Seasonal Eating

Matthews Farmers Market, where I do the bulk of my grocery shopping, goes into official winter mode after the special Christmas market on Wednesday. I may have to branch out and visit some other local farmers markets to get us through our first winter of seasonal eating. It will be a challenge for sure. I’m already looking forward to spring when I’ll be eating vegetables from my own garden again and filling my bags at the farmers market with everything except leafy greens and root vegetables.

Mise en place for Rachel Ray’s Cod with Fennel and Onion: chopped Fennel, Fennel Fronds, Onions and Parsley and my addition, carrots (which I pan roasted separately).

I bought those REAL baby carrots from the farmers market last weekend. (Not those bleached and whittled down carrots you get in a bag from the grocery store.) Carrots are in season now, so we’ll be eating them more often. I have to admit it was a pain to wash all those tiny carrots. They were too small to peel, so I had to scrub each one with a produce brush. Sheesh! (But in the end it was worth it.) I only bought one bunch so there were only enough for us to have a few each. What was I thinking? This weekend I snagged two bunches, but wonder if I should have made it three… Anyway, here’s the finished product.

My version of Rachel Ray's cod with Fennel and Onion... with carrots.

 

Did you know that Trader Joe’s has a sustainable seafood plan. It won’t be in full effect until December 31, 2012 (bummer), but at least they’re working on it. It’s really hard to find quality, sustainable seafood. Here’s a quote from their website:

“In our efforts to offer seafood options that fit customer needs ranging from food safety and taste, to concern over the environment, we have established the following goal: all of our seafood purchases will shift to sustainable sources by December 31, 2012. This applies to all formats of seafood we offer: frozen, fresh, canned, etc.”

Here’s another delicious cod dinner with turnip kimchi (thanks Mom), nori, broccoli and rice. I marinated the fish Korean style for about 15 minutes (soy sauce, Korean chili paste, a touch of sesame oil, green onions and garlic) then broiled it. The broccoli was steamed and then tossed with sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, green onions, salt and pepper and red pepper flakes.

About once a week we have roasted chicken with seasonal sides. Last night it was steamed spinach with freshly grated parmesan cheese and yummy butternut squash risotto. (There is too much stock in this recipe though. I only used 3 cups). I usually rub melted butter or olive oil over the chicken, then fresh minced garlic (or garlic powder when I’m feeling lazy), onion powder, celery salt, salt and pepper and sometimes paprika or dried or fresh herbs. You can season it any way you want. Pastured chickens don’t need to cook as long as conventional chickens. About an hour (maybe an hour and 5 minutes at the most) at 375 degrees usually brings a four pound pastured bird to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, which is acceptable for a pastured chicken. Anything more and the breast will be a little on the dry side. A conventional chicken would probably need to be cooked about 15 minutes longer so that it reaches the recommended internal temp of 180 degrees. (Place the therometer between the thigh and breast when checking for doneness to avoid piercing the meat and letting those juices run out.)

I only buy pastured chicken these days. They’re better for you. They do cost more, which is why I hardly throw any of it away. Once we’ve eaten most of the chicken, I boil the leftover carcass (for about two hours with a couple tablespoons of vinegar) to make homemade, organic, pastured chicken stock and pick the remaining meat from the bones before tossing them in the trash. I don’t know how much organic, pastured stock would cost in the grocery store. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen it. I usually get a couple quarts of stock each time. A quart of organic “free range” stock costs around $4.00. And just in case you didn’t know, free range isn’t the same thing as pastured. Pastured stock would cost more.

Burgers with Alton Brown’s Chipotle Smashed Sweet Potatoes ( 5 star recipe from FoodNetwork.com, but the chipotles were way too hot and overpowering – inedible, next time I’m only adding a few peppers) and broiled zucchini. Oh how I’ve missed you zucchini. I’ve been craving summer foods and this dish was inspired by that. The cranberries and sweet potatoes were seasonal (though I barely touched the potatoes) and the burger and zucchini hit the spot for my summer food cravings. This meal was the stand out favorite for the month. I remember trying a pork burger from the Harvest Moon Grille while we were on the Know Your Farms Tour a few months ago. I didn’t have enough ground pork for our family of five, so I combined grass fed ground beef and pastured ground pork with an egg and some barbecue rub that Brian and I mixed up. I know it sounds crazy (unless you love cranberries as much as I do), but I made cranberry mayo to go with it – two parts mayo, one part leftover whole cranberry sauce. It was a little on the pink side, but the sweetness complimented the burger so well. Brian was initially turned off by the color, but after tasting it he promptly stole half my mayo. (It was okay though. I thought that might happen, so I made twice as much.)

