Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dressing It Up


Crisp salads have appealed to me since I was a child. Summertime in Georgia can be hot as Hades, and for those of us that spent most of our lives without air conditioning, the quest for a decent meal in the three hottest months can often be a lost cause. I can recall loooooooong periods of time each year in which my daily menu consisted of cold cereal for breakfast (best when topped with fresh berries), a cheese and pickle sandwich for lunch, a juicy, runny, sticky, messy sweet-as-pie peach for a snack, and a gigantic salad for dinner. Matter of fact, this tradition, born when I was maybe eight years old, continued with only minor embellishments until I turned thirty. Now that I actually have air conditioning, it isn't too much of a stretch for me to eat a hot meal or two during the summer, but I still crave those salads...

Mom and I had two stainless steel bowls that we ate most meals out of. They were huge bowls, maybe quart-sized, and they were considered (by me, at least) to be our greatest treasures. You could have told me they were family silver, and I would have gladly believed you. As far as I was concerned, no other dish could then (or even still now, I think) have more significance in my life. For years, My Bowl (the other one belonged to mom, though we didn't delineate exactly which one belonged to the other) was my cereal bowl in the morning and my salad bowl at night. Those bowls are long gone now, as far as I know, and while I am content to eat my cereal out of any old receptacle these days, I still long to put my salad in a giant, stainless steel bowl.

The best salads of my childhood were picked straight from mom's garden, and they were simple, often no more than lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, and cheese, topped with sunflower seeds, wheat germ, and some salad dressing or another that I have no memory of. The salads tended to be gritty, as mom has never been known to wash the dirt or, um, the (shudder at the memory) manure off of her fresh-picked produce. To this day, anytime I grumble as I pick a clod of what I hope is only dirt out of my teeth, mom will flippantly say, with a mouth full of salad and without even looking up, "You know, people eat a peck of dirt in their lifetime."

I have no idea where she got that, er, nugget of information, and I suspect she doesn't even remember herself, but I stick by the reply I have always given her, that eating a peck of dirt is NOT a requirement. But as long as there were no bugs, which mom refers to as "protein," I never bothered to complain too much about my dirty salads.

My salads have changed a little over the years, and now are most often a mixture of romaine and baby spinach, topped with sliced red onion, a whoppingly large handful of garbanzo beans (I eat these things as a snack, too), some crumbled feta or goat cheese, and dressed with a fresh vinaigrette. I cannot, under any circumstances, abide by store-bought salad dressings any longer. I will occasionally deviate from the vinaigrette and try a new recipe for a green goddess dressing or a creamy gorgonzola dressing, but I always come back to my favorite, especially in the dog days of summer, those yummy oil and vinegar based dressings.

I have been experimenting with different vinaigrette recipes for the past year - I get on a bandwagon and can't seem to find a way to step off - and I have found there are more different approaches to vinaigrette than people who even eat salads. I have a couple of unswerving requirements: the only oil I will use is olive oil (and now it must be organic), and a ratio of equal parts oil to vinegar. Many people, including classic Italian chefs, prefer to overload on the oil and relegate the vinegar to the background, but I vehemently disagree. Sure, olive oil is the heart-healthy kind of fat, and sure its delicious as all get out, but I've always been a face-puckering vinegar lover. And now that I have filled my cabinets with a dizzying array of vinegars with which to choose from, I have been known to do impromptu vinegar tastings with Odd Toddler (sort of like wine tastings, and nearly as highbrow, but a more acceptable alternative for a two year old than, um, alcohol - though we all know where vinegar comes from...).

I have two current favorites for vinaigrette recipes, neither of which are original (my favorite original and very bold rendition appeared way back here).

MISTO SALAD DRESSING (Misto is an Atlanta restaurant from the guy who ran Burrito Art, my favorite now-defunct East Atlanta restaurant; this recipe was printed in the AJC Food Section). This is Pretty Girl's favorite, I think.
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tbs freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp whole-grain mustard
  • 1/8 tsp chopped fresh garlic
  • 1/8 tsp sea salt
  • 1/8 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
  1. In a blender or food processor, or in a bowl using a whisk, whip together the oil and vinegar.
  2. Whip in the lemon juice.
  3. Add the mustard, garlic, salt, pepper and basil.
  4. Crush the Italian seasoning (or just throw it in, like I do), and add to the vinaigrette.
  5. Whisk the dressing to emulsify.

FRESH HERB VINAIGRETTE (from the August 2005 issue of Better Homes and Gardens). This one if my newest obsession.

