Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Some Food For Thought

As I think I've mentioned before, I originally planned to write a blog about food and agricultural policy and then realized that a food blog was what I really wanted to write. But every once in a while, I come across something that I feel compelled to mention.

Today's case in point? George Monbiot's article from The Guardian about the productivity of small farms. Anthropological studies of small farmers have shown this to be true over and over again: per unit of land, small farms are more productive than large farms. It is true even when you look at the very same farmers; if a farmer has access to lots of land, that farmer will grow less food per unit of land than if the same farmer has limited access to land. In areas of highly restricted land availability, farmers plant multiple crops in the same space during the year, grow plants closer together, and find other ways to increase their harvests.

And -- this is key -- they virtually always do this without depleting the productivity and fertility of the land. Usually, this is because they integrate both animals and plants in one system, using the animal manures to keep up soil fertility. Anyone who has read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma is familiar with some of the ways this can be done. But his Virginia farmer is just one example of the immense creativity of people who are working to feed their families off the land.

What Monbiot does not really touch on is that there are cultural downfalls of large-scale farming as well as the agricultural and environmental woes. When newspapers talk about towns on the Great Plains dwindling down to 15 or 20 elderly residents, or disappearing altogether, a lot of it is the result of increased farm size. In a county where two or three hundred farms have been consolidated into two or three farms, run with very little human labor because of machinery, there aren't many families needed.

Most foodies don't need reminders to support local, small farms. Unfortunately, many others do need not only reminding, but convincing. Superior productivity -- and production of actual food products, not commodities -- is yet another reason to buy from local farmers whenever possible.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A Failed Goal

Well, I had planned to make something with choux pastry by today, but we ended up going to visit Husband's family for the weekend, killing my prime days to have a big cooking project. Now I have to find another recipe-bound challenge for myself.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Recipe Thoughts and Roundups

I'm sure this article is going to provide fodder for lots of food blogs this week: The NYTimes printed an article today about Recipe Deal Breakers. What ingredient, technique, or phrase will make you walk away from a recipe without trying it? Both the article and the accompanying reader comments are worth some perusing time; I agreed with some of the deal breakers, but thought that others were crazy. For example, a one-word comment said, "Cilantro." I love cilantro! Can't imagine giving up all the varied dishes that contain it.

But that's just a question of personal taste, so it's an agree to disagree sort of situation.

My bigger problem is that I seem to have walked away from almost all recipes in the past few years. I used to be reasonably good about looking for and trying new recipes, but I almost can't remember the last time I actually followed a new recipe (or even an old one, by actually looking at it) from start to finish. And I think this is good and bad. I even think I might know where it comes from.

Living here in Desolationville, I get to a grocery store once almost every week. Sometimes, we go ten days, but that's about the longest stretch we've had, I think. In Isolationville, we went MONTHS. After first arriving there, I spent six months without going more than sixteen miles from our house. And, believe me, there were no "real" grocery stores within a sixteen-mile radius of our house. So I had to make do with what I had stocked up on, what could be ordered on the internet (you'd think almost anything could be, but Amazon wouldn't ship food products to Isolationville and neither would a number of other mail-order purveyors), or what happened to show up on the shelves of our gas-station-convenience-store-sized "supermarket".

This automatically made following recipes, especially any that included fresh produce, extremely difficult, and I think I just stopped trying and haven't really started again. I cook a lot from scratch, even trying new things, but recipes aren't often involved. On the one hand, it means that I can almost always come up with something for dinner based on what's already in the kitchen, which is good in the day or two before a shopping trip takes us out of Desolationville.

On the other, though, I do think my cooking more generally is diminished by not trying new recipes created and honed by others. I have a good friend who almost always tries a new recipe when I visit. The last visit, she made a favorite, but she still had the cookbook (Moosewood Lowfat, a favorite of mine, too, for healthful foods without stupid concessions to commercial lowfat products) sitting open to the recipe on the counter. The same cookbook had inspired a foodie friend of mine (almost a decade ago) to try every recipe in the book. I think my cousin was pretty close to considering the same attempt.

I guess this is a way of saying that I need to find ways to try new recipes. I've been thinking of doing this month's Donna Day choux challenge, and that will help; I've always wanted to make choux, but never have, and I'll definitely need a recipe.

Speaking of food blogging events, a couple roundups have been posted recently for the Sandwich Festival and the Beautiful Bones event. There are a lot of great recipes -- maybe some I'll even follow!

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Good Deed and A Good Meal

Meals are less planned in my life than I would like sometimes. It would make shopping trips easier if I was able to decide in advance what our week's menu will be. It just never happens. Some days I wake up with a firm plan about what we're eating that night (today, for example, I am pretty sure we're going to have pad Thai) and then BabyGirl has a really bad afternoon or Husband has to work a little late so that some prep work doesn't get done or I have a late-in-the-day hankering for something else.

The problem is that living so far from stores, we generally shop for fresh stuff just once every week to ten days. Anything that is quickly perishable has to be used in the first few days (which is why pad Thai is on the menu tonight; I bought bean sprouts over the weekend and they don't stay good for more than a day or two). Makes it difficult to have multiple dishes in a week that have delicate ingredients.

Anyway...this is all a way of saying that sometimes, menus are planned for me. Husband has a colleague here from a Middle Eastern country, and he's here for a month and a half, living just across the way from us. He has no transportation yet, so we offered to take him to The City when we went on Saturday. I looked up shopping possibilities that might offer him some comforts of home and found a good Mediterranean grocery, so off we went. I had in mind some good Bulgarian feta (which I got!) and a few other minor treats. He was thrilled, especially as they bake their own pita, something he was really missing.

He was going to buy canned baba ganouj, which just seems an abomination, so I told him I'd make him some instead. The only eggplants I could find were already old, so I made it yesterday, giving him half and keeping half for our dinner. I hope that it was up to par, but we certainly enjoyed it either way.

Being that we were starting out with one Middle Eastern dish, I stayed with the theme, so we enjoyed baba ganouj and falafel with chopped salad and tahina sauce. All very tasty, although it wasn't the best falafel mix I've ever used. Not a bad way to plan a meal -- do a good deed for a temporary neighbor and gain cooking inspiration at the same time.