Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hot Days, Cold Drinks

I normally don't like to turn the stove on at all when it's hot out, but I broke my rule and we made some really delicious food this weekend. Dan made bean enchiladas from his favorite vegetarian cookbook, Rabbit Food.  They were AMAZING.  I don't know about copyright laws and whatnot, so I won't post the recipe here, but you should definitely get the book because they have some really good, simple, and easy to modify dishes.  He added one jalapeno pepper and some cheese to the book's recipe.  This morning I ate a cold leftover bowl of the enchilada sauce with a bit of the bean mixture because it was so good.  Hello, breakfast enchiladas!  I also grilled a piece of fresh rockfish and served it with a little Earth Balance, oregano, and lemon juice on top.  We had some leftover snap peas from our stir-fry last week, so I steamed those to go with it.  It was all quite good.

Iced Masala Chai
On to the topic at hand.  I love a good soy iced chai.  The problem is there are almost no places that make a good soy iced chai so I've resorted to doing it myself.  At almost anyplace you order it, if you ask you will find out it is made from a pre-packaged concentrate or worse, a powder.  If said place has "chai tea" as their menu item, don't even bother asking ("chai" is the Indian word for "tea", so this place is offering you "tea tea").  The secret to masala chai, literally "spiced tea", is to use a good loose-leaf black tea and incorporate really good spices.  I tried making my own spice mixtures for a while, but I had a hard time getting it right.  Fortunately, last year Dan and I were in Portland, Oregon and we hit the jackpot.  We were at a small cafe and I was served a delicious, fresh-brewed chai with a peppery kick.  Upon asking what spices were used we found out the spice mix was commercially available from Morning Glory Chai so of course we ordered some.

I follow the directions on the package.  What you are making is essentially the "concentrate" a restaurant might have except it's so much better.  As sweeteners, I use 1T agave nectar, 1T real maple syrup, and 1T honey.  Let it cool off, fill a cup 3/4 of the way with ice, put in about 2/3 chai mixture and 1/3 soy milk (adjust which alternative milk you use and the amount to taste).  This was so refreshing in the 100 degree heat!

White Sangria
Last weekend, Dan and I visited one of our favorite local wine stores.  I like it because every single time we go in they are pouring samples of yummy wine, and Dan likes it because it happens to have a great selection of craft beers, a win-win for us. The lovely folks that work there mentioned using "New Age", a particularly light and effervescent white wine to make sangria.  I had to try it!  Today at the farmer's market, I picked up some tiny local plums and ripe peaches.  We chopped those up, added a few chunks of frozen mango that hadn't made it into smoothies and poured in the full bottle of wine.  To that, we added about a shot's worth of Grand Marnier (any citrusy liquor will do, that is just what we had in the house), and about 1/4 cup of sugar.  After letting it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours, it has turned out absolutely wonderful! Serve over ice.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Week in Food News (and a NIBBLE Update)!

This week I've come across some nuggets in the news and learned something interesting in Real Life.   News: if you have a bigger shopping cart you are very likely going to buy more stuff.  Maybe that's intuitive, but less so is that the larger your fork at a restaurant, the less you eat.  Real Life Discovery: While there is always a line to the door at Chipotle at 9:45pm, there is not one person there at 5pm.  Does that mean older people (early-bird special types) don't enjoy cilantro-infused rice?  Below are a few other recent tidbits in food news.

Favorite Quote So Far
The author of a New York Times article about a farm in Iowa humanely raising pigs was captivated by the farm, the health of the animals, and the fabulous taste of the pork they produced.  He wrote that it was easily the best he had ever eaten.  Lucky for us non-Iowans, Chipotle is doing it's part by buying all of the pork shoulder this farm offers them.  My new favorite quote comes from this article:

“Food isn't just a pile of stuff to be measured by weight and volume, and there’s a reason industrially produced meat is just a little more expensive than garbage."

Meat Eater's Guide To Climate Change + Health
The Meat Eater's Guide is really well done.  They studied the complete life cycle of many animals and vegetables that we eat and evaluated their contribution to greenhouse gasses in the environment.  If everyone in the U.S. followed "Meatless Mondays", it would be the equivalent of driving 91 billion fewer miles, or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.  They found that 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions from raising and producing cattle come from meat that just gets thrown out, so when you do buy it make sure you only buy what you can realistically use. Oh, and lentils are awesome.

