Thursday, September 27, 2007

To (Honey) Bee or Not to Bee?

Okay, maybe it's because I always wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up (until I realized that my lowly math skills and lack of courage might pose a problem), but I am really into bee keeping gear. I mean, how great is that wild netted helmet, to say nothing of the "smoker" you get to carry around? Maybe I'm just a Tin Man fetishist. Man, I really wish it was socially acceptable to keep a bee hive on a New York fire escape.

You'll remember I linked to an article about the major bee die-off that's been affecting honey production as well as almond pollination a few weeks ago. Today's Times has an interesting piece about heritage bee species and dilettante beekeeping. As I've mentioned previously, one of the main reasons to support local, sustainable agriculture is that it allows for a wider variety of plant and animal breeds to remain in circulation, whereas commodity farming tends to focus on one or two species. The danger in narrowing a whole range of breeds down to one or two varieties is that an illness or environmental change can wipe out the whole lot (not to mention we lose out on the wide variety of flavors that a full spectrum offers) . And that's exactly what happened in the case of the bees. We really need to focus on supporting the farmers who practice diversity, so that we'll have something to fall back on when problems arise.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

To Meat or Not to Meat?

I first discovered the Vendy awards two years ago when my favorite lunch cart, sausage gurus Hallo Berlin, won the coveted prize. The Vendy's are the street food equivalent of the James Beard Awards--a hallowed prize that deserving open-air food vendors can lord over their neighborhood water dog stand.

Alas, Rolf and Wolfgang, the rad German dudes who fry up some quality sausages over at Hallo Berlin (and this praise is coming from a Wisconsin boy, don't forget) are not in the running this year. But there are a lot of deserving vendors on the docket. My boy Matt just wrote a piece about this year's finalists, and I was even Robin to his Batman on his trip to Kwik Meal.

Learn more about this year's Vendy ceremony here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dining B.C. (Before Cholesterol)

Man, how nice must it have been to live back in the days when bisque, beef, duck, and foie gras could all be consumed guilt-free in one meal?

I just ran across this fascinating archive of old menus on the New York Public Library website. This promises hours of fun...

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Badger Vader

For those of you who don't religiously read the groundbreaking UW alumni magazine On Wisconsin, you may have missed the recent piece on the Wisco roots of the youtube sensation Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager. Apparently the Star Wars spoof, which charts the exploits of the infamous Darth Vader's younger brother and has over 5 million views on youtube, was filmed in the Willy Street Co-op in Madison. Hell, with all the gnarly hippies hanging around Willy Street, I probably wouldn't even have looked twice at a day shift manager wearing a black cape, chest plate, and giant helmet.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Battered Badgers

Man, it's easy to romanticize the life of an organic farmer when you're living in the concrete jungle. This short film about the devastation caused by August floods in Wisconsin and Minnesota is really quite sobering. I really can't imagine having a livelihood that is so dependent on variables beyond your control. One of these farmers was out $90,000 dollars because almost all of the late-summer crops were ruined. What a tough life!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The New York Magazine cover story this week is by a dude in Brooklyn who took a locavore experiment to new heights. He vowed to feed himself for a month exclusively on food grown or raised in his Brooklyn back yard. It sounds like he faced some insurmountable problems that Barbara Kingsolver was able to avoid, thanks to her several acres of fertile Appalachian farmland. I'm not sure I could live basically on chicken, eggs, tomatoes, and a few eggplants for a month.

