December 14, 2009

Pouring on the Gags?

I have to say, when I first saw this new commercial earlier today, I had just eaten breakfast and I came very close to spewing it back up again, so watch at your own risk:

It's a new ad by the New York City health department meant to discourage folks from drinking even one can of soda or other sugary drink a day, since research shows that just that small amount can amount to 10 pounds gained per year, largely contributing to the obesity epidemic. I'm down with the message, and never had any, ahem, "negative reaction" to the related subway poster ad campaign the department launched in September, but I'm not sure if this is a little much. But if it really curbs soda consumption, who knows?

Poor guy though, right? I wonder what was really in that cup...

December 4, 2009

Turkey Transformation

Thanksgiving was a success! The turkey got rave reviews, but I don't know how much of that really had to do with my cooking since it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. More likely it was the non-supermarket variety DiPaolo bird, of which I now have about four pounds of leftovers!

I am not a big fan of cold turkey sandwiches, so I wanted to transform the leftovers into a new dish altogether. Turkey chili came to mind, but I've always had a strange mental block when it comes to chili. Homemade versions seem so rooted in tradition - either the chili is from a family recipe or it's made in a particular regional style, and nothing else will do. Seeing as most of my exposure to chili has been via a Hormel can, I've always steered clear and left the cooking to the experts.

And yet...I still had to do something with my leftovers. I figured that since Shaun would be the only one subjected to my endeavor (and he'll eat pretty much anything) now would be a good time to test the chili waters (harharhar).

I decided not to use a recipe. I objected to something or other in every recipe I came across - I suppose strong opinions on chili are present even in a chili novice! Shaun's only stipulation was that there be jalapeno peppers, so I picked up a handful along with a few other ingredients that looked good. Here's what I came up with:

And you know what? It was amazing!! Worthy of an entry in my church's annual chili cookoff. Here's what I used, but if you plan to do something similar with your turkey leftovers, I'd suggest just seeing what you like to use/have on hand and winging it - it's pretty hard to screw up!

-About 3 cups of leftover turkey meat
-4 cans of kidney beans (although going forward I think I would use dried)
-2 cans of diced tomatoes
-1 jar of tomato sauce (in my case, Trader Joe's pizza sauce since it was an afterthought when I noticed the batch wasn't looking very stew-y)
-4 jalapeno peppers, diced
-2 onions, diced
-1 cup of red lentils (either pre-cooked or be lazy like me and add 2 cups of water to the mix as well)
-olive oil
-spices: minced garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, oregano, thyme

Sautee the jalapeno peppers in a drizzle of olive oil until they're slightly blackened. You can remove the seeds for less heat, but I left them in. You may want to keep a lid on the pot while they're cooking, or else you might have a coughing fit like me! Add the onions and a little more oil and sautee until translucent. (If you're worried about how spicy it will be, you can remove the jalapenos before sauteing the onions and add them into the finished batch a little at a time.) Add minced garlic, if using, and sautee a little more.
Then...add everything else! Mix mix mix, season season season, done. The seasoning is the only tricky part, but I just made sure not to add too much of any one thing at a time and it worked out fine. Many thanks to my slow cooker for doing most of the work - I still haven't figured out what exactly it is about heating something for an extended period of time that makes it taste better, but it definitely does! I cooked it on the low setting for about four hours, but I think you could do it in a pot on the stove for just an hour or however long you felt like.

It was also CHEAP! The non-turkey ingredients cost around $14 (some were even organic), and we got at least six individual meals out of it. Using dried beans would probably make it even cheaper. And it actually only used up about half the turkey we had leftover...I'm thinking about trying something else (a white chili version, perhaps?) but I kind of just want another batch of this!

November 25, 2009

Homegrown Turkey Day

With all my talk about beef, I almost forgot that Turkey Day is nearly here! I'm hosting dinner for the first time ever this year and I'm incredibly excited about the opportunity to cook and entertain with the best seasonal meat and produce I can get my hands on in NYC.

I was initially stumped when it came to what sort of bird to cook. I knew I didn't want anything along the lines of a Butterball - I've read way too much about how they're raised and processed for that to be appealing (don't read Peter Singer's The Way We Eat if you don't want to know!) I found several farms on Long Island that raise heritage birds in small batches, but with all the other preparations on my T-day list, spending a whole day to go out to the farm didn't seem worth the trek. Plenty of online retailers were willing to overnight me a frozen organic bird for upwards of $100, but that seemed counter productive (raise the bird organically just to fly it across the country?) and way out of my budget anyhow.

Before I resigned myself to Whole Foods' or Trader Joe's best option, I posed the question to The Kitchn, one of my favorite food blogs. Multiple commenters suggested DiPaolo Turkey Farm, which sells turkey products year round at many of the city's farmers' markets. I was surprised I'd never noticed them before, but then again I've never been in the market for turkey! I was delighted to discover their birds have the whole package: free range, certified organic and locally produced on a family farm in New Jersey. But the best part of all - they're just $3 a pound and conveniently delivered to Union Square!! I picked mine up around 8 am this morning with enough time left to hop back on the train and drop it off before work.

I also purchased the optional end-of-season Thanksgiving share my CSA with Hearty Roots was offering, which provided me with more cabbage, turnips and celery root than I know what to do with (or have room for considering I also have a 13.5 lb. turkey to store!) But sadly, most of the Thanksgiving staples I was looking forward to - namely potatoes and onions - were nearly gone by the time Shaun and I got to the pick up point! Note to self that good veggies and avoiding a supplemental trip to the farmers' market are worth getting up early for next time around.

Checking out the Tompkins Square farmers' market on Sunday morning (a great option on Sundays considering Union Square is closed) to pick up the rest of my veggie lot did however give me a chance to pick up these lovely kabocha squashes for my first-ever pie:

Kabocha squash pie, you say?? Now before anyone goes Pumpkin Nazi on me, hear me out. I really didn't want to use canned pumpkin - nothing much against it, I was just really excited about all the fresh winter squashes I'd seen at the markets. But I've never cooked pumpkin before, and when one of these kabochas showed up in my CSA share over the summer, I found it surprisingly sweet and got really excited to cook with it again. It's really similar to pumpkin, plus my sister-in-law is making pumpkin cheesecake, so I thought the squash would be good for variety.

