Friday, October 30, 2009

McDonald's Fleeing Iceland

• Iceland is a great country again.

• The global economic crisis isn’t all bad.

• It’s safe to bring the kids to Iceland.

If you didn’t hear, Iceland’s three McDonald’s will close this weekend. Click here to read more.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Islam Siddiqui and Roger Beachy - Suitable Public Servants?

I received a disturbing e-mail yesterday from the Pesticide Action Network (PAN).

Unfortunately, according to PAN, “Despite President Obama's early promises that 'lobbyists won't find a job in my White House,' he just nominated two "Big Ag" industry insiders who come straight from the pesticide and biotech sectors to vital posts.”

Instead of letting this happen unchallenged, PAN—working in concert with other like-minded groups—is attempting to gather 50,000 online signatures to help protest these two nominations.

If you think our voices don't matter, remember that the deplorable Smart Choices Program has come to a crashing halt because of public pressure.

Click here to take (literally) the 20 seconds needed to fill out the petition to help challenge Obama’s appointments of Islam Siddiqui and Roger Beachy.

Siddiqui, according to PAN, is the current Vice President of Science and Regulatory Affairs at CropLife America (and a former lobbyist) and has been nominated to the post of Chief Agricultural Negotiator. If his appointment is confirmed by the Senate, Siddiqui will be charged with promoting our crops and agricultural products to foreign countries.

Before you leave me, know that CropLife is a powerful lobbying group that represents chemical companies that produce pesticides. And the Mid America CropLife Association, a CropLife regional partner, publicly protested Michelle Obama’s White House organic garden.

Beachy, the long-time president of Monsanto’s de facto nonprofit research center, has been installed as director of the USDA’s new National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Beachy, in charge of a $500 million budget and the country’s agricultural research policy, unfortunately won’t be subject to a public confirmation process.

Siddiqui’s and Beachy’s backgrounds should be enough to get us all to sign the petition and help spread the word about it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How Broccoli Grows

Broccoli can grow in cooler temperatures and is still available at farmers markets (depending where you live).

It is rich in vitamins C, K and A, plus it contains sulforaphane and indoles, phytonutrients that can help fight cancer.

The entire plant—including florets, stalks and leafy greens—is edible. Click on the video below to see how broccoli grows.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The End of the Smart Choices Program


For those who believe that public pressure (i.e. newspaper articles, consumer demand, expert backlash) can have an influence on policy, take pride in knowing that our voices have been heard.

It appears that the disingenuous Smart Choices Program, the brainchild of the big (packaged an
d processed) food companies, is thankfully coming to an end.

According to an article in Saturday’s New York Times, “Under pressure from state and federal authorities who feared consumers would be misled, the food industry on Friday started backing away from a major labeling campaign meant to highlight the nutritional benefits of hundreds of products.”

I wrote about the Smart Choices Program in September and questioned how a program designed to help consumers make better shopping decisions could be taken seriously when foodstuffs such as Froot Loops cereal, Skippy pe
anut butter and Fudgsicle bars earn a green checkmark, the Smart Choices sign of approval.

Mercifully, PepsiCo and Kellogg’s are ending their relationship, while the program itself said “it would stop recruiting companies to take part . . . and stop promoting the program to consumers.”

The Food and Drug Administration has indicated it will take a greater role in front-of-package nutrition labeling. Governmental oversight
—which I am sure will have many holes—can’t be as hypocritical as Kellogg’s telling us that Froot Loops and Corn Pops are good options.

Remember, our actions and shopping decisions directly affect what is made available to us.

Want antibiotic-free chickens in your supermarket? Take two minutes and tell the store manager. If nothing changes, shop at another store where the better options are available. Don’t want artificial colors in the food you buy for your kids? Take two minutes and call the manufacturer’s toll-free number. Then find alternatives; trust me, they exist.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Planting Garlic

Even though we are heading toward colder weather here in the Northeast United States, there’s still plenty of work to be done in backyard gardens. I just planted garlic; watch here:

Friday, October 23, 2009

More About Growing Apples

(Third of three parts)

For a third (and last) day this week, I want to again stress the importance of understanding that growing apples isn’t as sterile as supermarkets’ apple displays make it appear.

Visit Jim Kent’s fruit stand at various farmers’ market locations in Manhattan and you’ll see 70 apple varieties of all shapes, sizes and colors. Bite into them and you’ll experience a wide range of flavors, textures and smells.

