Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Hybrid, Transitional Food System

I went to hear Mark Winne speak last night. He's a hero of mine, having done more than anyone I know of to bring good good to underserved communities. He spoke of two food systems: the organic, local, progressive food system which makes up roughly ten percent of our food economy, and the industrialized food system behind the other ninety percent. It got me thinking again of my own version of food justice, and the most effective way to approach the divide.

Between the two extremes of local, artisan foods and mass produced garbage there's a spectrum of shades of gray that provide reasonably healthy, sustainable, affordable options. I'm talking about most of the items in a conventional grocery store that only have one or two ingredients, all of them pronounceable. Beans, grains, vegetables, and the better meat and dairy products all fall into this category. It's great to get organic beans and grains, but even when they're not organic they're still much better for you than a Big Mac.

It saddens me that these options are so often overlooked in discussions of good food, healthy eating and food justice. You don't have to use premium ingredients in order to cook from scratch and make meals that are better for you in every way than fast food and frozen dinners. So much of the media attention is taken up profiling folks who make extreme gestures like trying to eat only local foods or not entering a grocery store for a year.

My own food heroes are the folks who quietly and sensibly operate in this middle ground, building a hybrid, transitional food system.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Winter in Ballard

I'm continually amazed by the Ballard Farmers' Market over the winter. It continues to amaze me even though I've been vending there for 8 winters. These guys in the photo are queued up to buy salmon right as the market is opening. (Note the guy in the shorts. It's January!)

For my business this market peaked during the 2008 summer season, as far as summers go, but each winter is still better than the winter before. In fact, a typical winter day at this market is still better than a typical summer day at any other event.

I wish they could clone the magic here and import it to other neighborhoods, like Phinney Ridge. But then it wouldn't be nearly as magical.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Website!

After many years of living off the grid, so to speak, my company now has a website. I'd put it off for a variety of reasons, not least because most developers seemed to want to sell me more than I actually needed.

I finally decided to work with Becky Dobbins after seeing the wonderful site she did for my friends at Farm Girl CSA. I love their site because its content and its design are so nicely in balance. It's not ostentatiously fancy, and it really does convey the essence of the gals' operation.

My major challenge in working with a designer to build a site was to bring together my business and my writing. I wanted the site to promote both endeavors in such a way that someone could come to it being interested in either one, and either find what they wanted easily, or become curious enough to explore farther. I also wanted a format that I could update myself, to tinker with the text and also change the menu as needed.

I love the result. I'm also looking it as a work in progress, because my various endeavors are also works in progress. A lot has changed even during the few short months that we have been working on the site, including opening the cafe and e-publishing Cavemen, Monks and Slow Food: A History of Eating Well. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Veggie Prep 101

Veggie Prep 101 is the name is the class I'm currently teaching through PCC. It's an unfortunate name, and I say that even though I named it. It sounds formal and academic, although the focus of the class is really just to get folks to relax and trust their instincts. I'm not there to teach them professional knife skills or the right and wrong way to cut an onion. I've been cooking professionally for more than 20 years, and I can't say that I know professional knife skills or the "right" way to cut an onion.

People were prepping vegetables and cooking fabulous meals long before anyone wrote a cookbook or started a cooking school. With few exceptions (like apple seeds and rhubarb leaves) the fruits and vegetables that we find in stores and grow in our gardens are not going to make us sick, so prepping them is just a matter of getting to know them, and also getting to know our our own tastes and preferences.

Personally, I like to push the envelope and try to use as much of the stems and peels as possible. Kale stems are too tough for me, but collard stems have great texture if you cook them through. So much of what we choose to leave on or take off has more to do with convention than with palatability.

More than anything, I want to use the class as a way to show my wonder at the vegetable kingdom. We prep vegetables, pass them around, sniff them, discuss the evolutionary continuum (think Savoy cabbage and Lacinato kale, or beet greens and chard,) and finally eat them. It's a good time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jubilee Beef Chili

When I first spoke to the folks about Jubilee Farm about vending at their fall pumpkin patch event, they asked if I could sell burgers, in addition to my regular menu. I was reluctant. I'd watched my dear friends from Green Go Food struggle with the economics of making and selling a sustainable burger, and had come to the conclusion that the term "sustainable burger" is an oxymoron.

