Archive for the ‘vegetables’ Category

A Culinary Confession

March 23, 2010

I blame Bakesale Betty.  If the blue-haired Aussie-American Alison hadn’t lured me into her store with lamingtons and sticky date pudding I would never have succumbed to the charms of her legendary fried chicken sandwiches, which cause perfectly sane people to line up on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland. For a sandwich. I kid you not.

It also doesn’t help that Bakesale Betty is on my way home from my editing gig and I’m often ravenous as I drive by, doing a quick scan to see if there’s 1. a line snaking down the street or 2. any parking.

If the parking gods and queue karma are on my side, I’m in and out with one of her sandwiches before you can say hello hypocrite.

Let me explain. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 17, when I gave up meat in what my mum, a good cook, viewed as just another one of my rebellious teenage acts. Despite growing up in a meat-loving land, where the backyard barbie rules, I became a greens and legumes kinda gal.

For more than a quarter of a century, I lived the veg life. To be precise, I guess I’m technically a pescatarian, as I sometimes eat seafood. Especially in my hometown, Sydney, because — news flash — fabo fish to be had Down Under peeps.

So how to explain the recent chicken sandwich obsession? What can I say? I think I’m having a middle-aged meat crisis. Some 20 years ago I introduced the man who would become the father of my child to the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Hell, I married him at Greens. My 11-year-old kid has never, ever eaten an ounce of animal flesh.  (His choice. I’m no zealot.)  My blog is called — duh — Lettuce Eat Kale. I’ve watched Food, Inc. I frequent farmers’ markets. You get the idea.

I should be a poster girl for a pro-produce life.

And yet…a couple of years ago around a certain time in my cycle I began craving protein. No worries, fish usually did the trick. Then I started to slip a bit when sharing food at ethnic restaurants around town. Chicken raised with love, care, good feed, and bucolic views began to find its way into my mouth. What the heck was happening?

I wasn’t sure, but I suspected hormones played a role. I also knew I wasn’t dealing with this particular omnivore’s dilemma on my own.  My friend Connie was a vegetarian — until she got pregnant with her first kid 16 years ago. Then it was off to the steak house for her and she’s never looked back.  My dance instructor, Amara Tabor-Smith, eschewed animal protein for decades — she didn’t like the texture — and is now tentatively getting reacquainted with meat.

I’d always assumed, along with many others I suspect, that vegetarian cookbook superstars Deborah Madison and Mollie Katzen didn’t eat meat. Not so, I discovered in the past year during chats with both chefs. Mollie describes herself as a “meat nibbler,” and Deborah’s not opposed to the occasional piece of grass-fed, local beef.

Their most recent books, Get Cooking by Mollie, and What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah, include meat recipes. Still, both women favor a diet where greens, grains, and legumes dominate the dinner plate.  Mollie supports the Meatless Monday campaign and both believe most meat eaters would do well to eat less animal and more plant foods.

Eating meat after years — or even a lifetime — of a solely plant-based diet seems to be something of a trend. For people who chose vegetarianism for ethical or environmental reasons, sourcing meat sustainably is now often a viable alternative to factory-farmed animals, and so some have decided to include it sparingly in their diet.

(Bucking this seemingly female shift, is wonder boy writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who dabbled with vegetarianism for years but fully committed after he became a pet owner. He will probably convert masses to the cause with his description of chicken fecal soup and other horrors of industrial animal slaughter in his recent book, Eating Animals.)

In this confusing time, I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit in Tara Austen Weaver, the warm and witty writer who blogs about meat and many other food matters at Tea & Cookies.  I can so relate to the mental tug-of-war that underlies her recent book The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis.  Tara didn’t have a choice in her vegetarian childhood — she was raised that way by a Northern California hippie mama.

Several years ago, she started exploring eating meat for health reasons.  Her descriptions of buying, prepping, and cooking meat resonate with me because I haven’t actually ever gone and purchased a chicken or, um, chicken bits and made dinner. That notion makes me feel nauseous, to be honest. I don’t even like looking at raw meat.

I know, I know, I’m the worst kind of turncoat. I leave the house to get a bit of hot flesh on the side. When my son stopped by home unexpectedly the other afternoon, I found myself hiding aforementioned cluck, cluck sandwich before opening the door. Clearly, I have some conflicted feelings about my dietary changes.

So what to call myself: A lapsed vegetarian?  A vegetarian who cheats?

I thank the funny Adair Seldon of Lentil Breakdown for introducing me to the term flexitarian, which seems to fit for now, loathe as I am to saddle myself or anyone else with a label.

