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.

Q&A: Dishwashers Vs. Washing By Hand

  • August 25, 2011 8:06 pm

THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

What is your take on washing by hand and using a dishwasher??

Thanks, Meika

THE ANSWER:

Meika,

Thanks for your question.  The pros and cons of dishwashers have been debated down to the very last droplets of water, but at the end of the day they are more environmentally friendly than washing by hand, even if you factor in the energy used to manufacture and run the machine.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home re the eco-friendliest way to wash dishes:

Running a dishwasher filled with scraped–not rinsed–dishes using eco-friendly detergent free of chlorine and phosphates is preferable to washing by hand, especially if the machine has a good Energy Star rating and you don’t use the energy-draining heated dry option.  Only run the dishwasher when it is totally full (although be sure you’re not blocking the water or aeration methods with any dishes, or they won’t get clean).  Face everything inward.  Enzymes in detergent are there to eat off scum.  If you have over-rinsed your dishes, they will have nothing to work on and will therefore dull the surfaces.  Get to know your dishwasher: Does it have a heater or a fan?  Does it have a grinder?  Operate accordingly.  Don’t put everything under the sun in a dishwasher.  Opening the door a crack after the washing cycle is complete will help the dishes air-dry more completely, but it will also increase indoor air pollution.  Fragrances and chemicals (including chlorine) in traditional auto-dishwashing products get turned into vapors when the machine heats up, and so do the pollutants (possibly chlorine or chloroform, maybe radon) in municipal water.  We breathe these vapors as they vent out of the machine during the washing cycle, making dishwashers a major source of indoor air pollution.  Minimize the danger by using a natural (chlorine bleach-free) detergent and by not opening that door until the machine has had a chance to cool off.  Giving the racks a shake will help get the residual droplets off the dishes.  Keep in mind that your municipal water supply will likely provide your machine with chlorine anyway.  A whole house water filter will reduce some of the worst vapors, as will keeping your kitchen well-ventilated.  If your dishes aren’t getting as clean as you’d like them, try using less detergent if you have soft water and adding a natural rinse aid if you have hard water.  This keep minerals in the water from redepositing on your dishes.  You can buy a natural version, or simply use white vinegar.  If you’re in the market for a new dishwasher, consider stainless steel interiors, which retain heat and reduce noise.  They also don’t off-gas (i.e., release fumes from the plastic) when heated to very high temperatures.

Hope this helps!

Best,

Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: Toilets

  • August 16, 2011 9:37 am

The toilet is one of the few absolutely necessary household appliances, even for the most ardent environmentalists. Argue with me all you want in comments, family cloth-ers (!), I stand by these words.

The rub is it’s also one of the largest household consumers of water, especially if it gets a lot of use–i.e. you have a large family or live in, say, a frat house. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to ensure that your toilet is as eco-friendly as possible, which I explain in Planet Home, excerpted here:

Older toilets may have 3.5-gallon or even 5-gallon tanks, whereas toilets made in the United States for home use after 1994 are required to consume 1.6 gallons of less per flush.  Environmentalists flush them as little as possible, but even extremists should try to flush at least once daily (especially if said toilet has multiple users).  One can go longer without causing any harm, of course, but the odor isn’t great, and concentrated urine can stain.  People who let yellow mellow may also find themselves battling clogs from time to time if too much of their 100 percent recycled, non-chlorine bleached toilet paper has accumulated.  Keep an eye on the levels and flush before you reach a problematic clump.  If you’ve got a clog, plunge it.  Then clean your plunger by rotating it vigorously in a recently cleaned and flushed toilet.  Store it where it can dry so it won’t grow mold.

RETROFITTING YOUR TOILET

Another way to conserve water is to retrofit your toilet so it uses less water per flush.  There are several ways of doing this, from the very DIY (put a brick or a water-filled half gallon plastic jug of water with its cap closed in the tank to physically reduce the amount of water being used) to more high-tech solutions (there are dual-flush toilet retrofitters you can purchase for less that $100 – this gives you the option for a small flush for liquid waste or a full flush for solid).  If you buy a dual-flush kit, follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions.  If you’re going the DIY route, be careful not to reduce the water level too much or the toilet won’t work well and you might wind up flushing several times in a row to get the job done, defeating the purpose.  If this happens to you, it’s simple to fix: just use a smaller jug – like a one-liter soda bottle – or a brick.  A little trial and error will get you what you need; this isn’t an exact science, and much depends on the size of your tank.

