Friday, August 26, 2011

More with Less in the Kitchen

As a college senior,
I seem a little startled to have pulled
this Cornish hen from the oven. I actually
had to call the 1-800 number on the hen's
wrapper to find out how to cook it. 
For most of my childhood, I was banned from the kitchen. Determined to create "original" food, I refused to follow recipes, and while my seven-year-old self was quite happy with my "Alien Cake"  (a pinkish-gray combination of Kix cereal, peanut butter, strawberry NesQuik) and similar concoctions, my mother deemed these experiments wasteful. She told me I was not allowed to cook until I was willing to submit to a recipe, so for the next several years I stayed away from the kitchen.  My premature desire to invent foods eventually faded, but even in college cooking was something of a novelty for me.  I was always so pleased and proud of myself when I cooked anything that I would make my roommate take a picture as proof of my success.
Gazing with loving pride
at a fruit-and-yogurt Bundt cake

Knowing my sketchy culinary background, you might appreciate how ironic it is that after my last post  I received many requests for ideas about planning meals to correspond with my grocery-shopping values.
My marvelous friend Kt, among others, asked for some ideas regarding what to do with all the wise, thoughtful food we buy once it is in the kitchen.

As I reflect on the ways I plan my meals, I realize that I usually make my cooking choices based on the following values. Ideally, a meal will fulfill at least four of these criteria:

Meals should be nutritious 
Meals should build on my staples
Meals should follow the seasons 
Meals should be convenient
Meals should teach me

Meals should be nutritious

I still have much to learn about nutrition, but I do try to create meals provide good sources of protein, usually in the form of a grain plus a legume or dairy product. Less often, the protein comes from eggs or meat. Then I add vegetables. I tend to use broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes, and leafy greens quite a lot.

Meals should build on my staples

One advantage to using More with Less as my core cookbook is that I have many good recipes for the basic staple goods the cookbook recommends. This means that I can plan a meal by checking my cupboard, picking one of my staples, and going from there. If I'm in the mood for rice, I might pair it with a green vegetable curry. If I want something less time-intensive, I'll simply cook the rice with red beans, butter and salt for a tasty and simple meal. If I have a loaf of bread in the kitchen, I can make a light lunch by drizzling the bread with olive oil, topping it with salad greens and parmesan, and then toasting it in the oven.  If I am cooking for others, I know how to turn stale bread into a basic souflée. Lentils can be baked with honey and a bit of bacon in the dutch oven, or turned into a soup.  Having at least four or five meals based on each of your staple dry goods ensures that you have an array of options when it comes time to plan a meal.

As a corollary to this value, I also try to cook meals that use up what I already have in the kitchen. I consider it a victory if I can prepare a meal without any last-minute trips to the grocery store.  Yesterday, for example, I decided to make a rice and lentil dish called kichiri. The recipe called for potatoes and cauliflower, but since I didn't have either, I used canned chickpeas instead of potatoes and the last of the salad greens instead of cauliflower.

Meals should follow the seasons 

Following the seasons can be a challenge, especially if you live in a place where fresh food is only available during the summer.  However, with a little research you can find out what foods are growing in your area, and many grocery stores and farmers' markets will suggest recipes for in-season foods (click here for a really cool "peak-season" food map, with recipes and tips for each food listed).  I love the sense of rhythm and reward that comes with eating in season. Enjoying high-summer tomatoes, autumn squash, and winter greens helps me pay attention to all the beautiful changes that come with each season. 

As an added resource, the publishers of More with Less have released a book about seasonal cooking, Simply in Season. Sadly it is not yet part of my library.

Meals should be convenient

While I do love to cook, I don't love it enough to spend hours each day in the kitchen.  I tend to prefer straight-forward, unfussy meals, and I have little patience for dishes that collapse, explode, or scorch if I try to step away from the stove. Certainly, I have tended pots of buttery risotto, made pâte à choux from scratch, lured boiling vats of caramel into submission, and topped pies with homemade whipped cream, but I only cook like that for special occasions.  Everyday meals should require one or two pots and minimal preparation. Thus, I cook many of my favorite meals in my life-saving Crock Pot (this blog features a whole year's worth of slow-cooker recipes). In the winter I make several soups each week, and I like to freeze portion-sized containers of soup for easy meals at the office or on busy days.

