Going Plastic Free

It started with paint. Or whatever that stuff is that OXO GoodGrips uses to label its plastic measuring cups and spoons. One humid day, I was happily measuring flour, when I looked down to find that my thumb was now green and the formerly labeled handle was now blank. I guess I had just assumed that whatever markings were faded had come off during washing. But we don’t have a dishwasher anymore. So then I became obsessed with the idea that the paint was ending up in our food. I wrote angry letters but got NO information about the content of that paint. I did get (for free) a set of measuring cups with stainless cups and the same “grips” for handles. Which did not solve my problem AT ALL–same paint. I also got a patronizing assurance that OXO products meet safety standards in Europe, and since those are higher than any standards in the US, that was actually sort of comforting.

Being in this my-therapist-is-on-vacation-so-I’ll-obsess-over-cookware mental place means that I am now worried about everything plastic in our kitchen. Anxiety is more of a hyper, compulsive kind of thing that incites activity, if not always rational activity; obsessive-compulsive disorder is actually an anxiety disorder, although thankfully not one that I deal with. (Depression, however, did not put me in any sort of place even to write angry letters or, well, to do anything except sleep.) No, I did not throw everything plastic away. But I immediately go to Amazon to look for stainless measuring cups and spoons. Wow, were they expensive. On to etsy! There, I found some awesome and charmingly dented vintage stainless measuring cups.

Enter, Super Mom-In-Law, to the rescue! Be jealous, those of you with less awesome mothers-in-law–the day after reading about my disgust with my measuring cups and my hope to switch them out for stainless, she called me to tell me that she had found some for a good price (the woman is a magnet for a good deal). I now have two sets of nothing-but-metal measuring cups and the most awesome set of measuring spoons ever. Seriously. They fit inside spice jars and go from 1/8 tsp all the way to, get this, 1 1/2 tbsp. Little things make me oh so happy! So, the “green” things in my kitchen now include:

sifter (wood handles), measuring spoons, cups, ice cream scoop (for muffin batter--try it! no spills. less waste.)

I also LOVE these plastic free kitchen items we got as gifts, mostly wedding gifts: ceramic nesting mixing bowls from Nigella Lawson & Bliss Living, bamboo cutting board, chicken-shaped wooden cutting boards from Martha Sterwart (they were a joke, but I use them! hilarious!), stand mixer. We also have pyrex bowls, a wooden rolling pin and, my pride and joy, an all-wood drop-leaf table. It even has two drawers and the all-wood stools fit in spaces under the drawers. Our kitchen is so tiny, and it makes a huge difference. But I’m also amazed at how good it feels to roll out dough on a wood surface, sit and eat at wood and just plain have wood around. It’s nice! It’s the background to all those photos, by the way. Oh, and the “greenest” purchase I have ever made? My vintage cast iron skillet made by Le Creuset. The enamel on the outside (was it originally red or orange? it’s both, now!) is all beat up, but after a good scrub with coarse salt and one seasoning in the oven (rub pan with oil, put in oven upside down for 1 hour), it shines. The best part is that someone else did all the original seasoning for me. Tip: rust on a cast iron skillet can be easily removed with a good scrub–use coarse salt because soap will take off the oil that makes case iron an almost entirely non-stick but chemical free pan. Mine was $24, including shipping. A new Le Creuset can go for well over $150. The star of my kitchen really deserves its own photo:

Good for the planet. Good for my family. Best deal ever.

So far, so good, right? Right. But if I’m going to plan for Baby, I want to have an (almost) entirely plastic-free kitchen. And nursery. I don’t want plastic toys, teething rings or baby bottles. I don’t even want plastic food storage. That’s right, I want glass baby bottles. Is this necessary? Depends on who you ask. Why do I want it? I am the kind of person who will end up thinking “plastic is toxic, plastic is toxic” every time I go to heat up a baby bottle or send a lunch to preschool, knowing the food will be warmed in a plastic container. The toxins in plastic (BPA and many, many others) get released when the plastic is damaged, and, often, heating it up is enough to damage it. The regulations in the US are just not good enough. “Phthalates are common in soft plastics, like baby teethers and bath toys, and can affect the endocrine, immune and reproductive systems.” (Read more about safe feeding products at the hilariously named Granola Babies.) And if you think I’m crazy, then you haven’t read the blog posts out there about how truly terrible it must be that breast milk is pumped through plastic tubes, stored in plastic bags in the freezer and warmed in plastic bottles. This is not, in the scheme of things, high on my list of the truly terrible. If I pump, I’ll see if we can afford a green option. I’m not that deep into this research yet. But I assure you, I am not even close to the crazy end of this particular spectrum.

