Archive for February, 2008

Which Egg to Buy?

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

Jesse,
I don’t understand the difference between all the different types of
eggs…free range, cage free, happy chicken, organic, Omega 3, etc…..Help!
Ida

Free range doesn’t actually mean much of anything. It’s unfortunate, but hens housed in a warehouse, not kept in cages, and given access to the outside through a door at the end of the warehouse that they never travel through are free range. The only difference between cage free eggs and free range eggs is that the cage free hens don’t have the door at the end of the warehouse, but since none of the hens in the other warehouse really take advantage of the door, it’s not a big deal.

Vegetarian diet eggs are preferable to eggs from hens fed chicken meal and fish meal and beef byproducts, though a naturally-raised hen is omnivorous and can get a decent percentage of her diet from bugs and grubs in the ground. So, if you get your eggs from a farm where the hens really are cage free and free range, don’t expect that they will have led a vegetarian life (but do expect that they haven’t been fed industrial byproducts).

Organic eggs may also be raised in a warehouse. The feed may contain some industrial byproducts including fish meal, so long as it is certified organic feed.

With so many shady labeling schemes by large egg distributors, that’s why I recommend that, if possible, you get eggs that are identified by the farm where the chickens were raised. Even better would be to know about the farm and the conditions that the hens are raised in, but at the very least if you are getting farm-fresh eggs from a store, you have indication that a) the eggs are being raised in a fairly small operation and b) the product is good enough for the store to stock it. Not only that, but you have the farm’s contact information so that you can, if you desire, call them up and ask them about where their birds are kept.

In Pittsburgh, eggs from several individual farms are available on a regular basis at the East End Food Co-Op, though the selection of farms they stock tends to vary. Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, Whole Foods, and other locations have eggs from Champion Chicks in Donegal, PA, where the eggs come from a flock of 500 and are gathered by hand. Also, if you ever go on drives outside of Pittsburgh into the rural areas of PA, WV, and OH, it is fairly common to see signs advertising eggs at individual farms. If you happen to pass by such a location and you have the time to stop, I highly recommend that you do.

The Omega-3 eggs are shown to have higher concentrations of Omega-3 fatty acids than a standard egg does. These fatty acids have been shown to perhaps reduce the risk of some types of heart disease. If you are seeking to reduce your risk of heart disease, though, it seems to me that eggs should be at the periphery of a wider range of dietary choices.

Different Ways to Present Mashed Potatoes

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Re: the Mashed Potato Bar, Gloria asks:

Any suggestions of other items to serve in beside Martini Glasses? Would like something different and cool.
What about parfait glasses (ie the deep, narrow dishes sundaes are often served in)? It’s kind of a twist on the ice cream cone idea listed in the mashed potato bar comments section, but it would work, visually—scoops of spuds mixed with your choice of toppings, topped with a drizzle of gravy. Of course, you’d need enough iced tea spoons for everyone to get to the bottom of their glass.

Or perhaps you could get some long, rectangular plates, such as sushi might be served on. That would give people a chance to make 3 or 4 variations on the mashed potatoes and keep them separated, whilst still appearing somewhat more sophisticated than the army-style three-compartment plate.

Last suggestion I’ve got is to make parmesan cheese dishes by sprinkling a thin layer of parmesan into a hot pan. When it crisps up and releases from the pan, drape the pancake over an upturned bowl to form it. When it cools, it will hold its shape.  It will be a bit fragile, and so you’ll need to serve each of them on a plate, but they wind up fluted and they’re edible, and the cheese flavor should mesh well with the potatoes.
If anyone else has any more ideas for Gloria, please let her know!

Read This Book

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

I was driving on Monday afternoon and had the radio tuned to NPR, where I heard a snippet of an interview Terry Gross was doing with Dan Koeppel, author of a new book called Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. I was entranced and I stopped the car at Barnes & Noble so I could buy the book—the sort of quick purchase that I almost never make, but in this instance was glad that I did.

I suppose that when it comes to bananas, I’ve always been the typical consumer described on the book’s dust cover, who takes for granted that bananas will always be on the grocery store shelf and never thinks about them much beyond that. Certainly, I’d never dreamed that I’d become so entranced with a book on them that I would tear through it in two days; in fact I had never considered that there would be enough information about bananas to even fill a book.

Of course, if I had thought, I would have realized that there was something strange about the fact that there seems to be only one kind of banana, whereas with every other fruit and vegetable, I’ve fascinated myself by finding and trying as many cultivars as possible. The thing is, there really are thousands of kinds of bananas out there, and we only see one main one on our shelves. It is known in the banana world as the cavendish. The plantain, according to the book, is genetically identical to the cavendish though larger and starchier—a point I am not certain I grasp and I’ll likely be trying to track Mr. Koeppel down to ask him if he can explain it to me a bit more clearly (if it’s genetically identical, why is it different). The red banana that is sometimes on the grocery shelf and that I have never sampled is a different variety—one of the few non-cavendish bananas that makes its way to the USA.

