July 27, 2007

Coconut Milk, Lemongrass, Shrimp – Need I Say More?

A great cookbook that we picked up at least 5 years ago, Asian Noodles, by Nina Simonds, is chock full of great recipes for soups, salads, entrees and dipping sauces, all — or nearly all — related to Asian noodles.

We’ve made this recipe from that book several times, and what I find most rewarding about it is that it tastes like something you’d get in a good pan-Asian restaurant. Of course, we’ve tinkered with it to make it more to our tastes (e.g., cutting up only 1 red onion instead of 2, which just sounds excessive), but it really is a satisfying meal when you've got a hankering for some Thai or Vietnamese flavors.

If you’ve never cooked with some of these ingredients or done any Asian cooking in general, it takes some getting used to. Read through the recipe carefully and make sure you have all of your ingredients laid out and ready to go. It’s really a simple recipe to follow, as long as you’re prepared, thus the overabundance of “notes” I’ve included.

Enough blabbering….

Curried Coconut Shrimp on Rice Noodles

  • 6-8 ounces of thin rice sticks, often called vermicelli, cooked until just tender, rinsed under cold water and drained [NOTE: I fill a big pot with hot water, put the noodles in, and bring it to a boil and cook until all signs of stiffness are gone; recommend watching the noodles very carefully.]
  • 1–2 tablespoons of safflower or canola oil
  • 1.5 lbs of medium, peeled, deveined shrimp (remember, look for the domestic, wild caught stuff, if at all possible)
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 1.5 cups of frozen peas [NOTE: I suspect some blanched sugar-snap peas or cauliflower florets, or some other veggies along those lines would also work well]
  • 1 cup of fresh basil, cut into chiffonade (aka, rolled up and sliced into thin strips)

Fragrant seasonings

  • 1.5 tsps of crushed red pepper
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass, outer leaves removed, cut into small lengths [NOTE: When I get lemongrass in the grocery store, it usually comes in a little herb pack, already cut up into 4-5 inch pieces; we use about 4 of these “stalks”, removing the outer layer and any tough ends.]
  • One 1.5 inch piece of peeled ginger, cut into a few small pieces
  • 1.5 tsps of cumin
  • 1.5 tsps of coriander
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • Good sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper
Coconut sauce

  • 1.5 cups of coconut milk [NOTE: The recipe does not distinguish between sweetened, unsweetened, light, etc. We have used light, sweetened coconut milk with good results].
  • 3 tablespoons of fish sauce [NOTE: If you’ve never used fish sauce, it’s a pungent, brown liquid that these days can be found in most large grocery stores. It may not be the best fish sauce in that case, but as somebody who has tried to buy fish sauce in an Asian market can tell you, it’s a lot easier and produces a satisfying result]
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Cook the noodles as instructed above. Be sure to do this BEFORE you are ready to make the rest of the dish, because the rest of it happens quickly.

Combine the “fragrant seasonings” in a food processor and blend them until they are a coarse powder -- 10-15 seconds should do.

Mix together the coconut sauce.

Heat a big wok or stick-free skillet over medium-high heat

Add the oil and let it get hot for 30 seconds or so, then add the “fragrant seasonings” and sliced onion, reduce the heat to medium and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes until the onions are tender.

Add the coconut sauce and cook for another 3-4 minutes.

Add the shrimp and return the pan heat to medium-high, cooking until all the shrimp are pink, again, 3-4 minutes.

Add the peas and basil and stir in.

At this point, you can, as the original recipe instructs, put a little heap of noodles on a plate and spoon on the shrimp mixture. We have had good success simply putting the noodles in a big bowl and dumping the mixture over top of them, as you’d do with marinara and some capellini.

Serve immediately.

July 26, 2007

Scraping Up the Bits...

Some odds and ends from the last few days...

GO FIGURE… drinking a can of soda a day makes a person far more likely to develop “metabolic syndrome,” a constellation of physiologic factors that increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, etc. Shocking, I declare, just shocking.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, brings in 6 chefs to review the new Catherine Zeta Jones-as-big-time-chef flick, “No Reservations,” and they are a little perturbed that Ms. Jones’ character’s signature dish, a quail, is really… a squab. Those crazy Hollywood folks.

