September 30, 2008

Where Did That Burger Come From?

Monday afternoon.

Man and wife in kitchen. Man slapping some ground beef into patties.


“Yes, dear.”

“Where did that beef come from?”

Jabs hand into plastic bag littered with tomato and lettuce bits. Pulls out black styrofoam with crinkled plastic wrap attached.

“Huh. It doesn’t say.”

This afternoon.

Wife and husband in kitchen. Wife, just done finely dicing some ginger, moves to put some chicken thighs into a hot pan.


“Yes, dear.”

“Where did that chicken come from?”

Jabs hand into plastic bag littered with cilantro stems, coconut milk can top. Pulls out white styrofoam with crinkled plastic wrap attached.


“It’s aboot time.”

Country of origin labeling on many, but by no means all, food is here. It has some glitches, however.

That’s because the regulations exclude a variety of foods that fall under the labeling requirement but are considered to be processed, including roasted peanuts, breaded chicken and bacon. The exemption for processed food also means that certain foods that are mixed together don’t have to be labeled, such as a bag of lettuce that includes both Romaine and iceberg, or a package of frozen peas and carrots.

Consumer and food safety advocates say they are generally happy with the rules, and relieved that the regulations are finally going into effect at all after so many delays. Still, they expect the guidelines will be puzzling to some consumers.

Frozen peas are a “processed food”? Technically, I guess they aren’t fresh out of the ground, so freezing and bagging required some sort of, well, process. But I don’t think frozen peas are what most people think of when they think of processed food.

It seems like where a food comes from should be a pretty straightforward question, eh? Me thinks me smells a regulatory nightmare.

The nearly final rules are now scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 30, and retailers will then have six months to make sure they understand the regulations correctly and come into compliance. The next step will be for the government to come out with a final set of rules, incorporating separate seafood and shellfish regulations, but there is no date set yet for that to happen.

Me thinks me also smells the wretched scent of industry lobbyists.

That’s one of the great things about this time of year. Much of the food we’ve been eating comes from Pennsylvania.

From within 60 miles of our house.

Often within 10 miles of our house.

Very often from our yard.

Maybe I should make my own label:

“Poblano pepper from garden 10 yards from back patio.”

September 23, 2008

Where's the Beef, Updated!

On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was kind enough to run an op-ed I penned on the safety of beef sold in the United States entitled “Where’s the Beef?

Figured I’d share some of the sources I used in developing it. First, though, is a correction to the next to last paragraph in the op-ed.

"I'm not holding my breath, though. In the past few months alone, federal regulators have proposed a rule that would effectively bar small family farms from providing their pastured or grass-fed beef to the school lunch program, as well as a second rule seemingly intent on pushing out of business the state-licensed, small-scale meat processors who service small, family farms."

Actually, the first proposed rule should have read “introduced legislation,” because it refers to a provision in appropriations legislation that covers the USDA introduced by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), which I believe is, at the moment, going nowhere. The provision is this:

Beginning with the 2010 school year (that starts in July 2009), the bill includes language that requires USDA to purchase for the School Lunch Program meat products that are derived from livestock premises registered with National Animal Identification System.

Because AMS is a major purchaser of meat products through the School Lunch Program, this proposal would generate significant market-based incentives to strengthen the department’s voluntary animal ID system and support livestock producers and other premises that signup for USDA’s system.

I wrote about this potential travesty in July.

As for the second proposed rule, Elanor at the Ethicurean recently reported the lurid details.

Other sources that came in handy in developing the article:

Whole Foods recall - the Marler Blog.

Factory farms - in addition to books like Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, PBS’s Frontline did an excellent series called “Industrial Meat.”

More on factory farms (including the burden they place on tax payers) - a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, CAFOs Uncovered.

As for the related news...

First, a new study out of Johns Hopkins that demonstrates how the media has effectively ignored the global warming impact of our global food system, including all of that methane from the cows on those factory farms.

Ironically, for space purposes, I cut this line from an early draft of my op-ed:

Funny, though, that even the most ardent proponents of taking actions to limit the emission of greenhouse gases choose to ignore this inconvenient truth.

And finally, and not surprising in the least, is that a new law that was supposed to let consumers know the country of origin of the beef they are buying has a massive loophole in it that benefits the, you guessed it, big-a#% meat packers.

Shocking, I know.

September 20, 2008

Vino & Vittles at Enrico

My wife and I had the pleasure last Friday to join some friends for the first-ever wine dinner at Enrico Biscotti Company using Enrico’s recently launched Carlo’s Garage Winery line of vino.

The wines, Enrico’s very personable and very verbal – in a very good way – founder Larry Lagattuta explained, are made in the basement of Enrico’s, which used to be, you guessed it, part of Carlo’s Garage, where Carlo fixed cars and, you guessed it again, made wine.

If I heard correctly, the grapes for the Vidal Blanc, the lone white, come from Erie of all places, while the grapes for the three reds come from California. But don’t quote me on that.

