Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Time for Lunch

In an effort to encourage public schools to provide whole, fresh foods to school children, and to pass legislation that will support that goal, Slow Food USA has started a campaign called Time for Lunch. They are asking people around the country to host a public potluck, called an Eat-In, on September 7th (labor day), and invite everyone you can, including legislators, to attend. This is a serious step in the right direction to get our kids off to a healthy start, making them more equipped to learn. Establishing good eating habits in our kids could help this generation overcome the threat of increasing childhood diseases, like early onset type 2 diabetes, and could help them grow up to be healthier than their parents' generation.

To learn about organizing an Eat-In, visit

Contact your legislators about this issue by visiting

Sign the Slow Food petition in support of the Time for Lunch campaign by visiting

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Best Bang for Your Produce Buck

One of the best things we can do to make ourselves and our families healthy is to eat real, fresh foods. Many of us may think that what we get in the supermarket in the produce aisle is fresh, but the reality is that much of that food comes from halfway, or all the way, around the world, and is far from fresh. For most foods, that means they have to be picked before they ripen, robbing them of their natural development. Once picked, most fruits and veggies immediately begin to lose nutritional value, as they start the decay process.

The longer something sits in a crate, the greater the distance between farm and plate, the less real food you are getting. If you're buying conventional (non-organic) produce, and it's from far away, you're barely eating a natural substance. In fact, you may be eating more chemicals than nutrients (many foreign countries use harsher and more chemical pesticides and herbicides than we do in the US). Sure, it may look nice, and we've somehow evolved to value the look of produce over its taste and nutritional value, a cultural phenomenon I'll never understand. But you are getting very little for your produce dollar in buying these products. Granted, if you live in certain parts of the world (like the Northeast US), winter makes sourcing local produce quite a challenge. The rest of the year is quite a different story.

Here are some options that could work for you to help get real food on your table, and avoid spending your life savings to feed yourself:

As I've mentioned in many a previous post, we subscribe to a CSA (Community Support of Agriculture) program. This program is run by a local organic farm (the one we use is Honeybrook Organic Farm). It helps them to have this subscription program, because it guarantees them an income for the year, regardless of weather conditions. It helps me, as a consumer, because I get fresh, local, organic produce every week from a farmer I trust.

This is how is works: You apply for a share with the farm, and if you can get a spot (our CSA fills up FAST!), you then pay for the upcoming year's share. Many farms offer only one kind of share - a full share. At Honeybrook, we have the option of a family share, an individual share, or a delivered boxed share. Family and individual shares must be picked up at the farm. Boxed shares are delivered to a wide variety of locations on specific days, and individuals must come to pick up their boxes within certain times. We took a boxed share, which we split with a friend. The cost this year for our share was $624, of which we paid $312. The harvest season typically runs from late May to early November, depending on conditions, so that means we're paying an average of $12.50 per week for our share. What a terrific bargain!

Our CSA grows all sorts of vegetables (lately our box has includes lettuce, beets, summer squash, fennel, kale, cabbage, basil, radicchio), plus aromatics, like onions, garlic and herbs, so there's little need to buy other vegetables. Some CSAs grow quite a bit of fruit, too, but ours is limited to berries and some watermelon, so we do still spend additional money on fruit.

Another benefit to many CSAs is that they have some pick-your-own crops. For no additional charge, members can come to the farm to pick specified quantities of certain veggies or fruits. During strawberry season, we picked 8 quarts of strawberries in the course of two weeks!! Not only was there no charge for this, but my daughter and I had a great time in the fields, and she got herself completely covered in strawberry juice and mud (what fun!). The strawberries were also about the best I've ever tasted. Just incredibly sweet and flavorful!

We've also picked sugar snap peas, snow peas, green beans and herbs so far this season. Oddly enough, the act of picking these things gets my daughter interested in them. If you can believe it, she was eating raw green beans and chives right from the fields! It's a great way to familiarize kids with the growing and harvesting process, and helps them learn about their food, opening their minds to new tastes and textures. Now, my daughter happily eats chives, even though she'd always complained that they were too sharp before.