And even more noticeable—especially compared to what our supermarkets offer—are the bumps, nicks, spots and still-connected twigs that characterize many of Locust Grove Fruit Farms’ apples. But this doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the fruit. Instead, the imperfections (known here as “Mother Nature at work”) make you wonder in what hermetically sealed bubble the “perfect” (and usually tasteless) supermarket apples grow.

Understanding the factors Kent regularly encounters can help us better appreciate his final product.

“There are always problems we deal with,” Kent said.

For example, this year’s heavy rains caused trees to contain too much moisture, which led to mildew, imperfections and improper ripening of early season varieties such as Lodi and Tydeman.

In addition, trees sometimes grow a plethora of branches, which shade the apples and block the sun’s ability to properly color the fruit. To combat this, Kent will thin out branches, allowing the necessary photosynthesis to occur.

Deciding when to harvest late season Pink Lady apples presents its own challenges. Pink Ladies should be picked after the third or fourth frost (usually in early November), so timing is everything. If Kent harvests them even a day or two early, he’ll be left with inferior-colored apples; too late and he has frozen fruit.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More on Jim Kent and Locust Grove Fruit Farm

(Second of three parts)

One fruit that couldn’t handle this year's rainfall was the cherry, and Jim Kent’s crop was almost completely wiped out because of heavy rains that occurred only three to four days before Locust Grove Fruit Farm was to start the cherry harvest.

“We had a beautiful crop of cherries, but we lost 90 to 95 percent of them,” Kent said. “They split open.”

So, in the cherries’ case, water was both a blessing (earlier rain = bountiful crop) and a curse (later rain = cracked cherries).

But Kent was thankful; the situation could have been worse.

“We were lucky,” he said. “We didn’t get hit by hail, like a lot of people around us.”

Hail causes dents in apples, a surface blemish that doesn’t affect flavor, but is a blemish nonetheless.

“People want perfect fruit,” Kent said.

(Is that a conditioned by-product of what we see in supermarkets?)

As for apples, how they fared depended on each variety’s characteristics. For example, the Winesap, a great apple for snacking, has a thick skin. However, the inelastic thick skin cracked when the Winesaps
got bigger than normal because of this year's extra water.

And then there’s another can of worms (literally) that Kent has to deal with.

“Rain means more than just rain,” Kent said, “since there are certain bugs that thrive in that environment.”

More on Kent's growing pains tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Farmers' Market Profile: Jim Kent of Locust Grove Fruit Farm

(First of three parts)

With all the perfect-looking fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that many variables exist in every step of the growing process.

Here in the Northeast United States, we had an extraordinarily wet spring, followed by less-than-ideal weather mid-summer.

This double whammy created trying growing conditions for some crops, but benefited others. Unfortunately, with our markets displaying only unblemished produce suitable for the Food Network, the many factors which farmers have to contend with get glossed over.

Jim Kent and his family have been operating Locust Grove Fruit Farm in Milton, N.Y. since 1820. Kent and his apples, pears, peaches, berries, cherries and grapes are regulars at New York City’s farmers’ markets.

But almost 200 years of fruit growing knowledge couldn’t help the Kents stop Mother Nature and this year’s heavy rains, which had varying effects on different fruits.

“The Mutsus are as big as your head,” Kent said, referring to one of 70 apple varieties he grows. “All the rain stopped just in time. The apples got big, but not watery like the summer fruits and vegetables. Apples can handle water better.”

Apples are considered a late summer/fall fruit. The first variety Kent picks are Lodi in late July, while the last are Pink Ladies—more than three months later—in early November.

(Tomorrow: More on this year's harvest)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Moving Toward "Zero Waste"

An article in today’s New York Times discussed the increasingly popular strategy of “zero waste,” which attempts to minimize garbage by recycling or composting whenever possible.

Some interesting facts about food waste from the story:
  • “Food waste . . . accounts for about 13 percent of total trash nationally — and much more when recyclables are factored out of the total.”
  • “When apple cores, stale bread and last week’s leftovers go to landfills, they do not return the nutrients they pulled from the soil while growing. What is more, when sealed in landfills without oxygen, organic materials release methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, as they decompose. If composted, however, the food can be broken down and returned to the earth as a nonchemical fertilizer with no methane by-product.”
  • “San Francisco and Seattle . . . have adopted plans for a shift to zero-waste practices and are collecting organic waste curbside in residential areas for composting.”
And times have changed; it’s not just food that can be composted:

“Packaging is also quickly evolving as part of the zero-waste movement. Bioplastics like the forks at Yellowstone [National Park], made from plant materials like cornstarch that mimic plastic, are used to manufacture a growing number of items that are compostable.”

