Marxist Strawberries

I’ve been thinking idly about Marx of late, and I’ve also been fantasizing about being the next Food Network star. I do realize that talk of Marxist strawberries pretty much guarantees that I will never get close to being on the Food (or any other) Network, but, hey, that was already true.

So one of the basic tenets of Marx is that of alienation (this Wikipedia piece is a pretty good overview, and Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 also lays it out pretty well, if I remember correctly): we are alienated from the products of our labor, because we have no say in how a product is produced; we are alienated from the act of producing, because we receive wages or a salary rather than the profits of our labor; and we are alienated from ourselves (and from each other) because we lack the control of our lives necessary to become fully realized/actualized human beings. (We can discuss this more if anyone actually cares.)

One of the shorthand ways of thinking of this, in my opinion, is that we come to think of ourselves not as whole human beings, with mutually interdependent connections with each other, but as cogs, as pieces of an economic/industrial machine. We have jobs, not so much because we want a job qua job, but because we must have money–we have to sell our labor in order to buy food and shelter (and health care/insurance). Sometimes we can find jobs we like, many of us aren’t “workers” in the manufacturing sense (not least because those jobs are overseas now), but all of us need money to live, and few of us make anything that we sell–or, better, barter–directly.

Another part of alienation, though, is being disconnected from our food. Processed, industrial, food-like substances are the most extreme version of this, but a more insidious version is the notion that we can get whatever foods we want no matter the season and whatever the cost. (Obviously this does not apply for people who aren’t exactly sure where their next meals, or their kids’ next meals, will be obtained, but that’s a connection for another day.) What we get when we buy foods that are out of season in the area where we live is often an approximation of the food. The two foods that most exemplify this for me are tomatoes and strawberries. Tomatoes kind of don’t count, though–tomatoes can be preserved in ways that make them available year-round, so long as you don’t try to eat a fresh tomato out of season. Out-of-season fresh tomatoes are an abomination: pink and mealy and flavorless.

I wandered through a farmers’ market last Sunday, and one of the vendors had strawberries; I bought four pints, and I ate them every day this week, and I was in heaven. (I also got a pint in last night’s farm share, and I expect they’ll be just as heavenly.) They were red all the way through, and the strawberry aroma was intoxicating. My lunch each day was a big pile (as in nearly a pound) of strawberries with a touch of balsamic vinegar, a touch of honey, and a bit of feta cheese, all mixed together. The markets and the farm share will have strawberries for maybe another couple of weeks–by early July they’ll be gone–and that’s the end of strawberry season for the year. Of course I could (and sometimes do) buy them from the grocery store, and sometimes those are even half-decent, but they really don’t come close to the bliss of fresh, ripe, local strawberries. Some years, when I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I buy a flat of strawberries and freeze them; that’s not going to happen this year, most likely.

I try to keep the memory of the season’s strawberries in mind when I’m shopping the rest of the year–I know, from experience, that the berries on the rack won’t taste anywhere near as good as what I’m eating now. They will be . . . strawberry-esque. They’ll be missing that heady perfume, and that perfect texture, and, no matter how red they look on the outside, they’ll be white on the inside, and maybe a little hard and mealy, because they’ve been grown to ship well, not to taste good.

That said, the farm share the past month has been mostly greens of one kind or another: lettuce, chard, Asian greens. This week there’s also mizuna (a bitter green) and parsley, and some spinach. And strawberries–did I mention the strawberries? I’ve been trying to find enough things to put on the lettuce to make actual meals out of it, so there’s broccoli and broccoli rabe in the fridge at the moment, to be steamed and added to the mix, and I got some onions and garlic to make a dressing, and some avocados, because they’re awesome, but those things aren’t available locally yet, so to claim I’m eating “locally” would be a misnomer.

And, for that matter, avocados are never “local” here in the midwest. So does that mean if I eat avocados I’m alienated from my food? If it does, then I’m going to stick with alienation. Seriously, though, you can see how complicated this gets. It’s relatively easy to see the extremes–industrial food-like substances in shiny packaging, versus whatever you can grow yourself–but there’s a whole lot of room in the middle, and figuring how to negotiate that space in a way that makes sense for you and your family is hard work, especially when the same people who make the industrial food-like substances find ways to package and advertise their product to disguise its industrial nature.

