Friday, June 26, 2009

When Pigs Fly

I have two transgressions to confess, so I may as well just get right to it.

First: it's Friday morning, and my family has just finished a hearty and nutritious breakfast of strawberry rhubarb pie. We don't eat like this on a regular basis, but my seven year old was once so happy with the pie-for-breakfast surprise that she was prompted to declare me the Best Mother Ever. Which is pretty good coming from the child who says just as often that I have ruined her WHOLE LIFE (I live in fear of what the teenage years will bring).

Second: the pie was so good because there was (shh) lard in the crust*.

I've been afraid to admit for a while that I prefer lard-based pie crusts. It's as if I can feel the judgment of the masses if I even say the word. I hear the scathing whispers of imaginary Food Police: saturated fat! Cholesterol! PIGS! And I admit that it took me a long time to decide I could brave using lard. After all, the name isn't exactly appetizing. The nutritional consequences seem daunting. And then there's my occasional aversion to animal products, which I've talked about here.

But lard, as many of us now know, has been getting a bad rap. Here's the deal: yes, lard is full of saturated fat, which is really not great for your heart, but it has less saturated fat than butter does (39% as opposed to 51% for butter). It's also significantly higher in monounsaturated fat than butter (this is the one that helps lower LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and some of the foods that we're often encouraged to use such as olive oil and avocados, are full of monounsaturated fats). And it's certainly a winner over vegetable based shortenings that are full of hydrogenated oils, which contain the evil trans fats that you've no doubt read about until your head spins.

The upshot of all this is that lard certainly isn't good for you, but it's a heck of a lot less bad for you than some of the alternatives. And it makes REALLY good pie crusts, that are flaky and tender and lovely. Now - having said this, I won't try to use nasty supermarket lard any more. I've tried it, and it can give a pie crust a funky "off" flavor that's disturbingly reminiscent of, well, pigs. Those highly processed mass produced lards are hydrogenated, too, so they're back in the bad-for-you camp. And then of course there's the matter of factory farming rearing its all too familiar and ugly head; I feel a little sick when I imagine the conditions on the farms and in the slaughterhouses where that lard originates.

All is not lost, however, because of people like Mike and Jen at Flying Pigs Farm. These are farmers like the people who run Chestnut Farms, my meat CSA source. They raise a small number of very healthy animals in a way that gives us reluctant carnivores some serious comfort. Flying Pigs Farm raises heritage breeds, which means both better tasting meats and the preservation of some kinds of pigs that might otherwise become extinct. The farm's website talks about their commitment to giving their livestock a nutritious diet, plenty of room to move around, and a generally happy life (there's a photo on the site of a pig frolicking in the snow that's really quite endearing). And so I'm back to one of my fundamental beliefs about food: if you're going to eat meat, eat just a little bit of it, eat meat that tastes good, and most importantly, make sure you know where it's coming from. You can purchase leaf lard and other pork products from Flying Pigs Farm on their website. I think I've got gift ideas for my husband covered for quite a while now.

After tasting our breakfast pie made with Flying Pigs lard, I've managed to justify my use of lard and even to feel good about it, even if it's clearly not an every day indulgence. I think we may as well make our treats really good ones, and enjoy a little bit of something wonderful - after all, these are fun foods, not dietary staples. My grandmother, who was a legendary baker, wouldn't have considered making a pie crust without lard. I remember hearing someone question her about it once, asking whether it wouldn't be better to use vegetable shortening instead of all that fatty lard, and she said, "For goodness' sake, it's pie."


* I was a bit reluctant to post a photograph of my pie, because it's really not all that pretty. It tasted good, and the crust was wonderfully flaky, but it was also quite rough around the edges. It is one of my enduring frustrations that I'm apparently unable to produce a beautiful, perfect, country fair showpiece-type of pie crust. I can do lots of other things in the kitchen pretty well, and I've also had some success with other artistic ventures, but attractive pie crusts remain maddeningly outside my reach.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sneaky Greens

I love June. It's the time when New Englanders can really start to believe that winter might actually be over and that we might be able to eat something fresh and delicious that doesn't come from far away.

