Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Hidden Gem of Cambridge

Luckily, at the Foodmaster just now, there was a lady taking forever to search through her bag for coupons, so everyone else in line was too busy being annoyed with her to take any notice of the weirdo engrossed in the Tic-Tacs label muttering "Screw you, Maltodextrin."

With just a few days of that foolishness left to go, I'm proud to say that I finally got around to having dinner at a restaurant.  The website prides itself on being "#1 For Grass-Fed Food and Facts".  It's a great resource for finding farms, grocery stores, and restaurants that focus on local, sustainable food.  It was there that I found T.W.Food: the tiniest, most out of the way restaurant I’ve ever been to.  I almost don’t want to write about them on the internet for fear of blowing their cover.

Needless to say, I was pretty excited about the evening, but shortly after being seated, we were presented with an amuse-bouche featuring corn.  I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job of stifling my laugh when the server said what was in it, and I was worried that maybe this wasn’t going to go so well after all.

Next came the bread, which looked homemade, so I took my chances with it, foregoing the butter.  And then for a look at the menu.  I’m coming to realize that the “grass-fed” label in restaurants like this is a lot like the giant picture of a salad in the window at McDonald’s.  More than anything, it's there so you can say to the person in the group on a strict diet, “Look!  There’s even something for you!”  Then, once you’re in the door, you realize it’s not that easy.

In general, there does seem to be quite a bit of grass-fed beef available on the market if you know where to look for it.  The problems arise when you start wondering if the vegetables served with it were sautéed in grass-fed butter.  Or where they got the milk that goes in your after dinner coffee.  And so, I found myself asking the proprietress a list of obnoxiously specific questions.  Tim was a real sport for agreeing to sit at the same table. 

For some reason, outside of a farmers' market (and that one seasonal brand of butter at Whole Foods), grass-fed eggs and dairy products just don’t seem to exist.  Although there were three entrées featuring corn-free proteins on the menu, all the sides had some kind of corn-fed dairy involved.  I eventually settled on the flat-iron steak, which I was told did come with buttered potatoes, but the chef would be happy to use olive oil instead.

I've had quite a bit of experience with grass-fed beef now, and the myth that it doesn't taste as good as corn-fed isn't just a myth, but a flat-out lie, told by the USDA to increase demand for the surplus of cheap grain out there.  I hadn't previously tasted grass-fed meat that wasn't delicious, and the steak from T.W. Food was no exception.  Maybe I was just thinking too hard, but I swear I could actually taste the lack of anti-biotics.

But the best part?  A lovely corn-free, vegan, lactose-intolerant-friendly dessert:  A scoop each of chocolate and peach sorbet, which I was assured were not sweetened with HFCS.  The dish was garnished with sprigs of mint and candied pecans.  OK so if you’re allergic to nuts, I guess you couldn’t have this.  I guess you really can't please everyone.

Anyway, as July comes to a close, I'll be cramming to do and read and write everything that I said I would.  It’s gonna be a busy weekend.  Check back on Monday!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

You Probably Have Scurvy

So, I just finished reading an informative, if terrifying book by journalist Mary Frost called Going Back to the Basics of Human Health.  I liked that it took a straight-forward, common-sense-first approach to health.  Her thesis is that, for thousands of years, our ancestors survived just fine on the diets that were available to them with nary a pill in sight.  Most of the problems we Westerners face today, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, according to Frost and many others, are just as much a result of what we're not getting as of what we're getting too much of.

She brings to light, specifically, the fact that many vitamin supplements are synthetic, not derived from foods, and therefore don't respond to our bodies in the way that, say, just a plain old fruit or vegetable would.

One food additive I've been avoiding this July is ascorbic acid, because it's often derived from corn.  As I mentioned in previous posts, Corn-Free-July is a very open-ended experiment, raising questions I hadn't originally thought to ask, and having unforeseen outcomes.  As it turns out, avoiding ascorbic acid has an added benefit, other than boycotting the unsustainable environmental and economic system from which it springs.

Now, first of all, let's backtrack to where ascorbic acid is often found.  For most purposes, its name is interchangeable with Vitamin C.  In fact, the word "ascorbic" is from the Latin prefix "a-" meaning no, and word "scorbutus", meaning scurvy, since scurvy is exactly what you get when you don't have enough Vitamin C.  When you see in the grocery store that your orange juice is "fortified with Vitamin C", it probably means (and correct me if I'm wrong here; once my research gets to the part where I'm looking at those little hexagonal molecule drawings, I'm a bit out of my element) that industrially-grown corn has been broken down into glucose, and then that glucose has been broken down further into ascorbic acid.

