Friday, October 31, 2008

Pastured meat - why it matters to me.

Why do I pay a lot more for pastured meat? What's the big deal?

There are a couple of reasons - but this is the big one.

"Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs -- anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond."

Lovely, no? That's just the tip of the iceberg. Read the whole article if you can. I couldn't take it in one sitting.

After you've read as much as you can of that article, read this one for a breath of fresh air. Things should be much less confusing.

Happy Halloween; pizza, bird's nests and beef stroganoff

Happy Halloween! I made pizza; it was decent.

Just made this one with bread flour as I haven't had a chance to get to Randy's for some of the good stuff yet.

I forgot to take pictures of another dish I made this week; beef stroganoff. A very simple recipe, but it turned out really nice. I served it over wide egg noodles, but that wasn't the original plan. Initially I was going to serve it in sweet potato bird's nests. I had never made them before, and didn't bother to even look them up to see how they were made; I just guessed. (Thus the egg noodles; I was smart enough to know I'd better have a 'Plan B' - as it turned out, good thinking.) Well, it turns out I guessed wrong - but results were tasty anyway. I shredded the white sweet potatoes with a standard box grater, but they wouldn't form any cohesive mass. I thought perhaps an egg would help. To the resulting mix I also added a bit of nutmeg. The egg did help, but still not enough to really hold any shape, and I could barely get them into the deep fryer. They turned out sort of like potato pancakes. They were delicious and crunchy, but I really wondered how they were supposed to be made. As it turns out - there's a tool just for that. So now I need to make one of those using off the shelf parts.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I always wondered why God made sweet potatoes.

I've never liked sweet potatoes. They've got a cloying sweetness that I find repulsive, sort of reminiscent of overcooked carrots. But the farmer's market is absolutely flooded with them; I mean they are everywhere - cheap, abundant and fresh - I had to find a way to eat them.

I posted this problem on a cooking forum that I frequent, and the very first response turned out to be the best - make a curry.

What a great idea; and man, I have to say, it was really, really good. Second attempt at home made naan bread wasn't bad either.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Pizza, pickles and tomato sauce this weekend.

MS08-067 really ruined my weekend. Instead of doing all the things I wanted to get done, I sat in front of my laptop screen trying to coordinate chaos.

I did manage to get a few things in though. While I haven't made it up to Pizza Dave's to get some high-protein flour yet, I did go to Target and get a container. In the meantime I did make a pizza dough using bread flour, and it turned out really well. Of all the things I cook, pizza dough is really one of the more difficult ones. I make it hard on myself by never measuring, but if I had to give one critical piece of advice it would be 'don't work with cold dough'. I like slow rise pizza crust, but you've got to give it plenty of time to get up to room temperature before you start stretching it.

No one could complain about the freshness of the pizza sauce; I was busy turning a 25 pound box of tomatoes into what will most likely be the last tomato sauce of the season. I wish we had a standing freezer, but I think we'll have enough to make a tomato sauce dish every other week through winter. The box of tomatoes set me back $6, so what are you gonna do? Made an excellent sauce, really - I think Jennie likes this one even better than the Roma sauce, and that one was a damned good sauce.

Then lastly, I made a bunch of tiny cucumbers into refrigerator pickles. Followed AB's recipe pretty closely, only I didn't have any celery seed, and I added red pepper flake. I'll let you know how those turn out in a few days.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Butternut squash risotto and roasting peanuts

I've gotten much better with my risotto technique. Really, if there's a single trick to it; it's knowing when it's done. That comes with practice, and I've been nailing it pretty well. (My first ones were underdone because I was so scared of it turning to mush.)

Butternut squash is in season and all over the farmer's market. Jen had made it into a soup twice over the past month (sort of, the first one was actually made with acorn squash because I didn't know the difference and picked up the wrong kind) so I was looking to try something different. It seemed a no brainer to combine the squash's fall flavors with my new risotto skills - so that's what I did.

Turned out great! Roasted the squash pieces with cloves, cinnamon and ginger, then through my food mill. Made the risotto as normal, just added the squash puree near the end.

Also at the farmer's market this week; raw peanuts. I picked up about a pound and a half just to try roasting them. I was told to boil them in salt water first, which I did, but they need more salt. Not sure if I should increase the salt concentration or the boiling time to accomplish that. They're still good, but not incredibly different than their commercial counterparts.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Update - High protein flour - it's all who you know...

