Day 48–Pasta Con Sarde

Sardines

I am still perplexed as to why Eat Italian Food Day is not Eat Italian Food Month, but whatevs. We are not beholden to whoever makes those decisions. So in open rebellion of the “food of the day” policy makers, here is another recipe that we will be making this weekend. It takes advantage of Italy’s coastal waters as well as its love of the tomato. I am planning to buy fresh pasta at the farmer’s market tomorrow and I’m excited about that, but when left to my own devices, I like whole wheat angel hair pasta for this dish. Pasta con sarde is high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids and relatively low in fat. Basically, this is a fast, healthy and very inexpensive dish that is perfect for weeknights when you really don’t feel like cooking.

What? You don’t like sardines? My suggestion would be to have an open mind and try sardines that are packaged boneless and skinless as they have a milder taste to them. Trader Joes carries these for about $2 a can. And indeed, this dish would be better with fresh sardines rather than canned, but until global warming really kicks in, I don’t know that sardines will be swimming off the shores of North Carolina. If you are (like my child) absolutely resolute in your dislike of sardines, you could use cooked salmon or tuna and you would need very little (6 oz), just increase the amount of olive oil you use or the sauce will be dry. This is a great dish for stretching out what you have. And who doesn’t want to do that these days?

  • 1 package whole wheat angel hair pasta (16 oz.)
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 (4 oz) cans sardines packed in olive oil
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs (about 3-5 slices bread toasted and run through food processor)
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 lemon, juiced + 1 Tbsp. grated zest
  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook according to directions for al dente pasta.
  2. While pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook about 2 minutes until soft. Add the minced garlic and cook about 1 minute more.
  3. Stir in sardines with their olive oil and tomato sauce and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  4. When sardines are heated through, add bread crumbs and stir. Remove from heat.
  5. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water for the sauce.
  6. Add drained pasta to the sauce in the skillet and combine. If the sauce is too dry, add pasta water 1/2 cup at a time until you get the consistency you like. The sauce should cling to the pasta.
  7. Add lemon juice and lemon zest to the pasta, stir and serve with parmesan cheese.

Buon appetito!

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Day 44–Non-toxic Food Storage

Almost all the plastic ever produced still exists on earth. That totally creeps me out.

One of the jobs I have been meaning to tackle involves researching food storage safety, and finding out more about plastics and food safety. After reading many articles and several studies, my take on it is that no one really knows the full extent of plastic safety, and most scientists and health advocates recommend further study of plastics and food.

Most people are familiar with BPA (bisphenol-A) by now and many manufacturers (including Tupperware, Glad and Ziploc)  have worked hard to create BPA-free products. BPA is known to damage the reproduction systems of animals and its ability to mimic estrogen is thought to contribute to prostate and breast cancer. But really, is BPA the only thing to worry about? Food microwaved in BPA-free plastic still tastes weird, leading me (not a scientist by any stretch) to think that there is more to it than just BPA. Indeed, many plastics also leach phthalates. Banned in Europe, Japan, Mexico and Argentina. The U.S.? Nope.

Here is the crazy thing. Leaching petrochemicals and other potential toxins into your food is ALLOWED by the FDA if they are present in levels the FDA deems to be “safe”. Note that these materials have not been proven “safe,” they just haven’t been proven “unsafe.”

Considering the FDA’s lackadaisical record for food supply safety lately and combining that with the plastic industry’s heavy-handed lobby, I think I’m not feeling to trustworthy of their definition of “safe.”

But plastics are EVERYWHERE, even in the linings of your canned food and the linings of jar lids. How can you avoid them or at least reduce your risk to known and potential carcinogens? I’ve crossed checked several sources and put together a list of tips on how to reduce your family’s exposure to plastics. Ready? Here goes!

  1. Know your numbers–every plastic has a number on it (usually on the bottom of the container). Numbers 1,2,4, and 5 are thought to be safer (not SAFE, but SAFER) to use with food. Numbers 3,6 and 7 should be avoided, as these plastics are known to be unstable, especially if reused.
  2. Never serve or store hot foods in plastic. As plastics warm and soften, they can leach petrochemicals and other toxins into your food.
  3. Do not store high fat foods in plastic. For similar reasons as above, high fat foods interact with the plastic in such a way that transfer of chemicals and toxins are more likely.
  4. Never microwave food in plastic. Not only can toxins leach into your food due to warming, toxins present in the steam can be inhaled.
  5. Avoid using deli or plastic wrap. When shopping, you can ask your deli to use unbleached paper or unbleached waxed paper only. Or you can transfer your products into safer packaging when you get home.
  6. Store and reheat your leftovers in glass containers. Unlike many plastics, you can reuse jars as long as they are cleaned well.
  7. Buy pots and pans without Teflon or other non-stick coatings. If you use non-stick pans, run your kitchen ventilation system while you cook.