This is a breast pump from the 1830s. Plastic and rubber free? Yes. But would YOU use it? I looks like a medieval torture device! And probably felt like one, too.

As my mother pointed out, some things must be plastic: nipples/tops for the baby bottles, lids for the glass containers, the baby-proofing cabinet locks and outlet covers, the shower curtain. Even the glass baby bottles have silicone “protectors” (although I’m not sure what they’re protecting–maybe they prevent the bottle from slipping?). Plastic is part of modern life, and it’s a great invention. As I mentioned before, I LOVE my BPA-free, built-in-filter Water Bobble. The idea, here, is to keep it away from my food as much as possible, especially if I’m going to keep throwing it out at the slightest scratch–talk about bad for the planet! I have no desire to go back to the days when we had cast iron but used cleaning products laced with arsenic, cyanide, mercury and any other poison you can think of. (I just read in The Poisoner’s Handbook about an entire household of servants who died because the cook forgot to rinse out a pot after polishing it. Why? The polish everyone used at that time contained cyanide as a main ingredient. She cooked the stew in cyanide. I do not long for history’s kitchens! I love my freezer!) It’s expensive, I know, but it gives me peace of mind, and it lasts a lot longer than plastic in my kitchen and a lot less long in the landfill. Glass is 100% recyclable. And for the record, I have thought about the fact that glass shatters, but assuming we don’t start throwing stuff against the wall or feed the baby from wine glasses, the food-storage-grade glass should hold up just fine.

It’s all about balance. We live in an old building with beautiful wood floors. Pro: no chemicals from icky, gross wall-to-wall carpeting. Con: God only knows what’s under the paint chipping off that radiator. So I’ll put some sort of barrier to keep Baby from the radiator and hope the kid doesn’t ingest lead from, oh, I don’t know, chewing on the walls. You can’t take care of everything–I know this because I have tried to take care of everything and went nuts in the process. I have papers to prove it. So plastic bugs me, while glass, wood and metal just feel good. What bugs you? What will you absolutely not have in your house?

Baking and Whole Grains: A Love Story

I feel so much better having gotten that off my chest about my new ugly parent policy that I’m going to write something light, flaky and delicious. Oh, wait… that’s my pie crust. This post is light, though!

I have always had more than a passing interest in baking. Cooking has just never been my thing. But watching dough rise, pie crust smooth out under a rolling pin or cookies fatten in the oven has always fascinated me. When I was teeny tiny, my mom and sister would use extra pie crust dough to make a little flat circle that browned in the oven and sparkled with cinnamon and sugar. It was just for me, and it was ready hours before we could eat the pie. I learned later that they were following in my maternal grandmother’s footsteps; she did the same for the little kids when she made pie. And there were always little kids–she had fifteen of her own! If she were alive today, she would have 52 grandchildren and no one knows how many great-grandchildren.

I made my first pie crust from scratch when I was still in elementary school. It was awesome, and I didn’t know why everyone made such a big deal out of it having turned out so well. The pecan pie filling was from a box, after all. It wasn’t hard–I just followed the directions! Okay, I’m bragging, but I get to, because my first ever pie was amazing and memorable. I now know that pie crust is hard to get just right, so that’s something to brag about. Also in elementary school, I bought a cookie press at a garage sale that hadn’t been opened since it was purchased in 1965. I taught myself how to use it and we had beautiful, tiny, star-shaped Christmas cookies in July. When I found a little counter-top deep-fryer at another garage sale, I begged until Mom bought it and spent an entire day with me making doughnuts. I invited friends. It was a whole day of fun. Thanks, Mom!

So that’s why I love to bake (and leave the cooking to Nathan) and why I’m still determined to do so, even though I’m trying not to bake with white flour. Once I stopped to think about it, I understood why less processed ingredients like whole grain flour require a bit more thought and add richer flavor. Here are a couple of things I’ve learned along the way:

