Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Organic on a budget

Organic food is becoming more and more popular, as people ask for it, even demand it. I am happy to report that just about everybody I know goes to a farmer's market fairly regularly. 

But a lot of people still aren't convinced that organic food is necessary. I find a lot of the older generation isn’t. Maybe it’s because many of them lived on farms where fruits, vegetables and meats were from neighboring farms and a lot of food was organic to begin with. Depending on their age, the widespread use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are so prevalent today were not as publicized as they are now. Most people are completely in the dark about how their food is really produced.

In fact, it was less than 100 years ago that farming became less about feeding one’s community and more about feeding the world. Today huge agricultural companies through their industrialized farming, and all this genetically-modified food, have altered the way in which food is produced. In an era in which technology is so advanced it is sad that our food supply is so tarnished. Food quality has certainly headed downhill

Maybe you don’t eat organically because you think there’s nothing wrong with "regular" food. Well, there actually is a lot wrong with regular food. It isn't so regular anymore. Conventional foods, as opposed to organic ones, rely on chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides because of the quantities in which we are producing them and the distance they need to be driven (from farm to market). The adoption of novel proteins engineered into our food supply - in particular the Bt/HT “proteins” produced in genetically-modified crops such as soybean, corn and cotton - should be of major concern to anyone interested in their health. By taking in these toxins, how can we be sure that they aren’t causing cancer and a host of other maladies? How can we be so sure that we are able to process these chemicals that were never meant to be ingested?  In fact, there’s already plenty of evidence from research studies that the Bt-toxin produced in GM (genetically-modified) crops is toxic to humans and mammals and triggers immune system responses, not to mention the huge toxic load on the environment and soil.

Maybe you believe in organic but you don’t buy it because of the cost.  In actuality, Americans spend less for food than any other industrialized country. The reason for this is government subsidies. If it weren't for those, we’d actually be spending moreThere seems to be this mentality that cheaper is better. Well, this just isn't true. “You get what you pay for” applies to food as well. The cheaper, the worse, not the better. The cheaper foods are usually the worst for our health: processed, chemically-laden foods are cheaper than their whole food counterparts. These are exactly the things we should NOT be eating.

But as more of us buy organic, prices will come down. It’s already happening. Not long ago I bought a bag of organic carrots on sale for less than the conventional ones.  Sometimes deals can be had. One thing you can do is to head to the farmer's market about 1/2 hour before it wraps up. A lot of vendors will offer "happy hour" where they slash their prices to move produce. This is a good time to get things at a discount. It's also a great way to practice your negotiating skills.

But enough of my rambling. What I wanted to share with you today was this. One way you can keep your food costs low and still eat well is to be cognizant of which produce has the highest levels of pesticides and which has the least and buy accordingly. One place to go for this information is the Environmental Working Group. Here you can download a guide, updated annually, that summarizes the organization's findings of toxic levels in common produce. The “Dirty Dozen” are those 12 that you should buy organically because they are, well, the "dirtiest", and the “Clean Fifteen” are those that you can save some money on by buying conventionally because they have the least amount of pesticidesYou can print out the EWG guide and take it with you so you have a list handy when food shopping. That's been very helpful for me.

Missing from the list is coffee. Coffee beans are a heavily sprayed crop, worldwide, so it should also be on your organic list.

If your budget doesn't allow for 100% organic everything, at least buy them when you can. You'll be taking in a lot less toxins than if you made no changes at all.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tools of the Trade: the Ice Cream Maker

It seems it’s been hot just about everywhere lately (at least in the northern hemisphere, that is). Where I live, we had a freak rainstorm last night after several days of the kind of typical dry 90 degree heat that southern California is used to, which turned our desert, dry heat into a muggy, humid mess. I don’t know how anyone can live in Florida. This sucks. Where are the hot, dry Santa Ana winds when you need them?