Speaking of canned goods, though, I'd never thought about how much processed food makes onto the average T-day table until I started planning one myself. Canned cranberry sauce, most white bread and rolls, and canned pie filling all contain high fructose corn syrup. Don't even get me started on canned cream of mushroom soup for green bean casserole! Now I'm not saying that I'm going completely Suzy-Homemaker-make-everything-from-scratch crazy, (I'm using frozen pie crusts!) but I did manage to find managed to find HFCS-free white bread (NOT an easy feat!) for my mom's stuffing recipe. It's not a fluffy as Wonder Bread, but I'm making it stale on purpose so how much could that matter?

Of course that's not to say I was able talk Shaun out of buying this HFCS-laden beast:

None of my arguments against it can really compete with nostalgia, so we're just going to have to have a cranberry sauce off: Ocean Spray versus my stove top version. Though for some reason, I don't feel like the odds are in my favor!

November 19, 2009

The Beef Has Arrived!

Le boeuf est arrivĂ©! Okay, so right now you’re probably thinking that I’m as crazy as I initially thought people who cow-pool (real term) were when I first read about the concept in Time. “What a funny thing for people who live in the suburbs and have the chest freezer space for such things to do!” I thought. But after mentioning the article to a handful of friends hailing from states far more involved in cattle raising than my own native land (you don’t see a lot cows in the D.C. 'burbs) I realized it wasn’t that unusual at all.

So once I heard via my CSA that Awesome Farm was working with a neighboring cattle producer upstate to make split quarters of grass-fed cattle available for $4/lb (Whole Foods and the sellers at the Union Square Greenmarket regularly charge $16/lb or more), I hardly had to spread the word before I found five other beef-hungry urbanites who were interested in splitting a quarter with me.

Maggie and I examine the goods.

Even though we placed our order in September, it didn’t arrive until just yesterday. The thing about ordering a quarter steer is that the farm can’t exactly deliver it to you until three other customers have ordered the rest of it. Owen from Awesome Farm contacted me a few weeks ago after all four quarters were sold to set up the pickup time and inquire about butchering preferences. Since I don’t know a darn tooting thing about cow butchering, and since it’s hard to execute custom butchering instructions for four different customers of the same cow, we went with the farm’s recommended cuts.

The whole frozen lot, on my living room floor!

We ended up with 150 lbs all together, which meant about 25 lbs per person. There was a chance that the lot would be bigger, up to 175 lbs, since they don’t know how much the steer will weigh until they butcher it. Everything was delivered to The Brooklyn Kitchen’s brand-new (and rather awesome) location, which is conveniently just a few blocks from our place.

Once we picked it up, the matter at hand was getting the six of us in one place and figuring out the best way to divide everything evenly (and civilly!) Some parts divided surprisingly well: we had exactly 42 one-pound packages of ground beef and/or stew meat, and 12 total chuck and skirt steaks. The various roasts and nicer steaks like porterhouse and T-bone were a little trickier because we had only one or two each of about ten different cuts, but we managed to make sure everyone got something good and it all seemed relatively fair.

Each cut was labeled and wrapped in butcher paper.

Personally, I really like the concept of getting all my beef from just one cow for an entire season. Aside from it being reminiscent of ye olde family farm, it’s awfully convenient to have it all on hand. I hadn’t been buying much grocery store beef anyway, but when I did I was usually worried about getting it home and into the fridge in a timely manner. Not to mention the fact that ground beef from multiple cows (as many as 443 in one package (!!!) according to Marion Nestle’s "Safe Food") incites a major, major ick factor for me.

Freezer space to spare! The only thing I cleared out was our ice cream maker bowl, which we won't be using in the winter anyways.

I haven't cooked any of it yet, but when I do I'll likely do another post - Awesome Farm helpfully included some information on how cooking with grass-fed beef differs from cooking with conventional due to the lower fat content. Now if I could just decide which cut to make first!

November 17, 2009

Corn-Fed Beef Is Bad, Mkay?

The cow is coming tonight! I plan to write another post on the logistics of picking up, splitting and storing one quarter of a 500 pound frozen animal later this week, but for now I want to get into the question everyone asks me whenever I mention that I'm buying a cow: what’s the big deal with grass-fed beef, anyways?

Cows are ruminants, which means that they can eat grass for the same reason people can’t: their stomachs are set up with the mechanics to digest it. However, 99% of cows sold as beef in the U.S. only consume grass for the first few months of their lives. Most are then sent to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), where they are fed a mixture of corn, soy and growth hormones to fatten them quickly and cheaply for slaughter.

Grass, to a cow, is like spinach to a human: it’s low in carbohydrates and high in fiber and other nutrients. Corn, delicious on the cob as it may be to us, is very high in sugar and is technically a grain, which ruminants aren’t meant to eat. Excessive grain consumption causes major health problems for the cow; it’s like what a person’s body might look like if he ate nothing but soda and candy bars – pretty darn sickly.

So because of what they eat, the beef from these cows actually has a very different nutritional composition from what nature would dictate. It’s higher in saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids and much lower in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants than meat from a grass-fed cow. We’ve all heard that “red meat is bad,” but I have to wonder if it really is red meat itself, or just the way we’ve been producing it for decades that’s makes it so bad for us to consume.

Contamination is another major concern. The cattle’s poor health and confined quarters create a prime environment for the spread of bacteria and diseases. To combat this problem, they're often fed antibiotics. This works to a degree, but it can also promote antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, which are all the more deadly if and when they make it to the human population. And since the cows are all slaughtered and processed together, if one cow is contaminated, the whole lot is at risk. Just earlier this month, more than 270 tons (tons!) of beef were recalled due to E. coli O157:H7 contamination. The beef was distributed to stores all over the Northeast, including Trader Joe’s, which was one of the few places I still trusted to buy meat.

