Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Meeting Halfway between Locavore and Global

Continuing my exploration of organic, non-industrial vs. industrial, large-scale agriculture in terms of ability to feed the world, I came across a surprising assertion in a report I'm reading (The Future of Farming and Food, issued by the UK government). This report commits to the same values I discussed last time: right to food, sustainability, nutrition, global footprint and contribution to climate change, so I'm definitely intrigued (but not finished, it's long). The surprising assertion is that while they don't seem particularly in favor of big, industrial agriculture, they emphatically denounce national self-sufficiency as a viable agricultural system and advocate instead for a global food supply system, albeit with some radical changes. Global food distribution is usually associated with industrial agriculture.

Self-sufficiency of supply refers to the ability of the population of each country in the world to feed itself with produce grown within that country. This idea is definitely in vogue at the moment, and for good reasons.
• A country that feeds itself will be insulated from changes in global food prices. A recent story on NPR discusses various reasons for why food prices fluctuate less in some countries than others, greater self-sufficiency being one reason.
• Fossil fuels used for long haul transport of food would be reduced, although whether this would result in an overall reduction in fossil fuel is debatable because other uses, such as heating greenhouses to grow produce in a cold climate, could offset the savings gained from eating food grown nearby.
• Finally a country that is self-sufficient would not have to hand over much control of their food system to global multi-nationals, who don't have much stake in local well-being. For instance, in an area with farms that grow a variety of foodstuffs, selling (and buying) food locally would be one option for that area, whereas if all or most farms in a given area grew a single commodity, such as coffee, the community does not have any option but to buy food from an external source with a large enough infrastructure to procure, transport and sell that food across great distances, most likely a large corporation.

So why would this report argue against national self-sufficiency? Well, frankly, I don't know yet because I'm only reading the executive summary, which presents the conclusions but not the data to explain how these were reached. In a few hundred pages, I should have a better idea! But I would guess it is attributed mainly to the fact that many countries simply don't have a viable climate for supporting their population year round. I don't know that this is true, but if I examine my own situation in Colorado, I can certainly see that it would be a challenge...

While Colorado supports a huge agricultural sector, local food still isn't available during the winter, which by most standards, isn't a particularly hard one. I've gone to great lengths to store fall vegetables and fruits and can usually make it until about December without buying much from the supermarket. But in the months from January through to about April, the cupboards would be completely bare if I didn't buy produce from California. Obviously I could go further with preservation techniques like canning and freezing, but given that I already go to great lengths and spend a huge portion of my paycheck on groceries, I just don't see how asking each and every person to do this is fair or realistic. Carry that idea further to places with an even longer winter, and one has to wonder if people in those regions could survive on locally grown produce.

Despite the difficulties of eating locally (which is basically the same thing as self-sufficiency), I still don't believe that a global food system is the answer. This report proposes that in order for it to work, there must be drastic changes made, such as creating truly free trade by reducing subsidies in richer countries, or by some mechanism to stabilize prices of commodities.

Even if that happened, this still leaves every country completely dependant on global food policy, which seems like a precarious situation for small countries in particular, given that individually they will never be able to exert much influence on policy at a global level.

What about something halfway in between? For instance, each country focuses some percentage of resources on a commonly consumed staple in that country, e.g. rice or corn. The government could put national policies in place (e.g. tariffs on imports) that would push its farmers to grow and sell nationally the designated amount, say 50%, of the countries needs for this staple. The rest of the land could be used for any other purpose, such as commodity crops like coffee, or more diverse product like fruits and vegetables, or further growth of the staple for export. If global food prices increase, the country would have a buffer that could be used for softening the blow of the increase.

Perhaps strong national policies that mandate a minimum level of self-sufficiency and are tailored to each country's climate and culinary traditions would provide enough of a safety net to allow the remainder of the agricultural economy to be left to gravitate naturally towards the system that fits best, whether global or local in nature.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Questioning Organic?

