Friday, February 27, 2009

Another Easy Dinner - Pastured Beef Chili with Red Beans and Rice

Last time I posted about how I couldn't think of anything to make for dinner but pulled through at the last minute with a great, improvised macaroni and cheese. So today was the same intro as last time, bored cooking, with nothing in season in February, restricted by my desire to eat seasonally and locally, I couldn't think of anything to make for dinner. So what are the chances ... I hit a home run again.

I definitely don't want to be repetitive, but as it is so rare for me to make up a recipe, and even rarer for it to taste good, AND thinking of easy mid-winter meals is so hard, I thought I'd share again.

We'd been eating almost no meat for the last few weeks, and we still have quite a bit in the freezer from Sun Prairie Beef, so I thought I should do something with ground beef. One of the few vegetables I still have left from the Abbondanza fall CSA is dried beans. I guess that counts as a serving of vegetables. What was starting to come together in my head was a rather meager chili of ground beef, red beans, onions and canned tomatoes.

I started browsing cookbooks looking for a recipe using these ingredients. It seemed like a simple, classic combination, but everything I came across was more involved than what I wanted and used beef stew meat rather than ground beef. I decided to just make it up as I went along.

I cut the onions two ways, I wanted a base of diced onions, but I also wanted some larger pieces that stood out in the final chili, at least I'd feel like I was eating a vegetable. I threw together a few spices, primarily cumin seeds, and some fresh herbs I had in the fridge, leftover from something else. I didn't add much chili because I am feeding a baby, feel free to add more.

One more note, I'm not a huge fan of beans, but the heirloom beans from my CSA are out of this world. I didn't realize beans could taste that good. I'm not familiar with this kind - Abbondanza calls them Mexican red. They're incredibly smooth and creamy. If you live in this area or can find dried, local beans in your area, I'd seriously recommend seeking them out. They're worth the extra effort.

By the way, this isn't a soupy chili, in fact it looks a little dry in the picture, but it was nice and moist. Add some of the bean cooking liquid if it seems dry.

Finally, I happened to have some wilted cilantro (coriander for my two Irish readers) and homemade yogurt to garnish. An elaborate feast in 45 minutes (not counting the bean soaking time).

Easy Beef Chili with Read Beans and Brown Rice (serves 6)

  • 1.5 c dried red beans
  • 1 ham hock or bone from pork shoulder (optional, I had this leftover waiting for a rainy day)
  • 1.5 c. brown rice
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
  • 1/4 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 1/2 dried ancho chili
  • 1 dried red chili, other variety depending on heat level preferred
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, 1 diced, 1 cut into 1/2 in. wedges
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lb. ground beef, ideally 100% grass fed
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp. fresh oregano
  • 1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
  • 1 c. chicken stock or water
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • cheddar cheese, grated
  • handful fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
  • plain, whole milk yogurt
Rinse and soak the beans in at least 2 inches of cold water. I only soaked them for six hours, but my beans are from this year. If they're older than that, you will probably need to soak them overnight.

Put the beans and the bone in a heavy pot covered with at least 2 inches of fresh water. Bring to a boil, then lower to a gentle simmer. Cook until tender, about 45-60 minutes, then set aside.

Heat 3 1/4 c. water and a heaping 1/4 tsp. salt in a small saucepan. Once boiling rapidly, add the rice, bring back to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for about 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the cumin, coriander and fennel seeds in a pan on medium low heat until darkened and nutty smelling, about 3 minutes. Grind in a mortar and pestle, along with the chilies.

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet on medium low heat. Add all of the onions and the garlic to the pan and cook gently until soft and starting to color. Add the beef, cooking and breaking up with a spoon until browned. Add the ground spices, chilies, and herbs and cook for a minute, then add the tomatoes and stock. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Use a spoon to break up the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

From here, cook as long as you have time. I didn't feel like waiting, so I cooked it for about 20 minutes. Before then, the flavors didn't taste very blended. I suspect that it will taste better if you cook it a little longer.

Drain the beans and stir into the chili, adding a little of the bean cooking liquid if it seems dry. Remove from the heat. Check the seasonings one final time. Serve the chili over the rice and garnish with cilantro, cheddar cheese and yogurt.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Veggie Laden Mac And Cheese

Middle of February. Ughh. I'm sick of winter, and I'm sick of trying to think of what to cook for dinner, night after night after night. I was driving home from work this afternoon, trying to think of what I could possibly cook - picturing the bare cupboards. Something easy, something comforting. How about homemade macaroni and cheese? That sounded ok, I wondered if I had anything else to go with it.

About forty five minutes later (we're slow, it is really a simple meal), my husband and I had scrounged every fresh thing in our fridge, and a few other things to create a delicious, easy, mid-winter dinner, made mostly with local ingredients. Given that it can be so hard to think of easy mid-week meals to plan, especially this time of year, I thought I'd share it with the masses.

Keep in mind that this meal was assembled from every scrap I had in the fridge. Better to improvise with what you have than go out and buy every ingredient on this list.

You may notice that I am vague on the quantities of flour and milk needed in the cheese sauce. A white (or bechamel) sauce is a basic French sauce used as a base to create many other sauces, in this case we add cheese to make a cheese sauce. White sauce is easier to make properly if you pay attention to how it looks rather than rely on exact quantities. The amount of butter you start with is the main determinant for how much flour and milk you'll need, and therefore how much sauce you'll have.

Also, segmenting an orange takes a few minutes and is a bit OTT. I love the tender, elegant looking wedges that result, but if you want to save time, just peel and separate the orange.

