December 22, 2010

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Important and Not So

This may be my last post of the year. I know all tens of my readers will be terribly disappointed. And it's a digest, but an excellent one, I assure you. It's broken down into two categories. The first is...

Things that really matter

The first being, the food safety bill, which, somehow -- despite the fact that it does not involve giving very rich people more ways to pay less taxes and over the objection of some members of the sustainable/small farming community who, IMO, saw evil where there was none... well, at least not that much -- has passed both chambers of Congress and is headed to President Obama's desk.

Next, when people say money is the single-most corrupting influence in politics, this is what they're talking about:

the incoming Agriculture Commissioner [former congressman Rep. Adam Putnam] has been the benefactor of a significant amount of money from both the sugar and dairy lobby during the campaign – both of whom have a strong financial interest in keeping sugary drinks in schools. Despite Florida’s $500 contribution limit for both individuals and PACs, Putnam received at least $61,000 in campaign funds from sugar and dairy interests, including maxed-out contributions from Coca Cola’s lobbyist in Tallahassee Brian Ballard and a slew of maxed out contributions from the Sugar Barons of South Florida, the Fanjul family.

And what does the incoming Ag Commish think about efforts to ban soda in schools?

This is a topic your Board has discussed recently for possible policy recommendations. However, instead of looking at the entire nutrition intake of students, you have chosen to focus only on the nutrition content in beverages served in Florida schools. It is my belief that any nutrition improvement plan needs to be certain that students are receiving the best possible nutrition package, in concert with total wellness initiatives, to allow them to reach their optimum achievement potential. [...]

Of course, there is nothing to say that passing a soda ban now will stop Florida schools from developing a more comprehensive nutrition plan. But I doubt Rep. Putnam's benefactors would support that approach.

Also, if you take fish oil capsules and you care at all about the sustainability of the fish in the ocean, you  might want to think twice...

And, finally from the 'stuff that matters' file, Michael Pollan -- without whose writing a food safety bill would likely not have happened, IMO -- gets a bit of smackdown for tweeting about an essay somebody else wrote on the role of genetics (or lack thereof) in health and disease. It's a long story, and a somewhat complex one, so this is something to which  you have to devote some time.

Matters of Little Consequence

From the essential news of food safety and genetics to the trivial -- at least in these difficult times -- those of taste.

Beginning with:

Had lunch at Brgr in East Liberty yesterday (a break on a day off to take care of last-minute holiday preparation tasks). I got the kobe beef burger, wife got the "fire in the hole" burger.

Mine had arugula, pickled onions, blue cheese. Cooked to a perfect medium rare, tender, fatty without being too greasy, full of flavor. A great burger. Wife's had jalapenos, guac, pepperjack cheese, chipotle mayo. Pretty much a ditto of mine, but with more kick, perhaps a little less beefy flavor because of the toppings and that it was not kobe beef. Still a really good burger.

Didn't get one of the spiked shakes. Next time. Only nitpick: the fries. They were good. Nothing to write home about. IMO, one element that can always elevate an excellent burger experience are fries that go above and beyond what can be had elsewhere. Of course, I still ate a ton of them. They're fries, after all.

And, finally, the centerpiece of the food we'll be serving on Christmas eve will be (drum roll............) mini meatball banh mi and pistachio and mozzarella stuffed arancini. Never made the latter before (and only made full-size of the former), so wish me luck.

December 17, 2010

Hunters Are Awesome

This is just really, really cool.

Deer hunters in Pennsylvania are expected to donate about 100,000 pounds of venison to help meet the surging demand from the state's food banks.

Hunters will shoot about 300,000 deer during the two-week hunting season that began on November 29. Some of their haul will be given to Hunters Sharing the Harvest, a program run by the state's agriculture department.

Much of this meat -- high in protein, low in saturated fat -- will be ground for use in hamburgers in chili. And this year, more than ever, such donations are really needed.

Donations from major food manufacturers are the bank's main source of food, but the increased demand in recent years has forced it to buy more supplies at a cost of about $1.5 million this year, Hanna explained.

The state's estimated 750,000 first-day hunters can donate their deer to any of the 125 participating butchers. The state pays the butchers 85 cents per pound of venison processed.
 Some people could learn a thing or two from this.

December 15, 2010

Hunger in America? Bah-Humbug

Returning once again to politics and policy. This time: hunger in America. It's a serious concern and a growing problem, including in our own area:

Almost 100,000 more Pennsylvania households were receiving supplemental nutrition assistance, or food stamps, this October than last October, from 698,678 to 795,554, said Michael Race, spokesman for the state Department of Public Welfare.

In Allegheny County, the jump from last to this October was 17,000, for a total of 153,681.

Ken Regal, co-director of Just Harvest, a nonprofit that helps people enroll and tracks countywide numbers, said food stamp recipients in the county totaled 100,000 six years ago.

Based on comments from people seeking help to receive food stamps, he said, increasing numbers are new at being needy. Agencies that distribute food also saw demand jump this year with a marked increase in first-timers.

But, one conservative a@#hole asks, in looking at the most recent report from the USDA on food security in the United States, are these people really hungry?

The remaining one-third of food-insecure households, with 17.6 million people, experienced "very low food security" in 2009. According to the USDA, "very low food security" means that, at least once during the year, some members of the household reduced their intake because of a lack of funds to purchase food. Most of these households temporarily cut back the sizes of their meals. At the extreme, about 1.7 percent of all adults in the U.S. went at least one entire day without eating because of a lack of funds for food.

Fortunately, children are generally shielded from food cutbacks and food insecurity. Only one child in 75 went "hungry" for even a single day during 2009 because of a lack of food in the home. And only one child in 100 missed even a single meal during the entire year because of food shortfalls in the home.

I particularly like the quotes around "hungry" in that paragraph above. I mean, I guess it's not really that big a deal that some poor child didn't get dinner because his family has no money. I mean, that's life in the current incarnation of America: A@#holes like Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation will argue 'til Ronald Reagan emerges from the grave that rich people should have their taxes cut -- despite no evidence that it does diddly to create jobs or improve the economy, while at the same time only further growing the deficit -- but expanding school lunch programs to more kids, which does have a price tag, but only a small portion of the price of those tax cuts -- well, that's just downright socialism. Or, as he concludes later, just an excuse to expand the welfare state. Ah, such insightful commentary.

Then we have another rich white person, the generally loathsome Kate O'Beirne, who simply cannot understand that a parent isn't able to give his or her kids a decent breakfast. How can this be?

And if we’re going to ask more of ourselves, my question is what poor excuse for a parent can’t rustle up a bowl of cereal and a banana? I just don’t get why millions of school children qualify for school breakfasts unless we have a major wide spread problem with child neglect.

Yup. Many of these parents whose kids need a meal at school, they're purposefully making their kids hungry. Heck, I betcha they enjoy not being able to give their kids a decent meal.

Are there parents who game the system? Undoubtedly. Of course, that's just wrong. But those Wall Street bankers who did it, and in so doing nearly brought down the entire financial system, well, their just being overrun by excessive government regulation and being unfairly characterized as evil when they're just trying to make an excessive living doing nothing but gambling like a Texas Hold 'Em junkie on a last-ditch binge in Vegas.

