Category: Food Politics

The Other Seafoods

Growing up in Seattle, salmon was king. Literally. Alaskan king salmon appeared, baked or grilled, at so many special dinners while growing up. And waiting tables in Seattle, I witnessed the hype of the Copper River king salmon, a fish whose journey up an especially cold Alaskan river gives it a touch extra fat and oil, and thus a richer flavor.

Despite these formative salmon years, I’ve slowly come to a place where salmon and fish such as halibut or sea bass do not feature prominently in my seafood world. I’ve come to embrace the other seafoods, to even cook with them in my home. And I think you should too.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff we’ve probably all heard about. We’re overfishing the big seafood. Farmed salmon is corn-fed (usually GMO corn, although organic farmed salmon can be found). Biomagnification means the bigger fish contain higher quantities of dangerous substances such as mercury. But, and here’s the rub for food-obsessed moms like me….seafood continues to be one of the best things a pregnant woman, lactating mother, or developing brain can eat*. What’s a mother to do?

Fortunately, I’ve had good exposure to the “other seafoods”. Oliveto Restaurant in the Bay Area where I worked for a few years after college was one of the best jobs of my life. I started out expediting and waiting tables, but by the end I was regularly spending my Saturdays in the kitchen volunteering my services in exchange for instruction, experience, and confidence that money cannot buy. With Chef Paul’s guidance I made salmon meatballs and sardines in saor, I prepped squid for pasta. I killed my first live food, a tray full of soft shell crabs. I tried my first oyster. And I learned about sustainable fishing practices during Oliveto’s seafood dinners, preceded by a talk with the Monterey Fish Market’s buyer. 

Fast forward five years and I’m pregnant and devouring smoked salmon like its my job. And it sort of is. I am concerned about what prenatal vitamins might suggest – that you just take a vitamin and don’t think about your daily diet. Vitamins are necessary for those who lack access to safe, healthy foods, but ideally they should be a complement to our diets. So I took my prenatals and I ate smoked salmon “seconds” (the ends and trim that taste great but look rather sad so are cheaper) and salmon roe regularly. Then I had a kid and became a full-time mom and homemaker with equally deep interests in nutrition and budgets. Here is what I have done and learned over the last few years while I’ve explored other seafoods:

Mussels are Jamie’s favorite food, hands-down, and Travis is hugely in favor because these can be farmed (read: sustainable, no overfishing) easily and quickly (read: not too expensive) in carefully selected, clean waters (read: safe). At first I was intimidated but I’ve grown to love cooking mussels, and we always have a one pound frozen bag ready to go. I buy mussels frozen from Vital Choice Seafood because I am already ordering other quantities of seafood and because I trust the company. And note: when trying to order 5 1-lb bags of frozen mussels, do not accidentally order 1 5-lb bag of fresh, live mussels. And if you do that, don’t leave the mussels in a cooler where your three-year old can get to them and dump them out all over themselves. You’ve been warned! Alright, back to the mussels themselves…rinse them off, melt onions or shallots in butter, throw in some white wine, dump in the mussels and cover, simmering. They are done when they open up. Throw away unopened ones, garnish with lemon and parsley, and dig in. $14/lb

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Squid, or calamari are another easy source of protein that is surprisingly kid-friendly, assuming you start your kids soon enough. James especially loves the tentacles. The squid from Vital Choice only needs to have the bodies sliced into rings (keep an eye out for the translucent spine that might be left in one or two), and then pat the rings and tentacles as dry as possible, dredge with any mixture you like (my favorite: rice flour, sea salt, and toasted coconut) and then lightly brown in coconut oil. Throw onto greens, rice, whatever. I also tried grilling them, and James was a huge fan of eating them off the kebabs so it was a worthwhile experiment, but I do think the pan-fry is the better way to go. $17.33/lb

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Sardines are a perfect on the go food. I get them canned and just pop them open as needed. James will just eat them as is, or I make a basic pasta sauce of sardines, preserved lemons and olives, or i throw them on a green salad with hardboiled egg, or onto a pizza with wilted arugula. Be sure to get wild-caught sardines packed in good olive oil. $5/4.4oz can = ~$20/lb

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Salmon roe I adopted directly from Nina Planck (Real Food For Mom and Baby). She says: “Without a doubt, my favorite baby food was roe. Roe has it all for mother and baby. It’s fun, like a bright orange pea. Your baby can pick it up piece by sticky piece. When she bites down it goes pop! It’s delightfully salty and of course it’s an exemplary source of iodine and good fats. We buy frozen wild salmon roe from Alaska.” (p.194) $30/6oz container = ~$75/lb

 – Lobster & Crayfish are not your average food for most people, but in Maine lobster runs $5-$7/lb and crayfish is free when it comes from Caspian Lake in the summer! For novelty, these cannot be beat. Any three year old that loves to destroy things (read: any three year old) will enjoy tearing into these crustaceans. And cooking them couldn’t be easier, just steam them for a bit and serve with melted butter (and if the butter is organic and pastured, so much the better). 