Although there is sometimes an overabundance of certain veggies or fruits during the season, this is really a benefit that can carry you through the colder months. Too much basil can easily become pesto sauce, which freezes quite well. Too many tomatoes can become tomato sauce or tomato soup, which also freeze very well. Zucchini is great for quick breads, another good freezer. Strawberries can become strawberry jam, which can be canned and stored in the pantry, or you can just freeze them whole (stems removed) and use them in smoothies whenever. Potatoes, carrots, beets, and other root vegetables can be stored in a cool root cellar for months. Winter squash can keep for a couple months right on your counter, or you can cut them up or puree and freeze them. Just because you receive a box full of goodies every week doesn't mean you need to use them up before the week is over. Making them last means you'll have more variety in your diet throughout the year.

Farmers' Markets
Farmers' Markets are everywhere now, as there has been such a return to local agricultural support. They offer many of the same benefits as a CSA, but with more flexibility and variety. Typically, the prices are higher than you would pay per pound through a CSA, but still lower than organic produce in the stores.

The great thing about Farmers' Markets is that you really can get to know the farmers themselves, since they often tend their own tables. You can find out how they grow their veggies and how they raise their animals, and see if their philosophy jives with yours. Just like in a CSA, you're still eating a seasonal, local diet, and very often their products are grown organically (even if not certified as such). You get to pick what you want to buy, and leave the rest (with a CSA, you get what you get), and you control the quantities of what you buy (so you won't have to figure out how to use 5 heads of lettuce in a week!). Although some CSAs also offer things like eggs, dairy and meat, these are much more commonly found at a Farmers' Market. You might even find local artisan cheeses, local raw honey (a very tasty way to keep seasonal allergies at bay), grass-fed beef, pastured chicken and eggs, raw and un-homogenized milk (in those states where this is legal), in addition to all the local produce.

There are a couple of different types of co-ops that can provide reasonably local produce options. There are organic food co-ops, most often found in urban areas. Typically, members of the co-op must work a minimum number of hours at the co-op store in order to participate. Members are part owners in the business, and therefore might receive a small dividend annually. Food co-ops often stock similar products that would be found in a local health food store, but the prices are often lower.

There are also food delivery co-ops, like Purple Dragon, which deliver fresh produce, often sourced locally, throughout the year. These are generally higher in price than even store-bought organic produce, but since they emphasize seasonality, subscribing to such a program could be a boon to your health, which might not be available to you otherwise.

Farm Stands
Certainly, most farm stands that you might pass on the road are not selling organic or ethical produce and other products, but they are nonetheless fresh from the farm, very inexpensive, and seasonal, all of which can be great supplements to your diet, and a relief to your purse. You might not be able to fill out your fridge by stopping at random farm stands, but you may very well discover some great finds! Many also have pick-your-own produce, which is especially inexpensive. If you see one, stop by ... you never know what you'll find!

Nearly Free Food
This is one area where I have just about zero experience, but I'd love to apprentice with people who could show me the ropes. I'm talking about growing, finding, or hunting your own foods. All of these are nearly free ways to get food.

Growing vegetables or fruit is quite beyond me and my brown thumb, and being that I have no land at the moment, I'm off the hook. But when I get the opportunity, I will certainly call on my most knowledgeable friends and family to help me make sense of dirt and compost and seeds and such. It's a complete mystery to me.

Another very foreign option to me, but one that is gaining in popularity, is raising animals. There are people with tiny little yards in Brooklyn who are raising chickens. Why not? Come to think of it, I always did want a goat as a kid (excuse the pun). They would be awfully good at mowing a lawn. Hmmm ... something to think about.

Finding foods is a true skill, and I think employing someone to help you navigate, whether you're talking about finding wild greens or mushrooms, is essential. There are very few things I've ever scavenged. I suppose I was lucky enough as a child to grow up in The Bronx where wild mulberry trees and wild chives abound. I've also had my share of honeysuckle nectar from those very sweet smelling blossoms, but I'm not sure if I count that to be a true food substance. You'd need an awful lot of honeysuckle to sweeten your tea.

Hunting is one option that, I admit, is a bit unsettling to me, but I recognize that my distaste for it is cultural and familial, and not at all rational. Hunting is perhaps the best way to get healthy, natural meat. Some part of me is interested in learning about it, but I just don't know if my brain and my queasy stomach agree.

Worse Comes to Worst
If you have none of these options available to you, you can always buy from health food stores, or, at worst, the mega store. The smaller and more independent the store, the more likely their produce is sourced from local farms. Large stores tend to negotiate with large, corporate farms. So, even when Jersey tomatoes are in season, WalMart might still be stocking their shelves with Californian and Mexican transports. Do your best to find out what is seasonal locally, so you can go to the store with that knowledge in the back of your mind. If you buy foods that should be seasonally available in your area, you might luck out and get the local stuff, even at the mega mart.