Veggie Laden Mac and Cheese and Winter Side Salad (serves 2-4)


  • 1 handful walnuts

  • 1 orange

  • 5-6 d'Avignon radishes with greens

  • 3-4 handfuls spinach

Salad Dressing

  • 1 tsp. agave nectar or honey

  • 1 Tbs. white wine vinegar

  • soy sauce

  • 2 Tbs. olive oil

  • sesame oil

Toast the walnuts in a pan on medium low heat until darkened and nutty :) smelling, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

Remove the radish tops, separating the leaves from the stems. Discard the stems. Wash the leaves and the spinach in cool water and then dry. Slice the radishes.

Segment the orange as follows: using a sharp knife, cut enough peel from each end to expose a flat circle of flesh about 2 inches in diameter. Set the orange on one end. Starting at the edge of the top circle, cut down to the bottom circle to remove a strip of skin, going just deep enough to completely remove the skin and pith and expose a stripe of flesh. Continue in adjacent stripes until all of the skin and pith is removed. With the orange on it's side, gently cut just inside the outer membrane of one segment to the center of the orange, then cut inside the membrane on the other side of the same segment to release a tender wedge of just orange flesh with membrane, pith and skin removed. Repeat for all segments.

Make the dressing by whisking the agave nectar with the white wine vinegar. Add in a few splashes of soy sauce. Continue whisking while slowly drizzling in the olive oil. To finish, add a few splashes of sesame oil. Be sure to check that you like the sweet to vinegar to oil ratio, adding in more of whatever is needed to suit your taste.

Toss the greens in just enough dressing to coat them lightly. Pour the remaining dressing over the nuts, orange segments and radishes, then place these on top of the greens.

Macaroni and Cheese

  • 3/4 lb. whole wheat rigatone or similar pasta

  • 1 small bunch chard, stems removed and discarded, leaves sliced about 1/2 in. wide

  • 2 Egyptian bunching onions (substitute 3 scallions or spring onions), sliced thinly, both white and green parts

  • 1 Tbs. olive oil

  • 3 Tbs butter

  • flour ~ 1/4 c.

  • whole milk ~ 1-2 c.

  • Cheddar cheese, 3 handfuls grated

  • salt and pepper to taste
Put on a large pot of salted water to boil. Don't start making the sauce until the water has started to boil.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter on medium low heat. Sprinkle a tablespoon of flour into the butter and then beat with a wooden spoon to remove the lumps. Continue adding more flour until the mixture looks like a dry paste - it will actually start to ball up a little.

Now is a good time to start the pasta and the chard. To cook the chard, heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium low heat. Throw in the chard. You can let it cook the entire time you're cooking the pasta, just toss it in the pan periodically. It will get a little crispy and chewy.

Back to the sauce - add one small ladle full of milk and mix with the spoon until absorbed. Start by slowly moving the mixture around with the spoon, increasing speed as the milk starts to absorb. Continue adding the milk, one ladle at a time, stirring (almost beating, your arm will be tired) until the sauce is runny, about the consistency of melted chocolate. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook the sauce gently on medium low heat for a few minutes to remove the floury taste.

Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese.

Remove the chard from the heat and stir in the onions, just to wilt them a bit. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drain the pasta, reserving about a cup of the cooking water.

Stir the pasta and sauce together in a bowl, holding a bit of one or the other back if it seems that the ratio isn't right (you can't remove excess pasta or sauce once you mix them together, but you can add them in if you don't have enough). Add a little of the cooking water to loosen up the mixture if it seems too thick. Finish by stirring in the chard and onions, check the seasoning and serve!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Toothy Sprouted Wheat Bread

I am a bread lover. I pretty much love every kind of bread except for cheap, mass produced bread. I toggle between various favorites: Irish brown bread, meaty, tender French bread (it's not whole grain, but is irresistible), crusty, tangy, whole grain sourdough, sweet, multi-grain, seeded, artisan breads. We're pretty lucky actually, the selection of breads in Boulder is amazing. Udi's, BreadWorks, Whole Foods. Yet somehow I'm still always looking for the perfect loaf to make myself.

I don't even know exactly what I want. Actually, I guess I want it all. A thick, crunchy crust. A soft, chewy (what I call meaty) interior. The extra bite and nutrition of whole grain. Sometimes I like the tangy taste of sourdough, sometimes I want something milder.

Taking the whole grain idea to the extreme are the makers of sprouted wheat baked goods. And as I said in my last post, I LOVE sprouted wheat bagels and want to try to make them. Given that I had never worked with sprouted wheat before (or made bagels, for that matter), I thought I should start with an easy bread recipe.

Sandwich breads, which don't require an overnight starter, seem to be one of the easier yeast-leavened breads to make at home, and as all of the sprouted wheat bread recipes I found were of this variety, I thought this was a good place to start.

I had a few recipes to choose, from two different cookbooks: King Arthur's Whole Grain Baking and Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads. I chose the recipe from the latter because the King Arthur's recipes had a larger set of ingredients - I thought the simpler the better. I also liked the Book of Breads' recipe because it uses 100% whole wheat flour. I don't often find completely whole grain recipes, so I was eager to try it.

I sprouted the grains for a total of three days - the recipe recommended 3-4, stopping when the sprout was the same length as the berry. I was a little confused as to how to decide this. From almost the first day, there was a very thin sprout (or two) emerging from the berry. By the third day, this sprout was longer than the berry on almost all berries. I also noticed that there was a thicker sprout coming out of some of the berries, which wasn't nearly as long as the berry yet. I wondered whether this wasn't actually the sprout that the recipe meant. I decided to ignore this and just use them after three days.

The recipe I used was a simple recipe consisting of mixing regular yeast with warm water, honey, brewer's yeast, oil and whole wheat flour. After letting this mixture double in size, the sprouts and the remainder of the flour are added and kneaded until the dough is smooth, stretchy and slightly sticky (as apparently whole wheat breads always remain stickier than white bread).