For the record, I seem to have no desire to move on to “harder” meats, like beef, pork, or lamb.  (An aside: Why isn’t it cow, pig, and sheep? I suspect it’s a way for many of us to remain in denial about where meat actually comes from.) Speaking of denial: No pics of meat in this post! The hypocrisy continues.

And I’ve never had any interest in eating creatures I see on hiking trails such as ducks, rabbits, quail, deer, elk, and the like. But since chicken is becoming a somewhat regular fix (once or twice a month), I’ve learned never to say never.

My vegetarianism stemmed in part, from my inability to kill an animal, hence my healthy respect for folks like Novella Carpenter, who don’t flinch at taking responsibility for ending the life of an animal they’ve raised for food. I feel cowardly in the carnivore arena by comparison.

Penning this post has probably blown my chances of ever writing for Vegetarian Times or VegNews (though I do think this topic is one such mags would do well to cover.)

But you won’t find meat recipes on this blog, although I’m sure some veggies will unsubscribe in disgust at my wishy-washy vegetarianism.

That would be a shame. Because I am still the girl who obsesses about eating greens. Nothing makes me happier than a meal packed with produce. I am, to borrow a term Mollie Katzen used in a recent Civil Eats story, very much a pro-vegetable person, a vegetabilist.

And I view healthy eating in much the same way I see sexuality.  In my mind, most humans are basically bisexual, it just depends where on the spectrum you fall in terms of how you define your sexual orientation.

Similarly, we’re probably all on an omnivore continuum, with some of us falling firmly on the carnivorous end and others of us way down on the other end of the line very much in vegetarian or even vegan territory.

In the end, come dinner time, it’s a personal choice what we put on our plate and the justifications we make with ourselves and our sometimes contradictory culinary choices are our own to live with as we figure out our place on the food chain and what our bodies need to stay well.

I welcome your thoughts below.

Foodie Focus: Mickey Murch & Gospel Flat Farm

December 14, 2009

Photo: courtesy of Sarah Warnock

It’s a great time to be a farmer. So says Mickey Murch, who tends his family’s farm in beautiful Bolinas, an eclectic coastal enclave in West Marin, California.

He hasn’t always felt this way. Mickey grew up running bare foot through fields but he didn’t want to dig dirt to make his way in the world. He’d seen how demanding a farmer’s life could be at close hand. So he left the life of the land for Reed College in Oregon to study art.  Perhaps not surprisingly, though, his art was informed by his life, which centers on food, family, farming, and the natural environment. He splashed paint on work boots and wheel barrows and threw popular beer-brewing and pizza-baking parties outdoors.

For his senior thesis he lived rough for a year as part of a one-man sustainability show exploring whether a student could survive on a college campus growing, making, finding, recycling, or bartering the basic necessities of life.  He camped out in a handmade rolling caravan, stitched his own shoes out of leather straps and worn tire treads, and preserved produce, beer, beans, cider, and salmon in mason jars that he used to create an indoor installation that included a film documenting his experience.

As a part of his artistic edible evolution Mickey began to realize that his creative self was so thoroughly entwined with his farm-boy background that he made his way back to the land. In Bolinas he built himself a pod to live in so he could commune with the wild world, and designed what illustrator/blogger Maira Kalman, calls his cockamamie contraption — a mobile kitchen from which he spreads the good word about eating local, organic food fresh from his family’s Gospel Flat Farm. The 10-acre organic farm is named for the four churches that once stood in the spot that now boasts a booming mid-sized row crop and modest animal farm.

When he started working alongside his dad, who had run the farm with his wife since 1982, Mickey made typical first-time farmer mistakes. It took time to figure out what produce to grow and where, as he got to know intimately the climatic conditions he inherited. Even something as simple as watering crops has a learning curve. “A new farmer will look at the surface soil and see that it’s dry but a seasoned grower will kick down the soil a few inches to check for moisture,” says Mickey.

He didn’t have a clue about how to sell what he grew. He tried delivering boxes of produce or inviting people to the farm to pick their own, but neither felt quite right. Almost as an afterthought, he began putting excess produce out by the side of the road. That proved the inspiration for the Farm Stand. The unattended stand works on the honor system; customers weigh and pay without oversight (the locked money box is emptied regularly.)

Now in its third year, the Farm Stand has grown so popular that the farm sells most of its produce there. Locals, travelers, and tourists purchase seasonal crops such as greens, flowers, beans, and beets at any time of day or night. Mickey’s favorite question from folks who stop by: “What do you do with this?” And he enjoys not having to haggle with wholesalers over the price or appearance of his produce: “You can accomplish so much when you don’t have to peddle your wares.”

