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Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

To Market, to Market

Now that I have a new Saturday gig selling Italian wines at a lovely shop near Union Square, it’s become my custom to loop through the farmers’ market on my way to work. As I described in an earlier post, these waning days of early autumn are surely the market’s best. When I take my leisurely morning stroll past the piles of pumpkins and potted mums, I’m reminded of the markets I visited this summer. It seems like every country has their own focus – hanging meats of every variety and cut in Spain, rows of glistening fish in Portugal – but no one masters nearly every category like the French. Perhaps one of the only countries in Europe to still rely upon the open air market for daily supplies of fresh bread, meat, cheese and produce, the markets I saw in Provence made all other farmer’s markets I’d seen up to that point look downright shoddy. Let’s face facts – the French know how to eat.

With wicker baskets in hand, local men and women milled through the markets with expert eyes, selecting perfectly ripe specimens of fruits and vegetables, while greeting the visiting farmers with a kiss on each cheek.  The markets in Provence also cover some territory that the USDA would surely gasp at – fresh cheese so young the whey is still running out of it, handmade cured sausages resting uncovered on trays, rotisserie chickens still spinning on portable spits, and fish laying out on beds of ice. Throw in an impromptu jazz band on the market’s outskirts, and you’ve got an entertaining walk through the bounty of France’s farms. Oh, and did I mention the perfect picnic lunch that can emerge from a quick peruse through the market?

I couldn’t decide which pictures to highlight, so here’s a much more entertaining journey through what I saw. (Thanks for the tech advice, Rita!)

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beer-pint-150.jpgFancy an IPA or an Extra Special Bitter? Lovers of bitter beer, beware – a large fire Tuesday at a hop storage warehouse in Washington State destroyed approximately 4% of the country’s entire hop harvest. Only time will tell whether or not this will translate into higher prices for certain brews that use large quantities of the delicate buds to add bitterness and aroma. Though hops are actually flowering vines, what brewmasters are really after is the tiny amount of sticky, yet highly flavorful resin that forms on the petals of the buds. Apparently this resin can also be highly combustible. Who knew that beer could be so dangerous?

But then again, there’s always prosecco. Woman of many talents, Paris Hilton, is the new spokesperson for a brand of bubbly-in-a-can called Rich Prosecco. paris_prosecco.jpg Though the fizzy beverage is all-Italian, it will be sold solely in Germany for now, with the possible addition of other foreign markets – apparently, it’s not legal to sell prosecco out of aluminum in Italy. While Miss Hilton declares the beverage “yummy,” Rich Prosecco owner Guenther Aloys has a more complex reason for selecting Hilton: “Nobody else currently embodies carefree lust for life as convincingly and glamorously as Paris Hilton. That’s why she’s matches Rich Prosecco so well.” Lest we forget, the heiress was arrested in early September on drunk driving charges.

If you think that most rice comes magically from a man named Uncle Ben, the Christian Science Monitor is ready to reeducate you on the dying art of harvesting wild rice. While most “wild” rice today comes in fact from cultivated paddies, some Minnesotans are keeping the tradition alive by hand harvesting the grains. For those in other parts of the country, Native Harvest – a project of the White Earth Indian Reservation – offers mail order for local wild rice, as well as other traditional food staples, such as hominy and maple syrup. The reservation also manages a handy website about the perils wild rice currently faces.

fresh-pork-dumpling.jpgSlate writer Tim Wu searches for authenticity of another sort in his feature about how to find real, honest-to-god Chinese style dumplings. Wu breaks down the regional differences between various types of dumplings, and he also elaborates upon the “magic ratio” that quality dumplings must achieve – the perfect balance between meat and dough. Whether five-for-a-dollar or upscale Asian fusion, the road to dumpling making is lined with potential landmines.

In case you missed it, last weekend was the 21st Farm Aid concert. Though it may seem somewhat surreal, this year’s concert was held in the urban jungle known as Camden, New Jersey. willie_nelson_marijuana_american.gifConcert organizers pointed out that the concert is also meant to draw attention to urban farming projects, as well as the problem of poor nutrition in the inner city. And heck, NJ is the Garden State after all. At any rate, Willie Nelson was able to spring the slammer in order to join pals Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp and Neil Young, among others, on stage.

And it looks the Farm Aid money will be much needed this year for many small, family farmers in the Midwest, who are facing the second warmest year on record since 1895. The high temps have led to a severe drought across much of the country, which has also dried up harvest profits. Many small scale farmers are not eligible for the same subsidies as the big boys, so get out to the local farmers’ markets to show your support!

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Farewell, summer days

pumpkins.JPGThe seasons in the city shift in less perceptible ways. Painted toenails disappear under socks and sensible leather shoes. Sweaters hide limbs with quickly fading tans. The afternoon light grows leaner. At this time of year, when a brisk morning can be followed by an absurdly warm afternoon, though, the changing seasons are reflected nowhere more clearly than the farmers’ market. New York may not have crunchy leaves underfoot, but the produce at the market acts as a seasonal barometer.

