Monday, June 29, 2009

Making a Connection

In the midst of the bizarre stories and accusations that frequently made the news during my childhood, I never formed a negative opinion of Michael Jackson. Maybe it was because I did not see an adult man, but someone who had reverted back to a childhood that never existed for him the first time around. I saw a troubled soul, lost on the continuum of time and truly unaware of his age or the social norms attached to that. I saw someone trying to reclaim an idyllic fantasy of a carefree childhood. And maybe he acted wrongly in that state of mind. I do not know and would not assume.

I do, however, have one very distinct memory that has stayed with me for years.

At 12 years old, I was a little odd. Instead of talking to the other kids on the school bus, I was normally busy trying to rig a piece of masking tape over the battery enclosure on my portable cassette player. If not attempting to get the walkman to play just one more song before it drained the last juice from two fat double-A batteries (or broke for the umpteenth time), I was singing to myself and dreaming of being just like one of the performers I heard.

"Weird" and "old" were the words most kids my age used to describe my taste in music. Whenever our art teacher rewarded us by letting us listen to music during class, my cassettes were never picked. Instead, the kids teased me mercilessly about even bringing them.

One boy in particular always gave me a hard time. Not just about music, but being slow in gym class, or giving a wrong answer in Spanish class--anything to get my goat. He was kind of a tough guy and was frequently in detention. Not the guy you'd pick to be the sensitive, music-loving type. I couldn't stand him.

And so I was a little bit shocked to see this boy at auditions for the school talent show. When he told me that he was going to dance, I laughed a little bit. He didn't really seem like the type of guy to be okay with dancing in front of his fellow12 year old Catholic school boys. But from the moment he got onstage, with his white and black fedora, he embodied Michael Jackson. He must have spent hours in front of the television watching Michael's music videos, because he knew every move to a T. He was good. Very good.

And for a moment in time, we were friends. When he realized that I thought his talent was cool, the teasing subsided a little. We made a connection through music. My passion for singing came from the same place as his passion for dance, just in a different form. He didn't tease me about having to sing a song by a man because I didn't know how to sing "high" like the women I heard on the radio.

Sadly, the rest of our classmates never got to see him dance. I can't remember whether it was too many detentions or bad grades that got him banned from the show, but one of the two kept him from being allowed to participate. It was more than tragic, in my eyes, that the rest of the school never got to see how truly excellent he was. That maybe he did get in trouble and wasn't the most devoted student, but he could DANCE and do it brilliantly.

To this day, when I hear "Billie Jean," I think of that boy and the dance he choreographed. I think of watching him meticulously rehearse each step, each isolation, until it was just right. But mostly, I think of that brief moment in time where we became friends through music and performance. It changed my outlook permanently.

Even now, when I see tough, bulky weightlifters at the gym, or a group of military folks running along the Potomac, I wonder if any of them can do a great Moonwalk...

Thank you, Michael.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mystery Food Week 3 and the Glory of "Brinner"

Hello all! Here's this week's batch of produce

Included in this week's bag were mixed greens (mostly purslane), a head of pak choi, garlic scapes, baby onions, lots of sage, lavender, a potted flower, and basil. Leigh also had some eggs for sale, so I grabbed a half-dozen.
All in all, another good week. Some of the salad greens were the base for today's very clean, very tasty, and mostly local lunch:
Lots of greens and scapes from Bull Run, a boiled egg from Smith Meadows (the yolk was divine in color and texture. Picture does not do it justice), peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and carrots from the farm market, and a few pieces of grilled chicken from a little place near my office. Finished off with a touch of salt and pepper. I guess one fortunate thing about my clean eating journey is that I've never really preferred dressing on salad all that much. I like a little bit of oil and vinegar on occasion, but dressing was never really my thing.

After I got home last night I was pondering what to do for dinner and feeling a little lazy. I had an assignment due for class that really needed to be finished, another assignment to work on...etc. Joe's parents recently gave me their waffle iron, and so I decided that it was definitely a night for Brinner (the glorious combination of breakfast @ dinner, but you Scrubs fans knew that).
Whole Grain High-Protein Waffles
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup graham flour
1/4 cup soy flour
2 tbsp. wheat or oat bran
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1.5 tsp. baking powder
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tsp. raw honey
1/2 cup non fat greek style yogurt
2 tbsp. low fat milk
2 egg whites
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Pinch cream of tartar


Combine the egg whites, a pinch of salt, and cream of tartar in a blender and process until doubled in volume (about a minute).