I can think of some things other than coal I'd like to put in Ms. O' Beirne and Mr. Rector's stockings this year.

Oh, and donate to the food bank. They really need your help, this year more than ever.

December 8, 2010

Time to Participate in the Political Process

As odious as it can be -- and it gets worse every day -- some times you have to participate in the political process, beyond just voting.

This is one of those times.

The details are below, via the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The action item: calling your elected officials.

Alert from NSAC:
Action Alert
December 8, 2010
Local and Regional Food at Risk
Call Your Representative

Food Safety Legislation passed by the Senate and to be considered by the House as early as this week is in trouble.  Big Ag is out in force, lobbying House members to ditch provisions that are friendly to small and midsize farms.  They know that if they can impose expensive and one-size-fits-all food safety rules, they can stop the growing local food movement in its tracks.  Lawmakers are dealing with significant misinformation and confusion and our hard won amendments may be lost.  We must send a loud and clear message about where we stand. 

Call Your Representative Today!

Urge them to pass the Senate Bill with the Tester-Hagen Amendment Intact

It's easy to call:  Go to and type in your zip code.  Click on your Representative's name, and then on the contact tab for their phone number.  You can also call the Capitol Switchboard and ask to be directly connected to your Representative's office: 202-224-3121. 

The message is simple:   "I am a constituent of Representative ___________ and I am calling to ask him/her to pass the Senate version of the Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510) with the Tester-Hagen Amendment intact.  We need a food safety bill that cracks down on corporate bad actors without erecting new barriers to more local and regional food sourcing. Regulation that is scaled appropriately for small and mid-sized farms and processors is vital to economic recovery, public health, and nutritional wellbeing."


Read our latest report:  A Sustainable Agriculture Perspective on Food Safety.

What's in the Tester-Hagen Amendment?
(1)  The amendment clarifies existing law which says that farmers who direct market more than 50% of their product to the consumer at the farm or at a retail location off the farm such as a farm stand or farmer's market need not register with FDA.  This clarification is especially important for off-farm retail locations such as farmers markets.

(2)  It provides a size appropriate and less costly alternative to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Plans (HACCP) for farmers who:

Direct market more than 50% of their products directly to consumers, stores or restaurants, and

Have gross sales (direct and non-direct combined) of less than $500,000, and

Sell to consumers, stores, or restaurants that are in-state or within 275 miles.  

Farmers who qualify must provide documentation that the farm is in compliance with state regulations. Documentation may include licenses, inspection reports, or other evidence that the farm is in compliance with State, local, county, or other applicable non-Federal food safety law.  The farm must also prominently and conspicuously display the name and address of farm/facility on its label.  For foods without a label then by poster, sign, or placard, at the point of purchase or, in the case of Internet sales, in an electronic notice, or in the case of sales to stores and restaurants, on the invoice.

If there are no state regulations or if the farmer prefers a different option, the farmer must provide FDA with documentation that potential hazards have been identified and that preventive controls have been implemented and are being monitored for effectiveness.  

(3)  It provides alternatives to the produce standards for farms that:

Direct market more than 50% of their products directly to consumers, stores or restaurants, and

Have gross sales (direct and non-direct combined) of less than $500,000, and

Sell to consumers, stores, or restaurants that are in-state or within 275 miles.  

The farm must prominently and conspicuously display the name and address of farm/facility on its label.  For foods without a label then by poster, sign, or placard, at the point of purchase or, in the case of Internet sales, in an electronic notice, or in the case of sales to stores and restaurants, on the invoice.

Also in the Senate Bill:

(1) An amendment sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers.  The training projects will prioritize small and mid-scale farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and small food processors and wholesalers.  The grant program will be administered by USDA's National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

(2) An amendment sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation required under the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill.  FDA is instructed to provide flexibility for small processors including on-farm processing, to minimize the burden of compliance with regulations, and to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods.  FDA will also be prohibited from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire consultants to write food safety plans.   The Bennet amendment applies to all small farms and processors, not just those who direct market within 400 miles of their farms.

(3) An amendment sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for farms that engage in value-added processing or that co-mingle product from several farms  gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to either exempt farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations.

(4) An amendment championed by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against "animal encroachment" of farms is also in the manager's package.  It will require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat on farms.

(5) An amendment proposed by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) will not require small farmers to meet extensive traceability and recordkeeping  if they sell food directly to consumers or to grocery stores and allows labeling that preserves the identity of the farm to satisfy traceability requirements.    The amendment also prevents FDA from requiring any farm from needing to keep records beyond the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm, except in the case of farms that co-mingle product from multiple farms, in which case they must also keep records one step back as well as one step forward.

December 7, 2010

Quick, First-Bite Review: Salt of the Earth

The long-awaited and much-hyped Salt of the Earth -- well, long-awaited and much-hyped in certain circles of food-obsessed freaks like myself -- opened several months back. Since its opening, Salt has received some exceedingly glowing reviews from the official food media, and on the various nonofficial outlets, it's also been described (mostly) with adjectives that suggest the people really liked it.

Salt of the Earth on Urbanspoon

I (joined by my wife and several other friends) finally managed to make it there on Saturday. And I have to say that it lived up to its billing. Everything I had, from the cocktails to the food, was excellent. I won't go into too much detail, but it included:

Drinks: My vodka cocktail (Boyd & Blair), and the sip or two of my friend's gin cocktail (Bluecoat) were really good, but I think the gin was better. Then there was the beer "cocktail," which blew away me and the two others in our group who also got it. Never has a chocolate stout been used in such genius fashion

Appetizers: Octopus (me) and salt cod (wife), both of which were delicious, the perfect size, and perfectly prepared. The octopus was ridiculously tender. Man was I glad it was still on the  menu.

Entrees: Duck breast (me) and pork loin (wife), broken record territory, but prepared perfectly, great flavors and textures, and perfect portion sizes.

Dessert: Only two options to choose from, and only one that is sweet, so went with the sweet: little squares of chocolate pudding, a scoop of coconut ice cream topped with some type of foam, a few roasted hazelnuts and this goji berry glaze smeared on the plate. Hit all the right notes. The chocolate and coconut really like each other. A great way to end the meal.

The space is very cool. The massive chalkboard wall with the menu is almost daunting, if not kind of hard to read, depending on your angle. I suspect I could sit at the bar along the open kitchen for 3-4 hours and not get bored in the least, particularly if I had a few of those beer cocktails.

Our group was large enough that we sat at one of the big reservation-only tables upstairs, which are isolated just enough for the group to be able to talk without feeling like we'd been banished to another place entirely.

The service was warm and the food came out at just the right clip.

Overall, a great experience, and I hope to make it back in the not-so-distant future. Well done, Salt of the Earth.

November 24, 2010

A Wish for the Season

Dear Thanksgiving Deities.... Oh how I wish I had time to make what reads like a delectable pie for Thanksgiving day. Perhaps for Christmas, then. Amen.

