Monday, October 31, 2011

A Peaceful Halloween

Happy Halloween to everyone and safe trick-or-treating to all the kiddos out there!

I read, think, and write regularly about the treatment of animals within our food system. We know huge corporations wield their power over cows, chickens, and pigs, but there is another species whose mistreatment deserves some attention: humans.  It is people who harvest fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and unfortunately those same corporations are guilty of taking advantage of their workers in the form of low wages and miserable conditions.

I love cashews.  They are a yummy topping in stir-frys.  They can be turned into a delicious dessert. But have you noticed cashews are one of the only nuts you can't buy in the shell? Cashews are a cousin to poison ivy, and between the shell and nut lie the same pesky oils that cause severe rashes in many of us.  It is the job of human workers, mainly in subtropical countries like Vietnam and parts of Africa, to remove the shell and toxins from these nuts.

Cashew workers are typically not given gloves or masks, so the oils cause burning and rashes on their hands and eyes.  In May of this year, several hundred workers went on strike in Mozambique because of their low wages (about 56 USD per month) and no access to toilets during their workday. What can we, the consumers, do?  Try peanuts, pecans, or almonds.

The vast majority of candy bars being tricked-and-treated every year are likely to have been made with cocoa beans picked by children. In fact, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture estimates there are 284,000 children working on cocoa farms along the Ivory Coast of Africa in hazardous conditions.

What companies buy these beans?  Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and the U.S. division of Cadbury.  They claim the treatment and age of workers on foreign farms is beyond their control. Could it also be related to this equation: cheaper labor = cheaper cocoa beans? Certainly. 

As any woman knows, giving up chocolate is not an option, but alternatives do exist in the form of "fair trade" products.  Fair trade items are more expensive for the consumer, but they protect the farmer and the workers by making sure more money goes into their pockets. While fair trade food may be a bit harder to find, most specialty stores carry a lot of it and it is quickly becoming more mainstream. Those of us who can find it and can afford it should absolutely be purchasing fair trade when possible.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ode to the Pig

I've seen several articles trumpeting the resurgence of the McRib sandwich on major news websites this week. These are websites that typically report on political happenings and environmental crises - so kudos to the McDonald's marketing team for a job well done.  The sandwich gets "released" every so often which generates interest and excitement among many consumers.

At this point, I must confess that I intended to search for #McRib chatter and post snippets of people's excitement over the sandwich. I did do the search, and I found a lot of happy remarks, but I was incredibly surprised at how much of what I read was anti-McRib. I've chosen to post those remarks instead:
Either Twitter is a haven for opinionated, yuppie foodies or it's a truly representative sample of Americans who have some sense. I hope the latter!

One must assume that McRib pork comes from factory farmed pigs based on the sheer quantity required to meet the demands of millions of customers . Everything I've read about the factory farming of animals makes me sad.  Sad for the animals who cannot speak up for themselves and angry at huge companies for taking advantage.  I'm not a vegetarian, and I understand that the eventual fate of any for-food animal is the same, but I believe also that the type of life they get to live matters. Every living thing will die one day, however, a life spent meandering outside, rooting around in the earth should be unanimously accepted as better than a life spent confined in a pen, sickly, and presumably unhappy.

Ode To The Pig
A factory pig's days
are no roll in the mud.

Dirty and crowded and stale.

So much potential for them,
with a toddler's intelligence
and social as a wagging dog.

But owners Smithfield and Tyson
need to keep expenses low.

Living among filth and disease,
the hogs grow too large for their bones
because of antibiotics.

Now Americans can devour
pork sandwiches
for a few bucks.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Humble Plate

Henry, our adopted dog, will eat anything.  I've caught him with chunks of lint he's theived from the laundry room trash. Rocks and mulch from the back yard are prized, crunchy treats. A dirty paper towel or a decorative silk flower arrangement?  He'll take both. Presented with an expanse of freshly mowed grass, Henry goes into "whale mouth" by dropping his bottom jaw and running it along the ground to fill it with clumps of the loose pasture as if he were a large ocean mammal gathering krill. He's most excited to go outside in the Fall because he knows a delightful temptation awaits in unlimited quantity: LEAVES. As with most dogs, Henry cannot be reasoned with.  Arguments such as "Rocks are not for eating," and "Here's a handful of your real food," fall on deaf (but cute) ears.

