Thursday, August 30, 2012

Home-made foods may finally leave home

Yesterday, a friend shared with me an article from the Los Angeles Times that I found really intriguing and thought-provoking. There’s a bill being discussed in our state that would allow ordinary people, like you and me, to bake stuff at home and sell it to make extra money, up to a certain dollar amount per year. Certainly a great way to earn a little extra cash in this economic climate.

Apparently, 30 other states have passed similar bills in recent years. Despite California being a farm-to-table sort of state, you’d think that we’d have been the first to do this, but no, we are lagging sorely behind.

Currently, food prep is a fairly expensive endeavor. In order to make anything, “caterers” need a commercial kitchen in which to prepare their food. The rent alone for such a place can wipe out any profits one could realize, so the little guy has no chance. In addition to that are all the permits required. There are a lot of barriers to entry, as they say in Econ 101 class.
People are clearly wanting alternatives to mass-produced food. Look at the increase in attendance at farmer’s markets over the years. We've gone way past the fruits and veggies - now we've got local honey, hand-crafted breads, olive oil, specialty teas, humanely and organically-raised meats, even hummus and pita, for God's sake! We are living behind the moon if we think mega-food companies are really watching out for our health. In the last year alone, we've had contaminated beef, salmonella tainted mangoes, cantaloupe, and eggs, listeria contaminated Romaine lettuce, e.coli in any number of things, and bacteria in peanuts. Just read this article from the Huffington Post on food safety violations that have plagued this nation recently.  

Food safety is vital. I don’t think any reasonable person disagrees with the need for even home cooks/bakers having some basic knowledge in preventing the spread of bacteria. Taking food safety classes, for instance, should be a minimum requirement for anyone with a home-based food business. But there are so many obstacles standing in the way of the truly gifted people making cupcakes, fudge, artisanal breads, cheeses, whatever, that seem to just keep us dependent on mega food manufacturers. 

Why has so much in life become so corporate? Wouldn't it be far nicer to go into a local establishment in your town and pick up something that's fresh, with wholesome, real ingredients, made by someone you know that bakes like a rockstar?  How cool would that be?
You’d think that California would be all over passing this bill for the added boost it might get in tax revenues. Granted, it might only be a small number, initially, but what if this really took off? God knows this state is dying on the vine. It could surely use the money.

If this bill passes, it would be a huge victory on so many levels. People with cooking and baking skills are eager and proud to share foods they've made using quality ingredients, we'd all benefit by having more natural, whole food choices available, and it would help families make ends meet in challenging economic times. Surely, a win-win for us all.
To read the L.A. Times article, click here.

The bill in question is AB 1616.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Something New - a Book Review

I've belonged to a book club since 2007. Other than the fun, often lively discussions we have over books and life in general, what’s nice about it is that we’ve read all sorts of things I might never have picked had it not been on our reading list. Although the following book I might have picked up on my own, eventually.

Our most recent read was “97 Orchard – An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement” by Jane Ziegelman, released June 2010. It centers around the lives of five European immigrant families at 97 Orchard Street, a Lower East Side tenement building constructed in the 1860’s by a German immigrant, Lucas Glockner. Glockner was a tailor, who prospered enough to acquire a series of tenement properties, 97 Orchard Street being among them. There he was both landlord and tenant. Through the book’s 5 chapters we learn about some of America’s early immigrants and the foods that made up their lives. First the Glockners (German), then the Moores (Irish), the Gumpertzes (German Jews), the Rogarshevskys (Lithuanian-Russian Jews) and finally, the Baldizzis (Southern Italian).

The book covers the years of 1863-1935 and we learn a tremendous amount about not only the culinary traditions that early American immigrants brought with them, but also about tenement life, city politics, American attitudes towards immigrants, and what Ellis Island was like.

Each family shows us the influence that not only America had on their food traditions, but how their cuisine impacted American tastes. For instance, I was surprised to learn that Italian food was hated at first. Americans could not understand the Italian love affair with “macaroni” and their dreaded olive oil. Americans eventually came to love Italian food, thank God. Also surprising was that corned beef and cabbage wasn’t a traditional Irish meal until they landed in America, and the same for Jewish challah.

Pushcarts on a New York street
We learn about the shipboard diet typical for a 19th Century immigrant, the dining hall menus at Ellis Island, the important role pushcarts served to the immigrant cook (there were 2,500 of them of the Lower East Side in 1905), the grocery shopping experience of the typical tenement housewife, and where people hung out to enjoy their favorite foods, once ethnic restaurants started springing up. The book is filled with recipes typical of those the families would have made or did make. Most importantly we see how their traditional foods provided comfort to them during a time when they were some of the poorest people in America, struggling to survive.

