Quick Recipe: Miso Chard Soup

Miso is a thick seasoning paste made from soybeans.  It hails from Japan, where it has been eaten for centuries.  To the modern kitchen it brings flavor that’s super fast but nutritious .  Really, you don’t have to fool with any other seasonings.  Just add a dollop of no-to-low calorie miso and you get amazing flavor. 

I seem to forget about miso for long stretches.  Happily, it lasts for practically ever in the frig, so it’s still good when I remember it again.  This morning, its hearty, comforting flavor came to mind as I was casting about for a way to use up the chard rescued from my garden before last week’s storm.  Watermelon radishes and last-of-the-season yellow pepper added color.  

Miso Chard Soup

Know a few cooking basics and you’re set for easy, healthful soup making

Miso Chard Soup

Saute in a neutrally flavored oil:

  • 1 onion, diced to 1/2″
  • 1 watermelon radish, cut in 1/4″ matchsticks
  • 1 yellow pepper, diced to 1/2″ (last of the season; use frozen if not available fresh)

Stir in and simmer 5-10 minutes

  • 6 cups chard
  • 1 qt. good broth

Stir in and cook a couple more minutes:

  • 1 cup cooked millet
  • 1 box silken tofu, diced to 1/2″

Remove soup from heat and stir in:

  • 1/4 cup red miso (more or less to taste), mixed with 1/4 cup cold broth

NOTE:  This recipe is written in simplified format, showing how easy it is to make nutritious meals if you know the building block basics, like:

  • efficiently dicing vegetables
  • what it means to saute them and how it can build lovely flavor
  • all about different kinds of misos and how to use them without destroying their nutritional benefits
  • seasonal radishes, what is millet and “good” broth, and where do you find silken tofu
  • how this recipe can be varied to accommodate whatever veggies are in season and/or in the frig

Not familiar with these kinds of building blocks?  You’ll want to join us for one of our Inspired Everyday Meal Making classes and discover the joy, ease and creativity of healthful cooking.

Making Healthy Food Affordable: The Direct Buying Strategy

For our healthy meal making classes, we always bring “clean” meat (i.e., free of antibiotics and growth hormones, humanely processed and often locally grown and processed, grass-fed and/or organic, free-range, etc.)  Participants love how it tastes and wonder where it can be bought.

Of course this line of inquiry runs us smack dab into the affordability question, as clean meat can be double the cost of industrially produced meat.  That’s IF participants want to simply buy a single piece of meat at retail; which is quite expensive.  I don’t do that.  Instead, I buy meat in bulk–i.e., a quarter, half or whole animal–directly from the grower.  This brings the price down to the point where it is just slightly more expensive–a difference which is more than compensated by the meat’s incredible flavor.

Direct buying is part of the new food system that makes healthful, flavorful eating affordable.  It may seem completely foreign if not outlandish. It also takes some getting used to.  We’ve all been trained in “Just In Time” shopping, going to the store every day or two or three and getting just a few things at a time.  It’s a great system for grocery stores which profit nicely on all the impulse and excess buying we do when exposed to 30,000 products every time we need “just a few things” for dinner.

The new food system advances a different model.  When animals are ready to butcher in late autumn, after growing all summer and fall, we buy a year’s supply, investing upfront to reap cost savings all year.  We think ahead in summer to figure out buying sources, decide what animals we want and how much.  We invest in a deep freezer.  Over time, we learn to use every cut of meat and know how to incorporate them into a wide variety of meals.  And we enjoy incredible meat at affordable prices.

It’s not hard to understand the economics of bulk buying.  For meat sold at retail, there are just too many hands in the pie to get a decent product at an affordable price.  Corners have to be cut, and the corner that takes the biggest hit is invariably quality.

Direct buying is so different from our normal shopping practices that it’s bound to seem completely foreign, maybe even completely unattainable.  No problem; just note the possibility.  Opening to the possibility may well give rise to a perfect opportunity, e.g., a woman at a law firm met a rancher with cows to sell, she got motivated and offered all her colleagues an easy opportunity to buy in.

Speaking of colleagues, this new food buying method presents a great opportunity to cooperate with friends, co-workers and neighbors.  In fact, it was a neighbor who got me started with 50 pounds of beef seven years ago.  I remember how unnerving it was at first–especially finding a used freezer to store it all just days before the meat arrived!  But now, I and that neighbor share meat purchases every year–as well as great cooking tips and recipes.  (Consider that freezer space could also be shared.)

If you’re interested in this buying approach, let us know; we’re assembling a list of local growers with animals for butchering.

Mary’s Hog Pickup Adventure in Eastern Colorado  Want a taste of what alternative buying looks like?  Here’s a post detailing my big adventure out of the Front Range urban area, out far beyond I-25 to the eastern plains, where my Jodar Farms hog had been butchered and packaged.

The High Cost of Healthy Food?

