Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Collection of Easy, From-Scratch Meals

I was just reading an old post at Down to Earth about quick-prep, healthy, from-scratch meals for when you don’t feel like cooking or don’t have the time. These span from things that you have ready to go in the freezer to recipes that use up whatever leftovers or half-veggies you have in the fridge from the past week. These are some of my stand-bys that fall into this category, perhaps a step above what my family calls “foraging”: digging out and reheating whatever you could find in the fridge on a given night.

• Pasta and simple sauce

I nearly always have some form of pasta on hand, so this is probably my most frequent non-labor intensive meal. Boil some pasta, chop some garlic and/or whatever fresh veggies I have in the fridge, or add some frozen peas to the pasta. Add butter or olive oil and cheese and I’m set to go. I also try to have lots of herbs and spices available (dried ones in winter) so these make it a little more exciting sometimes. My most recent combo was fresh fettucine (I had a coupon for a free pound of fresh cut-to-order pasta from Pastaworks), chopped apple, feta, olive oil, salt, and dried oregano.

• Cornbread and steamed veggies

Cornbread is one of my favorite quick carb foods. I use the same recipe I grew up with, which includes the stipulation (NOT optional) to bake in a pre-heated cast iron skillet.

Here's the recipe:
1 cup white flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup cornmeal
4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 cup oil

Mix the dry ingredients together, and in a separate bowl mix all the wet ingredients. Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and mix well. Bake in an oiled pre-heated 9-inch skillet for 20 minutes or so at 375.

If I have canned sliced jalapeños on hand, I like to set them into the top of the batter before it goes in the oven. It comes out tasting like a chile relleno!

If it’s summer, I usually have fresh veggies of some kind to steam or sauté, and in the winter, frozen green beans or peas or edamame to steam quickly.

• Crispy Kale

Crispy kale has become a staple within my group of friends and could probably be considered its own food group. This is a great way to eat your fill of greens in the winter, since kale is in season and available everywhere.

Rinse the kale, and strip it from the stems, or at least from the tough parts of the stem. Tear into tortilla-chip sized pieces and pile on a baking pan. Keep in mind that baking will reduce this heap to a generous layer! When you have a satisfactory amount of kale torn up, drizzle with olive oil and toss and squish with your hands until every piece is coated. Spread evenly on the pan. Then stick in the oven at about 375°F for ten minutes or so. The timing will depend on the amount of kale and heat of the oven. Keep checking it; it is done when the edges of the leaves feel crispy. Take out of the oven, toss into a bowl, and season with lots of salt or nutritional yeast. Eat with your fingers!

• Beans and rice

This is fairly self-explanatory. I buy dry beans in bulk and cook big batches of them to freeze, so I always have some on hand. I switch around between black beans, navy beans, and pinto beans. I just pull out a container from the freezer or fridge and heat them up, cook up some rice (I really love jasmine rice, I know it’s not as good for you as brown rice), and eat a nice plate of beans on rice, with grated cheese or chopped tomatoes. I also really like the flavor combination of lime juice and ground coriander seed on black beans.

• Roasted potatoes

If I have potatoes handy, I just cut them into smallish chunks or wedges and throw them in a baking pan with some olive oil, garlic, rosemary, and chopped onions. I also like to top them with Old Bay, Cajun seasonings, Worcestershire sauce, BBQ powder, or some combination thereof. It takes about an hour to bake them at 375°. My favorite potatoes to roast are fingerlings like Russian or Austrian Crescents. They are really moist and have an amazing flavor.