Anyone compost food scraps at home?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cooking With Leftovers - Curried Chicken Salad Sandwiches

Cooking at home is much easier when you have basic ingredients at hand. And the more you cook and expand your repertoire, the more diverse your basic ingredients will be.

For example, last week I made curried chicken salad sandwiches using leftover chicken breasts. Normally, I’m not a fan of chicken breasts (I prefer dark meat), but I had cooked them to make chicken/avocado/romaine lettuce/whole grain bread sandwiches, a perfect meal for a three-hour drive that coincided with dinnertime. I had ex
tra chicken and didn’t want it to go to waste.

To make the curried chicken salad, I cut the chicken breasts into bite-size cubes and then added ingredients that I always have in the house: yogurt, mayo, parsley and fresh lemon
juice (fridge); cashews and raisins (freezer); and curry powder, unrefined sea salt, fresh ground pepper and honey (cupboard).

The only extraor
dinary item I added was some diced Japanese turnip, which I had just bought at the farmers’ market. Why? I wanted some extra crunch in the salad and the turnip (more like a radish) was the only thing in my refrigerator that would work. The more traditional choices are celery and fennel.

The curried chicken salad sandwiches (using leftover romaine lettuce and whole grain bread) were delicious, took little time to make and cost less than sandwiches from fast food places.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Field Trip: Parental Permission and Snack Required

Ten snacks to give your kid if he’s going for a ride on a helium balloon:

1. Oatmeal and raisin cookies
2. Unsalted nuts

3. Hummus with cut-up veggies
4. Dark chocolate
5. Fresh fruit
6. Dried fruit
7. Chocolate chip zucchini bread
8. Carrot muffins

9. Cheese (from grass-fed cows)

10. Granola

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is Our Food Supply the Cause of Our Allergies?

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine was dedicated to food. There was a lengthy article on British chef Jamie Oliver, a shorter piece by Michael Pollan, plus features on California’s food banks and the calorie-restriction theory.

But another article, “Grain Elevator,” really caught my attention, especially one comment by Jeff Ford, the artisanal baker who is the subject o
f the story.

Many experts believe that our always-expanding list of food allergies is caused by the food itself, probably via the toxins (hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, synthetic additives, food colorants, etc.) found in it.

Ford, who uses “obscure organic grains that he . . . grinds himself,” voices a similar take on the now-popular wheat allergy:
“The varieties of wheat grown in this country for industrial production are down to about five, so it’s all monoculture, chemicalized, no nutritional value. The breeds are bred to stand up to abuse from the machines. We feed people this stuff that their bodies are not designed or adapted to eat. Of course they’re sensitive to it, and it’s not good for them and causes problems.”
And, as often happens, people with wheat allergies won’t eat pure bread like Ford’s, since it gets grouped together with heavily-processed “breads” made with bleached white flour and refined sugars.

This would be like labeling my bike “transportation,” including it in a group with a Lamborghini and ending the conversation right there.

Let's take this one
step further. Is it possible that the same theory holds for other food allergies? When I was growing up, I knew exactly one kid who was allergic to peanuts. Now, our kids can’t bring peanut butter sandwiches to school.

It's hard to believe
that—in what amounts to a nanosecond of human existence—we’ve suddenly become allergic to everything for no reason. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Grazin' Angus Acres: In Dan Gibson We Trust

As I wrote yesterday, I would sooner eat raw meat bought at the farmers’ market than meat produced by a huge, faceless multinational, no matter how much it is cooked.

The beef in my (rare) burger (photo, right) is from Grazin’ Angus Acres, and when I buy food from Dan Gibson, the farm’s founder, I am supremely confident in his attention to flavor, nutrition and food safety.

Doubts? Click here to listen to Gibson talk about many topics discussed in The Delicious Truth, including the grass his cows eat, healthy omega-3 fatty acids and
the slaughtering process.

I think it’s safe to say that we would be hard-pressed to find a similar speech by any Cargill, Smithfield or Tyson executive.

Beef from Grazin' Angus Acres is available in New York City and the Albany area. Click here for more details.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why Are We Condoning Negligence?

In the maelstrom created by The New York Times article discussing the dangers (specifically E. coli) of eating ground beef produced by food giants such as Cargill, many observed that to avoid contamination we should be cooking our hamburgers to well done.

