Thursday, July 26, 2012

Blackberries and Pie

I picked wild blackberries this morning and made some of them into a pie.

The chronology was: (1) pick berries amid bushes and brambles and in very high humidity; (2) Come home and wash poison ivy contamination off hands and arms; (3) wash poison ivy contaminated jeans, shirt and socks; (4) make pie. I wasn’t counting on the poison ivy, although I know that it grows well in berry patches. I was standing in it when I noticed that it was there. Oh, well.

Unfortunately, the drought has done a lot of damage to our local wild berries. A couple of weeks ago, in my favorite berry patch, I saw that a lot of blackberry bushes were dying with baby berries on them, and the berries looked like forlorn dried up raisins. When I went back to that spot today, about half the bushes were dead. However, some bushes have survived, and they are giving us small but good berries. Large blackberries are more desirable, but small ones are better than no berries. They produce more seeds per cubic inch of berry (to get caught in the food traps in our mouths), but we can’t have everything.

Pie is a wonderful part of Americana. For me, it is the all American dessert. When it’s good, it’s very, very good, and when it’s bad, it’s horrid. I make very good pie. Many grocery stores make very bad pie. Grocery store pies often have mass produced crusts that are not flaky and taste like straw. Since I believe that pies are more than fillings stuffed between soft cement crusts, I prefer to eat pies that I make.

My great aunt Lina used to make pie crust that was like hard cement; she mixed it too much. Needless to say, she didn’t teach me how to make pies. My mother did give a few pointers, although I actually never saw her make a pie. She gave me an important bit of advice, which I have followed with good results. She said not to mix the dough very much. My pie crust is flaky and delicious. Thanks, Mother.

My blackberry pie recipe is derived from my big fat falling-apart Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book, 1953 edition, for the crust, and adapted a pie recipe on the box of Minute Tapioca, for the filling. The tapioca box doesn’t say how to make blackberry pie. It says how to make blueberry pie. Close enough. Since my cooking interest is in how to cook for one or two people, I cut the tapioca box recipe in half to make an eight-inch pie. If your kitchen does not have an eight-inch pie plate, you are likely to find one at a thrift store. Ditto for rolling pin.

Blackberry Pie – one eight-inch pie

2 cups fresh blackberries
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons quick cooking tapioca)

Mix fruit, tapioca and sugar in bowl. Let stand 15 minutes. Make pie crust while waiting.

1 ½ cups all purpose flour (of course I think it is bad for us, but it makes good pie)
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup lard, butter or shortening; I use lard (I’ll have more to say about this later)
4 tablespoons cold water (about)

Stir together the flour and salt. Cut in the lard or other fat until pieces are the size of peas.  Sprinkle water, a tablespoon at a time, over the mixture. Gently mix with fork until all is moistened. Don’t mix too much. Form the mixture into a ball. Divide it in half. Flatten the first half slightly and roll it on a lightly floured pastry cloth or floured sheet of waxed paper. Roll the dough with light strokes, from center of the piece to the edges, so it makes a circle of dough about the size of the pie plate. Put the dough into the pie dish. I fold half over the other half, pick it up carefully and put it in the dish, and then unfold it.

Put berry/tapioca mixture into the pie plate on the bottom crust. Dot it with butter.  Moisten the peripheral edges of the bottom crust with water, all the way around. Roll the second half of the crust dough into a circle that will fit onto the pie plate. Seal the edges with fork or Fluting. I use a fork. Consult your cookbook to flute edges. Cut vent holes in crust with fork.  Bake the pie in a pre-heated oven at 400 degrees, for 45 or more minutes, until it is brown and done. If juices escape and drip onto your oven floor during baking, resign yourself. It’s still a good pie. You can put a cookie sheet under the pie dish to catch juices. I baked my pie in the toaster oven, so that option was not available.

