Sunday, January 9, 2011

11 Culinary New Year's Resolutions (Kulinářské Novoroční Předsevzetí)!

New Year's is always the time many people make New Year's resolutions (novoroční předsevzetí). While we have long since given up on those fleeting thoughts of reform (we prefer to attempt living better lives each and every day instead), we thought it important to share some culinary resolutions for everyday living as we all can benefit from enhanced food, since great food promotes healthy living.

For 2011, we offer 11 Culinary New Year's Resolutions (Kulinářské Novoroční Předsevzetí)!

These can be summed up with 11 words:  
Grow, Prepare, Reduce, Minimize, Promote, Preserve, Learn, Read, Experiment, Complement and Compliment.

Such are offered in the true spirit and belief that anyone can cook (thanks, Auguste Gusteau and Remy in Ratatouille) and that excellent cuisine is within our reach globally (thanks, Julia Child)!

A gold relief of fruit and corn we found in the Roundel Music Hall at the Castle in Jindřichův Hradec.

 1. Grow your own food or purchase it locally
as much as you can.
What better way to reduce your carbon footprint plus get immense annual joy than from working in the garden, planning, planting, weeding, mulching, staking/tying, and...harvesting! Here, Neil picks red currants at our friends' house in Plastovice, Czech Republic. If you interact with your food while growing or harvesting it, you maximize your interests in it and appreciation thereof.

You can grow vegetables, herbs, and fruits almost anywhere. Many gardeners use containers if they don't have open land...put them on your deck, patio, in a window box or wherever you have sun. Just as everyone can cook, EVERYONE can grow something. Choose to!
 Here's parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) awaking from the snow in our Czech garden, after our January rain)
 Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) has been flattened by the snows but is still green....
we can use it fresh in January!

It's always pleasurable at least to have a small herb cutting garden so that when you need fresh parsley, dill, chives, thyme, cilantro, lovage, mint, garlic, basil, rosemary or can quickly get it. Always so much easier than having to run to the store and, if they have it, get a package or bunch that's more than you need at the moment. Of course in the northern winters, you'll have to have windowsill herbs in small pots for fresh cutting, while your outdoor cutting garden sleeps and refreshes.

Kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea Gongylodes group; green and purple types shown here)--a so-called cabbage-turnip (Germanic) is still alive under the snows in our Czech Garden this January.
The red globes of leftover radishes, Raphanus raphinastrum, shine out from the receding snows this week.
 Carrots (Daucus carota) can be harvested in the fall or left in the ground over winter for spring harvest or...should thaws occur January!
The same is true for beets (Beta vulgaris) which are so tasty in the fall but also great in the spring when they emerge from under the snows.

One cannot, of course, grow everything needed for their tables (most of us do work full-time jobs, after all!), during the growing season in your area. Be sure to head weekly to your local farmers' roadside stands/farms and artisan farmer's markets to get the freshest, local and delightful produce, dairy products, meats/fish, flowers, herbs and other delights! What will occur is an energizing event in shopping:  meeting your friends, finding new ones, and--most importantly--forming important, trusting relationships with your vendors. This will empower you and the growers to work together for the best possible products for your table--they eat what they sell. These will be the next best thing to picking them yourself (don't forget that there are many opportunities to do just that at pick-you-own establishments, too).
[Local cheese producer stand in the Czech Republic]

 2. Prepare your own food as much as possible.
Every part of consumption can be a process that you and everyone can participate in--from growing/picking your own foodstuffs, to washing, prepping (sous chefs are very important!), cooking, plating, serving, and consuming! It can be a highly social process which enhances the fun. While many times you may want to have the meal all prepared in advance of some party you're hosting, other times you can have everyone join in or watch while the artistic, delectable dishes are created. As Julia Child would often do, sip a glass of wine to complement the process (or make a fruit frappe, a Mojito). There is untold beauty, enjoyment, and energy that comes from participatory preparation of your food.

 3. Reduce consumption of highly processed foods.
While we're certainly not advocating to never shop (what fun would that be?!), try and avoid all of those products that are highly processed because in so doing, the manufacturers add many ingredients which enhance the food preservation during 'post-harvest', i.e. from harvest to final products that you purchase in the stores. While many such ingredients are listed on the labels, others are not (if not required by statute) such as aluminum in easy to melt cheeses! The more processed items become, the less food value (particularly fiber, vitamins, minerals) they may contain. The less processed, the better.