It's important to know that the study only looked at farming using conventional methods (feedlots, antibiotics, etc), and not traditionally farmed, grass-fed animals.   People's biggest complaint about the humanely raised animals is that their meat is more expensive, but the guide addresses this by noting if you eat less of it you can afford to buy meat of a higher quality.  In Howard County, Clarkland Farm is my favorite place to buy grass-fed beef.     

I was going to do a whole post on food websites and technology, but that's taking too long so here's my favorite new recipe website.  Gojee let's you put in an ingredient that you already have and suggests recipes that use it.  It's a visually stunning site, and the creators have personally reviewed all the recipes. Recipes have come from some of the best food bloggers, so you're definitely going to find something special.  While sites like AllRecipes have 5000 different recipes for chocolate chip cookies, Gojee has about 5000 unique and inspiring recipes in total.  

In NIBBLE News...
I cheated.  Once.  It was Tuesday, and I was starving (blame the marathon training). I had been thinking about candy for 4 or 5 days and I caved.  I didn't overindulge, and I haven't gone back so I'm still claiming success overall.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Three Peaceful Freebies

Grounds for your Garden
Historically, Starbucks hasn't gotten the best reputation when it comes to the environment. They give out billions of paper cups (2.3 billion on 2006) that cannot be recycled or composted.  The company does have a plan for improvement and is on track to provide recyclable cups as well as recycle bins by 2015.
Starbucks has a great program to help those of us making our own compost who are short on food scraps: "Grounds For Your Garden".  Dan and I haven't tried this yet, but their website claims if you go into a Starbucks you can ask for a 5 pound bag of used coffee grounds and they will happily hand one over.  It seems to me you might have to go into the store one day to ask for the bag and pick it up the next day, but what a great concept! More restaurants should save compostable food scraps for the community.

Rake & Take Program
If you are getting extra coffee grounds from Starbucks, you may need more "brown material" to balance out your compost pile. Brown material is typically yard waste; leaves are a good example.  In Howard County, MD, the Master Gardeners group has a "Rake & Take" program.  Those who have extra yard waste and those who need extra yard waste are put in contact with each other.  The "rakers" put their bagged yard waste at their curb and the "takers" pick it up. I hope other counties and states have implemented similar programs.

Amazon Trade-In
The most selfless of us are perfectly happy to give away all the items that we no longer need.  You can do that in any number of places - Goodwill donations, craigslist, Purple Heart collection, or just leaving something in your front  yard with sign announcing "FREE".  My mom recently gave away a living room chair, mattress, and box spring using the latter method.

While it's great to donate things to a worthy cause and I'm 100% supportive of that, sometimes it's nice to get a little something in return.  I can wholeheartedly recommend the Amazon Trade-In program.  I've used this before to sell back a bunch of college textbooks and a couple of Wii games that would have been thrown away otherwise.  You don't get a ton of money, but something is better than nothing and it all adds up.  All kinds of things can be traded in - electronics, games, books - and the list keeps growing.  You'll need to find a box to use for shipping your items (check around your workplace) but the shipping is free and you get payment as a credit to your Amazon account.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Colorful Plate: Salad & Stir-Fry

I've read that the more colorful a dish is, the better it is for you.  Think bright red tomatoes, deep purple eggplant, and crisp green beans rather than red meat, white meat, or orange roughy.  They say brightly colored food packs a lot of nutrients that can aid in cancer prevention, and just generally make your body happier.  I'm not sure if those are true statements, but I'd like to share two colorful dishes Dan and I made yesterday.

The Big Salad
Eating hot food on a hot day is not something I enjoy, so in the summer I make a huge bowl of salad every week.  Most days, I bring a giant tub of it into work for lunch with a little olive oil & balsamic mixture as dressing.  I've gotten at least one comment that my salads actually look good which is high praise coming from a non-salad-eating co-worker!

I do have some tips for making a potentially mundane bowl of vegetables more exciting.  

1.  Go nuts!  Literally.  I sprinkle sunflower seeds and sliced almonds on top of every salad.  They add a lovely crunch and great taste.  If you are worried about calories, cut them out somewhere else.  These are too yummy to miss!  (Just kidding, sort of.  Another good idea is to throw some chickpeas or beans into the mix.  You get the earthy taste of nuts with less calories.)
2.  If the salad is a little boring flavor-wise, throw some fresh salsa on top.  Trader Joe's make a deliciously vinegary mild tomato salsa with a ton of flavor.  
3.  Chop it up.  For some reason, lettuce and most other vegetables taste better when they are chopped into tiny pieces.  This is why restaurants offer "chopped salad" on their menus.  All it takes is a few extra minutes.