A few weeks ago, I read an interesting blog post from Mark Bittman in the New York Times' Opinionator blog about agricultural sustainability and scalability and whether small-scale, organic and other non-conventional agricultural methods can feed the world in the long term. His review of reports and articles on both sides of the debate shows that there are some major organizations, such as the UN Human Rights Council, coming around to the organic side. However there are other respected sources, particularly The Economist in a special issue devoted to the topic, that still see this type of agriculture as a privilege of affluent westerners.

The arguments opposing organic are so common that they seem to be often taken as truth - that organic farming may be nice to the earth, but it isn't realistic because it neither scales nor is affordable to most. While I wouldn't normally quote blog responses, I think that one particular response to the post is a concise and articulate summary of this view. Quigly states, in a comment recommended by almost 200 readers:

"As a farmer, I find it unfortunate how inaccurate this article is. There are a number of organic farms in the area and they are consistently the least productive and most resource intensive production system… Until we have an honest scientific discussion on actual production costs and yields of various systems of production, people are going to continue to be misled into believing they are saving the world through organic agriculture. "

In following the many debates related to food and sustainability, I always find myself feeling the same way when I encounter these arguments…Angry and full of doubt. My instincts tell me to support CSAs, organic farming, to boycott GMOs and other forms of food produced or influenced by large corporations. But as an American that has access to incredible local, organic food, and the means to afford its higher cost, I grudgingly admit that I don't really believe that it is realistic for most people.

This is the core of my internal conflict - I can't accept a food system completely controlled by corporations and scientists, using massive quantities of chemicals and fossil fuels, with little regard for sustainability, in which we still have widespread world poverty. So while I firmly stand on the side of organic and local agriculture, I also can't ignore its shortcomings.

Then I had an epiphany - perhaps my anger arises because the question is really hard to answer and there is no right or wrong side, and that if I have doubts it is exactly because I have been trying to stay unequivocally on one side and blind myself to opposing points of view.

Wait, wait, wait, what question? I get so emotional that I often forget. The real question is whether our current food system satisfies the basic needs of the world, and if not, what improvements, such as organic farming, can we make? In trying to answer this question, the goal should not to be to win an emotional debate, but rather to open-mindedly seek the best answer to this complex problem. This can be done by first, deciding what those basic needs are - the values a good food system should support - and then critiquing each strategy (organic, conventional, GMO, CSA) for how well it supports and balances these values.

The basic values upon which we should build a food system (summarized from The Food System: A Guide) are:

sustainable, secure, safe, sufficient, nutritious, and equitable

I imagine that the pioneers of organic farming were trying to form a more sustainable, safe and nutritious system, but the weak points that are obviously still being debated by the critics are its security, sufficiency and equitability. And I now feel that debating these points honestly is exactly the right thing to do because getting the complete picture of the strengths and weakness of all possible agricultural models will help get us to the best possible system.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Forget the Ingredients, just have a Peppermint Patty

A few nights ago, my husband and I were watching television, and an ancient commercial for peppermint patties came on. It's the kind of ad I've seen and forgotten a million times, but this time, a curious question struck me.

I turned to my husband, "What is inside a peppermint patty?"

Now, normally, my wonderful husband would respond to a food question in one of three ways:

a) Silence
b) Eye rolling
c) "You have no idea what the rest of the world eats outside of your healthy food bubble, do you?"

But NO! This question actually stumped him…

"I … umm… hmm… ummm"



Followed by,

"I don't know. What is that white substance in the middle?"

My husband, stumped with no witty comeback? This definitely merits an experiment and a blog entry.

Could we identify the ingredients in a peppermint patty from taste alone?

So, with dark shades and a big hat, I furtively went to buy some of the unhealthy, mysterious things. I didn't see anyone I knew, phew!

Although I promised myself I'd taste test one without reading the ingredients first, I did notice that the front said "As always, 70% less fat." Hmmm, so unless they mean 70% less fat than a 70% bigger peppermint patty, I guess it isn't all partially hydrogenated fat. Shoot, my first guess is out.