Photo: Sarah Henry

Mickey, 24, hasn’t abandoned his artistic pursuits; at a recent open studios he presented an edible landscape installation. And an art studio behind the Farm Stand is slated to become a space for groups to meet and merge the world of art, food, and farming. He’s also keen to pass on his love of the land to novice farmers, through an apprenticeship program, and young children, in afterschool and summer camp classes and school tours. He’ll fire up the outside oven, he says, and ask the kids what they want to cook. Sometimes they bake bread or make chard-filled raviolis from scratch with eggs and produce collected from the farm. He also wheels his mobile kitchen (formerly a boat) into downtown Bolinas for community canning or cooking demos. Here’s what it looks like:

Flickr photo by Michael Korcuska courtesy Creative Commons license.

The farm remains a family affair. Mickey’s older brother, Kater, a physicist now living in Berkeley, runs the clan’s winery. His mother, Sarah Hake, is a plant geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; she picks up starts and seeds for the farm from work. (Local note: That corn crop growing in Albany as you enter town? That’s Mickey’s mum’s doing.) She also planted a community vegetable patch next to her workplace. Mickey’s grandmother, artist Carol Hake, paints portraits of farm stand produce and brings persimmons from her Los Altos Hills home to add to the bounty for sale. Dad Don runs a local land-clearing, tractor-based business and provides oversight for the entire farm operation. And cousin Sam works alongside Mickey, planting, picking, and maintaining the crops and livestock.

Mickey, who lives on the property (in a building now), with wife Bronwen and their baby, has plans for expanding the farm. He’d like to cultivate more orchard crops and raise more livestock animals. But as he cleans and cuts brussels sprouts one recent cold morning it’s clear from the enthusiasm and earnestness that this young grower brings to his way of life that it is, indeed, a good time to be a farmer.

The Gospel Flat Farm Stand is located just before the plant nursery and stop sign on the Olema/Bolinas Road in Bolinas.

In Praise of Brussels Sprouts

December 9, 2009

Flickr photo by cbcastro courtesy Creative Commons attribution license.

Since I spent two hours Monday outside in the freezing cold chatting with a couple of West Marin farmers as they cut, cleaned, and boxed some bodacious-looking brussels sprouts (more on the growers at Gospel Flat Farm later this week),  I thought it timely to weigh in on this most delectable and much-maligned member of the Brassicaceae family.

Yes, many of us have memories from childhood of horrid-smelling, bitter-tasting, floppy-looking boiled brussels rolling around our plates in all their unappetizing glory.

Banish that image from your mind for good. Perhaps one of the simplest ways to enjoy this cruciferous vegetable, is simply tossing it in some olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and then roasting these green balls of goodness at super high heat — we’re talking 475 or so degrees — until they’re tender and their caramel-like sweetness releases. For a complete how-to on the subject check out this quick roasting recipe from Farmgirl Fare or this gorgeous-looking, Golden-Crusted Brussels Sprouts offering over at 101 Cookbooks.

I picked up a killer recipe for the humble sprout when I chaperoned my kid’s kindergarten class on a field trip to veggie mecca Berkeley Bowl, where each child got to pick a piece of produce to take back to the classroom for follow-up fun.

My boy opted for the brussels sprouts clinging to their stalk, not because he loved ’em but because of their cool alien-from-out-of-space appearance. A fellow produce picker shared his fave way to eat this cabbage-like veg, a dish that included pecans and gorgonzola cheese. This recipe at Kalyn’s Kitchen is pretty similar. Try it. I swear you’ll never think of these leafy green buds in the same negative way again. (I like to toss in some dried cranberries too for a little festive touch. And switch in hazelnuts for pecans, if you’d prefer.)

Flickr photo by Ed Bierman courtesy Creative Commons license.

Here’s a handy dandy tip: If you decide to boil or steam your brussels sprouts take care not to overcook them as that releases a chemical with the unwieldy name glucosinolate sinigrin, and it’s this pesky substance that produces the stench, I mean, sulfurous odor, that you’ll recall from your youth. Cutting these buds in half before cooking can also help minimize the smelly chemical, apparently.

Before I leave you with some more ways to enjoy these verdant veggies, any copy editors/language gurus want to weigh in on whether it’s Brussels sprouts or brussels sprouts? The New York Times recently had its say on the matter and although it’s French fries the gray lady says its brussel sprouts and lima bean. Go figure.

