Tag Archives: grazing

Marissa’s Favorite Foods

25 Apr

Several months back, I asked We Meat Again readers for any questions they had about the Marissa behind this blog, and have periodically answered a few, about my time working on a farm, whether or not I think humans need to eat meat, and “How I Became a Foodie.”

But I just noticed I didn’t answer one of the coolest questions! Cristina, from An Organic Wife asked:

What are your personal favorite foods?

You might imagine, that as someone who writes about food for a good portion of her living, I would have many, many favorite foods. And I enjoy lots. But when it comes to the best of the best, there are a select few up there, and I think most of them reflect something important about who I am.

Marissa’s Top-Five, Desert-Island Foods

(If I lived on a desert island eating only these foods, I would probably die of scurvy. I promise my regular diet is more well-balanced than my favorites make it seem!)

  1. Pasta: This one probably isn’t that surprising, as I’ve written quite a bit here about my Italian heritage. When you grow up making fresh pasta at home every couple of months, it becomes a part of who your family is, as much as the food you enjoy together. Every Monday night in my parents’ house, no matter how many people are there, or when dinner is served, is pasta night.
  2. Potatoes: Potatoes are my one true love. I will eat them in nearly any form, over almost anything else. French fried, baked, au gratin or, best of all, mashed. My theory is that my love for potatoes is the other half of my cultural genealogy. I’m sure it will surprise anyone who has seen my auburn hair and freckles to learn that I am, in fact, more than 50% Irish. We don’t have many Irish culinary traditions in the Landrigan household, but I guess the potato gene is just bred into anyone from County Tipperary.
  3. Cashews: My grandparents’ house is the kind of house where there is always a dish of candy and dish of nuts on each coffee table. When we were growing up, those were always mixed nuts. I love cashews so much I would pick through the mixes and eat all of the cashews, until finally my grandparents, loving me desperately as they do, just started buying a canister of cashews in addition to the mixed nuts. Now, it’s all mine, whenever I visit. They fed my addiction at a young age, and now it is here to stay.
  4. Steak: Irony alert! When I was in high school, I was so into steak that I once told a friend I could never be a vegetarian because I could never give it up. I did, for a long seven years (and I don’t care what anyone says — as someone who ate her fair share of meat substitute products, there is NO good steak alternative), and now that it’s back in my life, I actually eat it very rarely (once every couple of months?). I think it’s such a favorite of mine because it’s a food I strongly associate with grilling out with my dad as a kid. Since both of us were picky eaters, steak nights were big highlights for us, a night we knew we were going to seriously relish dinner, and not just tolerate it. It’s the reason I celebrated even my 29th birthday with a class of champagne and a whiskey-grilled porterhouse.
  5. Tomatoes: After that meat-fest, let’s end with one of the healthiest items on this list. My favorite fruit/vegetable, the tomato. Actually, I have a mild allergy to tomatoes (and strawberries, which I do not particularly like) that makes me break out into a slight, localized rash if I eat way too many. The reason I know this is that, as a child, I would camp out in my mother’s vegetable garden and gorge on her cherry tomatoes. In July, I was barred from going to pick the produce from the garden because no cherry tomatoes would ever make it back to the house. To this day, they are still a favorite snack. If I buy a pint of cherry or grape tomatoes at the grocery store, it will be gone by tomorrow, and I sometimes even eat a whole tomato like an apple. Since I have to eat a ton to have a reaction, I figure there are worse indulgences…

So there you have it, some of my favorite foods ever. What are yours? Leave a comment and share your favorites, and tell us what they mean about you?

How to Motivate Yourself to Cook

13 Jan

As I gear up for another semester teaching and trying to finish the book simultaneously, I thought it seemed timely to tackle this question, from my friend Ariane via Facebook:

As an academic, how do you motivate yourself to cook and not make something quick? I’m always buying food and then not using it or forgetting it and it goes bad – tips? Good sources of recipes?