My weekend task was to clean out all of our plastic food storage and relegate those containers for camping equipment and craft supplies. We now have glass food containers in various sizes for our leftovers. Bed, Bath and Beyond has sets that are affordable ($19 for a set of 5–less if you have your coupon!) and Crate and Barrel also has some that look good, but are a bit pricier. I have to say, I feel a sense of relief knowing that we have made a small, but meaningful step toward reducing our household toxicity!

Day 24–“Wildly Affordable Organic”

English: A hand reaching for organic tomatoes ...

I recently came across a great resource for staying on a budget while eating organic and thought I would share it. Although our goal isn’t specifically to eat “organic,” it is a part of our overall goal to eat sustainably and to reduce our household toxin load, and organic foods are a big part of that.

The resource is a book, website and blog titled “Wildly Affordable Organic” (www.cookforgood.com). Author Linda Watson (of Raleigh!) claims to have the secrets to living on $5 a day or less while eating organic (and vegetarian). In flipping through a borrowed copy of the book, there are some good tips for frugal living and some good tips for eating organic. The vegetarian and vegan recipes online look good enough that I might go ahead and purchase the book.

While the frugal tips are good, eating “organic” and eating “sustainably” are not necessarily the same thing. Buying organic produce does lessen the world’s pesticide load, but buying organic tomatoes from Mexico when you live in Maine does little to alleviate the carbon footprint of your food–especially if you can get minimally treated tomatoes or organic tomatoes locally at a slightly higher price. And are organic tomatoes from another country sustainable if the “farm” is a large agribusiness and laborers are not paid a fair wage? And are “organic” canned beans packaged in a can with a liner that uses BPA really worth the price if you’re getting a packaging toxin along with your healthy beans? You can only imagine the dilemmas swirling around my mind…

At some point, though, you have to stop and actually eat. Philosophical foodway issues aside, this seems like a good reference book for beginners on how to purchase organic foods without breaking your budget and how to make low cost, vegetarian dishes. Check out the website and see for yourself. Any day I can learn a few new tricks is a good day!

Day 23–Beautiful Braised Beef Shanks

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Our January meat box from Farmhand Foods (www.farmhandfoods.org ) included two large and meaty beef shanks from one of our local farmers in Efland (about 40 minutes away). I have to say, I have never even considered buying beef shanks, let alone how to cook them. So, this was another learning experience in our journey–not only buying locally produced meat and vegetables, but also being open to new ways of cooking. As it turns out (and you may know this already), beef shanks are a braising cut. That is, they are a bit tough and need long, slow cooking to break down the meat and produce a tender result. Since this was one of our chilliest weekends, it was perfect timing for slow cooking (and it also meant that I had more time to watch the NFL playoff games :-).

I found a recipe that sounded promising on epicurious (LOVE this website and app) at www.epicurious.com for a beef and sausage ragu. I tweaked it a bit and am including my version below. Mainly, I reduced the amount of meat, upped the level of vegetables in the ragu and reduced the overall liquids to make a thicker sauce for pasta and polenta. It is AMAZING. Not only did the final product taste delicious and tender, but my entire house smelled like I had Super Chef visiting. Yum, yum and YUM. I could actually eat this out of a bowl by itself.

So, if you’re in the mood to try something new and make the most out of a less expensive cut of beef (especially if it is locally produced and hormone/antibiotic free!), give this a try!

Beef Shank and Sausage Ragu (12 servings)

  • 3 tsp. fennel seeds
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 lb. Mae Farm Italian sausage, casing removed
  • 3 1/2 lbs beef shanks with bone
  • 2 large onions, chopped
  • 3 cups of chopped organic carrots
  • 2 cups of organic mushrooms
  • 1 bunch of organic kale or other greens
  • 2 28 oz. cans organic whole tomatoes with juice
  • 1 small can organic tomato paste
  • 1/2 bottle dry, red wine
  • 6 large cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tsp. organic dried Italian spices
  • 1 tsp. dried crushed red pepper
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. In a small skillet, toast fennel seeds over medium heat for about 2 minutes or until fragrant. Set aside.
  3. Heat 2 Tbsp. of olive oil in an oven proof pot and add sausage. Brown in pot for about 10 minutes, breaking up chunks with the spoon. Using a slotted spoon, remove from pot and put aside in a large bowl.
  4. Add 1 Tbsp. oil to pot. Sprinkle beef shanks with salt and pepper. Add to pot and brown at medium high heat for about 6 minutes on each side. Transfer to bowl with sausage.
  5. Add onions, garlic, carrots, mushrooms and greens to the pot and sautee until brown and tender, about 10 minutes.
  6. Return beef shanks and sausage to the pot along with any accumulated juices. Add tomatoes with juice, tomato paste, fennel seeds, spices to pot. Bring to simmer.
  7. Cover pot and put in oven. Braise 2 1/2 hours until beef is very tender and falling off the bone.
  8. Transfer shanks to a cutting board and remove meat and dice. Return diced meat to the pot and simmer on stove for about 10-15 minutes to thicken and reduce the sauce.
  9. Skim fat off the sauce (I actually cooled the sauce, put it in the fridge and skimmed the fat off the next day.)
  10. Season with salt and pepper.
  11. Serve over pasta, polenta or bread.

