Archive for May, 2009


There’s a great little article in the New York Times today about liberal arts undergrads getting summer internships on organic farms. I like how Kim Severson, the NYT food writer, commends the idealism and willingness to act of this “new generation,” but also winks ironically about the ways in which undergraduate idealism and willingness to work aren’t always equally calibrated.



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We went to the first farmers’ market of the year at “Ag Heritage Park” today in the drizzle.  I and everyone else there seemed to be wondering the same thing: why aren’t there more farmers around here?  The line for the most varied vegetable selection was almost thirty minutes long. The berry farm stand ran out of strawberries at ten past the opening hour.  Peaches were gone by the time Jack and I made it out of the veggie line.   Hundreds of people arrived in the first hour and stood around in the rain, beaming at each other as they hefted canvas bags full of local lettuce, peaches, cucumbers, honey, cheese, and eggs—if they were lucky enough to get some before it all sold out. There’s so much pent up demand for fresh local food, and too few CSAs and small farmers to meet it with their supply. This may be because the market is young in relation to the agricultural history of the state, in which commodity crops like cotton and lumber dominated.

The exciting thing, though, is that small farms are popping up or remaking themselves to meet this demand.  And if you ask around enough you find out about other producers who have been in the area, quietly serving up their grass fed beef or organic greens for decades. (For example, the Ritches of Goose Pond Farm, one of whose scrumptious chickens we enjoyed with friends the other night.)
fm haul
Jack and I took home a small haul: red leaf and butter lettuces, an armful of baby summer squashes, veggie goat cheese from Bulger Creek Farm in Notasulga, and some honey.

Eggs were available, but we already had a dozen of the local “Frank’s Famous Eggs” in the fridge.  (Their yolks are molten orange! And if you happen to eat a supermarket egg when you’re used to the density and flavor of these, you’ll say: what’s this tasteless rubber?)
frank'sThe lettuces made a crisp bed for some eight-minute eggs.


I roasted the summer squash in a skillet with olive oil, salt and pepper, and a sprig of backyard rosemary.  Jack insisted he didn’t like “fwash” but he ate every sweet and salty morsel.


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oh, great.

Frito Lay and Pepsi Co. are attaching the adjectives “local” and “sustainable” to their products and practices:

Here‘s the NYT article.

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unsweetened. My favorite seasonings for sweet potatoes are salt and spices. During the fall season of the Randle Farm CSA, we got a ton of organic, honey-sweet sweet potatoes. We experimented with different preparations. On Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law, Ned, spent a lot of time grating a pound or two with my hand-held, flea-market Wonder Shredder, then threw them into a skillet warmed with some sage brown butter. They stuck. Badly. Something about the starch.


So, my stand-by preparation is to roast spears. First, Jack peels them meticulously, avoiding his precious digits. Then I cut them into thick “fry”-shaped spears. I grind up some coriander seeds, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, and salt with a mortar and pestle, and toss the spears with the spices and either olive or sesame oil. So good!

Oh, and if you still have sweet potatoes in May, and they start to sprout, you can make them into interesting creatures:

sweet potato creature

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Randle Farms is one of the CSA possibilities in the Auburn area.  They grow a wide variety of produce, and also offer eggs, beef, pork, and lamb, all of which is organic. When we joined in the fall, our first pick-up included two frozen lamb shoulders.  I had to do some research before cooking these hunks, and then had to turn my knife in all directions to carve the meat off the oddly shaped bone and make relatively uniform-sized chunks.  Because braising is the best way to cook this sinuous cut, I tried two variations on stew—one classic French, and the other Moroccan. Both were delicious, but the Moroccan spices and the mystery ingredient—honey—really brought out the distintiveness of the lamb.

Ras el hanoutThe dish is a variation on Mrouzia, traditionally made after the celebration of the slaughter of the lambs, and characterized by its sweet-spiciness.  The main spices are in the blend called Ras el hanout, which is popular across North Africa and the Middle East.  The blend includes cumin, coriander, cardamom, clove, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, peppercorn, turmeric, and mace.

First, in a dutch oven or heavy pot, whisk together the 2 tsp. Ras el hanout, 2tsp. salt, ½ tsp. black pepper, ¾ tsp. ground ginger, a pinch of crumbled saffron threads, and 1 cup of water.  Stir in 3 pounds of lamb chunks with 2 more cups water, 1 chopped onion, 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks, and ¼ cup butter.  Simmer, covered, for about 1½ hours.