This may be true, but it’s absolutely infuriating on several levels.

First, cross contamination from raw beef occurs easily. Sure, your burger may be safe, but your cutting board or knife may now be harboring pathogens.

Second, well done hamburgers taste like cardboard. (Guess what word I wanted to use.)

Third, once you cook it to well done, most of the burger’s nutrition is lost.

Fourth, why are we condoning the food giants’ gross negligence in the realm of the safety of our food supply? Should we have to eat overcooked, tasteless food because huge multinationals need to make $337 million this quarter instead of $324 million?

For me, the answer is simple. I would sooner eat raw meat bought from my friends at the farmers’ market than eat meat from Cargill, Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods, no matter how much it is cooked.

Monday, October 12, 2009

How to Make Chicken Soup

A popular cooking lesson I teach is a soup and stew class, which allows people to produce a large amount of food at one time. With that in mind, I recently made a huge pot of chicken soup, enough for six meal-size portions.

Making the soup took little time and was cheaper, healthier and tastier than anything bought in a store.

The process was simple. I placed a chicken carcass I bought at the farmers’ market (many supermarkets and butchers also sell chicken bones and parts for soup for $1 to $2 per pound) in a large soup pot. I then added two carrots, one parsnip, one turnip (all cut into 1-inch chunks), an onion cut in half, two cloves of garlic, a roughly-chopped hot red pepper, some parsley stems, a bay leaf and some peppercorns.

Finally, I added enough cold water to cover the chicken and vegetables. After I brought the mixture to a boil, I lowered the heat and allowed the soup to simmer (uncovered) for about 75 minutes. After letting the soup cool, I refrigerated it overnight. This helped the fat congeal, making it easier to remove later.

Each time we ate the soup, I made sure to season to taste with unrefined sea salt and fresh ground pepper. As I’ve written before, if I had salted after adding the water, I probably would have ended up with a salty soup, since some water—but no salt—evaporated during the cooking process.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Timothy Egan: "Restoration Harvest"

Try to find three minutes (literally) to read “Restoration Harvest,” a great essay by Timothy Egan, who writes a weekly blog on The New York Times website.

As I’ve done this week, Egan uses the story of Stephanie Smith’s paralysis caused by E. coli in a hamburger to touch on bigger issues.

Egan describes the beauty of the Yakima Valley, especially during the early fall when the region’s apples, pears and grapes are at their most flavorful. He contrasts this bounty with the system that sickened Smith. “[A]s the Cargill E. coli episode proved once again, cheap food can come with a terrible price.”

But Egan believes that an innate force draws us to Mother Nature:

"A restorative of sorts is at hand this time of year. Barely 1 percent of all Americans work the land year-round as farmers, but still something in us needs a harvest. Every now and then, we have to see our food, if only to preserve the illusion that this good earth can keep us well."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Waiter, There's a Cabbage Looper Caterpillar In My Greens!

Another take on the “Knowing What’s Really In Our Food” theme:

Last week I cut a huge amount of greens from my garden (photo, right). In addition to making two greens pies, I’ve been sautéing the greens as a side dish.

As is my habit, I’ve
been using some other basic ingredients for added flavor and nutrition, such as fresh lemon juice, unrefined sea salt, fresh ground pepper and a cabbage looper caterpillar.

Excuse me?

OK, it was inadvertent, but using the photo at left, let’s play “Find the (Cooked) Caterpillar.” (Click on the photo to enlarge.)


But—and here’s the moral of the story—what would you rather have in your food, a (cooked) cabbage looper caterpillar which is medically harmless or the virulent strain of E. coli (O157:H7) that paralyzed Stephanie Smith?

An (uncooked) looper caterpillar is pictured to the right, and they have a habit of attaching themselves to the underside of a variety of vegetables, especially my dark leafy greens (kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, etc.).

Sometimes, if my wife is lucky, I'll see them when I am washing the greens.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Make Scrambled Eggs - A Quick & Easy Lunch

Today's post is a 2-for-1 special. Following the discussion of the last two days, I wanted to remain on the subject of knowing who is growing and making our food, in the hopes of avoiding giant food companies like Cargill. Plus, there’s a video showing how quick and easy it can be to make a great lunch or dinner.

