|(C) Jack Delano|
"Happy and successful cooking doesn't rely only on know-how; it comes from the heart, makes great demands on the palate and needs enthusiasm and a deep love of food to bring it to life."
Cooking is at the very centre of a simple life. Whether you live alone, in a family or a larger community, cooking food is a major interaction with the environment around you; it gives you the chance to cook healthy, environmentally sustainable and ethically produced meals in your own home. Cooking uses many skills and, effectively done, will save you money, and allow you to have a major input into the health, happiness and well-being of those you cook for.
Not to cook food is not to be connected with what grows, and worse still, to lose a very strong point of connection with your loved ones. Cook well for them and they will carry those memories with them forever and you will define for them the very basic ideas of home, being part of a family and peace as a concept that starts at the meal table.
Cooking at home should not be so different now as it was in the days of your grandparents, in fact, it should be even better, given that we have a wider range of ingredients and better technology. Unfortunately, many have given up real cooking in favour of something that resembles science fiction home economics ~ the simple fact is that cooking real food takes time. It does not save time to go for the ‘instant’ alternative because the end product is nothing like the real thing!
Perhaps it is a matter of matching your aspirations to the facilities you find yourself with; it can be hard to cook meals in a kitchen that isn’t designed for serious cooking and radical self-sufficiency. If your kitchen is too small, then consider swapping its function with another larger room in your house, or less dramatically, try to get everything out of your kitchen which is not associated with the cooking, storing and consumption of food. . It is great to enjoy family meals in the kitchen, but if you really don’t have the room you will have to content yourself with a dining table in another room. There is only one thing worse than eating around a table that is too small and too low ~ that is eating without any table at all! Simple living demands a table to eat at in comfort! (See Chapter 3 Simple Eating.)
Appliances, although helpful and possibly time-saving, also take up room, so limit yourself to what your basic needs are in terms of a cooking range and a refrigerator and, if you can banish washing machines and dishwasher to another room, so much the better. If you can’t do these things, then you will cope, with careful planning.
“Good kitchens are not about size; they are about ergonomics and light.”
― Nigel Slater
Take a good look around your kitchen and see what you can do to make things better; the centre of any simple home is the kitchen, so spend time making it a place of light, a place of joy and a place of shalom.
The ‘Kosher’ Kitchen
Unless you are Jewish you might not see the significance of a Kosher kitchen, but the idea is a sound one for Jews and Gentiles alike. Have rules for your kitchen and be clear about what is allowed in it and what is not allowed. This usually has to do with cleanliness, but can also fit in with your own dietary rules. For instance, ours is a vegetarian house, so we have no meat or fish in the kitchen, neither would we want any utensils, pots, pans or crockery in the kitchen that has come into contact with meat or fish. Pet foods are not kept in the kitchen, nor are pets fed on meat products in the kitchen. You might want to run a similar routine if someone in your family has an allergy to nuts or strawberries; keep the kitchen absolutely free of these foods.
Before you dismiss this idea out of hand, consider that it only relates to your kitchen, your family and your food; you make your own rules as they apply to you.
"Happy is said to be the family which can eat onions together. They are, for the time being, separate, from the world, and have a harmony of aspiration."
Charles Dudley Warner
The Store Cupboard
A store cupboard should be large enough to hold the ingredients for tasty meals between your normal visits to the shops. It may also contain extra provisions to see you over periods of very bad weather, or short periods of illness. Apart from this it may also contain larger amounts of food that you have preserved from your garden or from foraging. There is a tendency, which I willingly admit to being guilty of, of storing a little too much in the way of provisions in case of catastrophe. This should be resisted; it probably won’t happen! Food that you preserve yourself will be dealt with later, but for now we will consider the main classes of provisions that you will want to keep.
· Flours for the making of pastries, cakes and bread. Consider using wholemeal flour as your default; wholemeal wheat flour is available widely as plain, self-raising and strong. You may also wish to stock rye, spelt and other flours for bread making, as well as oats and breakfast cereals. Of course, if you have problems with wheat/gluten, the items in your store cupboard will be very different from this. Avoid bleached flour at all costs. Why add a chemical that reduces the nutritional content of your food?
· Dried goods including various beans and lentils, rice, pasta, yeast. You will also need noodles and the like, as well as tea, coffee and sugar if you use them.
· Canned goods; you should be able to eliminate many processed canned foods from your kitchen but canned plum tomatoes, chopped tomatoes, pasata, and baked beans are good. Canned chick peas and one or two other varieties of legume are good for when you forget to put beans in to soak the night before. Canned evaporated milk is a good standby.
