Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Magical Mushroom Tour

How many of you have ever thought about where those attractive shiitake mushrooms in the grocery store come from? Yeah... me either. I knew mushrooms grew in forests, of course, and in Indiana there are dozens of little Mushroom Festivals that dot the rural countryside during the appropriate seasons, often in quaint little towns that also house adorable Covered Bridge Festivals and Fourth of July Festivals with people dressed in pioneer clothing and a real blacksmith and a guy dressed as Abe Lincoln.

The term "mushroom farm", however, was alien to me. Yet logically, there has to be a way to farm mushrooms, because there is just no way that mushroom hunters could find enough wild shiitakes to populate every grocery store in the lower forty-eight.

On Tuesday, I visited Sharondale Farm, a mushroom growing operation, in Keswick, VA - about an hour south of Brightwood. It was part of the CRAFT program, or "Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training". Basically, a bunch of farms in the region get all their interns/apprentices together and visit one another in order to better educate said interns. There were maybe 15 of us there to learn about the joys of mushroom farming, including myself, Susan, Caitlin, and Robin.*

When we walked into the "Mushroom Forest," it took me a few minutes to realize I was even looking at the mushroom farm part of the business. The paths were lined with logs that were propped up in an A-frame sort of construction. In some areas, groups of logs were lying on the ground in a row. After wandering around somewhat stupidly for a moment, I took a closer look at some large growths coming out of the logs.

Well, what do you know. Mushrooms.

Mark Jones, the guy who runs Sharondale Farm, gave us a bit of a guided tour and explained the process of cultivating mushrooms. He starts by capturing wild mushroom strains that he finds in forests, and grows them in his house in petri dishes, which he uses to inoculate sawdust with the mushroom spawn. He then takes logs - white oak for shiitake - and drills holes in the wood in a diamond pattern. He packs the holes with the shroomy sawdust, seals it shut, and waits for the log to begin fruiting. (You can see the drill holes in the picture above.)

Mark seems like a pretty cool dude. He has a full beard and wore a ratty LSU sweatshirt, left over from his grad school days, as he showed us around his property. He designed his gardens using permaculture, an approach that tries to mimic natural patterns and relationships, and as with many small farms, nothing goes to waste.

What comes to mind specifically are his mushroom spawn inoculated sawdust blocks. After Mark is done with them, he uses the blocks to line his garden beds. As a result, feral mushrooms spring up from the blocks that weren't quite finished fruiting, giving the entire garden a rather surreal, Alice-In-Wonderland type of feel. When the logs start declining, he pulls them and uses them to line the trails in the so-called "Magical Forest"** beyond his gardens, where feral mushrooms also are known to spring up from logs with a little more oomph left in them.

Interesting sign in the greenhouse
To put a finishing touch on the visit, Mark gave us paper bags and let us pick as many feral mushrooms as we wanted. Susan got quite a harvest for the house, and that very evening I used them to make a lovely Wild Mushroom Soup. Alas - I forgot to take a picture of it. We still have enough for another batch, however, and Susan and Dean have requested another concoction. Hopefully my wits won't leave me next time. In any case, the recipe is below, adapted from the Simply-In-Season cookbook. And while I did not have any psychedelic experiences after eating them, I will end with the caveat to be careful what mushrooms you pick, in case you do.

*Robin is another part-time worker at the farm. She and her fiance are starting their own mushroom farm this year. I had no idea mushroom farming was so popular.
**One area we didn't get to visit was Mark's indoor operation, where he grows the mushroom spawn and inoculates the sawdust. While there might be a legitimate reason for not going in there, like contamination, I lean towards the explanation that he's growing other "special" harvests. The "Magical Forest" might not be the only "magical" thing around Sharondale...

Read on for the Wild Mushroom Soup recipe.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Great Chicken Heist

It was the perfect night for a chicken heist.

Well, actually, that's not true. It was about 25 F last night and we were all freezing our tails off in the dark. But there was still beauty in the cold - the newly formed frost that crunched crisp and fresh under our feet, our breath billowing like steam in the beams of our headlamps, and the stars, undimmed by city lights and flickering above us in the frigid air.