Not so delish. Photo via Flickr

On top of all that, many argue that the environmental cost of conventional beef production is higher: the corn is harvested using fossil fuels, then processed and trucked to the cattle, who are themselves trucked all over the place, from their birth farm to the CAFO to the slaughterhouse to your grocery store. Graze the cows on the same land used to grow the corn and sell directly to a local consumer and you can cut out quite a few fuel-consuming steps. This argument has a couple of holes though, which I hope to explore later since this post is long enough as it is.

For now, the health and safety benefits are enough to sway me, and the fact that the whole cow is $4/lb, regardless of the cut, is a pretty good deal as well. Stay tuned for the beef pickup post – I promise that one will have more pictures!

Further reading: Time magazine's article "The Grass-Fed Revolution"

November 9, 2009

DIY Vanilla Extract to the Rescue!

Ok, I know this post is long overdue (especially since Patrick took these lovely pictures in August!) It's been a busy fall, honest! But I have a lot of new post ideas and I wanted to get this one up asap because this recipe is really affordable and makes for very cool holiday gifts, but it takes a few weeks to develop so if you want to do it, I suggest getting started soon!

Did you know I have a super power? I have the UNCANNY ABILITY to remember the prices of various grocery store items from store to store. And because with this great power comes the great responsibility of imparting my knowledge onto you, I must issue a warning:

Don't buy McCormick vanilla extract!

For one, it has corn syrup in it. For two, it's overpriced. At Key Foods in Brooklyn, it's $6.99 for 2 oz., and it's the only kind of vanilla they sell. At a Food Emporium in Manhattan, I saw 2 oz. for $8.99 (?!!) But at both Sunac natural market in my 'hood (which is overpriced on pretty much everything else) and at Whole Foods, organic vanilla extract is $6.49.

I know, I know. I just saved you at least $0.50. You can repay me with hoards of organic cupcakes later. But wait, there's more!

I think $6.49 is still pretty pricey for 2 oz. of vanilla. So does Carolyn's aunt, who sent her a recipe for a DIY version that she passed on to me. And it's really simple: Put vanilla beans into vodka!

Now, I know you have vodka (any old kind will do.) The issue is getting some vanilla beans. Sunac and Whole Foods sell them in two packs for $10-12. Two won't make much extract though, and you can get much better deals online. For $12, I got 20 (20!!) long-length Tahitian beans from The Organic Vanilla Bean Company on Ebay, plus free shipping.

I was sold on their picturesque straight-from-the-farm image, but there are a lot of other options for buying in bulk online. A few others that I found were Vanilla, Saffron Imports and Boston Vanilla Beans.

I split three beans down the middle to expose the seeds and put them in this 5 oz. bottle that formerly housed Trader Joe's toasted sesame oil (well-cleaned of course! The bottle in the first picture is a slightly larger former salad dressing bottle.) Then you just fill it with vodka, or even bourbon or rum if you want to give it a more distinct flavor. It should take at least 4 weeks for the extract to develop, and it gets better and stronger the longer you leave the beans in. Just give the bottle a shake every few days to keep things moving along!

If you use the seeds of a vanilla bean for cooking (which I may have to do, considering I have plenty more), you can throw the rest of the bean into your extract stash, and if the beans start looking really mushy, you can replace them with new ones or just take them out altogether. And every time you use some of the extract, you can top the bottle off with a little more liquor to soak up more of the bean-y goodness.

So, some quick math. If I took a 1.5 liter bottle (about 50 oz) of vodka for $30, plus $12 in beans, and put 4 beans into each of five 10 oz. bottles, that's 50 oz. of extract for $42, or $0.84 an oz. That's about the same price as cheap-o imitation vanilla extract (which is made from byproducts of either wood or coal manufacturing - eek!) And for as long as this post is, actually putting the extract together is faster than, I dunno, a speeding bullet? So you have no excuses.

As far as buying locally goes, to me the beans fall into the same category as coffee, in that it's a small item that can't be produced locally, and supporting organic agriculture overseas is a happy little pat on the back to the planet. More on that when I get to the "responsibly" post...coming soon!

September 11, 2009

Pollan Op-Ed

There was a spot on op-ed about our food system's role in health care reform by Michael Pollan (writer of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food) in the Times yesterday. I was going to put it in the general updates post but I think it deserves it's own. Not much to add since he says it quite well!

Highlight: "To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup."

Also, check out the NYC health department's recent campaign to get New Yorkers to cut down on soft drinks. You might have seen the subway ads already, here's some info behind them.

For my part, I've been mixing up some TJ's organic mango lemonade with half a cup of seltzer for Shaun recently whenever he has a Mountain Dew craving. It's not half bad...I can't blame him for reaching for the vodka instead of seltzer sometimes, though...but hey, vodka is sugar free too! :-)

September 10, 2009

All-Around Updates

Some general updates since I haven't had time for longer posts recently!

1. Composting is going well. I discovered that the community garden where my CSA pickup is located has a compost bin as well, so no more need to haul it into Union Square! I just load up my bike with the scraps on my way to pick up the vegetables, then drop them off and go on my merry way, non-scrappy vegetables in tow. Apparently most community gardens have a compost drop off - look into it if there's one in your neighborhood!

2. The CSA itself is going well too; I like the variety and I think the every-other-week option that Hearty Roots offers is just the right amount of food for a two person household. The only snag is that I'm pretty much out of luck if I happen to be out of town or otherwise occupied on a Saturday's either beg and plead for a friend to snag 'em, or cut my losses, like we had to over Labor Day weekend. Fortunately they donate everything that isn't picked up to a food bank, so at least I can feel good about that. And for your viewing pleasure, here is a lovely picture of me mulling over corn at the pickup two weeks ago, taken by my awesome photographer friend Patrick (who's going to be doing more photos for the blog, yay!)

3. The day after I blogged that I thought cutting down on sugar was giving me more energy, I felt totally drained. It probably also had to do with being in the middle of the busiest season of the year at work, but I was downing multiple diet Dr. Peppers (which I usually never do!) to plow through. But I've been sticking with it and now I feel fine. And I discovered that peaches are even better than blueberries in Greek yogurt!