So my friend Pizza Dave says he'll hook me up with some of his high protein flour. He uses Pilsbury instead of King Arthur; but for my purposes that should be fine.

I went to his excellent pizza joint for lunch yesterday. He recently expanded his dining area, and I hadn't seen it during a lunch rush, wondered if he was filling it up. Wow, was he ever - the place was packed. I got there late for lunch, about 12:30 and there was a nice line and almost no free tables. It was good to see in this scary economy, because he's such a good guy. Anyone who works as hard as he does - good things are going to come his way, but I'm very glad to see that his expansion paid off.

So I want to get at least 7 or 8 pounds of flour from him, and I don't have anything really good to transport/store it in at the moment, but I'll try to take care of that over the weekend and then go see him and get it filled up!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

High protein flour - my Holy Grail

I need to get my hands on some high protein flour. By many accounts, one of the best is Sir Lancelot, by King Arthur flour.

It's protein level is 14.2%, and it's just the thing for chewy bagels and pizza crusts. The problem is that I can't buy it at any of my local grocery stores; Harris Teeter, Kroger, Food Lion, Earth Faire - they've all failed me. I've had to make do with King Arthur bread flour, which comes in at 12.8% protein.

I could order it on-line from King Arthur, but it's very expensive; 3 pounds for $7 before shipping. ($2.33/lb) Another option would be purchasing a 50 bag from a wholesaler, I found this one that's $37 ($0.74 /lb) before shipping but that's a LOT of flour, even for me, and I don't really have a good place to store it. I might be able to find someone to split a bag with over ont he City-data forums, but that's a whole different hassle.

So today at lunch, since I don't have any leftovers from last night AND I have a full punch card from Randy's Pizza; I'm going to go see Pizza Dave, my friend and owner of that Randy's, and see what he uses for flour and see if I can buy some from him.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Cows fed ethanol by product more likely to be infected with E. coli

More bad news for corn based ethanol; a new study by the USDA says that distiller's grain; a by product of ethanol production that is used to make cattle feed, increases E. coli levels in their guts by "significant levels" compared to cows that just ate plain corn. (which is also terrible for them)

Wow, that's shocking - who would have thunk it?

Next you'll tell me that if I went out to my yard and ate the grass for dinner that I might have trouble digesting it. Because I'm not a cow.

When are we going to get this through our thick skulls? Cows should eat pasture whenever possible.

Follow up on the UNC FLO students and Smithfield

I was very interested to see if I could find any more news regarding my previous post about the UNC students that were trying to get alternatives to Smithfield products in their dining halls, as I was too busy to research it yesterday.

I did find an excellent article; here's the real highlight for me:

Grass-fed burgers are now served in the Carolina Kitchen kiosk in Lenoir Dining Hall. At $3.99 for a quarter-pound burger, the grass-fed option is a dollar more than a conventional burger—yet, it outsold its conventional counterpart in its first month.

"People pay more if they think that value is there. The health benefits outweigh the price issue," says Skip Herrod, UNC's food service director. He handed out samples at UNC's Focus the Nation event on Jan. 31.

Rich in flavor and moist without a fatty taste, the beef was a hit among samplers.


I really encourage you to read the whole article, there's also a lot of great news coming out of Duke University:

In addition to providing nutritious food, the program supports a thriving local community as well as greatly reduces food miles, resulting in decreased global warming, air pollution, water contamination, traffic congestion and the need for oil. Bon Appetit purchases 16.5 percent of its food from local farmers, and Duke chefs create menus based on seasonality to capitalize on the availability of local products.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Students smack down Smithfield

Sometimes I find the most fascinating stories completely by accident. I'm not even sure how I found this; I think I was searching for data on the number of hog CAFO operations that call North Carolina home.

Anyway - this is old news from back in March of this year. I hadn't even started blogging about food yet, and come to think of it, that was before I read Fast Food Nation and Omnivore's Dilemma, so it probably wouldn't have even sparked my interest.

A group of students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took a look around at some of the smaller, pasture raised meat produced by small farmers in the neighborhood, and decided to get some into the dining hall. The dining hall is run by CDS (Campus Dining Services). CDS sat down with the students, but there was, as they say, a 'failure to communicate'. CDS had Smithfield listed as a "sustainable" operation because of their proximity to campus. Never mind the environmental disaster and disgusting conditions at Smithfiled CAFO's.

