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Hot Dates (with chocolate, football and mystery food)!

25 Aug

Wow–I have way too many things to update, so long post ahoy:

Numero uno, friends, is Mystery Food Week 11. It was a delicious mix of sweet corn, tomatoes (Mr. Stripey!!!), Thai basil, Italian basil, eggplant, purple potatoes, garlic, hot peppers, nectarines, peaches, and apples. So much food! And I only buy a half-share.Of course the first thing I did when I got home from picking this up was to make a big batch of tomato sauce for pasta. I love a long-cooked tomato sauce, but there’s something so sweet, simple, and wonderful about a quick summer sauce. The squash, potatoes and peppers ended up in a pot roast I made from a chuck blade roast from Polyface farms. I seasoned and seared the meat, caramelized some onions, and then threw everything into the crockpot with a splash of red wine to cook all day. When I came home, Dioji was very anxious to discover where the delicious smell that he couldn’t find was coming from (he’s not allowed in the kitchen while we’re not home–safety first!) and then whined at me when he realized it wasn’t for him. Oh sheltie.

Numero dos is that our fantasy draft for the “I Cannot Wait For Football” league was this past weekend. It went pretty well for me, although I made one really bad decision because of outdated information. Here’s the lineup for team Plaxico’s Cellmate:

QBs: Drew Brees, Jay Cutler, Chad Pennington

RBs: Clinton Portis, Steve Slaton, Joseph Addai

WRs: Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmanzadeh, Steve Breaston, Michael Crabtree

TEs: Dallas Clark, Owen Daniels

K: Ryan Longwell

DEF: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia

A pretty solid draft if I don’t say so myself. The Michael Crabtree thing was a lapse in judgment, I swear. We have another one this weekend, but I’ll be autodrafting because it is the same day as my brother’s wedding. I’m not sure he’d be too pleased with me if I disappeared from the reception to draft a fantasy team.

And Numero Tres is that I’ve been craving filled pastry/cookies. I used to really like fig newtons heated up in the toaster oven when I was a kid. A week or so ago, I was in the market and saw some nice, soft Medjool dates. I remembered from when I was first diagnosed with anemia that dates were a good source of iron, but I’ve never cooked with them before last week. Recalling that the texture of my favorite kashi bar (the dark chocolate/coconut one) is made by creating a date paste, I decided to try a similar route. After several tries using the food processor to create said paste, I got frustrated because it never seemed to get sticky enough to hold everything together. The raw date bar recipes I searched all suggested that the approach would work, but it wasn’t the consistency I wanted. Finally, I found a good old southern recipe for date squares and modified it using a base recipe similar to my Banapple-Nut Bars.

I’m not saying I’m a genius, but this is kind of amazing…

Chocolate-Date Cookie Bars

Ingredients

For the cookie base:
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup mixed nuts, ground to a coarse meal by pulsing in a food processor. (I used a mix of macadamia, cashew, almond, and brazil nuts.)
1/4 cup 10-grain hot cereal or other high-protein hot cereal, dry.
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. baking soda
Pinch salt
2 tbsp. raw honey (I really like buckwheat honey in this, but anything will work.)
1 medium egg
2 tbsp. natural peanut butter
For the filling:
1/2 cup Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1 heaping tbsp. dutch process cocoa powder
10 grams 70% dark chocolate, chopped.
For the topping:
1 tbsp. shredded, unsweetened coconut
1/2 oz. mixed nuts, roughly chopped. (If you would like the recipe to be lower-fat, you can skip this and use some lightly toasted seeds, rolled oats, or cereal.)

Method

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F.

In a small saucepan, combine the dates, extracts, and water over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally until thickened. Use a potato masher or immersion blender to create a more even consistency. Stir in the cocoa and dark chocolate and set the mixture aside to cool.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the oats, ground nuts, cereal, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Slowly drizzle in the honey while pulsing occasionally to disperse evenly.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and peanut butter, then add them to the food processor while pulsing occasionally until a sticky dough is formed.

Grease a 9×5 loaf pan and press the cookie dough into the bottom to create an even crust. Next, layer on the chocolate-date paste, and then top with the chopped nuts and shredded unsweetened coconut.

Bake for 20 minutes and cool completely before cutting into bars.

So good. Not a drop of refined sugar or flour and yet somehow full of sweet, chocolatey, nutty goodness.

Nutrition facts: Yields ten servings. Each cookie bar is approximately 138 calories, 7 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of protein, and 16 grams of carbohydrates. They are also a good source of vitamin A, vitamin B-6, folate, and iron.