Recently, my editorial assistant, Glenny, had some toilet issues of her own. Read on for her tragic experience (thanks for sharing Glenny):

“I’ve been living in my apartment for a year now, and never had any problems with my toilet until the past few months.  To say that it had a “weak” flush would be a drastic understatement.  More like pathetic, sad, and downright feeble.  Often I would have to flush two or three times to clean the bowl, a very frustrating and pretty gross process.  Convinced that the problem was getting worse, I contacted my landlord, who happily trekked to the fourth floor to investigate.  Within 5 minutes my flush was back to normal: strong and efficient.  The issue?  The tub in the back wasn’t filling with enough water (exactly like what Alexandra describes above), but it wasn’t because of a DIY project gone array.  Instead the pressure gauge was set too low.  With a couple of quick adjustments and a few trial flushes, the back tub was filling to the correct water mark and producing a forceful flush.  Phew, a clean bowl using less water!  Problem solved.”

A good reminder to keep our bowls in working order and using the least amount of water possible. Now enough about toilets.

Recipe: DIY Yogurt

  • August 13, 2011 10:20 am

What is more fun than a new DIY project?  And what is more tasty with summer berries and homemade granola than your own yogurt?  It’s very easy to make, you need neither a yogurt-maker nor a special culture.  Although the final product might be a touch thinner than commercial yogurt, the satisfaction of making it yourself is totally rewarding.  Think beyond breakfast too – what about homemade smoothies or chilled cucumber yogurt soups?  Perfect summer fare! I also love love love that making your own means avoiding plastic containers–big or small. You can store yours in endlessly reusable glass jars if you please.

Here is a recipe from from Sally Fallon’s cookbook Nourishing Traditions she let me reprint in The Conscious Kitchen. Fallon is the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Makes 1 quart

1/2 cup good-quality commercial plain yogurt, or 1/2 cup yogurt from previous batch

1 quart pasteurized whole milk, nonhomogenized

a candy thermometer

Gently heat the milk to 180 F and allow to cool to about 110 F.  Stir in the yogurt, and pour the mixture into a shallow glass, enamel, or stainless steel container.  Cover the container and place in a warm oven (about 150 F, or a gas oven with a pilot light) overnight.  In the morning, transfer to the refrigerator.  Throughout the day, use a clean kitchen towel to mop up any whey that exudes from the yogurt.  Keeps for a couple of weeks.

*Note: Although Fallon recommends leaving the yogurt in a warm oven overnight, Glenny, my fantabulous editorial assistant, says you can also leave it covered in a warm corner of your apartment. I’ve never done that, but she has. She also says it will take longer to reach yogurt consistency, maybe two days, but will save on energy usage, especially in the heat of summer. Enjoy.

What You Don’t Know: Beer

  • August 10, 2011 12:41 pm

I’m a wine drinker through and through. But I must admit that come August with the summer heat far from abating, an ice cold white beer is a welcome evening beverage.  (My apologies to my summer sidekick, Glass Of Rose.) Before popping that bottle cap, take a few minutes to make sure that what you’re going to be drinking is the best brew for the environment and your health.  Ok, ok, I know some people will say there’s no such thing as a healthy beer, but it will be better for you without pesticide residue.

As always, buying organic and local is the number one choice, not only to avoid unwanted additives (check out Food Democracy’s post on this), but also to reduce the carbon footprint of your happy hour.  Unfortunately, buying completely organic and local beer is a challenge, as I explain in The Conscious Kitchen:

Even if you could find beer’s ingredients – water, yeast, malt, and hops – in your area (and that’s a huge if), if doesn’t mean they’re processed locally.  In fact, according to Max Oswald, director of sales and marketing at the Otter Creak Brewing Company in Middlebury, Vermont, the grain used for the malt in their Wolaver’s organic beer must be shipped to the Midwest to be processed.  Why?  Because that is where malt processing is done in this country.  “It’s a conundrum.  We do the best we can,” says Oswald.