All right, so it's not naturally occurring in the oranges, but it's still derived from a plant, so how bad could it be?

Well, apparently, according to Mary Frost, vitamin C (and other vitamins, but I'm using the C example because it relates to corn) are actually complexes of many different components.  One of the components in vitamin C is ascorbic acid.  And many synthetic vitamin C supplements, in foods and in pills, contain only ascorbic acid and not the whole compound, so they're not really doing anything positive for your body at all.

Or are they?

Lab tests apparently show that rats fed just ascorbic acid don't get scurvy any more than rats given the full Vitamin C complex.  So I guess we're in the clear after all.

But wait.  We're talking about rats.  And here's another one of those facts that seem so obvious once you read them that you wonder why you didn't think of them yourself years ago.  I've run into dozens of these this July.   

Rats do not digest or metabolize foods in the same way that humans do.

Of course they don't!  We know that!  We've all read Charlotte's Web.

Rats can find nutrition in some weird stuff.

And, sure enough, in 1985, Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary published the finding that rats can convert ascorbic acid into the full Vitamin C complex, but humans can't, as proven by a study done on humans with scurvy who did not improve from the condition when they were treated only with ascorbic acid. (One can only hope that the scientists doing the study eventually took pity on these people and gave them the full complex before they died like Elizabethan sailors, but the article didn't say.)

According to Frost and the research she's done, too much ascorbic acid isn't just not good for you, it can actually be bad for you, since the acid will try to reform the vitamin C complex from other components thereof that your body has already stored, disrupting the delicate balance of chemicals and enzymes that were in your body to begin with.

And now we get to the good part.  All this is interesting in theory, but it's pretty easy to miss how it directly affects you.  I admit I read much of the book with a healthy dose of skepticism, and, I'm ashamed to say, a bit of self-righteousness:  I'm young.  I'm not overweight.  Do I really need to worry about all this?

Yes.  Yes I do.

Symptoms of a condition Frost calls "pre-clinical scurvy" or "marginal vitamin C deficiency" include "painful joints, bruising easily, and gums that bleed with brushing of the teeth".

For over ten years now, my dentist has been assuring me that my gums bleed because I don't floss enough.  Even though I floss every day.

Nobody flossed until dental floss was invented in 1815!  Heck!  Cavemen didn't even brush.

So, the next time you experience one of these everyday annoyances and blame it on your hygiene habits or the weather or something, eat an orange and see how you feel.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

What's So Bad About Corn?

Like any good research project, my corn-free month has so far asked many more questions that it has answered. The main one is "What exactly am I boycotting?"

Now, the simple answer is, "Duh.  Corn.  What do you mean what are you boycotting?  Did you have a stroke?"

And, OK, yes, I'm boycotting corn.  Mostly in the form of an additive in processed foods, and as a feed ration for meat animals.  But as I touched on in the first post, it's not actually corn the food that I'm concerned with.  In fact, the corn we eat on the cob and the corn that ends up in the places I'm trying to avoid it are two such different things that I almost don't want to call them by the same name at all.  Here's a list of what sets industrial corn apart:

-It has been strategically bred, and most of the taste and nutritional value have been phased out in favor of qualities that make it easy to grow, harvest, store, and distribute.

- This corn is grown in an environmentally irresponsible way.  The crops aren't rotated, and therefore the soil is robbed of nutrients, making more and more chemical fertilizers necessary, which contributes to pollution, among other things.

-It makes no economic sense.  To keep up with low corn prices, farmers keep planting more, which saturates the market and drives prices down.  In fact, corn costs more to produce than it does to buy, so to keep farmers from going broke, the government pays them.  So the next time you save a few bucks by choosing a corn-fed steak over a grass-fed one, remember the tax money you're paying to subsidize the corn.  There is evidence that, looked at on a large enough scale, foods without corn are more cost-effective than their counterparts with higher sticker prices.

For more specific information about any of that, read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, or watch the documentary King Corn.

OK so we know there's big industrial chemical-ridden corn that ends up in french fries, and there's happy, hand-picked, delicious corn corn.  But what about the gray areas? 

I bought a block of cheese this morning at the Union Square Farmer’s Market right here in Somerville. I spoke to the woman selling it, an employee of Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, and she assured me that of course all the cows roam free in the pasture and eat nothing but grass.

But then she added an interesting corollary.  She said that in the winter, when fresh grass is scarce, the cows are given a ration of what she compared to humans taking vitamins.  It accounts for very little of the herd’s overall diet, but it does contain, among other things, corn.


