Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From Field to Table

For anyone who grew up in the countryside or has done any farming or gardening, the following story will surely seem banal to you. But having spent most of my life in and around cities or suburbs, I haven't had much opportunity to dig my hands in the dirt.  So I was beyond thrilled during my vacation when I went to the field near Harmony House to harvest my first ever carrots and beets.  I felt a lot like the proverbial kid in the candy shop, except that I was drooling over vegetables instead of sweets.  Look at how gorgeous they are: 

The beets in particular were the biggest I'd ever seen, though you don't get much perspective in this picture.  Charlie, one of the Harmony House residents, explained that he planted them using biodynamic principles, and it seemed to do wonders, at least in terms of size:

After digging up my veggies in the garden, I brought them directly to the kitchen and made one of my favorite salads:  Grated carrots and beets with fresh garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, and lots of parsley (though I think I used basil instead because that's what the garden offered).  From field to table in less than an hour!  Though I eat this dish all the time at home, something about having just harvested the vegetables myself made it all the more satisfying. I could barely contain myself I was so excited, much to the amusement of those around me.  It just brought me so much pleasure to prepare a salad with vegetables that couldn't possibly be any fresher.   

In fact, in the week I spent at Harmony House, almost all the food we ate came directly from their garden or one nearby on loan from Philippe Desbrosses.  I gorged myself on gorgeous tomatoes, many of which were ancient varieties I'd never seen before.  I picked berries and yellow plums straight off bountiful mirabella trees dripping with warm fruit that tasted like sunshine: 


I'd certainly picked fruit before, and even spent childhood summers in Michigan going to the family farm to collect blueberries, which my grandmother then made into everything from pies to pancake syrup.  And in the last CSA I was a part of in Western Massachusetts, I relished going to the farm to pick up our veggies and gather berries in the 'pick-your-own' part of the field. I even had a little community garden plot for a short time in grad school in Toronto,where I grew basil and squash (though not much else since I started a bit late).  

But I've otherwise been pretty disconnected from where my food comes from for most of my life, and I'd never actually pulled anything edible out of the ground before the Harmony House garden.  Perhaps that's why I was so very excited about those carrots and beets, which may be mundane at the market, but seemed magical in my neophyte gardener's hands. That week digging in the dirt really cementing my burgeoning interest in becoming responsible for some of my own food production.  Beyond the pleasure of pulling the vegetables out of the ground myself, I was also inspired by our conversations about organic agriculture and the increasing numbers of people cultivating gardens in their yards for both ecological and economic reasons (spurred on in part by the financial crisis, reminding me of the 'victory gardens' that were started in the US as part of the war effort). 


Living in the city as I do, I sadly have no yard to grow anything in.  So I'm limited to spouting seeds, which is actually really fun.  But as much as I love to watch the grains burst open after a few days of watering, it doesn't satisfy my newfound desire to dig.  Ideally I'd love to have a little bit of land to grow things in someday, whether it's my own or part of community plot.  For now I've done research into community gardens in Lyon, but there is so much more demand than plot availability.  So I've been considering container gardening, after visiting a friend in London who grows plants on her balcony.  Poking around on the Internet I've come across some really interesting ideas for growing food in small spaces, and I'll devote this fall and winter to gathering information so that I can make a plan for spring production.  In keeping with my aspirations towards mindful consumption, it just makes sense to grow my own food, to be present in every step of the process - from field to table.  And in the meantime, I'll try to get my hands dirty as much as possible wherever I can!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Slow Month

This title is inspired by a blog I like called 'These Days In French Life'.  It's by an American who married a French guy and moved to the countryside, only to quickly embark on a life of non-consumerism which she called  'a slow year ' (which then turned into another - I think she's on her 3rd now).  Her goal was to not spend money on anything other than food and basic utilities, and even those costs have gone way down over time.  She functions in part by growing her own food, but also by bartering, foraging, dumpster-diving, and a whole lot of serendipity.   She has a lot of great strategies for reducing both her external and internal consumption (like energy use), and her blog has really inspired me to think about what I need and how I spend my money. 

However, I've always told myself I couldn't live like her because I'm not in the countryside, and I haven't actually altered my consumption habits that much. Yet my post-vacation financial situation has forced me into 'slow' mode, like it or not.  I took all of August off since I had few students anyway, but because I'm paid hourly I had no income for the month.  My savings should have been enough to get me through August and September, but I had fewer hours in July than I expected so my travel fund was considerably less than I expected.  I went over-budget on vacation despite my efforts to be thrifty, so when I got back to Lyon I was just barely able to cover my rent and bills.  Now my account is basically at zero until October, since we are only paid once a month in France.

