Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Less Process, The Better

I haven't fallen off the face of the Earth as some might have surmised... I've just been distracted by other virtual ventures and the long snowy winter has taken its toll on my attention span. I've been experimenting in the kitchen but haven't had any where-with-all to post about any of it.

At any rate, I was recently inspired by a friend: she is in the process of changing her family's diet for medical reasons. She's looking more and more at whole grains and fresh produce, as well as less fatty meats and oils, and having a hard time finding affordable sources--that aren't crap.

For her, and anyone else who is looking for unprocessed foods, I thought I'd post a list of resources for goodies I prefer to use. It's difficult to find healthy and fresh meats, produce, and pantry staples -- let alone cheaply. With gasoline near $4 a gallon and wheat trading at nearly $30 a bushel (Farm Girls know wheat used to trade in the not so distant past at $5 a bushel!) everything is more expensive. But there are cheaper ways to get the whole foods you're looking for with just a few simple clicks...

Here are some of my hints and sources for sussing out tasty treats you can feel good about putting into you and your loved ones' bodies. In later posts we'll be exploring sources for grass-fed meats and dairy, and fresh produce. Today, we'll start with Pantry Staples.

Pantry Staples

Grains, especially whole grains, are not abundant in the middle of the Midwest. Strangely enough, most farmland here is devoted to corn and soybeans, and I'm not talking sweet corn or edamame. The harvests from the fields I drive by every day end up in bottles of oil, detergents, petroleum, etc., and perhaps most insidious, high fructose corn syrup. That's right folks, the same sweetener used in most commercially processed food comes from the same plant used to make modern gasoline. But that's another diatribe for another day.

The grains and seeds I use most in my kitchen are whole wheat flour, brown basmati rice, flax, and millet. They're really, really good for you. Also, it sounds hippie-dippie, but if minimally processed grains make up the base of your diet for a few weeks, you'll soon develop a preference and taste for them over refined grains like white flour and white rice. Trust me here: at 15 my favorite food was white sandwich bread, smooshed into tiny doughy balls. Sorry Wonderbread, but the thought of you now is not only not appetizing, its repulsive.

Pretty much every grocery store these days carries whole wheat bread, but read the labels carefully because many "healthy" and "wholesome" loaves contain high fructose corn syrup. When I don't make my own bread, the national brand we buy most often is Pepperidge Farm. Most of their loaves are sweetened with brown sugar. Many varieties have other seeds and grains mixed in--birdseed bread. Yummy! If you're making bread from scratch (it's really not that hard!) King Arthur makes a great whole wheat flour for everyday use. Bob's Red Mill makes a whole wheat pastry flour and it really does make yummy pastries. If you're just wading into whole grains, by all means, gradually substitute more whole grain flour for white flour in your recipes. For most applications, it doesn't have to be all or nothing.

Speaking of Bob's Red Mill, they are a company worth checking out. Most grocery stores have a small "Bob's" display or end cap near either the baking aisle or the organic aisle, if you're lucky enough to have one. Take a peek and experiment with some of the grains and flours they offer: millet (good for your heart, and when cooked makes a convincing substitute for fluffy mashed potatoes), quinoa (a complete protein and full of cardiovascular benefits), semolina flour (for pasta), almond meal (the best cherry crumble topping), etc. You can also order their products from their website in quantity for good prices.

If you're looking to increase the amount of whole grains in your diet, then buying whole wheat pasta is a very easy route. It's cheap and if you like your "regular" pasta al dente, you'll never notice a difference. It's quick and easy to toss lots of vegetables into a pasta sauce as well. I'm always looking for ways to eat more vegetables--I don't usually like veggies "by themselves", but mixed into something else. (The Beau likes to tell me vegetables are the vehicle by which I consume dairy, ha.) I don't really have any specific sources, as whole wheat pasta is available in even crummy groceries these days. I will say that a great weeknight staple in my kitchen is Annie's Whole Wheat Mac & Cheese. It's not the gloppy neon orange stuff of your childhood, but rather tasty and grown-up. The [powdered & white] sauce doesn't have any crap in it and you can mix it with butter and milk, olive oil, or just plain water. The pasta is whole wheat of course, and it's so fast to mix in a little sauteed onion or shallots, tomatoes and/or tomato paste, bacon or ground turkey, and fresh baby spinach--e voila, you have yourself a complete meal in less than 10 minutes. (Plus the time it takes to boil water.) Annie's is one of the few pre-packaged meals I'll eat and adore.

For rice and lentils, I turn to one of my favorite online stores, IShopIndian. Their brown basmati rice is amazingly fragrant and tasty. (I wish they made basmati rice perfume!) You can cook brown basmati rice like pasta, which makes cooking rice perfectly so much easier. They stock all sorts of lentils, which are called "dal" in Hindi. Yum.

Moving on to salt and spices...

If you're using salt, do use a sea salt of some kind. This way you're getting lots of minerals in addition to the sodium. Sea salts also tend to taste saltier than typical iodized salt, so you get more bang for less buck. Sel gris (literally gray salt) is moist and slightly gray in color. I buy mine from my local market, but a Google search for sel gris yields lots of hits. More expensive but even better is Maldon salt. It's a finishing salt with a crispy, quirky pyramid structure and very salty (but not obnoxious) taste. You eat less salt than if you were eating iodized or kosher salt. Many Maldon aficionados never go back--in fact, there are quite a few converts who now carry a small bag with them when they travel or eat out.