4. My landlady is apparently no big fan of my gardening attempts. I guess all the little herb pots create quite the hassle for her when she goes to sweep our porch once a week. I'd be happy to sweep the porch myself, but there's a bit of a language barrier and I'm not sure she wants to relinquish her porch sweeping responsibilities to me anytime soon...

5. My tomatoes definitely DIED. Died died died. Never even produced any little green fruits. I think it was the blight, but as my landlady liked to point out when discouraging my gardening attempts, we're on the north side of the street and nothing will grow there, ever-not-ever-never, because it doesn't get full sun. Except, you know, my herbs that are doing quite nicely.

6. Somebody stole my $2 Ikea watering can the very first day I bought it! Never even got to use it. My money's on the garden-hater upstairs. Did I mention she has the freaking Garden of Eden in our building's backyard? Rows and rows of healthy tomatoes and raspberries, which I can see every day out of my bedroom window but never ever touch...siiiigh.

7. I'm buying a COW! One quarter of one at least. Well, one fifth of one quarter, once I split it with four other beef loving pals, so I guess I'm buying one twentieth of a cow. My CSA's farm partners with a neighbor in the grass-fed animals business, and buying it directly lets us get our hands on delicious grass-fed protein for MUCH less than Whole Foods would have you pay for it. It's pretty much the cost of regular grocery store corn-fed beef, and cheaper in the case of certain cuts. Not quite sure exactly when we'll get our hands on it, but I'll do a full post when we do.


(cow image not mine)

August 26, 2009

Sugar Gets a Beat Down

Anybody remember this Sesame Street bit on sugar beets? You know,"beet, beet, sugar beet, sugar beet beeeeeet." That's literally the whole song. It was one of my favorite segments back then, not only because I loved mixing cups upon cups of sugar into pitchers of Kool-Aid, but also because it just seemed so wholesome. The little kid pulling up the plant, the tractor, the dirt. And the mustached guy at the end, priceless! But I get the feeling that's not exactly how most sugar is made these days, or even back then.

Yesterday the American Heart Association released new guidelines on recommended daily added sugar intake, and they're surprisingly low. For an organization that has long toted saturated fat and cholesterol as the main culprits of heart disease, and even endorsed sugary foods, it's an interesting development. Basically they recommend less than 25 grams of added sugar per day for women and 37.5 grams for men. A can of Mountain Dew has 46 grams if that gives you any point of reference.

I don't even drink soda and my regular sugar intake is still over their daily recommendation. Considering how often guidelines like this change and the kind of science they've been based on in the past, I'm probably not going to strictly abide by the AHA's recommendation every single day. But I do think it's an interesting health challenge to see where I can cut sugar from my diet and how much I really miss it. It's one of the few food components that we truly don't need in our diets (if that tells you anything about it's nutritional value) and historically we haven't consumed all that much of it (I picture Laura Ingalls Wilder getting a special treat of an orange once a year on Christmas.)

I decided to start with breakfast - almost every day I have coffee with half and half and about two teaspoons of sugar, along with Greek yogurt with at the very least (although probably more...) two tablespoons of honey.

I started skipping the sweetener in my coffee altogether. Equal and Splenda totally ruin the taste of coffee for me, and it turns out that just sticking with cream isn't so bad. The coffee even tastes...creamier, what can I say. Yogurt is a different story. I love me some yogurt. I switched to Greek yogurt when I realized its breakfast-approved resemblance to frozen yogurt products like Red Mango, but it's very sour on it's own. I like that it has fewer sweeteners and artificial ingredients than most yogurts, but it's a bit pucker inducing straight up. So I've been adding half a cup of frozen blueberries (about 8 grams of natural sugar) and I'll see what other fruits or nuts I can try.

Believe it or not, that's actually 38 grams of added sugar gone right there! Hopefully that will give me enough wiggle room for the occasional fro-yo or strudel since I generally like savory foods for the rest of my meals. I haven't really missed my breakfast sugar yet, and assuming it's not psychological, I even feel a little more energetic throughout the day.

I can't help but wonder whether it's a coincidence that these recommendations were announced just a few days after processed food manufacturers urged the Department of Agriculture to raise the quota on imported sugar, lest we virtually run out of the stuff. Who knows, but I find it hilariously ironic that perhaps we don't need all that added sugar after all, so take that you processed food manufacturers, you. And speaking of things that are hilarious, I leave you with this clip of food writer and nutritionist Marion Nestle discussing the sugar "crisis" on The Colbert Report:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sugar Shortage - Marion Nestle
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Protests

The American Heart Association's guidelines
"Food Firms Warn of Sugar Shortage"
Wall Street Journal 8/13/09
Marion Nestle expands on her Colbert appearance
"Stop eating so much sugar, American Heart Assn. says" LA Times 8/25/09

August 14, 2009

Manifesto: Healthfully

I thought I'd do a series of posts on each of the adverbs in my tag line to give you a better idea of what I want this blog to be about. Let's start with healthfully.

First and foremost, why strive for a healthy lifestyle? It seems to be all the buzz, but I came up with some interesting answers when I paused to consider why being healthy is personally important to me. I want to live for a long time and in the best health possible. I want to have enough energy to make it up a flight of stairs when I'm 65, I want to celebrate my 60th wedding anniversary, and I want to spend as little time as possible in hospitals and popping pills in my later years and as much time out there enjoying life.

I don't know if it's a coincidence or not, but the foods I really love are the ones I understand to be the most healthful: vegetables, dairy, whole grains, naturally-raised meats. "Unprocessed," to throw in one of them buzz words.

