Summer Picnics (with Less Plastic)

DSC_2648Words (or at least my words) cannot begin to express the rapturous joy with which we emerge from the bitter desolations of the subarctic winter and enter, with bare arms and faces pointed to the bright and finally warm sun, the glories of spring.

And what do we do in these precious days of warmth, me and little crew, but pack our bags in the morning with sunscreen, half a gallon or so of tick spray (a homemade concoction that includes citronella and geranium bourbon essential oils, hats, towels, extra clothes, water bottles, and enough food to count as lunch. Apples, bananas, pb&js, little pieces of salami, cashews, some type of chips if we have them on hand, etc.   And we go out for as much or the morning as remains after I have packed all of our sundry things, and we have a picnic for lunch. Once we manage to leave the house and set forth, I feel like a combination of the 1994 movie version of Marianne Dashwood going out for a walk on a soon-to-be-stormy day and Fraulein Maria going out with the children in their curtain clothes, with baskets and guitar. See that look on her face? This is basically us:

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Anyway, whatever your days look like this summer, whether frolicking through the Alps or tumbling down rainy English slopes or perhaps just hiking on whatever paths might be free and not subject to the oppressive taxation of the State, I hope they involve some form of eating food outside.

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I’ve been trying to use as little plastic as possible for these excursions and for life in general otherwise, and I wanted to share a few of the things I’ve been using to pack food that don’t involve ziplock bags.  I have neither time nor inclination to expound here all the various evils of plastic,* but suffice to say: it’s ugly** and it’s bad for us and every other living organism on the planet. So we pack up our little snack lunches in various cloth bags, metal tins, etc. Here’s what we use:

My top 4 Reusable Things for Picnics (and Snacks in General):

  1. Water bottles. We use these Kleen Kanteen ones for the kids, with these (somewhat leakproof) green lids. The kids each have one and only one, so we keep good track of them and they go everywhere with us. I have a stainless mug that I carry hot tea in on cold days and cold tea in on hot days.
  2. Cotton zippered pouches. The pouches made for snacks are expensive! And lined with plastic! But mostly, they’re expensive. So after wanting to buy snack pouches to replace small ziplock bags for about 2 years now I finally bought these little canvas bags. (They come in various sizes– one version we bought is smaller, and has 2 separate zippered pouches, and the larger size has a little loop that is nice for little hands to hold on to.) These are not waterproof, so you know, they’re not for yogurt or spaghetti and things like that, but we weren’t really using ziplock bags for those things too much anyway.  They are great for grapes or pretzels or nuts and dried fruit, etc.*** Depending on the size, these cost $2-3 per pouch and come in sets of 4-6.
  3. Stainless steel containers of various sizes (similar to these) for stuff that might leak, and anything else, sandwiches (though we also put sandwiches in the cotton bags), leftovers for John to take to work, etc. We own four: 2 small circular ones, the large one shown in these pictures, and another one that’s about the size of a sandwich. (Here are some similar ones, with silicone lids.) They’re a small bit pricey– we’ve collected these four over the course of about a year, one at a time when they’ve gone on sale at Wegmans. I’m sure they’ll get lost at some point, but as with our stainless water bottles we make a point to keep track of them precisely because they cost a bit more, and it has never felt like a burden to do so.
  4. Cloth napkins. Buy fancy linen ones or find any old kind at the thrift store, or use cotton handkerchiefs. For wiping faces and hands and wrapping up a bundle of sandwiches, etc.

Before we had the pouches and the stainless steel containers I would wrap up our sandwiches and various things in cloth napkins or put them in some of our glass pyrex jars with lids. We generally pack finger foods so we don’t need utensils. I’m all about the cost effective fruit, so we mainly stick to apples and bananas.  Little ball jars with lids would make a good and inexpensive snack container. We usually don’t take a cooler, but if we’re bringing meat or cheese or something and it’s particularly hot out we might.

(We also used, and still sometimes use, ziplock bags of various sizes, but I wash all of them, even the small ones and reuse them. Because, see below).

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Anyway, I hope I haven’t been too preachy! Hoping, for us and for all two of you (hi mom and dad! I love you guys!), that this will be a spring and summer of picnics, mountain wandering, and Ivanhoe reading. And maybe a tiny bit less plastic.

