June 29, 2008

Connecting Small Farms and Big Buyers

A little late coming to this, but better late, eh?

In any case, the so-called locavore movement seems to be picking up steam in these here parts, with an organization called the Progress Fund launching a new program called the Produce Grown Here, or PGH, project.

The project will help local farmers deliver the produce by connecting them with buyers and reduce costs by joining with other farmers to streamline operations.

First, let’s begin with The Progress Fund. What is it?

Few conventional lenders and business gurus tailor their offerings to small, rural businesses. The Progress Fund supports businesses that build the rural economy, typically while honoring the environment, reusing historic structures, reinvigorating traditional business districts, and creating living wage jobs.

From the description on its Web site, it sounds like the Progress Fund may have got its start thanks to one of Rep. John Murtha’s famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) earmarks. Nevertheless, in this case, it appears to be a worthy organization.

Next, some more details about the program.

The PGH project will focus first on Giant Eagle and Eat'n Park Hospitality Group, helping them to expand their existing local buying operations by connecting more local farmers with the two companies.

Because the local farming economy is fragmented -- there are 17,000 family farms in Western Pennsylvania alone -- many farms are too small to fill the needs of large companies like Eat'n Park, whose restaurants can go through 35,000 pounds of tomatoes a week.

The Progress Fund’s president and CEO, David Kahley, was kind enough to reply to an email to offer some further details on the PGH project:

“We’re presently focused on four products (tomatoes, corn, apples, and potatoes) to stay focused rather than scatter our initial efforts. I think our chances of success are best protected by staying focused. However, once we develop a good distribution system, our intention is to use that as a model for even more local foods, including high quality local meats produced by using sustainable practices.”

It is a bit disconcerting that the project’s launch involves to heavy hitters like Giant Eagle and Eat‘n Park, the latter of which already has ongoing efforts to get some of its produce locally.

But these are both fairly big operations that shouldn't necessarily need any free help if they want to source more produce locally. I can understand that both companies have choices and may be able to source many of the same products from very far away at an equal or even cheaper price, so if they can be encouraged to get more produce locally, that's fantastic.

However, in the current environment in which large recalls of vegetables and meat are a common occurrence, it’s a shrewd business maneuver – in that it could potentially reduce their liability in the case of future recalls (and let’s face it, there will be more recalls) – for them to take necessary steps to source more products locally.

In other words, this is something that it would appear these two operations – unlike smaller restaurants (even small, local chains) – have the resources to do on their own and should want to do.

In response, again, Mr. Kahley:

“For the foreseeable future, we are going to work with Eat’n Park and Giant Eagle because of their commitment and the partnership that has been developed over the past two years that got us to this point. But I’ll hasten to add that I hope that this effort will spread further into the community beyond our own efforts; by my way of thinking, the more involved will strengthen the overall results for [southwestern Pennsylvania].”

I hope to follow up with the project manager, David Eson, to get some more details about the participating farms and whether there are certain criteria that participating farms must meet (although it’s fairly obvious that, for the moment, they must grow apples, potatoes, corn, or tomatoes).

It would be nice if there were certain sustainability criteria that participating farms must meet (e.g., limited use of chemicals and pesticides and other sustainable practices) in order to participate, but that may be impractical and self-defeating. One would hope that most small-scale farms already operate in such a manner.

June 26, 2008

Obama's Ethanol Problem

I’ll admit that, at least with respect to the upcoming presidential election, I’m an Obama guy. But his position on subsidizing corn to produce ethanol is something that hopefully he’ll come around on once he’s in office.

Mr. Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.

In the heart of the Corn Belt that August day, Mr. Obama argued that embracing ethanol “ultimately helps our national security, because right now we’re sending billions of dollars to some of the most hostile nations on earth.”

Umm, Sen. Obama, how does planting even more subsidized corn to convert into ethanol, which is jacking up the cost of corn here and worldwide and which most experts seem to agree is significantly contributing to the international food crisis, help our national security?

