Archive for September, 2010

A good egg.

Our friends at the Cornucopia Institute have made our lives easier – again. This time, its by providing eggcellent info to help us consumers cut through the greenwashing and figure out whether we are buying humanely raised, organically-fed chicken eggs.

It’s all in their recent report, Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture. This report outlines which eggs are really humanely raised and sustainable and which are from factory farms make false claims about being pastured  or organic.

They’ve also developed another one of their super-useful scorecards. It rates almost 70 different name-brand  and private-label eggs based on a score of 1 to 5  with 5 being the best.

The criteria includes stuff like: adequate outdoor indoor and space, whether the farm is family owned or corporate managed, whether the hens have access to poophole/exits and overall commitment to organic. I’ve attached a PDF of their appendix of their complete ratings here. (Via Cornucopia Institute)

It’s interesting, for starters, to look at what they were researching. Like, what do the farms do with their manure? Or do the hen’s have a place to perch? Do they rotate the chicken coops so the hens can graze on fresh vegetation? And does the farm raises its birds from chicks?.

Here’s what a “5-egg” or “Exemplary” rating means. The eggs come from small to medium-scale family farms that, “raise their hens in mobile housing on well-managed and ample pasture or in fixed housing with intensively managed rotated pasture. They sell eggs locally or regionally under their farm’s brand name, mostly through farmer’s markets, food cooperatives and/or independently owned natural and grocery stores and sometimes through larger chains like Whole Foods.”

A 1 egg rating means that the farm is, “ethically deficient – industrial organics/no meaningful outdoor access and/or none were open enough to participate.” Our friends at Trader Joe’s got a 1 egg rating, and disturbingly enough, so did 365 Organic.

The very expensive The Country Hen eggs, which are available at my Bodega didn’t do much better. They got a paltry “2-egg” rating “which means that there is, “Some Questions Remain Concerning Compliance with Federal Standards.”

I didn’t recognize any of the brands from the 4 egg “Exemplary” category. And I’m a bit concerned that my personal brand of choice, Knoll Krest Farm, (which I buy from the Inwood Farmer’s Market) was not on the list.

However, now, armed with the right questions, I plan on calling up Knoll. I’ll keep you posted.

Commuter biking follow-up:

I rode my bike to the Inwood Greenmarket on Saturday to make up for the fact that I didn’t ride my bike to work last week. I was a bit freaked out by my last ride to work the week before. I now understand what people mean when they say driving in NY is hard. In a car, I’m fine. But on the bike — well it’s a whole different, slightly scary story. The bike path took me always the way down to 40th street, but then I had to cross the city during rush hour, past the Holland tunnel and the Port Authority.

Instead, I decide to ride to the Farmer’s Market in Inwood. It’s only about 20 blocks away, or three subway stops away, depending on how you measure the city.

In actuality, this ride made more of a difference in terms of my global footprint. I always take the subway to work. But I normally drive to the market, which is probably less than 2 miles away. I figured this ride would be a piece of cake next to trekking 140 blocks to work. But I hadn’t factored in the hills. And it was hot on Saturday .

As I huffed and puffed back to my stoop, I ran into one of my neighbors.

“Out for a ride?” she asked.

“No,” I said, “I just biked up to the Inwood Greenmarket.”

“Oh,” she said as she shifted to redistribute the weight in her plastic bags of groceries. “That place is great. I wish they had something like that near here.”

I didn’t state the obvious that Inwood was, “near here.” Instead,  told her about the farmer’s market on 168 the street on Tuesday morning. (There’s also one on 175 street on Thursday.)  In truth, we are lucky, there is Greenmarket on most days of the week in NYC — here’s the list.

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“Well, let’s be honest,” she said in her slight Russian accent. “Sure I care about the environment. Oh I’m green and all that. But really, I care more about my kids.”

There we were. A bunch of neurotic, mostly Jewish mothers in a fencing studio in midtown Manhattan on a gorgeous fall Sunday afternoon debating, what else, organic food.

The mom had TIME magazine in her hand. She had been reading this article about Organic food.

