Saturday, September 24, 2011

Product Review: Wow Baking Company

E headed back to the state she grew up in and, in preparation for this trip, picked up some snacks for herself at our local co-op. Among other things, she picked out two different types of cookies from the Wow Baking Company. She's not gluten-free, but her mom is encouraging her to avoid wheat--and from the research I've started doing on this, it seems like this might be moderately sound advice. Recent studies indicate that maybe we're not so well-equipped to digest wheat--and here's a link to a well-digested (pun intended) news article about these studies--and that part of the rise in gluten sensitivities is not only increased awareness in the medical community, but a reaction to the higher proportions of protein in wheat. But that's not the point of this post.

The point: a review of the two flavors of Wow Baking Company cookies E bought.

She picked up the boxed, smaller cookies (8 ounce boxes), which I expected to be crispy/crunchy because so many gluten-free products are crunchy. I wasn't particularly looking forward to this aspect, but agreed to eat them if she didn't like them. She bought Snickerdoodle Ginger Molasses.

A gluten-free flour mix (brown rice, sweet rice, tapioca) makes up the base of both these cookies -- the lack of bean-flours keeps these products from "tasting gluten-free." You know what I'm talking about if you've started in on GF eating, I'm pretty sure. The Snickerdoodles were particularly sweet--maybe too sweet for my tastes, but my roommate likes those better (I think both flavors are good). They have just the right amount of cinnamon (though it's the last ingredient on the list!) and, unlike some snickerdoodles, have flavor all the way through.

The Snickerdoodles have 3 types of sugar (cane, cane syrup, sugar) and they're high on the list. Even the back of the box says "a simple delicious cookie full of sugar..." and 240 calories per 2-ounce serving with 13 grams of sugar and 11 grams of fat.

That  being said, the molasses cookies are actually higher in sugar (probably because of the molasses) with 16 grams per 2-ounce serving, 229 calories, and 10 grams of fat. There are 3 types of sugar in these cookies too (cane juice, cane syrup, molasses), if you're keep track. I love ginger and loved these for their spicy taste, particularly with the nights getting cooler--it's starting to feel like the right time of year for warm-spice flavored things.

I learned, from the Wow Baking Company website, that it's possible to buy the dough for these cookies in some areas and that the company even makes cake mix. I'd certainly try these other products. As E pointed out, it's hard to tell the difference between these and non-gluten-free products. If you do decide to cruise about the website, don't take the ingredients too seriously. For instance if you click the ingredients for the Ginger Molasses cookies, you'll see that there are chocolate chips (dear Wow Baking Company, need a webmistress proofreader? I'm available). Don't worry -- in the real ginger molasses cookies (and on the box) these are blissfully chocolate free.

These are available (indirectly) through Amazon and other online retailers, if you don't have these products in your local co-op or grocer--but if you don't and you're gluten-free, you might try to request the product!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Agave-Sweetened Blackberry Jam

Blackberries are plentiful and everyone's out picking them. I see people people walking around with mason jars half-filled or filled with blackberries. I see people (like myself) wandering around with plastic bags and tubs gathering berries. And I see people (also like myself) picking just a couple and eating them.

You can tell a blackberry is ready to pick when it practically melts off its stem while you're pulling it off the bush. Usually at this point, blackberries have lost their sheen and are dark and perfectly black. My blackberries weren't all fully ready when I made this jam, as you can see from the picture, but I needed enough to make jam because I had enough that were crushing under the weight of their fellow berries and forming blackberry juice.

For the past couple of weeks, my fingers have been stained with blackberry juice, which has been lovely--and has made me even more excited for making blackberry jam (especially once my friend Rachael shared that she was making blackberry jam while listening to Iron & Wine one recent evening).

This is a simple blackberry jam, sweetened with agave nectar since some of my berries were under-ripe and tart.

Agave-Sweetened Blackberry Jam 
1/2 gallon fresh blackberries, well washed
2-3 tablespoons agave nectar
1 tablespoon lemon juice

In a medium pot, over medium-low heat, cook the blackberries until soft, then stir in the agave nectar and lemon juice.

Continue to simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until the jam has thickened to the desired consistency.