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My next seafood adventure will be bottarga (cured tuna or mullet roe; Weston A. Price, dentist-anthropologist-nutritionist extraordinaire, noted that dried fish eggs were available in the Peruvian highlands markets and prized by women for fertility and efficiency in childbearing). Although prohibitively expensive when imported from Italy, there is a more local bottarga available now from Florida ($20/8-lobe sack, whatever that means; I’ll know more after I order it!). 

True, these are not the cheapest foods. But think of the nutrients! I’m guessing that, nutrient per dollar, these other seafoods are some of the best deals out there. Certainly a better deal than wild salmon fillets ($44/lb). And that’s something the mom and the homemaker in me values.

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*Books to geek out on here include: (1) Real Food For Mom and Baby by Nina Planck, brilliant and readable breakdown of her fertility, pregnancy, and nursing diets, as well as early kiddo foods. Chock full of common sense and science. (2) Having Faith: an Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber, a riveting and frequently alarming account of the ecology of the womb and the ecology of lactation. All I can say is we owe the Inuit people and other Nothern cultures a really really really big apology. (3) Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, a great discussion of evolution and embryology. Makes me appreciate Vitamins A & D, and understand why seafood is such a brain and development food. Full disclosure: I did not actually finish this book, but I guarantee it’s worth at least a skim!

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Budgets and Economics

I love being in the kitchen. But that doesn’t just mean cooking and eating. I love to buy food for my kitchen – I don’t think I have ever spent less than $20 at a farmers’ market (and I’ve been going steadily to whatever market is closest to me since 2003) and I ought to just set up expense accounts at the food coops I frequent. Even when I don’t really need anything except more eggs I find myself buying the dark chocolate on sale, the bag of dried dates because we are running sort of low, the day-old bread that will be great french toast, and that new brand of peanut butter I’ve been curious about. This started to change when Travis and I got married. Sharing an income with someone, especially when that person brings in the bulk of the income and you have the bulk of responsibility for managing it, brings all kinds of trickiness into the equation. For me, it’s harder to rationalize all that food buying when I have to look at the accounting. It’s taken some time, but I’ve actually come to love this. I still love to spend money on food but I’ve become much more cautious about over-stocking the kitchen and buying just to buy. I use a budget, I stick to it, and I like that.

There, I said it! My name is Riva and a I am a total budget geek. I have spreadsheets, I keep and record receipts, and I had a great time in January reviewing the 2013 numbers and making  my 2014 estimates. But this isn’t just about me. It’s about my home and my household and the kind of household manager I want to be. See, home economics is actually a redundant expression – the word economics came into use in the 16th century and originally referred to the science of household management and it is derived from the Greek oikonomikos meaning “practiced in the management of a household or family”; I suspect that adding home to the front of economics has happened as the home has gradually become a site of consumption rather than production*. However, in 2014, I would like to reclaim economics as a household term, and I take pride in learning to be a better and better economist every year. And for me, a huge part of that is the thrifty and effective use of our money.

Although food is one of the most variable and controllable parts of our budget, it is not even close to the largest part of our budget. In fact, Americans have the dubious privilege of spending less on food as a percentage of income than any other developed country: 6-9% depending on which source you look at.

FoodExpenditureGraph*source: Atlantic Magazine

FoodExpenditureMap*yes, the map is hard to read – but Europe is in the upper-middle, Africa is in the bottom-middle… and that tiny speck off to the left above South America? That’s the U.S.  (source: Washington State University magazine)

This has not always been true – 30 years ago we were spending 17% of our income on food (Atlantic Magazine). But policies subsidizing large-scale agricultural production and normalizing cheap food have skewed that spending**.

