May 30, 2008

Compare and Contrast

Last word on the Farm Bill, I swear. But here is something terribly indicative of the subsidy problem and the lack of priorities in Washington.

First, a classified from the January/February 2008 issue of Passages, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s newsletter.

FOR SALE – Organic, 100% grass-fed cows. Traders Point has a unique offering: Nature is not always the nurturer and the summer of ’07 will attest to that. The combination of unseasonably warm temperatures and half of the normal rainfall has exacted its toll on the farm. We really have no other choice (emphasis mine) than to sell off a portion of our herd. Traders Point remains one of the only creameries in the nation to have a year round 100% organic grass-fed herd. USDA certified by Indiana Certified Organic. Care has been taken to find high protein levels as well as higher fat content. The Brown Swiss heritage is also foremost in the field of health nutrition with the highest CLA. Call or email…

And a repeat from an earlier post, from a farmer commenting on the Washington Post’s Web site on a Farm Bill story.

My farm is bordered on one side by a river. The bank on my side is between 20 and 30 feet high, and my property never floods in the fall rains and none-too occasional hurricane. The bank on the other side is only about 5 or 6 feet above the average water level, and it routinely - I could even say reliably - floods in the fall. The land on that side of the river amounts to about 200 acres, and every spring, my neighbor plants it in corn. He gets paid to. It doesn't matter the floods ruin the crop every year, that the floods leave all the ears mildewed and unfit even for cattle feed. He gets paid to plant his 200 acres in corn, and so he does. I'd hazard to guess that he gets paid for the loss, too, by federal crop adjustment insurance.

One dairy farm, pursuing the most sustainable approach, has to sell one of the cows that produces its end product, because of conditions far beyond their control that have eliminated the cows source of food and nutrients.

The other knowingly plants corn that nobody will eat -- at least not in the form of actual corn -- in a field that will very likely flood, thus ruining the crop, and gets paid for it. Twice.


May 23, 2008

Egga Disha

As previously mentioned, we eat a good bit o' eggs… at least once a week… typically for dinner.

I’ll often make egg burritos for lunch, tossing in whatever I can rustle up in our fridge and pantry that seems like it might taste good.

The other evening we had an egg burrito for dinner, slightly tweaking a Mark Bittman recipe for “spicy scrambled eggs.” On the side we had a tomato, red onion, and avocado salad. (Yes, yes, I know: tomatoes and avocados? Obviously sourced far, far away from Western Pa. Hey, I do my best. The eggs were local and free-range, so there!).

The burrito was absolutely delicious, but just having these alone as scrambled eggs is also perfectly acceptable.

Spicy Egg Burrito

  • 1 jalapeño pepper
  • 1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 1-inch knob of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon of canola oil
  • 5 eggs (there is no flavor substitute for truly free-range eggs)
  • Salt and pepper
  • ¼ cup of cilantro, chopped
  • Shredded cheese of your choice
  • 2 tortillas

Roast the jalapeno: Using tongs, hold the jalapeño over a burner, turned to high, rotating as needed, until the skin is charred all over. Wrap it in a small bit of plastic wrap and let it sit for five minutes. Unwrap and scrape off the char. Remove the top and seeds and dice. If you want a spicier burrito, be sure to leave a decent bit of the ribbing on the pepper when removing the seeds.

Crack eggs into a bowl, beat, and add salt and pepper.

Put a large sauté pan on a burner of medium-low heat. Warm tortillas on both sides, until you see just the first bits of brown, move to a plate and cover with a dry dish towel.

Heat the oil over medium heat. Add the jalapeño, ginger, and garlic, and sauté until fragrant and the pepper bits are sufficiently tender, about 2-3 minutes maximum.

Add the eggs, let them begin to set, and proceed as you typically would for scrambled eggs. [Mark Bittman advises removing the eggs from the heat every few minutes, then stirring up, then putting back on the heat. I tried this, once, and it didn’t make any difference in the final product.]

When the eggs are ready, lay out the tortillas, add some shredded cheese in the middle (some manchego would probably be fantastic), top with the eggs, the cilantro, and, if you wish, some of your favorite hot sauce. Wrap ‘er up and enjoy!

And, as for the title of this post, a word from a truly celebrated chef…

May 21, 2008

As Expected

The Lame Duck in Chief fulfills his promise. Farm Bill vetoed. The House pulls off a first under the current administration, and, as expected, overrides the veto.

The 316-to-108 tally, far over the two-thirds needed to overcome a veto, sent the five-year, multipurpose bill to the Senate. Barring a last-minute shift in that chamber, senators appeared certain to vote overwhelmingly for the bill, sealing the president’s defeat.
Yes, more money for food stamps and a little more conservation and some more farmers markets.

