Fear

Back in 2006, I was working at bakery job that paid about $10/hour; I earned overtime nearly every week, but I had to work at least an extra 10 hours a week or so to see a comma in my take-home pay. I also did consulting work (proofreading and copyediting) to make ends meet with something closer to a little overlap.

Near the end of that year, as many other things were falling apart in my life, my not-quite-ex failed to pay the COBRA for the health insurance that covered both of us (I paid him for my share, I believe), and the policy was cancelled. I didn’t know this for several weeks, but the reality was that, unbeknownst to me, I was doing physical labor, in an environment where I could have gotten injured (and would thus have been unable to work at all), and I had no health insurance. It’s hard to describe the fear that engendered.

I found an insurance agency through a recommendation from a friend, and got catostrophic coverage right away. I then proceeded to try to purchase my own health insurance policy.

Well, you really don’t get to be in your late 40s without having something that counts as a “pre-existing condition,” especially for insurance companies that want to be able to deny you coverage if they can possibly argue that you failed to disclose something. I did eventually get coverage, at a fairly exorbitant rate, and the coverage did not actually cover anything that might result from the (not all that dire) pre-existing condition. That is, the coverage I was able to get did not actually cover health conditions that I was mostly likely to experience, AND I paid a pile of money, out of pocket, for this coverage, every single month. I suppose I could have rolled the dice and gone without any coverage–the catostrophic coverage typically had limits on how long you could get that coverage–but I could not bring myself to truly contemplate doing that. I don’t have kids, I didn’t have anyone else to support, so that was an easier decision than it might be with a different life.

Even though it’s ten years later–and the bakery owner now offers health insurance options to his employees, and I’m working office jobs that have employer-sponsored insurance (for which I pay $360 per month, pre-tax, so while it’s employer-sponsored, and it’s decent insurance, I’m certainly throwing in a pile of money too)–I still remember the fear of not having insurance.

On top of that, I currently work in an environment where many of the people my organization serves have become eligible for Medicaid, in part thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the Medicaid expansion that came along with it. I see what a difference this makes in people’s lives.

Thus, I would welcome the opportunity to ask the creators of this monstrosity of a tax cut for the rich masquerading as a health care bill (h/t Charles Pierce) how they can consider doing something this awful. It isn’t just bad, it’s mean. It’s nasty. It gives more money to rich people, while basically sending poor and middle class and old people off to die in a corner. You want to talk about “death panels”? This monstrosity is going to kill people. And all for the benefit of people who would regard my monthly premium from 2006 as pocket change–the premium for insurance that wouldn’t actually cover the things most likely to occur to me–that premium is their wine bill, or their taxi fare, or the rent they pay on the garage in D.C. for their extra car, or whatever the hell it is that rich people spend money on each month.

I’ll return to rhapsodies about food–the amazing pulled pork that I made this weekend; my attempts to make my own corned beef–eventually, but this was just too overwhelming to avoid.

Best By

I hate wasting food. The ideal result of this sentiment is that I hack together meals that use what’s in need of being used, even if it means we’ll never have that particular meal again. The less ideal result, though, is throwing things out, and I had to do a bunch of that today. I got it into my head to clean out the cupboards, and several things weren’t just way past the sell-by date (by which I mean years past the sell-by date), they smelled off. In particular, the two bags of baker’s dried milk–“Best by September 2014” – -had to go, along with some old lentils and two bags (one unopened) of a “toffee crunch” topping I had purchased from KAF three or four years ago. I didn’t like the toffee crunch when I got it, and I kept meaning to use it on something I intended to give away, but I never did, and it smelled (and tasted) pretty bad, and the texture had turned gummy. Out it went.

Oddly enough, the one thing I would have predicted would be off–the almond paste, with a “best by” date of 2010–was actually okay, although the color had darkened to a caramel color. I intend to make king cake this week anyway, so I put it in the fridge. I was surprised it was still good; the oil in nuts can make whatever’s made from it go rancid, but maybe this had enough sugar in it to preserve it. Whatever; at least it will get used.

