A year ago this week I made a belated New Year’s resolution to only cook with non-processed food. Normally I scoff at the “eat better, work out more” type of resolutions because they seem too negative – like the person is broken and needs to be fixed. So, my resolutions have typically been fun declarations or a goal. For instance, when I turned 28 I decided it was no longer appropriate to use “party” as a verb. When I turned 35 I decided to learn how to play poker. When I was 39 I decided to write a mystery novel. And when I turned 41 my husband joined me in the resolution to give up cooking with processed food.
Granted, this borderline crossed into the “eat healthier, work out more” type of resolution that I avoid. But, I did it with the rationale that it would be fun, (take that big corporations!) and that it would allow the two of us to continue with the bad habits that I cherish. (Hello, wine!) So, we embarked on a year-long lesson in eating prettier, better tasting and – yes – healthier foods.
The first thing we did was re-read our copy of Mark Bittman’s “Food Matters” which is a guideline to eliminating processed food, replacing a lot of meat with beans and whole grains, and embracing a different way of thinking about food. One of the things that he stresses is to only cook with ingredients that you understand and also to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup.
So the two of us embarked on a reading journey in our kitchen. Understandably, gone were the cans and packages of soup. Next up, my (seriously) beloved sauce packets. I would have to do without Bearnaise sauce or learn how to make it from scratch.
(I still haven’t had a reason to make Bearnaise sauce, although my husband did learn how to make a mean La Jiao Jiang.)
There were a lot of things that surprised me, though. Did you know soup crackers have a list of ingredients that read like a chemist’s inventory? Me neither. So, our favorite crackers were banished too. Frozen pizza, which I have a bizarre fondness for, was gone. Our frozen macaroni and cheese was shown out the door. All condiments where we couldn’t comprehend the list of ingredients were put into the bag too. However, the one thing that we didn’t part with in this year long experiment was worcestershire sauce. When I read the list of ingredients to my husband and screeched: “Why do they need high-fructose corn syrup in that?” He justifiably gave me the side eye. “You drink like 3 diet Dr. Peppers a day, and you’re considering getting rid of the worcestershire sauce because of a teaspoon of high-fructose corn syrup, in a bottle that lasts us 4 months?”
“Well, my plan is to only cook with non processed food. I’ll deal with my diet soda addiction later.” But like the addict I am – the worcestershire stayed. You can’t make a good soup without it.
Speaking of soup, when we started this new way of eating last January, I ate a can of soup every day for lunch. Which is (even with the low salt versions) basically a salt lick in tin. So, the first thing I did was to cook a variety of soups and to freeze them. Because I realized that if I didn’t have a decent back stock of soup for lunch, there was no way I could make it through even the first month without caving. So, with the freezer filled with vegetable barley soup, Curried Squash and Swiss Chard soup and Minestrone soup (the pasta replaced with cabbage) I had to face my next problem: bread product to go with the soup. So, my husband started on a regimen of making us different types of bread a couple of times a week, and that got us through the cold months.
My husband making Italian Bread with Leftover Ricotta Whey
The only hard part of this year has been when I’m weak or distracted. For instance, if I have a cold. The last thing I want to do is to make my own soup if I’ve run out of a back up in the freezer. But I’ve cut and sauteed vegetables instead of opening a can, while I had a low-grade fever and the sniffles. (While swearing at myself, Mr. Bittman and the world in general.) Another thing I’ve realized is how reliant I am on frozen dinners when I’m tired. I really didn’t notice how often I popped a little tray into the microwave, until that wasn’t an option. So, I’ve learned to make my own pizza and macaroni and cheese, and freeze them. If I don’t, it’s overwhelmingly tempting to run to the convenience store next door and buy a box of something when I’m on deadline. Sure, it’s not health food, but homemade macaroni and cheese made with local Cabot cheese and whole wheat pasta tastes much better than the stuff in the $2.99 yellow box.
And then this summer our focus switched, and we started to really have a good time. It started with a little bitter head of celery that we received from our CSA. My husband and I bounced ideas back and forth on ways to make it palatable because we didn’t want to to throw it away. Then we decided to slow roast the leaves and taste them and go from there. When we sampled them the two of us were blown away. The little bitter leaves were cooked down to the essence of delicious celery. We crumbled them and added them to sea salt and then we had our own celery salt. (Which is outstanding in a Bloody Mary, by the way.)
Then the two of us were hooked on learning to make things that we had taken for granted before our year of unprocessed food. (To be fair though, we’re also geeks. So, before 2011 we had started experimenting with things like homemade ricotta in the kitchen.) To date, we’ve learned how to make homemade condensed soup in a can, homemade curry powder, homemade Chinese 5 pice powder, Jamaican herk sauce, homemade ketchup in order to make homemade barbecue sauce, blueberry vinegar and more little batches of things than I can remember. We’ve also started to make our own pretzels, naan and tortillas. Some of those things fall into the “unprocessed” category, but just as many fall into the “hey, I bet we can make this from scratch” category. And that was an unexpected and really delightful side-effect of trying to eat healthier.
Another reason we’ve enjoyed the challenge of cooking box-free, is because we hate the concept of “poor people eating processed food.” We live close to paycheck-to-paycheck, so we’re fiscally challenged. But, every time we make something inexpensively from scratch that could easily be purchased in a box or a can, it feels like we’re winning a small consumer battle. And we’re thankful to live in an area where we can do that. We have access to really good produce through our affordable CSA and three grocery stores within a couple of miles. We also live down the street from a health food store where they sell bulk spices. When I want cumin for a sauce it costs much less than the grocery store jars. If we had to pay full retail for spices we couldn’t experiment the way that we do. We sent the woman who owns the store a thank you card this year saying “We couldn’t do it without you.” And it’s true. If we lived in a large urban area with only convenience stores and fast food places nearby, I don’t think we could have made it a week, let alone for a year.
It’s been a really fun year and it’s made us much more aware of the food we eat. It has also made us really curious about how to reproduce food that we took for granted from scratch. And as long as we were on the ball by keeping food in the freezer, it’s been surprisingly easy. Making things from scratch instead of opening a can, jar or box has been less time consuming than I expected. So, this winter when you’re daydreaming about being at a barbecue this coming summer, try making your own ketchup to make your own barbecue sauce. It will fill you with a strange sense of pride that you never saw coming.