Saturday, January 31, 2009

Veggie Porn

PETA's done it again. This time they produced a commercial, supposed to air during the Super Bowl, about how vegetarians have better sex. I hear the ad was pretty racy, so much so that the network refused to air it. But Whoopi did a wonderful reenactment on The View. You can see it on The Huffington Post.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Food Network's "Chopped"

The past few days I've watched several episodes of the new Food Network show, "Chopped". (I'm in the process of moving my kitchen, and I watch way too much television when I'm feeling unsettled.)

A quick web search revealed that my initial impression is widely shared: it's a Top Chef knockoff. But it also has elements of Iron Chef, especially the mystery ingredients and Ted Allen's ultra serious demeanor and body language.

I thought the quality of the cooking didn't seem quite as high as on Top Chef, in fact, there was something about every dish in every round that could potentially have gotten someone sent home on the other show. But I really appreciated the lack of shameless product placement, even to the point that every ingredient was repackaged with a generic looking label. I wondered why they'd set it up that way, and discovered on Ted Allen's blog that it was a deliberate attempt to position themselves as different from Top Chef in that respect. Good move, guys.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Food Matters

I just read through Mark Bittman's new book, "Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating". It's been getting quite a bit of press lately as a common sense guide to eating well.
  1. I found it elementary, though I'm really glad that it's selling well because its message is one that everyone should hear: eat less meat and more plants, use common sense, enjoy treats sometimes.

The book seems to be targeted towards people who are unfamiliar with sustainable food issues. It offers an excellent, persuasive introduction, with plenty of practical information, suggestions and recipes.

As an omnivore who's trying to convince folks to eat less meat, I appreciated the book's focus on the importance of reducing meat consumption, for personal and planetary health. Bittman clearly loves meat, but he doesn't need to eat it for every meal, or even every day, and that makes him an ideal messenger.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Corn Syrup Marketing Campaign

I've been seeing television commercials lately urging folks to visit a website and get the real facts about high fructose corn syrup (as opposed to those terrible stories that nutritionists and food policy radicals have been spreading.)

I was curious, so I checked it out. It was pretty much what you'd expect: experts reassuring us that corn syrup is perfectly natural, doesn't cause obesity, and that it's no worse for us than table sugar.

If there's any truth to these assertions, are there still good reasons to avoid corn syrup? For me its cheapness makes it suspect. Having a highly refined sweetener available so inexpensively offers manufacturers a reason to overuse it, and that's going to cause health issues for folks who eat a lot of processed food, even if they're eating something that our bodies assimilate in much the same way as table sugar.

And yet I found it encouraging that corn syrup manufacturers are being forced to run commercials trying to dispel these "myths" about its unhealthfulness. Sounds like the word is actually getting out there.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Winter at the U District Market

This is my second winter vending at the University District Farmers' Market. Even though it's probably the busiest market in the city over the summer, it's got some catching up to do over the winter. Then again, this is only their fourth year staying open during the winter, and it takes time to get folks into the habit of turning out in the rain, especially when there's so much less to choose from than there is over the summer.

The fortunate side of this for me is that the market administrators are allowing hot, prepared food over the winter, while they never have and never will allow it over the summer. It's partly a space issue, but it's also because they're concerned that some of the restauranteurs on the street may feel like we're competing with them. In any case, we certainly make it a livelier winter market. Folks stay longer when they can get something to eat.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Accidental Vegan-Second Edition

I just received a copy of the updated version of my first cookbook, "The Accidental Vegan". The first edition was published by Crossing Press, a small, independent publisher in California. A few years ago they were bought by Ten Speed Press, a larger independent company with wider distribution.

An editor called me nearly a year ago and said they'd been looking over their list for titles that had value but weren't selling quite as well as they should, in other words, books that would be good candidates for updated editions. I said I'd love to rework it. We gave it a new introduction, and meticulously updated the recipes to make them more user friendly. We also added about twenty new recipes.