Not that I had much time to observe such things. We were moving chickens.

It was a three part operation. Part One: Take down the fence and move the mobile chicken coop to the front yard. Part Two: Move the young chickens from the front yard coop into the mobile chicken coop with the rest of the chickens. Part Three: Move the mobile chicken coop to a new location and set up the fence.

The second part was where things got tricky. Susan, Caitlin (a part time worker on the farm) and I formed a daisy chain that went like this: Caitlin crawls into the tiny front yard chicken coop, grabs a chicken, and hands it to me. I pin down the chickens wings - or, for the roosters, hold them upside down by their feet - and carry the chicken out to Susan, who puts it in the big mobile coop. Easy as pie.

Well, maybe "easy" isn't the right word. For example, please examine Exhibit A - the fact that we were doing this in the dark wasn't because we just got too busy to do it earlier, but because, according to the theory, chickens are sleepy and therefore much more docile at night. We also turned our headlamps to infrared light for the endeavor, since chickens can't see infrared light, helping to preserve the atmosphere of calm and docility. Or so I'm told. Because if what I witnessed last night is evidence of chicken "docility", all I can say is I never want to move one when it's being feisty.

Who can blame them, really? I certainly wouldn't stay calm if some disembodied force came out of nowhere to pluck me from my nice warm bed and stuff me in a new one that was already inhabited by people who hate me for disturbing their rest. And based on last night's events, I think some of the chickens would say the same.

Regardless, the entire episode only took a little over an hour, and all things considered, the chickens were fairly well behaved, despite the inelegant interruption to their night. And in the end, it was yet another new and exciting experience to add to my list of things I would never have done if I weren't here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pick Me, Squeeze Me, Wine Me - The Amazing, Alluring Elderberry

My love affair with wine goes way back. Perhaps not quite to “knee high to a pig’s eye” stage, but I can remember sipping my mother’s White Zinfandel at the tender age of ten – under her supervision, of course. Around the same time, my dad taught me the basics of wine tasting (sniff, swirl, gaze, taste, rinse, repeat…), which allowed me to wow adults at gatherings who were astonished at my alcoholic savant-ness.

Elderflower wine, freshly bottled by yours truly
Despite this promising beginning, I would not call myself a wine aficionado.  In fact, I don’t even know some of the most rudimentary basics about wine. But I have never allowed this to stop me from appreciating what I consider to be a decent glass of fermented grapes. In fact, in some ways I think my ignorance has freed me from the fetters of the pretension and arrogance of wine appreciation. I like a wine because I like it, not because I’m supposed to. And if a wine I like isn’t quality enough for someone with more discerning tastes, that’s just fine. More for me.

That being said – Brightwood Vineyard and Farm is also a winery. They are even listed in the 2011 Virginia Winery Guide, a move that has already garnered them some attention from consumers who apparently memorize said guide every year. (“Hi, I saw your winery listed in this year’s guide, and you weren’t there last year!”)

Susan and Dean’s winery operation is small, to be sure, and is quite unusual – although they grow grapes, they currently don’t grow enough to make wine. They make wine primarily from other berries and fruits, all of which are either grown here on the farm, or come from their neighbors when there is a surplus. Dean calls it “wine your grandmother made” – mulberry, pear, peach, blackberry, and so forth. But their biggest contributor is the elderberry plant.

Yeasty sediment in some racked elderberry wine
Dean actually uses two parts of the elderberry to make wine – the berry and the flower. Dry elderberry wine is comparable to a good Cabernet Sauvignon, and if you are untutored and/or don’t have a glass of the real deal nearby, it would be quite easy to mistake it for one.

Full-strength elderberry wine is a teensy bit too hard-core for a lot of people, however, so Dean prepares several versions of it. Of the dry wine, he makes rosè, middling, and full-on. More popular, though, is the sweetened elderberry wine. There is also elderflower wine, made from the blossoms of the plant in almost exactly the same way you make it from the fruit. Unsweetened, it tastes a bit… well… flowery. Kind of like liquid honeysuckle, I thought. But he also makes a sweetened version with brown sugar that resembles port or cordial, and is fabulous as a dessert wine or an accompaniment to some good cheese.

