Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Looking for a pumpkin?

I hope Google picks this up. Apparently the media have been blathering about some sort of pumpkin shortage in Victoria. (That's Victoria BC, Mr. Search Engine.) Anyway, 'snot true. There are thousands of available pumpkins for way cheap at Dan's Country Market in Saanich. Probably other markets too like Ploughshare/Ambrosio and Red Barn markets, Big Barn I would guess, Galey maybe... call around if you don't feel like driving all the way out to Central Saanich, but they're CHEEEEAP at Dan's - I picked up 3 good sized ones for $1 a piece. Yes, that's right, ONE whole dollar for each. If you don't buy them, they're gonna be compost. (Yeah I know, compost at your place, compost at their place... but they're actually decent pumpkins, if you wanted to you COULD cook something with them post-spook.)

In other news, I found organic beef, organic free-range pork, and bison at Pepper's this morning. Reduced prices on most of them no less! Peppers really does have a pretty great meat selection, if a tad small. They also carry Cowichan Bay Farms chicken *sometimes* but beware - they have another type of chicken that they slap the Cowichan Bay Farms name on, on the Peppers price label, but I don't think they are. The package label says "Farmhouse Chicken" and while they're local, which is all good, they definitely do not TASTE like free-range birds. They are about 2/3 the cost of the real Cowichan Bay Farms chickens (which are great btw). To further plug Pepper's, they are one of the last true Victoria-owned grocery stores (Thrifty's sold out to Sobey's this summer). I shop there whenever my travel route makes it feasible.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

a public pronouncement of sorts

Well, I think I've finally had enough of being a piggy little chunky monkey so I'm going to drop my "PPD" weight. And I'm going to try to do it without any program or diet or whatever. Actually no, I've invented a new diet I call the Michael Pollan diet, after his succinct summation of most of the nutritional research from the past 100 years: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

So, that's what I'm going to do, focusing mainly on the "not too much" part. Really, it's all about portion control and eating nutritionally dense foods. Strictly speaking I don't think nutritionally dense foods are necessary for losing weight, but I think they help in that you don't get so many cravings for foods if your nutritional needs are being met, and I think they help you stay healthy while you're losing weight. I'm also going to avoid refined carbs since that also makes for fewer cravings and better energy.

I figure this will take a while, maybe until next summer, since I just don't have the exercise opportunities I used to (no job to cycle to for one thing). I have about 40 - 45 lbs to lose. (Or, more accurately, I need to drop my body fat down about 15%.)

Now, for the first week or two I am going to go pretty hard-core, mostly just to shrink my tummy. I don't care what scientists say, tummies totally get used to a certain volume of food and mine is definitely currently expecting too much. So, teensy meals for the next, say, two weeks, then I'll just eat off a salad plate for the forseeable future.

The point to this post is to keep me honest. Please feel free to regularly ask me about the whole eating less thing. Ask me how much weight I've lost or whatever. I promise I will find it helpful, not offensive.

Now I'm going to go finish my jelly beans. This deal starts tomorrow. Just because, Monday, y'know.

Monday, October 22, 2007

"In Search of Perfection"

I saw a new-to-me show on Food Network yesterday. It's called "In Search of Perfection", hosted by a guy called Heston Blumenthal (one of those "what were his parents thinking??" kind of names). It's British, and the food he plays with on the show is very British. Yesterday the episode was all about steak and salad.

It was interesting, no doubt about that. I watched the whole show avidly, which I rarely do. But the reason it grabbed me right off the bat was because I was highly annoyed by the way he totally bought into the American standard - and even admitted it was an American standard! - of "quality" beef being beef with a lot of intramuscular fat (marbling).

It's time people stopped thinking that is a good thing. Marbling does a couple of things: it does keep the meat juicier if one has a tendency to cook meat beyond medium (which is a sin in and of itself, but that's another post). It also provides a bit more umami flavour to the meat. But on the other hand, it makes the meat taste less like, well, meat.

The sad thing is, most people don't know what meat tastes like. I had the good fortune to be raised on moose meat, which is typically grass, pond-weed, and willow-fed. The meat is dense and meaty and no, it doesn't "melt in your mouth". It hangs out in there for a while, communing with your taste buds, saying "I am MEAT. I will make you big and strong!" You have to chew it. It is satisfying in a way that well-marbled meat isn't. Well-marbled meat makes you want more. Grass-fed meat makes you feel like you've eaten.

