unevenly and therefore should not be used to cook raw meat or heat up baby bottles, and — let’s face it — microwaved food often just doesn’t taste as good.

What may or may not be true: microwaving food causes cancer, fibromyalgia, and host of other major human diseases. (Here’s a fairly typical article.)

Even if the more extreme assertions aren’t true, what I’ve read was enough to convince me that it’s probably not worth it. Additionally, microwaving food is kinda antithetical to the entire slow foods frame-of-mind — if you want to eat something but are feeling too lazy to cook it properly, maybe you’re not really hungry to begin with!

Our microwave occupied a large part of our kitchen counter.  We got rid of it, put a toaster oven in its place, and haven’t looked back.  Look how much counter space we freed up!

Before:

After:

I’ll be honest: I still use the microwave at work to heat up my soup lunches. (Hey! I’m not perfect!)

Do you feel strongly about microwaves? Know about some really great scientific evidence that they’re dangerous or that they’re safe?  Post it in the comments! Seriously. I’m interested in figuring all this stuff out, and I want to take an even-handed approach and investigate multiple sources.


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The time for natural animal fats is NOW

I saw this a couple weeks ago and I can’t get it out of my head.

A mother orangutan hugs her daughter as bounty hunters move in - the pair was saved at the last minute by an animal rescue group

[original source article]

Palm oil, dudes. It’s in EVERYTHING. And the increasing demand for it is causing unprecedented rainforest destruction and killing of anything that stands in the way, including orangutans.

I see two ways of addressing this.  Number one: reduce the number of highly-processed foods we consume, since so many of them contain palm oil. It’s tricky to puzzle out which products have it, because it’s usually simply labeled “vegetable oil.”

But secondly, can we also get over ourselves and start using animal fats in cooking, as people did for millennia? I’m talking about lard. Beef tallow. Duck and goose fat. Buttah. Not only are these traditional fats rich in fat-soluble vitamins, they are also cheap and easy to produce locally since they are byproducts of the meat industry. They can also easily be obtained without resorting to pesticides, GMOs, or deforestation. A win for all of us, including small family farmers AND orangutans.

And don’t think you’re innocent if you shop at natural foods stores — many natural foods products contain palm oil because, let’s be honest here, it does have some health benefits and is seen as an alternative to highly processed, GMO-based oils such as corn, canola and soybean.

Don’t be afraid of lard, OK?

For many more resources on traditional fats, visit the Weston A Price Foundation.


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Rendering duck fat

I always make a point of looking in the frozen meat section at Seward Co-op because it usually has a nice traditional foods-minded surprise or two.  I’ve found various different kinds of liver, chicken feet, homemade fish and chicken stock, and lard there.  Today: two packages of duck fat!  I took the smaller of the two, not knowing what to expect.

A little research revealed that duck fat, like lard, must be rendered.  It did take a couple hours, mostly unattended.  Also, it didn’t have nearly the strong smell that the pork lard had. The kitchen just smelled vaguely chickeny.

I used this method:

1. Place cut-up pieces of duck fat in water.  About 2 c. water for 1 pound of duck fat. I probably could have gotten by with slightly less water.

2. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until all the water boils off and the cracklings start to get browned.

3. Drain through cheesecloth into half-pint jars. I’m not sure how long this will keep in the refrigerator, but I’d guess 4-6 weeks at the most. Hence the tiny containers. Extra containers can go in the freezer.

Yield: 1.5 half-pints of duck fat (or, nearly 1 pint).  We used it to fry some potatoes and patty-pan squash for supper, and they turned out great.  The ever-so-slight chicken flavor was only detectable in some bites, and it was not unpleasant at all. This experiment went much better than my lard one!

Apparently, duck fat is a very gourmet, very French thing to use in cooking (even Jamie Oliver recommends it). Traditionally in Germany they also made schmaltz with duck or goose fat — a butter replacement that they spread on bread, apparently. I’m reading a book about traditional German cooking right now which may lead to both the roasting of a goose and the making of some schmaltz. (I already make sauer kraut on the regular basis so I’ve got that covered.) The schmaltz recipe in the book calls for an apple and an onion to be cooked with the fat and discarded with the cracklings.

