Friday, April 29, 2011

Restaurant Muramoto

After pot-lucking, enjoying a homemade cookbook, and working on a farm, my birthday came to an end (at least the day itself, if not the birthday week) at one of my favorite restaurants in town, Restaurant Muramoto. In fact, after this dinner, I went so far as to call it "my favorite restaurant in Madison" (not just "one of"), though, in retrospect, that may have been a little rash.

Nonetheless, the food was so full of flavor and body that I'm dreaming of it still.

Asian slaw with sesame vinaigrette:

Avocado roll with sesame seeds:

Grilled Naan bread, with an edamame tabouli:

Tofu, deep fried, sautéed with red onion, bell peppers, and peanuts in a spicy coconut sauce:

And finally, lime granita with almond shortbread and huckleberry pure 

Despite sounding kind of boring, the Asian slaw is what keeps us coming back, again and again. I don't know if it's clear from the photo above, but this is one giant mound of slaw--probably at least 9" high, and perhaps even taller. The red and green cabbage, along with a few other vegetables like bright yellow bell pepper--are sliced so finely that they are almost fluffy, and the whole of it is dressed by a creamy savory sesame vinaigrette that impresses without overwhelming.  This slaw is delicious in a knock-your-socks-off kind of way.

The tofu in spicy coconut sauce, with its robust flavor and its delicate balance of julienned vegetables and crunchy peanuts--is another dish we can't go without, no matter how much other options tempt us. The avocado roll is an old standby that is consistently good, though nothing to write home about (though I guess it is something to blog about!). The naan and edamame tabouli were a new dish that we hadn't tried before, and although we enjoyed them as an accompaniment to our meal, I think we'll likely pass the next time around. The bread was a little dry, and the tabouli--though it gets innovation points for substituting the usual bulgur wheat with chopped edamame (fresh soybeans)--left something to be desired. Finally, the dessert, though it tempted me with its mix of lime and berries and buttery shortbread, was a little too tart and the granita a little too frozen to fully satisfy.

I'm inspired by the bold mixing of flavors that Muramoto pulls off so well, and want to think about how to incorporate this kind of amalgamation in my own humble kitchen.

Any recipe suggestions (for dishes that interestingly combine flavors or textures) to get me started?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mobbing Sprouting Acres

For weeks, I'd been complaining about how this would be the first year when it wouldn't be warm on my birthday, and that birthday joy and good weather were so integrally wrapped up with one another in my mind that I didn't know how to celebrate a birthday without the sun on my skin.

Well, it turns out that even with clouds and temperatures not much above 60 degrees, the outdoors can still bring birthday joy--this year specifically in the form of a Farm Mob at Sprouting Acres in Stoughton, WI. The scene:

Although there was no 96 foot long greenhouse to move this time around, and although the ground was too wet for the onion-planting we were supposed to do, we had plenty of work: weeding greens (left), moving huge tomato cages from one field to another (middle), and constructing a small hoophouse frame (right):

We also go to stop and smell the flowers (and the parsley and basil!):

And to pet some dogs, and see some cool farm design--in the form of small hoophouses and a composting toilet:

We even got to bring some of the farm home with us:

The whole day was another reminder of how fulfilling it can be to work with a group of people, using your body, outdoors, to produce concrete effects that build up to create a local food system that is nourishing , sustainable, and delicious.

All in a day's work.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Flavors of Madison

Central among the many joys of this birthday of 2011 was this beautiful home-made cookbook that Justin, along with the help of two of my favorite Madison ladies, compiled from the recipes of my Wisconsin nearest and dearest:

The whole cookbook was a joy to behold, and left me crying  (literally) from pleasure and emotion and the recognition that I'm one lucky lady.  Happy sigh.

The recipes included in this collection run the gamut from savory to sweet, and include recipes for some of the delicious dishes from my birthday surprise potluck: roasted beet salad, MaPa tofu, carrot halva!

I can't wait to try them all.

One idea Justin and I came up with is to try to recreate many of these dishes over the course of the next year, documenting them and sharing the photos and stories with the friends who served as the inspiration. Which ones should we start with first?!

In addition to the delicious food that was part of this cookbook's bounty, parts of it were also rife with humor, of the deep belly laugh sort.

HL and SP put together this amazing little dialogue, that imagines their son and my and Justin's daughter ten years in the future.  It captures our caricature-ish nature perfectly--my obsession over not wasting anything and not using disposable products; Justin's weird interest in Rebecca Black's Friday, and more. Read the whole thing here, if you'd like.

And our old roommate DC also perfectly captured a crucial part of our past relationship with his recipe for "Bloody Meat Morning Surprise." Click on the photo to zoom in and read the whole thing--though it may be funnier if you know how much of this is based on real things that actually happened (though perhaps not all at once).

Such pleasure in creativity!  Enormous thanks to everyone who contributed, and stay tuned for our versions of your dishes...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Potluck Birthday Love

After months of planning, the big wedding catering extravaganza is happening later this week, so I'll definitely be reporting back from the trenches next week, with a full recap and as many how-tos as possible.

This week, though, in preparation for the wedding and in the spirit of celebration, I'm going to be devoting my remaining posts to the wonderful ways in which I celebrated my birthday this past weekend, so that we can all relive the warmth and love and good food together, in bloggy form.

The weekend started out with a surprise birthday potluck the day before my actual birthday (Justin said doing it early was the only way he could really surprise me) at our friends' co-op.  Loved ones gathered there, bearing some of Madison's finest culinary delights, and showered me with hugs and conversation and a round of Roses and Thorns (turns out the Obamas also know the value of this tradition!), some attempts at Time's Up (the best game ever), some bad Youtube video-watching, and even a game of TST, or Team Shoulder Traverse, in which one person has to hang onto the shoulders of another person and make it all the way around their body without touching the floor (one of those things you just have to see...), but here's Justin and DU doing their darndest:

But the food! Oh the food!

Carrot Halva! Bulgur, Chickpea, Carrot Salad! Fried tofu! Roasted Beet Spinach Salad!

Award-winning Vegan Chili!  Wild Rice Salad! TY's Famous MaPa Tofu!
 (and lots more savory awesomeness that wasn't captured on film)

Maple-cream pie with strawberries!

Beautiful Chocolate Cake!

And so much love...
What more could a birthday girl ask for?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Soy vey!

A few readers and friends (NB and MBS among them) have asked me to write a bit about my thoughts on soy, and the general health benefits/costs associated with the food itself, rather than only with the “meat substitutes” that are sometimes made from soy, and which I’ve written about previously.