Anyway, there is only so much cold water and iced tea I can drink to cool down. My mind started racing for what else I could do. Then I remembered the ice cream maker. The other night I reached into the back of my cupboard and got it out, cleaned it and stuck it in the freezer, ready for inspiration. Actually I already had the inspiration – I was going to make coconut sorbet. 

I use the ice cream maker to mostly make frozen yogurt and sorbet. For last night’s coconut sorbet I had no recipe. I was in a hurry to get it going because I wanted it ready for after dinner, so I literally threw it together. I mean literally. I measured nothing. Felt like a witch making a brew – a pinch of this, a dash of that. But I’ll approximate what went into it. This made 2 servings of about 6-7 oz. each.

Coconut Sorbet

1 cup coconut milk (the runny kind that comes in a milk carton)
½ cup coconut milk (the thicker variety that comes in a can that you’d use for Indian or Thai dishes)
¼ cup simple syrup (easy – no need to heat this up to dissolve the sugar)
1 packet stevia
¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut

I literally threw it all in, in that order, with the motor running. Then it spent about 30 minutes churning away while we grilled and then ate dinner. It could have been a little sweeter, but I’m cutting back on my sweets so another stevia packet would have probably done the trick. I could have reduced the coconut – maybe go a little less than ¼ cup. But otherwise, it was creamy and delightfully, refreshingly, cold!

My next frozen creation this weekend will likely be to use up some overripe plums I still have from last weekend’s farmers market, some vanilla yogurt and a little honey. I’ll just puree everything together in the blender first and then pour it into the ice cream maker. I’ll bet that will be good.

I just love how versatile the ice cream maker can be.  I have a smaller model (the 1.5 quart Krups La Glaciere on the left) because I prefer to make smaller batches more frequently and don’t have a large family to feed. There are certainly more sophisticated models out there but this one gets the job done. It comes with a bowl you place in the freezer. When that's ready, you pour your contents into the bowl, attach the motor to the lid and snap that into place, plug it in, then hit the green button at the top to start it. Super easy.

You can take whatever creamy base you have on hand (regular milk, almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, even buttermilk) and mix in whatever you want (pureed fruit, chocolate chips, crushed cookies), and then whichever sweetener you like (cane sugar, honey, stevia, agave, or even Splenda or aspartame if you’re into that).  Then go to town whirling it all up. Here are a few things I've learned along the way:

Hard things like nuts should be added at the end as garnish, unless you crush them up fairly well. They can mess up the machine by getting caught if they are big enough chunks unless you keep a watchful eye on it.

You can add alcohol (rum, vodka, champagne, etc.) to your blend. Because of alcohol’s ultra-low freezing point it makes it easier to scoop (but don’t go overboard. Usually only 1-2 Tbsp. of it are needed).

Experiment with when to add the pureed fruit – either at the beginning or at the end after the milk’s been frozen. I think the fruit is better left unfrozen, and simply mashed with a little bit of sugar or honey and then swirled in after the milk has been frozen. But you can always swirl it in and then pop it into the freezer for about an hour just to stiffen it up a bit if you prefer.

One of my favorite things lately is pistachio gelato. A company called Ciao Bella makes a good one but I'm going to try to make it myself with a little less sugar. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

I hope you enjoy your summer and stay cool! Of course, if you have any frozen dessert ideas you'd like to share, please leave a comment.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mammoth Trout & Forest Bathing

Last weekend was my husband’s family reunion, of sorts. Just the immediate family - mother, father, 3 brothers, their wives and a couple of dogs . The occasion was fishing and the location, a family hangout for many years, Mammoth Lakes.

We drove up from southern California along Hwy 395, through miles and miles of dry, mostly deserted, barren, hot desert. The occasional Joshua Tree dotted the landscape, adding some visual interest to an otherwise monotonous stretch of beige nothingness. Dilapidated buildings, the occasional gas station, rest stop, and home-made jerky stand were all we saw for hours. After sweating through 95 degree heat in a car with non-working air conditioning (!) the road started its ascent after Bishop. As we climbed, the car’s outside temperature gauge literally went down one degree after another every minute, eventually reaching the high 60’s. Ahhhhh, relief! Not only was the temperature change a welcome relief, but so were the sights. As the road gained elevation, the landscape also changed. Brown desert gave way to green pines, sand gave way to craggy mountains.

