Monday, December 10, 2007

Sometimes you just need a little comfort food

Which, for me, is this kind of thing:

Broiled mackerel with grated daikon, miso soup, brown rice w/ stir-fried hijiki and parboiled green beans with sesame seeds

That’s pretty much the sort of thing my mom always made at home - some kind of broiled fish, very simply prepared vegetables, miso soup and rice with a couple of rotating accompaniments like salt pickled turnips, sauteed lotus root, burdock kinpira, or stewed chicken.

I realize that probably sounds kind of weird, and certainly, it used to be a source of tremendous consternation to me that my mom never made me any “normal” food. This was especially true at lunchtime in elementary school, when everyone would take out their lunch boxes and start trading things like strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups and juice boxes feverishly.

Now that I’m older and don’t live at home, I get a hankering for that food every now and again, and thankfully, it’s really easy to make. I think some people find the idea of cooking Japanese food at home kind of intimidating because of all the unfamiliar ingredients, and the cultivated esotericism of the typical unsmiling sushi chefs encountered in Japanese restaurants. But it isn’t difficult to make a straightforward meal like the one pictured above:

Parboiled green beans with sesame seeds:

  • Cut the tips off a quarter pound of green beans
  • Drop beans into water that has reached a rolling boil; cook 2 minutes, or until the beans have about the give of the flesh on the tip of your index finger.
  • Remove from heat and plunge into ice water. Drain.
  • Dress with a dash of sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seeds - or just a dab of mayonnaise.

Hijiki stir- fry:

  • Submerge 1/2 cup of hijiki in cold water, set aside until it expands to about 3 times the original size; drain
  • Peel and quarter a carrot lengthwise; cut into thin, fan-shaped slices
  • Sautee the carrot slices in 2 tbsp sesame oil until semi-soft
  • Add the drained hijiki and continue stir-frying for about 5 minutes, adding 1 tsp brown sugar and 1 tbsp soy sauce (you can adjust to taste - I prefer less sugar than some people)

Broiled mackerel:

  • Set oven to broil
  • If using a whole mackerel, slit the fish from the tip of the jaw down the belly to the tail; scoop the innards out (Or just leave them, if you don’t mind fish innards. I find them kind of bitter.) Rinse and pat dry. Make two cuts on either side of the head to splay the body open like a book.
  • Salt lightly, then brush with any kind of cooking oil you want - safflower, soybean oil, sunflower, sesame, whatever.
  • Broil with cut side facing up for about 10 minutes, or until the meat on the inside browns - keep a careful eye on the fish so it doesn’t burn
  • Serve w/ finely grated daikon radish and a spot of soy sauce

I usually just cook my rice in a rice cooker, so I can turn it on and ignore it while I’m making everything else. Easy-peasy!

Friday, November 30, 2007

A few thoughts on sows and veal calves

from Brian D. King, the Education Coordinator at Devil's Gulch Ranch in Nicasio, CA. Devil's Gulch is a pretty spectacular little corner of the world with wine grapes, rabbits, pigs, sheep, guinea fowl and probably some other critters I'm forgetting to mention.
They host all kinds of educational programs for kids including a summer camp, and they're worth checking out.

Photo from barto's flickr stream

Sows are not careful, are very big, and the babies are very small. In the wild, the sows lose many to being stepped on or sat on; that is why they have 8 to 10 in a litter. Also, the sows are very protective and very dangerous. I have gotten a broken leg and a dislocated ankle form a pig that decided that I needed to be dead. The agriculture teacher at Ramona High School got his leg bit and spent a week in intensive care. I was helping one of my students with her sow that had a stuck baby. As I was trying to pull the baby out of her, the sow attacked the student that had raised the sow as a pet from a baby. I do not have time to tell you all the close calls I have had over the years that I have raised pigs or with my agriculture students.
If we are going to raise pork, sows must be confined the 2 days before birth to the first few weeks after. A three week-old pig is still very small and we still have management that must be done on the babies at 3 weeks. All a sow wants to do for those first 3 weeks is eat, sleep, and nurse her young. I should have you come out and see how violent a sow will get when all you do is pick up a baby pig. A 400 pound sow will get her front legs and her mouth over a 4 foot wall to kill you. I have also seen three 400 pound sows chase down, kill, and homogenize a healthy and fit coyote.

Photo from karlfrankowski's flickr stream

Veal – cows must give birth to give milk. Only the best heifer calves (females) are kept and less than 1% of the bull calves are kept as bulls. All the rest are left to die in the pasture, sad but true. The margins are so tight and labor is so expensive that it costs more to try to raise the calves for meat than to let them die. Some are raised for veal in shelters that are enclosed on 3 sides and have a roof. They are made the way they are to keep the calf warm. The calf can turn around but not run and play. In California, the calves do have sunlight (at least in all of the dairies I have been on – I have not been on them all). But again, if the farmers are going to have a loss raising the calves they will just be put down on the first day.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Not sure how to feed 600 pounds of Texas man

But here's how my mom feeds 360 pounds of Asian:

Clockwise from top: boiled chestnuts, hard-boiled eggs, sliced meatloaf, broiled salmon, sauteed lotus root with sesame seeds, salt-pickled chinese cabbage with sesame oil, sliced persimmons, brown rice

There's a great audio clip circulating the internet of an irate Texan giving Jimmy Dean a dressing down for shrinking their sausage packages from 16 oz to 12 oz. 12 oz of sausage, a couple dozen eggs and a T-bone steak are apparently *not* enough food for what he calls "600 pounds of MAN!" to eat first thing in the morning.