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Kimchi and Chopsticks

Thanks to my mom, I’ve grown up eating (and loving) Korean food. Some of my all time favorite meals are Korean. Galbi (Korean barbecued spare ribs), tteokguk (rice cake soup), chapchae (noodles), egg rolls, Korean style chicken and pork, spinach and soy bean sprouts, sticky rice, gimbap (Korean sushi), Korean pancakes (which is nothing like a breakfast pancake)… just to name a few. And of course I couldn’t forget the most well known Korean food – kimchi. Most people either hate or love it. But what they don’t know is that there are many kinds of kimchi. Nearly any vegetable can be made into kimchi. Kimchi made with napa cabbage is probably the most popular. But I have in my refrigerator right now, turnip kimchi. If you think regular kimchi has a strong odor, you’d probably be blown away by this one. If it didn’t taste so darn good, I probably wouldn’t eat it myself. The poor kids can barely stand the smell, but hopefully they’ll learn to love it like I do.

Tteokguk

Kimchi is usually some form of a fermented vegetable. It’s not much different than one of America’s favorite stinky foods – pickles. (I have to admit that I’m a little sensitive when it comes to kimchi, and would like to point out to that every culture, including us Americans, have “stinky” foods. It’s really just a matter of what you are used to. If we’re judging with our noses, I’ll take kimchi over American cheese any day of the week. They were both a staple in my house growing up. That cheese is some fonky smellin’ sh-tuff!) Kimchi as well as other fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, tofu, some cheeses, even beer and wine, are good for you. Fermented foods (and drinks) boost the immune system and the flora (or good bacteria) is great for digestion, which is important for good health.

Kimchi

As it turns out there are many healthy foods in the Korean diet. Nori (seaweed) is also good for you. One of my favorite lunches is rice mixed with green onions, soy sauce and a little butter, salt and pepper, along with nori and kimchi.

Nori, and other sea vegetables are rich in potassium and iodine and contain other vitamins and minerals not often found in land foods. They have an anti-inflammatory effect and may reduce the risk of breast cancer as well as other types of cancer. They boost the immune system and help maintain normal blood pressure. Sea vegetables also contain lots of B12, which helps fight fatigue, memory loss and nerve damage. Just like fish, some sea vegetables have a stronger flavor than others. I have had seaweed that tastes very “fishy”, which I don’t like, but not all seaweed is fishy. The one pictured above doesn’t have strong flavor at all.

Koreans also tend to eat a lot more vegetables than meat. Unlike a typical American meal in which the main dish is usually the protein, Koreans will likely have several vegetable dishes with little or no meat. Fish is also a big part of their diet. Fish is rich in Omega 3’s which are good for heart and brain health.

Believe it or not, even eating with chopsticks is good for you. No smart ass – not because you hardly get anything in your mouth, but because it forces you to slow down. It does take some practice to master and I’ll admit I’m not that great with them, but it’s because I don’t use them often. That’s going to change. My mom on the other hand could probably build a brick wall with a pair of chopsticks. It’s a lot healthier to eat food slowly and it’s a fun change of pace. They’re more efficient than a fork when you know how to use them. Eating rice with chopsticks is a challenge, but that’s when the nori or lettuce comes in handy.

Korean style porkchops

One more thing about the way we eat. Maybe you’ve noticed, as I have, how much of the American diet, including how meals are prepared and eaten, is based on convenience. Meals should be a social event from preparation to after dinner conversation. Enjoy yourself while you’re cooking and eating. Meals with good company and glass of wine or beer are far healthier than those eaten alone in front of a T.V.,  in your car or at your desk. People tend to eat more when they eat quickly and alone. I also suggest sitting down when eating – even if it’s finger food. Happy eating!

Random Stuff

I’ve finally had some success baking bread!! I’ll still play around with the recipe. I’m starting to get the “feel” of the dough. I’ve been trying to avoid adding gluten, which I finally figured out was like putting the cart before the horses. Whole wheat is harder to work with, so until I get the basics down, I’ll keep adding gluten (in the form of King Arthur’s organic unbleached all purpose flour for now) back into the recipe until I get it right. Then I’ll start working backward again, until I figure out a way to make it with just whole wheat. I just need the training wheels a little longer. I checked out King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking cookbook from the library, to get a few more tips.

Speaking of books, I’ve read a few lately. Mostly about food of course. Even Eat, Pray, Love had a section solely dedicated to food. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan was okay, but honestly it wasn’t anything I hadn’t already heard. If you just skip to the last section, you’ll get the entire book in a nutshell. If you aren’t already familiar with reasons to eat whole food, Big Industry and Big Agriculture and such I recommend it. I’ve been told I might like another one of his books,  Omnivore’s Dilemma more.

