Tag Archives: chicken

Baked Chicken Flautas

9 Apr

We’re back! Thanks for your patience over the course of that much-needed hiatus. Look for  site upgrades over the next month, including a full recipe index, and hopefully new design elements, but for now, I hope that new recipes and content will keep you coming back.

This one has the We Meat Again trifecta: easy, healthy, and includes alcohol. I found this recipe for baked chicken and spinach flautas via my latest obsession, Pinterest, and couldn’t resist.

I’m a big fan of Mexican food, and always like trying to find ways to make it at home, for both the sake of my wallet and my waistline. Most restaurant food is deep-fried and includes less-than-traceable meat ingredients, and it’s  been my experience that you can find a way to recreate many of these recipes at home, with ingredients whose sourcing you can trace, and with a healthier spin.

Lauren, over at the Healthy. Delicious. blog found a way to make chicken flautas — by baking, instead of frying. I followed the recipe here almost identically. I left out jalapenos, because I didn’t have any, and added a bit more chili pepper to kick up the spiciness, and used chicken breasts rather than thighs (which are identical, but take a bit longer to poach). I also used white cheddar cheese which worked really well.

These flautas get the crispiness of a fried flauta, with the added perks of eating your greens! Welcome back, We Meat Again!

Bacon in Your Soup

27 Sep

Welcome to the first recipe post of We*Meat*Again’s Bacon Fest 2011!

I thought we’d begin the week with a simple lunch recipe — as I mentioned yesterday, in celebrating this delicious smoked pork treat, I wanted to get away from the traditional bacon with breakfast idea, and introduce you all to some new ways to incorporate bacon.

So when coming up with a lunch recipe, I wanted to move beyond a sandwich … sort of.

Flipping through my newest issue of Cooking Light this weekend, I found this recipe for a Chicken Club Sandwich Soup! A club is one of my favorite kinds of sandwiches, especially for its toasty bread and bacon, so this seemed like the perfect way to have bacon with lunch. Just a little where it’s needed, and incorporated into something unexpected.

The best part of this soup was how quickly the process of making it went. While my bacon cooked, I chopped the onion and garlic, toasted chunks of crusty wheat bread for croutons, and prepared the chicken. Once all the ingredients were ready, it was simply a matter of simmering the whole mess for a few minutes.

The garnishes and toppings are what really make this soup great — I added toasted croutons, cubed avocado (both of which are not in the photo because they get soggy and gross-looking very quickly) and, of course, bacon!

And we arrive at the first Bacon Lesson of the week: A little bacon goes a long way! Using bacon sparingly as a garnish, or crumbled into something for flavor, gives the whole dish is smokey flavor without overpowering either the meal or your arteries.

Stay tuned for the rest of this week’s Bacon Fest, featuring dinner, dessert and cocktail recipes including bacon! Throughout the week, share your favorite bacon treats in the comments and via Facebook, twitter or email, for a We*Meat*Again readers’ bacon favorites post!

How to Shop for (and Eat) Whole Foods

22 Sep

A few weeks ago, I asked some of my Facebook friends for thoughts on posts and Laura, who writes the blog Shaped by My Life (a fellow IC writing alum) suggested posting a sample shopping list with an eye towards cooking with whole foods. I thought this was a great idea. So often, people don’t buy whole foods because they aren’t quite sure what to do with them. Also, I really love grocery shopping, and making lists, so this is post will be particular fun for me.

I thought I’d start with my general grocery shopping philosophies for whole foods trips.

First, don’t expect to get everything all in one place. I know it seems inconvenient at first, but the massive corporate chain grocery store that stocks everything does so to the detriment of other features like locality, quality, and health. Cheap products that can sit on shelves for months at a time are highly processed — if you want to begin avoiding corporate foods, processed foods and to prioritize local and organic foods, you’re going to have to go outside the big box. The good news is, you will likely quickly develop a routine that is not inconvenient: produce at the market, bulk grains and legumes at the co-op, meat at the local butcher, all in the same amount of time you’d normally spend weaving your way through the fluorescent aisles.

Second, don’t be scared off by the higher price tag. You will spend more in a single trip on whole foods than you are used to at the grocery store. But again, there’s a silver lining here! A single trip to the co-op will stock you up with more food that will last longer, and needs only to be supplemented with weekly produce additions. When you shop at the grocery store, you’re buying food that is pre-packaged to make a single meal. When you buy whole foods, you’re buying the pieces for lots and lots of meals, instead.