Smithfield runs the world's largest hog processing facility - according to the article that means 32,000 hogs per day. Some former workers and neighbors were invited to talk about the conditions.

"Duplin resident Devon Hall testified to the horror of living close to knock-you-over stench and toxic hog waste. Smithfield workers including Marvin Steele told of the pork giant's abysmal disregard for worker safety and ruthless, ongoing union-busting effort.

While these speakers delivered devastating indictments against industrial meat production, two others offered a different vision for pork: Eliza MacClean, owner-farmer of above-mentioned Cane Creek Farm; and Jennifer Curtis, of NC Choices, a group trying to break down market obstacles to pastured hog production in an area dominated by Smithfield.

Several hundred students packed the hall, engaged and ready to take action."

No word on the outcome, but good to see a younger generation taking an interest in these issues.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

NC State Fair - Food report

Just got home from the North Carolina State Fair. If you read this blog much you know I do try to avoid processed foods, and eat local, whole foods when I can, right?

Yeah, all that pretty much goes out the window for fair food. Saving the world is great, but so is a fresh corn dog if you know what I mean....

We got there pretty early and I was lucky to see some of the food vendors getting ready for their day - one of note, the "Roasted Corn" guys; all of them seemed to be using the same source for their corn, and I took note of where it was coming from, it was on every box: Salinas Valley, CA.

If that name sounds familiar, it has been the source of several large profile E. coli outbreaks. I wasn't so much worried about E. coli in the corn as much as I was about the length of the trip from California to North Carolina. Thank you, slow food movement for teaching me to look for such things. See, it wasn't all in vain, even for fair food - we skipped the corn. That will be the last sacrafice of the day, however....

Overall I would say the food was a let down with 2 exceptions.

The funnel cake I should have taken back for a fresh one. I would have, but I thought if I did and got one right out of the oil that it would have been too hot for my daughter - but in hindsight it still would have been better. Shame on the vendor for giving it to me, shame on me for accepting it.

The fried vegetables were just OK; I make them much better - but I learned from the master. My mom has been going to the same fried vegetable stand at the Ohio State Fair for years, and about 3 or 4 years ago I watched the guy make them and stole his secret.

That's twice I've learned how to make carnival food by just watching and taking mental notes - fried veggies and Kettle corn. Oh, and speaking of Kettle Corn; the guy I learned from earlier this year was at the fair! I almost felt bad for him because he was doing much better business this spring where I first saw him; some sort of art festival in Cary.

The french fries were decent; everything I want out of Fair Fries (wicked hot, salty, with plenty of malt vinegar) but nothing above it.

The winners:

A fresh churned, still soft - like home made, ice cream place that we saw by the Grist Mill exhibit at gate 8. The machines were being cranked by little steam engines. 2 flavors; vanilla and strawberry. We got the vanilla, and it was very nice. I'll say it - better than the dairy barn ice cream at the Ohio State fair.

And lastly, a corn dog from a random midway vendor. Damn I love a corn dog.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

One step closer to dry aged beef

As I posted awhile back, I really want to try my hand at dry aging a beef loin primal this winter.

It's tricky business; dry aging. No one really wants to talk about instructions on line, for much the same reasons you won't find too many discussions on building your own parachute - it's a hell of a liability. When you get down to it, you're doing a controlled rot. You need the right temperature and humidity levels. You need to be careful for insects. You have to try not to give yourself food poisoning.

So why even try? For the same reason the world's best steakhouses do it; the resulting beef is amazingly tender and flavorful. Tender because enzymes have started breaking it down, flavorful because it loses so much water. And of course, to say I've done it.

I asked my beef guy, told him this wouldn't be a regular thing, just a one time deal. He was completely confused and began showing me some large roasts from his cooler. I had to stop him and explain that they wouldn't work; that I needed something at least 10 pounds and fresh - not frozen. I explained that I would meet him at the processor with my cooler full of ice.

He pondered it for awhile; thought about the ways he might get in trouble, and then said he could do it, as a one time thing for me.

I said that it would probably be in February, and that I would be in touch.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Signed up for a chicken CSA

I went to the Carrboro farmer's market 2 weeks ago, and while purchasing a chicken, in talking with this particular farmer came to find out that they were opening a fall CSA for chickens.

If you don't know what a CSA is; it stands for Community Supported Agriculture. There are different kinds with different requirements. At their most simple, like this one, you pay for a "share" and then you get something (in this case, chickens) in return at some point in the future.