So “healthfully,” in my book, does not mean low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-anything really, except for maybe keeping my calorie intake to the general amount my body needs to sustain itself. Personally, I'm intrigued to the more recent findings that discredit the notion that a low-fat, high-carb diet is the way to stay healthy (although I do recognize the irony in trusting in research that discredits other research, since who knows when your personal brand of information will be the next to go.) Now that doesn't mean I'm about to go all deep-fried crazy - I do, however, own a deep fryer and gosh darn it if I'm not going to use it - but in general, I think that it’s hard to argue that diets of whole foods that have kept people around the globe alive and free of Western diseases for generations could be harmful, whole dairy and pig fat and all.

I saw a really interesting segment on Oprah (yes Oprah, don't knock the Queen) about communities across the globe whose members regularly live past 100. It featured a researcher who identified nine behaviors found in all of the communities, among them eating whole foods and lightly exercising, that seemed to promote long, healthy lives. I plan to read his book, but to me it already makes sense: this is what we were designed for. However you think human beings got on the planet, whether by a divine hand or sheer evolutionary coincidence, you can't deny that nobody planned on us being parked in front of the boob tube every night eating Cool Ranch Doritos, driving to the store for more next time we run out.

I don't want to live forever, or even necessarily to 100; personally I think there are some nice things in store after all this living on Earth business. But I only get to do it once, and I definitely want it to rock.

August 11, 2009

Tsk Tsk!

Dear Trader Joe's, please tell me that the pillowy soft hamburger buns I just served to my husband have not, in fact, been sitting on your shelves for two years:

Actually, considering the no artificial preservatives label, if they HAVE been sitting around that long that is quite a feat and I would like to be in on the secret. Especially considering that these only have 10 ingredients and the Pepperidge Farm version I checked out at Key Foods has 24, including sugar and high fructose corn syrup in addition to the preservatives.

But to whoever manufactures Techno Max razors, I just don't know what to say to you. I will certainly keep my razors away from meat and poultry though.

August 7, 2009

Overdue "Food, Inc." Plug

I don't know if this post is dated or what since the movie came out June 12, but if you haven't seen "Food, Inc.", I really think you should before it leaves theaters.

If you've ever wondered what a cow is supposed to be eating (it's grass, not corn) or why you might want to buy organic food, it is definitely the film for you. It's basically The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation rolled together in movie format and it's great for anyone who wants to know more about what we're eating but doesn't have a chance to extensively examine the issues.

And if you haven't ever wondered about that stuff, you should especially see it because your health is probably at stake! Bonus points for supporting my friend Don's company, Emerging Pictures. Check out the trailer and view NYC show times here. It's Friday night people, go!

August 6, 2009

Basil Project - Part 3

In light of all the depressing tomato news, how about a cheery basil update?

Tada! From teensy seeds to margherita pizza-ready plants in less than two months. I even found a worm chilling out in one plant when I transplanted them into the coffee tins. No clue how it got there, but thanks Mr. Worm! Now lets just hope the Cilantro Gang isn't a fan of pesto...

August 4, 2009

Late Blight Tomato Tragedy

I just watched an episode of Jamie at Home, a beautifully produced Food Network show (DVR it, folks!) and it darn near brought me to tears. I knew I shouldn't watch it, that it would be like watching "Father of the Bride" when I'd just been left at the alter, but I did it anyway and now my heart is wrenching even more so than it had been before, all because the episode was entirely dedicated to one seasonal food: tomatoes.

It just so happens that a few hours before I watched the show I received an email from my CSA reporting that all their tomatoes had fallen victim to late blight, a disease that specifically attacks tomatoes and potatoes and is currently spreading throughout the Northeast. Behold:

The agony. The horror. You think I kid. Seasonal tomatoes (not that pink Taco Bell crap) are among my top favorite foods, and they're really only available in late summer. Caprese salad with tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella would be my last meal if it ever came to such a thing. When I first read about late blight, it struck me as an important issue, but other than paying a little more once tomato season rolled around, I didn't see it as something that directly affected me.

Obviously I wasn't thinking about my CSA membership. And truly, other than remembering to show up every other week to pick up my share of Hearty Roots farm's produce, I hadn't thought a lot about it. When I joined it seemed like an easy way to access fresh, seasonal veggies without leaving my neighborhood. I didn't give a whole lot of thought to the underlying idea - Community Supported Agriculture. But when I wrote them a check back in March, I was agreeing to receive a share of this summer's yield - no matter what that yield happened to be. Weather and pests and tomato killing fungi were now my issues too, whether I consciously thought about them or not.

To plenty of people, this is probably not the most economically efficient way to go about obtaining fresh produce. I could just as easily take the $250 or so that I alloted for the CSA to the grocery store and farmers' market each week and award that cash to whomever had done the best job growing whatever looked appetizing to me. Hopefully that would have included included several local farms, but if I wanted tomatoes later this season, the money would probably have to go to a grower outside my community. And while happy little me would have my Caprese salad, I would be a lot less interested in what caused the spread of this disease and what I can do about it (along with the wet weather, pathologists are eying unregulated garden centers at big box stores as the culprit.)

I'm not really a locavore (that's an issue I hope to explore later) but I do believe in supporting my local community to a sizable degree, especially when it comes to produce. While I'm certainly no economist either, I know that by paying a local farm upfront whether I receive a bountiful share this summer or not helps to ensure that next year, they won't be entirely out of luck and money because they lost this year's tomato profits. And if they stay afloat and I join next summer, hopefully I'll see some nice local tomatoes again. There's no way to tell exactly how much money I personally lost on tomatoes (which actually softens the blow a bit) but for now I'm okay with it.

On the home gardening front, I checked out detailed photos of late blight's symptoms and now I'm not even sure my Topsy Turvy plants are okay.

Only one leaf looks kinda funky (I pruned this one just to be safe) and the stem on that same plant has these brown bumps, but they don't match other photos of affected brown stems. It's hard for me to tell since this is the first year I've grown tomatoes. Any expert growers out there have any thoughts? I bought them from a stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, not a big box store.

Speaking of the Greenmarket, yesterday it looked like a lot of farm stands were selling decent-looking tomatoes on the cheap, around $2.50 per pound with "today only!" signs. I don't know if it's related to late blight - maybe they're hoping to get some profits out of their current crop before the disease does any further damage? - but in any case, you might want to snatch some up while you still can.