In general, a good method for figuring out what to buy involves thinking of the big categories of whole foods, and choosing the individual parts you like in those categories. This will give you lots of options for mixing and matching ingredients into many different meals. I’ve provided a list of the categories here, with a sample of what I would normally buy in each — but keep in mind that’s limited to my tastes, so the categories should be your guidelines.

Grains

You can buy grains either in bulk (where you fill your own container) or pre-packaged. Some of my favorites are:

  • Israeli & French couscous (Israeli for deconstructed couscous salad, french for Parmesan couscous)
  • Arborio rice (for risotto)
  • Pasta! (I usually get a smaller shape that holds sauce for baked mac n’ cheese and a longer pasta for tossing in lighter sauces)
  • Orzo/wild rice/brown rice (for pilafs, stir fries or beds-of kind of recipes)

Legumes/Nuts/Seeds

This is where a normal person would buy lots of bulk lentils and legumes. But I don’t like those, so I spend most of my energy here on nuts for snacks or meal garnishes and seeds for salad topping.:

  • Cashews!
  • Whole or slivered almonds
  • Sunflower seeds (great on spinach salads)
  • Walnuts (for crusting oven-baked chicken)
  • Pecans (for chicken salad)

Produce

I’m not a fan of canned vegetables, and frozen veggies don’t have as much flavor for me, so I try to buy mostly fresh produce. The few exceptions I make are:

  • Frozen fruit for smoothies (though you can just freeze fresh fruit)
  • Frozen corn and peas
  • Canned refried beans if I’m in the mood for Mexican
  • Dried fruit for salads and granola

For fresh produce I always try to get a mix of:

  • Leafy greens
  • Green stalk veggies, like green beans, asparagus (or again, for normal people, broccoli)
  • Tomatoes and a variety of peppers
  • Carrots and celery
  • Lots of onions (I always get at least one red, white and yellow) and garlic!
  • Portable fruit like apples, oranges and bananas
  • Berries, watermelon or pineapple for chopped up snacks/cooking

And then I toss in a few extras depending on what’s there and what looks good seasonally, like cauliflower, zucchini/summer squash, red cabbage, or alfalfa sprouts. Obviously, the possibilities are endless here, so I suggest you figure out your most used veggies, and pick those up each time, and then supplement that with one or two other veggies each trip. This way, you have variety  but don’t overwhelm yourself and end up throwing lots of produce away as it’s spoiled.

Meats

Meat is a lot like produce for me — I pick up the same few things each time, and then add in a bit for variety. I try to get a mix of meat types so I’m not consuming a ton of red meat, and to work in some seafood. My staples are:

  • Chicken breasts (not a fan of the low meat content of other chicken parts, but wings and thighs are best if you like dark meat)
  • Pork chops and/or tenderloin
  • White fish like tilapia or cod (this is a purely Marissa-picky thing, as it’s the only kind of seafood I really like)
  • Ground beef or lamb and/or some fancy form of these like ground buffalo, lamb shanks or sirloin steaks
  • Meats you can use for deli sandwiches. If you’re lucky, your co-op will sell nitrate-free ham, or sliced chicken and turkey. But if not, it’s really easy to buy and cook a chicken or turkey breast and slice it up yourself!

Dairy

Dairy covers a lot, and those things have variety in them (like cheeses!) so here’s a breakdown of what I buy:

  • Milk and/or soymilk. I usually get regular milk for drinking and cooking, and soymilk for smoothies
  • Butter (which I always get in stick form because it measures easier for baking, but can still be used on toast, etc.)
  • Sour cream for sauces
  • Yogurt (I get a large, vanilla container for smoothies and then smaller individual packages in flavors for midday snacks!)
  • And cheese galore! I try to get one or two hard cheeses that work for both sandwiches and grating, like sharp white cheddar and Gruyere or another Swiss, plus fresh mozzarella for salads, Parmesan for pasta, plus some orange cheddar or something else that will melt into a cheddar sauce well.

