Thursday, September 22, 2011

Books: How "The Omnivore's Dilemma" is Changing My Life

A much younger Motown Maiden helping her Grandpa Doak feed the cows
(In Loving Memory of Lloyd and Geneva Doak)
Very rarely have I read a book that has motivated me to change.  What I'm writing in today's entry I consider to be a big deal as over the past couple of months, I have been driven to modify my behavior and become better aware of my consumer habits.  Yes, it's all because of a book.  And this is quite a good thing. 

Over our summer beach vacation I finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.  I had actually purchased it over a year ago where it sat unassumingly on my bookshelf, just waiting for me to garner up the motivation and free time to read it.  I'm a little sad it took me that long to do so, but as if to make up for lost time, once I picked the book up I did not put it down.  During the several days of reading, I'm sure Jonathan was getting tired of me sharing quotes out of the book.  But I truly found the entire work completely fascinating (as well as a little embarassing since I discovered just how uneducated I am about where the food I consume comes from...I should have known more given my family history).   
My Mom and Dad were raised on sprawling farms in in Northwest Missouri about an hour north of Kansas City.  Their parents produced enough to make an honest living, growing vegetables to feed their families and raising cattle that they sold for a primary source of income.  As a child I remember visiting my grandparents' farms, riding on the John Deere to deliver hay to the cattle, watching the pigs squeal with delight while rolling around in mud puddles, fishing for catfish in the ponds on their property, and eating eggs that were laid by chickens in the building behind the house.  Little did I know these things I experienced are such a rareity by today's standards; that so few people get to experience where the food they eat was grown and/or raised.  

Growing up in a family with farming heritage, one of our annual treats was a gift from my father's parents.  Every Christmas we received a sizeable portion of a cow that had been processed, packages and packages of rectangular parcels wrapped in white butcher paper and labeled with red stamps indicating the different cuts of beef.  It was guaranteed that over the Holiday you'd hear my Dad on the phone calling around to find a local place that sold dry ice since we had to transport our precious gift all the way back to Ohio.  This was a gift that stocked our deep freeze with high quality, superbly cared for beef.  A gift that truly kept on giving throughout the year, providing nourishment to my family and our friends.  People who ate hamburgers at our house always thought they had such an amazing flavor.  I never realized why that was until I read this book.  Then it all made sense.   

I suppose, witnessing cattle on my grandparents' farms as a child, I've blindly always thought all livestock was raised roaming wide open, green pastures.  But in reality this is very different than how it works on industrial farms.  I had no idea how many hamburgers or slices of ham or chicken breasts I likely consumed that came from animals who were "raised" in extremely crowded and poor conditions, often sick and pumped with antibiotics to keep them "healthy."   Or that many industrially raised animals are fed things that we wouldn't consider to be a normal diet - no grass, large quantities of dry corn (something they would have never selected in nature) and even scraps from their fellow sibling's bodies.  All to fatten them up to process them much sooner than what we would think to be a mature state. Raising animals the right way is a labor of love and it's really hard work.  And unfortunately as Americans many of us have forgotten why that way was the better way to do things.  We just see the dollar signs.  Why is it we are so focused on buying the cheapest thing when it's something we put into our bodies to nourish ourselves?  Isn't it amazing that we often go along our daily lives and if something's always been that way, we never ask why it was that way to begin with?  (BTW, as I was writing this entry I noticed a timely article in the Wall Street Journal about antibiotics in pork drawing more scrutiny from inspectors.) 

In learning how heavily processed foods can be harmful to our bodies and our environments and how industrial agriculture has lessened the quality of meat that we consume and how the meat in our grocery stores was likely treated when it was once a live animal, you could see how some people would just make the snap decision to become a vegetarian.  But as an omnivore and someone who has farming in her family history, I don't want to cut it out of my diet.  So what I can do is take a little more effort to make sure I make smart purchases and do things that are not only better for my body but for those around me as well.    

I found a conversation with Michael Pollan discussing the book and thought this quote to be of particular interest.  Pollan states: "The majority of us, though, can afford to spend more for honestly price food. Americans spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food—less than any people on earth (the French spend 20 percent; the Chinese 50 percent), less in fact than any people in history. Why is it we understand “quality” when it comes to a car or television set but not when it comes to something as important as what we eat?"  It is puzzling for sure because I know most of us seek out quality and freshness in the produce we purchase.  For example, we wouldn't purchase a shriveled up vegetable or one that had mold on it.  But we always take the word that things in packages are just as fresh and pure.  They say not to judge a book by its cover but why do we judge boxes of food that way?

Over the past month I've been researching ways to better source my food and noting what I'm buying with more scrutiny (are the ingredients in my food really "natural?").  Some things I had already begun doing on my own without realizing why it was good, just that I enjoyed doing it.  For example, growing my own tomatoes and peppers, buying free range brown eggs from cage free chickens, and growing my own wild yeast with my sourdough starter in the fridge.  I'm discovering local farms who deliver meat to my area, and catering groups who create prepared meals from only local ingredients, and a company called Grass Point Farms who supplies certified pasture milk to several of my local grocery stores.      

