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!