So now, with our personal beliefs about fair prices for farmers, about ending subsidies for large-scale agriculture, and about our family’s health being highly impacted by our relationship to food, Travis and I have decided to spend 15-20% of our income on what we eat. Obviously, this has been great news for me and my food buying addiction! And despite the challenges of making time to keep records, it’s been incredibly fun becoming a better economist. I recommend everyone try it. And in the spirit of convincing you, and of just sharing information that may be helpful or interesting, here are some of our food-financial details from 2013:

  • We spent, on average, $734.59 a month on food in 2013. The low was $491.81 in January when I was visiting family in Seattle and Travis was in Ethiopia; the high of $1,377.26 was in October when we had a houseguest for 3 weeks, I bought some things in advance for Thanksgiving, and we paid for several bulk orders of foodstuffs.
  • For the months when I started specifically tracking “eating out”, restaurants averaged out to 19% of those monthly food expenses.
  • We spent $776.68 on bulk purchases, including $200 on a large frozen fish order from Vital Choice Seafood, $51.68 on a large order of hazelnuts and pecans in the shell from an online nut company, $350 on half a pig raised by a dear friend, and $175 on a grain and bean CSA. This represented 7.4% of our annual food expenses.
  • Our annual food expenses were $10,493.54.
  • We spent 15.2% of our gross income on food – a little low, but we made our goal!

2013 was more about collecting data and developing a budget strategy. Here’s what we’ve got going forward into 2014:

  • Categories aligned with our purchasing habits. This makes tracking our budget easier and more effective. I started 2013 writing down every individual item and eventually gave that up because I found it was actually the categories that I was interested in. Our categories for 2014 food items are groceries, bulk purchases, booze, eating out, and direct from the farm (and for now, anything in large quantity will be a bulk purchase and direct from farm will apply to farmers’ markets and farm-stands). Eventually I would like to know how much we spend on certain staples like eggs, but that’s more for curiosity than actual budgeting and decision-making.
  • Planning around the trends. I spend more in October and November with Thanksgiving and lead up to the holidays than I do in the mid-summer months when we grow some of our own vegetables and simply eat less because of the heat. We also spend more on food whenever we have houseguests or dinner guests. Being able to identify which events in our daily lives changes what is normal or average helps me budget for those events in the future. Some months simply have larger food budgets.
  • Bulking up the bulk purchases. We only spent 7.4% of our food budget on bulk purchases, and I’d like to increase that this year. Bulk purchases usually reduce the individual cost of the item, it usually saves on the energy required to ship or transport something, and it supports farmers who are not in the business of marketing small quantities of their products. From a financial perspective it does skew the budget – a large purchase is made during one month but is stretched out and consumed over many months. My assumption, or hope, is that we will do this frequently enough to even out the bumps and skews – each month will have its featured one or two “bulk items.” This January, for example, I got 10 pounds of organic lemons from California for fun preserving projects (and yes, those projects will be featured in a blog post this spring). Every August I spend $60-$80 with Carol, my mother-in-law, at our favorite pick your own blueberry farm in Vermont and then I freeze most of what I pick. Tracking 2014 bulk purchases will help me figure out whether I have bulked up the bulk purchasing since 2013 and will help me anticipate budgeting it out in 2015.
  • Tracking the eating out purchases. If you’ve read my New Year’s Resolution post you know that we’ve got big plans for eating veggie when eating out unless we’re at a restaurant that features happy meat on the menu. Travis also loves going out to Happy Hour or just for a snack, so I’d like to make room in the budget for that. This will require planning ahead a bit so I don’t have so many leftovers that I resent eating out! We want to be sure our eating out percentage stays low but that we do it regularly, and that when we decide to go out, it’s an enjoyable treat in line with both our budget and our values.

If this is sounding like an interesting exercise to you, great! Start by writing down every food purchase. It’s tedious, I know, I did it for several months before I decided to stop. But it creates a kind of awareness that cannot be created any other way – it’s the same reason weight-loss programs tell you to write down everything you eat. Writing it down makes it real. My mother watched me copy receipts into my notebook one night and asked (reasonably so) why I didn’t just tape the receipts in on the pages? For starters, receipts do fade over time and I like the idea of a historical record of my food purchases. But also, having to actually write your purchases down with your hand does something to you. I found myself reaching for butter one week and then thought, “Wait. I bought butter earlier this week. Do I need to make another pie so much so that I’m ready to write down for posterity how much butter I was capable of purchasing in one week for a family of three?” And I didn’t buy it. Which was good cause we really didn’t need that other pie. I made a crisp instead.

It’s probably clear from this post how seriously I view the topic of food purchases. What we spend on food affects our agricultural system, affects the long-term sustainability of our communities, and affects our health every day. Yes, it’s my soapbox. But that doesn’t mean I’m not on to something here! After all, what could be more important than our families, our homes, and our health? And what could be more empowering than taking charge of our finances and our pantries? I suggest we all take a crack at our food budgets and start reclaiming the term economics.

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*For serious and lovely politics about work, home, and agriculture read Wendell Berry’s collection of essays The Unsettling of America. For instance, from pp.31-32: “Once, of course, the idea of a farm included the idea of a household: an integral and major part of a farm’s economy was the economy of its own household; the family that owned and worked the farm lived from it…the household was therefore not merely a unit in the economy of food production; its members practiced essential productive skills….[but over time] the household became simply a house or residence, purely consumptive in its function; the farm ceased to be a place to live and a way of life and became a unit of production – and their once collaborative relationship became competitive.” I love this man. I do.

