Low fat "Cheese"

This press release is too funny not to share: “Developing a Low-Sodium, Low-Fat Cheese That Tastes Good Is Still a Challenge.” What do ya know?

The real question is why try?

Good salt is good for you. It supplies minerals you can’t find in other ways.

The fat in cheese is even more important.

Many of the main nutrients in cheese, including calcium, need to be paired with fat to be best absorbed by the body. Also, whenever naturally occurring fat is cut out (or off), the hormone balance gets messed up as I discussed here in regards to meat. The evidence has only grown since I last mentioned this in February.

Even leaving hormones aside, experts agree with me that fat, even saturated fat, is a vital part of the human diet. And when good fats are paired with produce -- whether it is figs and blue cheese, strawberries and feta, bacon and collards or wine with marbled steak (yes, I just referred to wine as produce) -- the benefits and flavors compound exponentially. So have a little cheese. But only if it is tasty.

photo of cheese worker by Kheng Guan Toh
fig and blue by Liv Friis-larsen


Spring Chickens have Sprung!

I have been obsessed with the warm weather pastured eggs for over a month. It's time for the next natural step. The chickens! They are tasting so much yummier than last winter. They taste the way chicken is supposed to taste. Sorry, I know that isn’t very descriptive, but it rings truest to me. Perhaps imagine some artificial chicken bullion and then mentally subtract the artificial over- and undernotes, and then you have a slight sense of what these spring-pastured chickens taste like. While commercial chicken has given rise to the now-so-ubiquitous-its-silly references that everything tastes like chicken (because the chicken we’re accustomed to is so bland it might as well be tough tofu), chicken really has its own unique taste.

Roasting a whole farmers’ market chicken just plain is probably the best way to start, with no more preparation than a brief rub with a baking soda and salt mixture to make the skin crispy. (325 degrees for 75-90 minutes, depending on the size of the bird; put the breast side down for first thirty minutes, and then flip. When almost done, take chicken out of oven and let rest as you get the temperature in oven up to 500. Return the bird to the heat and wait until skin is a nice golden color, about 10 minutes. Remove and let chicken rest for at least ten minutes before slicing, or its wonderful juices will escape into the air!)

But it is June, so I wanted to try a grill method, even if I have to pretend I am outdoors in our lovely but deck/patio/yard-less apartment. Here’s an adapted/stolen version of Cook’s Illustrated’s Italian-Style Grilled Chicken. To see how they do it outside, with bricks (!) go here:

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 bottom bulbs of green garlic, stems removed.
- break into bulbs, mince or process
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/8 cup fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/8 cup fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1 Tbs kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 whole chicken.

(First two steps sucked right off of www.cooksillustrated.com; thanks Cook’s Illustrated!)

1. Combine oil, garlic, lemon zest, and pepper flakes in small saucepan. Bring to simmer, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat, about 3 minutes. Once simmering, add 3 teaspoons thyme and 2 teaspoons rosemary and cook 30 seconds longer. Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer set over small bowl, pushing on solids to extract oil. Transfer solids to small bowl and cool; set oil and solids aside.

2. Following prepping directions below or illustration here (scroll to bottom of webpage), butterfly chicken, flatten breastbone, and tuck wings behind back. Using hands or handle of wooden spoon, loosen skin over breast and thighs and remove any excess fat. Combine 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper in small bowl. Mix 3 teaspoons salt mixture with cooled garlic solids. Spread salt-garlic mixture evenly under skin over chicken breast and thighs. Sprinkle remaining teaspoon salt mixture on exposed meat of bone side. Place chicken skin-side up on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.

Heat grill skillet first in oven set at 350 degrees. When fully heated, about 20-30 minutes, place directly on top of breasts of flattened bird. You’ll hear a nice sizzle, letting you know you are getting nice grill marks.
Bake with grill iron resting on top for about 30 minutes or until meat thermometer says you’ve reached 120 degrees. Then take iron off and turn up heat to 450. Cook another 20 minutes until temp in thigh reaches 160 degrees. Allow to rest out of oven for 10 minutes before serving. (Temperature will rise some more after removing from the oven, so don’t worry, it’s done through)


Prepping Chicken for the Grill

1. BUTTERFLY Cut through bones on either side of backbone, then discard backbone.

2. PRESS Flip chicken over, then flatten breastbone and tuck wings behind back.

3. SEPARATE Loosen skin over breast and thighs and remove any excess fat.

4. SALT Spread salt-garlic mixture under skin of breast and thighs. Spread salt mixture on meat of bone side.

photo copyright Stevies


Food, Inc.