November 16, 2010

A Mini-Scrapin' Up...

A digest is the lazy blogger's way out. And I'm feeling waaaaayyyy lazy.

So, let's jump in with
...A meat rating system in grocery stores? Yes, and Whole Foods will be the initial testing ground.

Developed by the Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit group made up of farmers, scientists, retailers, sustainability experts and animal welfare advocates, the rating system aims to address growing consumer concerns over the way animals are raised for food. It could also, not coincidentally, boost sales for certified farmers and participating stores, likely to include another unidentified major national retailer and restaurant group in the coming year, according to the nonprofit.

 And the article even has some comic relief, courtesy of factory farm representatives:

"The GAP program is basically a 'free-range' program,'" said Richard Lobb spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which runs its own auditing program . "Only a few producers in the United States follow the free-range model. Most feel that the needs of the birds can be more efficiently met in a well-ventilated, enclosed structure that provides a good climate and protects the birds from the elements and from predators."

And if you're in the mood to get your food wonk on, then please, go to Grist and follow the debate about whether food safety legislation in the Senate will make things better or worse for small farms. It's dense and intense stuff.

And, finally, in case you missed it, China Millman reviews Salt of the Earth in the PG. And she likes it, she really likes it. Man I hope that octopus appetizer is still on the menu by the time I make it there!

November 15, 2010

Oh No!!

Seriously, I may be a "foochebag"! This is not good!

November 12, 2010

Best Recipe Ever!

Perhaps Mrs. Annoying Scratchy Voice presumed that the people making this "recipe" would be so altered that some sort of instructions would actually be required?

Please be sure to read the first comment (h/t to somebody on Twitter for bringing my attention to it.).

November 3, 2010

Baby Goats and Red Pepper Soup

The last day of CSA 2010 at Harvest Valley Farms. Could have taken a picture of my CSA crate, but these guys are cuter.

As for the red peppers, also courtesy of Harvest Valley Farms, the other night I made a really quick and delicious roasted red pepper soup. It's a stripped down version of a recipe from the Inn at Little Washington, a Washington, D.C. landmark. 

Roasted Red Pepper Soup
  • Half an onion, diced
  • 3 red peppers, roasted, seeded, and chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  •  tsp of fennel seeds
  •  dash of crushed red pepper
  • tsp of tomato paste
  • 2 cups or more of vegetable stock

Saute the onion and garlic over medium heat in a medium pan until onion starts to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the fennel seed and crushed red pepper, stir 1 minute more. Add tomato paste, give a good stir for 30 seconds, and then add the stock. Bring up to a boil and then let it simmer for 5 minutes or so. Remove from heat, let it cool for 5 minutes, then puree until smooth in a blender

At this point, taste for salt and pepper, will likely need both. If you have some fresh basil, add a tablespoon when you add the fennel and red pepper. If you have some cream and want to make the soup a little more creamy and rich, add some after blending.

November 1, 2010

Fast Food Abomination of the Week

My system for selecting awardees of this prestigious designation is extremely complicated. To sum it up for the lay person, though, it can be most simply described thusly:

I see commercial for fast food product


Estimation of caloric load


Extent of face contortion caused by considering extent of likely GI disruption that would follow from ingestion of said product

If the sum of this equation is enough to induce long-standing mental disturbance, then it's fairly obvious that I've got a winner.

Which brings me to this week's winner: Dunkin Donuts' Pancake Sausage Bites, or maybe it's Sausage Pancake Bites. The name alone I think says it all. And I don't recall, but I have to assume there's some syrup-like product for dipping of the Sausage/Pancake or Pancake/Sausage bites. [Insert shudder here]

On the eve of an election that has been filled with so much stomach-turning behavior by alleged adults (both those running for office and their supporters), the introduction of this product seems strangely appropriate. Bravo, Dunkin' Donuts. Bravo.

October 21, 2010

A Few Hours, Five Minutes

If you've got a few hours to kill and like to cook, you might want to (and I hope to) watch the Harvard lecture series on the science of cooking.

On the other hand, if you like somewhat brooding, but always interesting songs, then take 5 minutes to watch the alternative "video" -- if that's what you want to call it -- of "Terrible Love," a good tune from The National's most recent album.

October 19, 2010

Policy Matters... As In, It's Important

As a run-of-the-mill citizen who cares about the food I eat and with some understanding of and interest in the policies that affect how and what I eat, the Farm Bill has always struck me as this massively important piece of legislation that gets almost no attention outside of the world of those who actively support sustainable farming and those, like many members of Congress, who take pleasure in giving billions in subsidies to huge agribusinesses so they can grow more corn and soybeans and sugarbeets and the like.

For some reason the Farm Bill is only revisited every 5 years, and the sustainable/small farm community fights its little heart out and gets little scraps of improvement here and there, while the supposed true believers in the free-market system and protectors of the mythical "family farm" in Congress continue to prop up the agri-giants who, one would think, don't need the help. "How are we going to ensure Americans can afford to buy food?" they argue. "They're not all East Coast liberal elites who can afford to pay $8 for organic chard!"

Translated into non-politician-ease: "How can we ensure we continue to get big donations from ADM and Monsanto if we don't waste billions in tax payer dollars to ensure Americans can get cases of Orange Crush and Coke for the same price as 4 or 5 apples?"

In any case, the Farm Bill will be rearing its head once again in the next Congress. And some folks want to stop, or at least drastically slow down, the cycle of the overwrought influence of the big boys and their deep pockets on this important piece of legislation. You can read a little about it on Simple, Good, and Tasty, and then you can stay tuned to the effort through Facebook (even for a reluctant FB user like me, this seems like an apt use of this particular form of social media).

Good luck, and may the $8 organic chard be with you.

Pork. Meatballs. Banh Mi.

I may have pimped this before, but it's worth pimping again. This being a recipe for pork meatball banh mi, those delightful Vietnamese sandwiches -- a term that really doesn't do them justice, but neither do "hoagie" or "sub," the connotations of which just can't live up to the glory that is a proper banh mi -- about which I regularly dream and always lust.

This recipe needs no doctoring. But, if you wish, you could easily substitute mint for the basil, which I believe I did when I made these some months ago (taking the extras last night out of the freezer for an amazing weeknight dinner), and could probably use a little less garlic, which I believe I also did.

A fresh, crusty, French-style baguette is very important, as is the fresh cilantro. The labor is well worth the effort.

October 14, 2010

Story... Updated

My recent shot at fiction has been greatly improved, thanks to a good friend, and editor extraordinaire, Grant Martin. Of particular note, he caught a terribly egregious and embarrassing error with regard to some musical history cited in the story. See, all of those hours spent listening to music have their value!

So,  yes, now you have to read the whole thing over again.... Don't make me beg!

October 3, 2010

Some good eats

Made two pretty tasty items this weekend.

First, on Saturday, roasted some hot dogs over a fire and topped them with some quick-pickled cabbage, which included:

  • About 2 cups finely shredded cabbage
  • Half cup of shredded carrot
  • 1 thinly sliced red jalapeno
  • 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
  • good pinch of salt
  • tablespoon of sugar
  • Diced avocado

Whisked the last 3 ingredients together 'til sugar was dissolved. Combined the first 3 ingredients together, tossed them with the vinegar mixture, let it sit, covered, in the fridge for about an hour. Topped the hot dogs with a nice portion of the cabbage mixture and some diced avocado.