Not So Different
I was reminded of Henry's love of non-food substances when reading an article on artificial sweeteners at Food Renegade, and I realized that we humans are also guilty of an affinity for non-food.  It's not our fault, really.  Non-food is scattered among real food at the grocery store. It sits at eye-level, calling out to us from colorful, ergonomic packaging.  It says "I'll make you skinny!" and "I'll prevent heart disease and cancer and you'll live forever!"

Unfortunately, a lot of the products making these claims are working very hard to compensate for what they lack: real food.  Let's take an example. Dannon's Light & Fit Vanilla Yogurt sounds like something that would be very good for you. I want to be "Light & Fit" and I would bet a lot of other consumers do, too. Yogurt is well-known for providing calcium, protein, and those active cultures that placate our digestive systems.  However, Dannon's contains the following non-yogurt ingredients:  modified food starch, fructose, kosher gelatin, natural vanilla flavor, aspartame, citric acid, potassium sorbate, caramel color, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, annatto extract, and sodium citrate. Blech.

Go Humble
Have you ever heard an apple announce that it's good for your heart?  Or heard a carrot rant and rave about how little fat and sugar it has? Old-fashioned oats don't feel the need to boast "100% whole grain", although that's exactly what they are. It doesn't get much lower-carb than broccoli, but you won't see weight-loss companies advertising the flowery green.

We need to forget about labels and their claims and eat as much "humble food" as we can.

Humble food is something your great-grandmother would have recognized as food. It probably contains ingredients that you can picture in their natural form. A good rule of thumb is that humble food is something you could make. Whether you choose to is a different story. You might have a paralyzing fear of bees (guilty!), so bee-keeping is not for you but you could make honey. You could press your own olives, juice your own grapes, and deep-fry your own potatoes.

Some things you probably couldn't make:
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Chemical sweeteners - e.g. Splenda, Aspartame, Saccharine, Stevia powder
  • White Flour, Rice, or Pasta - i.e. wheat in which the bran and germ (the nutrient-and-fiber-rich parts) have been removed.
  • Artificial colors
  • Deli meat
  • Feedlot beef - sure, you could raise a few cows given enough land, but confining them in a small concrete pen and pumping them full of corn, soy, and antibiotics would be hard for even the meanest among us.
Keep in mind that most real food is not found in the middle aisles of a grocery store.  It's found in the front as sustainably-farmed produce and in the back as pasture-raised meat and dairy.  Naturally, the shortest path from the front to the back of the store is straight through the middle where those boastful processed items are. Hug the perimeter, read the ingredient lists to look for things you could have made, and remember that rocks are not for eating!

Monday, October 24, 2011

An Adventurous Plate: Celery Root

There is a fabulous market in nearby Ellicott City once a month.  It's called the Second Sunday Market, and occurs on dates in accordance with it's name.  My first visit was earlier this October - I was attracted by the promise of "exotic vegetables" being sold by a local French restaurant and I was not disappointed! I left with a bunch of lovely golden beets and a handful of parsnips for roasting, but my favorite find was an oft-passed-up and underappreciated vegetable called celery root.

About Celery Root
The knobby celery root is not going to win any beauty contests, but like the very best ugly ducklings, it surprises us in the end.

A chef was presiding over the exotic vegetable stand and she so heartily recommended the celery root that I had to take it.  She encouraged me to take a pre-purchase sniff and I was overcome with the aroma, of all things, of celery.  Not of a watery, pale green stalk for filling space in soups, but of something much brighter. It smelled fresh, of the earth, and salty.  

About The Soup
I looked for a recipe to do justice to my celery root upon arriving at home and came up with a soup that looked promising: Butternut Squash and Celery Root Soup.  My recipe is below, followed more or less from

1 butternut squash
1 celery root
1 large onion
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
6 fresh sage leaves
1 cup dry white wine
7 cups vegetable stock
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Peel and cube the squash and celery root.  Toss it in a roasting pan with a bit of the olive oil and a bit of salt and pepper.  Spread it in a single layer in the pan (use multiple pans if you are like me and don't own any giant ones) and roast it until it's tender and starting to brown, about 25 minutes.

