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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).


Clean BBQ? It’s True…

28 May

When Joe and I decided to have folks over for Memorial Day this year, I decided that I wasn’t going to prepare a bunch of food that I couldn’t eat. For one thing, I knew that there would be leftovers and I wasn’t tossing away my grocery money on food that wasn’t in my plan. Furthermore, I thought my guests deserved food and not “food-like products.”

Here I am hanging out with Mr. Stripey ready to grill, so what was on the (mostly) clean menu?

Clean Eating Magazine’s Caramelized Onion, Spinach, and Artichoke Dip served with Trader Joe’s natural corn tortilla chips, chopped carrots, toasted whole grain bread, and sugar snap peas (from Westmoreland Berry Farm—so delicious!).

Dry rubbed chicken legs grilled to perfection and then glazed with a natural BBQ sauce.

Grilled portabella mushrooms, green peppers, and tomatoes tossed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, kosher salt, lemon-thyme, pepper, and garlic.

Not pictured: Dry rubbed smoked spare ribs that I had hanging out in our freezer for awhile. I was saving them for a special occasion. I warmed them over low heat in the crock pot for a few hours with a bit of cider vinegar and sucanat in the bottom. It made its own sauce and tasted absolutely fantastic!

Chocolate sour cream cupcakes, modified from Clean Eating’s recipe. I replaced the skim milk with unsweetened chocolate almond milk the second time I made these and never looked back. Best chocolate dessert ever.

I also made classic and in no way clean vanilla ice cream using the base for Cliff’s ice cream recipe from the Top Chef cookbook. It was some really great stuff. I used heavy cream and milk that was practically fresh from the dairy and the rest of the eggs that I gathered from the farm. Joe is still savoring the final container of it.

Sunday evening I realized that my berries from Westmoreland were on the verge of over ripening. Not wanting to let them go to waste and having cold/sweet stuff on the brain, I made some frozen yogurt. That vanilla ice cream might be decadent, but this stuff is sweet, tangy, cool, and 94 calories a serving.

Fresh Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

2 cups good quality low-fat plain yogurt (I buy mine from Blue Ridge Dairy Co.)

1 cup pureed fresh strawberries

1/3 cup raw, natural honey

Pinch salt

Combine all ingredients in a blender and then chill in a lidded container in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. This really improves the texture and flavor quality of the final product, so don’t skip the rest period!

Churn for approximately 25 minutes in a countertop electric ice cream maker and then transfer to a lidded container and freeze for at least 3 hours before serving. On his show Good Eats, Alton Brown often says, “Your patience will be rewarded.” Listen to these wise words.

(Makes 6 servings)

I really would have taken a picture of it’s awesome pink color, but it didn’t last long enough! I guess I’ll just have to make it again soon…

Stay local!

-Neen

Clean BBQ? It’s True…

28 May

When Joe and I decided to have folks over for Memorial Day this year, I decided that I wasn’t going to prepare a bunch of food that I couldn’t eat. For one thing, I knew that there would be leftovers and I wasn’t tossing away my grocery money on food that wasn’t in my plan. Furthermore, I thought my guests deserved food and not “food-like products.”

Here I am hanging out with Mr. Stripey ready to grill, so what was on the (mostly) clean menu?

Clean Eating Magazine’s Caramelized Onion, Spinach, and Artichoke Dip served with Trader Joe’s natural corn tortilla chips, chopped carrots, toasted whole grain bread, and sugar snap peas (from Westmoreland Berry Farm—so delicious!).

Dry rubbed chicken legs grilled to perfection and then glazed with a natural BBQ sauce.

Grilled portabella mushrooms, green peppers, and tomatoes tossed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, kosher salt, lemon-thyme, pepper, and garlic.

Not pictured: Dry rubbed smoked spare ribs that I had hanging out in our freezer for awhile. I was saving them for a special occasion. I warmed them over low heat in the crock pot for a few hours with a bit of cider vinegar and sucanat in the bottom. It made its own sauce and tasted absolutely fantastic!

Chocolate sour cream cupcakes, modified from Clean Eating’s recipe. I replaced the skim milk with unsweetened chocolate almond milk the second time I made these and never looked back. Best chocolate dessert ever.

I also made classic and in no way clean vanilla ice cream using the base for Cliff’s ice cream recipe from the Top Chef cookbook. It was some really great stuff. I used heavy cream and milk that was practically fresh from the dairy and the rest of the eggs that I gathered from the farm. Joe is still savoring the final container of it.

Sunday evening I realized that my berries from Westmoreland were on the verge of over ripening. Not wanting to let them go to waste and having cold/sweet stuff on the brain, I made some frozen yogurt. That vanilla ice cream might be decadent, but this stuff is sweet, tangy, cool, and 94 calories a serving.

Fresh Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

2 cups good quality low-fat plain yogurt (I buy mine from Blue Ridge Dairy Co.)

1 cup pureed fresh strawberries

1/3 cup raw, natural honey

Pinch salt

Combine all ingredients in a blender and then chill in a lidded container in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. This really improves the texture and flavor quality of the final product, so don’t skip the rest period!

Churn for approximately 25 minutes in a countertop electric ice cream maker and then transfer to a lidded container and freeze for at least 3 hours before serving. On his show Good Eats, Alton Brown often says, “Your patience will be rewarded.” Listen to these wise words.

