Sunday, May 20, 2012

Let Them Eat Legumes

A few days ago, when I was working on my black bean hummus, I heard a story on NPR about a recent USDA study that claims healthy food is actually cheaper than all the junk food that makes Americans fat.  Of course this is striking because conventional wisdom, since Food, Inc., has held that it is cheaper to eat fast food hamburgers and soda than it is to buy broccoli or pears.

The part of the story that most struck me claimed that legumes—particularly dried beans—are the best, or most economical, source of protein.  Ironically, as I was listening to the NPR story I was having to research how to cook black beans.  I’m a pretty smart guy—I have a freaking Ph.D.—and I cook a lot. Moreover, I consider myself a pretty astute home cook because my “cooking” is more than reheating frozen meals or churning out Hamburger Helper.  I can cook chicken to a safe temperature without a thermometer.  I can do the same thing with boneless pork chops without drying them out.  I can cook shrimp about a dozen different ways without any cookbooks or cheat sheets; I can shuck fresh oysters . . . .  Yet, when I wanted to make my hummus I couldn’t remember exactly how to deal with the beans, this simple, affordable protein.

I have no problem with the USDA declaring that it is indeed possible to eat a healthy diet on the cheap, but I do have a problem with the assumption that people can actually pull this off, today, right away.  To make my black bean hummus I had to boil the beans two minutes and let them sit two hours, then I had to cook them another hour or so, until they were tender.  Of course I could have let them soak in water overnight and then boiled them for that additional hour.  Telling people who are working two jobs, taking kids to and from school, relying on too much fast food, handling homework, and trying to get those kids to bed to work more dried legumes into their diet is like telling me that my bread would be way cheaper if I bought wheat in fifty-pound sacks and pounded it into flour myself.  As a society, we simply don’t know how to cook any more, and we need to make much greater changes than simply knowing what to do—even if I thought pounding wheat would be cool and cheap, I have no idea how to do it and certainly don’t have the equipment.

More food education would help, as might living wages and/or general wage increases for the lower-and-middle-classes that have experienced at least a decade of wage stagnation.  Heck, maybe we should shorten the standard workday to seven hours so that more people could get home in time to cook dinner.  I would bet that if we could combine knowing what to do with being able to afford it and the time it takes, more people would be at home cooking dinner.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Hummus is one of the wonders of the culinary world.  It looks about like what I imagined when I read that some poor bedraggled character in an old British novel, like Oliver Twist, had nothing to eat but mush.

I can’t remember when I first tried it, but I know it was after a long period of resistance.  Now, I love it, I like all kinds: I like the jalepeno-cilantro hummus offered by Trader Joe’s, and I like the basic garbanzo bean-based hummus recipe in my vegan cookbook, Veganomicon.  My all-time favorite, however, was the black bean hummus that my family used to buy from a local establishment in Greenville, SC that recently closed its doors. 

With that black bean hummus in mind, I decided several days ago to make my own—from scratch…and by that I mean all the way from dry black beans.

I handled the black beans by the book: boiled a pound of them in water for two minutes and then let them sit for two hours.  I drained them, put them in the fridge, and came back to them today.  I took two cups of those beans, boiled them again for about another ninety minutes, when they were soft enough to smush.  I drained them, dumped them in my food processor, and started adding other ingredients: two tablespoons of tahini, the juice of one lemon, half a small sweet onion (which I got from Parisi Farms at the Uptown Greenwood Farm Stands), three big cloves of garlic, about a tablespoon of diced pickled jalapeños, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of pepper, about a half teaspoon of cumin, and about a quarter teaspoon of chili powder (remember, this ain’t a cookbook—I didn’t really measure anything and I’m just recreating this all by memory).  Then I started processing it as I streamed in extra virgin olive oil, probably about ½ a cup, until I reached the consistency I wanted.

