Thursday, October 29, 2009

S-L-O-W food

Yesterday was a very full, busy day in the city that involved a lot of wind, rain, walking, carrying excessive quantities of bags and raw dairy (and toddlers it seemed!), umbrellas being blown inside out, and of course seeing lots of interesting people. Not much eating happened (except in Oliver's case) so Hugo and I were pretty hungry by the time we got home. The normal thing to do in this situation would be to hit speed dial for our favorite local Thai restaurant -- but we are sticking to a very strict budget so this was not an option. Instead I made a roast chicken that we had just picked up (fresh that week from an Amish farm in PA -- not even frozen).

Said chicken must have weighed just over 6 lbs. (how could that be?!) and took an accordingly long time to cook (about 1.75 hours). By 9:00, when it was finished, along with the short-grain brown rice I love, Hugo had already passed out on the living room rug from exhaustion and hunger. He had to be forced to the table, but we enjoyed that chicken a lot (I for one had much more than my fair share of crispy skin -- but less than half a juicy chicken breast as this bird was giant!). Oliver just wanted to nurse and go to bed.

On days like these I am reminded how much time and dedication it takes to eat home-cooked food of the variety that we enjoy: local, seasonal, all from hard-to-reach locations that requires a true hunter/gatherer mentality. At one point as we were unpacking our booty from the buyers' club I made an off-hand comment about how nice it was to have chicken again, and had a startling realization: at any hour of the day I could walk out my door and purchase a hot, already-roasted chicken for a fraction of the price within 5 minutes!

So am I just insane? Does flavor really matter this much? Is supporting local farms really worth all this effort? Does it really make a difference in our family's health and quality of life?

I think you know my answer to that. But I can't speak for Hugo.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Stock improves!

Many people in the responsible-omnivore movement highlight the importance of "eating the whole animal," not just chicken breasts or prime rib. This was an important practice of traditional people, who recognized the nutritional value to be found in all parts of the animal; it also made food go much further and meant that families could be satisfied with less meat because they were using other nutrient-dense animal parts that kept them going much longer than meat alone could ever do. Farm wives of the past would use everything from feathers, feet, and gizzards when slaughtering a valuable chicken (and all chickens were very valuable). Many people who live on farms today still follow these practices. The summer issue of Gastronomica had a fascinating article on a traditional dish of the Piedmont area of Italy that incorporates such unmentionable chicken parts as testicles and wattles -- and yes, people still eat this!

I am slowly incorporating more of these methods into our way of eating, and while I don't plan on eating rooster wattles or testicles any time soon, I finally got brave enough to try making stock with chicken feet. There was a bit of the grossness factor that I had to get over, so I just tried not to look at them as I slipped them into the big pot of water along with a chicken carcass, cut-up onions, celery, and carrots, and 1 tbsp. of vinegar. I simmered everything for at least 6 hours, adding sea salt along the way, then strained out all the solids, and let me tell you, the end result was like no stock I have ever tasted. It was absolutely divine: deep golden-brown, rich, flavorful, and (as a single sip told me instantly) just brimming with minerals. Turns out this stock was also incredibly gelatin-rich -- it gelled beautifully in the fridge, which is THE sign of a truly nutritious, properly-made stock. Many people are tempted to believe this "jelly" is just fat and therefore must be bad for them, but it is actually gelatin which improves digestion and absorption of nutrients, imparts valuable minerals to our bodies, and has many healing properties (thus the old adage that chicken soup is good for a cold). People in many traditional cultures have sayings to the effect that "broth will cure anything" or "a good broth will raise the dead."

An endocrinologist I used to see (hurrah! no more need for that!) told me once in horror about the oxtail soup her mother made for her after her difficult labor and delivery with her first child. She was eating it gleefully for days, but then one day when she was finally up and around again she looked in the fridge for something to eat and discovered a big pot of what looked like pale-brown jelly. She was horrified when her mother told her that this was the oxtail soup she had been eating! The wise Western medical doctor, believing this to be pure saturated fat, gave her silly traditional Venezuelan mother a good scolding and promptly threw away the soup -- along with its amazing store of nutrients and healing gelatin. I had no idea at the time she told me this tale that the jellied soup had actually been gelatin rather than fat, though I suspected that something was amiss in her beliefs about it (as many of us know, saturated fat would be solid after refrigeration, like butter). Of course, her mother couldn't explain why it was so good for her, but definitely knew that she needed to feed it to her recovering daughter! Alas, how sad that we now think we know better than our ancestors what it takes to be healthy and well.