While Kevin kindly offered to spot me any money I needed (and he's covering most of our food expenses this month), I'm determined not to spend anything until my next paycheck.  I left the US after taking over a year to pay down a huge credit card balance, and resolved to live within my means once I got France.  It's easier here since a thrifty attitude is part of the general French culture (and I got rid of the credit card).   But spending NO money at all is extremely hard, since the city is a constant minefield of temptation. 

In fact, just before I'd resolved to live a 'slow month,' I stupidly spent some of my last few euros on low-sugar cookies in the pharmacy.  I was in there to get some more tape for my broken toe, and because I was hungry I was defenseless in front of the over-priced cookies.  They were tasteless, of course (never buy cookies in a French pharmacy) and I kicked myself over how much I paid (almost 5 euros!).   But it was a good lesson in noticing how much money I waste on little things here and there.  I've been tempted so many times this month to buy something (usually food), and it's only my empty wallet that stops me.  In desperation I even took some coins out of our change jar to get a pastry the other day!  (I'll be in trouble once Kevin reads this...)

It hasn't been as easy as I thought to buy nothing, even without a credit card.  Yet I'm determined to make it through this month of non-consumption not just out of financial necessity, but also as an exercise in mindfulness. In fact, one of the Five Mindfulness Trainings that Thich Nhat Hahn teaches relates to mindful consumption: being fully aware of what we ingest and expose ourselves to, and striving to consume only that which is good for ourselves, our community, and the earth.  

Seeing how difficult it has been to resist spending money on stupid little things has made me realize how unmindful my consumption is most of the time.  I don't spend large amounts as recklessly as I did when I had a credit card, but I do spend small quantities quite thoughtlessly on things I don't need.  While the overall impact on my bank account is not that dramatic, it does add up.  But it's ultimately my lack of mindfulness that I want to work on, and that's why the word 'slow' feels so important.  For cultivating mindfulness is all about slowing down:  whether it's slowing my eating in order to appreciate my food, slowing my steps in order to be present where I am, or slowing my thoughts long enough to truly listen to someone else.  And this month in particular, slowing my spending in order to be more conscious of how and why I consume.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Recipe for Vegan Chocolate Cake (aka Gloubi-Boulga)

Since I've had a few recipe requests for the cake I wrote about last weekend, I thought the easiest thing would be just to post it here.

It's from my favorite vegetarian cookbook, one of the few that I brought with me from the US, called "Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home: Fast and Easy Recipes for Any Day." It was one of my first cookbooks right out of college, back when I had no idea how to cook at all. If I remember correctly my Grandma is the one that offered it to me, along with some much-needed pots and pans. And it has served me so well over the past 13 years or so that it's now in tatters, in two separate pieces with no cover and tons of food stains all over it. But I hang onto it because it really is the best cookbook ever.

The recipe is called "Six-Minute Chocolate Cake," but my Grandma, who is very wise about all things culinary, told me that it's actually a "Depression Cake." That is, a cake that was commonly made during the Great Depression back when butter, milk, and eggs were hard to come by. It was vegan by necessity, in fact. If you google chocolate depression cake you can actually find some similar recipes.

The secret to this cake is that the vinegar reacts with the baking soda to make it rise. Pretty resourceful, I thought.

Whatever you call it, it's super easy and delicious, whether cooked all the way through or not. I made the cake again last night to bring over to a friend's house, making very sure to put the stove on the right setting. I have to say I prefer it fully-cooked, but if you want the gloubi-glouba version, just bake it for less time than called for, or on grill mode. Good luck!

-1 and 1/2 cups unbleached white flour (I used spelt flour last night, sometimes buckwheat or whole wheat - just to change it up and be a little healthier. If you do this you may want to add a bit more liquid to compensate for the the heavier flour)
-1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
-1 tsp baking soda
-1/2 tsp salt
-1 cup sugar (I use a bit less usually and always organic unrefined sugar or rapadura)
-1/2 cup vegetable oil (I tend to use canola, but I used unhydrogenated palm oil for another recipe that turned out well. The advantage is that palm oil is tasteless, while canola has a bit of a taste to it.)
-1 cup cold water or brewed coffee
-2 tsp pure vanilla extract
-2 Tablespoons vinegar

Preheat oven to 375
°F (190°C)

Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, and sugar into a mixing bowl or directly into an ungreased 8-inch square or 9-inch round baking pan (I have neither of these so I just improvise with whatever I feel like using).

