Lately the most frequent topic of conversation seems to be food cost inflation, I often hear people in shock over prices at supermarkets; in the news I often hear charity organizations and commodities traders warning of famines and other disaster because of increases in the cost of basic staples. The UN's Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) keeps a world food price index chart that shows an ominous trend, it has a tendency to rise under conditions of extreme volatility, which occur due to sudden scarcity of basic food staples, like corn, soybeans and wheat.
The causes of food inflation are diverse and often beyond our control, population has increased, there are now 7 billion of us in this planet and in the next couple of decades we are going to be 9 billion and we all have to eat something, this is bad; a lot of people has joined the middle class around the world, particularly in Asia and Latin America and they are eating more and better, consuming more proteins for instance, this is good; Energy cost have risen considerably and they have multiple impacts on the cost of food, first because fertilizers are often manufactured from energy staples like oil and gas, second because transporting food requires energy and third because in the search for alternative fuels some manufacturers are using food staples like corn to make bio fuels, this is bad.
Fortunately there are solutions on the way but they will take a while to have a positive impact; Population is expected to stabilize around 9 to 10 billion and then start decreasing but this will happen in the next 50 to 100 years, this is good; the next generation of bio fuels already coming out of labs will use organic waste instead of food staples and will be generally available in the next 10 to 15 years, this is good; agricultural production will rise for traditional staples like wheat, corn, rice and soy, but more important we will see new staples coming into the market, like Yucca, air potatoes, chayotes, quinoa and many other interesting vegetables and cereals from the tropical jungles of the planet, this is good; for proteins we will see improved farming of traditional and new species and we will have the vast field of insect species which through the science of Entomophagy will contribute to feed the world; cooks all over the world are busy learning from ancient cultures in Africa, Asia and Latin America how to prepare certain species of insects, this is good; I had a couple of sauces from Amazon Indians, Catara and Cumache, which are delicious; Catara is made from the tail of a specie of giant ants mashed with Yucca juice, tamarind and lots of chili peppers and other seasonings, it tastes like a hot Worcestershire sauce; Cumache is made from the body of a specie of big termite, mashed with yucca juice, hot peppers and other seasonings, it tastes like a hot sauce with a slight pine resin flavor; Catara has been industrialized and you can buy it in supermarkets in countries around the Amazon river basin.
In order to do something about food cost you have to understand the processes involved in food consumption: Production is what the farmer does and it has a cost, usually high, and a profit, usually low, I have not seen many rich farmers; Distribution is the process that gets the food to you, it involves transporters, wholesalers and retailers, it has a high cost but it can be optimized through economies of scale and improved logistics to produce low unit costs, well optimized operations can produce high profits; Preparation is what you do to eat the food, you use energy for storage and cooking, you use additional products to make food tasty like seasonings and oils, this process has costs and if you are not a smart cook you may add a lot of cost without realizing it.
You cannot do much about Production, except to produce some food yourself and it is easier than you think, herbs like basil, oregano, mint are easy to plant around your home, even in a pot inside an apartment, chili peppers are frightfully simple to grow, just dry the seeds and throw them over some soil, any soil, they will sprout, grow and provide you with peppers in a few weeks. The bottom part of green onions and leeks usually have some roots and if you plant the bottom half inch they will grow back and produce some small but very tasty leeks and green onions, if you provide a good soil they will grow bigger. Garlic and onions sometimes sprout leaves, if you carefully cut through the sides of the bulb to extract the sprout, you can plant it, you will not grow a full garlic or onion bulb but the leaves of the growing plant can be harvested and they are delicious, I think garlic leaves are sweeter and tastier than garlic itself. Some tropical vegetables like Chayote or Air Potatoes will sprout and then you can stick them in the ground next to a fence or stone wall or tree and they will grow like crazy and give you lots of fruits. Plantains and bananas are very easy to grow, you dig shoots from the base of an existing plant and sow them in your garden, they will grow forever and bear fruit every 6 months. Look around your home region and find things that sprout and grow, you will be amazed of all the stuff you can produce without being a highly skilled horticulturalist. For protein you can grow grains like Guandu that have protein or you can raise Rabbits in cages, they reproduce like crazy, are clean and easy to keep, when I was a kid I raised rabbits and my mother prepared them in all kinds of delicious recipes, grilled, stewed and fried. In the Andean countries of south America families often keep guinea pigs for protein, they eat anything, produce 2 offspring every 3 months and are quite tasty, we should not be concerned that Guinea pigs are cute little creatures, they are food and lean protein at that; after all Rock Cornish Hens are also cute little birds and they have been industrialized and are delicious.