Add the applesauce, vanilla, milk, yogurt, and honey and process until smooth.

In a separate bowl sift the flours and bran together with the baking powder and 1/2 tsp. of salt. Then add the dry ingredients to the blender and process until well combined.

Cook in a waffle iron according to the manufacturer's directions.
Makes 5 tasty waffles at 103 calories, less than 1g fat, 16g carbs, 7.5g protein, and 3g fiber each.

I had mine with a little bit of raw honey, cinnamon, and a half ounce of chopped mixed nuts. Fruit would have been even better, but I was out.

Now, I obviously wasn't going to eat 5 of these by myself. They're really filling. I put one of the extras in the fridge and 2 in the freezer. The one in the fridge took maybe 2 minutes to crisp up in the toaster at work this morning. I imagine that right out of the freezer they'd take about 5-6 minutes on a medium setting.

Other flours that are good in this recipe: spelt, buckwheat, potato, brown rice, garbanzo/fava bean, or finely ground nuts.

For even crispier waffles, add about a tablespoon of sucanat or evaporated palm sugar to the batter. The sugar will caramelize and make nice, toasty edges.
It's been very busy around here. My boss is retiring at the end of the month, school is back in full swing, and couch to 5k is getting more and more challenging! Joe and I are really looking forward to a nice weekend though. We're going to a pig roast with the folks at Slow Food DC. I'll be sure to post a trip report if I don't enter a pork coma. Mmm.
Stay local, folks!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mystery Food Week 2 (and Bonus Bread!)

Sorry it’s taken me so long to report on Week 2’s goodies. I’ve been very busy with schoolwork. Anyway, here's what I got:

Included in last week’s bag was an enormous head of Chinese cabbage, more garlic scapes, parsley, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary, and mustard greens. Again, I ended up making some delicious soup (recipe available here) and a hearty whole-wheat rosemary-garlic focaccia.

Focaccia, for those who may not be familiar, is an Italian flatbread made using a method similar to that for making pizza dough. I make mine entirely with whole wheat flour, which has a reputation of making bread turn out dense. Fortunately, there are ways to combat this:

Bloom the yeast: Begin with 1 cup of warm (105-110 degrees F) water and then sprinkle in 2 tsp. of dry active yeast and 1.5 tsp. of sugar. Let it sit for 5-10 minutes or until it looks foamy on top. This is a sure sign that the yeast is active and ready to work.

Flour: Add to the water 1 tbsp. of olive oil, 1.5 tsp. of salt, and about 3 and a half cups of flour. I use about half regular whole wheat flour and half whole wheat pastry flour. The pastry flour is finer and helps the bread remain more tender. Since this was to be rosemary bread, I chopped up the leaves from a sprig of rosemary and added it to the dough.

Knead, knead, knead: Once the ingredients are mixed together well, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for at least 10 minutes. Give those forearms and hands a good workout! Kneading helps activate gluten in the dough which will make for a better final rise. When the dough is smooth and elastic, roll into a ball, coat lightly with oil, and put it in a bowl to rise.

Rise: The rising time for whole wheat dough is significantly longer than that for all-purpose flour dough. Leave the dough in the bowl covered with a damp tea towel for a few hours in a warm place. Overnight is best. I usually sit mine on top of the stove because it’s far away from any drafts and is likely the warmest place in the house (except for the attic in the summer…). You want the dough ball to double in size. After the long rise, punch the dough down and allow it to rise for another half hour.

Oven Prep: Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Press the dough out onto a lightly oiled baking sheet (a 1/4 sheet pan works well for this amount) and very lightly brush the top with oil. I usually also add a few spices and herbs here depending on the batch. For the one I made this week, I added a little bit of coarse salt, cracked pepper, some finely chopped garlic scapes, and some more crushed rosemary leaves. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden on top and lightly browned around the edges.

Makes about 20 pieces at 80 calories each. Cut in half if you plan to use them for dip or fondue. I like to top pieces with sautéed peppers and onions for a really filling snack. Mangia, mangia!

NoVa/DC loca-vores, cherries are now in season and they are a-MAZing. I picked up some from Toigo Orchards at the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market last week and can't wait for more. I suggest getting some before I eat them all…

Have a happy Monday all!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mystery Food Week 1!

Ah yes, nothing says summer harvest season like a mystery bag full of fresh-picked vegetables and herbs.