 4. Minimize purchase of foods requiring
massive energy inputs to reach your table.
[A local spice vendor with predominantly locally-grown herbs/spices from the Czech Republic]

When we were growing up and global shipping of products was nearly unheard of, everything we consumed had its 'seasonality'. We ate fresh strawberries in June; for the remainder of the year either we had frozen ones (Neil's Mom loved these!) or none at all. Preserving foods was paramount for survival and ensuring good ingredients for winter cooking. While we're not advocating spinning back to those times completely, a balance seems prudent. One cannot resist tempting items, of course...that's why they predominate in today's markets....people buy them! We're just saying to get as much locally with your farmer/grower friends if you can't produce it yourself. As we have found here in the Czech Republic, there are many intriguing locally made/grown products, like Brie cheeses, that taste very much like that from France. Of course, once in awhile, who can resist some of the real Brie, but we just don't have to have it every time!

 5. Promote relationship building
(family, friends, neighbors, communities)
with high quality, lovingly-prepared food.
The beauty of good cuisine is that everyone can engage in some process! The most delightful, of course, is that high-quality, lovingly-prepared food brings people together. The sensory enjoyment of food and drink is perfect when it is done with someone. While this is not problematic if you have more than one person under your roof, those of you who live alone should not be left out! Invite someone over!  Meet a new neighbor! Maybe share something you made with your local farmer or shopkeeper. Perhaps you'll meet some new friends at the Farmer's Market who share your passion for great food and living. Food makes friends! We have met so many farmers at the markets who have become great friends....all through food. Likewise, we have several new friends here in the Czech Republic we met at the Christmas Markets.

As with the grand dinner in the movie, Chocolat, time will stand still while you're happily, energetically engaged in building and enjoying relationships!  There's no better complement to good food than excellent friends, family and/or neighbors to share it with!

 6. Preserve as much food as you can!
[Our bread and butter pickles--see earlier posting!]

If you have the time and are so inclined (for those of you who live where we can't grow things all year-round!), try your hand at preserving something. Maybe its simply drying some fresh herbs or mushrooms that you have can't use in the moment. Or you run across some bountiful fruit that are irresistible to your senses--perhaps its fresh strawberries or juicy peaches--and you cannot possibly eat them or give all of them away. Try simply freezing them after washing and prepping for enjoyment later. Or perhaps you'll venture into the exquisite world of canning jams, jellies, pickles, salsas, or home-cured olives (Neil has been diagnosed with the incurable "Canning Disorder"). Not only will you benefit with the satisfaction of having made them, knowing what the ingredients are, as well as looking at them in their exquisite beauty, they will also be a mechanism of bringing lovingly-prepared food to you and yours for meals.

Note: Be sure to do your preserving--especially canning--properly; most countries have suggested guidelines to keep these foods safe and free from risk of Botulism. Consult these guides or learn from an expert who is more than happy to demonstrate the chemistry and art of food preservation!

 7. Learn more about your foods
for better, faster, easier preparations.

What's the easiest way to peel winter squash with those rock-hard skins?  Try using a peeler instead of a knife! It will run with the contours of the fruit (yes, they are fruits!) and minimize the risk of cutting yourself....

Efficient ease of quality food preparation (we're all sous chefs!) has always been of interest to cooks. Common questions come to mind when we encounter new foods. What is the name of this? How does one prepare and/or cook it? What does it taste like? What foods work well with this? Likewise, with the foods that we use frequently, one is always searching for better ways to prep them. As you weep over an onion, don't you wonder if there are ways to prevent tears or hasten peeling it?  Well, there are!

Here, knowledge is extremely useful. Food names, for instance, can be important clues to learning languages or knowing how a product that's new to you may be prepared if you know one of its relatives already. Even knowing the scientific names--the only way one can universally communicate with everyone around the globe about plants--can be very useful to everyday shopping and cooking.
We found this to be true in the Czech Republic where we had to learn the names for every product....cibule (onion), česnecky (garlic), pomerance (orange), citron (lemon), etc. In some instances, knowing the scientific names meant that we already knew the names of some fruits and vegetables:  pineapple, for instance, is called 'ananas' in Czech (which is the genus for pineapple; Ananas comosus) whereas sweet potatoes are 'batatas', the specific epithet or species name (Ipomoea batatas).
In much the same vein, knowing food relatives may be useful in cooking or preparation. All of the cole crops, for instance, are within the Brassicaceae (formerly the Cruciferae)--a family with a rich tradition of plant breeding, feeding numerous cultures around the globe for millennia. It's where so many important foods come from: radishes, canola, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, to name a few. Many of these share similar properties or possess characteristic compounds (we'll bet you can guess at least one of them).
All of the 'stone fruits' are in the Rose family (Rosaceae) and particularly housed in the genus Prunus. How is this useful information, besides being fascinating intellectual tidbits to mention in passing at a party? They have similar anatomy!