Now, food is a tremendously cultural matter, so I can't really say that what this guy should do is ditch the cholesterol gut-bomb for breakfast and eat Mama Hoshino style. But then, let's be serious here. Eating that kind of crap for breakfast is just not healthy, even if it makes me feel like a snooty food chauvinist to say so. I'm not saying drop the sausage altogether, but sausage *is* a pretty calorie-dense and fatty food that probably shouldn't be eaten every single day along with other stuff like it.

And as an aside - I'm not really sure what this guy is so hyped up about. A cursory stroll through the Jimmy Dean website indicates that their sausage is indeed still available in a 16 oz. package (or a 32 oz., or a 48 oz., for that matter). Maybe Randy Taylor, Texas Man, should have reserved his ire for the local supermarket.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is this inhumane?

Sow in a gestation crate
Photo from
clstal's flickr stream

No, really. I'm seriously asking that question. It's not a rhetorical jumping off point for me or others to express their indignation.

See, the Humane Society of the United States, among other animal rights groups, is circulating a petition to get enough signatures to add a ballot measure in California that would ban the use of gestation crates, battery cages and veal crates in hog, egg and veal production, respectively. Being that I'm not a hog farmer, a manager of a laying hen operation, animal behaviorist, large animal veterinarian, etc., I honestly don't know if this is a good thing or not. But I *am* a consumer of all those things (well, maybe not veal), I have an irrational love for farmers and I vote, so I wonder about the merits or drawbacks of these management systems.

Hens in a battery cage
Photo from clstal's flickr stream

But as it turns out, it seems damn near impossible to get a well reasoned and impartial exposition of the issue. Virtually all the material on the pro side is from hysterical, Chicken Little PETA fascists who, you get the feeling, would inveigh in the most strident tones against anything hinting at people using animals for anything other than cuddling...or something. The pro side is basically non-existent, at least on Google (perhaps less so at a diner in Iowa, but I can't get to that from my computer). So I turned to the American Farm Bureau's blog to try to find a real, live conventional hog farmer to ask. In response to my request for more information, I got this nuclear blast of rhetoric.

I find this all unfortunate because this issue could in fact land on a ballot next year, and 36 and a half million Californians could conceivably be called upon to vote on it. And aside from that, we all eat and we have an ever-increasing number of opportunities to vote for or against a particular farming method with our dollars. It would be nice if we could all make an informed decision, both at the polling station and the supermarket. Wouldn't it?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Another choice quote

Corn field in North Dakota
Photo from Matt Dente's flickr stream

From a promotional video for Pioneer Herculex seed:

"If we were to take 20 kernels off the tip of this ear on a population 30,000 stand, that's gonna be about a 6 bushels per acre loss; or $12; or you could even take it to $30 a bag."

Being that the extent of my exposure to farming is restricted to a season on a 4-acre organic farm, it's pretty amazing to me to consider the scale of what farming really is in this country. I'm not trying to shill for DuPont and all the other chemical companies-turned seed companies, but it's an interesting illustration of just how much food gets produced by a relatively small segment of the population.

Were we to have grown corn on the farm I worked on, it's doubtful that a few kernels here or there would have made much of a difference - we would have just sold the ears (assuming the damage wasn't grotesque) and that would have been that. Of course, on a 10,000 acre corn farm, few kernels off each ear can obviously add up to an awful lot of corn.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Pesticides in your pants

Photo from Kyleroth's flickr stream
Maybe you aren't too wound up about pesticide residues from the foods you eat (I tend not to be). But boy, I really hope all those Dole bananas I must have eaten as a child weren't making the people who produced them impotent.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Stick these where the sun don't shine

Up your nose, that is
Photo from mizinformation's flickr stream

Anyone who's ever bitten off more than they can chew in the chili department knows that eating spicy food can lead to a massive nasal flood.
This lovely sensation is apparently now available in convenient spray form. Eeep!

Am I a schmuck or what?

*Not* the soup to be used in your green bean casserole
Photo from landotter's flickr stream

Here I was, ranting and raving about Kraft OWNING the holidays with their green bean casserole, not even realizing that apparently, they INVENTED the thing to begin with. At first, I felt like it was perverse that the dish that every red-blooded American has to have with their Thanksgiving meal is actually a 50 year-old marketing vehicle for Kraft to push canned soup and canned fried onions to the tune of $70 million a year.

But on the other hand, it *is* easy to make, people do really love it and frankly, you don't have to have the foggiest idea how to cook in order to make a passable version of it. It may not meet my definition of what food is, but I suppose it's a step up from some of the other insane crap food companies try to pass off as recipes...after all, not everyone has the time or the inclination to make food out of actual unprocessed ingredients, right? Right?

Monday, November 5, 2007

More winter squash!

Delicatas are probably my favorite kind of winter squash. They have the perfect texture, aren't too moist or too dry and have a deliriously sweet taste that goes well with all things winter. The standard way of cooking them is to simply cut them in half, brush them with olive oil and then bake them until soft - at which point you can gobble the whole thing down, skin and all.