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*i.e., the harm they do to animals, the harm they do to people, the fact that MOST OF IT NEVER GETS RECYCLED, or the fact that even if it DOES it takes an enormous amount of energy and creates an enormous amount of pollution to do so, and even when recycled, the fact remains that it’s still plastic, it still exists, and all that will happen to it is possibly be used for a period of time by people and then ultimately break or be broken down in some form, over some time period, into invisible molecules of plastic. Also, please consider the human beings who work in plastic factories. Can you imagine spending most of your waking hours in a ziplock bag factory, breathing in the fumes of melted plastic? Living next door to such a factory? Is it morally acceptable for us to use these things while other people are breathing in those fumes all day, every day? Just so that we can continue to bustle about in our frantic lives at faster and faster paces, tossing food into ziplock bags?

**If you’re not convinced by the envorinomental/human health arguments about plastic, please consider the aesthetic elements of it. We are affected and shaped by the things that surround us, at least to some extent, and if we learn from earliest infancy**** that food comes primarily out of plastic pouches or tucked in plastic bags, what does it teach us about the purpose and quality of food, about nourishment, both to body and soul, and about how we interact with the world around us? The latter part of that question, I fear, is becoming answered increasingly with choices of convenience and cheapness, reflecting that at heart, we care neither for the consequences upstream of our ziplock bags (what about the people who work in the factories who produce them; or downstream, after the plastic has served its fleeting purpose and we have thrown it into the trash, and our ziplock bags and baby food pouches and squeezable yogurts and coffee cups come to visit us and our children and our children’s children in the form of microscopically small particles of plastic in our water and all of our food.)

*** And yes, most of these foods come packaged in plastic. I know. I try to buy as much as I can from bulk bins, but many things are sadly more expensive to buy that way….. Perhaps more soon about my paltry attempts to make good choices on a tight budget in the grocery store.

**** This is going to sound really aggressive, but y’all it is possible to feed babies otherwise than out of plastic pouches. I fed two just fine with zero of them. Plastic is not healthy for us, and just because companies put baby food into it doesn’t mean that it’s safe and healthy for your baby to eat it. Even if the food inside the pouch is organic, it is now organic food with plenty of leeched plastic in it.  If plastic food pouches are your deal and it’s how you survive, then keep on with it, sister. I have used and still use plenty of plastic other areas. But astonishingly, miraculously, human babies have managed to be fed throughout, and even to survive, their infancy without such contrivances for millennia. But then, people also have managed to survive without cars, coffee, bathtubs, electricity, seltzer water, libraries, etc.., and I use those things plus others quite liberally. And most of the food I buy comes in plastic, even though I make every effort not to.

So anyway. here’s to muddling through, doing what we can do do whatever we’re doing. And here’s to picnics and summer, whatever the food might be packaged in. (Just this very day– this is a few days after I wrote this post originally, because of course I felt the need to edit it extensively– I took Margaret out to a park and she had a little snack bag of freeze dried strawberries from Aldi, so in essence no different than pouches, and if I calculated the price per pound of it it would cost more than gold. So much for all of my preaching about plastic and frugality.)

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My One Bowl Lunch Salad These Days: Kale, Beets, Quinoa (and Chèvre if You Are Literally a Millionaire.)

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I started eating a version this salad way back when I was pregnant with Will, though minus the beets and quinoa, when my sweet sister-in-law posted about a kale salad on her blog. I made it, ate entire batches of it in one sitting, and forever since then it has been my favorite of all time.

And then, when my mom was visiting last year I got a kale salad from Panera that had beets, quinoa, and goat cheese. It was delicious. So I started making something similar, though minus the goat cheese, because who can afford goat cheese, though I love it with all my heart, I do not know. If you can, please love it and caress it and speak tenderly to it and make delicious wealthy person food out of it.

BUT, I have soldiered right ahead, in my impecunious version of that glorious salad, and made this. And this is the best salad in the world, even without chèvre. This is not a recipe, but essentially: I cook a bunch of beets (golden beets in the photo, because yes, we do have a winter CSA, so I guess we’re not that impecunious, really. Beets, sometimes peeled, sometimes not, cut up, cooked in a little water on the stove until they’re soft, enough for 3 or 4 days of making this salad), a separate pot of quinoa (ditto about lasting for a few days), and then tear up a few kale leaves into a bowl, top it with warm beets and quinoa (though you could do it cold), and then drizzle on olive oil, a sprinkle of salt (a scant quarter teaspoon, maybe? Too little salt will yield a salad that is not worth eating whatsoever), a few dashes of crushed red pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice, and then some sunflower seeds or if your neighbor gave you some expired bags of sliced almonds for free, some of those. Then, if you have some dried cranberries, those. If you’re a millionaire, then dried cherries, and please enjoy them for me, as well as of course, your chèvre,  though this salad manages quite well without it. You can make this without the beets and without the quinoa, though not without the lemon juice or crushed red pepper. Or salt.

