Two books that changed our family’s dinners:
1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
2. Animal, Plant, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
The first one made me afraid to eat. Pollan examines industrial agriculture, the commercial organic movement and organic farming on the small, family farm. The chapters on giant feedlots are enough to make vegans of us all. After toying with that idea (alas … I’m a Missouri girl, and I love my steak), I got on the Internet and found a scrappy organic farm in Cecil County, MD. We now trek to Rumbleway Farm (http://www.rumblewayfarm.com/) every three months or so to load up on organically raised chicken, pork and beef.
Animal, Plant, Miracle is the story of the Kingsolver family’s commitment to live for one year on what they can grow and/or raise themselves. This book inspired us to get serious about our own vegetable garden, which now takes up half our backyard.
The theme of both these books is simplicity: Simple food grown simply is better for us nutritionally than food that has been processed or genetically altered. Animals that have been nurtured and allowed to live in as natural a state as possible (cows that eat grass; chickens that roam the fields all day) taste better than those that have not.
It’s a theme our family has grabbed onto. But it has its challenges. Rumbleway is sometimes out of chicken or particular cuts of meat we’d like to buy. Our garden produces according to its own rhythms, which may or may not match our dinnertime whims.
As a result, I’ve had to change the way I cook. If the garden squash are overflowing, we’re going to have squash for dinner. If the bush beans have taken on what my youngest calls “green bean madness,” then I guess we’ll eat green beans tonight.
In other words, the days of designing menus a week or even a few days in advance are over – at least during our peak growing season. Instead, we take a garden stroll every morning before deciding what dinner is going to be.
This weekend, we harvested the first of the yellow squash, along with huge bowls of green beans and snow peas. No one was in the mood for a vegetable salad (although Asian-influenced, noodle-flecked vegetable stir-fries are some of our favorite ways to eat lots of different veggies).
The solution? Vegetable latkes.
We make latkes with potatoes, of course, but they’re just as good (and a lot more interesting) using a variety of vegetables.
This is cooking the way I like it. Nothing but play. Forget measurements … the flour-to-egg-to-vegetable ratio will vary depending on the humidity in the air and the amount of liquid in the produce. Pay attention to the consistency of the batter, and adjust accordingly. You can’t go wrong.
The basic recipe:
Grate 1 onion, 3-4 medium squash and 2 medium carrots onto a large towel. Wring out any excess liquid, then put the produce in a large bowl.
Add 2 eggs, one at a time. (These are the binding. Try one first; if the vegetables seem a little dry, add the second. If your mixture is still dry, you may want to add a third egg.)
Season with salt, pepper and cayenne. Toss with 1/4-1/2 cup flour (maybe more) … enough to get a sludgey texture. You don’t want your mixture to be gluey; you don’t want it to be watery, either. Stir until you have something that resembles a pancake batter.
Heat 1/2- to 1-inch vegetable or peanut oil in a skillet over high heat. When hot, drop the latke batter by 1/4-cupfuls into the oil. Flip when the edges turn brown.
When both sides are nice and crispy, transfer the latkes to a towel-lined plate. Sprinkle lightly with kosher or sea salt. Serve hot.
The wonderful thing about this recipe is that you can alter it throughout the growing seasons. I sometimes add steamed Swiss chard or spinach (wrung very, very dry and finely chopped) to the batter. Steamed green beans cut into tiny chunks are delicious, too.
* In the fall, make latkes from grated sweet potatoes and winter squash.
* In early summer, add grated raw beats to the batter.
*Cut corn kernels off the cob and add them to the mix. In early spring, stir freshly shelled peas into the batter.
Anyone can cook – and eat – the Pollan/Kingsolver way. You don’t have to dig up half your backyard and plant your own garden, either. Check out area farmer’s markets. Or join a community coop that teams local family farmers with area residents. For a membership fee, you’ll get boxes of freshly grown and harvested produce throughout the summer.
Simple food simply grown and simply made. It doesn’t sound like a revolution, but it has changed the very heart of our family’s meals. Let me know if it changes yours.