March 31, 2008

Local Is As Local Does

Farming is not adapted to large-scale operations because of the following reasons: Farming is concerned with plants and animals that live, grow, and die.

- Cornell University Agriculture Professor, via Omnivore’s Dilemma

It’s not everyday that you get to meet somebody who was in one of your all-time favorite books. But that’s what happened to me on Saturday, and probably to many others who attended the Farm to Table Conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center this past weekend.

Anybody who stopped by the Heritage Farm booth at the conference most likely met the 20-year-old Peter Burns, who played a small role in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Peter—who along with his father, Greg Burns, operates Heritage Farm in Ridgway, Pa., about 2 hours northeast of Pittsburgh—was an intern at the increasingly famous Polyface Farms during the time Pollan spent there researching Dilemma, and he nabbed a few mentions in the book.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Greg and Peter about their farm and their products. Among other things, they told me how the folks from the Big Burrito Group recently paid a visit to the Burns’ farm and will be sourcing some Heritage product for the Big Burrito family of restaurants. [A quick aside: If you believe in local food and you dine out in the Pittsburgh area, you simply must patronize one of Big Burrito’s many excellent establishments. Bill Fuller, Big Burrito’s executive chef, is as fervent a supporter of local farms as you’ll find. If this movement is going to continue to grow and flourish, it will be on the backs of dedicated chefs like Fuller.]

Peter’s year-long internship at Polyface, Greg said, has allowed Heritage to follow in the Polyface/Joel Salatin mold. So the grazing beef cattle help to fertilize the soil that sprouts the grass they eat, and the chickens (and turkeys!) are brought in behind the cattle as they are moved around the farm, picking out vital nutrients from the cow’s waste, leaving their own fertilizer packages behind to nourish the grass. As Salatin told Pollan, running a nearly universally sustainable operation means being a very good grass farmer.

If nothing else, the conference offered an opportunity for attendees to get some quality time with local farmers who are producing quality products.

I picked up some creamy raw milk cheeses from Pasture Maid Creamery, part of Dean Farms, in New Castle, a family-run operation that’s been around since the late 1800s! I also sampled some delicious cheese from Emerald Valley Farm in Scenery Hill, Pa. I foresee a shipment of some of Emerald Valley’s Formage Blanc varieties in the very near future.

Speaking of dairy products, I usually need my milk to have a good bit of cereal floating in it (my most recent favorite: Barbara’s Peanut Butter Puffins). But I really enjoyed the tall glass of raw milk I sampled during one of the three cooking demonstrations held on Saturday. And the bite of bison tenderloin, courtesy of Bistro 19 executive chef Jessica Gibson, was wonderfully tender. The bison was from Wooden Nickel Farm in Edinboro, Pa. Seriously, who even knew there was a buffalo farm in Pennsylvania?!

All in all, my 4 or 5 hours at the conference on Saturday was time ridiculously well spent. I met some of the true leaders of the local food movement, found new sources of sustainably produced products, and even added to my own local food production: a pot of freshly sprouted arugula and a pot of mixed lettuces.

Both pots are lounging in a window in my dining room. With any luck, in a few weeks, they’ll be my ultra local source for a salad that will accompany some monster grass-fed rib eyes in my freezer that I’m just dying to slap on the grill!

Welcome spring. It’s time to eat!!

March 25, 2008

Scrapin’ Up the Bits, Stank Style

In reading a New York Times article on the continued abuse of reliance on earmarks by members of Congress, I couldn’t help but notice the aroma of this bit o' pork:

Three Iowa lawmakers — Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican, Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and Representative Tom Latham, a Republican — sponsored a $196,000 item for research into ways to reduce odors from swine and poultry.

Ah, yes, in a time of remarkable political rancor, it's heartening to see that helping big factory farms find ways to mask reduce their illness-inducing stink is a bi-partisan pursuit. Democracy at its finest.

Speaking of Big Ag and polluted air, Elanor from the Ethicurean waxes eloquent about the rampant pesticide use on the melons and almonds and tomatoes grown in California’s Central Valley and its impact on the local community, including the children of the workers. Some of it is just… jarring.

