Book Review: Real Food on a Real Budget

I haven’t done one of these on this blog before, but I’ve been meaning to.  You see, I actually do read, and lately it’s been half fiction, and half non-fiction like this.  I make great use of the library, and my reading list is a mile long.  I figured some of you might want to know my thoughts on what I read.

So, first up is Real Food on a Real Budget by Stephanie Langford.  Stephanie Langford is the original writer of  Keeper of the Home, which I believe I’ve mentioned before.  I originally bought this when I first started getting into Real Food, because, well, Real Food tends to be more expensive.  So I was looking for a manageable way to convince myself and Andrew that changing completely over to Real Food would still be feasible.  (To be honest, it’s not that feasible on a grad student budget, at least with the way we eat meat.)

Most of the book is actually applicable even if you aren’t trying to eat Real Food.  Many of the tips I’ve seen on other websites about saving money.  Some of them are very common sense: plan meals, cook at home, buy in bulk.  Of course, some of them don’t make sense for just two people.  Andrew and I recently tried to see if it would be worth to get a warehouse membership, but we discovered that except for a few canned/dry goods, we wouldn’t be able to eat it fast enough, and the prices wouldn’t save us very much compared to the other local grocery stores.  However, I know that I would probably order some bulk goods for grains or flours, as things like whole-wheat pastry flour is not so easy to find, and expensive when you do find it.

Other suggestions that Stephanie makes are much different, and definitely something to think about.  Ever wonder why strawberries are cheaper in July than in December?  It’s because it’s actually strawberry season in July (in the northern hemisphere anyway.)  Eating seasonally can save a lot of money, and if you buy it from the farmers market, you’ll definitely know what’s in season or not.  You can also combine this with the buying in bulk to get discounts.  Remember those cherry preserves I put up last summer?  I made those from a bulk container of cherries I bought in the summer, right when cherries are at their cheapest.  Which brings me to another point Stephanie mentions in the book: growing your own food, and learning to preserve it.  Now, you don’t necessarily have to can it (though that’s one of the good old-fashioned ways).  You could freeze it, or dry it.  If you had a root cellar, you could store it.

She also makes suggestions on how to avoid wasting any food, and also on how to make it stretch longer.  Both are things that most people figure out they need to do, but don’t know exactly how to do it until someone gives them ideas.  She also has a whole section devoted to finding the time to cook things from scratch in our busy lives.

I only have two complaints about the book.  First, there’s some religious language.  Given Stephanie’s blog, I really don’t have a problem with this, but it makes it difficult to promote to a wider audience, I think.  Second, Stephanie is a stay-at-home mom, and it shows.  Aside from some comments in the back of the book from other people, she doesn’t really address how someone is supposed to be able to do this while working a full time job.  Sure, she makes suggestions about fitting in the time to cook and meal planning, but a lot of the passages still gave me that feeling of “Well, yeah, if you’re home all day.”

The best thing about the book is a section at the very beginning where she suggest that you write out what your priorities are with respect to real food.  So, for example, for me and Andrew it goes:

  1. LOCAL.
  2. “Real” meat (Grassfed, pastured, unprocessed).
  3. “Real” dairy (as unprocessed as possible).
  4. Managing Grains (soaking, sourdough)
  5. Other real foods (oils, vinegars).
  6. Buy Dirty Dozen fruits and veggies as organic.
Notice how organic isn’t really a priority for us?  It may be for other people.  For us, local food trumps everything (assuming it meets some other criteria too.  Local crap is still crap.)   We’ll take local grassfed meat over organic grassfed meat any day, because we want to support the local economy.  And we’re not going to stress about whether or not we’re eating organic frozen dinners, because we’re trying not to eat frozen dinners at all.  I should also note that Stephanie doesn’t tell you what eating Real Food is.  She assumes the reader has already decided what their version of Real Food is like, and just wants to give you tips to save money.

Overall, the book has some good ideas and certainly offers a variety of suggestions on different ways to save money.  Unfortunately, if you read the blogs that I do, there’s not really much new here.

2012 New Year’s Resolutions

Well, the end of 2011 is near, and that means time for New Year’s Resolutions.  This past year has been half productive and half not.  This last semester was particularly bad.  I’m beginning to feel burnout, after having been in school for 9 years (after high school) straight.  I’ve convinced myself to give it one more semester before I call it quits or not.  I currently have a pretty sweet situation, and having to look for a job is not something I want to think about right now.  It’s a complicated dilemma, because I’ve already invested a lot of time, but I never really wanted a Ph.D. or to do research anyway.