A year or so ago, one of my good friends SF asked me for my views about soy, and this is what I wrote at the time: “As for soy, I guess I generally like to follow the Michael Pollan approach to food: if it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t. So, although I know there's lots of uncertainties about the health benefits/harms of soy, I guess I think that minimally processed, organic, non-GMO soy products are fine in moderation, until I get further evidence that I should stop eating them. But I have started trying to stay away from things like TVP, soy nuggets, and other super-processed sorts of soy foods (though locally-made soy milk and tofu stay on my good list). My go-to nutritionists (Marion Nestle, Andrew Weil, Walter Willett, and Michael Pollan [if he counts!]) give a thumbs sideways, thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs sideways, respectively, I think.”

I mostly still stand by my thoughts of last year, but figured I’d elaborate a little for the purposes of this blog post, to at least provide some more resources on the views of those “go-to nutritionists” of mine.

Despite all the claims that soy is either a super-food (Complete protein! Lowers cholesterol! Lots of fiber! Prevents bone loss!) or the devil (Causes breast cancer! Prevents absorption of essential minerals!  Suppresses thyroid function), it seems like it’s not really either, and that this general approach of thinking of food as medicine (or a harmful drug) is itself flawed.

So, whenever I have a nutrition-related question, I usually turn to Michael Pollan (author,  activist, professor of journalism at UC-Berkeley), Marion Nestle (Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU), Walter Willett (Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard), and Andrew Weil (Author and Physician, founder and Program Director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine), in that order. Here are their takes:

From Michael Pollan, Sustainable Eating & Nutrition
Verdict: Thumbs Sideways

“Americans are eating more soy products than ever before, thanks largely to the ingenuity of an industry eager to process and sell the vast amounts of subsidized soy coming off American and South American farms. But today we’re eating soy in ways Asian cultures with a much longer experience of the plant would not recognize: “Soy protein isolate,” “soy isoflavones,” “textured vegetable protein” from soy and soy oils… Until those data come in [on the estrogenic effects of soy], I feel more comfortable eating soy prepared in the traditional Asian style than according to novel recipes developed by processors like Archer Daniels Midland. For more on soy see In Defense of Food, section III.”

 From Marion Nestle’s What to Eat, Chapter 12.
Verdict: Thumbs Sideways

“At the moment, I find it impossible to make sense of the health debates about soy foods, not least because so much of the research is sponsored by industries [Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and USDA among them] with a vested interest in its outcome…They are just a food, one that you can choose to eat or not as a matter of personal preference. Soybeans and the minimally processed foods made from them make sense to eat but the principal result of the approval of the soy health claim has been the massive proliferation of processed soy products that can labeled with that claim.”

From Walter Willet, Eat, Drink and be Healthy as cited here
Verdict: Thumbs Sideways

Soy food may have a dark side "because estrogens play a role in maintaining normal mental function, and it is possible that too much antiestrogen in the wrong place at the wrong time could be harmful." But the bottom line is that he agrees that soy is a good alternative to animal protein, that it may lower the risk of heart disease and have other beneficial effects. “Just don’t overdo it,” he says. “Two to four servings a week of a soy-based foods such as tofu or soy milk is a good target.

From Andrew Weil: Rethinking Soy?
Verdict: Thumbs Up

“I'm aware of Internet paranoia on the subject of soy and the contention that only fermented soy is safe to consume. That is simply not true. Some of the best forms of soy—edamame, tofu and soy nuts—are unfermented and are much more likely to help you than hurt you…All told, based on the evidence to date, I see no reason to worry about eating soy foods, whether fermented or not. I still recommend consuming one to two servings of soy per day, an amount equivalent to one cup of soy milk, or one half cup of tofu, soy protein (tempeh) or soy nuts.”

So, for now, I'm sticking with soy (of the non-GMO, organic variety), but in moderation.  Other favorite nutritionists or guides or relevant research any of you have to offer?
Resources/Other interesting takes:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Food on Earth Day

So, I know I promised a post on soy this week, and there really is one in the works, but today it just seemed like I couldn't get by without mentioning Earth Day, and wishing you all a Happy Earth Day!

Even though my favorite blogger Sharon Astyk hates Earth Day (and I totally understand why),* we here in Wisconsin have a particular attachment to the holiday because it was started by our very own Senator Gaylord Nelson.  In September 1969, he "proposed a national teach-in on the environment to send a message to Washington that public opinion was solidly behind a bold political agenda on environmental problems." And this grew into the first Earth Day, observed across the country on April 22, 1970, which historians continue to view as a watershed moment in the history of environmental politics.  The quote above, as well as lots more historical goodness, is from a website that my oh-so-impressive friend Brian Hamilton created for the UW's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (named after the senator himself!) in honor of Earth Day's 40th Anniversary last year. You should most definitely check it out.

And so on this Earth Day, in keeping with the themes of this blog, I'd like talk about food as an environmental issue.

Image from**

Now, I've gotten to the point where it's nearly impossible to think about food as anything but an environmental issue, but I also still realize that are many people who haven't made this connection, or from it's not as clear as it might be, so I'd like to practice making those connections.  There was also a really interesting article in Time a few months ago entitled Foodies Can Eclipse (and Save) the Green Movement, which compared the food and environmental movements and tried to show how the former could succeed where the latter had failed. Now, I didn't quite buy all of the arguments that this article was making, but it's a claim that is really intriguing, and makes me pause and reflect on how much this recent upsurge in food interest is a "movement" and what that idea of a "movement" might mean for the future of this nexus of interests.

So, I'd like to share a short list I came up with of environmental issues that can be addressed by food choices, along with some links to articles to read more. A predominately local, organic, vegan, non-processed, non-pre-packaged, thoughtful diet can help to address:

  • Global Climate Change: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (FAO).  Eating locally also helps in the fight against global warming, shortening the usual 1500 miles that the average fresh food item on our dinner table travels, eliminating the need for all that fuel-guzzling transportation (EarthTalk)
  • Waste/Pollution: Livestock production is the largest source of water pollutants, principally animal wastes, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and pesticides used for feed crops, and sediments from eroded pastures. While global figures are unavailable, it is estimated that in the USA livestock and feed crop agriculture are responsible for 37 percent of pesticide use, 50 percent of antibiotic use, and a third of the nitrogen and phosphorus loads in freshwater resources (FAO).
  • Water: According to John Robbins, it takes roughly 24, 25, 33, and 49 gallons of water to produce a pound of potatoes, wheat, carrots and applies respectively. A pound of beef, however, requires 5,214 gallons of water.
  • Ocean de-oxygenation: There are now 405 dead zones, or areas of water that can't support marine life, covering 95,000 square miles, in the world's oceans. They are found near the mouth of rivers polluted by fertilizers from conventional farming. Nutrients in these fertilizers feed big algae blooms that die and sink to the ocean bottom. The bacteria that feeds on this dead algae takes most of the oxygen out of the water (NPR).
  • Habitat Destruction: "The livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land. Grazing occupies 26 percent of the Earth's terrestrial surface, while feed crop production requires about a third of all arable land. Expansion of grazing land for livestock is a key factor in deforestation, especially in Latin America: some 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is used as pasture, and feed crops cover a large part of the reminder. About 70 percent of all grazing land in dry areas is considered degraded, mostly because of overgrazing, compaction and erosion attributable to livestock activity" (FAO).
  • Acid Rain:  Almost two-thirds of anthropogenic ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain and acidification of ecosystems, is produced by the livestock sector (FAO).