The food crisis is pounding underdeveloped countries, leading to riots and unrest. Unrest breeds anger and hatred, particularly toward large superpowers whose policies are, to be kind, exacerbating the problem.

Anger and hatred does things to otherwise rational people. And just as reports have indicated that our little misadventure in Iraq and some of its related sequelae like Guantanamo Bay have proven to be exceptional recruitment tools for terrorists, it’s not a far leap to believe our food policies might be used in such a manner, as well.

Taking a step back to something more pragmatic – and completely ignoring the environmental impact of planting even more corn (the petroleum-based fertilizers, the gas-fueled equipment, the fertilizer run-off into already stressed waterways, the lost land to more monoculture, etc.) -- as the Environmental Working Group is now reporting, the entire concept of food for fuel has some serious flaws, including a tiny little speck of one called “bad weather.”

Most experts agree that the corn ethanol mandate plays a key role in higher corn and soybean prices and inflated U.S. and global food prices. The Washington ethanol mandate to convert food to fuel, a key provision of the 2005 and 2007 federal energy bills, put the full weight of U.S. policy behind the corn ethanol boom. Add to the equation the extreme weather already inflicted on the Corn Belt, and the likelihood of summer heat and a fall freeze, and an even sharper food and fuel price spiral seems inevitable.

If this scenario plays out, inflation is likely to worsen throughout the foundering U.S. economy. And many experts predict that the pace of food price inflation is likely to quicken in 2009, in line with the ethanol mandate’s climbing food-to-fuel targets.

I know it's getting you votes in Iowa, Sen. Obama, but how about taking that subsidy money and socking it into research focused on other, more sustainable alternative fuels, eh?

Just a thought from a concerned citizen, free of charge.

Scrapin’ Up the Bits… Alton Brown Style

I’ve always been an Alton Brown fan. He always set himself apart from the other “personalities” on the Evil Network with his wit and style, and if I happen to be watching TV and Good Eats is on, I’ll watch it.

Now, courtesy of the folks at Grist, I’m glad to see that Mr. Brown is planning to use his television platform to talk about something that is glaringly absent from most Evil Network programming:

During his lecture, Alton announced that his TV show would begin focusing on sustainability issues: how crops are grown and animals are raised. The shift in focus would be a form of penance, he said. ...

"I've spent the last nine years influencing what people do with food, but I haven't taught them about the real essence of feeding themselves, and I feel that it's high time to step up to bat," he says. "I've been busy being clever, but now I want to use what credibility I may have to help people think about sustainability."

My DVR will be set, Alton.

We don’t drink much tequila. But when we do, we choose Herradura Silver, which is then poured over ice with lime juice and some Cuantro for an excellent margarita. For the uninitiated on the finer points of tequila – such as myself – here is a short and sweet primer.

And if you like to cook with alcohol, here is an excellent way to use just a tablespoon or two of some high-end tequila.

Michael Ruhlman asks for some feedback on dinners that are “weekly staples” in his readers’ households. Reading through the comments, I can’t help but be a bit taken aback by some of the fairly, shall we say, complex weekday meals?

Thin loin pork chops on the bone, bound with a breading of Wondra flour, eggs (beaten and strained to get rid of the chalaza), and Ian's panko, cooked in olive oil; cucumber salad with a sweetened vinegar dressing (Hungarian style); lima beans braised in heavy cream.

Also, I must now grill a whole chicken. That basting sauce sounds too good.

And, finally, two researchers at Carnegie Mellon took a closer look at the environmental impact of eating local versus other factors in the food production chain. Their conclusion:

Thus, we suggest that dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

Mental Masala at Ethicurean has a great post on the study and some factors it failed to consider, including pasture-raised animals for meat.

June 24, 2008

Redfish, Good Fish

As was the case last year, I spent a week of vacation eating way too much food, including ribs, lasagna, chicken thighs, fajitas, and Doritos… oooohhhh, Doritos. Every night I cursed myself for eating too much.