Moving the Conversation Past the Dead End Sign

It’s a mantra, said almost automatically any more:  “I can’t afford healthy food.  It’s too expensive.”

Like Time, Affordability is a dead-ender.  In other words, once raised, it effectively dead ends a conversation about healthy eating.  If we don’t have time or can’t afford good food, then we can’t eat well.  Period.

Do we really want to give up on our healthy eating dreams that fast?

Last month, I joined a panel at the Erie Library that discussed shopping at the Farmers’ Market.  Of course, affordability was a key issue, as everyone “knows” that the Farmers’ Market is one of the most unaffordable places to shop for groceries.

Sometimes a head of broccoli, pound of carrots, or bunch of chard is more expensive at the Farmers’ Market than at a supermarket.  But what if that’s not the end of the story?  What if it doesn’t

Apples to Oranges

automatically slam the door on your healthy eating dreams?  What if there is some room for discussion; we just don’t know it?

Because it is such a big issue, I’ve given affordability a lot of thought–and have found there is definitely a lot of room for discussion.  While it seems like vegetables could readily square off against each other pound for pound, there are actually a dozen other factors that prevent a head to head comparison, e.g., quality, freshness, nutritional density, taste density, local economics and environmental health effects that directly impact individual health.

I’ve begun writing about affordability so we can begin exploring all the territory that lies behind the dead end sign.  Obviously, food costs are a delicate subject; others can’t decide what you can or can’t afford.  The purpose of my articles is to simply prevent the conversation from dead ending and instead, continuing and exploring possibilities that could free and empower us financially to get whatever food we think best for our health.

Trip to a Food Basket

There’s a part of Colorado you probably don’t know about.  Mostly, we Coloradans live in a narrow band of settlement, strung out along the foothills that run north and south.  From there, Colorado stretches to the west, into the spectacular peaks, canyons, mesas and forests that make Colorado a natural playground.

But there’s a part of the state (fully a third) that stretches east.  Don’t often hear of folks heading there for vacation!

Eastern Colorado

Eastern Colorado

Only in the last couple years did I venture east, beyond our myopic cocoon of civilization–into a land of big expanses and long straight highways dotted by little towns like Gilcrest, Peckham and Milliken.  No surprise that it holds a beauty of its own.  The Platte River is vibrant with recent snow melt and golden cottonwoods usher it through the expanses.  Gentle undulations break the flatness and gracious old trees line fields with beautiful precision.

More intriguing than this unique beauty, however, is the stark connection to reality that bursts from this land.  In our cozy Front Range cocoon, we walk into giant supermarkets, assuming that  every one of 30,000 products will be stocked plentifully and perfectly.

That assumption rests on the silent, patient support of this land and its people. Here are fields vast enough to grow the corn, sugar beets, cows and wheat to feed hundreds of thousands of urbanites.  Here are the train lines that carry the harvest to factories capable of processing thousands of pounds of foods.  Along the highways semis rumble, filled with food products destined for every store we might chance to run into, expecting to see whatever food we might fancy for our next meal.  This land is a Food Basket.

And out in this land, I found myself at a butcher shop on a wintry day in late October.  It was the kind of butcher shop I remember from growing up in farm country.  Not a cute place where guys cut special beef filets for your Saturday dinner party, but the kind where, each autumn, when animals reach full weight, they are loaded into trucks and taken to be slaughtered and cut into edible sections of meat.

This butcher shop is located in an anonymous, beige prefab, in an equally unremarkable industrial park.  Inside, I stand in line with Eastern Coloradoans who do this every autumn.  Gals up front flip through a sheaf of forms to find our orders, then back they go, through the barrier door separating the small customer area from the large slaughtering, butchering and packing area in the rear.  This back area is where a dozen or more locals make it possible for smaller ranchers to convert their pasture-raised animals into packages of cut meats.

Butcher Shop in Eastern Colorado

Butcher Shop in Eastern Colorado

After five or ten minutes, one of the packers appears from this area with our orders–a cow, pig or lamb or whatever–enough for an entire year, all neatly marked and packaged.  I’m picking up a full, pasture-raised hog from Jodar Farms, being split between three families.  My packer wheels it outside and we squeeze it into coolers for the drive back.  I thank my packer and, ritual complete, get in my car for the return trip.  As I head back west toward the peaks, there’s an odd satisfaction about participating this closely in my own survival.

Beauty Amidst the Plains

Beauty Amidst the Plains

Greengages and Variety

I remember reading about it years ago, in Eat Here, Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket.  Among hundreds of interesting insights into our food system, Brian Halweil revealed this tidbit:  Britain’s National Collection features of 2000 varieties of apples!  What’s more, spread among this diversity is an almost continuous harvest, with some varieties ripening as early as April and May and others clear into winter.

Maybe this was such a shock because I was raised in the Red Delicious generation.  In fact, Red Delicious were so ubiquitous they became synonymous with apples.  We know that variety was sacrificed on the altar of industrial convenience.  What we don’t know is all the tastes, colors and textures we’ve been deprived of.

