Search This Blog

Friday, December 17, 2010

Of Coffee Shops and Christmas Parties

I both love and hate this time of year as I suspect many who grade exams do.  Spring semester with summer looming, nice weather, and less of the rush of the holidays always seems less stressful.  But, the end of fall semester is punctuated by parties--Christmas parties.  Teaching at a Catholic university as I do means we don't have "holiday" or "winter break" parties.  We have full-blow Christmas parties with trees, sleighs and Santas.  We are Christmas party people here.

Between the grading, which I have been doing more often than not this semester in a local coffee shop or two and those Christmas parties where I don't get to pick the food, ethical eating can get tricky.  Admittedly, sometimes the love of a party or the necessity of uninterrupted grading get the better of me.

The coffee shop a few blocks from my apartment is cozy, is within walking distance (obviously), has free wi-fi and tables roomy enough to spread out on without feeling as though I have taken a table obviously intended for four people.  I feel like I have almost moved in there.  The coffee there isn't the worst possible, but it isn't my normal fair trade (or relationship) organic shade grown.  They sell some fair trade coffee beans, but rarely is that the blend that is brewed in the shop.  I usually limit myself to a single cup or a latte when I am there because of that.  And sometimes I do have a cookie.  The cookie I choose is from a local bakery that sells to coffee shops and the like.  It's a nice neighborhood shop and it serves an important purpose when there are hundreds of papers to grade (which means thousands of pages). 

The Christmas parties are another thing altogether.  The beautiful spread that is a focus of so many of these parties rarely has a lot of ethical choices.  And sometimes, weirdly, what counts as "seasonal" at these parties is really not seasonal at all.  It's hard not to indulge when people are trying to make sure you are having a good time and equate that with everyone having his or her fill.  Tonight, at the biggest of the university's Christmas parties, I had the specialty cocktail, some veggies, cheese, and some mini desserts.  I didn't eat any of the meat or shrimp (not that I would eat shrimp anyway, but that's because I just don't like it!) figuring that given not knowing a lot about where the food came from this was the best bet.  I try to remember that my values about food are on the cutting edge and not everyone shares them, but the food we are eating was prepared with care by the catering staff at the university and that their work is to be respected.

The big Christmas party tonight was just one of many I attended this year.  There was the department party, the college party (as distinct from the University party, which was the one tonight) and there were even a few I didn't attend.  (I have gotten more discriminating having been here now for six holiday seasons.)  The majority of the Christmas parties I go to are on campus and catered by our university dining services, which does source some things locally, but not many--yet.

I did, however, have several conversations with people about ethics and food tonight.  One such conversation I very much expected--I had yesterday been asked to say something for a newspaper article about ethics and food that this person was writing.  The other was because, very third hand, I had heard that this other person was working on some ethics and food issues at her church.  I think I may have found another event to contribute to given that conversation.

(Additionally, this week was a retirement party for two faculty members at the university who had a combined 70 years of service to the university.  And I had a conversation about the ethics of food there, too.  Another faculty member asked me what I thought about the food being served--what was being served there was more ethical.  There were a few choices that were pretty good at that one!)

So, while the Christmas parties and coffee shops might not make for the most ethical eating, the social atmosphere of the parties made for new opportunities to continue this work.  And well, the coffee shop enables me to do the work that actually pays the bills.

Advice for this time of year?  Try to eat well.  Have some of your favorites, but think about how you might make them more ethical.  When planning holiday parties and meals, consider what changes might be in order to better reflect your food values.  It might mean swapping out an ingredient or two, considering if some dish is really needed if it can't be made more ethical, shopping smart for things like candy, buying local food or wine for gifts, and thinking about new traditions with new more ethical foods.  Talk with those you eat with about how your values are changing your food choices so they aren't surprised and hopefully will be willing to try something new with you.  So with that, and hopefully visions of sugar plums, I wish you all a very merry Christmas (or whatever winter holiday you prefer) and a happy new year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cocoa Loco

It's cold.  It's damp.  I have hundreds of papers to grade.  A chocolate pick-me-up is in order--a cup of hot cocoa.  And as I have been reading student papers about human trafficking and "slave chocolate" it only makes sense that I made my cocoa with fair trade cocoa powder.

I have no idea why people use hot cocoa mix.  Cocoa from scratch is just as easy.  Tastes much better and you can control the ingredients.  I know you can get hot cocoa mix that has fair trade cocoa powder, but this is easier and the ingredients are so much more versatile!

So, for those of you who might not know just how simple it is to make hot cocoa from scratch, here it is:  A splash of milk in a mug, add to that a splash of vanilla, a few grains of salt, a heaping tablespoon of cocoa powder and two tablespoons of sugar.  Stir while a cup of milk is heating.  When the milk is hot, stir it into the paste and enjoy!

I added some whipped cream and had a nice treat.  Now I have to get back to those papers!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Lowly Lentil

If you have been reading this blog for very long you've already determined that I like soup.  I have not always been a big soup maker, but in the last several years I have made a lot of soup.  It is economical, tasty, versatile, its recipes are very forgiving, and it is a great way to eat veggies.  It allows me to usually have a good lunch at school, too.  I admit--I do reheat it in the microwave, but alas, it is the most energy efficient way available.