Sources: FAO's Livestock Impacts on the Environment, John Robbins' The Food Revolution, NPR Report "'Dead Zones' Multiplying In World's Oceans" by John Nielsen, Earthtalk: Why Eat Locally?

Oh boy.  I think I have to stop writing now, not because I've said all there is to say (so far from it! this feels like one of the shallowest posts yet...) but because beneath all this lies the iceberg, and I'm afraid I'll freeze if I go too much further. 

At the bottom of all of this, though, is the hope that by changing our diets, by making food choices that allow us the joy and pleasure of food that is wholesome and that connects us to the communities around us, we can also address these huge, looming environmental problems that threaten to swallow us whole.  

Let's swallow them instead, by swallowing food that is as good as it tastes. 


* You should really click over and read Astyk's 2010 Earth Day post, but if you're not going to, here's a little glimpse: "Yes, I'm the original poster girl for 'your personal choice makes an impact'--but not one day a year. And yes, teaching kids about the basics of environmentalism is awesome, and having festivals is good. But the truth is that I don't see it sticking. I see Earth Day as the new Valentine's Day or Mother's Day, a Hallmark holiday for us to give lip service to the environment. There are contrary forces, good in the mix - but then there are good things in the mix of Mother's Day or Father's Day or Valentines as well. But the reality of Mother's Day doesn't seem to be that it inspires us to be more respectful of the needs of mothers - what comes out of Mother's Day isn't more calls for breastfeeding stations and child friendly policies, but a "we told you we loved you last Sunday...aren't we done yet?" The same is true of Valentines Day--there's no compelling reason to believe that once a year special chocolates and sex really do all that much to lower the national divorce rate."

** The page from which this image was taken provided a really bizarre example of the kind of greenwashing that Astyk finds so distasteful. The page was purportedly offering Earth Day Recipes and asked "What better way to celebrate Earth Day than with recipes that are not only tasty, but local, fresh and environmentally friendly?" And yet, the recipes that this website offered made absolutely no mention of the provenance of your ingredients--no mention of using local or organic dairy products, for example--and included a Fruit and Nut Coleslaw with canned tropical fruits (decidedly non-local and non-fresh) and an Earth Day Dirt Cup that called for instant chocolate pudding, frozen whipped topping, and gummy worms. So, if a dessert looks like dirt that makes it environmentally-friendly?! Doesn't make much sense...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Slow Food Farm Fundraiser

After helping to move Scotch Hill Farm's hoophouse a few weeks ago (read about that here), we got to taste the results of some of the fruits (vegetables!) of our labor this week, at a Slow Food UW Family Dinner Night that featured lasagna made with spinach and goat cheese ricotta from Scotch Hill Farm.

The local flavor of the meal was further accentuated by salad greens from Sprouting Acres, bread from Madison Sourdough, lasagna noodles from RP's Pasta, and ice cream from Sassy Cow, which were all donated by these awesome local businesses so that the $5 everyone paid for dinner would be able to serve as a fundraiser for Scotch Hill's legal costs in their fight against the Larson Acres CAFO. 

Xavi Curtis, a UW student who organized this event and was the head chef for the meal, and Tony Ends, of Scotch Hill Farm, spoke eloquently about how our eating such delicious food at this dinner could help to protect clean water in Wisconsin against the nitrate-filled manure runoff from factory farms:

Photo Credit: Amanda Kievet

Please read more about the case at the Green Rock Citizens for Clean Water website, but the short of it is: A group of citizens living in Magnolia township in Wisconsin--Tony Ends prominently among them--has been taking Larson Acres, Rock County's largest dairy farm, to court for the past several years, in order to have the state enforce rules governing the purity of groundwater and to prevent Larson Acres from dumping their manure in the town’s water supply. The case has gone to the State Supreme Court, and the ensuing decision will set a precedent as to how the state's livestock siting law interacts with local zoning authority. The town’s attorney has generously worked pro bono for some time, and has accepted Scotch Hill Farm CSA vegetables in exchange for his work, but there are still legal expenses accumulating.  Being able to pay these expenses will allow Tony and the rest of the group to continue this case. So, the Family Dinner Night was a fundraiser for these legal expenses, and succeeded in raising over $500 $1600! (updated total!)

If you're interested in helping out, please donate, (securely through PayPal here), even if it's just a few dollars!

Photo Credit: Amanda Kievet

And the food last night was almost as moving as the cause itself!  Crusty, airy baguette; crisp and bright greens in a walnut vinaigrette; a spinach and goat cheese ricotta lasagna with fresh noodles in a tomato arrabiata sauce (honestly one of the most delicious lasagnas I've ever eaten!); and home-made coffee ice cream made with local milk for dessert.

Credit for all the beautiful photos to: Amanda Kievet

Eating great food for a great cause--what could be better?!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Makeshift Seder

It's Passover this week, and even as we should be taking time to think about existing forms of human (and animal!) bondage and to break [unleavened] bread with friends and family, we here in the twenty-first century of Madison-grad-student lives somehow only managed to squeeze in a little makeshift seder at a local pub before seeing our favorite "baroque, anti-war, liberal, Portlandian, eastern-European, Shakespearian, English romantic"-influenced American band.