Below, a smattering of recipes designed to help you change your mind (if that’s necessary) on the merits of these little orbs of loveliness.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Pears from Food Blogga
Love the combo of pear, ginger, and thyme in this simply satisfying side.

Creamy Brussels Sprouts Gratin from A Veggie Venture
Brussels sprouts, cream, and breadcrumbs. What’s not to like?

Shredded Brussels Sprouts & Apples 101 Cookbooks
With or without tofu (which makes this into a one-skillet meal).

Hashed Brussels Sprouts with Lemon & Poppy Seeds
Lighthearted Locavore
Another mighty fine taste combination.

Cauliflower & Brussels Sprouts Gratin Serious Eats Channels Bon Appetit
Cheese, cream, pine nuts, and parsley baked with two nutritious veggies in one delicious dish.

Grow Your Own Row

December 2, 2009

Meet my friends Leigh Raiford and Michael Cohen, typical nomadic academics who put down roots in Berkeley six years ago with their children Maya and Maceo. (Maya is in the same class as my son.)

These two transplants passed on their recipe for roasted kale and inspired me to start my own little backyard raised veg bed last summer.

I bet their story will get you excited about planting your own food too, whether or not you’re a budding urban farmer or suburban gardener.

What, a post on growing a row in December? Hey, we live in the balmy Bay Area. We pulled up the last of the tomato plants on Saturday, went to the beach on Sunday (glorious day, no fog, I swear), and picked up sweet strawberries from the farmers’ market today.

We’ve had a typically warm fall, but no need for folks in other parts of the country to turn green with envy; the relentless sunshine (honestly, it can be exhausting ensuring you enjoy the good weather all the time) will likely end soon. Indeed, rain is expected this weekend and that stuff makes us Left Coasters go running for cover.

Regardless, whether you’re keen to put in a winter crop or live somewhere where seed catalogs are the only thing sprouting until spring, these folks have learned a thing or two about growing their own grub and they’re willing to share the wealth.

When the Raiford-Cohen clan first moved out West they rented a home in North Berkeley with a massive backyard garden that was chock full of every kind of produce under the sun. “It wasn’t a vegetable garden, ” says Leigh, who grew up in Harlem, and had never seen the likes of figs, tomatillos, or white raspberries before. “It was a farm.”

The couple had dabbled in gardening at previous university pit stops around the country but once they landed in California they decided to get serious about growing greens.

When they bought a home of their own two years ago in sunny South Berkeley, a large concrete area out back begged to be torn up and turned into an edible oasis. So that’s just what they did. Michael dug out concrete, put up fences, and amended soil.  They solicited the help of professional gardening friend Andrea Hurd, who was keen to design a permaculture food forest but hadn’t yet convinced any clients to let her loose in their backyard. Leigh and Michael had no such reservations.

The result? More of an overgrown playground filled with edible finds and less of a traditional vegetable patch of tidy rows. Just my kind of food garden: A recent tour reveals enough pumpkins to carve for Halloween and plenty left over to make soup at Thanksgiving. We pick the last of the green zebra tomatoes; the kids promptly devour them. Snipped sprigs of lemon verbena will find their way into simple syrup for cocktail hour. We spot the first of the purple grapes, enthusiastically sampled.

Last summer the family harvested vegetables from their plot for every meal; fresh fruits for breakfast and veggies for lunch and dinner. Michael makes batches of tomato sauce that he freezes to preserve the surplus summer crop for the winter months, in a nod to urban homesteading. Leigh, who considers herself the primary harvester to Michael’s farmer, says her kids chow down on kale, collards, okra, and other homegrown veggies. (She’s also the family food photographer; the garden harvest images in this post are her own.)

Their advice for budding food gardeners:

Grow what you like to eat. The family tried to grow broccoli without much success; since Leigh’s not a huge fan of this cruciferous veggie, they moved on to other greens.

Stagger plantings & choose different tree types so everything doesn’t ripen at once. They chose two apple varieties that are ready to pick at either end of the season.

Pick up tips on companion planting. For instance, plant thyme next to cabbage, nasturtiums near pumpkins, or marigolds and basil by tomatoes to protect crops from pests.

Plant varieties you can’t easily (and more cheaply) find at the farmers’ market or grocery store. The couple skipped common apple choices like fuji and granny smith in favor of sierra beauty and carolina red june trees of antiquity. Check seed catalogs for heirloom varieties. The Lemon Lady provides a list of free seed catalogs.