Caught the documentary Food, Inc. (which is also a book of essays by prominent foodists) at the Film Forum on Saturday. Much of it gave the same info as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but I still found it though-provoking.

With all the graphic depictions of CAFOs, slaughterhouses and tons of flesh in mid-grind, the image that haunts me is the family of four subsisting primarily on fast food due to time and budget restraints. A burger costs a dollar, so does a large head of broccoli: which says dinner?

And then we are told, they are spending about as much on food as they are on health care, mostly due to the father’s Type II diabetes -- a disease largely caused, and complicated, by a poor diet. It made me want to rewind to when the father was healthy, take the $260 dollars they now manage to spend every fifty days for his pills, and spend it on, yes, broccoli.

The film’s main point: Food costs are more than what’s on the price tag.

Food, Inc. will be opening in at least 40 more cities over the next several weeks and be available as a DVD this fall.

burger photo by Jari Bilen
broccoli by Edyta Pawlowska


Pollan on the Silver Screen

Omnivore’s Dilemma makes the big screen. In a sense. Michael Pollan is a major contributor to the new documentary Food, Inc., being released today in Manhattan, LA and San Francisco.

The trailer, thankfully, traffics in mainstream drama.

The film was also reviewed in today’s NYT. Here’s my favorite line:

“There’s something horribly wrong with a system in which a bag of chips cost less than a bag of carrots.”

picture by Sylwia Horosz via Dreamstime


Tired of Working for The Man

Below is the promised profile of Ms. Severine, the documentarian I interviewed here. Severine epitomizes just one of the many types of people inspiring, and inspired by, the locavore movement. Other people I am planning to profile – with my obvious focus on their attraction to farmers’ markets – include a sociologist, an urban farm volunteer, an ecologist, a school teacher, a compost teacher, a cattle farmer, an anthropologist, a professional gardener, a ‘seed saver’ and, of course, a couple chefs. Stay tuned.

The Pied Piper of New Farmers

Manning her booth at the Greenmarket in Prospect Park, Severine is hyper. "I’ve had a lot of coffee and, like, no food," she says as she bounces from foot to foot, fidgeting with promotional stickers and offering strangers her "spiel."

Severine von Tscharner Fleming (or simply Severine, as she prefers) is a 28-year old agrarian based in the Hudson Valley. She is also a movie producer. The spiel is about The Greenhorns, her upcoming documentary about the growing consortium of young farmers.

The film, which is crisply shot and matched with an energetic score, covers the struggles and triumphs of new farmers, from California to Maine, while following the journey of organic food from the earth to the table. The film will be released this November and shown at schools and museums. DVDs will be sold at farmers markets and Whole Foods stores.

Halfway through the practiced spiel, Severine interrupts herself with: "I have to get that ribbon." She abandons the booth to pounce on some blue twine slithering down the sidewalk, revealing in the process a calf-length jean skirt. Victorious, she returns and ties the string around the waist of her hooded sweatshirt, and then in her frizzy hair, all while continuing on about farming. "It is a radicalizing experience," she says.

It may be tempting to pass her off as a starry-eyed hippy born in the wrong decade. But the movement is real. In New York alone, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers under the age of 35 has increased by 40 percent since 1997. And many are first generation farmers, like Stacey Bliss of Broadturn Farm, which is featured in the film. She and her partner John Brenner first learned about farming by taking "every book out of the public library that we could find about growing plants," she says.

It is a busy Saturday at the Greenmarket and many passersby linger at Severine’s booth before moving on to buy produce, turkey sausage or apple donuts. One young man stops with a persistent curiosity about Severine’s maps, heirloom beans and other props. To help him understand local food, she reaches over the table and puts her hand on his heart. "It’s like if this were New York," she says. "We need all this," tracing circles over his chest, "to feed New York."

She invites him, and everyone else, to a film fundraising event – a goat-spit BBQ in Brooklyn, complete with local beer and salad greens from her own farm in Columbia County. (She, too, is a first generation farmer; her parents, she writes, "are skeptical of farming.")