So that’s one resolution, I suppose.  To give this next semester a good strong go for my research.  But I don’t really count that.  This year I’ve decided to do two sets of resolutions, a year-long set, and a set that I’ll work on every few months, similar to what I did this past year.  So, here we go:

Year-Long Resolutions

  • Get down to 125 pounds – This goal has been off and on for the better part of my twenties.  I ignored it last year in favor of trying to eat healthier, and it seems my weight has stabilized at about 175.  However, that’s still overweight, and so I’m giving myself a whole year to try to lose the weight.  I’m using an iOS app called Fatwatch.  It’s a neat little program; instead of you dealing with the ups and downs of individual daily weights, it looks at an overall trend, and tells you how many calories you are over what you need to maintain and also how many calories you need to cut to stay on track with your goal.  It also has a built in “mini” exercise program, meant to be done in 15 minutes.  It’s based on the Hacker’s Diet, a book written by a programmer on how he lost weight.  He basically espouses a calorie counting, calorie restriction only diet, which I’m not interested in.  But I did like the idea of the trend line, and using your daily weights to help calculate if you’re maintaining, gaining, or losing weight.  The maintaining part is particularly important, because I don’t want to yo-yo.   The 125 number is based on being in the middle of the “healthy” weight range based on BMI (which I think is bunk in most cases), and I don’t know if I’ll actually reach it, but we’ll see how far I get.
  • Continue to follow the Real Food Lessons – I’ve still been following the lessons on GNOWFGLINS, albeit slowly.  I still think they’re a great learning tool and a great learning experience for me.  In fact, Wardeh is having a free webinar on how to transition to eating Real Food.  I’ve already registered.  I’m going to keep working through the lessons throughout the year, and hopefully slowly integrate them as habits.
  • Zazen – During Ango, I was great at first about doing zazen every day.  Toward the end I trailed off, and then I tried a two-day retreat in December.  I didn’t get through the whole two days, but it is important to my spiritual practice that I develop this habit.

Tri-Monthly Goals

  • Fashion Makeover – I recently purchased a mini-makeover pdf from Sally at Already Pretty.  I’ve been unhappy with my fashion/style for a while now, and while I’ve done a couple closet purges, I still don’t feel like I have a cohesive style.  It feels like it jumps around from super casual to super formal.  I’d like to get it a little more together, especially if I might be looking for jobs in the not so near future.
  • Crafting – This was a goal last year that didn’t happen.  While I need to do some crafting in the first three months for my juggling club, those aren’t personal projects.  I’m hoping to work on carving out some time for this, as I have a lot of hobbies.
  • Piano – This is another goal from last year that didn’t happen.  I got an electric piano as a graduation present , 5 years ago now.  I took piano lessons once upon a time, but it’s been a long time since I played.  I’d like to get back in the habit, especially if I have to give up some of my other hobbies in the future due to research or jobs.
  • Getting back in touch – I’m horrible about keeping in touch with friends.  I’ve gotten better, using Facebook and Google+, but lurking and reading other people’s posts and making the occasional post myself isn’t really communication.  I’d like to get back into a regular email or chat habit with friends who I used to be close to.
I think that’s more than enough on my plate for 2012.  I might add in a workout habit, but I want to wait and see how I feel about that.  And that’s not counting all the other things that might happen to completely change my plans.  What are your resolutions for the coming year?  Or do you not believe in making resolutions?

Post-Turkey Day Broth

So yesterday was Thanksgiving.  I had a few friends over, made a turkey, dressing, gravy, the whole big deal.  There, as there are every year, were a few hiccups.  My turkey ended up being done a whole two hours earlier than I expected, so I had to scramble to pull together the side dishes.  Thankfully (har har), my friends were understanding.

Now it’s the day after, which for me means cleanup and dealing with leftovers.  Now, I’m actually a big fan of Thanksgiving leftovers.  Eating the same thing for 3 or 4 days in a row may sound boring, but I don’t really eat this stuff any other time of year, so it’s a treat.  I have convinced Andrew that maybe we should attempt turkey more often so I can try some of those other “Thanksgiving Leftover” recipes.

But one tradition that I’ve never done before that I’m doing right now is making Turkey Broth the day after.  I do this with chickens all the time, and my method is pretty much the same.  So it made no sense for me to not do it with a turkey.  If you haven’t already thrown your carcass away, I totally recommend this.