**People deserve access to affordable, healthy, fresh food. But making processed foods and certain kinds of mass-grown produce cheaper through subsidies is not an effective solution. What about raising salaries? What about rejecting a culture that is built around $150/month data plans for our smart phones while nutrition-based health problems are on the rise? We are not entitled to cheap food, and it didn’t come from nowhere. Read this article in Mother Jones Magazine summarizing Earl Butz and Richard Nixon’s 1970s policies that changed the foodscape in America (and if you’re hooked, pick Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America back up). Then read Joseph Stiglitz’s great article about food stamps and American food policy here. Then call me up and let’s get some (fair trade, fairly-priced) coffee and discuss.

Here we go again… New Year’s Resolution time!

Happy New Year all! Time to reflect and resolve. Let’s start by reviewing last year’s resolution of not eating any GMO foods. Results? Honestly, about what we expected. In order:

  • eating GMO-free at home is relatively easy if you cook almost entirely from scratch as we strive to do;
  • eating GMO-free is easier if you shop in co-ops and natural food stores – there is a greater variety of foods that do not contain GMO ingredients;
  • you HAVE to read labels if you want to eat GMO-free… here are the sneakiest items we uncovered: sugar (unless it says “cane sugar” in the ingredients, assume it is GMO’d beet sugar), cornstarch (it’s in baking powder!), and soy lecithin (it’s in almost everything);
  • eating GMO-free can be more expensive than eating whatever if you are buying a lot of pre-made or processed foods
  • eating GMO-free is more difficult in restaurants and when eating out – oftentimes servers and even cooks don’t know every ingredient; and
  • there is no good way to ask a host if their food contains GMOs – and then following up that question by not eating their food seems that much more rude.

Our biggest challenge was when people would come over for dinner and bring something, as guests like to do, and then we would not eat all of it and they would leave it for us. And then we have with crackers that had soybean oil, or ice cream with beet sugar and soy lecithin…you get the idea. Wasting food seemed like the bigger sin so we would finish those things off. Also, what about the baking powder that I bought in 2012? It had cornstarch in it, but it seemed worse to throw it away than to simply use it up and not buy more (there are many alternatives, but that’s another post for another day). And then what about those times in the restaurant where we just didn’t have the energy to inquire about the oil for the french fries, or the source of the burger? All in all, we did a great job eliminating GMOs from our at-home food budget and almost entirely from our pantry. Eating out proved the bigger challenge, and so…

I resolve in 2014 to not pay for industry meat. This means that, unless I am at a restaurant that is using non-industry meat, I will be eating vegetarian when out and about. This becomes useful for a) cutting down on GMO intake as animal feed is chock full of GMO ingredients; b) cutting down on eating out budgetary expenses as vegetarian items are typically less expensive than meat-based menu items; and c) not supporting a system that says industry meat is an acceptable menu item. And for 2014 I classify industry meat as non-organic, grain-fed, corporation-run meat. It gets trickier with the local family farm that uses non-organic feed, or the organic but large scale meat. I will decide those instances on a case-by-case basis for now and report back at the end of the year.

The bigger dilemma of going to someone else’s home where GMO foods are served, or someone bringing GMO food into our home, is something we will start to address and play with over 2014 and will hopefully make a resolution on in 2015. At some point we will have to decide to be those annoying people who request that guests read labels before bringing something over. And then, at a later point, we will have to become those incredibly annoying people who request that hosts consider our needs – I suspect that for most of our friends and family this will actually be a launching point for a great conversation about food politics. But what to do when it’s someone like a boss or a colleague?!

Thoughts? Any resolutions of your own? I encourage everyone to give some thought to how they will eat in 2014. We are what we eat – this adage is a little tired but oh so true. Using our hard-earned dollars on food is a vote for one food system or another, and our health and happiness starts with how we feed and sustain our physical bodies. So think it over and make a resolution, be it big or small. Best of luck for 2014!

Mayonnaise.

Oh mayonnaise. I love you. I do. But I abhor what has been done to you. Best Foods, Hellmans, Miracle Whip. If you like those items, fine. But don’t call them mayonnaise. They are not even poor imitations of the real thing, they are their own separate entity. What’s with the white for starters? Real mayonnaise is yellow, as yellow as the egg yolk that is used, as yellow as yellow was ever intended to be. I’ll just go ahead and say it, it’s as yellow and essential as warm and lazy afternoon sunshine.