But that would be so easy. It wouldn't require hours of baking, boiling, pureeing, fussing and mess-making in the kitchen. So I decided to try making delicata gnocchi. Now, I love gnocchi, but I absolutely hate it when they're too heavy and you feel like you have a leaden torpedo of dough in your stomach from eating them. Here's what went into the dough:

The meat from 4 roasted, seeded delicata squash and 3 baked russet potatoes
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs

Instead of adding flour to the dough until it became manageable enough to roll out and cut into pieces, I just left it as it was and used a spoon and a pastry spatula to spoon the dough up, divide it and drop it straight into boiling water. This I served with fennel sauce:

3 fennel bulbs, browned in a covered pan with 2 tbsp olive oil
blended with
1 cup milk
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

I reserved some fronds off the fennel to mince and toss on top for an extra anise-y kick. As you can see, it wasn't the most elegant meal, but it was damn tasty.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Lemon bars!

Couldn't resist buying these citruses from DeSantis Bella Frutta at the market. They're a couple of Meyer lemons (the "it" lemon of the moment) plus a baseball-sized fruit they were calling sweet lime. Meyers come in a bewildering array of different colors (the ones at Whole Foods, for example, are light orange) and cover a pretty wide flavor spectrum ranging from almost tangerine-like to puckeringly sour. These had green mottling that I've never seen before and were very mild. The sweet limes had a very strong citronella scent to them that I actually found kind of off-putting, but the juice was delicate and very slightly sweet.

I suppose I could have made a batch of lemonade, or some lemon-ginger tea, but instead, I decided to give lemon bars a shot even though I was horrified to find out that lemon bars (which I love) are basically a big pile of sugar, eggs and butter. To give the bars a veneer of healthfulness, I made a whole wheat crust with crushed almonds (also from DeSantis!). Doesn't this look wholesome??

OK, so maybe it doesn't, really. Here's what's in it:

1/2 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup wheat germ
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tbsp honey
1/2 cup almond butter (so far so good...)
1 stick of frozen butter, cut into small pieces

Yeah, yeah, butter is full of cholesterol and will cause your arteries to harden, but without it, the crust would have been the consistency of dirt. And no one wants to ruin tasty lemon curd with dirt.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Today is World Vegan Day

Happy dairy cows at Deep Roots Ranch in Watsonville, CA
Photo from ChezPim's blog

Veganism is very polarizing. I'm not going to promote it or inveigh against it here, but I will say that I find it puzzling. It seems like a rational reaction to factory farming and all the disgusting things that are associated with mass dairy and meat production. But the underlying philosophy it espouses of not using animals at all for any human purpose doesn't make sense to me.

This is not because I believe animals are non-sentient milk, meat and egg machines. They're not. They're an integral part of the nutrient cycle that makes it possible for us to nourish ourselves. While it may be possible to farm vegetables without animal inputs, I have to seriously question whether it's better to flood the soil and water with synthetic fertilizers and spray crops with pesticides in order to avoid using animal-based organic matter.

Potting mix derived from dairy bedding for plant starts on an organic farm

In my (admittedly limited) experience in farming, it became abundantly clear to me that without using soil amendments like aged manure, blood meal, bone meal, fish meal and egg shells, you would have either unhealthy and low-yielding crops - or would have to turn to Dow Chemical and Monsanto for fertilizer and seed for plants that can thrive in an environment barren of natural nutrients.

Turning compost composed primarily of horse manure and hay

I wonder how many vegans, who are probably mostly urban- and suburbanites typically removed from any contact with animals except as meat or companions, are truly aware of how animals really fit into the soil food web (groan if you want at the use of this hippie-dippie, but still useful term).

And as for meat-eating and the ethics of that, I have to say I'd trust someone who works with and cares for animals every day to know their animals over someone who eats GMO soy hot dogs to avoid meat.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Choice quote of the day...again

Are you ready for this dish to totally DOMINATE your holiday home?
Photo from m-e-c's flickr stream

From a BrandWeek profile of Kraft's plans for a "holiday comfort food home invasion"
(emphasis mine):

"Our goal is to own the holidays," said Ken Stickevers, VP of marketing for Hearty Soups at Campbell Soup, Camden, N.J.
A Cream of Mushroom push will focus on Campbell's 50-year-old holiday classic, the green bean casserole. "There are about 30 million green bean casseroles prepared between Thanksgiving and Christmas every year," said Stickevers. "We will be driving awareness of the dish every week [now] through Christmas."

I admit to being an insufferable food snob, but am I really crazy for finding it disquieting that Kraft wants to OWN THE HOLIDAYS? Sheesh.

Nouveau caveman food

My boyfriend picked up Jennifer McLagan's excellent Bones: Recipes, History and Lore a little while back and the cover photo of a couple roasted marrow bones, complete with parsley salad and marrow spoon had been taunting me from the kitchen table ever since.

While it is now terribly in vogue among a certain kind of gourmand to seek out the funkiest of meats ("duck fries", i.e. duck balls, from Incanto anyone?), I haven't laid a finger on anything more adventurous than chicken liver in ages. So we picked up some marrow bones from Drewes', determined to give it a shot, and cooked them up the other night after a lengthy stay entombed in the freezer.

It turns out that they're extremely easy to cook, but just require a little planning. Marrow bones must be soaked for 12-24 hours in a few changes of water to leech all the blood out of them. I'm not sure what would happen if you skipped this step, but I wasn't going to take any chances. Who knows what old, mouldering blood trapped in a cow leg tastes like. Here's what they looked like when they came out of the water bath, pale and bit ghostly:

You'd think that after having to soak the bones for ages, cooking them would also be a production. But it wasn't. It took about 15 minutes in the oven at 450 for them to cook through - although in all honesty, we left them in for a little too long and the marrow started to actually melt and flood out of the bottom of the bones. So I'd recommend checking on them periodically and pulling them when you can put a toothpick into the center w/ no resistance.