In addition to enjoying some Great Dane IPA, we also had a seder plate made up of a combination of items that Justin and I smuggled in separately and some of the things that we ordered. Clockwise from the top of the plate:

  • Cracker-like unleavened bread, from our dinner order, which we decided to use in place of the matzah that Justin had smuggled in. Jews eat Matzah on Passover to remember the story of exodus, when the Israelites had to flee Egypt so quickly that they couldn't wait for their dough to rise, resulting in matzah. Matzah is also a simple food of flour and water, eaten by the poor, and so it is supposed to remind us to be humble and to think of what life is like without luxury.
  • Beet-root hummus, from our dinner order. This one's a bit of a stretch (even more of a stretch than the others!), but since beets are sometimes used as the vegetarian alternative to the Zeroa, or lamb shank bone, we thought the beet-filled hummus could stand in.
  • Parsley, smuggled in by Justin, which we falsely thought could stand in for maror, or bitter herbs, which symbolize the bitterness of Jewish slavery in Egypt (turns out, only horseradish, romaine lettuce, or endive will do).
  • Charoset, smuggled in by me.  It's a delicious combination of apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, sugar, and sweet red wine (though I had to substitute white wine and extra sugar, given the limitations of our pantry), which recall the mortar with which the Israelites bonded bricks when they were enslaved in Ancient Egypt.  
  • A lone Belgian frite, from our dinner order, to stand in for Karpas , a vegetable to symbolize spring, which is dipped into salt water (representing tears) to mirror the pain felt by the Jewish slaves in Egypt. (Wikipedia tells me that the parsley that's usually on the seder plate is actually the karpas, and not the maror. Bad Jew.)

I like thinking about the symbolic and ritual elements of food--the way that particular tang of salty parsley can conjure memories of seders past, the way that all food reminds us of larger ideas, of comfort, and community.  Even if this particular seder plate was cobbled together in a decidedly non-traditional manner, there was still something gratifying in its preparation, in what it did to help us take notice of this Jewish holiday that has such deep roots and that is being celebrated by Jews across the world (even if it, as with most Jewish holidays, is somewhat invisible to the larger community of which we are a part).

And then after this Passover ritual, we transitioned to another ritualistic activity: the indie-folk concert, complete with flannel shirts and green hoodies and applause-induced encores and even some talk of Solidarity!

Colin Meloy, the Decemberists' witty and charming front man, evoked crazy cheers from the crowd when he came out with a guitar that had a sticker of the now famous Wisconsin solidarity fist prominently displayed.

The sticker--in addition to an awesome pre-recorded greeting from Portland mayor Sam Adams that encouraged everyone to meet and compliment the people sitting beside them; a heart-breaking rendition of Eli the Barrow Boy; and a typically-awesome interactive take on The Mariner's Revenge Song complete with a gripping story and whale jaws and audience screams--made the show a hit, even with this being the fourth time we've seen these guys in concert.

Happy Passover and Happy Decemberists!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

FH King's Spring Kickoff

Even though the weather's been downright awful around here lately (wintry mix in mid-April!), we had one brief, glorious day last weekend when the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the bike lanes were overflowing, and that happy Madison vibe was all around.

I managed to get outside and spend a few hours in the sun at the garden site for the F. H. King Students for Sustainable Agriculture, for their spring kickoff event. I first encountered FH King (the organization, not the man himself) three summers ago, when I was walking through the Library Mall on campus on a warm July day, flustered and in a hurry to teach a class, and was greeted by a table covered in carrots, earthy and with the greens still attached. The table had a sign reading "Free Local Produce Grown by Students! Take Some!" I did a double-take, paused, filled my arms up with bright crunchy sweet carrots and rushed off to class, feeling like I had landed in some sort of secular agricultural heaven.

And almost every Friday in the summers since then, I have visited the FH King table on Library Mall for their weekly Harvest Handouts. Because it is a student organization, funded by student activity fees, FH King hands out, for free to students, the organic produce they grow on their two acre farm just a couple of miles down the Lakeshore Path from campus. They also donate some of the vegetables to local food pantries.

All around, it is an awesome organization, with good people, good values, and good agricultural practices.  Just one of the things that makes Madison feel like home.

So, this particular weekend, for the Spring Kick-off event, in addition to the delicious potluck food brought by FH King members and friends,  we had fresh flatbread pizzas straight off the grill, created by Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective and Kitchen.

My friend, egg-supplier, and FH King Program Director MH welcomed us:

And the sounds of local bluegrass band Honey Summer & Fall, along with the cuteness of Jonny's son Marlo kept us happy and entertained:

Now if only more beautiful weather would come, and bring grilled pizzas, gardens, bluegrass, and cute babies with it, I could really feel like it's spring!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Not Moving to Alaska

I spend a lot of time writing for or thinking about this blog. And I also spend a lot of time wondering exactly why I devote this time to Dining & Opining. And although I haven’t yet figured out all the answers to this question, one resounding reminder of an answer came in the form of the comments on Friday’s blog post: because it feels damn good to start a conversation with thoughtful, smart, intellectually-honest folks even when there doesn’t always seem to be space for that kind of conversation in real-life interactions. 

I felt so stimulated by the responses to my meat substitutes post that I’ve been thinking about it all weekend, with the wheels in the brain turning more fluidly than they have in a while. Which isn’t to say that I have lots of answers to the puzzles posed during that e-conversation, but that my mind feels active and dynamic in the all the ways one could hope for. So, for that, I thank all of you who read and engaged with the thoughts I posted on Friday.

In general, the feeling that I was left with after mulling over the nuances of the environmental arguments for vegetarianism was one of overwhelming complexity.  It’s hard to make blanket rules besides, perhaps, “Try to know where your food comes from.” As Minkster’s comment makes so clear, most of these decisions are context-dependent; eating meat when the environment you live in supports meat-production more than it supports agriculture makes environmental sense, but not so much so when you live in agriculturally-rich areas where fruits and vegetables are more efficiently-produced than is grain-fed meat.  [Though, along with Megan’s point about the “habit” of vegetarianism and the loss of desire for meat, I don’t think I could easily switch to a diet of moose or salmon, deer or halibut, caribou or crab if I were to move to Alaska for a year or less, even if I knew it was more environmentally and culturally sustainable. If I knew the place would be my home for the long-term, however, I would likely convince myself to develop new eating habits…but I guess that’s why I think I’ll stay away from Alaska (because I don’t actually want to eat meat!), even if, according to my Alaska-dwelling friend JB, it looks like this:

Though, of course, Gregory's** comment about the wealth of local meat sources even in the lower 48 reminds me that sometimes those might be more sustainable than the alternatives--like the tofu and almond milk he mentions, which I also consume.] (can’t leave the bracket hanging!)

And to again bring forth the idea of context-dependence, as Mike from Korea* writes, the question about processed meat substitutes might be totally moot if you don't live in a country where veggie burgers are more or less forced upon non-meat-eaters, at least in many restaurant settings (as seems to be the case in the U.S.).  The fact that Mike's transition from “omnivore to vegan” was also a transition “from processed foods to whole ones,” makes me realize that that precise sort of confluence of dietary choices is the one I’m trying to champion here in this series of posts.  It worries me, I suppose, that the shape of vegetarianism in the U.S. sometimes leads in the direction of replacing low-quality meat with low-quality meat substitutes, though I understand that the latter can sometimes add an element of comfort or familiarity to those who grew up within a certain food culture (as Veganist Kathy Freston partially argues in this HuffPo piece).