  • Slow. Down. Baking does not cooperate with your need to hurry. When I hurry, I spill things, skip ingredients and generally make a mess of everything.
  • Follow the chemistry. Essentially, all baked goods come down to what Kim Boyce calls “wet mix” and “dry mix.” Keep them separate until you’re ready to mix it all up! The interaction between your dry ingredients and your wet ingredients starts the chemistry that transforms a batter or dough into flaky crust, fluffy muffins or moist cookies. If you’re using honey or agave instead of sugar in a recipe, but the honey in with the eggs and other wet ingredients, even if the recipe says to add the sugar to the flour in an earlier step. Sugar is dry. Honey is wet.
  • Stir, mix or process only as much as you need to, no more! Once you get flour wet, you start to activate the gluten. Gluten comes from the latin word for “glue” for a reason–mix that batter too much, and you’ll end up with hyper-active gluten gluey, chewy muffins, cardboard cookies or rock-hard bread. Even brownie mixes tell you to stop mixing after a minute or two, even if you still see little lumps of flour.
  • Temperature matters. If it says “at room temperature” then make sure it is at room temperature before you add it! Heat and cold make a huge difference. Melted and slightly cooled butter added to muffins means less mixing, and less mixing means that less risk of agitating gluten in your flour too much. Yeast goes crazy in the heat, which is why bread dough doubles in size and then doubles again during rising and then again during baking. Making a yeasted bread takes me half the time in the summer because our apartment isn’t air conditioned and heat makes yeast super active, causing the dough to rise a lot faster. Did you know that the key to making a good pie crust or biscuit dough is cold butter? Dough is flour, liquid and fat in varying quantities. Flaky crust happens when those little pieces of butter melt in the oven inside little pockets surrounded by flour. It all sticks together because of the liquid, which could be anything from orange juice to water to eggs to milk. So if it’s hot, I’ll mix in the fats as fast as possible and then put the dough in the freezer for five minutes to make sure they stay solid. Otherwise, it all melts together, becomes too uniform a texture and turns into cardboard in your oven.
  • Know your ingredients. I promise, you will have better results if you know that shortening is made of vegetable oil and less fat means a different chemistry from butter (or lard!) not just a lower calorie count. Whole grains are especially important to get to know because they complicate the chemistry much more than, say, switching to a different type of sweetener.
Which brings me to the section of this post on whole grains and why I am so in love with them. How they taste, how they work, how they grow, how we make them into flour, it’s all totally fascinating to me. The (illustrated!) basics:

This is a wheat kernel.

All-purpose flour is made from just the endosperm part of the wheat kernel. Why? It’s easier to grind into flour. If you were milling your own, you’d want an easier path from grain to flour, too! After centuries of choosing the wheat that’s easiest to make into food, we’ve actually created strains that are easier to thresh, which means that the outside parts come away more easily from that kernel of carbs in the middle. Unfortunately, as you can see in the chart above, that means we also got good at taking out the nutrition. Look at all the protein, fiber and iron we’re taking out!
Protein and iron complicate baking chemistry. And if you’ve ever had raisin bran cereal, you’ll know that bran has a unique taste. Wheat germ can be purchased on its own, and I have the toasted variety in my fridge right now, so I can tell you that it most definitely has a taste all its own. And keep in mind that we’re just talking about wheat. Good to the Grain covers whole wheat, including wheat graham (can someone explain graham flour to me? I haven’t gotten around to researching that yet), amaranth,  barley, buckwheat (which is not wheat and is actually more closely related to rhubarb), corn, kamut, oat, quinoa, rye, spelt and teff. Each has it’s own distinct flavor and, in my desire to learn everything all at once, I was overwhelmed at first. I quite like this wikipedia page for its thorough but not overwhelming coverage of whole grains.
I started baking with spelt flour, which has a tangy flavor reminiscent of a sourdough. Last night, I made muffins with oat flour, which is soft and nutty and, has a taste reminiscent of, well, oatmeal. I’ve used a lot of whole wheat flour in my time. I have recently fallen in love with injera, an Ethiopian spongey bread made from teff, but put off playing with teff flour in my own kitchen when I discovered that it is really, really expensive. So my collection now includes spelt, oat, rye, whole wheat and whole wheat graham flours, in addition to my (unbleached! never buy bleached flour! why would you want your food bleached?!) all-purpose and white flours. One can also buy cake flour, pastry flour, whole grain pastry flour, bread four and whole grain bread flour. All of these have different textures and flavors and all for good reasons. But unless you’re really, really serious about this, buy the flour you need for that recipe only. Store your beautiful flours in glass jars that seal tightly (to keep out crawly things). You can get really neat vintage-looking jars at Ikea for as little as $3 a piece. My mom stores her bags of flour in the freezer, which serves the same purpose of sealing them away from bugs and other things that find flour as nutritious as we do, but you know how I feel about temperatures. Flour must be at room temperature before I will use it. And once I get all those jars cleaned and labelled, you will see just how pretty they look on display!
Back to baking: here’s a really simple rule to remember about whole grains–because they are whole, and have all those parts listed in that picture above, they are heavier. They fill you up and stick to your ribs in a way that refined flours never can. (Try steel cut aka “Irish” oatmeal, if you haven’t, and tell me it’s not better than plain old Quaker oatmeal!) But remember, baking is all about chemistry. And heavier flour and you get heavier muffins. Not good. Unfortunately, we can’t just add extra baking powder or yeast to give it the same boost. That’s why Good to the Grain‘s recipes almost always contain some all-purpose flour. As does Heidi Swanson’s amazing Greek Yogurt Biscuit recipe. You can use only whole grain flour, but you end up with a heavier baked good and a wheatier taste. Even butter and baking soda just can’t make whole grain flour light and fluffy. But when I made Swanson’s biscuits (from Super-Natural Every Day), I used a little more spelt, a little more whole wheat and a little less all purpose and the result was delicious, light and beautiful. I probably compromised a little height and a little flakiness, but three of us finished off about 15 of those things (I ate more than Nathan or our guest… I admit it) so I’m calling it a success.
There’s one more increasingly popular way around using refined flour–use leftover cooked grains like oatmeal and quinoa. I adore healthychild.org, and my nutritionist contributes regularly. There are many recipes under the “Eat Healthy” section, and most are tailored to kids. If a kid likes it, you can bet it’s tasty.

