A food revolution

5 March 2018
March, week 1 in The Simple Home

Going back to basics
This is one of the most important chapters in The Simple Home as it deals with something we all do - we all eat. Providing food for yourself and a family, getting value for your food dollar, buying as close to home as possible, storing food, organising your food stocks and being able to cook and bake in the time you have available, all come into play this month. If you can work out a food system that works for you, you'll increase your chances of eating well, you'll provide good nutrition in your family meals, work to a budget, get value for money and add the power of your dollars to your own community when you buy local.

Cinnamon tea cake is a favourite cake in our home. I made it again yesterday because Jamie loves it and it's a good cake for his lunchbox. He usually has it for afternoon tea with a glass of milk.  It's one of the many excellent recipes in The Country Table cookbook - details below.

I was born in an era of delicious food, when food was not a product, a fad or a super-food, it was just food. Most women and girls knew how to cook and bake and, with few exceptions, dining out and convenience food were seen as inferior to home cooking. I still think that, although having raised two sons who are chefs, my horizons are wider now than they used to be. Nowadays men and boys know how to cook too, interest in food has increased enormously and although the numbers of cooking shows on TV indicates many of us are in the kitchen cooking our favourite meals, there have never been so many people eating out and buying frozen pre-cooked meals. On a recent Sunday morning I went to the supermarket to do my shopping, something I usually do later in the week, and I was amazed at how few people were in there at 8am. I was almost finished my shopping when I went into the last aisle to get Australian frozen peas and after seeing only about 10 people in the shop, there were 20 - 30 people staring into the freezer cabinets, choosing frozen meals! I wish it wasn't like that - we all deserve better. I know many people think cooking takes a lot of time but it can fit into even the busiest of schedules. Cooking your own food will cost less, you'll increase your level of self-reliance and you'll know exactly what you're eating.

When we look back and see how food culture has changed, particularly over the past ten years, it's wonderful knowing there are more people getting back to basics and growing their own food, there are more community gardens, more backyard chickens and there seems to be a growing awareness of real food. But even though that's happening, there are more people who prefer to have food prepared for them. Shopping, storing and cooking food are life skills we all need and we should be teaching our children as they grow.

I'm not trying to convince you that I have all the answers or that what I do is THE right way.  There isn't one. Everyone has to work this out for themselves based on their daily workload, available time and budget. This month I'm sharing ways to shop for, store and prepare food that will help you save money and cut your food waste.  I hope our readers share what they do too

Cooking from scratch 
I’ve been cooking from scratch for longer than I care to remember. It makes sense to me because it’s tastier, it’s cheaper and I know what’s in our food. Years ago, I went through my ‘convenience phase’ of adding gravy powder to my gravy, buying pastry cases and making stock with stock cubes, but none of these habits lasted long. My gravy didn’t taste as good, the pastry I bought was capable of sitting on the shelf for weeks (and tasted like it), and I remembered that making stock with bones and herbs was much more satisfying than boiling water and stirring in a cube of who-knows-what. I am much more cautious of synthetic food preservatives and additives than I am of the fungus and bacteria they prevent. If I want to provide my family with healthy and safe meals, I prefer to use fresh food, add only natural seasonings and cook it from scratch. We want to eat real food.

As far as I’m concerned, cooking from scratch is the basic cooking our grandmothers did, which uses fresh ingredients and nothing that contains preservatives or artificial colours or flavours. So bread, cakes and biscuits are made with basic flour, fruit or cocoa rather than with pre-mixes, cake mixes or frozen commercial cookie doughs. Flavour is built up in savoury food by caramelisation, spices and herbs and not by adding a can of soup or a packet of premixed "spices". Raw foods such as salads are made using the freshest in-season produce and dressed with ingredients you mix at home. Soups are made with marrow bones; grains are soaked; yoghurt, sauces, relishes and cordials are made from scratch. You might be a long way from that now, but you don't have to stay there and small steps will get you there.

Cooked from scratch recipes

The most common complaint I hear is that cooking from scratch takes too much time. And yes, I agree that if you make a meal every night from scratch, you’ll spend a lot of time at the stove. So you have to be smart about it and work out a few shortcuts and time savers and make sure you have a stock of basic staples on hand that you can use. My sanity is saved by double-batch cooking and my slow cooker but if you've got a larger family, or a large freezer to store your food, you might like to try once-a-month batch cooking. 

Batch cooking 
A wonderful habit to get into is doing some batch cooking. If you have a spare couple of hours, have a cooking session and then you’ll have three or four meals in the freezer for during the week. In the morning, transfer one meal from the freezer to the fridge. When you come home from work, or when you’ve finished your home chores, you know the meal is there; all you have to do is warm it up. If there is someone around to help, get them to set the table and prepare some drinks. Goodbye, takeaways and convenience foods! But I know that many of you don’t have that spare time on the weekends, and even if you do, you’re so tired that cooking is the last thing you want to give two hours to.

There is another way to squirrel away a meal or two without going to much extra effort: many meals that you can cook on a weeknight can easily be doubled up. That is what I do and it's called double batch cooking. You cook double amounts, eat half straight away and freeze the other half for later. Curry, stew, soups, pizza, stroganoff and meatballs in sauce can all be made in a double batch and the second half frozen. You can also be creative and turn one meal into a different meal, such as using meat sauce for pasta one night and tacos the next. Any roast meat or chicken can be eaten as a hot roast one night and turned into a quick curry, hash or stir-fry the following night, or stored in the freezer with your increasing stash of home-cooked meals. If one chicken is enough for your family for one meal, then cook two at a time, save the second in the fridge or pick the meat off the bones and store it in portions in the freezer. It saves electricity/gas, time and effort. If you can get into this habit of cooking double batches, and you seal them and mark them correctly, you’ll have a meal waiting in the freezer on those nights when you run late or you’re just too tired to cook everything from scratch.  Here is a great resource that may help you establish this form of cooking in your own home.

Slow cooking 
Another cooking method that will save your sanity and time is slow cooking. Just load the slow cooker in the morning before you go to work, turn it on low, make sure it’s on a sturdy surface and that the cord is safety tucked away, and you can leave it all day to cook. All stews, soups and curries can be made this way, and corned beef is soft and tender after a few hours of slow cooking. If you have a large slow cooker, make a double batch and freeze half of it. Another bonus of slow cooking is that you can use the cheaper cuts of meat. The longer cooking times tenderise the meat and dissolve the gristle giving you rich sauces with many health benefits.

Interesting information about slow cooking, and some recipes

Vegetable, beef and barley soup made on a stock of marrow bones. Absolutely delicious, healthy, inexpensive and easy to freeze or take in a Thermos for lunch the following day.  Add a homemade bread roll and you've got a meal that will fill most people.

I don’t often recommend buying new appliances, but if you don’t have a slow cooker and you’re a family who likes soups, casseroles, curries and braised meats, it would be wise economy to buy one.  A good large freezer is also a good investment, especially for a larger family but it will also work well if it's just the two of you.

Cook book recommendation:
The Country Table is an excellent book, published by the Australian Women's Weekly. It contains a variety of wholesome and easy to prepare traditional Australian meals, preserves and baked goods.

Next week our topic will be shopping for food, getting the most from your food budget, menu planning, permanent shopping lists and stockpiling.