Friday, August 16, 2013

Low-hanging Fruit


Photo courtesy Flickr

This is maintenance month, a good time to consider the costs and benefits of various tasks. Simple de-junking is a high-yield exercise that produces easy cleaning, peace of mind, and expanded storage space. French fashion expert Ines de la Fressange said it best, “Everything gets a front-row seat.”

Tuning the basics creates a healthy relationship with one’s living quarters. Making sure windows operate as they were meant to, that door hardware is doing what it should, that nothing is rattling or sagging. Simply squaring things away makes a world of difference. It’s easy to overlook or put off the little things in the rush of daily life. That’s a sign that the pace is too fast.

I set up a minor maintenance project on one of a dozen cafeteria-sized trays I picked up at the Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings Chain. This 1890 kitchen has no counters in the main room, but the “pass pantry” is lined with them, and the trays are modular for the cabinetry. I can set up a project  while I wait for water to boil. Once the pantry silts up with chores, I call a halt to other enterprises and revert to handy mode.

Business writer Timothy Ferriss recommends “batching time wasters”. I’ve been experimenting with his technique recently, and it’s very helpful. It’s comforting to have a rationale for putting something off, and it really is more efficient to accumulate a day or a morning of tasks that require a different slice of brain capacity than tapping laptop keys.

One fundamental I have to learn over and over is how important it is to attend to basic clerical and organizing tasks. The things that are easiest to overlook are the nails in the horseshoe that keeps the household galloping along. When the basics are running hot and clean, it’s trivial to gear up for something more disruptive, like painting a floor.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Driving The Kitchen


Photo courtesy Flickr

Changing shelf paper is a revolutionary act. Clearing a cupboard displaces rooted inventory, and the collection edits itself. It becomes obvious what is worth re-shelving, what has fallen out of use, and what will be declared heirloom and sent off to a member of the family.

Late summer is a good time to roust kitchen inventory, because new crops are about to appear in the Big Box Discount Chain or wherever else one buys staples. The rule of thumb is to buy what one eats and eat what one buys. I prefer to buy ingredients one at a time rather than unpronouncible boxes of assembled this and that, although low-sodium canned soup is a staple. If I want an easy out, I’ll pick up something at the superb new bakery around the corner.

Old food generates subtle malnutrition. An apparently healthy menu will be full of empty calories. Food safety is a government site that lists shelf lives of various meats and cooked dishes. Err on the side of caution, if only because things taste so much better when they’re fresh.

Since we live close to many grocery stores, I use a small under-counter refrigerator. The machine uses little electricity, and there isn’t room to keep things too long. I discard otherwise edible food about four times a year. If I were to set up another kitchen under different circumstances, I’d have separate small refrigerators for raw meat and vegetables.

I don’t bother with a freezer, because I prefer fresh food and because a freezer is a liability when the power goes off.

It was a revelation to learn that meat broth keeps only for a day. Now I make vegan bean dishes so they’ll stay safe and useful through the middle of the week. Smoke seasoning, a pinch of sweet baking spice, and a slug of olive oil substitute for smoked pork.

It’s worth the trouble to cook as if the house had no electricity: thinking low-tech keeps the inventory rotating so that any food that might go stale is integrated into the next meal.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Soul Feast


Photo courtesy Flickr

After a hard week’s week, the go-fer headed up the street for well-earned take-out. His destination was a soul food place we hadn’t tried before. My partner is a good old boy at heart, and he went into a feeding frenzy at the restaurant, returning home with a double armload of grits, fried chicken, and everything else one could think of as a side dish, excluding pecan pie.

He was famished and desperate for that kind of cooking, which also happens to be my favorite kind of cooking. The soul food pica can sneak up on one, particularly in warm weather.

Paul Prudhomme’s first cookbook is a good guide. I was surprised to find any number of Great Aunt Beth’s standard dishes in Prudhomme’s collection. Her branch of the family settled in Rock Island, Illinois, which the good old boy tells me is the upper limit of the delta. There may be an indigenous cuisine of Highway 61, since Beth was Northern European. Dooky Chase taught me the true meaning of fried chicken [and I added a little water chestnut flour to the breading].

Soul classics cost the least, require little skill to execute, and are relaxing to consume. When reheated, they taste like the first time. The limiting factor in producing soul food is its long back of the stove cooking. Tech has changed all that: an electronic pressure cooker makes short work of greens and “soup beans”, a crock pot will carry a side dish as long as one wishes. Small appliances automate food preparation and presentation.

With luck, I may simply cook one soul food meal from now on until I can cook no more. One dish leads to another, and another. The go-fer brought home a second double armload the next day-that time of collards. It’s the peak of the season, and the greens were so fragrant the kitchen smelled like a florist’s shop. This time of year, we like a side dish of cold greens seasoned with hot sauce.

Soul food is easily vegetarian. Substitute smoke seasoning and a pinch of sweet baking spice for cured pork, adding a slug of olive oil for richness and a dab of butter if that suits your political agenda.

The great asset of soul cooking is that the ingredients keep without refrigeration. The cuisine predates electricity, so my emergency pantry is lined with traditional country staples. American country cooking is one of the great cuisines of the world. It’s gratifying that it is also such a good deal. Any mid or earlier twentieth century cookbook will have secondary chapters full of low-tech relics.

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More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Another Small Thing

Photo courtesy Flickr

The Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings chain is selling a featherweight gooseneck LED light.The thing plugs into a computer port and runs off its battery. The light is a rare (for LEDs) warm yellow that sheds just enough ambient light to keep a computer screen from punishing the eyes.

I like this little light very much. It’s good value, and I grabbed a handful of them to put in Christmas stockings this year. One hidden asset of this light is that the computer battery can easily be charged by a portable solar device.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

Liking It Small

Photo courtesy Flickr

Saturday brought a glimpse of a new development that could not be more welcome: a wedding party being pedaled somewhere by pedicab. There were about twenty cabs in all, and it was beautiful. It’s hard to imagine a sweeter vote for the future than to celebrate with such green vehicles.

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