Minimalist Cooking Meetup Scrumptious Valentine’s Dinner – Join Us!

 

Dear Minimalist Cooks,

What are you doing tomorrow night? We have 3 open seats at our Valentine’s Day Lovely Minimalist Cooking Fundraiser.

Come join us!!!

Any dietary restrictions? No problem, just let me know and I’ll prepare suitable dishes especially for you. Everything will be made from scratch from the best, cleanest organic ingredients, so no hidden additives, chemicals, colors, flavor enhancers, preservatives, stabilizers, GMOs etc in your food this Valentine’s!

This event is a fundraiser to cover the Meetup costs for the next year, with the goal to keep the regular events free of charge. If you support the work and goals of this Meetup – bringing the knowledge and skills to eat fresh foods to everyone with as little of an entry barrier as possible – please join us tomorrow!!!

– We have already reached almost half of our goal!

– We have also received some precious help with analytics and integration from CodeScrum this month, so I’ve made them our sponsor for the month of February. If you ever need a custom-made web application, go to codescrum.com – these guys are nice and razor sharp ruby on rails experts 🙂

I am very grateful for the support that’s coming in from various sides. Thank you all for being part of this Meetup, for having attended or attending in the future, for spreading the the word and inviting your friends, and last not least for applying some of the things you’ve learned at the Meetup to the food you eat.

Hope to see you tomorrow to celebrate!!!

And/or to see you soon at one of the next events!

Johanna

Simplifying Standard Recipes – A 3-Day Adventure

“Hey lady! We had Blue Apron change their delivery to my apartment but didn’t realize I was going to be gone this week. The box should show up on the steps tomorrow, have some dinners on us so it doesn’t go to waste! ;)@”

So I’m trying out Blue Apron, courtesy of my lovely out-of-town neighbor. Blue Apron is one of several start-ups currently competing over delivering ingredients as pre-packaged meal kits to Bay Area residents.

I started out with one of the three recipes in the box, a “Spiced Pork, Squash & White Bean Soup with Lacinato Kale & Sage-Walnut Pesto”.

My first impression was: “Boy do they make me work!”

I’m now sharing and commenting the process since it’s a perfect example how “standard” cooking could be made so much quicker and easier.

Let’s start with the instructions for the soup. There were 6 pictures with instructions on how to make it. Let’s look at the first picture:

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That’s about 26 steps already!!

Let’s look at whether we can minimize these a bit.

1) Wash and dry the fresh produce. The produce we have is: butternut squash, kale, onion, sage, lemon.

– The onion we do not need to wash or dry since it’ll be peeled.

– The lemon we do not need to wash and dry in this case since only the juice is being used (not the peel).

– There are only a few leaves of sage – washing yes, but will a little wetness that’s left on them after chopping affect the pesto they’ll go in? Nope. So no drying.

– In the recipe, the kale will be added to the soup just before the water – hence I doubt drying the kale after washing it is essential.

– The recipe asks for peeling the butternut squash. So I think drying it is redundant. It may make sense to wash it, especially if there’s some dust or dirt on it, as you’ll be touching both peeled and unpeeled parts in the process. In this case it arrived completely squeaky clean already though, so I’d say even the washing before the peeling is optional – IF you actually plan on doing the peeling (see below).

Hooray, we saved ourselves a bunch of work and time already!

2) Cut off and discard both ends of the squash; peel the squash.

I actually cut off just one end of the squash; the “round” end looked perfectly fine and no cutting and discarding was needed.

– Despite my resolution to follow the recipe in all steps, I actually didn’t peel the squash. This is one of the basic Minimalist Cooking rules – if one has a choice between peeling and not peeling something, don’t peel. I should say though that the produce was NOT organic. So while peeling the squash is absolutely not needed for this recipe, it may be serving the secondary purpose of making sure people don’t eat a pesticide-infested peel. This is why I recommend buying organic produce – you can be sure there are no pesticides on it, and you can happily skip the peeling. In this case I figured a one-time potential pesticide dose won’t hurt me too much, but I’d definitely not recommend eating peels of any conventional produce on a daily basis.

3) Separate the neck and bulb of the squash; halve the bulb lengthwise, then remove and discard the pulp and seeds. Small dice the squash.

I skipped the first of these – not sure why they asked for separating the neck and bulb of the squash. Then small-diced the squash – this was quite some work that took about 8 minutes. I understand it was needed for this recipe, but just to mention, there are ways to prepare a butternut squash without having to finely chop the whole thing, such as baking the halves on a baking sheet or making a soup by throwing the large pieces in a pot with water and using a blender once they are cooked.