· Jars and bottles of ketchup, soy sauce, mustard, peanut butter etc. (If you are British you will probably want to add yeast extract to this list.)
· Salt, spices and herbs. Don’t use dried herbs unless you really have no option, grow your own.
· Cooking oils of your choice; I keep sunflower oil, extra virgin olive oil and extra virgin ape oil. Don’t buy oils that have been heat treated as the important fatty acids will be lost.
· If you live in an isolated area you may wish to keep a few items in case you are unable to shop for some time, such as dried milk.
Exactly how much refrigerator space you need depends on the size of your family and how far you are from the shops. To save on refrigerator space, avoid keeping things in there that don’t need to be kept cold, such as open jars of pickles and, for most of the year, fruit and vegetables. Some fresh vegetables keep much better in a refrigerator, but others definitely do not! Tomatoes are much better brought out of the cold to room temperature the day before you are going to eat them. Avocados soon develop a king of stringy brownness when kept too cold; it seems that the ripening process is upset in some way. Operate some kind of system in your fridge so you don’t have to be constantly rummaging and searching for things. If you eat meat, fish and dairy produce, this is the place to keep those things.
Keep your refrigerator clean, but you don’t need to use chemical sprays. You can just wipe down the insides and the shelves regularly with a damp cloth; you can use some washing soda (sodium carbonate) in the water if necessary. You also need to keep cooked foods at the top and raw foods at the bottom, especially if you keep meat, fish and dairy in your refrigerator. This prevents any drips from the raw food contaminating the cooked food below.
Freezers can be incorporated into the refrigerator or be “stand alone”. In my early days of self-sufficiency I would have recommended the largest freezer you could accommodate, but I have changed my mind over time. Freezers are expensive to run and do encourage hoarding of items that would be better consumed soon after they are prepared. A good refrigerator and a careful planning of menus to use up leftovers is a better idea. To further reduce the need for freezer space, learn some more traditional methods of preserving foods. (More on this later in this Chapter.)
The simple life requires of us that we do without unnecessary complexity in our lives. If you are halfway serious about simplicity, you will want to cook as much as you can from scratch and leave prepared foods at the supermarket! A good oven plus hob, or a good kitchen range is essential for this. You can select a range that uses wood, coal, gas, electricity or any combination of those and you need to make your decision carefully. A good range may well be the most expensive item in your house so look after what you buy and you should never need to replace it! If you don’t have a piped-in gas supply, you may want to consider using bottled gas (LPG) as an alternative; many Amish families do this. The ‘dark green’ solution is to use gas produced from a methane digester using waste materials. However, if you find yourself in a small kitchen and unable to buy new equipment, then you should find that the equipment on hand can still be used effectively to produce home cooked meals.
Remember that whatever cooking facilities you have, they must be used effectively and with one eye on the environment. Don’t have the heat up higher than you need to; learn the gentle art of simmering. You can often turn off the heat for the last few minutes of cooking with the heat from the pan finishing the job. Use an oven just big enough for what you have to cook and, if you have empty space in the oven, cook something else for later in the week and then just reheat it. For example, putting a cake in to bake after removing the roast from the oven is the sort of thing that you can do very easily – it just requires a little thinking ahead.
Whatever your work surfaces are made from, always aim to keep them as clear of clutter as possible. Cooking takes space and the more clutter you have, the less working space is left. Modern kitchen work surfaces often get filled with toasters, microwave ovens, coffee makers, kettles etc.; consider which of these you can do without or consider keeping them in a cupboard when not in use.
Work surfaces need to be kept clean, but again, powerful chemicals are not the way. A clean damp cloth with some washing soda on hand is all you need. If you have wooden surfaces you will need to keep them regularly oiled. Wooden chopping boards or plastic chopping/preparing mats are a much better thing to use than preparing foodstuffs directly onto the work surface.
Who does the cooking?
|(C) Jack Delano|
Real cooking from fresh ingredients needs planning and preparation time, so it does not matter who does the cooking as long as everyone knows in advance who has responsibility for getting a meal on the table. In some households one person can be in charge of cooking the majority of meals, either because of ability or availability, but if this is not the case then some kind of rota needs to be drawn up. The worst thing is for meals to be badly planned and rushed because of not being sure who should do the cooking on any particular day.
In terms of who should be able to cook, the answer is very simple ~ everybody. Children need to be introduced to the process of food preparation as soon as they are able, and adults who claim not to be able to cook need to learn. It’s not that difficult and nobody should abdicate responsibility by claiming they ‘can’t’. If you have a big family or live in a community, then for every meal you can appoint someone to be a ‘cook’s aid’, so the uninitiated can eventually become experienced.