If I'm looking for salt alternatives, I most often turn to--you guessed it--Indian spices. They're really not that scary. Do check out the spices area of the IShopIndian storefront. Indian spices are full of flavor--perfect for minimizing sodium intake without sacrificing interest--and many spices we commonly use in the West are Indian in origin. You'll find them much cheaper in Indian stores. Cinnamon, for example, is substantially cheaper and fresher on IShopIndian than in your local grocery store. If you have a coffee grinder, you can grind your own powdered spices from whole and save even more. I can purchase a 4 oz. bag of cinnamon sticks that when ground, will last me 6 months--for $3.50. (And I go through cinnamon the way some people go through diet soda.) Purchasing the same amount from my local grocery would easily top $50. I've done the math.

Just a note: if you plan on griding your own spices, be sure to purchase a stainless steel-bowl type grinder. Plastic-bowl grinders will quickly absorb the tastes of whatever is ground inside them. Mustard-cinnamon-clove coffee isn't very refreshing.

Some basic good Indian Spices to have on hand:

-Garlic, of course. Fresh garlic is the salt of Indian food. Unsurprisingly, garlic powder makes an excellent sodium substitute in non-ethnic cuisine.

-Ginger. Ginger is the other "biggie" Indian food ingredient. Often, garlic and ginger pastes are combined with plain yogurt and used as a marinade for meat.

-Jaggery. Jaggery is a kind of sugar; much like brown sugar. (Not the brown sugar sprayed with molasses, but true dark brown cane sugar.) It is most often made with sugar cane but sometimes is made from date or sago palms. If you must use sugar, please use jaggery or a [true] brown sugar when you can: they are full of minerals and better for you than refined sugars. There is evidence jaggery even protects against lung diseases caused by inhaling particulates.

-Cardamom. I could muse forever about cardamom. I adore it mixed in with ground meat. Most people feel very strongly about cardamom; they either love it or hate it. Try green cardamom pods first and use them sparingly to see if you like them--be aware that using too much cardamom, especially for those not used to the spice, will make your food taste like potpourri.

-Chilis. Even if you don't like hot-spicy foods, use a small pinch every now and then. Capsacin is very good for the body and in small enough quantity, you won't really taste the heat.

-Cinnamon. Cinnamon is a fundamental spice in Indian cuisine. Hardly anyone hates cinnamon and recent research suggests it lowers blood sugar (in a good way) substantially. Use it. A lot. There is nothing better [smelling or tasting] in the world than onions and cinnamon sweating in a skillet together.

-Tumeric. Tumeric is a spice many people are already familiar with--it is bright yellow and has an indescribable taste. Tumeric gives color and earthiness to curry blends and to rice-based dishes, and it fights cancer. Don't use too much or your dish will end up bitter. If you mix tumeric and plastic bowls or utensils, expect the plastic to be yellow forever.

-Garam Masala. Garam masala is actually a blend of spices. Every mix is slightly different and you can certainly make your own, but it's a great place to start if you want just a little Indian flavor. Garam masala isn't hot-spicy, but savory; think cinnamon, cloves, bay leaves, cardamom, star anise, etc. It works really well with vegetables and red meats.

-Mace. Mace is the skin covering the nutmeg seed. It's not hot like the spray would have you believe; it tastes like nutmeg only slightly fruitier and less bitter.

-Amchur. Amchur is one most people in the West have never heard of and it is worth seeking out. Amchur is the dried (and often powdered) flesh of green mangoes. It's tart and sweet and sour at the same time. You can use amchur like you would use lemon. Yum!

-Kalongi. Kalongi is sometimes called Nigella. It's the seeds from onions. They're very earthy and just barely oniony. Talk about delicious--the seeds are perfect as a spice or sprinkled on top of or into breads. Add them to ground beef or turkey meatballs. Great with potatoes. Very versatile.

-Panch Puran. Spelled many different ways (ponch piran, punch phoran, etc.) but pronounced the same "pawnch purr ahn". Like garam masala, panch puran is a spice blend. It's native to Bengali (if you care) and is literally translated as "5 spices". The 5 spices are mustard, kalongi, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, and cumin seeds. Sometimes a spice similar to celery seed is also included. Typically it's tossed into a hot pan until it pops at the start of a vegetable curry, but use your imagination and combine it with rice or with fish. Fragrant and tasty.

Dried fruit is so good for you, and a wonderful alternative to crappy mid-winter tasteless produce. Unfortunately, most commercially produced dried fruit is sweetened with sugar (or HFCS, horrors) and contains preservatives as well. I purchased dried sour cherries in bulk from Surfas, a chef's supply store. Be sure to look at their other offerings, both food and equipment based. It's vast and interesting. King's Orchards also offers unsweetened sour cherries. Good luck searching for dried unsweetened cranberries. I have been looking for years and have yet to find a reputable source. Raisins are naturally sweet, of course, so they need little sugar. Golden raisins are my favorite; they're plumper. I love to make mild curries with rice and turkey, and sprinkle golden raisins on top. Roasted chicken with onions, garlic, and raisins is also heavenly.

So that about wraps it up for pantry items--I'm sure I'll think of more and will do a second post at that time. What are your favorite sources for yummy, unprocessed pantry staples?

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