But the film is just one of a myriad of activities she and her cohort of helpers are pursuing. They are creating their own on-line census of small farmers, with over 2,000 already registered. They also provide farming guidebooks, tip-laden blog posts, class information, mixers and other events – all part of their mission to recruit and connect what Severine describes on the film’s website (www.TheGreenhorns.net) as "the rosy cheeked muscle of the new American countryside."

With or without the caffeine, she admits, "We have a lot of energy."

picture by Natalia Kuzmina


Committing to a Market (or Upping the Anty)

When I first started this blog, my goal was to visit every farmers’ market in the city. All 49 of them. I have been to ten so far – not bad as many are just now opening. But as my infatuation grows deeper, I am realizing my approach was mistaken.

Every farmers’ market I have been to, here and abroad, seems to traffic in smiles. (I, like many American travelers, have returned with many colorful tales of open-air food markets.) Even when the weather is frigid, vendors joke over cups of steaming cider, shift from leg to leg and playfully try to outlast their competition. Devotees, who arrive on a mission, and perhaps with a list, still stop and ooo over the first crop of strawberries or the last cloves of garlic. Even aloof passersby look up and get swept in. One lawyer told me his local farmers market was his favorite “impulse buy.”

What is it about overflowing tables of food that makes people happy? Is it the apparent bounty? Maybe. But I do not see similar grins in the grocery stores.

Is it shopping outside? If it were moved indoors would the smiles follow? Most people seem to think so, and the few sheltered markets in this country reportedly thrive. (I’ve only been to roofed farmers’ markets in Asia, but I hear positive things about covered markets on the West Coast.)

Does the joy come from meeting the farmer him or herself? Could be, except often you are not buying from the farmer but an employee or city volunteer.

The volunteers are another puzzle. No one has ever volunteered to rotate produce at a KeyMart. Why not? Why do people prefer spending their weekends standing at a table piled with a local farmer’s product? Maybe they have fears about our current food system and want to further the locavore cause. But that is not all. It’s fun.

But why is it fun?

If anyone has an idea, I would be much obliged. My working hypothesis is that it has something to do with community spirit. Why the same spirit doesn’t arise in the neighborhood grocery store, I don’t know. But a sense of connectedness does exist at the greenmarket, not only with the other people – it’s common for conversation to erupt among strangers – but with the farms themselves.

During a typical visit, you may get spontaneous updates on crops, animals and new techniques. People ask how the osso buco cut worked, or how the cheese tasted in that quiche you were planning. You hear stories about harvesting and are warned of the sting in the stinging nettles. When a farmer (it was the actual farmer) told me this Sunday how 140 chickens – out of flock of 200 – had been killed by a single weasel, I realized something. This wasn’t a market at all. It was a family gathering. He wouldn’t have shared those details, if he wasn’t used to seeing me at his table. He wasn’t looking for pity. Rather, I had become one of them. He knew I would be truly saddened by his chicken loss, because it was mine too.

So while I plan to keep visiting markets throughout Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and upstate, I am committing to two: Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. Most of the farms represented at these gatherings also have tables at the 47 other greenmarkets, so I feel I won’t miss much by way of product. And the deeper value of any farmers’ market, I am beginning to understand, is found with repeated, frequent visits.

Perhaps commitment will enable me to delve deeper into the question: Why does a farmers’ market make people smile?

picture by teacept


Ease Cow Indigestion and Save the Planet

Apparently when cows eat closer to what they have evolved to eat (instead of cheap corn), they stop contributing as much to global warming.

I only have one question, and it is for the Ms. Julia Laurain, who is quoted in the article and is a representative of Valorex SAS, a French company that is making feed additives to make conventional feed closer to that which is evolutionarily appropriate. Why come up with a 'new' feed, complete with these 'newly discovered additives' when pasturing the animals will do the trick?

Excerpts from the highly recommended NYT article are below. (Now I am craving a grass-fed burger...)

Greening the Herds: A New Diet to Cap Gas


HIGHGATE, Vt. — Chewing her cud on a recent sunny morning, Libby, a 1,400-pound Holstein, paused to do her part in the battle against global warming, emitting a fragrant burp.

Libby, age 6, and the 74 other dairy cows on Guy Choiniere’s farm here are at the heart of an experiment to determine whether a change in diet will help them belch less methane, a potent heat-trapping gas that has been linked to climate change.