In my first year of graduate school, I lost 12 pounds. And though I had been trying to lose that weight for awhile, and was glad I did, it wasn’t in a good way. I dropped that much weight that quickly because I had all but stopped eating. Often, I would rush out of the house without breakfast, or with just a granola bar in hand, and would spend the entire day at my school office, not eating again until I returned home at night. The only thing that saved me was that I lived with a boyfriend at the time, and so we were able to cook together, so I ate at least one meal a day.

So I understand how easy it is to give in to the demands of a schedule and forget about cooking–or even eating. And in fact, I think this demand applies to people who work 9 to 5s as well as those of us in academia (which is, in fact, a full-time job, even if you see your professors go home for lunch). We all have at least eight to ten hours or work to do in a day, and often feel so mentally exhausted by the time we return home at the end of the day (many of us with work still to do) that we’d rather watch TV than do anything — especially cook.

Here are some of the things I’ve found that work for me to eat well, to cook whole foods, and not to completely destroy myself with business in the face of a demanding schedule.

Shop for Less — More Frequently

I’ve heard so many of my friend extol the virtues of shopping for specific recipes, both for being more budget-conscious and for making best use of the food you have. If you keep staples like grains, frozen meat, oils and other condiments around on a regular basis, and then do your produce shopping once a week or so, you can buy for specific meals. This will also likely have the added benefit of encouraging you to shop at the market, rather than the grocery store. So you’ll also be buying more locally and seasonally.

Plan Ahead

This shopping style also allows you to plan your meals when you have the time to think — on the weekends. When you shop for specific meals, there’s less mental energy to spend on figuring out what’s for dinner tonight. Planning ahead also helps you break the habit of thinking of your food only when you’re hungry, at the end of the day.

My idea of planning ahead is usually as simple as deciding in the morning what I will make for dinner that night–but just picking the protein. Will I use that pork chop? Chicken breast? Or go vegetarian? Once that call is made, I can spend the day brainstorming what I’ll do with the chicken breast and the other ingredients I know I have — and then making that meal is less effort than thinking of something else to do when I’m hungry.

Cook in Big Batches

As I said, we all have more time on the weekend — so take advantage of it! I have to admit, when I was whining about having to bring my lunch to school based on my schedule this semester, Scott is the one that reminded me I could make big batches of something to take with me each day. And it’s a great idea, but I have a weird aversion to leftovers. But when you make a big batch of something to eat over the course of the week, as Scott reminded me, it’s not technically a leftover — you haven’t eaten it at all yet.

This is a good mental trick for me. I usually spend my Sundays cooking a few things that will help me get through the week without having to cook too much, but won’t leave me with the microwave every night either. I bake loaves of bread. I make fresh pesto or other sauces. I make big batches of snacks like homemade cheez-its or granola bars (recipe coming soon!) or soups and stews. I can draw on this cooking all week without feeling like I’m just eating one meal for dinner every night.

Expend Your Energy Once a Day

This goes hand-in-hand with the last piece of advice. As I said, I prefer to cook in big batches things that I can use to create meals, rather than whole meals themselves. The truth is, this works for me because I tend to use those foods during the day. This week, I made a loaf of Spinach-Cheddar bread and homemade cranberry sauce, so I could have easily and super-delicious brie and cranberry sandwiches all next week. Knowing that lunch is taken care of gives me more energy to cook at the end of the day. And since I prefer fresh food for dinner, this is a great way to combine cooking ahead of time, with new meals every night.

Save the Feasts for the Weekend

In order to really make cooking during the work-week work, you also have to be honest about your time constraints. This semester, for example, I will be teaching a yoga class one night a week until 6:20pm. Which means I’ll get home, hungry, around quarter to seven. I won’t want to make a 45-minute feast — nor should I try. That means dinner dangerously close to “too late” (a subjective standard of mine where eight is the cutoff), and it sets me up for failure. If I know I have a cook-fest waiting for me at home on those nights, nine times out of ten, I will stop at Jimmy John’s on the way home rather than cook a big meal.

