Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The True Cost of Food

The rising costs of living have everyone fretting. I am old enough to remember biking past lines of cars waiting to buy overpriced gas during the oil "shortage" of the 70's. Seems we have come round to the same place again, that very little real reflection and change has taken place in the intervening years. Somehow, we as a nation have a habit of putting up with this--complaining, yes--but not doing anything real to shift the situation. My biggest concern surrounds food: I want people to see what the real cost of food is and choose the path that will eventually end this nonsense. To do that we need to retake control from corporate food production. I want us to realize that we don't have to participate in this twisted scenario where costs escalate and we either quietly pay or starve.

I got Shannon Hayes' newsletter in my inbox today (as of this writing it is not yet posted on her website, but will be soon I hope: http://grassfedcooking.com/). For those of you who don't know, she and her family have a diversified farm in New York State which provides well-raised food locally. Luckily, Shannon is also a writer, and through her writing she provides nourishment to those of us who can't attend her market days. I have her wonderful guides to cooking pastured meats--which have taught me to treat my meats very gently, and I get her occasional ruminations by email. Today's is a tearjerker, for sure, as she describes how the fuel and grain price spikes are affecting the family business, causing them to cut production of poultry, which will in turn affect her customers in months to come. I am so very glad that she shared this with us all--glad on many levels. We need to know what makes real food so expensive, we need to value what we are eating. We need to understand who is really profiting from this uncontrolled escalation in costs (Shannon does a good job of making this clear in just a few paragraphs). And we need to focus on the solution: uncoupling from the agribusiness model to which we have hitched our wagons. We need to buy our food from farmers like Shannon Hayes.

We tried to bring our monthly order down from the farms this week. There were not enough orders to make the trip sustainable for Steve. Accounting for the regular participants who are traveling (a fair number, as it is early summer) we still shouldn't be in this position. This urban area is HUGE and I regularly get calls and emails from people looking for real food. So what happened? People are balking at the $25 delivery fee, in addition to the real cost of real food. I have been meaning to say this for a while: This is what it costs to eat real food! And if we don't pay it now, cutting somewhere else if need be, then REAL FOOD will soon not be available.

It frightens me that folks are willing to spend $25 a week on lattes, but unwilling to pay $25 each month to get food raised healthfully and sustainably in our own state. I know this, because two of my daughters work at Starbucks: They have many regular customers whose customary orders they begin when a familiar face walks in the door. People are willing to eat food out that they say they wouldn't eat at home, and then pay many times over for the privilege of someone else doing the cooking. And some of us feel that the kids "need" boxed cereal so they can feed themselves breakfast (have you figured out the cost per pound of that "food"?) And I haven't factored in the cost of medical care necessitated by eating a steady diet of such SAD food. Or the cost for subsidizing farms where food is eventually plowed under, a victim of pricing schemes managed by the interests of big business, not of the consumers. What about the cost of manufacturing and disposing of mountains of superfluous packaging? Or the societal cost of cleaning up toxic waterways contaminated by agricultural chemicals and pooled effluent (which on a sustainable farm is known as "manure" and "compost" and is used instead of the toxic chemicals to strengthen the crops.) What about the cost to us all of droughts caused in part by trying to grow crops and animals in ways that work against Nature, needing high inputs of water, as well as chemicals.

I know that this is getting very close to a lecture, and I apologize for that. Yet, I am not sorry for telling the truth. We say we want to be healthy, that we want to ease the burden on the environment, that we don't want to be dependent on foreign oil. But to do those things, and to recapture the slower way of life that we admire, we must support America's small farms. Switching away from the dominant agribusiness model we have today may sound impossible, but it is entirely possible. It has not been that long since we surrendered our food production and sales to corporations. We can and must courageously change the way we eat. Everything will flow from there . . .

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Food to Celebrate

End of the (school) year celebrations have brought with them celebratory food. Our home school group just had a wonderful, old-fashioned party, complete with croquet and badminton, a small pool for the little ones, sidewalk chalk, and--of course--FOOD. We had burgers and dogs (no junk, of course), grilled veggies, salads, dips with veggies, lacto-fermented sodas, and desserts . . . It is the desserts we are going to talk about today, because the day after the party I got an email reminding me to PLEASE post recipes. Who can deny such a request? Especially when the recipes are simple, healthy and fun to eat.

So I will give you few recipes that may solve all of your dessert problems forever: what to bring to a potluck, what to make for a birthday, what to serve for a holiday celebration . . . Variations on these recipes are about all I make anymore for those occasions and more. Master the basics, and then use your imagination coupled with what is available. Your desserts will always be a hit and won't be a chore to make or a nutritional black hole.

A note about ingredients: I use the best I can afford or find. That usually means organic, sometimes it means something more, as in using baking powder or other ingredients without unnecessary additives. Do your best to source good quality ingredients, and then don't worry any more--just enjoy making good food!