“What do you really think about organic food?” she’d asked. Actually, she hadn’t asked me. Not by a long shot. She’d asked the other moms in the room. But of course I couldn’t help myself,  so I stepped away from my kids first “en guard’s” to weigh in. Carefully, of course.

What I wanted to say was “WTF?! How can you say you don’t care about the environment if you care about your kids? What are they going to breathe if all our air is toxic? What water are they going to drink if all our water is contaminated? “

But I didn’t. I didn’t want to sound proselytizing or an alarmist. Instead I said, “If you care about your kids, you should eat organic. Organic food has more nutrients and less pesticides.” I pointed to her daughter, an impatient five-year-old playing tick tack toe with someone’s grandma and said. “They’re little. We don’t really know how the pesticides will impact them.”

Her eyes glazed over. She changed the topic. And I’m not even sure if she heard me or cared. I’m pretty sure I sounded too hard-core. I’d lost her.

Ironically, for the last few days, I’ve been mulling over a blog by Rebecca Thistlewaite at Grist titled “Do you have the balls to really change the food system?She basically called out the people she terms “Fair-weather foodies” and serves up a hefty list of things you can do to really change the food system

Even though, I’m struggling to do a lot of what she says, the blog felt chastising. Basically, her point is that if you make some sustainable choices and then continue to engage in non-sustainable practices like ordering out pizza and buying organic chicken breasts from Costco’s or shopping at Whole Paycheck or Trader Joe’s You’re no better than the average MacDonald’s muncher from the who-cares crowd.

I totally understand the impulse behind wanting to shake up people a bit. Especially people who feel smug because they believe living the so-called high road.  I’ve done my fair share of ranting — this blog is a bit of a rant in itself. But truth is, we are all on the same side. I didn’t comment on the post because I wanted to let it settle in and make sure I wasn’t being defensive.

Once I let go of the sting of her sarcasm and got over the “how dare she criticize me” I realized that she had a lot of good tips. I’ve been asking over and over what more I can do – she told me.

But there is one thing I don’t agree with – it’s giving up completely on the stores. I do go to the farmers market every week, but I’m not everyone. Although I know that Costco’s and Trader Joe’s and even the evil Wal-Mart’s version of organic is sometimes green washing, they are making the idea of organic, palatable and desirable to the American public. That’s the first step. To realize it’s important. And as I’ve said before, for me Whole Foods was my first step to the farmer’s market.

You also have to applaud Whole Foods for their transparency. They tell you where your produce is from. They support local dairy in their organic milk, and although much of their food is expensive, an equal amount of their store brand is affordable. I’m personally glad they are there as my back up.

On the other hand, according a blot on Culinate, my old favorite Trader Joe’s has some questionable ethical issues. It could be that slaves are picking Trader Joe’s tomatoes in Florida. Check out the whole story.

The fencing mom’s comment depressed me. Why should I bother if all those other people “honestly” don’t really care? But in part, I really don’t blame her. Part of me is in her camp. And part of me is over there with the blogger with green balls.

In the end, I truly believe that we need to rebrand being green. Right now, it’s perceived as difficult and expensive which in truth it is if you measure it by the value system we’ve all been using for most of our lives which is – buy and consume whatever you can afford, more is good, cheaper is even better and convenience is a god given right.

It’s hard to shake those very entrenched values – especially since the media reinforces them daily. Advertising is built on picking out and amplifying many of these ideas – we’ve come to think of them as core values.

In essence, we need to rebrand green. Turn it from a “I should do that” to a “I want to do that, It makes me feel good.” And there’s a difference between feeling good about what you did and just feeling good.

In the meantime, I have to believe if we each commit to making small changes in our lives – even if that change is as little as simply looking at our attitude and shifting our way of deciding on what to buy from “Is it cheap?” to “Is it local? Or organic? Or humane? Or fair?” I truly believe if we add that factor to our decision-making process, our actions will naturally start to move in a direction.  I think how we think about it,  will make a difference.