So when you’re planning your weeknight meals, take the schedule into account. Which nights will you have the time to start cooking around five? Which nights do you have to bring work home to complete after dinner? There are plenty of amazing meals you can make in less than twenty minutes with whole foods: orzo, barley or couscous salads, skillet pork chops, stir fries, etc. You can even go back to the planning ahead advice and use the slow cooker to get something like BBQ pork sandwiches ready in the morning. Make sure your cooking time will be realistic.

Learn to Love Cooking

This is We*Meat*Again, so you knew you were going to get some abstract “change your paradigm” advice here, too. The truth is, in order to really eat more healthy, whole foods, you have to cook more. Not everyone likes to cook, however. So the best advice I can give is to figure out what it will take for you to enjoy cooking.

Honestly, I used to think I hated cooking. I was really bad at it for most of my life because I’m a flighty, spastic kind of person and I couldn’t stay focused on cooking for the amount of time it takes to not burn water. When I got older, and I decided to eat this way, and had to become a cook, I discovered that all that personality that made me a bad cook when I was younger was exactly why cooking was so good for me. It forces me to focus on one thing at a time. I have to slow my breathing and concentrate. Cooking for me is really meditative, and so even on the days I don’t feel like cooking, I push through, knowing that once I have, I will feel better. Like exercising, cooking has a way of recharging my battery.

I know it might not work this way for everyone, but I guarantee there is some way that everyone can create a positive mental space for cooking. For some, it might be finding a few things you can make that are so good that you want to keep cooking them. For some, the challenge of a new ingredient might be mentally stimulating at the end of an office day. For others (and I’m in this group as well) cooking for other people can be really wonderful. If inviting a friend over for dinner is what it takes to get yourself to cook and eat better — well, bonus.

How do you motivate yourself to cook?  Have a secret we should all try, or a recipe source that helps you along? Leave a comment and share your idea!

And in case you missed it, We*Meat*Again is celebrating our upcomign 1000th site visit by giving away a copy of Michael Pollan’s new, illustrated Food Rules book. Check out this post for details on how to enter!

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 & Jobs Links for Labor Day

9 Sep

In honor of Monday having been Labor Day, and of President Obama’s job speech from last night, I thought I’d round up a series of links this week on food, labor, and the workforce.

First, the good news, and a report Mr. President would do well to pay attention to in launching a new infrastructure-based jobs initiative: the Union of Concerned Scientists on the enormous job creation potential of farmer’s markets and other local food sourcing systems.

This is an older report, but is still the most definitive on worker safety and rights in meat processing plants — a different beast from agricultural fields, but still deadly.

Barry Estabrook has written a great, concise overview of the problematic regulations surrounding children in the farm industry. It shocks most people not from farm states to learn that children as young as 12 can legally work on farms, and children as young as 16 can legally mix and spray pesticides. I know many farmers who rely heavily on their families as labor forces, so I think it’s important to find a balance on this issue, but that stricter regulations are absolutely needed.

Methyl iodide, a pesticide used primarily on California strawberry fields, is just one of the many reasons why being a farmworker is so dangerous these days, and California isn’t regulating exposure to the chemical their own government deemed highly toxic.

TribeHR, a human resources management team, this week used data from the OECD to measure workday length in hours globally. But the most interesting bit of this to me is the gender breakdown of unpaid work (down at the bottom of the link) which shows that women are still spending nearly four times as many minutes per day on cooking and food cleanup as men. So I guess food is still women’s work, globally anyway.

Finally, lest we in the rest of the country imagine that Hurricane Irene was a great big let-down (actually, I know a lot of East Coasters who think that, too) we should all remember those who are suffering the most: New York and Vermont small farmers, whose croplands were flooded and destroyed. Learn more, and how you can help, here.

A Healthy Lunch Break

29 Aug

This weekend, I put out the call on Facebook for readers to request topics they’d like to see covered, and my dear friend from way back when, Ariane, requested quick lunch ideas for the school year.

Ariane is in graduate school (at Harvard Divinity, because she’s a genius) so she has the kind of busy schedule I understand, one that doesn’t necessarily adhere to a 9 to 5 kind of  commitment, but also seems to never end. The blessing/curse of the world of academia is that we can do our work (with the exceptions of classes and office hours) whenever works for us. The reality for most of us academic nerds is that this means we work nearly around the clock.