Basic (grain-free) Chocolate Cake (adapted from Bruce Fife's Brownie recipe)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8x8, 11x17, or a 9'' round pan. Double recipe for two 9" rounds or three 8" (for a layer cake)
For brownies, leave out the baking soda and bake in an 11x17 pan (for chewy) or 8x8 (cakey)

1/3 c. coconut oil or melted butter (I used Tahitian Vanilla Jungle Oil, just for fun)
1/2 c. honey
6 eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 c. cocoa
1/2 c. coconut flour
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda

Mix the oil, honey and eggs with a whisk in a large bowl. Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl (I use a big sieve) and stir in thoroughly. Scrape into prepared pan and bake for 20-35 minutes, depending on how big your pan is. A larger pan for the same amount of batter will take LESS time (it is thinner)--so set the timer for the shorter time and check for doneness. The tip of a sharp knife will come out clean when stuck into the middle.

I served this as a sheet cake (one large layer) frosted with Chocolate Buttercream adapted from the Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum:
(read through and understand the directions before starting. Have things at the right temperature! This is easiest with a stand mixer and a candy thermometer, though not impossible without)

1 pound unsalted butter, softened but cool
1/2 cup honey + 2 tbs water
5 large egg whites
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
5 oz. melted and cooled bittersweet chocolate

Heat the honey in a small saucepan until it reaches 248 to 250 degrees (firm ball stage, though it really is best to use a thermometer)
Simultaneously, beat the egg whites in a large mixing bowl, adding the cream of tartar when foamy. As the syrup reaches the right temp, beat the whites until stiff peaks form.
Carefully pour the hot syrup into the whites as they beat (try to avoid getting the syrup onto the whisk or beaters as they will throw the syrup onto the sides of the bowl where it will glue itself until you scrub it off--and you won't have enough for the frosting).
Beat the meringue (this egg/syrup mixture is called Italian meringue) until it is absolutely cool. With the mixer running, start adding the butter about one tablespoon at a time--I do this with my hands, throwing in one soft lump as soon as the previous one is incorporated. It may look funky at some point, have patience. If it looks curdled, like broken mayonnaise, beat it a bit more before adding more butter. You might have to stop and chill the mixture a bit if the room is hot, but this only happens rarely. When all of the butter is incorporated the frosting should look smooth and satiny.
Add the chocolate and mix thoroughly.
If you prefer plain frosting, add vanilla or up to 3 oz. of a liqueur. You could also add fruit purees for different flavors and color (up to 3/4 c.), sweetening if necessary.

The Granitas

Granita, or Italian Ice, is traditional in different parts of Italy. For the party, I made what might be one of the most popular, espresso with cream (though usually the cream is whipped--I ran out of time!). Lemon is also a very traditional flavor. In Italy, many restaurants, and even small shops. sell hollowed out oranges filled with orange granita--I made a twist on that, by inventing a mixture that tasted like Creamsicles (TM). Last New Year's Eve I made one with cranberry juice and Lady Grey tea (so lovely!); for the party I "summerized" it with pomegranate juice and a beautiful Earl Grey that has lavender and rose petals.

The basic procedure is simple: you place a sweetened liquid into the freezer in a shallow pan (like a stainless steel roasting pan--it will freeze faster in metal, but glass works too). After 45 min or so you stir it, scraping the ice crystals from the sides. Keep stirring and scraping every so often--don't forget or it will turn to a block of ice that you'll have to melt down and to have start the process again (not a big deal, but if you have a dinner party waiting, well . . . it's worth the wait!) I use a serving fork or spoon to scrape the mixture into mounds that look like snow (remember what that looks like?) Serve in goblets if you are being fancy, and add a nice garnish for your dinner party. At our more casual party, we put it in paper cups and sucked on it, just like we did in Central Park when I was a kid.

A few notes: you can use liqueur or wine, just be aware that if you add too much the mixture won't freeze. I made a white zinfandel granita for my dad's 75th birthday party last summer by adding a syrup made from water, honey and thyme. You can find proportions for concoctions with alcohol on many sites online. Too much sugar will also keep the mixture from freezing, but since I don't like things too sweet I have never found out what the threshold is.

There aren't really recipes, but I will give you guidelines:

Coffee: I used decaf coffee brewed VERY strong (about a cup of grounds to my French press, which holds about 4 cups of water), sweetened it with honey, and with a touch of lemon flavor (which is just lemon oil) added--to recall the twist of lemon at the side of your espresso . . . Serve with whipped cream.

Tea/juice: I made a pot of strong Earl Grey tea (maybe double the tea?) and steeped it until it was cool. I added one quart of unsweetened pomegranate juice (I think the brand was Knudsen's "Just Pomegranate") and honey to taste.

"Creamsicle": I mixed a half gallon of good supermarket ("not from concentrate") orange juice with two cans of coconut milk (no preservatives). I added orange flavor (orange oil) and a bit of orange flower water (which I am sure you could leave out). I think I also added a bit of our great grass-fed raw cream. It needed no honey. It was SO good!

My fan also asked for another cake I make, which is straight out of the Cake Bible--a chocolate truffle torte, flourless and luscious. I am going to defer that recipe to another day, but don't worry, I won't forget!

Have a wonderful time experimenting with treats for your family and friends! And invite me to your next party, so I can try your inventions . . .
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