Friday, January 30, 2009

Eating Beef Ethically

I've struggled for years with the decision of whether or not to eat meat. I first started questioning this when I lived in England about 15 years ago, which was when the BSE scandal broke in the news. I had no idea what cows were fed or what they were supposed to eat or what offal was. I decided, without much information, that maybe it was a good idea to eat less meat in general and eat no red meat.

Since then I really haven't eaten much meat, but I also have never quite managed to give it up. I don't think there is anything ethically wrong with eating meat, after all, we've evolved to eat it at least once in a while. But I wasn't comfortable with the idea of animals crammed into small cages or pens, living crappy lives and then being killed.

As the years went by, I couldn't come to a decision I could live with, so it just seemed easier to eat less and less meat.

Then I read Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. This book follows the creation of four meals from their source to their ultimate destination, his dinner plate.

The first meal chronicled is a McDonald's Big Mac, Soda and Fries, which obviously contains cheap beef, butchered from cows raised in feedlots. The sad story of these cows is worse than I could have imagined.

There is the obvious fact that they are crammed into tiny lots, which is far different from the grazing, roaming lifestyle for which they have evolved.

Then there is the environmental impact. A tremendous amount of chemicals and fossil fuels are used in creating their feed; not a very good ROI for the amount of beef produced. And on the other end is their waste. There is so much of it in such a small space and it contains so many contaminants that it can't be used as fertilizer; it seems that it becomes almost like toxic waste.

You could talk yourself out of caring about those two things, I suppose, because they don't have a direct impact on you. But what they eat... now that does, because ultimately it goes into my body. So what do they eat? Well, it's not grass, that's for sure

  1. Type two corn - Why? "Cows fed corn, a compact source of caloric energy, get fat quickly .. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass."1

  2. Antibiotics Rumensin and Tylosin - for two reasons. First, the close quarters in which the cows live causes higher rates of disease. Second, corn raises the acid level in a cows stomach, causing a painful disease called acidosis.

  3. Liquid vitamins (because the corn has no nutrients) and synthetic estrogen (to grow faster)

  4. Alfalfa hay and silage (for roughage)

  5. Liquefied fat - Anything from Beef tallow, feather meal and chicken litter, to chicken, fish and pig meal. Obviously cattle have evolved to be herbivores rather than carnivores, so this is a strange distortion of the food chain. BSE is a good example of what can happen when rendered animals are fed to each other.

  6. Protein supplement - molasses and urea. "Urea is a form of synthetic nitrogen made from natural gas, similar to fertilizer."1 Yum!

Suffice it to say, I was pretty grossed out after reading this book. I definitely do not want that stuff going into my body. I vowed from that time to never eat feedlot beef again, which so far I've stuck to for about a year.

But after reading this book, I was convinced that I could feel comfortable eating beef from cattle that are grow completely open range and fed nothing but grass. In Colorado this actually isn't so hard. There is a growing number of ranches and farms that sell 100% grass fed beef, commonly referred to as pastured beef. Note that grass fed beef is not the same as 100% grass fed beef, as even feedlot cattle live free range for the first few months of their life.

We've been ordering beef from a ranch out in eastern Colorado, Sun Prairie Beef. They deliver to the Denver area twice a year, at about seven designated pick-up sites. We get their smallest quantity: a 25 pound variety pack for $175. Because we only eat beef about once a week, this lasts us for six months until the next delivery.

Many people complain that pastured beef is dry and tough because it has much lower fat content. I'll say that since I haven't been eating beef prior to now, I don't have any basis for comparison, but we definitely like what we've been cooking. We do tend to only cook everything to medium rare - a common recommendation for pastured beef. I just don't worry about things like E-Coli because I don't see how a cow out on the range could pick it up.

There is a great website with lots of information about eating grass fed beef and other sustainable, all natural foods. It includes lists of sources by state for all over the US.

1 Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma: a natural history of four meals (New York: Penguin Group, 2006).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hoarding Potatoes for the Winter

As the end of last summer was drawing near, I began to worry about how we would continue to eat locally grown vegetables through the winter. We'd been eating local vegetables all summer because we'd purchased a CSA share from a local farm.

By the way, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. This website describes it as "a way for the food buying public to create a relationship with a farm and to receive a weekly basket of produce."

Basically, at the beginning of the summer, you sign up by giving a check to the farm. Then you pick up veggies on a regular basis, usually every week. I'll write more about our first CSA experience another time, today's entry is about the fact that it was over...

So what to do. Were we going to be eating California vegetables all winter? I guess California isn't too far away, but it still takes a lot of gas to transport food even that far.

I said to my husband, I wish I could just get a whole load of fall root vegetables to last for a few months. Maybe I could take a few boxes to the last farmer's market in November and just buy a ton of stuff. Hmmm, that would be hard to fit in the Mini.