Marrow is tremendously rich - it tastes kind of like a steak distilled into butter that's made out of beef - so it's a good idea to have some bread and something sharp and peppery or mellow and sweet to eat with it. We ate ours with rounds of toast, an arugula-fennel salad and roasted beet soup to cut through the fattiness.

And not to sound like a broken record here, but I'd also like to point out that bones are just about the cheapest thing you can get from your local purveyor of pastured beef. Some meat CSA's even toss them in for free with your meat share. Of course, with all the high-end restaurants clamoring for them as well, that may not be true in San Francisco or New York.

Monday, October 29, 2007


The most delicious yogurt in the world.

OK, so perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it really is sensational. I picked it up on a whim from Avedano's, and it was well worth the price ($3!!!). Light years beyond even better yogurts like Nancy's. AND for people who have trouble digesting bovine dairy (not me, thank god!), made from sheep's milk. It has a velvety mouthfeel with a hint of pleasant graininess from the vanilla and isn't at all mutton-y.

Not sure if it's better than St. Benoit, another local Bay Area producer, but it is just as creamy without the slightly heavy, fatty taste of St. Benoit. Not that there's anything wrong with that - yogurt is meant to be delicious, not a diet food.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

So *this* is what farmers do in the off season

I wonder if this guy could pull this maneuver off with a manure spreader on the back.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

What Mr. Butz said

No, no, no. EARL BUTZ, not butts.
Photo from cobalt123's flickr stream

For some people, the name Earl Butz conjures up, well, nothing other than maybe some giggles. But for others, he seems to be famous for having uttered the following with regard to small farmers: "Adapt or die".

Now, I'm not sure he actually did say this. And I'm also not in a position to pass judgement on whether or not he really did preside over the trend toward mega-agribusiness and relentless vertical integration in food production that currently prevails. That is something for the experts to decide.

But aside from the weighty questions of agricultural policy Mr. Butz's name conjures up, what I'd also like to know is the following.

Did the man who is either admired for making American agriculture efficient or reviled for destroying small farms really SAY this, provoking a furor that led to his resignation?:

"I'll tell you what the coloreds want. It's three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit."

This statement was apparently preceded by an anecdote about "intercourse between a dog and a skunk".

I swears I never fucked no dog, even if Mr. Butz sez I dids! Srsly!
Photo from fieldsbh's flickr stream

WTF? What?
So if the naysayers are right, presumably Mr. Butz's lapses in judgement were *not* restricted to unleashing the likes of ADM and Cargill on the American agricultural landscape.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Adventures with winter squash

It's winter squash season!!!! There are SO MANY delicious kinds of winter squash and so many ways to cook them that it's almost overwhelming. Almost enough, even, to not rue the fact that if you live anywhere other than California, that's pretty much all you're going to get at the farmer's market until next May.

Heat, Bill Buford's book about his Italian cooking journey from Babbo in New York to the Tuscan countryside, filled my head with delusions of hand-rolled pasta and thoughts of a plate of pumpkin ravioli with radicchio sauce I had in Florence over 10 years ago. Which is an insane and thoroughly unrealistic standard to set. I mean, I'm Asian. I'm not some fleshsome Italian grandma who's been pressing pasta w/ her orecchiete thumb since birth.

But I'd shlepped 4 orange kabochas down from the farm and I figured I'd give ravioli a shot. Now, in Heat, there is a brief mention of some recipe for ravioli di zucca in which the squash is grated and then stewed in milk. This is intriguing because it seems gratuitously fiddly. Winter squash is great because all you have to do is cut it in half, brush it with oil and throw it in the oven. And you can even skip the oil part if you're feeling really lazy. So why on earth would you make the process so painstaking?

Needless to say, I just couldn't bring myself to muscle down in front of the grater for hours and shred my own fingers into the ravioli filling. Instead, I halved each squash, removed the seeds and then baked them semi-submerged in milk at 350 - just because I had some sitting around in the fridge and thought, what the hell. Once the squash was baked through (about 45 mins), I scooped the innards out, added 1 1/2 cups of grated parmesan, a dash of salt and nutmeg and mixed it all together.

I rolled my pasta out, cut it into 2x2 squares and put about half a tablespoon of filling in. Then, while the ravioli were cooking, I minced some leeks, shredded up some chard and sauteed the lot in butter.

Tada! Ravioli. Not pretty, not perfect and definitely not the way the Tuscan mountain people make it, but not too shabby. Even if I did cheat and add what is probably a sacrilegious amount of olive oil into the dough so it would behave.

Can't wait to use the leftover filling in a sauce...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Where's MY payment from the Farm Bill?

Not a farm (Photo from Mr. Wright's flickr stream)

Perusing the Congressional Budget Office's 21-page Cost Estimate of HR2419, otherwise known as the Farm Bill (or at least, the version that passed in the House), is enough to make your head explode. Everyone knows the bill is a staggering behemoth filled with an incomprehensible number of different appropriations, but seeing the fine print is truly illuminating. A couple million here, a few billion there and soon you're looking at some serious cash.