For the longest time, for me, this meant that lunch was the most unhealthy meal of the day. I always make the time for breakfast, and cooking dinner is my big meditative return to the home at the end of a work day. But lunch, sometimes eaten on campus, sometimes eaten at 3pm to avoid eating on campus, could easily get crushed under the weight of the day.

I’ve put together some of the tricks I’ve learned over the years, and especially the ones that are working for me so far this school year to make sure you eat healthy in the middle of the day. For all you full-timers out there with office jobs, my friend Ashley at (never home)maker has written a fantastic post about staying healthy while working full-time that might really help. I do have the benefit of a flexible schedule, so that’s in case any of these tips don’t seem feasible for you.

1. Plan ahead

My awesome new reusable lunch bag. Yes, that is a Velociraptor.

I know I’ve said it before, but this bears repeating when it comes to eating well while working. Whether you have to be in the office all day, you get home for a short lunch break or, like me, you can make it home for lunch everyday, having something already around that doesn’t require a lot of effort helps keep you healthy even when you’re tired from work or have a grumbly tummy.

I’ve always been a sandwich-for-lunch kind of gal. It’s the perfect balance for me between a full, big meal and just a snack. So some of my favorite plan-ahead lunches include making big batches of egg salad or tuna fish, which involve only as much effort as spreading between bread. I also make sure to keep a lot of whole, fresh foods around like apples, bananas, or baby carrots. This way, I can add a serving of fruits or veggies to my sandwich without any prep.

Preparing these foods can also be a good Sunday night task, one that helps you focus on the week ahead without cutting into your morning routine at all. Make a big batch of egg salad, pack a reusable lunch bag with an apple, stick it in the fridge next to your water bottle and go watch re-runs of The Soup until bedtime.

2. Don’t JUST eat at midday

This is one of my newest revelations for healthy eating and it’s been incredibly helpful so far. You know how you always hear nutritionists talking about eating three meals and three snacks a day? Yeah, turns out they know what they’re talking about. Making the commitment to eating at least mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks will do wonders for your energy level, and your weight, as a consistent blood sugar is so much better for your body.

Two days a week, I work from home in the mornings, so I have an early lunch at home, then head up to school for four hours. And I still want to have the energy to work out after teaching. So I’ve made sure to keep my school office stocked with mid-afternoon snacks so that I’m not so hungry I bail on the gym. The other three days a week, I eat a mid-morning snack at school, so that I’m not ravenous by the time I make it home for lunch, and end up snarfing down a box of pasta.

These stored snacks can also be made in advance. At the beginning of last week, I made this super-easy gorp mix of granola, sunflower seeds, almonds, dried cranberries and Newman’s organic dark chocolate chunks, and brought a mason jar of it to school. Now all I do in the mornings is grab a yogurt or carton of milk to take to school and mix with the granola. And they’ll help regulate your blood sugar so you have the energy and therefore the time to make yourself a decent lunch.

3. Mix it up

One of the biggest obstacles I’ve had in the past to eating a healthy meal at mid-day was getting bored. If, at the beginning of the week, I bought a package of ham and a block of cheddar cheese, by about Wednesday, I was skipping lunch, or grazing on snacks, because I just didn’t feel like ham and cheese anymore. So following the above pieces of advice, but giving yourself tons of options, is a big help.

Other snack possibilities, besides dried fruits, nuts and seeds, include hummus and pita (or just about anything); pre-sliced veggies, cheese and crackers. My mid-afternoon snacks are often post-workout smoothies.

Here are some other ideas for healthy main meals, beside sandwiches, that don’t take a large number of ingredients or a lot of time: a fruit salad of melons, pineapple and berries, which you can prep in a large batch; spinach salads topped with blue cheese crumbles, sunflower seeds and red onion (almost no chopping involved); soups/stews in tupperware; savory quiches or frittatas; and of course, one of my favorites: leftovers!