To reduce distribution costs try to consume food that is produced close to where you live, the farther away your food is produced the stronger the impact of any increase in fuel costs. There is also a hidden cost in food from far away places, it has been longer since it was harvested and spoils faster once you get it. Find out what is produced in your region and find recipes for it, the Internet is a great help to find recipes. Distribution costs can also be reduced by buying from producers directly, sometimes farmers sell their produce directly at their farm or in a farmers market or cooperative, in this way you eliminate the costs and profits from some intermediaries, their costs and profits are your costs.
In the process of food Preparation you can do a lot to reduce costs and maximize the nutritional value of the resulting dish, for that you must adopt the strategy and tactics of Market Cuisine, whose motto is: "If we have lemons, let's make lemonade"; in traditional cooking you find a recipe for a dish then you search for the ingredients for such a dish; in market cooking you come across some attractive ingredients (cost, looks, availability, Etc.) and then you search recipes for such ingredients. The Internet is a great help, just a simple search on for example "Recipes with Chayotes" will return thousands of entries, if you qualify your search to "Recipes with Chayotes, lime juice and Chili Powder" you will get more specific recipes. Food Preparation has 3 sub-processes: Storing, Seasoning and Cooking; to reduce cost of storing food you can increase the use of dry ingredients which do not require refrigeration, spice mixes are very easy to make and keep, they add lots of flavor to dishes and are good for your health since they reduce the use of salt; for fresh produce that require cooling you may use Pot-In-Pot refrigerators, which are an ingenious African invention that do not use any electricity and they really work, they can generate temperatures in the low 10's Celsius (low 50's Fahrenheit) good enough to keep tomatoes for 2 weeks, even to cool white wine to perfection, these refrigerators are easy to built and work best when placed in a sunny, well ventilated location like a balcony or terrace. To optimize seasoning, spices or herbs should be added at the very end of preparation, they always loose flavor when heated too long. When Cooking you should strive to minimize or optimized the use of energy and added ingredients like oils. Here are some tactics to minimize or optimize the use of energy and ingredients:
- NO HEAT COOKING: It is possible to cook chemically without using any heat, the Peruvian dish Ceviche is the best example of this method. If you search the Internet for "no heat cooking" you will be amazed at all the recipes you can find and this is the most nutritious method since nutrients are not degraded by heat.
- RESIDUAL HEAT USE: this tactic refers to using the heat that remains in the pot after the heat in the stove is turned off. For example if a recipe calls for cooking vegetables for 10 minutes in a covered pot, turn the heat off after 5 minutes and let the vegetables stay in the pot for 10-15 minutes, the residual heat will finish cooking them to perfection and you saved half the energy. You can do the same while baking, turn oven heat off at some point before recipe's time and let baked goods stay longer; ovens heat are often not very precise and insulation varies, sometimes ovens lose residual heat very fast, you would have to experiment with your oven until you get a feel for its residual heat, does it last or is it lost rather quickly?
-HEAT USE MAXIMIZATION: this tactic refers to cooking the most products with the available heat, a good example is a completely oven baked meal, if your main dish is a roast cooked in the oven, then make your side dish and dessert also in the oven, a good side dish to bake are scalloped potatoes with some tasty seasoning like mustard or cheese, the dessert can be a fruit pie, set the oven at the average temperature required by the dishes and raise or reduce the baking time for each dish. When grilling on a BBQ you can cook your meat, sides and dessert on the grill, corn on the cob or potatoes in foil can be cooked while grilling your meats, sweet fruits like mangoes, papayas or pineapple can also be grilled for dessert; with yogurt, nuts and sweet spices grilled fruit are delicious, even a dessert pizza can be cooked on the grill; you can also grill products for later use as ingredients, for example some chicken to make burritos the next day, some jalapeños to make some chipotle sauce for later use. When making soup you can place a steamer on top to cook some vegetables with the soup's steam.
