Monday, July 21, 2008

Good to the Last Drop

When I was in college, my friend Laura gained a reputation as the best free food scavenger on campus. Once clear of the mandatory freshman meal plan, Laura seemingly never paid for food again, instead managing to show up with uncannily perfect timing and large quantities of Tupperware wherever food was being given away. On occasion, this made her diet a bit monotonous (one particularly massive haul of peanut butter mouse seemed like it would never end and became the inspiration for many pranks), but on the whole, she and many of her fortunate friends ate well off the would-be-wasted food of campus.

We Americans have become accustomed to cheap food, readily accessible 24 hours per day. As a result, many people don’t think in terms of making due with what’s available or finding uses for leftover food. This habit of disconnecting our meals one from the next is merely a symptom of our aimless American diet, disengaged from the seasons and guided by fashion or supermarket specials. Rather than letting what we have suggest what we should next consume, we take the path of least resistance, throw out leftovers and eat whatever is easy and familiar. Keeping a household compost pile is a simple way to decrease food wastage, but I’m a “whole hog” kind of girl, preferring to find uses for every edible part of anything in my kitchen.

Several weeks ago I purchased 3 gallons of raw milk with grand intentions of a home dairying bonanza of ice cream, yogurt, and mozzarella cheese. Alas, as I stood poised above the stove, I realized, much to my chagrin, that citric acid and lemon juice are not the same thing. I toyed with the idea of fudging it, came to my senses after considering the cost of milk, and turned my attention to ice cream instead. A few days later my roommate Ben informed me that the remaining milk had gone sour.

Now I was really annoyed--had I just thrown $6 and a gallon of delicious milk down the drain? I turned to the modern magic eight ball of Google. "What can you do with sour milk?" I queried. As it turns out, plenty, particularly since my milk was unpasteurized. Pasteurized milk tastes spoiled when the microscopic carcasses of all the zapped bacteria (both good and bad) begin decomposing. Ewww. In raw milk, on the other hand, beneficial bacteria eventually begin converting the sugars in milk into lactic acid—effectively turning your milk into buttermilk or yogurt.

All milk has naturally occurring bacteria in it, which are harmless or even beneficial. If, however, a milking parlor is not meticulously hygienic, nasty bacterial beasties can sneak into the raw milk and make any ensuing milk drinkers sick. Fears of contaminated milk, sparked by the deaths of children from food poisoning, led scientists in the early 20th century first to the creation of evaporated milk (clean, cheap, and easily stored for long periods), then to pasteurization, where a flash heating process kills all bacteria, both beneficial and harmful. Though a few diehards held out on the benefits of raw milk, pasteurization quickly gained a monopoly on consumer confidence and within a few years many states had made pasteurization mandatory and the sale of raw milk illegal. While pasteurization renders unclean milk safe for consumption (yay?), it also decreases the vitamin content and denatures various enzymes that facilitate digestion. This is why people with mild lactose intolerance often find that they can drink raw milk while pasteurized milk will make them sick.

As I was saying, my milk was not spoiled, only soured. As long as your milk has only begun to turn, you can still use it for all sorts of culinary experiments. On this particular evening I was feeling like Indian food, so I decided to make paneer cheese, a staple dairy item of India often made with slightly soured milk.

A favorite Indian dish of mine is palak paneer, which features cubes of paneer in a thick, pureed spinach sauce. Unfortunately, spinach has not been seen on our farm since summer reared its sunny head. We do, however, have an abundant supply of lambs quarters, a native weed that volunteers in any bed we forget to weed for more than a week. Lambs quarters is incredibly nutritious and tastes, at least to me, quite similar to spinach. I decided to try a substitution. The resulting dish was green and lumpy (both positive qualities in Indian cuisine) and tasted like sweet success. I like to think that Laura would have been proud.

Mock Palak Paneer

1 t chopped fresh ginger
1 fresh green chili, seeded and minced
1 t ground coriander
1/2 t sweet paprika
1/2 t ground cumin
1/2 turmeric
2 t ghee (if you have it) or oil (I didn't)
2 large bunches lambs quarters (err...I just grabbed a solid handful of stems)
4 T cream or whole milk
paneer cheese, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 t garam masala
salt to taste

Strip the leaves of the quarters from the stem, wash, and drain them. Steam the lambs quarters with some water for 4-5 minutes, until it becomes soft and cooks down.

Blend the lambs quarters in a food processor or blender until smooth. Set aside.

Blend the ginger and chili in the food processor or blender with a few teaspoons of water. Add the coriander, paprika, cumin, and tumeric and blend to form a paste. Set aside.

Heat the ghee or oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the spice mix and fry for 2-3 minutes until the paste is aromatic and starts to sticl. Fold in the pureed lamsquarters. Cook over full heat for 2-4 minutes.

Fold in the cream, paneer cubes, garam masala, and salt. Cook for an additional 5 minutes and serve hot.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Word of the Day

My fellow farmers like to tease me about my eclectic vocabulary. I collect words the way my older brother used to collect Star Wars figures: greedily, giddily, and very, very geekishly. (ok, so maybe he wasn't giddy. But geekish? You decide.) For example, when the Oxford English Dictionary crowned "locavore" the word of the year in 2007, I was among those who not only noticed, but also became rather excited.

I may have found a new favorite, however, one which could give "locavore" a run for its money: "eth•i•cu•re•an n. (also adj.) Someone who seeks out tasty things that are also sustainable, organic, local, and/or ethical — SOLE food, for short." Be still, my heart, there's a whole blog devoted to this wonderful new word!

In writing about the psychological and cultural roots of totemic animals in many tribal cultures, anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss* noted that human beings found animals "good to think" as well as "good to eat." By that, he meant that tribal society used individual and tribal totems as metaphors for the internal differences within human culture. Animals were more than just dinner--the idea of a bear or an otter could represent something abstract and, in fact, intrinsically human. In a way, ethicurianism (If we can go ahead and make this word an -ism already) is our new totemism. It makes our food "good to think" on a number of levels. At its simplest, it is a statement of values served up with a sides of raw milk cheese and fair trade organic coffee. More than that, however, ethicurianism is a metaphor for how we want to live our lives: consciously engaging with the wider ramifications of our most fundamental decisions, from "what shall I have for dinner?" to "what should I do with my life?" I can usually figure out the first one; I'm mulling over the second.

Sometimes, when it's 1 in the morning and I'm still poring over cookbooks or fishing the last jar of jam out of the water bath, I worry that I might be taking this whole food business too far. What value am I adding, really, in following a process from start to finish when I could easily pick up in the middle? But then I realize that I do it because it gives me joy to present a ratatouille the contents of which I have nurtured from seed to table. And I realize that the food I consume represents the values I have come to cherish (the listing of which I borrow from Barbara Kingsolver): honesty, cooperativeness, thrift, mental curiosity, and physical competence. Make my totem an onion.

*Levi Strauss is also remembered for his (perhaps familiar sounding?) volume, The Raw and the Cooked. When I finally get hold of a copy, rest assured that I'll blog it...