Since January, cows at 15 farms across Vermont have had their grain feed adjusted to include more plants like alfalfa and flaxseed — substances that, unlike corn or soy, mimic the spring grasses that the animals evolved long ago to eat.

As of the last reading in mid-May, the methane output of Mr. Choiniere’s herd had dropped 18 percent. Meanwhile, milk production has held its own.

Scientists working with Groupe Danone had been studying why their cows were healthier and produced more milk in the spring. The answer, the scientists determined, was that spring grasses are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which may help the cow’s digestive tract operate smoothly.

Corn and soy, the feed that, thanks to postwar government aid, became dominant in the dairy industry, has a completely different type of fatty acid structure.

Ms. Laurain maintains that even if the [more suitable] feed costs more, it yields cost savings because the production of milk jumps about 10 percent and animals will be healthier, live longer and produce milk for more years.

The methane-reduction results have been far more significant in France than in the Vermont pilot — about 30 percent — because the feed is distributed there not just to organic farms, where the animals already eat grass for at least half the year, but also to big industrial farms.

“They are healthier,” [Mr. Choiniere] said of his cows. “Their coats are shinier, and the breath is sweet.”

picture by Monika Wisniewska


Can Food be Too Clean?

While I’ll admit experiencing glee after finding a hydroponic plant in the farmers market, especially in the dead of winter, I have yet to be bowled over by their flavor. (On the other hand, they do happen to look gorgeous.) Perhaps being suspended in air – soil-less – with roots touching nothing but clean pure water (with whatever necessary nutrients pipette in) leaves the plant feeling a little, well, uprooted.

Whether it is wine or veggies, it seems a little struggle – pushing those roots through gravelly soil, craning the leaves to reach the sun – is good for a plant. That is, if you believe, as I do, that a domesticated plant ‘wants,’ in an evolutionary sense, to taste good so that its seeds will be saved and planted again.

In humans, a little bit of stress is actually great for our health. (There is lots of psychological research on this fact, but here is new metabolic finding with the same conclusion.) And in plants, it certainly ups the antioxidant quotient, which, along with other nutrients, are being linked to certain flavor intensities.

So what to do with rampant food scares leading everyone to want pristine, carefully coddled food, such as this movement in Japan to grow produce in laboratory-esque environments – no dirt, no bugs, low struggle and most likely low taste and low health benefits? Safe, yes. But so is WonderBread.

(Hat tip to Robert Roy Britt for covering this on The Water Cooler.)

The answer is not to retreat to a lab, quaking in our boots. Yes, our existing food system is a mess. But messes are not scary. They just need cleaning up.

picture credit, via dreamstime


Strawberry Sun Salad

After I found this list of the top things to buy organic, I zeroed in on strawberries and started craving them – probably because my subconscious knew it was too early to find them in the farmers market (not that it didn’t keep me from looking!)

Two weekends ago, I caved and bought strawberries from Big Organic California, diced them with avocadoes, cilantro and onion, tossed them with lime juice and dug in with tortilla chips (inspired by a Cooking Light recipe).

But this weekend, I found true ruby treasure, the first local pick of the season, arriving in Park Slope from southern New Jersey. They are small and sweet and perfect for a salad. (Or a snack, or dessert, or breakfast, or…) I wondered the market for a bit, until I had gathered the main ingredients for the below.

Strawberry Sun Salad

2/3 cup inexpensive balsamic vinegar
1½ pints or 3 cups of ripe strawberries
¼ lb (or 4-5 cups) sunflower shoots, rinsed (Evolutionary Organics)
1 cup red leaf romaine, julienned
1-2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
4-5 oz feta cheese (such as Lynnhaven goat)
kosher salt

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

Reduce balsamic to roughly ¼ cup by simmering over medium heat for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool. Set aside

Pick over strawberries, slice off tops and sliced into bite size pieces. (I like the tiny strawberries because then I only have to remove the tops.) Crumble the majority of the feta over the strawberries, but reserve an ounce or two for garnish.

Combine sunflower shoots and romaine in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Toss. (You don’t need pepper; the sunflower shoots supply plenty peppery flavor all by themselves) Add strawberry and cheese mixture to greens. Toss and dish onto plates. Crumble remaining cheese and sprinkle pine nuts over plates. Drizzle reduced balsamic in thin stripes over salad. Serve.

picture by Olga Gerasimova, via Dreamstime