April 25, 2008

I'm mixin' up a cocktail...

A nonfood-related item with which to kick off this glorious spring weekend:

The new single from one of the most underrated bands out there, the UK's own, ELBOW.

The Food Crisis: Coming to a City Near You?

Well, a new meme burning through the popular news media at a rabid pace is the international food crisis that might, just might, be starting to nudge its way into the land of large waistlines and large TVs, the good old US of A.

First, the global perspective:

Increased food demand from rapidly developing nations such as China, the use of crops for biofuels, global stocks at 25-year lows and market speculation are all blamed for pushing prices of staples like wheat, maize and rice to record highs.

That in turn has sparked food riots in several African countries, Indonesia and Haiti, and the FAO has warned that 37 countries face food crises.

This is not something that came from no where, however:

"The situation we are in is the result of inappropriate policies over the past 20 years. Between 1990 and 2000 we lowered food aid for agriculture by half," U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Director General Jacques Diouf] said.

Generous farm subsidies in wealthy countries had also discouraged agriculture in the developing world, further aggravating the situation, he said.

"Above all we have not invested in water management in different countries of the third world... In Africa only 7 percent of land is arable," he added.

If you didn’t catch that, the “Generous farm subsidies in wealthy countries” is shorthand for the United States.

Which brings us back to the situation domestically, where food prices are rising dramatically. And it appears that it’s having some perhaps surprising effects. The big box stores, for example, are seeing indications of strange purchasing behavior:

The regulatory clash came amid evidence that a rash of headlines in recent weeks about food riots around the world has prompted some in the United States to stock up on staples.

Costco and other grocery stores in California reported a run on rice, which has forced them to set limits on how many sacks of rice each customer can buy. Filipinos in Canada are scooping up all the rice they can find and shipping it to relatives in the Philippines, which is suffering a severe shortage that is leaving many people hungry.

More about those moves by Costco and Sam’s Club:

The two biggest U.S. warehouse retail chains are limiting how much rice customers can buy because of what Sam's Club, a division of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., called on Wednesday "recent supply and demand trends."


The limits affect 20-lb bags, not retail-sized portions. Costco could not immediately be reached for comment on its limits or whether they are the first ever.

Sam's Club said it will limit customers to four bags at a time of imported jasmine, basmati and long grain white rice.

In the United States, at least, whether this is an indication of any sort of actual crisis, or something altogether different, is unclear:

The move comes as U.S. rice futures hit a record high amid global food inflation, although one rice expert said the warehouse chains may be reacting less to any shortages than to stockpiling by restaurants and small stores.

In a related story, there is a growing backlash against the boom in corn-based ethanol production as a way to alleviate the dependence on oil. In an Earth Day column in the Washington Post, Lester Brown and Jonathan Lewis, of the Earth Policy Institute and Clean Air Task Force, respectively, say it’s time to end the experiment:

…we call upon Congress to revisit recently enacted federal mandates requiring the diversion of foodstuffs for production of biofuels. These "food-to-fuel" mandates were meant to move America toward energy independence and mitigate global climate change. But the evidence irrefutably demonstrates that this policy is not delivering on either goal. In fact, it is causing environmental harm and contributing to a growing global food crisis.

Their charges consist of:

  • It requires tons of energy, mostly coal-based, to produce ethanol
  • Ethanol production produces beau coup pollution
  • It’s driving up the cost of other food staples – that is, exacerbating the international food crisis.

More than a year ago, some researchers from the University of Minnesota, also in the pages of the Post, predicted some of these problems.

Some biofuels, if properly produced, do have the potential to provide climate-friendly energy, but where and how can we grow them? Our most fertile lands are already dedicated to food production. As demand for both food and energy increases, competition for fertile lands could raise food prices enough to drive the poorer third of the globe into malnourishment. The destruction of rainforests and other ecosystems to make new farmland would threaten the continued existence of countless animal and plant species and would increase the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

It’s funny, in a sad sort of way. So many of these things are discussed directly or alluded to in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. I have yet to read his latest, In Defense of Food – I’m desperately trying to actually finish a fiction book – but I did read Pollan’s most recent essay in the New York Times Magazine. It, too, touches on the environment and food prices.