[Prunus....plums--Prunus domestica and peaches--Prunus persica from the September Czech Farmer's Market in Ceske Budejovice]

Along with knowing what the proper terminology is for your food comes knowledge of how it's 'put together'...its anatomy. Knowledge of anatomy will aid you in drawing similarities for preparation between foods that have similar construction. For instance, an easy way to cut open plums and peaches is to slit them along the natural, visible suture line which assures that you're cutting along the perimeter of the stony 'seed' contained inside. When doing so, a peach, nectarine, plum, or cherry will open easily (above). Learn about and observe the anatomy of food as it will make your preparation so much easier. It will give you a Prunus smile!

 8. Read product labels for ingredients
and food values.
Know what you are purchasing! Neil grew up reading labels since he was, at one time, a vegetarian. We had to find out if any animal products were present; the presence of the (U) pareve sign always made it easier. He has to admit that it made shopping a bit less fun and time-consuming when you had to read the labels of everything! But, knowing the amounts of salt or fat (particularly saturated ones) or other ingredients may be extremely useful for your health!
For many things we haven't made it a practice to read the labels, such as innocuous products like crackers or soup mixes....trusting the manufacturers, distributors and retailers whom we don't know. When Mark suddenly became ill after we had some crackers for lunch one day we quickly read the ingredients, even though it meant having to translate them from Czech. To our horror we discovered that nearly all of the crackers sold here listed glutamate sodium or Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in them! We then read the labels of all the dried soup mixes sold here in Central Europe and found they all contained it as well! While MSG or glutamic acid is used to enhance flavors by manufacturers and restaurants (ask yours if they use it!), the side effects are anything but tasty:  obesity, neurological disorders, headaches, increased heart rates, etc. There is even The Glutamate Association of manufacturers that put it into their products (search the web...!).  So, read your labels. Know what you're purchasing. Of course, if you grow and make your own food or purchase it from people you know and trust, you'll have much less cause for concern. Food safety is in everyone's interest!

 9. Experiment with new ideas and recipes.

Our Czech wild mushroom scrambled, farm-fresh eggs with fresh zucchini squash, garlic, and onions compliment fresh-made red currant juice and German toasted breads.

When new products come along, you run into things you haven't seen before (like the wild Czech mushrooms collected in the forests we got at the farmer's markets this past fall)....experiment with new things or recreate old familiar, proven recipes! This is when your creativity can shine through! Be daring...don't be worried about making mistakes: this is where you will learn! You always learn from things that do not work and make notes on how to fix a disaster to transform it the next time.
One of our many pies this fall, twists on old favorites with Mark's easy-to-make crust (always flaky!), new (to us) Czech apple culitvars ('Bohemia' in this case), delicately spiced with lemon zest, zested ginger, and fresh-ground nutmeg.

10. Complement your cuisine
with moderation and exercise.

The Castle at Ceske Krumlov (just ~20 km west of us) is situated on top of a steep hill. The road leading up to the Castle is extremely inclined and great for exercise....Neil worked up quite the appetite pushing Mark in his wheelchair up the treacherous wooden walks and gravel paths.

Exercise is such an important part of enjoying excellent food. Don't miss out on the many benefits of endorphins--they are as refreshing as this Carpaccio salad of fresh, summer vegetables and local hand-made cheese.
Vigorously exercise as often as you can and to the degree that your body allows. Complement this with balanced eating and smaller portions...avoid The Overeating Temptress! One of the things we have been very pleased and impressed with is that the Czechs eat in moderation, taking small portions. It promotes great health.

11. Compliment those who
breed, grow, and distribute the ingredients
as well as those preparing foods for your table.

Our thanks to the citrus producers, particularly the ornamental lemon growers (above) we met this past summer: Oscar Tintori, near Pescia, Italy
and their olive tree producers next door.

Maintain your attitude of Thanksgiving all year long.  Say thank you to your local artisan producers, your grocers, and your neighboring gardener who share and enhance your life so generously! Blessed be everyone!

Best Wishes for the utmost in culinary experiences throughout 2011 and beyond!
Neil and Mark

Note: As we were writing this, we stumbled across other instances of great chefs thinking alike: someone else also posted 11 resolutions for the New Year based on food on the Huffington Post. We salute those of like mind. A rising tide of great cuisine and healthy living floats all boats!

Disclaimer: This blog is not an official University of Minnesota or Fulbright Program blog. The views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations, or the University of Minnesota.

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