Day 19–The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15

English: A sign warning about pesticide exposure.

“Action expresses priorities.”–Mohandas Gandhi

Our intent with our family journey toward a more sustainable, less toxic life, was to put our priorities (healthier lifestyle, support of local farmers, reducing environmental toxins, eating cleaner) into action and document the results. But sometimes there is a tension between intent and reality. Namely, that we can’t go broke buying groceries and we can’t always find what we want from an organic or locally produced source. And sometimes there are unintended consequences (see below) So, what’s a girl to do? Seek information and pick her battles, that’s what.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested the most common produce sold in the U.S. and developed a list of the produce with the highest pesticide levels (The Dirty Dozen) and those with the lowest pesticide levels (The Clean 15). Pesticide levels were measured after washing the produce to simulate a typical home environment. They turned this information into a handy list anyone can use while shopping.

So, what about the unintended consequences?

The EWG developed this list after finding that residual pesticide levels in children have been increasing over time. Interestingly, this increase is seen at higher levels in middle class families with college educated parents. Why? Because those parents, who are responding to the obesity crisis in children and who have more discretionary income to spend on food, are more likely to forego chips and processed snacks for fresh fruit and vegetables. So an unintended consequence of well-meaning parents (like me) getting our children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables is that their children are showing higher levels of the pesticides used on those crops in their bodies. YIKES!

Realizing that many families don’t have the financial ability to purchase all of their produce organic, the EWG produced a list of the worst and the best, giving parents and other consumers a tool to use when making food choices.  I put this app on my phone so I can refer to it at the farmer’s market when I’m shopping (I know I won’t remember the piece of paper). While the EWG list is not comprehensive, it’s one more tool I can use to express my priorities through actions in a financially efficient way.

So, what’s on the list? You can download the list at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/ but here it is in summary:

Dirty Dozen

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines (Imported)
  • Grapes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Blueberries
  • Lettuce
  • Kale

The Clean 15

  • Onions
  • Sweet corn**
  • Pineapples
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe (Domestic)
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms

**Because sweet corn is often genetically modified and the FDA does not require that GMO corn be labelled as such, the EWG recommends that anyone concerned about GMO products buy organic sweet corn.

What do you think about the list? Is this something you would use? How do you budget for greater health?

Next post: What’s in your makeup bag?

Day 17–Family Pizza Challenge

The Green Machine before cheese

What to do with some delish, but somewhat random ingredients from the farmers market? I posed the question to my 11-year-old and got “pizza challenge!!” A great idea! We made our own whole wheat pizza dough, divided it into thirds and retreated to separate parts of the kitchen to prepare our secret masterpieces!

Here were our family challenge rules (yes, we needed rules!):

  1. Each person had to try each pizza (you don’t have to like it, you just have to try it).
  2. No putting inedible or otherwise objectionable ingredients in your pizza (yes, we needed this, too)
  3. Use what we have in the fridge or pantry; minimal outside additions allowed.

We all did well adhering to the rules and all our pizzas were completely different. There was a surprising amount of secrecy and competitiveness and a LOT of pizza smack talk, which was hilarious. Our pre-teen got into the reality TV side of it, creating video interviews with each contestant about their pizza and the other competitors. Next time, she would like a videographer and independent judges.

How were the pizzas? They were all really good! The whole wheat crust (recipe below) was not tough or dry–it was really good and very filling (we have lots of leftover pizza for lunch this week). Here is what we ended up with:

T's Pizza Bolognese (on a heart-shaped crust!)