One thing I always find tricky about making bread is that I can never decide exactly when the dough has doubled in size (it'd be so much easier in a cylindrical bowl). I once took a cooking class in which they recommended that you are careful never to let bread risings go too long, as this can make the the air bubbles in the cooked bread irregular. Apparently this is especially a problem in Colorado because bread rises faster than at lower altitudes. Anyway, I thought that I had erred on the side of punching it down too early, but the texture ended up being fine.

I would say that the final product was a bit of a disappointment, but this could be because I'm expecting everything from one loaf...

The crust was pretty good for a sandwich loaf, and the whole grains added a nice flavor. The crumb (or texture of the air bubbles) was regular and soft.

I think I was disappointed for a few reasons. First, I guess I just don't like sandwich bread that much. It was crumbly and a bit dry after just a day or two, which often happens with homemade, obviously preservative free, bread. The more serious problem though was the star of the show - the sprouts. They were a tooth killer. I don't know if I should have waited for the thicker sprout to grow longer or what I could have done differently, but these sprouts were not right. Some of them were so hard they could have taken out a tooth.

Interestingly, both King Arthur's recipes called for grinding the sprouted berries in a food processor with some water and adding these at the beginning of the recipe rather than adding whole berries later in the process. I did a little more poking around, and it looks like most recipes call for grinding the sprouted berries. And my worry about the berries being hard because of not having sprouted long enough seems to be unfounded - all of the images I found show that my sprouts had grown enough, if not too much.

All in all, I'm still intrigued by the prospect of making sprouted wheat bagels, but I think I need to do a little more experimentation with sprouted wheat itself before I can hope to achieve the Alvarado pinnacle.

Incidentally, Alvarado Street has an FAQ in which they discuss the ingredients in their baked goods. Basically they sprout berries in water, drain and and grind them, adding fresh yeast, salt and honey or some other sweet ingredient. That sounds pretty simple, but almost too simple. I may have to try experimenting with this method next, although I have a feeling it will take a lot of attempts to go completely recipe free with success.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sprouting Wheat Berries

I realized in rereading my posts that I've been exploring mostly animal products - dairy, meat and eggs. Ironically, these aren't that large a part of my diet - I've just been on a recent kick of using up milk and finding pastured eggs.

My diet consists much more of vegetables and grains than animal products, so I thought I should start a new project related to one of these...

One of the few processed, non-local foods I buy is Alvarado St Bakery Sprouted Wheat Bagels. Why do I buy non-local bagels? Because they are TO DIE FOR. Soooo sooo good. They are hands down the best bagels I've ever eaten, and I want to learn how to make them.

Double challenge! I've never cooked sprouted wheat anything, and I have no idea how to make bagels.

I decided to divide and conquer, by making something with sprouted wheat before trying the bagels. I settled on a recipe for sprouted wheat sandwich bread in "Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads".

First I obviously have to sprout the wheat, which takes 4-5 days.

Here is my setup. Fill a jar with warm water and 1/4 c. wheat berries. Cover the jar with cheesecloth and a rubber band (or in my case, an old t-shirt poked with a few holes). Drain out the water, lay the jar on it's side in a dark, warm place. Add and drain new warm water twice a day, saving the water to use later on the bread. They are finished when the sprouts are as long as the original seed.

And after one day, my seeds are starting to sprout! Cool. I don't know if I should be this excited - Something in me is wondering if I feel deprived from never having done the seed in a cup science project as a 7 year old.
I don't have a sprout cam, but I will post a few pictures as my little buddies progress.

The Big Decision (Eggs Part 3)

Armed with the knowledge of how my egg laying hen should live and eat (see Eggs Parts 1 and 2), I now have to use this knowledge to make the healthiest and most ethical choice possible in purchasing eggs.

I had already decided that I would like to eat eggs from free range hens with a varied and natural diet, as opposed to commercial feed consisting of mostly corn, soy, animal by-products and vitamin and mineral supplements.

It seems I have two choices: the convenience of the super market paired with the compromise of an industrial product, or the inconvenience of finding something local paired with a more natural living standard.

First, the supermarket options. As you might guess, I generally opt for Whole Foods or something similar. There is a small local shop near me that carries a mix of organic and non-organic foods. Both carry a few different varieties of eggs, free-range, cage-free, etc.

After examining my options, of which there were may, I settled on the brand Cyd's Nest Fresh Organic Eggs. First, they're produced in Broomfield, Colorado, which is local. Second, they follow the Certified Humane standard, which I discussed in an earlier post. And third, their feed is 100% natural and organic. The free-roaming dozen is about $4.99.

I wanted to dig a little deeper and was able to find a wealth of information on their website, a good sign.

The hens' diet is 100% vegetarian, consisting primarily of corn, soybeans, limestone, alfalfa, vitamins and minerals. This diet is really not as diverse as I would like to see. As a fellow omnivore, I certainly couldn't survive on a diet of one grain, one grass, one legume and some supplements (actually, that's not really true - for many people, this is almost their exact diet, minus the alfalfa, as shown in Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma").

According to the certified humane standards, the animals have enough room to perform natural behaviors such as perching, stretching and dust-bathing. What I'm sure they don't have is enough access to the outdoors to forage for insects and grass. And as I mentioned in the earlier post, these standards allow for a small amount of beak trimming to "avoid heavy feather pecking and cannibalism." I'm really not sure what to think about this practice or the environment that would induce the hens to act in this manner.

Having discussed my reservations, I still think this company adheres to a higher standard than most others. I don't think I can expect to get anything closer to the way nature intended in a supermarket... after all, Cyd's has to make a profit.

What about the other option, local, pastured eggs?

It turns out that these aren't that easy to find.

Last summer at the Boulder Farmer's Market (opens in 45 days, yay!), I asked the only poultry/egg stand, Wisdom's Natural Poultry. Their feed and practices, as discussed with me then and also explained on their website, seem identical to Cyd's, although it is nice to get to talk to a person about it rather than just reading a website. Hmm, that's not quite what I was looking for and definitely less convenient than Whole Foods.

