I decided to replace my cookware and knives for two main reasons: safety, and pleasure.
I was concerned about safety after noticing the teflon coating flaking off from the inside of my larger pot. I had previously thrown out another cheap set of cookware that had the same problem a few years prior. I was also worried about using dull, cheap knives to cut produce. Not only was I afraid of slipping and cutting my hand, but my paring knife blade was so thin, I was afraid it might actually snap!
I try to be cautious about accumulating too much stuff, particularly after downgrading to a very small apartment. However, if I were truly going to cook more often, I needed better equipment. The second reason for my upgrade - pleasure - factors in here.
I had noticed that at a friend's house, cooking was fun. This was mostly because she is an experienced cook, and whips up a lot of delicious, exciting dishes. But I also noticed that her matching, high-end cookware and knives seemed to make the process easier. I'm sure this was mostly psychological, but nevertheless, I thought that investing in better tools might make cooking more pleasurable for me.
I would not advocate that anyone go out and spend a lot of money on gadgets that are just going to sit around an accumulate dust. I upgraded my kitchen piece by piece, after doing a lot of research.
In particular, I found a few articles from National Geographic's Green Guide to be helpful. Apparently, teflon coatings degrade over time, and flaking is not uncommon. Even if they don't peel visibly, they can give off toxic fumes. I decided that to play it safe - and to avoid having to constantly replace my pans - I would go for a different material that would hopefully last a lifetime.
I decided on Calphalon's tri-ply stainless line, and Lodge cast iron pans, and accumulated pieces one by one.
The set shown below is very affordable compared to buying the pieces separately, but I decided not to get the set. I didn't need all the pieces included, and don't have the space to store the items I wouldn't use very often.
In fact, I didn't end up buying anything that comes in the set. I used 20%-off coupons at Bed Bath & Beyond to buy the 8-quart stock pot (the set comes with a 6-quart pot) and the 3-quart chef's pan. At a Linens 'n Things store closing, I also bought the 5-quart sautee pan. I don't use the sautee pan very often, as it's quite huge, but it comes in very handy for stir fries. The stock pot and chef's pan are used several times a week, and I couldn't be happier.
Then I bought some Lodge cast iron cookware, which have become my every day pans. I first acquired the "combo cooker" from the Sport Chalet camping department. It includes a deep 10" pan and a shallow pan that also serves as its lid. They were great, but a bit too large for 1-2 eggs, which looked very lonely cooking on just one half of the pan. So I bought the tiny 6-1/2" diameter skillet from amazon.com, also available at Sur la Table. The mini-pan is AMAZING. It gets used almost every single day for eggs - it's perfectly sized to fry one to two.
If anyone doubts that cast iron can really substitute for the ease of teflon-coated pans when cooking eggs, trust me - it really works! I've had my mini-pan for only a couple months, and it's already well-seasoned enough to not only make fried eggs that slide right out of the pan when cooked with only a tiny smear of butter, but can also create omelets that will flip easily without leaving any residue.
I did make a few early mistakes in my experimentation with cast iron cooking. Acidic foods should generally be avoided, as they strip the "seasoning" that forms on the pan that prevents foods from sticking. I cook pasta sauce in my Calphalon stainless steel chef's pan instead. At once point, I did have to re-season the deeper Lodge pan (I found an article in Mother Earth News), but that's the beauty of cast iron - if you mess it up, you can renew it. No more tossing out cheap, busted teflon pans!
Below is a turnip dish I whipped up in the shallow 10" Lodge pan, as I described in another recent post.
I also upgraded my knives after finding a killer deal on a set of Wusthof "Culinar" knives. Unlike pots and pans, knives don't take up much space, so even though I don't use every single knife in the set very often, it made sense to buy the set. I think amazon made some kind of pricing error, because I bought it for only $250 in December. After shopping around a bit, I realized that this price was way too cheap to be believed, so I bought it immediately! Good thing - now it's at a more realistic (though beyond my price range) $500.The two main brands in this price range are Wusthof and J. A. Henckels. After reading reviews, I haven't determined that there is much of a difference in quality - it's mainly personal preference for the feel. A female friend of mine told me that when she tried out some Henckels while building her wedding registry, the handles felt too large for her hands, so she went for Wusthof. Based on that assessment, Wusthof seemed like it might be a better fit for me, too.
