Eco baking?

My parents are ex-hippies. I consider myself a fairly environmentally friendly kind of girl, for someone living in a first world country like Australia. I turn off lights and taps, I don’t own a car (primarily because I don’t drive…), I buy environmentally friendly cleaning products and I care about the whales. But as I was walking home yesterday, sweltering in the ridiculous summer heat and pondering climate change, it occurred to me, how eco friendly is baking? Is my passion having a positive, negative or neutral impact on the environment and is there anything I can (or will) do to change this?

So first, the positives. While I haven’t got studies to prove it, it seems like common sense that cooking a meal at home is going to be more environmentally friendly than eating at a restaurant or buying takeaway. You reuse dishes rather than having to produce and then throw away takeaway containers. Home cooking is likely to be more simple and use less resources than a restaurant meal – no tablecloths to wash, you drink tap water not bottled and fewer ingredients in meals means less food miles, less water and fertiliser and land used. Also, eating at home means you don’t use your car or other transport to go out. And it’s not that I’m against eating out, I absolutely love it, but I’m trying to get an overall picture of the good, bad and the ugly of my baking and cooking habits.

Also in the positives is that I shop locally and buy a lot of Victorian produce at the Queen Vic Markets. This reduces my ‘food miles’, the carbon emissions needed to transport food from the farm to me. I do think about seasonal availability when planning meals. Just yesterday I made a cheesecake, choosing to make it a strawberry one since those berries are at their best (and cheapest) in summer. In addition, being vegetarian and cooking only veggie meals and baked goods does reduce your carbon footprint quite significantly, since meat production is resource heavy and animals like cows and sheep produce large amounts of methane. Methane is many many times more powerful than carbon dioxide when we’re talking about global warming. In fact, it’s so significant that there’s actually a National Livestock Methane Program in Australia aimed at reducing methane emissions on farms!

One of my eco friendly vegan salads using home-grown basil and market produce

One of my eco friendly vegan salads using home-grown basil and market produce

On to the negatives now. I might not be eating meat but my baking does use a hell of a lot of butter, cream, milk and eggs – all produced by lovely yet methane emitting animals. Plus most of the baking ingredients I buy come in packaging, much of which is not recyclable. Then there’s my love of kitchen appliances. Chief among these is of course my Mixmaster, but there’s also a blender, juicer, rice cooker, sandwich press, toaster, kettle, ice-cream maker and vegetable dicer thingie. The ABS has actually done studies showing the trend for household appliance ownership is steeply upwards as we become more affluent and appliances become more affordable (apparently!). All those appliances I have use energy. On the other hand, they only use it for short periods of time, unlike, for example, a second television, my Mixmaster isn’t plugged in at all times. However, I would never plug them in if I didn’t own them because I didn’t do any cooking or baking.

My (climate busting?)baking: caramel popcorn and marshmallow brownies

My (climate busting?) baking: caramel popcorn and marshmallow brownies

Sigh! Pondering this is now starting to give me a headache. Maybe it’s a sugar cravings headache from lack of baked goods…I certainly don’t have the answers and I’m not about to stop baking and become a raw food fruitarian. But there are sites where you can buy eco baking supplies (think unbleached baking parchment and mixing bowls made from recycled plastic or bamboo), so it’s clear others have pondered this issue too, even made successful businesses out of it. There’s also plenty of blogs out there with enviro-friendly tips for the kitchen. I’m a big believer in there always being room for improvement, so it’s something I’m going to look into. It’s definitely worth contemplating…while enjoying a slice of my strawberry cheesecake!

Beautiful ingredients

I think there is only one secret to delicious cooking. It’s not, as the French might have you believe, butter. It’s beautiful ingredients. That sounds obvious, but I think a lot of cooking shows and cookbooks are missing that important step in making a fantastic meal.

You do not need an ice-cream maker or a sous-vide water bath to create something spectacular. You need fresh, vibrant vegetables, decent olive oil and perhaps some quality cheese or protein. Don’t get me wrong, I love kitchen gadgets and I also love eating at fancy restaurants full of foam, gel and freeze-dried-who-knows-what. But it just occurred to me the other day how little attention we give to selecting and appreciating the basic ingredients.

