Save the Chicken Livers

Monday, August 29, 2011

I was talking to a friend a few months ago about how sometimes I end up with a whole bunch of unrelated things that need to be used up, or I find myself unable to make it to the grocery store for too long of a stretch and don’t have anything obvious to fix for dinner. I end up with Weird Food Night.

My friend said, “Beets and popcorn! That’s what we called that when I was growing up.”

She said she’s not exactly sure how it started, she thinks it was some night when that was really all they had so that’s what they ate for dinner, beets and popcorn, but eventually it turned into this special thing that she and her mom would have, when it was just the two of them and they would eat some crazy thing for dinner, whatever they felt like. It was a special treat. Beets and popcorn night.

It feels like a really long time since I’ve had a good shopping trip and made a good dinner. It’s been hot, I’ve been busy, nothing has seemed appealing when I’ve been picking up groceries. It’s generally been fine, I have things to eat, but I’ve been working my way through them and it’s getting increasingly challenging to make an actual meal.

Today it occurred to me that I could make a passable pad thai — I have rice noodles and lime juice (freezer) and chicken (freezer) and carrots and eggs. I definitely have fish sauce — in fact I may have enough fish sauce to last me the rest of my life. (I brought back a box of Asian food items from a friend’s, she was cleaning out her kitchen in advance of a remodel and had a bunch of stuff she just wanted out of there, and there were at least two full bottles of fish sauce, and I had just bought a bottle. I think it takes me about five years to go through one bottle.)

While I was pulling things out of the freezer in preparation for the pad thai, I noticed that I had two packages of chicken giblets and another separate stash of chicken livers so I pulled those out too.

After doing whatever it was I was doing between thinking of making pad thai and actually getting around to cooking, I decided that upon further consideration, I wasn’t up for making pad thai after all.

It was beets and popcorn time. Or chicken livers and watermelon time, as the case may be.

Chicken livers really aren’t part of my standard repertoire, but most of the time when I buy a whole chicken at King’s, the giblets are included. (Whole Foods is pretty hit or miss these days; it used to include them, but it seems like lately they’re missing more often than they’re there.) If I’m making fried chicken, I cook them up with the rest of the chicken parts, but if I’m making anything else, I put them in the freezer for future use.

I feel like chicken giblets are one of those things like bread crumbs. You can save bread crumbs all you want, but unless you eventually make something with them, it’s not doing you any good.

Saving chicken livers is not useful unless I do something with them.

But what do you do with chicken livers if you’re not Southern frying them? I think I tried making pâté once but as I recall it didn’t turn out all that well. I needed another option, one that I could make with things I actually had on hand (which was, as noted, not much).

Half of the cookbooks I have are vegetarian so those are no help. The Pleasures of Cooking for One suggests putting chopped cooked chicken liver in an omelette. Not a bad idea, I did have eggs, but I wasn’t in an omelette mood, and honestly I think my omelette mood and my chicken liver mood are mutually exclusive, I don’t think that’s ever really going to work for me.

Joy of Cooking had a recipe for Calf or Chicken Liver Lyonnaise that looked easy and that I had all the ingredients for (except the mushrooms, which are noted as optional, and parsley, which is always optional).

Chicken Liver Lyonnaise it was.

It was delicious.

Julia Child was right. Save the chicken livers.

Calf or Chicken Liver Lyonnaise
from Joy of Cooking (Bobbs-Merrill, 1964 edition)

2 servings

Have sliced to a 1/3-inch even thickness:
1/2 lb calf liver or 12 chicken livers cut in half

Season with
salt and pepper

Coat on both sides with
patting well between your hands to make the flour adhere and to remove the excess.

Sauté until golden brown in
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup sliced onions
(1/4 cup sliced mushrooms)

and set aside nearby. Now melt over high heat in a heavy skillet:
1 tablespoon butter

Heat it until it starts making slight crackling noises. Put the floured liver into the skillet, allowing 1 minute to each side. Remove the liver and discard the butter it was cooked in, which may be bitter. Put the liver on a hot plate, cover with the onion butter and:
chopped parsley

Serve at once. We hate to add this, because we feel liver should be rare — but if you don’t like it this way, cook it over medium heat 2 minutes to the side for medium doneness.