I am very pleased with my new knives, and my boyfriend agreed that I had made a sound purchase. Everything is easier to cut now, including onions. And the set even has a bread knife, which many knife block sets do not include.
I have no complaints about any of the cookware I've acquired in the last few months. Everything works well, and seems to be of solid quality. I think investing in better equipment was well worth the cost. I didn't spend an insane amount - about $540 total - which would have been $890 if I hadn't searched for the cheapeast retailers and used coupons. Hopefully these pieces will last me a lifetime. Plus, I did end up cooking much more frequently after upgrading my tools, so the per-use cost will soon be next to nothing!
I hope you have found my posts on topics such as gardening and cooking interesting, and at least somewhat related to composting.
My Bokashi cycle is currently in limbo, and will hopefully be back in action by this weekend.
Two weekends ago, I went to attend to Bokashi batch #2 that has been decomposing in my planter. I noticed then that the Rubbermaid tub that I use to transport completed compost to my gardener friend's house had gone missing, along with the trowel I keep inside! I had been storing my equipment outdoors, hidden (I thought) behind the bushes, because my apartment is so tiny. I'm hoping it was a simple misunderstanding with the apartment building's gardener, because I don't like the idea of a thief poking around under my window...
In any case, I just bought a new trowel and tub (which will have to take residence in my car or in my horse's tack locker to avoid another theft), and intend to empty the batch that's in the planter very soon. In fact, now that I have a yard, I will likely use the completed compost on-site! My gardener friend is coming over on Saturday to help me evaluate the plot.
Then I can finally empty the full kitchen bucket (my third batch, which has been resting since 3/31) mix it with soil in the planter, and start adding scraps to the bucket again. My freezer is getting full!
Now that it's spring, the potluck portion of the evening was held outdoors. Participants were asked to bring a vegetarian dish that is as "local" as possible.
I made deviled eggs using free-range brown and white eggs from the South Pasadena farmer's market, nested on a bed of fresh lettuce from my friend's organic backyard garden. The lettuce helped improve the presentation, and also kept the eggs from sliding around the serving dish while I transported them :)
The hosts provide compostable plates and utensils, but encourage participants to bring their own reusable dinnerware. One handy idea that I learned by observing veteran attendees at the last event was to bring a container with a lid, so that after you're done eating, food scraps won't soil the inside of your bag. I brought my 7-cup pyrex storage container, which worked perfectly!
This month's documentary was called Food Matters. In a nutshell, the film's point was to illustrate that proper nutrition is key to preventing health problems, and even for curing many degenerative diseases. Many of the experts interviewed for the film believe that while modern medicine is extremely adept at treating acute injuries, it is less competent when it comes to chronic illnesses. A diet heavy in raw foods and vitamins was promoted by the film, and drug treatments (as well as cancer therapies such as radiation) were criticized.
I found the film very interesting, but as with my reading of Nina Planck's book, Real Food, I tried to take a step back instead of immediately buying into everything it was suggesting. I always have to ask myself, "are they rightfully exposing a truth that has been obscured from popular knowledge, or might this also be propaganda?"
One of the recurring themes in the documentary was that cooking foods destroys a lot of the beneficial enzymes, and that a diet should be predominantly raw - at least 51% of every meal. I wasn't sure if this was by volume or weight - definitely not the same thing. Picture a big fluffy ball of sprouts vs. a cantaloupe...
I am already consuming raw milk, raw honey, and fresh fruits. However, I know that I personally couldn't be happy as a 100% raw-foods vegan. I haven't tried it before, but cheese and milk are huge staples of my diet, along with whole wheat pasta. These food items add an enormous amount of happiness to my daily life, and I can't give them up entirely.
Nevertheless, I have long suspected that I need to add more fresh produce to my diet anyway. I am recovering from a lifelong aversion to most vegetables - as a child, fresh carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes were about all I would eat, along with the occasional cooked broccoli, cauliflower, peas, or corn on the cob.
A couple years ago, I actually made a new year's resolution to eat at least ONE legitimately green thing every day. Otherwise, days would go by without any vegetables being consumed at all - let alone the 3-5 servings typically recommended. I was in fact able to stick to my resolution that year, and vegetables have become part of my daily diet - in limited quantities. My taste for veggies is finally expanding, perhaps due to a maturing palate. However, I am still nowhere near eating the quantity I should be. I eat very little meat, so my meals are heavy in whole grains and dairy or eggs. Unless I'm eating a salad, vegetables are merely a small side dish.