It was also an opportunity to do an inventory: I have been working my way through a substantial pile of cocoa powder, but there’s still quite a bit left (despite dumping some on the counter and the floor as I combined two opened bags). And there’s an opportunity for an experiment. Both bags of diastatic malt powder and the bag of malted milk powder have turned into bricks, but they don’t smell or taste off, so I’m wondering if I can essentially melt them down and turn them into syrup–combine them with water and cook them slowly, until the brick melts into the water. I don’t have particularly high hopes for this experiment, but you never know.

So, to continue with the theme, I raided the freezer as well, and tonight’s dinner is going to be lamb meatballs or patties, the cauliflower I roasted two weeks ago and ended up freezing, some carrots, and probably some rice, all spiced with coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, and roasted tomatoes. And maybe some spinach, as I purchased extra for the farm share this week.

Dull Drums

Or doldrums, as the case may be.
Neither cooking nor baking has been occurring around these parts, at least not in any remarkable way. Oh, there was a brief outbreak of mini-calzone, and an episode of smashed potatoes with brie, topped with venison ring bologna, caramelized onions, and homemade sauerkraut, but otherwise, not much.
Actually, the mini-calzone ended up with food wastage, of all things. I made a batch of pizza dough, with the intent of making actual pizzas, then changed my mind to make some calzone; all well and good. (For the record, half of the calzone were stuffed with caramelized onions, spinach, brie, and the mincemeat stew of a few weeks ago, and half were stuffed with fresh mozzarella, some bison bolognese sauce, and the onions and spinach.) The dough that was left was supposed to be par-baked into pizza crusts that could be frozen and used at some other time, but . . . I just didn’t. I put the sheet pan in the fridge, with all kinds of good intentions, but we know with what the road to food wastage is paved (hint: the same material as the road to hell). I finally just tossed the dough.

So, really, nothing much to report. I’m expecting to do some cooking this weekend, though, so there might be updates.

Today in the Refrigerator Drawer

Things that needed using: carrots (though I still have mountains of those); leeks; potatoes; oranges; roasted (frozen) squash. I washed and cut up the leeks, cut up a large onion into large wedges, and tossed it all with garlic cloves, olive oil, and salt, and then roasted them awhile. The leeks got a bit too papery, so I pulled them off the pan and laid them across the potoatoes. The potatoes got cut up and boiled a bit. The carrots got cut into large chunks (too large, I think), and tossed with grated orange peel, ginger, oil, salt, and some thyme that was sitting in the fridge. I peeled as much of the pith off the oranges (after grating) as I could, cut them into thick slices, and roasted the slices for awhile, too. In retrospect, I could have skipped that step and just used the juice, and we all would have been happier. All the roasted veggies (except the leeks, which I pulled out of the potato pot after the potatoes were cooked) got thrown in the pot with some water and chicken stock and cooked until the carrots were a bit softer. The immersion blender made a coarse puree of all of it, and I tweaked the flavor with ginger sesame marinade, ginger juice, honey, salt, and a little butter. If I had any creme fraiche I’d throw that in as I heated it, and I’ll likely grate some cheddar in there, too.

The rest of dinner is going to be venison and possibly some homemade bread.

Today’s main question, however, was, “What would happen if I put some chocolate in the Anzac biscuits?” Anzac biscuits are an eggless cookie, made with butter, oats, coconut, flour, water, baking soda, Lyle’s Golden Syrup (which is dangerously good), and some salt and vanilla. They were originally sent to Australian and New Zealandian troops (hence the “ANZAC,” for Australia and New Zealand Corps), and are intentially made without eggs so they keep better. There are a million recipes for them, all of which I read in early December in an effort to find one to make for the beer school cookies.