When I wrote the first edition I'd alluded to the fact that I'm not a vegan myself, but I didn't address the issue head on. A number of the reviews on Amazon questioned my credentials as the author of a vegan cookbook, in light of my personal dietary choices. When it came time to write the introduction to the new addition, I decided I might as well come right out with it. There are many good reasons for all of us to eat vegan meals, whether frequently or occasionally, and there are many good reasons for an omnivore to write a vegan cookbook.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Farmers Market Rebate Check

I got a wonderful surprise in the mail earlier this week. The organization that runs many of the markets where I vend had such a good year in 2008 that they decided to send all their vendors a rebate of 3% of the booth fees they'd paid throughout the year.

It was nice to get the check. It's always nice to get a check. But it was especially exciting to hear that the organization as a whole had done so well last year in spite of the lousy economy. I knew I'd had a good year and the markets seemed reasonably busy, but it's encouraging to know that all in all folks have continued to be willing to support these hardworking vendors.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Winter in Ballard

Ballard is the best winter market. It gets better every year. The sun was shining this past Sunday, and it was nice and busy. I took some time to wander around and was pleased to see quite a few unfamiliar faces, new vendors who haven't yet secured summer spots, but the competition isn't nearly as fierce over the winter.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Carrot Tops

I once asked a farmer why so many market vendors sell carrots with their tops still attached, when almost nobody eats the tops and, besides, you're supposed to remove them after you buy the carrots because they suck the moisture out of the tasty roots.

She answered that farmers can charge more for carrots with their tops attached, because customers are willing to pay more for them. (And some people feed the tops to their rabbits.)

I got to thinking about a discussion I was having last summer with some farmers and customers about whether it's wrong for farmers to charge more for their produce in neighborhoods where they think people can afford to it. The carrots question made me wonder: is it wrong for farmers to charge more for produce that really doesn't have any additional value simply because folks care so much about appearances? I think not.

Friday, January 16, 2009

PETA Misses the Point- Again

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has recently announced the latest phase of their misguided campaign to lure people away from the folly of meat eating by offering them tasty vegan alternatives. This time they're offering a $10,000 prize for the best faux foie gras recipe.

Like PETA, I do think that, as a society, we eat way too much meat. Unlike PETA, I don't think that's going out to change as a result of campaigns that portray meat-eating as unequivocably evil, or by trying to persuade die-hard carnivores that vegan food tastes just as good.

I happen to think that a lot of vegan food tastes very, very good. But that's not the point. Meat tastes good too. But that's not the only reason people eat it. Meat-eating has as many complex layers of historical and cultural meaning as sex and family. It symbolizes power, opulence and celebration, among so many other things.

I tasted foie gras once. I was at a New Years party, and someone was passing around a tray of crackers with something spread on them. It's my personal policy to taste everything, so I tried some. It reminded me, more than anything, of the chopped liver I grew up with in the delis of Brooklyn. I only later learned what it really was. I was kind of glad that I hadn't known when the tray was passed my way: I'm not sure I would have tasted if I knew, and I feel lucky to have had the experience of a blind taste test.

It tasted good, in fact if I remember correctly, I helped myself to some more when the tray came back my way. But I wasn't blown away by it, in fact, I've had vegan pates that tasted as good.

Aside from the connoisseurs who genuinely love foie gras out of taste and tradition, I think that in recent years it's also become a flash point for rebellion against the food police. None of these folks are going to be swayed by a vegan alternative, no matter how good it tastes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sunset Hill Grocery

I swung by the Sunset Hill Greenmarket for a bottle of wine the other day and was reminded, once again, of what an incredibly cool place it is. A tiny neighborhood spot with plenty of local, organic stuff, as well as a wonderful selection of beer, wine, cheese, and snacks.

I know it hasn't always been easy for the various folks who've owned the place over time, but all in all they've managed the buck the trend that's moving the grocery industry towards big chains and destination supermarkets supplemented by depressing, overpriced neighborhood convenience stores.

