Thursday, July 23, 2009

Endless Summer Salads

Just at the point in the season when you're wishing for a creative new salad idea, Mark Bittman has come to the rescue. His "Minimalist" column from yesterday's New York Times features "101 Simple Salads for the Season," a wealth of easy, surprising ideas for enjoying your favorite fresh ingredients.

Just a quick glance reveals some inspired combinations. What will I try first? No. 7: carrots, blueberries, and sunflower seeds with a simple olive oil and lemon juice dressing. With the rainbow carrots that came in this week's farm share, it will be a taste and color sensation!

Photo courtesy of twenty questions, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Find Your Favorites

Wondering where you can find that light purple Asian eggplant that you tried and loved last year? A crispy Braeburn apple? Fresh garlic for some ultra-fresh pesto? Look no further. The Mass Farmers Markets website has a handy index where you can search for your favorite fresh goodies. Just click on find, and you can see a listing of all the farms and markets that offer what you're looking for! Voila!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fresh Garlic: A Summertime Treat

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I would have told you that I always cook with fresh garlic. By this, I would have meant that I do my own peeling and chopping, stinky fingers and all, rather than using powders or pre-diced products from jars. What I never realized was that the garlic I buy at the store is not in fact fresh, but dried. I suppose the paper skins should have been a clue, but "fresh" garlic is most often defined as I had done for so many years. Indeed, a quick internet search for the term brings up a whole host of sites that refer to the contrast between "fresh" garlic and powdered or minced, when what they really mean is dried.

And so it was that, when a true specimen of fresh garlic arrived with my farm share last week, a friend and I stood marveling over its size and form. Do you think this part is edible? We stood in my kitchen, both of us examining the stiff, dry greens coming off of an impossibly tall stalk. I'm sort of tempted to try it, said my friend. We looked at each other, and in a matter of seconds we each had a piece in our mouths. I felt my eyes water and my sinuses clear in a wasabi-like rush as I chewed on the tough, sharp morsel, and the two of us agreed we were fortunate that we did not have to do any mingling that night. The stalk, we concluded, was not edible.

Fresh garlic, I have since learned, is only available for a small part of the year. After growing through the winter and spring seasons, the garlic is ready for harvest in the summer. And, while some of the bulbs can be enjoyed fresh, they will not keep throughout the year. Thus, most garlic is dried, giving it a much longer shelf life. The stalks can be used for soup stocks or compost but, as my friend and I concluded, they are not much good for eating. The fresh cloves, however, are delicious, and can be used in any recipe where you would use dried garlic.

Unlike their dried counterparts, I discovered, the skins of raw garlic are silky and smooth, peeling away from the clove in one satisfying piece. The clove itself was almost watery to the touch, resulting in a crisp, translucent pile of aromatic goodness as my knife moved through it. Sauteed with some fresh zucchini and yellow squash and tossed with a little pasta, it provided the powerful garlic flavor that I know and love, but brought a certain sweetness to the dish. It had all of the punch, but a little less bite--perfect for a light pasta dish.

Later in the week, I used two more glorious cloves to make fresh pesto, something I am embarrassed to say I had never done before. Now that I realize how easy it is (and now that I have six thriving basil plants on my back porch), you can bet that this will become a regular event in my kitchen. Below is the scrumptious recipe, courtesy of another friend who recently passed it along. My advice to you: hit the farmers market and track down some truly fresh garlic while you can. Grab your favorite bottle of summer wine, whip up a batch of pesto, toss with pasta, and voila! A summer dinner that's fresh, easy, and a true taste treat.

Mattie's Three-Herb Pesto (makes about 1 cup)

2/3 c each of firmly packed basil, mint, and parsley leaves
1/3 c pine nuts, toasted
1/3 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 large garlic cloves, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/2 t salt
1/2 c olive oil
1 T balsamic vinegar, or to taste (if you like a citrusy flavor, a squirt of lemon juice can also work nicely as an acid here)

In a blender or food processor, puree all ingredients with salt and pepper to taste until smooth. (Pesto keeps in a jar with tight-fitting lid, chilled, up to 1 week.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Saying No to GMOs

You may have seen the tongue-in-cheek commercials for Hulu, the internet website where you can watch as much tv as your little heart can handle. They'll "turn your chunky gray matter into creamy goo matter" with so much TV they say, in an "evil plot to destroy the world." These ads, of course, strike preemptively at critics who might say that television rots your brain, and that collecting so much of it on line would do so even faster. Whichever side you fall on in that debate, I'd argue it's worth paying the website a visit; right now on Hulu you can watch the full-length documentary, The Future of Food, absolutely free of charge. Somehow I missed the release of this film in 2004, but its arguments about genetically engineered products are no less relevant today, and I was thoroughly delighted to discover it amidst countless episodes of Family Guy and Top Chef.