Heat a bit more olive oil in the pot you want to make your soup in.  Sauté the onion, red pepper flakes, and sage until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the wine and cook until it's reduced by half.  Add the stock and the roasted vegetables and simmer the whole thing for about 10 minutes.  Let it cool a bit and use your immersion blender to smooth the soup.  Season as you like, I would recommend a bit of pepper but no salt as the celery root has a salty taste of it's own. 

I enjoyed eating this soup so much, I actually felt a pang of sadness when we finished the pot.  And an added bonus?  No trash!  Save your vegetable scraps for stock, enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, and there is nothing to throw away.

About The Bread
You may have noticed a slice of bread in the picture above, and it should not go without mention.  It was part of a fresh-baked black olive and rosemary loaf from The Little French Market, a restaurant also representing itself at Second Sundays, and it was good. Good with olive oil. Good with Earth Balance. Yummy in the soup. Great by itself.  

If you attend the market, make sure to buy a loaf; at least take the time to snack on a sample (although you won't be able to leave without buying more).  Be aware that the bread stand is not for the faint-of-heart, as local bees seem to have caught on to the wonderful fresh-baked smells and told all of their bee friends.  

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Scrappy Plate: Vegetable Broth

My grandparents must have had vivid memories of "going without" during the Great Depression. They tended to squirrel away free napkins and ketchup packets from McDonald's to use with casual dinners. No screw, bolt, or twist-tie was thrown out. Junk mail and it's containing envelopes were saved for scrap paper, and gifts were unwrapped so carefully that the paper could be used again next year (if they had to be unwrapped at all - Nanny's technique was to wrap the box top only so it could be lifted off and the entire ensemble reused).  I remember these habits fondly.

What Happened?
American's attitudes regarding waste have changed dramatically in a mere two generations. According to the EPA, the U.S. sent 33 million tons (that's 66,000,000,000 pounds) of food to landfills in 2009.  This includes food we put on our plate but can't finish.  It's leftovers that spoil, fresh produce that isn't stored properly or used quickly enough, and it's also money.  Not eating the food you buy is literally throwing away your money. Most of us wouldn't pay for a new shirt and toss it, unworn, into the garbage two weeks later, but we are much more careless with food.

What Can We Do?
We can work on buying only what we need. Planning meals for the week in advance and having a list at the store can make a world of difference.  We can also practice storing vegetables and fruits so that they last longer.  Try putting them in an airy basket.  I have had success using green bags.  We can prepare food and freeze it before it goes bad if we find we have bought more than we can eat.  We can also repurpose would-be food waste and use it as compost.  Or, as I have recently discovered, we can sometimes use food waste to make new food.

Make Broth
I usually buy the quart-size low-sodium vegetable broth cartons at Trader Joe's, and I like to stock up (no pun intended) as winter - a.k.a. soup season - approaches.  Their list of ingredients is reasonable, but I wondered how homemade would compare. Dan and I were preparing a simple stir-fry, and I was also pre-chopping some carrots, celery, and parsnips for a dish later in the week so I had plenty of vegetable scraps handy.

The "ingredients" include:

- fresh (but limp) parsley that would have been thrown out otherwise
- ginger peel
- garlic skins and 1 odd-looking clove, smashed
- 3 bell pepper tops, stems, and seeds
- carrot ends and peel
- celery ends and leaves
- the skin and ends of a red onion
- parsnip ends and peel
- a handful of spinach that was about to go bad
- a handful of basil, oregano, and sage stalks from my herb garden
- 3 bay leaves
- a pinch of salt and pepper

The scraps themselves looked beautiful - so bright and colorful. I put them all in a pot, added enough water to cover them, and brought it to a boil.  Everything simmered for about an hour.  It smelled wonderful.  The broth turned out to also have a rich color and a very, very good taste.  The boiled vegetables will end up in our compost pile and used to nurture a garden in the Spring. I think Nanny and Poppop would be proud!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Simplest Plate: Applesauce

One of the simplest things that I know how to make is applesauce.  It's inexpensive, requires just a bit of time, and the taste far exceeds store-bought.  It is also highly relevant to my latest farmer's market find: seconds.