A bag of chicken feet from our buyers' club cost me $1.75. Since I can only order this from them once per month (the other farmer I order from doesn't offer them), I picked up a bag for $5 at the Union Square Greenmarket last Friday (from Flying Pigs Farm) and will be making stock with it sometime this coming weekend. At either price, chicken feet are now an indispensable part of chicken stock in our house. Here is the yield from this stock-making episode (a little less than 3 quarts, a typical amount from our large pot). I've included the carrots in the picture as these are the pieces I saved to feed Oliver:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Train fare

As a way of seeing if my general impressions are accurate, I decided to pay attention to what my fellow passengers were eating and drinking on the subway today. In all, I observed 11 people with foods and/or beverages. I took notes on my phone and after a ride into and out of the city, I had the following list (this is everything I observed, nothing has been left out):

1 young boy: Skittles
2 teen guys: Pepsi, pizza
3 young women: Starbucks, Smartfood popcorn, chocolate bar
1 young man: giant cupcake (carrying it in a clear plastic container, not actually eating it)
1 middle-aged woman: small package crackers or cookies (not sure which)
2 middle-aged men: Pepsi, Monster Energy drink
1 older woman: potato chips & Tropicana juice cocktail

...and of course...
1 oddball (me): whole grain rye levain with soft spreadable raw milk cheese

After dropping off the family compost, shopping at the farmers' market, going to a dress delivery/fitting, to the bank, and to Whole Foods I was quite hungry myself (having eaten only brown rice with honey & milk for breakfast), so I picked up a plastic knife on my way out of Whole Foods and enjoyed a wedge of bread and some gooey delightfully sharp raw milk cheese from the farmers' market. I have been known to actually spread butter on bread in the middle of a crowded train, so clearly I am no stranger to eating on the go; however, I only do this when extremely hungry and try my best to avoid eating on the train if possible. So far the trend isn't catching on with anyone else, but I find that this way of eating is really quite convenient with a little previous planning, and no one could argue with the fact that it is far healthier and better for the environment, not to mention the local farm economy!

Of course, I realize that the selection of foods and drinks being consumed by subway riders is a huge indication of what's readily available in the bodegas and news stands, and I for one have certainly had to come a long way from my days of Sun chips and chocolate milk. Still I hope for a brighter food future for my fellow passengers. For now, however, with our societal propensity to rush about with insufficient nutrition under our belts, most of us are basically doomed to rely on stimulating pick-me-up snacks and beverages. The times it hits me the hardest are when I sit across from 3 and 4-year-olds drinking from bottles of Coke they can hardly even hold. I'm just glad this wasn't a sight I had to see today.

Cuckoo for compost

I am probably the only person who shows up to the farmers' market lugging a granny cart filled with bags of frozen compost...and a Vera Wang gown. Such is the life of a seamstress who longs to be a farmer! Or maybe the urban version of a farmer, and with a bit more time for intellectual pursuits.

Composting is a part of my daily life in a way, even though I don't do the actual work of decomposing (or keeping worms) myself. I can't really remember how long it's been since I started saving up our food scraps, freezing them in plastic bags, and taking them into the Union Square Greenmarket for the Lower East Side Ecology Center's compost drop-off. My freezer would probably remember the exact point when it started working about the same time that our neighborhood garbage collectors were impressed at our lightened trash load (as much as 14 lbs. less per week!). Once you start, composting is very addictive. Going back to throwing out all that delicious organic matter would be a little like dishing up plates of food every night, then throwing them away -- with hungry children begging right outside your door! Okay, perhaps I'm being a little dramatic, but I have gone through hell and high water to deliver food scraps for the industrious LESEC worms. On one occasion I even persuaded a Union Square sanitation worker to help me fish my bags of designated compost out of a trash can where I had thrown them in despair when I couldn't find the drop-off booth -- only to discover it soon after on the opposite side of the square.

Those of you with compost experiences should weigh in here please! I want your stories of escaping worms and friends' quizzical looks as they see what you're hoarding under the sink. And those of you who haven't tried yet, give it a whirl; look for food scrap drop-offs at your local farmers' market or community garden. It's a small way to make a big difference.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Have you ever seen such a beautiful squash?!

On a recent visit from my upstate sister (who lives on an almost-farm complete with babies, horses, chickens, guinea hens, cats, a dog, and two big organic gardens) I was graced with a box of beautiful fall squash in many colors, shapes, and sizes: pumpkins big and small, several butternuts, a hubbard squash (see below) which delighted me with its vivid honeydew color and sent the Old Mother Hubbard rhyme tripping through my head, dark-green acorn squash, spaghetti squash (which I have yet to try!), and several acorn-style squash that I am calling "leopard" acorns as I don't know the real name. Have you ever seen anything more lovely with such a misleading name as squash?

To cook autumn gourds like these, simply cut in half, scoop out the seeds and membrane, and place cut-side-down in an oven-proof baking dish, with about 1/2" of water in the bottom. Bake at 350 degrees until a sharp knife slides into the side easily, about 30-45 minutes depending on size. Turn right-side-up on the serving plates and fill the hollows with butter and a sprinkling of brown sugar or succanat (dehydrated cane sugar juice). We enjoyed our leopard acorn with quiche, but these types of squash are also great with meat dishes and can take the place of a starch in your autumn meals. Bon appetit!