Next, on Sunday, a sweet potato soup to eat with a roasted chicken from Green Circle Farm.

  • 4-5 cups of peeled, chopped (2-inch chunks) sweet potatoes
  • 1 leek (white and some light green) thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • Chicken or vegetable stock, 4 cups
  • 1 teaspoon Garam masala
  • Cayenne pepper, small pinch

Add a swirl or two of olive oil in a pan (big enough to hold the liquid!), add leeks and garlic and cook until soft, about 5-7 minutes. Add the stock and potatoes to the leeks, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

When potatoes are starting to feel very tender, remove from heat, let cool for about 5 minutes, and in batches, blend until smooth. Return to pot, add Garam masala, cayenne, and salt and pepper to taste.

This is quite good, but maybe a touch too sweet. Could add some cream, I suppose, but I think that next time I'll add a little minced ginger to the leeks and garlic. Think that sort of floral element might offer better balance and fewer calories! Nevertheless, it's a good, easy soup.

October 1, 2010

Scrapin' Up the Bits...

I love the "digest" thing. Whoever came up with this little blogging feature is a genius. This one will be down and dirty.

Let's start with a well-done article from AOL News on test for different, potentially dangerous strains of E. coli in meat. Who even know AOL was still around? I recommend taking the time to read this.

Even wonder about school lunches in France? Well, me neither, but why is the fact that they take them a bit more seriously than we do here in the good ol' U.S. of A not surprising?

Some doctors putting their time and efforts where their guidance and recommendations should be when it comes to good health and diet/nutrition. How refreshing!

If you don't know and you happen to be in the general downtown vicinity on most days, Pittsburgh now has a food truck that's offering all sorts of goodies. It's called... The Goodie Truck! Franktuary , home of the famed locavore dog, experimented with the food truck idea recently. Hopefully it will catch on in the city.

Speaking of local food, China Millman raves about Spoon, which recently opened in the former home of the Red Room. Looks like we have a location for the next time the wife and I feel like ponying up for a sitter.

Finally, a really interesting article about farm work and who (illegal immigrants or plain ol' Americans) is, and isn't, doing it.

September 26, 2010


That is, my favorite Italian side, AS Roma, finally gets a win under the belt this season, against the hated Inter Milan. The appropriate announcer jubilation follows...

September 24, 2010

We're No. 1, We're No. 1!!

In terms of our country's (ever-increasing) girth, that is:

The United States is the fattest nation among 33 countries with advanced economies, according to a report out today from an international think tank.
Two-thirds of people in this country are overweight or obese; about a third of adults — more than 72 million — are obese, which is roughly 30 pounds over a healthy weight.

If, like me, you're spatially-relations challenged, this may take a few seconds to wrap your head around, but it illustrates the alarming obesity trend/epidemic nicely.

September 10, 2010

An (Actual) Short Story

I've been working on this -- in bits and pieces -- for months. Not the best way to write a short story, but you do what you can when you can, you know? I'm not a fiction writer. Some might argue I'm not much of a nonfiction writer!

It's sort of a spoof of myself, at least my habits in the kitchen, and it borrows a good bit -- tiny details here and there -- from my own life. It's got some bad words in it, which are also not, uh, uncommon in my real life.

It definitely could use the wisdom of a good editor. But I don't think it's too bad. Honest comments and criticisms are welcome.

UPDATE: Thanks to some wisdom-laced edits and suggestions from a friend, the story was updated on October 14.

Dinner for Six

Daniel dashed down his favorite glass, tarnished, bordering on foggy, the remnants of an “L” floating in the middle of an engraved diamond along one side. Slightly less than half filled at this point, the glassgiven to him by his grandmother not long after his grandfather had diedcontained equal parts Campari and gin, with a welcome dose of sweet vermouth. The ice, at this point, resembled tic-tacs, and the squished lime wedge his lone divergence from a traditional Negroni, which typically calls for an orange slicelay comfortably at the bottom.

Despite its resemblance to a fruity beach drink, he would protest without any prompting, it was still an honest pour.

At the moment, though, it was not the integrity of his alcoholic beverage that occupied his thoughts. Rather, it was that the blood rolling from his left index finger had an eerily similar shade of orange/red as his drink. Despite the considerable pain pumping from his finger, in strange synchronicity with the old school Public Enemy droning from the stereo,

I judge everyone, one by the one, Look! Here come the judge. Watch it here he come now

Daniel was taking extreme caution not to let on that anything other than dicing and stirring (and head bopping and crooked-hand gyrating) was going on in the kitchen. 

He was not in the mental state to tolerate one of Julianna’s “how many times…” speeches.

September 8, 2010

Stay AWAY from my Honey Crisps

Maybe this explains why, recently, my wife and I were awoken at the typically silent hour of 1:00 a.m. by a freakishly loud buzzing noise trailing this way and that across our bedroom.

Last year, the insects called brown marmorated stink bugs were a nuisance. This year, they are a serious threat to fruit orchards, and experts are not sure how destructive they might become.

The ubiquitous brown bugs with a citrusy or piney scent are making their way into Pennsylvania homes, previewing the hordes likely to appear late this month and next as the weather cools.

Fruit orchards are apparently starting to lose significant amount of product to stink bugs. Who knew these somewhat cute little critters could be so potentially destructive?

Stink bugs can eat almost anything and so far have no natural predators in the U.S. No one knows if their damage is going to spread to other crops. ...

The bugs do their damage by sticking their mouth parts under the skin of the fruit, injecting saliva and sucking out the juice, Mr. Krawczyk said. The fruit dries out from the inside and becomes brownish and distorted in a characteristic fashion called "cat facing."

This apparently caught a lot of people by surprise. I'm serious, though. If an overabundance of these shield-shelled bugs mean there are going to be less Honey Crisps -- the first batch of which are already in the grocery stores, freakin' yum! -- this fall, there's no limit on how much useless complaining I'll do. And nobody, I mean nobody, wants that!

August 30, 2010

Mushroom Hunting? Watch Your Step!

Hunting for mushrooms in dangerous places, some times in the middle of the night is, shockingly, not a good idea!

A bountiful Italian mushroom season has turned deadly, claiming the lives of at least 18 people in recent weeks.

According to Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, mushroom seekers have been so relentless in their pursuit of their favorite fungi, they have been abandoning safety procedures -- donning camouflage and hunting in darkness in an effort to scout remote, highly-coveted troves....

Eighteen people have died in just a 10-day period. Many of them had forgone proper footwear, clothing and equipment and died after steep falls down Alpine slopes.

August 21, 2010

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Keeping it Local Style

Before I get to the local stuff, a quick update on the massive egg recall. Short and sweet: big surprise, the "farm" from which the 380 billion recalled, salmonella-tainted eggs originated -- the ones that to this point have sickened at least 1,300 people -- is run by a guy who is a habitual offender of numerous regulations that ensure food safety, prevent pollution, etc.

