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)