Baked Goods

Now, by baked goods, I don’t mean cookies and snacks. I make those myself! I mean things that are made in an oven, mostly forms of bread. I usually keep:

  • Whole grain bread sliced for sandwiches
  • Wheat tortillas (for enchiladas, lunchtime quesadillas and wraps)
  • English muffins or bagels for breakfasts

The only things not considered in these categories are sauces, condiments and drinks. Once I’ve stocked up on the basics, I assess the recipes I know I have in my cart and get the corresponding condiments (mayonnaise for sandwiches, mustard for everything, BBQ sauce for pulled pork, vegetable broth, peanut butter, etc.). I basically don’t buy drinks at the store because I consume pretty much exclusively water and milk, but I know that co-ops often stock really delicious local root beers or soda waters, as well as adult beverage treats.

I’ve also not included the things I have in my pantry on a regular basis that don’t need to be purchased on each trip to the store: baking goods like flour, sugar, baking soda and powder, etc; spices and seasoning, like dried herbs, lemon juice, balsamic and other vinegars; honey, and lots and lots of olive oil. Never run out of olive oil.

I know that changing your shopping habits might seem daunting at first, but I promise you that lists become routine very quickly. And you’ll really enjoy getting to spend time creatively piecing together different pieces to make your own meal.

Cooking with whole foods means more than cooking in a more healthy way — it means learning to think about how foods fit together. I know that can seem overwhelming, especially for people who want cooking to be easy, something they can do at the last minute. Once you get the hang of it, and get used to stocking your house with a variety of whole components, it will be easy! I usually take some meat out of the freezer in the morning, and then decide what to do with it when I get home, depending on what I have, and how hungry I am/how fast I want the cooking to go.

The pride I feel when I can open the fridge and freezer and think: Hmm, I’ve got walnuts, chicken, spring green mix, orzo — hey! I can make that walnut-rosemary crusted chicken on a bed of orzo pilaf with lemon-sprinkled salad greens! is unparalleled. Give it a shot!

Ok — what did I forget? What are your whole food staples, and what are your favorite recipes to go with them? Leave a comment and share with readers, as I know my taste and cooking style are limited!

Food Policy Essay Roundup

19 Aug

I only have a few links for you all to cap off this week in food policy — not because there aren’t more stories in the food world to cover, but because the ones I’ve included here are all on widely varying issues tethered to the larger question of what is fundamentally wrong with our global food system, and are all worth reading in full, and in depth.

In fact, I’d love to hear what you all think of any of these issues as you read these essays over the weekend or going forward, whether in a comment here, an email to marissa@wemeatagain.com, a tweet or a Facebook post (just tag me so I can see it!). What lingering questions remain for you on these ideas? What are your thoughts about moving forward?

  • A slightly older Guardian article via Tom Philpott on how the Gaza strip is becoming a new hub of the new and true green revolution in agriculture — growing products that will actually feed people while working within the boundaries of the local ecosystem. What a concept!
  • The U.S. government has made a bonus purchase this year of an extra $40 million of surplus chicken, a result of the combined forces of declining consumer demand (on which Cord Jefferson over at GOOD places a desire to protest factory farming. I don’t know if I would go that far, but it’s a start) and increased prices. This is really dumb, as both articles here point out. The last time the government stepped in to blunt the impact of bad decision-making on an industry that caused its own problems, it was the banking industry. Enough said.
  • Speaking of bad meat industry practice, the big news in the food world these last few weeks has been more of this summer’s same: the recall. A slaughterhouse in Dodge City, Kansas (my neck of the woods, yay!) has recalled 60,000 pounds of ground beef that tested positive for E. coli. This on the heels of the massive Carghill ground turkey recall has, of course, prompted a re-visitation of antibiotic practices in the meat industry. Now is the time to get on the horn to your reps and let them know you want legislative action. The one silver lining to these disasters is they are often the driving force for the political will toward substantive change.

Eating Well On the Move

26 Jul

Sorry for the delay in getting a post up this week. I hope your Mondays weren’t too sad without your dose of We*Meat*Again… the ranting, the recipes, the loads of interesting links and information.

I wish I could tell you all that I will perform with increased length or frequency for the rest of this week to make up for missing Monday, but unfortunately, that would be a lie. For the week I’ve been longing for/dreading for months now is finally upon me: moving week.

Yes, in case you’ve missed the news, or just don’t know me that well, after graduating from my Masters of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing this May, I finally found a university teaching job for the fall, which will, as of this weekend be taking me to Hays, Kansas.

