Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Take the red pill and I'll show you the truth (about farming)

While Stumbling around this morning, I came upon The Meatrix - a delightful, well-produced and informative parody of the incredible "Matrix" movies. I couldn't resist the spot-on monologue by Moopheus as he led Leo to the truth of factory farming.

Many people don't know and don't care about how their meat and poultry come to the grocery shelf. But as the media carry more and more stories about superstrains of drug-resistant bacteria, massive manure spills into local rivers and aquifers, and other results of factory-farm techniques, a growing group of consumers has chosen to do something about it: support sustainable agriculture and small, local farmers.

As I understand it, the thinking goes like this: Small-scale farmers can provide consumers with meat and dairy products from animals that have been allowed to live a more natural life, including free-range as opposed to crated existences, without the systematic use of artificial growth hormones and antibiotics to make up for the unnatural living conditions found in factory farms. Animals that live relatively natural, stress-free lives will require far less medicating and will therefore produce higher-quality foods.

While a sizable number of people who are concerned about where their food comes from choose to become vegetarians or vegan, others choose to continue consuming animal products - and for them, sustainable agriculture may be the answer.

For example, my sister conscientiously selects organic foods whenever the options exists and buys her meats and cheeses from local producers. By buying foods from local farmers, she knows how her food was produced and can see for herself the conditions under which the animals were raised. Not only that, but she's contributed to the local economy, ensuring that her dollars are circulating within the community and benefiting her neighbors - not some faceless corporation with unseen, unknown farming practices.

For anyone thinking of exploring the world of sustainable and/or local agriculture, several routes are available to you. Try finding a food co-op or buying club near you. Support your local supermarket chain (preferably one whose home base is in the same city or at least the same state) that places a priority on foods from local farmers. If there's a regional farmers market in your area, go and visit with the people who grow your food and see how your grocery choices affect your community.

I'm open to ideas: can anyone add to my short list here?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Eat Local Challenge

Over at the Eat Local Challenge is an incredible resource, a gathering 'round the table if you will, of people from all walks of life who have committed themselves to eating mainly local foods during the month of September. The month in which the Eat Local Challenge falls varies from year to year; 2007 just happened to get September, a wonderful time of year for local food in my area.

I can tell you that my garden is loaded with beefsteak, heirloom, cherry and grape tomatoes; broccoli; rosemary, basil and oregano; bell peppers; and even the occasional cucumber. I observed the ELC the other night at my sister's house, where everyone gathered for a late-summer feast of boiled locally grown corn on the cob, grilled locally raised free-range chicken and a salad consisting of organic veggies - including produce from my garden, picked (or plucked) within an hour of dinner. Even with a dollop of chunky bleu cheese dressing, the signature tang of fresh oregano and basil asserted themselves and made their presence known. Such is the beauty, the power, of fresh herbs!

On a related note: I heard of a local movement earlier this summer to collect five-gallon plastic buckets for use as microgardens, in which urban residents could grow their own tomato (or any other, really) plants as an alternative to a traditional garden. What a great idea! Instead of throwing them out, buckets can be used to help inner city dwellers learn the joys of growing and enjoying their own food. Folks who otherwise wouldn't have the space for a big garden can fill their buckets with earth, buy a couple of seedlings and plant them. Just as my garden helps me relax while easing my weekly grocery bills, a bucket garden can do the same for people with little space. And you don't get much more local than a bucket out on the fire escape or patio.

Labor Day eats

Ironic, isn't it, that Labor Day in the United States typically involves very little actual labor? Unless, of course, you consider the labor involved in putting together the ultimate backyard barbecue. As the last unofficial day of summer, families gather for one last outdoor get-together and seemingly endless platters of the ubiquitous burgers and hot dogs, macaroni salad and fresh-picked corn on the cob.