Jack DeCoster is one of the most reviled names in industrial agriculture. ... One day, as a group of disgruntled farmers gave me a tour of their CAFO-scarred county, they muttered darkly about DeCoster. They said he had been run out of Maine for the egregious practices of his vast egg factories, and that he had set up shop in Iowa with massive, highly polluting hog factories. He was cited as the owner of several operations as we passed foul-smelling concentrations of hog buildings, sometimes as many as eight plunked down together in a cluster, each containing thousands of hogs and each draining mass quantities of waste into a single fetid "lagoon."

From tainted eggs to something much more pleasant, happenings on the local food scene.

First, Mio in Aspinwall -- where I ate just once, an excellent but extremely expensive meal, due mostly to the purchase by our dining group of a lot of wine -- has closed. It was reportedly "financially successful." But Matthew Porco, the chef/owner, had "lost interest in fine dining." He's opening up pizza shops instead. Sounds to me like PR spin. The last thing this area needs is more pizza shops. Out my way, in the northern 'burbs, at least 5 new pizza places have opened in the last two years.

Next, in the Post-Gazette, China Millman gives a nice rundown on where to get good tacos -- that is, something other than ground beef and cheese in mass-produced shells/tortillas. Notably absent was Round Corner Cantina in Lawrenceville. Seems like a major omission to me.

Back to north of Pittsburgh -- in this case, fairly far north of the city -- is the recently opened Burgh'ers in Zelionople. It's supposedly all organic and local. Along the lines of north of the city and local food, a recent posting on the Chowhound Pennsylvania board reports the opening, allegedly later this fall, of Echo, which will take over the massive, but now empty, space vacated by Hereford & Hops, a failed steakhouse/brew pub that shut its doors at least a year ago, if not longer. The description sounds a tad... ambitious:

It will feature modern American cuisine using local, sustainable produce and a foundation of traditional western European techniques. The contemporary dining room will offer lunch and dinner as well as artisanal cocktails, craft-brewed beers and an extensive wine list in an upscale casual atmosphere. Additional culinary features of Echo will be on-site charcuterie product made in the restaurant’s meat fabrication facility and breads and pastries produced in-house.

The chef, according to this post, which got its info from a local culinary blog of some kind, worked at Alinea -- considered to be one of the best restaurants in the country -- and Frontera Grill in Chicago. Those are some big names.

This restaurant isn't new, and it's even further north, but I can give nothing but my highest recommendations to North Country Brewing Company in Slippery Rock. I've been meaning to dedicate a post just to North Country for some time, but have just never gotten round to it.This isn't a fine dining experience. It's a casual, drink a beer, eat some meat, have some old-fashioned fun kind of place. So take a drive, order a pale ale and a "farm-to-fork" burger. You will not be disappointed.

August 19, 2010

Mussel Recycling

I love mussels. We don't make them enough at home. Considering how easy they are, that's truly a shame. But I learned something important about how to properly eat mussels yesterday. Thought I would share, so that you, too, can avoid being accused of poor mussel etiquette.

The Post article includes a few recipes for mussels, and Serious Eats has a really interesting recipe (that also includes clams, but I'd probably skip those) that has chorizo -- freakin' yum! -- and white beans. That sounds like a winner.

August 18, 2010

Check Yer Eggs

By now I'm sure most people have heard about the recall of a bunch of salmonella-tainted eggs -- 380 million of them! As Bill Marler, enemy #1 of the raw milk folks, explains, the folks behind the recall have, well, a shaky history.

It doesn't seem fathomable, does it? Yet another reason to try to get your eggs from local farms that you trust. Best eggs I've had have actually come from Miller's Farm, an Amish-run farm, whose product can be purchased at McGinnis Sisters. The availability isn't always predictable, though.

August 13, 2010

Does it Feel Warm to You? Ask Your Food

I know there are those who continue to deny man-induced climate change, either because

1) they are politicians who receive copious amounts of money from the industries who are responsible for much of the polluting that is causing climate change,


2) they are so deeply committed to their partisan political beliefs that they couldn't possibly admit Al "I invented the Internet (but never really said that, the media just keeps saying I did)" Gore and liberal f@#$ing hippies have been right


3) they find some sort of strange amusement in denying that most of the scientific evidence produced suggests the climate is changing and man's activities are a big reason for that, even as a good portion of Russia is on fire, a good bit of Pakistan is under water, and a nice big piece of Greenland four times the size of Manhattan is now floating around in the ocean, just looking for off-shore oil rigs to take out.

So, while, as a country we do very little to lead the rest of the world toward engaging in activities to help at least start to limit the harm we are doing, the impact of climate change on how the world eats is quickly making itself known:

Already the extreme drought and heat has badly damaged grain harvests in Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, the old Soviet breadbasket responsible for one-fourth of the world's wheat exports. Russia's grain harvest could drop from 94 million tons to 65 million tons or less this year—an alarming figure that prompted Moscow to ban grain exports, steps that could be followed by its neighbors.

And it's not just wheat.

Grain isn't the only crop that will under more intense heat. The production of rice—the world's most widely consumed grain, with some 700 million metric tons produced a year—could suffer as temperatures rise, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wheat, rice. Feh! What are those, but just staple crops required to feed much of the world. Screw it. Didn't we get, like, 8,000 inches of snow or something this winter? See, it's all a crock. A global conspiracy. A George Soros-funded plot to make people turn down their air conditioning and ride bikes so that they'll be more tired and more easily succumb to the socialist plot of the dirty hippy liberals to take over the world.
Or something like that.

August 4, 2010

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Gut Bugs style

All the news that's fit to print! Or that I think is interesting but that I'm too lazy to write in detail about. Beginning with...

Gut Bugs, or, bacteria in yer' tummy and other parts of the GI system. There are a trillion bacteria in your tummy, and they are very important for your overall health. The kind of bacteria you have in your tummy, explains science writer/blogger Ed Yong, depends heavily on your diet.

Different cultures around the world have starkly contrasting diets and their gut bacteria are different too. As we grow older, we eat increasingly diverse foods, from the milk of infancy to the complex menus of adulthood. As our palate changes, so do our gut bacteria.

It's worth taking the time to read... and digest (ahem)... the whole thing. More on this subject from a recent New York Times article by Carl Zimmer. Again, I highly recommend reading this, if for nothing else than the first few paragraphs that describe an amazing medical procedure that saved a dying woman's life. Let's just call it a "fecal transplant."

What's next? Oh, yes...

Food labels! People who read them apparently are more likely to eat more ... healthily.

Significant differences in mean nutrient intake of total calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, dietary fiber, and sugars were observed between food label users and non-users with label users reporting healthier nutrient consumption. The greatest differences observed were for total calories and fat and for use of specific nutrient information on the food label. 

And the bags in cereal boxes, which apparently had some nasty chemicals in them.