I found the amount of research the author had done astounding. Through interviews, poring over city documents, and reading of old letters and cookbooks from that time period, she gathered a wealth of information and put it into a format that I found easily readable. Sometimes the stories were funny, sometimes sad, often touching, as when neighbors at 97 Orchard Street helped one another by sharing food and taking care of one another’s children when needed.

Today, 97 Orchard Street serves as a museum, offering tours inside the building where these five families lived. The above is a photograph of the tenement. Present day, naturally, as evidenced by the Land Rover parked in front.

I would recommend the book to you if you enjoy culinary history. It gives a fantastic glimpse into the lives of American immigrants, and what they ate when they got here. Being the daughter of German immigrants, I especially liked reading about the Germans that came to this country and what imprint they left on the American culinary landscape.

For book reviews, you can read those from the New York Times or Amazon.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

What I'm drinking now

We’re in the thick of summer now and all this sweltering heat and hot wind calls for something cool and refreshing to drink. When I unwind, I like a glass of wine, and though reds are great when you want comfort and soothing, the heat really calls for something crisp, clean and white.

One of my favorite wines lately is Riesling, a white grape variety which originated in the Rhine River region of Germany, where my family is from. According to Wikipedia, Riesling “is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery, almost perfumed, aromas as well as high acidity. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling white wines. Riesling wines are usually varietally pure and are seldom oaked. Riesling is usually included in the "top three" white wine varieties together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is a variety which is highly "terroir-expressive", meaning that the character of Riesling wines is clearly influenced by the wine's place of origin.”

For many years, Riesling was the most grown variety in Germany and in the French region of Alsace. But it is also grown in other parts of the world. There are significant plantings in Austria, the Czech Republic, Luxemburg, northern Italy, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada, South Africa, China and the Ukraine. It is most commonly grown in colder regions.

Riesling is best consumed when young, as it makes a fruity and aromatic wine. Aromas of green or other apples, grapefruit, peach, gooseberry, honey, rose blossom or cut green grass are common. However, Riesling’s naturally acidity and range of flavors also makes it suitable for extended aging. Sweet Riesling wines, such as the German Trockenbeerenauslese, are especially good for cellaring since the high sugar content provides for additional preservation.  Some of these have oldies have been enjoyed 100 years after bottling!

The most expensive wines made from Riesling are late harvest dessert wines, produced by letting the grapes hang on the vines well past normal picking time. Through evaporation caused by the fungus Botrytis cinerea (“noble rot”) or by freezing, as in the case of ice wine, the remaining liquid is concentrated and the resulting wine offers richer layers on the palate. 

In the late 19th Century German immigrants to the United States brought with them Riesling vines and were first planted in New York. Plantings appeared in California by 1857 and followed into Washington in 1871. Today, unfortunately, Riesling grapes in California lag far behind Chardonnay in popularity, although late harvest dessert wines are becoming increasingly more so. Both regular Rieslings, as well as late harvest Rieslings, make excellent choices for summertime sipping.

In the summer, I enjoy what my mother likes to make on hot days: a Weinschorle. I mix equal parts Riesling and plain sparkling mineral water for a refreshing and cooling treat on a hot summer day.

Riesling is a versatile wine for pairing with food because of its balance of sugar and acidity. It can be paired with white fish or pork, the drier ones go well with chicken dishes, and the sweeter ones are some of the few wines that can stand up to the stronger flavors and spices of Thai and Chinese cuisine.

Ideally, Late Harvest Rieslings should be served somewhat chilled and paired with cheese, fruit and nuts on lazy summer afternoons. After which, you can nap in your hammock. Or they can be enjoyed together after a meal, as the French do.

If you are new to this wine, try experimenting. Grab a Riesling each from Germany, France, Washington, California or even New York, and see if you can spot differences in what the soils from each of those areas contributed to the wine. The good thing about drinking this varietal is that you can easily find bottles under $10 that are excellent. Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington is the worldwide leader in the production of Riesling wines by volume and they are good. You might try other Washingtonians such as Hogue or Columbia Crest, which are also nice. From California, try Pacific Rim Sweet Riesling or the J Lohr White Riesling Bay Mist, and from Germany try Dr. Heidemanns Riesling or Dr. Loosen or anything called Piesporter Michelsberg. From France, you can't beat Trimbach Riesling. Go to your neighborhood wine shop and ask for recommendations based on whether you like your wine sweet or more dry. They can steer you in the right direction.

