blff

blff

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

October Recipe Roundup

photo credit: Marcus Nilsson


When it comes to solving the day to day omnivore's dilemma, we're bombarded with more choices than ever in the age of the internet. Those of us who like to cook still have hard copies of cookbooks taking up all the shelf space in our kitchen, plus a box of haphazard magazine clippings and hand-written index cards. And that's before we even get to the options provided by the thousands of food blogs out there. The really tricky part is that a lot of these recipes are all slight variations on the same thing, and it can be a lot easier to just order pizza than figure out which of the six different lentil sloppy joe recipes I currently have pending is likely to come out the best. So I've decided to start a monthly roundup of internet recipe successes I've had in order to streamline some of the confusion. I'll even do my best to make them somewhat seasonal. If you've got any requests, let me know in the comments section. Here's what I've found lately:

Curried Delicata Squash and Crunchy Lentil Salad

There are some great squash varieties in season right now that you can sub for the suggested delicata. Anything with a skin that's thin enough to edible works great.

Maple Mustard Pork

This recipe is actually a riff on one I had posted on another website. The author gave it a paleo spin by using nut flour as breading. What a great idea. I'm never buying Panko again!

Cheesy Quinoa Black Bean Stuffed Peppers

Classic, easy, and perfect for having leftovers.

Chocolate Beet Cake

Some friends who were going out of town gave me the spoils of their CSA share. I never know what to do with beets, but apparently they give baked goods that nice moist density I love so much. Between that and the rich flavor, I was able to make this recipe without the frosting and not miss it at all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Blog Action Day 2014: Inequality

It's Blog Action Day again, and this year's theme is Inequality.

There are two kinds of inequality that I'd like to discuss, and I'll leave it to the comments section to decide the correlation between the two.

The first, and no doubt the one that the Blog action Day committee had in mind when they chose the theme, refers to the social and economic equality with which every country in the world still struggles. The income gap is wider than it has ever been, and only continuing to grow. What's noteworthy about this post-industrial inequality is that, in many places, it isn't that poor don't have access to enough food, it's that they don't have access to the right kinds of food. Which brings me to the second kind of inequality: nutritional inequality, and the idea that simply maintaining a minimum number of calories is not what will keep us from starving, or from developing terminal diet-related illnesses.

I made my weekly grocery shopping pilgrimage today, and, as usual, it was a pretty time consuming ordeal. I've been starting out my trips at Whole Foods in search of the best quality produce and meat, and then filling in the non-perishables at Star Market, my rationale being that the middle aisle type products are a lost cause, nutritionally, so I may as well get the cheap ones. It's not an efficient system, and I'm not entirely convinced that it's all that cost effective either, but for now it's what I've got.

While the idea of inequality was on mind, as was my tight budget, I looked at all the different kinds of inequality on display at both stores: fresh vs. packaged, whole vs. processed, organic vs. conventional. And that's before you even get to the simple differences in personal taste that, in my opinion, should be the only thing you really have to worry about at the grocery store: will I like this or not?

The idea that things like price and nutritional content carry too much weight in our omnivore's dilemma is not a new one, but it always bears looking at from different angles, since the problem only seems to be getting worse, not better.

What kinds of inequalities do you notice most when buying food?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's in the News: September 2014

Here's what's happening in food news this month.

USDA Approves New Modified Corn, Soybean Seeds

Enlist is the newest herbicide out from Dow, and of course comes with resistant crops to go with it. It was recently approved by the Department of Agriculture and is now pending a decision from the Environmental Protection agency. Farmers hope it gets onto the market soon, since weeds are growing resistant to the old herbicides. Critics worry about increased chemical herbicides' effect on public health. Sounds like business as usual to me.

General Mills to Buy Annie's for $820 million.

According to a spokesman,

"Annie's will remain dedicated to our mission; to cultivate a healthier and happier world by spreading goodness through nourishing foods, honest words and conduct that is considerate and forever kind to the planet. Authentic roots, great tasting products, high quality organic and natural ingredients, and sustainable business practices will continue to be the cornerstones of the Annie's brand,"

...but really.

And speaking of large cereal conpanies,

Happy 50th Birthday to Pop-Tarts!