What this means for the blog are a few big hurdles. First, I have less time to post, as I’m running around packing, buying more boxes, continuing to pack, clean, and learn how to drive a giant U-Haul that is also towing my car. Second, my kitchen supplies are rapidly dwindling, as my cookware gets packed away bit by bit and I try to eat my way out of my refrigerator. So creative cooking and recipes are getting tossed out the window.

But don’t worry! I would never just abandon We*Meat*Again because of the move. So in the spirit of necessity being the mother of invention, I’m crafting a food post out of my current circumstances. Because during times of stress, like major relocations, continuing to eat well is really important. It helps your body by making sure you sleep well and stay …regular… and it also helps your moving budget by minimizing the amount you have to spend on crappy take-out (though, Saturday night, I’m lookin’ at you, Papa John’s).

We*Meat*Again’s Top Three Tips for Eating Well on the Move

(I make everything in lists of three. Yes, it has to be three.)

1. Plan ahead

Last week, when I knew I was going to end up with little cookware or dishes, I decided to use up some large quantities of food that wouldn’t make the move well by making big batches of foods I could eat over and over again. Normally, I hate doing that, as I get bored easily and end up wasting leftovers, but it’s manageable for a short window of time. So I whipped up a batch of Steve’s Loaded Egg Salad (SO GOOD). This way, I got lunch for a week and I got rid of eight eggs, which I was definitely not going to try and get the 500 miles from one apartment to the next.

2. Mix Unlike Ingredients

When you’re running out of food, but you want to keep it that way, you’ve got to get used to the idea of pairing a few things that you would otherwise buy new ingredients to complement. But this can be a great opportunity. The other day for lunch, I cooked the last of my Israeli couscous, sprinkled it over the remaining few handfuls of salad green, tossed on crushed pecans left over from my chicken salad, and dotted the whole thing with ranch dressing (I can’t help it, I live in the Midwest). Total lark — and totally delicious. Consider this wacky ranch-pecan-couscous-salad a fast, easy lunchtime staple of mine from now on! Sandwiches can be another great way to use up mixed ingredients, like arugula, apple and cheddar, or proscuitto and plum. Put anything between bread and it works!

3. Graze — on Whole Foods

You’ve made it to the last few days. You’re exhausted. It’s July and 90 degrees, so you can’t fathom cooking anything, and even if you could, you’re not sure where a spoon is. It’s ok to graze for dinner sometimes, especially when you’re stressed and sleepy — just do your best to make sure whole, healthy foods are around, and you can still have a balanced meal that doesn’t require any serious effort. Last night for dinner, I had local cheddar cheese and crackers, and a sliced apple with co-op made peanut butter. For dessert, the last of my vanilla yogurt with some frozen berries tossed in. So I cleared out a few ingredients that would perish on the go, and managed to stay healthy.

The key to all this is living a life that keeps good, whole foods around as the norm, rather than the summertime, farmer’s market-only exception. When those are the foods you’ve got to eat your way through before you can have your landlord check you out, eating well on the move becomes a lot easier.

What are your tips for eating well on the move? Maybe you’ve had this experience recently, or maybe you’ve got ideas for fast, easy low-cook options from other experiences. Too hot to turn on the oven? Waiting for the paycheck to be deposited and can’t afford to go grocery shopping? What do you do to eat well — under any of life’s crazy circumstances? Leave a comment and share!

How Cow Farts Cause Global Warming

19 Jul

Since I spend so much time here talking about how I’m no longer a vegetarian, some people might be surprised to learn that I’m still a big advocate of eating less meat overall. But there’s an important case to be made for significantly reducing our (and by our, I mean Americans, who eat the vast majority of the world’s meat) meat intake. That case is front and center in the food world this week as the Environmental Working Group — the watchdog organization who also brings you that handy annual sunscreen guide, and GMO watch — released their first Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health.

Not everyone is aware of the link between meat production and climate change, so let’s break it down. Here are the highlights of the issue — more detail can be found by following the links embedded, or by reading the great EWG report, which is very accessible.

Food production contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than transportation.

A recent study from Carnegie Mellon put it into these concrete terms. 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.

Meat is the primary culprit of this.