Look for resources in your community. Here’s just a sampling of what’s on offer locally: Berkeley residents can pick up free compost courtesy of the city on the last Friday of every month from February-October, buy soil and soil amendments at American Soil, and get advice, plants, and seedlings at the Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project. San Francisco dwellers can learn about growing food in classes and demos at Garden for the Environment. Low-income residents in West Oakland can get help tending their own backyard vegetable plot by contacting City Slicker Farms. And folks can also sign up for the uber-popular classes in gardening, beekeeping and more at the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland or BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley.

Don’t have anywhere to plant where you live? Click here to read about how one Oakland gardener traded labor for land and fed two families in the process. Find other ways to outsource establishing your own food plot in the East Bay in this recent Diablo magazine story. And if you’re already growing your own, find tips to get more food from your garden this winter or next spring in this Oregonian article.

I learned this summer just how satisfying it is to go out the back door and pick your dinner (or at least some of it). So I’m thinking it’s time to get some dinosaur kale (natch), collards, and fava beans in the ground.

How about you?

Food photos: Leigh Raiford

Family photo: Sarah Henry

What’s for Dinner? Find Answers on the Web

November 4, 2009

How many of you have found those email chain letters in your inbox asking you to share a recipe with a dozen or so others? How many of you actually respond?

I’m not entirely sure why, but I never seem to reply to these recipe requests (sorry Anne, Katherine, Ellen, et al.) and wind up feeling a bit guilty about it.

Maybe they’re too much pressure — you feel the need to cast around for the perfect dish to share with the masses. Maybe it feels too time consuming and thus goes into the to-do list, and then too much time passes or you forget…Who knows.

I suspect many of them are generated by busy working parents (mostly moms), who want help with that perennial post-work-school-pick- up-race-to-martial arts/dance class/soccer-hustle and the inevitable, ravenous question: “What’s for dinner?'” as soon as you walk in the door.

It’s hard to resist the urge to say something snippy like “What are you cooking?” or even “Who the hell knows?” but that won’t get dinner on the table. And when time is short, you’re hardly about to start browsing through your library of cookbooks for inspiration.

But what if you took a few minutes out of your day to check out a couple of online recipe resources. That sounds doable, right?

So in the spirit of sharing recipes via the ‘net (if not email) I offer web links to click to find nutritious & delicious dishes you can fix for your family in a timely fashion.

There are a zillion food sites and blogs out there. Many look gorgeous, some are very funny, lots are beautifully written. For this post I want to highlight a few that consistently offer recipes that could work on a school night when everyone is tired, time-starved, and very hungry. (Which doesn’t means these aren’t pretty, witty, and wise as well.)

No doubt you’ll have your own bookmarked recipe links you’ll want to share. Feel free.

As for those recipe exchange emails…okay, alright, already, I’ll reply…maybe there’s a blog post in what happens after I hit send.

Five Online Food Resources

Simply Recipes Elise Bauer’s six-year-old, award-winning web blog is chock full of easy-to-fix, healthy suggestions for family meals. The site is easy to navigate, the recipes easy to follow, and it’s easy on the eyes as well, with lots of lovely photos. Browse categories that meet your family’s needs, whether budget, vegetarian, or gluten free.

Try Spinach Frittata, Enchiladas, or Sauteed Swiss Chard Ribs with Cream and Pasta.

101 Cookbooks Heidi Swanson, author of Super Natural Cooking, serves up evocative images of wholesome vegetarian offerings on this much-lauded site, started as a way to work through recipes in the vast number of cookbooks Swanson had amassed at home. This blog is a snap to get around too.

Consider Lemony Chickpea Stir-fry, Broccoli Cheddar Soup, or Carrot, Dill and White Bean Salad.

Tasty Kitchen The brainchild of the hilarious blogger Ree Drummond, aka as The Pioneer Woman, a self-described spoiled city gal who left the urban life to marry a cattle man and homeschool four children, Tasty Kitchen is a recently launched site for home cooks to share their favorite recipes. Good place to park those email recipe exchanges, maybe?

Check out Pumpkin and Pear Soup, Ratatouille, and California Style Sushi Rolls.

super.cook.logoSupercook is a cool newish web tool equipped with a search engine that helps you prepare meals with the ingredients you have on hand. Just plug in what you have in your pantry, say rice and lentils, and within seconds you’ll get a recipe or maybe several from its database of 300,000 and growing. You can comment on whether you like or dislike a dish and even add your own to the mix. Another potential home for those avid recipe exchangers! Named by Time.com as one of the 50 best websites for 2009.