In this salad: chopped up red and green head lettuce, cucumbers, spring onions, shredded carrots, green and orange bell peppers, organic grape tomatoes
Other things that are good in salad: red onions, arugula, fresh mint, fresh cilantro, chickpeas, black beans, red cabbage, broccoli

The Stir-Fry
The great thing about stir-fries is that you can throw in almost anything and it will taste good.  You need  a really big pan or wok to cook it all and a good knife for chopping, but that's about it. Whatever vegetables you have leftover in your fridge, whatever they had available at the farmer's market that week, doesn't matter because it will all taste good.  I'm a big fan of mushrooms, carrots, and sugar snap peas so those will be staples in mine if I have them.  Ginger, garlic, and onion makes a delicious base.  Ours turned out really well - light on the sauce, but tons of flavor!

Stir-fry tips:
1.  Don't buy a pre-made stir-fry sauce.  It's very likely whoever manufactured it put crap in there that you wouldn't eat if you knew what it was.  Peanut butter mixed with low sodium soy sauce (a trick I learned from You Blog What You Eat) makes a yummy and simple dressing.
2. Always add cashews!  They taste fantastic with the flavors of the veggies and spiciness of the peppers.  Add them at the very end because they just need to be heated up but not cooked.
3. Don't overcook the veggies.  5-7 minutes on medium to high heat is usually enough to get them crisp-tender.  Serve over rice or rice noodles.  We made brown rice to go with ours.

In this dish: zucchini, broccoli florets, crimini and shitake mushrooms, sugar snap peas, sliced carrots, ginger, garlic, shallots, hot green peppers, bell peppers, cashews, crushed red pepper flakes, and sauce: 1 cup vegetable broth, 1/4 cup water, 2T low sodium soy sauce, dash of freshly ground pepper, 1t sugar, 1 small scoop natural peanut butter

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Running Free

Dan and I are training for the Baltimore Marathon this October.  Marathon training involves a LOT of running.  There is a science behind it and some workouts should be shorter/faster/longer/hillier than others, but the gist is that you are running.  Today was a particularly beautiful summer morning for a run in Maryland - sunny, cool, and not humid - and I enjoyed every minute of my short three-miler.

When I finish a run, I like to eat something with a lot of protein to help rebuild muscles and aid in recovery.  Dan goes for a protein drink; he mixes water with a vegetarian protein powder (pea-potato-spirulina which tastes about as good as it sounds).  I typically enjoy a plate of scrambled eggs, by which I mean one egg and some egg whites mixed together.   I'm very careful about what type of eggs I buy, making sure the packaging says "Cage Free" and that the eggs are organic, meaning no antibiotics or hormones were used.  I thought that these labels meant the hens enjoyed a lovely life full of sunshine and space to roam.  According to a 2010 graphic published by the New York Times I was very wrong.

I'm including the graphic here, too.  Even though it's not to scale, I think it's really important to see.  The red dotted lines are how much hens raised in battery cages get (97% of laying hens) and how much space cage-free hens get (2% of laying hens).  Even the 1% of hens that are raised "free range" may not be as free to roam as it sounds.  They usually have limited hours of access to the outside world.

What Is Being Done?
Some recent good news is that the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers, representing 80% of laying hens, are pushing Congress to pass a bill which dictates how much space these hens should have.  The recommendation is 144 square inches per hen, more than twice as much as they currently get and even more than the cage-free birds!  This would actually be the first federal law related to the treatment of farm animals and could set a great precedent for future legislation.

What Can You Do?
Short of raising your own hens, which actually isn't a bad idea if you have some outdoor space and a little free time, this is a difficult question.  Some small, family-run farms will let you buy eggs directly.  This has an advantage in that you may be able to see how the hens are raised, or at least talk to someone knowledgeable of their treatment. Disadvantages include an extra trip outside of your normal grocery store run, and the fact that there aren't going to be small family-run farms within driving distance of everyone in the country.

