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.