It's been a wild ride for America's favorite breakfast pastry ever since Kellogg's scooped Post in 1964 by introducing Pop Tarts before Kellogg's "Country Squares" could hit the market. While the packaging has gone through multiple changes, adding a flammability warning here, taking away a "made with real fruit" label there, consumers' love for them has never abated, and the frosting, somehow, has yet to melt.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Boston's Food Festival Is Better Than Your City's

Earlier this month, Slate's Andrew Simmons published a "food festival takedown" claiming that "These modern-day bacchanals showcase the worst features of American life." Slate went so far as to give the article the provacative click-bait header "Why You Should Never, Ever Go to a Food Festival."

Andrew, I would like to cordially invite you to come to next year's Boston Local Food Festival. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

The Slate piece mentions festivals in Los Angeles full of rude people blatantly cutting in line, eating and drinking to excess, and generally looking out for number one at the expense of their fellow attendees. Now, while I'd love to make this about how people on the East coast are inherently better than people on the West coast, I doubt that this is what's really going on.

What is going on at the festivals Simmons experienced is a desperate attempt to get your money's worth. He makes multiple references to how overpriced food festivals are; one example he gives is of an event for which the tickets cost $75. His experience was that many attendees, intoxicated by some sort of frantic extreme coupon-er mindset and possessed by a need to game the system, pushed and shoved their way to as much food as possible, whether they actually enjoyed it or not.

Boston Local Food Festival, by contrast, is a free event whose individual vendors charge for their wares. Like any large event it is, of course, prone to some crowding and short tempers of people in line, which, as my friend Kathryn put it, encourages you to, if anything, eat too little. Unlike the orgy that Simmons describes, the price tag on each individual sampling coupled with the unwieldy lines to get your hands on it, serve as a deterrent to overindulgence, and an encouragement to seriously consider which foods you want to try.

A second feature that sets our experiences of food festivals apart is the alcohol. Simmons sites drunkenness as fueling people's gluttonous, rude, and overall inappropriate, unattractive behavior. Here in Puritan New England, that's not an issue. This year's Boston Local Food Festival took place outside, on public property, and on a Sunday no less! I'm sure there were a college student or two wandering around with flasks in their pockets, but other than that, it was a dry event, with most people too busy keeping their hands on strollers and dog leashes to hold an extra bottle anyway. (Although at Boston Local Food Festival's sister event, Local Craft Brewfest, you do pay in advance for as much beer as you can get your hands on in a limited amount of time, and I've never seen that effect people's politeness, but...maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough.)

Practical considerations aside, Simmons raises some interesting, if less easy to pinpoint, problems with the food festivals he has seen. He says that,

"Some food festivals trumpet sustainability as a pillar of their mission, but...while biodegradable forks made from potato starch are popular, at the end of the day, napkins, plates, and discarded food billow out of garbage cans. Piles of trash sprout wherever attendees feel like starting them. Just because the heritage-breed pigs everyone's tucking into were raised on chestnuts, doesn't mean that the event is somehow expanding the crowd's understanding of food systems."

First of all, let me address the fact that a herd of overly cheerful volunteers were standing by the garbage cans making sure that recyclables and compostables got thrown away in their proper place. I didn't stay until the very end of the festival, but I highly doubt it devolved into the piles-of-trash dystopia Simmons describes. With that out of the way, I guess we really need to talk about how much "good" events like this actually do.

It feels nice to spend an afternoon supporting local farms and keeping your leftovers out of landfills, but as the local, sustainable, organic, other greeen buzzwords movement gets trendier and trendier, its risk of defeating its own purpose grows. Slapping a "no GMOs" bumper sticker on your Prius will not solve all the problems in the world. If you're obnoxious enough about it, it might even send people away from your cause. But I feel pretty confident that this afternoon's festival didn't do anything to make the world a worse place. Not everyone who attended is going to immediately swear off the industrial food system and start growing everything their family eats. But all those plates really did end up in the compost pile, and I have to believe that if the festival hadn't taken place, plenty of those same people would have eaten a fast food lunch whose packaging ended up in a dumpster, so isn't that a small but tangible help right there?