Drift testing conducted at the school has found a "chronic" presence of pesticides at low-to-moderate levels in the school air. Chronic meaning constant. These kids are breathing in pesticides all the time.

And if you’re searching for a better understanding of how the big meat packers undermine food safety and quality in the pursuit of profit, Alan Guebert fills in some blanks. A taste:

Since 1980, the number of U.S. hog farmers has dropped from 667,000 to 67,000 while the percentage of hogs grown under contract to packers has risen from virtually zero to more than 70. Those two numbers are as related as ham and beans.

Finally, so much for my grand onion theory. Troy Bogdan of Pure Earth Organic Farm near Meadville, Pa., based on observation from 12 years of running an organic farm, sets me straight.

The reason an onion (especially the ones stored over winter) gets strong, is because it is getting ready to sprout. There is a natural time clock in each member of the onion/garlic (allium) family, and when "the alarm goes off," that means it's time to wake up from hibernation, and start to grow and get ready for reproduction. This in turn causes EXTREMELY strong flavors and scents.

If you see any of Troy’s delicious garlic for sale, be sure to pick some up.

Easter Brunch

We hosted our first family holiday meal on Easter Sunday. It was a small group, and we determined early on that we would keep it simple:
  • Fruit and croissants (courtesy of Whole Foods)
  • Easter bread toast (courtesy of Mother of Fillippelli)
  • Two types of scrambled eggs: plain and flavor-infused with ginger, garlic, scallions, red chili, cilantro (eggs courtesy of Sonshine Farms in Mercer, Pa.)
  • Roasted asparagus (again, Whole Foods)
  • And, the centerpiece of the meal, a hickory-smoked ham

The ham came from Willie’s Smokehouse in Harrisville, PA. The ham was excellent. Moist, extremely flavorful. I don’t yet know the source of Willie’s pigs, but I intend to find out, ‘cause I’m not waiting until next Easter to order another hickory-smoked ham.

The asparagus, unfortunately, was a flop. I have grilled and sautéed asparagus with great success, but never roasted it alone. Roasting the asparagus seemed to be a wise option because the stove top was busy with scrambled eggs. Although I had some of my own ideas, I searched for some roasted asparagus recipes, and Bon Appetit, via Epicurious, offered an appealing one: lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for approximately 20 minutes at 450.

Mistake. Way too long. It turned to mush. A terrible waste of what, by all appearances, should have been some fantastic asparagus. Bad Bon Appetit, Bad!

Thankfully, a shot of Crown Royal, a holiday tradition for my wife’s family, made the disappointment a little more bearable.

March 11, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits, Jalapeno Chip Style

Ah, sitting on the couch, watching a recording of today’s Inter Milan vs. Liverpool Champion’s League match, drinking a Stone Pale Ale, and treating myself to a highly rare treat, Miss Vickie’s hand-picked Jalapeno potato chips.

Odd combination for a Tuesday evening, but perfect for reporting on this mish mash of interesting news, some local, some not so…

To begin with, a special type of ticket for Tony Bourdain’s March 31 talk as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lecture series went for some big bucks on eBay. It included a one-on-one with the smoking cook world traveler, autographed book, a top-notch seat. The bidding apparently went back and forth, peaking at more than $2,200.

"We never expected this great a response," said Jayne Adair, director of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures series.

Alas, I waited too long to finally order tickets. Just too long. They sold out two hours before I called.

And here’s some important news for Strip District junkies. The former Il Picolo Forno on 21st St. in the Strip District, next to La Prima Espresso, is now Colangelo's.

Picolo Forno is a well-regarded Italian restaurant in Lawrenceville, run by the son of the former owners of Il Piccolo Forno, Antonio and Carla Branduzzi. Antonio died in January 2007 and, up until a few months ago, his wife had continued to operate Il Piccolo Forno. We only discovered it more than a year ago, and fell for it immediately. Nothing like a late morning espresso or cappuccino from La Prima with a slice of pizza from Il Piccolo.