This will keep in the refrigerator, in a closed container, for about 2 weeks, or you can freeze it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Food Security - A Thrift Store Fronted Food Pantry

Underneath the Happy Talk, Is This As Bad as the Great Depression?
Depression-Era Photo (but what
should we call ourselves?),
Australia (I think)

My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression. Her father, fortunately, was a doctor and people always figured out a way to pay--or barter--for his services. They got chickens, or pies, or fresh bread in exchange for services. I'm sure it made my great-grandfather's life difficult from time-to-time--medical supplies, after all, cost money. But people were going hungry and my great-grandmother, as family legend has it, couldn't turn the people who came to her door asking for food away. We're all familiar with pictures of the long lines of men (and families and schoolchildren) standing, waiting for a bowl of soup. There was a system in place to help them that was much more public than the system in place now (namely, "food stamps," SNAP). But if someone came to most of our doors now and asked for food, we wouldn't think twice about turning them away. And possibly calling the police. There are exceptions of course, and I met one of these exceptions over the summer at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, a woman--this year's Hobo Queen--who goes by the name Minneapolis Jewel. Yes, there are still hobos. Most are rubber tramps, it seemed, but there were a few leather tramps and a few who still ride the rails. MPLS Jewel apparently hosts hobos at her home, provides them meals, looks them in the eye when she passes them on the street. In other words, she allows herself to see people--and to help those in need, particularly those who are hungry.

So the fact that people are going hungry isn't exactly news to most people. The math is pretty simple: the economy is down, more people are unemployed or underemployed, food costs have been going steadily up thanks, in part, to increased gas costs, and a multitude of other factors. 1 in 5 American children live in poverty.  Globally, the number of children living in poverty is 1 in 4. We have more people who are going hungry now than a few years ago, no real surprise there, either.

At the Coronation Ceremony, 2011 Hobo Convention
That's a lot of hungry people (about 925 million, about 3x as many people as live in the US), especially in a world that produces more than 2,700 calories per person per day. And to be honest, there aren't a lot of options for hungry people in most parts of the world (for various reasons, chief among them food distribution and food equity issues). Some areas of the world have been deforested for corn and soybeans, displacing local agriculture. Some places, communal land has been bought by large multinationals which "are putting the land to better use"--at least in their humble opinions. And in some places, people now live in areas they didn't historically either because of social/political strife (we've done that in the US as well) or because of overcrowding.

In the US, soup kitchens and the like can supply a lot of calories to the hungry--but many are forced to supply very empty calories by way of highly processed foods (ding dongs, fruit cocktail in heavy syrup, and American cheese anyone?). A friend who volunteered at a soup kitchen in Austin, Minnesota (home of Hormel) bemoaned the lack of fresh food--of non-processed food in general--during his stint volunteering there. But figuring out how to change a system that's already in place isn't easy either, especially when you only have a limited amount of time per week to dedicate to the process--and a limited amount of time to spend in a particular community.

I've had the opportunity to volunteer in food pantries and soup kitchens across the United States. One large food pantry I volunteered in as part of a corporate-style "team building" exercise surprised me (and not just because it was the first time I'd volunteered in a food pantry) due to the sheer quantity of junk foods and severely damaged products that were being given out. This particular pantry relied primarily on canned and non-perishable goods supplemented by bread and other carb-intensive goods. I did my time, got my hands grimy on dirty/dusty/leaked on canned goods, and got out.

As an adult, my friend Rachael guided me to a local soup kitchen she'd volunteered at in the past. The chef that day, a regular volunteer for the previous 4 years, made me want to come back. I watched as he, and another regular volunteer, greeted the guests by name, used fresh ingredients, and navigated  around the church kitchen like pros. And I did go back, several days a week, for most of a year (until moving). I started to fall in love with  being there--being part of a community of people that cared about making a difference--even as I felt frustrated by seeing the same people week after week, people who weren't being given the resources to help themselves. How, a friend and I wondered, could we give people the tools to get them out of the cycle of poverty? We researched and talked about soup kitchens that provided various types of OJT. We talked about soup kitchens partnering with people in the community who could help out (let's review your resume, let's work on building your resume together, oh you do handy work? Funny, I have a leaky...) in various ways. And we volunteered under a woman who reminded us that sometimes what a person really needed was just someone who would listen. We didn't need to problem solve all the time. Sometimes we just needed to sit, to hear a story, to say "thank you for sharing."

Organic produce from a CSA share I inherited earlier this year
Later, at a Catholic Worker Farm (which donates most of the food it harvests to people and organizations in need) in central Iowa, Mustard Seed, I had the opportunity to go through this exercise again. We had one minute to talk with another person and our partner wasn't allowed to say anything, except "thank you" at the end. We could talk about anything we wanted. The experience, because I felt safe in the environment, was liberating. We should, perhaps, listen to each other more. A lot more. But part of what I loved about this exercise was that it came after sharing a meal together--with some people who started off the evening as strangers to one another. We ate together, we built a community of trust over food--and some of the food came straight off the farm. This experience, and experiences like it on this farm, made me more interested in the Catholic Worker movement (which began during the Great Depression) and in interning or volunteering on organic farms, perhaps by WWOOFing.