Upon viewing Food Matters, I renewed my commitment to consuming a higher proportion of fresh veggies. One expert that was interviewed for the film - Andrew Saul - particularly caught my attention. He was very likable, and his sense of humor really showed in his interviews, and on his website as well. His recommendation of juicing vegetables particularly appealed to me.
Since I still find masticating a large quantity of vegetables each day to be fairly daunting, juicing seems like it might be a good solution for me. There will be a lot of pulp leftover, but I'm not worried about losing fiber in my diet, as these are vegetables I wouldn't be consuming otherwise. I plan to save the pulp in the fridge to give to my friend's hens. I have a juicing machine on loan, and will report back on my progress!
I almost forgot to mention - each Path to Freedom film screening is followed by a brief quiz. I remembered this from last time, and took notes throughout the film, because there is a prize for answering all 10 questions correctly! Winners receive either free admission to the next event, or $10-off at the Peddler's Wagon store.
At December's event, I used my $10 prize toward a set of glass food storage canisters. On Sunday, as I approached the Peddler's Wagon table, something immediately caught my eye, and I knew exactly what to get...
I am almost done with the last of the Bokashi mix I had purchased from Gaiam back in October to get my composting process started. Fortuitously, Peddler's Wagon had a tub right there at the event for... $10! I paid only tax, and walked home with a fresh batch of Bokashi bran to continue my kitchen composting. Excellent!
I have enjoyed all three books, and found that reading them in the order listed above was a good strategy, as each book goes into successively greater detail and analysis.
Below are my thoughts on the first book I read, Real Food: What to Eat and Why, by Nina Planck, 2007:
I rate this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It's a good starting point to spark your thinking about what we as a culture tend to eat, what we used to eat, and what we should eat.
Planck's reasoning is framed mainly from a nutritional perspective. She references medical and anthropological research to support her claim that "real" foods - i.e. produced and prepared using primitive or traditional methods - are the most healthful, whereas modern, processed foods are more dangerous to our health.
She argues that humans have evolved to eat certain types of foods, including meat, but that modern food technology has created foods that are bodies are not built to use in the right manner. According to Planck, modern foods are the root of modern health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Planck seeks to debunk what she sees as a myth, pervasive in American culture, that low-cholesterol and low-fat foods are the healthiest. She believes that animal products - and the fat and cholesterol contained within them - are not inherently bad for us. Instead, it's conventional factory-farming practices, as well as refined foods such as processed sugar, that threaten our health.
Planck is a one-time vegan who has come to firmly believe that eating animal products, including meat, is natural and healthful. However, she is adamant that the consumer should make every effort to obtain animal products raised using the most stringent, ethical methods possible. Interestingly, she argues this primarily for reasons of nutrition, with environmental and animal-rights concerns being secondary.
Conventionally-grown vegetables and fruits may contain harmful residues of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. However, Planck argues, compared to eating a small amount of meat from an animal who consumes non-organically grown plants, you would have to consume a massive quantity of chemically-sprayed plant products directly to accumulate the same amount of toxins in your body.
I liken it to thinking about how mainstream it has become to worry about consuming mercury when eating fish. Fish who eat other fish develop higher concentrations of mercury in their flesh, so those highest up on the food chain should be consumed very sparingly. The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes a seafood guide that outlines the recommended frequency for consuming different types of fish. The guide is based on the risk of different types of fish to our health, as well as on the different fishing or farming practices used to acquire each type of fish.
Planck advocates consuming organic, free-range, grass-fed, wild-caught, etc. as much as possible when eating animal products, but feels that it is less necessary to buy organic when consuming plants.
The book was certainly eye-opening for me, as I was only beginning to consider factors apart from convenience and price when determining what to eat.
However, I was a bit disappointed by the book's lack of structure. The author seemed to bounce around and circle back a lot instead of thoroughly exploring each topic she introduced. For me, this diluted the message of her book. Others may not find the somewhat disorganized format to be as distracting, but for me the lack of cohesion made it harder to distill the take-away points.
Also, although Planck provides citations for many studies to form the basis of her theories, I felt that I should take her assertions with a grain of salt. The anthropological observations she described were interesting, but not as persuasive to me as the empirical medical studies she referenced.