I made a batch this weekend, on a whim, but most of the cookies are gone, so I thought I’d make another batch. But how about adding some cocoa? I like the coconut/chocolate combination, and I like the caramely flavor of the Lyle’s, so I just added some cocoa powder. They’re pretty good, actually, though there’s too much chocolate, if you can imagine such a thing. I also drizzled some Lyle’s and melted butter on top of the baked but still warm cookies, to sweeten and soften them a bit. It will all require some tweaking, but these are just fine.

Rooting Around

So it’s a new farm share season–a new year AND a new season, actually. The winter share is delivered only every other week, and it tends to be pretty much the same from week to week: roasted tomatoes (in jars), carrots, roasted and frozen butternut squash, spinach from the greenhouse, and root veggies if they’re around (turnips, rutabagas). Truth be told, these are some of my favorite deliveries, not least because everything other than the spinach will keep for quite a long time. I think I didn’t use the last of the carrots last year until into May, and they kept just fine.

I have several things on the cooking agenda, though no telling when I’ll get to them. First up is some kind of stew, using mincemeat, tomatoes, carrots, and garbanzos (I cooked up a bunch last weekend and threw them in the freezer), and possibly some lamb, maybe with spices that lean toward the middle east. I’ll look up the Moosewood stew I used to make to figure out what the spices were for that. I also cooked up some adzuki beans, which I had never made before, and I think I’ll make some quinoa to go with those, probably with some kind of greens to throw in as well. At some point I’ll make more bison bolognese sauce–my downstairs neighbor was gifted with some ground bison (it’s labeled beef but she said it’s really bison)–but given the vat I made last week, that can wait. I also got some more pork shoulder at the farmers’ market last Sunday, and I’ll likely make the shredded pork I made on New Year’s Day again. There’s venison to consume, too, and a bunch of baked goods–chocolate cupcakes (with flaxseed replacing some of the butter), the mincemeat cinnamon rolls, some ginger oat pumpkin bite-sized things, and several loaves of bread. Essentially, it’s time to work my way through the freezer and use stuff up.

I’ve also discovered a fabulous new cooking show. The NY Times made mention of it a few weeks ago, and it’s on PBS: the Great British Baking Championship, or something like that. It’s a bunch of regular folks competing against each other. Apparently the season I’m watching now is the fifth season, but I haven’t been able to run down the previous seasons yet. It’s really a lot of fun. Each week they do three bakes. The first is something that they make themselves at home. The second is the technical challenge, where they’re each given the ingredients and a basic version of the formula to use, but they have to have some know-how to actually make whatever it is because the instructions aren’t detailed. The third challenge is the “showstopper,” where they have to make something big and fancy in whatever category of baking they’re in. This past week was bread; last week was cookies (or biscuits, as the Brits called them).

What makes it especially fun is that they’re not professionals, and they come in all ages (which is particularly nice) and from all kinds of backgrounds. The critiques are serious, but not challenging in a Top Chef kind of way, and everyone has his or her own station, so the infighting is non-existant, too–they actually kind of cheer each other along. The other part that’s fun for me is that I can imagine competing in it, and would likely even enjoy doing so.

That said, I’ve been enjoying Top Chef this season, too. The challenges have been interesting without being stupid, and the cooking looks like it has been really amazing. The asshole quotient is pretty low, too; there was one, but he’s been gone for a few weeks. I have a much harder time imagining competing on something like that–I am not a professional chef, and I have never been one–but I definitely get the occasional food idea. Doug’s carrot soup, for example, sounded pretty damn amazing, and I might have to see if I can find the recipe for that one, given the mounds of carrots that will be taking over the fridge. Plus, carrot soup and homemade bread sounds like a fine lunch.