And as was the case last year, on the way out of the Outer Banks, we stopped at a fish market and picked up some locally caught, ultra-fresh fish to enjoy as part of a light dinner the night of our return. This time, instead of tuna, I picked out some beautiful, meaty redfish.

Also known as red drum, channel bass, and spottail, as well as other names, the filets I picked up, in their raw form, looked to me like mahi mahi. Our grill was out of propane, so I drizzled a little good extra virgin olive oil over the filets, added a healthy sprinkle of some pepper and smoked salt, and put it under the broiler for about 8 minutes.

When it came out of the broiler, I topped it with some saut̩ed mushrooms, very similar to the topping for mushroom bruschetta, replacing the heat with some finely diced shallots. Served it alongside a salad of local field greens with a tarragon vinaigrette, and it was an ideal Рand much needed Рway to end an enjoyable vacation.

Finally, if you're ever in the Outer Banks and looking for a family-friendly restaurant that serves excellent food, my highest recommendation goes to the Kill Devil Grill in Kill Devil Hills.

June 12, 2008

Green Garlic and Clams like Each Other

Picked up some green garlic from our CSA last week. A week before, the San Francisco-based chef Daniel Patterson had penned an article in the New York Times in which he recommended several ways to use this immature form of the bulbous garlic (which, like ramps, closely resembles a scallion, only bigger).

Chef Patterson's linguini with clam sauce sounded like an ideal dish to enjoy with a glass of white wine while sitting outside on a spring weekend evening. It was.

Admittedly, clams ain’t cheap, so while this is a “simple” pasta dish, it’s not something you’d have frequently. I have to think, though, that this could be adapted to include shrimp or mushrooms, among other things.

I’ve tried to lay out the recipe in a way that helps with timing, because I hate having to wait too long to finish a dish because something else isn’t quite done yet..

Linguine with Green Garlic Clam Sauce (adapted from Daniel Patterson)

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons minced green garlic, white and light green parts
  • Crushed red pepper
  • 3-4 pounds of well-cleaned clams
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 lemon, juiced and zested
  • 1 pound linguine
  • Handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Get a large pot of well-salted water boiling.

Put a few very good swirls of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. After a minute, add the garlic, crushed red pepper, and a big pinch of salt and cook for a minute or two.

Put the pasta in the water.

Add the clams, white wine, and water, and cook over medium-high heat, covered. After about 3-4 minutes, the clams will start opening, in fairly rapid succession. As they open, transfer them to a plate with a slotted spoon.

Remove the clams from their shells and mince (the clams, not the shells! :D).

Remember to check the pasta, because you don’t want it to be fully cooked in the water. You want it to be a little less than al dente, because you’re going to be adding it back to the pan with the clam “sauce” and it’s going to soak up some of it.

Strain the sauce -- which will seem much more like a broth -- from the pan through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl that’s large enough to hold the liquid.

Give the saucepan a good wipe, and add back the clam meat and sauce/broth to the saucepan over medium heat. Add the pasta, parsley, lemon juice (hold a little juice back, though, and add the rest after you’ve combined everything if it seems to need it) and zest, and combine well.

Let it cook together for just a minute, taste and adjust for salt, pepper, acid (aka, the lemon juice), and serve immediately with a small bit of freshly grated parmesan.

June 11, 2008

On Why You Should Make Your Own Guac

Avocados are not a local ingredient. They are native to Mexico and Central and South America, and 95% of the avocados produced in the U.S. come from the Golden State (thanks, Wikipedia).
Avocados are also expensive, and, to boot, if you’re trying to serve them on a specific day, it’s a fine art of learning how to purchase them ahead of time and ensure they’ll be ripe when you need them to be.

All of that said, if this doesn’t make you think thrice -- or more -- about buying already-made guacamole at the store, I’m not sure what can:

Kraft's Guacamole Dip in the dairy case looks tempting -- until you learn that its vibrant green color doesn't come from avocados (there are almost none in it) but from synthetic food dyes Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Blue 1.