Last night I had planned to make lentil soup, but was really tired when I got home and opted for something less labor intensive.  And that's saying something since lentil soup is pretty much a chop and stir proposition.  It isn't even a lot of measuring.  As long as the proportion of liquid and lentils is pretty close, you're good.  So tonight, since the lentils were already in the measuring cup, since I knew there was celery, onion and carrot in the fridge, since the turkey stock made from the Thanksgiving turkey was defrosting as I took it out of the freezer Monday, it was time to make soup.

Lots of lentils are actually grown here in Eastern Washington.  Pullman, Washington, home of Washington State University, hosts a lentil festival every summer.  I will admit though, I have no idea where the lentils I used tonight grew.  I bought them in bulk months ago and I can't remember.  There's some chance that they are local, but it is more likely they are just organic.

Lots of people don't really like lentils.  I think they are misunderstood, myself.  They are a good source of protein and when prepared well are tasty.  I remember last year having a choice between lentil soup and minestrone at an Italian restaurant in Providence, RI.  I chose lentil and so did my Great Aunt and a few others in the party for my Grandmother's 90th birthday.  But my immediate family was surprised.  We didn't eat a lot of lentils growing up.  But I do love them now.  Simple, humble, lowly--but a food of great sustenance that is inexpensive.  Surely peasant food in all cultures that eat them, but good food nevertheless.

And with one and a quarter cups of lentils (I mixed green french lentils, red lentils often used in Indian cooking, and brown lentils), an organic onion, organic carrots, and some organic celery, five cups of turkey stock, a fourteen ounce can of organic diced tomatoes, some Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, a little olive oil, and hot sauce, I have probably 8 servings of healthy soup.  I pureed about two-thirds of the soup in the blender and stirred that back into the pot before serving.  I garnished with some dried tomatoes I made over the summer.  It took less than an hour from start to finish--that's from chopping to doing the dishes.  I am satisfied on a cold night and have soup for lunches and dinners, some even frozen.

This time of year, I have to eat healthy an ethically when I am cooking for myself to off-set the indulgences of the myriad of Christmas parties and other events at school.  This lentil soup fills the bowl and the tummy, just as it soothes the soul.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Prepared Pantry

The weather has been bad the last couple of weeks in Spokane.  Lots of snow and poorly plowed roads.  Makes a city slicker like me not want to go out as much as I can avoid it.  Now, this snow storm and the ensuing "trapped in my apartment" feeling came right after Thanksgiving, so I was eating leftovers.  But we all know that as much as many of us really love Thanksgiving leftovers, they can get tedious.  I had given a lot of the leftovers away to my guests, which was a good plan, but there was still a lot to eat.

The leftover situation made my reliance on my pantry less than typical for a snowed in period.  I am not, however, one of those people who does a pre-blizzard shopping trip made up of bread, milk and peanut butter.  (I remember fondly an article about pre-hurricane shopping that appeared in the local paper when I lived in Florida about how many people did this and why this wasn't the best choice.)  Instead of rushing out, buying a weird collection of things that likely can't be turned into any particular meal, I have a well-stocked pantry of things I know enough about.  And in my kitchen, with its serious lack of cabinet and counter space, it's a feat in itself.

In any event, winter is the time for pantry cooking.  For one thing, if you are committed to local food, in most place in America, there isn't a lot growing in winter.  And so far this winter, Spokane has already had more snow than last winter and we now have the honor of the snowiest November on record, beating out a record from 1955.  I am lucky to live in a neighborhood with a coffee shop, a pub, a nice Italian restaurant, a bar, a pizza place (although I am not crazy about their pizza) and a grocery store in walking distance.  I can even walk to downtown from my neighborhood if need be.  It takes some of the pressure off for doing the mad-dash pre-storm shopping trip, but I am usually pretty well-prepared.

I am pretty permissive for what I consider to be in my pantry.  I include whatever vegetables and fruit that I am wintering over (like apples, onions, potatoes and winter squash), whatever I have stored in my freezer (chopped carrots and celery for soups, crushed tomatoes, homemade stock, sliced strawberries and rhubarb, other berries, usually some frozen green beans, peas and spinach, and usually some grass fed beef--hamburger, or steak), what is in the fridge, always butter, milk and cheese, hopefully a lemon, lime and orange, and what is in the actually pantry--dried pasta, corn meal for polenta and baking, rice (arborio, white, and brown) and other grains (including wheatberries, faro, and quinoa), local flour (bread, all purpose, and whole wheat), canned tuna, cartons of organic stock, lentils,  fair trade chocolate, nuts.  There is always oatmeal and other breakfast cereal (one of the few processed foods I really eat), crackers, peanut butter, sundried tomatoes, dried fruit (some bought, some dried by me), local honey and a variety of vinegars.  My pantry, however, is always a mess.  I have some basic idea where things are, but it is cramped and crowded.  (This is why I have opted for no photo of it--it is a bit embarrassing!)

It is amazing what you can do with that collection of things.  Tonight for dinner -- beef and barley soup, a pantry meal (and lunch for next week) for a cold, icy, Spokane winter night.