It's no wonder we're talking about $877 billion over a period ranging from 2008-2017:

$408.6 billion for nutrition programs (e.g., food stamps)
$88.7 billion for commodity programs, including direct and countercyclical payments plus loans and loan deficiency payments for growers of "covered commodities" (i.e., grains, oilseeds and cotton)
$70 million/year for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
$2 million for a Federal Milk Marketing Order Review Commission
$2.3 billion for the Wetland Reserve Program
$221 million for the Market Access Program
$294 million for Rural Development Programs, defined as "grants to producer organizations to enhance the value of agricultural commodities"
$800 million to "cover the subsidy costs of guaranteed loans for biofuel plants"
$265 million for direct spending on research of organic agriculture and specialty crops (keep in mind that "specialty crops" are anything other than commodity crops like grains, oilseeds, cotton, rice, corn and soybeans)
$11 billion for foreign food assistance programs from 2008-2012 (procured, of course, stateside and not necessarily close to the area in need of the assistance)
$220 million from 2008-2012 for programs to "promote and research energy production from agricultural and other biomass sources"
$193 million for "miscellaneous provisions" for a "wide variety of programs" including grants to reduce the production of methamphetamines from anhydrous ammonia and the creation of a National Drought Council, among others.

I'm not saying that there aren't plenty of worthy things being funded in the Farm Bill. But how on earth can anyone keep track of where it's all going?? I should have a line in there somewhere. Shit, if some guy living in Manhattan can pocket a few thousand, I don't see why I'm missing out. Wouldn't be but a rounding error in the general scheme of things.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Busting our bubble

Photo from skookumchick's flickr stream

What? Is this not what you think of when you think "farm"? Here's an interesting photo pool on flickr of large-scale agriculture.

More on meat

The way I see it, we can have our meat two ways. We can buy from a small producer who saddles up his horses to go check on his herd:

or we can consume anonymous meat from a feedlot:

Photo from Cathy Dowd's flickr stream of a feedlot in Dodge City, KS

Now that the Farm Bill is up for debate in the Senate, it would seem that there is an opportunity for everyone who eats to decide which of those two production methods should prevail.

Or is there?

A little while ago, I posted some comments the above-pictured rancher had regarding changes to the meat inspection laws pending in the Farm Bill. Here's some follow-up from the same rancher. Clearly, he doesn't regard the renewal of this legislation as anything but background noise:

The (regulation regarding) proximity to state borders occurred to me the first time -- that's where we are, after all, 10 miles from the New Mexico line (in Arizona). We don't enroll in ag. support programs and we're relying entirely on our own means to transport our stock and meat to customers. There are a couple of items here: you mention needing to cross state lines because of distance to USDA slaughterhouses; that's live animal transport?; you propose that the Farm Bill is the fastest way to fix the laws; and that the meat distribution system is broken.
Hmmh: if there IS a meat distribution system in this country, we're not in it. Do I have to buy a ticket? We pay our own gas, we buy tires by the truckful, and we wear out vehicles at an alarming rate. But we don't need Federal help. As to USDA slaughterhouses: I think I mentioned that we don't need one. The State of Arizona has its own sanitary laws and undertakes the obligation to maintain a healthy food supply; we are inspected and validated by them, but only within State jurisdiction. New Mexico does the same, ditto California; it's a nuisance if you happen to live on the line like we do, but it's not insurmountable, and the reason for it is to allow each state to do its job. We don't need to find a USDA slaughterhouse.
What puzzles me is why people think the Farm Bill will fix the laws...? The Farm Bill does nothing except subsidize agriculture; it has nothing to do with law -- except possibly in the sense that large corporations who benefit enormously by their eligibility for Farm Bill subsidies also exert a lot of influence on lawmakers. I'm willing to hold my nose, but the only way I see to fix the Farm Bill is to get rid of 98% of it.

I find this all very vexing. On the one hand, it seems obvious that the best way to support small farmers and ranchers is to buy what they produce directly from them - not by picking up your phone and calling your Congressman, who, in any event, is probably either indifferent or on the take from the agribusiness lobby. On the other hand, we all go to grocery stores and most of us don't live on farms or ranches. Which means that if we realize that we're out of milk at 10pm, we might just nip out to the corner store to pick up a quart, even if it happens not to be from say, Strauss Family Creamery. So much as it would be great if all the distortions the Farm Bill creates were to disappear, it is much more likely that it's not going anywhere. As long we can't drop the bomb on the Farm Bill, the pragmatic thing to do is to try to wring as favorable an outcome out of the debate as possible so that grocery stores aren't packed to the gills with processed food manufactured with subsidized commodity corn. Right? Or not?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hooray for Big Food (Boo for you)!

Photo from Choirbell's flickr stream

People, come on! Stop eating those Banquet chicken and turkey pot pies right out of the package! Don't you know that that stuff isn't ready-to-eat? Don't you have a frantically, pedantically detailed knowledge of the wattage and inner workings of your microwave? No? Then it must be your fault if you started projectile vomiting last time you crammed one of those things into your gullet.

At least, that's the line that ConAgra is taking. Check out these excerpts from a press release they sent out in response to salmonella poisoning from their chicken and turkey pot pies (emphasis is mine):

ConAgra Foods today announced that it was contacted by state health officials regarding Banquet Turkey and Chicken Pot Pies. In cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), ConAgra Foods is advising consumers to not eat these products while the USDA and ConAgra Foods look into these concerns...The company believes the issue is likely related to consumer undercooking of the product...

The company reminds consumers that these products are not ready-to-eat, and must always be thoroughly cooked as instructed on the packages. The cooking instructions for these products are specifically designed to eliminate the presence of common pathogens found in many uncooked products. Microwave cooking times vary, depending on the wattage of the microwave, so carefully following all instructions is important.