I had wanted to sign up for a vegetable CSA, but missed the season. You have to sign up early as they fill up quickly.

I had been getting my chickens from another farm at the Raleigh market, and they were both excellent chickens, but these will end up being a bit more affordable, and the pickup location is the Durham market, so it's nice and close. I'll still buy eggs, bacon and sausage from this farm when I'm at the Raleigh market. The plan is to rotate each week between the Raleigh and Durham markets.

I don't know how big they'll end up being, I read somewhere that the limit for slaughter was 4 pounds. With a large chicken we're able to get 3 meals out of them; breast meat for either stir fry, or something pounded like lemon chicken, then the rest of the meat for BBQ or a bastardized catchatorie in the slow cooker and finally a stock out of the carcass that becomes noodle or vegetable soup.

Other than getting really delicious chicken, and supporting small, local agriculture, the other benefit is not having to worry if the chickens are being de-beaked. This farm uses floorless coops that are moved to new pasture daily, and are free to eat insects, worms, grass, frogs, mice, clover or the antibiotic free, animal-by-product-free grain feed.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Got Milk?

I learned a bunch of things about milk this week. Most of it somewhat terrifying.

First on deck; in my new home state, North Carolina there an underground community, covert black markets, dark of night back alley dealings in contraband...

Am I talking about something cool like medical marijuana?

Nope. Milk. OK, not just any old milk - raw milk. Unpasteurized, inhomogeneous milk.

Apparently it's illegal to sell raw milk in North Carolina for human consumption. There's a "pet" loophole though. You can buy raw milk to feed your "cat". And there are quite a few folks doing just that.

I've listened to both sides of the argument, and will sum them up:

Pro raw milk:
Real, living milk full of enzymes and helpful bacteria that tastes incredible and can cure everything from asthma to allergies. Pasteurization was introduced in a time when food purity was a joke in this country, and was intended to be a stopgap measure until dairies could be cleaned up, but there were big profits to be had for large dairies and grocery stores because the product now lasted longer and could travel great distances.

Anti raw milk:
There no inspection, regulation, and you'll get listeria, campylobacter or e.coli 0157:H7 and die.

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about it yet, but I can tell you this much - now I'm 100% determined to get my hands on some. For my pet.

Quite frankly, I see more than a few parallels between pasteurization and irradiation.

Next - Monsanto has decided to sell off it's synthetic hormone rBGH (Posilac) to Eli Lilly for 300 million. I guess they finally got tired of trying to sue everyone who wanted to let consumers know that some milk wasn't produced using artificial hormones.

And Monsanto is trying very hard to be the most evil company in the world.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cream of Cop Out

I'm totally convinced that if we were able to track what happens to cans of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup when they leave the store, that fewer than 10% are ever actually made into soup.

Green bean caserole. Chicken bake. Chicken with creamy rice....this is the destiny for all those've got a recipe, don't deny it. Every one of you reading this has there's a can of Cream of Something in your pantry right now.

And deep down you know that no good can come from opening a can of the stuff, but you do it anyway.

It's time to stop. It's time for me to open a can of Cream of Intervention on you ass.

Very slowly, keep your hands where I can see them and drop the can opener.

There are 2 ways to go about making "Cream of" soups; adding cream to a regular soup works pretty well if you like a thinner texture. Here's a decent Cream of Asparagus soup recipe that uses this technique.

If you're going for something a little more hearty, like the Campbell's cans, then a bechamel sauce is what you need.

Melt a hunk of butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and add a little flour. Keep it moving with a wire whisk. This part take a little practice; getting the butter to flour ratio right. I figure you can always add more flour, but taking it away isn't so easy. You're going for a thick sauce texture. It will be a pale yellow at first. What you've made right there is called a roux. (Roo)

Roux is the foundation for a lot of great food, so you should absolutely know how to do this. It is a thickener, but also a flavoring; a foundation. You're halfway to gumbo and etoufee already!

When you first add the flour to the butter and begin whisking, your roux is going to taste very floury and starchy. You need to cook that flavor out. As it cooks, the roux will take on a darker tone. As it darkens, the flavors get deeper and nuttier, but the thickening power is reduced.

For the sauce we're making, a blond roux is fine; but you should experiment; take a roux to peanut better color. See how dark you can get a roux before it burns. It's good to know these things, get a feel for them and practice is cheap.

