Thursday, February 26, 2009

Philosophy of Eating - Part 2

Before I continue with this "Food Manifesto", I'd like to clarify a few things stemming from Part 1.

First, what I am attempting to do here is to lay out, in some logical format, the tenets that drive my food actions (purchasing, cooking, eating, etc). These are not intended to be prescriptive in any way, but more of an exploration into the way I currently view food and an attempt to explain, as best I can, why I do things a certain way.

Second, these tenets are my ideals. They are not always realistic and are therefore not always realized. Given a choice between 'A' and 'B', I will choose the one that best fits with my food philosophy. But sometimes 'C' is the only option - whether because of economic, geographic, medical, or practical constraints.

Third, each principle here is a result of some conscious thought process that involved some sort of "cost-benefit analysis" - some decisions are more informed than others, but none are merely arbitrary (for the most part anyways) - I've thought about each of these and have my reasons for leaning one way or another. I'd love to have a stack of research articles to back up my beliefs, but sometimes I don't (though I'm convinced they're out there if I just had the time/inclination to go looking).

Lastly, I'm not an expert on any of these matters. I'm just a guy who thinks that the way we approach food has important consequences for our health (in all senses of the word), as well as the health of our land and our society and who has decided to spend some time thinking about these consequences. Now, where was I?

To summarize Part 1 - I try to adhere to the following tenets when dealing with food-related decisions:
1) Home cooked foods/meals are best
2) Variety is good
3) Eat locally

Now, on to #4

4. Avoid as many pesticides, antibiotics, and growth hormones as possible
Basically, this means buying, growing, and eating "organic" foods. However, "organic" is such a snake's-nest of a word that I think it's best to be more specific. For something to be certified as organic it must meet a set of standards controlled by the USDA. On the face of it, these standards ensure that anything labeled as "organic" meets some minimum set of criteria that precludes the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics, among other things. However, there are numerous farmers out there, particularly small, local farmers, who grow crops or raise livestock which are not certified organic, but which meet or even surpass the USDA's standards. So, even though they have not gone through the certification process and cannot therefore be officially labeled as "organic", they are "organic" in the original and important sense of the word . Also, it might be "better" to buy something from a local producer who is mostly organic, but not certified than from a mega-farm 3,000 miles away that is. Again, it's about choices, but "organic" or not, I prefer my food without the added chemicals

5. Eat meat from farm-raised animals
And by 'farm' I mean the type of place that first comes to mind when most people hear the word 'farm'. Farm-raised livestock eat a more natural diet - i.e. the diet they need to be healthy. I'll go into this more in a later post, but I am fully entrenched in the idea that beef, pork, chicken, and eggs from animals that live on a farm are about a billion times healthier for you than anything raised in a feedlot (by the way, I think this should be self-evident if you've ever actually seen an industrial cattle or pig yard). I keep looking for the definitive science to back me up on this, but it's difficult to figure out what is real and what is "spin" - most websites out there on the topic seem to start with a conclusion in mind, one way or the other, and then work backwards to find the data to support them. What I need is a good nutritional science review article on this subject. But for now, it makes sense to me that healthier animals make for healthier food and farm conditions are more conducive to producing healthier animals. So, I'll choose my locally farm-raised meats (which are also "organic") over the meats available in the supermarket.

6. Avoid artificial ingredients, preservatives and otherwise overly "processed" foods
This one should come as no surprise. Artificial ingredients can do some important things - they keep food fresher, longer, they can increase nutritional value, and they can make food taste and look better. However, they can also do some nasty things - some have been linked to hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder in kids , others are linked to obesity, diabetes, and liver disease and processed meats have been linked to prostate and pancreatic cancer. I won't even pretend to think that a few scientific articles makes my point or even that all food additives are toxic. But clearly, they're not all benign either. My point is, given two similar food items, one with artificial ingredients and one without, I believe that the one without is a healthier choice (notice I didn't say that I would always choose that one). Food additives cannot be avoided and our pantry has plenty of items with them. As with many of the previous tenets, the amount of artificial ingredients in our food comes down to a matter of choice and compromise - ideally, I avoid them as much as possible; realistically, I avoid them when it makes sense to.

Still more to come, but it's late and I am out of steam. Hope these ramblings still make sense when I read them in the morning.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Apple Cider Bread

What better way to start off the recipe section of this brand new blog than with a brand new recipe? That's right - brand new - never tested - not even tasted yet. Risky? Absolutely. But sometimes risk can be good. Right? Right. (UPDATE: taste results are in)

I found myself today with an excess of apple cider. You see, I decided to brew my own batch of hard cider (which is a post for another time), so I bought 3 gallons of all-natural, locally-made apple cider (from Jaswell's Farm in Smithfield, RI - actually, I bought it in a supermarket, but it was made by Jaswell's). Problem was though that the cider contains "less than 1/10 of 1% Potassium sorbate for freshness". Potassium sorbate is a preservative - it kills yeast, which isn't good when you're trying to make hard cider (though, I just realized, the bread yeast didn't seem to have a problem. Must be a time-exposure thing). Anyways, I decided not to risk using it for my hard cider. But that meant that I had 3 gallons of cider in my fridge - that's a lot of cider at one time for one household. So I did some online searching and came across this bread recipe that I tweaked. I upped the brown sugar and decreased the salt from the original recipe. I made the dough in the bread machine, but cooked it in the oven. Now I only have 2.9 gallons of cider.