Recipe: Turkey Broth

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Ingredients:

  • Turkey carcass, preferably not completely cleaned (or add raw meat)
  • Celery, chopped
  • Onion, chopped
  • Carrots, chopped
  • Flavorings: I use a bay leaf, some thyme, some parsley, and a parmesan rind.

Directions:

Making a broth isn’t too hard.  You put everything in a stock pot, cover with water, and simmer until everything falls apart.  It normally takes a least a couple hours with a bone broth like this, just to get everything cooked.  Some people like to skim any nasty bits off the top, but I normally only worry about that after it’s all done.

My secret to easy clean up is using a steamer basket in the bottom of the pot.  Then, when I’m done, I grab the handle with tongs and pull it out and place it in a bowl.  No fiddly chopped veggie bits to give me problems.

When it’s done, let it cool.  If you want to remove the fat, put it in the fridge so the fat all rises to the top and solidifies.  It doesn’t bother me, I like having that extra flavor.  I also like to divide it up into freezer bags and then freeze it.  That way, if I need broth for a recipe, all I have to do is pull it out of the freezer.

Musings: Cooking Style

So I found an interesting article at Lifehacker about the Four Stages of Teaching Yourself to Cook.  Since Real Food involves a lot of cooking at home, I thought it was an interesting topic.  I don’t exactly agree with the Four Stages as presented there.  In fact, I’d probably cut it back to three.

  1. Following recipes meticulously.  Never a deviation, and never a substitution.  Never throwing a dish together on the fly.
  2. Following recipes as guidelines, or following recipes for some dishes and throwing a dish together for others.
  3. Coming up with your own recipes without using someone else’s as a guideline, or always throwing a dish together.
I’m pretty sure that I am solidly in Stage 2 now, but I used to be very much in Stage 1.  You see, I left for a boarding school at 16, and I didn’t get a chance to practice cooking at home much.  I mean, I helped bake from when I was  little kid, in exchange for licking the spoon.  I helped with the chaos that was Thanksgiving dinner.  But as for cooking on my own, every day, planning meals, and such, I didn’t really start doing that until my second year of college.
I had a few cookbooks to start with, and copies of my grandmother’s recipes.  I also picked up a few of the things that weren’t written down, like my mom’s chili recipe, which is never the same way twice.  And for the longest time, I was in Stage 1.  I had to measure everything, never cut corners, and followed cooking times exactly.  This is great for baking, but gets tedious for making everyday meals.
I’ve gradually gotten to the point where I know what a tablespoon of spices looks like in my hand, that oregano and marjoram have similar flavor profiles, and that it really is ok to leave out or add ingredients to a recipe.  Occasionally I’ll just look in the pantry and throw something together.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever get to Stage 3.  I don’t feel like I’m creative enough in the kitchen to be able to come up with my own recipes.  I know some people can be, I follow the blogs of several of them.  But I don’t think it will be me.
What about you?  Which stage are you in?  Do you think you will get to one of the later stages?  Do you even want to?

Real Food: Resources

So, I said in an earlier post, I was going to point you to some resources about Real Food.  Some of these are things that I found early on, some later.  Some are only tangential to Real Food.  But they all gave me good ideas and were part of my motivation for going on this journey.

Websites:

Food Renegade – This was the first website that I came across.  I was linked to it from a Paleo/Primal blog.  The writer, Kristen, posts news articles, recipes, and information on different ingredients.

GNOWFGLINS – Wardeh here has a complicated name for her blog, but it is full of lots of useful information.  In fact, my journey is starting by enrolling in her online courses.  I’m really looking forward to it, and out of respect for her courses, I won’t repost any info from there.  The basic membership is about $10/month, so there’s really no excuse.  Warning: Wardeh is Christian and does talk about her faith in some of her writing.  I’m not bothered by it, but if you are, you were warned.

Keeper of the Home – This blog has several writers.  The focus is on raising families, which doesn’t apply to me, but they do post some neat things on Real Food and living green.  This blog also tends to have a Christian focus sometimes, so you were warned.  The writers have also produced a book: Real Food on a Real Budget.

You can also check out the Weston A. Price Foundation.  They promote old traditional diets as well, but I’ve found the above blogs much more helpful.

Books:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan has written multiple books on the topic of food.  I recommend reading only one of these, as he sort of repeats the same arguments.  Very eye-opening if you aren’t aware of some of the less savory aspects of our food system.