Then about a month ago, I was out with a friend talking about this topic, and she mentioned that there is a small farm near me that sells completely free range eggs, Jay Hill Farm. I looked on their website, and sure enough, this is a tiny farm that sells local produce and free-range eggs. They don't have a lot of info on the chickens, except that their blog mentions a few times that they let the chickens out at 6:30 am.

I was a little confused by the purchasing process - you order online the night before and go pick up the eggs in a fridge down a driveway? I thought I'd better call. Well, I was thrilled, I got to talk to the farmer, Rowan, in person, and found out that they even sell green-house grown veggies all winter long. I couldn't believe it. I was so excited, that I forgot to ask about what the chickens eat and how much space they have outside for foraging. I've sent her an email though - I'll give an update when I hear back.

I placed an order online, and the next day I picked up my eggs and veggies from the fridge, money left in a Tupperware in the fridge. There were a lot of positives to this - very local, small scale, free-range, no waste (just return the carton next time), winter veggies, and 50c cheaper than Cyd's at the supermarket. The only downsides are that I keep forgetting to place my second order, and it is a few miles out of the way on my drive home, which is less convenient for the supermarket.

Actually, as I scoured the Internet, I was surprised to find many small farms like this with similar arrangements (call the night before, pick up eggs in the fridge). It seems that if you search, you really can find pastured eggs.

This still doesn't answer the final question... are the eggs really any different? Do they taste or cook differently? Stay tuned next time when I'll feature my first guest chef - my husband. Ok, so he's not really a guest, but his eggs earn him the title of egg chef in any house.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Homemade Ice Cream

So maybe I've been a little too Gung Ho about this blog. The three people reading it may have noticed that I skipped last night because, if you've been paying attention, you'll notice I update every other day, except last night I didn't. My last entry was three days ago, and that one wasn't even particularly noteworthy. I pride myself on verbose, boring, painfully accurate entries, and in the last one I just bitched about Thin Mints. Anyway, the effort required to maintain my normally high standard of quality is taking its toll. This weekend, I felt burnt out. I couldn't think of what to write about, so I skipped.

But I was in the kitchen. Well, actually, first I was on the phone with my sister (writer, pie-crust maker):

"Saw the Thin Mints post. It was good."

"What do you mean? It was really short and I just complained about Thin Mints. I didn't even do a proper analysis of the dangers of partially hydrogenated fat."

"Yea, too bad about that. It was funny. All the others are too long."

"Are they boring?"

"The chicken ones are."

"Oh. Really? I find that topic fascinating." Quick side note, I found a neighbor around the block that keeps 8 chickens in his yard. I've been making detours when I take my son on wagon rides so that we can watch them. They're really weird animals. Seeing them alive, I am not quite sure I'm comfortable with the idea of eating them. Ok, focus...

"What are you going to do next?"

"I was thinking of making profiteroles."

"Why? That is totally off-topic."

"Huh? No, my blog is about buying and making non-processed, natural, local food. This is an attempt at making a challenging dessert that you'd normally buy. Besides I want to try it." About a year ago, I became obsessed with making profiteroles. I hunted all over town for a large, non-plasticy pastry bag and the right size tip. By the time I found it, I was so bored with the whole project that I forgot about them. Ok, back to the conversation.

"Are you going to make your own ice cream?"

"Uh.... definitely."

"How? Did you get an ice cream maker?"

"No, why would I need one? I was just going to stir it myself in a bowl of ice"

"Please, please tell me you're kidding"

Ok, here is where I have an interesting entry about how I attempted to make ice cream the old school way, with 2 bowls, some ice and a spoon. My sister convinced me that I was crazy to try it without some equipment. So I thought, well I'd better acquire more equipment to postpone the fictional profiterole project, and I went hunting for an ice cream maker.

As luck would have it, KitchenAid makes an attachment for their mixers. Sweet! I definitely had to have it.

I realize that this seems in contradiction with my attempts to be non-consumerist, buy local, etc. I do definitely try to keep my material purchases to a minimum. Except I have a little bit of an issue with kitchen equipment. There are certain completely useless things I'll never buy (e.g. a garlic press - I'm a purist, I mince it with the side of a knife), but an insulated ice cream bowl and paddle for my KitchenAid mixer was just too tempting.

And holy cow is homemade ice cream good. The first night I made vanilla (with a drop of brandy), and the second night I made chocolate.

I probably shouldn't plagiarize the recipe I used (from Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food), but here is a link to a similar recipe. Hers has about two more egg yolks, but is otherwise pretty much the same.

I was completely amazed, once I started processing it in the bowl, it only took about 15 minutes to thicken.

I will say that, given how much ice cream I eat, seeing how much sugar and cream go into it is a little depressing. All these years, I'd been using selective hearing to ignore the "cream" part of ice cream.

Anyway, it was delicious, although perhaps a bit heavy. My husband accidentally bought a bunch of table cream for the first batch, which wasn't called for in the recipe. I may try making some ice cream with that instead of the heavy whipping cream. I'm sure it'll turn out less creamy, but it might be a bit lighter.

A few final thoughts on making homemade ice cream. Apart from the equipment purchase, it is definitely worth the effort.

First, it really wasn't much work at all. I made the custard style, which means you slowly cook the egg yolks, sugar and half and half together. Of the two common varieties (the other is just cream, sugar and milk mixed together), this is the harder one, and it still only took about 20 minutes to make the mixture.

I took the first batch I made to a friend's for dinner. She decided to have a taste test and compare it to two local ice cream brands she had on hand. My ice cream was richer and much, much smoother. The egg yolks are what add the richness - flavor you definitely can't get from store-bought, although I don't think I will always be in the mood for something so rich, so I plan to try the other style as well.