But remember this: in this bipartisan-supported bill, you can make up to $1.25 million in farm and nonfarm income and still qualify for a subsidy for your commodity crop. In every sense, that is a failure to do the right thing.

May 20, 2008

The Inevitable Farm Bill

After all this time, the Farm Bill has passed the House by a veto-proof margin, so the President’s threats to veto the bill are meaningless. He’ll veto and it will go back to the House, get the requisite two-thirds vote and, poof, it’s law. The Times offers up a pretty good summary.

While I’m nowhere near a Farm Bill expert, and from what I’ve read there are some good things about this behemoth, the subsidies still render this bill a stinker on par with worst CAFO waste pond. This sums it up well:

Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, said: “Sometimes here in Washington, we tend to drink our own bath water and believe our own press releases. And to hear some of the debate here, you would think this is the best bill in the world and that everybody out there has just got to support it.”

This comment on a Washington Post story about the Farm Bill – from a real farmer, no less – is even better.

Government incentives are calculated against planting (no one can forsee harvests). My farm is bordered on one side by a river. The bank on my side is between 20 and 30 feet high, and my property never floods in the fall rains and none-too occasional hurricane. The bank on the other side is only about 5 or 6 feet above the average water level, and it routinely - I could even say reliably - floods in the fall. The land on that side of the river amounts to about 200 acres, and every spring, my neighbor plants it in corn. He gets paid to. It doesn't matter the floods ruin the crop every year, that the floods leave all the ears mildewed and unfit even for cattle feed. He gets paid to plant his 200 acres in corn, and so he does. I'd hazard to guess that he gets paid for the loss, too, by federal crop adjustment insurance. Nevertheless, the incentive to plant various crops adds a weight to the base cost of seed, and this cost is distributed in the yield. That means the price of this fellow's 200 acres of sacrificial corn seed gets figured into the cost of seed for crops that are actually harvested - driving my costs, and your food prices, ever higher.

Scrapin’ Up the Bits… Lucy Style

I don’t know whether this is a good thing, but the Post-Gazette has discovered Lucy! The PG’s Marlene Parrish has anointed Lucy, and her delectable banh mi, as a “fresh find.”

Since I have declared Lucy’s banh mi as one of my favorite all-time foods, I am torn. Because this could mean, you know, that when I do get to the Strip to get a banh mi, there might be a long line! And there is nothing worse than waiting, in line, endless minutes ticking by, stomach gnashing, mouth dribbling, eyes open so wide they burn from lack of blinking, for that … first bite.

Too bad it’s on the other side of the state, because I’d love to attend the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s inaugural Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished Beef Challenge Cook-Off. The name needs a little work, though.

One of the worst things about not being independently wealthy and having to, like, ya’ know, work for a living, is not being able to spend tomorrow afternoon at Piper’s Pub on the South Side, watching the Champion’s League final between Chelsea and Manchester United (which defeated my Roma side in the semifinals!! Red Devils, indeed!), sipping on a mug or two of “real ale” from one of Piper’s many new firkins. Bloody shame, that is.

And while mushroom hunting is still in the works, I also have intentions of doing some additional foraging for exotic wild foods, about two feet off of my back patio. Because there, you see, resides a single growth of garlic mustard:

What is garlic mustard? An invasive weed, actually. While picking up flowers and veg plants for our garden at Harvest Valley Farms recently, Art King mentioned it to me, after it was mentioned to him by Bill Fuller of Big Burrito fame. This is one nasty weed, explains Iowa chef and Grist contributor Kurt Michael Friese:

It came to New World from Europe in the 1800s as a culinary and medicinal herb. With no natural predators here, it soon grew out of control. Extremely prolific, a single garlic mustard plant can spread into a patch of 20 to 120 feet in just a year. Garlic mustard will shade or crowd out native species of flowers and mushrooms and cause massive disruption in a habitat if left unchecked.

In Hickory Hill Park near where I live in Iowa, garlic mustard's invasion has reached such heights of success that local volunteers pull out nearly a ton of the stuff every year!

Based on the nibbles I’ve taken out on the patio, seems to me that it should have some natural predators: Humans!

I’m hoping to use it in place of arugula in some pasta or to make a pesto out of it, as chef Friese advises. But some smart local farmers would be wise to pick this stuff and package it as a new “gourmet European herb” for their markets. At a production cost of $0 (aside from picking it, I suppose), seems like a winner.

And to end things sort of where they began -- with street food -- one of my favorite songs (and my kids’ favorite songs, too) comes from the late-great Joe Strummer, from his post-Clash career with Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros.