I learned much of this today – as well as getting a general overview of the wine making process – as I helped Dean rack* and bottle a few different wines. I also got plenty of experience in washing and sterilizing the accouterments of wine making, which are many.

Dean demonstrates how to siphon wine
Mostly, I got a fabulous view of what happens to wine after it is racked for the first time. With Dean’s guidance, I helped re-rack two carboys** of rosè and medium-strength elderberry wine (one each); sweeten a demijohn of elderberry wine and rack it into three carboys, a gallon jug and a very large wine bottle; and bottle a carboy of the brown sugar sweetened elderflower wine. I also got to heat-seal aluminum caps on all the bottled wine, only slightly singeing myself in the process.

And to put a finishing touch on the day, a cottage guest*** came to visit the basement winery…and she happens to be designing part of an exhibit on wine for the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Perhaps Dean and Susan will be able to play a part in that exciting saga…who knows?!

Sweet elderberry wine, ready for bottling

*Rack (verb): to put wine into a containment vessel for storage and continued fermentation. I made this definition up, but basically you rack wine for several months before you bottle it.
**Carboy (noun): A three- to six-gallon jug. Another useful vocab word is demijohn (a 15-gallon jug).
***The farm also has a cottage that they run as a B&B sort of deal.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Life on the Farm - Let's meet our contestants!

Who doesn't picture a farm without a some chickens, a cow in the distance, and a few cats killing mice in the barns? Although Brightwood Farm doesn't have all the most stereotypical livestock wandering around, Susan and Dean do have plenty of animals roaming their gently rolling hills - in fact, they were featured in a local paper today about raising heritage breeds. (Check out the article to learn a bit about the farm and to see a great picture of Susan with her heritage Indian Runner ducks.)

So without further ado, allow me to introduce the players - give it up for the inhabitants of Brightwood Vineyard and Farm!

From Left: Sadie, Izzie, Rosie

The donkeys - Sadie, Rosie and Izzie - are used for what Susan calls "fertility" (a euphamism meaning "manure"), which is used in their compost. Izzie is also Rosie's daughter - when Susan and Dean bought Rosie, they thought she was just getting fat. Au contraire, as they discovered one morning upon finding a slimmed down Rosie and a baby donkey with enormous ears.

Next up are the sheep. They are friendly. Very friendly. (PS: That is Isaac, the friendly WWOOF-er).

And what are sheep without goats? Feeding them is Caitlin, who works on the farm a couple days every week.

Juan the goat.
Naturally with all these tasty treats practically laying around for the taking, something must be done to protect them. That's where the guard dogs come in.

Charlie the dog.
Charlie hangs out with the sheep all day, in a field adjascent to a couple goats (Juan and Phil, a bottle baby goat) and the donkeys. (Charlie is also camera shy, so I had to be covert while lurking about shamelessly.) He is a Maremma Sheepdog, a breed of livestock guardian dog originally bred in central Italy.
Charlie has a brother, named Ben.

Ben guards the chickens.

And while we're on the subject of birds, let's not forget the ducks and Guinea fowl.

They might eat ticks, but Guinea fowl are still one of the most obnoxious birds on the planet.

Duck eggs - apparently great for baking.

There are actually more, but I won't make this entry any more unwieldy than it already is. You will have to wait to meet the rest until later.

Until next time...

Monday, March 21, 2011

Arrival of Spring (and me) at Brightwood Farm

Yesterday, I drove up to my home away from home for the next eight months. Coincidentally, it was also the Vernal Equinox. And I think it's safe to say that in Brightwood, Virginia, spring has truly sprung.

My road trip here was nice and leisurely. The first leg wasn't very eventful - I stayed the night in Berkley, West Virginia, not too far from where I went on disaster relief with AmeriCorps NCCC in 2009.*

In the morning, I took a look in the nearby tourist trap, the Tamarack, which is a big building full of "authentic West Virginia-made items". It had more than its fair share of kitsch, as well as one of the more passive-aggressive signs I've seen for a while.