4) Peel and small dice the onion. Peel and mince the garlic. No shortcuts here.

5) Remove and discard the kale stems; thinly slice the leaves. I did this, but just to mention: Kale stems are totally edible. What we have in real (non-box) life is a choice/trade-off between doing the work of super duper thinly slicing the kale stems, doing the work of separating the leafy parts from the stems, or buying/harvesting very young tender kale where one could easily eat the stems. So, like with the squash, your grocery shopping choice determines how much work – and which kind of work – you’ll be doing later.

5) Drain and rinse the beans. The beans actually came in a conventional can. There’s nothing wrong with that unless one expects those delivery boxes to contain exclusively fresh ingredients – they don’t. I drained and rinsed the beans, however, draining only –  and probably even just dumping the whole can content as-is into the soup – would’ve worked perfectly well. The recipe calls for adding the beans to the soup together with 3 cups of water. So the draining doesn’t serve the purpose of removing liquid. The recipe could’ve just as well asked for adding the whole can content along with let’s say 2 cups of water.

6) Quarter and deseed the lemon. Totally redundant step. The recipe later asks for half the lemon’s juice in the soup and the other half in the pesto. One can perfectly squeeze the juice out of a halved lemon – it doesn’t make any sense to ask for squeezing the juice out of 2 lemon quarters — twice. Also for those who prefer to use a lemon squeezer the deseeding is redundant (but they’ll have to clean the lemon squeezer).

7) Pick the sage leaves off the stems; discard the stems and finely chop the leaves.Nothing wrong with that but I just chopped them somewhat (not exactly finely). Still tasted good.

8) Finely chop the walnuts. Skipped that one. We’re talking about very few little pieces of walnut here (1 tablespoon according to the ingredients list), with some spices on them. They were perfectly bite-sized already, so no further chopping needed for me.

This was the first of 6 panels of instruction. I won’t go over the next 5 panels in such detail, here are just a few notes:

– “Season with salt and pepper”. Can you guess how often this phrase appears in the remaining instructions? A total of 7 times!! That’s 6 times for the soup at various stages, and once for the pesto. I’m at a loss as to why this is being asked for so often – How is one to keep track of all that salting and peppering? Why not season the soup to taste once, before serving?

– The soup did come out nice and tasted good. However I noticed that it had the characteristic of a processed food in that I got tired of its specific taste rather quickly (already after I ate it twice). I decided to freeze the rest of it.

– I don’t really know how to make this same soup again, even though I have just made it. The seasoning came out of a little bag called “Spice blend”. The components are not listed on the bag. On the “Ingredients” list I found them listed as: All-Purpose Flour, Ras El Hanout, Ground Turmeric, Ground Nutmeg & Ground Cardamom. Ras El Hanout is a spice blend as well. I have just a vague idea what spices went into the soup. That’s ok as long as nobody is under the impression that they will actually learn how to cook the dishes when making meals from the box. ((Why is there all-purpose flour in the spice blend though? Good I’m not gluten-intolerant..))

That was the first dish – so far, so good. Two more to go, which I cooked over the next couple days: “Spiced Salmon & Cranberry Chutney with Parsnip, Sweet Potato & Clementine SautĂ©”, and “Roasted Cornish Game Hen with Rosemary Baguette Stuffing”.

– That gorgeous clementine sat on my counter for 2 days. Eventually I ended up eating it. I have very little discipline when it comes to delicious fresh food.. The thing is also that they asked for it to be cooked, but I wanted that fresh clementine! I can imagine that this can be a problem not only for me. Imagine a family: What are the odds of some delicious, fresh, ready-to-eat fruit sitting peacefully on the kitchen counter until its cooking time comes around a few days later? My guess is that there’s been the one or the other box meal out there that was prepared from a slightly stripped cooking kit. What to do – implement strict processes in the household which fruit can be eaten and which can’t? How to explain this to kids? Personally I think it’s easier to allow people to eat what they desire and then creatively work with the ingredients that are left. Of course that’s The Minimalist Cook’s approach 🙂 What I’m looking to point out though is that a strict set of exact ingredients that have to go into a certain meal – as convenient as that seems -, comes with a set of new problems as well that have to be solved or dealt with.

– The salmon recipe, like the soup recipe, asked for peeling – in this case of sweet potatoes and parsnip. My recommendation again: Buy organic, and save yourself the peeling process!