I read Building Bone Vitality, which was boring, to be quite honest, but there was some really compelling information in there explaining what’s wrong with the current recommendations to eat lots of dairy and take calcium supplements to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis.  The authors/doctors recommend eating less meat and dairy and other the high acids foods that steal the calcium right from your bones. Instead eat calcium rich fruits and vegetables like collards, kale, spinach, broccoli, carrots, oranges, dates and raisins. Even nuts and seeds have calcium.

I also read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. They actually had it on cd at the library, so I listened to most of it while chauffeuring the kids back and forth to school. (The girls were so glad when I finished it.) The author basically uprooted her family from Arizona and moved back to Virginia where they grew most of their own food (fruits, vegetables, eggs, chickens and turkeys) and ate locally for one year. Very inspiring, and there was a lot of insight in this book about eating local, whole foods.

Now I’m reading The Conscious Kitchen by Alexandra Zissu. I like this book the most because it’s more of a why and how to. She gives lots of tips and resources, like how to read PLU codes (those little stickers they put on produce). 5 digit numbers beginning with a 9 are organic and according to her, conventional produce begins with a 4 and has a four digit number (however I know that some also begin with a 3). Genetically Modified produce can be labeled with a five digit numbers beginning with an 8, but good look finding those. PLU’s are optional and I doubt those producers would be willing to divulge that information. She also has touches on almost everything I’m concerned about these days – from dairy to fish to plastic and more. Read this book!!

Next on my list is Real Food What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck. Then maybe the other Michael Pollan book.

One more thought. I caught a quick glimpse of an episode of Oprah last week in which she was discussing the horror of puppy mills. Shortly after that, I was shopping at HT and found myself in line behind a woman with reusable grocery bags (great!), but she also had a ton of prepackaged food in her cart. I know every little bit helps, so I’m not knocking their efforts by any means. In fact I need to ramp up my own. What I’m suggesting is that now that we’re paying attention and doing our part to rid the planet of puppy mills and plastic bags, it’s time to take the next step, whatever that means for you.

Pick one thing that concerns you and figure out how you can make that situation better. When it becomes a habit, choose another. Recycling is good, but avoiding all that packaging is better. (Something I need to work on.) Likewise, if you can’t bear the thought of puppies raised in a mill, then you should reconsider buying conventional meat from the grocery store. That steak or chicken was once a living animal that most likely came from a factory farm. The animal abuse and neglect happening on factory farms is much worse than that of a puppy mill. (See pictures below.) Livestock and chickens aren’t bred for adoption and the public isn’t looking to rescue them. The whistle’s been blown and still no one is listening.

For me, the next step is going to be further avoiding packaging and any meat that might have been factory farmed. I’m going to reuse all the produce bags I’ve been saving. I use them at the farmers market, but now I’m going to take them into the grocery store too. Once they’re gone, I’m going to put a couple of those handy grocery baskets inside my cart and put the produce right in there. I’m also going to try and eliminate paper products at home. That will be a little harder and the additional washing will probably fall to me. I’m not sure if I’ll get a lot of support at home for this one.

Avoiding conventional meat outside of my home will be difficult. I have been reluctant to take this step, because it’s not something I can do discretely. It will leave me vulnerable to ridicule and some people will question it. But I’m going to do it. Some might think I’ve gone vegetarian, and that’s fine I guess. In fact, this would probably be easier to explain than: I only eat minimal amounts of meat from animals that were raised humanely and fed a proper diet, free of growth hormones and antibiotics. Unfortunately, someone along the way will take offense to that. They might assume I think I’m too good to eat what they are eating or that I’m judging them, when in reality I’m just taking a stance against something I feel strongly about. I’m sure there will be opportunities for me to show my girls that standing up for what you believe in may not always be easy, nevertheless it’s an important virtue. Of course I’ll probably break the rules every now and then, when it can’t be avoided, but I am going to give it more effort. Saying “I will never eat” or forbidding myself from any food is not something I’m willing to do.

 

How is this...

 

 

... different than this?

 

 

Mama pigs are literally pinned down so that her babies can nurse freely and to keep her from rolling over on one of them, which is a real possibility. But still no excuse.

Mama pigs are literally pinned down so that her babies can nurse freely and to keep her from rolling over on one of them, which is a real possibility. But still no excuse.

 

 

These might be considered "Free Range" chickens on a factory farm, but not to me. Buyer beware.