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September cycling

A few weekends ago, Zane and I rode our bikes down the bike path from 181st street and then across Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum. It was hot but since we live in Washington Heights, the ride was mostly down hill and doable even for an 8-year-old. Still it was a first for us, and a big accomplishment for Zane.

There are a lot of people in my neighborhood who routinely ride with their kids to get where they need to go in the city. In the Spring, they ride to Sunday morning baseball at the field in Inwood. And during the summer, my neighbor across the street rode his daughter to the Urban Park Rangers Program in Inwood Park. I am ashamed to say, until a few months ago, I drove and wanted to drive to these places. But now I want to be one of those bike people — the kind who jump on their bikes, not just to go for a ride, but to get someplace.

A few years ago, I started biking to work a few days a week. I was training for the Bike New York, 5-Boro Bike Tour. I loved it, in a way. It was like getting a vacation in before work. The ride only takes about a half an hour more than the subway and the scenery is gorgeous. It was the first time I had seriously considered my bike as something more than just recreation.

Biking as a way of commuting is certainly becoming a trend — even in New York. In fact, I was excited to hear that  the city is thinking about developing a bike-sharing program which could make doing short hops in the city completely bikeable. Modeled on the Paris Vélib’ program, Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s vision starts with 10,500 bikes available for rent which will eventually spread to 49,000 bikes. Here’s a link to the CBS news report that talks about it.

I got so excited about it all, I decided I would start to ride my bike to work again. So I made a commitment that for the month of September, I would ride at least 1 day a week.  Of course, last week (the first week in September) I was off. Then, when this week rolled around (no pun intended), I kept rescheduling the ride. Now I’m left with just tomorrow because Friday I need to wear nice clothes.

While I was searching around for info on the City’s rent a bike program I found a lot of interesting tidbits of info, Like if your kid outgrows their bike,  Recycle-a-Bicycle will swap out their old bike for one that fits.

And Cliff Bars, through  2 Mile Challenge is giving over $25k to three charities.  The team with the most points on October 31st, 2010 earns its organization a bonus grant,  upping the take-home check of $50,000. I figured, if I’m going to be biking more, I should support a green charity. So I joined the Blue Team which is riding for the Alliance for Climate Eduction (ACE). ACE educates high school students with free multimedia climate presentations and helps them kick-start climate projects.

According to the 2 mile challenge website, 25% of the CO2 emissions comes form Motor Vehicles and we make 20 lbs of carbon dioxide pollution with every gallon of gas. Ok, it’s not news that driving isn’t green, but we are so desensitized to that message, I think it’s useful to be reminded of the facts once in a while

But the truth is, I seriously don’t want to ride my bike to work tomorrow. I’m tired. And like everything else sustainable, I know it’s going to be  inconvenient and hard. (It’s 7.5 miles each way!) Plus, I take the subway so I’m not really saving any carbon emissions by pedaling to midtown.  Ok,  I will burn some calories. And it will save me subway fare. Those are pluses, but, the real reason I want to make myself do it is because I want to model green behavior for my kids.

If I can get  into the habit of riding to work, I can start to establish other biking habits like riding to Fairways on 125th street — it’s practically on the bike path along the river.

Like a lot of the things I’m choosing to do the biggest impact I think I’m making is on my kids. They grumble and moan about my “healthy” eating and my “recycling” but when push comes to shove, they are on board.

Last weekend we went out to dinner with my father. When Blaise was done eating, he still had three slices of  pizza left in his personal pie. I had noticed that the restaurant was using Styrofoam boxes for take out, but I didn’t realize he had, too. When the waitress came over,  he asked if he could have the pizza wrapped up.

“Can you give me something other than Styrofoam to wrap my pizza in?” he asked her.

“Sure,” she said.

The next day we were at a family party, he was so proud of himself, he said, “Tell them how I asked to take home the pizza without making garbage.”

I told the story then, and I’m telling it again now. And tomorrow morning, when I don’t want to get on my bike to commute to work, I’ll think about it again. Hopefully, it will continue to help me move my good intentions into greener actions.