Then one day, completely by accident, I found it. The Abbondanza Keeper Share! This farm offered a CSA for fall, where you get a ton of vegetables specifically meant for storage over the winter. This sounded PERFECT. Now, what was I going to do with all of those vegetables...

My husband was skeptical. "$325 is a lot of money. I hope you know where you're going to put all of them. Are you sure they're not just going to rot?"

"Don't worry, I've figured it all out." I hadn't.

See, there were a few problems. First and foremost, when I buy potatoes and onions, they only last a few weeks. Aren't they supposed to last longer? After a little research, I found out that potatoes and onions can't be stored next to each other or the gases they emit cause the other to spoil. What? That's like saying you shouldn't put salt and pepper next to each other on the table. Well that's a problem because I only have one pantry. And if I'm going to have a lot of them, how will I separate them?

I did some more research. Apparently the very best way to store your root vegetables (turnips, potatoes, carrots, etc) is in your root cellar. Well, that's sort of implied by the name. What a dummy I am.

My husband had the extremely useful tip that they used to store them in a big mound of sand in their shed when they were kids. Also not very helpful, especially since the low temperature in our imaginary shed will be well below freezing over the winter, not a problem in Ireland.

Ok, so the real objective was that I needed to store potatoes and onions separately, in complete darkness, in a well ventilated, moist environment, at between 45-50 degrees.

We do have a crawl space. Sounds perfect, almost like a ... a root cellar. Except that the crawl space may as well be a graveyard filled with zombies as far as I'm concerned. Our crawl space scares the pants off me - no way am I going to pop on down there for two medium potatoes.

I had another idea - I just needed to ok it with my husband.

"Hey, you know what is kind of handy about having electric baseboard heat?"


"We don't heat every room in the house. In fact I bet the guest bedroom stays pretty cool most of the time."


"You are NOT putting potatoes in the guest bedroom."

Man, how did he figure that out so fast?

In the end, I decided to go for the fall CSA and to rearrange my kitchen to store everything appropriately. Here is what I did:

  • Potatoes went in a big terracotta pot, grouped in small batches wrapped in newspaper. The pot kept things ventilated but still dark. The terracotta pot went in the cupboard next to the cat flap, which I guessed would be the coldest one. The newspaper made it extra dark and kept any rotten potatoes from touching each other

  • Onions went into another cabinet, wrapped in newspaper in another terracotta pot, along with garlic and shallots.

  • Winter squash went into the same cabinet as the onions.

  • Carrots, turnips, beets, celeriac, celery and cabbage went into the fridge, with good success.

Apples - I also signed up for a keeper fruit share, which was basically a big box of Jonagold apples, delicious. I was running out of cabinets and getting quite worried at this point about gas cross contamination (apples vs. potatoes or apples vs. onions and squash - what to do, what to do), so I decided just to keep the apples in a cardboard box, each apple wrapped in newspaper, next to the cat flap. This proved to be a tantalizing source of entertainment for my 18 month old son - we had a lot of bruised apples because he doesn't quite understand yet that not all spherical objects are balls. But they stayed good for quite a while.

I'd say it worked out pretty well. The last veggie pickup was in mid-December and here we are at the end of January. We still have a few potatoes, onions and carrots, and a lot of winter squash.

Here were the casualties

  • 3 rotten potatoes out of probably 40 pounds total

  • 1 rotten pumpkin and 2 rotten butternut squash, out of about 20-25 squash total

  • 4 rotten apples out of 15 pounds. After 2 months of storage, they were getting pretty soft, so I made applesauce.

  • 2 rotten onions, out of about 20

  • 4 heads of celery out of 5. Geez what in god's name am I going to do with 5 heads of celery? I'm pretty open minded about trying new recipes, but CELERY? I'd rather eat cream of cardboard soup than experiment with a celery recipe

Still going strong

  • Acorn squash

  • Cabbage - we got burnt out on cabbage for about a month, went back to use it tonight and it's still fine.

So, sadly, we're almost out... I think I'm going to have a final blowout this weekend with a roast chicken, the last of the potatoes, turnips, carrots and beets and make a final pumpkin pie for the season.

Then I guess it's acorn squash soup, cabbage salad and California vegetables until May!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Irish Brown Bread - Breakfast of Champions

So now I’ve started a blog. I will confess that I don’t really know what I’m doing. Do I start by gradually explaining my food philosophy in sequential entries? Do I start by talking about my food heroes? Do I start by talking about what I’m cooking right now? I’m sure it doesn’t matter, but for some reason it feels like my first substantive entry should be about something profoundly important.

So here it is… My favorite food: Irish Brown Bread. Specifically, my mother-in-law’s Irish Brown Bread. I swear that this bread is so delicious and feels so wholesome and filling in my belly, that if humans had to pick a single food item on which to survive, I’d definitely recommend this one.