Going further still, at BLFF, I found out about restaurants, publications, and organizations I didn't previously know about. There's no way I'm the only one. Of course one afternoon isn't going to shift Boston's eating habits in a significant way, but everyone who was there came away with a very slightly augmented list of options about where and how to eat. They don't have to take advantage of them every day in order for it to be a step in the right direction.
Was the afternoon a little too crowded? A little too self-righteous? Yes. Of course. But I still found it easy to enjoy myself, and to learn something. So Andrew Simmons, and anyone else who's had a bad experience at a food festival, come out to Boston next September and I'll show you how to do it right.
James picking out some oysters from Chatham, MA
Local chefs compete to make the better fish dish at the Seafood Throwdown

Kathryn and I enjoy some ice from Bart's in Greenfiled, MA
The day was a little nippy for running through the fountain, but it was still fun to watch.
Melissa and Kathryn eating jerk chicken from a local vendor on the grass.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Moving Diet: Outbound


A college town in late August is no place for civilized people to be. For one thing, it's infested with students. The returning kind are bad enough; all they do is crowd your favorite restaurants. But the new ones are even worse. With heavy suitcases and nervous parents in tow, they seem to make a habit of stopping at the most inconvenient point in the middle of the sidewalk. Everyone who has enough money and good sense has fled to the beach, leaving those of us left to fend off the incoming freshman all the more alone.

And then there's the Moving. If you're lucky, the biggest inconvenience you're slapped with is helping a friend, or maybe getting your car towed because you failed to notice that your usual parking spot is a temporary moving truck zone. If your number is up, though, you'll be getting a new roommate, or, worst of all, moving yourself.

I moved into a new apartment a week ago today, and for what seemed like eternity before that, I had been eating in a state of limbo, not wanting to replenish my stock of cooking oil, baking soda, or, as the move got close, even staples like bread and milk. As a result, August saw more than its share of takeout and frozen meals, of lonely peanut butter sandwiches and half-hearted dinners created around unfamiliar grains that had been waiting patiently in the pantry for a year.

A lot more than I'm proud of was wasted, as well. On cleaning out the refrigerator and freezer, I filled a trash bag with orphaned condiments no one remembered buying. Add that to the telltale cardboard boxes and disassembled furniture that accompany every move, and the whole situation was pretty depressing.

I had, of course, meant to time everything perfectly, running out of the last of my perishables on the day I left, going to Target for cute, practical containers to transport some of the keep-worthy dry goods like spices and specialty flours. I was going to be so good at it that people would want to know my secret. I would publish the most helpful and well-written of how-to blog posts, but those kinds of plans never work out, and so you guys get this instead.

The one thing I did right, the one thing that went according to plan, were the cookies. Similar to the last batch of Christmas cookies I make every year, these were a desperate attempt to get rid of that last half cup of dried cranberries and opened bar of dark chocolate. There was nothing that didn't go into them. I won't post a detailed recipe here. Instead, I'll link to Toll House's classic chocolate chip cookie recipe which, in my opinion, should be the jumping off point for any cookie experiment, and I'll mention the two accidents that made this one of the best-received batches of cookies I've ever hoisted off on other people: The first is that I didn't have quite enough butter, so I subbed a little bit a coconut oil. For baking and frying alike, coconut oil seems to really give a dish a richness and subtle extra flavor that pleases a crowd. The second is that, in the interest of consolidating containers, I had already put what was left of the cashew meal into the bag of whole wheat flour. I've been using a mix of whole wheat and nut flours in all my baking for awhile now, and it was long past time that I saved myself a measuring cup and some mental math (not to mention the sifting!). Nut flours give baked goods a more complex, satisfying flavor, not to mention the health benefits of upping the protein while minimizing the processed carbs.

How does your diet suffer when your living situation gets unstable? Have you had better success timing out the pantry than I did? Any favorite recipes that arose from using up the dregs of your stock?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

National Farmers Market Week: Tales from the Farm

In honor of National Farmers Market week, I'm posting this creative nonfiction piece I wrote a few years ago.