Though summer’s exited the room, right now are the markets’ days of glory. Insanely large quantities of summer crops – peaches, tomatoes, basil, sweet peppers, corn and the like – are breathing their last breath, offering up one last grand hurrah before they disappear until next year. Nudging alongside these bright characters, however, are the new cool weather neighbors – the gourds, the squashes, the root vegetables and the apples. In one crate, it’s easy to see a picture of ‘Hello fall; goodbye summer.”

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And there’s something sort of sweet and fleeting about perusing the bold flavors of summer in sweaters and jackets.

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P.S. Don’t forget to stock up on one of my favorite late summer/early fall treats — the concord grape. Insiped California table grapes these are not! Dark purple and deliciously toothsome, these varieties of “fox” grapes are a Northeast specialty and will remind you of what real grapes taste like — perfumed, grapey goodness.

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ecoli.jpgGetting children and some adults to eat their veggies just got a little harder. As you read this, refrigerators across America are being yanked open and bags of fresh spinach are sailing into the garbage can. Since last week, states from coast to coast have reported over 100 bacterial infections caused by the dreaded E. coli bacteria, with one death in Wisconsin. The source has been traced to Natural Selection Foods, an organic grower based in San Juan Batista, California. Natural Selection sells their spinach and other salad greens under a host of private labels, including all the big names – Earthbound, Ready Pac, Trader Joe’s and about fifteen others. As a precaution, the FDA is advising all Americans to toss all pre-packaged bags of raw spinach.

This unfortunate situation points to a much larger problem. According to the Department of Agriculture, more than half of our country’s spinach is grown in Monterey County, California. And though it’s the height of harvest season nationwide, this tainted Monterey County spinach has found it’s way into kitchens from Connecticut to Utah. When we centralize our food system to this degree, and giant industrial farms produce giant crops to be cleaned and packaged in giant facilities, outbreaks such as the current one will be widespread and hard to contain. Spinach today and what tomorrow?

And the fact that this mess has been traced to an organic farm is just the ironic icing on the cake. The organic label was originally created to indicate a product outside the industrial food chain and therefore a wiser choice. When organic farms become large-scale international operations plagued by the the same problems that caused them to abandon the original food chain, then what does the organic label really mean anymore?

I’ll be at the greenmarket looking for local spinach if you need me.

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Otherwise known as the least accessible neighborhood in Brooklyn, Red Hook is one of those places that seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days – the annointed Next Great Thing. I’ve been intrigued for a long time, especially since I’ve already demonstrated an affection for up and coming neighborhoods. Located on a small peninsula that juts out into the East River, Red Hook is disconnected from the rest of Brooklyn not only by the river, but also the Gowanus Canal to the east and the Expressway to the north. At one time Red Hook was a bustling shipyard and warehouse location, but when all New York port activity was relocated to Jersey decades ago, Red Hook began a slow decline. red-hook-street2.jpgFactor in the standard formula of the white flight and urban decay of the 60’s and 70’s with the a dose of the drug trade of the 80’s, and you have yourself a depressed neighborhood. But today, since the New York real estate market is gobbling up forgotten neighborhoods faster than ever, Red Hook is also receiving its share of trendy restaurants and quirky shops, despite the fact that the nearest subway station is about a 20-minute walk away (or a short bus ride, if you don’t mind waiting).

So when I saw a listing for a Slow Food sponsored walking tour of Red Hook, I thought, yahoo! Not only could I explore an interesting place I’ve never been to, but I could also attend my first ever Slow Food event. I’m a big fan of the organization and everything they stand for, but the only problem is that I can rarely afford their gourmet foodie dinners and talks. But since this walking tour cost a mere $10 (to be donated to Added Value Farm, one of our stops on the tour), I thought, count me in!

I think that Red Hook is at an interesting point in its history. Crime is down, young creative types have moved in, and there’s a decent number of new small businesses. But on the other hand, Red Hook is also home to a giant new Fairway, which signals that the neighborhood is now firmly on its way to yuppiedom. What else can $6 bags of handpicked mesclun and 20 varieties of stinky cheese from the Pyrenees mean? fairway2.jpgCouple that with the fact that the biggest Ikea in the world (yes, the world) is slated to open just a few blocks away, and it’s pretty obvious that Red Hook is bound to change even more.

Right now, besides the shiny new Fairway, which is situated on the ground floor of a huge warehouse on the waterfront with stunning views of the Statue of Liberty, Red Hook still feels a little bit empty. Rambling warehouses dot the neighborhood, crumbly old piers meander out into the river, and even on residential blocks, vacant lots and empty buildings are still obvious. It’s quiet, almost to the point where you expect to see tumbleweed rolling down some of the side streets. But, hey, sometimes a little peace and quiet is a good thing, right?