Meals should teach me

Ever a student, I enjoy learning as I cook. Sometimes this means learning about the places where "Groundnut Stew" or kichiri are "daily bread." Good little Baptist girl that I am, I have always enjoyed learning about different cultures and countries through food.

At other times, I will plan meals that teach me a new skill. For example, I love soup, and so I often will try a new soup recipe if I think it will teach me a new secret for making good broth.  In the same way, because baking bread has become an important part of my homemaking, I often plan meals around a new kind of bread I wish to learn how to make.

The meal I cooked last night gives a good idea of how these principles can come together. Peaches were in season and on sale at the grocery store, and I bought some because I've wanted to learn how to make fruit chutneys for a long time.  However, since chutney doesn't really work as a main dish, I used my Extending the Table cookbook to find an Indian entree that called for ingredients I already had. Kichiri is a kind of stew using rice and lentils, and I have plenty of both. Add flat bread to go with the chutney, and my meal was complete!

These values will evolve as my home and circumstances continue to change, but for now they provide me with a flexible structure for planning, cooking, and learning.

What values or criteria do you use for meal-planning? What are some "musts" for the meals you make?

Monday, August 22, 2011

More with Less at the Grocery Store

My grocery store looks nothing like this, but I wish it did.
Before spring wildflowers, autumn pecans, dinners with friends, the Brazos River, Homestead Heritage, Baylor--even before Calvary Baptist Church--the grocery store made central Texas feel like home.

Learning to shop for groceries was one of the happier adjustments I had to make to "real" adult life. Especially during my first year after college, when I often felt caught in a world too big for me, the grocery store was a place I felt competent and creative.  Even at my lowest points, when I hardly had the spirit to cook the lovely meals I planned while pacing the aisles of the HEB, I would survey my shopping cart with a smile, thinking that the groceries inside would give onlookers the impression of a wise, coherent, healthy life. Food became an emblem for the life I wanted my scattered, trembling new adulthood to become.

I no longer need the grocery store to be a haven from anxiety, but I do still enjoy shopping for food. In fact, I find that grocery shopping is one of the best places to begin experiencing the joys of "living more with less." In my last post I discussed a book on this subject and spoke in rather general terms about how this book has challenged and inspired me. Today's post is a more practical look at some of these ideas.

After several years of learning what I will and will not eat, how to cook various dishes, and the kinds of demands different foods take on global resources (soil, water, animal feed, fuel for transportation, etc.), I have developed a flexible but coherent set of principles for my spending and consumption. 


Like the woman in this picture, I too enjoy wearing
a satin robe to the grocery store.
Staples are goods I always keep in the kitchen. These are the items that are most frequently required in the recipes I use, many of which come from the More with Less Cookbook. I keep most of these things in large glass canisters or jars; I have learned from experience that if ingredients are out of sight, I simply forget I have them.

whole-wheat pasta
split peas
brown rice
dried beans (any varieties)
flour (all-purpose, whole-wheat, bread)

sugar (regular and brown)
dried milk (for cooking, not drinking)

olive oil


I am usually generous with my produce budget, although for the past year and a half I have been trying to buy fresh produce only when it is in-season and, if possible, local. The "local" part is difficult in supermarkets, but at the very least, I can usually find produce from within Texas. I also usually keep some cans of diced tomatoes and a few bags of frozen broccoli on hand.

Luxury Goods

These are items I buy sparingly; usually I will only purchase one or two of these items on my every-other-week grocery trips.

dried fruit
pre-made foods, including breakfast cereals, bread, instant foods, canned soups, etc.
fancy condiments like maple syrup ,jams, jellies, Nutella
snack foods, such crackers, pretzels, or candy

A small feast to celebrate a friend's visit:
tea with cream, scones with dried cranberries and lemon curd.
As you see, most things one could buy at the grocery store fall into the "luxury" category on my list. While some have accused me of unnecessary deprivation, this system has enriched the way I understand and enjoy food.  First, having a set cupboard of staples means that I know how to cook a wide range of meals using those ingredients as my foundation.  Thus, I can cook a meal on short notice without fretting.  Carefully designating staple-goods also keeps my grocery bill small.  Lentils and dried beans are beautifully cheap.