The smell of fresh tomatoes hits me like a sudden slap. No matter how much time I spend handling these fruits, their smell never blends in with the world and makes my senses immune to it the way the smell of a close friend's house sometimes will. As I reach into the bed of my beloved little pick-up truck to grab the day's first tray, the smell rushes through my body and I know I'm about to sell a product you simply won't find at the supermarket. I bring the tray out to one of the folding tables and go back to the truck for more.
Cucumbers in a wicker basket, green beans in a wooden box, a bushel of potatoes: half Yukon Gold and half Red Bliss, and a carton of yellow squash so freshly picked their skins are still prickly. Then the paper bags, cash box, and scale. Now I'm ready.
My two tables are set up under a small white tent at the far end of the market. Under the matching white tent to my left, Maura and Rachel from Temple Gardens in Fairfield are taking boxes of corn and Swiss chard and collard greens from their truck. On my right, Mark is attaching a banner to his tent that proclaims Smith's in Montville to be "Connecticut's Oldest Certified Organic Farm". I find a bit of chalk in the cash box, and write on my chalkboard "Stony Lane Farm, Route 1, Durham. All Produce Grown Sustainably", displaying it in front of one of the bushel baskets.
Saturday is my favorite market day. For one thing, it's the biggest and the busiest. The business makes the day go by quickly. The vendors are in good spirits because their sales are up, and the customers are in good spirits because it's Saturday. These are the people who delight in getting up and out by nine o'clock to be sure the get the best produce.  It's refreshing to see, in the heart of the city, people helping each other select the freshest loaf of bread, the juiciest plums, the zucchini of the deepest green. The same regulars come on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but they are different people then, and the city is a different city. On weekdays these people are on their lunch breaks or in the midst of tedious errands, in a rush to grab something for that night's dinner before scurrying back to their offices and soccer practices and dentist appointments.

I see Ben bringing the breakfast tray: the other wonderful part of Saturday.  It's nothing special really, just some pastries donated by a local bakery, but they make all the difference to people who have been hard at work since before the sun came up. As far down the line as I am today, I know my chances of there being a chocolate one left by the time Ben gets here are slim, but I cross my fingers anyway.

Friday, July 25, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Grass Fed

A lot of people are surprised to find out that Corn Free July extends down the food chain. Avoiding not only corn syrup and corn starch, but corn fed animals products, seems to give the project increased weight. It's in part the realization of how much mainstream food is off limits, but I think it's equally a question of why this next level is important to me, and what possessed me to take it this far.

The truth is, I don't really see the animal products clause as a different level. The corn that feeds the cow in your burger is the same corn that sweetens your Coke. In terms of its effect on the system, I wouldn't say that one is less harmful than the other. They just take different branches. In the big mess that is industrial agriculture, there isn't much of a difference here.

Last week I talked a little bit about how hard it is to nail down exactly where your food came from and how it was processed, amid all the marketing and catch phrase labels that almost never mean what they want you to think they do.

A fully sustainable ecosystem means taking every piece of the equation into account. Which brings me to what exactly it is that the term "grass-fed" embodies. Certainly for cows it has a tangible purpose. Cows eat grass because cow stomachs are very good at processing grass. Cow stomachs are not, however, particularly good at processing corn and other grains, which is part of the reason that the factory farming system is so unhealthy for the animals it raises.

With other animals that Americans commonly eat, the rules are a little bit different. Corn is perfectly nutritious for a pig, say, or a chicken. For Corn Free July purposes, factory farmed meat of all kinds are off limits, technically because the same type of commodity corn from large, subsidized farms makes up a larger part of their diet than it does for animals raised on smaller farms. What it really comes down to is pasture. Animals raised on pasture, with access to forage and room to move around and find food at their leisure, along with whatever supplemental feed the farmer opts to give them, corn or otherwise, are, in my opinion, healthy food choices.

Which brings us back to that pesky word "sustainable." Along with "organic," "natural," "free-range," and maybe even "non-GMO," "sustainable" has become a catch-all meaning something good that, if pressed, we might not actually be able to define.

In order for something to be literally "sustainable," all it has to do is work on a large scale for a long time. Our current corn-dependent food system is unsustainable because the money and the fossil fuels that prop it up could go away at any moment. But the alternative organic system is unsustainable because it requires all that pasture. There's are good reasons CAFOs came into existence, and one of them is that the demand for meat is greater than the land available for pasture.

So if we're going to create a food system that is truly sustainable, we're going to have to cut way back on our consumption of meat. Which isn't bad news at all, even for meat lovers. A food system based on meat that is guaranteed to be high in quality, even if it's more expensive or less readily available, shouldn't really impact our lives all that much if we know how to use it well, and how to enjoy going without it. Here are a few of my favorite recipes that don't happen to include meat.

Dijon Portobello Steaks from V-Lish
Three Bean Sweet Potato Chili from La Casa de Sweets
Grilled Ale Portobello Mushroom Burger from The Adirondack Chick
Quinoa Salad with Black Beans and Mango from The Veganomicon
Grown-Up Grilled Cheese Sandwich from Just a Taste