My end result is glorious: creamy but retaining some texture, garlicky, a little smoky (thanks to the cumin), a little spicy, a little salty.  And starting with two cups of black beans gave me enough hummus to enjoy tonight and have enough left over to show off to my friends on Friday night.  Next time I’ll add cilantro or parsley; I might use a chipotle pepper or adobo sauce in the place of the jalapeño and lemon juice—if you read this blog you know how I feel about chipotle peppers and adobo sauce.  Whatever the case, I have arrived at my new base recipe for black bean hummus.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

On the Glory of Pimento Cheese and My Variations

Having been raised in North Carolina, schooled in Florida, and settled in South Carolina, I have spent all my life in “The South,” and I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t aware of pimento cheese.  I never really liked it until I moved to Greenwood, South Carolina, and tried the pimento cheese that is house-made at Corley’s Market and Grill.

This pimento cheese tastes fresh, and each flavor component is distinct: cheddar cheese, mayo, pimento peppers, salt, and pepper.  It melts nicely when piled by the spoonful on a burger, and it makes a killer grilled cheese.

In short, I love Corley’s pimento cheese, but I have also experimented with making my own, with great success (I have to admit). 

To really understand pimento cheese, one must realize that there are really only three key ingredients: cheese, mayonnaise, and peppers. 

Once this is all understood, the possibilities for home-cook variations are incredible.  I have arrived at two custom variations, one with chipotle peppers, and another with fresh jalapeños and cilantro.

Version 1 (Chipotle): grate two cups of sharp cheddar cheese in a basic box grater or whatever you have on hand; Add about 1/4 cup of mayo, one canned chipotle pepper, about a teaspoon of the adobo sauce from the can of chipotle peppers, salt and pepper to taste.  Stir all ingredients together with a spoon or food processor to combine and break the cheese into smaller bits. Chop the chipotle pepper before mixing the ingredients unless you mix with a processor. (Disclaimer: I don't really measure anything when I cook, and this isn't a recipe but a loose blog-post description of how I make something--adjust everything as needed!)

This produces a cheese spread that is more flavorful than the traditional pimento cheese.  It has more heat than pimento cheese (pimentos aren’t spicy at all), and the smokiness that comes with all chipotle peppers (a chipotle pepper is a smoke-dried jalapeño).

Version 2 (Jalapeño): follow the same process as Version 1, substituting one whole fresh jalapeño, diced, and about three tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro. 

This version is great because of its combination of the sharp, clean heat of the jalapeño and the fresh flavor of the cilantro, with the heat being simultaneously cooled by the cheese and mayo.  It has a quick and satisfying punch of heat, but it doesn’t have the extended and unpleasant burn of biting into a raw hot pepper.

As I have already indicated, the three big tests for pimento cheese are the burger, the grilled cheese, and the cracker. My two variations pass these tests, but they pose an additional problem: pimento cheese takes its name from the pimentos.  Since I don’t use this boring pepper, my cheeses are some kind of bastardized cheese spread.  I can’t call them “Chipotle Cheese” and “Jalapeño Cheese” because no one has ever heard of such things; I can’t call them “cheese spreads” because such a name would conjure images of Velveeta or Cheese Whiz (yuck!).  So, I’m willing to declare any combination of cheese, mayo, and peppers “pimento cheese” and allow myself to take liberties with the variety of pepper that joins the cheese and mayo.  In honor of Lewis Black, I’ll refer to my decision on terminology as “the soy milk rule” because, remember, no one would buy “soy juice.” 

I hope you try my variations on pimento cheese; if you have your own, I would love to hear about it!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Manure Tea: Or, Fertilizer Ethics

I have been very public about the fact that I’ve procured rabbits for the primary purpose of fertilizing my garden.  So far, I count the experiment as a success.  All the manure from January to mid-March went into my winter compost and then went into the three raised beds I built for our garden.  Rabbit poo is virtually odorless and dry—nothing really nasty about it.

But, this week I decided to try out the “manure tea” that I’ve read about in countless organic gardening publications and websites (Don’t believe it’s so popular? Just google it—54,800 hits).  I tried it, and I found it absolutely revolting.  First, “manure tea” may be the grandest euphemism I’ve ever confronted.  One blogger more appropriately terms this liquid fertilizer “poop soup.” It’s nasty.

Here is the basic premise: you put manure in a bucket of water for a  few days and then you have an organic hippy version of Miracle Gro: just pour it into a watering pot, sprinkle it on the garden, and book yourself a spot in the watermelon competition at the state fair. 