Every June, I gorge on local strawberries, because they appear so briefly and are so much better than anything that comes from a plastic supermarket box that it's ridiculous. I can never quite believe that there's something I can eat that looks this gorgeous.

Recently, after an ambitious few days of strawberry picking at The Food Project, in a vacationing friend's garden and at another local farm, I found myself face to face with 12 pounds of strawberries (that's about 400 berries, give or take a few). I ate as many as I could stand. I turned some into this*:

And some, with the addition of rhubarb, into this:

And some more into this:

I know. It's green, not red. It's a smoothie made with fresh strawberries, a banana, and spinach. And it was wonderful. Before you decide I've taken leave of my senses, understand that this smoothie looks not only ordinary, but really quite good, to anyone who eats a raw food diet. While I haven't decided to head straight down that culinary path, I can say that raw foodists have opened up a new world of eating experiences for me, and I'm thrilled about it. I like lots of vegetables, but there are plenty of days when I just can't face a big bowl of leafy greens, no matter how good they are for me. Things like swiss chard and kale, which are among the best greens (the darker the color, the better the nutrients, apparently), have always been a struggle for me. When I started learning about raw foods and found out that there are thousands of people out there who get their greens when they add them by the handful to a blender full of sweet, ripe fruit, I was skeptical, but I have to say it works quite well. Now I'm happy to drink something that looks like a big glass full of blended lawn mower clippings several times a week.

Baby spinach is probably the easiest addition to a fruit smoothie, because its mild, sweet taste doesn't fight back too much against the flavor of the fruit. Once you've got that down, you can try adding kale to a blueberry-orange smoothie, or parsley to blended pears, dates and ginger, or basil to tomato, shallots and garlic...there really are no rules. I've even managed to get my kids to drink a smoothie made with pineapple, banana, coconut and spinach. Sometimes these concoctions are a beautiful shade of bright green, and others, with blueberries or lots of strawberries, are, well, gray. Purplish gray, maybe grurple. Not pretty, but really good. And good for you!

So, today, even though it feels like I should be building an ark instead of venturing outside, I'll probably take my kids to pick more strawberries. Because I have something special arriving in the mail today, and I sense some pies on the horizon. More about that to come...

* If you're ready to make your own jam but are horrified by the amount of sugar most traditional recipes require, check out this article in a recent issue of Eating Well magazine. It has some great information for beginners and a recipe for jam that works nicely with a reasonable 1-2 cups of sugar per batch.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meet the Meat

I'm confronting some heavy duty stuff these days.

I've been an ambivalent meat eater for a while now. I could very easily adopt a vegetarian diet and be happy and comfortable. In the past few months, as I've learned more and more about raw food and vegan diets, I've tried foods that I might never have considered, and I've developed a real enthusiasm for vegetables. I even like kale. We (mostly me) ate every last bit of our fruit and vegetable farm share last week - every leaf of lettuce, every radish, every snap pea - and loved it all. This is, to my mind, a fabulous thing. The uncertainties of most nutrition science aside, I've never heard or read anything from any purported "expert" accusing Americans of eating too many vegetables. I figure I can't overdo it.

But there's still meat in our house. As part of my search to help our family eat the best food we can find, and to support small local farms as much as possible, I happily enrolled us in the meat CSA program run by Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, MA. I could rave for quite some time about the work that Kim and Rich have done with this farm; their commitment to sustainable agriculture, their local community, and the quality of their animals' lives is amazing. We visited Chestnut Farms' open house last weekend with our kids, and it was almost too good to be true. Beautiful pastures with stone walls and gorgeous old oak trees, happy piglets romping around, chickens with lots of room to strut and find bugs to eat and school buses to keep them safe at night. The animals were clean, had tons of space, and as far as I can tell are living happy lives.