And what’s that stuff they put in all of those sodas – that’s it, high fructose corn syrup, made from all of that corn grown in this country, subsidized by the government, so we can buy 32 ounce Big Gulps for 99 cents. Which brings me to …

This Farm Bill thing, about which I become less and less sure every day. A bunch of farm and non-farm groups are getting behind this FARM 21 proposal, but one of the big groups, the Center for Rural Affairs (CRA), says it doesn't do enough to help small- and mid-sized family farms, among other shortcomings. And now the Democrats are reportedly going to try to fund increases in food stamp and other nutrition programs included in the bill with some new taxes that the aforementioned CRA is attacking. I don’t like new taxes, but this is on profits made by companies that set up subsidiaries in other countries to shelter those profits from U.S. taxes. That doesn’t sound all that bad to me.

And now there is a White House veto threat. Maybe that would be a GOOD thing. A veto might slow this grain train down and allow more time to craft something that isn’t just another boon for the big agri-biz companies at the expense of small- and mid-size farms.

And the bill that passed the House Ag Committee is going to the full House for debate today! I want to call my House rep and tell him something, I’m just not sure what. No wonder this bill is the source of so much confusion. That’s because it’s so confusing!

FINALLY, coming soon, a recipe for an excellent curried shrimp dish.

July 23, 2007

Not Going Well

All indications are that it is not going well with the farm bill.

But first, this was too beautiful not to put on display:

That’s a 6-lb beauty from nearby Misera’s Organic Farm, prepared yesterday by my wife. It’s a Mario Batali recipe, a balsamic and red-wine glazed roasted chicken, with some rosemary and garlic rubbed under and over the skin, and some thickly sliced red onions thrown into the bottom of the roasting pan.

Those red onions make an excellent complement to the bitter grilled radicchio served with the chicken – all of which we enjoyed with a glass of Privada, an Argentinean wine from the Malbec region.

NOW, back to more important matters. As I have said in earlier posts, I am no expert on the farm bill and I am more than certain that there are some seriously different opinions on the most important reforms.

However, I am of the mind that, if the farmers and farm groups aren’t happy, then it must not be good. Mark “Mental Masala” also has an excellent rundown of farm-focused groups’s many cricitisms of this alleged reform bill.

While directing readers to let Speaker of the House Pelosi (D-CA) know how they feel about this bill, Mental cites one example that demonstrates just how out of whack this bill is:

Tell the Speaker that we need a farm bill for all Americans, not just the commodity growers and absentee landowners (like the mysterious Constance Bowles, who collected $1,210,865 in farm payments between 2003 and 2005 while living in a posh neighborhood in San Francisco…

July 20, 2007

Thanks, Neko

Had the privilege last evening of seeing who in my view is one of the best singer/songwriters around, with a hearty emphasis on singer, Neko Case. This clip, while good, doesn't do her live performance justice.

July 19, 2007

No Frying, No Cheap Hot Sauce

Having grown up in a town that was just shy of nutso about chicken wings – or buffalo wings, as they are often referred to by some – I have always had a fondness for a tasty wing.

Unfortunately, many bars and a good bunch of restaurants view wings as afterthoughts, over-frying them, using from what I can tell almost no seasoning, and then dousing them in surplus-style "hot sauce" or "tangy BBQ sauce" -- runny, bitingly spicy, often tasteless dressings that will likely be masked in part by the blue cheese or ranch dressings served along with the wings that said customers will proceed to dunk their wings in.

A pure travesty, I say.

We had never made wings at home until nearly two years ago, when I came across a wing recipe in Food & Wine from the monotoned “celebrity chef” Tyler Florence (who, I know, I know, has officially jumped the shark – or perhaps red snapper or bluefin tuna – with his new Applebees gig) that sounded too good and too easy not to try.

I believe Tyler displayed his remarkably diverse vocabulary in describing these wings as “delicious,” and, I have to report, he was correct. They are pretty close to the perfect chicken wing.

First, they are simple to make. Baking, no frying them in a big vat of just-waiting-to-scald-your-skin oil.

Second, they have the intense spiciness of red curry paste (but don't punish your lips by leaving them dry and burning for two hours after you've finished eating), countered by the welcome tang of lime juice and zest.