As for Molly’s comments about the economies of scale of processed-food production and the fact that soy and corn are being produced in massive quantities whether or not Boca makes use of some of those products: these are excellent points. In fact, Justin made many of those same points last week when I was shaking my head at the ingredients listed on the back of a Tofurky package (even as I enjoyed the taste of this processed-food product and thought about how it might some day save our potentially-vegetarian potential children from lunchroom ridicule).  While it is true that the scale at which companies like Boca/Kraft operate probably makes their energy efficiency fairly high, it still seems baffling that a veggie burger should have 13-23 ingredients, depending on whether you count all the individual ingredients that make up the “Enriched Textured Soy Protein Concentrate Product,and that so many of them should be factory-produced ingredients that couldn’t be found in a home kitchen (Especially when it’s possible to make a delicious veggie patty at home with as few as 6 ingredients).

On top of that, I suppose that even if Boca’s energy efficiency is impressive or if there demand on conventional corn/soy isn't significant, I’m very motivated by the idea of “voting with my fork” and “voting with my dollar” and making food choices based partly on giving money to food producers who I trust and who I want to support in monetary ways.  Surely local Wisconsin farmers will make better use of my money, and will value it more, than the huge conglomerate that Boca represents.

I’ll end here, though I have much more to say about the fear of being a “preachy” vegan/vegetarian, about actually making food choices, and about the complexity of conscious consumption more broadly.  For future posts!

Thanks again, to you all, for being part of this conversation.

*You all should totally be reading Mike's blog, if you're not already. He writes perceptively and entertainingly about life, dietary choices, linguistics, and environmentalism in South Korea.
** On Gregory's point about Americans' fetishism of protein: have you seen this cartoon?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Another Response

Another great comment, from my friend Gregory, which was too long for Blogger's tastes!  My thoughts tomorrow...

Anna: Kudos for a thought-provoking post. As an off-and-on vegan for the past ten years myself, I rooted you on and clapped my hands pretty much throughout reading your arguments denouncing synthetic meat substitutes. That is because I myself have always found such meat substitutes to be somewhat sickening. Actually, the best I have ever had were in China at the Buddhist temples where they would make the best fake beef, pork, or even seafood, and in really great vegetarian Chinese restaurants in the U.S. you can get the same stuff. But like most Chinese food - especially in the U.S. - I am absolutely certain that I am chugging down all kinds of chemicals with names I do not understand, whether expressed in Mandarin or in English. My parents here in the U.S. are big fans of boca-this and boca-that, but I have never been able to see much nutritional value in eating boca products on a daily basis. Indeed, I am pretty certain is must be pretty bad for our bodies to do so.

When I became vegan, I started off as a macrobiotic (ah, the influences of living in Southern California!!). With its focus on balancing whole grains, beans, and vegetables, macrobiotics always felt really great for me, my body, and my relationship with the land. The downside: it was always a lot of work every day to figure out how I was going to keep eating what I'm supposed to be eating in the way I want to eat it in a world where everyone around me was eating simply whatever.

Now, to the point: I think Molly's comments are really on to something, which is that the energy-costs of producing one boca burger versus one beef patty are really not so clear, and I think we mustn't jump to conclusions about one being more "natural" or more energy-efficient than the other. While (as Pollan has said) much of what we eat when we eat processed foods is corn and soy, that's also what cows eat, too. Your average agribusiness-produced beef patty is the product of so many pounds of corn and soy, and gallons of water - lots of inputs overall (the # are available somewhere), with lots of outputs, too, including methane, and the feces, etc., etc. How much corn/soy/water/energy goes into a boca burger versus a beef patty is not clear, but I'm pretty certain both are pretty darn wasteful of resources. So rather than comparing them, why not just outright denounce them both. We ought to also denounce what is really driving people to choose between these two, which is, in my opinion, our society's very strange fetishism of protein. Don't even get me started on protein drinks, and protein-this-and-that. The first thing people always ask vegetarians/vegans is "do you get enough protein?" But I think that most Americans consume way too much protein. In my opinion, we can nix both beef and boca and still live pretty healthily: whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, vegetables. Yum!

Minkster is right that boca burgers are not an energy-efficient food for Alaskans, and kudos to him/her for achieving such a locavorious diet. I would think that even here in NYC that we would do well to hunt and eat more white-tailed deer, squirrels, and other abundant wildlife. We've got fish, crabs, and bivalves here in NY harbor, too, but I wouldn't eat them because they are laced with mercury, PCBs, other dioxins, etc..

In the end I find myself in Megan's camp: I've refrained from eating meat for ten years. It is a habit, and I just can't go back. When I was in China I broke my rule and ate beef, duck, goose eggs, swan eegs, snake, fried bees, and lots of other animals and animal-parts, but let me tell you that my stomach never appreciated these forays into cross-cultural understanding. If I wasn't so concerned with my own bodily health (such as my genetic predisposition towards having high cholesterol, or my lactose intolerance), I know I could use less global energy by consuming local milk, eggs, and meats from our farmers market rather than buying California-made almond milk, or Whole Foods brand tofu, etc.. And I could definitely teach my stomach to get used to meats again. But I am first and foremost just not convinced that eating meat would be good for my body. My choices might be worse for the world, but they are better for me. So my dilemma really is: which is more morally right? To treat my body as a temple yet do so at the expense of distant peoples, environments, and habitats, or to compromise my own health while trying to protect the health of others?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Responses to "Meat Substitutes"

Because I want to make sure people read them, I'm re-posting the super-thoughtful and provocative comments that three readers posted in response to yesterday's post, and that I hope to respond to in some fashion soon:

Megan said: 
Great post. From a practical standpoint, I'd say I solve the problem by almost always making my own "meat substitutes" from less objectionable ingredients. And by not relying on meat substitutes most of the time. (Caveat, I am only mostly vegetarian: I sometimes eat fish that are on the Monteray Bay Seafood Watch green list--though I know that's not a perfect source.)

But given the choice you put up there, the hamburger is probably more environmentally sound in that instance. Back when I first stopped eating meat, I told myself that I would still eat it if traveling somewhere where vegetarianism was nearly impossible, or if I would seriously offend a host. And somewhere along the way I have come to feel that eating local, small farm meat (preferably where you have actually seen the farm) is fine. So I have never drawn hard line.