The luxury goods, meanwhile, have become elements of occasional celebration, rather than consistent guilt.  Candied ginger, nuts, and dried fruits seem lavish and exotic, so when I buy them in preparation for Christmas I affirm the rich delight of that season. Because I buy meat so rarely, purchasing an Easter ham last year felt like slaughtering the fatted calf. In financial terms, it was a real sacrifice to spend so much money, but I consecrated the expense as a gift to the people who shared it with me.

It would be disingenuous to say that I always follow these practices perfectly, but they provide a helpful structure for my food purchases. Buying and eating less, I have experienced gratitude and abundance in surprising ways.

These habits also provide a foundation for building even better practices at the grocery store. Small disciplines have taught me to desire even better ways to "do justice, learn from the world community, nurture people, cherish the natural order, and nonconform freely" with my grocery budget. I want to become a better gardener, eventually producing most of the vegetables my household consumes. I want to learn more about preserving food (I dream of root cellars!), about the kinds of farming I should and should not support, and about the markets I can help create with my money and advocacy. I want to be a wise, generous, and grateful steward of the abundant food available to me.  

What principles or habits do you use to make choices about food? How do you order and organize trips to the grocery store? 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hardcore Home Ec: Living More with Less

Did you take home economics in school? I did, in eighth grade, and it is one of the only classes I have ever completed without learning a single thing. Most of the class was devoted to "cooking," but on the day we made pasta, we made spaghetti while our teacher heated a can of sauce.  Perhaps learning to boil water was a new skill for some of my classmates, but I've always been something of an overachiever. In addition to our culinary instruction (pasta was followed by a rousing lesson on using refrigerated cookie dough), we watched a number of videos informing us that no, we should not do drugs, and yes, we should take our vitamins.
My teacher (bless her heart) meant well, but there's no denying that the class was lame. It took years for me to learn that home economics could change the world. I began to pay more attention to my amazing mother, and her stubborn, creative stewardship, built on practices which guard the poor and bear witness to the gospel. I thought about the ways my father's garden enabled freedom and generosity.  I met men and women who opened their homes to pregnant teenagers, men down on their luck, or elderly relatives. I began to hear and wonder about "intentional communities."
Although I may find big systems and complex programs intellectually satisfying, when it comes to heart and hands I am a grassroots kind of girl. I want my home to be a place where every choice, expenditure, and moment is of lasting value.  Literally,  "economy" (from the Greek οἰκονομία) means "household law," or "management of a household," and when I remember that meaning, I realize that the ways we manage our home can have ramifications in much larger markets and societies. 
For this reason, I was delighted to find a new resource this summer: Living More with Less by Doris Janzen Longacre  I was already familiar with Longacre's first book, the More with Less Cookbook. The Mennonite Central Committee commissioned the book in the 1970s, asking Mennonites from around the world to suggest practices that would reduce consumption of scarce energy and food resources. The cookbook is full of delicious, simple recipes that provide nutritious meals for very little money. Thanks to this book I have learned to cook for fifteen without worry, and I have convinced my skeptical mother that lentils can be scrumptious. (Edit: My mother just called to say I only succeeded in convincing her that lentils are "acceptable." I think she's just being contrary. They were delicious).
Living More with Less was published after the cookbook, and it extends the premise to all areas of home management -- money, transportation, clothing, recreation, celebrations, housing, homekeeping, and more. As with the cookbook, Longacre compiles ideas from Mennonites around the world, and she prefaces these ideas with her commentary on five ideas that are central to living more with less:
Do justice.
Learn from the world community.
Nurture people.
Cherish the natural order.
Nonconform freely. 
Longacre, who earned degrees in both home economics and theology, establishes each of these principles on biblical grounds, and her tone can be both rousing and stern. She speaks powerfully, for example, on the need for our home economies to receive support and discipline from the church. "Finding a nice church with warm handshakes and well--planned programs is not enough," she insists. "Friendships developed in many churches will provide tennis partners and dinner invitations [...] but are less ready to caution you about buying too big a car" (85).  Elsewhere she writes, "How-to books on pop psychology do not generally look fondly upon feelings of guilt or raising those feelings in anyone else. But what if you are guilty?" (41).  For Longacre, home economics is a matter of conviction and vision.
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where all of Longacre's principles found some expression, but now that I am an adult, I find Longacre's book to be both inspiring and humbling. I like to think of myself as a thrifty, nurturing nonconformist, but I spend more time than I care to admit thinking about the next thing I want to buy, or trying to find room in my closet for yet another cute dress. It is painful but important to realize how often my habits fall short of my ideals. I might be a quick study with pasta, but I'm not such a wunderkind when it comes to culling my possessions or making wise purchases.
 For all her sternness, however, Longacre doesn't want anyone to dwell in guilt. Rather, her books call for repentance and action; they are about living more, after all. As I continue to learn how to establish a wise home economy, I'm pondering the paradox of more-with-less. More attention to my work, fewer visits to facebook. More prayer, less online shopping. More sleep, fewer resume-boosting activities. More shared meals, fewer snacks. More savoring a cup of tea, less gulping through mug after mug. More creative visions for the future, fewer escapist daydreams.
I'm still thinking about practical ways this paradox should shape the ways I use my time, energy, and resources, especially as I share a household with Grant and Jenn. Who knew that home ec could become a spiritual discipline?