How to find Recycle-A-Bicycle in New York City:

East Village (Manhattan)
75 Avenue C (between 5th & 6th Streets), New York, NY 10009
Hours:Mon-Sat, Noon to 7PM (Not open on Sunday)

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4Food may have just opened officially September 7th, but there was a soft launch last week and I was able to beta test their burgers a few times.

My first bite was last Monday night. I was working late and unlike my lunchtime experience, we walked right in. I have to say I was excited to have something in line with my philosophy of eating in the neighborhood. Most of the time when I decide not to bring food from home, I have to make compromises. Either the food isn’t local or sustainable or I’m forced to make more garbage than I’d like. For months, the restaurant’s been teasing me with promises of something healthy and sustainable. And the really goods news, for me, at least is that it’s literally across the street from my office.

When we walked in on Monday night, I was charged up, but something about the place deflated my excitement. The decor was steel and sleek but just a bit off. It reminded me of something. An airport? Sort of. Then it struck me, it looked a lot like the MacDonald’s on 42nd Street, except not done as well. I guess, that means if had a fast food feel.

I found it hard to tell what their interior decor was going for. Upstairs, in a loft space, there’s a communal table ala Le Pain Quotidien. A mega-sized twitter feed leader board lights up the the downstair.  Maybe the look was supposed to be 80’s club meets rich nerds bar mitzvah? It did quite work for me.

All and all, this place is about as opposite of what fast food is about. After all MacDonalds’ was built on doing one thing well — the same thing, over and over again. At 4 Food you have choices. Normally, I love that, but in this case, the menu is confusing and overwhelming. In my opinion, 16 types of sauces is really too much. I had an ordering panic attack. Between all the options of patties (lamb, pork, egg, salmon, beef etc) and all the things you could do with it. . . I ended up ordering this weird combination — a burger with vege-chili and blue cheese on a pressed rice bun. (Pressed rice because I am trying to stay away from wheat).

And when I want junk food, I kind of want the real deal. The hole in the burger-thing annoyed me. I know, from reading the website that there was a legitimate reason for the hole. Most fast food burgers are overcooked and this odd pineapple ring of a burger was a bit pink. But the proper cooking didn’t do much for the flavor. The beef is grass-fed, which is great. But when I took my first bite, I was surprised. The burger didn’t taste fresh or healthy. Even with my weird pressed rice bun, it tasted greasy and . . . well, like fast food.

What I absolutely loved was the tea. I ordered a Hibiscus Berry Tea and it arrived with a big fat straw which I found out with a delightful surprise was how you suck up the delicious berries sitting on the bottom. On my second visit, I also sampled their Mango Chai Tea. It was super yummy. So were the square bites – oven roasted root vegetables seasoned with rosemary. I’d take those over French fries any day. The other nice touch, was that for fifty cents, you can add bubbles to your tea. You gotta love that.

I guess based on all the choices and the kinds of choices (Manchego cheese, tzadiki) I thought the patty would taste more gourmet. But both times I ate there, the beef burger tasted like a greasy, fast food burger. But for me that’s really not a bad thing.

Plus, true to their word, all the packaging, (including the little plastic cups for condiments) were biodegradable plastic. Except for the silver-lined paper inside the burger box, the rest of the meal was low-impact garbage. And they claim to compost in the restaurant. It gets a few extra stars for that.

Getting the meal however was far from fast. We had to wait almost a half an hour during the lunch time rush. But that’s the sacrifice for having so many choices, I guess. And to their defense, they never claimed anything about fast, their slogan is, “Dejunking junk food,” not fast food.

I wouldn’t make it a regular lunch spot. But I personally am willing to pay almost double ($13 with tax for the whole meal) to have the occasional burger experience without the chlorinated beef and tons of garbage. And I will definitely bring my kids.

But I wondered how would this experience stack up to a real fast food aficionado?

Enter my friend Bentsi. Bentsi lives on fast food. He loves it. And he’s not ashamed to admit it. I wondered if this place like this could get people like Bentsi to switch from MacDonald’s or Burger King, it could put some pressure on those corporate feeding machines to change their ways. That would make a super-sized difference.