• Stir-fry or fajitas

An old standby from my childhood. Slice sweet peppers, onions, and any other available veggies (water chestnuts are really good for stir-fry). Chop garlic, and lots of fresh ginger if you’re doing stir-fry. For protein, use either chicken or beef cut into small pieces, or else make a quick omelette and then slice it up and set it aside for the moment. It’s easiest to cook everything together in a wok, but a big skillet will suffice. Saute the meat first in some oil and flavorings, and put it aside once it’s cooked. Fry up the onion and garlic in olive oil and then add the rest of the ingredients and fry until you are satisfied. Add the meat or egg back in at the last minute. To flavor stir-fry, use ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, and basil. For fajitas, use Worcestershire sauce or BBQ flavorings. Serve stir-fry over rice, and fajitas with tortillas, cheese, and salsa. Homemade tortillas are easy: equal parts flour and masa (finely ground corn flour) and enough water to make it all stick together but not actually be sticky. Roll out between plastic bags, using a rolling pin, and cook on cast iron.

• Chicken and dumplings

I have had this one twice in the last week. I try to always have some frozen chicken broth and stock around, so I just pulled out a container of it, heated it on the stove top, and made some quick dumplings. I used a basic recipe from How to Cook Everything, but as Mark Bittman points out, you can make dumplings from just about anything. I just mixed up some flour with butter and an egg and some marjoram and salt and pepper. Chopped onions are good mixed into the dough too. Because I used one of my eggs from Full of Life farm, the dumplings came out bright yellow from that dark yellow nutrient-packed yolk! Once the broth was boiling, I just dropped in a few tablespoonfuls of the dumpling dough, and put the lid back on for ten minutes. I scooped out the dumplings I wasn’t going to eat right away, and set them aside so they wouldn’t get soggy. The whole thing took about 20 minutes.

And with that, I bid you all a happy Thanksgiving weekend!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Settling in for Winter

It’s now almost Thanksgiving, and this fall is turning into winter very quickly. I’ve finally finished my outdoor preparations for winter, expanding my garden and planting the things that go into the ground in the fall.

The biggest project has been expanding my garden space. The garden runs along the fence that separates my back yard from that belonging to the house directly to the south. When I say “my” backyard, I actually mean “our”—my apartment is one of four in a huge Queen Anne Victorian house circa 1890. Mine is the smallest, and both my apartment and the other one on the ground floor have back doors into the yard. The garden space was started by my upstairs neighbor Julie, and when I moved in at the beginning of June, she had some spaces tilled and planted against the fence, and I added to it throughout the summer. Both Matt and Erin helped me till up more sod this fall, and the result is a garden that is almost twice as big! I am terrible at estimating size, but I would say it is approximately 7 feet wide by 25 feet long (maybe a little more). I am lucky enough to have a landlord who is very flexible about us making changes to the property. About making the garden, his only stipulation was “as long as there is still lawn when you’re done.” We still have a sizable green space in back of the house, and a cool shaded path and patio area on the east side of the house adjacent to my rooms. There are two narrow, tall shaded beds on that side that I am planning to plant impatiens in next spring. They are too shaded to be good for much else.

Once the whole garden space was tilled up, Matt helped me collect bags and bags of dried leaves (not hard- plenty of people in the neighborhood were raking that day and more than happy to let us take their leaves for free, as it costs $2 a bag to take them to the Metro composting site!!) and we covered the entire space (except what I had roped off for garlic) with a layer of newspaper to keep out weeds, and then layers of leaves surrounding a layer of the contents of my compost bin and the rest of the green bits from this summer’s garden. The whole thing was between 10 and 12 inches thick, and by spring will have broken down into the soil, creating deliciously moist, nutrient-rich soil for next year’s garden.

On Halloween weekend I planted my seed garlic, which Provo and I ordered from Hood River Garlic in September. I am only growing organic Chesnok Red this year- hopefully I’ll branch out more in the future, but this is my first time growing garlic on my own. I should have about 60 bulbs come June. They are all cozy now, mulched over with leaves I raked from the side yard. I’ve been raking those regularly now to put into the compost bin, which is starting over since I emptied it to mulch the garden. On a side note, Portland Metro subsidizes the standard black plastic compost bins, and I got this one for $39 instead of the market price of $50.