For my lunch yesterday, everything I ate (except for the olive oil, unrefined sea salt and fresh ground pepper) came from someone I know:

Eggs – Lani’s Farm

Broccoli rabe – My garden

Hot peppers – My garden
Cheddar cheese (from grass-fed cows) – Bobolink Dairy

Seven grain bread – Grandaisy Bakery

Purple mizuna greens – Lani’s Farm

As for constructing my quick lunch? Watch the video below to see how simple cooking can be, even for someone not confident in the kitchen.

Be sure to notice how little I cook the eggs. There is enough residual heat in the pan to allow me to turn off the flame when the eggs are only about half-cooked. The eggs—like all foods—will continue to cook in a process called carryover cooking. Understanding this concept of letting food finish cooking off the stove or out of the oven is essential to avoiding dried out and flavorless food.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

More on "The Burger That Shattered Her Life"

Judging from The New York Times article about Stephanie Smith I discussed yesterday, it’s pretty obvious that Cargill could care less about our health.

If Cargill won’t answer questions from The New York Times, do you think the company will be responsive to questions from regular people like us? Shouldn’t we be protecting ourselves and demanding something better?

Let’s think about it another way: We know the name of our doctor, yoga instructor, kids’ teachers and plumber. Why don't we know the name of the people who grow our food?

One solution is to buy food from small-scale producers. I buy a lot of my food from farmers’ markets, where I’ve had the opportunity to develop relationships with the people making and growing what I am eating. They are responsible citizens who I can address fact-to-face, not a multinational which, even after I listen carefully because the menu options have changed, still won’t answer my basic questions about their products.

I understand that everyone doesn’t have access to farmers’ markets and the grass-fed ground beef pictured above. (The farmer who sold it to me knew the name of the steer it came from.) But better quality products are becoming more available in neighborhood supermarkets.

And if your store doesn’t carry meat and dairy products devoid of hormones and antibiotics? Start demanding it does, and get your friends to do likewise. If only one person a week asks, the store owner will turn a deaf ear. If 20 people a day ask (and leave the store without spending any money), the store owner will be purchasing better-quality products very, very quickly.

Too time-consuming? Think about Stephanie Smith’s fate and how ten minutes of work and an extra dollar or two may prevent the same nightmare from repeating itself.

Monday, October 5, 2009

"The Burger That Shattered Her Life" Or: The Tragedy of Our Modern Food Supply

For those of us who think we don’t have time to worry about the safety of our food, there was a shocking exposé in yesterday's New York Times that illuminated the minefields that exist within our modern system of commercial food production.

“The Burger That Shattered Her Life” tells the story of Stephanie Smith, a then-healthy young adult who became paralyzed in 2007 after eating a hamburger—made by the American food giant Cargill—that
was tainted with E. coli.

The article makes clear that while Smith’s “reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme,” the process of making seemingly harmless hamburgers is a crapshoot. “Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.”

There is insufficient government oversight of the suppliers, slaughterhouses and producers, many of which are self-policed. This leads to many situations that can have toxic consequences.

It is wishful thinking to believe that the hamburger Smith ate was just ground meat from a cow from a local ranch. Unfortunately, our industrial food system is much more complicated and unsafe than that.

According to the article:
"The hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria."
Even more disturbing is one of the reasons why:
"In all, the ingredients for Ms. Smith’s burger cost Cargill about $1 a pound, company records show, or about 30 cents less than industry experts say it would cost for ground beef made from whole cuts of meat."
What a shame. More on this tomorrow.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Magical Work of Worms

The next time you squirm at a worm, remember how helpful that little guy is.

According to a page on the University of Illinois Extension educational website:
"Worms help to increase the amount of air and water that gets into the soil. They break down organic matter, like leaves and grass into things that plants can use. When they eat, they leave behind castings that are a very valuable type of fertilizer."
I'll take a worm doing its magic over the spraying of pesticides any day of the week.

Watch a worm in action:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Drying Mint: Where There's a Will, There's a Way

Problem #1: Mint grows like crazy, and there’s a ton of it in my garden.

Problem #2:
Even if we used mint twice every day, there would be more than we could ever use.

Problem #3:
Mint will stay in the refrigerator for several days, but not much more.

Solution #1:
Dry the fresh mint, allowing for its future use. (The same can be done with most herbs.)

Problem #4:
I didn’t have any string, on which I wanted to hang the stems of mint. (Letting air circulate among the mint leaves helps them dry.)

Solution #2:
Tape a bamboo skewer between walls (see photo) and hang the mint on the skewer.

Moral of the story:
When cooking, even if you don’t have the exact ingredient or kitchen utensil needed, there’s usually something that can be used in its place.