Mmm Mmm GOOD… to the Grain

Last night, I needed something sweet. Plus, after being sick all week, I was feeling itchy to do something. For me, that often means baking. Last night, that meant going back to Good to the Grain (by Kim Boyce) for Ginger Snaps!

My new favorite cookbook.

Oh, cookbook, you are so beautiful! Everything I make from you is so delicious! How do you explain everything so simply, Kim Boyce? Can I come to your house, please?

Whole wheat flour makes these cookies complex–if I think about it, I can taste the nuttiness of the wheat under the spices and molasses. But they’re so light on the outside and so chewy on the inside that I can see why Boyce kept it half and half (half all purpose flour, half whole wheat flour). These are loaded with sugar, so they are definitely my kind of treat. But they’re beautiful and fill the house with a gingerbread smell that makes even August feel like Christmas. Good to the Grain, you win 2 out of 2. Kim Boyce, you may find me on your doorstep one day soon, begging for whatever divine knowledge you possess!

These three are the only ones left after the first batch!

Light and Delicious Whole Grain Baking

I recently purchased a cookbook called Good to the Grain: Cooking with Whole Grain Flours, by Kim Boyce. It’s beautiful and a project I can get behind, since I know much more about rising times and proper muffin textures than I know about cooking quinoa or marinating vegetables. That’s Nathan’s territory, and he’s so good at it that I have no desire to start cooking (sorry, Honey). The book is organized by flour, with a chapter for each kind of whole grain flour available and one on a multigrain flour the author herself developed. I decided to start with the chapter on spelt flour, because it says in the introduction that this is as close to all-purpose flour as it gets in the whole grain world. In fact, if you adjust your flavor expectations a little, you can apparently substitute spelt flour for all-purpose in just about any recipe.

Within the chapter on spelt, I settled on a recipe for Ricotta Crepes and began gathering ingredients. Whole milk, raw honey, two eggs, organic spelt flour, fresh and local ricotta cheese. [My research suggests that because ricotta is not aged it does not contribute to migraine headaches the way cheddar and mozzarella can.] It couldn’t have gotten any easier–combine the first four ingredients in the blender (yes, blender–good thing I got a new one!) and let it sit for an hour. Stir in the cheese. Start cookin’ crepes!

I have loved crepes since I was a little girl, when my big sister learned how to make them in France and came back toting her recipe and some Nutella. Yummy! This time for my filling, I sauteed some peaches in clarified butter just until they began to release liquid, added a little honey and some spices and let them sit overnight. Boyce recommends something savory like wilted greens, but I just couldn’t resist the peaches/ricotta combo.

It’s been awhile since I turned a crepe, but they came out very prettily, if I do say so myself! Oh, and the taste? Out of this world. I am spelt flour’s newest fan. Bonus perk: four grams of protein in just a quarter cup of spelt flour, not to mention all the vitamins B2 & B3 and other goodness.

My pile of crepes and bowl of peaches.

Sorry about the photo, but the light was bad and we had eaten a few before I remembered to snap this. Not reading the recipe in advance meant crepes for dinner, because I didn’t have time to wait an hour on that batter in the morning. Worth the wait, though! These were light as air, but filling and hearty. The crepes we didn’t eat are in the freezer, wrapped tightly with plastic wrap, a sheet of parchment separating each one. They’re super easy to pull out and toast up! A+, Kim Boyce!