For the rest of West Virginia, I drove two-lane highways and played Country Roads, Take Me Home and Wagon Wheel on repeat. As an acquaintance told me, "I'm pretty sure it's West Virginia state law that Country Roads be played at least once an hour." I did my best to comply.

Also went for a short hike at a state park, saw the tunnel where John Henry beat the drill machine and collapsed, and stopped at at least three overlooks.

The only part about my day that was better than the road trip was actually arriving at the farm. Susan and Dean put me to work immediately, helping Susan and Isaac - a WWOOF-er here for the week - to plant swiss chard and two types of beets, as you can see below. Then we demolished a pile of sticks with a wood chipper.

I really think this is the best farm I could have picked. Susan and Dean are gracious, conversational, and seem to be fabulous teachers. Brightwood Farm is incredibly diversified - animal husbandry, vegetable/berry/grape production, wine and jam making... and despite being in the middle of the backwaters of Virginia, the farm always seems filled to bursting with WWOOF-ers, visitors, and part-time workers. I am so looking forward to this year.

Tomorrow (hopefully), hear the tale of the little lettuce that could.

*And I learned that Welch, WV is the site of the first municipally owned and operated parking garage. Who knew?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On The Road Again...

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single dog in want of a good adventure will jump into any open car he sees.

So, after I packed my car and hugged my parents and went to the bathroom one last time*, I went outside to actually leave. And what did I find? A stowaway, of course.

...and a stowaway wannabe.

Any-hoo. I'll stop posting pictures of dogs now. I swear I'm not one of those people.*

I'm currently in Beckley, West Virginia, a bit over halfway to Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, where I will be spending the next eight months (approximately) of my life. I should be arriving sometime in the afternoon tomorrow, and starting work on Monday.

And - of course - I will be transcribing my many new experiences here. So stay tuned!

*I still had to pee half an hour later. I have a bladder the size of a grape.
**Cross my heart. We don't have a dachshund-sized Santa Costume. Would I lie to you?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"You're right in liking meat!" - American Beef Mania continues

The I ♥ Beef! campaign, a snazzy new advertising program that's trying to bolster interest in that most American of products, is definitely not the first time the meat industry has tried to use utter absurdity to beef up (ha) their sales.

I'm not sure what bothers me most about these advertisements. The poor grammer? The perfectly manicured nails that are painted to match the color of raw steak? The fact that it calls pork sausages "tasty little mouthfuls of flavor" and claims they are "cheery eating anytime"?

However creepy the meat advertisements of yore are, the Beef Board is working to counteract that by emphasizing beef's inherent sexiness. According to their beef checkoff-funded consumer market research, 50% of Americans think Filet Mignon is the best way to say "I love you." Oh baby.

Speaking of babies... they need meats too. Meats. Plural.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Greenhorns Guerilla Farming - Promoting agriculture to a new generation

Starting next Monday, I will be a farming intern on a highly diversified family farm, learning skills that could eventually make me a professional organic farmer, if I so desired.

Now, I've never wanted to be a farmer. And even though I am interning on a farm, I still don't plan on pursuing farming as a career. That is not to say that I won't use what I learn to grow some of my own food, and to inform my writing and my career path as an advocate for small farmers and organic agriculture.*

That being said, I have stumbled upon an amazingly cool resource for young farmers. It's called The Greenhorns. Their mission is to "recruit, promote and support young farmers in America," and they describe themselves as "a grassroots campaign for agricultural reform." And I have no qualms in wholeheartedly declaring myself their newest - and quite possibly their greenest - recruit.

Let's begin with Greenhorns founder, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who is spearheading the young farmers movement. (For a great profile on her, check out this Grist article.) She is also the director of a new documentary that explores the lives of young farmers in America, the trailor for which is enticingly displayed front and center on their website. Well, front and slightly to the right. In Fleming's words:

We're making a documentary film about young farmers, their struggle and their valor, the redemptive force that they have for our society, for our culture, for our agriculture, for our countryside, for our nation.
The documentary - entitled The Greenhorns, curiously enough - is still in post-production, but they are currently scheduling screenings for a screen tour this year. This is a film that I am excited to see.