And, third… well, there is no third. That’s about it. Easy and "delicious." ‘Nuff said.

Red Curry-Lime Wings

- 4 pounds of chicken wings
- Few drizzles of extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 4-6 tbs of butter (you can stick to the lower end and the result is still “delicious”)
- 1 tablespoon of red curry paste (most decent grocery stores carry this now)
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- Grated zest and juice of one lime
- 1 teaspoon (maybe a tad more) soy sauce

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees

Toss the wings in a bowl with the olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Bake the wings in the oven for about 40 minutes. [NOTE: An important tactic here is to use a quality nonstick baking pan and to check on the wings every 15 minutes to make sure they aren’t sticking. Otherwise, when the wings are done, you’ll be trying to pry them from the pan, which, if you're like me, leads to bouts of cursing and slamming of various cooking utensils!]

While the wings bake, mix together the remaining ingredients (butter through soy sauce). Do yourself a favor and soften the butter beforehand.

When the wings are done, mix the wings and curry paste-lime mixture in a big bowl. [NOTE: I’d recommend against using your hands. That curry has a way of finding any little nicks on your fingers and inflicting some serious ouchies.]

FINAL NOTE: I have yet to see 4-pound bags of wings. If you’re going to do 3 pounds, you really don’t need to adjust the amount of sauce. If you’re going with closer to, say, 6 pounds, just add a little more of each of the sauce ingredients. The key, in my opinion, is ensuring you have enough curry paste, butter, and lime juice/zest.

FINAL, FINAL NOTE: If you can afford it, try to find local or sustainably raised chickens. Whole Foods carries Bell & Evans' antiobiotic-free, horomone-free wings, but, unfortunately, they aren't cheap.

July 17, 2007

Subsidies: Is Farm Bill Girl Right?

I don’t know. I don’t know enough about this behemoth piece of legislation commonly known as the Farm Bill to answer definitively, but in her diary from a week or so ago on Daily Kos, Farm Bill Girl quickly made me question what just a day or two earlier I had felt was a good idea (so much so that I wrote an anti-subsidy post on it): to support and promote an amendment to the Farm Bill authored by Rep. Ron Kind, D-WI, that has generated some serious noise on the Hill called Farm 21.

But before any more on that, there’s a reason why this is important. According to Mark R. “Mental Masala” over at the absolutely excellent Ethicurean blog, the House Agriculture Committee today started what will be three days of work on finalizing a farm bill to send on to the full House.

So the next two days could be crucial. But back to subsidies and Farm Bill Girl...

FARM 21 would end the massive subsidies programs in the farm bill for commodity crops like corn and soybeans, and instead create “risk management accounts” for farmers.

These subsidies have been demonized by many well-intentioned people -- including the author of the wonderful book Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan, and the Environmental Working Group – as a root cause of the problems created by the farm bill (e.g., its impact on obesity, the environment, illegal immigration, etc.).

But Farm Bill Girl (whom I will refer to as FBG for the remainder of this post) argued the opposite. She said that subsidies were a symptom of the serious systemic dysfunction created by the farm bill.

The root of that problem is corporate consolidation of agriculture, where a few agribusiness companies dominate global trade markets (i.e. ADM/Cargill for corn, Smithfield/Tyson for livestock, WalMart and various other corporations who dominate supermarkets in Europe, the US) to the misery of all farmers suffering from low prices that never meet their costs of production.

This resonated with me. It made sense, particularly after reading Fast Food Nation some years ago and, more recently, an excellent expose of factory pig farms in Rolling Stone and the aforementioned Omnivore’s Dilemma.

FBG continues talking about commodity subsidies, and our food system, which is

premised upon letting the "market" set prices for commodities, and then using subsidies when those prices are driven too low. Subsidies do barely keep rural America afloat. Ken Cook [of the Environmental Working Group] deliberately distorts his database to look like it's all going to "millionaire farmers" and that 66% of farmers never receive farm payments. Well, most of that 2/3rds are "rural residence" farms, meaning a lot of wealthy landowners with their hobby farms, not real farmers. For full-time farmers, most do receive some sort of subsidy, and farmers I know that are family farmers are in the top 10% of that database, receiving about $20,000 a year (remember though, this was when prices collapsed after 1996. This year, those numbers will be significantly decreased because of the higher prices). Also, most payments are going to districts like North Dakota and South Dakota and Iowa and Nebraska (Scott Kleeb's district he ran in). What do these have in common? They're not known for millionaires. They're known for tough economies where young people are leaving in droves and no one young goes into farming. So clearly, subsidies are going to places that need it, but they clearly aren't doing much to keep these places alive or growing.