I had the Thursday after Veteran’s Day off, and I took advantage of being home during daylight hours and planted the $42 worth of flower bulbs that I got a couple months ago from Portland Nursery. I went all out, with a wide range of colors of tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, and one variety of Dutch iris. I planted as many as I could along the fence behind the garden, and the rest in the spaces by my back steps, and then in a border along the brick walk around to the east side of the house. I really hope they all come up, I adore bright colors and want to have a rainbow of flowers in my yard come spring!

So all my outdoor chores for the fall are done, and now it’s down to waiting for the winter rains to break down the leaves and compost on the garden and get the garlic and bulbs beefed up for growth in the spring.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Bit About Me

On the off chance that you are reading this and don’t actually know me, I will give you a little bio. If you do know me, well, you know I like to talk about myself, so here goes.

I am 25, living in Portland, Oregon, where I work as a Program Assistant/Office Manager for a refugee resettlement program. I really enjoy my job, even though I would rather be doing more direct service work (my bachelor’s degree is in Social Work). I love interpersonal work, and though primarily being a receptionist, I get to work with amazing people from all around the world on a daily basis. My coworkers are extremely diverse, many of them refugees themselves, and are all wonderful to spend time with.

I am currently in the process of applying to graduate school at Portland State University. I am hoping to enter the Masters of Public Health: Health Promotion program next fall. My goals are to work in nutrition and gardening education and efforts to get communities of all ages into the outdoors, being active, involved in nature, and reaping the physical and psychological benefits of being comfortable out-of-doors.

I currently live alone-- I have a small, beautiful Victorian apartment in Southeast Portland, which has always been my favorite part of town. I live close to work and almost all of my friends, have a great garden space, a home full of light, and live right on a busy bike route. My apartment faces south, away from the street, so it is quiet and sunny, and my garden gets several hours of direct sunlight every day in the summer.

My boyfriend, Matt, and I, try to get out of town and go adventuring as often as we can. For us, that means hiking, surfing, camping, or, should occasion require it, snowshoeing or rock climbing (ok, I’ve only done the rock-climbing thing once, but it was FUN). We are currently working on re-forging our relationship after breaking up this summer after a year together. It took some time, a lot of flip-flopping, and emotional hardship for us to get to where we are now. I know it won’t be smooth or easy for a long time even if we manage to see this through, and even though we have a lot of differences to work through and a lot of hurt to recover from, I feel good about our collective ability to love and communicate, and we are trying to form new ways of being together and compromising on the things that tripped us up before.

The basic components of my life in Portland besides work and boyfriend are 1) my awesome gang of friends, 2) making music, listening to music, and dancing to music, 3) gardening, 4) cycling, and 5) sustainable homemaking. This last one is a fairly recent endeavor for me, and something I will blog about separately, but it’s something that is very immediate to me and right at the core of my life right now. It’s a place in my life where I can put a lot of effort and see a lot of results, and where I can constantly make change.

So, there’s me, in a nutshell, if that’s possible. I am, after all, almost six feet tall and don’t fit in there very well.

My Transition to Pastured Meat

About a month ago, after reading a few too many exposes, I decided I was done eating any meat or eggs from animals that were not pastured and free range according to the true definitions of free range. As a number of different publications point out, the USDA label “free range” only signifies that the animals have access to the outdoors. Thus, supposedly free-range chickens could in fact be chickens born in a barn with 20,000 other chickens and trained to stay in that barn so even when the door is opened so they can be called “free range,” they have no inclination to go outdoors because they are unfamiliar with the concept of daylight. I have major ethical complaints about any sort of animal being raised in restricted conditions, and even bigger ethical issues with a government organization deciding that an animal is “free range” simply because it is not in a cage and has access to the outdoors. I like the term “pastured,” because there’s really no way of re-defining what pastured means. The word “pastured” brings up an image of an animal grazing at pasture, which is exactly what a healthy, happy animal should be doing.