Back to our sauce. We've got a blond roux, just cooked enough to have cooked out the flour flavor. Meawhile, cook up a few cups of milk. You want it almost boiling. If you put cold milk in a hot roux very bad things happen, and there's no recovery. When the milk is hot, very slowly whisk it in with your roux. Congratulations - it's a bechamel sauce!

Now lets go back a few steps. What would happen if we sauteed some chopped mushrooms in butter, and then added flour to that, and made a roux out of it, then added the hot milk and some heavy cream? What would we have then?

You'd have cream of mushroom soup. Use that in your green bean casserole and taste the difference. You may never buy a can of Cream of Anything again.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

My bagels kick ass

I made bagels today, and they came out awesome. Why didn't I try this years ago?

  1. 3 tips for kick-ass bagels:
    High protein flour
  2. Knead it forever
  3. Boil for at least 5 minutes per side

They are to die for, and except for the kneading, are really very simple.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Shocking! HFCS studies were paid for guessed it!

CBS News reports that the some of the nutritional studies cited in the recent ads for high fructose corn syrup were in fact paid for by companies with a financial stake in the outcome.

"Of the six studies CBS News looked at on the association’s Web site that “Confirm High Fructose Corn Syrup [is] No Different From Sugar,” three were sponsored by groups that stand to profit from research that promotes HFCS.

Oh, hey - Philip Morris called, and they just sponsored a study that says cigarettes are not addictive, and in fact are quite good for you.

Can finances really impact scientific test results??? Is it possible?

Last year, research from the Children’s Hospital Boston suggested that nutrition research, like medical and tobacco research, can be influenced when industry funds the studies. It showed that when studies were sponsored exclusively by food/drinks companies, the conclusions were four to eight times more likely to be favorable to the sponsoring company.

Shocking!!! You mean, that industrial giants might be more interested in profits than our health? Say it ain't so!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Chicken and dumplings

So today was a very strange day, but better than last night.

3 year olds and emergency rooms are a combination I don't like one bit. My daughter was very sick this week and ended up in the hospital. There were some intense moments that I don't care to describe here, but the good news is that she's fully recovered. The bad news is that she'll be there for a few days, and Momma will too.

I had been planning a big family dinner of chicken and dumplings, and had made an amazing chicken stock over the weekend just for it. I didn't freeze it because I was going to use it - but then all this happened and I knew I had to make it or throw the stock away, so I made the chicken and dumplings by myself, and so far I'm the only one who has eaten any of it.

But don't feel too sorry for me yet, because OMG the stuff rocks. Turns out I make damn fine chicken and dumplings, and I've never even done it before. But first, full disclosure - I did cheat; I used frozen dumplings. I know, it's sad - and I promise next time I will try to make the dumplings from scratch too. (Ingredients: water, flour - how hard can it be?)

You see - this all started last week. I had a powerful craving for chicken and dumplings from Hog Heaven, which is a spectacular hole in the wall BBQ place in Durham. I'd had it once before, and it's just awesome, my first experience with 'southern' chicken and dumplings (More about that later). Anyway, I talked my wife and daughter into going there last weekend. I drove with visions of chicken and dumplings in my head, walked in the door almost drooling with the anticipation of the chicken and dumplings I was about to have, placed my order....and they were OUT of chicken and dumplings. OUT! Out?? What??! Is this a sick joke? Nope. Someone had come by earlier and cleaned them out.

Defeated, depressed and dejected I "settled" for BBQ (which was awesome). I never sated that craving - and when I get a craving - something has to be done...time to take matters into my own hands.

Really not hard; (especially if you cheat with the dumplings) but time consuming. Especially making the stock from the chicken carcass, which I highly, highly recommend.

Oh yeah, also - by the way, this is southern chicken and dumplings - which is very different than the "C&D" that I grew up with. For example; I'm used to 'drop' dumplings. Not here - they are more like flat noodles, like non-ruffle edged lasagna noodles. And there's nothing else in it (besides seasonings of course) just chicken and dumplings. No carrots, no celery, nada - chicken and dumplings. Simple. Simply awesome.

The C&D from my youth was more like pot pie filling; creamier, like there might be some milk in it, and always with carrots, maybe some celery and peas. I like both a lot, but if pressed to choose one, the southern variety is probably my favorite for it's simplicity and flavor.

Are you in favor of irradating food?