FBG goes into some of the history before the farm bill, before gross agricorp consolidation. You can read more about this history in a great primer on the Farm Bill by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

All of it is much more than I wanted to go into here. But the history does point to the wisdom of reinstituting a policy from years past that helped to curtail the overproduction of crops, which keeps prices low for the big agribusinesses (prices below what it costs the farmers to produce the crops, thus the need for the subsidies, which began in 1996 as “emergency payments”): a reserve for crops that can store well, to keep them off the market and keep prices fair for the farmers producing them.

The IATP, FBG, and other farm groups also advocate the establishment of a price floor for commodity crops. This goes back to the subsidies argument, and again I’ll go back to FBG:

Subsidies DO do all the bad things progressives think it does: fuel agribusiness, fuel factory farms, dumps on third world. But it does NOT cause overproduction. It's the pricing system we need to look at. If farmers got a fair living wage for their product, there would be NO NEED for subsidies.

Again, this really resonates with me. And it makes sense. Pay farmers a fair price for their product, as well as encourage organics, support local food systems, support environmentally sound uses of farm land, and stop indirectly subsidizing the Tysons and ADMs and Cargills of the world. Sounds like a good bill to me!

As for FARM 21, the Center for Rural Affairs’ Blog for Rural America has this to say:

• While FARM 21 would change the basic structure of farm programs, it does little in the way of making sure that farm program benefits flow to small and mid-size family farms (jump to more about this);
• FARM 21 does not close the loopholes used to avoid farm program payment limits (jump to more about this);
• FARM 21 shifts large amounts of money to conservation programs- a laudable goal- but invests most of that money into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which subsidizes enormous manure lagoons and the concentration of livestock production (jump to more about this);
• FARM 21 places much-needed resources behind some rural economic development programs, but others receive inadequate amounts (jump to more about this);
• FARM 21 does not include any crucial livestock market competition reforms;

But even any discussion of FARM 21 may be moot. Mental Masala pointed to disturbing statements from House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., on FarmPolicy.com about the Farm Bill’s prospects:

“Reacting to public and private statements by Republicans that they think Congress is more likely to extend the 2002 farm bill than rewrite it, Peterson said, ‘Maybe there’s a bigger strategy. The Republicans don’t want anything [to pass] in the Congress.’”

So clearly activity from the net roots is going to be important to get a truly progressive farm bill through Congress. You can get far more information on this bill at several of the sources mentioned in this post, including the Ethicurean, IATP, Blog for Rural America.

July 12, 2007

This is actually encouraging

A new survey by Consumer Reports magazine finds that more than 90% of those surveyed want their food to come with a “country of origin” label. One of the study’s co-authors said he was “shocked” by the response, attributing it to the recent food recalls for things like tainted...

- peanut butter
- bagged spinach
- green onions

And, while it doesn’t qualify as food – for most people, that is - there's also that little carcinogen-laced low-cost toothpaste to make you feel all warm and groggy.

Speaking of real food, we haven't made this yet, but, you know how I feel about the dark stuff, and I'm becoming a big fan of Melissa Clark's recipes, even though she does bear a scary resemblance to an SNL-era Laraine Newman (of whom, remarkably, I cannot find a picture from that time!).

July 9, 2007

Fruits and Veggies Need Your Help

The United States has the highest incidence of obesity in the developed world. We scarf down Big Macs, barbecue potato chips, stuffed-crust pizzas, and 32-ounce Big Gulps as if we get bonus points in heaven for most calories consumed.

Part of the problem is the cost of this so-called food. It's dirt cheap. And that can be directly attributed to a behemoth piece of federal legislation commonly known as the farm bill. The 2007 farm bill currently is slowly winding its way through the House and Senate committees that oversee agriculture issues, committees chock full of legislators from "farming states" who, in years past, have developed this extremely important bill with little outside scrutiny.

