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Feeding the world starts with feeding families

Editor's note: Longtime Mail Tribune food writer Sarah Lemon kicks off a new food column this week called The Whole Dish. Lemon has taught cooking classes for the past five years and has been blogging about cooking for more than a decade. She lives near the Rogue River with her two sons and husband, Will, a Rogue Valley firefighter.

My Whole Dish blog on the Mail Tribune website has evolved over the past dozen years from a commentary on food stories and trends into the seasonal chronicles of my cooking.

The blog, in its early days, added another layer of storytelling to the Mail Tribune’s weekly section. But The Whole Dish as a concept accurately describes my cooking in three specific but interdependent ways.

Whole foods are at the foundation of my meal planning and preparation. Widely circulated in the past couple of decades, the term “whole foods” may still defy definition for some of us. Whole foods essentially are the comparison of apples to applesauce and oranges to orange juice.

Using a food in its entirety — the whole thing — is another intentional maneuver that’s becoming second nature. Transforming leftovers into another meal and repurposing unwanted bits of food is nothing new. But good, old, kitchen economy is even more relevant in the modern kitchen, amid the global concern over food waste and striving toward sustainability.

Feeding the planet, of course, starts with feeding our families, the whole family. As a part-time writer and full-time mom, cook and dishwasher, I view cooking as necessity. So I pursue every savvy shortcut and thrifty technique that maximizes my efforts and eliminates excess trips to the grocery store. Less shopping makes time for more cooking and better cooking. And reduced mealtime stress is the payoff for simplifying.

I pride myself on cooking meals for everyone, from the youngest children to anyone with chronic conditions or food sensitivities. Accommodating special diets takes little additional effort when you know what’s in your pantry and on your plate — no fats or sugars you didn’t add yourself, no sneaky synthetic ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Although my pantry, refrigerator and freezer contain processed and packaged foods, there’s a difference between dispensing meals from boxes, bags and cans and purchasing high-quality, minimally processed convenience items that can augment a predominantly from-scratch approach to cooking.

The best convenience items, after all, are the ones you make yourself. Making stock from bones and vegetable trimmings that otherwise would be discarded is my favorite way to stretch the grocery budget and build flavor in any number of dishes. Croutons and crumbs come from heels of bread, pesto from wilted herbs, tired greens, even vegetable tops.

And it gets better. The mentality of reducing waste and grocery expense also starts to reduce one’s reliance on recipes. When the goal is using what you have on hand, improvising becomes a lot less intimidating. While recipes can teach valuable techniques, they inhibit intuition, which is what every aspiring cook needs in order to feel truly at home, truly whole, in the kitchen.

I believe we all essentially desire the same thing — to be well-nourished body and soul. That fulfillment looks a little different to everyone. But there’s gratitude to be found in wholesome foods that are well-prepared and served in satisfying but appropriate quantities. Thanks expressed by family, friends and mealtime guests can’t compare with a cook’s inner gratitude that justifies the time spent and effort involved.

In that respect, The Whole Dish column, which will run in this space every other week, won’t be another collection of recipes. It’s my meal-preparation manual and grocery-shopping guide seeded with seasonal strategies and suggestions. It’s a testament to building confidence while building a reliable repertoire. It’s an invitation to bring everyone to the table.

Read more on Sarah Lemon’s blog at www.mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish and tune into her podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com


Traditional Southern side becomes Italian-inspired salad

Cornbread, preferably dripping with melted butter and honey, just lends itself to certain dishes. My homemade ham hocks and bean soup is chief among them, particularly in winter.

My family, however, is less enthusiastic about the cornbread I like to bake with buttermilk and medium-grind cornmeal. It’s Southern-style, according to Betty Crocker, and one of its defining features is that is contains more cornmeal than wheat flour. The ratio in Northern-style cornbread, so I’ve read, is reversed.

Good cornbread also should be an adequate thickness to slice, slather with butter and help to convey some of those beans to the mouth. If I make half a batch, to ward off a ton of leftovers, the cornbread doesn’t bake up to the right height.

So I stubbornly make the entire batch from Betty Crocker’s recipe and resign myself to eating most of it. But recognizing that it’s just never as good reheated, I decided to freeze the most recent leftover cornbread with the intent to make croutons.

It took a few weeks of biding its time, but the cornbread emerged from the freezer, repurposed as croutons in a salad that I like to think of as Southern-Italian fusion. My husband wanted to make authentic, home-fried chicken and tasked me on short notice with making a side dish. This is what I came up with:

For the croutons:

Thaw two-thirds of a 9-inch-round pan of leftover, baked cornbread that’s been frozen. Once cornbread thaws, cut into 1-inch cubes. Or use fresh, leftover cornbread within a few days of baking.

Melt 1 tablespoon bacon fat with 1 tablespoon olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet in an oven preheating to 350 degrees. Toss cornbread cubes in fat/oil mixture and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toast in preheated oven for about 20 minutes.

For the salad:

Cut tough ribs from 8 to 10 leaves of Tuscan kale (also called “dinosaur” and “lacinato”) and discard. Roll leaves into a long cigar shape and cut crosswise into ribbons. Place into a large bowl and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt.

Peel and mince 1 large garlic clove and add to bowl with kale. Squeeze juice of 1 lemon over kale and garlic and, using fingertips, massage mixture to bruise it.

To bowl of kale, add 1- 1/2 cups cooked white beans. I like canned cannellini beans, but I didn’t have any on hand, so I soaked and cooked navy beans the night before for this dish.

Add to bowl of kale and beans 1/4 cup oil-cured, sun-dried, julienned tomatoes. If tomatoes haven’t been refrigerated, which would cause the oil to coagulate around them, add 1 tablespoon oil from jar to salad.

Add to bowl 1/2 cup small mozzarella balls (“bocconcini”). If purchased in water, make sure they are well-drained. If purchased in oil, allow oil clinging to cheese to mingle with salad. If cheese was purchased in water, add an additional 1 tablespoon olive oil to salad.

Season to taste with red-pepper flakes. I substituted a light grind of black pepper to accommodate my kids’ palates. Adjust acid with more lemon or vinegar, if you like.

Remove cornbread croutons from oven, ensuring they are nicely toasted, and toss with salad just before serving. Makes 6 side-dish servings.

Sarah Lemon chops veggies in her home kitchen. Andy Atkinson/Mail Tribune