But when it comes down to it-- even though I actually enjoy the smell, say, a the farmers market when that one stand always has bacon and sausage frying --I am not tempted to actually eat it. I think it has just been too long. So, partly it's habit. But actually, even though my primary *reasons* are environmental, I do find myself thinking of the animal and kind of giving myself a mental choice: live cow or steak? I'm going with the cow. I like animals. I've met cows. I want to have chickens one day, and knowing me, I'll name them. Can I eat a chicken I've named? I'm fine with people who can, but I couldn't. So, while rationally, I think eating meat you know you've raised humanely is good (and better than eating soy grown in a former rainforest), viscerally, I just can't do it.

For most Americans, most of the time, though, it's not a matter of the ambiguous choice above. It's a matter of vast quantities of factory farmed meat versus eating more vegetables. So I feel that every minute individual food choice I make is less important than being out there as a visible (mostly) vegetarian person and make eating less meat look like a viable option to people who wouldn't otherwise have given it a thought. (Without doing *any* preaching.) 

Minkster said: 
I'll give an Alaska perspective, in hopes of providing a unique context for an important discussion like this:

Alaska is a place where veganism, and, to a lesser extent, vegetarianism are wholly unsustainable food lifestyles, given the meat-generating capacity of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the state, the relatively little human pressure on these systems, and the inability of Alaska's climate to support the diverse kind of agriculture needed to sustain such meatless lifestyle.

Alaskans, as a population, eat more than twice as much meat as the rest of America--a pound a person a day, and for good reason. Seventy-five percent of this meat is hunted-fished--whether that be moose or salmon, deer or halibut, caribou or crab--under the watchful eye of Alaska Fish and Game, a state agency that, for the most part, puts science above profits in its management decisions. This hunter-fisher lifestyle, moreover, generates and regenerates Alaska's subsistence cultures and, as important, recreates a connection for Alaskans between life and landscape.

In our day to day lives, many of us hunter-fishers would pull salmon straight from local sound and rivers--salmon, mind you, which were preparing to spawn and were months if not weeks away from the end of their lives anyway--to be used for salmon bakes, salmon grills, salmon sushi, salmon burgers, salmon salad, salmon loaf, you get the picture. Others would pull moose roasts, deer straps, or caribou loins from deep freezers for use in everything from stews to soups. Important to me: all of this food lay outside the industrial system, is harvested in a sustainable way, and, often, is hunted with a reverence for the animal as prey.

And yet: our vegetarian/vegan friends insist on tofu from Oregon, beans from California, Lentils from Washington--all of which are shipped via freight from the warehouses of Seattle that act as lifelines for Alaskans who insist on subscribing to foodways extant in the lower 48.

The ecological conditions of Alaska make it impossible to grow any of the essential vegetable-based proteins that make up the diets of those who don't eat meat. If the goal is environmental health and economic, social, and ecological sustainability, I guess I'm not sure how the argument for a meatless diet works in Alaska.  

Molly Gardner said: 
This is a great post! But here is the part that I am not sure about. You write, "Boca Burgers are also full of processed ingredients ... which means the energy that goes into each factory..., not to mention all the pesticides/fertilizers/herbicides that have to be used to grow the corn and soy from which most of those ingredients are derived, has got to be at sky-high levels."

I don't really know how the details shake out here (so feel free to explain why I'm wrong), but it seems possible that even if each factory as a whole uses a lot of energy, the energy per burger could still be quite low. Perhaps the processed-food industry benefits from an economy of scale, not just in monetary terms, but in energy terms.

My other thought is that the demand for Boca burgers is not really what's driving us to produce so much corn and soy. Therefore, if you didn't eat the Boca burger, it's likely that virtually identical quantities of pesticides and fertilizers would still be applied to the corn and soy fields. However, if you didn't eat the beef burger, you might have a larger causal influence over whether a particular cow in Wisconsin produces methane gas while munching on resources that could be used for growing vegetables. But I could be totally wrong about this.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On the complexity of meat substitutes

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the thoughts I was having during a Vegetarian Global Food for Thought Meal (aptly-named, eh?!) about the place of meat-eating/vegetarianism in a global, environmental context. And today I’d like to follow up with some of those thoughts, reflecting a little on the kinds of thorny situations vegetarians sometimes get themselves into.

I guess it’s a little backwards for me to be writing about some of these challenges to the traditional views of vegetarianism before actually writing a post about my vegetarianism itself (it’s like when environmental historians try to undermine the idea of “nature” to people who aren’t environmentally-inclined in the first place*), but hopefully I will get back to the latter at some point and hopefully many of you are at least acquainted with the myriad reasons that a vegetarian diet often makes the most sense. (If not, read these 49 reasons** or Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Against Meat” essay as starting points).

Perhaps a good way to dive in to this larger topic of the complexity of vegetarianism is to take the humble Boca burger as our example. If someone were to offer me the choice between a Boca burger and a hamburger, it would at first seem like an easy decision. I’m a vegetarian; I take the Boca burger. 

But now let’s say that this particular hamburger is made from grass-fed, free-range beef from a small local farm right here in Wisconsin, from a cow who was raised by a farmer who I could meet and whose hand I could shake (farms like this abound in Wisconsin: Trautman Family Farm and Ruegsegger Farms are just two I know about. You can find similar farms in your area at Local Harvest or Eat Wild).

And then let’s dig into the Boca burger’s murky past to find that it, like the Catalina Dressing I wrote about earlier this week, is owned by Kraft, the largest food processor in the country. And although, as Aaron so assiduously pointed out in the comments here, Kraft is now longer owned by the former tobacco giant Phillip Morris (now known as Altria), it’s still a huge multi-national corporation with its hands in all sorts of shady dealings, like testing on animals, producing highly-processed foods, and marketing unhealthful food-like substances to children (think Kool-Aid, Oscar Mayer, Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, Cool Whip, Jell-O, Chips Ahoy!)***  Boca Burgers are also full of processed ingredients:

Water, Enriched Textured Soy Protein Concentrate Product (Contains Soy Protein Concentrate, Caramel Color, Ferrous Sulfate, Niacinamide, Zinc Oxide, Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamin Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Pyridoxine Hydrochloride [Vitamin B6], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid, Cyanocobalamin [Vitamin B12]), Wheat Gluten, Soy Protein Concentrate, Contains less than 2% of Methylcellulose, Salt, Dried Onions, Natural and Artificial Flavor (Non-meat), Yeast Extract, Sesame Oil, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate.

…which means the energy that goes into each factory that pumps out each of those different ingredients, not to mention all the pesticides/fertilizers/herbicides that have to be used to grow the corn and soy from which most of those ingredients are derived, has got to be at sky-high levels. (For more on the questionable place of soy in our diets more broadly, in response to NB's request, check back next week!)