HOPS

Organic hops tend to be grown in the Pacific Northwest, Europe, and New Zealand.  Vermont-based Wolaver’s uses New Zealand organic hops and works with a contract grower in Oregon.  The goal is to rely solely on Oregon.  This is as local as it will get.  The Northeast used to produce tons of hops, but the crops were wiped out by fungus.  Other organic brewers are also taking this route of contracting small organic farmers.  Meanwhile, the USDA, in response to a hops shortage in 2008, has put hops on their exemption list, meaning beer made with nonorganic hops but that is otherwise organic can still be labeled USDA organic – music to Big Beer’s ears, and not exactly motivating to any farmers attempting to grow the vines the way they should be grown.  (The amount of hops in any beer, it should be noted, is pretty minimal.  But still.)

AT THE BREWERY

Though it is difficult for any brewer to source all-organic, all-local ingredients, there are other environmentally friendly steps they can take with their brewery.  Otter Creek, according to Oswald, has redone their lighting, runs a boiler system on biodiesel, tries to reuse heat and water, and recycles their grain by giving it to farmers for feed…This is an expensive and lofty goal for the smallish brewery -  in 2008 they were doing about thirty-three thousand barrels, one-third of which was organic – but it will make quite a difference.  Many other breweries are also working to reduce their energy consumption.  Some have green roofs, others are using solar power.  Still others make sure their used equipment is made only in the United States.

Here are a few solid organic (or eco-friendly) brewers:

Peak Organic is very committed to local purveyors.

Brooklyn Brewery isn’t all organic, but is the first company in New York City to be run by entirely by wind power!

Great Lakes Brewing Company‘s trucks are all run on vegetable oil and they promote their closed loop recycling system. Everything that would be considered waste is reused at the brewery or in the surrounding community.

Otter Creek Brewery (Wolaver’s) Wolavers is 100% organic hops and malt–the nation’s first organic brewers.

Cheers!

Thank You Jeffrey Hollender

  • August 8, 2011 11:00 am

Loving this blog Jeffrey Hollender posted today: If I Wanted Someone To Talk About My Brand It Would Be Alexandra Zissu.

A few highlights:

“If I wanted someone to talk about my brand–especially to moms who own a lion’s share of purchasing power and who vote for change with their wallets (and actions)–it would be Alexandra Zissu.

Alexandra is the author and green living expert par excellence who helped me write Planet Home: Conscious Choices For Cleaning and Greening The World You Care About Most….

Alexandra she has a knack for translating hard to understand sustainability issues and environmental health science into easy, pithy consumer English. She’s passionate about giving people the education and tools to make conscious decisions as they go about their daily routines—and especially about the collective impact this can have. She knows what parents and other eco-interested consumers really want to hear and what they don’t want to hear–drawing on her experience with her own active group of followers via books, articles, blogs, social media, talks, and demonstrations. She also has a deep understanding of the full spectrum of green—from people just getting started to the diehard lifers.

Don’t think that anyone’s going to pull the wool over Alexandra’s eyes. I’ve found her a tough critique of Seventh Generation’s as well as almost every product we reviewed for Planet Home. But that’s exactly what you want. Trust comes from transparency, a balanced perspective on the great, and the not so great. That’s what the best brand ambassador is uniquely able to do. She won’t read from a script, she’ll visit your lab, talk to other customers, do a little bit of her own testing and research, maybe even tell you quietly a few things you might not be so eager to hear….A better brand ambassador you won’t find!”

Read it in full  here.

Stockposting

  • July 31, 2011 8:30 pm

The New York Times Dining section printed a wonderfully conscious, fun, and eco article about using everything when you cook this past Wednesday, called That’s Not Trash, That’s Dinner. Cute. Read it here.

It reminded me of a section I wrote in The Conscious Kitchen about what I call stockposting–I use what most people put in the compost pile (or the trash) to make stock. Well it’s really more like scrap broth than stock but whatever you call it, it’s making use of every last bit of kitchen odds and ends to add flavor to your next dish. Basically it’s common sense. Back in the day it was frugal grandma territory. Now it’s hip. I love it!