In general, keeping your house stocked with fresh produce and whole foods, especially nuts and other high-protein grab-and-go’s will make sure that, however little time you have, the thing you’re grabbing quickly is going to be good for you. But with a little time spent thinking it over, lunch can be a meal you actually enjoy, too.

What are your tips and tricks for eating healthy at mid-day — whether at work or at home? How do you motivate yourself to have the energy to eat well in the midst of a workday? Leave a comment and share your favorite work-week recipes, for any meal!

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!

Cooking with Grass

21 Jul

Image courtesy of Wallace Farms, my local source for grass-fed meat!

In light of the recent EWG report on the link between meat and climate change, and to help hammer home my point that it’s corn-fed, industrially-raised meat that’s the problem, it occurs to me that some people shy away from grass-fed meat because it seems like a strange new beast. Unfamiliarity is often an obstacle in the kitchen, one I’ve encountered (and hurdled) many times. So here’s the truncated We*Meat*Again guide to cooking with grass-fed meat.

First, a little explanation on what grass-fed is and why it matters. While grass-fed is not the only thing you should care about when searching for your meat, it’s a good place to start. When cattle (or lamb) are raised on grass, rather than corn, they will also tend to be raised in a pasture rotation (the cow’s version of free-range). This is usually indicative of a farmer who uses biodynamic practices. Biodynamic means letting the parts of a farm work together with a natural cycle, such as allowing chickens to rotate on a pasture after cattle, as the chickens will pick through cattle manure for grub, thereby spreading naturally-produced fertilizer on the land. You should still learn all you can about a farm’s practices,  but generally speaking, cattle who are fed with grass will tend to be raised in a more humane, more sustainable, and healthier way.

We’ve covered why grass-fed meat is better for the planet. But it’s also considerably healthier. All that beautiful “marbling” in your corn-fed steak is fat. Grass-fed meat is lower in both overall and saturated fat (the kind that clogs arteries) and is actually higher in nutritional value, specifically by providing some of those elusive Omega-3 acids (yeah, you thought you could only get them in fish, huh?) as well as being higher in lineolic acid (which reduces cancer risk) and vitamin E.

But I love my marbling, the fatty masses cry! It’s what makes a steak taste good! Wrong. It’s what makes a steak taste deadly. Cristina from An Organic Wife mentioned in the comments on Monday’s post that grass-fed meat “tastes about ten times better!” And this fantastic taste-test from Slate debunks just about every imaginable myth about marbling and breed stock when it comes to taste. The winner? Alderson Ranch grass-fed steaks. Which also happened to be the cheapest.

So with all that in mind, here are my tips for cooking with grass. These are an amalgamation from Sustainable Table, Cooking Light, a few grass-fed cattle ranchers, and one of my heroes, Anthony Bourdain (whose tips are not specific to grass-fed, just great beef cooking ideas).

  • As a general principle, grass-fed meat should be cooked medium rare. You should cook grass-fed at half the temperature for about a third of the time as you cook grain-fed.
  • Since grass-fed will cook faster, if you prefer it well-done and need to cook it longer, you should use a method that seals in moisture, rather than a dry-heat method.
  • Moisture and tenderness are going to be the biggest challenges. Fat is an insulator, which means a grass-fed steak, with less fat, doesn’t have a safety net for overcooking. So if you’ve never been one to time-cook your meat before, now is the time to start.
  • You can also add moisturizing ingredients, especially when using ground beef. Caramelized onions on top of grilled grass-fed burgers, for example.
  • Use tongs, rather than a fork, to turn the meat while cooking, as otherwise, precious juices will escape. And turn it as infrequently as possible, ideally just once. As you cook, you’ll notice juices pooling on top of the meat — the more you turn it, the more of those leak out onto the pan, rather than seeping back into the meat.
  • When it’s done cooking, in the immortal words of Mr Bourdain — leave it the f*ck alone. Let it rest for 8-10 minutes, without touching it, turning it, cutting into it, or even seasoning it. Anything you do to the meat now will allow juice and flavor to escape.