Still, if you have the time, Planck's book is certainly worth a read. After finishing Real Food, I re-evaluated my own diet as follows:
- As I described in another recent post, I've adopted Planck's strategy of spending more on animal products to ensure that they were raised in a fashion that imparts the greatest nutritional benefits - along with doing less damage to the environment and the animals' welfare.
- I also try to obtain local or organic produce as often as possible, but am not willing to pay quite as much of a premium as I do with animal products. I generally avoid cheap milk, eggs, and meat.
- I no longer feel guilty about eating whole eggs, rather than just the whites. Even as a child, I liked the yolks the best! I have tried buying cartons of liquid eggs whites before, and found them to be an unsatisfactory substitution for eggs. Many people consider egg whites to be a health food, but Planck believes whole eggs to be much more beneficial.
- I verified with a friend who is completing a joint MD-MPH program, with a focus in nutrition, that eating egg yolks will not directly lead to high cholesterol and heart disease. She said I should feel free to eat whole eggs, as long as I don't consume an insane quantity every day. :)
- I began drinking whole-fat, un-homogenized milk (Trader Joe's sells cream-top organic milk by the half-gallon). As a child, I always drank whole or 2% milk - skim tasted like glorified grey water to me. I switched to skim from 2004-2008 because that seemed like the "adult" thing to do. Now I'm back to enjoying a daily glass of sweet, rich, creamy real milk - and the switch has not caused me to gain weight.
- I recently took it one step further and tried raw milk (which is un-pasteurized as well as un-homogenized), as Planck recommended. I've had absolutely no digestive issues with the change. Whole Foods carries raw milk options.
- When cooking, I use olive oil and real butter, never margarine. Vegetable oils are made solid through hydrogenation. Therefore, margarine = trans fats!
- Soy: I still love tofu, but instead of using vanilla soy milk in my coffee, I now use organic half-and-half or whole milk. I never use non-dairy "creamer" - which is actually made with both high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oils!
- I still consume some refined and processed foods. Old habits die hard, and there are certain processed foods that still make me salivate! I want to live life and enjoy different kinds of flavors - but I am more selective and try to practice moderation.
- Although I switched to brown rice and whole wheat bread and pasta several years ago for everyday consumption, I still bake with some white all-purpose flour and white sugar.
- I also still indulge in store-bought cereal along with occasional snacks and desserts, but always examine the ingredients.
I'm still trying to establish and maintain a healthy diet that works for me. I want to feel healthy and like I am making ethical food choices. However, I am still recovering from being a lifelong picky eater, and taste is very important to me. I've made a lot of improvements in eating nutritiously over the last couple years, particularly in the last few months since I started cooking from scratch and getting involved in gardening.
However, a typical meal for me is heavy in pasta (whole wheat, at least!) and dairy, with some vegetables and fruit on the side. I think the balance on my plate needs to be reversed - so that is my next goal.
There is also a small area abutting the cottage where I would like to set up a composter and maybe some planters with herbs:
The answer is that for me, there is no one-stop solution in Los Angeles. In any given week, I visit a combination of Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and "ethnic" grocery stores. Below are my recommendations of what to find at each, and the reasoning behind my preferences.
Trader Joe's: I used to live one block from the original Trader Joe's on Mission St. in South Pasadena. I never stocked up on groceries for the week, and instead relished my daily walk to the neighborhood market to pick up frozen dinners. I still visit TJ's on a weekly basis, but now skirt the packaged meals in favor of ingredients for dishes that I make from scratch (or nearly from scratch).
Produce is more reasonably priced than at "conventional" grocers such as Ralph's or Vons, but Trader Joe's is a packaging nightmare. There is very little produce that isn't presented in plastic bags or boxes, and the prices are not lower than at the farmer's market.
However, Trader Joe's does have very good prices on the following:
- Whole wheat pasta: about $1.29 for a 1 lb. bag
- Whole wheat bread: the cheapest bagged, pre-sliced loaf is $1.99
- Recycled toilet paper and paper towels
- Pine nuts and Flax seeds: surprisingly cheaper than from the bulk bins at other stores
- Water crackers: the price just dropped to $0.99 per box, down from $1.29!
- Bananas: $0.19 each for regular, $0.29 each for organic; yes, they are imported tropical fruits, but if you're going to eat them, this is the place to get them.
- Free-range eggs: roughly the same price ($3/dozen) as the farmer's market, though more likely to be "factory organic" than farmer's market eggs
- Fair-trade coffee
- Gourmet cheese: priced by weight, and labels indicate whether the milk was hormone free, and whether they were made with animal rennet or microbial rennet (my preference).