I've heard and read enough from Kim to believe that she's truly committed to taking the best possible care of her livestock. The animals eat the foods that their systems were designed for - the cows graze in the pasture, and aren't forced to choke down corn that wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. The pigs eat grain, not garbage. None of them need the antibiotics and hormones that many commercially raised livestock are given in order to combat all the diseases that come from cramped conditions, unnatural diets, and unsanitary living spaces.

If I'm going to eat meat, I want to know where it comes from. I love the idea of animals being treated well and carefully, and of eating something that's not full of stuff that will ultimately be bad for me. And I want my children to see how animals live on the farm and to understand as much as possible about what eating meat means - including the really quite unpleasant thought that the adorable piglets we saw snuggled together are going to die if we want to eat bacon.

That's part of what's bothering me these days. We Americans all eat too much meat. It's not good for us; it's not good for our planet; it's not good for the animals who provide it. Commercial livestock farming is so resource-intensive that it's far more expensive and damaging to the environment than the nutrition it provides can justify. Anyone who's read any of Michael Pollan's recent work has heard all about it (and if you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma, I highly recommend it). We really ought to be thinking of meat as a condiment instead of as the primary component of our meals. And on top of that, one looks at the adorable piglets, the beautiful sheep and content cows, and I really want those animals to die because I enjoy a good steak now and then?

I find myself thinking hard about whether I want to continue eating meat, but I know it's not viable for the rest of my family to go vegetarian, especially my husband. His smoker and the ribs that come out of it are his pride and joy (justifiably so, I'll say). And my kids, I'll admit, have seen their share of Happy Meals. We have two dogs, who are natural carnivores, and they need to eat meat-based foods to be healthy. What do I do with this situation? How can I help my kids develop healthy eating habits and learn to be good environmental stewards? Telling them that fast food wasn't great for their bodies didn't make much of an impression, but now my kids will tell people, "You shouldn't eat at McDonald's very often because they don't treat their animals well." This insight was inspired by the sight of a large tractor trailer full of pigs driving past us on the highway a few months ago. The animals were crammed in there, and my seven year old noticed that they didn't look very happy. After learning that those pigs were destined for someone's plate, she took the issue of humane livestock management very seriously. So perhaps that's enough for now.

I don't think my family is ready to stop eating meat, though I'd certainly like us to try to eat less of it. In the mean time, I take some small comfort in the knowledge that the meat we eat comes from a place where the farm is run responsibly, and where the animals are allowed to live in ways that make them as happy as possible. After all, if you're a pig, I'm pretty sure this is close to perfect:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

You Put the Lime in the Coconut (really)

Another lovely Food Project CSA pickup yesterday afternoon. This week, there were bins overflowing with dark green spinach, and fragrant new cilantro in the fields, just next to the sugar snap peas that my 4 year old happily picked, tasted, and immediately rejected as being "too green." Oh, well.

This gives me the opportunity to make one of my favorite cold summer soups, based on a recipe from raw food guru Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo. It does require me to stray a bit from my loyalty to locally available produce, but seeing as I'm not ever going to be willing to give up avocado or coconut, I'll live with the guilt. This is really refreshing when it's hot, and you can adjust the spice to your own taste. All of the measurements are pretty forgiving, so if there's something you don't like here, leave it out; if there's something you love, double it.

This is part of a series of wonderful blended soups and smoothies that I've discovered in the past few months in a journey through the world of raw food diets (which I've dabbled in but haven't fully embraced - more about that later). You don't have to be a raw foodist to like this recipe, though. If you really don't want to be a raw foodist, leave most of the water out of the soup, add more avocado, and serve it as a sauce over grilled flank steak.