When I moved, I wanted to stay involved with local food, with food accessibility, with food security. I mentioned this to one of the first people I met in my new town and she connected me with a thrift store/food pantry. The thrift store helps support the food pantry and people can sign up for a very low bi-annual fee. In exchange the person who signs up is given at least 40 pounds of food each month, often more. There's a mix of canned and fresh goods, with a couple of local companies making major donations (and getting, I'm guessing, major tax write-offs a couple times a year). My first day volunteering at the thrift store, two people came in to pay their dues to join this organization and receive food. When you join, you take home a box of food--and when one of the dock-volunteers brought out the goods, one of the recipients started crying--out of joy.

This doesn't solve the problem of people who can't afford food in our country, not really. But maybe it's a start. For about $4 a month, the recipients get 40 pounds of food minimum, food that would otherwise be thrown out. Americans, just for the record, toss about 25% of domestically produced food. This, of course, says nothing about the food we import--and we do import a lot of food.

I also got involved with the local growers market, helping a friend who has a pie-business, and by talking to the local producers to find out not only what they produce, but how they produce it and when things in my new part of the country come into season. Part of the key to understanding food issues in a community is understanding how food moves within a community and how people do (or don't) have access to this food. Urban foraging happens a fair amount in this area and many people have chickens or roosters in their yards, not to mention produce-bearing lawns and trees. And it's not hard to find local and organic here, which is nice--but not true in many places.

And that's--the difficulty in finding local and organic food--where part of the problem lies. There are mixed messages about whether it's better to buy local or organic, given the choice of only one or the other for a product. I mentioned this in a recent post as well, but have since read more of Anna Lappe's Diet for a Hot Planet. Lappe outlines how much carbon dioxide--not to mention methane, ammonia, and other chemicals/gases--is released through the current food system (by the way, news to me, Cargill not only turned a profit when the 2008 food riots were going on around the world, but continues to turn a profit now, even as many are going hungry. A huge profit. The second quarter of this fiscal year their earnings tripled. I could rant longer--I could actually start to rant, but that's a different post, and maybe on my other blog.) and how the changes proposed by many of the major food companies (in which Cargill ranks high) that would, in theory, better the environment are actually little more than spin. Local, but non-organic, can still leave a large footprint according to Lappe--maybe larger than we think since we've been trained to focus on the transportation aspect of our food system (which Lappe argues is smaller than many of the other segments as far as environmental degradation is concerned). Organic but shipped from elsewhere? Well, you then factor in the (probable) decreased freshness, the transportation costs (immediate and deferred), and everything else that goes along with non-local foods. And don't even start on meat. Meat's a story all it's own--and Lappe spends plenty of time telling that story, if you're interested. It can leave a person overwhelmed.

Serving Stew for the Masses
If we factored in more of the deferred costs, yes, eating would be more expensive. Maybe fewer people could afford it than can afford it now. That's certainly what major players in the food system would like you to believe. "America feeds the world." I can't tell you how often I've heard this from farmers and students of agriculture. But what about all that food we throw out? What about the people going hungry right in our own neighborhoods?

That's where we need to get innovative. Maybe it's not a food pantry fronted by a thrift shop. Maybe it's a non-profit restaurant. Or restaurants and grocers giving leftovers and overstock/run to soup kitchens. Maybe  its like the stories my grandmother told me of being a girl during the Great Depression--when hobos would come to her parents' house looking for food because my great-grandmother always had something for them, even if it was just a sandwich or stone soup. Maybe it's remembering what it means to be a good neighbor. Or just remembering to leave everything a little better than we found it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Snake Melon & Heirloom Tomato Salad

A friend recently gifted me a snake melon aka an Armenian cucumber. I looked at it, long and thin with pale green, ribbed skin, and said thanks and then wondered "what the hell do I do with this??" But, I like cucumber, which is what this (botanically speaking) melon tastes like and so I was pretty sure I could come up with something. I stuck it in my fridge and forgot about it for approximately a week.