Comment about fat:  fat is a big issue these days, but pie requires it. I think lard makes wonderful crust, but good lard is hard to find. The lard in the big box grocery stores is partly hydrogenated and not recommended unless you don’t care about your health. I can buy pasture raised, minimally processed local lard, frozen, at the Willy Street Coop (Madison and Middleton), which is the only place I have seen it. Lard contains cholesterol.  I don’t believe that cholesterol is bad for people, but that is another story. If good lard is not available, I recommend butter. A third choice is vegetable shortening, preferably not hydrogenated, although it does not lend flavor to the crust the way lard and butter do.  Purchased pie crust is available in grocery stores, and it is all right, but in my opinion, it lacks the character of home made crust. I don’t know what extra ingredients are in it, such as chemicals and flavorings.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pollan and Bittman on Food

There is a lot of contradiction today in the eating department, but I found soul brothers in Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, who might be called, in the current jargon, foodies. Environmentally conscious, health motivated, list making foodies. Neither is a doctor. Neither is a nutritionist. Both are writers.

During the last week I read, not for the first time, books by Pollan and Bittman, about our relationships with food. The two have a lot in common. Their shared messages are about food, health and our environment. They have little good to say about the way many Americans eat, and much to say about changing from what is called the western diet to a plant based diet. Pollan’s book is In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008). Bittman’s book is Food Matters: a Guide to Conscious Eating (2009).

Pollan opens with: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He says plants are what humans “should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”  Bittman says that to eat fewer of some foods and more of others will make you healthier, “much like trading in your gas guzzler for something more energy and cost efficient.” He says that trading in the western diet for older, more traditional diets, is “sane eating.”

Pollan attempts to define food, mostly by telling what food is not. He points out that large areas of supermarkets are selling “foodlike substitutes…products constructed largely around commerce and hope, supported by frightening little actual knowledge,” (quoting Joan Gussow).  His suggested foods are whole, unprocessed foods, without additives, derivatives and preservatives. Mostly plants.

Bittman, who is a food writer for the New York Times, says his guiding principle is “to eat less meat and junk food, eat more vegetables and whole grains.” He is not on the side of government policy, which he says supports industrial “Big Food.” Sane eating for him is eating fewer animal products and refined carbohydrates, like some traditional diets. He offers many suggestions for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bread pudding for breakfast? It’s there.

Pollan has plenty to say about commercially produced bread. He points out that in grandmother’s day, bread was made of a few familiar ingredients: flour, yeast, water and salt. But now, for example, Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread contains eighteen ingredients before coming to the long list of two percent or less ingredients. He also notices that whole grain and white flour once were contradictions, but apparently aren’t any more. Industrial bread, he says, has become a complicated product of food science, is not food, and is only labeled “bread” because the FDA permits it. Bittman also points out the shortcomings of refined carbohydrates, including most commercially produced bread, bagels, cake, muffins, pizza, sandwiches, and sugars, and their relationships to type two diabetes.

I said they are list makers. First, Pollan: (1)Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food; (2) don’t eat anything incapable of rotting (like Twinkies); (3) avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or include high fructose corn syrup;(4)avoid food products that make health claims because the boldest claims are often founded on incomplete and often erroneous science; (5) shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle, where the processed food products are; (6) get out of the supermarket whenever possible, and eat from the farmers’ market or a CSA box.

Next, Bittman: (1)eat fewer animal products than average; (2) eat all the plants you can manage (gorge on them); (3) make legumes part of your life; (4) whole grains beat refined carbs; (5) snack on nuts or olives; (6) when it comes to fats, embrace olive oil; (7) everything else is a treat, and you can have treats daily; (8) cut back on animal protein gradually; (8) eat whole grains with other foods; (9) depend on seasonings; (10) always carry snacks to make impulsive stops for junk food less tempting. His suggested snacks include fresh fruit, nuts, hummus and crackers, cut up veggies, and others.

I was reading these books simultaneously, so some points are in one or the other, and I am not sure which.  Such as: (1) avoid eating anything with more than five ingredients; (2) eat local and organic; (3) eat vegan until dinner, and then eat a normal meal; (4) some meat is ok to eat if it is a side dish and not the main ingredient; (4) nutrition science focuses on nutrients rather than the whole food, and results in isolated nutrients, such as the acai berry, as ways to help obesity, chronic conditions or other problems, while nutrients do not act alone but in concert with the whole food; (5) the large amount of cattle raised to feed the world causes more pollution than does transportation.

Mark Bittman has a website: Michael Pollan has a website: