Q&A: Coffee

  • September 29, 2011 9:57 am

THE QUESTION:

Dear Alexandra,

I have a quick, but perhaps complicated question about coffee for you.  Every morning I have at least a cup.  It hadn’t really occurred to me until recently that my coffee habit could have environmental repercussions.  So, what coffee should I be drinking?

Thanks,

Cynthia

THE ANSWER:

What a great question and oh so appropriate considering September 29th (today!) is National Coffee Day (as if every day isn’t national coffee day in my apartment). The answer is a little complicated and a bit controversial.  Chances are you live in the United States, very very far away from any coffee plantations. This presents a problem for the most hardcore locavores (cough) whose diet consists of only local foods.  For the rest of us who are reluctant to give up our morning mug, there are options, which I explain in The Conscious Kitchen.

I’d like to state for the record that while I am a hardcore locavore, I literally do not put a toe on the floor in the morning without my coffee. I know this sounds bad. If you’re tempted to judge me, I suggest you try writing three books in as many years with no nanny and a small person in the house! I did give coffee up for years–when I was pregnant and breastfeeding–so I know I can do it. I just prefer not to.

But enough about me! The excerpts:

“The key thing with coffee is to source it carefully, especially since by some estimates it is the second most widely traded global commodity after oil.  Think of the eco-repercussions of drinking the worst-farmed beans, 365 days a year.  When it comes to coffee, the best brew goes beyond just choosing organic or sustainable beans for personal and environmental health.”

“To ensure that the workers growing your coffee are being treated right, look for fair-trade certification (TransFairUSA.org) on your bag of beans.  This, they say, takes into account fair prices, labor conditions, direct trade, democratic and transparent organizations, community development, as well as environmental sustainability – the last of which is especially crucial for the rainforests, where a great deal of coffee is grown.  Fair Trade Certified products tend to come from small producers on small farms that belong to larger cooperatives.”

“Coffee traditionally grows in shade, under a natural canopy that’s home to many birds.  According to Sierra magazine, low-quality coffee can be grown more easily and cheaply in full sun, ‘but only with extensive use of pesticides.’  The Rainforest Alliance certification label covers both worker treatment and birds (Rainforest-Alliance.org).”

“Coffee and fair-trade fanatics can compare and contrast these certifications at length, but keep in mind that choosing either over conventional coffee is key.”

Most importantly, if you buy consciously, you’ll have a better tasting brew.  Canned conventional coffee is probably a nasty mix of downed twigs, dust, and floor sweepings according to Treehugger.com.

And remember to always bring your own mug, use reusable or unbleached filters, compost your grounds, and doctor it with organic/local milk and fair trade sugar.

Happy National Coffee Day everyone!  I think I’ll have two cups to celebrate. Cheers!


What You Don’t Know: Ground Meat

  • September 27, 2011 10:00 am

Another day, another ground meat recall. Ever wonder what the ^%$ is going on? What is it about ground meat that leads to the worst case scenarios?

I got an answer–and an education–when reporting The Butcher’s Guide To Well-Raised Meat.

Here are two excerpts from the book to help educate anyone else who might be interested in this monumental waste of flesh.

“Don’t be fooled by meat labeled ‘freshly ground’ at the supermarket. Usually that’s a giant 20-pound chub (or tube) of coarse pre-ground beef they then regrind. That stuff is a gamble. There’s no telling what’s in it–bone chips and shit , at least. And it could also be made from a thousand different animals from ten different countries. Try tracing that.”

“…It doesn’t matter that there are USDA inspectors in every slaughterhouse. They’re not catching the outbreaks and it’s only getting worse. Contamination can come from anything–from feces on a hide to dirty hands to stomach bile that wasn’t properly washed off a carcass.  It takes time to slaughter and clean right. The giant operations rush to slaughter up to twenty-five thousand steers a day. When you see enormous numbers like 143 million pounds of beef recalled, it’s because that’s the “stop number”: that’s how much they grind before they clean or that’s how many pounds ago they tested for pathogens.”

All the more reason to know and trust your butcher or to grind your own meat.

Using Sour Milk

  • September 25, 2011 9:00 am

Another post from Glenny!

How often do you find milk going bad in your fridge?  For me, its often.  I love milk in my coffee, but I only ever use a splash.  Cereal?  I eat it occasionally, but certainly not enough to merit buying anything more than a quart.  Still, I’m always frustrated when I don’t have any in the apartment and have to dash out and hope for the best at my local market.  (I’ve been drinking Hudson Valley Fresh Whole Milk, and am often reluctant to buy other brands.)  So, I find souring milk all of the time.

The good news is that milk that is going off is still usable!  It has turned into buttermilk, which is a needed ingredient in all sorts of biscuits, breads, and other baked treats.  When you find milk that is past its expiration, don’t throw it out!  It’s time to bake!  Not that you should need an excuse.

My favorite recipe using buttermilk is the very simple, very rustic Irish Soda Bread.  Consisting of few ingredients, this bread is a breeze to make, and is ready for noshing within an hour.  No rising, no kneading, no yeast.  If served with an easy soup of fall vegetables, you’ll impress your very satisfied diners.  And, voila!  No more sour milk!

Full disclosure: this is not my Irish Soda Bread, but I wish it was.

Irish Soda Bread

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

14 oz buttermilk (just under two cups)

Preheat the oven to 450 F.  Sieve the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.  Make a well in the center and pour in all of your milk.  Using your hand and a circular movement, gently mix the buttermilk into the dry ingredients.  The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky.  When it all comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface.

Gently form the dough into a round about 1 1/2 inches deep.  Cut a deep cross on the loaf and prick in the four corners (the Irish say it is to “let the fairies out”).  Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 400 F for another 30 minutes until it is cooked through.  If you’re in doubt, tap the bottom of the bread: when cooked it should sound hollow.

Cool on a wire rack.

If you’re feeling ambitious, try adding new ingredients like raisins, dried cherries, caraway seeds, fennel seeds, chocolate chips, olives, etc. etc. etc.

Q&A: Sealing Particleboard Furniture (Including Cribs)

  • September 22, 2011 8:07 am

THE QUESTION:

My superintendent is coming by today to set up the crib for baby #2. Last time around, I recall that you warned me not to put the kid in a (standard commercial) crib without applying some kind of sealant to keep it from . . . off-gassing, was it?

If so could I trouble you to remind me what that product was?…Thanks so much….
AK

THE ANSWER:

Thanks for the great question; lots of expecting parents have had similar inquiries. I answer this in The Complete Organic Pregnancy–and again in Planet Home!–and have excerpted a few paragraphs from the former below. Congrats on #2 and good luck!

When setting up a nursery, keep in mind that items you might want from small organic stores will take longer than you think to be shipped.  Allow plenty of time, or you’ll be running through Buy Buy Baby in labor with a plastic changing table in your shopping cart.  All the furniture in your nursery, and ideally the entire house, should be made of solid hardwood with a nontoxic finish.  Avoid particleboard and plywood, which are held together with toxic formaldehyde-based glues, as well as plastic.  We realize that plywood is ubiquitous.  If you have something that’s made of plywood, you can seal it with Safecoat Safe Seal, a water-based low-gloss sealer for highly porous surfaces.  Or speak to a Safecoat salesman about the best product for wood you want to seal.

Our basic advice is that you really won’t need half the stuff everyone insists you and your new pumpkin-sized roommate will need.  We prefer to spend more money on fewer items.  If you’re having trouble finding certified or recycled wood furniture for your baby, try to buy secondhand, or inherit hand-me-downs.  Americans use about 27 percent of the wood commercially harvested worldwide.  Much of it is harvested in an unsustainable (not naturally regenerating) manner, making the burden on forest ecosystems that much greater.

What You Don’t Know: How To Keep Helping Farms After Irene

  • September 20, 2011 8:48 am

Hurricane Irene seems like a long time ago, right?  Autumn is upon us, school has started; the summer is in the distant past.  Unfortunately, for far too many farmers in the Hudson Valley, Greene County, New Jersey, Vermont, and beyond, the effects of Irene  are still very much alive–a living nightmare. Crops, acres, entire harvests are completely underwater.  Ruined.  100 percent crop loss is uttered again and again. Our farmers need our help. Out of sight should not be out of mind.

Please take a moment to visit Just Food’s Hurricane Irene Relief page to find out how you can volunteer and donate.  Also, check out Evolutionary Organics Flood Recovery Fundraiser for more ways to contribute. Don’t forget to frequent your local farmers’ market this coming weekend–talk to farmers as you shop. You might be surprised to learn how many of them have been touched by Irene, how many people are still there selling with 30, 50, and even 70 percent crop loss back on their farms. Buy as much as you can. You can also sign up early for a 2011/2012 CSA share ASAP so a local farmer will have money they sorely need now to get going for next season.

Farmers need all of us to support them in good times as well as bad. We need to ensure our local farmers are taken care of. They feed all of us and we need them and their farms. And please spread the word.

Here are a few more links for hurricane relief efforts.  Do check them out, tell your friends:

GrowNYC Make a Contribution

GrowNYC Volunteer Opportunities

Dine Out Irene

Dine In Irene

Farms Affected

Found at the Market: Long Beans

  • September 17, 2011 9:37 am

Alexandra is out of town this weekend, so she requested that I post something food related for the weekend.  I happily obliged, excited to share a new discovery from last weekend’s farmers market.  Long beans!  They look bizarrely like some kind of aquatic tentacle, only barely resembling their well-known cousin, the string bean.  Intrigued by their funny shape and deep color, I had to buy some.

And am very glad I did – high in all sorts of vitamins and nutrients, these beans can be prepared just like green beans.  Used mainly in Asian dishes, they have a subtle beany flavor and a satisfying crunch.  Wanting to cling to summer a little longer, I used them in a colorful salad, spiked with a lemon and dill vinaigrette.  When served with grilled chicken and roasted tomatoes, it made for a lovely late summer meal.

-Glenny

SO LONG SUMMER SALAD

long beans, corn, olives, lemon, dill

Vinaigrette
3 lemons, juice and zest
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp honey
2 tbsp chopped red onion
1 heaping tbsp mustard
lots and lots of dill
salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together.  I used my immersion blender for faster emulsification, but a whisk will do just fine.

Salad
long beans
green beans
corn
kalamata olives
cheese*

After blanching the beans and chopping them into bite-size pieces, combine with cooked corn, chopped olives and cheese.  *I wanted to use feta, but didn’t have any at home, so instead went for the nutty, butterscotchy Roomano, a super aged gouda.  It worked very nicely with the salty olives and the citrusy dressing.  Pour vinaigrette over and mix thoroughly.  Garnish with more dill.

Q&A: Juice Bars And Pregnancy

  • September 16, 2011 12:30 pm
THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

Just recently finished [The Complete Organic Pregnancy]. My husband and I have been recently trying for a baby and prior to that I probably devoured a dozen books on pre-pregnancy and I have to say your book is the most substantial and downright fantastic out of all of them! What I appreciated most from your book was how easily your research and tips could translate into everyday life and also how to truly make both your body and the environment both inside and outside the most optimal possible.

In saying that, I am left with a few questions:

1. Juices: I now know to avoid them, but what about smoothies, ingredients consist of whole fresh organic fruits, organic milk and ice??

That’s it, thank you so very much! Your book is the best gift I could have asked for and consult it regularly!!

With gratitude,

Meika

THE ANSWER:
Meika actually sent a few questions, so I’m answering them in separate posts.

You’re so welcome! Thanks for writing in.

The juices you’re referring to are the ones found at juice bars and smoothie shops.  Often these juices are from conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and the juicing machines are breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria like E. coli. You cannot guarantee that the juicers have been cleaned regularly (or with what–i.e. chlorine bleach or other chemicals that leave residues that get into your drinks).  Because juice bar juices are unpasteurized, they’re a major concern if you’re pregnant.  Even organic juice products are suspect. Odwalla faced a total recall of their products in the 1990s due to E. coli.  It’s just not worth the risk when you’re expecting. Far better to get your fruit and veggie fix from the actual thing. Or, as I mention in The Conscious Kitchen (excerpted below), you can make your own at home. That way you know what the ingredients are, where they came from, and that your juicer is clean.
Fresh squeezed, 100 percent juice is fabulous in moderation.  Thankfully, it’s so expensive at my local organic organic juice bar that moderation isn’t a problem.  If you’re someone who really likes juice, look into buying an energy-efficient juicer.  Having your own means  you can control what kind of fruit is used (local or organic or sustainable), how much and what kind of sugar is added, and how the machine is cleaned.

Alternatives to fresh squeezed are a mixed bag.  Most store-bought juice actually contains very little juice, so it’s up to an adept label reader to find the real deal.  Otherwise, you may suck down a lot of unnecessary and expensive sugar water (along with other unexpected additives, like synthetic fragrance).  Organic jarred or cartoned juices are sometimes guilty of containing as much sugar or sweeteners as their conventional counterparts, but at least it’s not derived from genetically modified corn.  When it comes to artificial sweeteners, all bets are off.  I don’t put those things in my body, and suggest you don’t either.  Real sugar is vastly preferable, unless, of course, you have a medical condition that means you can’t tolerate it.

Hope that helps!
Best,
Alexandra

The Complete Organic Pregnancy on Bob Vila

  • September 16, 2011 12:16 pm

Many thanks to Bob Vila for mentioning The Complete Organic Pregnancy in an article about a green nursery challenge!  See the excerpt below, and/or check out the whole article here.

“As for the paint, I read ‘if you can smell it, it’s probably bad for you’ in “The Complete Organic Pregnancy.” The authors advise latex rather than alkyd- or oil-based paints, and suggest looking for paints labeled zero-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds),  no-VOC, or VOC-free, as they are “almost completely free of carcinogens.”

