ONCE, LONG ago and far, far away -- in Baltimore, actually -- my husband and I dined in a new proletarian health food restaurant. We were young and flexible, and munched our way happily enough, through broccoli and brown rice casserole and sweet and sour vegetables over brown and crunchy something, topping it all off with "all-natural" desserts.
Memory has drawn a merciful veil over my order, but I will never forget the pineapply upside-down cake served to Tom. It arrived resplendently garnished with a mound of genuine whipped cream, the cake handsomely brown and appetizing. But oh! The illusion vanished with the first bite. No sweetening, all whole wheat and heavy as lead. It was in that moment of truth that we knew, young and flexible though we were, that we were not ready for the health food revolution.
Well, time has passed. We have a young family growing up in our home, and my concern about nourishing foods has grown, but I also want to avoid alienating my public. What to do? They are not the kind of people you can sneak up on, and no one short of Teddy Roosevelt had better try hitting them with a big stick. So I try to think over our priorities and handle everything with as much common sense and as open a mind as possible. There are lots of ways the family cook can make a difference in the nourishment of the daily offerings without sending the rest of the family off to the local burger palace.
The first rule is "Thou shalt not startle": No hard and fast imposition of rules and recipes far outside your family's habits. It's easier on the nerves to juggle a little and begin to emphasize the family favorites that come closer to the ideal, than to drop everything all at once. For instance, if you are trying to cut down on the fats and sugars in your family's daily diet, it makes sense to plan pepper stead rather than sweet and sour pork.
Or if you're baking, try to aim for recipes that get a lot of their flavor and sweetness from fruits, rather than from "empty" flavorings such as coffee and chocolate. Make an apple pie rather than chocolate cream pie. I'm sure there are few families where one is not as welcome as the other. Just doing you own baking is a sign of concern and interest in the quality of food your family eats. You are certain that fresh ingredients are used, with a minimum of mystery ingredients, preservatives, coloring. Within the context of family baking, you will find there is much room for making small changes that add to the health value of the food you serve.
Most recipes you use already will call for less salt and sugar than commercial products geared to a mass market. You can cut the salt in most recipes by half with no change in taste and no risk in the final product. Most recipes for quick breads and pancakes call for a few teaspoonfuls of sugar. I have cut this out for years, and my corn muffins and pancakes are just as much appreciated.
Where a large amount of sugar is specified, don't try to take it all out at once. It often is important to the texture of the finished product. Try reducing by small amounts. Even if you never get more than a quarter-cup of sugar out of that recipe, that's a little bit less your family will eat each time; and over the long run, it can make quite a difference.
Home cooking also gives you the chance to emphasize whole grains in place of refined ones. Again, take things gradually. Brown rice can be a bit of a shock to families used to instant rice. Try mixing brown and standard rice, half-and-half. As brown rice takes longer to cook, start it first in the amount of water you will need for the whole batch of rice. Fifteen minutes before the end of cooking time, stir in the white rice and continue simmering until done.
Make corn muffins a little more often, biscuits a little less. They go with the same foods. And when you make breads, muffins, pancakes, biscuits and the like, add a little wheat germ. Toasted wheat germ is very noticeable in a light dough, but raw wheat germ is virtually invisible in the finished product. Whole wheat flour can be used in conjunction with white flour without compromising the quality of your baked goods, although you do have to use a little discretion and avoid it in those recipes where the distinctive color and taste would be out of balance. I have not yet made a whole wheat angel food cake, but I do find that whole wheat flour is fine in almost any recipe where nuts are a major ingredient.
Flavors complementary to walnuts and pecans, peanuts and almonds, seem just right with the nutty taste of wheat. Our chocolate chip cookies are much tastier for the whole wheat flour I use in them, though my conscience still hurts when I bake them. Oatmeal cookies and the like benefit, too, and are easier to justify. Our pizza always has a whole wheat crust now, though we began making it with all white flour and only gradually introduced the whole grain. Proceed according to your family's tastes; they can't benefit from something they won't eat, and if you alienate them with an initial dose of the strange brown lumpies, you may not be able to interest them in anything new for a long time.