Then I saw it again the other evening. It lay, accusingly it seemed, in my crisper (still crisp, by the way) and so I pulled it out. I'd picked up cheap, organic, heirloom cherry tomatoes from a local farmers market the day before and I resolved I'd put the cuke and the tomatoes together and come up with something to dress them up a bit.

Armenian Cuke aka Snake Melon
Armenian cucumbers, as I said before, are actually melons--muskmelons, to be exact, which puts them as a close relative to what Americans call cantaloupe. The Armenian cucumber is reputed to get a good slicing cuke (whatever that means--I don't think I've had an experience I would call "bad" slicing cucumber) and came from Armenia to Italy in the 15th century, at least according to one of the website I found online while researching this post. It's gaining popularity as an heirloom crop and supposedly grows well both on the ground and from trellises. All of this is wonderful, but there are almost no recipes for it online.

Here, I must admit I like Greek food. A lot. And although I only live a few blocks from a Greek restaurant, I don't think eating-out Greek food is in my near future. So, I poked through my spices and dried herbs, and as I already knew, I didn't have dill weed. Okay, new plan. Kinda. I wasn't ready to give up on my plans for Greeking-up my Armenian cucumber.

So, I chopped the Armenian cucumber and halved the tomatoes, then topped them with a locally-made European style yogurt, then gave it just a sprinkle of onion powder and black pepper. Greek? No. Delicious. I think so. I'm going to see if my friend has more of these cucumbers she'd be willing to part with -- something tells me, the way cucumbers grow (all ready all at the same time) she probably does.

Snake Melon (Armenian Cucumber) & Heirloom Tomato Salad
1 snake melon, approximately 24" long, quartered & chopped
15-20 heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup plain European-style yogurt (this is a thin, runny yogurt), or to taste
Onion powder
Ground black pepper

Put the chopped snake melon and cherries in a bowl, then drizzle the yogurt on top. Sprinkle a dash of onion powder and a dash of black pepper, then toss gently and serve.

Serves 1-2.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Scalloped Potatoes with Chevre

My roommate, E, and I made dinner together Sunday night. She wanted to make her scalloped potatoes with chevre (almost all the ingredients came from our growers market) and asked me to pick up something to go with them. I picked up broccoli crowns (which we steamed) and beets (because I like them and wanted some for the week), which I roasted. More on that later, in a separate post.

E had bought some lovely waxy potatoes from a local grower that were red on the outside with a pink ring in the flesh. After some research, I'm still not sure what type of potatoes these are (and she didn't remember what the grower told her), but I think they might have been red thumb potatoes. These potatoes had a very waxy coating that she had to scrub off thoroughly (it looked a little like she was peeling a sunburn from these potatoes), but after this coating was removed the potatoes had an absolutely brilliant crimson skin. She sliced them thinly, into circles, then layered them with chevre, threw on some whipping cream and topped them with double-seasoned breadcrumbs from a local bakery. Once the potatoes finished baking, the creamy base had turned just faintly pink and the potatoes were tender, but held their shape beautifully.

She didn't use a recipe or measure, so the recipe that follows is entirely my estimation and you should make adjustments as you see necessary (and to taste). We ate this as a main dish, but you could certainly serve it as a side dish.

E's Scalloped Potatoes with Chevre
5 medium, waxy potatoes, thoroughly scrubbed and sliced into 1/8" slices
6 ounces chevre
3-4 ounces milk or heavy cream
Dried basil
Garlic powder

2-3 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

In a 10" round baking dish, add one layer of the sliced potatoes and then spread a small amount of chevre on each potato slice. Sprinkle with a small amount garlic powder and basil. Top with another layer of potatoes and cheese. Repeat until all your potatoes have been used, ending with a layer of potatoes on top (we had three total layers of potatoes). Pour on the milk or cream. It should not cover the potatoes.

In a medium bowl toss approximately 1 cup of breadcrumbs with the olive oil, garlic powder, and black pepper, then spread the bread crumbs evenly over the top of the prepared potatoes.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes, or until bubbly and golden. Test to make sure the potatoes are tender before serving. Serve hot.

*E used a bread with rosemary incorporated into it already, which is why I referred to them as double-seasoned breadcrumbs. The hint of rosemary helped make the flavor of this dish bright, so consider adding a pinch of rosemary.

Steamed brocs, scalloped potatoes, and roasted beets
If you're making this gluten-free, use gluten-free breadcrumbs or leave them off entirely (though you might want to add a bit of garlic and black pepper to the milk/cream before you pour it over the potatoes--but then I just really like garlic and black pepper).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Salad with Saltwort, Fresh Berries, and Brie

My new farmers market has an abundance of things I've never heard of, but the one that first caught my attention was saltwort, aka Batis maritima. One of the local producers has carried this the past few weeks and the first week, the week I actually bought it (a sign said it went well in salads) I had trouble finding out anything about it on the internet.