I opted to buy the cheese anyway, but it raised questions.  The first question, I suppose, and one I would have asked had the market not been so busy, was where they got the corn.  Based on what I’ve learned in my research, it’s extremely unlikely that this corn comes from the agro-industrial machine, but where exactly does it come from?  My guess would be that the supplement was bought pre-mixed, either at a feed store, or from a magazine like The Stockman Grass Farmer.  It’s probable that this corn, though grown on a relatively small scale and more sustainably than the other stuff, involved some pesticidal or fungicidal chemicals, or even genetic modification.

So I’m left with the question of whether I did the right thing buying the cheese.  And different people will answer that question differently according to their views on nutrition, treatment of animals, the environment, and the local and global economy.  And I’m sure there’s someone who will take the attitude that It’s "corn-free July." It’s not "mostly-corn-free-except-when-you-don’t-feel-like-it July." 
And in a way I suppose they’re right too.  But you’ve got to admit it makes you think.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Greek Roast Lamb

As promised, I’ve got a recipe for an actual entrée this time. It's a slightly modified take on one that I found on, with adjustments made for the fact that the farmers market didn't have as large a cut of meat as the recipe called for.  Now there's a problem you don't often run into at the grocery store. 

After choosing a recipe that looked manageable, I wrote down the ingredients I'd need and headed out to the Copley Square Farmers Market, this time remembering to bring my trendy- if somewhat overpriced considering what it is- re-usable grocery bag from Whole Foods. 

The first booth I visited was Siena Farms, based in Sudbury.  They had an impressive array of pretty much every fruit and vegetable currently in season in southern New England.  I picked out an onion and some garlic for the lamb, and lettuce and tomatoes for a salad, which was rounded out with some delicious grass-fed mozzarella cheese from Narragansett Creamery.  It turns out Narragansett exports something even better than cheap beer.

The meat itself came from Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm, where I’d shopped the previous week.  The same woman who cut my carton of eggs in half then said she didn’t have the four pound leg of lamb the recipe required, but recommended a leg steak and some kabobs, assuring me that it would be more than enough to serve two.

As I browsed the rest of the farmers market, I exchanged knowing smiles with several other people carrying trendy reusable grocery bags from Whole Foods, each of us basking in the knowledge that we were clearly much more serious about sustainable agriculture than the shoppers without them.

After I got home, the actual roasting of the dish itself, as well as adjusting the amounts of ingredients, involved a little bit of guesswork, which wasn’t helped by the fact that there was nothing on the package the lamb came in saying exactly how much it weighed.  I estimate between a pound and a half and two pounds.  Anyway, Tim and I agreed that the dish ended up delicious, though the meat could have been slightly less well done and the potatoes were a tad too crunchy.  Based on this thorough analysis, here’s the revised and revised again version of the recipe that I would use if I were to try it again.  If anyone does make it, let me know how it turns out.

  • 2 pounds pasture-raised lamb kabobs
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • black pepper, to taste
  • juice of 1 lemon (some bottled lemon-juice has corn)
  • 2 tablespoons pastured butter, softened
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 9 small white potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  1. Preheat oven to 325.
  2. Take the meat out of the packaging and place it in a roasting pan.
  3. Sprinkle garlic, onion, and pepper over lamb.
  4. Juice the lemon and combine the juice with butter.  Brush mixture over lamb to coat, then sprinkle diced onion evenly over ingredients in pan.
  5. Add water and wine.  Cover with tin foil and back 45 minutes.
  6. While the lamb is cooking, chop up potatoes and cook in boiling water for 5-10 minutes to soften.  Let them cool, then toss them in olive oil.
  7. Remove pan from oven, add potatoes, re-cover, and continue baking at least another 20 minutes, until lamb is slightly pink in the center.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Return of Dessert

Despite temperatures in the eighties making for less-than-ideal baking conditions, I had a wonderful time Tuesday afternoon putting together some corn-free chocolate chip cookies.  To my surprise and delight, it actually isn’t hard at all, given the time, resources and willingness to research all the ingredients and go to a few different places for them.
First stop was Copley Square Farmers Market.  The second biggest farmers market I’ve ever been to (the first being on 14th Street in Manhattan, but everything’s bigger and louder and flashier in Manhattan), it takes full advantage of its location, where there’s both scenery and plenty of foot traffic.   

John Copley, who arranged the lesser-known Boston Corn Party.
I lucked out with Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm, based in Hardwick.  Theirs was the only booth I saw offering eggs from free-roaming chickens.  Stillman's also wins the prize for providing the most literal half-dozen eggs I’ve ever bought; the woman got out a pair of scissors and cut a carton containing a dozen eggs in half right before my eyes.