Some larger farmer's markets sell eggs as well.  These farmers might come from slightly farther than you are willing to drive, so that is a good option to still get localish eggs and to be able to talk to the farmers about the living conditions of their hens.  The disadvantage with farmer's markets is that they typically do not run all year long.

For my part, I will continue to buy the "cage free" eggs I see in stores because that seems the most humane of the commercially available options.  I will investigate what is being sold at my local farmer's market.  I also plan to keep an eye on the legislation as it goes to Congress, although even if it passes it will take 18 years for the new rules to be fully phased in.  And of course, I will keep running.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mixing It Up! Nectarine Smoothie?

We all know life can get really busy, and sometimes it gets so busy that the non-grocery-shopper of the household has to do the shopping.  This can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the regular shopper.  You give them a list.  You describe where some of the more obscure items are relative to things the non-shopper would notice ("between the checkout and the protein powder").  You've already made peace with the idea they won't go off-list and pick out a yummy frozen treat like you would.  And even if you write down "peaches", sometimes you get nectarines instead.

Today, I am having a nectarine smoothie.

The Recipe

2 ripe nectarines, peeled and sliced
1 dollop of Greek yogurt
about 5 or 6 frozen mango chunks
1/2 banana
splash of water

Throw it all in a blender and mix!


The smoothie is actually pretty good.  It tastes more or less like a smoothie I've blogged about before.  It's got a lovely color that I suspect was the inspiration for Crayola's "peach" crayon.    One nice thing about the non-shopper going shopping is that, for better or worse, you are almost definitely going to try something new.


I typically use soy milk, but that didn't make it onto the list so I improvised with Greek yogurt.  I used about 2 big spoonfuls and that was too much (the smoothie is thick and a little too yogurty for my liking) so I am recommending just one.

Freeze the other half of your banana for your next smoothie.

The water is just to get the blender going, and you should adjust the amount as necessary.  If you have a really fancy blender, I'll be jealous and you might not need any water at all.  If your smoothie is too thick, add more, but remember you won't be able to make it less watery so don't overdo it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An Adventurous Plate: The Kumato

I read an article on MSN last week suggesting some new and different foods that are worth trying.  I was interested to see kumato on the list, which is basically a small, brownish tomato.  I had seen them before at Trader Joe's and wasn't sure about them but if the internet says it's a good idea...

Tangent: note the packaging in the photo.  Trader Joe, why did you need a cardboard box and plastic wrap for these little guys?  I would have been happy picking them out of a bin.

Admittedly, eating a kumato wasn't all that adventurous.  Tomatoes are easily my favorite food, which I attribute entirely to my grandparents for spoiling me with juicy home-grown "Better Boys" throughout my childhood.  So how did the kumato taste?  A lot like a regular tomato.  For a store-bought one it actually had a lot more flavor than I expected.  It was sweet, only slightly acidic, and I think it had more of the umami flavor than a regular tomato, which I liked very much.

I'd like to try growing these myself to compare store-bought with home-grown taste next year.  I don't think you can buy the seeds anywhere commercially, so we'll have a future post learning how to save kumato seeds!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The NIBBLE Project: Week 1

The first week of NIBBLE has gone well.  I haven't had any treats at work other than what I bring in my own lunchbox although I think about getting some every day!  I guess that means I really needed to do this.

Tuesday was unusually stressful and was a really tough day NIBBLE-wise.  This week Dan and I had dog obedience school, there is a rehearsal dinner and wedding to attend tonight and tomorrow, training runs to complete for the Baltimore Marathon, my car needs to get serviced, and all that in between being gone for 8.5 hours every day to work.  With all that looming in front of me, I had a hard time staying away from the candy jar but thank goodness this blog holds me accountable.

I'm optimistic for Week 2!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Most Peaceful Burrito

GOOD, one of my favorite magazines, blogged a few days ago that Chipotle has announced plans to double the use of local produce in their restaurants.  As chains go, Chipotle is already notoriously good at using local-ish food (grown within a 300-mile radius of the restaurant) farmed in a reasonably sustainable way.  To double that would certainly be a great achievement; it will probably mean more business for lots of smaller farmers across the country and nobody can argue that food isn't better if it travels a mere 150 miles instead of the average 1500.  But how much better is it?

I found myself wondering how much of a difference this increase in locally sourced ingredients would realistically make to the environment.  Would it be more helpful if Chipotle spent money promoting their vegetarian menu items over those with meat?  Or would it be a better use of their time to find farms that can supply grass-fed, pasture-raised beef?  I did a bit of research to try to answer this question.  I am by no means claiming that my answer is comprehensive or even correct, and I leave that judgment up to the reader.