The ways in which food production contributes to global warming can be both direct & indirect. Direct contributions include the burning of fossil fuels to fertilize and grow the massive quantities of corn required to feed livestock animals and methane gas emissions from cattle (yup, cow farts). Indirect contributions stem from what factory farms do to the land. Desertification, water pollution, deforestation, topsoil erosion, etc. All of these make our planet  less resilient to rising temperatures. And these animals require a LOT of land. About 30% 0f Earth’s ice-free land.

That is, industrial meat.

Since most of those negative consequences of meat production stem from grain feed, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and fuel for transporting all those things, this is a problem unique to factory-farmed meat. Take away those features, and sure, you’ve still got the cow farts to deal with, but they become a miniscule, if stinky, problem. But combined with a ravenous desire for meat growing globally, industrialized meat production is a huge problem.

Sustainable meat is a different beast.

If we changed our farming methods,  much of those  problems would be dramatically reduced — and some would even be reversed. If cattle were allowed to roam, they wouldn’t need grain-based feed, as they would eat their natural grass diet. This would also reduce their impact on the land. There’s a much longer chain reaction here, but the point is that raising livestock in a biodynamic cycle is better for them and better for the planet. The hitch? Meat doesn’t “grow” as quickly or in as great a number with those methods. Because it’s not supposed to.

Meat should be a minimal part of our diet.

Lisa Frack of EWG said it most concisely:

Eating meat in moderation can be a good source of complete protein and key vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins B-12, B-6, and niacin. That said, we eat far more protein than we need: Kids get three to four times the recommended amount and adult men get twice the amount they need. And, of course, the nutritional benefits of meats can be reaped from other, less environmentally damaging food sources.

Because it’s better for our health that way, too.

This one I can say briefly: over-eating red meat and/or industrially-processed meat significantly increases your risk of dying prematurely. Not to mention your risks for certain types of cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart diseases. Conversely, eating more vegetables is universally agreed upon by nutritionists to be the best dietary choice ever. No exaggeration here, and no surprise, I’m sure.

We don’t have to do without.

People! Bacon is my header. So before you think I’ve gone and jumped back on the vegetarian bandwagon, let me share with you a little environmental agriculture secret: livestock meat can actually, if done right, be a more efficient use of land. Scale is everything here. This sustainable system works great for everyone — if we do it small enough, and with the basic principles of a natural food cycle in mind.

We just have to do less & better.

Yes, buying local, grass-fed, antibiotic-free organic meat is more expensive (for now). But if you’re buying less of it, you can balance that impact. And over time, you’ll be contributing to a better, healthier system for your body and for the planet.

Any questions? (No, really, ask away! Leave a comment and let me know what you think of the global warming/meat connection. How do you reduce your meat consumption? Share your meatless stories, recipes or conversions!)

If  you’re sold on all this but need ideas, check out my advice post on How to Eat Your Veggies, or these past We*Meat*Again vegetarian recipes:

 

Egg Debate Critique

16 Jul

Earlier this week, I wrote about the agreement between the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers to improve living conditions for hens in battery cages. As you may remember, I was decidedly optimistic about the potential in the deal.

But not everyone feels that way. Here are a view valid critiques of the deal, which I thought I’d share with you all in the spirit of presenting multiple viewpoints. Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved takes issue with the fact that the agreement maintains battery cages at all, rather than moving hens towards a cage-free existence. And public health lawyer and vegetarian author Michelle Simon has a solid, in-depth critique of the specifics of the agreement here. I’m most compelled by her assertion that perhaps, this was a national deal brokered to stave off more stringent regulations at the state level.

I think both of these authors have good points, though I stand by my original position on the deal. I don’t buy my eggs from national producers, period,  because I don’t want to support battery cages at all, and because I believe the eggs produced by free-ranging, bug-eating hens are better in quality and safety. But millions of hens in this country live in battery cages right now, so in my mind, anything that moves in the direction of improving conditions for them is a win, even if incremental, even if not everything we could have hoped for.

What is your take on the egg industry? Do you consider their practices as bad/worse than other factory farm practices? What are your egg standards? And what do you think of this deal? Leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Lots of new stuff up around here this week, so click around and catch up. Spread the word about my food-writing class. And have a great weekend!

Is There Any Good News?

11 Jul

Well, yes.