I was frustrated in my search for butter, however.  No one had brought any to the market, but, encouraged by finding the eggs, there was no way I was going to give up on the idea of eating a fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookie before the day was over. 

So the next logical stop was Whole Foods.  If I couldn’t find grass fed butter here, there was always the option of looking up a vegan recipe, but I have yet to master the texture issue with vegan cookies, and besides, you usually need to substitute something like applesauce, and that would mean I’d have to look around for applesauce that didn’t have ascorbic acid and...luckily, the dairy section offered Organic Valley brand pasture-fed butter, saving me a whole bunch of trouble.  

Now all that was left were the chocolate chips.  All the other ingredients can pretty much be taken at face value, and were already in the pantry at home.  I was a little worried about the chips though.  Do they normally have dairy ingredients in them?  I’ve been eating them for more than two decades.  How do I not know this already?

Whole Foods doesn’t carry Toll House, of course, and I almost scrapped the whole project right there.  How can I be expected to bake cookies if the chocolate chips don’t come in that comforting yellow bag we all grew up with?  It’s downright un-American!

Nonetheless, I screwed up all my courage and read the ingredients list on the Whole Foods brand chocolate chips (which come in an unfortunate blue bag).  With a huge sigh of relief, I realized the cookies were going to happen after all.  Nothing in these chips but pure cane sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, and pure vanilla extract.

But wait. Right next to these, in a green bag, were vegan chocolate chips.  What could possibly be on the above list that isn’t vegan?

The ingredients in the vegan chips were: evaporated cane juice, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, ground vanilla beans.

Am I missing something here?  Technicalities in the processing of the sugar and the vanilla, but nothing else is different…right?

I opted for the vegan chips just to be on the safe side. They don’t come with a recipe on the back, by the way.  What is that marketing team thinking?  Thanks to the internet, I was able to get my hands and the good old time-tested Toll House recipe, which is reproduced below, with corn-free adjustments in italics.

·        2 ¼ cups flour (unbleached if you don’t like chlorine in your food)
·        1 teaspoon baking soda
·        1 teaspoon salt
·        1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened (The package should specify grass fed and finished, or, better yet, pastured.  "Organic" can still mean that the cow has a very unpleasant life on a factory farm eating an unnatural diet of government-subsidized corn.)
·        ¾ cup granulated sugar
·        ¾ cup packed brown sugar
·        1 teaspoon vanilla extract
·        2 large eggs (Even free-roaming hens are often fed at least some corn.  The only way to be sure is to get the eggs straight from the farmer, and ask what he or she feeds the animals.)
·        1 12-ounce package chocolate chips (Check the ingredients list and make sure there are no animal products or corn-derived sweeteners from our growing glossary)
·        1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Preheat over to 375.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a small bowl.  Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla in large mixer bowl until creamy.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Gradually beat in flour mixture.  Stir in chocolate chips and nuts.  Drop by rounded tablespoons onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.  Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.  

And voila!
They ended up tasting great.  It's back to the farmers market on Tuesday.  Maybe next time I'll have a recipe for something a little more nutritious.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Corn Free July

I miss corn.

I miss corn, and I’ve got so much respect for anyone on a special diet, whether it’s because of allergies, health, ethics, or anything else. 

It’s really hard.  Checking labels all the time, going the extra mile (literally) for grocery stores that will sell what you’re looking for, turning down dessert.  Anyone who can pull this off for longer than the three days I’ve been at it deserves a 

I was lucky to kick off the month at a cookout with a group of extremely indulgent people.  Not to say that there weren’t plenty of “corny” jokes at my expense, but on the whole, my idea is being met with much more support than skepticism.  Here's a sampling of what a corn-free party looks like, starting with bison burgers; grass-fed of course:

I couldn’t have the cheese, or the bun, but miraculously, we had organic ketchup that contained nothing derived from corn.  That was surprising; that ketchup, synonymous as it is with all things processed and unnatural and generally unhealthy, would be available without the help of America’s favorite artificial sweetener.  It gives me hope that I might make it through July after all.

My friends Tristan and Andrea grilled some shrimp kabobs with zucchini and peppers; great summer flavor and easy to cook!

My contribution to the meal was a grass-fed steak from John Crow Farm, purchased at Kendall Square Farmers Market.  It turned out to be quite the crowd pleaser.

So I guess corn isn't in everything, and you don't even have to be a social pariah to enjoy the alternatives.  I've really got to get sweets back into my life, though.  This week's farmers market excursions will be focused on searching for baking ingredients.

Happy Independence Day!