I got a chance to experience some of what we lost this summer.  Early July, a friend from England began frantically emailing our beekeeping group about greengages, and how the bears were breaking down the trees to get them.  What in the world is a “greengage,” I wondered. Turns out they are a variety of plum, in a lovely, translucent shade of green (big surprise.)

Greengages and Italians

Greengages, pictured here with the more familiar black and red plums.

My British friend explained that a man named Gage discovered the plum in France long ago and brought the green beauty to England, hence the name.  They have become an English favorite.  Now we had to protect my friend’s precious greengage trees from bears, so one morning before work, a friend and I teetered on ladders (on a sloped driveway!), to rescue plums and tree.  I ended up with a huge box, which made no less than 16 pints of sauce!

In the way that seasonal eaters develop a weird pleasure from creating fun things from whatever nature delivers up, those plums have got my wheels turning.  They have a very subtle flavor–not at all like their sweet-tart cousins that are common in grocery stores here.  My British friend thinks they would pair nicely with lemon and/or ginger.  My fellow plum picker and I were thinking along the lines of an orange marmalade.  Plenty of fodder for experimentation come winter.

Cooking as a Thinking Activity

Sauteing Plums

Sauteing Black Friar plums.

I once had a job opening envelopes.  All day long.  I quit after four days.  It was either that or take up a drug habit to survive the mindlessness.

I thought about that experience today, as I was sautéing plums to freeze for winter.  I did this last year and the plums were divine.  But this year, the skins became quite bitter.  I immediately began thinking about what went wrong–too ripe? maybe I used a different kind of plum? maybe the dry year was responsible? would baking be better than sautéing?

Some people think that feeding our bodies should demand nothing more than following Steps 1-3 on the back of a box, or popping something in the microwave for 5 minutes, maybe turning once.  The holy grail is to invent meal products so easy they require no thought to use.  And we’ve all accepted this as the highest and best objective, i.e., that the best meals are those that require the least from us.

But exactly how much fun is that?  Not much from the looks of our mealtime landscape.  Lots of meal making misery; precious little enthusiasm.  A lot like my boring envelope job.

I’ve found that food and meal making are more fun the more they engage my brain, the more I can learn and grow in my knowledge, the more opportunities I’m presented for mini bursts of mastery.  How nice to reflect back, on at least one part of life, and see improvement month over month and year over year.

So here’s to cooking as a thinking activity!

Sauteed Plums on a Plate

I was anxious to savor a plum after they cooled a bit. How disappointing to taste the bitterness in the skins…

Sateed Plums in a Jar

… but engaging my thinking brain, I slipped the skins off–which is easy once the plums were sauteed. Although they left a hint of bitterness behind, the flesh was still quite delicious. I packed in jars for the freezer, although maybe we’ll just eat this batch over the next few days. Great with granola!

 

Plums and Daisy

No big insights here, just a pretty combo of the plums with the last daisy from the garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food Day Every Day: Harvest Madness

It was a mad day.  Although a balmy 80 degrees by 10 in the morning, nightfall was predicted to bring a hard frost, i.e., the kind that extinguishes plants on contact, especially the more tender summer crop plants.  So I headed out early to bring in the last of the tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, basil and squash.  Working methodically through each garden bed, I kept an eye on the clouds rolling in from the north and felt the wind pick up, forewarning of a storm.  Change was literally and very palpably “in the air.”

Made me think of a time when I barely noticed what season we were in, much less the subtle passing of one season into the next.  I worked in an office, 10 to 12 hours each day, commuted another two hours and did little else.  All of a sudden, summer would be here so my commute would be in daylight, then there would be Christmas, when I barely saw the light of day.  Those were my only two markers for the passage of time.

I like life better now that I take full notice of the seasons and the passage of one into the next.  Interestingly, seasonal shifts actually happen not just quarterly but monthly, even weekly.  Focusing on those gradual shifts has a way of slowing things down a bit–and who doesn’t need a little of that?!  Also intriguing is how a seasonal focus brings better alignment between external activity and internal energy and enthusiasm.  As late fall moves into winter, for instance, I notice a quiet slipping in–perfect for cold, indoor days.

Autumn always brings these kinds of musings from me.  Here are two more:

Mary’s Every Year Autumn Musings

Satisfy Your Primordial Harvest Instinct

Now for some pictures:

Autumn Harvest

By day’s end, I had collected a surprisingly large pile of produce.

 

Vegetable Harvest Plate

Although I’m exercising bragging rights, it’s humbly.  I know my poor little collection pales in comparison to a real gardener’s haul.

A Motley Crew of Summer Vegetables

A motley crew, yes, but still perfect for making dozens of delicious dishes.

 

Harvest Flowers

Loved the bright orange hips with the last of the season’s roses.

 

 

 

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