So today is ‘ingredients appreciation day’ on my blog. Here’s a picture I took of rhubarb. Just rhubarb. Isn’t it beautiful? Those gorgeous pink stems on my bright green plastic chopping board. It’s sexy! It’s inspiring. (And no, I’m not high, just take a second and look…)

rhubarb pic

A place where you can really appreciate the beauty of ingredients is farmers markets. Regular readers will know that I LOVE markets. I’m also lucky enough to live fairly close to the Queen Victoria Markets. I adore going and looking at (and buying) the displays at markets. Everything is a little imperfect, plentiful and displayed in a happy-organic sort of way. You can pick things up, see them in natural light rather than under fluorescents and, of course, smell them! Markets also give you an appreciation of what’s in season. You know it’s mango season when they’re going for under $10 a box. You know mushrooms are at their best when the mushroom man has eleven types on display. And you know it’s summer when berries’ prices halve. I personally don’t haggle at food markets, but that is also a fun element to shopping at markets if you’re into that kind of thing.

At the Queen Vic markets, it is easy to get overwhelmed, since the markets themselves are huge and, especially on weekends, completely packed. You could spend ( and I have spent) a fair amount of time wading through cheap handbags and dodgy looking kids’ toys before you find the fresh produce and even then, quality varies between stalls. I’ve been hitting up the markets for fresh produce since 2007 and have spent way too many hours dawdling round the stalls, sniffing oranges and squeezing avocados. Below are a few of my recommendations for beautiful produce at the Queen Vic:

Curds and Whey
This is a great cheese and dairy shop in the deli section. I particularly like it for its extensive and well labelled range of vegetarian cheese, including an organic Italian parmesan. They also sell butter (salted or unsalted) from huge blocks on their counter, quark, yoghurt, vanilla beans, saffron and other little gourmet delights. Most importantly, they’re always happy to offer you a taste before you commit to that wedge of cheddar or block of gruyere.

The Queen Vic Deli
I love this place for one reason: hummus. Their homemade hummus is the best I’ve ever had. I think they mix in a fair bit of tahini, making it really creamy and yet still tangy and tasty. The selection of olives at this deli is also worth a stop, though I think some of the other offerings are a bit overpriced.

Garden Organics and VicMarket Organics
These are my two favourite fruit and veg stalls. Both stock almost entirely organic produce. They also indicate if the produce is locally grown, which is helpful if you’re considering food miles. The staff are friendly (if not a bit cool) and really care about their produce. Plus Garden Organics has precious tiny little perfect pink lady apples (when in season) which I’m kind of obsessed with…

Also worth a mention not so much for gorgeous ingredients but for great snacks and prepared food, are the Borek shop in the deli section (and their sister shop further down on Elizabeth Street which has THE BEST gozleme), the Traditional Pasta Shop for fresh pasta and really good bake at home garlic bread and market juice for yummy (but super sweet) smoothies and my favourite Evia brand of yoghurt.

Turtle cookies in California

While this is normally a blog on North Melbourne, this week I’ve jetted off to California for a week’s holiday. San Francisco and North Melbourne actually have a fair few parallels. For starters, they are both overflowing with hipsters and really great places to eat. It’s a much more international city than many others in the USA. Of course there is amazing Mexican food (we ate at a fab vegan Mexican place in the Mission on my first night here called Gracias Madre), but there’s also authentic Thai, super cheap and delicious Indian, all you can eat brunch from the Deep South and just about everything in between. They also have trams (or ‘cable cars’) here, though the system is much more limited than in Melbourne. The weather is currently sunny and gorgeous, but normally it’s pretty changeable here, like Melbourne. Plus the politics in San Fran are probably the closest to the inner city small ‘L’ liberalism you find in North Melbourne. Sadly though, the coffee isn’t really on par, with only a few places offering coffee which meets the strict standards of my coffee-snob partner.

Yesterday though I headed out of San Fran to Palo Alto. It’s a cute little town based around Stanford University. It’s sunny around 80 percent of the time there apparently and there’s definitely a clean affluent feel to it, with the student population from the University giving it just enough edge to make it a pretty cool little place.