What are your thoughts on "home economics"? What do you think of Longacre's five principles for living more with less? Can you think of some examples of the more-with-less paradox?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In Praise of Harry Potter

More than a decade ago, I became a reluctant reader of Harry Potter. I was never worried about the supposedly diabolic effects of stories featuring "white magic" -- after all, on that charge, Narnia and Middle Earth should be pitched out as much as J.K. Rowling's world.  Rather, at the age of fourteen I was vehemently opposed to anything that seemed popular, and the Potter books were gaining enthusiastic fans quickly. Fortunately, a determined friend read the first chapter to me over the phone (and this in the days when someone actually had to pay for long-distance calls!), convincing me that the story was worth following.

Though I have said (surprisingly) little about literature on this blog, books and stories have always been part of my understanding of home, community, relationships, and all the other things I began this blog in order to explore.  Some of my earliest memories of home involve my parents reading to me, and I have chosen to pursue a PhD in literature because I believe that stories matter in our lifelong, faltering attempts to become fully human (The Gospel is a story, not an argument, after all). At its best, literature at has the power to disorient and reestablish, undermine and affirm, create good desires, instruct and delight.

Last week, as I reread the final book in the Harry Potter series, then watched the final film, I was particularly moved by two extraordinary virtues of these stories.  One is personal, the other general.  
First, the books demonstrate that stories create communities. The Potter books were one of the first things that made me feel a part of my own generation, rather than alienated from it. I loved to read long before Rowling published her first book, but until high school, I believed my interests should be entirely my own. This wasn't only because my thirteen-year-old peers weren't swooning over William Blake as I was, but because I felt that sharing something cheapened it. Having one or two friends was fine, but I wanted secret, special, and unique interests.  With the Potter books, however, my pride in precocious and hidden knowledge gave way to delight--delight too strong to be weakened by the fact that I shared it with millions of other people. Indeed, like many of my peers, I feel a kind of communal ownership of the Harry Potter saga. The first book was published in the US when I was fourteen, and now the last film has premiered when I am twenty-seven.  As the books were published, I was often only a few years older than the characters themselves, and according to the internal chronology of the series, Harry Potter and his friends were born in 1979/1980, making them all about four years older than I am.  I wouldn't say that Harry Potter defined my generation, but the stories--both in print and on screen--have certainly been companions for those of us who came of age since the late 1990s. As I watched the final Deathly Hallows movie, I thought about all the friends I've enjoyed sharing the books and films with.  I remembered seeing past films with friends from high school, college, and graduate school. I remembered Will reading that first chapter to me on the phone, and the letters I have shared with Emily, Julianna, Dave and Mandy. This year, I watched the film with one of the families from my recent China trip, glad to witness one more beautiful and powerful story with them.  