So if you're reading this blog post, I encourage you to find out more about the food you are consuming on a regular basis.  You might be surprised what you learn.   In my case, I've discovered an entirely new world of healthfulness.  And I can't think of a better way to place my vote for my food suppliers than to change my spending and sourcing habits.  I know that some of it may seem to be a hassle in the initial phases until I build up a better pantry/freezer stash and learn about better local sources for shopping.  But I see the process as a great experience that will benefit myself and my family in the long run.  Besides it'll be a great lesson to teach my children some day and one that would do my grandparents proud.   
Socializing with the ponies at
Grandma Joy and Grandpa John's farm in Missouri

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Food: Slow Roasted Tomatoes

We had some unusual early-September weather this past weekend.  First it stood its ground like a provoked mid-July, presenting us with a scorching day, followed by windy, wet, and unpredictable storms (this was a bizzare way to kick-off college football season...with multiple game delays at multiple venues).  Then Mother Nature went for the "shocking the system factor," dropping the temps by 50 degrees (yes, I said 50) and giving us a day filled with dreary, cold, and gray cloud cover.  It was definitely not Labor Day picnicking weather in either case.  So like any sane person would do, on Saturday, when it was almost 100 degrees out, I decided I absolutely had to heat the house up by running the oven for hours upon end...just so I could make this sandwich.  Reasonable, right?  You'll understand once you try it.    

I had a ton of large green tomatoes when we left for a week in the Carolinas mid-last month, hoping they wouldn't turn bright red and rot on the vine while we were away.  But when we came back home, to my surprise, nothing was ripe yet!  So here I am, a week later, with a major stash of German beefsteaks, Cherokee purples, and Hillbillies.  I started digging through my recipe files and decided some of them should be roasted immediately; freezing for sauce and fresh tomato soup were to be saved for another day. 

When I made these slow roasted tomatoes, Jonathan said the house smelled like summer.  It was truly heavenly.  I liken the scent to an Italian grandmother's homey kitchen with a hint of garlic and olive oil and oregano mixed together with the sweet and juicy potency of a red ripe tomato.  If only it could smell like this everyday!

After what seemed like an eternity (we'd only been smelling them for half of a very hot day), when they were finally out of the oven, I served the tomatoes on toasted peasant bread with a touch of crumbled goat cheese.  And upon first bite you'll truly see, to quote my husband, that "these tomatoes are unreal."  I ate them three days in a row (one of those days for breakfast).  And if I ever had a restaurant, they would most definitely be on the menu (not surprisingly, the original source for this recipe is a restaurant).  So if you're looking for the perfect way to enjoy a ripe summer tomato, it is warmed by an oven with flavor condensed by hours of roasting.  Sometimes perfection is as simple as this.  

Slow Roasted Tomatoes
Adapted from Adam Roberts and Orangette

  • 1 T Sugar
  • 1/2 T Kosher Salt
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Garlic Infused Olive Oil (if desired)
  • 2 T Dried Oregano
  • ~ 1 Dozen, Medium-sized Tomatoes, washed and towel dried
  • Preheat the oven to 250 degrees
  • If you're using smaller tomatoes, plum for example, slice them in half; Otherwise slice your tomatoes into thick slices (I used cherokee purple tomatoes cut into thirds)
  • On two baking sheets, drizzle enough EVOO to coat the bottom of the pan
  • Place your sliced tomatoes in one layer on top of the oil and then drizzle a little more oil on top (I found a touch of garlic infused oil on the top is a nice flavor enhancement)
  • Next, sprinkle sugar, salt and dried oregano over the tomatoes
  • Place the pans in oven and cook for 1 hour
  • After one hour, turn the tomatoes over, and cook for another hour
  • Turn the tomatoes a second time and cook for 1 final hour
  • Transfer to a pretty serving dish and serve alongside toasted crostinis (toasting is key so the bread doesn't get soggy)
  • These tomatoes go great with a little goat cheese, but you really don't need the extra flavor to enjoy them - they hold up just fine on their own 
  • Regarding storage, roasted tomatoes will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days, but I highly doubt they'll last that long :) You can freeze extras too but will probably want to pop them back in the oven a little bit once you defrost them this winter.  I also like to drain off the oil the pan and store it in a jar in the fridge - it's great to add a flavorful drizzle to eggs or a soup, etc.  You get the picture.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Food: Swiss Chard Pizza with Whole Grain Crust

Earlier this year Jonathan and I installed a raised garden bed next to our deck so I could grow a little more than the usual patio tomato and banana pepper plants.  As in any home project, this met with some failures in the beginning.  Like how we (me) had a difficult time deciding where to place the darn thing (and after I had unboxed and assembled it and dragged it around the yard, I decided I hated it and thus needed to return it).  But we finally decided on a spot and fastened it down and filled it with bags and bags of dirt.  Then came the fun task of deciding on plants and planting them. 

