Category Archives: Social Commentary

Fanatic Finally Feels Fine for Fixing Fresh Food

Our farmers’ markets are in full swing now. During a normal week starting in mid to late spring and going through early fall, I often visit as many as three of them. Yes, yes, I know that is a lot but it is difficult to even limit myself to only three. I don’t just go to the markets to shop for the freshest and best local goods of the season. I also go for the conviviality. I never fail to see people I know, regardless of which market I am strolling through. Being connected with others in this way gives me a wonderful sense of community.

Over the years I have made friends with many of the farmers and vendors. I enjoy greeting them as I go along the rows, admiring the fresh, locally grown products and home canned delicacies. Sometimes I bring the dog – there are some folks at the markets who are disappointed when I don’t. Our markets often feature special events such as demonstrations, lectures, book signings and on Saturdays there is always music. You can buy a coffee and a pastry from a number of our local bakers and sit and watch the crowd – a favorite activity of mine.

I am having a hard time holding myself back these days. I want to buy some of everything being sold. So many unusual and special things: on Wednesday evening I bought Red Star Turnips, carrots and potatoes all of which had been pulled from the soil that morning. I also bought one waaaay expensive tomato that was probably one of the earliest local heirlooms of the season. (It is definitely time to break out the bacon and make some gourmet BLTs.) I have no idea what I will do with those turnips. The Farmer suggested I sprinkle them with olive oil and sea salt and roast them on the grill. Sounds good to me.

My best purchase of the market on Wednesday were a gorgeous bunch of just-picked squash blossoms. Amazingly fresh and begging to be stuffed, I did not hesitate when I saw them. Now the truth be told, I have been a little remiss lately in my posting here. This is because I have been quite ill. If you knew what I have been through with pain and doctors and tests and surgery, you would understand. But this is not interesting stuff. Why I bring it up is that on Wednesday, at the market, I finally felt as if I was coming alive again and boy oh boy I suddenly got the urge to cook. That after a couple of long weeks of not only NOT wanting to cook but also not wanting to eat! So I am excited to get back in the kitchen, to return to my weekly rounds of fabulous farmers’ markets and to see many of my foodie friends.

Soon come mon: Squash Blossom Rellenos, Polenta with Guanciale and Fresh Cherry Gastrique (for the duck breast)

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Filed under Cooking, Farmers Market, Social Commentary, Sustainable Farming

Fantastic Farmer Facilitates Food for Fanatics

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend an event put on by our local chapter of Slow Food USA. In its 5th year, the event was called Lambstravaganza. It took place way out in Missouri farm territory, about 2 hours west of our BIG city of St. Louis, at the farm of Dave and Barb Hillebrand. Surprise: the Hillebrands raise lambs. The little one in the photo above had been born just that morning – mom and baby were clearly doing fine by the time we arrived around 3 pm. The Hillebrands also raise chickens (for eggs), a few goats and a few cows (both for their own consumption).

The business, called Prairie Grass Farms, comprises about 540 acres when you combine a number of different locations the Hillebrands are using. They have roughly 700 sheep. The family has been in the farming business for generations. Up until 9 years ago or so, they raised “row crops.” This term is the farmers’ euphemism for corn and soybeans – commodity crops which the government subsidizes. Raising row crops requires lots of inputs (aka chemicals), crops are not rotated and only the chemical companies really believe this is ok for the earth. The Hillebrands know better.

Now they only have animals and grass. It is all very symbiotic, sustainable, good for our earth. Their sheep are kept in relatively tight groups for grazing – protected by movable fencing and some wonderful and devoted working dogs. The dogs keep away the predators: mostly coyotes and fox. The sheep munch up an area of “salad”, trample what’s left as they go and leave their waste to fertilize and regenerate what they have eaten. Other than the sun, the rain and what the sheep leave behind, there are no inputs on the land. The creatures in the soil go to work on the waste and the left over roughage. It all gets mixed in with the soil naturally.

Nature takes care of the regeneration of the herd, too. Dave and Barb have a small number of rams who are able to service the girls. The rams are given full access to the ewes for 60 days a year. One ram can handle about 50 ewes (nice work). The timing of the rams’ access to the ewes is meant to enable, for the most part, the lambs to be born all around the same time of year. They are born naturally, in the field. Dave says he is trying to manage it so that when the ladies are with child and need it most, there is plenty of nutritious fresh grass around to so that they will thrive. Otherwise, during the harshest of winter months, the grass may be sparse, the rain or snow may be heavy and the ladies will be hungry. As needed, Dave brings in some hay and supplemental grain to help the ladies out. But, if most of the lambing can take place in the late spring or early summer, the diet of the pregnant mother can be of the best spring grasses. Also, the lambs will be able to grow and fatten up just on mother’s milk and the grasses. 

If a ewe does not produce, she is “retired.” (Hillebrands’ reputation for their lamb bratwurst is legend.) This is genetic management at the farm level. At first, it sounded harsh to me but then when I thought about it, it made perfect sense. The sheep have a job to do and in exchange for their job they are managed responsibly and with respect for them and the land. If a particular animal cannot do its job then room is made for one who can.

At Prairie Grass Farms, nothing is wasted, except the wool. And that really is not wasted either. The wool is useless to Dave and Barb. It is not fine enough to sell for anything worth the effort of getting it – they have too many other things to take up their time. So, they give it away for the shearing. The person who does the shearing takes the wool and makes use of it. A good deal for all.