Huh? It's not like the meat is raw in that pie when you heat it up. It's a convenience food! That means that theoretically, it's pre-cooked in some plant somewhere so you don't have to take your kitchen thermometer out and make sure it's cooked to 165 degrees inside. I mean, I just know that if you're eating a frozen pot pie that costs 75 cents, you're definitely going to have a thermometer on hand to bulletproof yourself from food poisoning in case your
$553 Panasonic NN-C994S Genius Prestige 1100-Watt microwave craps out on you.

More marathon cooking - or rather, canning

Photo from St0rmz's flickr stream

Last year, when I was working on the farm, the late summer was marked by a frenzy of jam-making. We'd come home from the farmers' market loaded down with plums, peaches, pluots and strawberries which then got turned into jars and jars and jars of delicious jam - none of which was made by me. I'm actually from New York City, so the idea of canning your own food kind of freaked me out. I'd never done it before, and frankly, I'm kind of a putz so I figured that if I canned it, it would have to turn into botulism.

12 lbs. of tomatoes yielded 3 1/2 quarts of sauce and 8 oz of dried tomatoes - not quite enough to get you through the winter, but not bad for a first attempt

But I've been gorging on tomatoes from the farmers' market all summer and about a week ago, it dawned on me that this bounty of tomatoes would not last forever. One day, the tomatoes will be gone, replaced by stand after stand of winter squash (not that I have anything against winter squash!). My favorite dry-farmed tomatoes from Yerena Farm aren't going to last forever. And they really are great tomatoes. Heirloom and specialty tomatoes are everywhere these days, but heirloom doesn't automatically mean delicious. If you're going to shell out upwards of $3.50/lb for tomatoes, you want delicious. Yerena's Early Girls and Romas are rife with an intense, sweet flavor that will bring tears to your eyes. I am not kidding, people! They are amazing!

This is just under 12 lbs. of tomatoes, blanched and peeled. Romas are great for this b/c the skin splits almost exactly down the middle and you can just tweeze the skins between your fingertips and shake them to peel.

This is why I decided to try my hand at some home preserving. I was always content to buy Italian canned tomatoes in the off season, but mainlining those delicious tomatoes from the market has made me think it would be worthwhile to give it a shot. I picked up about 12 pounds of tomatoes and decided to make oven-dried tomatoes and can the rest.

Oven-drying is extremely easy. I took 10 romas, cut them lengthwise into quarters, brushed them with a little olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and put them on a baking sheet.

After three hours in the oven at 300 degrees (had to turn them a couple of times), I had about 8 oz of dried tomatoes. It's pretty amazing how concentrated the flavor gets with this treatment. Here they are:

Canning is a bit more complicated, so rather than recount my bufoonery in the kitchen, I'll leave it to the USDA to explain. Alternately, eGullet has a great post on this, but you might have to be a member to view it.

Do not fear beef. It is your friend.

The stove is well-loved, *not* just dirty, all right?

OK, so admittedly, that is not a picture of beef. Instead, it's a picture of the first step in the long process of beef stew and ultimately, beef stroganoff. I picked up a gorgeous chuck roast from Marin Sun Farms over the weekend and wanted to try slow-cooking it instead of just browning it, shoving it in the oven and eating it rare, which is what I usually do.

So the first step was making a decent vegetable stock to stew it in. I love making vegetable stock because it's an opportunity to take all the stuff you'd normally discard (or compost, for that matter) and turn it into something tasty. I've found that as long as you have the basics in there - carrots, celery and onions or leeks - it doesn't matter what else you add as long as there is a great heaping pile of vegetable matter and you cook the living hell out of it. This one had the aforementioned basics, plus leek tops, cranberry and fava bean shells, kohlrabi peels and tops, beet stems and peels, chard stalks and onion skins. Basically, you throw it all in your stockpot and then add water to about an inch or so above the pile and let it simmer for a couple of hours. For some reason, it seems as though something magical happens at about the 2 1/2 hour mark - the liquid goes from having an inchoate watery-green taste and develops a deep, rich vegetable flavor. Here's what you end up with after about 4 hours of cooking:

I strained all the spent vegetable matter through a sieve and discarded it, having yielded about 5 quarts of stock from a pile of stuff most people would normally toss.

Next, I put my chuck roast, two medium-sized onions and 6 cloves of garlic into a stew pot and filled it with vegetable stock and about 2 cups of red wine. When I opened the package of beef up, it looked and smelled like a rosy, delicious meat-gasm. Here it is, uncooked, in the pot:

BEEF, up close and personal

After about 3 hours of simmering, the meat was fall-apart tender and the cooking liquid was just redolent of beefy goodness. I let it cool over night, stuck it in the fridge and when I took it out the next evening to prepare, a thin layer of fat had solidified at the top. This I cracked off and mixed with some flour to make a sauce thickener. When it was reheated, I added quartered potatoes and a small red cabbage, also quartered, to cook in the stew juices. I know it must seem insane to spend 7 hours cooking one meal, but the thing to remember is that most of that time is spent sitting around, doing other stuff and popping over to the stove occasionally to stir.

Of course, there were leftovers. I turned those into beef stroganoff, which is a really easy way to use up beef leftovers. It basically involved shredding the beef, reheating it in the stewing liquid and then adding some sour cream and dijon mustard to taste, and then serving it over egg noodles. It made me feel triumphant in a 1950's home-ec kind of way to transform my two-day old chuck roast like this.