I attended the market as usual last week, perused the apple stand wondering if I wanted to spend $7/peck or $13/half-bushel.  I told the lady attending the stand that I wanted a lot of apples and I wanted a variety of different kinds to which she helpfully asked "how about seconds"?  Seconds are the ugly ducklings, if you will; the apples that aren't quite pretty enough to be on display, they might have a bruise or spot where they grew oddly, but when peeled and chopped they are just a delicious as those good-looking ducklings. A half-bushel and $6.50 later, I was on my way to sauce.

How To Make Applesauce

Things You Need:

  • Apples
  • A way to peel the apples; a paring knife will do.
  • A big pot

Step 1:  Make sure it is Autumn or nearly Autumn and apples are in season in your neighborhood.  No sense in using grocery store apples that have traveled across the country - they just aren't as good. If it is not Autumn, wait.

Step 2: Acquire a lot of apples.  "Which apples?" you say.  There are so many kinds! Some types of apples are known for their sauciness - that is when you heat them up they not only soften, but they get mushy (like sauce) and fall apart.  Other apples, you may learn, are good for pies - they become soft but do not lose their shape.  Still other apples are best for eating straight out of your lunchbox.  While all these things are true, my grandmother's secret to good applesauce was to use many different varieties to get the best taste, and I stick to that. The fact is, all apples will get soft when you cook them and a well-applied blender can make your sauce smoother if necessary.

Step 3:  Peel and slice the apples into your pot.  I don't have enough storage space for any of those fancy peeling gadgets, so I stick to the old fashioned way and use a paring knife.  It took around 45 minutes to peel and slice the half-bushel.  It doesn't matter if the slices are even. [Note: I like to spread out on the living room floor for this part and have a guilty-pleasure TV show on like "Say Yes To The Dress" or "Grey's Anatomy".  "Jersey Shore" will work, too.]  Be sure to save the apple peels for your compost!

Step 4: Cook.  It's that easy.  Put the pot on the stove and cook the apples over medium-to-medium-low heat.  Stir them once in a while.  Mine cook for a total of about an hour, but they are done when they are soft enough to be mushed with the back of a spoon.  It won't hurt them to be cooked a little longer if you aren't sure. At this point, I use my immersion blender to make the sauce a bit smoother, but I do prefer it to be on the chunky side.  Be sure to enjoy a bowl of still-warm sauce!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Greasy Wings And Cheap Beer Or What I Hate About Football

This recent article made me smile from ear to ear.  Finally, a man - who actually likes football and the NFL - says out loud what I've been thinking for years.  The vast majority of games are too slow-paced and a waste of time to watch.  The author timed watching part of a game, and due mostly to commercials (thank goodness Miller Lite is teaching us how to "Be A Man") it took 10 minutes to run 2 plays.  In fact, with the magic of DVR he was able to watch an entire NFL game in 24 minutes and 12 seconds without missing any action.

Give Me A Break
From the end of August until early February, football is in season.  Sure, you can watch most of the big NFL games on Sundays.  But there's also Monday night football.  Many weeks there will be a Thursday night game. And college games may be played on Thursday and Friday; they also tend to engulf Saturday. That leaves just Tuesday and Wednesday each week football-free, which is slightly less than 30% of our lives during those five months. Assume 8 hours of each day is spent working and another 8 spent sleeping, that gives us just 16 hours of pigskin-less life every week.  What's a fan to do?  Line up their fantasy team and arrange their winning bets, of course.

Football Food
It is a rare specimen of football fan who sits down to watch a game with a hot cup of green tea and a plate of crunchy veggies with tasty hummus.  Mostly, they'll be found drinking terrible beer, faces smeared with "buffalo sauce", yelling at the TV about something a professional athlete did as if they could have done a better job themselves.