Q&A: Reusable Snack Bags

  • September 13, 2011 8:08 am

My daughter starts kindergarten today (!) so I thought I’d post a little back-to-school friendly question and answer exchange that happened recently on my Facebook page. If you’re not already chatting with me on Facebook, please “like” my author page and join in the discussions.

THE QUESTION:
Do you have any info on reusable snack bags?  I am wanting to make some, but all patterns, etc. say iron-on vinyl for the interior.  While they don’t have BPA, they do have phthalates.  Not cool.  Do you have an alternatives in mind?

-Melanie

THE ANSWER:

Glad you’re trying to avoid those little plastic baggies that can’t be recycled and clog our landfills.

Oh no way on the vinyl. Yuck. There are many many versions on the market from recycled plastic to nylon and back — none of them have vinyl. We have some that are hemp on front and a nylon-y fabric inside. Not entirely waterproof but machine washable/good enough for me. Check out reusablebags.com and GreenDepot.com. Many options.

Also, I found these on Etsy, which are what I bought [at Green Depot] and use at home.

What You Don’t Know: Fat

  • September 7, 2011 10:32 am

When you’re cooking with meat, do you try to use every last morsel?  If the answer is no, you’ll be surprised by the rewards.  I try to waste nothing, whether I’m cooking with vegetables, fruits, grains, or meat.  I should say especially meat. I never forget that something has died for my dinner. Every last bit of that needs to be used. When I discovered, while reporting The Butcher’s Guide To Well Raised-Meat, how many ways fat could be used, I was delighted to also discover how easy it is to render, store, and eat.  Basically I’m talking about potatoes roasted in bacon fat. If you haven’t tried it, do.

Here’s an excerpt from The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat on many other kinds of fats and how to best use them. Do you use any of these? How? Let me know in comments.

Part of the nose-to-tail butchering is coming up with uses for fat, which makes us roughly 15 percent of an animal’s body weight.  Over the years we have gotten pretty creative – we have made beef tallow citronella candles (short-lived – they smelled like a barbecue gone horribly wrong) as well as lovely smelling tallow-based soaps.  But mostly we just make our fat into chunks of tallow, blocks of lard, and tubs of duck fat for our customers to (hopefully) cook with.  Here’s the skinny on what’s what in the world of fats:

Caul Fat is the fatty lining of a pig’s stomach, which looks like a sheet of diaphanous webbing.  It is used to wrap lean meats while roasting; this technique is called barding, and it imparts moisture into the meat as the fat melts.

Duck Fat Is there anything better than duck fat?  Use it to panfry potatoes, like they do in French bistros, or confit a couple of duck legs.  Duck (and goose, too) fat is great, but often hard to come by.

Lard, or rendered pork fat, is nearly 100 percent fat, as opposed to butter, which is about 80 percent fat and 20 percent water.  Though animal fats have gotten a bad reputation as heart-stoppers and artery-cloggers, lard is still well loved among bakers and intrepid cooks who prize its ability to produce flaky crusts and silky sauces.  Lard has a high smoke point, making it exceptional for frying things like chicken.  It’s also healthier than manufactured hydrogenated  fats like most vegetable shortenings.

Leaf Lard is the dry, hard, crumbly fat cap that surrounds the kidney of the pig.  This fat contains the fewest impurities, making it the gold standard for baking.  Mix this with butter (a 1:1 butter-to-fat ratio is good) for the best pie crusts you have ever made.

Tallow is rendered beef, veal, or lamb fat.  It is used mainly commercially to make animal feed, soap, and cosmetics, or for cooking.  McDonald’s managed to piss off a lot of vegetarians a while back by cooking their fries in tallow without informing the public – no wonder they were so addictive after a long night of drinking.  We use lamb fat in our chicken sausages to get that rich, decadent taste that you just can’t get from plain old chicken.  And we also know hunters who add lamb fat to their venison burgers for a more fatty, luscious taste.

HOW TO RENDER FAT

It’s simple to make high-quality lard or tallow that can be used for baking, cooking, or soap making.  Fats should be stored in the refrigerator, where they will last for three months or can be frozen for a  year.  We like to cut our lard into manageable 1/2-pound chunks and freeze it – it defrosts quickly, and does not have to be defrosted in the refrigerator.

-Buy pork fat, beef suet, or lamb fat from your butcher shop or farmer.  Make sure the fat is fresh, clean smelling, and not slimy.  Whatever you render, count on getting a 75 percent return.

-Cut the fat into 1-inch squares and then finely dice it (we run ours through the meat grinder).

-Place the diced fat into a heavy-bottomed pan set over low heat.  Melt the fat, without stirring, until it is literally a pool of oil.  Alternatively, you can melt the fat in a Crock-Pot.

-Let the fat cool until it is still in liquid form but not hot.

-Strain the fat through a cheesecloth-lined mesh strainer.