My husband answered the questionnaire first:

First Ingredient: Sugar
Number of ingredients: 28
Remaining ingredients:
Filler of gooeyness
Corn syrup
Chocolate - but not in the top four
Essence of peppermint

My turn:
First Ingredient: Sugar
Number of ingredients: 11
Remaining ingredients:
Soy lecithin
Corn starch
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
Invert sugar
Corn syrup
Artificial flavor
Natural flavor
Peppermint oil

The answer…
First Ingredient: Sugar
Number of ingredients: 13
Remaining ingredients, in order:
Corn syrup
Semi-Sweet Chocolate
-- Chocolate
-- Sugar
-- Cocoa
-- Milk fat
-- Cocoa Butter
-- Soy Lecithin
-- PGPR, Emulsifier
-- Vanillin, Artificial Flavor
Invert Sugar
Egg Whites
Oil of Peppermint

The Score:
First ingredient: me +1, husband +1
Number of ingredients: me +1, husband 0 (I was closer)
Correct ingredients: me +7, husband +4
Incorrect ingredients: me -4, husband -1
Originality: me 0, husband +1 (for "filler of gooeyness")

5 and 5!!! A tie.

What is the moral of this story? Filler of gooeyness is not as mysterious as one might think (basically, it's sugar), though it is pretty tasty.

By the way, in case you're wondering about the title, this entry is an homage to a fab girl with an addiction to peppermint patties who might be needing one this week. So, I'll say what I surely will never say again, forget the ingredients, just have a peppermint patty.

Disclaimer: dismissive statements expressed by aforementioned husband may have been slightly exaggerated for purposes of artistic expression.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wide World of ... Vegetables?

Maybe it's because I've been a vegetarian for about a year now and I've forced myself to adapt my cooking accordingly.
Maybe it's because I've joined a CSA and rather than accept that I've perhaps wasted some money, I've forced myself to like all the weird stuff thrown my way.
Or maybe it's just because they're good.

I'm going to come right out and say it. I LOVE vegetables. I really, really do.

Now, when you read that, you might think to yourself, "Jaysus, I know they're healthy, but can anyone really say they love carrots and spinach?"

But the standard six or seven supermarket, year-round crops aren't the kind of vegetables I'm talking about (nothing against carrots and spinach of course).

I'm talking about the weird, seasonal, fresh and so flavorful vegetables which are being resurrected at farmer's markets and CSAs all around the country. CSAs are a great way to be introduced to unfamiliar seasonable vegetables. I'll admit that it does take a season or two to find the optimum way to cook some of these, but once you do, WOW!

I don't want to sound like a self-righteous vegetarian, but really, anyone living on a purely meat-centric diet is missing out. Don't get me wrong, I still take a bite of sausage now and again, and I do like it. But does it taste more complex or more exciting than perfectly cooked garlic scapes? No way. What I don't understand is how anyone that really loves food can eat a diet that is as meat-centric as most of us do. Why not experiment with all of it in your diet, whether you're a vegetarian or not? Ok, rant over.

So, I thought in this post, I'd cover just a few of my favorite non-supermarket vegetables:

Garlic Scapes - Apparently these shoot out of a bulb of garlic just before it should be harvested. They're long, green stalks that curl like a spring. Slice them in about 1 inch pieces, stopping just before the slight bulge at the top. Discard everything above the bulb as it tastes fibrous. These are great steamed in couscous or gently sauteed in olive oil and thrown into something like an omelet or a risotto. Their subtle aroma of garlic is surprisingly contrasted with a sweet and juicy taste.

Spring Onions/Elephant Garlic/Bunching Onions/Spring Shallots/etc/etc/etc - Basically I'm referring to any of the numerous spring or early summer varieties from the onion family. They are BIG and it took me a while to figure out what to do with them. But don't let their awkwardness discourage you; they can be substituted in any dish calling for their regular counterparts. A few tips:

  • They are much milder than the bulb version. For example, if a recipe calls for a medium onion, use a big handful of spring onions. If it calls for a large onion, use even more. It's hard to use too much. The same goes for garlic.
  • Slice into three parts. The first third, the white and light green parts, should be substituted into the dish at the beginning as normal, although you probably won't need to sweat/brown/sautee as long. The middle, very green part, should be added in almost at the end, cooking only for a minute or so. The rather tough outer third should be left intact and thrown into the freezer to use for stock at a later time.
Using early season versions of the onion family will bring incredible variety to your dishes. No dish I create with them ever tastes quite the same ... this is the fun!