July 31, 2009

Organic Shmanic?

A lot of articles ran this week about a study commissioned by the UK's Food Standards Agency that found that there is no significant nutritional difference between conventional and organically grown foods. To which I say, hurrah, because for anyone who can't always afford organic (myself included plenty of the time), that's pretty good news, and at least we're not missing out on good nutrition in the meantime while we figure out more sustainable ways to produce our food.

While it's good information to have (though their methods are getting a lot of criticism), I'd personally be more interested to see a study comparing the nutritional value of local crops harvested seasonally vs. ones picked green, flown overseas and ripened artificially, or perhaps comparing crops bred to withstand pesticides vs. an heirloom variety. When you're deciding between two items in the store, it's not like your choices are always going to be the exact same variety of a crop with the only difference being how each one was produced.

And anyway, I don't think nutritional content is the best reason to buy organic products. For one, as most reporting on this study has pointed out, the study doesn't address any chemical residue found on the plants. And for two, it doesn't address the environmental impact of farming with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which is my chief reason for buying organic when possible. To me, it's like ordering coffee in a paper cup versus a styrofoam one, if for some reason there was a bizarre coffee house that gave you a choice and charged $1 more for the paper cup. It's money that's unfortunately coming out of my pocket, yes, but if the styrofoam has to end up in a landfill (I know you can recycle it, but let's pretend Bizarro Coffeehouse won't let you) and the paper cup is easily recyclable, the paper cup is the ethical choice.

So therein you have my rant for today, but I hope you'll do some research for yourself as well. Here are a few resources:

Civil Eats breaks down the flaws in the FSA report
Basic requirements for organic certification (PDF)
LinkThe USDA's National Organic Program (not very useful in my opinion, but it's the "official" site)
Iowa State study assessing the economic impact of the US's current farming system (as much as $16.9 billion per year)
The Environmental Working Group's list (and iPhone app) of what produce has the most and least pesticide residueMark Bittman talks about eating healthfully, organic or not

July 21, 2009

Support FoodprintNYC

Today there is an initiative going on to urge city council members in New York City to support a resolution introduced by councilman Bill de Blasio called FoodprintNYC. The resolution aims to establish policies and programs that would encourage better access to local and organic food in New York City, especially in low income neighborhoods. It also aims to decrease the environmental impact of food production and consumption in and around NYC. The text is available here.

This is really, really important. An estimated 750,000 New York City residents do not have regular access to healthy food. That's as many as the entire population of Columbus, Ohio. This results in a surge in food related health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, which puts a strain on our health care system as well as the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of people in our community.

The resolution aims to implement the recommendations described in Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's report “Food in the Public Interest.” The full text of the report is available here, but these are some boiled-down highlights of his recommendations:
  • Increase the number of eligible New Yorkers enrolled in the food stamp program and expand the number of places where food stamps are accepted (like more farmer's markets)
  • Cap the number of fast food restaurants and restrict the development of new ones in certain areas
  • Promote agriculture via new farmers markets, CSAs and urban gardening in areas with limited access to fresh food
  • Expand the production of and access to locally produced fresh foods and reduce the amount of fuel needed to transport these foods to NYC
  • Encourage the consumption of healthy food and decrease the availability of junk food in schools and workplaces and increase nutrition education in public schools
While it would be nice if there were a click-n-send option for supporting FoodprintNYC, the best way to influence your local city council member is through a good old-fashioned phone call. Resources on finding your local city council member and determining whether he or she currently supports the resolution (Res 2049-2009) are available on the FoodprintUSA website. If your council member does not currently support the resolution (and only 11 do so far) the site has an easy script to call and ask them to support it, and if he or she already does, it has a script for calling to thank them.

I called the office of my council woman Diana Reyna this morning (and found out she plans to support the resolution, yay!) and it took about 20 seconds. 20 seconds! This blog post took an hour to write...if you think this is important, I think you have 20 seconds!

July 17, 2009

Topsy Turvy Turmoil

I suppose it's my own darn fault, because every time the Topsy Turvy infomercial came on the screen I'd bounce with excitement like a Mexican jumping bean. So it's really no wonder that Shaun got the growing kit for me for my birthday:

Now, I love me some tomatoes. And I love me some veggie growing. So it seems natural to combine the two, but this is apparently not without several hitches. First, our only outdoor space is on the front patio, and while our neighborhood is populated by a good number of friendly, tomato-respecting Italians, it also houses quite a few punks (clearly proven by the unfortunate fate of my cilantro plant) and I'm not entirely sure that they're going to respect the tomatoes as my personal property when harvesting time comes around. Or really even right this minute...only time (and perhaps some barbed wire?) will tell on that issue, I suppose.

Second, you have to hang the Turvys (Turvies?) from something. Since our only option for hanging them with the hardware provided involves drilling holes directly into the front of our landlords' building (that they live in...directly above us) we realized they'd have to hang from some sort of free standing plant hanger. The cheapest I found cost about $40, and I could buy a whole lotta tomatoes for that price, so we went with the DIY route.

Something of a carpenter's daughter, I decided to have at it with a nails, a saw and some 2x4s. Shaun helped, of course! The wood cost $10 and the friendly neighborhood hardware store man even gave me some free nails. Here's what we came up with:

It's actually not too shabby! These are roma tomato plants...I figured I might have more success starting out with a smaller variety, plus hopefully a teensy weensy tomato will be less tempting to passing punks. And should tragedy occur, the plants were $2 each so at least I will have gained some tomato-growing expertise for when we're better equipped to grow them. Stay tuned.

July 15, 2009

Cilantro Theft!

Well, it happened sooner than I thought. Somebody gone done stole my cilantro plant right off my front patio. So to that cilantro stealer I say: Really?? A $2.99 cilantro plant from Lowe's?! Well congratulations, because you now have yourself two hundred and ninety nine pennies worth of cilantro and two wasted weeks of my attentive care to the plant, because anyone willing to steal a CILANTRO PLANT probably does not respect gardening enough to properly take care of it. All this is assuming of course that you, thief, did not steal it purely for kicks to prove to your punk buddies what an herb-stealing baddie you are, just to toss it into a dumpster once you got down the block. And if that is the case, I consider you even more lowly than a common herb thief who at least may have wanted it for respectable guacamole-related purposes. So...there.