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I Almost Bought a Yogurt Maker, but Then I Didn’t (or How to Make Yogurt Without a Machine)

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So guys. A month or so ago someone posted a video about plastic on Facebook, and even though I have seen multiple documentaries about plastic already and considered myself to be pretty responsible in that area (I mean I usually bring my own bags to the grocery store for pete’s sake), for some reason it finally sunk in. Plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks down more and more, finally into tiny pieces, invisible to the naked eye, and saturates the ocean, all the water everywhere, and our insides. And plastic is really not that great for our insides.

And I know there are a lot of other things, maybe even a lot more pressing things to worry about than the multiplication of plastic particles in our little world, but for some reason I just started caring about this. But if you are caring about something else and don’t have the energy to care about this, just do not worry about it. Or if you are using all your energy just to survive day to day, then please carry on and also do not worry about it. This is just where I am right now. So I have been on a quest to reduce the amount of plastic we are buying new. To live a slightly less disposable life.* (Because guys, recycling is not the answer. It might turn plastic into something else plastic that can be used a bit longer, but in the scheme of things, when you purchase plastic, whether you recycle it or not, you are contributing to the overall volume of plastic in the world. We shouldn’t really feel good about recycling, um does that make sense? It’s a huge bummer, I know! I’m sorry!)

I know no one is reading at this point except maybe my mom, because no one wants someone to tell them that recycling is basically as bad as not recycling, but I’m just going to keep on writing (hi mom! I love you!) anyway. Because, the yogurt maker that I didn’t buy.

Anyway, most of the new plastic I end up buying is food packaging! It’s really hard to buy food that doesn’t come in plastic! And knowing myself, my brain will explode if I think in all-or-nothing terms here. It would be next to impossible to eat completely plastic free (though i might try an experiment with that next month!), but I’m trying to just buy less. Less food in plastic. One of the first things I did was to buy a few of these bags, photo below, from this sweet woman on etsy! For buying things in bulk. (Both the natural food co-op and the Wegmans where I do most of my shopping sell a lot of things in bulk. I’ve bought all my herbs and spices in bulk for years, plus a good amount of grains and beans. It’s cheaper. But I’ve always used the plastic bags the store provides. Until I bought these little bags! I’m not trying to be all like, “Wow, I am so amazing because for the past two weeks I’ve used re-usable bags at the grocery store.” That is really not what I’m trying to get at here, y’all. What am I trying to get at, then? Well, that I almost bought a yogurt maker, but then I didn’t. So back to that story.)

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So anyway, one of the plastic things I buy fairly regularly is yogurt. Well, I mean, the yogurt isn’t plastic, but the container it comes in is. You know what I mean. Plain, full fat yogurt. In a big plastic container. So I decided that I would finally just buy a yogurt maker! I’ve wanted one for years, and I’ve tried so many times to make homemade yogurt without a machine, but always with disappointing results. Who has time for that?! So I started looking at cute little yogurt makers, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one. I didn’t want to spend the money, and where in heaven’s name would I put it (our kitchen is tiny, have I ever written about that here? We have one drawer in our kitchen. One. Drawer.).  And what is the machine part made of, anyway? Plastic.

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So I decided to give it one more try without a yogurt maker. I knew some people used coolers for this (because you have to keep the pre-yogurt milk, whatever in the world it’s called at that stage, at a certain temperature for at least 8 hours), so I thought I would just try it. One time. So I boiled some milk, let it cool, stirred in some yogurt I had bought (I bought fancy French yogurt in a glass jar for this! It was cheaper than a yogurt maker!), put it in a quart-sized glass jar, and filled up another quart sized glass jar with boiling water. I put both jars, standing up, in a little rubbermade cooler we have, with the top closed. Left it overnight and in the morning, yogurt! It literally couldn’t have been any easier or less messy. There was one pot to wash out.  I kept the yogurt in the same glass jar in the fridge. The second time I made it I may have forgotten that I was supposed to be bringing the pot of milk to a low, gentle boil and was doing bedtime things with children and heard a horrible hissing sound coming from the kitchen, which turned out to be the milk boiling over into the burner. So I turned it off, waited until it was cool enough & stirred the yogurt in and figured it would probably be a huge failure but I didn’t want to waste 4 cups of good milk. Then, into the cooler with the jar of hot water, and in the morning, yogurt. No plastic, no machine. See here for a similar recipe. (She pours hot water right into the cooler & uses a thermometer; I don’t use one, I just bring the milk to a low boil, except when I sometimes bring it to a high, scalding boil, and then cool it until I can leave my finger in it for 10-15 seconds.)