This year, I've purchased a small farm share from Bull Run Mountain farm ( and will be receiving a bag of produce each Wednesday until the end of October. Whatever is ready to harvest each week is what ends up in the bag, which I find really fun. I also bought a fruit share and will start getting fruit along with the vegetables in mid-July. Most fortunately, one of Bull Run's weekly delivery spots is less than 2 miles from my house.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun to share with my readers what's coming into season here in Northern Virginia each week. I would love to hear from folks in other areas about what's growing in their neighborhood, so please leave a comment if you'd like to be involved.

Week 1: 1 very large head of pac choi, a handful of Italian basil, several sprigs of oregano, some chives (fatter than any I have ever seen before!), baby onions, garlic scapes and a potted parsley plant. I was also offered pick of some of the farm's excess seedlings and chose a red cabbage plant and a purslane plant. I do love a good red cabbage shredded on top of barbecued pork. Purslane I have never grown or used before, so I'm looking forward to trying something new.

A very green harvest this week! The only supplements to this batch that I plan to pick up at the farmer's market are a head of cauliflower and a pepper or two. I chopped and sauteed the head of pac choi in a small amount of fat left from a slice of bacon along with one of the baby onions, some cannellinni beans and some of the garlic scapes. That's currently waiting in the fridge because it is to become soup later today. (I've been saving some vegetable/herb scraps to make vegetable stock and today finally have time to do so.)

I was recently asked how I plan out meals for the week with what most people would consider fairly scant information about what I might/might not have. So, here it is, a brief venture inside of whatever part of the brain does meal planning...

Wednesday: Get CSA share and start looking at recipes for whatever is in the bag.

Saturday: Visit the Arlington Farmer's market:

Meat: Weekly I usually get 2lbs. of ground bison (or 1lb. of ground bison and 1lb. of steak/hot dogs), and 1 lb. of pork loin chops or a small tenderloin. Every two weeks, I pick up a whole chicken and sometimes a few extra assorted chicken pieces. Sometimes, if there is a special deal on a particular cut of meat, I'll grab that in lieu of extra chicken to save money.

Dairy: Weekly I pick up yogurt and ricotta cheese. Every few weeks I might get some milk or cream to make ice cream, and I get butter about once a month. A tub of butter stored properly lasts us a good while since we use it sparingly.

Produce: I like to grab some fruit and a vegetable or two to supplement the CSA share. This will probably change once the fruit portion of my CSA share starts and more vegetables (as opposed to greens) come into season.

Other stuff: There's a lady who makes amazing apple dumplings, cookies, and doughnuts, so sometimes I stop to get Joe something special for Saturday morning breakfast. I also get a jar of honey about once a month.

And the rest? Right now I shop at two small markets (MOMs and YES!), both of which have nice "bulk bin" sections. These are a great thing to look out for because you'll pay less to buy grains by the pound than you will to buy them pre-packaged. I store grains in a cool, dark closet usually in mason jars. This has never failed me, so I don't need to buy frequently. As a bonus, mason jars have measurements on the side so you always know exactly how much volume of something you have. On hand, I like to have whole wheat pastry flour, brown rice flour, spelt flour, graham flour, rolled oats, steel cut oats, quinoa, some type of multi-grain hot cereal, and durum semolina (for pasta). Occasionally, I'll get something like arrowroot, soy, or sorghum flour to experiment with, but the above list is what I try to keep in the house regularly.

I also pick up things like nuts, nut butter, dried beans, and a few little snack foods that I haven't mastered making on my own (yet). I try to buy from companies that are local, or at least in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic regions. That said, I'd be lying if I said I didn't love to get a juicy Florida orange as a treat from time to time.

Anyway, I hope this is helpful for anyone who is looking to get more local food into their diet. It does take some planning, but it's really worth it at the end of the day.

That's all for now, but for those of you who've been following the Stanley Cup Finals, I think that Rex (a creation of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh) describes fairly well what I have to say about tomorrow's Game 7...


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Don't Discriminate!

Generally, I like riding the Metro. I enjoy having the time to think about whatever I want to think about. At work and home there are usually little tasks waiting to be finished, but on the train there are no computers and barely even a cell phone signal. Free-thinking time.

Usually, this is a good thing. For instance, it gave me a chance to read up on the candidates for today's primary elections before I go off to vote after work. Yes Virginians, there is a primary today. GO VOTE. Polls are open until 7.