The first time I had it was a few months after I started dating my (now) husband. We went to Ireland for a few days for a wedding. We stopped at his parent’s house where his mother had laid out a quick breakfast of this strange lumpy looking bread, juice and tea. From the first bite, I was blown away. It was crusty and heavy, but moist and delicately flavored. The grains of wheat tasted nutty and complex without being dense or earthy as whole grain breads often are. I couldn’t stop eating it.

I asked him what was this amazing bread, had his mother slaved over it for hours? He said, “What that stuff, you like it?” He’d grown up with it at every meal, day in, day out, for his entire childhood. Then he had a slice and said, “Yea, I guess that is pretty good.”

Now, anyone who’s been to Ireland knows that the bread there is pretty good. Every pub, whether it has a good or terrible menu or no menu at all, serves delicious soup and brown bread. But it just doesn’t match up to hers.

I had to learn how to make this bread. My first strategy was to ask her for the recipe. That didn’t get me very far. She doesn’t follow a recipe. She makes it by feel, and every day, it’s a little bit different. How could I possibly “mix some wholemeal flour with buttermilk until it seems about like this?” And to make matters more complicated, she has unsuccessfully tried making the bread in the US, even bringing her own flour with her. Something in the climate changes the taste and texture. Hmmm…

Second, what on earth is wholemeal flour? It looks just like American whole wheat flour, but there is something different about the taste and texture. Check out this link out to see an example of the confusion over how to find wholemeal flour in the US. King Arthur’s defines it as “a coarsely ground, soft red whole wheat flour” and even sells it.

So my next strategy was to look for a recipe using American ingredients that tasted close. I read through every recipe I could find online or in books, looking for something that sounded close to the taste I remember. After a few attempts, I found an epicurious recipe that is as close as I think I’m ever going to get. It’s not quite as good, but it’ll do. On a recent visit, the master herself proclaimed, in true Irish fashion, that it was better than hers, which is simply not true, but must mean it’s not bad!

So how do you make it? It’s incredibly easy.

It consists primarily of wholemeal flour (as discussed above), leavened by baking soda and quite a bit of buttermilk. The contrast of the buttermilk and the wheat is what gives it the amazing texture and taste. The wheat tastes nutty and crunchy, while the buttermilk tastes moist, velvety and creamy.

I usually use regular whole wheat flour, but once I did use fresh ground whole wheat flour bought at the local farmer’s market. I can’t honestly say that I could taste a difference, but I let it sit around a while before using it, which probably had an effect.

I follow the epicurious recipe pretty closely, but here are a few extra notes.

Sprinkle a pizza paddle or baking sheet generously with cornmeal before starting. Your hands are going to get really messy, so you won’t be able to do this later.

Don’t buy toasted bran and germ, just toast them in a pan for a few minutes until golden and nutty smelling.

Mix all the dry ingredients and the butter together in the bowl as instructed. Then slowly add the buttermilk. This dough should be handled just enough to get the ingredients holding together or it will become tough. I use a large spatula and a folding motion to mix in the liquid and stop well before it’s mixed in. The amount of liquid needed varies. The dough should seem moist and sticky but not oozing, and it will be quite irregular. In the bowl, I use my hands to form the dough into a ball and then transfer it to the paddle, patting it down into a mound. Use a sharp knife to cut a deep X into it. Either bake it on the cookie sheet or better yet, slide it off the paddle onto a baking stone.

This is hard to do, but be sure to let it cool completely before cutting it, or steam will escape causing it to dry out. To serve, cut it into quarters along the X and slice each quarter like a mini loaf.

Finally – what’s the best way to eat it? Smeared in butter and orange marmalade is the traditional way, although open faced sandwiches with cheese and ham make a delicious light lunch. The only real rule is that you have to eat it quickly, as it dries out after a day or so. This hasn’t ever been a problem in our house.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Eating Real Food

What does this mean "Eating Real Food"? Cooking with and eating food that I understand.

I know what's in it. I can visualize how each thing in it was created - hopefully it was grown, not manufactured. I have a rough idea where it's from, hopefully somewhere nearby. It tastes flavorful and interesting. I know it's something that the human body has evolved to digest and derive nourishment from. And it's grown in such a way that future generations will also be able to grow it. This blog is about what it takes (sometimes fun, sometimes not-so-fun) to find and eat real food.

Why write about food, when there is so much information out there already that there can’t possibly be anything left to say?

I’m obsessed. I spend most of my time thinking about it. Cooking, eating, reading cookbooks, watching the Food Network, perusing the grocery aisles, going to the farmer’s market. I read the Joy of Cooking like it's going to have some whodunnit plot twist at the end. The length I go to trying to find food that meets my ethical, nutritional and gastronomic standards seems absurd, dogmatic, and comical to the few people close enough to me to see it. And if I even get a hint of someone having an interest in food, I either grill them (!) about what they cooked the night before, or bore them talking about what I cooked the night before.

So to answer the question of why write about food? Just to get it out of my system, and maybe find a few people who feel the same.