Posts Tagged ‘sustainable family supper’

Free Range, Grass-Fed Beef (and Pork and Chicken)

Friday, April 17th, 2009

Part V of the Sustainable Family Supper series, and my submission to this week’s Fight Back Friday, hosted by the Food Renegade.

It’s probably obvious by now that we are not vegetarians by any means. I actually did abstain from red meat for nearly 5 years during my idealistic youth (high school and college) for “ethical” reasons, but was converted back during a Christmas visit to my Italian grandparents who served meat three times a day. My now husband, then friend, took me out for my first post-vegetarianism steak when I got back to college after the winter break. I was ecstatic to finally be able to order In-n-Out burgers with meat, and jumped back into omnivorism with barely a second thought. Fast forward nearly a decade, and my renewed interest in healthy, sustainable food led me to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’d already sampled local, grass-fed meats from local farmers markets on occasion, but wasn’t fully committed to paying the higher price on a regular basis. Pollan’s book and my subsequent research set the ball rolling and we now strive to eat only grass-fed, pastured, hormone-free and preferably organic (and GMO-feed free) meat. I still have a little omnivore’s guilt when eating lamb or veal (cue cute baby animal images), but I was inspired to hear local sustainable agriculture hero Bev Eggleston speak at a Slow Food dinner last year about his own conversion from Berkeley vegetarian to pig farmer. As he explained, to solve the problems of conventional meat production you have to participate in the process and use your dollars to vote for sustainable solutions.

grass-fed pastured beef cows

Why Grass-Fed, aka Pastured, Meat? Without getting into the complex and hotly-debated issue of whether grass-fed cows fart more than feedlot-cows (yes, there are real scientists researching that!), there are true health benefits to grass-fed meat. Plus, you avoid supporting “Confined Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs or feedlots), which are essentially concentration camps for animals and which I am sure you have heard about elsewhere. (If not, read this, this, and/or this.) Other benefits include:

  • Grass-fed meat is higher in vitamins, especially vitamin E and D, which only comes from exposure to sunlight.
  • Grass-fed red meat is leaner, lower in fat and calories than conventional, and higher in better fats (Omega-3s).
  • Grass-fed means no genetically-modified (GMO) corn or soy feed, reducing the amount of corn byproducts (pesticides, chemical fertilizers, etc.) you consume. (You have seen King Corn, haven’t you?) – health benefits via Eat Wild.

One thing to note about grass-fed meat is that in much of the U.S., it is a seasonal product. Alice Waters reportedly turned down EcoFriendly’s meat for her Inaugural dinner event because it was not available fresh in January. In the winter, animals can’t always graze outdoors so be sure to ask your local vendors what they’re feeding in the winter months — ideally, it will be organic feed they grow themselves. If it is entirely grass-fed, you’ll probably have to buy it frozen. Just defrost it gently in the refrigerator and be sure not to overcook (medium rare is ideal), as leaner grass-fed meat becomes tough if overcooked.

Where to find grass-fed meat: The first place to look for local, grass-fed meat is your local farmers markets. Visit localharvest.org to find a market or ranch near you; Eat Wild‘s state-by-state grass-fed directory can also help. At the grocery store, ignore the meaningless “all natural” label and choose organic if you can, but ask the butcher if they carry any grass-fed brands. (If not, ask them to consider it!)

Grass-fed Meat in DC/NoVA: Joel Salatin’s Polyface, featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma, is right here in Virginia, and you can purchase their meats through their buying clubs. Bev Eggleston’s EcoFriendly co-operative is created in the Polyface model (Bev worked with Joel before branching out on his own) and is the gold standard for family-farmed, pastured meat in the area, with many of DC’s and NYC’s top chefs relying on EcoFriendly meats (including Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve and Todd Gray of Equinox). Other smaller, family-owned farms are represented at nearly all of our local farmers markets. I’ve personally sampled and recommend the following:

  • Babes in the Woods, (Dillwyn, VA); rare-breed, forest-fed pork; at Old Town Alexandria, Clarendon and Charlottesville Farmers Markets.
  • Cibola Farms (Culpeper, VA); buffalo, pork, beef, goat, chicken; available at Dupont, Penn Quarter, Mt. Pleasant, Kingstowne, Burke, Falls Church, Reston, Dale City, Mt. Vernon, Fredericksburg Farmers Markets.
  • EcoFriendly (Moneta, VA), beef, pork, lamb, poultry, rabbit, Arlington/Courthouse and Dupont Farmers Markets.
  • Fields of Athenry (Purcellville, VA); lamb, beef, poultry; see website for drop-off locations.
  • Hilldale Farm (Palmyra, VA); organic chicken; at West End Alexandria Farmers Market.
  • Smith Meadows Farm (Berryville, VA); beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, goat; at Chevy Chase, Courthouse, Columbia Pike, Del Ray, Dupont, Falls Church, Glover Park, Palisades, Takoma Park Farmers Markets.
  • Smith Family Farm, (Gainseville, VA); beef, pork, poultry; at Burke, Kingstowne, Occoquan, Palisades, Vienna Farmers Markets – and on Twitter!

Local (NoVA) Butchers:

And look for the Spring issue of Edible Chespeake, with a cover story on buying beef directly from the farmer.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Between our home-delivered farm-fresh milk and the cheese addiction my toddler shares, we consume a lot of (hormone-free) dairy products in our house. A favorite way to use up the assorted bits and ends of cheeses in our cheese drawer is my baked macaroni and cheese, with roasted red peppers. I don’t believe in hiding vegetables in food, but I do exploit the “better together” theory of adding vegetables to something the toddler is guaranteed to eat. He loves to look at different colored peppers, but rarely eats them. I find that roasting the peppers first gives them a velvety smooth texture that goes better in creamy pasta than crisp fresh vegetables, making them a little less objectionable to sensitive eaters.

Recipe: Baked Macaroni and Cheese with Roasted Red Peppers

Ingredients:

  • 2 roasted red peppers, cut in thin 1-2 inch slices
  • 2 cups uncooked macaroni
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups shredded cheese (favorite blend: cave-aged cheddar, smoked gouda, Wallaby)
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup grated parmigiano (or similar, used Dry Jack recently)

Instructions:

Cook macaroni according to package instructions, but subtract 3 minutes from cooking time. While macaroni cooks, melt butter in saucepan over low heat. When melted, stir in flour, salt and mustard and cook until smooth and bubbly. Remove from heat and whisk in milk, stirring until lumps are dissolved. Return to high heat and cook, stirring constantly, until boiling. Boil and stir 1 minute, until sauce begins to thicken. Reduce heat to low and stir in cheese until melted and smooth.

Drain macaroni. Combine with red peppers and cheese sauce and pour into 2-quart casserole pan. Mix together breadcrumbs and parmigiano cheese and sprinkle over top. Bake 25-30 minutes, until topping is golden. Makes 6 servings. Enjoy!

Shared with Presto Pasta Nights, hosted this week by its founder, Ruth of Once Upon a Kitchen. Check out this week’s round-up for more yummy pasta inspiration!

Dope-Free Dairy

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Part IV in the Sustainable Family Supper series

dairy cow

What’s the matter with rBST? I’ve written before about how my path to natural and organic food began with a look at milk. When I became pregnant with my son, milk took on a renewed significance as I eliminated sodas and caffeinated beverages from my diet. I finally got around to reading up on bovine growth hormones, a.k.a. rBST or rBGH. You probably already know that they are artificial hormones designed to increase estrogen in female cows, thus increasing their milk production. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use in 1993, and like with so many other issues, refused to reexamine its safety despite growing consumer pressure and health concerns. The problem, or problems, are that the unnatural increase in production leads cows to develop infections at much greater rates, requiring them to be more heavily treated with antibiotics, which are passed on to milk consumers and flow out into soil and water with the cows’ waste. Then, there are studies linking rBST with increased breast, prostate and colon cancers in humans. The most galling part of the whole situation, in my opinion, is the ridiculous requirement by the FDA that requires dairy producers who label their milk rBST-free to include a disclaimer stating that “there is no difference between milk from cows treated with rBST and those who are not.” Actually, there are scientific studies showing that rBST is harmful and yet the burden is on the good actors to refrain from impugning the “good” name of the producers who continue to use rBST in the face of such studies.