The only downside is that I now have six egg whites waiting to be dealt with (3 per batch). Any suggestions?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Must Stop ... Eating ... Thin Mints

Writer's block tonight. Bloated on Thin Mints and Sopranos reruns.

Man, those frickin Girl Scouts get you every time. I stopped buying the boxes years ago, but every year somebody gives me one as a gift. WHY WHY WHY can't I just throw it in the trash? Why do I even open it? Because once I open it, it's all over.

A very kind friend at work gave me a box of Thin Mints. I didn't even notice I'd opened the box, and suddenly I looked over and half a roll was gone. Half a roll? That's 280 calories. There is nothing thin about that. I feel so guilty, that's the size of a lunch.

I guess I'd be Ok doing it for the Girl Scout's - except that those cookies could kill me.

Look at all this crap:

  • Partially hydrogenated palm kernel
  • Soybean and Cottonseed TBHQ -Tert-BUTYLHYDROQUINONE, a preservative
  • Invert Sugar - Invert sugar, a mixture of glucose (dextrose) and fructose produced from sugar (sucrose). This one doesn't seem too bad. It's basically sugar and water boiled together. Tastes sweeter and moister than sugar.
  • Cornstarch - extracted from corn in a simple 13 step process
  • Soy Lecithin
I'd like to understand what each of these things is, but ugh, it's just too confusing.

And can I ask? Wouldn't it possibly be a better experience to make and sell cookies from scratch, baked with natural ingredients? Now those I'd definitely order.

Oh well, I'm sure the guilt will pass in time for me to enjoy another box next year.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Chicken Came First (Eggs Part 2)

Back by popular demand, for all serious insomnia sufferers, the chicken. Don't worry, the egg post will come soon, but first I need to finish talking about how chickens are treated.

Last time I discussed the living arrangements of chickens. But what do they eat? What should they eat?

As far as I can tell, the answer is anything, including dirt, actually. Chickens are omnivores and dirtivores.

First, the pastured view. According to a website devoted to raising chickens traditionally, an ideal diet for a chickens consists of:

  • Grass, up to 30% of calories if given sufficient space
  • Protein - bugs in summer, but need supplements in winter (soybeans, fish - can chickens fish?)
  • Grains - ideally a mixture of fresh grains, not just corn
  • Lots of water
I'm a little confused by this website - it seems to be passionately devoted to chicken feed, but also sells traction pads for getting your car unstuck from mud or snow. Weird. I did look a few other places that seemed to have similar information, but this website is incredibly comprehensive on the topic of natural chicken feed.

Apparently most people also supplement chickens' diet with commercial feed or kitchen scraps, ideally greens, or grain, or just about anything edible from what I can tell, as it is hard for a chicken to get enough calories from foraging, especially during winter.

Can you believe this? Chickens that aren't free range need to be given grit or sand. Since chicken don't have teeth, they need something gritty to grind their food.

According to an article on a website called Mother Earth News (Have I been brainwashed yet?), one study found significant nutritional improvements in the eggs of pastured chickens when compared to USDA nutrient data for commercial eggs:
  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene
I'm starting to see in many places a similar theme regarding omega-3 fatty acids, which is this...

Your body needs a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (I think). The omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in many areas, including healthy heart and brain function and reduced risk of cancer. Omega-3s come from various sources, fish, nuts, etc, but most abundantly greens, such as grass and algae. Animals, like cattle and fish, that eat grass or algae have a much higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids than do animals fed on grains, which are a source of omega-6 acids only.1

So what about the other point of view? What do chickens in large industrial operations eat? In other words, what exactly is in commercial chicken feed?

The only thing I could find was a few ingredient lists taken from commercial feed on our trusty Traction Pad website. On the websites for these particular feeds, I wasn't able to find ingredient lists. According to Traction Pad:

FeatherCrest Brand contains many of the ingredients already discussed, grains, etc, but it also contains a lot of strange sounding ones. I assume that most of these are vitamin and mineral supplements. One ingredient which is self-explanatory is poultry fat. That seems strange to me - I know chickens are omnivores, but I don't think they are cannibals by nature.

To summarize all of this random information, it seems to me that there is no definitive answer - chickens will eat just about anything. A free-range chicken will ideally get plenty of access to grass and bugs, but will probably not be harmed by some supplemental grain, veggie and meat scraps. It doesn't sound to me as if there is such a thing as 100% grass/bug fed eggs as most chickens need a little more, so I shouldn't be suspicious if I hear that a free-range hen is getting a little corn (as opposed to a free range cow).

Commercial chicken feed seems to be a bit mysterious, but what you can probably assume is that it isn't as diverse as a diet consisting of complex, natural ingredients such as bugs and grass, and therefore is probably not giving a chicken everything it needs to be in top shape, especially omega-3s. Plus, there may be any number of bad things in chicken feed as well, like chicken fat.

After all of this investigation on habitat and diet, do I really know what I want in a chicken?

MWF seeks FR hen, or maybe 2 - likes to roam and peck. Eats bugs and grass, but a little corn is OK too. Must get out and exercise, enjoy the fresh air and blue sky. Must be in a committed relationship to a caring farmer, not interested in living together, just want you for your eggs.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Eating Real Food Hits the Big Time

Woo hoo - this blog is famous. If you search google for "Hoarding Potatoes," I'm number 1!!!!!! I'm number 4 for "Irish Brown Bread Breakfast of Champions."

Homemade Yoghurt

No, I haven't returned to the chicken topic yet. I'm keeping my readers hanging in suspense - "So what DO free-range chickens eat, I'm just dying to know?"

I feel that I must keep my blog current - in other words, when I've tried to cook something interesting, I'll post an update about it. I'll fill in with the more classic, timeless entries on other days.