Here’s the stockposting section from The Conscious Kitchen:

Restaurants never waste a scrap; they can’t afford to.  But at home, we all do.  It’s alarming how much useable food we toss.  Before composting, see what you can still use.  Things like celery fronds, spinach stems, and the outer layers of onions can be used to make vegetable stock, for example.  I call it stockposting.  Keep a bowl in the fridge or a jar in the freezer to collect these odds and ends in, too, and when you have a full container (and the time) toss them on the stove in a pot of water with some seasoning.  Strain it and store the resulting broth in the fridge or freezer.  What could be better than homemade veggie stock out of what you thought was nothing?  For similar chicken stock, boil stockposting ingredients with a bound-for-the-garbage roast chicken carcass.  It won’t be as hearty as a traditional stock, but it does the trick to add flavor and liquid to grains, sauces, and more.

What You Don’t Know: Energy, Water, And Laundry

  • July 27, 2011 8:55 am

How often do you think about the environmental impact of your dirty clothes?  Believe it or not, about 90 percent of the energy used associated with doing laundry is just making water hot!  The other stuff like making detergents and the actual energy used by the machines accounts for only 10 percent. Fascinating, no?

When you reach for the hot water button on your washer, it’s hard to conjure up the image of a coal-fired power plant and the pollution it creates, but try to connect those dots. Picture greenhouse gases and the mercury residue in our waterways and seafood.  Although we may be home alone washing doormats, jeans, and rags, our actions always ripple out and affect the world beyond our walls.  Washing in cold will reduce that impact and minimize your dirty laundry’s footprint.  Here’s a little  excerpt from Planet Home about cold water washing:

By using cold water, you will also reduce your indoor air pollution: heating water blasts volatile chemicals, including chlorine in municipal water, into your breathing space.  If you’re using heavily fragranced conventional synthetic detergents, all of those vapors are also released when heated.  Cold water is truly all you need to clean, and some natural detergents are specially formulated to remove soils and stains in it.  Cold also prevents stains from setting, colors from bleeding and fading, and wools and silks from shrinking.

No one needs scalding water; you just wind up cooling it with cold – a big waste of energy.  Set your furnace lower – 125 degrees fahrenheit will suffice – and you’ll use less hot water when you choose warm on your washer.  If you have a choice, an on-demand or tankless water heater is best, followed by a high-efficiency gas version.  With electric, the heater itself is efficient, but the production and transmission of energy is not.

Another great way to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint is to air dry–outdoors or inside.  Using natural elements–sun and air–makes sense for so many reasons:

-It’s gentler on your clothes, provided you don’t leave them in the sun for too long (your colors will fade).

-It’s extremely environmentally friendly–dryers use 10 to 15 percent of domestic energy in the United States.

-Sunshine is great at killing bacteria, fungus, and mold–no chemical disinfectants needed!

-Indoor racks can help humidify dry indoor spaces, a big bonus come winter in my apartment.

Unfathomably, many municipalities and condo or co-op associations have banned laundry lines. If you’d like to sign a petition allowing line-drying where you live, go to www.right2dry.org.


Q&A: Air Conditioners And Relationships

  • July 14, 2011 12:41 pm

THE QUESTION:

Dear Alexandra,

It’s so hot in New York right now, and I know its not going to get cooler anytime soon.  I hate air conditioning – I know it’s bad for the environment, wastes energy, and costs me a fortune.  Sadly, my apartment is on the fourth floor and is sweltering without it.  My boyfriend has threatened to never sleep at my place unless we keep it at a reasonable temperature (colder than I’d like).  Can you advise on how to best reach a compromise for this situation?  Obviously I can’t survive the summer without it, and don’t want to survive without him, so what is the best way to meet in the middle and be the most environmentally sound?