Unfortunately, as you can see from the video, Bentsi was not a fan. To him the food was too healthy tasting and weird. He also had a problem with how long it took to get our order. He said that the Cherry Cream Mousse tasted like chocolate yogurt. His final comment, “I should have gone to MacDonald’s.”

4 Food is on the corner of 40th and Madison. Sign in and you can get a credit for $12, which is more or less a meal. So, despite the fact that 4Food isn’t perfect, if you’re in the neighborhood, I’d definitely meet you there for lunch.

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In Tennessee, I bought a bag of hot chili pepper for a dollar. It was a big bag —  and unlike my mega box of tomato, I realized it was too much even then. But these peppers were beautiful, and I couldn’t resist. Since then, except for throwing them into my roasted tomatoes, they’ve been sitting in my refrigerator. Plus, for the last few weeks, the CSA has been sending chili peppers as well. Last week Farmer Ted even delivered a few gorgeous yellow-orange Habanero — which are the king of spicy. I’ve been afraid to put any part of any of these peppers in my garbage stock — even boiled they pack a punch. I hate letting anything go to waste. So I started to wonder what I could do with my hot peppers.

Hot sauce was one of those foods that was a mystery to me. Like breakfast cereal and marshmallows, I’ve only ever thought of it as a finished product. For me, it’s always something you buy in the supermarket, or a specialty store. There’s a lot of mystery around hot sauces. Often they’re marketed as secret recipes with funny names with lots of “xxx”s in them.  They’re like magical potions that can sometime make you cry.

I had no idea how these mysterious hot sauces were made – but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it started with chili peppers. After a quick online search, I realized that hot sauce is pretty simple to make. Here’s how I did it.

“Welcome Indian Summer” Hot Sauce Recipe
1) Pick about 20 peppers. I used red and green Cayenne pepper, a bunch of jalapeno and 2 beautiful orange Habanero peppers.
2) Chop up the chili peppers and remove the tops
I took out some of the seeds but not all. The seeds store a lot of the heat so if you want to tone it down, take out more. Still I figured, that since I had two Habaneros in there, all bets were off.
3) Boil them in a half a cup of vinegar. Most of the recipes recommended apple cider vinegar, so that’s what I used.
4) When they are cooked (seem soft) puree them with a bit of salt. I used the mini-food processor attachment for my hand blender.

A few things to note. When the peppers are cooking, they fill the kitchen with spicy pungency that is so strong it brings water to your eyes. You can even feel it in your lungs. So if you have kids, keep them out of the kitchen. The recipe called for sugar too, but I forgot to add it. I think the hot sauce was fine without.

Even though I had seen other recipes, I had it in my head that the sauce would be something more like a think Tabasco. (Here’s how that’s done.) But what I ended up with is much more like the chunky kind of hot relish you find on the table in a Vietnamese restaurant. It’s definitely a serve with a spoon rather than pour it from a bottle kind of consistency.

Still I was pretty pleased with the outcome. I’m sure that a half a teaspoon will put a nice, fresh bite into some fresh salsa or tortilla soup. I’ll keep you posted about how long it will last in the fridge.

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I think Georgia O'Keeffe would approve of this delectably oven-roasted plum tomato.

Don’t tell my kids, but a few weeks ago, I made tomato sauce from tomatoes I picked out of the garbage can at the farmers market in Ramsey. OK, by now anyone who has read my previous posts knows that I’m almost as obsessed with having  tomatoes as not having Styrofoam. And in my defense, it wasn’t really a “dumpster” ad there wasn’t much else in that garbage can. And I had asked. Well, actually I had asked the farmer selling Jersey tomatoes if she had any “seconds” she was selling at a discount.

She thought for a moment while she scanned her table covered with eggplants and pies.

“You can have these,” she said, handing me a pair of slightly bruised but beautiful tomatoes that were sitting next to the cash box.