So, I'm still trying to use up milk, as you know. I thought I'd try yoghurt. Why? A few reasons

  • My son likes yoghurt - unsweetened yoghurt mixed with fruit or applesauce and sprinkled sneakily with wheat germ. I know someday he'll discover sweetened yoghurt, but until then he's getting the sour stuff.
  • We go through quite a bit of yoghurt and I feel guilty about the containers. I'm trying to reduce my container purchases in general and yoghurt has been one of the last to go. These are especially unethical because while they are recyclable, I'm ashamed to say that I don't recycle them. I know, I'll probably go to hell for that. Here is the dilemma. Plastic tubs are the only container that can't be recycled curbside, which means that I would have to make a special trip to the recycling center across town to drop them off. I tried for a long time to save them, but the reality is that I never make it there. It seems crazy to make one special trip just to drop off yoghurt containers. I don't understand why Type 1 plastic bottles are picked up for recycling but Type 1 plastic tubs aren't. I would like to do a blog on the mystery behind this, but that seems a little off topic. Oh, and the lids aren't recyclable at all. What's with that? Bottles are an easy shape, tubs are a harder shape, and lids are just an impossible shape to melt down?? For a while, I saved tubs to use for freezing chicken stock. That alleviated my guilt for about 2 months, but if I save any more then I'm just denying the inevitable fact that they'll someday go in the trash. After all, I'll probably never make 8 quarts of chicken stock at any one time. Hmm, this rant is probably worthy of its own paragraph and not a mere bullet point. I'm sure my sister of the successful piecrust (also a writer) will correct me on this.
  • Third reason for making yoghurt (in case you've forgotten the subject of the list) - it doesn't matter if I blow it because I've got a lot of milk to get rid of.

I looked up a few recipes, and they're all basically the same. Bring a quart of full fat milk just to a boil. Let it cool to about 1200F, then stir in 2 Tbs of yoghurt. Leave it in a bowl, covered with a towel, at a warm, but not hot, temperature (85 to 1200F) until it sets, usually 10-16 hours. Refrigerate as soon as it sets or it will turn sour.

That sounded pretty simple. Except that I had to plan out my timing. In order not to have too much yoghurt sitting in the fridge, I wanted to have just a little bit left in my last store purchased container.

As luck would have it, my husband did the grocery shopping on the weekend before the big experiment, and he bought ... the WRONG kind of yoghurt.

What is the wrong kind of yoghurt, you might ask? Every yoghurt has different cultures and therefore tastes slightly different. My yoghurt will (I hope) taste like the yoghurt I choose as the starter.

For the last, I don't know how many, million weeks, we've bought Straus Family Creamery European Style Organic Plain Whole Milk Yoghurt. It's thick, creamy, not too sour, a little sweet. The texture is wonderful. It's not local and the cows aren't pastured (please see the comments section where I was set straight on this incorrect statement!), I'm ashamed to say, but I buy it anyway because it is just the best. This is another reason why I want to make my own.

On this particular week, my husband did not buy this yoghurt, but instead bought Horizon Whole Milk Plain Yoghurt, which I just do not like. I find the texture weird and quite tangy. What to do, what to do.

I decided to proceed anyway. At least I'd save myself a container for one week.

It was actually pretty easy. I just had one mix up, I started at about 2pm, which meant that I should start checking it's progress at midnight. I did consider for one moment that it might be worth getting up in the middle of the night to check, but that seemed extreme for yoghurt that might not even taste good. All in all, it sat for about 18 hours. I put it in the warming drawer of our oven on the lowest temperature with the door slightly ajar. Unfortunately I accidentally turned it off before going to bed, so I think it cooled down to about 60 overnight. That might have been a good thing given how long I left it out.

When I checked it in the morning, I could not believe it, it had set perfectly. And guess what, it tasted exactly like Horizon yoghurt, not that nice, but edible. For some reason, my husband is scared to eat it, but my baby and I have been eating it for 2 days now and haven't gotten sick yet. Given my success rate lately, I'll call that a winner.

Next week, I'll have to sacrifice one more plastic container to see if I can replicate the Straus flavor. And I may try making ricotta as well!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Crunchy Brown Rice Pudding

I've decided to take a short break from my chicken and egg series. I'm sure this will be disappointing to my huge reader base (Hi Nicole, Hi Jen). Ok, it probably isn't huge, but I think it was bigger before my chicken habitat post. My husband was actually not able to finish it. I am mystified that he didn't find riveting my discussion of caged vs. cage-free vs. free-range hens.


I have a 19 month old baby. In general, babies drink a lot of milk. This baby drank a huge amount of milk until about 3 weeks ago. As you might guess, I took great pains in making a milk choice for him. I'm not completely resolved in my decision (there will, of course, be an entry about milk and cows sometime), but for now, we get milk delivered weekly from the Longmont Dairy. It's local, it's fresh, and it comes in glass bottles, so there isn't any waste.

For a while, I thought this was great, until I realized, what do you do if you don't use all the milk? Normal grocery-store-milk-buying-folk would only buy what they need and go to the store again mid-week if they needed more. But when you have it delivered, you really need to predict what you'll need.

So about three weeks ago, my son went on a milk strike. Now one would think that I would simply call the dairy and have the milk stopped. That's what an organized person would do. Unfortunately all my organization gets used up at work, which is why I keep forgetting to call. Three weeks later, our fridge has 4 gallons of untouched milk. I pumped breastmilk for my son for eight long months. Every time I open the fridge, I remember that and think about the work those cows put into those 4 gallons of milk. I just can't bring myself to throw it away.

So what can you make with a whole cowload of milk?

Earlier today, I started making yoghurt. It's growing as we speak. I'll update tomorrow on the deliciousness and nutritiousness of my homemade yoghurt.