Taste aesthetics aside, there's a health issue too. Marbled meat comes from cows that have been "finished" on grain. That is to say, for the last few weeks or months of their lives, they are fed a diet of grain so that they gain fat quickly. This is the fat that is deposited intramuscularly, creating the marbling. This is always a short-term project since cows do not stay healthy for very long on this kind of diet - in human terms, this would be like taking a healthy, active young man and removing all the vegetables from his diet and feeding him solely on on twinkies for a few weeks. He'd be putting on some intramuscular fat too, but we wouldn't call THAT a good thing and he probably wouldn't feel so good, either. Nobody pretends that intramuscular fat is actually *good* for cows, but what's mystifying is how people can think that it's ok for them to eat it.

In fact, grain-finishing significantly alters the omega6:omega3 profile of the fat in beef, skewing it radically in the direction of the omega6s which are already too high in most North American diets. I would be willing to bet significant amounts of money that THIS is the reason some research shows that red meat is unhealthy, and probably a large part of the reason that cardiovascular disease has been on the rise since about 1950 (approximately when cows began to be fed grain). Red meat now comes from unhealthy animals, it only makes sense that it would make *us* unhealthy too.

Ok, so anyway, back to the show. I got annoyed at Heston's choice of meats. He "tested" various steaks from various cattle producers by cooking them like normal people would. Then he went on to actually prepare his choice in an entirely different fashion, which I think would actually have been better with a meat with little intramuscular fat. (He took a forerib roast, blow-torched the outside, then roasted it at 50C for 24 hours, let it stand, carved it into steaks, then seared the steaks off, let them rest 10 minutes, and served them.)

It was a fine little experiment. But, Heston, who in their right mind ties up their oven for bloody 24 hours cooking a damn steak?!?!?!? That's ridiculous. I am all for slow-cooking, I think it's a great idea and usually produces wonderful results. But 24 hours of continuous oven use is just silly. Most of us only have one oven, and what if we want something baked to go with our steaks? Oops, we're SOL. Not to mention that sort of thing even done once or twice a month would make me very reluctant to open the hydro bill.

Also, the blow torch? coughpenisextensioncough. And there is growing research that shows that charring meat creates carcinogenic compounds. (Not that I am opposed to a little char here and there, but he charred that meat *twice* with pretty excessive heat.)

Then I got to thinking about the show's title. In search of perfection. It's an argument I have regularly with Stirling, and my usual response to HIS perfectionist tendencies is a saying I heard at work from someone (I forget who, I'm pretty sure it was an IBMer so if anyone knows please tell me so I can attribute it properly): Perfection is the enemy of excellence. Meaning, if you shoot for perfect, you usually go over budget, over time, or lose sight of what you were trying to do in the first place.

And boy has Heston lost sight of what food is. Yes, it needs to taste good. I am sure his steak tasted lovely. But was it excellent food? Hell no. Food's primary purpose is to keep people alive. And while there are people who actually TRY to sacrifice some years of their lives in exchange for absolutely the tastiest things around, the vast majority of us would like tasty foods that do good things for our bodies. And frankly the last thing TV-viewing audiences need is some food "perfectionist" telling them to buy grain-finished beef.

(I think Heston is also one of those chefs who frequently utilizes sous-vide techniques that involve slow-cooking foods immersed in water, sealed in plastic bags. That just gives me the willies.)

I would REALLY like to see a TV show about real food. Food the way food was meant to be. Meat from animals raised on the diet they evolved to eat. Vegetables grown in real soil, on real farms, not monocropped things that look like vegetables grown in some hydroponic solution that has the correct balance of NKP but no real soil nutrients. Food that feeds our bodies, food that we don't feel guilty about, food that satisfies our taste buds and our nutritional needs, food that connects us to our community and the land we live on, food that contributes to the well-being of the planet, our farmers, our local economies and ourselves. But something tells me that the Food Network would have a hard time selling ads to run during a show like that.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