Mrs. Branduzzi closed Il Piccolo Forno a few months ago. As I learned Saturday morning, it has reopened as Colangelo's, and appears to be mostly unchanged. There were still thick slices of pizza on the counter, still delicious pastries in the glass case (we had some great cannoli's Sat. night), and still an open walkway between it and La Prima for some world class espresso drinks.

Needless to say, this is excellent news.

Meanwhile, according to the Post-Gazette, local restaurants are in a pinch.

Rising fuel costs meant many suppliers bringing in produce, meat, pasta and other ingredients had started adding surcharges for every load. Eat'n Park officials studied ways to consolidate truck loads. Or, as Mr. O'Connell put it, "Can we make two deliveries instead of three deliveries to a restaurant a week?"

The cost of ingredients also weighed on results. Beef prices are up, as are wheat, dairy, even fats and oils used in cooking. For Kings, food costs rose more than $560,000 above the previous year.

The article focuses on chain restaurants, which have greater flexibility in dealing with rising prices. The indies have to be feeling it that much worse. There have been numerous reports about the skyrocketing costs of wheat. But costs for everything are going up.

However, there could be sort of a silver lining to all of this, at least in terms of America’s bulging belt line.

Take the "senior menu" at Eat'n Park. It's never been just for seniors, Mr. O'Connell said, because anyone could order from it, but in February the chain turned it into a "smaller portion" menu. Someone who wants the Rosemary Chicken but wants just one chicken breast can get that.

"It's really, 'Hey, here's another way for people to save money,' " he said.

Kings is approaching desserts in the same way. "Our desserts were huge," said Mr. Whalen. In the past couple of years, the chain has been offering mini-desserts for those who want just a taste.

And, finally, it’s been a while. But this week’s Fast Food Abomination of the Week goes to… Quiznos, for its Prime Rib Ranchero: with loads of meat, pepper jack cheese, and chipotle mayo. I believe this is the second time Quizno's has secured this honor.

I couldn’t find the nutritional information for Quizno’s entire menu on its Web site, but I did find some examples of healthy Quizno’s eating here.

Among some of the highlights: As of November 2007, Quizno's large tuna melt has over 2,000 calories and 175 grams of fat! And what is probably the closest relative to the Ranchero, the large Prime Rib Cheesesteak Sub, has 1,770 calories and 116 grams of fat.

Those numbers speak for themselves.

March 10, 2008

A Salad

The dreary last days, if we’re lucky here in western Pennsylvania, of winter are really starting to get to me. I'm yearning for sunlight and t-shirts!

This arugula salad is something we might typically have as part of a late dinner on a spring evening, after the kids have gone to bed, along with a grilled steak rubbed in a good extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and a healthy dose of fresh herbs. We actually ate it Sunday with some leftover pizza (for which a small portion of said arugula had, the night before, been a topping, along with fresh mozzarella, caramelized onions, and prosciutto).

Now, you could save yourself a little trouble and use raw red onions. However, the red onions I have had this winter have been almost unbearably strong. I have a theory about why this is the case.

Several years ago I watched an episode of “Good Eats” all about onions on the evil network. Alton Brown claimed that, as a defense mechanism to ward off hungry vegetable predators, onions release a chemical irritant when they are cut. I have noticed, however, that the onions we get from the CSA rarely bother my eyes when I cut them. Yet, I am regularly reduced to a wincing Wendy when dicing or slicing grocery-store onions.

My theory: onions grown by massive, factory farming operations are bathing in what I can only assume is heavily abused soil, rife with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This hostile environment pumps up their defense mechanisms, causing them to be hyperactive and unleash their toxic fury on unsuspecting home cooks everywhere.

The onions from our local farm, however, are not bullied by chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and thus are a more tranquil veg, more than happy to be part of a avocado and tomato salad or rest upon the top of a grass-fed beef burger.

I have no idea if this has any scientific validity whatsoever. Nevertheless, long story short, for this salad, I let the heat do some work on my red onions.

Baby Arugula Salad with Lemony-Oregano Vinaigrette

  • Half cup of walnuts, roughly chopped
  • Big bowl of baby arugula
  • 1 cup of thinly sliced red onions
  • Pecorino Romano
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon of oregano, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Turn oven to 325 degrees.