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup white or red wine vinegar (I prefer the more mellow red wine vinegar to the white)
  • 1 Tbs snipped fresh thyme, oregano, or basil (my current choice is basil, but I plan to try every fresh herb I can think of - I wonder how rosemary would do?)
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper
  1. Combine all ingredients in a screw-top jar (or one of those Good Seasons cruets - I am in luuuurve with those things) and shake well.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Conflicted Conservative Environmentalist

The label "moderate," when used to describe political or philosophical leanings, is just another word for "conflicted." I am having a harder and harder time reconciling my own personal values when I find them so often in conflict with each other. Most often, it is my business education which so violently butts heads with my, um, (for lack of a better word), hippie childhood. Cost vs. value, efficiency vs. sustainability, and so on.

Disturbingly, it was when I had more money and had a Real Job that I was able to afford such luxuries as organic food and locally-owned/produced commodities. It is the ultimate contradiction in terms that you have to be rich to be a hippie these days. When we made the decision to become self-employed (because we crave autonomy) and to move out to the country (because we also crave solitude and fresh air), my husband and I found life got much more expensive. So we had to start cutting back on, shall we say, frivolities, such as buying clothing and other items from locally-owned stores. It is no secret that clothing from Old Navy, for instance, is much less-expensive than clothing purchased at small local boutiques. When we then decided to get pregnant and subsequently made the choice for me to cut back severely on my workload so that I could be a full-time mom, we had to think in terms of buying groceries, pet food, and any other possible items from (everyone take a collective gasp here) Wal-mart.

So, to be able to live closer to the land, and to be able to afford to focus on my child's well-being, I had to compromise a few other values. After all, which is more important, to support locally-owned businesses and farmers who treat the environment well, or to stay home with my child and give him the love, the patience, and constant attention of a stay-at-home/work-at-home full-time mom? Well, obviously, my child comes first. But then I still had the issue of my child's health. Once he was old enough to move from the breast to a sippy cup, I just couldn't bring myself to buy regular grocery store milk, knowing the growth hormones given to the cows would be entering my child's body. I debated the added cost of organic milk for about 4 seconds before I made the again obvious choice. After all, my child comes first. If I have to stay up a little later at night to get more work done once my child is asleep, just to be able to make enough more money to be able to afford organic milk, then so be it. Because, again, what is more important, a little more free time to myself, or working an extra 30 minutes a week to have enough money to buy more healthy groceries for my growing child? Imagine my utter glee when Wal-mart began carrying organic milk ($1.00 a gallon cheaper than at the more elite grocery stores that carried organic foods).

My ultra-conservative carnivorous husband tolerates my more liberal leanings. He goes to the extra trouble of taking our recyclables to the county recycling drop because he knows that reducing our impact on the landfills is a non-negotiable for me. When I stressed the importance of composting our kitchen scraps, he sighed for less than a minute before building me a better mulch bed. With only a little grumbling, he agreed to not use fertilizers in our gardens when I flapped my arms and acted like Chicken Little about what those fertilizers do to our drinking water and our own vegetable garden. Knowing that I contribute some small (albeit fairly paltry) amount of the income in our family, he shrugged his shoulders and let me have my way with the added expense of organic milk. He occasionally makes fun of my residual hippieness, but since I'm moderate about it and don't insist on, say, trading in the car for a bicycle, or listening only to reggae or folk music, he's pretty good-natured about the whole thing.

So for the past two years, other than the organic milk, I have sucked it up and purchased cheaply-produced, chemically-treated groceries in the interest of living within our more meager means. I still eschewed packaged, processed goods in the interest of healthfulness, but since it is usually cheaper to make foods from scratch, I didn't have to make compromises there.

Then mom called last week and read out loud to me from a Mother Earth News article about olive oil, and the fact that it takes a whopping 12 pounds of olives to produce one quart of olive oil. Argh. That's a lot of pesticide and fertilizer being squeezed into my olive oil. I mean, its one thing to worry about organically-grown bananas. After all, the peel is so thick I just don’t feel like paying a premium for something in which only a minute amount of chemicals make it to the part I actually eat. But with olive oil, well, it seems to me that when you squeeze the oil out of the olives, you would also be squeezing the chemicals out. And that’s just nasty.

After a few days of mom and I grumbling amongst ourselves about the olive oil situation, we finally grabbed a rare opportunity to go to Earth Fare together, where I made a beeline for the olive oil section. After a little head-scratching, a lot of label reading, and some mental cost calculations, I figured that buying organic would cost only an additional dollar or two per week in this instance. An on the spot cost-benefit analysis (seriously, I CANNOT put a lid on the business degree) yielded the decision to buy only organic olive oil from now on. Mom and I met back up a few aisles over, both clutching our respective bottles of organic olive oil, where I gave her the results of my mental calculations. We nodded in agreement and went our separate ways again. I grabbed a few more items that aren't available at Walmart (and which necessitate a visit to Earth Fare once a month or so): organic whole-grain pastry flour, sesame tahini paste, etc.