Our supper tonight: potatoes and patty-pan squash cooked in duck fat with thyme and orange zest, plain couscous, and a massaged kale salad.  A yummy way to celebrate the start of Daylight Savings Time.


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Using the whole animal

I was a vegetarian for several years.  I vowed, when I became a meat-eater again, that I would at least make an effort to use the whole animal.  So now I’m taking it to the next level: I bought some chicken feet at the co-op last week.  Why?  Mainly because they add a rich natural source of gelatin to my homemade soups and stocks, and we’ve been going crazy with soup around here lately.  Gelatin helps your body absorb the minerals in the stock.

Considering most commercial stocks and flavorings have MSG in them, now’s a great time to consider making your own.  It’s really quite easy.  And if you decide you want to add chicken feet, you can get them for VERY cheap.  Just sayin’.


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Recipe: easy, no-knead 100% whole wheat bread

A few weeks ago I had great success with this recipe, but I really wanted to nail down a version of it that was 100% whole grain, and that would be more in line with a Nourishing Traditions-style bread (where the grain is soaked, fermented, or sprouted).  So after a bit of tinkering, I present you:

Easy, No-knead, 100% Whole Wheat Nourishing Traditions Bread
3 3/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/3 c. buttermilk
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. honey (optional)
Scant 1/2 tsp. instant yeast
1 1/4 tsp. salt
Cornmeal for dusting

1. In a large bowl combine flour, yeast and salt. Add buttermilk, oil, honey, and 1 c. water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky, almost more like a very thick cake batter than bread dough. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap. Let dough rest 18 – 24 hours, at warm room temperature.

2. After a good rest, the dough should have expanded and should be releasing occasional bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice — if it’s really wet you might not be able to handle it like normal bread dough.  If it seems really hard to handle just use a scraper to scrape it into something resembling a pile. Don’t worry about it if it seems gooey and weird. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

3. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal; scrape your dough up into something resembling a ball and put it down on towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise/spread for about 2 hours.  If your dough is still really wet at this point, the towel will absorb some of the water and it will start to look a lot more like bread dough. When it is ready, dough will be roughly double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

4. Around a half-hour before dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 5- or 6-quart heavy covered pot in oven as it heats. When dough is ready, carefully remove the now-hot pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is O.K. Shake pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes, then remove lid and bake another 15 to 20 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned — keep an eye on it during this last part because it can vary.

Make sure you cool it completely on a rack so the crust can fully develop.

This bread is good, but honestly don’t expect it to be quite as tasty as my other recipe for no-knead bread.  The fact is, the more white flour you use, the more palatable the end result will be.  So I guess I would call this version more of an every day version, and the other version could be a special occasion type of thing. This is not really a sandwich bread.  More of a dipping in soup or mopping up lentils type thing.  You could make sandwiches with it, but the crust is quite thick and chewy, so be aware of that.  YUM.

For quite a lot more about the whole no-knead bread baking phenomenon, read my original post and recipe.  More information than you will ever need, really.

Note for the NT people: notice that I don’t call for freshly-ground whole wheat flour.  I have not had good luck AT ALL with using that for bread.  My flour mill is a lower-end one, and I think it just doesn’t grind the kernels finely enough.  So for our bread-baking we’re using store-bought organic flour from the co-op.  For now.

Update, January 21, 2011: So, our lives just keep getting crazier and crazier, and I’ve adapted this recipe even further.  Here’s the version I’ve been making lately:

Ingredients:
7 c. whole wheat bread flour
1 scant tsp. yeast
1 scant T. sea salt
2 1/2 – 3 c. water
1 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. honey
1/2 c. olive oil

This will give you a dough that’s less wet, and therefore more suitable to other methods of baking.  The original recipe above is very wet and can really only be baked with the hot cast-iron pot method.  This adaptation is firm enough to be shaped into a free-form loaf or used for pizza crust.  It also makes a lot more.  So now I mix up this recipe about once a week and we can make regular loaves of bread or pizza, all from the same bucket.  I just let it rise at least 8 hours or overnight, then stick it in the fridge and we grab a handful of it as we go.  (This is all very much inspired by Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which I highly recommend.)  This makes around 3 small loaves, or 3 pizzas.