The world would be a better place if there were more stores like this one.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Salmonella Peanut Butter

The King Nut company recalled two different brands of peanut butter this week, after an open 5 gallon bucket tested positive for the strain of salmonella that's sickened more than 400 people in 42 states.

When I heard this news I couldn't help thinking of the debate that's been raging the past few weeks over the issue of whether or not farmers' market food is actually safer than industrial food. The controversy was spurred (this time around) by Bill Marler's list of the top ten food safety challenges we'll face in 2009, which slotted farmers' markets in the #2 position.

It's been a silly debate, to be sure, with everyone involved using the issue to press their own agenda. I live and breathe farmers' markets so I've argued for their safety, based on my conviction that producers who I encounter face to face are more accountable and more concerned for my safety that industrialized behemoths. Folks who live and breathe food safety won't consider farmers' market food a safe alternative without extensive laboratory tests to prove it.

So, at the risk of beating a dead horse and continuing to lobby for my own agenda, I just have to say that if you have a problem with a product you buy at a farmers' market, the vendor who sold it to you won't have resort to a tracking system to find out where that product came from, because they'll know they produced it themselves. And they won't have to recall multiple brands because their name, the name of the company that actually produced the product, is right there on the label.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Good Neighbors?

I was struck by these two storefronts right next to each other: the vegan pizza place and the variety shop named after the quintessentially politically correct spotted owl burger. I hope they're kind to each other.

Monday, January 12, 2009

CSA Box Miracle

Willie Greens CSA delivered on Friday, after missing 3 weeks because of the cold weather. They lost 5 of their greenhouses under the weight of the snow, but they managed to weather last week's rainstorms, though a lot of the land around them flooded.

The driver was 3 hours late because she was waiting for the water on the road to recede.

It was a humble box, with carrots, onions, spinach, kale, white beans, parsnips, cabbage and a butternut squash. And yet when I finally received it, it felt like nothing short of a small miracle.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A New Home for Green Go

If everything goes as planned, Dylan and Heidi Stockman of Green Go will be taking over the lease on my little shop in Ballard, the place I like to refer to as "the cutest building in the city." There are still some puzzle pieces that have to fall into place, but so far things seem to be proceeding, and it feels auspicious for everyone involved.

They'll be serving a menu of standards like their grass-fed cheeseburgers, quick, tasty stuff based on quality ingredients, with a local focus. Good luck, guys!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Safe Zucchini

Bill Marler's piece listing farmers' markets towards the top of his top ten food safety challenges of 2009 has generated quite a few responses, including a wonderful piece in The Ethicurean.

I wrote something about it for the Green Fork Blog, talking about the increased risk of unsafe food that goes hand in hand with mass production. I acknowledged that small scale food production doesn't necessarily mean that a product is safe, but I still feel more comfortable buying my food from someone who visibly takes pride in their work.

The folks at Barf Blog were singularly unimpressed, maintaining that I'd drank too much of the local food kool-aid. They want hard evidence, like soil samples and data on water quality. I wrote a response to their piece, but they declined to post it. I respect their work, but the experience made me wonder about their agenda. In any case, here's the meat of that response which didn't see the light of day:

A few years ago I bought a batch of zucchini from a local farmer. When I cooked it and served it, several customers said that it tasted bitter and upset their stomachs. I spoke to the farmer about it. She was disturbed and did some research, and learned that when hot weather is followed by a cold snap, zucchini can become bitter and cause an upset stomach. We had, in fact, just had some very hot weather followed by an unseasonably cold spell. She printed a sign about it and began a dialogue with her customers. I took responsibility, she took responsibility, and we all learned something.