Some days, this thinking time is not such a good thing. Those days are usually the ones where something has gone awry and I'm brooding over it because I cannot think of any action to take. Yesterday was such a day. I was reading the news and came across this:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court refused on Monday to hear a legal challenge to the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a decision that allows the Obama administration to continue its slow, back-burner response to liberal activists who want gays to serve openly in the military.

During last year's campaign, President Barack Obama indicated that he supported eventually repealing the law, but he has made no specific move to do so since taking office in January. The White House has said it won't stop the military from dismissing gays and lesbians who admit their sexuality.

Democrats who control Congress also are not in a hurry to end the policy, which was made law in 1993. Easing the outright ban on gays in the military caused political trouble for President Bill Clinton and Democratic lawmakers that year, and Obama and his congressional allies want to avoid an issue that would roil the public just as they are seeking support for health care and other initiatives.

A Democratic aide to the Senate Armed Services Committee called a review of the law "not a high priority" and said the panel will look at the issue sometime before the end of Obama's term — but would not specify when. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the committee's plans.

It shouldn't surprise me, but it does. It sickens, disgusts, and enrages me beyond belief to see our government support such a shameful policy. And it made me wonder, "What if Clinton had stood his ground?" By compromising rather than demanding equality at the very start, it's made it far too easy for the homophobic portion of the population to consider "Don't ask, don't tell" a fair and just policy.

At it's heart, the policy is nothing more than basic discrimination. The fact that reviewing it is "not a high priority" is outrageous when those in power claim the U.S. as a nation to be a celebration of diversity. Using the excuse that repealing it now would distract us from our "objectives" in the middle East, or make it more difficult to pass health care reform, is ludicrous. By requesting that the Supreme Court not hear this case, the Obama administration has effectively slapped the faces of many of its most fervent supporters. I knew there would be decisions I did not agree with, but this was a no-brainer.

It doesn't take rights away from anyone, it doesn't take money away from anyone, and it's a Puritanical policy that was put in place to soothe a group of people who use this logic: It's okay for you to go and get your head blown off in a foreign country by some grenade wielding maniac, but don't you dare tell us that you love someone of the same gender! In other words, you're good enough to be a tool of our military, but not a human being with a full set of civil rights.

Support the troops? Then put your money where your mouth is and support all of them.

Friday, June 5, 2009

In Praise of the Pasture

Note: The following post contains information about commercial beef production that readers may find disturbing. While I encourage you to read on, I ask that you do so at your own discretion and with an open mind. Thank you.

Before the corn industry took America by storm following World War II, cattle and other herbivorous, pastured animals were raised in fields using rotational grazing. This grazing practice divides a pasture into several sections and moves the herd between sections regularly throughout the year to prevent over-grazing. In return, the cattle provided their rich manure to help replenish the pasture year after year. This manure was also used to fertilize the crops grown on the farm. In fact, the working farm was very nearly a perfect cycle with no waste.

However, once World War II ended, the U.S. found itself left with an overabundance of synthetic nitrogen which had been used to make bombs. In an attempt to use it, it was given to farmers to use on their fields. With synthetic nitrogen now replenishing the fields, there was no longer any need to pasture animals. That same land could be used for growing more corn. Thus, the animals moved from the farm to the feedlot, where nature's balanced cycle was indelibly broken. Farmers were no longer forced to rotate crops in order to keep nitrogen in the soil and corn became the golden child of the commercial agriculture industry. It has since made its way into over 2/3rds of consumer products.

And as for those big steer in the feedlots?

A typical commercial steer is given access to "feed" fairly frequently while being contained in a pen with hundreds of others like it. I put the above word in quotes because I'm not sure that this diet can necessarily be considered food to an animal that is, by nature, an herbivorous creature. Here is what the average steer gets:
Flaked corn, liquefied fat which is often in the form of beef tallow, molasses and urea (a protein supplement made from the same synthetic nitrogen fertilizing the fields), alfalfa hay and silage, Rumensin and Tylosin (antibiotics), and synthetic estrogen.
What's important to remember is that steer evolved eating grass. Their stomachs contain a unique fermentation-like chamber where they can actually convert grasses into a form of protein. They're not biologically equipped to digest corn and force-feeding it has created the host of problems (like bloat, acidosis, and infection) that cause the antibiotics to be necessary. In fact, cattle are so ill-equipped to digest this food that it can only be given to them for 150 days at most before they must be taken off of it. According to Dr. Mel Metzin, a staff veterinarian at a feedlot in Kansas, 15-30 percent of feedlot cattle are found to have abcessed livers at slaughter, and in some places the figure is as high as 70 percent. The antibiotics are also needed because the cows sleep in the very same pen where they eat, which often means sleeping in their own manure for extended periods of time. While not a pleasant thought at the start, it becomes even more reprehensible when you consider all of the hormones and antibiotics the average steer is laying in on a regular basis.