So, food industry rants aside, let’s talk about mayonnaise and why making your own mayonnaise at home should be something you do every week. First, it tastes a bajillion times better than anything store-bought. Second, you can use whatever oil you would like to use. Olive oil is the classic and is my personal favorite, but sunflower seed oil makes a mild and creamy spread and I’m sure avocado or almond oils, for instance, would bring their own unique flavor to bear. Oil combinations are something you could play with. Third, assuming you have access to good egg yolk, you can reap the massive health benefits of raw egg yolk without having to go all Rocky and make yourself a glass of eggs before your dawn run through Philadelphia. Fourth, so long as you have access to a food processor that has an opening for pouring into, it’s fast and easy.

If you’re on board with the quality argument but not the quantity argument (fresh mayo every week, Riva, why?), hear me out. This stuff is good. So good that you will put dollops of it on your salad instead of salad dressing. So good that you will run out to the store just to buy bacon and tomatoes for the best BLT you’ve ever had. So good that you will start topping your soups with it. So good that you’ll eat the raw veggies you ought to eat, dipping them into mayo with each bite.So good that you will start thinking up mayo-friendly dishes just for an excuse to eat mayonnaise.

It’s expensive, I’ll grant you that. It’s mostly oil, and if you use good oil (and you should, read up on rancid oils and healthy vs. unhealthy oils) it will add up. We figure we spend about $5 a week making our mayo. But again, it’s worth it! Do the math, eat a spoonful (with, um, salad… or not…), and start making mayo.

If you have a recipe all set and you’re good to go, then go forth and mayo! If you’d like to geek out on emulsions with me, read on….

Mayonnaise is an emulsion. This is a stable combination of two things that don’t usually combine, like oil and water. Vinaigrettes are an example of this, although most vinaigrettes need to be shaken if they’re not used right after making so their stability is, well, not that stable. But mayonnaise when done right is thick, creamy, and almost fluffy. Mark Ruhlman has a great emulsion chapter in Ratio, and he talks a lot about the basic mayo ratio. And I gotta say, though I love this book and I enjoy this chapter for it’s academic nature, it is a bit overwhelming and I wouldn’t start here if you’re a mayo novice. Read the chapter then look elsewhere for a simple place to start. At their most basic, all recipes will have some amount of egg yolk (the emulsifier), some larger amount of oil (the body), and some kind of seasonings. This typically involves mustard or mustard powder (an emulsifier in its own right), some kind of acid (cider vinegar is my favorite, but lemon juice is a classic, and a good red or white wine vinegar would be lovely), and salt. Like garlic? The out-of-control delicious aioli is a garlic mayonnaise. And once you’ve got the basics down, you can dress it up any way you want. Add herbs, add a bit of heat, sweeten it up with maple syrup (this is actually a great idea if you’re used to Miracle Whip and like a slightly sweet version of a white non-mayo spread). I once had a molasses-ancho chili mayo on a killer turkey sandwich. Cranberries! Add cranberries or cranberry chutney to the mayo at Thanksgiving for the best leftover turkey sandwich ever!

Okay, I’m done rhapsodizing about flavor. On to structure. Making mayonnaise, though very easy, is very particular. You CANNOT just throw all the ingredients together and shake like you can with a vinaigrette. It is imperative that you follow these instructions, or whatever instructions come with a recipe you use (see below for the one I use):

  • First, mix together your egg yolk, acid, mustard, seasonings, etc.
  • Second, have the oil ready to go in a pourable carafe or container of some kind. It’s best to use a food processor with an opening or tube into which you can SLOWLY pour the oil, but this can be done by hand. Traditional aioli, for example, is made in a mortar and pestle. If you’re whisking by hand, use a big bowl secured on a damp towel so it won’t slip everywhere.
  • Third, start the processor or start whisking and add a couple of drops of oil. You need to go super-slowly at first, especially if you are doing this by hand. I cannot emphasize this enough. Once you’re used to making it you can be a little more aggressive with your pouring but when you’re new to mayo-making take it slow. It’s like a first date with a really shy person who you know is amazing behind that shyness so it’s totally worth going slow and just buying them one drink in the course of two hours. You can add the oil more quickly as you get closer to the end – the more oil that is already in there, the more easily the emulsion will tolerate more oil. And in many recipes, including the one below, once the oil is blended in you add a bit of warm-hot water to stabilize the emulsion. I don’t get the science behind this one. I should probably re-read that chapter in Ratio.

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So there it is. Literally it takes two minutes in a food processor. Longer obviously by hand, longer still with that whole mortar and pestle thing. Give it a try. Report back. And if you tell me you put it on ice-cream I will definitely not judge you.