– I was shocked at the amount of sugar that I was asked to put into the cranberry sauce. I only added about 1/6 of it (about one teaspoon), and the sauce came out just fine for my taste. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you put the meal together yourself it is automatically “healthy”! Pouring a whole little bag of sugar into the main course (not even the dessert) certainly isn’t.

Lastly, I made the roasted hen. Usually I eat little meat, and boy was I not used to handling an animal like this.. The poor thing had no head, and I was asked to stuff the filling up what was now called its “cavity”. Just when I thought I was done the instructions called for:

“Tuck the tips of both wings under the stuffed hen. Cut a small slit in the skin flaps to either side of the cavity. Fold the legs across the hen; tuck the end of each leg into the slit on the opposite side.”

None of this happened – I just plopped the stuffed hen down on the baking sheet, and on it went into the oven, riding on the sheet as gloriously as it could without a head, poor thing. It still came out nice, which retrospectively rendered the cutting, tucking, and slitting unnecessary (in case you were wondering).

This was my 3-day adventure with the Blue Apron box. One last thing I should mention is that it left a mountain of trash. All ingredients were packed separately, and then there was a cardboard box, an aluminum box lining, and two ice blocks wrapped in plastic. I tried to drain the water once the ice had melted – but they don’t actually contain water. Some kind of a gel came out. So I didn’t know what to do other than dumping the whole thing, including the gel. The second block I put in my freezer, maybe I’ll have a use for it eventually. (If I’d get two of these ice blocks every three days, though, the dumping would start up again rather quickly..)

To sum up my experiment: Cooking can actually be much easier than those boxes make it seem! Some of the instructions are even so pointless that they resemble occupational therapy more than the purpose of making your life easier. And there are other problems that come with those boxes: you have to stick to the kits (no eating any parts of it early), you don’t know where the ingredients are from, you won’t grow much as a cook over time, and it causes a lot of trash. If you truly want to make cooking healthy, delicious, and quick and easy on yourself, I’ll be happy to teach you.

Minimalist Cooking – Then and Now

A “Little Free Library” that someone has set up next to the sidewalk in my neighborhood:

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One can take or leave any book – well, almost any book…

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I found this cookbook in the “Little Free Library”:

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Against the backdrop of a dramatic black plume ascending from a cooking pan, the title asks: “Where’s Mom Now That I Need Her?” The subtitle promises “Surviving Away From Home”.

This book was published in 1983, and it can actually be seen as an early attempt at Minimalist Cooking. According to the blurb, all dishes are: 1) “Easy to make – easy enough for a beginner”, 2) “Most require less than an hour of total preparation time”, 3) “None call for exotic ingredients”, and 4) “you need nothing more than a saucepan, a frying pan, a casserole dish, and a sharp knife to create anything you’ll find here.”

Let’s take a look at Minimalist Cooking then and now:

The biggest change is to the time that’s considered necessary to cook something. A dish with “less than an hour of total preparation time” is considered a quick dish by the authors. This number has come down since 1983 to as little as 10 minutes. That means anyone can now make dinner up to 6 times faster than in 1983!

The second biggest change is that the world’s ways of making cooking quick and easy are now open to all of us to an extent that they weren’t in 1983. The easiest dishes from every cuisine and the most versatile ingredients from around the world are ours to embrace. While in 1983 “exotic” was used synonymous with “difficult”, we now use ginger and other ingredients as a staple and can give our dishes an East Asian, Indian, or Thai flavor just by creatively replacing one or two ingredients!

Lastly, the Minimalist cooking equipment is down by one – to just a pot, a pan, and a knife.

Interestingly, and despite these changes, the perception of home cooking today is often as if it were still 1983. Cars and computers have changed since then, and so has cooking! While the fabulous dishes our grandparents made will never be forgotten, it is now time to do home cooking in a way that works with our current lives and lifestyles.

Cleaning Up A Diet

One of my first clients, Alberto, wanted to clean up his diet and get back to a more active lifestyle.

Night 1: We started by going through his food supplies. I sorted each and any food he had in his apartment into one of three categories: 1 Ok to eat – can stay. 2 Not terrible but not ideal either – these foods were placed in a box to be phased out / not restocked once eaten up. 3 Not even food – nobody should actually eat this, ever. Items in this category were thrown out.

The process took about 2 hours. We communicated closely throughout the process, and I explained my recommendation for every item. He always had the last say – this isn’t about forcing anyone onto anything. For example when I took a box of bread crumbs from the shelf, he said: “That’s ok – it is just bread”. Once I turned the box around, though, it revealed this was a highly processed food with a long list of about 30 chemical ingredients. I explained that bread is a perishable food that wouldn’t last on the shelf without those chemicals. I then suggested to toss the box, and he agreed.

