Want The Recipe? Why I Likely Don’t Have It, Exactly.

  • May 15, 2011 10:13 am

People are always asking me for recipes. I respond with techniques. As someone who attempts to eat mainly locally (within reason), recipes don’t really work out for me. I’ll read something in a magazine and love the idea of it, only to make my way to the ingredient list and realize I can’t make it. Asparagus and citrus salad isn’t happening for me in the middle of the winter. Or possibly ever; there is no citrus growing near where I live. This is not a judgement call. It’s just how I choose to eat.

It can get pretty dull during the winter. Now that my farmers’ market is bursting with life, I’m overjoyed to the point of acting ridiculous. I tried to hug my favorite farmer this morning when she told me I had to get out of bed earlier next week as she would have peas. I love peas more than almost anything. And I love that she was teasing me (I am never the early bird; I write late at night).

My weekly shopping goes like this: I basically troll the market and blow all of my money. And then I throw it all together however it makes sense night after night until it is time to go the market again. I use printed recipes sometimes as thoughts or guides. But mainly I ‘m a technique-girl: I saute, roast, bake, and so on. Or I eat it raw. I’m a capable cook, but mainly I’m an excellent shopper.

Here’s a great example of my kind of “recipe” from the amazing Joan Gussow, reprinted from The Conscious Kitchen.

Joan Gussow’s Roasted What’s-In-The-Garden

This isn’t really a recipe–which makes it the perfect recipe. It’s seasonal and doesn’t call for anything that isn’t growing in the same region (Gussow’s yard!) at the same time. Plus it gives wonderful insight into the mind-set of a deeply green thinker. “I tend to make things that are related to what I have. I save recipes when they come along, but I don’t make as much use of cookbooks as I might. They have an assortment of things I might not have. If I were thinking about dinner during the day, I am thinking of the fridge: What’s in it should I use up? What’s in the garden I should use up? I’m aware of what I have at a given time. I had my first Burbank russets this year that were big. I love to dig potatoes. It’s a pleasure, like finding gold in the earth–a wonderful bucketful of potatoes comes out of the ground. I rolled them in oil and stuck them in the hot oven. Then I thought, I’m not going to waste that oven heat.” She remembered that a friend had done a potato-and-green-beans thing, and called her to find out how to proceed. She wound up roasting potatoes, green beans, and Jimmy Nardello peppers on separate sheets in the oven for about a half hour. “It wasn’t a meal,” she says. “It was potatoes and green beans and peppers on a plate. And it was delicious.”

Sounds good to me. What’s your favorite non-recipe?

Q&A: Microwave Safety

  • May 5, 2011 9:17 am

THE QUESTION

Hi,

I believe microwaves are bad for food. What do you think? Can you share any articles that have some scientific evidence? Thanks! Hope all is well!

Sarah (New York City)

THE ANSWER

What a great question, one that I hear often.  Microwave safety has been a concern of mine for years, and unfortunately, there isn’t a straight answer. Everyone seems to have one, everyone seems to use one, but what are they doing to our food?  What happens when we stand in front of them, even when they aren’t in use?  The general consensus is that they’re generally safe, but that you need to proceed with caution, and you absolutely must be careful about what you’re microwaving in. Here is (just) some of what I wrote in  The Conscious Kitchen about the issues concerning microwave use:

If saving energy is your top kitchen concern, and you’re not interested in a raw food diet, a microwave is your friend.  Unfortunately no one with taste buds wants to eat a completely microwaved diet, but the machines have a time and a place, specifically when it comes to defrosting and warming.  Of course it’s not that hard or inefficient to heat up coffee on the stove, or to defrost in the fridge or water.  The real savings come when you use one to drastically reduce cooking times for meals; depending on your model, a microwave uses about a third of a regular oven’s energy.  If you use a combination of cooking methods, you can save energy and time while still achieving the taste and texture you want.  For example, stick a potato in the microwave to cook it through, then finish it in the (toaster) oven to make it crispy.  In the summer, you may even save on air-conditioning costs if you microwave instead of baking.