Spicy Lime-Avocado-Coconut Soup

2-3 handfuls spinach leaves
1-2 handfuls fresh cilantro
1/2 large or 1 small avocado
3 tablespoons young coconut meat (or cream of coconut)
juice of 2 limes
1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, or 1 poblano pepper, roughly chopped
1/2 small jalapeno pepper, seeds removed (or, if you're brave, use something hotter like a Thai chile, Habanero or Scotch Bonnet)
1-3 cloves garlic
coarse salt to taste

Place all of the ingredients in a blender with about 1/2 cup water and puree until smooth, adding water as necessary to adjust the consistency.

As an added bonus, when you make the soup, you can annoy your friends and family by singing or playing Harry Nilsson's "Coconut" or, for a really special occasion, you can drag out the Muppets version.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Butter You Than Me

Grilled new potatoes with compound butter and chive blossoms

I have two young children. From time to time, they have, let's say, a little bit of surplus energy. There are days when it seems I'm on a neverending quest to find outlets for this energy, but every so often I find something that works beautifully, and making butter has always been one of those things. If you haven't tried this with your kids, you should. It's especially fun if they've been reading Little House on the Prairie, because they'll get a chance to feel industrious and self-sufficient like pioneer children, but you'll be saved the trouble and effort of some of Ma Ingalls' more bothersome homemaking tasks such as skinning a whole hog.

Little kids like projects. When the projects are messy and also potentially dangerous, their appeal increases dramatically, so I work to emphasize those aspects of butter making. It's really very simple, and you get tangible results fast. I start by putting some nice heavy cream in a glass jar (there's the potential danger) with a plastic top, then tell the kids to start shaking (there's the potential mess). If weather permits, we do this outside, just in case.

When the teachers at our preschool first suggested this activity, I thought we'd be watching little hands* shake jars forever, but it really takes only a few minutes to start seeing results. After some vigorous shaking (with help from an adult every now and then), we see lovely whipped cream:

And then, if you keep going, there's a stunning moment when everything changes. We do this all the time, but it never fails to surprise my kids when, while shaking and shaking and shaking, they suddenly hear a splash as the butter separates from the buttermilk.

At this point, don't shake too much more, or your butter will become hard and nasty. Just agitate a bit longer to finish separating, then strain out the buttermilk and put the solid butter in a bowl. You may have to take over here and "work" the butter a little bit more to get the last bits of water out. This is when you can add some good coarse salt and move on to making a compound butter, which is simply butter with some chopped herbs or other flavoring added. I used our lovely CSA chives for this one, but almost any fresh herb will work beautifully.

Compound butters can be frozen, tightly wrapped in wax paper. This stuff is terrific on potatoes, corn, good bread, grilled fish...almost anything. I like to make cinnamon/nutmeg butter for breakfast.

If you feel like living on the edge a bit, you can make cultured butter, which has a slightly tangy taste and a nice rich texture, and, according to people who think about such things, is full of beneficial probiotics and antioxidants. There are two ways to do this:

- Milk a cow, chill the raw milk, skim off the cream and then let it sit out at room temperature for about 12 hours, or until it starts to smell sour, then proceed.
- Get yourself some culture starter (I like Body Ecology) and follow the instructions on the package insert, which basically just involve mixing the starter into organic cream before agitating.

As we don't have a cow and it's quite difficult to find raw milk, I go with method #2. If you haven't tried cultured butter, I recommend it. The culture starter also makes great creme fraiche.

* If, after seeing this photograph, you'd like to engage my services as a manicurist, please email me. You'll need to spend a few days using Playdoh and digging in a sandbox to get the edgy weathered look on your nails, but I can mix colors with the best of them.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


This is the lettuce I brought home yesterday after our first CSA pickup from The Food Project in Lincoln, MA. I love everything about this organization. The food is just gorgeous - hence the beginnings of my summer obsession with photographing vegetables in strange and intimate ways, which befuddles my children. But look at the color! The Food Project's philosophy, which values sustainable agriculture, community development, and educating young people, is so completely wonderful that it's sort of hard to believe. All that and garlic scapes, too...