My second note of praise for Harry Potter is quite simple. J.K. Rowling has provided a series of books that glorify friendship, and such stories are badly needed.  I am increasingly convinced that friendship is the most important and neglected kind of relationship in adult life, and I want to cheer each time I read or watch Harry and his friends overcome evil with love.  The clip I've linked to (below) is from Part I of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and while this little scene was not actually in the book, it gives a picture of the kind of tenderness and courage that characterize all the best friendships in the series.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in the middle of the journey to defeat the dark wizard Voldemort. Like many of us, they have noble ambitions, but no idea where to go or what to do to. They are tired and wandering and heartsick. Ron, frustrated and impatient, has abandoned his friends, and in the scene below, Harry tries to remind Hermione that all is not lost.

Watch: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Scene

I nearly cry whenever I watch this. We need these pictures of friendship, pictures of friends who are not lovers, pictures of friends who are brave and honest and beautiful even in their awkwardness. We need stories to make as fierce rather than sentimental. Watching this film, I am overcome with gratitude for my own friends. More times than I can count they have offered their hands when I was lost and sad.

I would rather be a friend than a fangirl, but so long as the rest of the world is buzzing with news about "The Boy Who Lived," I wanted to offer a few thoughts of my own. They are our stories, after all.

Have you read any of the Harry Potter books? How have these or other stories shaped how you live your life alongside others?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Orient Express

This blog has been silent the last few weeks because I have been, quite literally, far away from home.  From July 10 to 27 I was in China.  I spent most of my time in the city of Suzhou, helping to lead a best-practices workshop for Chinese EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teachers. For many reasons (my gentle readers' attention span not least among them) I cannot give a full, or even particularly thoughtful, account of my trip right now. I'm still pondering the weight of our very beautiful-baffling-busy time abroad, so until I have longer stories to tell or deeper reflections to offer, I give you (in order of increasing profundity) a few of the lists I have been making as I look back on my time as a foreigner.

New Culinary Experiences

  • cow stomach
  • spicy frogs
  • chicken feet ("Bite the toes off first," they told me.)
  • sow's ear
  • Peking duck
  • jellyfish
  • duck tongue
  • donkey meat (the entree was advertised as "Griddled Ass")
  • "stinky tofu" 
  • eel

Just some of the tea-related
 paraphernalia I bought in Suzhou. 
Reasons China is Awesome for People Who Love Tea

  • hotel rooms come with a hot water kettle and tea bags (not a nasty, coffee-tasting coffee maker)
  • entire gardens are devoted to tea
  • even small supermarkets offer a wide array of loose, bagged, and instant teas
  • milk tea can be ordered with tapioca-pearl "bubbles"
  • hot tea is served with nearly every meal


Our room in Suzhou came ready for tea.

Much fancier tea service at
our Beijing hotel.

An enchanting tea garden!

Words I Learned Either to Read or to Say (But Not to Write) in Chinese

"Tea" again! I can read!

  • white
  • red
  • gate
  • bridge
  • horse
  • mother
  • eggplant
  • hello
  • tea
  • mouth
  • "I don't want [it]"
  • "I don't know"
  • "See you later!"
  • "How are you?"

Forms of Transportation We Used During Our Trip

See the boats?

  • airplane
  • gondola (both motor-powered and hand-rowed)
  • bullet train (the same day and the same line as the July 22 crash)
  • subway
  • bus
  • taxi
  • personal car
  • cable car
  • ski lift

Miscellaneous Things I Loved about China

  • inexpensive, delicious food
  • family-style meals
  • readily-available public transportation
  • not freezing from overly air-conditioned buildings 
  • cheap, high-quality fountain pens 
  • melon-flavored candy
Miscellaneous Things I Did Not Love about China

  • over-crowded buses and subways (especially in Beijing)
  • having to brush my teeth with bottled water
  • humidity 

Genuinely Beautiful Sights

One of Suzhou's smaller gardens

Tiger Hill, one of the most famous sites in Suzhou and UNESCO World Heritage Site
We had a beautifully clear view of the mountains
surrounding the Great Wall at MuTienYu.

People I Came to Know and Love 

  • Dennis, Agnes, Erin, and Sarah
  • Ken, Jean, Elaine, and Grant
  • Jon, Shelley, and Janae
  • Jody and Amanda
  • Sherry
  • the teachers in our two-week workshop

Questions I Have Not Answered

  • What does it mean to be a "foreigner"?
  • What is the best way to learn Chinese?
  • Have I grown too complacent in the familiar communities and relationships that are home to me?
  • Does the idea of a settled home ever become an idol for me?