So anyway, here’s to baby steps of buying less plastic. I definitely know that no one is reading at this point, but if you are, maybe consider thinking about one small way to use a tiny bit less plastic? Try to remember to bring reusable bags to the grocery (or ask for paper instead). Buy something in bulk (spices, in particular, are exponentially cheaper if you buy them in bulk, and you can just put them in the empty jar of whatever spice you just finished). Wash and re-use ziplock bags! Even just try to buy the larger size of peanut butter or a bag of 16 tortillas instead of 8, and freeze the other 8 for another day. …….. Baby steps. Here’s my pinterest board “Life With Less Plastic.” Here’s a blog with some other ideas for using less plastic, if anyone is interested. And another blog with some good ideas.

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*Did I ever tell you guys the story about when Wendell Berry came to Duke when I was in grad school there? And how for some insane reason I didn’t go hear him speak, but I heard from other students that someone had asked a question along the lines of, “What’s the best thing that we as divinity school students can do?” (given what he had talked about in terms of farming, care for the earth, etc.). And how he said we should drop out of school and become stone masons. Or something along those lines. PLEASE nobody quote me on this, because my memory is horrible (and because I obviously wasn’t even there). But I don’t know, somehow is the spirit of Wendell Berry following me around and urging me to slow down enough to bake bread every once and awhile, or to make my own yogurt? (Ok, obviously not, but there’s something about planting gardens, and gleaning in fields and baking bread with oil and pulling up water out of a well for someone who is thirsty, making lunch for people who are hungry. There’s much about living in a way of peace and gentleness. And tending to all the household tasks because these are the things that Christ did for us.  Having enough time to partake of a meal and do the lowest kind of washing. I’m not trying to say that if you buy any plastic at all it such a terrible thing, or that trying to waste less is somehow the essence of the gospel. But I do think we have lost sight a bit of the dignity of ordinary things like washing dishes and making bread, and we usually are in quite a rush not to be doing those things.  So anyway, here’s to slowing down a bit, wherever you find yourself, whether you’re making yogurt or packing lunch boxes or sweeping the floor for the 4th time today. Slowing down enough to be gentle with ourselves & maybe just maybe also with the world. Because Love prepared us a feast and bid us with gentleness to sit and eat. And of course, she said it much, much better.

A Game Changer (Or, How to Get Kids to Eat Kale).

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Guys. I don’t want to be that person who’s all “This kale chip recipe changed my life.” But Y’ALL. This kale chip recipe changed my life. Although it’s not so much a recipe as a cooking temperature. 250 F. They won’t burn! (Ok, well they might if you really, really leave them in long enough.) I discovered this tip in a cookbook called Nourishing Meals that’s based on the blog by the same name. Her blog has a recipe for some sweet and spicy kale chips, a recipe that is also in the book, and the two times I’ve felt like making the sauce it has been so worth it. (I’m not going to write out the recipe, but check out the link for sweet and spicy kale chips above & just use olive oil and salt and follow the rest of the recipe, if you don’t want to make the sauce.)

The reason the kale chips are un-pictured is that they literally can’t survive long enough on the pan, let alone in a bowl or other container, for me to photograph them. Because all of us love them. (I didn’t even write about this when I originally posted this yesterday, but the main reason these chips have been amazing: The little people love them. LOVE THEM. Kale chip crumbs end up sprinkling the entire kitchen floor, but now that it’s warmer I’ll just send them outside.  Victory is mine.)

House Meals (wisdom about food from, of course, Tamar Adler)

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A dear, precious friend of mine posted an article on Facebook last week called “Everyone Should Have a House Meal.” I read the caption of the article, and I thought, “Wow, that sounds just like Tamar Adler.” And because of that, and because the article seemed to be about basically one of the great passions of my culinary life (simple, repeatable meals) I started reading it, and lo and behold, it WAS WRITTEN BY TAMAR ADLER. Who wrote An Everlasting Meal. Which is one of the most beautiful books ever written in the history of food, or of almost anything else.  So of course this article (and you have to read all the way to the end), made me nearly weep with joy.  Because she’s someone who isn’t telling me that I should be cooking new, ever fancier meals every single night of the week! With all of the ingredients! From all of the websites! A little confirmation from at least one woman, that it’s ok for dinner to come (yet again) from an egg.