*Special thanks to Barrels Community Market for letting me make my mayo with their food processor on my volunteer days in the kitchen!

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1 egg (I know, not just the yolk – this is actually the whole reason I use this recipe!)

3 tsp vinegar or lemon juice

1 tsp mustard, I like dijon

1/2 tsp salt

pinch cayenne

1 scant cup olive oil

1 T warm-hot water

New Year’s Resolutions

I used to hate New Year’s resolutions. If you wanted to do something badly enough you should just do it already! Although I still feel that way more or less, I have come to appreciate the idea of reviewing the old year and making plans for the new. It’s the same feeling you get from cleaning the refrigerator out. And for those metric-minded (e.g., my data and economics-obsessed husband Travis), it affords the opportunity to try something out for one year and then assess the results and draw informed conclusions.

So if you’ve already guessed that we will be a GMO-free family for 2013, congratulations, you’re correct! We’ve been mostly GMO-free for a few years now – this was not deliberate, it was simply an indirect result of eating fresh and cooking from scratch. But all fall we’ve been deliberately avoiding any GMO items at the grocery store, and now we are kicking it up into high gear by including eating out. Yup, no more hamburger buns, even when eating delicious locally raised, grass-fed beef burgers at our favorite pub unless they can guarantee the buns are GMO-free!

I am anticipating  some snafu’s. Neither of us wishes to be rude or impose our restrictions on friends who have invited us over, so we may find ourselves in a tricky situation at some point. We also have the challenge of feeding our youngster when being baby-sat at our friend’s house. Typically the kiddos all just share whatever snacks they’ve each brought but that will have to change. I’ll be like that mom forcing her kid to bring the weird school lunch, with chunky homemade hummus sandwiches and carob-chip cookies. Yeesh. I never wanted that for myself or my kid.

But I do want my kid to absorb the fact that consumption is both a personal and a political act. And at the heart of this decision for the year is to turn ourselves into advocates for something we believe in. Two months ago today, Californians failed to pass Proposition 37. A labeling law that would have simply required foods to state whether or not they contained any GMO products, it was killed pretty much by Monsanto and other “food” conglomerates that don’t think consumers have the right to know what they are eating. On the plus side, on that same day San Juan County in Washington State banned GMOs. We feel pretty strongly about both of these outcomes and that it’s time to turn our curse words into action.

Of course, I can wax as poetic and political as I want, but I still have to confess…I’ve already failed this resolution. Mostly because of a lack of planning on our part, and an inability to waste food on my part. We had an incredibly delicious New Year’s Eve dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant and returned home with leftovers that we ate for lunch the next day. Yup, complete with non-organic meat and cheese, and with tomatoes, which are always GMO unless organic. There went that. We also had leftover James bday cake which, due again to a lack of planning on my part, contained a small amount of (horrors) confectioners’ sugar in the frosting as I ran out of arrowroot powder 20 minutes before guests were due to arrive and only had time to run to the general store, not the crunchy-granola co-op. So, confession done, here are my resolutions:

  • I will not eat foods containing GMOs in 2013 (starting… now! not, um, on the actual first day of 2013);
  • I will keep a diary of food costs and report back – I have a sneaking suspicion that eating this way doesn’t have to break the wallet;
  • I will not beat myself up if I fail once or twice;
  • I will share our reasons for doing this with people who have invited us over without getting on a soapbox or making a big deal out of it;
  • and I will teach James every day how important it is to eat real food.

Happy new year everyone.

Frost that, Monsanto

I thought it would be harder. But making frosting without white sugar or confectioner’s sugar (and therefore cornstarch which has been genetically modified) proved to be so easy that I’m ashamed I hadn’t tried it until now.

I played with two variations, both of which turned out well, and I have big plans for a thick frosting for my gingerbread men later this week (which, of course, I will post).

The first one I tried was a cream cheese frosting on an apple cake (this cake was a combination of Smitten Kitchen’s recent roasted apple sheet cake and a previous post of hers from 2010, her spiced applesauce cake – my variation can be found at the bottom of this post). I let 6oz of cream cheese and 2oz of butter come to room temperature and soften and then creamed them together. I stirred 2 tsp of arrowroot powder into 1/4c of maple syrup until the arrowroot powder was well mixed in, and then added that to the cream cheese and butter. After tasting it I added another 1/8c of maple syrup but if the cake you are frosting is super sweet, I think the 1/4c cup of syrup would make a nice not-too-sweet frosting as a complement. This made enough frosting for a decent layer on one 9″ * 13″ cake. If you like a generous amount of frosting (you know, you like cake with your frosting rather than the other way around) then I would scale up the recipe.