Apple Cider Bread
1 1/4 cups apple cider
2 Tbsp softened butter
3 cups bread flour
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp dry active yeast (I use Fleischmann's Bread Machine Yeast)

1. Put all ingredients in bread machine according to manufacturer's instructions and set for dough cycle (I put the wet and fats in first, flour and other dry items in next, yeast in last)
2. Watch dough during first 5 minutes of cycle and add liquid or flour as necessary (I ended up needing to add a few tablespoons more of flour to get the dough to the right consistency)
3. When dough cycle ends, put dough in well-greased loaf pan and punch down.
4. Cover dough and let rise for ~30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350oF
5. Bake bread for about 40 minutes. Cover loosely with foil after 30 minutes if browning too much.
6. Remove bread from pan and cool completely on a wire rack

Like I said, I haven't tasted this yet, so I can't guarantee anything. However, it's a fine looking bread and the house smells incredible. I'm willing to bet it's going to be good.

UPDATE: This bread tasted great. It was soft and slightly sweet and had an excellent apple cidery flavor. It was good just sliced by itself, but I really liked it toasted with butter. The kids loved it, so it's a definite keeper. In fact, I made another loaf yesterday and its already half gone.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Philosophy of Eating - Part 1

The following are the tenets that drive my eating-related actions. Or rather, these tenets inform my food-based decisions. (At least in an ideal world) Essentially, these are things that I believe and therefore things that I try to follow. These are the major themes of Cooking 4 Four.

1. Prepare as many meals yourself as you can
Basically, if you can cook it yourself, you should. This puts you in direct control of the ingredients and the process, which allows you to decide which ingredients and which processes are included (and which are excluded). You can eliminate low quality, artificial and/or unnecessary ingredients and processes. The assumption, of course, is that what you eliminate isn't good for you and/or isn't particularly tasty. Home cooked is generally better than non-home cooked.

2. Cook and eat as much variety as you can
Food and drink sustain us - there are a multitude of components found in them that we need to survive and be well. We can't possibly get them all from one food. Nor from some pill or extract - in many cases, the form of the compound or the interaction of that compound with other compounds matter. If you eat a variety of different foods chances are you're getting most every coenzyme, cofactor, and trace mineral that you need. Besides, eating the same thing over and over is depressing - it makes eating not very enjoyable. Eating should be enjoyable - if it isn't, eating becomes more of a chore and you stop caring what you eat (so you end up eating nothing but hot dogs, twix bars, and coke and that's not good)

3. Use as many locally-produced ingredients as you can (the more local, the better)
If it were possible and feasible to produce everything we wanted right here on our own property, I would. But we can't. So, instead, we produce what we can, when we can - our vegetable garden grows a bit every year. We're going to plant some fruit trees. (if only I could have my own hops and barley field!) For those things we don't produce ourselves, we get from increasingly expanding circles of proximity (is that the opposite of degrees of separation?) - first friends and family (my dad has a great wild blueberry patch in his yard and some friends harvest honey from their bees), then from local farmers (our milk comes from a local dairy, our meat from a local farm, and we try to get eggs and as much produce from local farm stands and farmer's markets), then regional producers (for example, I'm more likely to buy Maine potatoes than Idaho potatoes). Clearly, living in New England, especially during the winter months, we can't get everything locally. So, sometimes I have to make a compromise between this tenet and the one above - I either have to sacrifice using local ingredients or sacrifice variety. So I do. We always have bananas in the house, yet I refuse to buy asparagus in January.

My order of preference:
1) Eat something that we prepared ourselves using ingredients we produced ourselves.
2) Eat something that we prepared ourselves using ingredients from as local as possible.
3) Eat something that was prepared locally using local ingredients
4) Eat something that was prepared locally using non-local ingredients
5) Eat something that was prepared non-locally

Please remember that all this is under ideal conditions. Hockey practices, basketball games, grading lab reports, sick kids, harsh winters, uncooperative geography, and general crankiness do not always lend themselves to ideal conditions. During such times of less-than-ideal conditions, take-out is certainly a viable option.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Should I be starting a new blog? Probably not. Especially considering I haven't been able to really keep my first one going very well lately (at least not the way I would like). Do I have the time? Probably not. Still, this is something I've been thinking about for a while now, so I might as well go for it. So without further ado...Cooking 4 Four

What is this about?
Well, clearly it's about cooking. But more than that as well. It's about eating (and drinking) and food and recipes and family and tradition and being responsible and s-l-o-w-i-n-g down and paying attention to (and enjoying) the details. It's about taking control on what get's put in our kitchen, on our stove, plates, and table, and in ourselves. And it's about why taking control over these things is so important. It's about the process of providing a healthy lifestyle for me and my family. More so, it's about the process of engaging us in this healthy lifestyle.

What will be found here?
Recipes. Rants. Ideas. Tips. Soapbox diatribes. Personal reflections. General musings. Venting. And family stories. All food-related of course.

Why me?
Actually, the idea of me writing about food is rather ironic. Anyone who knew me growing up would laugh at the thought that I might have something to say concerning eating. I didn't eat anything. Vegetables? Not even ketchup. Peanut butter and jelly? No, just the peanut butter. Macaroni and gravy? Hold the gravy (and the meatballs). But, somehow, I came to my senses and began realizing what I was missing and have progressed beyond hot dogs, pepperoni pizza, Twix bars, and coke. I still don't eat everything, but I'm about a million times better now than I was 10 years ago and billion times better than I was 20 years ago. I see now that I was lucky enough to grow up in a family environment where food and cooking and eating were enjoyed and deemed important beyond mere sustenance. Now I have a family and I want to make sure that I do the best that I can for them, which means paying attention to what I cook for them. So I pay attention. And in the process I hope that I am instilling in my kids the idea that food and eating and family are all important. That's why.

I've been putting off starting this blog for months now - I didn't want to start something I wasn't going to keep going and I never seemed to have the time to write this opening post. But now that I have, I'll be sure to keep it up. As is the nature of most blogs, this will be a constantly evolving site and I will be filling in the sidebar with a variety of resources as time goes by. Stay tuned, and enjoy! And please comment away.