I've learned a lot this year as an amateur gardener.  For example, radishes apparently don't fare well with a cool wet spring followed by a zap of blazing hot weather before they're fully developed.  And tomatoes can develop a disease called blossom rot that can sometimes be corrected by a boost of calcium fertilizer.  I also decided next year I need to plant the tomatoes in the middle - not on the outer edges - of the bed because now that they're all grown up, they're shading the other plants.  But with all of this "learning," I've also had a bunch of plant successes.  We've had pickled Hungarian wax peppers, hand chopped basil pesto, tomatoes galore, fresh lettuce, and perky parsley.  So you can imagine I was pretty excited to see one of my final my trial veggies this year - Swiss chard - was full size and ready to be harvested when I got back from our annual family beach vacation.

I know I've mentioned my parents' garden about a million times on this blog. But if it weren't for this garden and my mother's culinary skills, I likely never would have experienced the savory treat that is a fresh Swiss chard pizza.  The pizza is the prime reason I picked the leafy green to be one of my garden babies this year.  And although over time, I've developed my own crust, the recipe is mostly my Mom's...a savory mixture of chard, onions, garlic, and parmesan cheese with a touch of bacon for a smoky and savory finish.  It reminds me of home and so much more.

If you're not that familiar with chard and have a difficult time finding it in your grocery store, no's very easily grown in your garden or a pot on your patio (and not to mention pretty if you select the colored stem versions).   You must add it to your list for next year (hint, hint to my sister Meghan).

So on to the educational part.  If you have heard of Swiss chard, you may not have known that it is part of the beet family and is a great source of fiber and vitamins A, C, and K. According to various nutrition sites, it's also rich in anti-oxidants and omega-3's, contains a boatload of minerals, and could help prevent osteoporosis, and cardiovascular diseases if consumed on a regular basis. But despite all of these benefits, I am a fan of chard because, well, when cooked this way, it really does taste good.  I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Swiss Chard Pizza
MM & Glenda D. (MM's Mom)

Whole Grain Crust

  • 2 c Whole Wheat Pastry Flour*
  • 1 c Spelt Flour*
  • 1 1/2 T Active Dry Yeast
  • 1 t Kosher Salt
  • 1 c very warm water (~120-130 degrees F)
  • 1 1/2 T Honey
  • 1 1/2 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
    *If you can't locate spelt flour (sold at health food stores and some specialty grocers), you can substitute 1 c of regular flour. Also, if you don't have whole wheat pastry flour (I used Bob's Red Mill brand) but do have regular whole wheat, you can substitute with 1 c white flour and 1 c whole wheat flour...using straight whole wheat will make the crust too dense.
The Savory Toppings
  • 1 large bunch fresh swiss chard, washed, stems removed
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-3 slices center cut bacon (plenty of flavor but slightly lower in fat)
  • Freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • Shredded parmesan cheese
  • Fresh ground pepper

Prepare the Crust:
  • Turn your oven on to "warm" (or the lowest heat setting)
  • Mix the flour, salt, and yeast together in a medium-sized mixing bowl
  • Combine the warm water, olive oil, and honey in a separate dish (a liquid measuring cup works well) then stir into the flour mixture to combine
  • Turn the dough out onto a floured counter or work surface and knead it together with your hands, adding more flour in small increments if needed. You'll want to knead the dough well - around 10 minutes for best results
  • Turn the oven off and then wash and dry your mixing bowl; Oil the interior surface of the bowl by pouring some olive oil on a paper towel and wiping down the sides
  • Place the dough back into the bowl, turning once to expose the oiled side and cover with a lint free towel
  • Move the bowl to your prewarmed oven (now turned off) for a warm, draft-free rise
  • Rise time will be around 45 minutes or until the dough is around double in size
Prepare the Toppings:
  • In a large skillet, cook the bacon until crisp; place on paper towels to drain but leave the drippings in the pan (this is where the chard will get an extra special flavor boost)
  • Add your chopped onion to the drippings and cook until just barely translucent; add the garlic and cook a few minutes more
  • Roughly tear the swiss chard and add to the skillet; cook until wilted, usually a few minutes
  • Season your skillet mixture with a little bit of freshly cracked pepper
Assemble Your Super Tasty Pizza:
  • Remove the dough from the oven and then pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees (Note: I used a pizza stone that was preheated in the oven, so if you're using a stone, feel free to add it to the oven at the time)
  • Turn out dough out on a floured surface and using a rolling pin (or a drinking glass), roll the dough out to your desired size/shape depending on your baking pan/stone; For a crisper crust keep the dough thin, for a more dense crust, allow the dough to be a little thicker
  • Sprinkle some extra whole wheat flour (or cornmeal) on the bottom of your baking dish and place your rolled dough over it (this helps prevent sticking -and- gives your pizza a fancy, gourmet finish)
  • Spread the Swiss chard mixture over the dough, then crumble the bacon pieces over top
  • Top with shredded and shaved parmesan cheese (having two textures to the cheeses works great with this pie) and place in the oven to bake
  • Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the crust is slightly golden
  • Remove from the oven, cut and serve!
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