Seriously though, I was really surprised at how sad I was when I discovered it missing. Not only do I no longer have my favorite herb plant or the nifty-spifty bucket from Jack's that it was planted in, but I essentially see the theft as an act of horticultural terrorism because I am now afraid that anything I plant out there is going to be swiped. What to do? Defiantly continue gardening? (Yeah that's right. Defiantly. Garden.) Chain the plants up with bike locks? Somehow these don't seem to be the kind of issues most gardeners face. What of four-legged pests and cold spells? Only in Brooklyn, I suppose.

July 14, 2009

Garlic (E)scapes

Oh what a clever title. How did I ever think of that! But really, garlic scapes are a cool veggie with big garlic flavor and no need to peel and chop lots of little garlic cloves, so it kind of applies. Basically they're part of what grows above ground on a garlic plant, and garlic cloves are the blub below. When they showed up in my CSA pickup I'd never heard of them, and since I'd enlisted some friends to do the actual picking up of the veggies when I had to work (thanks Shawn and Carolyn!) I first thought they were some foreign kind of green bean and took a big ol' raw garlicky bite before I figured it out. Mmm? Not so much.

Some quick Googling showed that a tastier way to use them is garlic scape pesto. I love, love, love pesto (basil, cheese, garlic, nuts, oil...what's not to like?) but I've never made it because it requires a good deal of basil, which can be pricey at the grocery store. Trader Joe's has a really good and relatively inexpensive bottled version ($2.49) but the jar is tiny enough that I could probably eat it in one sitting, even though it's greasy and filling enough that I know I'd regret it.

I saw garlic scapes over the weekend at the Union Square Greenmarket for cheap - 6 for $1, and this recipe only requires a dozen. I've never seen them in a regular grocery store, but then again I haven't been looking. Not that regular garlic is that expensive, and neither is basil if you get it at a farmer's market, but I like how the scapes in this recipe knock out both those ingredients. Two for the price of one, and less fuss!

-12 garlic scapes
-1/2 cup hard cheese, like parmesan or asiago, grated (preferably not from a can)
-1/3 cup slivered or roughly chopped almonds
-1/2 cup olive oil, or more, or less (see below)

Roughly chop the scapes and put them in a food processor. (I didn't try it, but I bet you could also use a blender, especially if you added the scapes a few at a time.) Throw in the grated cheese and almonds, start blending, and slowly pour in the oil with the processor running. Add more oil to get the consistency you want. Personally I wanted it chunky, almost more like a paste than a sauce, so I left it at 1/2 cup. Seemed more vegetable-y, plus it has less fat (so you can eat more!) I didn't add too much additional salt, about a teaspoon, but do so to taste.

Tada, sauce! I ended up with a little more than would fit in a 12 oz. jar. It packs a punch if you eat it straight, so I was worried it would be too intense as a pasta sauce, but it was just right. I microwaved it a bit so it would blend easily with the hot pasta, added grape tomatoes and some CSA scallions and bang, dinner. Shaun thought it was weird but he still ate his whole plate, plus the rest of mine when I was full.

Extra credit: In this week's NY Times, Mark Bittman suggests using garlic scapes as the main vegetable in a low-egg fritatta. I'd be interested to know how much the garlic flavor mellows when you cook them, because to me that sounds like it might taste like a head of garlic on a stick (or fork) with some egg glue, if anyone wants to find out!

July 9, 2009

Adventures in Composting

When I started to think about gardening, it naturally led to thinking about the soil and the nutrients it contained. My Jack's 99 Cent basil plant (which is doing quite well, thank you!) included instructions that recommended adding plant food after the seedlings sprout to promote growth. Considering the whole reason I wanted to start growing things on my own was to become more aware of what goes into my food and where it comes from, I figured this should be no exception. So I started to think about composting.

I didn't realize that in addition to creating nutritious food for my veggies, composting is like recycling for food waste. It seems like food would be the least worrisome trash item next to plastic and metal and all that, but apparently when food sits in a landfill in the absence of oxygen (because of all the other waste on top of it) it turns into methane gas, which contributes to pollution and global warming. According to the EPA, landfills are the largest single source of methane emissions in the US, accounting for 34% (other major sources include fossil fuel production and livestock, ahem, waste). Eek.

Shaun quickly shot down the idea of indoor composting, primarily because he'd prefer not to have hundreds of worms squirming around in our apartment, quite literally in a worm condo. While this is apparently not particularly uncommon, I couldn't really blame him, so I started looking into other options. Short of a curbside pick up program, the likes of which will soon go into effect in San Francisco, my best option seems to be the food waste drop off program run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center at the Union Square Greenmarket. Perfect! Well, except for the part where it involves saving up all my food waste, packing it up, and carrying it on the subway to take it to the drop off point.

I don't have a scale, but after about three weeks I ended up with this bag full that I'd say weighed about as much as a gallon of milk. Supposedly the average NYC household produces two pounds of food waste a day, so maybe we produce less because it's just the two of us. The key is to store it in the freezer it so it doesn't stink up the place. (When I made my first drop off, someone asked the woman working the booth if she could freeze the scraps, and she responded, "of course, everybody does it!" which gave me a very amusing mental image of just everybody everywhere going cuckoo about frozen compost scraps!) Carrying it really wasn't that bad though, and going forward I will definitely make more frequent trips in order to free up more freezer space and not have to carry so much at once. It's also a great motivation to stop by the market for veggies more often. I usually go on my way to work since I have to change trains at Union Square anyway and they open at 8 am. If the other L train riders only knew what was in my bag...