Then add the sweets: stir in 1¼  cups raisins (I prefer goldens), 1¼ cups whole blanched almonds, ½ cup honey (which you can get locally), and 1 tsp. cinnamon.  Simmer, covered, for another 30 minutes.

Finally, uncover the pot and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until stew is thicker (about 15 minutes).  Serve with bowls of moist, fluffy cous cous.

Here’s a link to Randle Farms (randlefarms.com) where you can see the lambs munching clover.  (The photo at the top is theirs.)

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Umami.  It’s the earthy, meaty taste that mushrooms, meat, and long-simmered stocks have.  Aged and fermented foods have it too: hard cheeses, Thai fish sauce.

I bought a few handfuls of local shiitakes at Dayspring Natural Foods, sautéed them in olive oil, and tossed them in a salad with romaine, spinach and a vinaigrette made with Dijon, sherry vinegar, and olive oil.  The dark tang of the sherry vinegar was a perfect match with the umami of the shiitakes.  It’s my mushroom of choice.  In comparison, so-called “buttons” taste like dirt.

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Shrimp might be called a staple for many Americans.  It’s often the seafood—or just plain protein—of choice for lunch, dinner, or cocktail snack because it’s sweet, nutritious, low in fat, and goes well with anything from mango salsa to garlicky oil.  What’s not to love?

A few things.  First of all, do you have any idea where most shrimp in supermarkets and restaurants comes from?  Probably Thailand, from which the U.S. imported 182,371 metric tons of shrimp in 2008 (and where intensive shrimp cultivation is endangering the mangrove forests and everything that lives in them).  Or maybe it’s from Indonesia, Ecuador, Vietnam, China, Mexico, or Malaysia.  We import anywhere from 84,000 to 30,000 metric tons of shrimp from these countries annually.  The energy demands of this shipping distance is one problem.  Another is the environmental degradation that results from such intensive farming in these places.  Then there is the problem of contamination.  Mega shrimp farms are constantly fighting off bacteria and fungi with antibiotics—including those that are banned in the U.S.   Heavy metals and other pollutants are also common contaminants.  And do you recall the contamination scandals of recent years, when thousands of pets and Chinese babies died from ingesting melamine?  The New York Times reported not too long ago that melamine is commonly used as a binding agent in the food pellets given to shrimp in China (and probably other places as well).   During the occasional inspection of shrimp imports by the FDA, contamination is almost sure to be found.  In another recent Times article about seafood from China, the reporter summed up the FDA report with these words: “Of the seafood that was refused at the border, filth was the top reason and salmonella was second, with shrimp accounting for about half of those.”  And did you know that the FDA inspects less than 2% of food imports?

These are some of the reasons I’m so excited about the shrimp I can get at Auburn University’s fish market.  The shrimp is raised in Gulf Shores, Alabama by the University’s Aquaculture department, whose programs focus on maintaining and restoring healthy ecosystems and running their businesses sustainably.  (Another project of theirs I’m interested in is the restoration of the oyster beds around Dauphin Island, in the Gulf of Mexico.)  Gulf shrimp are the only domestic shrimp available.


The fish market, just outside of town, is open on Saturday mornings, and often sells out of catfish by 8:30.   This past Saturday, it already felt like summer: the air was heavy, hot, and humid, and the sun was just burning off the haze around 10:00.  We pulled up to the little shack with $27 in cash.  The shrimp are frozen, and sold in huge bags.  Jack wanted to prove his strength by lugging the bag to the car:

Who are you calling shrimp?

Who are you calling shrimp?

I like to cook these shrimp in all kinds of combinations.  Last night we had it with cous cous and a mango-jalapeño and fresh herb salsa (with, yes, many non-local ingredients).  I also like to sauté it with the local shiitake mushrooms now in season, which lace the sweet shrimp an earthy umami yumminess.


Often, the simplest preparation is the best.  Shrimp needs little more than to be sizzled in hot olive oil with crushed garlic and a dried chili for punch.  Salad, crusty bread, and some light wine are the only other things you need for this savory meal.

Some links and other points of interest regarding shrimp:

Green Prairie Aquafarms, which delights in its oxymoronic name, and which I heard about from my friend Jim McKelly, who is working on a film about sustainability projects in Alabama, is an inland shrimp-farming business in the salt ponds of west central Alabama.

