Thursday, July 30, 2009

Whole Goodness

Whole foods are generally considered to be foods which have not been chemically or genetically treated, foods that are natural and in the raw state, and have not been pared, polished, or otherwise processed. While organic foods are becoming increasingly popular, I have not included that criterion in the following article simply due to their greater cost. Some may argue (as I have with a certain cheese) that organic foods have value and thereby bridge the cost-to-savings ratio.

Perhaps one of the best ways to save money on the grocery budget is to buy foods whole. Savings are only part of that equation, though. Whole foods, in many cases, offer better flavours and, in some instances, higher nutritive values and/or improved quality over their processed alternatives.

Here are some examples:

  • Spices: Nutmeg, peppercorns, coriander, mustard and allspice are a few examples of spices that can be bought in their whole form. The seed is nature's way of sealing in essential oils and flavonoids. By grinding or grating them, as needed, fragrance and flavours are significantly enhanced, and that does wonders for any dish they're seasoning. Some roots (e.g. licorice) and barks (e.g. cinnamon) also retain more of their goodness but can be hard to process without an electric grinder. A mortar and pestle work well for most seeds, nuts, and leaves, though, and allow you to control the grinding process for the perfect texture and/or consistency.
  • Ground Meats: With all the recalls and salmonella scares over the last few years, we've begun buying whole cuts of grass-fed, free-ranged beef (and fresh turkey) and grinding at home. Our savings aren't significant, but we have greater peace of mind knowing the ground beef comes from one animal and does not include questionable-meat "trimmings." ('Grassfed' beef article & recipes) To save on the purchase of suet, we buy whole chuck, which has a good amount of fat. Any excess can be trimmed, but we seldom find that necessary. Another benefit of buying whole meats and processing them at home is that it allows you to apportion package sizes to suit your family's needs.
  • Cheese: Pasta and pizza just wouldn't be the same without Parmesan. The popular processed varieties are easy to use, but their flavour, smell, and texture can be off-putting. We purchase blocks of Parmigiano-Reggiano – the "King" of cheeses – and grind or slice it as needed. Much like spice, this fresh-grated cheese has better flavour and fragrance. There is little, if any, saving when buying this brand over the processed but the culinary value, for us, is significant. That and fresh Parmesan actually melts on a pizza!
  • Fruits and Vegetables: Probably one of the best ways to economize a grocery budget is to buy produce whole. Pared fruits and vegetables cost much more, suffer vitamin degradation, and many are chemically treated to enable longer shelf-life as most processed produce will spoil faster. (Ontario government: Minimally-processed fruit & veg, risk assessment) Processed fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to pre-purchase contamination, also. Whole produce may require a little more preparation time (re: paring and/or peeling,) but their trimmings have value in a stock pot or compost pile. Both "free" veggie stock and rich loamy soil have real worth, too.
  • Coffee: Budget may be the last thing on your mind when reaching for that morning cup o' Joe, but this is another way to stretch your grocery dollars. Pound for pound, coffee beans are (generally) less expensive than most ground varieties. As with spices, the coffee bean is a tidy little flavour packet that, when ground fresh, offers significantly enhanced flavours...not to mention, caffeine punch.

Aside from budgetary issues, we buy whole foods because we prefer the taste and aroma. Purchasing fruits, vegetables and meats whole has also spared us from many of the Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria outbreaks in recent years.

If you're concerned about your food's goodness, consider purchasing whole foods. The economic gain will be a cherry on top!

Friday, July 17, 2009


One bane of shopping, for me, is packaging. Whether for food or household, need or want, nearly everything comes bagged, bottled, canned, clipped, encased, or otherwise contained. Usually in plastic and often excessively.

It's the plethora of plastic packaging that has me worried. Recent studies on the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) – used in plastics and for coating the inside of many cans (Toxic Nation article) – heightened consumer caution about certain plastics. Yet, even with this new restraint, bloated landfills still suffer daily infusions of plastic. Their durability is daunting, but the propensity for them to leach toxic chemicals is downright alarming, particularly when those plastics lay in landfills where they're sure to get plenty of sun and hostile weather. I wonder how much BPA already infuses water-tables.

In an effort to contain the problem, to apply thrift to this (largely unavoidable) consumerism, our household has adopted new purchasing habits, one of which is to scrutinize packaging. The less of it, the better. Un-packaged products get priority consideration but, sadly, that opportunity seldom occurs. Quantity and type of packaging material are then taken into account. Paper, glass and metal are preferred to plastic for both re-usability and recyclability.

Paper has many reuse options. Tissue paper is ideal for wrapping delicate items. Brown-paper, grocery-store bags are not only excellent insulators for frozen and refrigerated foods in transit, later they become "biodegradable" trash bags. Boxes can be used for storage or shipping. Cardboard is great material for certain crafts and easily recyclable. Over-sized department store bags, cut open, make good wrap for parcel shipping. I've even created a few sewing patterns with this sturdy paper product. Small bags work well for food ripening and storage. Contaminated paper, such as used butcher's wrap, is thrown away like its cellophane counterpart but, unlike plastic wrap, will eventually decompose. Computer paper and flyers, used on one side, is saved, cut into strips, and becomes "scratch pads."