raw milk

Last weekend Rowan and I took the ferry down to Port Angeles and picked up a couple gallons of raw milk. She's had some constipation issues and I suspected that pasteurized milk had something to do with it, as her issues got worse when we were in Portugal and there was nothing but ultrapasteurized milk (which is milk that's been fully, completely sterilized by having pretty much all the goodness along with all the bacteria boiled out of it... it lasts indefinitely without refrigeration until opened, at which point it goes bad rather quickly. not my idea of food.) I've also been reading a lot about why raw milk is so much healthier for you than pasteurized, not to mention tastier. Basically what it comes down to is that milk - any milk - is a substance that nature intended to be drunk as-is, from the source. Baby cows certainly can't thrive on pasteurized milk, it doesn't make sense that humans would either. Pasteurization kills all the beneficial bacteria and enzymes in milk, which incidentally are the bits that help humans (as well as baby cows) digest it. There is also evidence that without these bacteria and enzymes, the much-vaunted calcium content of milk is just not really very bioavailable, and calcium uptake from pasteurized milk has been the subject of scientific debate - a debate that has never been settled, thanks largely to the lack of funding for research that isn't likely to please the dairy industry.

So if raw milk is healthier, why is milk pasteurized? Well, the historical explanation is that in the mid-late 1800s grain surpluses started to appear in the US. The most profitable way of processing these surpluses was to turn them into booze. Then some bright spark discovered that cows could, if given no choice, live for a time on the spent grains (mash) from the booze-producing process. So they set up dairy feedlots beside breweries and distilleries, and piped the leftovers directly into the cattle pens. Thus was born the first confinement dairy. The milk from these dairies was substandard, but exceptionally cheap, and the working poor in the cities where these dairies were located were forced by economics to buy it. The conditions the cows lived in were appalling, disease was rampant, and naturally many people, mostly children, were sickened or died from drinking the milk, producing a public health crisis. Then pasteurization was developed, which provided a quick "solution". As dairies consolidated and grew bigger and dairy farmers found it cheaper and more convenient to feed cattle grains rather than maintaining pasture, pasteurization provided the "fix" needed to render the milk from the confined, malnourished cows safe. Large dairy producers cuddled up to overworked health officials and universal pasteurization became the norm.

It's not the only solution, though. Even waaaay back there was the concept of a "certified" dairy - a dairy that met health needs for its cows, cleanliness standards for its barns, and kept the cows OUT of the barn for the most part. Cows on grass are far healthier than cows on grain - grain produces an acidic rumen which allows all kinds of nasties (including that really bad e. coli) to thrive, and the excrement from grain-fed cows is a far, far better place for bad bacteria than a grass-fed poop. Moreover, cows who are fed grain are typically confined to a stall, where they hang out ankle-deep in their own poop, which frankly isn't good for *any* organism. Cows in confinement dairies live about 2 years if they're lucky; cows on pasture live for about 12.

But, inspecting these dairies and maintaining two separate standards is WORK and the diaries and health departments have done a fantastic PR job convincing people that pasteurized milk is just as good as raw milk, and the pasteurization is in their own best interests. The thing is, they're partly right. Nobody in their right minds would drink raw milk from most dairies in operation in North America today. But milk from a clean, grass-fed dairy herd is an entirely different story. And that's where our milk came from: the Dungeness Valley Creamery.

Washington State is one of the few jurisdictions that recognize that a lot of people want raw milk, and it's in the State's interests to make sure that they can get it and that it's safe. (It's a great way for small family dairies to thrive, for one thing.) Raw milk producers are pretty much forced to have their cows on pasture to maintain the cow health standards, and the milk must meet bacteriological and coliform standards that are waaaaay higher than those of pasteurized milk. California has similar standards, raw milk has been available there for a long time (since the early 90's I believe) and not one single case of food-borne illness has ever been proved to have originated at a raw dairy in California, although the health department has certainly *tried* to prove various outbreaks were linked, they failed in every case to actually detect any pathogens in the milk or bottling equipment. (In fact, many more people have been made ill by salmonella-tainted produce and by contaminated *pasteurized* milk than by raw milk.)

Canada is not nearly so enlightened - raw milk is basically more illegal than pot here (to sell, at any rate - you can bring it over the border for your own consumption.) It's sad, because some places (like Vancouver Island) are geographically ideal for raw milk dairies. We have a mild climate that enables cows to be outside almost all year long, plenty of rainfall for good grazing, and a host of little wee cheesemakers to take up any excess. People would pay double the price of organic pasteurized milk for raw - dairies could actually MAKE MONEY!!! - and if the government wanted to stay out of it, a handful of independent contractors could make some money doing regular milk testing.