What to Cook
|C) Kate and Ray Lovegrove|
In Britain, it seems, we buy more cookbooks and watch more cookery programs on television than any other nation on earth, and yet when it comes to cooking we have a limited repertoire. The average family seems to limit itself to between ten and fifteen different meals! Before you decide what to cook, consider the following points;
· A meal must be balanced; it should contain portions of protein-rich food, some oils and some complex carbohydrates. If the meal is of more than one course, these portions can be spread between the courses.
· At least two meals a day should contain fresh vegetables; try to go for differing colours to ensure a good mix of nutrients. The rule ‘something red with something green’ is a good one as long as you remember that orange is as good as red. Vegetables, for the main part, are essential in the diet to provide fibre, minerals and vitamins; eat enough of them and you will reap the long-term health benefits.
· The meal should not contain too much salt, sugar or fat and wherever possible whould contain wholemeal grains instead of white refined products (pasta being a good case in point).
· It should take account of various likes and dislikes around the table, but should not go as far as any individual getting an entirely different meal unless for ethical or medical reasons. (The vegan at a vegetarian meal or the person who has a wheat or dairy allergy for instance, will need separate consideration.)
· The choice of food should be based around availability and seasonality. If it is summer and your garden is full of carrots and French beans, then it’s a dish with carrots and French beans for supper!
· Meals on the same day should not repeat what was had earlier, try to be different.
· Throughout the week try to vary meals as much as possible; use cookbooks to help you, but don’t be intimidated by them, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
· Try to take into account how hungry everyone is going to be; a very cold day or everyone working outside will result in some pretty impressive appetites.
How to Cook
Know, at least roughly, what you are going to cook tomorrow. Avoid having to shop for one or two missing ingredients; if you don’t have what you need for a meal, then cook something else! Some foods need longer planning times ~ if you want to cook beans from a dried state this normally involves some overnight soaking. (You can reduce this time by cooking the dried beans boiling, unsalted water for about five minutes, then leaving them to soak for about twelve hours). You may also need to bake bread in advance. Many meals benefit from a long, slow cook and this may have the beneficial effect of heating up your kitchen in cold weather. Whatever you cook, always aim to bring things to the table in a freshly cooked state. In particular, vegetables need dishing up at the very last minute. When cooking, always keep a close eye on energy consumption. Don’t boil things on the top heat setting, just bring them to the boil then gently simmer.
Plan your week so that food cooked in the oven doesn’t waste energy. If you can fill up the shelves with dishes for later in the week so much the better!
However busy you may be, always find a little time each week to bake bread. If you are busy being self-sufficient in the summer you may have to designate a weekend day for making bread, but in winter months try to bake bread regularly. You’ll warm your house and give it that wonderful smell whenever you do so. You need to experiment at first, but you can soon develop a range of recipes to keep you and those you live with happy; these can be everything from rustic sourdoughs and soda breads to everyday loaves for making sandwiches. While many prefer oven cooked bread, I think that a bread-maker, if you have the room, is a very useful item of technology. It saves you having to be involved at every stage and ‘frees up’ time for other things; perhaps most useful of all, the timer setting allows those who are out all day to come home to home baked bread. The choice of flour is important; the stronger the better for most purposes. Natural flour improvers like soya and vitamin C can help you in producing excellent loaves.
If you have problems with digesting conventional bread, do experiment with sourdoughs. A bubbling sourdough starter will soon become a important part of your kitchen and your routine.
“I would say to housewives, be not daunted by one failure, nor by twenty. Resolve that you will have good bread, and never cease striving after this result till you have effected it.”
- Marion Cabell Tyree (Housekeeping in Old Virginia)
Waste in the Kitchen
|C) Kate and Ray Lovegrove|
This is a good time to remind ourselves that to aim for simplicity is good, but if it does not match up to the highest standards of environmental sustainability, then attaining it will be a hollow victory. The job of all in the kitchen is to provide good, wholesome, healthy food for all, without creating lots of waste. The following points should help you consider what you can do to avoid waste.
· Don’t buy more than you need; if the shops are selling fresh produce at a reduced rate, buy only as much as you can use and then preserve the rest. If you can’t see how to use it, or don’t have the time to process it, then don’t buy it.
· Don’t cook more than you need. Get so good at estimating amounts eaten at mealtime that there are few leftovers. If you get it wrong and people are still hungry, have bread and butter and some fruit at hand to fill them.