In the same issue, the always-vocal Adam Platt weighed in with his own concerns about how locavore ethics could hurt the quality of food in the restaurant scene. As as foodie who loves truffles, french cheeses, olive oil, and imported chocolates, but who still cares about sustainable and local agriculture, I've thought about many of the same factors. But I do think that, at least when it comes to luxury foods, it's okay to make exceptions if the quality payoff is worth it. In another recent piece about the scam that is the bottled water industry, Charles Fishman interviewed the controversial ethicist and father of modern vegetarianism Peter Singer on a similar topic. The never-ambigious moralist feels that, "buying the [French] merlot may help sustain a tradition in the French countryside that we value--a community, a way of life, a set of values that would disappear if we stopped buying French wines. I doubt if you travel to Fiji you would find a tradition of cultivation of Fiji water."
So basically, buying cured meats from Palermo has a couple of differences from insisting on buying inexpensive, out of season fruit flown in from South America. First, it respects a tradition of excellence that may die out if everyone outside of the region boycotted it on locavore grounds. Also, since these premium items tend to secure high retail prices, this isn't a case of wealthy Americans using the world as our race-to-the-lowest-price farm. Hence, until global warming changes the New York climate enough to allow for excellent local olive oil production, I won't feel too guilty buying imported Italian cold-pressed XVOO (take that Rachel Ray, I'm starting a new acronym!).

Friday, September 14, 2007

This is a pretty impressive accomplishment. At the recent Farm Aid benefit concert on Randall's Island, 80% of all the vendor food was either local, organic, or grown on a family farm.
(Rumor has it that Willie brought a little stash of his own home-grown, too.)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Shameless Plug

Check out what Fidel Gastro has to say about the McDonald's Angus Third Pounder. Spoiler alert: it sucks.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Some of you may have run across one of my favorite cooking shows on PBS-- Lidia's Italy.

The show is hosted by Lidia Bastianich, who's one of the chefs most responsible for introducing regional Italian cooking to America. When it comes to flare, she's no Bobby Flay or Mario Batali, but she really explains the technique and history behind her dishes, and she doesn't shy away from some unusual traditional dishes.

Read a brand new interview with Lidia (who is a partner in many of Mario Batali's restaurants in New York) conducted by my friend Matt Rodbard here.

Time Saving Tips

Learn some time saving tips for crushing garlic that Rachel Ray will never reveal in this video. Viewer discretion is advised.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

This is the first of what I hope to be many reviews on TO BEET. Not only will I be writing reviews of books, magazines, foodstuffs, and foot massages, I hope that other people will chime in with their own reviews in due time too.
****Full disclosure--I work for HarperCollins publishers, which publishes the book reviewed below*****

ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE by Barbara Kingsolver is a new entry in the hot category of books that already features The Omnivore's Dilemma and What to Eat among others. In a way, I see these books as the equivalent of fantasy sports for the dedicated food lover. They're a chance for us city folk to live vicariously through the people who are really at the forefront of the sustainable agriculture revolution, and at the same time learn more about where our food comes from.

Like The Hundred Mile Diet, Kingsolver's family takes on the challenge of eating locally for an entire year. That means what they can't grow themselves, they have to buy from or trade with local farmers. So, no pineapples, bananas, Cheetos, or Ben and Jerry's for 365 days. To make this challenge doable, the family relocates from the barren American Southwest, and hangs their shingle at their summer farmhouse in the Appalachian mountains--a climate that will allow for a lot greater variety of local produce and a lot fewer meals of nopales and scorpion meat.

Without delving too deeply into the book's plot, the highlight of the book is certainly Kingsolver's ability to put food choices into perspective. While it's obviously a buttload of work to grow hundreds of pounds of tomatoes and then make dozens of pounds of tomato sauce to store for a winter lycopene-infusion as she did, it's inspiring to see such a short trip from garden to plate. While most of us probably don't have the stamina, skills, or desire to take on this big of a challenge, we can still think about smaller ways to minimize the out-of-season and packaged foods that most Americans rely on.

That being said, the heart of this book focuses on reminding us that prior to "cheap" forms of long-distance transportation, humans pretty much ate what could grow in their immediate vicinity. And if that meant going without fresh eggs in late winter, you had to find another way to get a daily protein source. While it may seem like a human right to have raspberries in New York in January, it's actually just a privilege that ends up costing a lot of fossil fuel.

While Kingsolver's writing style is a little cutsier than I would prefer, I have to accept that the core audience for this book is likely middle-aged mothers who are interested in safer ways to feed their family. But even as a handsome, hip urbanite, I found a lot to take away from her practical advice. There are simple, seasonal recipes throughout that can help you make the best use of ingredients as they're available. And there are informative sidebars written by the author's husband that explain some of the politics of the locavore movement and point to important resources for learning more. Over the next few weeks I intend to explore these resources and I'll point them out on the blog as they become relevant.

