Saturday, 20 June 2009

Food for thought (Με το νου μας στο φαγητό)

The global trend towards a westernised lifestyle has spoilt us all for choice when it comes to buying and storing the ingredients we use to prepare our meals with. Despite the widespread availability of easy food choices, that still doesn't solve the question of what you're going to do with the food you buy once it comes into the house. The second millenium has spoilt everyone for choice. In my own home, the question of what to cook and how to cook it consumes our time and mind to a great extent. And it's not only our household that suffers from this fate: ask any home cooks in Hania, in Crete, in Greece and probably most places in the world how they choose what to cook on a daily basis to nourish and sustain their family, and I'm sure they'll tell you how difficult it is to please everyone with one meal. How, then, does the main cook decide on what to buy from the food stores she visits (it's usually the woman who does this in most families) and what to prepare for the main meal on a daily basis?

These days, my cookbooks usually sit unused on the bookshelf; I now keep them mainly for sentimental reasons (except for the orange one). The 'TSELEMENTES' cookbook was sent to my mother by her mother, a few years after she got married, but she never used it; the recipes had few associations with the food my mother wanted to cook for her family.

WEEKLY FOOD PLAN: I've always followed some kind of weekly schedule to plan ahead our daily meals; this helps me to be prepared and also to provide enough variety throughout the week. I also use this plan to make sure I don't cook too much fried food or meat. Without a plan, I'd be heating up frozen meals from the supermarket. The next day's meal often has to be cooked the night before due to work commitments, since there are some days when there literally isn't enough time to cook a quick or decent healthy meal. If there is no main meal for lunch due to other commitments, then we prepare a simple dakos and a salad, with a boiled egg or potato which don't take long to cook.

We try our hardest to convince the children that they have to eat like this, but they still need some persuasion; this poster has been stuck on the radiator for a few years now.

But that doesn't mean food thoughts are over for the day, once we've settled lunch. There's the planning for the next day. As soon as we've had our main meal (in Hania, the norm is to eat the main meal any time, according to the work commitments of the family members, after 1pm and before 5pm), I always announce or ask for suggestions about the next day's main meal. It seems that a lot of our waking hours are consumed with thoughts concerning food, preparing it and eating. In order for a family to eat healthy food, this has to be the case, because there are so many considerations to take into account.

Out of curiosity, I decided to keep a record of all the main meals I cooked or ate with my family starting from the beginning of the year (until pneumonia got the better of me). January is a good food month in winter, as there are holiday periods (like Christmas, which is a good time to go out for a meal), and the family spends more time together, so it's easier to plan meals. Lunch (the main meal) and the evening meal (always smaller and less formal than lunch) are separated by a colon. Leftovers are what remained from a previous meal up to three-four days.

  1. New Year's lunch: pork and celery, pork steaks, cabbage salad, pizza, kalitsounia, Vasilopita
  2. Lentils; leftover pork turned into souvlaki
  3. Cauliflower and xinohondro; corn fritters and toasted sandwiches
  4. Botanical Park Restaurant
  5. Fasolada; dinner at a friend's place
  6. Lunch at a friend's place
  7. Broccoli pasta bake
  8. Fasolada; kalitsounia
  9. French fries; bread and oil for supper
  10. Biftekia and potatoes in oven with maroule; lihnarakia
  11. Pork and celery
  12. Lentils; kalitsounia
  13. Leftovers; dakos
  14. Calamari and wild greens with rice
  15. Oven-baked pasta with ratatouille sauce
  16. French fries and leftovers
  17. Makaronada, leek potage; marathopites; dinner at a friend's place
  18. Pad Thai singlina; Sfakianes pites
  19. Lentils; leftovers
  20. Leftovers
  21. Moussaka; kalitsounia
  22. Yemista
  23. Leftovers
  24. French fries, Pad Thai singlina; The Botanical Park Restaurant
  25. Leftovers; oven-baked pasta with ratatouille sauce; biscotti
  26. Fava, biftekia and sausages
  27. Green beans in red sauce
  28. Leftovers; Chinese noodles
  29. Pilafi; corn fritters; maroule
  30. Chicken livers with okra and ravioli pesto; spanakopita and banana cake
  31. Fried eggs and maroule; leftovers
How much meat, fried food, beans and greens did we eat in a month?
  • 14/31 - vegetables and greens (including horta)
  • 13/31 (days) - meat (including mince); it must be remembered that this month was a busy one socially with parties, meals out and festivals that usually involve cooking meat (otherwise, the total number would have been 10/31)
  • 9/31 - beans and legumes (the total would have been higher if the month wasn't festive)
  • 9/31 - fried food
How good to know we didn't stray too far off our target! Coincidentally, rice, pasta and bread, in combination with cheese products, featured almost daily.

TIME LIMITATIONS: Time constraints add a heavy burden to the schedule of even he best cooks. Let's take an example of a simple salad. Have you ever considered how long it takes to wash leafy greens, and let them dry enough so that the salad doesn't taste too gritty or too watery, especially when using your own salad greens from the garden? They are often covered in dust (or muddy) soil. Then there's the chopping and tearing, adding the necessary bits and pieces and the dressing, before that salad gets to the table. If you haven't prepared your greens from the day before, then forget it - you won't be having salad after work, in between picking up kids from school, setting the table to have the meal you prepared (apart from the salad), and knowing that you have to be out the door a certain time for afternoon activities.

garden lettuce garden lettuce
I haven't got the patience to face this when I come home from work in the afternoon.
If I haven't prepared a salad from the evening before, we don't get to eat one...

cleaned garden lettuce

Having a garden is all very well, but you have to devote a lot of time to it, as Rachel Laudan points out. Nothing grows on its own (it may sprout without any help annually, but it still needs your TLC.

STORAGE SPACES: It's all very well to have a food plan, but you also need the appropriate storage spaces if you want to have good healthy food always on hand. For example, if you intend to grow your own vegetables, there won't be much point in growing large quantities unless you are intent on storing them for later use (by freezing or canning). Have you ever considered what your most indispensable ingredients are? What do you always keep well-stocked? How much storage space do you devote to food, whether in the fridge or the pantry? What fresh herbs can you not do without? Do you ever count the cost of carbon footprints when storing food? How far are you prepared to go to reduce them for the sake of storing food items for your convenience?

If I lived in an apartment
, I wouldn't have a garden, my balcony would be used for storing a small supply of onions and potatoes, and I wouldn't be able to store more than a crate of oranges from our fields. The kitchen would be too small to handle the preparation required to preserve food, and fitting the deep freeze into the house might be a frightening experience.

food storage food storage
My mise-en-place, storage areas, pantry and fridge; the basement also contains a deep freeze for seasonal produce, some crates of citrus and our olive oil supplies for the year.
food storage food storage food storage

Just think back to the times when people had limited space in their house and no refrigeration, and compare that to the 'easy food' that we now have available to us. That's more than enough to make you realise how easy it is to eat all the rubbish you want as fast as it takes to say 'I'm hungry'. If you think you don't have enough cupboards in your kitchen to store things the way you want, take a look through these photos, and see what kind of food people around the world need to keep their families going for a week. And don't forget that all storage spaces need spring cleaning, which is why I wish Paula were around to help me sort out mine.

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