Night-time soother

There is nothing so comforting as sipping this ambrosial drink from your favorite mug, cuddled in your warmest robe, after everyone is in bed. Ah, peace! This is a twist on traditional egg nog, but suitable even for those individuals who don't like eggs...or milk for that matter. I promise no eggy taste! The near-raw yolk will provide wonderful beneficial enzymes, fully-available nutrients, and will help restore the natural mucus lining to your digestive tract (trust me, this is a good thing). I must mention for those of you haunted by visions of salmonella that you should only consume raw or under-cooked eggs from pasture-raised chickens from a reliable source -- no $1/dozen eggs for this recipe, please! Eggs from healthy, properly-raised chickens do not carry salmonella and will pose no threat to your health.

Simply whisk one egg yolk (you may use the whole egg, but uncooked whites are sometimes difficult to digest, so I leave them out) in a bowl, then pour in about 10 oz. of the most natural milk you can find (raw from grass-fed cows is best, next best is grass-fed pasteurized but unhomogenized -- if you can't find these but still enjoy having milk in your diet, then use regular organic whole milk, never ultra-pasteurized). Add 1 tsp. maple syrup, a spoonful of butter, and warm very gently just past lukewarm in a small pot (the butter should just be partly melted). Pour into your mug and top with a sprinkling of nutmeg. Sip, relax, and text message your best friend if you like -- and I promise you will have found a wonderful way to feel both young and old (in a good way!) at the same time.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What Oliver eats now: an update

Thursday lunch: "juice" from roasted chicken, lacto-fermented pickles, raw goat's milk Havarti, cured sausage, baby pear

At his current age of about a year (13.5 months to be exact), Oliver still gets most of his nourishment from breastmilk. Some kids show an early interest in solid foods while others are content to continue nursing for the most part, with supplemental solids, and Oliver is one of the latter. He loves eating and trying new things, he has his favorite and his not-so-favorite foods, but for the most part he seems to still be getting a lot from breastmilk. As someone put it to me recently, "They nurse until they feel complete." I would add to this and say that in my own opinion (based on observation and study), since the quality of the mother's breastmilk depends largely on the quality of her diet (particularly whether she has enough fat-soluble vitamins available), this will affect the child's interest in solid foods. Some babies reach for food early and seem to have a huge appetite because they know they aren't getting all that they need from nursing alone. There are many people who would be up in arms at this idea, but if we acknowledge that diet does affect breastmilk quality (which has been proven), then it really does make sense.

All of Oliver's food is from small, local family farmers (or fishers) who follow sustainable, humane, and ecologically-friendly practices. So from the raw milk in his bottle to the scallops at dinner, Ollie is getting a completely nutrient-dense and natural diet. Usually he has three small meals daily and about two bottles of raw milk yogurt (which is pretty liquidy and drinkable) and/or raw milk, with some supplemental raw cream, and/or raw egg yolk added as extra fortification. He also gets about 1/2 tsp. of high-vitamin cod liver oil daily added to one of his bottles.

For his solid foods, I generally offer them mashed or pre-chewed (unless he can gum them easily, like cheese), and try to emphasize the following:
-seafood (especially mollusks and oily fish),
-meat (all kinds, but especially my creamy liver paté),
-mineral-rich bone broths (all homemade, usually fish, chicken, or beef),
-raw milk cheese, and
-lacto-fermented veggies.

He really likes the cheese, raw fish, and broths, adores raw pasture butter from a spoon, and absolutely LOVES the lacto-fermented things I have offered so far, including sauerkraut, pickles, lacto-fermented cucumbers, American kim chee, and dilly beans. For some beverage variety, he loves my homemade lacto-fermented ginger ale, and also kombucha and kefir. And of course he also eats some cooked vegetables, beans (always properly prepared), and tiny tastes of fruit. I make it a point to offer a variety of foods that he is currently able to digest (so no grains yet), and emphasize foods rich in enzymes and beneficial bacteria (thus the lacto-fermentation, raw dairy of all kinds, raw egg yolk, and raw fish (marinated 7 hrs. in whey or lime juice to make it safe).

As of right now, we don't really offer Oliver much by way of sweet foods. I feel very strongly that it is critical that he not get used to eating sweet things on a regular basis. We don't eat much by way of sweets in our house anymore (which has been a huge benefit for all of us!), and I hope to keep it this way as Oliver gets older, with sweets for special occasions and as natural as possible. We will see how it goes! Already of course if he sees Hugo eating corn chips or a piece of bread or something else that we don't want him to have yet, he will want some and cry if he doesn't get it. So it's actually of benefit to us, too, because we have to eat more or less the way we want Oliver to eat.

Of course, when it comes to his predilection for gnawing on bones (a great source of minerals!), I'm not sure where he picked that certainly wasn't something we had to teach him!