The first lesson learned is in this example already. I sometimes get asked: “Why would people need your help? Can’t they do this on their own?” The interesting thing is that of course Alberto technically knows that bread is a perishable food. Yet those breadcrumbs somehow didn’t trigger a sense of there being something wrong with them. As long as the product somewhat looks and tastes like bread (and to ensure that, the manufacturers will go to great lengths of course), neither our brains nor taste buds sound any alarm unless we consciously train them, and for this it’s very helpful to have someone coach the process.

In the end I was very happy with the outcome – we had agreed pretty much on all items. The two that sparked the most emotions (as far as I recall) were pasta (“You can’t take pasta away from me. I’m Italian!”) and Nutella. That’s of course fine – my advice was simply to eat pasta just when he craves it and not as a regular go-to food. And Nutella is totally fine as well if it’s basically the only such item in his diet. The goal, again, is not to force, starve, or otherwise inconvenience oneself, but rather just do the things that are no-brainers. For example if those bread crumbs that we tossed are replaced with real bread, there will be no withdrawal symptoms whatsoever from the change.

In order for Alberto to be able to get started on a clean diet right away I brought dinner with me that night (I knew we would be busy with the kitchen clean-up). I also ensured he had some leftovers for lunch and healthy snacks to take to work the next day.

Night 2: We went food shopping. This was in Santa Cruz, CA, and our store of choice was Staff of Life, a natural foods market independently owned for over 40 years. We discussed the local food shopping choices just as we had discussed the individual foods in Alberto’s home. Again, the goal was to not superimpose any choice on him. The existence of this fantastic store (of which he was well aware and to which he had been before) made this one easy for us.

At the store I explained the things to watch for, in front of the shelf, for every ingredient he wanted to get. We found a desirable choice for all items on his list.

I didn’t bring dinner that second night, but will in future, because realistically the actual making of food will only start on night 3 (at least with a schedule like Alberto’s with very long work hours/commute).

Night 3: Many years ago Alberto actually worked as a chef, so once he had the right ingredients in his home he could take it from there. For any other clients, learning how to make simple, delicious, healthy dishes from the ingredients would start here and take 1-3 nights.

Exercise: In order to come up with exercise options that would work for Alberto, we talked about which forms of exercise he enjoys, had done, or would like to try. Challenges were that he doesn’t like to work out alone, that he hadn’t really worked out in a long time, and that he needed to plan exercise around a demanding work schedule with long hours.

We narrowed the list down to volleyball, hiking, weights, stand-up paddling, and golf. Years ago he had been on a professional volleyball team, so I tried first to find a local volleyball team (or beach volleyball team or meetup – it’s Santa Cruz after all!). When that didn’t work out I moved on to stand-up paddling, which he’d never done but liked to try. I booked a beginner’s class, and joined the class as well so he wouldn’t be alone. Stand-up paddling looks easy, but there is actually lot of balance needed for it. It turned out not to be as enjoyable for him as it had looked.

Next was hiking. I could sense some resistance from him, and eventually he told me he couldn’t hike because it’d cause a certain kind of leg pain for him. He threw a medical term of the condition at me. At first I took his word for it, however, after a few days it occurred to me to ask about the specifics. It turned out that, over 10 years ago, someone had made him hike, in totally untrained condition, from Marin across Mount Tam down to Stinson Beach – and back!! That’s about a 20-mile-hike across one of the highest mountains in the Bay Area. Since then the trauma of that event had stuck with him. I said we’d try hiking just a little, to see how it goes, and he agreed, however he still tried to back out twice. I researched an easy, beautiful trail in the woods that would be convenient for him to get to from his home and take about half an hour to complete. I tested it out myself before we went there. Then, on a Sunday morning, the magic of a thick forest on a sunny morning didn’t fail us, and Alberto is back to hiking since. This is another example of external help making something possible where one would think people could as well do it on their own, but they really can’t (or won’t).

For Golf Alberto already had plans with a buddy in the works, and weights was also something he had done extensively earlier in his life and knew how to do. So his fitness routine went from zero to light regular hiking, weights, and occasional golf.

We went to the Farmer’s Market afterwards that’s taking place in Santa Cruz on Sunday afternoons. It is very enjoyable just to be there, and there was a lot of great fresh, local, organic food available. Alberto had been there before, and his shopping routine now regularly includes this market on Sunday afternoons.