A final note
So, where can you find information about your local options? Here are a couple of great sources: - This is your best resource for local CSAs, Farmers' Markets and Food Co-Ops. - Natural Resources Defense Council - This is a great source of information about seasonal produce. It is organized on a state-by-state basis, so you can always see your own state, and the neighboring ones, as well.

For most people, some combination of the above is what works best. See what's available in your area, and find your best fit.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Smoothie Pops

It's July, and it's hot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Everyone needs a good cool-down treat in the summer time, and this is my tried and true recipe that pleases children and adults alike. It's packed full of nutritious stuff, and nothing nasty to speak of. This recipe has even been tested on a friend's son who never ever eats fruits or vegetables, but couldn't get enough of these pops. Enjoy!

Smoothie Pops
1/2 cup frozen fruit (we usually use a mix of berries and mango)
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsps. veggie powder (we use Triple Greens by Purity Products)
1 Tbsp. ground flax seed

Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth. Add more milk if needed to thin the consistency. Pour into freezer pop molds (we use these great silicone ones). Freeze thoroughly.

These can be made vegan by substituting soy yogurt and any non-dairy milk substitute (soy, rice, hemp, almond milks).

Thoughts on School Food - The Beginning

My 3-year-old daughter started nursery school two weeks ago (technically camp, but camp and school are pretty much the same thing at this age). Until now, I've never had to think too much about what my daughter eats. She eats what we eat, and we eat healthy foods. Sure, I've had to occasionally explain to a family member that she can't have certain foods in their house, and that's never a fun conversation. No one wants to be told that their food isn't good enough. Still, we've been lucky enough to have family that generally sticks to our guidelines ... generally.

School is quite a different story. My daughter has exposure three times a week to what most people consider acceptable food for children, most of which is far from what I would call acceptable. Since it's summer, the school treats the kids every day to ice pops. Now, that sounds like an innocuous, reasonable treat for a child, and most parents wouldn't object, and might even feed their own children such things. But what is an ice pop? It's frozen sugar water, most often sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, colored with artificial colors. Artificial colors contribute to hyperactivity in children and refined sugars like white sugar and high fructose corn syrup are exactly the sorts of sweeteners that can lead to type II diabetes, as well as contributing to the growing (pardon the pun) childhood obesity problem in this country. They are empty calories that don't serve the needs of the child in any way. Giving kids sweets like this, especially on a regular basis, makes it much harder to steer them toward healthier options at meal times. Why should they eat broccoli when they consider candy bars a food? What in the world would drive a parent or a school to give kids such seriously flawed "foods"? It baffles me, but that's the reality most health-conscious parents face when sending their children to school.

So, clearly, I cannot allow my daughter to partake in the foods provided by the school. But even avoiding that does not shelter her from the fact that everyone else is eating these things, and that becomes a difficult conversation to have with a 3-year-old. For now, my daughter assumes that she cannot have other people's foods because she has food allergies. But I would like her to understand that even when there is no danger of food allergens, there are other problems with some foods that make them bad choices. So, I've begun to tell her things like, "we don't eat that because it's not very healthy for us," or "we only have things like that as a treat, on holidays or special occasions," or "it's more fun to make things ourselves at home instead of buying them in a store." I think these sorts of statements help her to understand that we do have choices, but that not all the choices are equal. Eating isn't just about responding to hunger or cravings. It's about listening to the needs of our bodies.

I can teach her these things, hopefully with success, but I can't teach other parents or school personnel without crossing some boundaries. So, the question remains, what do I do to address them? Although I'd love to be an influence on other parents, I realize that's a long shot. For now, I'm contenting myself with modeling what can be done to feed good food to children. If a parent is interested in what I do, I'd be more than happy to share my methods. Otherwise, I'll avoid stepping on anyone's toes.

Thankfully, the school we've chosen is very accommodating in allowing us to provide our daughter's food and drinks. Instead of ice pops, we provide homemade smoothie pops (recipe to follow), and another snack of some kind (usually cut up fruit, but sometimes crackers or whole grain cereals).

The thought has occurred to me that my daughter might become somewhat preachy around other children, and that could become a concern for her socially. I try to stress that different people make different choices. We know what's good for us, but we don't know everything about other people. I hope that message gets through to her enough so that she won't go around judging everyone else. A physically healthy child with a severely injured psyche is not at any kind of advantage.