Federal regulators, who are charged with ensuring the safety of food and consumer products, are in the dark about the suspected chemical, 2-methylnaphthalene. The Food and Drug Administration has no scientific data on its impact on human health. The Environmental Protection Agency also lacks basic health and safety data for 2-methylnaphthalene -- even though the EPA has been seeking that information from the chemical industry for 16 years. 

Comforting, no?

As is this, although not surprising: healthy, "nutrient-dense" food is increasing in price much faster than less healthy food.

Over the four-year period, they found that the supermarket price of the top 20 percent most nutrient-dense foods increased 29.2 percent, while those in the least nutrient-dense 20 percent rose by 16.1 percent.

These findings could mean there are added barriers for Americans when it comes to following dietary guidance, they said. And this could prove to be particularly significant at a time when many US consumers are dealing with lost or diminished incomes. 

Which leads in nicely to this story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

A thousand households in the Hill District will be the subject of a study that researchers say would be the first of its kind in the country to track a grocery store's impact on food-buying habits in a particular neighborhood over time.

Researchers from the Rand Corp., with a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and help from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, will begin tracking food-buying and eating histories this year in anticipation of the proposed 2011 opening of a Shop 'n Save on Centre Avenue near Dinwiddie Street.

I take for granted that I have 4 grocery stores within a 10-minute drive from my house. So if I forgot to buy a shallot for tonight's dinner or we're out of bananas, I can go get them in no time. Not to mention that we can easily do our regular grocery shopping. But places like Pittsburgh's Hill District are often referred to as "food deserts," because the only options for purchasing food are typically convenience stores and fast-food restaurants.

It will be curious to see the results of this study. There are still huge issues, because you're dealing with a relatively poor population that relies heavily on mass transport, both of which would seem to heavily influence the ability to do regular grocery shopping. It's all part of a much larger socioeconomic problem/conundrum, but hopefully having a grocery store in the Hill will do some good.

And, finally, on a lighter, if not somewhat tastier, note, the growing popularity of Mad Men strikes again, raising the all-important question: what's so wrong with a 3-martini lunch? Personally, I'd be toast after three martinis at lunch. One, though, every now and then, say, on a Thursday, around noon, with a turkey club and house-made chips, might not be too bad (cough... not that that's ever happened, boss!).

August 1, 2010

Is It Live...

... or is it Play Doh?

July 26, 2010

In Which Much Cooking Is Done

It's the time of year. All sorts of fresh produce from our CSA and our own garden, which is flourishing under the excellent management of this eater's better half (that doesn't sound quite right, but I presume you get the gist!).

There's been quite a bit of zucchini involved, which is good, because we've had a lot to use.

First there was the zucchini linguini. If you, like me, will be making this for just a few people, when adjusting the recipe, don't skimp on the zucchini. Like spinach, it loses a good bit of its volume while it cooks, so don't be stingy with it. Or with the tarragon and pepper.

I put some zucchini from our garden (as well as a cucumber, which was off-recipe but a welcome addition) into this salsa verde of sorts for my very own birthday dinner. Careful with the salt on the first pass and, if you wish, leave it a little chunky, which I did and really enjoyed. While making it, you may also run into problems with the blender because of a lack of liquid. Just add a tablespoon of water if your blender is having a hard time.

Of the recent cooking escapades, my favorite came on Saturday: pork tacos. The recipe came from a food blog, The Whole Kitchen, which got it from Rick Bayless' Mexican Everyday, which I really need to get. I'd been desperate to find an excuse to use a nicely sized pork shoulder from Heilman's Hogwash Farm in Sarver, Pa. (which, unfortunately, does not have a Web site, but you can find them at the Farmer's @ Firehouse market in the summer as well as through Slowfood Pittsburgh's Laptop Butcher).

The tacos were excellent. The achiote paste offers some unique flavors. In addition to the pickled onions, I also put some crumbled cotija cheese as well. Any sort of lettuce or salsa, etc., would do these tacos a disservice. Keep it simple.

July 22, 2010

Gotta Glut 'o Veg from the CSA, Garden?

Mark Bittman has a suggestion for you...

I plan on making this very soon, but am thinking I might add a layer of bread crumbs and Parmesan about halfway up, also include some red onion, maybe something with a little heat. One suspects there are a thousand permutations...

July 19, 2010

Thanks for the invite. I'll Pass...

I've been a terrible, bad, inconsiderate food blogger. There's been so much noteworthy food news: national level policy news, like the FDA delving into the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed on factory farms, and local news, like PASA's upcoming grass-fed beef cook off in Latrobe and Franktuary going mobile with a lunch truck in the Strip District. (Follow these grass-fed hot dog maestros on Twitter to find out where they'll be next!).

But what finally roused me from my blogging stupor? An email from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board announcing a bottle signing for Skinnygirl margarita, with "only 100 calories." Skinnygirl margarita is brought to you by... Bethanny Frankel, one of those "housewives" from Bravo's embarrassing "Housewife of...." series.

If you go to Skinnygirl Web site -- you'll have to find it yourself, I refuse to link to such tripe -- you'll also see an add for Bethanny's new reality show, "Bethanny Getting Married." Which makes one wonder why she was on a "Housewives" show if she wasn't actually... a housewife?

Even if you're on a diet or something, trying to become a "skinnygirl," do yourself a favor and enjoy a real margarita: a fairly good tequila (that does not include Cuervo "gold"), some lime juice, triple sec or cointreau, and maybe some simple syrup. Over ice or in a shaker, in a salt-rimmed glass if you like that kinda thing.

Just don't drink too many, take it easy on the chips and guac, and get some regular exercise. You'll be much better off.

June 14, 2010

Now That's a Summer Camp!

My son started summer camp today. Great place: pool, fishing pond, basketball court, football field, obstacle course in the woods. By Wednesday or Thursday of a given week he's exhausted.

This is a much different -- although a lot more intense, you might say -- type of summer camp:

After Mr. Shaw’s demonstration, Chris Wayne, 25, who works for Greenmarket developing new farmers, was the first to take chicken in hand. Wearing a rubber gown, he placed a chicken in an inverted metal cone on the wall, pausing a moment when its head did not drop through the bottom. Prodded by Mr. Shaw, Mr. Wayne reached inside to pull the head through, and then lifted the knife. His cut was deep, his hands steady.

Personally, for somebody who spouts his mouth (and fingers) off about the importance of local food, sustainability, etc., I've done little to get more hands-on experience with it. Most of my support has come with words and dollars. Would really like to improve on that at some point, especially if I could be involved in something like this.

Last weekend, 16 campers, most of them employees of New York City’s Greenmarket program, arrived at Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, N.Y., during a rainstorm, and soon were gathering eggs and scouring a chicken coop and surrounding field for broken shells. As the campers worked, Ms. Small spotted a hen whose beak dripped with yolk. She explained that once a chicken tastes a yolk it will start cracking every egg it finds.

“You can never cure a chicken of being an egg eater,” she said, separating the chicken from the group. “Sorry, my dear.” 

Good to see these folks, at least, putting their hands where they put their time and money.

June 9, 2010

Fast Food Abomination of the Week

It's been far too long since there's been a Fast Food Abomination of the Week. And that's a shame, because surely the KFC "Double Down" fell into this category. Heck, it may be an all-time champ!