It’s one of those must reads. Exhibit 1:

There are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing [about global warming], but perhaps the most insidious is that, whatever we do manage to do, it will be too little too late. Climate change is upon us, and it has arrived well ahead of schedule. Scientists’ projections that seemed dire a decade ago turn out to have been unduly optimistic: the warming and the melting is occurring much faster than the models predicted. Now truly terrifying feedback loops threaten to boost the rate of change exponentially, as the shift from white ice to blue water in the Arctic absorbs more sunlight and warming soils everywhere become more biologically active, causing them to release their vast stores of carbon into the air. Have you looked into the eyes of a climate scientist recently? They look really scared.

So do you still want to talk about planting gardens?

I do.

Seriously. Read the whole thing.

April 22, 2008

Pizza Fusion: Eco Friendly and Pretty Darn Good

I’ll get this out of the way right up front. I had my doubts. Yeah, yeah, organic. Yeah, yeah, local. Yeah, yeah, hybrid delivery vehicles and old Levi’s masquerading as insulation. All part and parcel of this new “green business” known as Pizza Fusion.

Pizza Fusion on Urbanspoon

A small chain with only four locations at the moment, three of which are in Florida, I can honestly say I was expecting to leave disappointed. And, I’m happy to report, my expectations were greatly exceeded.

Located on route 8 in Gibsonia, not far from the Turnpike exit for Butler Valley and in the same plaza as one of the relatively new Atria's outposts, Pizza Fusion makes a good pie, even if it is oval.

We ordered a large, half-plain (for the kids), half with sausage and roasted red peppers (for the nonkids). The pizza was thin, with a slightly crisp crust that offered just the right amount of chew. The sauce, just a touch too sweet, the cheese, and the toppings all were obviously of above average quality. The roasted red peppers were organic, the sausage was not.

Overall, an enjoyable pizza. We’ll be back. In the meantime, though, some other observations:

1) Pizza Fusion offers beer and wine, all of which are organic. My wife and I both had a pale ale from Peak Brewing, which wasn’t bad. My personal opinion, however, is that, ecologically speaking, local can be as important as organic, so it would be nice if some local beers of a certain quality (cough, cough… any from Penn Brewery) were offered.

2) Some of the pizza options are, to my mind, unnecessary, bordering on the irrational. A “surf and turf” pizza with steak, shrimp, and lobster? It’s bad enough that there is a BBQ Chicken pizza on the menu (abomination!), but a pizza laden with steak and lobster? For $48? I don’t know what that is, but it ain’t pizza.

3) The service was pretty slow. But this was day two for this restaurant. I was amazed the service wasn’t worse.

4) Finally, our bill was over $40, which most people might say is expensive for dinner at a pizza joint (anticipating a long wait for our pizza, we also got some bread sticks for the kids).

I’m not complaining. I understand that quality ingredients cost more. But when you can get a few (nasty) pizzas from the various national chains for less than $20, that kind of price is a hard sell for those who equate organic and anything “green” with pot-smoking hippies and bleeding heart liberals from San Francisco, and who actually think Domino's is an acceptable meal.

Light, Local, deLicious

Eggs. Love ‘em! I can’t remember the last time I actually had eggs for breakfast. They’re almost always lunch or dinner.

About once a week I make an egg burrito for lunch, usually with some finely diced onion or shallot, a little garlic, some form of heat, some type of cheese, a sprinkle of cilantro.

For dinner, we usually turn to the versatile frittata, my favorite being one topped with garlic-oil infused croutons, chives, tarragon, and multiple dollops of ricotta.

Tonight, with little in the way of time or good options for dinner and not a great variety of available ingredients for a fritatta, we turned again to eggs, very simple and very local.

The eggs, free-range, our last few from Heritage Farm that I picked up at the Farm to Table conference. The eggs would be scambled.

Into the eggs, just before they were set, went some freshly grated Parmesan.

Once the eggs reached the plate, sprinkled on top, some arugula, our first real pickings from the arugula plant I picked up at same said conference, which shares a spot in our dining room window with a field greens plant.

On the side, a few slices of toasted ciabatta, from, I believe, Penn Mac.