Sure, you can make a great burger with great beef, great condiments and a great bun. But, at its core, a burger is a cheap, everyday food whose main ingredient is beef, and that's just not sustainable. According to Mark Bittman, the average person on the planet eats 3 ounces of meat a day. If you make a 6 ounce burger, you're using twice as much as the planetary average in a single meal. That's not sustainable, whatever kind of meat you use.

I suggested chili instead. I love chili, and you can use all good ingredients and still make an affordable, cost effective product. I use lots of chiles in my chili. Mostly mild, and a couple of hot. They give it most of its flavor, and if you use all hot ones your chili will get too hot too fast, and you won't be able to enjoy as much of that wonderful chile flavor.

I also use beans in my chili: local, organic beans from Alvarez Farms. They cost more than the ones in the grocery store, but not that much more. My neighbor at the Ballard Market, the guy who sells Zane and Zack hot sauce, comes from Texas. He scoffed when he heard I put beans in my chili, but he still eats the stuff all day.

We're using beef from Jubilee Farm. They didn't charge us anything for the wonderful, lucrative vending experience we had there, and I wanted to give something back so I bought a quarter of a cow, in one-pound packages. We'll run out of it in a few weeks, and then we'll figure out another sustainable option.

So here's the recipe. It makes four to six servings, depending on how hungry you are and what else you're serving.

2 tablespoons canola or grapeseed oil
1/2 pound ground beef
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons chili powder, mild or hot
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 medium sized onion
1 cup chopped anaheim, poblano or pasilla chiles
1 jalapeno, serrano or habanero chile (optional)
1 can (28 ounce size) crushed tomatoes, or 3-4 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
2 cups black beans, red beans or a combination

Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the beef, salt and spices and cook on medium high heat for about five minutes, until it's nicely browned.

Add the onions and chiles and cook for about 5 minutes longer, until the onions are transluscent. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring often, until they're heated through. If you're using fresh tomatoes, cook them until they start to break down and the mixture becomes soupy. Add the beans, lower the heat, and cook for at least half an hour. It can cook for hours, and the longer you cook it, the tastier it'll be.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Cavemen, Monks and Slow Food

I've published my opus on Kindle. It's called Cavemen, Monks and Slow Food: A History of Eating Well, and it tells the story of our perpetually unfolding relationship with food, from the time we first started walking upright to the modern sustainable food movement.

Eating well means many things to many people. It can be a spiritual pursuit, as with Hindu vegetarianism and kashrut. It is also a social marker: think medieval banquets and four-star restaurants. Dietary prescriptions for eating well address health concerns, such as heart disease and diabetes.

A steak is never just a steak and a piece of bread is never just a piece of bread. Whether or not we are consciously aware of these countless layers of meaning, the allure of steak is subtly colored by the magic of the Paleolithic hunt, and the comfort of bread is inseparable from its long history as a vital staple.

Our food culture has evolved in tandem with our communication technologies. It is quite likely that we developed spoken language as a tool to organize hunts, and the earliest written documents in ancient Babylon and Egypt are contemporaneous with some of the earliest sophisticated cooking techniques. The invention of the printing press led to a proliferation of cookbooks, and today the internet puts worlds of recipes at our fingertips.

Grand cuisines require grand culinary infrastructures, but small-scale agriculture is necessary for a broad base of people to eat well. Olive and grape farmers in ancient Greece developed perhaps the first formal democracy, and modern independent farmers are creating life affirming alternatives to the industrial food behemoth.

I'm fascinated by these stories about ideas, recipes and technologies. I'm also intrigued by the possibility that a deeper understanding of our food history can help us to see past some of the blind spots that interfere with our daily ablility to make solid choices about how to eat.

So the book is available on Kindle. It's $3.99, which is cheaper than a quesadilla. If you have an Ipad with a Kindle ap, you can get it that way. I'm looking into making it available in other platforms as well, but I'm a bit of a Luddite so it'll be a process. If you're interested in reading it and you don't have the right technology, please email me and I'll get you a copy. Ebook marketing is the wild west at this point. But that's another story.