Real Food: What to Eat and Why – Nina Planck’s book is a very easy read.  She makes everything clear, and is very reasonable in her arguments.  I also like that she uses citations, and even has a bibliography!  It makes me feel like she really did her work researching the topic.  It’s difficult with all the information out there to tell everything apart.

How to Cook Everything – Mark Bittman’s amazing cookbook.  While not specifically about Real Food, Bittman has a preference for using whole ingredients without a lot of shortcut processed foods.  He has how-tos for things like separating a whole chicken into parts, so you can buy the whole bird (cheaper than buying boneless chicken breasts).  This makes it a great addition if you’re trying to learn to make things from scratch.  It’s my kitchen bible now.

Other:

Of course, there’s always other media about the Real Food battle.  I haven’t seen the movie Food, Inc myself, mainly because I suspected I’d been exposed to most of the information in it already.  I know I’ve seen glimpses of factory farms on some cooking/travel shows.  And of course, there’s always Peta, but I think they’re a bunch of fanatics.  (Hence why I’m not linking to their website.)

I’m sure there are many more blogs, websites, books, and other things out there.  But these are the things I’ve been exposed to.  These are the ones I follow and watch for neat info and ideas of how to make Real Food a real option in my life.  I hope some of you find them useful or, at least, interesting reading.

Real Food: Secrets in Labels

Two Butters
Photo by Ulterior Epicure on Flickr

So, in my previous post, I made a lot of comments about the government and how it interferes with the goals of Real Food, and I didn’t exactly include citations to back me up.  I hope to make a future post with citations and links to where I got the info from, but today is July 4th, Independence Day, and I wanted to focus on one of the things the government got right.  Labels.

Now, I’m not talking about the “Nutrition Facts” they stick on the side of every container.  I don’t count calories anymore, or carbs, or fats.  Sometimes I’ll pay attention to sodium and potassium, but that’s because I tend to eat a lot of salt anyway.  No, the part of the label that I pay attention to is the “Ingredients List”.

In some ways, the ingredients list seems stupid.  I don’t need a label to tell me that milk is in my milk carton or eggs in my egg carton.  Milk is milk and eggs are eggs, right?  Well, sure, but what about other things?  Like butter, for example?  You wouldn’t think so, but yes, you need a label.  Why?

Let me tell you a little story first.  Way back in the early 1990s, I was in kindergarten.  In kindergarten, we did little parties for every national holiday.  For Thanksgiving, my teacher thought it would be a good idea to show us how butter was made, since we had talked about the pilgrims making their own food.  I don’t remember all the ingredients exactly, but our teacher basically filled a jar with milk or cream, and maybe a little salt, and had us shake that thing to our heart’s content.  We all had to take turns, because it was a hard thing for 5 year olds to do.  In the end, we ended up with maybe a couple tablespoons of “butter”.

My point here is that my 5 year old self “knew” what butter was.  She knew it involved milk, and a lot of work, and not much else.  So, theoretically, we all know what butter is.  Butter is butter, just like milk is milk, right?

So why does a package of generic butter at Wal-mart list the ingredients as “Pasteurized Cream, Natural Flavorings.” ? What on earth are “natural flavorings” and why does my butter need them?  Welcome, my friends, to the world of industrial foods, where no basic item is sacred.  The thing is, that much like “fragrance” in cosmetics, natural flavorings could mean anything.  What’s really sad to me is that they feel the need to add these in to something that should just be cream and salt.  What did they do wrong that they need to add flavor to their butter?

Now, butter is actually one of the nicer examples.  Let’s take something a little more complex.  I like cottage cheese.  I eat it over applesauce or on toast for breakfast.  I, like most people, don’t like to pay a lot for my food, so I used to reach for the generic Wal-mart brand.  Cottage cheese is cottage cheese, right?  All the packages say cottage cheese, so they must be the same product, right?  Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if that was true.

Ingredients for Wal-mart brand cottage cheese: Cultured Nonfat Milk, Nonfat Milk, Cream, Whey, Salt, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Cultured Dextrose, Locust Bean Gum, Citric Acid, Polysorbate 80, Acetylated Monoglycerides, Natural Flavor, Enzymes, Carbon Dioxide (To Help Protect Flavor).