We were a little pressed for time, or otherwise I might have reduced some balsamic 'til it got a bit syrupy and drizzled over top of the eggs and bread. Next time.

By no means a stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal, but with some Pellegrino or glass of a fruity white wine, you’ve got yourself one satisfying meal.

April 18, 2008

They're baa...aack!

Fresh herbs, that is.

After a whiny -- probably overly so -- post last fall lamenting the disappearance of fresh herbs from our little patio-side and lawn gardens, I suppose it's incumbent upon me to likewise celebrate their return.

And, indeed, I'm waaaayyy excited. Probably overly so.

In any case, they may not look like much yet, but soon I'll be mining these bad boys on an almost daily basis.

First, and a nice surprise, cilantro, which, unexpectedly, returned of its own accord.

Next, some very robust looking tarragon.

Finally, some illustrious oregano, soon destined to be mixed with crushed San Marzanos and gently spread atop some pizza dough.

Others are on the way: Chives already look fantastic. The tiniest leaves of mint and sage and thyme are peaking out. Flat-leaf parsley and basil will be planted within a few weeks...

Seriously, can I get an Amen!?

April 16, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits, Jet-Lag Style

Just back from the Left Coast to cover a medical research conference as part of my day job, but there is plenty to report on, some important, some not-so…

An example of the latter? Cindy McCain, the wealthy wife of the Republican Senator and GOP presidential nominee, apparently has a little thing for borrowing other’s recipes without proper attribution. Some of her sources? Rachel Ray and…

Also on Tuesday, the Wonkette site posted a recipe, “Cindy McCain’s 3-Minute No-Bake Cookies,” which appeared in the December 2007 issue of Yankee Magazine and was identical to a recipe from Quaker Oats.

You mean the one from the back of the can?

I missed Tony Bourdain’s recent talk in Pittsburgh. Thankfully, the Post-Gazette and Corduroy Orange were there to provide some of the nasty bits.

I also missed the movie “King Corn” when it was in (a few) theaters. Thankfully, PBS’ Independent Lens has my back. It’s being shown all week.

King Corn is a feature documentary about two friends, one acre of corn, and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation. In King Corn, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from college on the east coast, move to the heartland to learn where their food comes from. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, andpowerful herbicides, they plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat-and how we farm.

Here’s a little… taste, so to speak:

Next, a fairly new Pittsburgh food magazine, Table, has a feature in its spring issue on the Heinz company and how it develops its latest and greatest food “innovations.” One interesting tidbit from the article:

More important, though, are the views of the Heinz Sensory and Insight Panel, a group of 50 or so part-time expert tasters who work 20 to 30 hours a week tasting and rating the company’s products.


Interested? Watch the newspaper, Matthews recommends. Heinz occasionally runs an advertisement seeking candidates [for the panel].

And, finally, while on my previously mentioned business trip, I took the opportunity to eat at The Linkery. Like Pittsburgh’s own Bona Terra, The Linkery was named by Gourmet magazine as one of the country’s best farm-to-table restaurants.

Now, typically, when I go on business travel, I seek out great restaurants and, when I can, I try to order dishes that reflect the local culinary specialties. But, at The Linkery, I ordered the “complete burger.”

I know it’s strange to travel to other side of the country just to order a hamburger. But this was not any regular old hamburger. In fact, it was, hands down, the best burger I’ve ever had. Here’s how my burger broke down:

  • house-ground beef from Brandt Farms
  • house-cured red oak-smoked bacon from Vande Rose Farms
  • medium aged Gouda cheese from Winchester Farms
  • grilled onions
  • pastured-chicken fried egg from Wingshadows Hacienda
  • house-baked bun

The burger, ordered medium rare (with an emphasis on the rare), was just ridiculously tender. And when combined with the cheese and bacon and the onions and the egg, with a little arugula for some bite, all on a fantastic bun (which is, undoubtedly, the single most overlooked part of the burger in pretty much every restaurant, even those that claim to pride themselves on their burger), it was perfection. Best burger eva’.

April 6, 2008

Food is Expensive

Food prices are climbing.

U.S. consumer food prices normally rise by about 2.5 percent annually, but they increased by 4 percent in 2007 -- the biggest increase in 17 years, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data.