Baby Turnips - almost as sweet as an apple. Don't cook or peel them. Just slice and eat raw. In a salad, or ... like an apple.

Pea Shoots - Unfortunately, these have just gone out of season, but they are so weird, I have to mention them. These are the curly, vine-like stems and leaves from pea plants. They look like a spindly green, but actually taste of peas. There are lots of bad ways to eat these, but I've finally discovered the right one (for me!), and it is so simple. Simply sautee in olive oil until just wilted and add salt. They taste great as their own side dish. Which leads me to...

English Peas - This week in our CSA share, I was very excited to see sugar snap peas. Because I like them? They're ok, but I don't really get why they're so popular. No! I was excited because sugar snap peas means ENGLISH PEAS!!! I went to the farmer's market, hopeful, looking, looking, looking, YES!!!! I practically ran up to the booth, breathless with excitement. THERE THEY WERE! I have no idea why these are only grown by one farm in all of Boulder. It is like a secret nobody else has discovered.

I know, you're thinking, "Peas??? Seriously?" Frozen green peas are like a completely different food substance. Sure, fresh ones are expensive at $6/pound ... before shelling. And yes, they take a while to shell by hand. But it's worth it. Last night my son and I shelled a pound of them... how did we cook them? Ummm, yea. We actually didn't have any left to cook. We ate all of them raw as we shelled them.

I think I'm going to be a little heartbroken to say goodbye to my beloved English peas in three or four weeks. Perhaps a chance encounter with a nice Japanese eggplant might help fill the void...

Monday, May 24, 2010

Rhubarb Pie... you seemed so wrong but tasted so right

First post in a long time... blog I've missed you. I think my two readers have given up on me long ago... So, what has finally inspired me to wax poetic? Springtime and Rhubarb pie.

DOOMED rhubarb pie. This was the pie that wasn't supposed to be. The pie that almost went into the trash, a few times. But tonight (one day old) we dug in, and wow, how did that happen??????

It seemed so wrong....

Went to the farmer's market. Its been so long since we had any fresh fruit in Colorado... those fall apples are long, long gone. I was too eager for the rhubarb. It isn't quite red yet. But I bought some anyway with all the best intentions of making a pie. That was over a week ago, and the pie just didn't happen. Day after day, I looked in wistfully at the rhubarb growing limp and dull in plastic bags.

(Yesterday, Sunday afternoon) House is a mess, no laundry done for the coming week, kitchen filled with dirty dishes, haven't gone for a run all weekend, don't know what to make for dinner. And I'm feeling stressed because tomorrow the work week starts again.

My fabulous husband says, "Relax, let's forget cleaning, why don't you and Ewan make that rhubarb pie you've been meaning to make?"

I protest, "The rhubarb is too old, it won't taste good." He reminds me that baking is for fun (what???)... so I relent, and almost decide to enjoy myself.

But not quite... What else went wrong?

  • I decided to make a whole wheat crust with toasted wheat germ, but burnt the wheat germ once, then burnt the second batch, then decided to throw it in anyway.
  • When it came time to roll the crust out, I realized that I have left ALL of my pie pans at other people's houses, and all I have is a 9-inch tart pan. Who the hell has heard of a rhubarb TART?? How do you put a top crust on that?
  • AND of course, cursed with my usual disastrous touch for pie crust, I ended up with a big, dry crumbly, slightly burnt mess. As I'm trying to "roll" out this pile of dust, my son is yelling, "MOMMY, MOMMY, DO YOU WANT THE RED HIPPOPOTAMUS OR THE BLUE HIPPOPOTAMUS? RED OR BLUE? RED OR BLUE? RED OR BLUE?" waiting expectantly for me to take an invisible hippo out of his empty hands.
There weren't tears, but it is possible that a rolling pin got put back in its drawer with slightly more enthusiasm than normal. So... torn between perfectionism and throwing it away, I just threw the whole ugly thing in the pan.

For the filling, I skipped all spices and just used the limp rhubarb, sugar, honey, flour, a pinch of salt and a lot of ginger, probably 1/4 cup.