Saltwort (aka turtleweed), according to the producer, grows in salt marshes. That was the knowledge I started off with--and I've found out since that it does particularly well after storms and can deal with water-logged soils for a long time, which makes it an early colonizer after devastating storms, like hurricanes. It's a succulent shrub that reaches a little over 3 feet in height. Apparently it grows better in less salty soil, which seems a bit ironic to me, since it likes salt marshes, but whatever. In the coastal, southern U.S. this is a moderately common plant (though not along all of the coastal areas). It also grows in Hawaii and California, as well as Central and South America. If you want to know more about it--such as the types of wildlife it attracts, there's plenty of information out there that doesn't actually say much at all. It attracts butterflies and has small flowers. It doesn't like shade. Et cetera. My definite impression is that most people don't know much about it--so if you know about saltwort and want to weigh in, I'd love your comments.

When I got home with my saltwort, I looked at it. It looked kinda like limp rosemary and tasted lightly salty when I picked off a couple leaves and popped them in my mouth. Salad was the suggestion I'd been given, so salad it was. I tend to trust what farmers say about how to prepare the things they're growing.

Certainly saltwort was too salty to stand alone in the salad, so I stripped the leaves off the woody stems and gave the saltwort leaves a base of lettuce. To dress up the salad, I added blackberries picked fresh from the backyard along with some of the heirloom tomatoes (also berries) I'd purchased at the growers market and some picked (and still warm) from the yard. And because I had it, and because I don't usually), I added some brie to the salad. I dressed it with a tahini-based salad dressing from my food co-op and was set with my pre-dinner salad.

I don't know where this might grow where I could actually forage it (my growers have cultivated this plant), but it's definitely a plant you can forage and in my attempts to get more people into the urban foraging movement, I encourage you to seek it out if you live where it grows!

Salad with Saltwort, Fresh Berries, and Brie
Note: The amounts below assume you're only serving yourself. Please increase accordingly for the friends that join you

Lettuce (I like salad and used about a cup and a half)
1/8 cup saltwort (leaves only), coarsely chopped
10-12 small tomatoes, halved
5 blackberries
1/2 ounce brie, cut into small chunks

Layer the salad in the order listed above and serve. In the picture above I used golden currant cherry tomatoes (so sweet! so tiny!). In one variation of this salad, I also included a green-striped tomato, called Green Zebra with an unknown variety of orange cherry tomatoes.

(For more information about heirloom tomatoes, this site is wonderful, as is Dave's Garden.)

The tahini-based dressing I used, combined with these ingredients, went well with a glass of Viogner from a local vineyard.


Monday, September 12, 2011

Buying Local

My friend Marissa, over at We*Meat*Again just posted a good reminder to us all about how buying locally doesn't always mean buying organically or ethically.

Remember, if you're opting for local and have the opportunity to talk to farmers about their practices you should do so. Or visit the farm, if that's an option. Visiting a farm will tell you even more than just talking to your producer, because you can see how workers are treated, what types of conditions animals are kept in, etc.

Jackson, WY Farmers Market
But you also have to weigh, as Marissa points out, buying local & conventional versus buying organic and imported from somewhere else. What you decide might depend on your budget, where you live (and availability) and even just your desires of the day. It's okay to have that organic kiwi once in a while, probably, but it maybe shouldn't be a daily habit.

In Diet for a Hot Planet, Anna Lappe (daughter of Frances Lappe) talks about how we could reduce, dramatically, our carbon-footprint just by changing the way we eat. I've just started to read this book so I won't comment on it much yet, but this is something to consider, especially as we finish up Eat Local America. Eating locally and lower on the food-chain both help reduce the carbon footprint. But so does eating minimally processed products, adopting week-day vegetarianism, and many other options.

Just a side note, Moving Planet is coming up on September 24th. The basic premise: we should move more and rely on fossil fuels for transportation less. That oversimplifies it a bit. But it leads to my point nicely -- if you can (and I grew up in a city where it was damn near impossible to do what I'm about to suggest) walk or bike (or skateboard, or whatever) to your market--super or farmers--the next time you need to pick a few things up. And try to choose groceries that didn't spend too long on a truck, if you can.

Tomatillos at Farmers Market in Jackson, WY