And, if anecdotal media reports are any indication, they are starting to cause some serious pain.

[Patricia] Norris must purchase only what is on her shopping list, to avoid spending more than she can afford.

"Sometimes I cry," she said, when she passes items on store shelves she can no longer buy.

But not everybody is crying. Among others, Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, in last Wednesday’s New York Times, suggest there is a silver lining to these increasing prices, at least potentially:

“It’s very hard to argue for higher food prices because you are ceding popular high ground to McDonald’s when you do that,” said Mr. Pollan, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine and author of “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” (Penguin Press). “But higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.”

I have to wonder how accurate this assumption is. There is at least one example in the Times article to back it up:

In the category of meat and dairy, rising commodity prices could very likely help the small but growing number of farmers who raise animals the old-fashioned way, on grassy pastures. With little or no need for expensive grain, these farmers can sell their milk and meat for more attractive prices.

That is welcome news to Ned MacArthur, founder of an organic, pasture-based dairy in Pennsylvania that sells milk, butter and other food under the Natural by Nature label. Unlike dairy farmers who feed their animals grain, people on the 52 farms in his consortium are looking forward to the coming months, he said.

“The grass is starting to grow now so within the next couple weeks the cows are really going to take off,” he said.

But Tom Philpott at Grist argues that, despite some of this (potential) leveling of the playing field, this ‘higher-food-prices-are-ultimately-good’ thinking is wrong-headed.

I have a hard time imagining people who are struggling to put food on the table rambling off to the farmers' market on Saturday to fill cloth bags with the sort of fresh, local, organic produce so beloved by Pollan and Waters (and me). Indeed, higher food prices are likely to send many time- and cash-strapped people in quite the opposite direction.

Rising costs may end up increasing the allure of large entities with economies of scale, cutthroat buying practices, and experience in transforming low-quality ag inputs into stuff people like to eat. I'm talking about fast-food companies, which can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap -- and rake in profits. If that's true, prices at the drive-thru won't rise quite as steeply as those in the supermarket line, giving people yet more incentive to abandon their home kitchens and flock to the Golden Arches.

I believe he has a very strong point. Contrast the reality of Patricia Norris…

"I don't buy anything I don't have to," Norris said.

or of mother-of-three Laura Miller from California (from the same Reuters article)…

She plans meals two weeks in advance and shops with the daughter who doesn't ask her to buy snacks. Miller's printed shopping list, organized by item and place of purchase, shows that she does the bulk of her buying at Wal-Mart.

"I won't pay $6 for a box of cereal when I can get it for $3" at Wal-Mart, she said.

with reality as it is perceived by Alice Waters (per the Times)…

“Make a sacrifice on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,” she said.

I think part of what Pollan and Waters and others might be discounting here -- aside from how most people outside of San Francisco live and make decisions about food purchases (probably Waters, more so than Pollan) -- is that the local/sustainable food infrastructure, at least in most places, is not set-up to leap into this alleged breach. Local, sustainbly raised food still has to be sought out, through Farmers’ Markets, CSAs, specialty grocery stores, etc.

And even for those willing to undertake such searches, a Tyson broiler chicken at Wal-Mart is still probably going to cost a good bit less than the pastured one from the organic farm two hours away being sold at the Saturday farmer’s market. And a tray of 5 or 6 steaks at Costco with a big Swift sticker on it is still going to be far cheaper, and more readily available, than grass-fed steaks from a farm just down the road.

And it’s not like it’s the fault of the family farms or organizations that organize farmers markets. They are doing their best with the resources they have available. They could sure use some help from the feds or the state government.

In Pennsylvania, this is what qualifies as help:

Governor Edward G. Rendell today announced a new $75,000 investment in farmers markets to improve consumer access to Pennsylvania products.

Development and expansion grants of up to $10,000 are available through the Farmers Market Development Matching Grant Program for eligible farmers, nonprofit organizations, local government units and businesses or associations that manage or operate farmers markets.

$75,000??!! I think Paris Hilton spent more on some fancy bagels for her bevy of personal assistants and sycophantic, hanger-on friends for breakfast yesterday morning.