Then I rolled out the 2nd crust and laid it on top, which is about all you can do with a tart pan that has no edges.

In the oven, the whole thing leaked burnt, caramelized sugar from the top and bottom of the undersized pan.

My hopes were low, I didn't even stay up last night to try it. So, so wrong.

But, it tasted so right....
To make a long story, well, slightly longer by continuing to ramble, we ate the pie for dessert tonight. And I can truly say, it is the best pie I've ever made. Nutty, flaky and flavorful whole wheat crust (with Farmer John's local, completely unrefined flour, of course!!) And let's just say, you had better be able to hold your ginger to enjoy this pie... but after the first slightly, medicinal gingery bite, I couldn't get enough. Interesting, powerful flavors to welcome in Colorado's fruit season.

By the way - JSue, this one is for you in homage to our late night rhubarb strawberry pie last June. I'll never have a piece of rhubarb pie again without thinking of your perfectly expressed sentiment from last year, "What, you're only going to have one piece?"

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Simplest Stock

Ok, I know as a devoted cook, I'm not supposed to say this, but I'm going to... making stock from scratch is a pain in the neck. Every cookbook presents it as so easy, chefs talk about the importance of having a great stock and how simple it is to have it just simmering away in the background all day.

And I did try for a few years. I was uncompromising in my belief that soup could only be made with the perfect stock, following the perfect process. Every month or so, I'd lovingly tend a huge pot of chicken scraps and vegetables for 8 hours until the bones fell to pieces (to extract every molecule of gelatin, naturally). I'd pack the freezer with little containers of the resulting magic liquid.

And it was good. Really, so very good....

But easy? No way.

First of all, how do you cool a big pot of boiling liquid quickly enough to not risk bacterial growth? I used to go buy big bags of ice so that I could strain the stock into a pot sitting in a sinkful of ice. Not exactly easy. After you strain the stock, you've got a hot greasy mess of meat and veg to deal with. Also a pain. And I never had enough of the right scraps or enough containers or enough space in the freezer. Even the recipes I have for vegetable stock are a little excessive, calling for tons of ingredients, pre-roasting the vegetables, etc, etc.

So after a few years, I gave up and started (reluctantly) buying boxed stock. It doesn't taste good, is expensive and creates container waste, but seriously, I needed stock frequently and never seemed to have it on hand.

Around this time (last year), I started cooking with spring onions, garlic and shallots from the local farmers market. I had little experience with using these huge, stringy plants. For example, I bought walking onions and elephant garlic that were both about 2-3 feet in length. I'd cook with the white part of the plant, use the middle light green part as a garnish, but could never figure out what to do with the long dark green ends. With the best of intentions, I saved piles of scraps in the fridge that I knew were ultimately destined for the trash.

So these two circumstances came together one fateful night. I was making risotto, which absolutely needs good stock, and I didn't have any, homemade or storebought, and I didn't have time to go buy it. I looked up a recipe for vegetable stock, but I didn't have the time, nor did I have half the ingredients. So... I improvised. I grabbed a ton of the aforementioned scraps out of the fridge, threw them in a pot and boiled them for 45 minutes (the exact time it took me to prepare the ingredients for the risotto and start them cooking). The stock was pretty good, I had expended no extra time, and the resulting risotto tasted great!

Since then, I've been experimenting and have completely changed my attitude to stock. I save every vegetable scrap in bags in the freezer. Leek ends are like gold. To think I used to throw them away. For shame! Those leaves that come on the ends of celery? Precious, throw 'em in a bag.

So now I don't buy stock, and I don't make it ahead of time. If I'm missing some ingredients, that doesn't bother me either because I know I've got enough diverted compost scraps to make something good. I know that it is not as good as lovingly made chicken stock, but that only matters if the chicken stock exists. And it is much better than store-bought.

The Simplest Stock

Some or all of the following ingredients...