Beyond efficiency and taste, the real issue with microwaves is their health stigma.  Although this is by all accounts unfounded, it lingers – so much so that people refer to microwaving as “nuking.”  According to Health Canada (sort of like our FDA), “This reference to nuclear energy is incorrect and misleading.  Microwaves are a form of radiofrequency electromagnetic energy.  They are generated electronically.  They do not come from radioactive sources and they do not cause food or the oven itself to become radioactive.”  Microwaves employ, well, microwaves to penetrate food, causing water molecules in the food to rotate.  The rotation causes friction that results in a quick spike in temperature.  As soon as the oven shuts off, the microwaves are supposedly gone.

Still, even properly functioning microwaves that conform to government standards for emissions emit microwaves outside the unit during use. Home Safe Home author Debra Lynn Dadd writes on her website that home ovens emit microwaves that exceed industrial daily exposure recommendations.  Health Canada states that the microwave energy that can leak from the ovens (at levels lower than those set by international standards) has no known health risks, as long as the oven is properly maintained.

Tips For Microwave Maintenance:

  • Do not use if the door does not close or is damaged in any way.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s operating procedures and safety precaution instructions.
  • Don’t attempt repairs yourself – hire a professional.
  • Do not tamper with any safety features or locks, and don’t ever put anything through openings in the door seal.  Keep the door seal and door clean, but don’t use harsh cleaners that could damage them.

As for food safety and nutrition, Health Canada says that microwaves don’t change the chemical components in food, so the formation of new compounds, like the carcinogens that arise when you char something on a grill, is unlikely.  Some studies have shown that microwaved items like vegetables retain vitamins well as a result of the short cooking time.  Others show microwaving decreases vitamins.

What to Microwave in?

  • “Microwave safe” is not a third-party-certified or government-regulated claim.  It infers that the material – be it ceramic or plastic or glass – does not absorb the microwaves and therefore heats up very slowly and that it won’t leach its chemicals into your food.  Environmental health experts do not recommend putting any plastic in the microwave, even “microwave safe” plastic.  I agree.  Use glass, or use no container at all when cooking root vegetables if the turntable in your microwave is made of glass.  For more information, see the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service’s microwave ovens and food safety fact sheets: www.FSIS.USDA.gov.

What’s the takeaway here?  If you have a microwave and you like using it, or if you’re an energy savings junkie who cannot walk away from such a low-impact machine, make sure it’s in good condition.  Keep in mind that Consumer Reports says more research is needed with regard to certain aspects of microwave safety, so do proceed with caution.  If shopping for a microwave, used ones are not a good idea.

I Missed The First Of The Season Asparagus

  • April 23, 2011 9:12 am

I could kick myself, really. Or I guess I could try to get out of the house earlier, but knowing my family that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Apparently in two weeks there will be enough growing that there will be some remaining when I get to the market. [Note: My farmer saved me a bunch this week! They were fantastic! Lucky me. All the more reason to know your farmer.]

Here’s a video of what I bought instead–all very delicious, I can’t complain.

I Missed The First Of The Season Asparagus

What time do you tend to get to the farmers’ market when you go?

Q&A: Eco-Friendly Exterminators

  • April 21, 2011 9:59 am

THE QUESTION

Hi Alexandra,

I follow your emails & blog and thought you might have some ideas about exterminators.
We seem to have a bad case of what we believe are carpet beetles and our building wants
to do an extermination similar to that which is done for bed bugs. Evidently it kills bugs
in all stages; eggs, larvae & insect. This totally freaks me out!  Do you know if so called
‘eco friendly’ products/companies are safe and if they work? I’m curious what you would do?

Thanks,
Laura (New York City)

THE ANSWER

As spring bursts and blooms with life all around, you’re not the only one asking me about natural ways to control pests! This is ant season, after all. I’m not actually familiar with carpet beetles (I guess I should count my blessings). Here’s what I would do: I’d ask your building to hire someone who practices integrated pest management (IPM). You might not want to rely on your building’s management to do this research for you. People tend to take suggestions better when you’ve already done the research and found a practitioner.

IPM is a system similar to what your local orchards might have in place. The first thing to do is to prevent pests and bug infestations before they happen. You never know when they might pay a visit.  And you’re more likely to have to use a pesticide once they arrive.  Prevention is crucial.

Here’s something I wrote about IPM in The Conscious Kitchen that would apply to your beetle situation, or any infestation, especially the second paragraph addressing how to go about finding a trustworthy person who does IPM. Always ask what *any* exterminator is planning on using to battle your pest, and look the treatment or chemical up on the websites below. So much of this is common sense. Trust your judgement, get our of your apartment for a few days while the treatment is going on if you can, and good luck!