Couch Potatoes
The NFL is excited to come to Los Angeles, but LA-ers may not be equally enthusiastic. Who would be when you have 70-degree and sunny weekend weather in the middle of December? In fact, Autumn weather is beautiful in most parts of America and super-obsessed fans are missing all of that loveliness.  Go hiking, play with your kids, take your dog for a walk, run or bike, start your own game of football with friends - options abound.

Of course I know not all NFL fans are like this. It's fun to participate in a rivalry with another team and it's a great way to show civic pride. Some great games are certainly worth watching even for the casual fan. It's possible [read: obvious] that I have some pent-up dislike for obsessive fans of the sport. However, I do hope that as people become more educated about obesity, cancer, and heart disease that football lovers are making better snack choices and building exercise into their Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Plate of the Future

The New York Times Food & Drink issue came out this week.  It is a great and informative read that I would recommend to others interested in food or it's impacts on the environment.  My favorite section of articles are those by Michael Pollan, author of "Food Rules" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma", which I will be adding to my reading list shortly.  One of his blurbs in Food & Drink questions what our food system will be like in 100 years.  He guesses, and I agree:
"...the present one is — in the precise sense of the word — unsustainable. It depends on fossil fuels that we can't depend on and exacts a steeper price in human and environmental health than we can afford."
 I have a few more specific predictions of my own:
  • There will be significantly less meat on our plates. That's not to say we all have to become vegetarians, but, as Pollan notes, 9-plus ounces of meat per American per day is unsustainable.  It seems that we haven't evolved beyond the mindsets of our medieval ancestors - whoever has the most meat is the richest and most likely to survive.  Today, it's quite the opposite. People must become conscious about just how much meat they are consuming and how the farming practices used to support their meat habits negatively impact the environment.  
  • Individuals will grow more of the food they eat.  I see this happening already among some friends. It can also be seen, however, in the surge in popularity of farmer's markets up 1000 this year over 2010.  People are developing a desire to be informed about where their food comes from and how it was grown or treated.
  • The government, if government gets involved at all, will begin to start subsidizing organic food rather than feedlot meat, processed foods, and soda.  European governments have already made the switch.  Perhaps a a fat tax, as Denmark has instituted, will help buyers change their habits.
  • While I think our food system needs to become simpler - "simpler" referring to a simpler time and eliminating feedlots and hauling food across the world - it also seemed destined that technology will play an increased role.  One company is already labeling their meat with QR codes so a simple scan via smartphone app will tell you where it came from.  Refrigerators are online. Software can help sustainable farmers use their land and water most effectively. I hope that technology is not used to manufacture or genetically modify more foods that could and should be grown naturally.
In the same way that we cannot rely on gasoline to power our automobiles forever, we cannot continue to use farming methods which demand finite resources.  Farmers and farming methods will adapt if consumers change their habits and preferences.  It is up to the consumer, whether via government regulation or self control, to eat responsibly, to be educated about the treatment of food both animal and vegetable, and to translate that education into conscientious purchases.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Beet-iful Plate

I had a really good experience with beets last week in a roasted veggie dish, so naturally I picked up a few more at the farmer's market over the weekend.  Reader be wary: not all beet dishes are made equal.

The beet-iful dish in question is Red Beet Fusilli.  I stuck to the recipe exactly, which I so rarely do, I was sure it would be delicious.  Here are a few things I liked about the idea of this dish:
  • It was in a Food and Wine Magazine.  Things published in magazines have to be good.
  • The red of the beets turns the pasta red also.
  • I had a giant bag of poppy seeds on hand and this seemed a good opportunity to put a dent in it.
  • It's different and, if successful, could add to our repertoire of dinners.
The Fun Part

Beet hands!
 Grating the beets was pretty fun, and a great arm workout!  As it turns out, raw beets have a bit of a red "Midas Touch".

The Verdict

The red beet fusilli was super colorful and fun to make.  It was a good use of my poppy seeds.  It was different.  I couldn't finish my bowl, but Dan was fine eating his.  We agreed the whole thing was about average, and although we may not try it again it was great to make something new.