Perhaps that’s why the prefab guacs I have sampled – which admittedly hasn’t happened in a long time – seem to be so bland and, well, unavocadoy

So, please, I beseech thee, make your own. Look for the little bags with 4 or 5 avocados in them, which, from what I can tell, pound for pound, appear to be the cheaper route than buying individual avocados. Be sure to taste after you’ve combined all of the ingredients, adjusting for salt or lime juice. 

You can also roast your jalapenos, as I’ve taken to doing most times. Or you can substitute roasted poblanos, if you’d prefer a little less heat and a slightly different flavor. You can omit the peppers altogether and add a half cup of finely chopped pineapple, if you’d like something a little bit sweeter.

But, please, make your own. When people eat it and say, “This is fantastic. Where did you get it?” You can proudly say, “I made it,” and then proceed to scarf it down.

June 4, 2008

Scrapin' Up the Bits... GO PENS! Style

I’ll be honest, I really don’t consider Domino’s to be pizza. Rather, I see it as cardboard layered with tomato- and cheese-like products and ridiculous amounts of processed meat products overflowing in saturated fat.

Nevertheless, this is swee…eee..eeeT:

"We basically just had to keep the fluids going, get some food in you," Sykora said. "We had some pizza coming. We had some power bars and stuff like that."

Asked if the pizza was Little Caesar's, the company founded by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, Sykora flashed a smile.

"Domino's," he said.

The first pick-up of the year from our illustrious CSA included carrots, spinach, field greens, local honey, local syrup and a few other things.

The selection is limited this early in the season. Nevertheless, the carrots worked very well in an excellent carrot-ginger soup. The spinach accompanied some (mediocre) Italian sausage, onions, garlic, among other things, that ended up atop some gemelli. The field greens were fantastic eaten along side some homemade pizzas (including a fabulous experimental pie with red sauce, arugula pesto, and goat cheese), topped only with a standard balsamic vinaigrette.

And speaking of pizza, here’s a shot of our house specialty pizza: just sauce, chopped kalamata olives or, if you can find them, Moroccan olives, and, just as it comes out of the oven, a healthy sprinkling of freshly grated Pecorino.

A good addition to this pie are some thinly sliced roasted red peppers.

My mushroom hunting adventure had to be scrapped. Instead, got to see my soon-to-be 6-year-old score his lone soccer goal of the 8-game season. It was game 8.

I ordered and have received Michael Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking. When I first read about this book last year, it seemed, well, kind of pretentious. But after reading some posts on his blog based on some of the “elements” included in the book, I decided maybe I was the one being dumb.

Inspired by Mr. Ruhlman, I hope to make my first homemade mayo this weekend.

Bona Terra on Urbanspoon

And to wrap things up… For our 11th wedding anniversary, we finally made it to Bona Terra in Sharpsburg. Tremendous meal. Can’t say enough good things about the food and service.

We ate:

  • Chicken mouse tart with bacon-tomato relish (compliments of the chef)
  • Foie gras with finely diced mango and guava (the foie gras looked like a grilled pork chop, the mango and guava like corn and carrots!)
  • Brioche rolls with a roasted tomato butter (at least I think it was “roasted” tomato)
  • A field greens salad with candied pecans, dried blueberries, a Spanish cabrales blue cheese, and a raspberry vinaigrette
  • Potato, parmesan, and leek soup with ramp oil and hot chili oil
  • Beef tenderloin topped with ramp butter
  • Roasted duck with a pomegranate sauce
  • Cheese plate with English toffee cheese and a wild berry compote

My only disappointment, and this is admittedly nitpicky, was the failure to specifically note on the menu the source of much of what was on our plate. After all, Bona Terra was named one of the top 100 farm-to-table restaurants by Gourmet, so I think Chef and owner Dennis Dick, now the three-time Chef of the Year according to Pittsburgh Magazine, owes it to his customers to be as explicit as possible about the local sources of the food being served.

We’re hoping to make Legume in Regent Square, another farm-to-table restaurant with a burgeoning reputation for fantastic food, for our next dinner out.

Oh, yeah
, I almost forgot: GO PENS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!