White to wheat

I’ve been part of a trend that I didn’t quite realize I was following until considerably later in the process. The trend? the move to whole grains.

When I moved nine years ago, I grabbed the opportunity to create a new habit. I tend to find the time of a large change the perfect atmosphere to make small changes that I stick to, so I decided that I would begin regularly making my own bread. I had already been baking some, just not consistently. But at the time of the move, I was comfortable enough with it that I decided to try the change to consistently making my own. One step at a time, you now. So I did. I think one loaf of bread was bought while my parents were visiting to help me with the move, but then I was on my own, learning a new job, living (ironically) right behind a grocery store, and buying only flour, never bread.

It pretty much worked. I simply stuck to my guns by telling myself — if you don’t want it badly enough to make it, then you don’t want it badly enough. I think that in the nine years since I’ve moved, I may have bought one loaf of sandwich bread since that first one my Mom bought, but I’m not even sure of that. I do know that the only time store-bought sandwich bread has been in this house has been when she was here. (She brings her own, sometimes. But she likes my bread; after all, she gave me a Kitchen Aid for my birthday after a few years of this. Before that, I was kneading it all by hand.)

Now, this didn’t mean that I never bought any bread at all; for example, I still haven’t learned to make bagels, so if I want them, I buy them. But eventually…

Anyway, as I grew more and more comfortable with this process, to the point that I memorized the recipe, I began to contemplate whole wheat bread. Now, it wasn’t that I hadn’t had the idea of whole wheat from the beginning — one of the bread books I read at the time of my move, and in a way it inspired me to make the change — was Bread Alone. But those recipes were almost too difficult in a way; or at least, that’s how I thought of them. I hadn’t yet made the transition to the proper ingredients or the proper mindset. The mindset that said, I can do it, I just have to find them. And really, the practice of making bread for a while was a good thing before I started to tackle the differences in wheat. Whole wheat flour acts a little differently than white flour.

So, I started slowly. First, I found good flour (King Arthur is my favorite still, although I mostly don’t buy flour from them any more, explain why in a minute). And I started making my rolls and sandwich bread recipes with a blend of wheat and white. Eventually I reached a point where I had about a 50:50 ratio. And it was good.

But then came a bit of a sea change in my thinking. I had been intending all along to move toward more whole grains in my diet for reasons of health, but I hadn’t really intended to do a complete change to whole grains. But somewhere around that time, I discovered a trend through the internet; many people were teaching, for reasons both religious and secular, that, as a society, we really needed to move away from white flour to whole wheat, from processed foods to fresh, local foods, from a convenience culture to one that gathered, preserved, and cooked one’s own food directly and mindfully, as much as possible. So I was suddenly contemplating not just a move toward cooking with whole wheat flour, but an entirely different mindset in my approach to food.

It didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I’d say this has happened over the course of the entire nine years I’ve lived here, and I’m not finished yet. It was more of a step by step process: incorporating more and different vegetables into my diet, eventually getting into the habit of going to the farmer’s market regularly, trying out a CSA farm subscription for vegetables and eggs, disciplining myself not to buy out-of-season fruits and vegetables at the grocery store on a regular basis but more as a treat, getting local meat sources, and dairy sources, too (I’m still working on that one, though I have found local sources), figuring out what I wanted locally and what was a lost cause (I’m not giving up my coffee and spices), and finally, buying a grain mill so I can grind my own extremely fresh flour. (I had to think about that one for a while; it is a commitment, you know.)

Interestingly, one of  my biggest difficulties was finding recipe books. In some ways, it still is. I want good recipes that work toward good taste with regular ingredients, but are committed to using only whole wheat flour. Even the King Arthur Flour Whole Wheat Bread recipe book, which I have and have used enthusiastically, did not make that commitment. They used blends of white and wheat when what I wanted was whole wheat only. Or those wonderful vegetarian cookbooks — required me to buy foods that weren’t available locally, unless I was willing to buy something that was trucked across the continent. Or the preservation cookbooks — required me to use ingredients that I was trying to use less of, like sugar (for example, jam recipes — I just recently discovered one that didn’t require me to use pectin!). But I’m stubborn, and so I keep looking, and experimenting, and eventually finding what I need.

Just last summer, I actually had a weird moment as a result of all these slow changes. I do have some white flour still sitting in my pantry, waiting for me to use it up, and last summer I had a time shortage and a need for some bread. So I made myself a white flour sandwich loaf because I didn’t have time to grind my grain.  Never again! It was, well, it didn’t taste bad, it just didn’t taste. I felt like I was eating air more than food, and I missed the flavor of the whole wheat. (It made me weirdly uncomfortable.) Once the little bit of white flour is gone from my pantry, I don’t think I’ll be buying anymore again.

Now what changes remain? Well, I need to learn more about food preservation. There are plenty more things to can so I don’t have to buy as much in the winter. I’d like to figure out a way to buy a lot of local onions, for example, and preserve them in my storage room so I can have some all winter long, when the farmer’s market doesn’t have them any more. Same with garlic. A root cellar would be nice, but not really a functional solution yet. And I really need to tackle a vegetable garden, so it can fill in some of the gaps of what I buy elsewhere.

But, you know, one step at a time…

Excuse me, I need to go pay my CSA farm bill for the year…

local is best

This week I’ve been having an interesting experience with the clear proof that local food is best.
Monday I fixed a dish for my work lunches that week, as is my habit, and so I tossed together a quick hamburger tomato sauce, rather like spaghetti sauce except without the spaghetti, that had ground beef, canned tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and lovely spices and herbs. And it has been good! I’ve been trying to figure out what makes it so lovely, and I finally decided it’s a combination of two things.

  1. I used cinnamon for the first time, and
  2. the canned tomatoes were canned by me last summer.

Why did these make a difference? Well, the cinnamon is something I had read about before, and finally decided to try it, and it is definitely good. Upon reflection, I may have used a bit too much for the pound of hamburger — I used about one teaspoon — but I’m not really complaining too much. I will definitely be experimenting with cinnamon again in a meat dish. But the big difference is the tomatoes. When I fixed them for canning, I cooked them down a bit with some generic Italian spices, which added considerable to their richness and sweetness. That depth of flavor was greatly enhanced by the spices in this meat sauce this time around, but it would not have been as good if the canned local tomatoes hadn’t been there in the first place.

At least I don’t think so. Clearly I will have to experiment a bit with the rest of my canning to confirm this conclusion — such a hardship!

slicing the tomatoes for canning