In a 2-cup measuring cup, mix together the oil, water or coffee, and vanilla (NOT the vinegar yet).

Mix wet and dry ingredients with a fork or small whisk, and when the batter is smooth add the vinegar and stir quickly. There will be pale swirls in the batter where the baking soda and the vinegar are reacting. Stir until the vinegar is evenly distributed throughout the batter, and pour into baking dish if you started in a bowl.

Bake for 25-30 minutes (less if you want a more pudding-like version). Set the cake aside to cool.

Their suggested glaze:
1/2 pound bittersweet chocolate
3/4 cup hot water or rice or soy milk
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler and stir in the hot liquid and vanilla until smooth. Pour over the cooled cake and refrigerate for 30 min before serving.

My emergency glaze:
I spooned some raspberry jelly (though you can use whatever jelly or jam you like, I'm sure)
into a saucepan and mixed it with rice milk over low heat until I got the desired consistency - pourable, but not too runny. I also added a little agave syrup to sweeten since the jelly was pretty tart and the cake had less sugar than they called for. Pour over cooled cake.

Voilà! The cookbook also suggests other toppings such as powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, whipped cream, ice cream, fresh fruit, etc. whatever you want, basically. I usually make either the chocolate glaze (which is really rich!) or a fruity one.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Today's Moment - A Good Mistake

Today I participated in a full day mindfulness retreat at a little castle not too far from Lyon. I had planned on bringing a vegan chocolate cake for the lunchtime potluck, but as I started to cut the cake this morning to transfer it from it's baking dish to a tupperware container, I discovered to my dismay that the cake wasn't cooked underneath. A quick glance at the stove revealed the source of the problem: I had toasted garlic bread a few days before, and had never changed the stove's grill setting. So my cake only got cooked on top and was impossible to cut into pieces, leaving me with a big container of mush to deal with.

Unfortunately I realized the mistake only minutes before I had to leave, so my options were limited. No time to make a replacement dish or stop by the store, and showing up empty-handed didn't feel like an option for someone who loves potlucks as much as I do (they're actually quite rare in France, so I relish the opportunity to share food with Frenchies). In desperation I concocted a raspberry sauce by mixing a friend's delicious homemade jelly with a bit of rice milk, and I
covered the bits of cake bits and goop with it. I then patted the mixture down into a relatively smooth yet unidentifiable mass. "It's a gloubi-boulga," I complained to Kevin, using a French term to describe something strange, mushy and/or unappetizing. The expression comes from a 70s kid's show in France in which a dinosaur named Casimir made called gloubi-boulga that was repulsive to everyone but him, with ingredients such as chocolate and jelly, but also mustard and sausage. And it felt like that's what I had on my hands: a cake only a fictional dinosaur would eat!

Luckily uncooked batter isn't a problem in a vegan cake, and it tasted allright, but it was far from what I had envisioined. I felt a keen sense of diasppointment, particularly because I enjoy exposing french people to vegan baking since it's so out of left field for most folks here. In the country of buttery croissants and over 300 cheeses, it's impossible for most people to imagine life without dairy. And I was pretty sure that this vegan muck was not going to impress anyone. But I clipped my traitorous tupperware onto my bike and trudged dejectedly off to the castle.

Once potluck-time arrived, I laid my dish out with an explanatory note, since it looked so strange I imagined people avoiding it entirely. I warned that it was a ruined vegan cake that I turned into a pudding to be eaten with a spoon - but it was all organic, I wrote encouragingly!

I watched nervously as people went up to the dessert table, but much to my amazement, everyone tried some. And the folks who had seen me write the note came by to tell me how delicious it was! Little by little word spread that I had made this unusual dessert, and a number of different people came by to ask me questions about the ingredients, wanting to know how I had made it vegan - a good advertisement for vegan baking after all! Everyone insisted that it was too good to be a mistake, or that it was a mistake to be repeated. In the end, the tupperware was scraped completely clean, and I had many requests for the recipe. As it turns out, it worked out well (in the magic way that things often do at potlucks) that my dessert turned out more like a pudding, because someone else had brought a perfectly-baked chocolate cake. So my mystery mush was different and interesting and generated quite a lot of discussion.

I was completely blown away, because what had felt just a few hours earlier like a complete catastrophe had turned into a source of delight and discovery for a the retreat's participants - a very good mistake, as it turned out. And a very good lesson for me about letting go of expectations of how things are supposed to turn out, and accepting things as they are. Because that's how life is after all - a bit messy at times, but full of delicious surprises. And what may seem like a disaster at first can actually turn into something quite wonderful.