Since there was a slight snafu that involved half of the Slow Food group missing their ferry from Manhattan, the tour was delayed. So I headed over to Baked, a super cute bakery on Van Brunt Street…

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for an equally cute red velvet cupcake, dotted with a cinnamon candy.

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Once the tour got going, the first stop was to Added Value Farm, which is a non-profit vegetable farm that sits on a former baseball field, now leased from the city free of charge. It’s sort of amazing to walk through this former industrial neighborhood still decorated with chain link fences and hulking warehouses and then come upon this little green oasis. compost-pile-at-farm3.jpgAccording to Ian Marvy, one of the co-founders of the farm and our appointed tour guide, Added Value Farm employs local teenagers throughout the year to help grow and sell the food, so not only does the farm provide a number of local residents with ultra fresh produce, but it also provides a lot of kids in the area with an income. And since the program has expanded to teach such topics as media literacy, the kids are also picking up job skills along the way. Owner and chef of the nearby restaurant 360, Arnaud Erhart, happened to stop by the farm while we were there, so he also briefly joined Ian in answering some questions about Red Hook, the farm’s place in the community, and the business of buying local foods. (Ian on the left; Arnaud on the right)

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And the farm veggies looked splendid!

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Next stop was lunch at the nearby baseball and soccer fields. Every weekend, this part of Red Hook is filled with Latino families, mainly from an array of countries in Central and South America, who come to watch their kids compete. Some of the families set up impromptu restaurants on the sidewalks lining the fields, complete with propane grills and plastic cloth covered tables to sit at. fruit-for-sale3.jpgThere’s maybe 15 vendors altogether – in other words, a culinary destination is born. Since New Yorkers are always looking for authentic ethnic food, there are also quite a few hungry native-born Americans lined up at each stall as well. Some of this popularity is surely due to a recent New York Times article from a few months ago that proclaimed the food at the ballfields as “the kind of experience that reminds you why you live in New York.” And it’s cheap, too! You can stuff yourself silly for well under $10. ceviche3.jpgMy first stop was a ceviche vendor, I think from Chile, who was selling both shrimp and scallop ceviche. Both are sold in a plastic cup, mixed with citrus juice and a salsa like concotion of tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro and a dash of hot sauce.

Second course was the object which the Times writer waxed poetic upon – the pupusa, which is a culinary delight from El Salvador. Basically, it’s a small round cake made from coarse corn meal – filled with either meat, beans, cheese, or a combination of the three – that is grilled and served steaming hot.

I ordered a black bean and cheese pupusa and then added on a chicken tamale, which comes stuffed with large hunks of roasted chicken inside its soft corn exterior. The plate is completed by a sort of pickled coleslaw type of salad, topped by a squirt of hot sauce.

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After lunch, the next stop was Six Point Brewery, which is a microbrewery that makes small batches of interesting ales. The tour was lead by Shane Welch, the brewmaster/co-owner. Shane is also a man who is obviously passionate about beer. You’ve got to respect someone who started homebrewing at the tender age of 19 and later saved up enough money to spend a year touring some 100 breweries worldwide. shane-from-six-point2.jpgShane knows his product from top to bottom, or should I say, from malt to hops. The great thing about Six Point beer, which is only available in draft only, is that it’s a product that is made with an almost obsessive precision. Compared to beers that are made in bulk from standard strains of barley and hops, Shane and his crew have painstakingly chosen the different roasts and varieties of the malted barley, and they also experiment with different varieties of hops. On the roof deck of Six Point, there are even several containers of hops vines, which in a few years will hopefully be large enough to supply Six Point with enough hop buds to experiment on a batch or two. If you see Six Point beer on tap anywhere in New York City or Brooklyn, definitely check it out. A lot of the ales have a truly unique taste and a much bolder flavor profile than a lot of the mass-produced beer on the market. And they’re crafted by young people who operate on passion and a drive to create the best product possible.

Around this point in the day, my cameras batteries gave out, but I have to mention a few other unique Red Hook businesses… Another place we stopped by was Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, a quirky bakeshop located in an improbably out of the way warehouse near the water. Steve delivers his wholesale pies in an old hearse parked outside of the warehouse, and the menu on the inside is pretty much just key lime pies in a variety of sizes, as well as the “swingle”, which is a tiny key lime tart that is skewered on a popsicle stick, dipped in dark chocolate and frozen. What makes these pies special though is that Rick gets a shipment of real Key Limes from Florida weekly, so that he can juice them himself.