And while the Farm Bill bouncing its way through Congress increases funding for conservation and organic programs, it still most heavily favors subsidies for commodity crops. And a handful of mentally, and I would argue morally, bankrupt legislators aim to keep it that way…

Farm-state lawmakers, for their part, refuse to pare $5 billion in automatic payouts that go out each year to farmers who have historically planted subsidized crops - regardless of price or whether the crops are still grown.

In short: Less talk about how high food prices are good. More talk about food policy that makes fruit, vegetables, pastured/organic chicken, pork, beef, etc. more affordable and available.

April 4, 2008

First Bites: Passport Cafe & Chicken Latino

In the span of a week, I had lunch at two restaurants I’ve been meaning to try for some time. Neither disappointed.

First came lunch at Passport Café in Wexford. This restaurant had an inauspicious beginning, restaurant review wise, that is. The relative newbie dining critic for the Post-Gazette, China Millman, in a mostly polite manner, ripped the restaurant a new one.

However, the review ran in November, when Passport Café had been open only a few months, and I’ve eaten at enough restaurants—and enough new restaurants—to understand that some times it takes some time to get things right.

And my Brazilian Chicken Salad was indeed right.

I’m not really sure what was supposed to make this dish so “Brazilian” (perhaps some soccer players with only one name made the dressing?), and I got the impression the menu didn’t exactly reflect what this particular offering actually was on this particular day.

This was chicken salad—a mixture of shredded chicken and other ingredients with something wet to bind it all together—not, as the menu seemed to suggest, hunks of roasted chicken on some form of greens.

The chicken was mixed with, among other things, raisins and shredded carrot. It was moist and had a subdued sweetness. A good bit of shoestring fries sat atop the chicken, and the entire thing rested upon a small bed of mixed greens. The dish was finished with a light coat of what I might guess was a balsamic vinaigrette, although the menu said this salad was served with a thyme vinaigrette.

The fries were delicious, although there were probably a few too many, and they were a bit oversalted. Nevertheless, the entire thing was very satisfying, and I left wanting more.

I do have to agree with Ms. Millman on one thing, though. The complimentary bread was forgettable, and that’s being generous. But the restaurant itself has a comfortable, clean atmosphere, and my meal was enjoyable. And that makes it worth a return trip.

Chicken Latino, in the Strip District, came the following Saturday. This was an entirely unplanned trip. While I had enjoyed some samples at the Farm to Table Conference, I had nothing approaching a lunch. I left well after the lunch hour and had to stop at Penn Avenue Fish Company to pick up something for dinner that night.

Chicken Latino on Urbanspoon

I could have had lunch there, but the taste memory of banh mi struck my taste buds. It was by no means cold outside, so I hoped the banh mi cart would be in its usual spot on Penn Avenue. It was not. I walked another block or two, thinking maybe gyro or chicken on a stick, and there it was, just around the bend: Chicken Latino.

Peruvian roasted chicken. Oooohhhhh. I freakin’ LOVE this stuff. My wife has on more than one occasion insinuated that I have a strange obsession with this chicken. Every time we return to D.C. to visit friends or I travel there for work, Peruvian chicken is on the brain. And that’s because, with the exception of Chicken Latino, there is not a single Peruvian chicken joint in all of Pittsburgh. D.C. is filthy with them, and, as far as I can tell, they’re all good.

For whatever reason, I had yet to make it Chicken Latino, even though I spotted it several months ago. But here I was, by myself, desperately hungry. It was time to act.

It was, perhaps the best Peruvian roasted chicken I’ve had. And I don’t think that opinion was biased by my state of hunger. The quarter chicken was ridiculously tender, and the spices that coated it were spot on. A smear of the ubiquitous spicy green sauce present in all Peruvian chicken establishments (cilantro and jalapeno, among other things? I’ve never asked) provided some added heat.

The menu at Chicken Latino is short and simple. Various options for chicken: quarter, half, whole. Yucca, black beans, coleslaw for sides. A chicken sandwich and a few others, including some weekly specials, including a tilapia ceviche on Saturdays.

Very reluctantly, I did not order any yucca fries, which is tantamount to Peruvian chicken heresy, in my view. Next time, though, there will be yucca. Oh, there will be yucca, indeed.