  • Handful of green ends of any variety of spring garlic, or 2 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
  • Handful of green ends of any variety of spring onions or shallots, or 1 onion, unpeeled, cut in half
  • Handful of green ends of leeks
  • 2 carrots, broken in half
  • 2 stalks of celery, broken in half
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • a few sprigs of parsley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 peppercorns
  • a few dried mushrooms, if you're making something that calls for mushrooms or something with a richer, earthy taste (like a winter minestrone soup). For lighter soups, leave these out.

Throw everything in a large saucepan of cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 45 minutes.


Oh, and thinking about that green garlic (the picture is from last year, it isn't in season yet), 4 weeks until the farmer's market reopens. Hooray!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Quick, Easy Groat Oatmeal

The last two times I've gone to the supermarket, I've noticed a peculiar thing in the bulk foods aisle. Three different people hanging around the oat bins looking confused. One of them asked me if I knew what the difference was between rolled oats and quick-cook oats. (Did I ever!!) I overheard another asking an assistant, "My wife wants me to buy oats for her morning oatmeal, what kind do I buy?"

So why all the confusion? Well, because the bulk aisle at Whole Foods actually sells four different kinds of oats. According to King Arthur, the differences are:

  • Oat groats - the most unprocessed form of the grain that is still edible. The whole grain with the outer husk removed.
  • Steel cut (also known as Irish or Scottish) - Oat groats that have been cut into a few pieces for faster cooking time.
  • Rolled - Oat groats that have been steamed and rolled flat. These can be eaten raw or cooked. They are commonly used in muesli, granola and oatmeal cookies.
  • Quick cook - Oat groats that have been cut into pieces, steamed and rolled flat.
Wait, wait, wait - why am I talking about oats? Isn't this post supposed to be about oatmeal?

Because the oats matter. You can't make a great bowl of oatmeal (I will get to it eventually) without the right oats. This bowl of steaming goodness will start your day off right and won't taste anything like the paste that results from dumping a bag of instant oatmeal into a cup of boiling water. Ok, wait, the oats.

Oat groats and steel cut oats taste nutty and have a creamy, silky texture while retaining a little bite. They really, really are so good. And, no matter how long you cook them, they don't get sticky as does oatmeal made from rolled or quick cook oats.

Before we go any further, please think back to all the bad oatmeal you've ever had. My sisters and I had to cook my own before school when I was a kid, and the single word that comes to mind is glue.

With oatmeal, taste really matters. Great, so why not eat groats every morning?

Unfortunately, the less processed an oat is, the longer it takes to cook. Oat groats and steel cut oats require anywhere from 40-60 minutes. Rolled oats require about 10 and quick cook require about 5.

BUT… I have discovered the secret to eating better oats with less work. With only the tiniest bit of forethought, you too can have delicious oatmeal without having to wait for an hour to eat.

Oh! And I forgot to mention toppings. As much as I love oatmeal, it does get a little boring every weekend. You can add textural and taste variety by experimenting with various seasonal toppings throughout the year. Since it's winter, this version makes use primarily of dried fruits and nuts
Better Winter Oatmeal

  • Oat groats or steel cut oats - 1/3 c. per serving
  • Pinch of salt
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  • Toppings: dried apricot, prunes, raisins, nuts
  • Maple syrup
  • Milk

The night before (here is the tiny bit of forethought part)...

Step 1: Place oats in a saucepan with a pinch of salt.
Step 2: Put on the kettle
Step 3: Go brush your teeth.
Step 4: When the kettle boils (conveniently right around the time you finish brushing your teeth), pour boiling water over the oats at a ratio of 3 parts water to 1 part oats. Put the lid on. Go to bed.

The next morning…

Bring the oats back to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. During this time prepare your toppings. Add the cinnamon to the oatmeal. Cut up the apricots and prunes and add them to the oatmeal pan to soften for a few minutes. Gently toast the nuts in a pan, coarsely chop and set aside.

When the oatmeal is cooked, stir in the raisins and nuts.

Serve the oatmeal with all the toppings mixed in, drizzled with pure maple syrup and a little milk.


Have I convinced you yet? I wasn't able to convince the woman at Whole Foods (she walked off about 200 words ago) but that isn't going to stop me from continuing to try to spread the word. I'm sure there will be another unsuspecting passerby perusing the oats this very weekend.