The rest of them have been rejected for widespread sale for one reason or another: either the taste is foreign to USA consumers, it has too thin of a skin to travel well, or both. All that is likely to change over the coming decades, as the cavendish banana is falling victim to Panama Disease, a fungal infection. It’s the same fungal infection that destroyed the plants that bore the bananas my parents ate as children: through the fifties, the cavendish was rejected by fruit companies for its flavor deficiencies and thin skin, but as the gros michel perished, the cavendish stepped in to fill its shoes.

And as for the fruit companies, I’d heard rumors about their misdeeds (Tulane University, where I completed by undergrad, was a beneficiary of Sam Zemurray, onetime president of United Fruit), but I hadn’t realized the extent to which they had used violence to protect their business model, nor the extent to which they have (and continue to) expose workers on banana plantation to toxic chemicals to protect the banana plants from a variety of diseases that they are susceptible to.

Also news to me were the many African nations where bananas are a subsistence crop, and the main source of nutrition. Some of the highland bananas in Uganda come in hues of orange and purple, again, according to Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World.

There’s so much about the history and development of bananas and the search for disease-resistant bananas and the technologies developed by the banana companies that I obviously don’t want to spoil for you because Mr. Koeppel did a great deal of research to write it in his book. So, if you enjoy the taste of bananas, whether out of the peel (a snack that was considered scandalous in Victorian times), sliced over cereal, split with ice cream and whipped cream, in a sandwich with peanut butter, in a cream pie, otherwise, or all of the above, you owe it to yourself to get this book and read the fascinating history behind this seemingly simple snack.

Eating Insects

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

In case anyone missed it, Jeremy posted a link to a great NY Times article about eating insects in his comment about “Rodents as Food.”

If anyone in Pittsburgh wants to try a cricket, stop in at Reyna Foods, 21st and Penn in the Strip, where crickets come in a variety of flavors.  I tried a sour cream and onion flavored cricket last weekend.  Truth be told, it was so dusted with the sour cream and onion flavor that I’m not sure the cricket part provided anything but crunch, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless, though after reading the NY Times article, I wonder about insects as cuisine.  The description of water bug meat having “the consistency of crab” and a price tag of “hundreds of dollars a pound” is intriguing, as is the information about the size of the farms insects are raised in.

Combine the sustainability of insect farming with the ability to raise guinea pigs and other small rodents in your own home, combined with the relative inefficiency of raising larger livestock such as beefs and porks, and I wonder if there’s a new cuisine on the horizon of urban-bred insects and rodents as a way to enjoy meat in an ultra-local, ecologically sustainable manner.

True, there’s a huge gross-out factor that needs to be overcome, but as the realities of climate change kick into play over the next few decades, we’ll be forced to reconsider how we grow and ship our food around the world.  There’s no telling how we’ll respond as a people when necessity forces us to rethink the wisdom of factory farming.

On the other hand, it’s tough to imagine your average “I want my chicken boneless and skinless so I don’t have to think about the fact that it was once alive” eater to tolerate a plate full of locusts, legs and wings still attached.  Still, i think I’d prefer that to a future of meat-flavored textured vegetable protein and cheese-flavored yeast extract.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Genetically Modified Beets

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Any reasonably-minded person should be able to acknowledge that engineering food crops to survive applications of herbicides and pesticides is a bad idea. These genetic “enhancements” as they are labeled by their proponents are designed only to increase reliance on poisonous chemicals in conjunction with the growing of our foodstuff. In addition to causing us all to consume more chemicals in our diets, it also leads to higher concentrations of chemicals in our groundwater (and therefore in our drinking water), leading to increased consequences of chemical prevalence throughout the ecosystem (and still more increased human consumption of chemicals, especially any that are bio-accumulative, such as dioxin), especially among the urban poor, who have limited space in which to grow their own vegetables and limited money with which to make purchasing decisions such as opting for the often more-expensive “organic” alternative.

Not to mention that cross-pollination occurs over large geographic boundaries and therefore the genes of the modified crop escape into seeds produced elsewhere. It’s a story we’ve heard many times relating to corn in the Southwest, and the dangers to indigenous corn species throughout Mexico—but it’s not limited to corn.

Highmowing Organic Seeds, which is a joint litigant in a case currently filed against the USDA regarding the agency’s plan to deregulate Roundup-resistant sugar beets, has a very good description of the wide-ranging impact possible from sugar beets to related species including “chard, and red and yellow beets (or ‘table beets’)” and more information about the suit here.