I think that this recipe could be easily modified into a good energy bar recipe by adding another egg white, replacing some of the oats with some wheat bran, and maybe adding some greek yogurt into the filling or base. If you were so inclined, you could replace the 10 grain cereal with a scoop of vanilla or unflavored protein powder. I’m really trying to keep things more natural these days.

Oh, and if you want to blow your mind…mix a spoonful of the chocolate-date paste and some berries into 5 or 6 oz. of nonfat greek yogurt for a creamy treat. That’s a post-run snack I can totally get behind.

Well, I’m off to Pittsburgh tomorrow for my brother’s wedding, so I’ll be M.I.A for a little while. In advance, have a great weekend and good luck to all my fellow fantasy team owners who have upcoming drafts.

Stay local, folks!

-Neen

Where did Neen and her notes go? (And Mystery Food Week 6!)

16 Jul

Yes, it’s true, I disappeared there for a week. But life happens, right? In short, I had a very important presentation for school, compounded by a Perl assignment I couldn’t seem to get a handle on and then wound up with the stomach flu. It was a rough week. I picked up my CSA share (a delicious basket of potatoes, squash, basil, cabbage, purslane, kohlrabi, and a few other items), but froze most of it because I wasn’t up for eating much or taking a picture. But this week’s is beautiful and is further down in this post…yum!

Fortunately, as of Saturday afternoon things started getting a lot better.

My birthday was Saturday, and it started off with a trip to the farmer’s market and then a group presentation on Elluminate. It was the first time I’d done an online presentation and it went really well. I must attribute some of the success to having a wonderful group to work with and a class that seemed genuinely interested in the topic (biographical reference sources). Want to see our presentation? Go to: http://stuckinthestacks.blogspot.com to view it in its entirety.

After that was done, it was off for a quick run, which was VERY refreshing after being sick all week. (I tried to run on Friday and barely made it down the block).

And then…the culmination of four months of waiting: Billy Joel and Elton John Face to Face!

Pre-concert:

At Nationals Park:

Yes, it was amazing (as always), but even more special that it was the first concert at Nationals Park AND on my birthday. Sometimes the stars really do align. The sustain pedal on Elton’s piano got stuck during the opening set, but it didn’t cause a major problem. Billy’s band came on and he did his set while they took Elton’s piano off for fixing. (It didn’t seem to phase him much—Elton opened his set with Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding and it brought down the house).

Billy Joel was walking on top of pianos, running around throwing microphones, and even dived under Elton’s piano during the technical problem to try and fix it. Very spry and excitable for a man that just turned 60 and is going through divorce #3.

I was really impressed that they went on for 3 and a half hours in the 90 degree heat and very sticky humidity, considering both men were wearing full, dark colored suits. Their bands sounded incredible too. Mark Rivera was dynamite on sax and Crystal Talifiero was her usual “jack-of-all-trades” self, playing everything from bongos to horns.

So, THANK YOU JOE for a wonderful birthday concert experience.

This week has been kinder so far. I finished the impossible Perl assignment and feel like I’m finally starting to get the hang of the language and its syntax. Looking at the CGI book really helped considering I’m a lot more familiar with programming for the web than I am with command-line programming. Oh, but you didn’t come here to listen to me go on about Perl, you came for Mystery Food!

That is a delicious bunch of goodies including zucchini, cucumber, tomatillos, potatoes, garlic, basil, Lodi apples, and (my favorite) peaches. The peaches are like candy. (For breakfast this morning, I had something really delicious: Dice one peach and mix it with 5 oz. of plain greek yogurt, a teaspoon of raw honey, sprinkle of cinnamon, and a 1/2 oz. of chopped mixed nuts. Happy in a bowl. It’s also perfect post-workout recovery food. Vanilla or almond extract might be a nice touch, too.)

Tonight for dinner, we’re having lots of local treats…

Last night, I seasoned, herb rubbed, and seared a bison chuck roast and sautéed onions, garlic, tomatillos, and some heirloom tomatoes. I put everything in the crock pot in the fridge overnight. This morning I added some chopped potatoes, kohlrabi, a cheese rind, and about a 1/2 cup total of broth/red wine to the pot. The crock pot is now making me dinner while I’m at work. Total time/effort? About 10 minutes of chopping and sautéing. (You could do everything the night before, but potatoes can get kind of gray and mealy on you if you cut them too far ahead of cooking.)