But, perhaps, just as deserving are the new "fire-grilled ribs" from Burger King. The very idea of ribs at a fast-food restaurant is enough to make even those from the most hearty of stock cringe.

But apparently there are people who actually want to eat these things -- a whole s#$%-load of them in fact, because more than 10 million ribs have been sold since they were introduced in mid-May!

And here, of course, is where the stomach-churning can really turn into high gear: when you pull back the curtain and see how the fast-food industry works with Big Meat to come up with this garbage.

[The ribs are] a result more than a year of development between Burger King and the National Pork Board, noted [National Pork Board President] Steve Weaver.

"We've worked with experts in food innovation, product marketing, and research and development to provide Burger King with industry data and information, market trends, and menu concepting, along with product review and evaluations, " according to Paul Perfilio, NPB national foodservice marketing manager.

The National Pork Board, if you haven't guessed it, is basically a front group for the big, dirty pork producers like Smithfield -- yes, thee of the pink manure pools fame (and Paula Dean's BCF, or Best Corporate Friend -- so not surprising that they would work with Burger King to come up with these pork McNugget-looking things, 6 pieces of which run about 33 grams of fat. Woohoo!!

Yes, oh yes, in the land of the mostly free and home of the ever-increasing waist line, it's a sure bet that you can count on the U.S. fast food industry to regularly spoon up more heart-stopping, artery-clogging filth, and you can be sure that there will people who will spend their money on it. That's a gair-on-tee!

June 7, 2010

One of the Most Important Blog Posts...

... that I have read in a while comes from Serious Eats.

Well, well, well. It must certainly be very important, you might say.

The Topic, you might, then, inquire? I will tell you -- right now, in fact!

It is: Cleaning Mushrooms!

This is a task -- the proper method for carrying it out that is -- that has bedeviled my thoughts for some time now. It has caused me great angst, forced me to reconsider it each and every time I use a mushroom in whatever dish it is I am preparing.

This singular post, I will confess, has given me great comfort. It has, in many respects, put my mind at tremendous ease. I am forever grateful for it.

I will say no more, and direct you to said blog post: right here to be exact.

To wit, be a good user of the Internet and bookmark this post, in case you should ever forget the immensely valuable lessons it endeavors to impart.

Eat mushrooms, properly cleaned, and prosper, my friends.


May 31, 2010

A Must Read: The Salt Fight

This is a great article from Michael Moss in the New York Times on the food industry's long and rugged fight to fend off having to reduce salt in its products. And, remarkably, what sticks out to me most -- more even than the almost obscene reliance of the food industry on sodium to make their food and the tobacco-industry like divert and delay tactics -- are these two statistics:

The food industry releases some 10,000 new products a year, the Department of Agriculture has reported, and processed foods, along with restaurant meals, now account for roughly 80 percent of the salt in the American diet.

And not as if anybody needed any more evidence that the United States now more closely resembles an oligarchy than a democracy, but this little bit stands out as well (bold emphasis mine):

Sugar and fat had overtaken salt as the major concern in processed foods by the 1990s, fueling the “healthy” foods market. When the F.D.A. pressured companies to reduce salt in those products, the industry said that doing so would ruin the taste of the foods already low in sugar and fat. The government backed off.

“We were trying to balance the public health need with what we understood to be the public acceptability,” said William K. Hubbard, a top agency official at the time who now advises an industry-supported advocacy group. “Common sense tells you if you take it down too low and people don’t buy, you have not done something good.”

You have not done something good for the company. But you have done something good for the country and public health. But we all know what's more important to about 99% of elected officials in this country.

Read the whole thing. This is what good newspaper reporting and writing is all about.

May 27, 2010

Processing: The Bottleneck in Local Meat

About three weeks ago it was pork chops in a brown sugar/chocolate/chipotle rub. Two weeks ago it was lamb, kabob-style, marinated overnight in a yogurt mixture, basted with an olive oil/lemon juice/oregano "vinaigrette" I guess you might say, as it cooked on the grill. About a week later it was a burger, grilled, topped with some sauteed wild mushrooms and a sunny side-up egg. Last night it was some (big-a#$!) grilled chicken thighs that had been marinated overnight in a mixture of fennel seed, dried oregano, crushed red pepper, salt, garlic, and olive oil.

In other words, we eat some type of meat about once a week (often with enough for leftovers the next night). All of the meat from the last month came courtesy of local farms. One is in Ohio, but it's a small family farm that sells a lot of product through Slow Food Pittsburgh's Farmers @ Firehouse market and Laptop Butcher, and it's within 60 miles I believe, so that counts as local to me.

Anybody who gets local, sustainably raised meat probably has some familiarity with a big issue that these farmers face: finding a processor. There were, at one time, a good number of small processors who could serve the needs of their like-minded small family farmers. That has changed.

For small meat businesses in America, catastrophic events result from changes high up in the regulatory food chain that make it very difficult for small plants to adapt. The most recent extinction event occurred at the turn of the millennium, when small and very small USDA-inspected slaughter and processing plants were required to adopt the costly Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plan. It has been estimated that 20 percent of existing small plants, and perhaps more, went out of business at that time.

The HAACP, as Joe Cloud -- who operates T&E Meats and works with the uber-sustainable farmer Joel Salatin of Ominvore's Dilemma and "Food, Inc." fame -- explains in his Atlantic piece from which this little excerpt came, is supposed to keep meat free from nasty bacteria and other gnarly pathogens.

The problem is a common one: the regulations were written as if every meat processing plant is the same, whether it has 10 employees and a handful of regular customers or hundreds of employees, operates 24-7, and processes thousands upon thousands of pounds of meat each day.

And let's face it. They are very different. The way they operate and the level of risk they pose could not be more diametrically opposite. So the regulatory structure that ensures the safety of the meat they process must reflect those differences. It's that simple.

Which brings Mr. Cloud to the point:

On March 19, 2010, the FSIS published a draft guidance document on HACCP system validation, outlining new rules which would institute regular, year-round testing of all meats, whether or not problems have been identified. The proposal recommends testing for testing's sake, and it will cost small plants tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, every year. The financial burden appears great enough that this will destroy much of the remaining community-based meat processing industry, which is enjoying a renaissance and creating jobs.

You can learn more here about the new draft guidance and how to tell the USDA that the one-size-fits-all approach is ill-advised and will have multiple deleterious effects on local food and small farmers and processors.

And there is at least some hope that the USDA will listen. As part of the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program that so angered several Republican senators in the back pocket of big ag with budgetary concerns, the USDA completed and released the results of a survey of meat processors that are available to small farms (the big processors often won't serve the little guys 'cause they don't give them enough business, and the small farms, apparently, don't like to work with the big guys anyway: they do their best to raise their animals in a humane and sustainable fashion, and the big processors aren't necessarily known for their, uh, strong track record on safety and humanity). The agency concluded from its survey:

"To support consumer demand for locally produced agricultural products, meat producers need to have access to local or regional slaughter facilities, and the study we are releasing today shows that there is often a shortage of facilities needed to bring food to market," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiative is working to address various shortcomings in the food supply chain on behalf of our country's producers and consumers. If there is a stronger, closer link between production and consumption, there is often an economic benefit."‬ 

 I truly stink at reading charts and graphs and maps, so, based on the maps in the slides from the USDA that lay out the situation (starting around slide 7), I'm having a hard time coming up with a coherent analysis of how western Pennsylvania fairs with regard to access to slaughter houses/processors. But it looks like that, for beef, the situation may be all right; for pork, also possibly not too bad; and for chicken, downright terrible.