The song, “Bhindi Bhagee,” is an homage to the glories of multi-culturalism, particularly its influence on food and music. In case you can’t understand it, the first verse – the stuff about food – is below the clip.

My daughter particularly likes the “toxic empanada.”

Well, I was walking down the High Road
And this guy stops me
He'd just got in from New Zealand
And he was looking for mushy peas
I said, no, we hadn't really got 'em round here
I said, but we do got

Balti, Bhindi, strictly Hindi
Dal, Halal and I'm walking down the road
We got rocksoul, okra, bombay duck-ra
Shrimp bean sprout, comes with it or without - with it or without
Bagels soft or simply harder
Exotic avocado or toxic empanada
We got akee, lassi, Somali waccy baccy
I'm sure back home you know what tikka's all about - what tikka's all about

May 13, 2008

To Test or Not to Test?

In the mid- to late-1980s and early 1990s, the first automobile manufacturers began to sell cars with airbags as a standard feature (they weren’t a federal requirement until 1998). Imagine if the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration had sued those carmakers, arguing that they should not be allowed to sell cars with airbags because they were trying to create “false assurances” that people driving those cars would be safer than cars equipped only with seat belts.

It’s a ludicrous proposition, I know. But the government has been actively engaged in a very similar type of action. Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture -- which is charged, in part, with assuring that farms and meat packers produce food free from things that will make consumers sick – sued a Kansas-based beef outfit, Creekstone Farms, to prevent them from testing all of their cattle for so-called Mad Cow Disease, known in scientific circles as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The feds lost. But they decided to appeal. And it’s looking like they’re set to lose again.

Chief Judge David B. Sentelle seemed to agree with Creekstone's contention that the additional testing would not interfere with agency regulations governing the treatment of animals.

"All they want to do is create information," Sentelle said, noting that it's up to consumers to decide how to interpret the information.

Hmm… Now why would the government object to wider testing of cattle? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Ensure the safety of meat. Isn’t that one of the most important functions of the USDA and FDA and other government agencies, protecting the public well being?

For example, the FDA requires that every single unit of red blood cells and plasma intended for use in patients is tested with exquisitely sensitive (and intensively regulated) tests for HIV, hepatitis C, and hepatitis B, among other things.

Ironically, there are even specific inquiries on the FDA-mandated questionnaires that prospective blood and plasma donors must fill out specifically intended to screen out donors who may have consumed beef that may have come from… wait for it… BSE-infected cows (e.g., From 1980 to 1996, did you spend time that adds up to three (3) months or more in the United Kingdom?)!

So, yes, if you even visited certain countries in the U.K. for just a week between 1980 and 1996, you cannot donate blood in the United States.

Yet, only approximately 1% of cattle intended to become integral parts of chili cook-offs and drunken weekend barbecues across the United States are tested for BSE.

So, again, why would the government – or, to be more accurate, the current administration – object to a cattle company wanting to test more of its cows for BSE?

Larger meatpackers have opposed Creekstone's push to allow wider testing out of fear that consumer pressure would force them to begin testing all animals too. Increased testing would raise the price of meat by a few cents per pound.

This action by the Feds just reeks of the same kind of corrupt behavior of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture when it attempted to outlaw milk labels that used phrases like “hormone free.”

As Creekstone’s attorney told the appeals court judges:

"This is the government telling the consumers, `You're not entitled to this information,'" Frye said.

This is outrageous behavior. And it proves yet again, as Sen. Barbara Boxer once said, that “elections have consequences.”

May 11, 2008

Scrapin’ Up the Bits… Rampin’ It Up Style

I’ve heard ramps – aka, wild leeks or baby leeks – mentioned on Iron Chef America and Top Chef, read about them in Food & Wine and the New York Times, but until today, I’d never eaten them. They look like a cross between leeks and scallions.

I approached the ramps sans recipe, the great Mother’s Day adventure of 2008, if you will. Decided to grill halibut fillets (from Penn Avenue Fish Company) on a bed of braised ramps (from Farmers @ Firehouse) and wild mushrooms. Kept the halibut simple: olive oil, salt, pepper. Ramps, braised for about 20 minutes in white wine, olive oil, butter, adding the mushrooms for the last 10 minutes of the braise.

The result: holy s@#$! My poor photography skills prevented a photo, but I won’t forget this meal any time soon.

Speaking of holy s@#$… had my first taste of a raw-milk baby swiss from Pasture Maid Creamery in New Castle. Unlike any cheese I’ve had before. Hopefully the farm market at Harvest Valley Farms—where I had my sample while picking up some flowers and veg on a rainy Mother’s Day morning—will be able to procure it on a regular basis.