I had a problem with natural flavor, but this…mess is something completely different.  I’ve gotten used to reading ingredient labels, so I know what some of these are.  The guar gum and locust bean gum are likely thickeners.  But most of the other stuff, I have no idea what it is or what it does.  Or why I would want to eat it.  To contrast:

Ingredients for Daisy brand cottage cheese: Cultured Skim Milk, Cream, Salt.

See the difference?  You’d never know it looking on the shelf.  You have to look at the ingredients label.  And before you go saying “Shay, you have to know that Wal-mart only makes crap”, Wal-mart isn’t the only offender.  Even my local dairy brand has added crap in their cottage cheese.  The brand that has a factory right here in the middle of town and buys the milk of local farmers.  Can’t get more local than that.  But they put extra stuff in their products, and so I don’t buy them.

I’ve been reading labels judiciously for a while now, starting from when I was dieting.  And the more complex or processed the food, the more difficult the ingredients list gets.  In general, if the list has an ingredient that you don’t know what it is or what it does, then I’d avoid that food.  (Chemists would obviously have to modify that rule a bit. 😛 )  I haven’t completely given up all my processed foods yet, but I try to make sure that it has as short and readable an ingredients list as possible.  And you can bet that if the government didn’t require that label, they wouldn’t put any of it on that container.  We’d all have no idea what was in our food, and we’d be eating crap without knowing it.

So thank you, U.S. Government.  Thank you for getting at least one small thing right for the battle of Real Food.

Goals Update: Time for Real Food

Vegetable stand
Photo by Michael Cannon

So, as usual, my exercise goal for May/June has not exactly taken off.  I’m still picking it up off and on, but with the summer heat, it is very difficult.  I wilt like a flower after 10 minutes.  I do have a plan to try and get something done at the university gym in the mornings before class, but I’m afraid of burnout.  I’ll have to see what it’s like come August.

Anyway, instead of wasting another two months trying to pick that up, I’m going to move on to the next goal.  For July/August, I will be focusing on moving my eating habits to Real Food.  Now, you might say, what is Real Food, and why does it get capital letters?  Is it opposed to imaginary food?

In a sentence, Real Food is traditional foods, prepared in traditional ways, from whole ingredients, with no processing.  I think we can all agree that the American food system is full of errors and fallacies.  Boxes labeled with various advertisements trying to tell us they’re healthy, and laws created under the guise of “protecting Americans” when they’re really in place to increase the profits of Big Agriculture.  Pesticides, chemicals, and genetically modified foods.  A government recommended eating plan that makes us fatter, not healthier.  When there is arsenic in our chicken and our cows are fed corn instead of grass, there is something very wrong.  Our great-grandmothers probably wouldn’t recognize half the stuff we eat as food.  Some people aren’t even able to cook things that don’t come out of a box.

There’s also the issues that we eat things out of season.  Strawberries are not supposed to be eaten in winter, pumpkins aren’t supposed to be eaten in spring.  A lot of our food is picked before it is ripe, so that it can survive shipment across hundreds, and even thousands of miles.  So, hand in hand with eating Real Food is also eating Local Real Food, as much as possible.

Switching to Real Food means paying more attention to where my food comes from, what it’s made with, and what it’s been fed (in the case of meat).  It means making more things from scratch, focusing on making traditional foods like homemade broths and fermented foods.  It means using more whole ingredients, fewer things out of a box or a can.

Now, this process has been a long time coming for me.  I’ve been reading books and blogs, and testing out small changes in the way we eat.  I’ve been buying more local foods, reading the ingredients on things that I buy, and making homemade bread and broth.  These next two months, I want to take it to the next level.  For example, I haven’t seriously considered getting grass-fed beef or pastured chicken.  The cost, I must admit, is a bit prohibitive.  Also, there are traditional ways of preparing grains with something acidic, or sprouting the whole grains, neither of which I have really attempted.

Now, there are certain other movements that are attached to Real Food, such as Paleo or Primal diets.  I’m not going to promote any of those.  My own attempt at Paleo ended after about 4 days, and I honestly believe that the human race thrived after the development of agriculture for a reason.  That’s why there are soaking and sprouting techniques, ways of making grains better for our digestion than eating them just straight.  If you’re interested in those, or if they’ve worked for you, feel free to provide links.  I don’t mind, it’s just my personal experiences haven’t been good.

So, to summarize, the next two months will focus on whole foods, traditional foods, real foods, moving away from processed junk, and even more home cooking.  I’ll let you know how I’m doing it, what my resources are, and recommended reading in future posts, as well as some more recipes, especially for homemade foods.