The other glitch is that you still have to buy the soil they make out of the composted material. But it's not so very much (about $1/pound) and I'm sure they have bills to pay too, so it seemed reasonable. And, my new cilantro plant shot up immediately when I planted it in some! (Disclaimer: I have no idea if this is just what cilantro plants do regardless of soil, but it looks good to me)

US EPA - Methane Sources and Emissions
LES Ecology Center Community Compost Program (includes a list of what you can/can't compost)

June 16, 2009

First CSA Pickup

I had my first CSA pickup over the weekend! Basically, a few months ago I wrote a check to Hearty Roots Farm (in Tivoli, NY) and now I pick up whatever they're growing every other Saturday morning. This week was a lot of leafy greens: arugula, spinach, kale and butter lettuce, along with green garlic, radishes and broccoli. I cooked up the broccoli last night with some of the garlic, and on Sunday I took my first stab at making kale chips.

Unfortunately, I misread two teaspoons of olive oil as two tablespoons, and they were quite the greasy bunch. Tasty, but not too crunchy. They kale was pretty plentiful though and I should have a chance to take another shot at it, so I'll post the recipe when I have it down.

On the financial front, the CSA membership breaks down to about $23-24 per pickup, which seems pricey when I think about it that way. So I decided to check out the prices of the same items at my local natural foods market, and I was pretty surprised to see that I would be paying more if I bought them all there (assuming I bought organic, the conventional produce was cheaper.)

1 bag of spinach: $3.99
2 bags of kale: $2.99 each
1 box of arugula: $4.99
1 head of lettuce: $2.49
2 heads of broccoli: $3.99 each (sheesh!)
1 bunch of radishes: $.99 (non-organic)
They didn't have green garlic, but scallions were $.50/bunch (non-organic)

Total: $26.92

Ok, so the difference isn't that huge, and granted, I probably wouldn't buy this much leafy greenery in one trip to the store, but it's also interesting to get it all home and be forced to try seasonal things I wouldn't ordinarily buy, plus there's the whole supporting local farms aspect. And the whole idea is that there will be more actual vegetables later in the summer when they're in season. Mmm...vegetables.

June 10, 2009

Basil Project - Part 2

It's growing!

For some reason I didn't really believe deep down that something I planted, let alone seeds and soil bought at Jack's 99 Cent store, would actually grow. I was also really surprised just to see the tiny little sprouts; I can't remember the last time I saw something grow start to grow, unless you count that lima bean/paper towel project from third grade.

One snag - I left it outside overnight the other day when it stormed so loudly I thought Noah was back with a vengeance, and woke up to some slushy dirt/basil/rainwater stew. I drained the extra water out, but the wee little sprouts got jostled around quite a bit in the process. Again, fingers crossed!

June 8, 2009

"Microwave" Popcorn

Apparently there is such a thing a popcorn workers' lung - people who worked in microwave popcorn factories ended up needing lung transplants because constant exposure to a chemical used in the artificial butter flavoring (diacetyl) causes an incurable form of bronchitis. But one guy who ate microwave popcorn every day ended up with it two years ago, which is when I stumbled on this recipe for the easiest microwave popcorn ever. It's so incredibly easy and cheap that I can't believe anyone actually ever managed to get people to buy the store bought kind in the first place.

-Paper bag (leftover from takeout or you can buy a pack from the grocery story)
-2 tbsp. popcorn kernels (usually available at the store next to the microwave popcorn)
-1-2 tbsp. butter (melted) or olive oil
-Salt and any other seasonings you like (I like Old Bay or chili powder)

Are you ready for these incredibly detailed instructions? Ok, here goes: Put two tablespoons of kernels in the paper bag (fold it like you would for a school lunch) and put it in the microwave for two minutes.

That's pretty much it! I like to use olive oil to season it because it doesn't immediately soak into the kernels like hot butter would, leaving you with some butter drenched kernels and some plain. Put the oil in the bottom of a big bowl, dump in the popcorn and toss around along with your salt and seasonings if you like. This makes about what I would consider one serving; if you want to make a big ol' batch, I would suggest doing it two tablespoons at a time to avoid burning.

Most of the major popcorn manufacturers have dropped the chemical linked to the lung disease, but I'm still not too keen on some of the other ingredients, particularly partially hydrogenated oils, aka trans fats. And diacetyl isn't necessarily listed on the ingredient list anyway, it's a component of the ingredient listed as natural and/or artificial flavor. According to Fast Food Nation, it's also been used in the flavoring for Burger King strawberry milkshakes. Hmm...

Anyway, I'll take the kernels+oil+salt version, thanks!

Flavoring Suspected in Illness, The Washington Post, 5/7/07
FDA to probe popcorn link in man's lung disease, USA Today, 9/5/2007
Labor Dept. Plans New Safety Regulations, ABC News, 4/27/09

June 5, 2009

Basil Project - Part 1

One of the things that had me the most excited about moving into our apartment in Brooklyn is the front patio...outdoor space to grow things! Now mind you, I've never actually grown anything, but the concept of not having something in a pot and then sunlight, water, boom, bang, produce (or so I hear) is fascinating to me.

While I'm still planning a larger(ish) expedition to a garden center, I happened upon this all-in -one basil kit - at Jack's 99 Cent store in Midtown of all places - and for $5, (I've been hard pressed to find a single item for 99 cents in that store) and considering $5 is about what I'd pay for a pre-grown basil plant at a farmer's market and it came with the nifty-spifty bucket, I figured I'd give it a go.

Fingers crossed!

June 4, 2009


Hello friends, and welcome to my blog! As food in all capacities (eating, cooking, buying, reading about, thinking about, growing, etc) is one of my strongest interests, and since the cost of food alongside issues such as local eating, healthy eating and eating fewer processed foods are all the buzz these days, I really wanted to create a blog dedicated to this range of topics.

In particular, I'm interested in exploring these issues as they relate to living in an urban environment, since everything is more expensive here and it's not like we can exactly grow produce in the backyard or easily load up cars with bulk supplies from Costco. I plan on posting relevant articles, inexpensive recipes, and topics unique to eating responsibly, healthfully and inexpensively in the city. Thanks for visiting and I hope you like it here!