Mincing Along

As with most of my cooking adventures, I started with a relatively simple thought. I was going to visit my parents over Thanksgiving, and I was determined to make a mince pie for my dad, and, moreover, I was determined to make the mincemeat that went into it. My father jokingly complains that he doesn’t get mince pie since my maternal grandmother died in the early 90s. My mother doesn’t like raisins, which is, of course, one of the major ingredients in mincemeat–she goes so far as to pick the raisins out of cinnamon raisin bread, which amuses me to no end. In other words, making a pie for my dad was an excuse to try to make something I’d never made before.

I rummaged around for a recipe (finding a surprising paucity of from-scratch recipes) and settled on one from David Lebovitz. I emailed the farm from which I have gotten some very good (and organically and sustainably raised) meat–what a friend calls “hippie meat”–and asked if they had any beef suet. Yes! and they would bring it to the farmers’ market near me the following weekend, the last outdoor market of the season. So, for a whole $3, I had not quite two pounds of suet. If you look at that recipe, you’ll note that you need a whole lot less than two pounds of suet–you need about four ounces for one batch of mincemeat.

Yes, well: mincemeat for the masses!

I made a large-ish double batch, using pretty much what Lebovitz recommends, and adding some cranberries, I think, and I think I used an extra apple or two because I had some around. I cleaned the suet a bit, removing membranes and such, and just chopped it very finely rather than trying to grate it. I put the resulting mincemeat in some clean quart jars and stashed it in the fridge. I still had half of the suet, though, so I bought enough raisins and currants and such to make another double batch. I hauled one of the containers (plastic rather than glass) to the east coast and made the pie, which was successful. Seriously, it’s basically a raisin pie with some apples in it, plus a bunch of tasty spices, so it’s hard to go wrong if you like the ingredients.

It’s not terribly boozy at all–I used some brandy remnants that Friend brought over, and some ginger liquer from a local distillery, and some bourbon from the same distillery. I added the bourbon because, after I had added the ginger liquer, I realized it had a lower ABV and thought that might affect the preservation qualities of the alcohol. I can’t really taste the alcohol, though, and I tend to be sensitive to it. I often left it out of recipes in pastry school because I thought it tended to overwhelm the other flavors, but there’s so much going on in the mincemeat I simply couldn’t taste it.

Okay, that’s all well and good–but now I have five more jars of mincemeat sitting around in the fridge, and I am going to do what, exactly, with all of that mincemeat?

For New Year’s Day, however, I finally found a use for some of it: I used some as a filling for whole wheat cinnamon rolls. I doubled the recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads and got 32 rolls out of it–obviously a substantially larger yield than the original recipe, which said 8 to 10 (or 16 to 20 for a doubled recipe). The result is interesting–it definitely has a bit of a “meaty” undertone to it–but they’re quite good. I threw most of them in the freezer (without frosting) so they’ll be nice to grab and take to work for a quick breakfast. I think even plain cream cheese would be a nice accompaniment if you don’t have extra frosting around.

While I had the oven on, I also diced and roasted the three butternut squash that were sitting around, but I didn’t do anything with the result. The menu on New Year’s day included homemade sauerkraut; pulled pork, to satisfy the spirit of my grandmother; and garlic smashed potatoes, as well as some venison ring baloney and some caramelized onions. But I’m thinking squash, and mincemeat, and maybe some shredded wild turkey dark meat, and maybe some spinach or kale; I have some spinach around, so that’s more likely. I’ll let you know what happens.

Tastes Like Chicken

At my workplace, we only have one microwave, and it only has one hamster on a wheel to power it (or so it seems), so heating one’s lunch can be a bit of an adventure. It’s also down two hallways and a flight of stairs from my cube, so my heated lunch usually passes several other people on its trip back to my space. The most frequent comment I get is, “That looks healthy!” This past week, for example, my lunch for two days running was some of the carrot soup mixed with a little milk; a wad of spinach from the farm share; some mushroom risotto that a coworker brought for me; and some cheese (because cheese goes with everything, IMHO)–all mixed up together, with the cheese kind of melty on top. The resulting mix was bright green and bright orange, and it did, in fact, look “healthy,” and it tasted pretty awesome. Another day I substituted frozen squash gnocchi with kale from a month or so ago for the risotto, and that was good, too. Today it was spinach, carrot soup, and some leftover carrots, roasted beets, and onions from Saturday’s dinner, with some gruyere. (It was supposed to have a homemade whole wheat soft pretzel, too, but I got hungry and ate that before lunchtime.)