Transporting food across the country or across the world requires fuel.  Fuel generally requires oil and emits greenhouse gasses, and we've already learned that food on the average plate has traveled 1500 miles to get there. Buying local must be the best food-related thing we can do to help the environment - right?  According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, summarized here, transportation only accounts for about 11% of the environmental impact of food.  Most of the effects on the environment actually come from growing and producing food, and of course different types of food take different amounts of energy to produce.  Meat takes more than vegetables, and it turns out red meat requires the most - 150% more energy than chicken.  Perhaps we should all be vegetarians...

Vegetables require less water [than cows] and you can get more pounds of rice than beef per acre of land.  They are delicious and good for you and you should absolutely eat a lot of them, but watch out for how they were grown.  Vegetables can attract insects and diseases, which are often treated with pesticides that eventually run off into our land and water.

Even worse, many vegetables are genetically modified so they are resistant to the pesticides which kill pesky bugs and weeds.  Nobody really knows what eating all of this GMO food may do to us or our planet in the long run, and there's not a whole lot we can do about it.  For example, Roundup-ready soybeans (modified by Monsanto, the company that makes Roundup) accounted for 80-90% of soybean plants in the U.S. and GMO food is not required to be identified on food labels.

Let's revisit our friend the cow.

Much like vegetables, how bad an animal is for the environment has a lot to do with how it was raised and cared for.  Most cows are "traditionally raised", which means they are cooped up in pens and fed corn and antibiotics - corn because it makes them grow faster and antibiotics because corn wreaks infectious havoc on their stomachs.  The arguments for raising cows this way are mostly monetary.  They are quicker to get to slaughter size so farmers have a faster turnaround time per animal which equals more profit.  From an environmental perspective, corn-fed cows produce less methane since corn is easier to digest than grass.  Thank goodness the story doesn't end with grass-fed cows being too gassy for the planet.

The true carbon footprint of grass-fed cows that are allowed to roam around many acres of land is actually negative.  As cows graze, leave manure, and move on to other fields, the nutrients they leave behind get stomped into and absorbed by the soil leaving it healthier than it was before they got there.  Healthy soil holds in carbon rather than sending it out into the atmosphere, offsetting the methane the cows released.  Producing food for these "mooovers" costs nothing more than a few sunny days.  No antibiotics need to be introduced because cows were created to eat grass.

The Most Peaceful Burrito
Back to the question at hand, which I've now pretty much forgotten.  Chipotle should absolutely continue to increase the amount of food it brings in from sources local to each restaurant.  It should also focus on getting more organically grown vegetables and it should work really, really hard to find suppliers of pasture-raised, grass-fed beef. Their website indicates they are always looking to improve in both of these areas, which is great news and all the more reason to chow down on their burritos!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Plentiful Plate: Pick-Your-Own Blueberries

It's blueberry season in Maryland!  The next best thing to growing your own is picking them fresh from someone else's farm. You reap the benefits of eating locally grown, fresh fruit and skip out on a lot of the work that raising your own plants can bring.  From what I've read, blueberries can be one of the trickier plants to grow.  They need a specific pH level in the soil and some bushes can take up to three years to produce any fruit at all.  Not to mention they are coveted by beetles in the hot summer sun and beetles and I have a bit of a misunderstanding.  They think I enjoy being buzzed around and I most definitely do not.

Henry and I spent a couple of days over the holiday weekend at my parents' house.  One of my favorite things about visiting is all the food my mom sends me home with (getting back to my own house is the worst because there is so much to bring in and unpack!).  This time mom sent me home with a big bowl of freshly picked blueberries!

She had also been inspired by Ina Garten, one of her favorite chefs, to make this DELICIOUS Summer Fruit Crostata using fresh-picked blueberries, peaches, and plums.  She modified the recipe a bit by using a frozen store-bought crust instead of making one from scratch.  She said it was simple and a nice time-saver; defrost the crust and roll it out so it's a little thinner than a normal pie crust.

I'm fairly certain that my parents keep their local farm in business during blueberry season. They enjoy the time spent picking - and eating - in the field and they like to pick a few extra blueberries to freeze for later.  

21 gallons!

Mom likes to have enough to "get through winter".