Besides the documentary trailor, the Greenhorns website also has fabulous resources for anyone who has so much as fantasized about the farming lifestyle:
  • The Greenhorns' Guide For Beginning Farmers is a 30-page guide absolutely packed with tips on finding apprenticeships, getting land, business planning, marketing, etc. It also lists books and websites where the aspiring farmer can find valuable information on pest management, soil science, animal husbandry, seeds, equipment, and so forth.
  • Greenhorns has a Wikispace site as a portal for young farmers to find further resources.
  • You can sign up to receive their newsletter which is chock full of goodies and updates.
  • They even have a podcast. Be still, my heart.
  • And - AND! - they have posters. Really cool ones. I can't wait until I live somewhere longer than a few months that has walls, so I can indulge.

This organization is the coolest of cool. I've already found so many fantastic sources that I didn't know existed. I will certainly be keeping tabs on these people for the forseeable future.

Internship readiness update... only three more days until I leave. And have I started packing? Of course not. Have I finished unpacking from AmeriCorps NCCC, which ended in November? I plead the fifth.

*And who knows, really? I'm far more likely now to become a farmer than I would have been this time last year. Especially if a strapping farm boy gives me a come-hither look. I wouldn't even look back. But seriously... the point is that it's not outside the realm of possibility.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mango Chutney Madness

Due to an abundance of mangos in last week's Green BEAN box, I decided to ignore the obvious impossibility of mangos in Indiana in March (or EVER), and go balls out by making an exotic mango chutney.*

I looked at a few different recipes online before making my decision. Most of the recipes had what seemed to me to be an appalling amount of sugar - up to 2 cups, in one case. The original recipe I used called for half a cup of brown sugar, which I further reduced to a third of a cup. Mangos and raisins are sweet naturally, and along with the apple juice I figured the chutney would be cloyingly saccharine enough to suit even my sweet tooth.** I was also lacking a few ingredients (e.g. fresh ginger), but I made do with what I had available in the pantry.

 Courageous Mango Chutney

3 fresh mangos, ripe but not too soft
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 medium red onion, diced
1 cup apple juice
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 tbsp yellow curry powder
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup raisins

Cut the mangos into medium to large chunks.

In a 12-inch skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Add red pepper and stir until fragrant. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add mango and let cook for one minute.

Seperately, mix the apple juice, cider vinegar, brown sugar, curry powder, ginger and cinnamon. Add to skillet and bring to a slow simmer. Let simmer for about 30 minutes, until juice mixture has reduced to a sauce. Stir frequently.

When chutney has reached the desired consistency, add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in raisins and serve. 

This recipe would be really good on pork chops, roast or pan-fried chicken, and some types of fish. I paired it with baked tilapia - my parents really liked it, but I thought the tilapia was a tad bland. Maybe grilled or pan-fried. At any rate, the chutney itself was very good, and just sweet enough. In the future, I'll make extra and jar it for future use, or to use as gifts.

Additionally, next time I will not serve mango chutney on yellow plates. My food presentation skills leave a lot to be desired.

*Once again, fail to Green BEAN Delivery for sending us food that is neither seasonal nor local. These were from Peru, for crying out loud. However, since I love mango chutney, I choose to magnanimously forgive them.

**As a child, I was caught in the bathroom, eating sugar by the spoonful. Multiple times.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Butcher, The Baker, The Boeuf Bourguignon Maker

For a while now, I have had a hang-up about boeuf bourguignon. Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon, to be precise. I somehow came to view mastering this recipe as a vital step in the career trajectory of any serious foodie. I'm not quite sure how this happened, but it was probably somewhere between reading Julie and Julia and My Life in France.

I - and many others, I believe - have come to view Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the First Edition Foodie Bible, the embodiment of the original Good Food movement. Maybe MtAoFC was considered an entrance into the world of home cookery for housewives in the 1960's, but like a snowball rolling down a hill, it has gathered force and mass as it raced through the next fifty years. This book has weathered TV shows, newscasts, best-selling memoirs, The Julie-Julia Project, and a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, for crying out loud. A humble little cookbook it certainly is not... not anymore, anyway.