T’s Pizza Bolognese (tomato sauce, ground beef, organic mushrooms, Italian cheese mix, organic Italian seasoning)

E’s Meat Lover’s Extreme (olive oil, country ham, artisan pepperoni, local red bell pepper, mozzarella cheese)

D’s Green Machine (olive oil, leftover roasted chicken, roasted local broccoli, organic local dino kale, local onion, sea salt, swiss and Gruyère cheese mix)

These were not all healthy pizzas, but all agreed that kale and broccoli on a pizza is actually good! So on our next try, we’ll have less meat and more vegetables. This will be really fun when we get our weekly Produce Box and have something specific to rally around!

What we learned:

  • Pizza dough is very easy to make and very forgiving to work with, even for non-cooks.
  • Dark green vegetables like greens and broccoli look great and taste great on a pizza.
  • We need to allow more time for cooking. Cooking all 3 pizzas, even though they were small, took more time than we thought (about 45 minutes). We will start earlier next time.
  • If you are competing, expect some smack talk (especially with kids who watch chef shows) and have a judging form to structure your family comments to reflect appearance, aroma, texture, taste and overall pizza success. We didn’t do this, but we agreed that we couldn’t decide on one winner–they really were all good.

I can see this quickly becoming a tradition in our house! If you want to try it, too, here is our pizza dough recipe:

  • 1 pckg. yeast
  • 1 3/4 c. warm water
  • 4 c. whole wheat all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let sit for 5 minutes until completely dissolved and a bit foamy.

In the bowl of a standing mixer (w/dough hook attached), combine flour, salt and olive oil.

While mixer is running on low/med low, add yeast water to the flour in a stream.

Allow mixer to knead dough for about 4 min.

Cover bowl with a towel or plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place for 1.5 hours or until doubled in bulk.

Punch down dough and divide into two pieces (we divided it into 3). Each ball will make a pizza. You can freeze half for another time or let each dough ball stand covered for 20 minutes.

Shape and make your pizzas!

We cooked our pizzas at 500 degrees for about 12-15 minutes each, depending on the thickness of the dough.

What are some healthy topping combinations you have found?

Day 12–The Produce Box

A single week's fruits and vegetables from com...

I love the idea of a traditional CSA, where you arrive at a meeting place, wait with other earnest, veggie loving people, and leave feeling virtuous with a box of farm fresh produce. The trouble is, I am a terrible CSA participant. Terrible. Pickup day arrives and I invariably have a late meeting scheduled or I get stuck in the carpool line (it’s not a social gathering, Mrs. Volvo Station Wagon!) or…I forget. Most often, it’s the latter. I’m half way to the gym and realize…*@&!$%…veggies! And “resentful” isn’t the way we should pick up our fresh veggies. That just seems so wrong.

So, a friend and neighbor introduced me to The Produce Box. I love those people, I tell you. Rather than waiting with a tapping foot for me to come screeching around the corner, they patiently pack up my order and deliver the veggies to ME! I didn’t realize anyone did that anymore. According to their website, they are “a network of families, farmers, neighborhood moms, and others who all share a common vision–growing and eating food that’s good for you and the planet, from people you know.” I think of them as the “veggie fairies,” but whatevs.

Here is how it works:

  • You pay an annual membership fee of $18. (This fee covers boxes and containers and provides funds for small, board-sponsored grants to local farmers to buy seed, equipment, and make their farms more sustainable.)
  • Each week on Friday, you receive an email detailing the standard (default) box of veggies as well as several alternatives, including an organic box, a fruit box and so on. Each box is about $23.00 and you pick whatever you want or bypass that week altogether and pay nothing.
  • By Sunday night, you go into your account, pick your box for the week, plus any additional add-ons. If you’re like me and you forget, you automatically get the standard box (it’s like they know me). This fall, add-ons included local bread, honey, preserves, apple butter and cheese. Your account is charged when your order is filled.
  • Wed or Thursday, a box of your beautiful, locally grown vegetables and other items arrives on your doorstep.

Voila! No forgetting! No speeding down the highway after a long meeting to get to a pickup location!

I say, “voila!” like this is an easy feat. Really, the entire production depends on a LOT of very dedicated farmers, volunteers and part time employees. I don’t know them, but I love every single one of them. The vegetables we have received have been unbelievably wonderful, very fresh and of excellent quality. The board surveys members in the fall and works with local farmers to plant crops that members have interest in. Pretty cool!

The Produce Box is not operating now, but they will be starting up again in April. Here is a sampling of what they hope to offer in April:

  • asparagus (yes!)
  • cauliflower
  • broccoli
  • green beans
  • onions
  • berries
  • cherries

Interested? The website is www.theproducebox.com

It may be cold and rainy outside, but I’m thinking spring!

Day 10–A Locavore’s Lunch–Beasley’s Chicken + Honey

 

I woke up thinking today is Friday. It is Tuesday. Is it me or do other people do that, too? Sometimes, when the week stretches in front of you like a yawning chasm of time, there is a remedy. It’s called the Girls Lunch Out.