Start by making sure there is no way for creatures to enter your kitchen by sealing up holes in your walls with no-VOC caulk (you can buy it at GreenDepot.com) and/or steel wool.  Next, keep your kitchen clean.  Don’t invite unwanted guests in with crumbs and other treats.  Finally, if and when there is an infestation, treat it as nontoxically as possible.  Maybe the spring ants that come every year don’t bother you much and can be dissuaded from taking over with a little borax-sugar-water solution.  (Similar treatments for other critters can be found on the very helpful Least Toxic Control of Pests in the Home and Garden list at BeyondPesticides.org; click on alternatives fact sheets.)  These alternatives are much better for you and the earth than bombing your home with caustic fumes.  Roaches may require something stronger, but call in a green pesticide expert only when needed.  If you live in a building where the management decides who exterminates in your apartment, you can refuse to let them enter your home and pay for your own exterminator of choice if you need one.  Or ask the management to switch over to a company that uses less harsh chemicals.  If they’re reluctant, hand them a copy of the EPA study American Healthy Home Survey: A National Study of Residential Pesticides Measured From Floor Wipes, which demonstrates that pesticides can linger in kitchens years after they’re applied, including ones that have been banned in this country for decades.  Whatever you use now will be better for the future inhabitants of your space, too.

To find eco-friendly pest busters, and those practicing IPM near you, check out GreenShieldCertified.org.  Operated by the IPM Institute of North America, recognized by the EPA, and advised by many experts, including one from the NRDC, Green Shield is a meaningful, independent certification.  One caveat: keep some of that no-VOC caulk on hand; its the rare IPM practitioner that considers what’s in the caulk they’re filling your wall holes with.

Here’s a video of me talking about natural pest control on Good Day New York.

What To Expect…When Reading This Blog

  • April 18, 2011 8:36 am

Last night I drew a diagram of all of the things that I do. It was a dot I called “me” in the middle, and then circles all around me of what I’m working on, involved with, or otherwise doing. The verdict? I’m busy! (And, um, overextended.)

In an effort to make sure blogging doesn’t keep getting back-burnered, I’ve come up with the following schedule. This way you’ll know what I’m posting and when, and can come back to read accordingly.

I’m launching the new schedule this Tuesday, in honor of Earth Week, and will be raffling off several free copies of The Conscious Kitchen and Planet Home to new readers who follow me on Twitter and/or fan me on Facebook mentioning the new, more frequent blog via post or tweet and suggesting one thing I should cover on it.

  • TUESDAYS: Look for relevant information and excerpts from all of my books, linked to whatever is happening in the news
  • THURSDAYS: Q&A days! You send in your questions, I answer them.
  • SATURDAYS: Mish-mosh day, mainly food-related. I’ll be posting farmers’ market videos, ingredient thoughts, recipes, and more.

I promise to stick to the schedule, but of course reserve the right to do slightly less or maybe even more, especially when The Butcher’s Guide To Well-Raised Meat comes out on June 7th.

If you like what you read, please let your friends know about it, and make some noise in comments. If you’re interested in hearing even more from me, sign up for my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, or “like” me on Facebook. I’m on there daily posting links to what I’m reading and thinking about throughout my days.

When Greening Your Kitchen, Don’t Forget To Look Beyond Food

  • March 8, 2011 11:19 am

So you know the very person who planted, watered, and picked your tomato. And maybe you even visited the farm where your steer roamed before it became your steak. You’ve figured out the ratio of certified organic to local in your weekly shopping ritual. You’ve got this whole sustainable thing down pat and you can now stop thinking about it already. Right?

Not so fast.

Sourcing food well is both crucial and tasty. But what are you prepping on, cooking in, storing in? There are hidden things lurking in most kitchens beyond roaches that aren’t safe for you or your dinner guests—some are even the very chemicals you avoid by buying organic. And most can—and should—be easily avoided.

Let’s say you drop extra cash for an organic chicken, or maybe a local pastured one. That chicken is all kinds of things, including not decontaminated with chlorine bleach. But if you prep it on a surface you happen to clean with chlorine bleach, you’re re-contaminating your carefully sourced bird with the very residue you hoped to avoid by buying it in the first place. Changing all of your cleaning products to natural versions today is a great way to avoid these residues, plus reduce air pollution in your home and outside. Win win win. It’s empowering to know that the small choices we make at home can have such far-reaching impact.