Will Write for Food Speaking of bests, several “best food blogs” lists are worth perusing when you’ve got a little more time to surf around to find a recipe resource that appeals. My pal Dianne Jacob over at WW4F has gathered links to five of these best ofs in one place.  The website delish also keeps a comprehensive list.

Check back for a future post when I finally put together my very own favorite foodie bloggas blogroll.

Flickr photo by dcdan used under the Creative Commons license.

Organic Food Fight

August 6, 2009

Mulling over whether it’s worth spending more on organic greens, nectarines, or milk? You’ve got company. The assumption that organic produce tastes better and is better for you than conventionally-produced fruit and vegetables is as bruised as an organic farmers’ market peach brought home on a bike.

fruit-vegetable-mosaicPhoto by Flickr user Auntie P used under the Creative Commons license.

Consider this: A major study out of Britain which garnered loads of press last week, concludes that there’s no evidence that organic produce and livestock products are more nutritious than conventionally-grown food. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed 50 years of scientific literature on the subject, and focused on 55 rigorous studies.

Of course, not everyone buys organic for its health benefits. Some choose organic for environmental, animal welfare, or farm worker concerns, all of which were outside the scope of the U.K. report. Many buy organic apples, berries, corn, or eggs because of what’s not in these foods: no chemical pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics. No irradiation or fertilization with sewage sludge, and no genetically modified ingredients. “I buy organics because I want foods to be produced more naturally, more humanely, and more sustainably,” writes New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle in a recent Food Politics post, echoing the sentiment of others. “I see plenty of good reasons to buy organics.”

Nestle sites superior taste as another factor in forking out more for organic, and many consumers concur. There’s nothing like the juicy, flavorful first bite of a richly-red, ripe, organic, locally-grown, sun-warmed, freshly-picked tomato to make organic converts out of people used to mushy, bland, pale, cold-storage, conventionally-grown tomatoes flown in from afar to sit on supermarket shelves, right?

Wait, not everyone agrees. The notion that organic produce is always more delicious than conventional fruit & veggies has also been called into question of late.  Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons, a self-dubbed, non-believer in organics, notes that the label doesn’t guarantee superior quality or taste.

He hit a nerve: His recent column received around 90 comments — the overwhelming majority in agreement with Parsons’ position.  The idea that if you aren’t eating fruits and vegetables that are organically grown, then you might as well be “mainlining Agent Orange or handing your money straight to some giant industrial agricultural corporation,” is inaccurate, writes Parsons. “Whether something is grown organically might be one of the factors you use when you’re considering what to buy, but it is by no means the only one,” he adds. “For me, seasonality, locality and — above all, flavor — trump it.”

Still, sales of organics have doubled since the federal government began certifying food as such about seven years ago (though it still represents a tiny percentage of overall food sales). Most U.S. grocery stores now stock some organic produce or products, and 1 out of 3 Americans have purchased organic food at least once.

What’s in the label, anyway? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition is essentially a marketing term that has little to do with food safety or nutrition, says a spokesperson for the department in a recent New York Times piece by food writer Mark Bittman. The government’s designation also falls far short of the desires of many organic farmers and advocates, notes Bittman. Some small-scale sustainable farmers can’t afford to go through the government’s organic certification process, or don’t think the label is meaningful so don’t bother. And much of what is produced in America under the umbrella of organic food is part of large-scale food production practices.  (Check out the documentary Food, Inc. for more details.)

Given the bad economy, even people who are predisposed to buy organic are finding themselves on a tighter food budget and making choices on what organic produce to buy based on lists like the “Dirty Dozen”, from the Environmental Working Group. (Of course, the assumption that organic equals more expensive isn’t always true either. Just as it doesn’t necessarily mean “local.” )

Bittman argues in his recent post that the national debate on food should focus more on how to eat well — sticking to real ingredients, eating more plant-based food and less animal products and highly-processed foods, cooking from scratch (aka author Michael Pollan‘s thesis) — rather than whether or not you load up on organic versus conventional goods.

(Interesting aside: Judging by another recent research review, eating well is harder to do now than in the past.  A study published this year in HortScience revealed that the nutritional content of today’s conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables is 5 to 40 percent lower than produce picked 50 years ago in the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps another reason to grow your own?)

Despite the recent ballyhoo, farmers’ markets overflowing with organic food continue to draw crowds willing to pony up good money for the stuff. On a recent Sunday at one stand, the line for squash, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, and other summer bounty rivaled the wait to ride Disneyland’s Space Mountain. When this shopper got to the head of the queue she overheard one seller say to the other, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

So, then, readers, where do you stand on the organic debate? Is buying organic produce worth it or a waste of money? Share your opinions below.