I'd also like to add that this whole rigamarole is probably the most economical way to enjoy grass-fed beef, since chuck roast is one of the cheaper cuts you can get other than hamburger, which sells out more quickly. I totally understand the sticker shock that comes with sustainably raised/natural/organic/grass-fed etc. meats, but do not freak out and go buy feedlot beef from Safeway instead ("Rancher's Reserve", my ass)!!! Just get a brisket or a chuck roast and you'll be good for a while. This one yielded 6 meals.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Choice quote of the day

This year's NWA queen (no, not that NWA, this NWA) went to Washington to push for produce subsidies.

From an Oct. 4th NYTimes article on produce growers' recent foray into Farm Bill lobbying:

For decades, even as commodity growers collected hundreds of billions from the government, produce farmers wanted nothing to do with Washington. Concentrated in the Sun Belt states of California, Texas and Florida, they enjoyed healthy prices for their crops and managed to grow them with no government subsidies.

Farmers who want nothing to do with Washington? Farmers who would rather grow food than grovel for crumbs from politicians? More unbelievably, farmers who are capable of growing crops WITHOUT government subsidies?? That's just crazy talk. What's the world coming to when a vegetable grower on 50 acres can do something that Cargill or ConAgra can't?

Of course, with $30 billion up for grabs, you'd have to be crazy not to belly up to the table for your share, wouldn't you?

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Potatoes auf Deutsch

In case you were wondering where all those frozen French fries came on the row of potatoes to advance to the next frame.

Meatfight! (It's like a food fight, but meatier.)

The Ethicurean recently posted an item chastising Sen. Barbara Boxer of California for threatening to block the Farm Bill in the Senate if it were to include a provision allowing state-inspected meat to be sold across state lines. Soon, feathers were flying in the comments section and they had to re-consider their position.

Small packing houses like this one, in Winkelman, AZ have been dying out since the 1970's

This storm in the blogosphere teapot got me to wondering about our meat inspection system, so I turned to the most knowledgeable person I know for his perspective. Eric is an Arizona rancher and small beef producer whom I was privileged to get to know through the WWOOF program. Here's what he has to say about it:

To me, the whole situation is government gone amok. We've always objected to a Farm Bill in any form; even a child can see the gaping ethical holes which are the reason the bill gets written. It's a classic, maybe THE classic, example of why good intentions make bad laws. "Here-- the Federal government, as your magnanimous ruler, will now give away a huge amount of money. Undoubtedly, you small, poor farmers will benefit the most."


Don't know if you've noticed that whenever huge amounts of money are lying around, the cost of administering same seems to increase exponentially, and also the number of administrators? (My favorite example is the World Bank, whose sole job is to make the poor, less so. Hundreds of billions of dollars later, World Bank owns vast swaths of downtown Wash.D.C., has thousands of the highest-salaried staff on Earth, all of whom frown continuously in concentration as to how best to administer to the poor. Far as I can tell the poor are just as poor as ever, but the World Bank structure sure isn't...I was witness to a lunch-hour [catered] farewell party for one of the clerical staff in the East Africa Bureau, that cost $15,000) (Probably took up an office collection.)

We don't need a Farm Bill. We need the gov't to get off the backs of the people trying to make a living. The whole issue of cross-state shipment is one of regulation of interstate commerce, not health. Guess what Boxer's up to? She's trying to keep competition out of California's meat markets -- and for good reason. Even OUR little packing house can outcompete California's producers, as long as there are enough regulations in CA (there are) to prevent them from producing efficiently. More regulation.

More to the point: why in hell do we need to ship meat across state lines? There is no place in the US, including Alaska, that can't produce meat. The Big Boys, IBP, Tyson, etc., have been working very hard since 1973 to change that. They bought up nearly every independent packing house in the Midwest; I wondered about it at the time. They want US consumers to pay whatever it takes, to ship meat wherever it needs to go, INSTEAD of just buying it from the farm down the road, and they have been pushing very hard for USDA "health" regulations that just incidentally are ruinously costly to anyone not processing a thousand head a day.
Health: the State is where the responsibility lies; not the Feds. We just went through quite a scene with the Az. Dept. of Ag., all the way through a meeting with State reps. and senators, to get Ag. to meet their own mandate. They have tended to follow the national trend: small meat processors aren't worth the State's time to inspect, and by refusing to inspect them they have tended to go out of business: problem solved!

...not quite. I personally take meat inspection VERY seriously thanks to my training (editor's note: Eric holds degrees in Range and Wildlife Science and in Veterinary Science and has many, many years of raising and caring for animals under his belt), and also believe the State is correct in assuming responsibility for public health. It turns out the budget allocation for meat inspection has been administrative. The inspectors have been more than willing to inspect the small plants, but their administrators have been trying to cut back their time so they can't. Paul (his son), Sarah (Paul's wife) and our local state representative brought the ADA down with a crash; and for the time being, at least, small meat processors in Arizona will have the inspections they have needed. (Don't imagine that battle is over; the Big Boys' game is vast and powerful; for now we're just under the radar.)

Fresh meat is one of the commodities that should address a local market. In Arizona we can produce meat as good as any on the planet, as long as local demand justifies it -- which is done with dollars, not regulations. It makes no sense healthwise or economically, to ship meat any significant distance. There is probably a struggling meat supplier already there if you bother to look.

Having lectured you half to death, let me sum up:
1. Get rid of the Farm Bill and any scallywag in Congress that supports it. Where do you think IBP gets the money to squash independent producers?
2. Get rid of the burden of Federal health regulations. Note that it's the Fed-inspected plants poisoning thousands, not the little farm down the road.
3. Buy your meat as locally as you can; get to know the local producers and support them.