 

The Healthiest Variety

Last night for dinner we had Cheese & Spinach Stuffed Portobellos. This is not B’s favorite meal, but I like it, and eating vegetarian is something I like to do at least once or twice a week. I followed the recipe exactly, except I used homemade spaghetti sauce that I had in the freezer. I served it with a side of steamed broccoli and cauliflower. (I used the other half of the bag, leftover from my Honey Stir Fry Chicken from the night before. The one I got on the reduced cart at HT for $1.00 – savings!)* If you like mushrooms, you’ll like this recipe. Although I have to say that it wasn’t very good leftover. The mushroom had a slightly gamey taste today. Since B doesn’t really care for portobellos (texture thing), he wanted to know what the health benefits of mushrooms were. We’ve found that knowing the health benefits can actually make things taste better! So I got my Worlds Healthiest Foods book out and we discussed it. According to what I read, crimini (which are just baby portobellos) are one of the healthiest varieties. However, in my past research I remember that maitakes and shiitakes were higher on the list.

I have this sometimes annoying, but usually beneficial habit of wanting to find the healthiest variety of everything, and then wanting to know the best way to prepare it in order to get the most nutrition from it. For instance, most vegetables and fruits are best eaten raw or lightly steamed. The longer you cook them and the higher the temperature, like in a hot oven, on the grill or in a pan with searing hot oil, the more nutrients are lost. However, tomatoes and garlic are better for you when they are lightly cooked. They still shouldn’t be cooked at high temps or for a long time.

Let me get back on topic. If I’m going to eat something, it might as well be the most nutritious. If I’m going to eat an apple it might as well be Red Delicious. (Edited to add: Red apples contain more antioxidants. However, if you are diabetic or prediabetic, you might want to eat a green apple instead. They convert less sugar.) And if I’m going to eat yogurt it might as well be Greek yogurt. (I like 2% Fage.) And if I’m going to eat nuts, I might as well eat raw, unsalted walnuts, almonds, pistachios or cashews (in that order, no more than 1/4 cup a day).

Well the problem is when you’re searching for the best of something, you’ll also find the worst. And when one of your favorite things, is the least healthy variety, it can be a bit disappointing. I love fish because it yummy and it’s good for you. It’s the best source of Omega 3’s. A couple years ago, I decided we should eat more fish. I hadn’t cooked fish at home much and wanted to learn. So I found that tilapia is really mild and tasty and therefore, difficult for me to screw up. The best part was that it was cheap! I can usually get it on sale at HT for around $2.99-$4.99/lb. Great! We ate tilapia at least once a week, and (at that time) I thought it was good for us.

A few months ago, I was researching to find the healthiest fish. Guess what? Tilapia is not one of them. Not even close. It’s pretty much near the bottom of the list. I remember reading somewhere that it was actually one of the worst types of fish you can eat. Incidentally, Salmon is the best. Too bad I don’t like it. In my research I also found that wild caught fish is the best because the natural habitat creates a leaner, healthier and tastier fish. Farm raised fish aren’t that great. Disease is also more prevalent in farm raised seafood. Basically it’s fat and lazy couch potato fish. (Just like our fat and lazy chickens, pigs and cows. If you haven’t watched Food Inc, you should. Also check out episodes of Dirty Jobs about turkeys, chickens and pigs.) Although farm raised tilapia are an ecologically better sustainable seafood choice. I also remember reading something about fish from China being, unreliable. The guidelines and standards in their fishing industry are questionable. Fish in general may be in danger due to our over consumption and water pollution. Well guess what. My $2.99-$4.99 a pound tilapia was farm raised fish from (you guessed it) China! Oh and my convenient-to-have-in-the-freezer-for-a-quick-meal, buy one get two free, easy peel shrimp… is also farm raised from China. Gah!!

Now I know that these are my opinions and standards here, and that this information might be arguable. (In case you couldn’t tell, I was smiling and shrugging as I typed “might” in that sentence, but my opinions are never set in stone and the minute I learn better, like the tilapia, I reform my opinion.) But It took me days of sifting through information to form an opinion, and it is my opinion that wild caught, cold water fish (they’re more oily), not from China are the best. Trout is my personal favorite because it’s milder than Salmon, but still high in Omega 3’s. Haddock and cod are also okay.

My dilemma now is that fish, by these standards, are hard to come by and are not cheap. They usually costs somewhere between $10 (if your lucky) and $20 per pound. Right now I buy most of my fish from HT, but the pickings are slim. Haddock and cod are less expensive and easier to find. The few times HT had something good on sale, they either ran out, or it was icky-looking. (Fresh seafood should be fleshy and clear and have a very light odor. Stay away from any seafood that smells funky, looks opaque or has juice that looks milky.) If anyone out there knows where I can find fresh fish in the Charlotte area, that meet these standards PLEASE (I beg you) email me or comment below.

*A foodie might recognize the hypocrisy of this statement in a post about choosing the healthiest variety. Fresh foods have more nutrients. The fresher the better… but a dollar?? Sometimes the bargain hunter in me wins!