-NATURAL FAT USE: some meats like chicken or pork have fat in their tissue, you can use this feature to avoid using oil or other fat in their cooking. Season your chicken or pork meat place them in a pan with a little water and start cooking over low heat, the meats will release some of their own fat and after a while the water will evaporate and you can raise heat to medium to brown and cook in their own fat, in this way you will avoid the cost and extra calories from external fats.
The above strategies and techniques when adopted as habit will reduce the overall cost of your food consumption while increasing the nutritional value of your meals. Below I will point you to some recipes found in my blog that are very economical and tasty:
CHAYOTE MATCHSTICKS WITH LIME AND ADOBO
GUANDU EN ESCABECHE
PINEAPPLE RICE DRINK
There is not a fruit stand, grocery store, public market or supermarket in Latin America that does not offer some form of the brown sugar we call Panela. It comes in various shapes from square to round, and shades of brown from Auburn to Tawny, but they are all the same product; the different shapes usually carry an specific name but it varies from one country to another. The name Panela usually refers to a rectangular prism, commonly called a Brick or Block.
The Panela is produced by pressing the juice out of sugar cane at small sugar mills called Trapiches, the machinery at these mills is very simple and sometimes is moved by water from a nearby source. The juice from the cane is filtered and boiled in a row of copper or iron pots where it is stirred frequently and decanted from the first pot to the last, becoming thicker in texture and lighter in color in the process. Copper pots produce a lighter colored and better crystallized product than iron pots, which produce darker Panela, however copper pots are more expensive and some trapiche do not use them. The process for making Panela has not changed much in centuries here you can see a very good video on the process, MAKING PANELA, this is from a Trapiche in Colombia but it is similar all over Latin America.
I grew up in a sugar cane growing town in Venezuela, named El Tocuyo; as a kid I roamed around the cane fields and occasionally cut some ripe sugar cane to peel and suck the juice out of it. To this day my favorite drink is freshly pressed sugar cane juice, called Guarapo, with a fresh lime squeezed into it, every time I see someone selling it I always buy, I can't resist it I am addicted to the stuff. During my childhood my family occasionally visited some of the local trapiches and my mother always brought spices and grated white cheese to have a Melcocha made, which is like a fudge made with the syrup from the last pot, the spices and cheese are added to form a paste which is kneaded until it becomes very elastic and almost solid then is shaped like a cylinder and is wrapped in dry plantain leaves.
I love cooking with panela, it produces a pretty caramel color in foods and the resulting flavor is never sickly sweet. Panela when added to any mixture turns it syrupy very quickly unlike sugar. Panela combines very well with white meats like pork or poultry and is excellent for making glazes. Panela and Rum are a match made in heaven since both come from sugar cane.
The technical definition of Panela is: unrefined whole cane sugar, typical of Latin America, which is basically a solid piece of sucrose and fructose obtained from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice. In India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka a similar product is made which is called jaggery. The main producer of panela is Colombia (about 1.4 million tons/year), where panela production is one of the most important economic activities, with the highest index of panela consumption per capita worldwide. Panela is also produced in Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panamá, Peru, Venezuela and Bolivia. In Colombia, the panela industry is an important source of employment with about 350,000 people working in nearly 20,000 trapiches (panela farms).
Below you will find some simple and delicious recipes with Panela I hope you will give them a try.
ENGLISH NAME: Brown Sugar, actually brown sugar shaped as a small brick
LOCAL NAMES: Panela, rapadura (Brazil), piloncillo (Mexico), Chancaca (Peru), Papelon (Venezuela), Raspadura (Panama)
PRODUCTS: Bricks, cones, half spheres, powder, syrup, nougat, fudge, candy, brittle.
NUTRIENTS: Panela is a form of sugar and as such is highly caloric, however in its defense one must say that unlike white sugar, which only has empty calories, Panela has some additional nutrients such as fiber and vitamins. Panela contains simple sugars (sucrose) but it also contains complex sugars (fructose) that take longer to be processed and delay hunger. So if you have to sweeten a dish, Panela is a healthier choice. I always combine Panela use with some protein to reduce the overall glycemic index of the meal.
PROCESSING: In order to use Panela you will either break it, grate it, crush it (with a rock, my favorite) or scrape it, you can also melt it with a little water.
STORING: Panela keeps well in a cool dry place, it will last for weeks but make sure ants do not reach it, they love the stuff.