Now there's something to chew on.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Spinach, that dreaded killer

Image from Suburbancowboy's flickr stream

Ah, spinach. It turned Popeye from a week-kneed fool swooning over his beanpole of a sweetheart, Swee'Pea, into a swaggering ass-kicker. Rip open a bag of the stuff, shovel it in and you too, can feel its goodness coursing through your veins, transubstantiating into sheer virility and lifeblood! Oh, but wait. I forgot. Spinach'll kill you. I know, because USA Today told me so. There's even a heartrending gallery of the victims of spinach, that leafy green serial killer, just in case you weren't frightened enough and happened to forget about how deadly spinach is now that a year has passed since THE OUTBREAK.

Now, I'm not trying to cheapen the deaths of five people as a result of consuming contaminated spinach. It's terrible that such a thing could happen. But before we start rifling through the fridge in a bug-eyed panic, rooting out spinach wherever it may lurk, let's think about this for a second.

Image from JimmyMac210's flickr stream

The article makes much hay about the contaminated spinach's origins in the same 2.8-acre plot in San Benito County, CA. Also mentioned is that this 2.8 acre "farm" yielded 1,002 pounds of spinach that then wended its way through the usual channels through the packers, distributors, grocery stores and into the refrigerators of its unsuspecting victims, who are duly commemorated with a gory rundown of their demise. Mass hysteria ensued. Articles like the USA Today's screamed headlines of death and destruction at the hands of spinach.

Consumers felt betrayed by spinach - previously considered the most salubrious of salad munchables, it was now poison. Where before, consumers were snapping up those conveniently pre-washed bags of spinach, they were now dropping the habit like a hot sack of shit. Now, the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Board wants to implement a certification system to impose a system of "Good Agricultural Practices" on producers throughout the state because sales still haven't recovered from the hit they took last year. I'll let the Community Alliance for Family Farmers speak to the merits or lack thereof of this regime, since they're certainly more expert on this matter than I.

But what these two phenomena - media alarmism and a heavy-handed regulatory response - have in common is that they miss the point. It is extremely unlikely that spinach is going to kill you! In 2005, Americans consumed 680 million pounds of spinach and spinach consumption has been trending steadily upward, so it's safe to say that in 2006, it must have been at least slightly more than that. That's 1,002 pounds of bad spinach in over 680 million pounds! That's not even half of one percent of the total spinach supply.

I was working on an organic farm when news of the e.coli contamination broke, and people would come by the stand at the farmer's market and eye our spinach with a mix of dread and skepticism, as if botulism was just going to leap out and strike them dead where they stood. That is just irrational. We're talking about fresh spinach, harvested the day before, kept cool and brought to market less than 24 hours after it was picked. We're also talking about spinach grown on a diversified farm with aged compost produced under stringent standards, in soil that has a healthy population of microorganisms to compete with deleterious bacteria. Not spinach that went through all kinds of hands in a processing facility, bagged and trucked 2,300 miles to Wisconsin. Plus, we're talking about SPINACH, people! It's good for you. Why would you extrapolate the news about packaged spinach onto all leafy greens?! Ma'am, put those tongs down. That's spinach you've got there. Don't eat that! It'll kill you! Instead, eat an Oreo pizza from Domino's. That's much better for you and won't lead to kidney failure. For crying out loud!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Almonds from De'Santis Bella Frutta

Bella indeed. Every time I go to De'Santis' stand at the farmer's market (they're at Civic Center on Wednesday and San Rafael on Sunday), they have something new. This week it was fresh roasted almonds for only $3 a pound!!! Almonds will usually set you back at least $8 a pound, and these have an distinctly sweet taste that your standard bulk almond doesn't. Try them out!

Fava Beans require a lot of prep

Hiding inside those huge, plump shells are little morsels of beany goodness. You have to peel the shell open, make a little notch on the pale green casing and pull that off, too, to unearth the deliciousness within. Definitely a huge pain in the ass. But so worth it. Don't even think about eating them without that second step - you'll have a mouthful of pasty mush that will take you right back to your elementary school cafeteria.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Photo from sparkieg's flickr stream

Came across a press release from Del Monte today (although who knows how old it is). Buried in an avalanche of standard corporate blah-blah was this little nugget (emphasis mine):

The PBH's Fruit & Veggies - More Matters health initiative guides families to eat more fruits and vegetables at every meal occasion. To help in this effort, Del Monte offers a broad selection of conveniently packaged, nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and tomatoes, under the Del Monte®, S&W®, Contadina®, Fruit Naturals®, Orchard Select® and Sunfresh® brands.
These products provide families with many realistic ways to incorporate more healthy foods into their daily lives.

This kind of shit sets me off. Realistic ways to incorporate more healthy foods into your daily life?? What the fuck is that supposed to mean? As if it would be so UNrealistic to expect you to go buy a peach and just eat that. That would be crazy. It would be so much more realistic to expect you to buy a jar of fruit swimming in corn syrup, dump it on a pint of ice cream and call that your fruit for the day. Clearly, I must be insane to think that fresh fruit from a farm is tastier, healthier and not more difficult to prepare than branded, mass-marketed fruit from the center aisle of the supermarket.

Now, I know not everyone can afford pedigreed, heirloom, organic whatever to satisfy their nutritional needs. And that pedigreed, heirloom, organic whatever is not going to be available at your convenience at the nearest Safeway or bodega. But that doesn't make it more "realistic" for people to eat some nasty-ass pale imitation of real fruit out of a jar.

I'm not crazy. People far sager than I get incensed by this kind of thing.