Kale Chips: Giving Thanks for Greens in a Snack Pack

July 30, 2009

blessing-horowytzLast Friday was the day I was supposed to meet Blessing Horowytz, creator of Kale Chips, my current favorite snack food.

Here’s what happened: Multi-tasking mama that I am, I decided to quell my cravings for Kale Chips (not to be confused with roasted kale) and satisfy my curiosity about the brand new Berkeley Bowl West, which opened a couple of weeks ago, so I set off in pursuit of both.

If you live in Berzerkeley, the Bowl needs no introduction. If you hail from further afield, the Berkeley Bowl is a food mecca with devotees from around the Bay Area who flock to the store for its extensive produce section, cheese selection, and bulk food bins. The original location has a rap for long lines at the checkout (where people wait in a relatively Zen state) and aggro road rage in the overflowing parking lot (so much for the peace-loving people of Berkeley.)

Fortunately I can report that at BBW bigger is better — more parking, more produce, and wider aisles. It is, frankly, massively impressive. The Bowl is the kind of place where you can buy a bottle of  balsamic vinegar for $1.99 or $31.99 — and just about every price point in between. At the new locale, some drivers still pull crafty maneuvers to nab a park, but that may just be a bad habit from years of circling the original store’s lot. I take a quick spin through the store, pick up Kale Chips by Alive & Radiant Foods, and then head to the checkout. THERE IS NO LINE. Unbelievable.

quite-cheesey-kale-chipsWhat’s not to like about Kale Chips? They’re fun, crunchy, finger food. I’m partial to the “quite cheesey” flavor which taste, ah, quite cheesy. They have impeccable cred: Raw. Vegan. Dehydrated.  They’re mostly kale. One of my all-time favorite veggies (but you probably figured that out already.) Just six ingredients: Curly kale, red bell pepper, cashews, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, and Himalayan crystal salt. Okay, if I had a quibble, they’re exxy — $6.99 a packet. On a good day I can eat a whole bag as I stroll the length of the farmers’ market, where I usually buy ’em.  Un-cooked food takes a lot of time to produce. Time is money. Such is life.

sabeena-naila-kia

After introducing my son and me to these bagged greens, my friends Naila Siddique and Kia Afcari sprang for a dehydrator (around $300) and now make their own for their family — especially their daughter Sabeena, who’s reluctant to eat almost any veg. More on this wee one’s food preferences in a future post. My kitchen is too tiny for a dehydrator and I’m too lazy to make my own, but if you’re keen, here’s a recipe.kale-chip-ingredients

Driving home happily munching away I decide on a whim to call in on the good people who turn out this satisfying snack. The Kale Chip “factory” is literally just down the street from my home. If you blink you’d miss the non-descript little building that houses this busy kale biz. I meet Blessing, who graciously gives me an impromptu tour. (Basically, four large Excalibur dehydrators — she could use four times as many — and a storage space.) Business is booming: Blessing sells her snacks to hundreds of stores across the country. Her small staff crank out Kale Chips constantly but the dehydration process can’t be rushed, so it’s a challenge to keep up with demand.

Blessing has been selling her specially-spiced kale (sourced from Riverdog Farm) and un-baked cookies for more than six years, at farmers’ markets, natural-food grocery stores, and health-food shops such as Whole Foods. An early adopter in the raw-food movement, she’s also a former Silicon Valley recruiter and, at one time, a dream worker. Making Kale Chips is not about producing greens on the go to rake in the greenbacks, says Blessing. She produces raw goods for the greater good, to feed the mind, body, and spirit.

No surprise then, after a free-ranging chat, that a handshake is out of the question. Blessing gives me a hug and sends me on my way with, well, a blessing.

Photos: Sarah Henry

Eat Food, Cook Food, and Don’t Forget the Salt

July 29, 2009

Perhaps the best thing about Cook Food: a manualfesto for easy, healthy, local eating is that it’s a slim little volume.

That’s not some snarky reviewer comment. Writer Lisa Jervis aims to demystify how to eat well and cook simple food by keeping her book brief. She includes 20 recipes of the beans, greens, grains, tofu, and tempeh variety. Well seasoned, as Jervis advocates, these ingredients can form the basis of a decent recipe repertoire for the eco-conscious (both environmental and financial).

This guide may hit a chord with people interested in food politics who don’t have a clue about what to cook in the kitchen and don’t need pretty pictures to motivate them to make a meal. (This is not your typical photo-driven cookbook.)