I hope that everyone out there is having a great week. I’m really looking forward to getting this summer semester finished so that I can focus on other things (like blogging, my brother’s wedding, Slow Food stuff…etc.) for a little while. It’ll be nice to have a month where I have no required reading. I’ll be getting very friendly with the Kindle!

Oh, and no, I did not indulge in a birthday cake this year, but there was a birthday frittata instead!

Weird, yes. Delicious, definitely.

Ciao for now—stay local, folks!
-Neen

Mystery Food Week 1!

11 Jun

Ah yes, nothing says summer harvest season like a mystery bag full of fresh-picked vegetables and herbs.

This year, I’ve purchased a small farm share from Bull Run Mountain farm (www.bullrunfarm.com) and will be receiving a bag of produce each Wednesday until the end of October. Whatever is ready to harvest each week is what ends up in the bag, which I find really fun. I also bought a fruit share and will start getting fruit along with the vegetables in mid-July. Most fortunately, one of Bull Run’s weekly delivery spots is less than 2 miles from my house.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to share with my readers what’s coming into season here in Northern Virginia each week. I would love to hear from folks in other areas about what’s growing in their neighborhood, so please leave a comment if you’d like to be involved.

Week 1: 1 very large head of pac choi, a handful of Italian basil, several sprigs of oregano, some chives (fatter than any I have ever seen before!), baby onions, garlic scapes and a potted parsley plant. I was also offered pick of some of the farm’s excess seedlings and chose a red cabbage plant and a purslane plant. I do love a good red cabbage shredded on top of barbecued pork. Purslane I have never grown or used before, so I’m looking forward to trying something new.


A very green harvest this week! The only supplements to this batch that I plan to pick up at the farmer’s market are a head of cauliflower and a pepper or two. I chopped and sauteed the head of pac choi in a small amount of fat left from a slice of bacon along with one of the baby onions, some cannellinni beans and some of the garlic scapes. That’s currently waiting in the fridge because it is to become soup later today. (I’ve been saving some vegetable/herb scraps to make vegetable stock and today finally have time to do so.)

I was recently asked how I plan out meals for the week with what most people would consider fairly scant information about what I might/might not have. So, here it is, a brief venture inside of whatever part of the brain does meal planning…

Wednesday: Get CSA share and start looking at recipes for whatever is in the bag.

Saturday: Visit the Arlington Farmer’s market:

Meat: Weekly I usually get 2lbs. of ground bison (or 1lb. of ground bison and 1lb. of steak/hot dogs), and 1 lb. of pork loin chops or a small tenderloin. Every two weeks, I pick up a whole chicken and sometimes a few extra assorted chicken pieces. Sometimes, if there is a special deal on a particular cut of meat, I’ll grab that in lieu of extra chicken to save money.

Dairy: Weekly I pick up yogurt and ricotta cheese. Every few weeks I might get some milk or cream to make ice cream, and I get butter about once a month. A tub of butter stored properly lasts us a good while since we use it sparingly.

Produce: I like to grab some fruit and a vegetable or two to supplement the CSA share. This will probably change once the fruit portion of my CSA share starts and more vegetables (as opposed to greens) come into season.

Other stuff: There’s a lady who makes amazing apple dumplings, cookies, and doughnuts, so sometimes I stop to get Joe something special for Saturday morning breakfast. I also get a jar of honey about once a month.

And the rest? Right now I shop at two small markets (MOMs and YES!), both of which have nice “bulk bin” sections. These are a great thing to look out for because you’ll pay less to buy grains by the pound than you will to buy them pre-packaged. I store grains in a cool, dark closet usually in mason jars. This has never failed me, so I don’t need to buy frequently. As a bonus, mason jars have measurements on the side so you always know exactly how much volume of something you have. On hand, I like to have whole wheat pastry flour, brown rice flour, spelt flour, graham flour, rolled oats, steel cut oats, quinoa, some type of multi-grain hot cereal, and durum semolina (for pasta). Occasionally, I’ll get something like arrowroot, soy, or sorghum flour to experiment with, but the above list is what I try to keep in the house regularly.

I also pick up things like nuts, nut butter, dried beans, and a few little snack foods that I haven’t mastered making on my own (yet). I try to buy from companies that are local, or at least in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic regions. That said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love to get a juicy Florida orange as a treat from time to time.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful for anyone who is looking to get more local food into their diet. It does take some planning, but it’s really worth it at the end of the day.

That’s all for now, but for those of you who’ve been following the Stanley Cup Finals, I think that Rex (a creation of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh) describes fairly well what I have to say about tomorrow’s Game 7…
GO PENS!!!!