“Normally if I know someone wants them I save them. I’ll save them for you next time,” she offered. But as I explained that I wasn’t a regular at that market.   And that’s when I noticed about a half a dozen gorgeous tomatoes in that  garbage.

“Do you mind if I take those, two?” I asked my tomato kindred spirit.

“Go right ahead,” she said.

This weekend, at my regular farmer’s market in Inwood, I hit pay-dirt and I didn’t even have to get my hands dirty. After wandering the market and asking everyone, “Got any seconds for sauce?”  I stumbled on a stand that was selling exactly that out in the open for $1 a pound.  Most of them were bright, fire-truck red romas, but there were a few yellow mixed in too.

“How much would you charge me for this whole box?” I asked the farmer. She led me behind the table and showed me an unopened but full box. “$15,” she said.  Needless to say, I took it.

This picture really doesn't do justice to just how many tomatoes I came home with.

For some reason, things, or more specifically food, looks less in the world. I am always worried that I won’t have enough. And while John carted our box through the market, it didn’t seem to be that much – until I got home and I realize the box was almost the size of two milk crates. It was deep with red-gold.

Mostly I was thinking about the winter. Could I really cook up enough tomatoes to substitute for all those cans of plum tomatoes I buy to make soups and sauces when the cold weather hits? I wasn’t sure but I was going to try.

I started by opening up The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan. Normally I parboil fresh tomatoes so that I can pop them out of their skins. But Hazen explained that you can cut the tomatoes in half, parboil them and then process them using my old friend the Foley Mill. I tried it and it worked like a charm. I tried her  basic sauce with garlic, olive oil and fresh basil. It came out sweet and light, with a rich tomato flavor. Kind of like really good pizza sauce.

I love fire-roasted tomatoes and these, roasted in a cast iron pan on the stove top, have a similar flavor.

Then I turned to Cocina de la Familia by Marilyn Tausend where I learned that you can pan roast tomatoes for such classics as Sopa de Tortilla by using a cast iron pan. I tried this method, throwing in a chili pepper and some garlic at the end. I used my hand blender and made a quick sauce with a stronger, more robust flavor which I personally liked a bit better.

The gazpacho was richer with the help of a bit of home made tomato juice.

Then finally I made some gazpacho. I added some of the liquid from a batch of parboiled tomatoes that I seeded and left to drip over a colander. The tomato juice added a richness to the gazpacho that I think gazpacho need.

My big discovery was slow-roasted tomatoes. I found this recipe at SmittenKitchen.com. Slow roasted tomatoes are sort of cross between roasted tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes. The author of SmittenKitchen went on and on about how delicious they were. But when they first came out of the oven I wasn’t impressed. Disappointed, I packed mine in a jar with the roasted garlic, a little extra olive oil and a bit of sea salt. But, the next day, when I tried one, I was wowed. Once they’ve settled into their flavor they are amazing.

Tonight, (4 days later) I finally hit the end of the box. In the meantime, my $15 worth of tomatoes made me the equivalent of:

  • About 5 cans of plum tomatoes
  • About 2 cans of roasted tomatoes
  • about 2 jars of tomato sauce (unseasoned)
  • About 2 jars of tomato sauce (seasoned)
  • About 4 trays of slow-roasted tomatoes (that’s a pretty big delicious jar)
  • A blender full of gazpacho

Is it enough to get me through the winter? No. Was it a lot of work? Yes. Was it green? Maybe. For starter, my big box of tomatoes weren’t organic (they were low spray) and I probably use gas and electricity a lot less efficiently than say Brad’s Organic (today,  I noticed these canned tomatoes were on sale for 2 for $5 at the Westside Market in Chelsea.) But on the other hand, my tomatoes were local, the only gas they used was getting to the farmer’s market.  I used my freezer to store so my tomatoes have no hidden preservatives. And my containers aren’t cans lined with  BPA. — although in addition to old ice cream pint containers, I did use a few ziplock bags and a few old yogurt containers which are made of#5 plastic. Still in the end, fresh tomatoes taste better than canned. And that’s worth something. Ok. A lot.

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