But then, during a failed attempt to find stone-ground grits, I stumbled upon the coffee section, where I looked longingly at the vast selection. Now, coffee is a whole different issue altogether. I used to subsist on Cafe Bustelo for my daily morning coffee, and more expensive varieties, such as Jamaican Blue Mountain, for our weekend lazy-day read-the-newspaper-and-do-the-crossword mornings. All that stopped when Odd Toddler joined our family. After some initial trial and error during the beginning days of reducing our monthly budget, I discovered that Eight O'Clock Bean French Roast, $3.12 per pound at Walmart, was a perfectly acceptable choice amongst the cheap varieties, and so we have used it without complaint for the past two years. While at Earth Fare though, I saw the sign for organic coffee, and using the same logic I have applied to bananas and olive oil, I visibly shuddered at the thought of all the pesticides and fertilizers I must be drinking each morning. Coffee, like olive oil, is one of those direct-process groceries in which my body would be ingesting all the chemicals used to keep prices down.

Now I had a whole new problem. I use approximately two pounds of coffee each week which, at a weekly cost of $6.24 at Walmart, is nothing to get my panties in a wad about. However, to buy organic coffee at Earth Fare would raise the weekly cost to $19.98, an unnacceptable increase of 220%. This brought on a few more days of grumbling. Yesterday, I checked Walmart and found they didn't carry any organic coffee yet. At Kroger, where the Eight O'Clock Bean coffee is $4.19 per pound (34% higher than at Walmart), the cheapest organic coffee was about $8.50 per pound, better than at Earth Fare but still too expensive. I conferred again with mom, the only other person I know who is as not only as health-conscious but as cost-conscious as I am, and we agreed it was still too expensive. We had talked last week about doing some internet searching for bulk orders of organic coffee in order to reduce the price per pound, so I jumped on the task this morning. With my own Odd Toddler, and my mother's two Even Odder Toddlers running in circles around me, I sat calmly down at the computer and began googling. After checking an absurd number of websites, and after consulting with my adding machine in order to consider the shipping costs and to make sure I was comparing apples to apples in each cost comparison, I found the best deal at www.freshcoffee.net, where they have an incredible variety of organic coffees to choose from. At this site, if coffee is bought in 5-pound bags, with a minimum order of 20 pounds in order to avoid shipping costs, the cost per pound, including a minimal handling charge, comes to $6.06, still nearly twice the cost as the cheap, but not organic, coffee at Walmart, but much cheaper than the organic coffee at either Earth Fare or Kroger. And once you consider the health costs and the environmental costs, it becomes a bit of a no-brainer. Besides, if I work an additional 10 minutes per week, I can cover the added cost to our budget. So, deal found; decision made.

Feeling virtuous for having made decisions that will positively affect both the health of my family and that of my planet, I clicked on the New York Times and went to their dining section (because, um, to avoid that $1.00 cost per week, I generally read the Times food section online), where I found an article about Walmart increasing their variety of organic foods, which will be priced at only 10% higher than their regular merchandise. I had read a blurb on this recently, though I can't remember which newspaper it was, in which the discussion focused on the hippie snobs (speaking of contradictions in terms) bemoaning the mainstreaming of organic foods. I suppose its hard to pat yourself on the back when even the lower-class can join in the efforts to have a positive impact on their health and the environment.

Elitism bothers me on a number of levels, not the least of which is that if the elite liberals had their way, evil old big-business Walmart would go out of business and less-priveleged people, like myself, would have to choose between eating well and staying home with our babies. But the Walmart debate is one I don't particularly like to get involved in, mostly because while I can see some of the points made by the liberals, I tend to err on the side of capitalism, and, well, I shop at Walmart myself because honestly, why would I pay $4.19 for something at Kroger when I can get the same thing for $3.12 at Walmart? And why do the elite attack Walmart, but they have no problem with Kroger which, after all, is also Big Business?

Regardless, the Times article has had me chewing the inside of my cheek all morning because while I am positively beside myself over the prospect of less-expensive organic foods, and a wider variety at that, I also understand some of the valid concerns that are raised by the author, especially about the globalization of organic farming. Then again, I take everything I read with a grain of (kosher) salt, so I'm trying not to get too worked up over this. Of course, if I weren't already knotted up over it, I wouldn't have just prattled on endlessly for the past few paragraphs...