These last two weeks have given me a good lesson in letting go - something that is truly in order for me now that my little girl is becoming so independent. She needs to find her own way in the world, but as parents, I think it's still important for us to provide the tools and guidance that will help our children make choices that work for them, food-related and otherwise.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Super Cheap & Easy Salmon Burgers

I envy the seriously inventive chefs out there who are capable of true originality. It’s been a very rare occasion that I’ve been able to come up with something that hasn’t been done before, and many times over at that. The reality for most professional chefs and home cooks alike is that coming up with a recipe starts with inspiration from someone else’s food. That means that when we create a recipe, we may be combining things in slightly different ways, or adding a single new twist to an old trick, but we’re really not making something entirely new. We borrow ideas and flavors and make them subtly our own. This is not revolutionary stuff.

The good news for home cooks is that this means we can practically steal most of our ideas, but still feel that we’re a part of the creative process. Many home cooks adapt recipes to suit the tastes or desires of their families; that’s basically the process I’m describing. And there are more and less complex ways of doing this. Sometimes, it doesn’t start with a written recipe, but with a taste of something worth copying. More often than not, this is where my recipes start. So it is with this recipe for salmon burgers.

As I mentioned in a previous post, some time ago I attended a dinner party put on by Healthy Pantry, a company that makes easy-to-prepare meals for the home cook. One of the dishes they made that evening was salmon burgers, which were a bit sweet for me, but still quite tasty. I noticed that they used canned wild salmon to make these, and I thought, wow, this is a great way to use an inexpensive, very healthy product. I’ve always tried to find ways to use canned salmon, since it’s pretty much always wild, and so much less expensive than fresh or frozen wild salmon. You can get a 14.75 oz. can of Bumble Bee red salmon (red salmon is higher quality and higher in omega-3 fatty acids than pink salmon) for around $5. The frozen wild sockeye salmon fillets that I buy at Costco for the bargain basement price of $26 for 3 lbs. works out to almost $8 for the same 14.75 oz. That’s 60% more expensive for essentially the same product! From an environmental standpoint, the can is also superior, because it eliminates the need for refrigeration. Good for your heart, good for your wallet, good for your world. There’s even another benefit to canned salmon that can’t be found in fillets – canned salmon contains soft, edible bones that are an excellent source of calcium, and a particularly bio-available form of the mineral.

The trick about canned salmon is that it really doesn’t taste as good as fresh or frozen fillets. So, some creativity is needed to employ it in recipes. Canned salmon needs a little help from other flavors to make it palatable, as opposed to canned sardines, which are also seriously healthy, and I think are just fabulous all on their own.

Somehow, salmon burgers eluded my bargain radar until I tasted the Healthy Pantry version. How could I have missed this opportunity? Needless to say, I got to work on a recipe. I’ve attempted to emulate the spirit of the Healthy Pantry version in that my burgers are made almost entirely from pantry items, rather than perishable ones. This reduces costs, makes prep time shorter, and makes it an easy go-to meal when you have no time to run to the grocery store. Feel free to substitute fresh products, if you’re so inclined. Here it is, my very own 30 minute meal:

Super Cheap & Easy Salmon Burgers
1 14.75 oz. can wild Alaskan red salmon
½ cup whole wheat bread crumbs
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 Tbsps. tomato paste
2 tsps. dried thyme, crumbled
1 Tbsp. dried parsley flakes
1 Tbsp. dried chopped onion
1 tsp. garlic powder
Salt & pepper, to taste
Safflower oil spray

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well with your hands or a wooden spoon. Form into patties.

Heat a cast iron skillet or griddle over high heat, and coat with safflower oil spray. Once hot, reduce heat to medium high. Cook patties 4-5 minutes on each side. Serve on a whole grain burger bun. Top with whatever you like: sprouts, avocado, tomato, lettuce, cole slaw, cheese, sauteed mushrooms, onions, etc.

Some alternatives:
For meatier flavor – add 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce to the patty mix
For spicier flavor – add one finely chopped chipotle pepper, or one fresh jalapeƱo, or several drops of hot pepper sauce to the patty mix

Makes 5-6 patties

Note: Canned salmon is a cooked fish product. It does not require the same precautions as raw fish. This means you cannot undercook it, and you can taste the mixture before it is cooked to see if it is seasoned to your tastes.