Then I had another brilliant idea... rice pudding. My son loves rice, and he loves dessert! I'll get milk in him yet, by making him rice pudding.

Using my trusty Ballymaloe Cookery Course cookbook, I got started.

Now this is a pretty simple recipe, which I will paraphrase. Put 2 oz short grain white rice, 1 oz sugar and a knob of butter into a pie pan. Pour over 1 pint of boiling milk. Bake at 350 for 1 to 1.5 hours until the skin on top is golden and the rice underneath is cooked and creamy.

The only white rice I had was arborio rice for risotto. What the heck, I'll see if I can make it with brown rice and just cook it longer. That'll give it the added bonus of being secretly whole grain. Surely an hour and a half is long enough to cook brown rice. I know white rice only takes 10 minutes as compared to 45 for brown rice, but I bet the extra time in this recipe is just to make the milk thicken up and isn't actually needed to cook the rice. In the back of my mind, I heard the haunting advice my sister (of the successful piecrust) has given me many times, "Don't make substitutions to a recipe until you've tried it at least once."

Using a scale to measure out the rice, I realized that 2 oz of rice is a tiny amount, about half a cup. This couldn't be right. Brown rice normally cooks with a slightly greater than 2 to 1 water to rice ratio. Surely 4 to 1 would make rice/milk soup. So as I measured out the rice, I threw in an extra handful, or maybe two. Probably about 3/4 cup rice in all.

I popped it in the oven. An hour later, I looked in - very nice. Golden layer on top, carmel, bread-like smell. I thought I'd better check the rice's progress. To say that it was crunchy was an understatement. You couldn't actually tell that it had started cooking. Is the boiling point of milk lower than water? That possibility hadn't occurred to me. It's too late to turn back now. Just keep cooking it.

An hour later, the layer on top is no longer "golden." More like burnt umber - I don't actually know what color that is, but the burnt part sounds accurate. Uh oh, the milk is completely gone. And the rice is definitely not cooked yet. Maybe I should have used the recommended quantities.

I added quite a bit more milk (I have some to spare), kept cooking and checking.

After 3 hours, I finally decided to throw in the towel. The pudding had cooked so long that the rice on top had dried out and gone crunchy. Or was that the dark, dark brown milk crunching - I couldn't quite tell. The rice underneath was pretty much cooked - albeit al dente style.

I pulled it out with just enough time to give one hastily blown-cool bite to the intended baby recipient before putting him to bed. Thumbs down - bummer.

At least I made a dent in the milk. Even better news, as I was looking for the recipe to reference for this post, I found a recipe for homemade butter. I'm Definitely going to try that. Unfortunately it uses cream instead of milk. Hmm, now I just need a recipe for making cream from milk.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Chicken Came First (Eggs Part I)

The next food I've decided to try to convert to eating "real" is the egg. Because I don't eat a lot of meat, I do eat a lot of eggs, and I love them. In this, the first of a series on finding and eating completely natural eggs, I'm attempting to discover how to grow an egg the way nature intended, or more specifically, what does a chicken eat and how should it live? So in order to find out how to eat a good egg, you have to start with the chicken.

The first question I wanted to answer is how a chicken would ideally live. I started by reviewing a number of sites from small farmers and owners of backyard flocks. From this I gathered that healthy, productive hens need:

  • Shelter - According to one small farmer in Vermont, a small flock needs 4 square feet of shelter per bird.
  • Heat - if the coop isn't heated during the winter. Contrary to my horrific images of crowded cages, the chickens actually do need to be crowded into a small enough space in winter to keep warm. This farmer said that a minimum of 10 seemed to work well for them.
  • Perches
  • Roosters - "If you don't have a rooster, the hens will lay eggs, but one hen will stop laying and starting acting like one." What do the big producers do with that hen??
  • Outdoor space, and a lot of it. Hens will quickly turn even a large yard to dirt. Their natural diet includes a large quantity of fresh grass, so they need to be able to roam freely in order to graze the amount they need.

The space issue sounds like it would make raising hens in large numbers difficult. So, what's the alternative?

One alternative is what I'll call PC hens (politically correct hens!). They make us all feel good because we pay a few bucks more, they have nice, humane sounding phrases and pictures of happy chickens on top (can chickens smile?), and you buy them at Whole Foods or similar patchouli smelling natural food grocers.

There are two commonly used terms for eggs laid by PC hens: free-range or free-roaming and cage-free. I don't know if there are any universal standards, but I found some interesting information from an organization called Humane Farm Animal Care that certifies producers as humane in their treatment of animals. They set standards for what can be called cage free and what can be called free roaming. Cage free live in a barn, whereas free roaming are in a barn with strictly specified, easy access to the outdoors. They do not certify caged hen producers.

You can browse their exact specifications for humane treatment (surprisingly interesting reading), which includes things like:

  • They allow minimal beak trimming, but not de-beaking, in order to avoid "heavy feather pecking and cannibalism among laying hen flocks, which can occur in flocks of any size and any production system." It is more common in cage-free systems with large flocks. I wonder if this is the social structure that roosters help provide. I didn't read anything about pecking or cannibalism on any of the small farm sites.
  • "All hens must have sufficient freedom of movement to be able, without difficulty, to stand normally, turn around, and stretch their wings; they must also have an environment that supports natural behaviors such as dustbathing. All birds must have sufficient space (including perches) to be able to perch or sit quietly without repeated disturbance."

Ok, so caging chickens is obviously incredibly cruel. Is it?

I found some interesting information from a producer called Sauder Eggs, which is a member of a group called the United Egg Producers. In this paper, the United Egg Producers Scientific Advisory Committee does a comparison of caged versus cage-free systems. The main benefits of cages seem to be

  • Protection from predators
  • Reduces pecking and cannibalism
  • Easier monitoring for health
  • Protects them from weather extremes
  • Increases efficiency and production

Here is an interesting video from Sauder Eggs showing their production. I wouldn't say the hens look miserable, at least they weren't moaning and crying. How do you tell?