The Middle Ground

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I was listening to Fresh Air last night and Terry Gross was interviewing Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse (and, more importantly, The Edible Schoolyard) fame. Terry noted that the fixed price dinner at Chez Panisse is currently around $90 per person, which is clearly out of reach for most people.

She said she feels like there is a divide when it comes to food and eating in this country, with cheap, super-sized sodas and fast food meals on one side and expensive, lovingly prepared foods made with locally sourced ingredients on the other. She asked if there was any middle ground.

I don’t remember Alice Waters’s exact response (and I’m too lazy to listen to the interview again right now) but I think it basically had to do with how food is artificially cheap in this country, and how good food will cost more, because it’s more expensive to produce. But it’s also worth more. That’s just how it is.

While Alice Waters was answering Terry Gross on the radio, I was answering her in my kitchen, telling them that indeed there is a middle ground — the middle ground is to cook your own food, at home, with the best ingredients you can afford. It will be much better than a fast food meal and a fraction of the cost of dinner at Chez Panisse. (In fact my entire month’s grocery bill, shopping almost exclusively at Whole Foods, is roughly the same as a single meal for one person at Chez Panisse. And my per-meal cost is actually a fraction of the cost of the fast food meal — for the past ten years, I have eaten for about a dollar per meal, which is approximately one-fifth the current cost of a Big Mac Meal at my local McDonald’s.)

It’s not complicated and it’s not out of reach. I firmly believe that anyone can do this.

Here’s how.

First, before you start, you need to think about why you want to. Are you doing it for health reasons (either yours or other family members)? Are you doing it so your kids get to eat good meals at home? Are you doing it to save money? Are you doing it so you can eat better food?

Try to figure out what your motivation is.

Knowing this will help keep you from getting derailed when the going gets tough, and can help you figure out which alternative approach you should focus on when you need to cut corners to get through. If you’re doing it primarily for health reasons, then you might be willing to spend more to have the same level of food — for instance buying pre-cut produce that you can throw together quickly when you get home after a long day at work. If you’re doing it for financial reasons and health is less of a concern, then you can go with a lowest common denominator approach (my preferred L.C.D. foods are fruit, breakfast cereal, and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches) until your schedule — or psyche, as the case may be — clears up and you can manage full-fledged meals again.

One you’ve gotten that figured out, this is what you need to do.

Step 1
Learn to cook.

Get your hands on a good beginner’s cookbook — my favorite is Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham but there’s no shortage of cookbooks in the world. Stop by your local library and take a look at what’s on the shelves there so you can test drive some and see how it goes. When you find one you like, invest in a copy. Also try to pick up one or two comprehensive basic cookbooks, like the Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer or for a more recent take, How to Cook Everything. Or go retro and get the plaid Betty Crocker. Check out yard sales, thrift stores, used bookstores for cheap cookbooks.

Or you can stick with the internet and check out YouTube, where there are endless cooking videos, and also look at food blogs, of which there is also no end.

If you’ve never cooked anything, start with weekend breakfasts — pancakes, scrambled eggs, biscuits. You’ll be more relaxed and have more time to work things out. If it’s a disaster, you can just fix a bowl of cereal or a bagel and move on.

Once you’re comfortable with that, you can move on to easy dinners — pasta with vegetables, black beans and rice, mac and cheese. If it helps to get you going, use convenience products, but know that nearly everything you buy prepared (or partially prepared) in the grocery store you can make yourself, cheaper and better.

Keep looking at cookbooks and magazines and food blogs, where you can get new ideas for different meals, and keep trying out recipes to figure out what you like, what your family will eat, what works with your schedule.

If you start to feel sick of it and feel like it’s not worth it, remember why you wanted to do it in the first place, think about what’s not working, and try to come up with a different strategy. (In Holistic Management parlance, this is the monitoring phase. You don’t just come up with a plan and go, you have to constantly review it to see if it’s working. If it’s not working, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Look at what the problem is, address the problem, try again. Monitor, adjust, monitor, adjust.)