However, legalizing raw milk might make people take a harder look at conventional dairies. It might make people realize that cows don't HAVE to stand in shit to produce milk, that cows really don't need or want grain (yikes, what to do with all that surplus crap-quality grain that comes off the more soil-depleted areas of the prairies?), and that dairy doesn't have to be one of those things that's only good for you if all of the fat is taken out. (That's another triumph for the dairy lobby, with more people clamouring for the "healthy" low-fat dairy products, they're able to take much more cream out of the milk and use it in much higher value-added products like ice-cream, compensating for the lower milk-fat yield from their overbred, high-yield Holsteins.) A harder look is something that the dairy industry would like to avoid, since it might cut into profits that are already tenuous thanks to government fixes on milk prices. So, dairy lobbyists work darned hard to make sure that the government keeps telling you that unpasteurized milk is like drinking straight salmonella with a dash of e. coli, and the government is quite happy to do so, because frankly pasteurizing everything is darned easy and means that the government can cheap out on ag-school drop-outs for their inspection staff. (<- ok I don't actually *know* they do this.)

Anyway, that's enough ranting for one night. I should add, however, that raw milk tastes WAY better than pasteurized, but the jury is still out on whether it's helping Rowan with her poop.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

crispy yummy potatoey buttery yum (did I say yum already?)

Tonight I discovered the ultimate compensation for having to do fiddly things to toddler food. I don't exactly have the pickiest toddler on the planet but there are some textures she just won't do. Potato skins are one of those things, so as I carefully scraped all the fluffy baked potato out of the crispy skins I wondered what I should do with the skin. I briefly considered giving them to the dog, but that seemed wrong. My gaze slid over to the butter dish, and before my food conscience kicked in I cut off a pat (not a small one, let's say) of cold butter and smooshed it between the two potato skin halves.

Well, I have to say, that was a little - no, actually a substantial portion - of heaven, if one believes in such a concept. Warm crispy potatoey goodness filled with cool smooth buttery yum. It was so good that it completely overrode any sensation of guilt with one of blissful food discovery. It's so simple, but at the same time so elusive - the potatoes have to be perfectly cooked, with thin skins that crisp in the oven, and the crispness only lasts a few minutes so you really have to almost burn your fingers getting the insides out. And the butter has to be right out of the fridge. This is not something that could ever be served in a restaurant or even on a plate. It's the perfect cook's treat.

(FWIW the potatoes were from a bag of organic Yukon Golds (I think?) from the Fraser Valley. The butter was Avalon Organic, which overall I am unimpressed with but it did the trick here.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A few good articles

I found these on (thanks to a link from the Traditional Foods group on MDC). They're a little excited and perhaps a weeeee bit disingenuous, but good.

For the record, I can't remember the last time I ate breakfast cereal and I miss it not at all. We eat first a kefir smoothie for breakfast (which contains kefirized milk, fruits and if I'm feeling sneaky, some leafy green veg), then some kind of eggs or oatmeal, or occasionally for a treat pancakes or bacon & eggs for breakfast. I never spend more than about 10 minutes preparing breakfast, either.

If Rowan's around other kids who have cereal o's I let her have them, but we don't stock them at home. I just don't think they're *food*.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Lobster mushrooms!

This morning Rowan and I trekked out to my super-secret mushroom spot and found some lovely lobster musooms. These are crazy even for fungus - they're orange, gnarled and chunky (rather like lobster claws) and they smell kind of fishy. But they clean up real nice and when sautéed in butter and then finished with a sherry cream sauce, they're extremely tasty.

To cook, simply clean and slice (ok there's no 'simply' about it, these things are hell to clean) then sauté with butter, thyme and shallots until they've released some liquid and are starting to suck it up again. Add some sherry, and cook until it's nearly gone, then add salt and finish with cream.

Here's what they look like:

Fortunately they're wacky enough there's no way to misidentify them. Rowan liked the gathering part, but she wasn't so keen on eating them. And frankly they were a little rich for me. I need to find a new way to prepare them. Ideas? Anyone?