The more I read about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), more commonly known as feedlots or factory farms, the less I ever want to eat, see, or do anything to support the manufacture of meat from CAFOs. In a feedlot, cattle (as well as other animals, but I am mostly thinking in beef terms for the moment) are not fed a natural diet (usually feed includes potatoes, grain, and lots and lots of corn- certainly no fresh grass) and are packed in with thousands of other cattle with little space to move. If you’ve ever seen a feedlot, you’ll see that the cattle have no grass in sight, and stand sometimes knee-deep in mud, manure, and rotting feed. If this is demoralizing to see, only imagine what it’s like to spend one’s short life confined to such an operation. In addition to a lack of natural diet, these animals are often injected with antibiotics to fight the infections they are exposed to in such crowded and dirty conditions, and hormones to stimulate growth or fight other effects of confinement. And if you don’t already know the original source of “Mad Cow Disease,” I’ll tell you: it came from feeding cows to other cows. Essentially, leftover meat and blood from slaughtering were mixed into feed and given to the cattle in the feedlots. I cannot describe to you on how many levels I am not ok with this. While this process is supposedly regulated now, the testing of feed happens on such a miniscule level that there is no way to tell which cows are eating what. Meat-packing and slaughtering and the health risks and ethical issues surrounding those processes is a whole ‘nother story that I just don’t have the time to get into now. But suffice it to say that studies have shown that animals that are stressed out during the moments leading up to their slaughter produce meat that is full of unhealthy stress hormones and other chemicals with negative effects on health.

Beyond my ethical complaints about the treatment of animals in CAFOs, the health benefits of eating pastured meat as compared to CAFO meat are staggering. When you eat CAFO beef, you eat corn. The American public eats several times as much corn in the form of beef than in the form of actual corn. While corn itself is certainly a healthy vegetable, here we are talking about genetically modified, bacteria-resistant corn in high doses, processed by the body of an animal that is not supposed to be eating large amounts of corn. In comparison, grass-fed beef is the result of a cow eating its natural diet, something its body can process and obtain high quantities of vitamins and nutrients from. In addition, a pastured cow actually gets to use its muscles instead of just standing still, cutting down on fat and creating healthy muscle tissue. Pastured beef is much leaner than CAFO beef and its contents are certainly much healthier. According to www.eatwild.com, “[Grass-fed meats] are richer in antioxidants; including vitamins E, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Furthermore, they do not contain traces of added hormones, antibiotics or other drugs.” The fats in grass-fed meat are the “healthy fats," Omega-3s. These are also found in avocados and eggs from pastured chickens.

Speaking of chickens and eggs: this is the one other mini-expose that I want to write. Most people are relatively aware of the conditions in commercial egg production facilities. These are another form of CAFO: barns crammed with cages crammed with chickens. Floors covered in chicken droppings and conveyer belts running below the cages to catch the eggs and carry them off to be sold to the public as healthy sources of protein. I know I’m ranting a little bit here, but the lack of awareness/care about these conditions really irks me. It’s certainly easier to not think about it, but seriously, I think everyone should make an informed decision: do you really want to eat eggs from these chickens? Chickens injected with hormones and antibiotics, unable to move and living solely as egg machines. Pure white eggs don’t come out pure white and clean—in most facilities, eggs are washed in chemical solutions or bleached to get their bright white shells. If you know all this and you still want to eat these eggs, that’s fine. But if you don’t, then try to find a better source of eggs. There are commercial “free range” egg manufacturers like Steibrs, which are free range in the most minimal sense (it’s difficult to find information about them, but from what I can discern, it simply means their chickens aren’t caged). Truly free range eggs usually come straight from the farmer, at $6/dozen, which is definitely spendy, but I’ve decided it’s worth it. I don’t eat eggs regularly, so a dozen usually lasts me 2 or 3 weeks. If you do want to buy free-range eggs but eat them regularly, maybe you can find a compromise and buy one dozen from the store and the next from a farmer. Switch it up, support your local farmers too, and at least get some of the health benefits of eggs from healthy chickens.