Bouef bourguignon is well known as traditional French fare, and is now even considered haute cuisine.* As such, it does not come without baggage, historically and culturally speaking. When the manuscript for MtAoFC first came across editor Judith Jones' desk, she settled on boeuf bourguignon as her test recipe. In the introduction to my own 40th anniversary edition of the cookbook, she explained with no small amount of gusto:
I ran home to make the recipe - and my first bite told me that I had finally produced an authentic French boef bourguignon - as good as one I could get in Paris. This, I was convinced, was a revolutionary cookbook...
And this from a lady who had lived in Paris for over three years.

Reading Julia Child's little love note before the recipe didn't really help settle my nerves, either:
As is the case with most famous dishes, there are more ways than one to arrive at a good boef bourguignon. Carefully done, and perfectly flavored, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man...
Perfectly flavored, eh? One of the most delicious concocted by man? No pressure.

I started at the butcher shop. Doesn't that sound quaint? There are a lot of reasons to frequent a butcher, which I won't go into right now, but the primary one is that it gives you the most control over selecting your meat, short of raising and slaughtering the animal yourself. I, of course, have additional ethical concerns, and I chose accordingly.

I decided to go with The Goose, an Indianapolis-based shop that specializes in local, naturally raised meat. They also have a coffee shop and sell delicious sandwiches, as well as artisinal cheeses, fresh seasonal produce, and dairy products from a local creamery. I got six ounces of bacon and three pounds of chuck roast, courtesy of Fischer Farms in Jasper, Indiana. Their cattle is grass-fed with a grain-finish, as the nice man who wrapped up my juicy-looking hunk of meat explained to me.

Back at the ranch - I hauled out the cookbook and re-read the recipe to make sure I had everything. Then I prepared all my ingredients in advance - cut my bacon into lardon and my three pounds of beef into two inch chunks, and sliced up all the vegetables I would be needing.

Of course, I had an audience.

Then it was a matter of blanching the bacon (that sounds like it should be a euphamism for something), browning the beef (ditto), sautéing the veggies, and dumping everything into a pot with a bottle of red wine, some beef stock, garlic, tomato paste, and a bouquet garni, which was provided free of charge by my friendly neighborhood butcher man. Wasn't he something?

Ultimately, I don't know why I was so nervous. It's time intensive, to be sure, but most of the time is spent just letting the whole pot simmer in the oven for a few hours. You can even make boeuf bourguignon in advance... Julia's recipe actually recommends it as a way to let the flavors mingle.

You might even have time to bake a little dessert. Lemon-lavender pound cake, if you're me.

In the end, it turned out perfectly. The sauce was just thick enough. The beef was tender to the point of perfection, falling apart on our forks and melting on our tongues. My parents, my brother, and my friend Abbie (who I invited along) all made many yummy noises. It might have been the wine speaking, but I'll pretend otherwise for now.

*This may or may not be according to Wikipedia.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Microwaved Oatmeal: Study reveals it can still be tasty

When I came home last night, I was greeted with the glorious news that we were without heat, hot water, or most of our electrical appliances. Which meant no stove. Alas.

However, my dad ran in an extension cord so we could use the microwave this morning. And contrary to what you may think, you don't actually need to cook oatmeal on the stove for that thick, steaming bowl of breakfasty delight. 

I love oatmeal. It's my favorite breakfast for a cold winter morning... and since it was 50 degrees inside, it was more or less perfect. The steam issuing into the frigid air was quite picturesque. Silver lining and all that.

Microwaves definitely get a bad rap among foodies and traditionalists. I'm not in a position to say how much or little the microwave has contributed to the decline of home cooking or the family meal, but I can say that the microwave is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used for good or evil.