Thanks,

Beth

THE ANSWER:

Hi Beth!  Thanks for the question.  You’re so not alone. I cannot tell you how many couples have this same dispute every summer (cough cough).  Obviously you’re not going to give up your boyfriend, but it can be hard to agree on when to use the A/C and how much.  If he can survive some days that are below a certain temperature with natural coolers like fans, window shades, and lots of iced tea (or cold beer?), always go that route first.  Some days, even I’ll admit, are absolutely unbearable in the city, so the air conditioning is necessary. Talk about it and strike a compromise that works for both of you. Agree on what temperature you will set the A/C at, too. 75 is the current number in my apartment, and it goes on usually only after it’s around 88ish outside. If it’s humid, sometimes it goes on when the mercury is lower than that. Um, don’t tell anyone, but if it is on, I frequently sneak it up higher than 75 and–sssshhh!–even turn it off. I suspect the other people I live with are equally sneaky. Once you decide on your limits, both of you should really stick to it. Don’t act like my family.

If you’re in the market for a new machine (or don’t have one), I’d suggest upgrading your air conditioner to a high efficiency Energy Star rated unit, which will both lower energy bills and impact the environment somewhat less. Win win(ish). Air conditioning efficiency is rated using a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER). Any system sold in the U.S. after July 2006 must have a rating of 13. To be Energy Star rated, it must have a SEER rating of 14.5 or higher.

Window units are rated differently, through an EER rating. Energy Star units have an EER rating of at least 9.4, although the American Council on Energy Efficiency recommends a 11.6 or higher. All of this detail might make you want to fall asleep, but is worth paying attention to.

Basically, if your system was installed before 2006, you definitely have room to improve in the energy efficiency department–and have plenty of options to choose from. I’ll spare you the heat pump and geothermal information here. I’m not thinking either are in your future on the fourth floor. If so, an experienced contractor can come to your home and give you a tailored analysis of your options. You can also check out the American Council on Energy Efficiency’s site (http://www.aceee.org/consumer/cooling) for more information.

Stay cool! With any luck, the weather will cooperate with you and you’ll have many nights of just fans and the boy. Happy summer.

Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: You Can Afford Well-Raised Meat

  • July 6, 2011 10:03 am

One of my absolute favorite things from The Butcher’s Guide To Well-Raised Meat is where we explain how to afford well-raised meat. So many people lament it can’t be done. I disagree. Here’s how I do it, excerpted from the book. Enjoy!

People often complain that grass-fed and organic meat (and everything else organic) is too expensive, that they can’t afford it, that it’s not for them, or that it’s elitist.  We firmly believe that well-raised meat is for everyone.  If you share any of these concerns, first consider the amount of meat you eat- generally Americans buy and eat too much meat.  You don’t need mountains of sausages or pounds of ground beef to make a sauce.  Reduce portion sizes.  It’s better for you, and it will make well-raised meat affordable.  If you would like to try something like filet but can’t get over the sticker shock, buy 1/4 pound of it and don’t make it the centerpiece of your meal.  Beyond eating less and shrinking portion size, you can also lower costs by buying cheaper cuts instead of rib eyes and strips.  And plan for leftovers – a big roast can be dinner tonight and sandwiches tomorrow.  If you buy smart and cook smart, you can make up the price difference between conventional and pastured meat.  When people say our prices are too high, Jess invites them to throw $50 on the counter and watch her work.  She can get them ten meals for half a bill.  When she first made the claim, I must admit even I didn’t believe her.  But she proved me wrong.

TEN MEALS FOR HALF A BILL

Here is Jessica’s list of ten quick, delicious, easy-to-prepare meals for four.  The meat costs only $50 and change.  If you don’t eat meat every day, that means enough meals for two weeks.

1. Ground Beef (1/2 pound) $3

Beef and Bean Enchiladas

2. Bacon (1/4 pound, or about 3 slices) $3

Collard Green and Black-Eyed Pea Soup

3. More Bacon and Eggs (1/4 pound, or about 3 slices, and 3 eggs) $5

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

4. Sausages (3/4 pound, or 3 sausages) $6

Chinese Broccoli with Sausage and Polenta

5. Chicken Thighs (1 pound) $5

Thai Chicken Stir-fry with Vegetables

6. Pork Stew Meat (1 pound) $8

Quick Pork and Chile Stew with Hominy

7. Stir-fry Beef (1/2 pound) $4.50

Stir-fry Beef with Rice Noodles

8. Whole Chicken (3 to 4 pounds) $12

Roast Chicken

9. Eggs $4

Frittata

10. Roast Chicken Bones $0

Chicken Soup