Folks inspired by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Stuffed & Starved author Raj Patel, whose book blurb adorns the back cover, come to mind. And Cook Food might also serve as a handy reference for college students, making the switch from dorm life to truly independent living, who need assistance figuring out essential equipment, pantry basics, and practical tips and techniques (note to self: ditch the lame-o rice cooker and get a jelly roll pan for roasting veggies to perfection.)

Regardless, if Jervis, who sports a cool beet tattoo, happens to be reading in your neighborhood do stop by. At The Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco last Friday, it feels like I’ve entered the kitchen of a friend who could use a little help getting the dinner on.

More group discussion and less book reading, Jervis distractedly composes a farmers’ market salad for her audience to sample to support her thesis that preparing satisfying food is within everyone’s reach.

She fields questions while she chops. We learn she’s politically aware (conscious of her carbon footprint, locavore advocate, mostly vegan), and a bit of a renegade (a liberal user of oil and salt, she signs her book, salt early, salt often). She also confesses during her cooking demo that she’s confused an Asian melon for a lemon cucumber. It doesn’t seem to faze her. There’s nothing slick going on here, which leaves you feeling comfortable that you, too, can cook food.

In this era of celebrity chefs and network cooking shows, it’s easy to feel intimidated by food.

Jervis serves as a reminder that we don’t need to be.

Go Green: White House Vegetable Garden

July 27, 2009

white-house-vegetable-gardenImage: Syracuse Cultural Workers

Inspired by everyone I know growing their own (including the President’s family, my neighbors, friends, & urban homesteaders) — and this postcard, picked up at a pre-Point Reyes hike at a special little store Spirit Matters — I finally planted some seeds & seedlings in my new planter box this weekend. It’s loaded with corn, cuc, tomato, basil, & chive plants from the friendly food security folk at Spiral Gardens and lettuce, spinach, & carrot seeds from my green-thumb friend in Bolinas.  Look forward to seeing my son heading out to the backyard to harvest whatever looks good for lunch or dinner. Nice to put down some roots, however temporary, after 7 moves in 8 years. Kale, to come, natch.

Eat Your Greens

March 27, 2009

It’s been a stellar week or so for the good food folks. Alice appeared on 60 Minutes espousing her delicious revolution. (What took CBS so long?)

Michelle Obama broke ground on a White House victory garden. (But how can we convince Barack that beets are divine?)

And, where I live, the Berkeley Unified School District won praise for its vegetarian-friendly school lunch program. (Does your kid eat what’s on offer at school? Alas, my son refuses to entertain the idea that school lunch could be good.)

These events are interrelated, natch, and fodder for future blog posts.

For now, it’s as good a time as any to launch Lettuce Eat Kale, a space where I’ll muse about food, family, growing greens — and share a recipe or two. To learn more about me, Sarah Henry, and my connection to kids and food, check out my About page.

Today’s offering: Roasted kale, of course. I can eat a bowl on my own. The kale ends up nice and crispy and chip-like; kids dig eating kale this way — especially if they get a chance to add their own zing (see below).

This is a super simple side dish, cheap as chips, and healthy to boot. A couple of caveats: Go easy on the oil — you don’t want a soggy green mess. Watch the time carefully — burnt, brown kale doesn’t taste good. Season with care — unless you’re crazy for seasoning — then throw caution to the wind. Enjoy.

Update: Try this tip I recently learned from Jaden over at Steamy Kitchen. Salt your kale after cooking for extra crispiness.

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Roasted Kale

You need:

* a bunch of kale (curly, dino, combo of the two, whatever floats your boat)
* olive oil
* sea salt
* lemon pepper and/or red wine vinegar (if you want to get fancy or experiment)

To do:

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Strip the leaves off the kale stems. You can cut them, but it’s more fun to strip ’em.

3. Wash the leaves and shake them dry (good kid job).

4. Tear the kale into pieces or cut into 1 inch-strips.

5. Put the pieces in a bowl, drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil to coat well.

6. Sprinkle with salt, toss the leaves with your hands (also fun for kids).

7. Spread on a baking sheet and pop it in the oven.

8. Roast for about 7 minutes, or until some of the leaves are tinged a tad brown.

9. Take baking sheet out of the oven, turn the kale with tongs, return to oven for another three minutes or so. The leaves should start to get a little crisp.

10. Return the kale to the unwashed bowl, pour on another tablespoon of olive oil — add some ground lemon pepper or a couple of drops of vinegar if you want.

11. Toss the kale with the tongs. Add more oil, vinegar, salt, or pepper to taste.

12. Toss again and serve straight away.