I will confess that I've used microwaves to cook. And I'm not alone - Harold McGee, a regular writer for the New York Times and author of best-selling books On Food and Cooking and Keys to Good Cooking, talked about using microwaves in a Fresh Air interview last year. According to McGee:
It turns out when studies have been done on retaining vitamins in vegetables, for example, microwave ovens do a much better job than boiling or even steaming. It's a very good, very quick way to heat food, and I do cook vegetables in the microwave. I cook thin fish fillets in the microwave in just a matter of a minute or so.
So since we've established that microwaving food isn't a morally reprehensible offence, let's talk about oatmeal.

Stove-less Stovetop Oatmeal

1/2 cup rolled oats
1 cup milk
Toppings - I'm partial to honey, raisins and flax seeds

Pour oatmeal and milk into microwave-safe bowl and stir. Let sit for 10 minutes.

Microwave oatmeal in one minute increments, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on it in case it starts to boil over.

Continue to alternate between microwaving and stirring until oatmeal is the consistency you want. Add toppings and enjoy.

My opinion: You definitely can't tell the difference between stove-top and microwaved oatmeal. However, it's slightly more time-intensive to cook in the microwave, since you have to stop every 30 to 60 seconds in order to prevent boiling over. But then, you also don't have to clean a saucepan. Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Nutrition Month! Also included - Dietary Guidelines and I ♥ Beef!

That's right... March is Nutrition Month, brought to you by the American Dietetics Association. It might not be as prestigious as African American History Month or LGBT Pride Month, and it does have to share March with the likes of "Help Fight Liver Disease" Month and National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. So who knows how many people will actually hear about it. But despite sharing the limelight, the ADA has lofty ambitions, and is preparing to bring everyone better nutrition in 2011 with their theme, "Eat Right With Color".

Everyone who has anything to say about nutrition wants Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. It's old news, really. When the USDA released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines on January 31st, no one was shocked to read that they want us to fill up on produce.

Now, I know I'm a little late to be talking about the 2010 Dietary Guidelines a month after the fact. They've already been picked over by experts and bloggers with far more insight than I - Marion Nestle is everyone's go-to girl for all things food policy related, and La Vida Locovore did a very nice job boiling down what all those experts seem to be saying. also did a series of articles on the aftermath of the guidelines, compiled here by Marion Nestle.

Regardless. Here are my humble observations:
  1. Everyone is happy that the USDA is telling us to eat more fruits and veg (at least half your plate, they say), but in our consumerism-dominated culture, telling anyone to eat more poses no problems. It's when you say to eat less that people start getting snarky, which leads me to...
  2. In their own roundabout way, the USDA did say to eat less red meat. But they sidestepped it by couching it in euphamisms like "saturated fat" and "SOFAS", which stands for "solid fats and added sugars". This spares them the anger of the formidable meat industry, but just adds confusion for everyone else. 
  3. Most of the reactions I read are lukewarm. The guidelines get a passing grade, but definitely not A+ material. Most responses point out that the USDA did state more explicitly than ever that obesity is indeed a problem, they did say we need to decrease our salt intake, and they did say we need to increase our fruit/veg consumption. But still a failure so far as reining in the food industry is concerned, or telling us point-blank what foods to avoid.
What I found especially interesting is that mere weeks after the USDA released these new guidelines, the UK health agency released a warning to limit red and processed meat consumption to 3 ounces or less per day, after it has been linked to bowel cancer. And they actually said "red meat" and "processed meat". How quaint, using actual words to describe things. Don't they know acronyms are the way of the future? Those silly Brits.

To add insult to injury, the American Heart Association has announced a partnership with the Beef Board (a program that markets beef, controlled by the USDA of all people), where they will endorse certain cuts of lean beef as "heart healthy". As Marion Nestle (her again!) said, at least this seems to be a slightly more considered choice than their endorsement of certain sugary breakfast cereals. Slightly.

And because everyone needs a fabulous advertising campaign, the I ♥ Beef! people are mounting a full scale assault. According to the website, "Steak is well-known as a "best match" for love, passion and romance." Who knew?

Aw....the steak is even vaguely heart-shaped. It must be true. But somehow, I don't think mowing down a 16 oz. steak is the sexiest thing in the world, so forgive me if I skip out on Longhorn for my next date.