Overall, it was a really nice event, the kind of night out you can’t get in many cities. Sitting back in the Enrico cafĂ©, an assortment of small and large tables with simple white coverings, some slices of bread and small white bowls of olive oil and olives resting on them, the smell of the cracking brick oven: A very cozy, comfortable kind of place to eat a little food, drink a little wine, snicker and giggle and chomp your way through a relaxed evening.

The food was simple and, on the whole, well executed. The wines were very enjoyable, really exceeding my expectations, and, I think it can be safely said, those of our little group. And our hosts just kept pouring it!

My wife and I both felt that the star wine of the evening was the Vidal Blanc, which was very refreshing and had a welcome fruitiness without being sweet in the least. [Note: it’s against my personal beliefs, religion, etc. to describe a wine in any more detail.]

The menu:

First course – Fire-roasted jumbo shrimp in a citrus-hot pepper marinade accompanied by some napa cabbage slaw, paired with the Vidal Blanc.

Second course – Pork tenderloin with a blackberry compote (at least that’s what I’m calling it), paired with the Strip Blend Red Table Wine.

Third course – St. Andre triple cream cheese (from Penn Mac) with a honey laced fig on top of lavash (that is, a large cracker), paired with the Petit Sirah.

Fourth course – Lamb ragout over fresh parpadelle, paired with the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Desert – Flourless chocolate cake and pistachio ice cream, paired with whatever wine you requested.
The best courses were the lamb ragout and the triple cream cheese/honey/fig. Both paired very well with their respective wines… well, after 4 or 5 glasses, plus an earlier drink at Kaya, at least I think they did.

In any case, I highly recommend contacting Enrico to get on the list for future wine dinners, as well as their usual “First Friday” dinners, which, as you may have guessed, are held the first Friday of every month.

September 19, 2008

Celebrating Local Food

The line up of events the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture has pulled together for its Local Food Week is pretty impressive.

There are tasting dinners at Eleven and Soba of Big Burrito Group fame, a dining event centered around honey at Enrico in the Strip, "Green Drinks" at Bossa Nova downtown, and a bunch of events at various farms. Heck, there are even some attractive dinner events at Pines Tavern and Passport Cafe out here in the northern 'burbs.

Just hoping to make it to one of them.

September 12, 2008

What to Think in a Situation Like This?

I have professed my undying love for Lucy's banh mi. But I'm not sure how to react to this?

Mr. Cole said county health inspectors can post a yellow "Consumer Alert" decal for repeated, uncorrected critical food safety violations. Restaurants have 10 days to solve the problems or they could be shut down, he said.

Last year, three such alerts were issued among some 7,500 food facilities in the county, which includes establishments such as caterers, mobile vendors and grocery store deli counters. So far this year, there have been four alerts: at The New Oriental Wok in Lawrenceville; Plum Convenience Store in Plum; My Ngoc, Strip District; and Moby Fish and Chicken, Downtown. All four alerts have been lifted.

The restaurant highlighted in bold text above is the restaurant outside of which Lucy makes and sells her delectable banh mi. Now, in a sense, I could be reassured, because Lucy does most of her work outside of the restaurant: the chicken is on the grill, the jalapenos and red onions and cilantro and carrots are in small plastic containers, the baguettes come out of a small plastic bag just behind her, etc.

How much of the prep work goes on in the inside kitchen that had the little problem with the "uncorrected critical safety violations" I don't know. For now, I'm going to give Lucy the benefit of the doubt, because those sandwiches are one of the great joys in my life (whether that's a sad statement, I'll leave others to judge). But, if for some reason that ever changes, at least I've got Reyna's and Chicken Latino to always fall back on.

September 4, 2008

Scrapin’ Up the Bits… Slow Food Nation Style

But first, though, it wasn’t your traditional Labor Day sorta meal, but it was quite delicious, and made ample use of the bounty from our CSA and our own little garden.

It included roasted red pepper soup, roasted cauliflower in an anchovy vinaigrette, and grilled branzino fillets topped with an almond picada.

Slow Food Nation was held this past weekend in San Francisco. I’ve been critical of Slow Food – well, in comments on other food blogs, at least – but I’ve read some good things about this event in the last day or so, including this post from Iowa chef Kurt Michael Friese, which has made me soften my position somewhat.

The same said post includes what sounds like a wonderful tomato pesto recipe, and some details about the roots of pesto about which I was not aware. As good as it sounds, Elanor’s recipe for pasta topped with pan-roasted tomatoes, pesto, and fresh ricotta sounds even better!

Something else that emerged from Slow Food Nation: the Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture. It is, in essence, a Ten Commandments of how our food and agricultural system should function -- except that it has 12 principles or commandments, etc.

And it’s a draft, with comments being accepted for the next 90 days.

And I think I’m finally going to have break down and try some of these artisan, sustainable spirits. Or as the Washington Post’s Jason Wilson calls them, “slow spirits.”

Finally, to end with something about what can be the slowest of foods, fungi. The take-home message is this: warnings about making sure you go mushroom hunting with people who know what they’re doing are important for a reason