Although it gets off to a bit of a slow start, The Future of Food centers around one compelling question: what does it mean for the future of our food supply, indeed the future humanity, that we've allowed corporations to place patents on life? The film offers a view of genetic engineering in our food system that is both broad and deep. It covers the threat that huge monocultures pose to our food security, as well as the actual and potential consequences of pesticide resistance and antibiotic resistance in GE crops. Not to mention the vast unknowns related to how consumption of these products affects human health. And, as in Food, Inc., there are stories of individual farmers who've been sued by Monsanto, for the accidental but inevitable cross-pollination of patented seed into the fields that they've been farming for decades. The film also examines the international consequences of the choices that the United States is making regarding GE crops, including the contamination of many heirloom varieties of corn in Mexico, varieties that aren't just part of that country's food supply, but of its cultural heritage.

The web of potential consequences is more than a little anxiety provoking, and perhaps most frightening of all is the existence of "terminator technology," or "suicide genes," about a dozen of which had already been patented when the film was made. These genes ensure that, after one growth cycle, a plant will essentially self-destruct, rendering its seed sterile and unusable for any future planting. For such genes to cross-contaminate with crops here and around the world would be devastating in ways we can't begin to imagine. As one researcher stated in the film, we run the risk of surrounding ourselves with "green desserts," wherein everything looks the same, but is being transformed from the inside, and could be wiped out at any moment.

Thankfully, the film ends with a reminder that, just as there has been a revolution in the industrialization of our food supply, there is a rapidly growing counter-revolution in the form of CSAs, organic and family farming, and many other ways in which consumers are choosing sustainable, planet-friendly food sources. In addition to speaking with our wallets, there are many ways that we can and should get involved to stop the unregulated, untested spread of genetically engineered crops into our food supply. One of the most important changes that needs to take place is a labeling system that lets consumers know when a product is genetically engineered or contains GE ingredients; after all, if we don't know where GE products are, we can't choose not to buy them. For a comprehensive list of organizations working on these issues, visit the "Get Involved" section of the film's website. Whether you donate to an activist group, volunteer for one in your community, sign an internet petition, or write to Congress, it's more important than ever to make our voices heard on this issue. The future of our food supply depends on it.

To watch The Future of Food on Hulu, click here.

Photo courtesy of Jaako, Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sustainable Sushi

These days I find myself thinking about fish.  A lot.  Am I eating enough?  Am I eating too much? Which kinds can I eat?  Is it wild or farmed?  Fresh or frozen?  Healthy or harmful? And then there are the environmental questions; from overfishing, to antibiotics, to habitat damage, the choices we make have as much impact on the health of the ocean as the health of our bodies. With so many voices offering differing opinions on all of these issues, seafood can be an extremely tricky puzzle for an ecofoodie to unravel.  Sometimes, it seems easier to just throw in the towel and not eat seafood at all.  But then I find myself at my favorite sushi bar, and there's just no way I can opt for vegetable stir fry when faced with so many more exciting possibilities.  If you love your spicy tuna roll but you also love our oceans, take heart; you don't have to choose between them.  You just have to learn how to read between the lines.

As part of their Seafood Watch program, the Monterey Bay Aquarium  has recently created a Seafood Watch Sushi Guide for those of us who like our seafood extra fresh.  From Ebi (shrimp) to Aku (tuna) to Unagi (eel), the guide lists a multitude of sushi options, each one placed into one of three categories:  "Best Choice," "Good Alternative," and "Avoid."  If you eat sushi often, you might just memorize where your favorite options fall and try to steer clear of those you should avoid.  Or, if you're better with paper lists than mental ones (as am I), you can download their handy pocket guide and tuck it into your wallet to be called upon when needed.  You might even use it as an inspiration to try something new-choose three green options you've never tried before and let the culinary adventure begin!  And if the menu doesn't tell the full story, don't be afraid to ask your server.  If the answer doesn't jive with what's sustainable, you've got a perfect opportunity to express your concerns to the restaurant--if they hear it from enough of their customers, they might just make a change!