It can often seem, when you’re the kind of person who cares deeply about any issue, as if you’re caught in a big mess, a whirling chaos, and there’s no way out. At the end of last week’s post on the exploitation of immigrant labor in the food industry, I reminded everyone that pointing out the problems isn’t something I do just to complain. I believe that it’s only when we face and fully understand what’s wrong that we can do anything about it.

I thought I’d kick this week off then by sharing a few nods towards success and change in the food industry. We’ll get back to the dark and dreary later, but for now, reasons to be hopeful.

First, the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers have reached an agreement to lobby Congress for the passage of legislation changing the regulations for cage sizes for laying hens. While this might seem like a small thing, it’s actually very big for a few reasons:

1. Laying hens live in some of the worst factory farming conditions that exist. The current guidelines are a miniscule 67 square inches per bird. Check out this NYT infographic to see that in actual size. So, anything here would be an improvement.

2. The proposed legislation involves a progression of improvements over time, making the change more affordable for producers (and therefore for consumers as well) so we get healthier, more humane eggs without too much hassle at the store.

3. The Humane Society. And a factory-farming lobbying operation. Came to an agreement. Both this and the structure of the deal suggest what I think is a remarkable precendent for cooperation and compromise that could very well extend to other facets of the food industry. Which is, of course, why the United Pork Producers have actually spoken out against the agreement.

Now, the law has not been proposed or passed through Congress, and with opposition from other farm industry lobbyists, that might prove difficult. But the idea of these two groups being able to work together to affect positive change may well be the most encouraging part of this story. I’ll keep you all posted on this one.

Second, the Trust for America’s Health has released its most recent report on Obesity in America. The good news here is a little harder to find, as yes, obesity rates are on the rise. Twelve states now have obesity rates topping 30 percent. The state with the lowest obesity rate now would have been the highest in 1995. And a deeply troubling racial and economic divide persists when it comes to rates of childhood obesity and associate illness.

But a small sliver of silver lining can be found here as well. This year, only sixteen states reported obesity rate increases. Last year, the number of states with increased rates was 28.

While it’s too soon to rejoice, and while overall rates are still far too high, the study’s authors suggest that this might — might — indicate that obesity rates in the U.S. are leveling off. This may be a bit of a case of nowhere to go but down, but down is where we need to go, however we get there.

I choose to see both of these stories as stories of potential. Neither of these is an outright victory. The legislation proposed by the Humane Society will still have to be passed, and will take 18 years to take full effect. Obesity rates have not decreased in a single state in the last year. But in both cases, things that were true a year ago, things that were problematic yesterday, are no longer true. The Humane Society and the United Egg producers sat down at a table together to work. And people are — who knows? — watching enough Jamie Oliver or Michelle Obama to begin seriously thinking about what they’re eating.

We must do more, we must work harder and faster, to minimize suffering and loss along these lines as much as possible. But as Jeffrey Levi, executive director fo the Trust for America’s Health said:

You have to level off before you start declining, and we’re starting to see it.

Change like this happens incrementally, excruciatingly slow. We’re starting to see it.

Ok, have at it! Am I a hopeless Pollyanna for choosing to see these as victories? What more needs to be done to convince you that things are looking up? Any thoughts about why the sands of change might be shifting in the food movement? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Who Are These People Raising Colin?

24 Jun

The title of today’s post is inspired by this hilariously amazing clip from Portlandia that my friend Lindsey shared with me a few weeks ago. Trust me, you want to watch this first:

I love it because it so perfectly illustrates the problematic aspects of knowing your food source. What happens when you don’t know what’s worth knowing?

In the long run, does it matter whether or not the chicken was named Colin and he had other chicken friends to wrap his little wing around? Could you end up caring about the wrong things?

*

The grocery store shelves are stocked with cartons upon cartons of eggs with labels as varied as free-range, cage-free, grain-free, and even “happy!” These are words and images, one-dimensional characteristics. It’s nearly impossible to tell which phrases carry the right meaning, which phrase means what we want it to mean. What is the image of a happy hen we have in our minds? The eggs with the cartoon of the happy hen? The Mennonite eggs (because if raised by a particular religious faction, they must be humane)? Who knows?

So often in the face of all this, we shrug our shoulders and buy what’s cheapest. In the face of so much obscured information from industrial agriculture, sustainable agriculture can often seem to inundate us with so much information as to render the facts meaningless. We choose blindly.