When I was young, paper bags were commonly used in kitchen waste-baskets, with "sloppy" things flushed, or stowed in tin cans (which weren't recycled then) or empty dairy containers. Store-bought, waxed-paper bags were my mother's first choice, but brown-paper bags came in a close second. When I have them available I use the latter, but the former are no longer sold. Yes, our week's refuse would still go to the curb in a one large plastic bag – civic regulations insist they be used, even in curb-side garbage cans – and, yes, the kitchen waste-basket needs cleaning more frequently, but these factors don't diminish the possibility that, once a week, 6-10 plastic bags (the usual liner for household waste-baskets,) aren't exiled, evermore, to a refuse site. Unfortunately, paper bags are not used by many stores today, so it's difficult to keep enough on hand for regular use.

Jars are exceptional packaging with good re-use and recycling potential. Glass makes the perfect food storage container because, being inert material, it won't impart synthetic, "acquired," or metallic flavours like plastic or tin often do. They also make great vessels for reheating food: in a conventional oven on moderate settings; on stovetop in a saucepan of simmering water; and, in the microwave without the metal lid. Occasionally, "re-sealable" jar lids retain odours from their original contents and won't be viable for food storage...unless you like pickle-infused rice. I don't, so those jars are used for miscellany purposes: storing screws, string, socket safety-plugs, collections of unidentified keys, copious rubber bands and twist-ties, or just something to clean paint-brushes in.

Tin cans are especially useful for hot or cold items. If you save bacon or other meat drippings for cooking or bird-feeding purposes, and store it in the refrigerator, food-grade cans handle the dramatic fluctuations of temperature the best, and hot fats won't shatter or melt tin as it might do with glass or plastic. Just make sure the can's interior isn't plastic-coated.

When re-use isn't possible, most paper, glass, and tin are recyclable. There are a few municipalities which offer recycling for some plastics but, where we live, no plastics are recycled so we avoid them as much as possible. Sometimes, they're inescapable, though. That's when we look for re-purposing applications. The travel-sized shampoo and conditioner bought years ago were consumed long ago, but those bottles have been refilled, time and again, from our home supply. Dairy containers keep craft supplies sorted and dry. Remember, when reusing plastic containers, it's advisable they do not store edibles. Though it may seem impossible, our household has gone without plastic wrap for two decades. Paper, cloth, or glass has been used instead.

Bulk shopping is another way to reduce plastics. For example, buying meat in economy packs rather than two-portion packs saves more than money. Six (or more) Styrofoam plates and their wrapping are reduced to one platter and its wrap which are composed of significantly less plastic. Re-packaging at home will, of course, require other packaging material, but we use freezer wrap (a heavy brown paper, wax-coated on one side) which will decompose when discarded. We don't purchase any "individual-use" packets, preferring instead to buy full- or bulk-sized packages and apportion servings ourselves, thus eliminating the extraneous wrapping.

Ultimately, there are some products we won't buy due to excessive packaging. It's obscene to see a couple square-feet of plastic encasing a finger-sized thingamajig. Security and shelving efficiency are two reasons offered for this packaging trend. Whatever the reasons, our household boycotts these superfluously-encased items. If those doodads are too fragile, perilous, or costly, then I suggest putting them back into showcases. And, please Mr/s. Manufacturer, spare us the farce: don't boast about environmentally-friendly production plants and procedures while continuing to package merchandise in ominously enduring plastic.

And that's a wrap on my packaging rant!

What are your views on retail packaging? Do you have unique reuse ideas? Have you any empowering observations to share with fellow consumers?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Summer Cooking

Okay, call me crazy, but summer isn't my favourite season. I don't suffer scorching days and humid nights easily, and get especially frazzled when they stretch, one upon the next, for weeks on end. It's because of this, cooking – which I normally love doing – becomes a dreaded chore. Standing over the stove, adding even more heat to an already over-warm house, ratchets up my level of exhaustion. Hours later, that heat still lingers, too. I'd fast if summer didn't last so long.

For this reason, most of our summer cooking is done outdoors, on the barbeque. It's surprising just how much of the day's meals can be prepared on an outdoor grill. Ours is a propane model, which is not a favourite amongst many grilling aficionados but it works fastest and easiest as stove-top replacement. Even without using the side-burner, the grill top can function well as a cooking surface. Cast iron pans, grills, and griddles, as well as heavy-gauge metal pots and pans (with heat resistant handles) work well on the grill top, which happens to also be one of the best places to cook pizzas, in my opinion.

An added bonus of cooking this way is the economy of it. I stumbled upon this saving when comparing our household energy costs for the same months in other years when the stovetop was still being used. Energy costs had changed, obviously, so I evaluated the savings by kilowatt hours. The difference was significant. Then, I calculated the dollar savings and compared that with the total cost of propane refills over the same season, and found using the barbeque cost us about half of what our energy supplier would have charged us had we cooked indoors on the stove. The difference was so stark I actually did the calculations twice, just to be sure.

Not everything needs cooking, either. One of my favourite summer drinks, homemade iced tea, would normally require making fresh, hot tea, but can also be made using the sun's heat. Here's my version of "Sun Tea":

  • In a 2-quart glass jar, use two (or more) teabags, depending on desired strength, immersed in a gallon of tap water (or filtered water, if necessary.)
  • Add to this, half a lemon, sliced thinly.
  • After sealing the jar, place on a doorstep, porch, or sunny window ledge, to "steep" under a hot sun for about five hours, minimum.
  • When the tea has reached its desired strength, remove the lemon and teabags and add sugar, to taste, while the fluid is still hot.
  • Stir until sugar is dissolved and then chill the tea thoroughly before serving.

Cheers to staying cool!