To learn more about how you can promote the use of sustainable within your community, click here.

Photo courtesy of LexnGer, Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fun With Beets and Kale

As my fiance and I enter the fifth week of our farm share, we are still utterly enamored of the harvest that comes our way each week. The staples, like fresh beets and scallions, are always welcome, and every Wednesday there is something new to give us a little thrill. This week: new potatoes!

Still, when you find yourself staring down at enormous bunches of kale, Swiss chard, and beet and turnip greens each week, you do start to wonder how many times you can sautee them with garlic and onion, delectable an option as it is.

Lucky for me, Red Fire Farm sends out seasonal recipes with each week's harvest e-mail, and keeps even more on their fabulous website. Whether you have a farm share or are just looking for a creative way to prepare your goodies from the market, it is a great place to turn for some delicious and often surprising ideas. My favorite so far? Kale chips! I've included the recipe here, and you can follow this link to see the other yummy ideas that Red Fire has in store for you.

Easy Kale Chips

1 lb kale, chopped
Preheat oven to 400
Toss kale with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread out on a baking sheet and bake, turning every 5 minutes until brown and crispy. Kale should be dry and able to be eaten by hand like chips!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Let's Do Lunch

I grew up eating homemade lunches at school.  My (very) small Montessori school had no cafeteria, and so I didn't confront the perils of the lunchroom until I was in 8th grade, by which time I'd had enough life experience with real food to know that the items on offer--from pasty "chicken" nuggets to reconstituted potatoes--were food-ish, at best.  I avoided school cafeteria food until I finished high school, opting for peanuts out of the vending machine on days when I forgot my lunch at home.  

I don't think much about school lunch these days, being many years done with high school and without any children of my own.  Recently, however, this subject has moved to the front of my mind, as the impending renewal of the Child Nutrition Act has begun to shine a spotlight on a culinary experience that is of huge national importance, albeit one that most of us would sooner forget.  The act, which will be renewed in September, governs the National School Lunch Program, which sets the guidelines for the meals that over 30 million children in our country receive each day.  While the 2004 reauthorization of the act took some worthwhile steps in requiring all school districts to adopt wellness policies, we are still a long way from serving fresh, healthy food in our public schools.  However, as evidenced by the many grass roots campaigns currently underway (links below), 2009 presents an opportunity for all of us to get involved toward making some strides in that direction. 

In a new book, David Kessler, the former head of the FDA who took on big tobacco, argues that we are effectively conditioning our children into a lifelong desire for unhealthy food by feeding them such salty, fatty, and sugary processed meals at this phase in their development.  In the book, The End of Overeating:  Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, he makes a host of interesting arguments around the connections between the powerful food industry, the salt-fat-sugar trio, and the resulting brain chemistry that makes it so hard for so many of us to make smart food choices.  Although some may label him a conspiracy theorist, it stands to reason that the way young, developing brains learn to interact with food is as experience-dependent as any other domain.  I offer my own experience as testament to that fact; by the time I was presented with "salisbury steak" and gloopy "gravy," I'd learned too much about real food to be tempted; it just didn't look, smell, or taste like anything I'd ever seen on a plate.  But, as Kessler argues, many children who aren't so lucky find such high impact processed food far more appealing than a plain old apple, even irresistible.  

Good nutrition, in addition to the obvious health benefits, has been shown to help children perform better in school, which translates to a serious impact on their future, and ours.  Even if your children are grown or you don't intend to have children (or you do have children but can afford to avoid public school lunches altogether), all of us stand to gain from raising generations of healthy individuals who can achieve their full potential.  And, even if you are not moved by the individual stories of obese young children with type II diabetes, the economic and social costs of not changing our ways are to steep to ignore.  Only a few months remain to make an impact in this very important part of our food system--please visit the sites listed below for more information on how you can join the many voices speaking out for change.

*Click here to sign the Food, Inc. petition to serve school lunches that include "low fat and safe dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains."  (Over 50,000 signatures were delivered to Congress on June 24th, but it's not too late to sign!)
*The Healthy Schools Campaign is also organizing to move the act in a healthier direction, providing information and help in contacting your local legislator on their website.  
*Slow Food USA has a great campaign and platform, and you can find more information here.
*To hear Kessler speak about his arguments and the ideas behind them on a recent episode of On Point, click here.