(Makes 6 servings)

I really would have taken a picture of it’s awesome pink color, but it didn’t last long enough! I guess I’ll just have to make it again soon…

Stay local!

-Neen

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…

Inspiration at the Farmer’s Market

11 May

I think that I must have been a farmer in another life.

There’s nothing that gets me more motivated to eat well and eat clean than to buy groceries fresh from their sources. I have accepted that this means putting a few extra dollars aside every week, but it is a.) incredibly important to support local farms that focus on sustainable agriculture and b.) much better for all who eat my cooking to not be unwillingly inundated with extra hormones/salt solutions…etc.

It was with that motivation that I set out for a Saturday morning trip to the Arlington Farmer’s Market. For many folks, the image of these street markets conjures up thoughts of craft stands with the occasional person selling homemade preserves or fresh herbs. Arlington’s market, however, is a clean eater’s paradise. There’s a vendor for nearly any grocery item you might need including (but not limited to) a baker that sells whole-grain products (some gluten-free items), several dairy farmers featuring fresh eggs, milk, and cheese, veggie/fruit farmers with produce of all kinds, tomato and herb plants, livestock farmers selling meat and poultry, a mushroom vendor with a wide variety of types, and even someone selling raw honey. The Master Gardener’s club also has a tent on-site to answer any gardening questions people purchasing plants might have.

This week’s trip yielded a whole chicken, some buffalo burgers and jerky, pork chops, vine tomatoes, homemade ricotta (which is so good that eating it out of the container with a spoon is perfectly acceptable) and mozzarella cheeses, a dozen eggs, two giant portobello mushrooms, baby arugula, romaine lettuce and a sweet onion.

Many of the farms are located in Loudon County, which is having their spring farm tour this coming weekend. I’ve already decided that I want to visit one of the places where you can gather your own eggs, but it’s also getting close to the time of year when strawberries are candy-like, so…decisions, decisions!

Anyway, my motivating trip to the market segued nicely into cooking. Looking to use up some of the grains I had around, I decided that pizza dough was in order…

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups whole grain spelt flour
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup whole grain durum flour (Usually labeled as semolina, has the consistency of fine cornmeal)
1/2 tbsp. light olive oil or grapeseed oil
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 1/2 tsp. dry active yeast
1 cup warm water (105-110 degrees F)
1 tsp. sucanat or evaporated palm sugar

The method is the same as you’d do for any normal yeast based pizza dough…

*Dissolve the sucanat in the warm water and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow this to sit for 5 minutes or until the yeast foams.

*In a separate bowl, combine the flours and salt. Make a well in the center and gently pour in the yeast/sucanat/water mixture.

*Add the olive oil.

*Mix until a soft dough forms and then turn out onto a board lightly dusted whole wheat pastry flour. Knead 10-15 minutes or until smooth and elastic.

*Roll the dough into a ball and put it in a bowl that has been greased lightly with olive oil. Toss to coat the dough with the oil and then cover with a towel and allow it to rise for one hour.

*Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

*Punch the dough down and allow it to rise for another half-hour.

*Now, you’re ready to bake! Stretch the dough out on a cookie sheet or pizza stone, top with your favorites, and bake for 15 minutes. (I made some homemade sauce out of those vine tomatoes and topped with the fresh mozzarella and a few dollops of ricotta)

NOTE: I did a slow-rise with this the first time I made it (24 hours in the fridge as opposed to 1 hour in a warm place), but it came out a touch tough. I prefer a crust that is crisp on the outside, but has a little softness to the bite.

A common complaint from people who try this and other whole-grain based breads/crusts is that it’s heavy. Yes, it’s true. I ate one piece of this pizza and was full for the rest of the afternoon. (Joe had two pieces and was full to give you an idea of how the average stomach reacts.)

You’re absolutely going to feel full. Eating whole grains means that you’ve got to digest every part of the grain including the germ, bran, and kernel. It takes a lot of time and effort for the body to do that. When you eat refined flour, a lot of those elements get taken away, thus it takes more to fill you up. This is, I think, the main issue in the American diet that causes weight trouble. Most of what’s hanging out on the grocery store shelves contains huge amounts of highly-refined ingredients, which in turn allow us to eat large quantities without feeling full. Add sugar, fat, and salt and you’ve created the drug that so many of us get hooked on.

Fortunately, many farmer’s markets (including Arlington for those of you in my area) stay open year-round, and more and more natural food stores are opening up and forcing competition with some of the chains. While it’s still more expensive than a trip to Safeway, I find that I am able to stretch the ingredients I buy further because I’m eating less. (We did have more than half of a pizza left yesterday!)

If you want to try some different flavors, replace the whole wheat pastry flour with garbanzo bean or white bean flour. It’s a neat texture difference and really nice if you have a bit of a gluten-sensitivity(it is not, however, gluten-free).

That’s all for now! Hopefully, the next few weeks will mean more time to experiment while I’m on break from school. If you have a recipe that you’d like to see reformed for a clean diet, please shoot me an e-mail at bananafish711@gmail.com. I’d be glad to give it a go!

Ciao friends!
-Neen