I must admit that there are few things I love more than having a couple hours on Sunday morning to read the New York Times, have my breakfast, and slowly wake up with my coffee. This morning I was especially pleased to read an editorial entitled Back to the Land, Reluctantly about a single mother with a small to nonexistent paycheck embarking on her own version of a bit of urban homesteading. Her motivation was not fitting in with the latest trends of local food and home cooking, but rather the obvious (but often forgotten) fact that growing and making food at home is simply cheaper than buying processed foods. And by processed I don’t just mean frozen pizzas and ready-made-meals, but also items like bread and granola. The cost motivation for eating whole, healthy, home-cooked foods ties well with the Slow Food $5 Food Challenge. The Slow Food movement is more traditionally associated with, say, expensive cheese and elaborate meals, so it’s great to see them using their name for a more populist cause.
I, too, make my own bread and granola, although my motivations are slightly different. After spending a year in New Zealand, I found that most American foods were simply too sweet for my tastes. This has led me to make more of my basics at home for two reasons: the first being taste, but the second being that I realized there must have been a reason that I lost my sweet tooth in New Zealand, despite not changing my eating habits dramatically. One theory: there are a lot of basic foods in the States that have sugar (or high fructose corn syrup) in them that simply shouldn’t. The best example, in my book? Bread. And with a large body of research on the negative health effects of sugar, I’d rather keep my sugar intake to times when I know I’m eating sugar (and enjoying it more than I do when it’s tucked away in my tomato sauce.)
My point, after all this? Simply to share two recipes, for bread and granola, that are extremely easy and cheap to make. I hesitate to claim health benefits – granola does need oil and a sugar of some kind to be granola, after all – but you know what you’re eating, and can adjust as you like. Credit where credit is due: my mother is the true perfecter of these recipes, and the bread is based on Mark Bittman’s no-knead bread (although he uses all white flour).
The great thing about making your own granola is that you can put whatever you want in it, but here’s how I make mine, as a starting point. The one non-negotiable is the magnitude of oil – if you use less than suggested, your granola will burn rather than brown. Adjust the amount of sweetener for your own tastes – I lean on the 1/3 c. side of things.
6 c. oats
1 c. raw almonds
1 c. pumpkin seeds
2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 c. canola oil
1/3-1/2 c. combination of honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.
1 c. raisins
1 c. unsweetened dried coconut
Pre-heat the oven to 350 F. Coarsely chop the almonds (if you are using raw almonds – if not, wait to add until after baking) and combine with the pumpkin seeds and oats in a large bowl.
Add the oil, sweetener, and vanilla, and mix well. Spread out on a large baking sheet, so that the granola mixture is not thicker than about a half an inch on the sheet. Bake for 20 minutes, turn the mixture to expose another layer to the surface, and bake for another 10-15 minutes, or until it’s golden brown on top. Let cool, and then add coarsely chopped raisins, coconut, and whatever else you like! If your almonds were not raw, add them now, coarsely chopped. And you’re done!
Whole-wheat no-knead bread
Like the granola recipe, you can really adjust this one to your tastes, but here’s how I do it. In this case, the non-negotiable is the amount of white flour you need to use to avoid the bread being too dense.
3/4 c. white flour
3 1/4 c. other flour-like ingredients*
1/4 tsp. yeast
1 1/2 tsp. salt
~1 1/2 c. warm water
* Here’s what I do:
2 c. whole wheat flour
1/4 c. wheat bran
1/4 c. oat bran
3/4 c. cooked oats. I use steel cut, but you can also use regular
Mix yeast and 1/4 c. of the warm water, and set aside. Combine all dry ingredients (including the cooked oatmeal) and mix together. Add the water with the dissolved yeast, and continue adding water until the dough sticks to your hands a little bit. If you add too much, no worries – just add a little more flour into the mix.
Put your dough ball in a bowl that has steep sides and is the width of or only slightly wider than your dough. (This is important, because it allows your dough to ‘crawl up’ the bowl as it rises.) I spread a little bit of canola oil in the inside of the bowl, so the dough is easier to remove after rising. Cover with a cloth, and let rise for 8-12 hours.
After rising, use a flexible spatula to remove the dough from the bowl without bursting too many of the air bubbles, and place on a lightly floured surface. Shape the dough into a log the length of your bread pan, lightly oil your pan, and gently place the dough into the pan. (No kneading, hence the name.) Cover the bread pan with aluminum foil, and place in a cold oven. Set the oven to 450, and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil, and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the top is browned and a bit crispy. Eat!
And there you have two ways of making food that is truly food, without hidden sugar or added expense.
One of the great experiences of living abroad (or in a new place in the States, for that matter) is that one gets to see how other communities, governments, and societies do things. I was inspired by my friend Mei‘s discussion of the design of the ATM withdrawal process in New Zealand compared to the States to record examples of little things I’ve noticed in Wellington that lead to a more friendly, healthy or otherwise good city.
Both availability and affordability of fresh produce are of concern in the States, especially as the obesity problem and its related health challenges increase. The latter problem is addressed in Wellington through the Sunday vegetable (and fruit) markets, where a plethora of produce is sold for cheap. (How cheap? I can buy enough produce for my house of five for the week and spend ~$40.) The market is not a farmers’ market; rather, the goods sold are bought wholesale from grocery stores when they are just beyond their shelf life. If you’ve ever lived in Boston, this may sound like Haymarket, but the produce is of much better quality, and will last for more than just a couple days.
I’m guessing the accessibility issue may remain a problem; the only two markets I am aware of here are in Wellington City. That said, public housing in Wellington is integrated throughout the city, which may alleviate some of this concern.
It is time that vegetable markets in the United States move beyond venues where produce is sold from local farmers – while these are great, only a small subset of America can actually afford to purchase the goods. The problems of waste from spoilt goods in grocery stores and high cost of fresh foods could both be addressed through the establishment of similar veg markets.