Barbecue menus vary widely from region to region. Here in upstate New York, "must-have" food traditions differ from city to city. In the Syracuse area, it's just not a cookout without the salt potatoes and coneys! Syracuse is the Salt City thanks to its early industry, the harvesting of salt from brine pools that once dotted the shores of nearby Onondaga Lake. In the 19th century, laborers looking for a quick, inexpensive meal found it by boiling tiny potatoes in heavily salted water and dipping the tender, salt-encrusted pieces into melted butter. It's a classic vegetarian summertime treat. Today, the standard is a big bag of small (maybe 2 inches in diameter) round white potatoes - not the more creamy red potato, nor fingerlings - boiled up in the kitchen while the pit boss heats up the grill for the coneys.

And what are coneys? The most popular brand in town makes 'em: white hot dogs made primarily of pork and veal inside a natural casing. When grilled, they turn a most delectable crispy brown and they split right down the middle - perfect for applying some spicy brown mustard (or ketchup, if you must!). Some say it "cooney" but I've never actually heard anyone pronounce it that way; to me, it's a "coney" with a long O.

Go an hour or so south of Syracuse and you'll find yourself in Binghamton, home of the spiedie. You take cubes of meat (could be chicken, beef ... you name it) and marinate them in a special spiedie sauce for at least overnight. Using wooden skewers, you grill the marinated pieces (I prefer them grilled over a charcoal fire) until perfectly tender, then drop them, skewer and all, into a hot dog-style bun. Pull the skewer out while holding on to the bun, and you have yourself a spiedie sandwich. Nothin' like it.

I lived in Rochester (an hour west of Syracuse) for a year and a half while attending the University of Rochester, and the one thing I could discern to be truly, uniquely Rochester was the garbage plate at Nick Tahou's. It's mostly indescribable except, perhaps, by its very name. You choose the basic elements and Nick does the rest. My buddies advised me to simply mix together everything on my plate, which was antithetical to my usual dining habits; however, after gingerly tasting the macaroni salad and other items separately, I saw the wisdom in combining everything into a massive pile and digging in. Unforgettable.

Over in Buffalo is the home of the world-famous Buffalo wings, fried chicken wings and legs and whatnot smothered in a red, spicy sauce tempered with a side of bleu cheese dressing and, if you're lucky, a crisp stalk of celery. But Buffalo is known for another local treat: beef on kimmelweck (or "beef on weck," for short). Order one, and you'll be handed sliced roast beef with horseradish sauce inside a bun topped with caraway seeds and pretzel salt. There's no escaping beef on weck in Buffalo.

With the variety of food traditions in just upstate New York (and I didn't even go NEAR New York City!), other states must have unique personalities that shine in their local menus. What are the classic foods found in your area?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

welcome to the hungry foodie

So yes, this is my first post here. I'm going to challenge myself to develop a blog dedicated to one of my passions - food and healthful cooking. After all, everyone needs to eat; and with so many diet-related disorders out there, who doesn't want to know how to make delicious, easy meals that go easy on the wallet as well as the waistline?

I'm probably typical in that I have a few (okay, a bit more than a few) pounds to shed, money is tight and I don't have a lot of time to engage in extensive food prep work. I marvel at the wealth of ingredients that are available to so many people nowadays and delight in the possibilities each one presents the creative cook. If that sounds like you, come along with me and let's explore the world of gastronomic delights!

A note: I'm far from a dietitian, medical doctor or anything of the sort. I'm a lover of food who enjoys those times when I can rattle my pots and pans and create a culinary delight out of what would otherwise appear to be everyday household stock items. I cannot eat high-fat foods, due to a gallbladder that seems to have gone on strike, so by default my cooking is low-fat and rich in vegetables, lean meats (or vegan protein) and whole-grain goodness.

If this sounds like fun, come along with me! Our voyage will take us to the vegetarian, vegan and carnivorous worlds of India, the Middle East, China and Japan. Be prepared for featured spices and ingredients (I do have my favorites), experiments with unfamiliar ingredients and the occasional product endorsement (unpaid ... but donations are always welcome, of course!).