And speaking of wild food like ramps, it seems like it’s time to take my new-found addiction to mushrooms to the next level. I’m goin’ mushroom huntin’! This week I’ll send my $15 membership check to the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club and, if all goes as planned, take the wife, kids, and do some foraging on one of two upcoming WPMS events: May 24 at Moraine State Park or May 31 at McConnell’s Mills. My one hope: Not to poison myself!

Finally, some good reading. First…

… via Ethicurean, I came across this series at Edible Portland, “Diary of a Young Farmer.” Here, Zoe Bradbury is recounting her efforts to, well, become a young farmer. Given the shrinking number of true small farmers left in the United States, you’d think the feds would be doing everything they could to help one get a foothold in some soft dirt. Um, actually, maybe you wouldn’t. But nevertheless, it’s compelling reading.

… and via The New Yorker, the story of Grant Achatz. About two years ago, I was convinced for a day or two that I had oral cancer. I had just finished an article on researchers developing tests for the early detection of oral and head and neck cancer. A common symptom of oral cancer, tongue numbness. You know what else makes your tongue feel numb? Eating a huge bag of sour patch kids in two sittings!! In any case, Grant Achatz is, by all reports, an incredible chef running one of the most highly respected restaurants in the country. Now he has tongue cancer.

Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. Go Pens!!!!

May 1, 2008

Food a Spicy Plate for the Media

In the mainstream media, food is hot news right now. The “food crisis.” Corn-based ethanol. Farming. It’s as if somebody opened a window of a room that’s long been shuttered.

The New York Times, for example, has been running a series of agriculture-focused articles. The most recent article looked at farmers and the growing cost of chemical-based fertilizer. The cost of these fertilizers has reached the point, the Times explains, that some farmers have taken to the “age-old” practice of using pig manure to fertilize their fields.

Not to be outdone, the Washington Post also has been running a series of articles on food and the “food crisis.” In today’s paper, the focus was along the lines of other articles recently documenting how rising food prices domestically are affecting people’s lives.

One response, the Post notes, is an increased use of scissors:

Take the uptick in coupon clipping. According to NCH Marketing Services, a coupon clearinghouse in Chicago, the number of grocery coupons redeemed in 2007 increased by 100 million, or 6 percent, to 1.8 billion. The rise reversed a seven-year decline. "Every year, manufacturers have made coupons more difficult to redeem by shortening the expiration date and increasing the purchase requirements. And every year, people redeemed them less," said Charlie Brown, NCH's vice president of marketing. "This tells me that consumers are now more determined to save money."

This is interesting, in large part, because these days we buy very few products from the big name brands, meaning that even if our family wanted to, we’d find very few, if any, coupons for the products we regularly purchase.

This was also surprising:

One thing consumers haven't skimped on are organic products. Over the past 12 months, organic food and beverage sales jumped 25.5 percent, to $4.3 billion, according to Nielsen. Many shoppers who prefer organic are finding other ways to cut back rather than give up products that they think are healthier and better for the environment.

Case in point: Poli Marinova, a Bethesda marketing communications manager, said she has cut her grocery bills by almost 30 percent without switching to conventional foods. Instead, she skips "luxury items" like sushi and prepared sandwiches and soups. "We're buying a lot less overall at Whole Foods. We used to buy juice, biscuits and baby food from there," she said. "Now, we get a lot of that stuff at Costco or the Giant so we can afford to keep buying organic."

It's gotten to the point where Congress is actually holding hearings on the topic, so they must see this as a politically expedient way to make themselves look like they give a rip be hearing from their constituents about this.

At a hearing on the high cost of food on Capitol Hill, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) summed up the current situation this way: "When you walk down the street, you hear people complaining about food prices almost as much as gas prices."

Yes, because Sen. Schumer spends so much time walking through the neighborhoods in his home district.

Even some of the big networks’ evening news programs -- in between must-see segments on teen pop stars’ bare shoulders and self-centered Midwestern pastors -- have found time to report on this topic. Talk about miracles.

The former 2007 Farm Bill, now the 2008 Farm Bill, is also making news, as the House and Senate search for a bill they can agree on. As much as it pains me to say it, this is the one time where the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is actually doing some good. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House thinks the subsidies in the bill are way too big and is promising a veto if they aren’t slashed.

Some of the regulars from The Ethicurean are at a conference in Phoenix where the Farm Bill is a hot topic. Good reading.

Speaking of farms, two new reports that have not received the media coverage they are due – one from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the other from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production -- have reached unsurprising startling conclusions: CAFOs and industrial agriculture are bad things.

Finally, as for actual food, this recipe for a banana-poblano sauce sounds extremely interesting and quite delicious. In this case, the Washington Post food folks used it on turkey chops, but a white, flaky fish feels like a better option to me.