With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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An introductory note: I’m not a gourmet, a nutritionist, or a professional cook — just someone who’s tried to prepare food and feed people with love for about ten years. So don’t take my advice for more than homey suggestions or my recipes for Julia Child creations. I’m also a vegetarian (more about that in future columns) and a Capricorn (for those who are interested) and a well-loved wife and mother. This column is not meant to substitute for books such as Diet for a Small Planet or The Joy of Cooking, but I hope it will flavor your day with a fresh view on what we eat and what we become because of what we eat. Comments and suggestions are welcome.
Survival is becoming a faddish topic of discussion these days, even attracting the famous to a seminar on the subject right here in Chapel Hill. But how many of us are aware of what survival means for millions of poor people — fathers just eking out an existence, mothers with five or six hungry little mouths to feed. Survival for them often means filling up on the A&P’s 19¢ loaf of white bread, getting energy from supersweet soft drinks, breakfasting on grits and “gravy” (flour, water, bacon drippings), killing the appetite with fritos. . . . Does being poor mean one has to eat poor, too? Does survival mean stuffing the tummy but starving the nerves, the bones, the muscles, the soul?
For a number of reasons, David and I have chosen to live at a subsistence level and the task of properly feeding ourselves and our 15-month-old is a hard one. I leave it to other, more political writers, to denounce the greedy people in the food industries who have succeeded in glutting the market shelves with over-processed, under-enriched, spiritless food. I’ll just pass along some of our ideas on surviving in such a nutritional desert.
Creating an atmosphere of love and beauty often offsets the apparent meagerness of a meal. Wildflowers are free — dandelions, clover, all those pretty little flowers popping out in vacant lots or around public buildings in spring and summer — and as a centerpiece they remind us of the richness of the earth. Place those lemon and orange seeds in some soil in an old milk container, set it in a warm place, and with luck and patience you may get little green plants to brighten the table. Or plant a carrot top or potato eye; the fertility of this world is incredible. Save the 20¢ a week you spend on paper napkins for a package of frozen peas; make cloth napkins and crochet some napkin rings out of scrap yarn, a different color for each person at the table. Take a few minutes for silence before the meal, if only to remind yourself that at least you have something to eat.
Every magazine and newspaper these days has articles on how to save money at the check-out so I won’t add anything. But I will remind you that home-made whole wheat bread doesn’t take so long to make and you can make a really nutritious loaf for under 45¢ — cheaper than Tip Top! It’s more filling, too, so it goes further. (It’s also better for your teeth and gums.) Sprouts are incredibly inexpensive and good eating. Powdered milk mixed 50-50 with whole milk tastes like the real thing. Frozen orange juice is cheaper and better than Coke and doesn’t leave you thirsty and with holes in your teeth.
The day I was asked to write this column I had just prepared an old family favorite — potato blintzes. The potatoes were on sale at 44¢ for 10 lbs. and the eggs were 50¢ a dozen — what a bargain. This Eastern European dish was truly survival food for my forebears. Here’s my version of my grandmother’s recipe:
4 med. potatoes
½ onion, chopped
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons milk
butter or margarine
2 eggs (at room temp.)
½ cup water
1 teaspoon honey
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons whole wheat flour
Wash (don’t peel) potatoes, slice and cook in enough salted water to cover. While they’re boiling, saute onions in oil with salt and pepper to taste until golden. Set aside.
Beat eggs in a small bowl. Blend in water, honey and salt. Slowly blend into flour in a larger bowl. Mix until you have a thin batter.
Hopefully, you have one pan that’s just for omelets, or teflon-lined, or just anti-stick. Mine is an 8-inch cast iron that’s only used for frying eggs or onions and has a smooth buttery glaze. The batter should make about 8 thin pancake-like crepes which will embrace the potatoes. To get these crepes or blintzes of the proper consistency you must have the pan well-greased and so hot that the batter cooks as it hits the pan. Pour some into the pan, roll the pan so the bottom is completely covered, then pour the excess back into the bowl. Cook at medium high until the edges seem dry and pull away from the sides of the pan. Then remove it from the heat, turning it upside down, shake out the crepe onto a table or, as I do (only because my mother did), a sheet of wax paper. You may have to bang it and help it out with a dull knife, but after the pan is seasoned it should flip right out. Repeat this until you’ve used all but one tablespoon of the batter. Stack the crepes, cooked side up, until ready to fill.
By now the potatoes should be soft. Pour off the water (save it for bread), mash the potatoes with the onions, milk and last spoonful of batter. You might want to add some butter.
To fill the blintzes, put a big dollop of potato in the center of each one, fold over the edges like an envelope, and set aside with folded edges down. You can freeze or refrigerate these until you’re ready to eat. Then just fry gently in some butter over medium-low heat until golden on both sides.
Blintzes are usually served with sour cream but I use homemade yogurt (cheaper and milder). Served with a salad, a vegetable (I prefer beets) and whole grain bread, you’ve got a tasty, inexpensive, and nutritious meal. Smell your flowers for dessert.