December 2012 pics 047

December 2012 pics 049

This was a huge crowd pleaser, and it was so simple! The brilliant thing about using arrowroot powder is that it is tasteless and odorless and not combined with sugar, the way cornstarch is in confectioner’s sugar. I have been the victim of a too-sweet frosting many many times when I’ve added more and more sugar in order to thicken the frosting and reach the texture I wanted.

On to the second one! I made this frosting for chocolate-banana cupcakes (which, sadly, did not turn out as well as the frosting so I am not including the recipe here). I stuck with butter and decided to add cocoa. Since I was making a much smaller batch of frosting I had assumed that I would be using less arrowroot powder. Much to my surprise I added teaspoon after teaspoon to the frosting until there was four times as much powder in this small batch as there had been in the previous large batch. This one ended up being 2oz of softened and creamed butter with 1/8c of maple syrup, 1.5 tsp of cocoa powder, and 8 tsp of arrowroot powder. On the plus side, I did learn that it is not necessary to mix the powder into a liquid in order to mix it in thoroughly and evenly. So we can skip that step in the future!

December 2012 pics 051

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Why the difference in the amount of arrowroot powder? I figured the small amount of cocoa powder I had added to the cupcake batch had little to do with the outcome. The only other difference in ingredients was the cream cheese. I looked at the ingredients on the cream cheese package and yes, there it was…locust bean gum. A thickener! Derived from the carob tree, Wikipedia describes it in all kinds of science-y ways that I don’t understand and then concludes with this:

The bean, when made into powder, is sweet—with a flavor similar to chocolate—and is used to sweeten foods and as a chocolate substitute. It is also used in pet foods and inedible products such as mining products, paper making, and to thicken textiles. It is used in cosmetics and to enhance the flavor of cigarettes. Shoe polish and insecticides also have locust bean gum powder as an additive. 

Well, I do love me some cigarettes and shoe polish, but in the interests of getting down to the heart of food and cooking, and consuming as low down the processed food chain as possible, I think I’ll have to forgo cream cheese in the future. Much like sour cream (thickened with, yup, you guessed it, cornstarch), cream cheese does have some culturing for flavor but relies much more heavily on a chemical thickening process rather than a culturing thickening process. I’ve been using creme fraiche, and occasionally yogurt, as a substitute for sour cream so I will try out creme fraiche and yogurt in frosting sometime.

One way or another, it is surprisingly easy to avoid GMOs and white sugar in the world of frosting. Next adventures in frosting include: thick icing for gingerbread men; a maple glaze for a gingerbread bundt cake; variations on boiled frosting for sheet cakes; and creme fraiche or yogurt frosting to substitute for cream cheese frosting on James’ birthday apple cake!

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Apple Cake

Stir together:

3 c flour

1 T baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1.5 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ginger

1/2 tsp cloves

Cream together:

3/4 c butter (1.5 sticks, softened)

3/4 c maple syrup

2 eggs

1/2 c melted coconut oil

2 tsp vanilla

2 c applesauce

Mix together, then spread a layer in a buttered/floured 9″ * 13″ cake pan, lay 4 c of roasted apple chunks over the layer, then finish with a last layer of cake batter. Bake at 350 degrees until a knife or toothpick comes out clean.

To Wood or Not to Wood?

Stannard Farm maple syrup has always been wood-fired. This mostly started out as a pragmatic decision on John’s part. When he and Carol (my in-laws) moved back to Vermont from Alaska to start a farm and a family, they settled on John’s father’s land. Some of the money they’d amassed over a couple of years of working hard and living small went towards a sugarhouse and an evaporator. With nothing but trees in sight, and the nearest oil reserve many miles away, it made sense to use labor and land to make the syrup.

Over the years, this has become more than a pragmatic decision. In the face of a diminishing labor force (read, kids grown up and grandkiddo still to young) John was considering converting to an oil-fired evaporator. After much conversing (and believe me, farmers can converse – talking is pretty much a crop), Travis and John did decide to ramp up the sugaring operation but remained committed to woodfire. New sugarhouse, vacuum pump, reverse-osmosis machine, and new efficient arch, but no oil in sight.

So what were the underlying factors? There is some pragmatism still – Travis and I are around regularly to help out and we intend to turn James into firewood labor as soon as possible (what’s the minimum age for chainsaw use?). Oil continues to not be a Vermont crop. And being certified organic means that we need to have a sustainable forestry plan for the sugarwoods. Between culling old trees and maintaining health and biodiversity in the sugarwoods, we’ll be doing some level of wood-cutting anyways.

