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“Fast” Food From Scratch

We’ve all heard that we are what we eat, and we live in a society that doesn’t eat very well. Americans eat away from home about a third of the time, and at home many rely on pre-cooked meals.  Even when we do cook, many recipes today call for a can of mushroom soup, a package of flavored breadcrumbs, and a jar of store-bought tomato sauce. Such processed “ingredients” often cost much more than the basic foods on which they are based and contain a lot of unhealthy additives.  And dependence on them makes us less able to base our diets on food that we can grow ourselves or buy from local farmers.

I live in a community that grows food to give away as well as food to eat and preserve for ourselves.  One year when we were overwhelmed with tomatoes, a neighbor was overwhelmed with family medical bills and glad to get some free food.  She told us that her husband loved canned tomatoes, but she would never take more than one or two of our fresh ones at a time. When we asked why and pointed out that we had plenty, she admitted that she didn’t know how to make fresh tomatoes into something like the canned stuff.  She was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was as easy as dunking them in boiling water until the skins split, peeling and chopping them, and then boiling them down as far as she wanted.  I had just assumed that everyone knew that.  I should have known better.  Not many years before when we moved to the farm, we inherited a garden full of kale, which we’d never dealt with before.  At first we tried steaming it very briefly as we would do with spinach or Swiss chard and adding it into the dishes where we’d normally have used these things.  The tough texture and distinctive taste of the kale didn’t work well at all in those recipes.  Eventually we collected a few kale-specific recipes—a fried rice, a kale-potato-hot pepper dish, and an African stew with peanut butter and pineapple.  We started to get a sense of which other foods tasted good with kale and also got the idea that we needed to cook it longer than we’d been doing.  Now we’re able to improvise happily.

Trial and error will eventually teach you to cook new types of produce, but it’s quicker and easier to start with someone else’s recipes and ideas. Too Many Tomatoes, Squash, Beans and Other Good Things: A Cookbook For When Your Garden Explodes by Lois Landau and Laura Myers has a section for each vegetable including directions for harvesting and preservation, simple preparation instructions, nutrition information and assorted recipes.  Susan Loomis’ Farmhouse Cookbook contains a wide range of recipes from farm-grown ingredients, with an index organized by basic ingredient. In addition, you can check out where gardeners post and request recipes at

Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life

My family grows our own meat, milk, eggs and vegetables, but there are other staples—grains, beans, spices, yeast—whose production is beyond us.  Buying these things at the grocery store is expensive, consumes a lot of packaging, and can be frustrating because some less-than-popular items sit on the shelf for a long time. We buy what we can in bulk, either through a nearby Mennonite store or through a co-op. Unfortunately in this part of the country, co-op stores are often very pricy.  We belong to a cooperative wholesale buying group that gets truck deliveries every eight weeks.  We have to plan ahead, but we get fifty-pound bags of rolled oats, twenty-five-pound bags of flour, rice and beans and one-pound bags of spices that cost less and taste better than what comes from the grocery.

Starting with basic bulk ingredients does require extra time and thought.  I think that dry beans boiled up at home with lard and spices are tastier than store-canned beans (and less salty too, and much cheaper), but we have to remember to start them three hours before the meal.  My family gets cheap oat flour by putting the rolled oats through a hand grinder; this flour is very moist and works well to balance the dryness of whole-wheat flour, but the grinding takes a while and is best done rather before it’s time to start making the bread.

Good scratch cookbooks help.  The Mennonite-inspired More with Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre features healthy and interesting recipes that start with basic food, along with suggested variations to accommodate the different ingredients people may have at hand.  Its sequel, Extending the Table, has more international recipes.  Irma Rombauer’s The Joy Of Cooking has a wide variety of plain and fancy recipes, but always offers clear instructions for the basic steps of preparation—how to make a white sauce, foundation sweet dough, etc.

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It also helps to have a few basic flexible meals that don’t have a recipe because they flex to accommodate the food on hand.  When I was a kid, my mother often made us what she called “skillet surprise”—she stir-fried some kind of meat, did a series of different vegetables in the juice, and put it all on rice, couscous, pasta, or whatever we had on hand. We always liked it.  Many vegetables and meats lend themselves to being precooked, chopped small, mixed with precooked rice, raw eggs, soy sauce and ginger, and fried until the eggs are done.  Dried beans and rice together have the amino acids to form complete proteins, and the beans also have the nutritional values you’d expect from a vegetable. A little bit of tomatoes, onions, meat, cheese, and some spices goes a long way in adding color and flavor.

Finally, it helps to have neighbors who are also interested in scratch cooking and eating.  This facilitates bulk buying; my family can eat its way through fifty- and twenty-five-pound bags of staples unaided, but some with smaller families or appetites team up to buy large items. It gives you a chance to pass on the things you’ve learned how to make well (and the mistakes you’ve learned never to make again) and to learn from others’ experiences.  And it helps people, especially kids, to get a different idea of what constitutes real food.  I don’t know how many young visitors to at our farm have asked why we don’t have “real” spaghetti sauce or pesto or hummus, by which they mean some kind with a brand name they’ve seen advertised on TV.  There aren’t ads for homemade food made from recognizable ingredients.  If we want our kids to learn to eat it, it helps if they can see other people eating and enjoying it.  We’ve seen kids who told us they just didn’t like beans (squash, goat milk, cheese, vegetables in general, etc.) watch others digging in and decide to try again.  One girl told us afterward, “I don’t like any of those plants you put into supper, but it was really good and I ate five helpings!”

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