 

 

Craigslist Gems – And What Would You Like Help With?

I’m currently looking to find out more about what problems people commonly encounter with food. I wanted to share two local Craigslist posts with you that I came across in the process. Here’s the first one, it’s currently still live:

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So this person is “interested in eating more healthy food” and willing to pay for both all of the ingredients to come from Whole Foods (“Whole Paycheck”) plus for someone to prepare them. Her/his idea of eating healthy is to eat precooked meals from tupperware containers made of a very limited set of ingredients for both lunch and dinner 6 days a week. I’m just glad I don’t have to be on this meal plan! It is definitely a minimalist approach that we have here, but we can do better in the “fresh”, “creative”, and “economic” departments.

This example shows how successful Whole Foods’ marketing is. In the perception of this person (and of many others), anything from Whole Foods is “healthy”. In fact, 2/3 of the products offered at Whole Foods are processed foods, and many of them are conventionally produced and can contain GMOs. The same rules apply to Whole Foods as to any other store: If it’s not labeled “organic”, it can (and most likely will) contain pesticides and GMOs. This applies to the fresh produce section as well. If you take a close look, not too much of the fresh produce at Whole Foods is actually organic. Fresh crops like papaya and corn can be GMO if not labeled “organic”. So if you buy a fresh papaya at Whole Foods, pay a prime price for it, and carry it out in a recycled bag all feeling like you got the best of the best fresh food and are really investing in your health, you may just have gotten yourself some genetically modified conventional food.

This Craigslist example also makes me wonder why this person is not looking to learn how to prepare food themselves, because all they plan on ever eating is a total of two dishes. Surely that should be possible to accomplish? Really curious about this one – will email and try to find out.

Lastly, it seems to me that this person is unnecessarily depriving themselves of the joys of eating delicious fresh food: of colors, textures, fragrances, variety… It’ll be the same green and brown precooked mass coming out of tupperware containers for them day in and day out. Again, I’m just glad it’s not me who’s going to eat this 🙂

Now let’s look at the second example – this post is also currently still live:

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So we have two start-up people here who “have been eating out every day” and are now “looking for something healthier”. Again, looking into making quick healthy delicious meals seems not an option; it’s either eating out or paying someone to make them at the workplace. $400/week – we’re looking at ~ $20.000/year here, and that’s presumably not including the actual food/ingredients – this must be a really profitable start-up? Or have things gotten so crazy in the start-up world that the new “ramen profitability” is hiring someone to prepare the ramen? By the way this also makes me wonder if cooking skills actually improve a start-up’s likelihood to succeed, and are thus a skill investors should be looking at – Paul Graham said that the cost of starting a company is mostly the cost of food and rent these days, so all other factors equal the start-ups that come with skills how to make their own food should have an advantage over those who don’t.

In any case, let’s now look at what our start-up people consider “something healthier”. They mention that this  would be “something high in protein” and “increasing our vegetable intake”. Interestingly, high protein intake is often considered synonymous with eating healthy. In fact people in the U.S. eat on average already twice as much protein as they need. So there’s a chance that these two start-up folks would be eating healthier if they’d actually lower their protein intake. (Also, just as a note, protein is often associated with meat consumption while there are really many great plant-based protein sources as well. See for example this article for one summary.) Lastly, “increasing our vegetable intake” – with that they can’t indeed go wrong – as long as they’re choosing organic vegetables that is. If they’re eating GMO- and pesticide-containing vegetables instead of whatever they had before, then their diet may not end up improving in healthiness.

Generally it is noticeable how vague their ideas of “something healthier” are.

Now, my dear readers, it’s your turn! What are some ideas you have for things that could be done or that I could offer that would actually help people eat better? Last week I taught a class that was very well-received – it was a 3-course dinner where guests also learned how to make the dishes – all easy and delicious – in the process. I’d love to teach more or offer one-on-one help, and I’ve set up a Services page: How Can I Help You? Any ideas or feedback are much appreciated.

 

A Breakfast That Works For Me

Here is a breakfast that I’ve come up with over time that’s flexible, quick, healthy, and works really well for me. It uses:

  • Oats
  • Raisins (or other sweet dried fruit / sweetener)
  • Nuts / Seeds
  • Fruit / Berries
  • Milk
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Photo: Alex Jacobson

I use Organic Quick Rolled Oats, so there’s no cooking required, just add hot (or warm) water; the minute or so you’ll need to prepare this breakfast is enough time for them to soak. This also means there’s no extra dish required to cook or soak them in. I just place them in a breakfast bowl and add hot water:

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

 

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

 

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

Next, add something sweet: I use raisins – delicious, and they naturally come in a ready-to-eat form, no chopping needed. Other great choices are for example chopped dried dates or chopped dried apricots.