However, tastes do change, and as time passes, you may find yourself doubling the proportion of whole wheat flour, to rave notices. Also, don't underestimate your family's own good nutritional sense. Often you'll find that a homemade cracker or bread stick has an appeal equal to cookies or cake, and with a piece of cheese or some peanut butter, that whole-grain cracker becomes a mini-meal you can be proud of, instead of a sugary snack to worry about. So try deflecting a little of your baking time from the sweet side to the heartier breads. Make fruit breads instead of frosted cakes -- not for birthdays, except on request! -- bagels in place of doughnuts, and you'll be on your way. COMPROMISE APPLE CAKE SQUARES (Make 16 squares)
This recipe was given me by an orchard owner back in Maine. We added the whole wheat and wheat germ, but it's apples that give the oomph. 2 eggs 1 cup sugar 3/4 cup vegetable oil 1 teaspoon baking soda 3/4 cup white flour 3/4 cup whole wheat flour 2 to 3 cups diced apples (peeled and cored) 1/2 to 3/4 cup wheat germ or 1 cup chopped nuts 1 teaspoon vanilla 1 tablespoon sugar mixed with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
Thoroughly grease a 9-by-9-by-2-inch pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat eggs, sugar and oil together. Sift baking soda and flours together and add to egg mixture. Stir in apples, nuts or wheat germ, and vanilla. Spread in pan. If desired, you may sprinkle the batter with the sugar/ cinnamon mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the top springs back when touched gently. This cake is good warm or cold, improves a bit on standing, and needs no frosting. APPLESAUCE BROWNIES (Makes 1 dozen)
These are moist and rich and use half the sugar and chocolate my standard brownie recipe calls for. They are cakey, rather than crips-top brownies. 1 cup flour (part whole wheat) 1/2 teaspoon baking powder 1/4 teaspoon each baking soda and salt 1/2 cup margarine 2 ounces baking chocolate 1 cup sugar 2 eggs 1/2 cup applesauce 1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together. Melt margarine and chocolate together over low heat. Remove from heat, beat in sugar, eggs, applesauce and vanilla. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Spread mixture in a greased 9-by-13-by-2-inch pan. Bake at 350 degress for 25 minutes, or until the top springs back when touched. CORN SESAME CRISPS (Makes 2 to 3 dozen)
This is an adaptation of a recipe in the "Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook." I halved the salt and added the sesame seeds directly to the batter. The dough must be fairly runny to make a thin wafer. If it seems thick and refuses to spread, don't be afraid to add a bit more water. Cornmeals vary widely in the amount of water they will absorb. 1/2 cup cornmeal 1/2 teaspoon salt 3/4 cup boiling water 2 tablespoons butter 2 to 4 tablespoons sesame seeds
Lightly grease 2 large cookie sheets. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Combine cornmeal and salt. Add boiling water, butter and sesame seeds. Drop by teaspoonfuls on baking sheets. Allow room to spread. Bake until delicately brown and edges separate slightly from pan (about 8 minutes). Remove with spatula to cool on rack. STUMP STICKS (Makes 3 to 4 dozen)
My grandmother in Kansas City used to make these using white flour. We changed to whole wheat and find they improve in flavor on aging a day. Store in a tightly closed tin or glass jar to keep crisp. 1 teaspoon dried yeast 1/2 cup shortening 6 tablespoons scalded milk 2 cups whole wheat flour 1 teaspoon or less salt 1/2 teaspoon of sugar (optional) 1 beaten egg, sesame or poppy seeds for rolling sticks (optional)
Dissolve yeast in 2 tablespoons warm water. Melt shortening in scalded milk and cool to lukewarm. Add yeast, flour, salt and sugar to shortening.
Beat until dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. Cover and let rise until double in bulk. Punch down and pinch off pieces of dough to bigger than a walnut. Roll between your hands into pencil-thin strips about 6 inches long. Place on an ungreased baking sheet. Preheat oven to 325 degrees while you let dough dry a little but not rise. Bake until light brown, about 25 minutes. (After they are formed, they may be dipped in beaten egg, then rolled in sesame or poppy seeds before baking. In this case, use a greased baking sheet.)