Consumers Fight Back: The good news is that after repeatedly losing attempts in state legislatures to ban the use of rBST-free labels entirely (hello consumers’ right to know what they’re eating!), in the face of growing consumer pressure against the use of artificial hormones, its creator Monsanto actually sold off the product last year. Meanwhile, consumer campaigns targeting major dairy companies and grocers have successfully forced many companies to voluntarily reject the use of milk from cows treated with rBST. You can sign up to receive alerts from the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) to stay apprised of the latest. Food & Water Watch offers downloadable and mobile (iPhone/Blackberry) lists of rBST-free brands by state. Last month, Dannon and Yoplait joined the roster of major yogurt producers rejecting rBST milk (Stoneyfield has never used it). In the cheese world, Tillamook‘s farmer cooperative led the industry in adopting a rBST-free policy back in 2005. Cabot Creamery is the latest to get on the drug-free dairy bandwagon, announcing that they will finally stop accepting rBST-containing milk as of August 1, 2009. Even *some* Kraft cheese products (2% milk line) are rBST-free.

Next Stop, Schools: So if consumers won’t buy it, where’s rBST-treated cows milk going? Some is still in use commercially, and of course much winds up in schools. Food & Water Watch has a campaign underway, coinciding with this year’s reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, urging Congress to give schools the ability to let schools choose to use rBST-free and/or organic milk. According to Food & Water Watch, one out of five pints of the milk served to public schoolchildren may contain rBST. (Visit their School Milk action center to learn more.)

Better Yet, Drink Organic: If you already drink rBST-free milk, you might also want to consider organic. If you have to choose what to buy organic, organic milk and meat may be more beneficial than organic produce because the pesticides on cows’ feed are concentrated in their digestive system – and nonorganic feed includes genetically-modified (GMO) grain. And make sure that you’re choosing a brand that scores well on the Cornucopia Institute organic dairy study, because while organic certification guarantees that cows are fed GMO- and pesticide-free grain, it does not guarantee that the cows were allowed to graze on grass or treated humanely. Certain big-organic producers (Aurora and Horizon, notably) are only slightly better than conventional feedlot operations. (There’s a reason some store-brand “organic” milk is priced significantly lower – avoid Safeway, Giant, Publix and Costco store brands, which are sourced from Aurora Organics, a company found by the USDA to have “willfully” violated 14 criteria of the federal organic standard. Visit the Organic Consumer Association action page to sign a petition asking these company CEOs to boycott green-washing “organic” suppliers.)

We’re lucky to have a local, though not organic-certified, dairy delivery service, but when I have to buy milk between deliveries or on the road, I try to find Organic Valley. They are a co-operative of farms organized regionally, so the milk you buy may actually be fairly locally-produced, and they provide support to their farmers to make their farms more environmentally-friendly, such as helping their member farms obtain grants to place wind turbines on their farms. I attended a presentation by an Organic Valley farmer at last fall’s Green Festival and fell in love with the adorable pictures of his happy little cows and tale of how they prefer listening to rock music over classical. A recent study found that cows who are called by name (typically signifying a higher level of care) produce more milk, naturally. I may be a little idealistic, but shouldn’t every cow live like that?

What About Raw Milk? I haven’t read enough yet to take an informed opinion on the highly controversial issue of raw milk. Its sale is banned here in Maryland and Virginia (unless in a “cow share” program in VA), so I haven’t had the option of trying it. (At least not since I was a kid with cow-owning friends! Its true nothing else tastes like truly fresh milk.) On the one hand, I’m inclined to trust farmers who are praticing time-tested method,s and raw milk proponents insist that there are a wealth of health benefits to drinking raw. On the other hand, cows are naturally dirty animals! (That’s not a scientific argument, just an observation.) All the more reason to get to know your food’s producers, of course, whatever the product. At any rate, if you want to learn more, CheeseSlave has a great post on the reasons she chooses raw milk and links to more resources.