We got the Caltrain to Palo Alto, which, by the way, seems to be pronounced something like ‘Paul-o All-toe’ by the locals, a pronunciation I still can’t get right. We hit the main drag, which is called, rather unimaginatively, University Ave.

My partner, having been here a few times before, suggested Orens Hummus for lunch. Being a life-long vegetarian basically guarantees you’re a hummus fan I think. And that’s what they do, hummus. Hummus with just about everything. Technically they call themselves Israeli cuisine, but it’s a sort of middle eastern mix of options on the menu, plus a few Americanised items.

I ordered The Hummus Triangle, which was a serve of their classic hummus, plus spicy garbanzo  beans (chickpeas), fava beans and tahini. My partner had the Hummus Beef, which is what it sounds like – a whole lotta hummus and a whole lotta spicy beef.

Pita bread from Orens Hummus

Pita bread from Orens Hummus

Hummus Triangle at Orens Hummus

Hummus Triangle at Orens Hummus

Both dishes come with a never ending supply of homemade white and wholemeal pita bread. That’s one very American thing I think, everything either comes in a giant portion or with free refills. Drinks are free to refill, bread is free to refill and at the movies, popcorn is free to refill.  The meals are so huge, I don’t think I’ve actually finished one yet. On the first night, at the end of the meal the waitress looked at our half eaten plates and said ‘Can I get you a box?’. I looked at her a little strangely before remembering that, unlike in Melbourne, it’s perfectly ok to take-away your meal from a restaurant and eat it the next day. I think a lot of people do, making dinner their lunch at work the next day and saving a few dollars in the process.  That’s the other thing – menu items appear quite cheap compared to Australia, but once you add in the taxes and a decent tip, I think San Fran dining is about on par with prices in Melbourne.Anyway, back to the hummus. The hummus itself was pretty good – it was rich, creamy and there was a lot of it! It didn’t have as much flavour as I would like, but the pita bread that went with it was so fluffy and delicious that that made up for it. My only disappointment really is that I thought fava beans were what Americans called broad beans. Subsequent googling (because I’m pedantic like that) suggests I’m right. What I got on top of my hummus, however, was kidney beans. They were ok, but you know, not those big fat lemon-y  baby broad beans I was hoping for. Overall though, Orens Hummus was a hit for me. I actually think there is a market for that kind of place in Melbourne.  I actually think I’d like to open one myself…

Following hummus, it being me, dessert was required. For this we headed straight to Cream. It was recommended to me by my sister, who lived and studied in Berkeley for a semester. Cream has an outlet there and recently opened up one in Palo Alto. They do one thing. Ice-cream sandwiches. Very big ones!

The line for Cream was about 40 people deep, out the store and along the footpath past two other stores. I’m not sure if it is always like that, since it was a warm day, but I can understand why it’s so popular. For just $2.99 ($2.50 if you pay cash) you can choose two cookies (two different flavours if you like) and a scoop of icecream and have them sandwiched together in front of your very eyes. Like dessert magic!

The cookie flavours included classics like chocolate chip and oatmeal as well as more unusual ones like ‘Turtle’ which was chocolate, caramel and peanuts, Snickerdoodle (cinnamon) and Cappuccino. The icecream flavours were similarly variable, including decadent sounding things like banana walnut fudge, chocolate chip cookie dough (in case you didn’t have enough cookie in your sandwich!?), royal caramel swirl and strawberry cheesecake. It being California they also had vegan options such as vegan chocolate cookies with soy mint chocolate chip icecream.

I opted for one chocolate chip cookie and one Turtle cookie with salted caramel icecream. The cookies are still a little warm and soft in the middle, which makes them extra good. The sandwich is created in a wedge shape, to make it easier to hold and then squeezed into a small paper bag to make it easier to eat in bites. The cookies were excellent, especially the chocolate chip one which had lots of milk chocolate chunks that were still warm and gooey. The salted caramel icecream was a little disappointing, in that it wasn’t very salty or caramelly and just tasted like sweet creaminess. Wedged between two delicious cookies though, it was more than acceptable and I polished off that thing in record time.

Cream's icecream sandwich

Cream’s icecream sandwich

Cream on Urbanspoon

Oren's Hummus Shop on Urbanspoon