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How to Not Follow a Recipe, Part 1

As you will see, my relationship with recipes is varied. Let’s take yesterday’s bolognese sauce. Marcella’s recipe calls for:

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3 tbsp butter plus an additional tbsp for tossing w/ the pasta
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2/3 cup chopped celery
  • 2/3 cup chopped carrot
  • 3/4 lb. ground beef chuck
  • 1 c. whole milk
  • nutmeg
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1.5 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatos, w/ their juice
  • salt
  • black pepper, ground fresh from the mill

to be tossed with 1.25-1.5 pounds of pasta (i.e., about a box and a half of dried pasta)

I had intended to double the recipe all along, because I had the meat and because it’s a great thing to have in the freezer. Instead of this list, I used (approximately, because I didn’t measure a thing)

  • 2-3 tblsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tblsp butter
  • a sizeable chunk of pesto from the freezer, which had been getting a little worse for the wear
  • 2 chopped onions, and most of a third (one was a bit funky on the inside, so I just tossed that part)
  • about 8 cloves of garlic
  • 4 hefty carrots
  • no celery
  • 2 pounds of ground venison
  • 2 cups of 2% milk (or maybe 1%; I’d have to go check)
  • about 2.5 cups of pinot grigio
  • 3 quarts of tomatos

Why the variations? Well, the most important one is that I was cooking with what I had. Ground venison is very lean, and normally (or so we’re told) requires a lot of fat. I have found that’s not true, so long as it’s cooked and seasoned properly. In something like this sauce, it wouldn’t make any difference at all. Also, the milk and wine tenderize the meat.

In general, I cut down on the fat in recipes–in this case, by reducing the oil and butter and by using 2% milk rather than whole milk. I find that it rarely makes any difference at all. In baking, sometimes I’ll add something to increase the moisture–e.g., pumpkin or applesauce–but in general the lower fat products work just fine. That said, I only use good-quality unsalted butter. No margarine, nothing like that. I pay a bit extra for butter that doesn’t have RBGH, and, if it’s cheap enough, I get organic butter, but Woodman’s in Wisconsin is the only place I’ve seen that for a reasonable price. (A side note about butter: cheaper butters often have a higher water content and slightly lower fat content. This rarely makes a difference, except in some baking.)

I don’t normally have celery around; unless I’m making stock or some other recipe that really must have celery, I just do without. It tends to turn into a science project, and I hate wasting stuff, so I just don’t get it that often. When I do, I find a few recipes that utilize it so I can use it up.

As for the extra wine, there was a half a cup left in the bottle, and it was too early in the day to start drinking, and we were planning on drinking beer with our pizza last night anyway, so I just added the extra wine. I like garlic in my sauces, and I like the tang of the pesto, so those went in, too, and I used more tomatos than called for because I like it to be a more tomato-y sauce.

So there you have it: yesterday I told you that I was using a specific recipe, and, indeed, I glanced at it to recall the order things went in the pot. But what I made diverged fairly significantly from the original, except for the basic notion of cooking the meat first with milk and then with wine before adding the tomatos. Was it good? Yup. Plus, I have enough left over for 8 or 10 more meals–into the freezer with it!

On the other hand, the recipe for crackers was nearly unchanged. It called for whole wheat flour, sunflower or pumpkin seeds ground into flour, whole sesame seeds, flax seeds ground into flour, salt, water, honey, and vegetable or olive oil. I had pumpkin seeds and ground those up, but discovered that my sesame seeds smelled a little off so I used this blend of seeds and stuff. I didn’t have flax seeds, but I did have some flax flour (also from KAF, but I don’t see it on their website any more, which makes me sad). I started to make one batch, but realized I had put in double the amount of oil, so I just went ahead and doubled the whole recipe. I haven’t rolled these out and baked them yet–Reinhart recommends letting nearly every dough sit overnight–but, as you can see, there were many fewer changes in the whole enterprise.

The other thing to be baked today, though, is some kind of banana muffins. I had a stash of old bananas in the freezer, and it’s time, but I haven’t settled on a recipe yet. My go-to recipe, sort of, is a test recipe from Cooks Illustrated that eventually ended up in the magazine (no free links to them), but I usually end up changing it. In general, when I’m baking things like breakfast muffins, I look for ways to increase the fiber and reduce the fat, so the product isn’t just a fat and sugar bomb. I’ll let you know what I end up doing, but it’s a good bet that whole wheat flour, some barley flakes, and maybe some golden flax meal will end up in the final product.

One last note: nearly everything in the bolognese sauce came from Wisconsin. The tomatos, onions, garlic, and carrots were from the CSA share, the venison was hunted by a friend. The milk, wine, oil, and butter were from somewhere else–presumably the milk and butter could have originated nearby as well. The basil for the pesto was from a back yard, I think, and I probably left out the pine nuts when I made it.

Welcome to Your Kitchen!

As everyone I know knows by now, one of my fantasies is being the next Food Network star–and, indeed, they had tryouts in Chicago a couple of months ago. Did I even attempt to audition? No, not at all (though I had some brief thoughts about it), in part because, even supposing I could get on the show (and take off several months from my current job to do so), and even supposing I could win (which is a huge supposition), I don’t actually want to be on television. For one thing, I’d have to stop cursing, which I’m not sure is entirely possible.