In this particular article she discusses the beauty of having a house meal. A meal that you can throw together with almost no thought. You have the ingredients, it’s simple, healthy-ish, and sustaining for body and spirit.  Hers, she said, was eggs and greens. Ours is always some variation of beans. (I don’t know why that picture above has a picture of Tapatio in it, because our one and only hot sauce love forever and ever is Texas Pete.)   Beans and tortillas. Or beans heated up in a skillet with some salsa & eggs. Sometimes beans and rice, but almost always, tortillas. If we are feeling extremely rich, some scoops of avocado. Or “bracamole,” as one of our small people is calling it these days.  Oh! Sometimes some fried plantains!  A creative economy is the fuel of magnificenceHere are 5 other of our house meals, or simple suppers, as I called them.

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A friend of mine recently had a baby, and all the church folks signed up to bring meals, and I sent her a bag of fancy-ish tortillas and a ball jar of black beans that I made (& some good beef with taco seasoning, because, well postpartum and iron) and some salsa and a lime and some tortilla chips. In retrospect, maybe I should have sent something fancier, but it felt like I was sending her literally the greatest feast imaginable. Our House Meal.

A Bean Recipe, Some Cheap Dinners

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It’s been too long since I’ve written anything about the loveliness and importance of beans, but I saw this recipe recently and wanted to share it (about doctoring up a can of beans, with a 7 minute egg on top). And then saw this post about 6 family meals from Whole Foods for $30.  (Which came from this post, about how three other people met the same challenge.)  And then there’s this cookbook.

So anyway, here’s to meals based on beans, eggs, and potatoes! To humble food! To the great delight of sitting down to beans, with or without a 7 minute egg on top! To toast with cheese! And hoping you all have a lovely weekend, drinking tiny sips of joy from the simple moments of your days.

Also THIS OH THIS!!!! I haven’t tried this recipe yet but I’m going to soon and I can’t wait.

A Creative Economy is the Fuel of Magnificence, Parisian Onion Soup, and Other Things

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I’ve had M.F.K. Fisher’s book How to Cook a Wolf on my list for ages, and I finally got around to requesting it from the library. Because I am trying not to buy every book I want to read on Amazon. Fisher wrote this book in 1942 to teach women how to cook and eat well in the midst of the scarcity of war. How to make do, but do it well. Chapters include “How to Rise Up Like New Bread” and “How to Be Cheerful Though Starving.” Gorgeous. Even if you have no interest in cooking any of her recipes the writing is stunning. Her chapter on eggs had me in hysterics.

One of the chapters’ epitaphs, a quotation from Emerson, reads: “A creative economy is the fuel of magnificence.” Yes. Amen.

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(This table of contents should look familiar to everyone, because I know all of you own Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal by now.)

It was only after I had started caramelizing a heap of onions in my second-biggest stockpot this morning, in anticipation of making an onion-potato soup for tonight’s dinner, that I read far enough to see her recipe for “Parisian Onion Soup” followed a few pages later by her recipe for “Cream of Potato Soup.” I will call my soup Parisian Onion Soup with Creamed Potatoes. Because it sounds better than “Random Vegetable Soup That I Plan to Puree So That Will Will eat the Onions.” (Because this child eats everything, but he doesn’t like little pieces of onions in things).

We are so conditioned to think that every meal requires an enormous, solid chunk of animal meat with it, and that to me seems such a violent and inelegant way to nourish oneself and one’s family. And we forget that a nicely cooked pot of vegetables can be a supper worthy of a Frenchman, maybe just served with a glass of red wine and a tiny morsel of cheese. Better a supper of herbs, etc.

So anyway, How to Cook a Wolf is lovely. A good cookbook, but mostly a book to be read for the stunning prose. It is more delightful than any novel I’ve read within recent memory. And borrowing books from the library feels strangely thrilling and sort of subversive. I do not need to buy all the objects! A creative economy!

Anyway, in the life of the family: Margaret is 8 months old and sort of floppily sitting up. Eating like a champ and basically being the most sanguine, happy, darling baby of all time.  We started moving her crib to the living room at night, and she immediately started sleeping the night through. It’s a bit Gaffigan-esque of us, but that’s how we like it. Who needs a bunch of bedrooms, anyway? Not us. Will adores her and requires her to sit right next to him at all meals.  When he pretends to be anything, she is a baby whatever it is: baby baseball player, baby kangaroo, baby fire dog (when he’s a fireman).

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Anyway, we made it through February, and we only have to exist in Ithaca for 10 more days before escaping to Nashville for the remainder of winter!!!!!!!!! Will is officially out of diapers, both night and day. It feels like I won the lottery. So life is good, except for Donald Trump and income taxes.

p.s. This is Hilarious (youtube video for parents. If you’re not a parent, this will probably not be funny, or even make sense). I have been dying all week.