Saturday, October 30, 2010

Time of the Season

Fall has long been my favorite time of year. I love all seasons, but there's something about fall... maybe the invigorating crisp air. Maybe the sound of the band playing in the background during college football games. Maybe it's just the leaves turning.

I'm extra excited this year because, for the first time since departing New York City in 2005, I have a real fall to enjoy. After five years of wondering if I need to put shorts on for Thanksgiving dinner in North Carolina, the weather in Seattle is gloriously stereotypical fall. The leaves are turning, I can see my breath the moment the sun goes away. Fall isn't a group of decorations here. I've already worn several sweaters this fall. Amazing.

I think one reason I love the season, though, is the smells. This happens outside with the cool air, the wet fallen leaves and the like. But inside, especially in our home, is where things go to another level.

My wife is a fantastic cook and this time of year means soups and stews that just don't seem to be in place in the summer. But I'll let her blog about that if she chooses.

Me? I bake. For all the football watching and carrying on, I spend a good chunk of every weekend with a Kitchen-Aid mixer and my hands covered in some manner of flour. This started when I was about two years old and mom would bake cookies. Tell me there's something more exciting for a child of that age than cookies.

After years of watching her bake, I started doing my own. You'd be surprised how baking something in a college dorm can get you a crowd. Or the reaction making a girlfriend in New York her own birthday cake can get you. Mothers, teach your sons to bake... but I digress...

Anyhow, fall is probably my favorite time of year to bake. Because you really have the full battery of ingredients at your service. Plus, the smells of spices in things just, you know, work well for this season.

The fun started here a few weeks ago when Sarah whipped up the first batch of pumpkin bread. I followed suit with "Harvest Pumpkin Bars" from King Arthur Flour's compendium. Google them now if you aren't familiar. King Arthur cookbooks are great not only for recipes, but also for the chemistry of baking. Read up and you find their recipes very easy to tweak to your own tastes. One of those tweaks, swapping a fraction of regular white flour with whole wheat flour, is something I do all year, but fall recipes are extremely well-suited to the swap. The usual effect of using some whole wheat is a darker color. Fall baking products are already dark.

This month has featured spice sugar cookies and, just now, I whipped up a batch of molasses cookies. Gingerbread, possibly my seasonal favorite, will be coming along soon enough.

I may one day, years from now, choose to open a bakery somewhere. Wherever it is, it will be in a place with a real fall season. I could say this is because people want these recipes in the fall, but I have to admit, it's totally selfish. I love this time of year and the foods that come with it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Making Things Whole

Several months ago, I wrote about the kinds of food we eat. Here we are in the waning days of October and I am proud to say six months later that Sarah and I made some changes... and observed some things along the way.

Essentially, we decided that when cooking at home, we'd try to use whole foods as much as possible. The lower case whole foods, meaning foods that haven't been refined/processed as much as possible. We said we'd start one meal at a time. So breakfast is where things start.

This turned out to be easy. It mainly involved ditching the store-bought cereals with all manner of additives, preservatives and other stuff that I cannot pronounce and, once a week, making our own oat-based granola cereal using unrefined ingredients. I was already baking my own bread, so shifting to whole wheat bread was a snap. For two people who enjoy baking and cooking, none of this seemed like a chore. And mt breakfast didn't really change. I always have cereal and toast. On weekends, we were also easily able to make the transition. Oatmeal? Already a whole food. Pancakes? Easy to whip up with unprocessed ingredients.

We've since extended this into dinner, which, truth be told, we were already pretty close to going unprocessed anyway. The full switch required tweaking a few ingredients. Lunch became easy, too. Leftovers from dinner passed the bill and when I come home, sandwiches made with our homemade bread, fresh cheese, farmers market-purchased produce... this was a snap!

I should note that I'm not being a total Nazi about this... unbleached white flour still gets used here and there. Many of my baking recipes won't work with an equal substitution of whole wheat flour, for instance. Yet, I've found a way to incorporate some of the "good" flour without hurting the quality of the crumb and the taste of my wares. But, I am using butter and not margarine. I'm making sure my ingredients are the real stuff.

As for eating out... seriously, how sad would life be if I completely wrote off every processed item? Too many good meals to have. If I'm eating well at home, I'm several steps ahead of the game. It's like switching your outside lights to CFLs... it's a nice percentage of use you're affecting with your choice.

So, a funny thing happened in doing this: I'm full. I used to struggle to get to lunch every day in the office. I would feel hungry and restless. I kept snacks in a drawer. Now, I'm easily making it to lunch. After dinner, we're having something we've baked or homemade ice cream. We might have popcorn some nights, but eating is way down. Yet I am satisfied.

Also, it's finally forced me to eat more fruits and veggies. I can barely cope without my grapes at lunch now. And getting my fructose there instead of from... pretty much every supermarket processed food seems to work.

Sure, this makes our cupboards more boring. The Trader Joe's dunkers I couldn't stop eating? Gone in favor of homemade cookies that I can identify what went into them. Crackers? You'd be surprised the crap that's in "organic" mass marketed boxes of crackers. I found a brand that takes the chance that I might actually eat the crackers quickly so they don't add tons of weird preservatives. They have five ingredients: flour, salt, oil, water, spices. And I'm starting to experiment with making my own.

When we first talked about doing this, we thought it might be tough. I've been amazed at just how easy it has been. And, before you ask... I'm spending no more at the store than I used to.

The theory behind all this is that maybe it will lead to a healthier me down the line. And who knows... maybe I could be chowing down on Cheetos right now, gulping corn-syrup-loaded sodas and live to be 90. It could all go boom tomorrow and my diet won't matter.

But, I can take some solace in that I'm not turning a blind eye to what's in my food. I know what I eat. I generally know what my food has been through before coming to my plate. I can be accountable for it all.