In Planet Home, the new book I co-authored with Jeffrey Hollender, we discuss a study that shows that in cities including Los Angeles, Denver, and Baltimore, household products such as cleaners, personal care products, paints and stains are the largest source of pollutants after cars.

If you’re at the grocery store and want a natural cleaning product, check to make sure the product you’re considering has an ingredient label. Most conventional cleaning products won’t have a label; cleaning product formulas are government protected trade secrets for now. If you see one, the company making it has gone above and beyond and offered customers this information. Still, there are warning labels even on products that don’t list ingredients. Look for these and really consider what they mean. If you see a skull and cross bones, avoid!

So now you’ve prepped that chicken on a board washed in plant-based dish soap, or maybe a cleaner containing hydrogen peroxide. Browning the poultry in a non-stick pan will undermine these good choices. As I discuss in The Conscious Kitchen, until recently most non-stick cookware was made with a chemical that has been linked to cancer, infertility, and complications during pregnancy. This chemical—perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA—is so persistent it has been found in low levels in the blood of 98 percent of the general U.S. population. In 2005, DuPont settled with the EPA for $16.5 million for allegedly withholding PFOA health risk information. The EPA called on them and six other chemical companies to voluntarily eliminate PFOA and similar substances from plant emissions and products by 2015. In the kitchen, we’re exposed to it mainly through scratched pans, and these things scratch easily. They can also break down at high temperatures and the fumes can cause flu like symptoms in humans, and death in birds. Hello, canary in the coalmine.

There are new chemicals now being used to produce non-stick cookware as this phases out. The replacements are largely unknown, so their safety is also unknown. The safest thing to do is brown that bird – and cook everything else – in tried and true durable materials: cast iron, enamel coated cast iron, and stainless steel.

If you make too much pastured chicken stew in your cast iron dutch oven, make sure to store the leftovers in similarly safe materials: glass, stainless steel (unless you stewed it with tomatoes—the acid can cause the metals to leach), or lead-free ceramic. The environmental health community has done a good job of letting people know about the dangers of certain plastics and the various you-don’t-want-it-for-dinner chemicals they might contain (bisphenol-A and phthalates come quickly to mind). Plastic is actually fairly easily avoided in the kitchen, especially when it comes to food storage containers. Tuck food into glass containers you buy specifically for the task, or just put it in jelly jars. Just leave room for liquids to expand if you’re freezing leftovers. If you’d like to use plastic, the numbers currently considered safe by the scientific community are #2, #4, and #5. Look for these in the recycling arrow on the product. If you don’t see a number, call up the manufacturer and ask what it is. Treat plastic gently; the more you bang it up, the more likely it is to leach its chemical components into our food. And never put plastic in the microwave, even #2, #4, or #5, or even if it says “microwave safe.” That just means how much heat it can withstand, not that it won’t release its chemicals into your meal.

There are many other things to be considered for your health and the health of the planet in any conscious kitchen, but these are some of the biggies. It can be overwhelming to take into account this much when you just want to eat dinner. But it’s worthwhile, and before too long it becomes second nature. You don’t have to do it all at once, either. Making one change – switch your cleaners or toss your non-stick pans – is a step in the right direction.

The Conscious Commandments

  • February 13, 2011 10:59 pm

The Conscious Commandments From The Conscious Kitchen

Here are ten easy things you can do today to move toward having a more conscious kitchen tomorrow.

1. Eat less meat. When eating beef, seek out and choose grass-fed. Other meat and poultry should also be carefully sourced.

2. Just say no to bottled water. Drink (filtered) tap instead. This will save money, too.

3. Buy local organic or sustainably farmed fruits and vegetables. Don’t forget that coffee and tea come from plants, and wine is made from grapes; choose sustainable versions.

4. Eat only the least contaminated sustainably harvested wild or well-sourced farmed seafood.

5. Always consider packaging when shopping. Choose items packed in materials you can reuse or that can be recycled in your municipality. Buy bulk items instead of overpackaged goods. Always shop with reusable bags.