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

Next, add nuts or seeds. Here I used sunflower seeds – other great choices include walnuts, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, shredded coconut.

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

Next, add two different kinds of fresh fruit / berries. It will already taste fine with just one kind; my experience is though that in order to not get tired of this breakfast over time you’ll want to make sure you have two different kinds.

Below is one example: Strawberry-Melon. Other great fruit / berry choices include for example: Apples, peaches, oranges, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, nectarines, pears, pineapple, mango, banana, grapes.

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

Lastly, add milk, and enjoy!

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

Some more information regarding this breakfast:

– Using water instead of milk for soaking the oats saves some calories and affects the overall taste minimally (if at all).

– While Quick Rolled Oats are slightly more processed than Rolled Oats, they are still  minimally processed compared to other breakfast cereals and compared to instant oats. Generally oats have many health benefits, are rich in fiber and protein, and are naturally gluten-free.

– What about granola? With added sugar, salt, fat, and heat, granola tastes good in a way a candy bar tastes good, so it’s not as ideal a breakfast food. (Just to mention, rolled oats aren’t aren’t raw foods either, as they’re steamed in the rolling process.)

– As always, make sure you get all ingredients organic. There is, however, an exception that I currently make: I use this raw almond milk which is not certified organic. It is raw, local, and uses absolutely no other ingredients than almonds and water. I used to use a common brand of soy milk until I got really tired of it at some point. Wondering why this was happening, I read the ingredients list (should have done this earlier), and there were all kinds of things in it – added flavors, sweetener, and other ingredients. It was essentially a processed food. So currently I’m using this delicious pure raw almond milk:

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

Also keep in mind to use local ingredients where possible. Here is one example, Apricot-Strawberry, where I used apricots from the backyard:

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

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– Lastly, for quick preparation it helps to keep the dry ingredients at hand. I have them in containers directly on the kitchen counter, so putting one of these breakfasts together is super quick:

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Photo: Alex Jacobson

I make sure I use up one kind of nuts before I get a different one so the ingredients will never sit in the containers for too long.

Hope you like it!! Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.

I thank Alex Jacobson for the photography: http://www.akjacobson.com/

 

Will You Walk, Or Will You Walk Down The Right Aisle?

These thoughts were prompted by the massive marketing for Avon Walk (avonwalk.org). At the BART station, large posters of hugging people in pink t-shirts; on BART, more ads, and while driving, a woman’s soft and ever-so-slightly menacing voice creeps me out asking me from the radio: “Will you walk, or will you walk away?” At my local coffee shop, a dispenser with glossy pink advertising materials is waiting for me.

The scale of these marketing efforts alone makes me wonder who would think that donations to this charity would NOT, to a large part, go to, well, things like these marketing efforts. Then there is the walk itself – a genius marketing move. What on earth makes people think walking around somewhere will help cure cancer? I know, it is understood that it will not have a direct impact. But why not choose to do something instead that actually has a direct impact?

Then there is the language, which makes me all but suspicious about the secondary impact (via the money raised) as well. Let’s take a look at the wording. “You can be her hero!” “The more of us who walk, the more of us survive.” “Will you walk, or will you walk away?” “There is a woman out there who needs you and you have the power to help!” And lastly, the most striking to me: The whole thing is called “Avon Walk for Breast Cancer”. Seriously, shouldn’t it be the “Avon Walk against Breast Cancer”?

Without needing to look further ((I still did)) I could tell this organization does not have a genuine desire to resolve breast cancer. It’s not their primary motivation. The marketing preys on people being starved of big feelings; it offers “heroism” for sale. Here’s the bad news: Getting your credit card out and paying for being cheered on in a pink t-shirt will neither make you a hero nor does it do much in order to cure breast cancer.

Here is, however, the good news. You can totally be a hero. And it is for free. You can effectively contribute to less cancer. It will look very inconspicuous – your heroism may go largely unnoticed by others. That’s how things are with real heroes. It’s done simply by reducing or eliminating potentially cancer-causing factors from your life – chemicals, radiation, smoking etc come to mind. But most importantly, what you can do and what will have a huge impact is:

Eat the right food.