I'll have to make some inquiries to the folks I get meat from and see what their experience is like. I'll give myself that homework assignment for tonight and report back on what I learn.

May 19, 2010

The Overnight Rise

I think we make a pretty mean pizza in the Fillippelli household. The crust, courtesy of  my wife, has a good balance of flavor and chew, and whether it's a simple pie with just a little sauce, some Moroccan olives and freshly grated pecorino or something bit more adventurous with radicchio, fontina, and walnuts, the final product is always delicious and satisfying.

But there's always room for improvement. In today's New York Times, Oliver Strand suggests a way to take your crust to a new level of flavor: letting the dough rise overnight (if not longer!).

It’s not a new idea. Anthony Mangieri redefined New York’s artisanal scene when he opened Una Pizza Napoletana in 2004 (now living in San Francisco, he will reopen his pizzeria there later this summer). He learned to let dough rise for 24 hours in Naples. Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix all have overnight rises; at Lucali’s in Brooklyn, the dough rises for about 36 hours; and at Saraghina, also in Brooklyn, it goes for as long as 72 hours.

What's the difference between a 3-hour rise (ours is usually more of a 5- to 6-hour rise) and a 24+-hour rise?

...the prolonged fermentation of an overnight rise not only develops the dough’s structure, it also enables starches to transform into flavorful sugars. The dough becomes complex and nuanced.

Hmmm... I'll be the judge of whether "complex and nuanced" translates into "better tasting."  Love a good pizza experiment!

An Olive for Thee?

Our back patio is kind of a nice place to hang out. It's got herbs all around it. A butterfly bush that, once it blooms, attracts, among other things, butterflies and the ultra-cool hummingbird clearwing. But it's just plain-ol' cement. No brick, no fancy patio furniture, although it does have a Gargoyle to guard it from evil spirits... or at least rabbits and other hungry critters that might want to nibble on our sage.

The patio also has a really freakin' ugly water meter. For the last two years my wife and I have talked about finding something decorative to -- in the spring and summer at least-- put in front of the water meter to obscure it from view. A low and frivolous priority, obviously.

But, this weekend, while at a nearby nursery picking up pepper and arugula and basil plants, among other things, for our small garden, I came across quite a surprise: A small olive tree. An arbequina, to be precise. It's apparently a workhorse of the California olive oil industry and is the predominant olive for oil in the Catalonia region of Spain.

It's quite amenable to growing in a large pot. It looked to be the perfect size, once it fills out a little bit, to hide that ugly water meter. And it's apparently quite prolific. So guess I better start learning how to cure olives, eh?

May 14, 2010

Oh, Pho, How I Miss Thee

That picture is just a killer. I really do miss the flavors and pleasure (and slurping) of a big bowl of pho.

Makes me realize that I really need to finally make it to Tram's Kitchen in Lawrenceville.

May 13, 2010

Scrapin' Up the Bits - Embarassed Style

I've been meaning to do a post on this truly gut-churning -- as in, make we want to vomit for a minimum of 3 hours -- letter from several senators to USDA secretary Vilsack in which they whine about the "Know Your Farmer" program, but haven't had time to do it justice. And it's just been holding me back.

So, I'll just leave it to other, more professional types to do the job for me. First, a good post on the letter itself. One of the most gut-churning sentences argues that the program is...

"aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”

Oh, noes, how dares the government take some of the billions they provide in corporate charity to the big agriculture companies and give it to "small" or "organic" producers. I mean, who the hell are they? They don't have any good lobbyists, do they? So why worry about them? And the "hobbyist" term is a nice jab, eh?

And although it's true to an extent that "affluent patrons" do frequent farmers markets, why do you think that is? Because they have easy access to them, both in terms of location and financial resources. Could the playing field be leveled, that is, either by removing the corporate charity that makes conventional produce/meat so much more affordable or beefing up support for the more sustainably-raised products that come from small and organic family farms, those cost differentials might not be so significant and the demographics of just who frequents farmers markets could change dramatically.

Along those lines, a brief, although still, good retort, here -- via Mark Bittman's blog -- from Barry Estabrook. Key nugget:

On average during the past decade the Feds have doled out $17 billion (with a “B”) dollars a year to well-to-do growers of wheat, corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops. Some years these welfare payments to agribusiness have soared to $24 billion. Those are the “realities of production agriculture.” By comparison, Know Your Farmer will cost about $65 million (with an “M”).

Speaking of Barry Estabrook, this is from last year, but it won an award and is an eye-opening look into how despicable some humans can be and into the underbelly of the world of many grocery store tomatoes.

A few other items worth noting, including:

The Environmental Working Group's "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides." Hint, when purchasing nonorganic produce, stay away from celery and peaches.

Surprise, surprise: Round-Up resistant weeds are popping up like... oh, well... weeds on farms across the country. Who would have thought that?

Holy shellfish is that a HUGE paella!

Heinz is
(quietly) reducing the amount of sodium in its ketchup. Good for them.

Restaurant recommendation: Round Corner Cantina in Lawrenceville. Great drinks (I highly recommend the "Red Pepper, Red Pepper") and great food (they had me at the pork belly tacos). Advice, though: be prepared to wait, 'cause it's a small joint, and do not -- I repeat, do not! -- skip the vegetables escabeche. You won't be sorry.

Guess what?! We're still working away at the remnants of the Giant Chocolate Bunny! Speaking of, if you, like our family, enjoy getting free chocolate -- and darn good chocolate at that -- I recommend following Edward Marc on Twitter (@EMChocolatier) to get the secret word of the day.

Finally, a drink experiment recommendation: All those crazy "mixologist" guys are all into using, like, herbs and junk in their cocktails, right? So why not try it at home?

I had two little sample bottles of Rain organic cucumber vodka that I got for free last year at the local Wine & Spirits store. So I had a little fresh ginger and lemongrass left over from our amazing pork meatball banh mi sandwiches (BTW, the recipe calls for basil and no lemongrass; I subbed mint for the basil, and added about a tablespoon of finely chopped lemongrass; freakin' yum).

So, on late Sunday afternoon, I took perhaps a heaping teaspoon each of the ginger and lemongrass, some mint leaves, and muddled them in a shaker. Put in the cucumber vodka, a little regular vodka, a little club soda, ice, shook vigorously. The end result was really quite delicious and refreshing. I would go easier on the ginger next time. But there will be a next time.

UPDATE: Left something out of the drink recipe above. If your shaker doesn't have a strainer attachment of some sort, you will likely want to pour the shaker through a strainer into your drink receptacle of choice.