But more than that, Stannard Farm has a vision of what maple syrup production should look like, and what maple syrup should be. Linked to the past and traditional methods of production, steeped in the land and inextricably bound to the ecology of the mountain, and tasting as good as it should. For us, that meant that continuing to be wood-fired was not a choice, it simply was.

There are some arguments that can be made against wood-fired. Woodsmoke is not completely clean, it does release some particulate matter. However, burning dry seasoned wood is cleaner and hotter than burning wet green wood so there are gradations of particulate matter released, and the newer evaporators have what amounts to a catalytic converter in them, burning as much particulate matter as possible before the woodsmoke leaves the evaporator and hits the sky. Clean air arguments don’t really hold up here.

Skidders and hydraulic wood-splitters do, of course, require oil to run. More or less oil than a tanker going up the steep 1/2 mile drive? Also a tough call. There are varying degrees of damage here, but the more people on the family farm to take labor away from machines the lower the fuel consumption. There are also horse-powered firewood options in Vermont (really, I cannot love this state any more than when I see flyers at the Willey’s store in Greensboro advertising horse-powered logging). I have grand dreams of eventually getting horse-power on Stannard Farm, but that’s a decade or two away.

Firewood work is hard on the body. I do feel a twinge of guilt when I realize that some people have chosen oil because they are older and not up to the task of cutting down trees, bucking up the wood then splitting it, stacking it, and throwing it on the fire regularly. But farming is hard work, and maybe that’s the way it should be. It reminds us that the products we literally consume, products that sustain us, deserve our labor and our sweat. Slowing down and scaling back to keep a farm manageable at the labor-level seems to me to be a wise economic decision. And integrating family as labor both reduces labor costs and passes along knowledge of and investment in the land.

Of course, there are many other tangents we could travel along here in terms of passing along the family farm, affordable health care, taxes for agricultural land, challenges of marketing, fixed incomes… and these are valid tangents. But I don’t think we are adequately addressing those issues by using non-sustainable and too-large-scaled energy sources. When instead we decide that wood is the right energy source for syrup production we begin to know the land better through firewood, we begin to appreciate the year-round steps it takes to enjoy maple syrup, and we establish a strong labor ethic as an integral part of our syrup system. These are qualities that we need to cultivate in order to address the rising issues of food and farms in the U.S.!

The last point we considered in deciding whether or not to use an oil-fired arch or a wood-fired arch is taste. There are two factors that we think play in here. First, oil creates a uniform and even source of heat all along the bottom of the syrup pan. Wood-fire, on the other hand, is by nature uneven and unpredictable. There’s no telling where the hottest parts of the pan are, and they change location and temperature during boiling. This creates pockets of more caramelized sap within the syrup pan that, by the end of the boil, mix throughout the syrup and develop more complex flavors.

Second, oil-fired boils usually go faster than wood-fired boils. I guess you can turn down the temperature gauge on the oil, and you can certainly fire up the woodfire, but by and large oil-fired evaporators boil sap into syrup more quickly. The slower time over the woodfire allows the sap to develop more flavor and more color. As an easy caveat, I would beware any large-scale produced maple syrup of the lightest colors; their flavors are only one tiny step above corn syrup in my (unapologetically opinionated) opinion.

As committed to wood-fired as we are, we know we are in the minority. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the maple syrup industry in Vermont, and in the U.S., is coming to a crossroads. We are in the process of changing our grading system, Vermont’s density standards might change (more density, more sugars in the syrup), alterations in climate might in turn alter the map of sugaring, and every year more syrup equipment mechanizing the steps of production is sold. The most frustrating thing to watch as a sugarmaker is people turning away from white sugar and towards maple syrup in the hopes of buying more locally and feeding their families with more integrity but to know that they are doing so in a vacuum without having readily available information so that they understand what their purchase is doing politically and agriculturally.

What’s a consumer to do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Find a farm that you can buy direct from. Maple syrup is already a luxury product. You’re not likely to find a significantly cheaper product at the grocery store than you are from on-farm. And if you’re buying your maple syrup at Costco, well, you probably won’t find a farmer who can compete with that but you’re probably not much interested in farmers anyways.
  • Ask about bulk discounts. Start a buyer’s club with your friends. This holds true for purchasing any on-farm products! And there are plenty of online forums and information out there for anyone interested in exploring this option (for example, click here).
  • If you’re in New England, go to a farmers’ market. Chances are, you’ll see a maple syrup stand and can talk directly to the producer.
  • Find a way to ask the questions that matter to you. Is your syrup organic? If not, why not? Are you hand labor-powered? Are you a family-run farm? Do you use wood or oil? Can I get a sample?

Decide what’s important to you about the food you eat, then vote with your dollars. It’s not that complicated.