Save our Soil

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Part III in the Sustainable Family Supper Project

The second villain in the duo of toxic commercial farming practices is fertilizer. I recently heard a radio ad touting the benefits of chemical fertilizer, euphemistically called, “nutrients for life.”

If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, you know that nitrogen fertilizers used today have a rather unsavory history. In a classic example of good intentions gone awry, scientists discovered a way to apply highly concentrated nutrients to crops to increase their yield. Sounds good, right? The problem is that the nutrients run off into streams, rivers and oceans and suffocate aquatic life. It sounds strange, but there is in fact such a thing as too much nutrients. Agricultural run-off from the Midwest is contributing to an ever-growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – nearly the size of Massachusetts in 2008. Chemical fertilizers are also derived from petroleum, keeping much of the world’s food supply inextricably linked to fossil fuels.

Recent studies have shown that organic crops in fact have higher nutrient levels, and are higher in vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants. This has a great deal to do with the soil in which they are grown, and the fact that it hasn’t been smothered with heavy doses of chemicals. Sustainable farming also utilizes crop rotation practices that rotate planting so that different nutrients are absorbed and replaced each growing season. I mentioned last week that our CSA farm produces exceptionally sweet onions as a result of their attention to the soil. Leafy greens also benefit from well-tended, chemically-unburdened soil. Organically-grown, fresh greens from a local farm have far more flavor then the limp pre-bagged mixes found at the grocery store, so much so that when my husband tasted our first delivery of CSA greens he exclaimed, “Who knew lettuce had flavor?!”

As mentioned last week, the best way to find food grown without toxic fertilizers and other chemicals is to buy organic and support your local, sustainable farmers. Stay tuned for a look at several CSA farms from around the country, and this week’s sustainable supper recipe.

Organic Carrot Risotto

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Our CSA farm, Potomac Vegetable Farms, takes great pride in their sweet onions. Onions’ flavor is heavily dependent on the soil they are grown in, so great onions require careful treating of the soil and are a good indicator of a farmer’s commitment to the land. Carrots from our farm are likewise sweet and flavorful, and carrot puree from our CSA share was one of my son’s favorite baby foods. He has a more fickle attitude towards raw carrots now, so I came up with this creamy risotto as a way to get some of that vitamin-A rich carrot into him. The husband was skeptical but surprised that it didn’t taste “too healthy.” People often think risotto is unhealthy but in fact a lot of the creaminess comes from the starch of the rice, and you can make perfectly rich risotto with just a little butter and cheese, no cream needed.

Rice is traditionally a heavily pesticide-treated crop, so in addition to the dirty dozen produce items, look for organic rice when you can. I love Lundberg‘s organic California-grown rices for most other uses, but use an organic Italian carnaroli, from Cascina Belvedere, for risotto.

Recipe: Organic Carrot Risotto

Ingredients:

  • 4 large organic carrots, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 shallots, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups organic carnaroli or arborio rice
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 cups water (including reserved carrot water)
  • pinch of white pepper
  • 1/4 cup parimigianno reggiano, grated
  • minced parsley to garnish

Instructions: Cut carrots into 1/2-inch pieces and steam until just tender, approximately 10-12 minutes. Reserve the water, and puree cooked carrots with in food processor until smooth. Add spoonfuls of cooking water as needed to thin the puree; it should be about the same consistency as apple sauce.

Add water to reserved carrot water to make 2 cups. Combine with stock in a stock pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low and leave to simmer while you begin the risotto. In a dutch oven or large saucepan, heat butter over medium low until melted. Cook shallots until soft and translucent (do not brown), about 5 minutes. Stir in carrot puree and cook 2 minutes. Stir in rice and cook 1 minute. Ladle in broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring and letting cook until liquid is absorbed between each addition. Repeat until all the liquid is added and rice is thick and creamy, about 25 minutes. Stir in pepper, salt and cheese; stir and remove from heat. Sprinkle with parsley and serve. Makes 4 servings. Enjoy!

Shared with Presto Pasta Nights, created and hosted this week by Ruth of Once Upon a Feast.