Rants aside, my decision comes down to this: I only want to eat healthy, happy animals. All lives must end anyway, and even if the cow I’m eating didn’t get a natural death, I feel good that it had a good life wandering Willamette Valley pastures with other cows, eating good Oregon grass and enjoying both the sun and rain. I want my eggs to come from chickens that get to happily peck around in fields and lay their eggs in comfortable nesting boxes that get cleaned regularly. I want my eggs to be washed only in water. I would like my pork to come from pigs that spend their lives running around with their friends, snuffling in all corners of their pasture and sleeping in a big happy pile in a dry barn when it rains. Luckily I live at the head of the Willamette Valley, where a free-range revolution is taking place. If you know where to look and are willing to spend a little extra money, you can find all of these things; I found them right at my doorstep.

My two primary sources of meat and eggs that meet all these specifications are Deck Family Farm (link) and Full of Life Farm (link). Deck Family Farm sells at multiple farmer’s markets in Portland, and have a huge variety of meat choices, sausages, and other products. Full of Life Farm (just down the road from Champoeg State Park near St. Paul) is only a year old, and as such is not solidly established yet. I have bought delicious eggs (in lots of colors) and pastured chicken from the stand at Irvington Farmer’s Market, and the farm also sells pastured beef from a neighboring farm until their own herd develops more.

I’ve found it to be strictly true that farmers who raise pastured meat are committed also to humane slaughtering practices. Bernard Smith at Full of Life Farm, which Matt and I visited a couple weeks ago, thoroughly researched his butchering options and uses a local small-scale butcher in Mount Angel and is taking measures to make sure his chickens do not have to be confined and transported before being processed. In his blog (link), he also mentions that he takes the cattle on practice runs through the head gate (used for slaughtering) so that they are familiar with it and won’t find it unusual or stressful when it’s time to make their final trip through it, thus making them calmer and preventing the creation of stress hormones in their meat. It was great to visit the farm on a very rainy Saturday, we got to meet the cows and the buck goats (SO stinky) and visit the rabbits, piglets, and the chickens foraging around their eggmobile. Bernard keeps some guinea hens with the chickens because they raise a ruckus anytime anything unusual shows up and serve as a good natural anti-predation system. The farm is beautiful, and we hung out with Bernard at the farm stand for an hour or so and learned the whole history of the farm and what his plans are for expansion of the enterprise. Eggs are cheaper to buy at the farm, so I bought a dozen for $5, and a freshly processed 4.5-lb broiler chicken (as opposed to the frozen ones at the farmer’s market stand) for $20. It was delicious beyond description and besides a roast chicken dinner for me and Matt, I got another 4 meals and 4 quarts of stock/broth out of it. I think that’s worth $20!

One caveat on my meat transition: I am still eating fish from the store. So far I haven’t found any major complaints about fishing or fish farming practices in the northwest (although it is an area of the food world that I am much less familiar with), and I have no desire to kick my taste for baked salmon or lose the health benefits of eating fish. I always buy fish from New Seasons or Whole Foods, as I feel far better about their practices and ethical guidelines in general than I do about those of more commercial chains like Safeway or Fred Meyer.

So there you have my stance on meat. I hope it is useful or at least interesting to you learn some of these facts and hear what I am choosing to do with them.


As fall sets in, the GRE is behind me, and I have more time on my hands, I am endeavoring to restart my blog in an effort to keep up my writing and provide some dialogue (or at least a monologue) about sustainable living, homesteading in the city, and other issues affecting lives like mine. I am inspired by the Down to Earth blog (thank you Heather for the recommendation), Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and a number of other writers and friends who are addressing issues around healthy, local eating and simple living. I am hoping that this will maybe serve as a follow-up to my Mother Earth News article last year about growing up as the child of homesteaders. If you would like to read (or re-read) the article, the link is here. I also plan to incorporate general blogging about my life, and any travels that happen, as well as photos. Hopefully anyone reading this can get something out of it, and if not, I will very much enjoy writing it!

It’s worth noting that I often do the typing on a word document during down time at work, transfer it to my blog when I get the chance. I don’t, in fact, write and post several blogs from scratch on a single day.