All that being said, I watched last season, and I realized that my angle–or, as they say on the show, my “POV” (i.e., point of view)–would be Iron Chef: Your House. This all started several years ago, when a friend was unemployed. He bought the bruised and battered–and cheap–veggies from the leftover produce rack at the local small grocery store, because they were, yes, cheap. I’d often go to his house of a Sunday, and we’d make dinner, and I usually handled the veggies and side dishes. He’d point me to whatever he purchased from the rack, and I’d have to try to make something tasty out of it. I succeeded more often than not.

Now, the new CSA year is about to start. Yes, my CSA does a winter share, too, though this is the first year they’ve tried it. Unlike the rest of the year, it’s every other week, and it will apparently include some frozen and canned stuff from the farm. I’m already excited about the frozen butternut squash–in the weekly newsletters, Chris, the farm owner/manager, said that they had squash that were too bruised to include in the boxes but were otherwise perfectly good. This pleased me, not least because I like butternut squash, but also because I liked the idea of not wasting imperfect veggies. This is the fourth year I’ve done this, and the CSA box is a similar exercise in using what’s on hand, even if the veggies are more expensive and in better shape. And that’s really what this is all about: how do you cook what’s on hand? How to you minimize waste? And, in my case, how do you eat local, sustainable, etc., as much as possible? (This may not be an option for everyone, because it can cost more, but you can at least try to eat seasonally.)

As I’ve thought about this whole thing, I realized that I have several things going for me that might not be the same as your life. I’m nearly an omnivore. I can’t eat a few things (bell peppers, cucumbers, cantaloupe, iceberg lettuce), but otherwise am willing to try just about anything. I do not eat very much meat, but I do eat it, and what I do cook tends to be wild game (venison, wild turkey, occasionally rabbit), because I have a friend who is a hunter (and a getter; turns out the hunting is only useful if you actually get some meat at the end). In addition, when I buy meat or fish, I am privileged enough to be able to be very picky about it and pay more for it–my basic principle is that the flesh I eat not have been tortured in a factory farm while it was alive–but I also recognize not everyone can afford that. Even without the privilege, though, I don’t eat all that much meat, and I may go days without eating any.

For another thing, I don’t have to feed a family. It’s usually just me, with possibly one or two friends, and the friends I feed are also omnivores, so I don’t have to deal with kids or picky eaters, and I don’t have to deal with getting a meal on the table at a certain time. But I do bring my lunch (and sometimes breakfast) to work every day, and lunch is my main meal, so I cook with the intent of leftovers, and I package and freeze things so that it’s easy to do that: meal-sized packages are always my desired result. When I was in grad school, and even after that, when I was broke and not making much, I would spend part of a weekend making several big batches of stuff, and then portion and freeze it all. While it would probably require more cooking over all–to feed more people–the same approach could work for families. Thus, one of the purchases I recommend, if you can afford it, is a good stand-alone freezer. I have a 7-cubic-foot chest freezer, and it’s very nice to be able to throw things in it.

Finally, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve lived alone for a substantial portion of my life, so I’ve rarely had to cook to please others, which has given me a lot of room for experimentation. Some experiments are more successful than others, but I haven’t really had to worry about something not coming out properly and still have others waiting for a meal. If you haven’t been cooking from scratch for all that long, or if you’re used to only cooking from recipes, you’ll see pretty quickly that my approach is different from that. I do use recipes–though now more as a starting point than as a complete guide to what I’m going to do–but what I do more often is amalgamate what I have on hand with what I’ve learned, maybe with some glances at some recipes along the way.

Okay, enough intro for today. I’ll do more of these things as I go along, though.

Today’s food is going to be pretty simple: homemade pizza. I made the crusts several weeks ago and par-baked and froze them, because I was hauling them elsewhere for a meal. We had leftovers, so the unused crusts came back to my freezer. I also have some vegetarian tomato sauce in the freezer, as well as some sausage (from the farmers market this summer–the vendor buys a whole pig and then butchers it and makes various things from it, including sausage), fresh mozzarella, and spinach. I’m also making a bolognese sauce today, from the ground venison in the freezer. My recipes for these things are from:
Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (the bolognese sauce) and Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Baking  (the pizza crusts). The tomato sauce I already knew how to make, and I’ll walk you through a version at some point. The Reinhart book has become my new scripture, and it is completely awesome. If you are at all interested in baking your own whole-grain breads, it’s a fabulous source. I plan to make crackers from that book as well.

One last thing: partly because I worked in a bakery for two years, and partly because I’ve been doing this so long, I tend NOT to chop and dice everything before I start. I gather it all to make sure I’m not missing anything, but I don’t do all the chopping first. I know how long onions take to soften or caramelize, so I’ll chop the onion first, throw it in the pot, and then start cutting up the next thing that will go in the pot. This approach reduces the amount of time things take to make, but it may take some practice.

So, welcome to the kitchen! I hope you come back.