I do everything I can to keep chemicals and synthetic fertilizers out of my garden, but I can only carry this ethic so far.  In my defense, I am willing to deal with rabbit manure, and I am the father of three little kids.  I firmly believe that there are things in life that are unpleasant—dirty diapers, wiping the rear-ends of the helpless, the stomach flu—but that the call of duty grants no allowances for squeamishness.

But I draw the line at “poop soup” for my garden.  To all of those champions of the muck, I salute you.  I know you will probably want to tell me that it’s not so gross and my experiment was gross because I did something wrong.  For now, however, I’ll listen to none of that and move forward believing I’ve learned my limits. I will do everything I can with my dry organic fertilizers.  I will use all the rabbit manure my trusty brood can generate (in its naturally dry form), and I will supplement that with the great Putney Farms composted chicken manure that I buy through Upstate Locally Grown. 

For me, living an organic life is something that has happened bit by bit.  It started with simply learning about the problems associated with high fructose corn syrup.  Then it involved trying to avoid produce on the constant “dirty dozen” lists.  It eventually turned into growing as much of my own food as possible.  I think it’s the same with everyone, and it always involved figuring out what we can do, what we can afford to do, what we cannot do, and what we do not want to do.  I do not want to make, use, or be in the presence of manure tea.  In my learning process, I can now say I’ve figured out how I feel about fertilizer and how I will feed my plants.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Community Gardens and the Nature of Communities

On April 21, I spent about six hours working on a community garden in the Matthews Mill Village, one of the old mill villages that make Greenwood, SC so distinctive.  The garden is in the backyard of a house-turned-community center owned by Community Initiatives, Inc., and I was there with about a dozen other guys who all came out to work on the garden as part of our church’s Operation Inasmuch local missions project.  

      The entire experience was eye-opening for me for a range of reasons although I’ll only discuss two of them here.   
  1. I had never been to this particular mill village.  By their nature, mill villages were built to be self-sustaining (this one has its own miniature downtown and post office), and so Matthews Mill Village is cut off from the rest of Greenwood even though it is virtually in the middle of it.  None of Greenwood’s major thoroughfares actually take people straight through it, so folks who live in the rest of Greenwood can live their lives without ever seeing or thinking about this neighborhood.   
  2. It made me think about the nature of neighborhoods and communities.
This community garden is going to take the collective effort of a group of people.  We planted 28 tomato plants, about 24 banana pepper plants, a patch of lettuce, and a little herb garden.  The people in that community are going to have to water the plants, weed the garden, and gather the produce.   

This means that they will have to both handle the chores and operate within parameters of fairness:  Who will take those tomatoes home?  Will they be the same folks who put in the hard work?  How many tomatoes should a person take home from a community garden? 

At first glance, all of this might seem like small potatoes, but it isn’t.  I live in a great neighborhood. I’m proud of how my neighbors maintain their property, and I’m proud of the neighborhood’s diversity.  Here, in the heart of The South, in this completely middle-class neighborhood, four of the houses I can see from my front porch are home to African-American families, and this diversity is pretty consistent throughout the neighborhood. 

In comparison to the Matthews Mill Village, however, my neighborhood is not a community. The social arrangement with my neighbors goes something like this: we will smile and wave, and we will wait patiently for each other if one of us is checking the mail—from the car—while other is trying to pull into the driveway.  Our shared spaces are scarce, and they are under the care of a landscaping company.  We know more about each other from the political signs we put in our yards during election season than from conversations we've shared.  If put to the test, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t provide the police the names of my neighbors, just as I’m pretty sure they couldn’t provide mine.

Last Saturday, the Matthews Mill Village had a neighborhood cleanup.  That was a coordinated event that culminated in a community dinner.  In my neighborhood we all just did our customary yard-work and then retired to our individual backyards.  

Years ago I sat in classes and heard professors lecture about how American communities have lost the real “sense of community” that made the nation strong in its youth—the type of “sense of community” that would enable people to come together to raise a barn or hold a “real” town hall meeting to determine the best course of action on a given issue.  But only now have I come to realize—really feel in my guts—the difference between a neighborhood and a community.