To be very honest, I understand very little about the farm bill, including the most recent one passed in 2002 that some members of Congress want to renew as is.

But I do know a few things about it. For example, as a result of the 2002 farm bill:

- $67.6 billion in subsidies was doled out to support the production of just 5 crops, or, as they are often called, “commodities”: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice. In the case of corn, much of it will undergo significant processing and end up in various forms (high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, pectin, and a disturbingly long list of other additives) in a can of Pepsi, a box of Lucky Charms, or a package of Scooby Doo (not-so) fruit roll-ups. [The majority of it will end up as cattle feed, but that's another topic for another post.]

- Growers of fresh fruits and vegetables receive NO subsidies.

The outcome (free registration required)of this gross, entirely criminal discrepancy:

Between 1985 and 2000 the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables increased nearly 40 percent, while the price of soft drinks decreased by almost 25 percent, adjusted for inflation…

Now, combine that with the results of a study by obesity researcher Dr. Adam Drewnowski that Michael Pollan recently discussed and you start to see something truly devious at work:

Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods--dairy, meat, fish and produce--line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.

As a rule, processed foods are more "energy dense" than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them "junk." Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly--and get fat.

In other words, beside the documented environmental impact of the monoculture farms that raise most of these “commodities” – it takes nearly 10 times the amount of calories of fossil fuel energy to grow and process the corn that is used in sodas and chicken nuggets, etc. for every calorie of actual food (if you want to call a chicken nugget that!) produced – the government is shelling out billions of dollars to make Americans fat!

Is it any surprise, then, that obesity is an epidemic in this country and America, by far and away, has the fattest populace in the world?

So what’s the impact of our national girth? I'll let the leadership of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) explain:

Obesity and unhealthy eating constitute a national crisis, with $117 billion per year in estimated treatment and indirect costs. The epidemic of child obesity, however, promises a worse crisis in the making – these children will have more heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke, in some cases not long after they become adults.

The IATP also has a great primer on the farm bill.

Sadly, the farm bill reportedly is well understood by just a handful of legislators, mostly from states whose farms – again, mostly big agri-businesses – receive most of its taxpayer-funded largess.

As I already acknowledged, I know little about the farm bill. But the fact that there are no subsidies for fruits and vegetables is enough to suggest it is a truly misguided piece of legislation.

Enough groups and people finally are now coming together to try to make important changes to the farm bill, including supporting a proposal put forth by Rep. Ron Kind (D) from Wisconsin that would slash many farm subsidies and boost funds for land conservation and rural development.

One way to get our government to make supporting affordable, safe [a related topic also deserving of its own post], and healthy food a priority in the farm bill is to call or email your elected representatives and tell them to support any measures in the farm bill that reduce subsidies for crops that make us fat and that promote the production of fresh fruits and vegetables and, very importantly, sustainable, local food systems.

UPDATE: To keep up to date on the most recent happenings with the farm bill, both the IATP and Environmental Working Group (EWG) maintain portions of their Web sites dedicated to the farm bill.

July 2, 2007

Is that a zucchini in your pocket?

One zucchini plant: $2.99

5 bags of Miracle-Gro organic soil: $30

Going away for a 5-day weekend and forgetting to check if any zucchinis were ready for pickin': Scary big zucchini!

FOR THE RECORD: This zucchini from our garden measured in at 18 inches long and, at its most rotund point, 17 inches around.

So what to do with a zucchini this big?

Make Zucchini "steaks," of course.

I cut about 8 6-inch long, 2-inch wide, and one-inch thick slices of the above pictured gigunda zucchini, tossed it with about 2 tbs of olive oil, 1 tsp of chopped thyme, 1-2 tablespoons of chopped flat-leaf parsley, pepper, and a few good pinches of this ridiculously expensive chardonnay-barrel smoked salt that I got at Williams Sonoma last year (too embarassed to put it back after the cashier had rung it up and I saw the price on the register's display).

These were thick, so I grilled them over moderate heat for about 15 minutes, flipping about half-way through. They were great. Next time, though, I'll just do thick pucks. Much easier to cut them that way.