6. Cook at home. Often. And serve only on reusable dishware, not disposable. Clean with eco-friendly products.

7. Avoid plastic as often as you can.

8. Try composting, even if you live in a city or a house without a yard.

9. Whenever possible, reduce energy use in the kitchen by choosing efficient appliances, cooking methods, and dishwashing practices; don’t leave appliances plugged in when not in use; ask your electric company for alternative energy sources like wind power.

10. Spread the word. Educate everyone you know. Green your office kitchen, your kids’ school kitchen, your friends and relatives’ kitchens. Make noise; together we can make a huge difference.

Takeout Interrupted

  • February 8, 2011 8:47 pm

I just had a looong work day and I’m tired. What I want is to play with my girl until someone miraculously puts food on the table. It’s cold and windy out. I want something exotic and spicy. But we don’t order takeout around here. Well…never say never, but I could count on one hand the amount of times we do it per year. The takeout is rarely local, almost never organic, comes enshrouded in unfathomable amounts of disposable waste, and it doesn’t even taste good–maybe the worst sin of all.

I know that days like these happen every week, that I often feel so busy/tired that I’m tempted not to cook. So I help myself out. If/when I turn on the oven, I always cook one (or two or three) extra things that will be the base of another meal a few days down the road. Tonight the pre-cooked item was a winter squash from the farmers’ market, which I’d roasted whole/skin-on while I made deconstructed lasagna late last week. I refer to this as “oven stuffing” in The Conscious Kitchen. Bonus: it saves energy.

I threw an onion and olive oil in the dutch oven that never manages to leave the stove top, scooped the flesh out of the squash, dumped it in the pot, and covered it with water. To satisfy my exotic craving, I rooted around the kitchen for two decidedly non-local items that we sometimes have on hand: ginger and coconut oil. I scored (but finished the coconut oil and I doubt I’ll replace it — sigh). In they went to flavor the soup. As soon as it was all hot and bubbling, I turned off the flame, and whirred it all together with an immersion blender. The girl ate hers just like that, I put some hot sauce in ours. I’m quite sure whatever takeout we might have ordered wouldn’t have tasted anywhere near as good.

Also: I helped myself out already for tomorrow. Black beans are soaking on the counter. Do you “oven stuff” and pre-prepare meals days ahead?

Storing Safely

  • January 18, 2011 6:19 pm

Plastics are everywhere in the kitchen. And it seems that there are news reports daily on the hazards of hormone-disrupting chemicals found in plastics, which get into our food, beverages, and even baby formula.

Although there are plastics on the market that are generally considered safe to use with food, there is a growing body of evidence showing that plastics need to be treated gently, washed by hand, and never, ever placed in a microwave, where their chemicals leach into what's being heated, especially things with a high fat content, like meat and cheese.

Plastics are also derived from a nonrenewable resource (petroleum), and not all kinds are recyclable. Even the ones that are recyclable often wind up overcrowding landfills or floating around in our waterways.

It might be difficult (but not impossible) to avoid plastic packaging at the supermarket. When it comes to storing your leftovers at home, why not bypass plastics altogether–baggies, wrap, or containers–and use reliable, renewable, and reusable containers made of glass, stainless, steel, and lead-free ceramic instead.

Glass storage containers are widely available, or you can use what you already have in your kitchen: old jelly, peanut butter, or pickle jars. Glass can also go in the freezer–just make sure to leave enough room for liquid to expand.

If you'd like a replacement for plastic wrap, try a reusable wrap, or opt for was paper coated in non-genetically-modified (GM) soy wax instead of petroleum-derived wax.

This way you won't have to worry about what's migrating into your food or hope the plastic currently considered safe doesn't become tomorrow's must-avoid.

Find more info on keeping your home plastic-free in "Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning & Greening the World You Care About Most."

The Conscious Kitchen in The Toronto Star

  • January 16, 2011 5:28 pm

Thanks to The Toronto Star for mentioning The Conscious Kitchen in this article on how to handle food waste.

“Whether we eat at restaurants, in work or school cafeterias or at home, we should reduce waste (the first R in the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra).

‘When standing in front of your garbage, the choice shouldn’t only be recycle or throw away,’ writes U.S. author Alexandra Zissu in The Conscious Kitchen. ‘There’s no such thing as `away.’ It’s just elsewhere.’

So learn to love your leftovers.”

Agreed! And compost everything else!