Prairie Grass Farms sells its lamb and eggs at our local farmers’ markets and to many restaurants throughout the area. A number of their best restaurant clients showed up and gave their time and resources to cook for those of us who attended Lambstravaganza. It was a feast of extravagant proportions, as the name suggests, with a host of fine chefs showcasing their creativity in a kitchenless environment. We ate in a barn, open on two sides, with an old tarp covered truck behind us, looking like the perfect set piece. It was a beautiful, blustery day. I ate fabulous food, met friendly and interesting people and (my favorite thing) I learned a whole lot.

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Filed under Cooking, Education, Farmers Market, Food Trends, Lamb, Social Commentary, Sustainable Farming

Of Food Fads and Fashion

 
This is only part of the collection

Shoes, glorious shoes!

Many foods, spices, ingredients and even particular dishes, are kinda like shoes (very close to the top of my list of favorite things, after food). Once it becomes fashionable, a style tends to hang out for a while and then, no matter how big it became, eventually it grows less important or even fades out completely.  However, with shoes and other things sartorial, trends don’t come on very gradually. Shoe and clothing styles get stuffed down our fashion conscious throats in one season. I am sure there is some invisible panel of fashion nazis who decide that starting next season, patent leather with studs is going to be in. If we don’t fall in line, at least somewhat, others look at us and label us as “old school” or, even worse, just old! 

Thankfully, I don’t think it works this way with food.  Culinary trends and specific foods sneak into our consciousness and down our gullet more slowly and quietly. One might see an ingredient or a particular dish show up once or twice over a period of time, especially if you travel and eat in urban environments. Then bit by bit they seem to mushroom out in the culinary landscape. I don’t know who decides or why, but when a food fashion finally takes hold, just like square toes or pointy, we regularly find ourselves eating in step with the trend.   

I like to refer to these ingredients and dishes as “it” foods. Some people might call them “food fads.” I don’t want to belittle them this way. Even though, in the most non-belittling way, I have to admit they seem to permeate our consciousness in a very faddish manner. Then again, once the meal is over, nobody cares about what you did or didn’t eat – we are not seen as out of step with the fashion, just because we don’t want to eat a particular food or ingredient. We are far more tolerant when it comes to what we eat than regarding what we wear.     

I think, more important, is the fact that we can learn something about what is going on in our society by focusing on these foods. Take the example of one “it” food that I love to moan about: the molten chocolate cake.      

Chocolate Lava Cake photo by Glane34 Wikimedia Chocolate Lava Cake Glane23 Wikimedia      

This dish got a complete hold on menus in the US sometime in the (I’m guessing here) early/mid 90’s. It is, IMHO, a perfect representation of the excesses of that decade: too much chocolate, too much sweet, too much gooey, gloppy goop, often made even gloppier and sweeter with someone’s idea of gourmet ice cream (which often turns out to be uninspired, or in other cases and very telling, the best part of the dish). For years and years we have been subjected to this over-rated, often badly executed and now totally unexciting dessert.  There is nothing new to be done with it, no new flavors, shapes, garnishes, or brands that can salvage the thing, it is just done.      

Sometimes, whole groups of foods are “it” foods. Within the fast few years, comfort foods have started to regain importance. Showing up on the menus of better restaurants, a lot of pub food, whether or not reinvented as haute (i.e. gastropub food) is typical comfort food. Not only is comfort food chef and eater friendly, it brings to mind our fondest childhood memories. Our mom’s fixed comfort food – even if they made it badly and even if we didn’t call it by that name, we loved to eat it. Tuna noodle casserole, meat loaf, chicken with rice, beef stew: kids of all generations become utterly nostalgic when thinking of the one that became the signature dish of their household. Formerly limited to the diner, these foods are now being offered as menu staples as well as daily specials in restaurants of all levels. The trend is in full swing and comfort food is “it!”      

At least for now, you won’t find me moaning about this trend one bit. I think that our society needs some comfort NOW. After all that has gone on with our political system, with the turmoil and constant discomfort of our economy, with the rising tide against all that we worked for in the 60’s and 70’s, our society needs some mothering!      

Next up: Chicken Pot Pie with help from the Sous Vide Supreme      

 

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Filed under Comfort Food, Cooking, Food Trends, Social Commentary

One of many reasons why I came to be known as a fanatic when it comes to food

This is not funny. This article explains some of the reasons why I try very hard not to eat meat from factory farms. I picked this article up off of Twitter and if I knew how, I would give credit where credit is due. But, I think I will be forgiven for telling you about it here:

http://www.care2.com/causes/environment/blog/perdue-sued-for-polluting-chesapeake-bay/

I believe that we are all, each and every one of us, responsible for the state of the world today. One of the things I do, one of the little ways in which I try to help make it better, is I avoid eating CAFO food, as much as I possibly can. What CAFOs and the businesses associated with them (i.e. processing plants, among others) have done and continue to do to our home (this earth) is disgusting. I hope that if enough of us can do this, at least some of the time, we will put some of them out of business!

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Fomenting Food Fights????

If you have trouble, as I sometimes do, growing and changing with these 21st century times: what with social networking, linking in, tweeting and so forth,  this will give you some fine food for thought, at least insofar as the subject touches the food biz. Oh, by the way, the FFF went Twitter today. Now I have to figure out how to use the effing thing.

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Filed under Social Commentary