So, in the interest of self-preservation and blog research, we headed out to one of Raleigh’s newer, trendy lunch spots, Beasley’s Chicken  + Honey. Using all sustainable and many locally produced ingredients, Beasley’s serves fried chicken drizzled with local honey, locally produced veggie sides and desserts.

Beasley's Chicken + Honey uses local and sustainable foods for its menu

Beasley’s chicken is sustainably raised with no growth hormones or antibiotics. Although it sources from Georgia (why???), we like that it still meets our sustainable criteria. The vegetables (and there are many) source from primarily NC, although our server couldn’t give us any detail.

My 11-year-old companion (not yet tracked in at school) had the fried chicken biscuit, a fried chicken cutlet on a HUGE biscuit with pickled green tomatoes and a honey Dijon sauce. She had NC sweet potatoes on the side. “It was the perfect combination of flavors.” She finished about half, so she has lunch for tomorrow, too.

Chicken quarter (dark) and Ashe Co. pimento mac & cheese. Oh my.

I had the quarter chicken (dark), which came drizzled with honey and was very juicy and delicious. I had the Ashe County pimento mac & cheese for a side and that was better than the chicken. I took about half of my lunch home, too. I just can’t pack away fried chicken like I used to (and this is probably a good thing).

The service was good and we liked the industrial chic decor. At $25.00 for both of us, it was pricey, but it helps that we will each get 2 meals out of our lunch. And with fried chicken and mac & cheese, this isn’t a regular lunch spot for health reasons. Good to know that downtown Raleigh has delish sustainable/local fare!

Still wish today were Friday, but now I can face the week again!

Day 9–How 10% Can Make a Difference

A percent sign.

Did you know that North Carolinians spend $35 billion a year on food. $35 billion!!! I’m not “math girl,” but that seems like a lot of money to me. And we’re not even a huge state, like Texas or Florida or California.

The NC Center for Environmental Farming Systems has a new initiative called the 10% Campaign. They figure that if every family spent 10% of their grocery budget on locally produced foods, we would keep $3.5 billion dollars in our local economy instead of sending it to some corporate grocery store office. In this economy, I think that’s pretty cool.

If your family spends $200 per week on groceries, 10% is just $20 (or one trip to the farmer’s market). You can sign up at www.nc10percent.com and the 10% Campaign will check in with you every week to see how you’re doing. If you like to eat out, the website also has a list of restaurants who have committed to the 10% Campaign as well. Interested in taking the challenge?

Day 5–No Local Veggies at the Local Grocery

Example of an American grocery store aisle.

Although the area of North Carolina where we live is primarily high-tech and business/government oriented, most of our state remains agricultural. It makes me happy that I can drive 20 minutes outside of Cary and find family run farms that still produce vegetables and livestock. In fact, North Carolina is a primary regional producer of sweet potatoes, strawberries, peaches, corn and tomatoes. North Carolina is also home to two regional grocery store chains–Lowe’s Foods and Harris Teeter. It’s not a huge leap to think that our NC grocery stores would carry NC products, right?  

With our new dietary challenges in mind, I recently visited our local Lowe’s Foods grocery store to see if in fact I could find locally produced vegetables, meat and agricultural products. I was hoping to find that I could purchase at least some local food products at my local grocery.

As I wandered through the produce section I wondered why Lowes sells collard greens from South Carolina when we produce them here? Same for sweet potatoes. In the produce aisle, I did not find one item produced in our state, but I found several produced in Mexico or Peru. I gave up on the meat section, which has no source information at all. I did find some agricultural products (grits, corn meal) and processed food products (barbecue sauce, hot sauce), but other than that, I came up empty-handed.

So, I asked a Lowes employee who looked official (wearing a tie and carrying a clipboard), why that is. He explained that the company as a whole has contracts with specific producers that ensure they have a “good selection at an affordable price.” So where do all the products we produce go? He also mentioned that some stores, including one in a nearby town, have displays of locally produced products, but that the manager of my particular Lowes had not chosen to do that. Then, very interestingly, he also mentioned that his family doesn’t buy their vegetables at Lowes or any other grocery store. They use a produce co-op hybrid called The Produce Box, which sources only from NC farms that use sustainable and/or organic farming practices. Hmmmm. Curious.

My plan this week is to write to Lowes and ask them to consider contracting with local, sustainable farms or to at least put a state symbol or some other marking so consumers can find what local products there are more easily. For a grocery chain that plays up its home town roots in advertising, this shouldn’t be a huge stretch. We’ll see…