So, now when we look back at that hamburger and that Boca burger side-by-side, my resolve is starting to shake a little bit. Sure, I’m a vegetarian and don’t particularly want to bite into a beef burger, but that Boca burger is also starting to look decidedly unappetizing.

For those vegetarians who are motivated primarily by animal-rights concerns, the fact that the Boca burger is vegan and has no animal products will make it a sure win over the beef burger, since the latter clearly caused the death of at least one animal--that is, the cow from which the beef came.  But when you start to take into account the myriad other reasons that motivate my own vegetarianism--environmental arguments foremost among them, but also a desire to not support large food processors, to be healthy, and to more efficiently use the energy that comes from the sun through plant’s photosynthesis--it's no longer at all clear that these reasons come down on the side of the vegetarian Boca burger (when compared with this very particular sort of meat product, of course, which is still by far the exception to the rule of meat in America, most of which comes from industrial scale factory farms where animal suffering is the norm and nearby water sources are polluted by runoff and all kinds of antibiotics are injected into the meat and the animals are fed on corn pumped full of pesticides/fertilizers/herbicides).

In any case, there’s so much more to be said about all this,**** but these are some opening thoughts that I’d love to start a conversation about. What do you all of you--vegetarians and meat-eaters alike--think?  How to make these difficult decisions, and what to take as our overarching guidelines for making food choices?

*Perhaps more about that later as well, though if you’re interested in a short tidbit on that, here’s something I wrote a long time ago that inspired a blog that is no more. 
** Anyone know of a better quick overview than this?
*** Half of those aren’t even real words!
****And lots of people have said more. Michael Pollan, as always, has wise and good things to say, in case you want to read more:  his essay An Animal’s Place is really powerful and one of the first things that ever made me think I might consider eating certain kinds of meat someday, and this little Q&A from his website on Animal Welfare is also worth reading.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Global Vegetarian

Vegetarianism in America may be something for the left-wing or the hoity-toity, but in many parts of the world, "vegetarianism" just means not being able to afford to eat much meat.  This week's Global Food for Thought Meal took on this issue with a vegetarian meal showcasing a variety of meat substitutes borrowed from other cultural traditions. But we turned those "meat substitutes" into a top-notch, three-course meal, featuring a wealth of tofu, tempeh, and jackfruit:

The BBQ Jackfruit Sliders and the Keto Prak Salad:

The Oseng Oseng Tempeh and the Jackfruit, Tempeh, and Vegetable Curry:

And, finally, the vegan "cheese"cake:

The mash-up menu was a hit, as was the discussion with our guest chefs afterward. The conversation got me thinking deeply about lots of questions that I hope to tackle in tomorrow's post, such as:
  • How did the rise of vegetarianism in the U.S. shape the place of "meat substitutes" in other parts of the world?
  • What are the central reasons that the people in my social world avoid meat, and how do those reasons stand up to arguments from the "ethical meat" side?
  • What place do "fake meats" and other such meat alternatives have in the average vegetarian diet, and how do those play into or undermine arguments for vegetarianism?
  • If we are concerned about environmentalism or conscious consumerism, then what are the best choices to make when it comes to getting our protein?
  • And more!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

New Page: Recipes

In an effort to make this blog more usable, I'm planning on making a series of stand-alone pages in addition to "About Me" and "About this Blog" that I'll try to update regularly to provide quick links to some overview sections like Recipes, How-To Guides, and Ongoing Projects.

I've just begun by building the Recipes page, where you can find a collection of links to all the recipes I've posted on the blog so far. Please let me know if any are missing or if any of the links don't work!

And if you have any suggestions about the blog more broadly--types of posts you like best, recipes you'd like to see, questions you have, food topics you want to know more about--please do let me know!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Modifying a Legend

When Justin and I met, one of the first dishes he cooked for me was his favorite food, his Mom's Taco Salad. This was a dish she'd often made when Justin and his brother were little--something that was quick to make and that satisfied her two tortilla-loving boys.  It's remained a favorite ever since.

The traditional recipe was a mixture of ground beef (later, in the vegetarian days, Morningstar veggie crumbles) cooked with taco seasoning, kidney beans, lettuce, tomato, crumbled tortilla chips, cheese, and Kraft Catalina dressing. This would all be combined and then spooned into tortillas to be eaten burrito-style.

But after Justin introduced me to this Taco Salad, it took on some subtle changes in response to my veggie-loving ways, and came to look something like this:

Mom's Taco Salad
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 10-12 white mushrooms, sliced
  • To taste: garlic powder, chili powder, oregano, salt, cayenne pepper
  • 1 bag Morningstar veggie crumbles
  • 1.5 cups cooked kidney beans
  • 1.5 cups cooked black beans
  • 1 cup corn (frozen is OK)
  • 1 head romaine lettuce
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • Shredded cheese
  • Handful of crumbled tortilla chips
  • ½ large bottle of Catalina dressing
  • Flour tortillas
Sauté onions in a little bit of oil until soft. Add sliced mushrooms and spices and sauté several more minutes. Add veggie crumbles and cook according to package directions. Sauté until thawed, then add kidney beans, black beans, and corn and continue cooking for several more minutes.

Meanwhile, chop lettuce and put it in a large bowl. Add chopped tomatoes, crumbled chips, and cheese. Add veggie/bean mixture to lettuce and mix thoroughly. Add Catalina dressing and mix well. Add more chips, if needed to absorb the moisture. Serve by the heaping spoonful, wrapped up in flour tortillas, burrito-style. Serve with salsa, sour cream, jalapenos, etc., if desired. Enjoy!

But as my food preferences shifted even more over the last couple of years, this list from the back of the bottle of Kraft Catalina salad dressing kept bothering me more and more:  Ingredients: High Fructose Corn Syrup, Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Soybean Oil, Vinegar, Salt, Water, Contains less than 2% of Modified Food Starch, Phosphoric Acid, Dried Onions, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate and Calcium Disodium Edta As Preservatives, Citric Acid, Guar Gum, Natural Flavor, Red 40, Yellow 6, Blue 1. 

What was with all of that?  This is definitely not "food," in the Pollan-ian sense of the word.* And Kraft is a pretty terrible company, headed up by the tobacco giant Philip Morris and a purveyor of lots of highly-processed foods--definitely not the kind of company I want my food dollars to go to.

So, after some digging around and Justin's hesitant approval to modify his Mom's sacred recipe even further, we succeeded in making our own Catalina-like dressing!

Taco salad without the guilt! This homemade version doesn't taste exactly like the store-bought kind, but it certainly does the job, and leaves us (or at least me) feeling much happier about the building blocks of this time-honored dish.