-Neen

In Praise of the Pasture

5 Jun

Note: The following post contains information about commercial beef production that readers may find disturbing. While I encourage you to read on, I ask that you do so at your own discretion and with an open mind. Thank you.

Before the corn industry took America by storm following World War II, cattle and other herbivorous, pastured animals were raised in fields using rotational grazing. This grazing practice divides a pasture into several sections and moves the herd between sections regularly throughout the year to prevent over-grazing. In return, the cattle provided their rich manure to help replenish the pasture year after year. This manure was also used to fertilize the crops grown on the farm. In fact, the working farm was very nearly a perfect cycle with no waste.

However, once World War II ended, the U.S. found itself left with an overabundance of synthetic nitrogen which had been used to make bombs. In an attempt to use it, it was given to farmers to use on their fields. With synthetic nitrogen now replenishing the fields, there was no longer any need to pasture animals. That same land could be used for growing more corn. Thus, the animals moved from the farm to the feedlot, where nature’s balanced cycle was indelibly broken. Farmers were no longer forced to rotate crops in order to keep nitrogen in the soil and corn became the golden child of the commercial agriculture industry. It has since made its way into over 2/3rds of consumer products.

And as for those big steer in the feedlots?

A typical commercial steer is given access to “feed” fairly frequently while being contained in a pen with hundreds of others like it. I put the above word in quotes because I’m not sure that this diet can necessarily be considered food to an animal that is, by nature, an herbivorous creature. Here is what the average steer gets:

Flaked corn, liquefied fat which is often in the form of beef tallow, molasses and urea (a protein supplement made from the same synthetic nitrogen fertilizing the fields), alfalfa hay and silage, Rumensin and Tylosin (antibiotics), and synthetic estrogen.

What’s important to remember is that steer evolved eating grass. Their stomachs contain a unique fermentation-like chamber where they can actually convert grasses into a form of protein. They’re not biologically equipped to digest corn and force-feeding it has created the host of problems (like bloat, acidosis, and infection) that cause the antibiotics to be necessary. In fact, cattle are so ill-equipped to digest this food that it can only be given to them for 150 days at most before they must be taken off of it. According to Dr. Mel Metzin, a staff veterinarian at a feedlot in Kansas, 15-30 percent of feedlot cattle are found to have abcessed livers at slaughter, and in some places the figure is as high as 70 percent. The antibiotics are also needed because the cows sleep in the very same pen where they eat, which often means sleeping in their own manure for extended periods of time. While not a pleasant thought at the start, it becomes even more reprehensible when you consider all of the hormones and antibiotics the average steer is laying in on a regular basis.

These antibiotics make their way into our meat and unfortunately have caused antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria like e-coli to evolve. All of this doesn’t even take into account the fact that the corn being fed to these non-corn eating animals is littered with chemical fertilizers and has been genetically modified to produce maximum yield (some new strains even have built in pesticides! Eee…).

If this sounds overwhelming to you, breathe a sigh of relief as I tell you that you absolutely do not have to support this even if you are an omnivorous human like myself. Below are the URLs of the two local farms that I choose to get my bison, pork, and poultry products from. I provide their websites to use as a reference for what you should look for if you want to find a sustainable farm in your area. Notice how open these farmers are about guests visiting and how freely they describe their agricultural practices. Farms like these can provide you with quality meat/poultry products from animals that are raised on the foods their biology programmed them to eat, without any added antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified food.

www.smithmeadows.com

www.cibolafarms.com

Please note that I choose bison over beef purely for the health reasons (higher protein content/lower fat) and because it is more readily available at my local market. I have nothing against sustainably raised cattle. If you’re really interested in finding a sustainable source of quality meat and are having trouble, please leave a comment and I will be more than happy to help you in your search. After all, I’m in library school…I can always use practice on those reference questions!

-Neen

References

Kessler, David. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale, 2009).

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin, 2009) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2007).


Why Should I?

1 Jun

Over the weekend, I took some time to consider the question, “Why do this?”

It was tough when I began to think about writing this particular blog post because there is a whole host of reasons why I’ve chosen to eat clean and as local as possible. Much of my reading as of late has been devoted to this topic and has inundated me with a great many statistics. While these are certainly important, what I am trying to do and the motivation behind it can be explained in much simpler terms by someone who has done far more research:

“Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and “value” or they can nourish a food chain organized around values–values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon as you begin to treat that expenditure as a kind of vote–a vote for health in the largest sense–food no longer seems like the smartest place to compromise.”
-Michael Pollan

For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors ate the food provided by their local habitats. Even in (relatively) recent history, items transported from other places were rare commodities, saved for special occasions and relegated to things which simply could not be produced in the local climate.