I thrive on information. It’s part of what drove me into journalism at first, and ultimately, what pushed me past journalism. The information I wanted was the whole, complex truth, the one that could never be boiled down to mere facts, to a 500-word breezer. I seek more and more and more. I spend a lot of time learning. I write creative nonfiction because I want to explain the facts, to uncover the whole, messy understory.

I wrote a book about food because nowhere is the bloody mixture of fact and truth more difficult or more important. Sometimes you have to get right up in the face of something to understand it – because what you learn there, under the harsh light of facts, is that the truth is nowhere near that simple.

*

Bartlett Durand sent me an email a few weeks ago to thank me for mentioning Black Earth Meats in this post. He was so thrilled to get to hear the reactions of a person visiting the slaughterhouse, because he almost never gets to, to learn what an outsider, unfamiliar with the industry or the process, sees or hears or feels between those walls.

But he was also so thankful that I had taken the time to research slaughterhouses before and after my trip, that I had compared my experience there to those of other researchers in other kill rooms. Unfortunately, he said, sometimes people who care, their hearts can be in the wrong place:

Just last week we had a neighbor (13 years old) filming an unloading of hogs because she was convinced we were cruel and inhumane. What she was hearing was the “distress calls” of pastured hogs telling each other to “watch out”, but she refused to come closer and actually watch, let alone learn about what was going on. If she had come closer, she would have watched our guys unloading by simply walking behind small groups of hogs and letting them find their own way into the pens. So sad.

I’m most moved by his so sad. Bartlett wants educated consumers. He wants people to know what goes on in this slaughterhouse, during and before the packing process, because he knows that if people see how he treats an animal and how a CAFO treats an animal (not to mention the workers, or the customers, or the meat after it is no longer an animal), he comes out on top.

We have to do more than care about our food. We have to learn about it.

*

Last summer, when I visited Black Earth Meats, I was working for a few weeks on an organic vegetable farm in southwest Wisconsin called Shooting Star Organics. The husband and wife farm duo, Rink & Jenny, are good friends with one of my graduate school professors. They had a guest house where I could stay for a few weeks, while volunteering casual, inexperienced farm help in whatever capacity they saw fit.

Knee-deep in research about sustainable agriculture practices, organic certification, humane meat-eating and other contradictions, I had a feeling I might be missing an important part of the story by relying only on my own experiences. My new goal was to support models of agriculture that reflected natural nutrient cycles and human health, but the reality was, I had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t know what it really meant to be a farmer.

What I learned at Shooting Star Organics is this: It’s really hard to be a farmer. You don’t make enough money. You have to put in long, long hours. The work is painful. My back ached with radiating pain after just a few hours bending and straightening to put tomato seedlings in the ground. My knees split from crawling along soil and rock. My palms blistered from hoe-weeding, my shoulders burned from hauling fifty pound bags of fertilizer back and forth across the field.

Dirty doesn’t even begin to describe the layer of slick you get up to your knees crawling up and down the ground of a hoop house that’s just recently been watered, or laying irrigation strips beneath a plastic tarp covering in the eggplant plot. We all know what happens when water mixes with soil. What you might not know is what that combination does to even your heaviest hiking boots when you step ankle-deep in it: sucks the shoe right off your foot, so you come down into the muddy soil in nothing but a gym sock.

But all that dirt and muck—the smudges of it on my face and arms, crusted into my braids—reminded me of the fundamental truth of the farm. All food grows in the ground. Food, when you do it right, comes up out of the dirt of the earth. And sometimes that’s messy.

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Farmers markets connect us directly to the place we live. We learn what the soil of our own backyards is capable of growing and when. By buying our food locally, we see this natural cycle writ large across the booths at a farmers market.

But we learn even more about our community than what crops the land can grow there. We learn who our neighbors are and we learn what kinds of products are valuable to them. We learn what kind of music they like and what age they tend to be and what they wear. In these details, we learn who our neighbors are, and what matters to them. For this reason, my favorite market by far is the one in Ithaca, New York.

The Ithaca market has it all: the vibrant produce grown by a swath of dedicated back-to-the-landers or their descendants who drive their biodiesel vans down from the eco-village to stuff bunches of carrots or heads of radicchio into cloth bags; the hippie artisans sporting dreadlocks or tattooed arms, sewing hammocks from hemp or making their own lavender soap; the new urbanite entrepreneurs, giving free samples of their latest Pinot Noir; a variety of ethnic food vendors that speaks to the city’s mixed cultural heritage, Tibetan, Mexican, Sri Lankan, Cuban; free steamboat rides up and down the length of Cayuga Lake.