Here, to share with all of you, our Catalina Dressing recipe in its most recent form (though some revisions are still sure to follow):

Catalina Dressing for Taco Salad
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1/2 cup diced tomatoes (we used our home-canned versions, just because there was an open jar in the fridge)
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
Mix well in a blender or food processor (or if mixing by hand, mince tomatoes and grate onion beforehand).  Makes 1 1/2 cups. Enjoy!

* One of Michael Pollan's food rules is "Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sushi Night

After culinarily visiting Japan last month, the sushi-making tour made a stop at last week's GreenHouse MYO* Meal Night for an evening of seaweed wrapping and wasabi adventures.

And so a little sushi tutorial here at D&O seemed to be in order.  I first learned my sushi-making strategy and technique from my oldest friend KW in her childhood Arkansas home, before I had ever even eaten sushi in a restaurant, and it has carried me through all these years. I don't know how authentic it is, but it's what I've got to share with you all for now.

The building blocks for this particular sushi night: the nori (toasted seaweed wrappers) and some wasabi (a spicy Japanese green horseradish relative, which is delicious when added to soy sauce for sushi roll dipping). More details on my particular ingredients that merit further explanation:
  • Sushi Rice: Cook sushi rice (special short-grain sticky rice is best, but any rice or even another grain would work) with 1 part rice, 2 parts water. When cooked and slightly cooled, mix in rice vinegar and sugar, to taste.
  • Baked Tofu Strips: Squeeze tofu to remove as much water as possible, cut into long strips, place on baking sheets in a single layer, sprinkle with oil and soy sauce, and then bake at 375 degrees F until brown on all sides, turning half-way through, 30-45 minutes total.
  • Roasted Sweet Potato Strips: After peeling and slicing sweet potato, treat like tofu above (sprinkle with oil and soy sauce, and then bake at 375 degrees F until brown on all sides, turning half-way through, 30-45 minutes total).
  • Marinated Portabella Mushrooms: Wash and slice mushrooms, then marinate in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and mirin (Japanese rice wine), until mushrooms have shrunk and darkened.
  • Omelette Strips with Onions: In a bowl, beat eggs and add sugar (1 tablespoon per 2-3 eggs) and milk/soy milk to thin slightly.  If using onions or other filling, saute with a little bit of oil in a pan until browned, then pour eggs in a very thin layer over the top of the vegetables.  Cook as you would an omelette, until browned and solid on one side (~1 minutes), then flip to cook the other side for an additional 30 seconds or so.  Transfer to a cutting board, cool, and slice into long strips.
  • Japanese Noodle Salad: Not actually a sushi filling, but just a pleasing side dish.  I used udon noodles, broccoli, diced carrots, frozen shelled edamame, and a dressing loosely based on this recipe.
Aside from the particular ingredients I used this time around, the basic building blocks for any sushi are (1) nori, (2) sushi rice, and (3) assorted fillings, as simple or as complex as you'd like--vegetables or fish or meats or even fruit could work, I'd imagine! Try to stick to 1-3 fillings per roll.

Once you've assembled your basic ingredients, you just take a sheet of nori out of its package and spoon a sticky flat layer of rice onto one half of the sheet. You don't want the rice layer to be too thick (< 1 cm) and you want it to be as uniformly pressed down to the very edges of the nori as possible. Then, you lay a few long strips of your filling in the middle of the rice, running parallel to the layer of rice. Again, careful not to overstuff! Simpler flavor combinations are often better (this go-around, the combo of omelette strips, cucumbers, and scallions were a big hit). Finally, starting from the ricey end, you simply roll the seaweed and rice over and over until it's all rolled up, as tightly as possible (some people use a special sushi mat for rolling, but I've always gotten by without one). Seal the edge by dipping your finger into a small bowl of water and running that over the edge of the nori.

The hard part is what comes next: slicing the roll cross-wise to produce those beautiful circular pieces of sushi. Use as sharp a knife as possible, and move your knife in a back-and-forth motion to cut through the outside nori layer rather than just smooshing the roll with your knife. Often, the end pieces just have to be eaten on the spot (not such a big sacrifice!), as they're rarely tightly filled enough to stick together on their own.

Arrange your sushi slices on a platter, and serve with soy sauce and wasabi for dipping!


Friday, April 8, 2011

A honey of a grocery store

It's likely that no amount of waxing poetic will allow me to fully describe my love for our local grocery store, the Willy St. Co-op, but let me begin with this small story (and I'm sure I will continue the love-fest at another time).

On a recent trip (on a night when there was still snow, by the likes of the photo below!) to pick up a few items, I went over to the bulk honey dispenser with my little glass jar for a refill. After carefully weighing the jar and labeling it with its tare weight (so I wouldn't end up paying for the weight of the jar), I turned to the honey dispenser only to find it empty. With sadness, I thought of all that baklava, all that sweetened tea, all that mead that would get unmade, as my honey jar sat unfilled [that's what she said?].

But then!  A kind co-op employee, apparently seeing my distress, turned to me and said I think the honey truck just pulled up, let me go and check. The honey truck?! Could there really bee [sic] such a delightful thing? And indeed, moments later, the employee returned with a big jug of rich golden honey, ready for the pouring.  I clapped my hands with joy and filled right on up.

As we were heading out of the store (our hands, shopping bags, and faces sticky with honey), we spied this in the parking lot:

The honey truck!

And it didn't have to come far, just the twenty or so miles from Mt. Horeb to Madison (one of our favorite bike rides, in fact!), filled with sugary goodness.  This honey came from Gentle Breeze Honey, whose sweet business story goes like this:

"As with many other beekeeping operations, our family business grew out of something that started as a personal hobby.  Following high school graduation, I attended the Farm Short Course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.  After taking a beekeeping class through the UW's Entomology Department, I became fascinated with the wonders of the beekeeping world.  I was soon offered a job doing research on honeybees at the UW through the US Department of Agriculture.  In 1965 my wife Donna and I started Gentle Breeze Honey on a modest, part-time basis with the purchase of seven hives from a retiring beekeeper.  The business was nurtured and sustained for many years with help from our three children, became a full-time endeavor in 1991, and has now grown to approximately 600 hives. Enjoy our delicious honey!"

And so this highlights some of the reasons I love the co-op: it provides food that is so close you can taste its origins, food with a story, food that connects you to your larger community, food that comes as raw and unprocessed as possible (not in a pre-packaged plastic container that is then nested into a cardboard box on a Sysco truck that drives from some Midwestern storehouse).

The honey truck swooped in at the exact right moment to give me a dose of co-op magic.