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Updates

As it turns out, starting a new job takes a lot of energy out of a person.  I have so much I want to share with you but I need to condense it all into one marathon post here tonight.  So without further ado, I think I’ll start with two books I’ve just [sorta] finished:

Food Politics
How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health
by Marion Nestle

I started this book, but just didn’t finish it.  It was interesting, but much of the information is similar to information on the author’s blog.  In many ways, this information is well-suited to a blog because she can point to what the government, the USDA, and food corporations are doing RIGHT NOW to influence nutrition and health.  I highly recommend the blog, and I recommend the book if you’re really interested in policy, politics, and getting really depressed about the effects of lobbying on America’s government.

Bones
Recipes, history and lore
by Jennifer McLagan

The pictures in this book would have completely done in the vegetarian Jennifer of yesteryear.  I found them highly entertaining, now.  Most of these recipes look really amazing.  But the amount of effort involved for many of them is a little more than I or even SuperDad Adam can really handle.  First of all, they involve going to a butcher and ordering special cuts of meat that have — guess what? — bones in them.  Big bones.  Little bones.  BONES BONES BONES.  As it turns out, cooking meat on the bone imparts extra flavor and nutrition into the meat.  Good stuff all around.  I copied down a couple of the recipes in here that I hope to get around to trying:  Millennium Rib Roast (if I can find a 4-rib standing rib roast), Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic (really!), and Grilled Quail with Sage Butter (this one makes me feel a bit squeamish because it calls for breaking each bird’s breastbone, yet it looks really delicious).  I think I’ll leave the pigs’ feet recipe alone for now, thanks.

Moving on, I have been linking to the Cornucopia Institute just about every week, haven’t I?  I am so glad that I added them to my RSS reader.  Today they released a report about manure digesters on factory dairy farms, written by a Wisconsin dairy farmer, that includes this gem:

Numerous studies by Tom Kriegl of the UW Center for Dairy Profitability have shown that the most efficient dairy operations have less than 100 cows, mostly outside and eating grass — yet, such a family farm is not large enough to qualify for taxpayer support and does not create enough manure to require a methane digester.

As long as my tax dollars and those of other organic sustainable farmers are being used to bankroll schemes that just increase pollution for more corporate profit, there will be no economic recovery. Indigenous communities developed “earth-friendly” farming methods that kept our planet healthy for thousands of years. Many of these practices are being incorporated into family farming today. In fact, a recent 2008 study by 400 scientists for the United Nations International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development concluded that small-scale organic agriculture is not only the best means to feed the world, but also the best response to climate change.

(Emphasis mine.)

On the homefront, I am closing in on a 100% whole wheat, Nourishing Traditions-friendly version of my easy, no-knead bread recipe.  Should be able to post it this weekend or early next week.

Finally, I am also picking up two new books at the library tomorrow and will attempt to actually read both of them in their entirety!  They are:

Deeply rooted: unconventional farmers in the age of agribusiness by Lisa M. Hamilton and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, the latest by local foods movement hero Michael Pollan.  His Omnivore’s Dilemma, and especially, In Defense of Food, really impacted my life and so I am looking forward to this one especially.

OK that’s all I’ve got for tonight.  Sorry for the randomness…


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Cooking with lard

Yes, you read that right.  We’ve been experimenting with lard, on and off, for a few months now.  We’ve cut really, really far back on most processed foods in our lives, but there was one thing we still needed ye olde tub of shortening for: pie crust.  Adam is semi-famous for his pie crusts, and was reluctant to trade in something that he knew worked well for the unknown.

Now the results are in: he finally made a pumpkin pie crust with lard instead of vegetable shortening, and I am telling you: it was the most delicious crust I’ve ever eaten.  Light, flakey, and the kids went crazy for it.

We also made some ginger cookies with a half lard/half butter combination last week:

They too were delicious.

I was really nervous about using lard in baked goods because when you open up the container it smells like, well, it smells like what your kitchen smells like about 4 hours after frying bacon.  Not so appetizing.  Furthermore, we tried frying with it a few times —  once for popcorn and once for fish — and it really  made the kitchen smell icky.  I have to say, though, that both the popcorn and the fish tasted really good, with no hint of bacon flavor.  Strange, yes?