Overall, this book is a must-read if you're interested in the hows and whys of the locavore movement, and if you want some concrete tips that can help you integrate local, seasonal foods into your own diet year-round.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

2007 Eat Local Challenge

Check out this great blog for more info about this year's September "Eat Local Challenge." Lots of helpful tips for supporting local agriculture.

News Round-up

It looks like they found the cause of the ailing bee population. It seems to be a virus. I'm just amazed that the technology that led to the discovery is the same one being used to decode Neandrathal DNA. This begs the question--did Brendan Fraser collaborate on the research?

School started this week, and it looks like cafeterias across the country are making positive steps to offer healthier options.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Economies of Taste

To continue the thread started by Mark below, there's an interesting debate regarding higher prices at Farmer's Markets on Michael Ruhlman's excellent blog today. Russ Parsons, the author of HOW TO PICK A PEACH chimes in with some interesting points.

One thing he mentions is that especially in climates with short growing seasons, local farmers are scrambling to make a year's income in only 3-4 short months of harvest. Therefore, unlike the supermarket (read: California) farmers who have most of the year to get a return on their investment, they have to charge a premium price during those precious summer months.

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver offers a way to help your local farmers out and therefore encourage them to return to the market the next season. Instead of just buying what you need for the week or for the summer, buy a bunch of extra tomatoes, peaches, berries, garlic, melons, herbs and such, and can or freeze them for use during the winter. That way when you want to make a tomato sauce or smoothy in December, you can reach for your stored produce. I actually bought a bunch of extra pints of berries this weekend and froze the extras--they'll be much better yogurt mix-ins than the bland supermarket option in a couple of months. And now that farmer my local farmer has that $10, instead of Key Foods. And right now those berries, tomatoes, squash and melons are much cheaper at the Farmer's Market than they will be out of season in the grocery store in a few months--so in this case you can actually save money in the long run and end up with a better meal.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Preparation in Spades

I'm not a gardener (unless you consider a few pots of herbs on a Manhattan windowsill a garden), but I'm familiar with the concept of the garden journal. The idea is that in order to prepare for next summer's growing season, gardeners note the weather, growing conditions, and results each day. That way they'll know whether it might be a good idea to plant their sunflowers a little earlier next year, and they'll know which vegetables should be ready to harvest in mid-July.

My version of a vegetable garden is the local Farmer's Market. And since I'm a novice at this whole seasonal-produce thing, I thought I'd adapt the garden journal to a market journal. I bought a classy little notebook that's small enough to carry with me to the market so I can write down what I bought, whom I bought it from, and even what I later cooked with it. If you're like me, you'll forget which heirloom tomato had the best flavor by this time next year, and having it all conveniently jotted down will avoid monumental mistakes.

The Apica notebook I bought is a Japanese import--only a couple of bucks but sturdy and small enough to put in your pocket. I picked mine up at Spoonbill and Sugartown in Williamsburg, but they're avail on the internet as well. Any notebook will do, of course, but how many other brands carry such an appealing example of Japanese to English translation gone awry? "Most Advanced Quality Gives Best Writing Features," is proudly displayed on the cover of my new Apica.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Midtown Lunch Pales

I don't fancy the M-F Midtown lunch either, for the reasons Cease noted below. Plus, the crack-speed salad makers always leave me regretting at least one ingredient choice (sunflower seeds instead of almond slivers, for example).

My lunch sack of choice is a reusable bag I found at Pearl River last year. The size is perfect because it can fit two lunches, so I save time packing and don’t need to carry it daily. It’s colorful and flowery. So if that’s not your style, look for plain ones at drug stores.

You could also scour eBay for lunch boxes – instead of Ninja Turtles, I like the construction worker-style tin pail. Add a canvas strap to sling it over your shoulder. One more thing: Get your company to ditch the paper and plastic and invest in silverware and reusable plates.