For more Bourdain tips on steak, check out this video, around 4:25

Trust me. Try one perfectly-cooked grass-fed steak, one juicy and delicious grass-fed burger, and you’ll soon learn that the flavor of great meat comes from the meat itself, from the grass on which they graze, not from the fat of marbling. There you have it — now go forth, and grill!

What advice do you have to add? Have you tried any great techniques for grass-fed (or organic, or local) food? What are favorite recipes with grass-fed or free-range meat? 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:

 

Notes on Eating and Travel

1 Jul

As I said the other day, I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately. Not in any epic, life-changing or even relaxing vacation sense of the word. More like I live in a town where there isn’t much going on and so often to get things done I must go somewhere else.

Two weeks ago, I drove round-trip to Mineral Point, Wisconsin and back, to spend the weekend babysitting for the wonderful Dean Bakopoulos and his family. Yes, I am that good at childcare that people will bring me in from out of town. A few days after that, it was up to northern Iowa on a day trip for a campus visit. A week later, another day trip to Minneapolis, for online teacher training at The Loft Literary Center, where I will be teaching a class this fall. And the very next day, it was off by plane to Kansas, for another campus visit and job interview.

All of which is to say I’ve been moving around a lot, spending little time at home, and much much more time in my Subaru. The largest side effect of which was my eating totally sucked.

Pizza. Fast food. French fries. Chips. Candy. Too much coffee and too little water. I tried my best to eat well when I could — choosing a bag of trail mix at the gas station convenience store, rather than the Pringles, picking vitamin water over soda (which I don’t like anyway). But especially when you need to keep driving, those choices can be the very definition of rock/hard place.

The observations I’ve made about eating while on the road — whether by car or plane — seemed indicative of so much American obesity. It’s no great revelation to say we eat crappy food here, and lots of it, but road food became this lightning rod for me, the confluence of so much of what is wrong with our diets, namely: processing, access, and cost.

Those three things work together to ruin our resolve and grow our waistlines, and they are inextricably linked. The difficulties I faced were when all three worked together: when I was trapped in an airport, or along a rural highway, with only a few handfuls of foods to choose from. Those foods were invariable highly processed, even more so than bad grocery store food — lunchables and microwaveable burritos and cup-o-noodles. And among the limited, unhealthy options, those which were the cheapest often won out, because I knew I wasn’t going to be packing in a lot of nutrition anyway.Why spend $15 on a grilled chicken sandwich at the sit-down airport restaurant when I can get KFC for $5?

No, I didn’t eat KFC. My way around these awful food prospects is this: whenever I know I can’t eat well, I resolve to at least eat vegetarian. Since I did that, in airports and on road trips, for seven years, it’s relatively easy for me. I can get a salad and baked potato at Wendy’s, or a grilled cheese sandwich, or just cobble together some granola bars and nuts.

But I know my fellow Americans, and I know the limits placed on us by access, processing and cost are not ones we are skilled at overcoming, especially when it would take advanced planning. Really the only way around these limits is to bring your own food along with you, which of course can be made complicated. Wouldn’t it be easier just to allow ourselves the day here and there to eat poorly, rather than have to slice up a bell pepper in advance, or try to keep baby carrots cool, or an apple from getting bruised, or to navigate TSA screenings with a banana in your pocket?

We give ourselves the out instead. Say, it’s just one day. I deserve a break. The problem is, these limitations on our access to food, to unprocessed whole foods that are inexpensive, is endemic. These aren’t issues only present in highway rest stops and airports — we just notice them more there, because there’s nowhere else to eat. But they are really just mirrors, reflections of a larger industrial food system that is bad for us, and is everywhere.

In food choice and access then, as in so many other ways, it seems the automobile and the highway have come to define America. The drive-thru, perhaps the single most American contribution to food culture. And the processed, chemical-laced foods we can access along the side of the road, or in a grey, anonymous airport terminal, are the foods we use to fill the void left by an absence of any real culture, any deeper understanding of why food matter or where it comes from, how it is made. We contact each other only through a car window, exchanging paper bags smudged with grease, and drive off, eating alone.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

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