These antibiotics make their way into our meat and unfortunately have caused antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria like e-coli to evolve. All of this doesn't even take into account the fact that the corn being fed to these non-corn eating animals is littered with chemical fertilizers and has been genetically modified to produce maximum yield (some new strains even have built in pesticides! Eee...).

If this sounds overwhelming to you, breathe a sigh of relief as I tell you that you absolutely do not have to support this even if you are an omnivorous human like myself. Below are the URLs of the two local farms that I choose to get my bison, pork, and poultry products from. I provide their websites to use as a reference for what you should look for if you want to find a sustainable farm in your area. Notice how open these farmers are about guests visiting and how freely they describe their agricultural practices. Farms like these can provide you with quality meat/poultry products from animals that are raised on the foods their biology programmed them to eat, without any added antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified food.

Please note that I choose bison over beef purely for the health reasons (higher protein content/lower fat) and because it is more readily available at my local market. I have nothing against sustainably raised cattle. If you're really interested in finding a sustainable source of quality meat and are having trouble, please leave a comment and I will be more than happy to help you in your search. After all, I'm in library school...I can always use practice on those reference questions!



Kessler, David. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale, 2009).

Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin, 2009) and The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2007).

Monday, June 1, 2009

Why Should I?

Over the weekend, I took some time to consider the question, "Why do this?"

It was tough when I began to think about writing this particular blog post because there is a whole host of reasons why I've chosen to eat clean and as local as possible. Much of my reading as of late has been devoted to this topic and has inundated me with a great many statistics. While these are certainly important, what I am trying to do and the motivation behind it can be explained in much simpler terms by someone who has done far more research:
"Depending on how we spend them, our food dollars can either go to support a food industry devoted to quantity and convenience and "value" or they can nourish a food chain organized around values--values like quality and health. Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon as you begin to treat that expenditure as a kind of vote--a vote for health in the largest sense--food no longer seems like the smartest place to compromise."
-Michael Pollan
For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors ate the food provided by their local habitats. Even in (relatively) recent history, items transported from other places were rare commodities, saved for special occasions and relegated to things which simply could not be produced in the local climate.

With the advent of modern technology, we've learned to do it all quickly and efficiently. But is this really the best way to do things? Consider that most commercially grown products are bred for quantity (thus those watery, mealy tomatoes that pop up in the store in January) and visual appeal (but they looked so nice on the shelf!), and it becomes clear that what is being provided in the grocery store is nothing more than a mirage. Sure, the produce section looks full even in the middle of winter, but at what price? By the time those tomatoes reach the store, they've been shipped hundreds (if not thousands) of miles and their nutrition has degraded significantly. And since it's the middle of winter, you guessed it, you're going to pay more for them anyway. Paying more for an inferior product doesn't make sense, does it?

So, as Pollan puts it, you have to put forth the effort. This means buying tomatoes from a local farm when they are in season and preserving them as best you can. While canning, dehydrating, and freezing all cause nutrient loss, products grown using sustainable agriculture practices contain significantly more vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants than their commerically grown counterparts. So, while you'll still lose some in the "saving" process, you're left with more than what you'd get from the grocery.

Even much of that can be avoided by eating what is in season at any given time. Googling farms in your area can give you an idea of when certain products peak and what time of year you can expect to have certain vegetables and fruits. It's really forced me to try some new veggies, which is never bad! Plus, many farms are open for "pick-your-own" fruits and vegetables, which is a great way to get kids involved in healthy cooking as children are more likely to eat something which they've had a hand in choosing and preparing.

And yet, while all of these are fine arguments for local food, none capture what it is that drives me: I feel better. I am very curious to see how my blood work comes up this week after finishing iron treatment and really devoting myself to better eating habits. But it's not just a physical feeling of well-being either. It's embracing my place as a citizen of the world. It is accepting that food, in its most basic form comes from a complex web of relationships between living beings. It is understanding that while the lifestyle comes with its sacrifices, it embraces the harmony between those living things that provide us with sustenance and a sense of community.

While I'm not a member of a religious faith, this connection to what fuels us has brought me a profound sense of peace and has reminded me that nature is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.