Yesterday's share was small, but with such promise of summer: lettuce, bok choy, radishes, scallions, chive blossoms and mint. The herbs have me thinking about compound butters, but more about that later. The lettuce, in addition to being as beautiful as any flower, was crisp and full of flavor. I grew up thinking that the bland white leaves of iceberg lettuce that sat in our refrigerator for, apparently, weeks without noticeable change were what lettuce was supposed to be. I feel a bit weepy when I think about BLTs made with dessicated bacon, iceberg lettuce, spongy white bread, mealy tomatoes (that had been refrigerated - shudder) and Miracle Whip. Fortunately, those childhood experiences didn't leave me permanently scarred, and I was willing to give lettuce another try later in life.

When I've reached my limit on BLTs and salads, I turn to the lettuce wrap to renew my faith in this leafy green. I like to use big lettuce leaves as containers for what might otherwise build a really great sandwich (and I get to feel self-righteous about it, too, for abstaining from bread). My favorite lettuce wrap fillings:

- a mixture of browned ground pork and ground turkey or veal (in equal proportions), seasoned with sauteed chopped onion, soy sauce and oyster sauce (about 1-2 T of each sauce per pound of meat)
- avocado, cucumber and very thinly sliced seared tuna or raw sushi grade tuna, with just a splash of hot sauce or wasabi
- rice noodles (mai fun), mung bean sprouts, cucumber and mint leaves, with Pungent Dipping Sauce (see recipe below)
- any mix of julienned raw vegetables and sprouts with ginger-miso salad dressing
- very thinly sliced fennel, a bit of grated ginger, turkey breast and beets

Needless to say, the possibilites for lettuce wraps are endless.

Pungent Dipping Sauce

I love this sauce and will happily find just about any excuse to eat it. You can dip carrots, jicama or radishes in it and slurp away, but it's really best with some sort of Asian spring or summer roll.
  • 2 T fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 T fresh lime juice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 T cane sugar or white sugar
  • dried red pepper flakes, to taste
In a small sauce pan over medium-low heat, mix the fish sauce, water, lime juice and sugar, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the garlic and continue to heat, stirring, for about 1 minute. Add the red pepper flakes and remove from heat. Allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before serving with lettuce wraps, spring rolls, or over grilled meats. The sauce will keep, covered and refrigerated, for about a week.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What Hope Looks Like


This impending strawberry is a big deal for me, because I planted it. And the plant is alive, and growing, and even bearing fruit. If you know me well, you realize that this is a significant turn of events, because - well, let's just say I'm not the most adept gardener. I aspire to be. I look at photos of beautiful vegetable gardens, and admire my friend's new raised bed full of seedlings and optimism, and think how lovely it would be to fill my back yard with such abundance. And then...something goes wrong. I don't know what it is, but I've never really been able to nurture plants.

But this year, I'm determined to make it work. My older daughter is deeply interested in the life cycle of plants, and I feel it's my obligation as a parent to help her see it through. Mindful of my bleak past in the garden, I decided to try something a bit different and invested in a couple of Earthboxes. Earthbox enthusiasts claim that these things are virtually foolproof, and they do seem to be a terrific solution for those of us who have neither the space nor the gardening acumen to cultivate traditional gardens. It's simple: you fill a large plastic container with soil, then layer in dolomite and a little "trench" of fertilizer, top with soil, insert your plants, and protect the top with another plastic cover. The bottom of the container holds a reservoir of water, and the plants can absorb this water from the bottom up (which is apparently the way they prefer to do things). Once everything is planted, you just fill the reservoir through a little tube on the side; excess water drains out an overflow hole at the bottom of the container, so that even I won't be able to drown the plants.

We'll see. I have two Earthboxes on our back deck, one with strawberries and one with little bell pepper plants. And I have lots of hope.