Pesticides are known to cause cancer. And the food you eat is what your body consists of. Therefore choosing organic (= pesticide-free) foods effectively reduces cancer, and not only the chances for it to manifest in your own body, but also in those of the people who grow your food or drink the water near where your food is grown.

From this website (emphasis by me): “Many pesticides approved for use by the EPA were registered before extensive research linking these chemicals to cancer and other diseases had been established. Now the EPA considers that 60 percent of all herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides and 30 percent of all insecticides are carcinogenic. A 1987 National Academy of Sciences report estimated that pesticides might cause an extra 1.4 million cancer cases among Americans over their lifetimes. The bottom line is that pesticides are poisons designed to kill living organisms, and can also be harmful to humans. In addition to cancer, pesticides are implicated in birth defects, nerve damage and genetic mutation.”

That’s right, 1.4 million estimated additional cancer cases could be avoided – by walking down the right aisle in the grocery store that is. I throw in a hug if I see you there. No pink t-shirt needed – I know my heroes when I see them (from what’s in their shopping carts).

The Minimalist Cooking Web App: Check It Out!

There is a Minimalist Cooking web app with the ideas and contents from this blog!

Check it out (it’s still work in progress):

http://app.theminimalistcook.com/

Like the blog, the idea is for it to help with making quick, delicious, healthy meals with the ingredients already present. So again, no recipes, no shopping for specific meals, and no going bad/throwing away of random leftover foods because of cluelessness what to do with them.

If you can’t get results (it has only ~150 basic ingredients in it so far) try for example plugging this in:

oil, salt, pepper, vinegar, yeast, flour, tomato, eggplant, milk, egg, chicken, garlic, lettuce, rice, soy sauce

I didn’t publicize the program at the time, however now I have re-emerged and am really excited to continue work on this project. How exactly this will happen I do not know so far – finding funding, finding a technical co-conspirator, learning how to code. So for now I am just showing to you all for the first time what I have so far, again here it is:

http://app.theminimalistcook.com/

The code is here for anyone interested:

https://github.com/shorbaji/minimalist

I thank Omar Shorbaji for the initial idea of turning the contents of this blog into a software, for the collaboration on it, and for coding the web app.

A Look At Some Of The Food Industry 1 %

Let’s look at some of the giants in the food industry. Some names like NestlĂ© may be more familiar to you than, for example, Cargill, recently portrayed by Forbes Magazine as “the quiet giant that rules the food business“.

From the company’s website:

“Cargill is an international producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products and services. […] In fiscal year 2011, Cargill had $119.5 billion in sales and other revenues.”

This makes Cargill, in terms of revenue, the largest privately held company in the world. As of 2011, if it were a public company, it would rank on the Forbes 500 behind AT&T and ahead of JP Morgan Chase.  By being a privately held company it has to disclose less information, and it doesn’t have to report to shareholders. Hopefully this gives you an impression how powerful this company is.

The Wikipedia page lists under “Criticism”: Human rights abuse (of children on cocoa plantations), several cases of food contamination (the last in August 2011, when “36 million pounds of ground turkey produced at Cargill’s Springdale, Arkansas plant were recalled due to salmonella fears”), and environmental issues (deforestation).

ConAgra Foods, with the slogan “Food you love”, is an American packaged foods company. According to their website they are “Giving you more reasons to feel good about the food you love. […] Good for You. Good for the Community. Good for the Planet.”

In the Wikipedia entry about ConAgra we read about environmental issues, labor issues, health violations (among them a recall of 19 million pounds of ground beef in 2002), illegal activity (water was sprayed on stored grain to increase weight and value, and Federal inspectors bribed), demolition of a historic site in Downtown Omaha, Nebraska, and lobbying against an Oregon measure that would have required foods containing genetically modified organisms to be labeled.

All of these three companies are using genetically modified organisms, and don’t even get me started on companies like Monsanto.

(By the way, do you know what the NestlĂ© slogan is? It’s “Good Food, Good Life”. NestlĂ© describes itself as “the world’s leading Nutrition, Health and Wellness company”. I think the slogan is very clever; note that it doesn’t say it’s you who should get the good food and good life! 🙂 I have a feeling when you get NestlĂ© products it buys someone else some good food and good life.)

So what to make of all this? I just wanted to give you some examples and the idea that when protesting large banks it may be worthwhile to consider equally large, powerful, and profit-oriented food companies as well.

