Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The powered down kitchen

This week I have been brooding over both our food budget and our energy use. The food I have made great progress on whittling down over the last twelve months but still want to tweak it a little to incorporate building up a decent store and rotation. The utilities are going in the opposite direction. We pay our gas and electric bills by monthly direct debit; and once again the amounts have had to rise to take into account rising prices and our own profligacy.  It can be hard at the end of the day to change daily habits - for example, ooooh, lets say - hours sat in front of the PC, browsing mindlessly. Ironically, the path of least resistance in this case is the one that uses the most energy.

A few months ago I found a brilliant book  - The Victory Cookbook by Marguerite Patten. Marguerite, who is now in her nineties, was in effect Britains' first celebrity chef, a home economist in the Ministry of Food during WWII. The book is a compilation of her three wartime cookbooks and some additional illustrations, adverts, pamphlets and background information from the war, victory and 'austerity' years.

The first thing I noticed was how unappetising some of the recipes are a first glance, to someone who has a world cuisine at their disposal. This was a Britain before Elizabeth David and the prosperity of the sixties. There were no fast food joints, olive oil was bought from a chemist (that's a pharmacy to the rest of the English speaking world) and Coronation Chicken only popped onto the scene in 1953. Food systems were relatively localised and the cuisines of empire hadn't impacted on the nations taste beyond tea, cocoa, bananas and orange squash. Dig a little deeper of course and you realise that the book adapts quite nicely to a more prosperous population hankering after seasonal local food.

The second thing that really dawned on me was just how little people had to eat during the war - and how they had even less as the economy was mobilised for export after 1945. The absurdity of the average modern industrialised diet of too many calories, too much fat and too few nutrients (along with massive systemic and domestic food waste) is brought in to sharp focus against a national food heritage of war rationing and hunger that actually left the war generation the healthiest and longest lived in European history.

The third point, was the emphasis that was placed upon fuel efficiency throughout. Admonitions against lighting the oven for a single dish and over boiling vegetables sit next to recipes for griddle scones and breads, raw side salads and even a plan for a hay box, the low tech equivalent of the modern slow cooker. This is something that modern cookbooks, even the most thrift minded, do not take into account, because today cooking represents such a small percentage of our home energy use. Except it doesn't, when you take into account that the majority of cooks now have fridges,  freezers, blenders, processors, toasters, juicers, coffee machines, microwaves, slow cookers, electric carving knives, breadmakers and deepfat fryers at their disposal.

This happens to be an area of home energy use I would like to tackle. It began when I realised that my oven only had one shelf that could actually cook food, the shelf underneath burns anything to a crisp if it is placed within 15 cm of the heating element in the bottom of the oven. It is the middle of summer and I do not need to heat my entire house up via the incredibly inefficient means of a poorly insulated electric oven with leaky seals. Which means my old style bread making and baking routines will have to be put on the back burner (no pun intended) until the chillier nights of autumn. For the next few months we will be using the hob; and preferably one ring at a time.

The summer months are the perfect time, I realise, to do away with the oven. Salad ingredients are in abundance and low or no-cook meals are the key to lots of hours lazing in the garden watching the sun go down.  They go better with a chilled glass of wine or homebrew lager.

Today I cooked oatmeal cakes on the griddle pan (a recipe from The Victory Cookbook). We have breakfasted on pancakes and made flat breads to go with soup. I have gone from hating my griddle pan (possibly because I never really got the hang of using it for anything other than making charcoal out of batter mix) to adoring it. It is impossible to cook anything overly complicated on a griddle, but the simple food it can produce can be delicious.I love the fact that I could pack it in my knapsack and take it camping too, or stick it on the barbeque.

In late autumn, that period of blustery days and cool nights that demands soups and the odd casserole, I plan to construct a hay box, which sounds like an even lazier method of cooking than the griddle. I had been considering buying an electric slow cooker for a while, but would have to work 6 hours to buy a half decent one and I wouldn't really save fuel costs if the thing is on for 10 hours. I will instead invest 8 hours hard labour into buying a pressure cooker that will cook my pulses in half the time, heat up my meals ready for the haybox, and pressure-can all those pickles I plan on getting around to making 'some day'... I hate those words.

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