Once you’ve mastered following recipes, you’ll start to be more comfortable making adjustments and making recipes your own. And you’ll get a repertoire of things that don’t really have recipes, they’re just things you put together — being able to cook without needing a specific recipe for every dish (or to use the title of another book I like, How to Cook Without a Book) is a real time and energy saver.

Step 2
Learn to shop.

For starters, just go to the same store you usually go to; you don’t have to change everything at once. Start paying attention to prices and noticing what’s on special. If you shop according to price — buying fruits and vegetables when they are cheaper than normal — you will be buying seasonally. Congratulations, you’re now one of the cool kids.

There are multiple different shopping strategies, any of which can be successful. Some people like to shop once a month, because it saves running around and reduces impulse purchases. (This would not work for me at all because I want fresh produce more than once a month. Also I work from home and walking to the grocery store gets me out of the house, which is generally a good thing.)

Many people shop weekly. My brother likes to shop at 7am on Saturdays because he says no one else is there yet and the store is fully stocked for the busy day ahead — he said you get the best selection with the fewest people. (When his kids were little, he’d take them with him and they would explore the store while he shopped, which is definitely not something you want to do later in the day when the store is packed. Also I think this works better for men than women; a man grocery shopping with three kids is enough of an anomaly that all of the workers knew whose kids they were and would keep an eye on them. Also probably works better for my brother than most people, he’s got a special talent for things like that.)

I used to shop weekly but I found I ended up throwing out a lot of food because I would buy things based on what I thought I might want, and then I would go out to lunch and not be hungry for dinner or work late and decide I really wanted Chinese food, or whatever. So I wouldn’t eat the food I bought and then I would forget about it and go shopping again and get more and then throw things away.

When I started working from home, I decided I needed to fix this, and I started looking in the fridge before going to the store to see what I had and/or what was about to go bad and use that as the basis of the next meal I was preparing. Instead of trying to get everything I thought I might want to eat in the week, I decided I would buy just what I needed for the next meal I was making (assuming that that meal would provide at least two or three servings — one dinner and two lunches, and if it was more than that, the remainder would go in the freezer, I can only eat something three times before getting sick of it), and also restock pantry staples.

Basically I would stay focused and buy food for the next two to three days instead of anything I ever might want to eat. The grocery store was less than a mile from my house. If it turned out I didn’t get something I actually needed, I could either work around it and get it next time (after all I’d be back in a few days), or make a special trip for it. It would be fine.

It was fine.

My food costs dropped precipitously once I implemented this strategy. I would shop for two to three days worth of food, but would almost always end up with four to five days worth of food, so I would be going to the grocery store twice a week instead of once a week, which really isn’t so different.

Also I walk to the store, so I don’t tend to go crazy with impulse purchases, and I pay with cash, which also puts a serious curb on purchases.

As you cook more, you may find that the store you usually shop at doesn’t have the best produce or doesn’t have the best prices. Look around at other stores and see how things compare.

Generally different stores are cheaper for different things. As you pay attention to prices you’ll learn this. You might make a trip every month or every few months to one particular store to stock up on things that are cheap there while you do most of your shopping at the store that’s most convenient or that has the best meat or fish or produce or whatever you care about most.

For instance the vast majority of my shopping trips are to Whole Foods, because it’s a comfortable walk from my house (about a mile and a half), it’s convenient to other places I often walk, it’s a lovely store with a remarkable diversity of customers, and everyone there is nice. However I will not buy Asian foods there because I can get them for a fraction of the cost at the Asian Grocery. So I drive to the Asian Grocery a few times a year and get soy sauce, fish sauce, rice noodles, rice paper wrappers, bamboo shoots, and whatever else I regularly use in stir fries and other Asian dishes.

If you get really taken with sourcing ingredients and care a lot about where your food comes from, you can check out farmer’s markets, roadside stands, pick-your-own farms. You can talk to people with backyard chickens. You can join a CSA. You can plant a garden.

But you don’t have to do this.