But isn’t it too much what we’re up against? In “Quantum of Solace”, James Bond wins (barely but surely) against the unscrupulous minds that set out to privatize water supplies. As Michael Clayton, George Clooney ensures (barely but surely) in the movie of the same name that a weed killer, known to be carcinogenic, is not being produced. What if we aren’t James Bond or Michael Clayton? Well here’s some good news: I think we actually are. Each and any of us has just as much power as the largest corporation, this is simply because they need customers. They can do many things, but the one thing they can’t do is exist without customers. No matter how large, any corporation will collapse without customers.

An end note – this just came in while I was writing this blog. All of the eggs used in McDonald’s restaurants in the US passed through Cargill’s plants. McDonald’s announced to end the relationship with Sparboe Farms, who are producing “2 million eggs a day, seven days a week”,  due to a leaked tape of animal mistreatment. From the article:

McDonald’s and Target’s moves also followed a warning letter to Sparboe Farms dated Wednesday from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that said inspectors found “serious violations” at five Sparboe facilities of federal regulations meant to prevent salmonella. The warning said eggs from those facilities “have been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby they may have been rendered injurious to health.”

“[…] whereby they may have become contaminated with filth […]” Gotta love the language 🙂

The Latte Question

‘Cutting Out The Latte’ has become synonymous with a certain type of saving advice. The phrase has made it into banking ads, and “The Latte Factor®” (yes, it’s trademarked) has sparked countless articles, ranging from calculations on which considerable amounts of money daily coffees can add up to, to articles advising to worry about bigger expenses rather than about small ones such as for drinks.

Obviously one can easily argue either way. The Latte Question somewhat culminates in this interesting article by Katherine Rosman for The Wall Street Journal, in which she reflects on the situation of her and her husband belonging to opposite sides of the Latte fraction. You can get a sense from her writing that there’s a lot more to this question than a dose of caffeine in a disposable cup.

But what exactly is it? The reasons are obviously deeply psychological, otherwise coffee shops would have a harder time selling products with several 100% price mark-ups than they have.

Research suggests that merely holding a cup with a warm beverage in your hands makes you already feel better. Then, there’s the looks of that shiny white disposable cup. I understood this one autumn afternoon on Fillmore St. in San Francisco. Was it just me radiating more happiness thanks to that warm drink in my hand? Or more of those research results (which suggest that someone holding a warm beverage is also feeling ‘warmer’ towards others, and is thus likely more easily approachable); the hint of luxury of an overpriced indulgence; the appeal of a ritual; the projected comfort of the beverage? Whatever it was, as a matter of fact I noticed I got checked out more when I continued on my way with that paper cup in hands! Add caffeine into the mix, which is addictive after all, and you likely get an idea what you’re up against trying to ‘cut out lattes’.

So now what to do with this information? Yes, you can have a coffee at home before you head out. No, it won’t be the same (but yes, it doesn’t mean you couldn’t create a different ritual at home that would make you feel as good.) Yes, there’s reusable cups on the market that look like paper cups. Yes, you could make your own drink and take it along. Yes, you could even get paper cups for this if you like. Yes, instead of thinking you’re sexy your neighbor may think you’re an alcoholic if you regularly emerge from your home with a paper cup in hand. Yes, you’d already feel happier if you’d just fill warm laundry water into a cup and hold it in your hand.

You get the idea – as long as Starbucks, Peet’s etc. offer a one-stop solution for all of this, and make you happier, sexier, more approachable, more attractive, give you a sense of warmth and comfort, plus satisfy your addiction, all for $ 4, this may very well be a steal! If you really want to cut out these expenses, figure out which aspects of the bundle are most important to you, and then consciously create replacements for them. There are equal or better replacements for every aspect – after all we don’t critically depend on Starbucks – but you may very well be surprised what it is.

My point – and I assume it’s also the author’s point in the aforementioned article – is that by simply ‘cutting out lattes’ there’s a chance you may save the money, but feel unhappier to an extent that’s not worth it. In economic terms, there’s a chance that the marginal utility of a gourmet cappuccino is indeed greater than the marginal cost. And there’s even a chance that it may be a LOT greater.

For anyone longing to understand this better I suggest a trip to Vienna, with its famous, centuries-old tradition of sophisticated coffee houses. Viennese culture (literature, music) is characterized by a specific sense of depression and humor at the same time. It sometimes seems as if Viennese live to have coffee and elaborate sweets in beautiful coffee houses, which provide a great sense of comfort – or at least the best illusion of it that’s possible.

Mr. Rosman, how about taking your wife on a field trip to Vienna in order to unearth the ultimate answer to The Latte Question? Who knows – she may even be willing to cut back on a few Cappuccinos for that! 🙂