- Baking needs (chocolate chips, flour, organic sugar)
Whole Foods: Shopping at Whole Foods is kind of like reading a fashion or design magazine - inspiring, drool-worthy, but I can barely afford many of their offerings. They have decent prices for a few items if you look carefully, but most items are quite expensive. I only buy things there that I can't find easily elsewhere within a few-mile radius, such as:
- Raw, whole milk: the Glendale location offers 2 brands of unpasteurized milk; one is about $6 for a quart in a glass bottle, and the other is $10 for a half-gallon plastic jug. I bought the plastic one because the label gave a lot of information about the farm, and I liked what I read.
- Gourmet cheese: fancier than the Trader Joe's selection, offering some of the same speciality varieties as cheese boutiques such as the Cheese Store and Say Cheese, such as the popular California goat cheese brand Cypress Grove Chevre.
- "Natural" beauty products: my favorite brands such as Earth Science, Desert Essence Organics, and Kiss My Face have wide selections at Whole Foods. These types of companies tend to use non-irritating ingredients, recycled packaging, and don't test their products on animals.
"Ethnic" grocery stores: These range from small, family-owned neighborhood shops to big-box stores, but what they have in common is exceptionally low prices on some types of items, and less-flashy real-estate and merchandising. Examples include:
- Super King in the Pasadena/Altadena area
- Golden Farms in the Glendale/Burbank area
- India Sweets & Spices in the Glendale/Los Feliz area
- 99 Ranch Market (the closest one is in Monterrey Park)
I shop at these stores purely for low prices, because that's the advantage these stores offer. "Food ethics," particularly with relation to animal products, is not what concerns their main customer base the most - low prices and ingredients specific to cultural cuisines is what they provide. I recommend visiting these stores for the following:
- Bulk spices, dried herbs, and nuts (with the exception of flax seeds and pine nuts, which are cheaper at Trader Joe's): They generally come in crinkly plastic bags, but there are some bulk bins as well. You will never buy a little bottle of dried thyme from a regular grocery store ever again after seeing the pries at one of these stores.
- Cheap produce: I try to get my produce from my friend's garden or the farmer's market, but in a pinch, I stop by an ethnic grocery. There is no reason to spend an exorbitant amount at a Ralph's, or accumulate lots of plastic packaging at Trader Joe's.
- Bulk Mediterranean goods: Imported olive oil, canned chickpeas, and tahini (sesame paste) are by far cheaper at these stores than anywhere else. TJ's has reasonable prices on California olive oils, but for Italian or other European oils, you can get 2L for $14 or so at an ethnic grocery store.
- Meat, eggs, and milk are all very cheap at these stores - but I do NOT buy these products. I prefer to spend more money in order to get better nutritional quality and flavor, and also to know that the animal was not raised in a factory environment (both for animal ethics and environmental concerns). I am a little more flexible on whether my fruits and vegetables were raised on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but I do not like to compromise with animal products.
A family friend recently started volunteering with the CSA. The CSA is relatively new, but the scale is quite impressive. It is set on about 5 acres within a larger, certified-organic family farm of about 30 acres. The CSA already has about 60 members, who each commit $15 and one hour of labor per week in exchange for fresh produce from the CSA farm.
They also operate a store on the premises, for residents who appreciate the locally-grown, organic produce, but wish to purchase food outright, rather than volunteering with the CSA. You can read more about the CSA through either of their websites - I just wanted to share some photos from our wonderful visit!
- A place to bury your food waste. If you have a yard, you can bury it straight in the ground.
- If you live in an apartment, like me, you can use a planter box or any large container (e.g. a Rubbermaid tub). Just make sure there are drainage holes on the bottom! If you are doing this on a patio or balcony, it would be a good idea to put a tray underneath to catch whatever drains out of those holes...
- Also, if you have no yard, you will need some dirt. I bought a bag of topsoil from Home Depot, and used about half. In the future, my gardening friend said I could take some dirt for free, and bring it back enriched :)
- A garden trowel and gloves.
I haven't been able to avoid buying food in glass jars altogether, but when I do, I wash and save the containers. Glass is so versatile and durable. It is dishwasher-safe, and unlike with plastic, there is no concern about BPA or other chemicals leaching into food or drinks. And unlike metal containers, you can easily see what's inside without opening them!