Adam was reading his Ratio cookbook and Ruhlman recommends using lard only in highly-spiced baked goods — apparently that bacony flavor can come through if you make, say, simple short-bread cookies with lard.  That makes sense to me.

But what about the health implications of all this?  Well, it never would have occurred to me to seek out lard until I read about it in Nourishing Traditions last year.  You will not be surprised to learn that Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation recommend using lard in cooking, as well as duck fat, chicken fat, and beef tallow.  But what about the saturated fat?  Well, let’s talk about that for a minute.

First, let’s look at this simple breakdown of Crisco shortening, Spectrum Organic Shortening (which we have been using in pie crusts), and lard.  Behold, the first-ever New Home Economics TABLE:

Name Total Fat Saturated Mono-
unsaturated
Poly-
unsaturated
“Trans”
Crisco 12g 3g 3g 6g 0g
Spectrum Organic 13g 6g 5g 2g 0g
lard 12g 4.8g 5.76g 1.4g 0g

Now, keep in mind: the amounts for the lard can vary depending on the pig’s diet. I got these amounts from Nourishing Traditions, which most likely assumes that you’re getting lard from pastured/grass-fed/free-range (whatever) pigs. I bought mine from the co-op, and it comes from Grass Run Farm in Iowa.

Why the difference in saturated fat between the Crisco and the Spectrum?  Spectrum bases their shortening on palm oil, which is a highly-saturated tropical oil.  Crisco is more of the “we’re afraid to raise our saturated fat profile” line of thinking, so they rely instead on polyunsaturates.

Which leads me to my next question: what are they replacing trans-fats with, anyway? It’s not like food processors can just remove trans fat and have all their food still taste just as good.  It’s got to be replaced with something.  Searching around trying to find the answer to this led me to, among other places: a super creepy article from the “Homepage of the Food and Beverage Industry” that describes “The Four Paths to Sans Trans” — among them are replacing trans fats with interesterified fats and genetically modifying soy beans to get a soy-based oil that is friendlier to food processing.  NICE.  If the name alone doesn’t scare you, check out more info on interesterified fats.

Even if you are not a pie-making, cookie-baking fool, all of this should still concern you if you eat ANY PROCESSED FOOD AT ALL.

So yeah, you might say that I am now a lard convert.  Never thought I’d hear myself say that.  And it’s not like I’m going to start slathering it on everything I eat.  But in certain situations, it works really well, and it is MUCH less scary than the alternatives (although the Spectrum shortening is a bit less scary than the Crisco — that high polyunsaturate number in Crisco is a red flag to me).

To the people living in fear of saturated fat, think about this: our bodies need a little bit of saturated fat.  Many vitamins, such as E and D, are much easier for our bodies to assimilate if they accompany a bit of the good stuff.  On the other hand, our bodies most definitely do NOT need ANY amount of interesterified, trans, and whatever other highly-processed thing food processors want to tempt us with.  Did I mention that lard is high in vitamin D?  (So is butter, FYI.)

Finally, there are several sustainability aspects to this.  Palm oil, like that found in my Spectrum shortening, is a major contributor to deforestation in tropical areas.  Not to mention it has to be shipped all the way to the U.S., processed, and then shipped to me.  Lard is a byproduct, yo.  The lard I bought came from Iowa.  I could conceivably make lard myself, if I had the inclination.

So what do you think?  Are you willing to take the plunge and try it?  It took me a long time of staring at that container before I took a deep breath and used it, but now a little research both online and in the kitchen have turned me into a believer.

Update, November 6, 2010: I just found this article explaining more of the science behind interesterification, and also some other interesting information about saturated/trans/interesterified fats.  Check it out!

Update, February 24, 2011: Here’s a takedown of the new USDA nutritional guidelines, and some of the best questioning of the lipid hypothesis that I’ve seen in a long time.  A must-read!

Update, March 4, 2011: Wow, the mainstream media is really catching on. This was all over my Twitter feed todayCivil Eats says “If you work out the numbers, you come to the surreal conclusion that you can eat lard straight from the can and conceivably reduce your risk of heart disease.”  Awesome.

Update, February 23, 2012: Save the orangutans. Eat lard.

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