Auburn’s Aquaculture Department: http://www.ag.auburn.edu/fish/facilities/index.php

Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/29/business/29fish-web.html?scp=10&sq=shrimp%20contamination&st=cse

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Beef Cattle in Pasture

If you like meat, you’d enjoy a trip to the Lambert-Powell Meats Lab store at Auburn University.  They carry eggs, all kinds of cuts of beef and pork, fat packs of ground beef, and sausage in many varieties of traditional spice combinations, including chorizo and fennel-seed-dotted sweet Italian.  (The smoked sausage is delicious grilled and smothered in spicy mustard.) They also occasionally offer grass fed beef, which I prefer to buy because it’s produced more sustainably than its conventional, grain fed counterpart.

The distinction between grass fed and grain fed beef is pretty simple to explain, but the differences in the effects of these two production methods on the environment and human health are drastic.  Here’s how Heidi Finegan, the Research Associate in the Department of Animal Sciences at Auburn, describes the differences in the production methods:

Grass fed beef is just that, beef that is grown only on forages (the term “forage” encompasses many grasses and legumes).  Most beef you buy in the grocery store is finished on grain and considered “regular beef” by many consumers.  Generally, beef cattle are raised alongside their mothers in a pasture until they are weaned at 6-8 months of age, weighing around 500-550 pounds.   After weaning, they will remain on grass until they reach about 800 pounds.  At this point, they will be shipped to the mid-west to enter a commercial feedlot where they will be “finished” on a grain diet until reaching harvest weight at 1000-1200 pounds.  This usually takes around 100 days and the average age of harvest beef is 18-22 months.  So, the main distinction lies in the fact that some cattle never have grain and are marketed as “Grass fed” while feedlot cattle are grain fed.

Even though the grain-finished method is preferred by the beef industry and many consumers, because it takes less time and results in the flavorful white-fat marbling familiar to meat-eaters, it entails many problems.  I won’t go deeply into them, but let me offer a brief list to get your imagination going on some consequences of raising beef on an industrial scale: e. coli, antibiotics, manure “lagoons,” mass-production-style slaughter (or would that be destruction?), fossil fuels, fossil fuels, and more fossil fuels.  This week, Jane Brody wrote about beef in her weekly column for the New York Times, and proposed that “a reduced dependence on livestock for food could help to save the planet from the ravaging effects of environmental pollution, global warming and the depletion of potable water.”  She quotes Dr. Barry Popkin, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, who says that, “in the United States, livestock production accounts for 55 percent of the erosion process, 37 percent of pesticides applied, 50 percent of antibiotics consumed, and a third of total discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus to surface water.”

And we all know that meat consumption contributes to the high rates of heart disease in the U.S.

Grass fed beef offers many advantages.  Heidi says that:

Grass fed cattle are easier to manage, are more cost effective to the producer, and play a key role in sustainable agriculture.  Properly managed grazing patterns can help maintain soil productivity and keep forages in healthy conditions where they can protect soil from erosion and fix nitrogen.  Local producers can also cut out shipping and delivery costs by keeping cattle on their own property and not sending them to Kansas or Texas.  Some negatives to grass fed productions are that it will take a longer amount of time for cattle to reach optimal harvest weight and as the animal ages the tenderness and quality of meat declines.

Some would dispute the point about quality.  Many foodies claim that there is a terroire aspect to grass fed beef—that the particular qualities of the forage and soil come through in the meat, and that the flavors of California- and Vermont-raised grass fed beef are different.  The distinctness of the flavor of grass fed beef may also be a result of contrast.  If you’re used to the water-bloated mass-produced steak from the big chain supermarkets, this beef will be a new experience.  Perhaps nutritional content affects flavor too: grass fed beef contains less saturated fat, and more antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed beef.  Heidi also pointed out that beef is high in zinc, vitamin B, and iron.

If you love a juicy steak, it seems that the best way to go is to buy grass fed, and only on occasion. But grass fed beef is not widely available yet, so when we just need to celebrate with steak and red wine, I’ll buy grain fed New York steaks from the Auburn meats lab.  At least I know it’s local and raised with education in mind. My favorite toppings for salt-and-pepper seasoned burgers are Colemans mustard, a tomato slice, and fresh basil leaves.  For steaks, simplest is best: I rub them all over with a fresh rosemary sprig (then stick some leaves in the fat-crevices), sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and grill to mid-rare.

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