· If you do have leftovers, store them safely for use in a day or two. Remember that if you have leftovers at the end of the day, plan meal times so that they are used up. Don’t add leftovers to more leftovers!
· If you keep chickens or have friends in the neighborhood who keeps chickens, keep a small covered bucket of scraps to feed them. Scraps for chickens cannot contain very salty foods, and very ‘stringy’ food may need cutting up, but apart from that, they are not too fussy. Don’t keep the scraps longer than a day before you use them as chicken food.
· If you have plants growing outside, you can collect waste for compost. Again, a small bucket with a lid on it to keep out flies should be always at hand in the kitchen. Any vegetable peelings (those not suitable for chickens), tea bags, coffee grounds, crushed egg shell, banana and citrus peel etc. can go in. You can add a reasonable amount of used kitchen paper as long as you have not used it with cleaning chemicals. (See chapter 4 for more about composting).
· At table you should consider using serving dishes; this means that the leftovers are in a fit state to use in other meals. This also stops ‘loading up plates ‘and prevents people from eating more that they want or need.
· Monitor carefully the energy you use in cooking; constantly try to arrange your cooking so that the best possible use is made of hot ovens.
If you have ideas and they work out well, then make a note to remind you next time. Also keep notes on recipes and the modifications you make to them. Don’t spend so much time doing this that it takes time away from the cooking itself; a small hardbound notebook that has a home in a drawer is enough. Also keep your annotated recipes clipped out of magazines and newspapers in a scrapbook.
If you are growing your food or doing some foraging, then you should have excess food ready for preserving. The point of preserving is to make good use of excess crops and to provide food for the winter months when fresh food is scarce. It is easy to get carried away and preserve more food that you need, so take care.
“Preserving was almost a mania ….....When there was nothing to preserve, she began to pickle."
Bottling fruit and vegetables was once an essential part of kitchen work and has always remained popular in rural areas of Europe and North America (where it is called ‘canning’). You probably need a good guide to do this and some are recommended at the end of this chapter. Above all, you must use fresh foods at the start of the process and take meticulous care during bottling, to make sure you are not contaminating your food or jars. The only way to start on this process is to use acidic foods only (most fruits and tomato based foods), and to use jars with ‘click’ indicators to show that you have a good seal. When you come to eating the food, please reject any that come from ‘blown’ jars on which the metal depression of the lid sticks out. The internet is full of people telling you how to bottle all sorts of foods, but you needed to be very experienced before you can feel confident enough to do this; stick to fruits and tomatoes, then no problems should occur. You can add citric acid to improve the acidity and therefore the safety of your produce. In particular, avoid bottling food with very low acidity such as French beans, unless you have attended a class on how to do it safely.
Pickles and Chutneys
|C) Kate and Ray Lovegrove|
The high acidity of these foods makes them very safe indeed for home production. In fact, you can use pre-used jars with lids that have been very well cleaned to make pickles, but you need to watch metal lids for signs or corrosion. The basic idea is to remove as much water as possible from the fresh produce by soaking in brine for about twenty four hours. Following this, you rinse the produce careful, but quickly, and then cover with vinegar which replaces the water. Don’t pickle too much at once; while they do keep for a long time the quality, taste and crispness start to fade after a few months in the jar. Chutneys are really just savoury jams, perhaps not quite as sweet, but watch out for over-consumption if you are trying to avoid sugar in your diet.
It is easy to get carried away with pickling and chutney making following a good harvest; if you produce far more than you can eat, consider using excess jars as gifts while they’re at their best.
Jams and Conserves (that’s Jellies in North America)
It’s nice to think of jam making as a link with the past, but until the 19th Century when sugar became mass produced and reasonably cheap, it probably was rarity in most households. The idea behind jam is simple; boil fresh fruit with sugar until enough pectin (a natural gelling agent in the fruit) is released and reacts with the sugar, causing the mixture to ‘set’. In theory, this sounds easy, but in practice many fruits do not contain enough pectin for this to happen and the jam never sets properly. You can add pectin during the cooking process to improve the setting of the jam – either purchase it or use the juice of a high-pectin fruit such as crab-apples or redcurrants. Conserves (sometimes called by the very silly name ‘extra jam’ in the UK) use less sugar than regular jams and the result is a more fruity and runny product. You can also strain the fruit juice before boiling with sugar - even in Britain, the result is called a ‘jelly’.
A few points to remember when jam/jelly/conserve making;
· If you add the sugar before you have heated the fruit, then that fruit will remain firm and solid in a way that makes the final product difficult to spread.