I think I love the Ithaca market as much as I do not because it’s the best market, or has the most to offer either in terms of fresh produce or crafts, but because it’s the most perfect illustration of what Ithaca is, this wild chaotic city of ex-hippies and young professionals stuffed to the brim with Tibetan monks protesting on the commons, Christian communes running Yerba Mate shops and poetry slams at Juna’s Café on Friday nights. And the Ithaca market somehow manages, with art and nature and food, to communicate all that.

And learning all that about the people and the land around us is the first step to placing ourselves within that giant quilt, the beginning of finding our own identity within the fabric of a place.

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Learning the difference between cage-free and free-range isn’t just about being a snobby consumer. It’s not just because one kind of life is better for the hen, or one kind of egg is better at not giving you salmonella, though both of those things are true. It’s because in the pursuit of information, we get closer to the source. When we get closer, whatever the original root of that particular plant, whatever the source of that spring may be, we are forced to face the fact that our food is not separate from us.

We remember that everything we eat comes from land and soil first, that without enough water or sunlight, we would all starve. We remember that we participate in a dozen little deaths, every day. We remember we are one of many, one in a community of neighbors and day laborers and animals and probiotic bacteria and air.

We remember that the truth is so much more complicated than the facts, and maybe that means we are willing to spend a little more time shopping or judging and a little more time listening and learning.

We can all honor Colin however we choose.

Chicken Salad for One

22 Jun

A few weeks ago, loyal reader Lindsey asked for some advice on cooking well for one, saying it’s tricky sometimes to feel motivated to spend much time in the kitchen just for yourself. I know that feeling all too well, both in terms of slacking on eating healthy foods, but also in terms of the amount of time a person is willing to spend on herself.

I think what cooking well for one boils down to is making a fundamental choice. You must either find a handful of really easy, healthy recipes, or you must be willing to feel indulgent for a night, and make an event out of your meal.

Today, I have a story about how awesome a leisurely evening spent cooking for one can be.  It began this lazy late June afternoon, when after being caught in a midday flash rainstorm and getting soaked, I decided to spend some of my remaining time in the day recreating a chicken salad I’ve been craving.

I was drying off from the rain, but the sun had just come out, and I I wanted something healthy and light and delicious for dinner that wouldn’t involve turning the oven on for the night. I wanted to get outside. And then I remembered this delicious Trader Joe’s chicken salad I had with Marytza in Los Angeles, which was full of cranberries and pecans.

Now, we don’t have a Trader Joe’s in Ames, which as I discussed yesterday, is not something I feel the absence of, so if I wanted this chicken salad, I was going to have to make it myself. No problem. I had fresh, local chicken defrosting. I found a similar recipe on the amazing smitten kitchen. It was four-ish, I had time to kill before I was too hungry to wait, so I hopped on my bike and headed for the co-op for the remaining ingredients.

Yes, I am a hipster foodie cliche, living two-Black-Keys-songs-away from the local co-op.

I spent the next two hours prepping this chicken salad — not because it was difficult or time-consuming, but because I took my time. I actually brined the chicken and then poached it in sherry for extra flavor. These two steps took about 45 minutes, during which I prepped the rest of the salad.

I know I’m beginning to sound a little too elitist-foodie here, so allow me to undercut myself for a moment. I know last time I spoke about enjoying the process of cooking, I mentioned listening to the New Yorker’s fiction podcast. Well, the truth is, the only podcast to which I listen regularly is the one that played tonight as I chopped pecans and tarragon was ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, my source of daily sports banter.

I poured myself a glass of local white wine — an alcohol I only find myself craving on humid summer days — and settled back to enjoy my homemade chicken salad for one.

Now, I know we don’t all have hours to spend cooking a relatively n0-frills dinner in the middle of the summer, as I, in all my unemployed-writer glory do. So I promise next time to give a lesson on the other path — the one that involves a delicious, healthy, super-fast meal — next time.

But for now, the lesson should be that you shouldn’t be afraid to make cooking for one as much a labor of love as cooking for two can be. Also that wine makes everything more fun.

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