Back on Van Brunt street, another place that deserves a visit is Lenell’s. A tiny wine and liquor store, Lenell’s has one the best selections of bourbon in the city, as well as a small but thoughtful selection of wines from small producers. There’s also a vintage clawfoot bathtub in the window, filled with bottles of different brands of gin. Brilliant. Combine that with the statue in the center of the store of a little boy peeing, and you start to realize that Lenell’s isn’t your ordinary corner wineshop. And they have free tastings every Saturday! Also, next door to Lenell’s is Tini, a new wine bar that opened up just a few weeks ago. Though I didn’t get a chance to stop by, I’m definitely anxious to. Not only does Tini purchase produce from Added Value Farm, but their wine list also showcases many small winemakers, including females, minorities and organic growers.

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Grassfed Meat Madness

16_grass_macro_resized.jpgLast week, I attended an informal presentation hosted by the unofficial All-American Grassfed Meat Queen, Jo Robinson.  Author of Pasture Perfect, as well as the helpful agriculture website Eat Wild, Jo can spout scientific stats about cows and sheep like you’d never believe.

Grassfed (i.e. pastured or pasture-raised) meats seem to be the latest topic to grab ahold the foodie world. One could advocate for grass-based farming from a variety of soapboxes: it’s more environmentally sound, it keeps small family farms in business, it is less cruel to the animals, it preserves bucolic open spaces across America, and so on. The main bandwagon most people seem to be jumping on lately, though, is nutrition. According to studies described by Jo, the irony of abandoning modern factory farming for a return to long “outdated” methods of raising animals is that the meat from grassfed animals is healthier for us.

Much in the same way that hydrogenated oil based margarine was suddenly discovered to be worse for your health than butter or even lard, corn-fed meat is now known to have considerably higher levels of saturated fat and calories, along with drastically lower levels of “good” unsaturated fats, Omega 3 fatty acids and CLA (conguated lineloic acid, which is a suspected potent anti-cancer compound). It’s like the animals finally won some sort of victory. By putting them back into their ideal landscape, they provide us with an incredibly healthy source of food. The same benefits are found in other forms of animal protein as well. Eggs from pasture-raised chickens and milk/butter/cheese from grassfed cows show similar results.

There’s nothing revolutionary about grassfed animals. Actually, it’s kind of boring. It goes something like this – ruminant (i.e. an animal with a handy extra stomach for digesting grass) is released into a green pasture, bows head to grass and begins to munch, munch, munch. Ruminants are designed by nature to eat grass, which they can convert into an amazing array of proteins, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals.

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In an effort to industrialize meat production, however, we’ve taken nearly all animals out of their natural habitat and instead placed them instead into enclosed areas where they are given grain to eat. This is highly unnatural to their digestive tracts, and even with a slow period of weaning them off of grass and hay, many animals develop lesions and acid imbalances in their stomachs, which leads to rampant bacterial infection – hence the addition of prophylactic antibiotics into their feed.

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The idea of corn feed as wholesome is a carefully constructed myth. We’ve all been raised to think that corn-fed is best, but really it makes no sense whatsoever, except for the fact that the artificially cheap corn (thanks for the subsidies, Uncle Sam!) keeps the price of beef artificially low. Beef and most other kinds of red meat have always been considered luxury items. Until recent times that is. Whenever you see ground beef at the local supermarket for the cut-rate price of $1.99/pound, be scared – very scared. Chances are that your little piece of Bessie hasn’t seen nary a blade of grass since she was a baby. Among the nastier bits of info doled out by Robinson was the actual content of standard cattle feed. Okay, so there’s corn and soy, along with other cereal grains, but what about chicken feathers, chicken manure and stale bubble gum. Bubble gum?? That’s right. Jo swears that she saw with her own two eyes a line of farmers waiting outside a bubble gum factory to get a cheap supply of expired gum. The farmers intended to toss it into the cattle’s feed, wrappers and all, which would hopefully pass without trouble into their manure.

One of the main points clearly emphasized by Jo is to be an educated consumer. Don’t trust the label, period. Just because meat or milk is labeled all-natural or organic DOES NOT mean it’s grassfed. There are such things as organic factory farms. Generally speaking, organic simply means no hormones/antibiotics, certified organic feed (which is still most often corn and soy), and “access” to the outdoors. When a carton of milk has a cute little picture of a pasture, it’s just an advertising tool, folks. And even when something is labeled as grassfed, it may mean only partially grassfed and/or finished with grain, which will negate some of those nifty health benefits.

In other words, it’s important to try and educate yourself. Ask questions. Check out websites like the Eat Well Guide and Eat Wild for a comprehensive list of grass-based farmers and retail sources. Try to buy a few things directly from farmers, since they can probably talk your ear off about production methods. Or visit an old-fashioned local butcher shop like Fleishers in the Hudson Valley. One of the lovely co-owners, Jessica Applestone, also joined Jo at the presentation to advocate for traditional grassfed meats. Going to a store like Fleishers ensures that you can know the both the provenance and production methods of your steak. Bon Appetit!

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