· The whole process involves a fairly long ‘rolling boil’ of very hot fruit and sugar mixture. Keep young children well out of the way as you do this. Some people like to use a jam-making thermometer to help them decide whether the ‘setting point’ has been reached.
· Put your hot jam into jars that have been sterilized in a hot oven. You can use all kinds of paper and wax sealing for your jars, but I prefer the metal lid with a ‘safety button’.
· Jam will last a long time, and generally, the flavor improves over a year or two. If jam is ‘goes off’ it is usually just a mould growing on the surface. Scrape it off and tuck in!
· The fruits with lowest pectin include strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Those with good pectin levels include blackcurrant, gooseberry, redcurrant and anything using apple juice.
· You can make excellent jams by mixing low pectin fruits with higher pectin content fruits, or the juices thereof. For instance, raspberry jam made with redcurrant juice; helpfully, both fruits are in season at the same time.
· Jam is a very high sugar content food, even the ‘low sugar’ kinds. Eat it sparingly and if you want to avoid sugar, then cut it out of your diet altogether.
Home Made Drinks
Excess produce can be made into wine, ciders and beers by those who drink alcohol. Please note that the alcohol content of these drinks can be very high ~ so take care. In most countries it is illegal to distill the products of fermentation to make spirit. Home winemaking and brewing is very popular and you should be able to source ingredients locally.
Very low, or no alcohol drinks can also be made and, if they are acidic enough, will keep for a month or two. The best way to store these drinks is in bottles with a wired stopper; you can use soda bottles but take care when you open them. Try lemonade, ginger beer and other ideas, but remember, don’t make too much otherwise you will be wasting ingredients and time. Again, sugar is an ingredient of these drinks so avoid if you need to.
|C) Kate and Ray Lovegrove|
Freezing was once considered the best way to preserve produce and it still has its uses, but the drawbacks are many. The most important drawbacks are that freezers take up space and use up energy. Anyone who has defrosted the freezer and found uncomfortable looking bags of material that presumably used to be food, or those plastic tubs that have lost any labeling and result in some very unusual suppers will realize the limitations. As far as produce from the garden goes, freezers are best use for storing peas, beans and occasional asparagus spears. Be very tight on the management of your freezer and do not allow a build up of forgotten meals. If you have cooked too much of a meal and want to freeze the rest that’s fine, but make a note on the calendar to eat it up in a week or so, a month at the longest, otherwise it will become a lost cause.
Perhaps the best use of a freezer is for those who are at work, or otherwise away from home all week. You can bake bread at the weekend and still enjoy it all week long.
The Amish generally do not use fridges or freezers, but they are famed for canning all summer and enjoying all winter. The more you get into bottling food, the less attractive freezing seems; the finding, defrosting and reheating process all take longer than taking a jar from the shelf and opening it!
Drying is an excellent way to store apples, pears and other fruits as well as mushrooms and some herbs. I say “some” herbs, because with the exception of bay, sage and thyme, very few others are worth the effort. It’s better to try and grow them fresh through the winter. You can dry them in the sun if you are lucky enough to have sunshine in abundance, or you can use a drying oven or an ordinary oven at low heat. Fruits can also be turned into the ominously named ‘fruit leather’ which is very good.
“The keynote to happiness within the four walls that make any home is plain, wholesome, well cooked food, attractively served.”
-Louis P. De Gouy
· Make sure that everyone in the household knows who has responsibility for getting meals (either one person or a rota).
· Make certain that meals are balanced.
· Ensure that the dietary needs of those you cook for are always catered for.
· Take care that your kitchen is arranged in an effective way.
· Try to be adventurous in your cooking.
· Always cook with seasonal produce.
· Always cook in an energy efficient way.
· Induct your children into the processes of food preparation.
· Keep a kitchen notebook of recipes and other things you don’t want to forget.
· Keep a kitchen scrapbook.
· Avoid using too much salt and sugar in your cooking; start to reduce the amount you use and you will alter your family’s taste for these things.
· Cook as many meals as possible ‘from scratch’.
· Include as many fresh vegetables as you can.
· Include more beans, peas and lentils in your cookery (even if you are not a vegetarian!)
· Take the time to preserve the foods that you grow or forage by canning, pickling, drying and freezing.
· Bake your own bread as often as you can.
· Only cook ‘from scratch’ using as many home produced
ingredients as you can.
· Banish all pre-prepared foods from your kitchen.
· Keep a kosher kitchen.
· Preserve and store enough food in the summer and autumn to tide you through the winter and spring months.
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