Even the worst industrially farmed tomato in the worst grocery store in town is better than fast food — which is not only using the worst industrially farmed tomatoes but is also adding loads of sugar and salt, and charging you for the pleasure of serving you.

Don’t make things harder for yourself than they need to be.

When I started this post, I was thinking there were going to be more steps, and I might think of some others later, but I think for now this is it.

Learn to cook. Learn to shop. Shop and cook.

And eat.

And do the dishes.

There you have it.

The middle ground.

Cause and Effect

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I was talking to my friend Ann the other day about a problem we’ve been having at The Scrap Exchange; something that’s supposed to happen every day isn’t always happening. However there’s a little bit of a trick to making it happen, it’s a two-step process and if it’s not something you’re used to doing, you might think it’s done after the first step, you won’t necessarily realize you need to do something else to finish up.

I said we need to figure out what the problem is, if it’s that people think they’re doing what they’re supposed but just aren’t doing it right, or if it’s that they’re not doing it at all. We can’t come up with a solution it until we know what’s going on.

I told her I’d been looking at Holistic Management, one of my favorite books of all time. She said, “I should read that.” I said, “No, you shouldn’t. It’s 600 pages long and is mostly about livestock ranching.” I told her I’d write some posts about it and she could read those. Here’s the first. (Though she heard this part already, so she’ll have to wait for the next one to get anything new.)

I said I’d just re-read the chapter on the cause and effect test (subtitled “stop the blows to the head before you take the aspirin”) that talks about how you need to make sure your solution addresses the cause of the problem and not just the symptoms. Because if your solution only treats symptoms, the symptom you focus on might go away, but the underlying problem will still be there, you haven’t really solved anything, and sooner or later it will come back.

I gave her the example that Allan Savory gives in the book, about his tractors breaking down. When he first asked why his maintenance costs were so high, people said it was because his tractors were old, the solution was to get new tractors. But he wasn’t sure if that was it. He looked at his repair records and it didn’t seem like age was the problem, it seemed like lack of maintenance was a much bigger  problem. He realized that his workers had no incentive to maintain the tractors; they got paid regardless of whether the tractors were running or were in the shop.

So instead of getting new tractors, he changed his pay structure and offered the operators a bonus for every day they met a specific list of maintenance criteria for the tractors (oil checked, belts and hoses checked, screws tightened, etc). Lo and behold his maintenance costs dropped to a fraction of their previous level.

His solution addressed the cause of the problem and the problem was solved.

This idea of making sure your solution addresses the cause of the problem came to mind for me again the other day when a friend sent a link about an article in Health Affairs concerning the cost of food. I said I had seen something about the study and made a note of it; I wanted to read the original paper and not just the news articles about it. It sounded to me like the logic behind the study’s conclusions was somewhat suspect.

I also said I was about ready to give up trying to argue that you can eat good-for-you food for less than you can eat bad-for-you food, it feels like a losing battle. And part of me thinks I should just let it go, but another part thinks there’s still a case worth making.

The intense focus on food costs implies that the reason most people eat badly is because healthy food is too expensive. If the cost of food is the problem, then the solution is to adjust the pricing structure of food—tax unhealthy food or subsidize healthy food or similar approaches.

But I don’t belive that the reason that people eat French fries instead of green beans is because green beans cost too much. People eat French fries instead of green beans because French fries taste better. And because you can buy them on every street corner. And the reason you can buy them on every street corner is because people will buy them on every street corner. As Brian Wansink notes in Mindless Eating

Companies want to make a profit. If, starting tomorrow at noon, we all went into Taco Bell and Burger King and ordered only salads, their menus would change faster than you could say “Lite Italian.” Within a year, people would be able to eat at a Taco Salad Bell anytime they wanted to make a run for the border. Within another year, there would be a Broccoli King.

The law of supply and demand says that the greater the supply of something, the lower the price. It’s true that some unhealthy foods are cheaper because of government subsidies, but it’s also true that many unhealthy foods are cheap because they are immensely popular, and the economies of scale for producing them are enormous. If you’re selling a million bags of Doritos a day, you don’t need to have much of a profit margin on each one to make the economics work.