Combine lemon juice with oregano, salt, and pepper. Whisk in half-cup (or more) of olive oil. Lemon flavor should be strong, but not overwhelming.

Toast the walnuts in the oven for 3-5 minutes.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. After a minute or two, add onions and sauté for 5-10 minutes, until onions are soft and beginning to brown/caramelize.

Sprinkle walnuts and onions over arugula, shave a healthy amount of pecorino over top, and toss with about two-thirds of the dressing. (NOTE: The salad should not be drenched in dressing.) Serve immediately.

March 4, 2008

A Losing Battle

I’ve been entirely remiss lately with the frequency of my posts. There’s been so much going on that it’s been difficult to pick which ones to devote some time to, and, in the end, indecision and laziness prevail.

Well, that, and when you write as part of your day-job, sometimes the thought of banging away on a keyboard into the evening—after you’ve scrambled to get a child to tae kwon-do; made, scarfed down, and cleaned up dinner; given kids baths; put kids to bed; made kids’ lunches for the next day; done a little laundry; paid some bills; and who knows what else—offers little appeal.

Anyway, I guess you could say that there’s a theme to the two following stories. And that theme would be: Our government stinks. When it comes to food policy in this country, legislators and the current administration will pay lip service to things like good nutrition and supporting “family farmers,” but where the seeds meet the soil, they almost uniformly side with the powerful interests working against these important objectives.

For example, there was a great op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times by Jack Hedin, who runs a small organic farm in Minnesota. Mr. Hedin explained how, to meet increased demand for his organic fruits and veggies, he rented some land from another farmer who raised only commodity crops.

But the arrangement ran into some problems with the Feds, namely the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, which manages the massive U.S. farm subsidies program:

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.) [emphasis added]

In one sense, I can understand where the Feds are coming from. The farmer from whom the land is being rented is, I guess, double dipping: getting paid by the government to grow only corn or, worse yet, nothing on his land, and then renting out that land and getting paid again.

The problem, however, is the same: No incentive to grow fruits and vegetables, but you get paid to grow corn and soy and other crops so that mega-corporations like Tyson or Pepsi have access to cheap feed for chickens or high fructose corn syrup for soda.

And it gets worse. Mr. Hedin?

The federal farm program is making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow fresh organic vegetables.

Why? Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.

Last year, Midwestern lawmakers proposed an amendment to the farm bill that would provide some farmers, though only those who supply processors, with some relief from the penalties that I’ve faced — for example, a soybean farmer who wanted to grow tomatoes would give up his usual subsidy on those acres but suffer none of the other penalties. However, the Congressional delegations from the big produce states made the death of what is known as Farm Flex their highest farm bill priority, and so it appears to be going nowhere, except perhaps as a tiny pilot program.

I’m sorry. I thought Congress worked for the people, not big companies. Silly me.

Or, in an absolutely expected development, President Bush’s final budget of his reign of terror administration has eliminated the funding for Pasture Systems and Watershed Research Unit at Penn State.

This is a big deal for research into things like sustainable farming, keeping waterways safe from runoff, etc. As a letter from the researchers about the situation explains:

Unless Congress acts to restore the $4.42 million allocation in support of the University Park location, the entire research program will be terminated and all 45 scientist and support staff positions will be abolished.

The research program at University Park seeks to develop profitable and sustainable animal, crop, and bioenergy producing enterprises while maintaining the quality of ground and surface waters. The loss of this research unit would end cutting edge research on nutrient management, forage and grazing land management, water quality, integrated farming systems, and bioenergy cropping systems for the northeastern U.S.

I believe Sam Fromartz, proprietor of ChewsWise, summed it up best:

In light of the growing demand for grass-fed meat and pasture-based dairy farming in the northeast, I find it incredible that this program is being killed. We need more research into sustainable agriculture, not less.

But then we wouldn’t be able to offer $5.1 billion more in commodity crop subsidies, would we?

Excuse me while I go vomit.