I've bought thousands of pounds of zucchini from that farmer since then, and there's never been another problem.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Community Dinners

I have a business idea that I've been kicking around for the past six months or so. I want to organize monthly dinners at community centers in different parts of town, with menus based on local foods. I've been involved with various fundraising events the past few years which enlisted local chefs to donate their time and local farmers to donate their produce, creating a meal whose proceeds benefited a nonprofit organization. A farmer friend described it as "the solution feeding the problem."

The last time I attended one of these events I started envisioning something more along the lines of the Vegetarians of Washington monthly dinner at the Mount Baker Community Center, which features different caterers and restaurants each month, paying them for their services so they can in turn pay their suppliers.

Chef Anne Catherine is doing something similar at her new spot in Ballard, for $36 per person. I'm thinking more along the lines of $12-$15 per person, because part of the message I want to communicate is that this kind of food just doesn't have to be that expensive.

This feels like a terrible time to be starting something like this, as far as the economy goes, so I'm mostly just letting the idea germinate. I also don't really know how to go about marketing it, although I know I could make it work on a practical level. I'm putting it out here today mainly to test the water...

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Closing the Storefront

Last week I closed my retail storefront. It wasn't a particularly difficult decision. Business has been really slow lately and I've mostly been staying open to keep my employees employed, because it's hard to find good people for seasonal work and I'm going to need them once spring comes around. But they were actually relieved, because they've been bored and because I've been able to lease a bigger kitchen space, where we won't be tripping over each other all the time.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Food Safety

Bill Marler, the leading food safety litigator in the country, recently published a list of what he believes will be the most urgent food safety issues during the upcoming year. I agreed with much of what he said, which included risks from the food-borne illnesses which have been the basis for his most successful lawsuits, as well as the threat from globalization and the double edged sword of the digital age, which often gives us more information than we can truly absorb.

But I was taken aback by one item towards the top of the list: local foods. Marler makes the claim that prepared foods at farmers' markets aren't regulated, an assertion that is nothing short of bizarre in light of the fact that it's simply untrue, and also potentially harmful to many small-scale producers like myself who pay through the nose for permits, and follow health department regulations. (Isn't that libel? Slander?)

I can understand going to the farmers' market, watching vendors, and wondering if all their practices are kosher. So many of the steps in the food production process are out of our control these days, with preparation taking place in distant factories or behind the closed doors of restaurant kitchens. It's natural to overcompensate in situations where these processes take place in plain view.

I've had customers reprimand me and tell me that my practices aren't compliant with health codes, when in fact they are. This especially happens when I touch ingredients with my hands before I cook them: you're only required to wear gloves when you handle food after it's been cooked, or food that won't be cooked at all.

When I've traveled and visited farmers' markets in other countries, I've often felt envious of the displays that vendors can create when health codes are more relaxed. I'm also annoyed at regulations that require me to keep cheese at 41 degrees or colder, when cheesemaking was used as a way to preserve milk before the invention of refrigeration. I care very much about food safety, but I'm not sure how much we gain much from one-size-fits-all regulations and a playing field where we've grown so used to the illusion of cleanliness brought to us by hermetically sealed packaging and the indiscriminate use of bleach.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year! Nutrition Menu Labelling

As of the first of the year, King County chain restaurants that have at least 15 locations nationwide are required to post nutritional info on their menu.

Reading Marion Nestle's What to Eat a while back I was struck by her assertion that professional nutritionists consistently underestimate the calorie counts of the food they order when they go out to eat. I remember thinking that, while nutritionists may get it wrong, cooks are probably more likely to get it right because we know what goes into the food we cook.

The problem isn't that we recklessly dose our food with tons of fat and calories, but rather that people want stuff that tastes a certain way, and we do what it takes to make it flavorful. I exercize quite a bit of restraint when using salt and fat, but folks watching me cook are still often shocked by what they see.

According to King 5 news, diners at a local Red Robin are surprised by what they're seeing on the menu, but so far they aren't changing their eating habits. My guess is that if the new regulations make any difference, it'll be because once fast food restaurants have to post the nutritional info, they may start making some healthier choices about what they put into their food.