Cause and effect.

I see the cause of Americans’ unhealthy diets stemming primarily from the following factors:

[1] Taste Preference
Once you’re used to eating it, junk food taste good. (Though if you stop eating it for long enough and then try to start again, most of it is pretty disgusting.) Most people have grown up eating processed food and have developed a taste for it. Eating healthy food feels like a punishment to them.

[2] Accessibility
Junk food is ubiquitous. If you’re not preparing your own food, getting things on the fly that aren’t unhealthy is a real challenge.

[3] Lack of Skills and Knowledge
People (okay, women) used to grow up learning how to cook. Most of the time people didn’t use recipes, they just made basic meals from basic ingredients. You had to cook if you wanted to eat — there weren’t 24-hour restaurants or convenience stores on every corner. However we now have several generations of people who have grown up eating processed, ready-to-eat foods, and who have never (or rarely) cooked anything from scratch. If you’ve never cooked before, it can be daunting. (Anything you’ve never done before is daunting.) And if you don’t cook on a regular basis, you’re always starting with nothing and have to think about it and expend energy on it and it all feels like a big pain, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

I actually would not put cost on the list at all, because preparing healthy food from scratch is in fact cheaper than buying prepared processed food. And buying healthy food, if you go about it the right way, can be cheaper — often much cheaper — than buying unhealthy food. It also takes less time than eating out. [Note: This link is to an interesting series of experiments that a blogger in California made: he ate every meal in for a month and then ate every meal out for a month and made some comparisons. If you scroll to the bottom of the page linked you’ll see his note about how much longer it took him to eat out than to eat at home.]

As long as you know what you’re doing.

So then people say well yeah, but that’s because you know what to do and you know how to cook. Other people don’t know that.

And that is exactly my point.

The cause of the problem is not that food is too expensive, it’s that people don’t know how to shop for and cook healthy food. They don’t know how to quickly put a good meal on the table using what they have on hand. They don’t know what to buy that’s good for them and cost-effective, they don’t know what to do with food so it doesn’t spoil before they’re able to eat it, they don’t know how to fit cooking and shopping into their schedule. (And obviously there are other issues: accessibility to fresh food and general exhaustion from economic insecurity and all kinds of things that should not be dismissed, but that to a large extent can be worked around.)

And this is not a blame the victim thing, I’m not saying it’s their own fault. How would you know how to shop and eat if you’ve never done it before? I’m just pointing out that money is not the main impediment to people eating better, so money should not be the first solution that gets pointed to. I see increasing knowledge as the solution to people eating poorly.

I’m guessing I’m not going to convince anyone of this any time soon, and maybe I will just give up, but anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a glutton for punishment so I decided to write this post anyway.

And now that I’ve provided this important and wide-ranging exposition on cause and effect, I will range a little wider and leave you with the other thing that the discussion of cause and effect reminded me of, which is the first chapter of one of my other favorite books of all time, Candide.

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

One day when Miss Cunégonde went to take a walk in a little neighboring woods, which was called a park, she saw, through the bushes the sage Dr. Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very tractable. As Miss Cunégonde had a natural disposition toward the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor’s reasoning upon causes and effects. She returned home greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the desire of knowledge, imagining that she might be a sufficient reason for young Candide, and he for her.

On her way back she happened to meet Candide. She blushed, he blushed also. She wished him a good morning in a flattering tone, he returned the salute, without knowing what he said. The next day, as they were rising from the dinner table, Cunégonde and Candide slipped behind a screen. The miss dropped her handkerchief, the young man picked it up. She innocently took hold of his hand, and he as innocently kissed hers with a warmth, a sensibility, a grace—all very particular: their lips met; their eyes sparkled; their knees trembled; their hands strayed. The Baron chanced to come by; he took note of the cause and effect, and, without hesitation, saluted Candide with some notable kicks on the backside and drove him out of the castle. The lovely Miss Cunégonde fainted away, and, as soon as she came to herself, the Baroness boxed her ears.