So, what to conclude from this investigation...

I guess my opinion is that hens don't want to be in cages. I don't know if it is a miserable existence for them, but I have to assume it isn't a joyous one, and if I'm eating the fruit of their loins, I'd like them to have a little joy in life, to experience fresh air, blue sky and other things that make life worthwhile.

It does sound like raising hens "real" is not easy on a large scale (rotating them through different pastures so that they have a constant source of fresh grass or giving them a ton of land). For me to have real eggs, I will have to go out of my way to seek them from a small producer because I don't think it is possible to raise truly free range hens on a large scale, although it's nice to know that there are some large producers out there that are adhering to a humane standard (more on one of these producers later in this series).

So that gives me an understanding of my options for choosing eggs by hen lifestyle. What about their diet? Stay tuned for part II! (OK, I said this entry would cover both habitat and diet, but I have to get to work tomorrow!)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Easy as Pie?

Mmmmm, pie. I love pie. I am one of those people that craves dessert, pretty much all the time. I usually count down the hours in the day until I have an excuse to eat some sort of dessert. I can't do it too early, or the craving will resurface before I go to bed, which means I'll want another dessert. I have a love/hate relationship with desserts. I love to eat them, but I hate to gain weight, so it's a thin line I walk between the two.

When I think about the desserts I crave the most, the ones the rank the highest are sweet and fatty ... rich chocolate cake, pain au chocolate (dessert disguised as breakfast), and pie. Every kind of pie

Unfortunately, the reality is that most pie lets me down. As I picture the pie I'm going to eat, I think about biting into a buttery, tender, flaky, slightly sweet pastry. But most restaurants and stores don't sell pie this good, at least the crust doesn't measure up. This is when most people turn to their own kitchen, after all what sounds better than homemade pie

Actually, most pie tastes better than mine. I'm not an amazing cook or anything, but most of the time when I bother to bake something at home, it's better than what you can buy out. Perfect example ... chocolate chip cookies (Nestle tollhouse back of the bag recipe). They are delicious, and well, as easy as ... pie. Is that an expression? Because I don't get it. Pie is NOT easy

My pie sucks. Specifically, my pie crust is terrible. I've tried every recipe I can find. I've listened to all kinds of advice.

For a long time, I stuck with the Joy of Cooking's method. After all, six pages of 8 point font (no pictures) explaining how to make pie crust in painstaking detail. Surely if I follow their directions exactly, I can make "A light, flaky crust that shatters at the touch of a fork."1 That sounds perfect.

Making pie crust seems to be this infuriating contradiction of mix, but don't mix too much. Add ice cold water to a crumbly mix of butter and flour, but don't add too much or you'll make it tough.

I thought I'd try their food processor recipe, which they swear by, to quickly zap all the ingredients without melting them by using my hands.

Strangely, every time I make it, I seem to need almost twice as much water as the recipe says. As mentioned, adding too much water is a big no-no, so I'm always afraid to add more. But when I go to roll the dough out (after carefully refrigerating for an hour, of course), it's basically a big pile of flour and butter. I get it rolled out into a beautiful circle, then the minute I pick it up, it falls apart into, well the big file of flour and butter that it is. This is usually followed by profanity and then tears.

Next, I borrowed The Perfect Pie from my sister, who makes great pie. An entire cookbook completely devoted to pie.

This recipe definitely sounded more promising. Instead of being just flour, butter, salt and water, it had more ingredients. "The egg yolk contains natural lecithin, which helps make the dough easy to handle, and the lemon juice or vinegar slows development of the gluten to ensure a tender crust."2 My other crust (pile of crumbs) was definitely tender, but not at all easy to handle. This sounded better.

Although, I will say that this recipe calls for shortening (Crisco), definitely Not Real Food (NRF). I'll use butter instead.

Same results. Big pile of crumbs. Infuriating. My sister was there, she says I definitely need to add more water, whether it seems like too much or not.

Ok, finally, I thought I'd try my favorite, infallible The Art of Simple Food3 by Alice Waters. She can do no wrong, so definitely her pie crust will be great. It was back to the same basic ingredients as the Joy of Cooking, but she says to just mix it up with a fork.

Alright, I'll add enough water for it to stick, mix it gently with a fork, and voila, perfect, tender crust.

I first cut the butter and salt into the flour, until it resembled peas, just as instructed. I made sure my water was ice cold, then gently stirred it in until the dough just started to clump. Then I compressed it into a ball which I refrigerated for an hour.

As I rolled it out between two sheets of parchment paper, it definitely seemed more dough-like. I had a little flash of doubt when I noticed that there were patches of dough that seemed a little wet and sticky, but they passed when I was happily able to lift the dough into the pan without it falling apart. That was a first for me.

This particular pie was pumpkin, my last pumpkin of the season. I prebaked the shell, then put in the filling. When the pie came out, you might say it looked a little rustic. I couldn't wait for it to cool, mmm.

Alas, this story does not have a happy ending. This pie crust ranks down there as one of the worst I've ever made, not an easy feat. The crust was so hard, that when I tried to cut the first bite with the edge of my fork, I had to press so hard that the pie flipped off the plate face down onto my shirt. Note the whipped cream in the photo.

I've never been desperate enough to think this before ... maybe next time I'll see what Martha Stewart has to say.

1 Rombauer, Irma S., Rombauer Becker, Marion, and Becker, Ethan. The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1997)
2 Purdy, Susan G. The Perfect Pie: More than 125 All-Time Favorite Pies and Tarts (New York: Broadway Books, 2000)
3 Waters, Alice. The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution (New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2007)