It wasn’t what we’re taught to think of as a meal, though–it was cobbled together from what I had around, either in the fridge or the freezer, and it featured bits and pieces of this and that. These lunch piles often make me wonder how much of people’s eating habits are determined by expectations. If, in your head, lunch = a sandwich, or lunch = a portion of last night’s dinner, or a bowl of soup, or a sub sandwich, or a frozen entree of some kind, or tacos, or whatever else, then my piles of veggies and leftovers and cheese aren’t going to look like lunch to you–though it may well look “healthy”–and it won’t satisfy your lunch desires.

The reverse is true, too. Lunch, for me, is the aforementioned pile, so a bag of fast food holds no appeal. And I’ve been puzzling over that for awhile. It’s not that I’m a morally or culinarily superior being, and, really, the very last thing I want to do is give the impression that I think I am. This article, though, helped crystalize some of what I’ve been thinking, and, as a result, I blame my mother. In a good way.

The article is fascinating, but hardly surprising: the people who sell packaged foods find ways to encourage people to eat more of it, by engineering the sugar, salt, and fat content, as well as the appearance and “experience” of eating it. Or, in the case of the pre-packaged lunch things, the experience of both the person–kid–eating it and the person buying it, likely the mother. When I was a kid (in the 1960s and 1970s), a lot of this stuff didn’t exist yet, but my mother wouldn’t have purchased it if it did. She thought that stuff was not terribly good for us–high in salt, sugar, nitrates, etc., and low in nutritional value. (She even looked for packaged bread that had fewer additives.) In addition, my mother can stretch a dollar well past what you thought was its breaking point: we would buy fruit and vegetables in bulk during the summer and then can and freeze them, or my mother would buy meat when it was on sale and then freeze it. We had a separate standing freezer, and my mother made very good use of it.

We also didn’t have a lot of junk food. We might have cookies, pretzels, or potato chips around, but not much of it, and we almost never had soda around. When we did, it was A-Treat brand, not from the big soda manufacturers. We drank milk at dinner, or iced tea in the summer, brewed in a beige and dark brown pottery pitcher. The point is, I didn’t develop the taste for the salt/sugar/fat concoctions that would make me regard them fondly. My food memories are of home-cooked meals. I suppose that means it’s not surprising that packaged foods don’t have much appeal for me, or that a pile of vegetables and leftovers looks more like lunch to me than does a pile of french fries and a fast-food sandwich.

I’ve also tried to unpack the social, cultural, political, and economic parts (and privileges) as best I can, and I can see at least a few of the pieces that go into it. I’m not going to put them all in this post, but I’ll pick them apart in some upcoming posts.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a vision of Saturday night’s dinner, nearly all of which was grown locally, in Wisconsin: garlic chicken; brown rice; and a vegetable medley of roasted beets, onions, and carrots. Basically, everything except the rice, olive oil, salt, and butter came from the CSA farm, and the butter might have been from Wisconsin as well. (The chicken was a separate purchase rather than part of the share, but it was from the farm.) The chicken was based in part on this recipe, but (a) I took the skin off of some of the meat but not all of it, (b) I got impatient and didn’t remember the recipe, so I cooked the chicken in some of the liquid, and (c) I didn’t sear the meat enough for my tastes. When I make it again–and oh, I will–I will remove all of the skin, sear the meat a bit more, and be a little more patient, but the softened garlic was mush-able and spreadable, and was just awesome. And? It actually tasted like chicken. Really good, really garlicky chicken.