With the advent of modern technology, we’ve learned to do it all quickly and efficiently. But is this really the best way to do things? Consider that most commercially grown products are bred for quantity (thus those watery, mealy tomatoes that pop up in the store in January) and visual appeal (but they looked so nice on the shelf!), and it becomes clear that what is being provided in the grocery store is nothing more than a mirage. Sure, the produce section looks full even in the middle of winter, but at what price? By the time those tomatoes reach the store, they’ve been shipped hundreds (if not thousands) of miles and their nutrition has degraded significantly. And since it’s the middle of winter, you guessed it, you’re going to pay more for them anyway. Paying more for an inferior product doesn’t make sense, does it?

So, as Pollan puts it, you have to put forth the effort. This means buying tomatoes from a local farm when they are in season and preserving them as best you can. While canning, dehydrating, and freezing all cause nutrient loss, products grown using sustainable agriculture practices contain significantly more vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants than their commerically grown counterparts. So, while you’ll still lose some in the “saving” process, you’re left with more than what you’d get from the grocery.

Even much of that can be avoided by eating what is in season at any given time. Googling farms in your area can give you an idea of when certain products peak and what time of year you can expect to have certain vegetables and fruits. It’s really forced me to try some new veggies, which is never bad! Plus, many farms are open for “pick-your-own” fruits and vegetables, which is a great way to get kids involved in healthy cooking as children are more likely to eat something which they’ve had a hand in choosing and preparing.

And yet, while all of these are fine arguments for local food, none capture what it is that drives me: I feel better. I am very curious to see how my blood work comes up this week after finishing iron treatment and really devoting myself to better eating habits. But it’s not just a physical feeling of well-being either. It’s embracing my place as a citizen of the world. It is accepting that food, in its most basic form comes from a complex web of relationships between living beings. It is understanding that while the lifestyle comes with its sacrifices, it embraces the harmony between those living things that provide us with sustenance and a sense of community.

While I’m not a member of a religious faith, this connection to what fuels us has brought me a profound sense of peace and has reminded me that nature is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.

Breaking up…

20 May

Here it is now, almost a month since we’ve been together. And I have to tell you the truth…

I’m not coming back. I thought about it and I’m happier this way.

I spent too much time and money, invested so much of myself, and for what? Salt solutions? Phosphoric acid? BOGOs? No, it isn’t worth it. All the coupons in the world can’t change that. You’ll just keep offering the same things that kept me a prisoner of our relationship and I won’t tolerate it.

You said I’d never be able to do it, that I’d come crawling back because of your ease and convenience. You said that my wallet would surely wither and my bank account balk at the very thought of looking elsewhere.

Oh how wrong you were. I know that the words “natural” and “organic” have no real standards, and so I bought food as local as possible and Googled the producers listed on the few prepared foods I did want to have. You didn’t count on me learning to can, dehydrate, and process my own foods (oh the magic of the Internet).

And at the end of the day, I am told by others who wish they could do the same that they simply can’t afford it. And that is what YOU have convinced them. With your “BIG BUY” packs of chicken breasts made up of salt solutions and hormones and your “GREAT VALUE” loaves of white bread that are mostly air. You’ve convinced people that I care about that you are offering the best value, that you want to help them stretch their dollar.

You are a big, fat liar.

A 1 lb. package of 4 buffalo burgers from Cibola Farms, (a local buffalo and pig farm that focuses on sustainable practices) cost me six dollars last week. Joe found the first sweet corn of the season at the Trader Joe’s near his office for 50 cents an ear. That’s two filling dinners for $4 a person. Yes, it’s true that some products produced on a local, small scale have a higher price tag. But these whole foods are often more filling because they haven’t been processed to death, leaving their nutritional content significantly higher.

I’m not saying I’ve got all of the answers. I’m just saying that I’ve found a healthier way to live my life. Maybe I’ll stop by now and again for something Joe wants, or to grab some of that delicious sparkling water (which I haven’t been able to replicate…yet), but for more? No, I’ll be sticking to the farmer’s market and MOMs for our groceries from now on.

Goodbye Big Box Grocery Store, goodbye.

My only regret is that I no longer have a surplus of plastic grocery bags to use when cleaning up after the dog…