Speaking of wine shops, I have a new one near me called “Total Wine”. It’s a great store. I like it better than BevMo because they seem to carry more. Tastings and other upcoming in-store events are posted online at But don’t overlook your neighborhood wine shop - that small place that offers a personal touch to the wine tasting experience. It’s a great place to hang out with friends or make new ones.

Enjoy your next bottle of Riesling. Zum wohl (to your health)!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Where I shop and why

I think it’s important to consider where we shop for foods. I choose stores by the quality of the products they carry and determine if they are worthy of my visit. That may sound snobbish, but if you’re interested in not only your health, but in supporting businesses that are committed to carrying quality food, I think it makes a difference where you shop.

My favorite places are Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, Mother’s Market and my local farmer’s market. You may have noticed that I didn’t list a single supermarket chain. That’s for a reason. I rarely shop at one, simply because I don’t want to support the consumption of the vast majority of what is stocked on their shelves: highly processed foods, foods that contain genetically modified ingredients (estimates put that at 70% of what you find at supermarkets), preservatives, chemical additives and sugar in its various forms in addition to things with unpronounceable  ingredients, high fructose corn syrup, food dyes, and artificial sweeteners.

Even if you, like many health experts tell us to, shop along the perimeter of the store, where you find produce, dairy and meat (purportedly the healthiest and least processed foods) and avoid the center aisles, you’ve made some improvement. But those foods are questionable as well, given the pesticides on conventionally grown produce and hormones in most conventionally produced meat and dairy. Though a few supermarkets (like Pavilions) carry a line of organic foods and have a small “health food” section, most of those foods are totally overpriced. These can be found much more reasonably at the health food store, so what’s the point in shopping there?

Trader Joe’s celebrates 45 years this week and it’s come a long way since its early beginnings when it was mostly a wine and cheese shop. The store has evolved - you can now buy a good selection of produce, and a wider range of meats, many of them organic or naturally raised and without hormones. Lately, gluten-free options have been on the rise. The manager of my local store said Trader Joe’s is against genetically-modified products so none of their products contain them and for this I applaud them. Plus, I find their prices are great, so I buy a ton of stuff from them. They also welcome emails from customers and take comments and suggestions very seriously, often bringing back items that might have been discontinued because people miss them.

Sprouts is another great store, offering a few things that TJ’s doesn’t, namely a meat department and sandwich counter, a vitamin and cosmetic department, and a bulk section where you can buy nuts and seeds, granola, grains, beans and snacks. Bulk items can be a good value, and require a lot less packaging. Sprouts has weekly specials that run Wednesday-Tuesday and sometimes great deals can be had. Unfortunately, I find their organic produce section to be lacking but they are expanding it, hopefully due to consumer demand. What I like best is that I can get freshly made sausages that they make themselves without any artificial ingredients. Since they have a butcher on site, I can also get bones and other meaty things for my dog. They are also very happy to order items for you and call you when they come in.

Mother’s Market is a chain of 7 health food stores in my area. Their staff is knowledgeable and helpful and many of the faces I’ve seen over the years are still there, and that says something about a store. Mother’s offers a smaller, family-run, shopping experience than what you’d find at a huge (although fabulous) store such as Whole Foods. While WF is awesome, my smaller health food store has what I need. I can find all my supplements, protein powders, and natural cosmetics there, and can enjoy their deli, juice bar and restaurant in addition to all the healthy stuff you’d normally find. Several of the stores offer informational seminars from nutritionists and health professionals on a variety of subjects from time to time.

And though I list it last, I think it’s actually the most important, and that is my local farmer’s market. This is the only place you can look the grower directly in the eye. You don’t get that at a supermarket. The people selling you their wares are happy to discuss them with you. If you don’t know how to prepare (or even pronounce) a vegetable, you can ask them. I love this direct contact with the people who are responsible for growing the food I eat and I believe in supporting them. Farmers are some of the hardest working people there are and they don’t get enough credit for what they do. Some markets have even gone beyond the usual produce and bring in vendors that sell everything from local honey, farm-fresh eggs, meat and fish, and bread, to pita and hummus and even tea. The larger markets often have food trucks where you can catch lunch, or crafts people selling knitted caps and embroidered things, jewelry, etc. Some markets hire musicians to entertain, and others even let you bring your dog (but check this carefully. Most do not allow them)!

So that’s where I shop and why. I encourage you to look at where you shop and why and realize the importance of your choices. Do your stores support the beliefs you have in taking care of your health? If there are tons of things at your market that are full of crap and don’t support health, why are you still shopping there? We have an incredible amount of power in how we spend our dollars. Where we shop, and what we buy, makes a difference.

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