As we exited the highway into Mammoth Lakes, my husband and I recognized stores and restaurants we’d been to the last time we were here and we were glad to see many of them were still in business. Of course, his memories go back much farther than mine. Childhood summers and winter vacations were spent at the condo his parents had once owned here.

Mammoth in the winter

We were too early to check in to the condominium his family had rented for the weekend, so we drove past the street where we would have turned, and went a bit further up the road to Twin Lakes. Glad to get out and stretch our legs again, we were blasted with gale force winds we hadn’t expected. We took a few pictures, but the wind just about blew us over. Undeterred from enjoying this idyllic place we hadn’t seen in a long time, we got back in the car and continued up the road and crossed the bridge over the lake. You could see the waterfall best from this vantage point. We were both thinking the same thing: someday we would have to camp here. Twin Lakes Campground is small but beautiful, each campsite nestled among trees and shrubs, virtually private from its neighbors. One place I had never seen was the top of the waterfall that feeds Twin Lakes. What an amazing view! (Later I was to learn that it had appeared in a Toyota commercial).

The mountains had the last remnants of snow at their peaks – just enough to remind us that winter had passed but that summer hadn’t quite yet arrived. Despite a lackluster season, snow melt created ample water to feed these lakes. Fishermen in their little aluminum boats bobbed around on their surfaces with rods dangling in the water, hoping to catch something. I was hoping the men in this family would be successful, too. Dinner the second night depended on it!

As evening approached we realized it was time to head to the condo where the rest of the family had probably already arrived. After all the greetings and unpacking the car, dinner was quickly assembled and we tucked in. It had been a long travel day for all of us.

Lake Crowley, 15 miles from Mammoth Lakes
The following morning, as sandwiches and goodies were packed, the men were sent off to fish Lake Crowley. The women headed out to sightsee. We headed to the lakes (I didn't mind seeing them again) and drove past the Mammoth Mountain ski resort up to the summit for a panoramic view of the Minarets, as well as other mountain peaks and alpine meadows. The sky was blue, the air clear, everything breathtakingly beautiful.

Throughout the day we had been getting periodic text message updates from one of the brothers with the # of fish caught. For a while, it was looking kind of grim. I was thinking that maybe we should give them the address of the nearest supermarket to stop at along the way! At the end of the day they came home with enough to feed the 10 people we would have for dinner. Fresh trout for everyone!!
Lake trout
My brother-in-law, Steve, is a really good cook, and he was in charge of preparing them.  He left the fish whole and into the cavity placed a twig of rosemary, lemon slices, salt and pepper and sliced onion. Then he grilled the fish whole for 7 minutes per side and let them rest for a couple of minutes before cutting off the head and tail and filleting them.

We each received half a fish, which was plenty, with all the other food we had. There were green beans almondine, rice salad, and Greek salad. It was a great feast and everything was so good. The fish was of course the main attraction and absolutely wonderful. Moist and juicy and incredibly fresh (like 'hours' fresh, not 'days'). 

That weekend I realized that there is something sort of primal in catching and preparing your own food - a link to times when people had to rely on themselves. Today's "hunting" at the supermarket doesn't provide that same feeling. To go out and "hunt and gather" for oneself provides a greater appreciation and respect for the food we eat, since there would also have been times one would have had to go without.  
I fished with my husband and father-in-law on that very same lake many years ago. I had caught the first fish and at the end of the day had caught the most. There was a sense of accomplishment there, I will admit. But my favorite part of being in the mountains is the time spent outdoors. I find that very primal, too. I recently read that a great way to recenter yourself is to engage in "forest bathing". I thought this was a great term to describe spending time in natural settings. I do feel "bathed" when I see the beauty of sweeping vistas, alpine lakes and meadows, and snow-capped  rugged mountains. It renews and refreshes.

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