Archive | July, 2011

Farm to Fork: I Think Our Food Supply is Safe

29 Jul

This is the first in a series of posts about food from farm to fork, dirt to dinner, field to table, or however you think food gets into your kitchen. Look for an upcoming post on my experience on a modern pig farm in southern Minnesota.

I am not a farm girl. I live comfortably in the suburbs. I buy our groceries at the local grocery store or a farmer’s market. I do not know how to drive a tractor and I have never mucked out a barn, milked a cow, gathered eggs, or fed pigs.

Why is it then that I get upset when I read or hear criticism about our country’s farmers? I don’t have a strong connection to agriculture, but I do know where my food comes from. I also know the vast majority of food companies take their job of producing safe food very seriously; their reputation depends on it.  And when I think about agriculture in the U.S., I have a positive feeling about farms and farmers. I believe most farmers–conventional or organic–are hard-working people who care about the land and the animals they raise. I struggled writing this post, because I think I am in the minority.

Minnesota Farmland

Local, organic farms are trending strong in Minneapolis and I think in many cities around the country. Terms like “family farms” are in favor and conventional or modern agriculture has been labeled as “factory farming.”  Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the movie, “Food, Inc.” are getting a lot of airtime about the benefits of local foods and organic farming, but I don’t think they tell the whole story.

I support local farms in theory, and in practice when I can, because I definitely see the benefit of reducing food miles and sourcing food locally.  I majored in ecology and environmental studies in college and I understand the impact of farm runoff in our waters and biodiversity. But, I also know the reality of our world’s food shortages. Small farms will not be able to meet global food needs. In my opinion, conventional farming still has an important role in producing food. And I do not think it is productive to polarize the discussion by labeling modern agriculture as “bad” and family farms as “good.” Pitting farmers against each other does not help move the conversation forward.

Our family of four is on a budget and I buy food we can afford.  Most of the food we buy is a product of conventional agriculture. That means our produce was grown with the aid of fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified (GMO) seeds to increase yields. And our meat is typically from larger farms where animals are raised in large facilities with the aid of technology and interventions like antibiotics.  I feel comfortable eating this food and serving this food to my family.

I’ll risk getting some hate mail, but this is what I think about food:

1. I think our food supply is safe.

2. I think most farmers use pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics judiciously.

3. I will eat food grown from GMO seeds. I am pro-biotechnology and I don’t have concerns about eating GMO corn or wheat.  I think our regulatory system is fair and monitors producers and seed companies well. That said, I am concerned about pollen drift from GMOs creating random hybrids with wild type plants, and I see inequities in the economics of biotech crops that could and should be improved.

4. I do not believe in labeling a modern farm as a “factory farm” just because they use technology or have a large operation. In my opinion, advancements in agriculture are generally good for farmers and for increasing yields.

5. I was vegetarian for over a decade, but I eat meat now. I was a bad vegetarian and was not eating a balanced diet. By adding meat and more vegetables into my diet, I’m eating far fewer processed grains and I feel healthier. I buy conventionally raised meat and vegetables for our family and I feel good about it.

6. I believe the majority of animal producers treat their animals humanely and care about the animals on their farms.

7. I do think some aspects of farming can be improved and would love to see more efforts to control non-point-source pollution and agricultural run-off.

8. I have read extensive reports on our world food supply, and I do believe we need large-scale farming operations using the best technology available to feed our planet. I think local and organic foods have a place in our food system, just as traditional crops are important. I do not think small, local farms can exclusively meet our world’s food needs.

9.  Our family joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for one season and it was not for us. We do not regularly cook with sunchokes, black radishes, kale, fennel, and sorrel. That said, I did appreciate the parsnips, basil, garlic scapes, and eggplant. I would join a CSA again in a heartbeat if we could get more of the items I am accustomed to preparing: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, zucchini, squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, corn, and carrots. We visit local farmers markets when we can and happily buy items in season that I can’t find at the grocery store, like big bunches of fresh mint and basil.

10. I worry about childhood obesity and I am trying to teach my daughters how to cook and how to have a good relationship with food. We eat our meals together at the kitchen table and most meals include fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and meat. I want to give my daughters a clear message to eat healthy food and I worry about muddying the waters by adding “but only if it’s local, sustainable, grass-fed, free-range, organic.”  I want to first encourage them to know how food is grown and raised and then we’ll cover the finer points.

I want to be clear that I have a “to each their own” philosophy on most things and do not want readers to think I am disparaging local, organic foods or encouraging people not to support those products. I’m not. I just think conventional foods have a place in our food system too, and at the moment they fit in our tight grocery budget better.

Our country is in economic turmoil and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Many families are likely on a food budget and unable to afford local or organic foods that are generally more expensive.  I decided to share my perspective on our food supply in case there is someone else out there that feels the way I do. I don’t feel bad about buying conventional foods for my family and I hope others don’t either. Mostly, I am grateful that we have plenty of food on our table and enough to share with others in need.

Amy is Amy On The Prairie, a working mom of two young daughters, wife to a really tall engineer, provider to two rescue cats, comfort foodie, food writer, and former world traveler. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

How does your garden grow?

27 Jul

On the farm

We visited family in Grand Forks, North Dakota and got the girls out on the farm. Our friend, Paul, grows sugar beets and let our daughters see the farm equipment. They had never seen tractors so big!

Little girl, Big Tractor

Every year, Paul sets aside a plot of land for a community garden for his friends and neighbors. They share in the tilling, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, and eating.

Onions in the garden

There is always more than enough food to share and we benefit from farm fresh onions, potatoes, green beans, carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, and corn.

I hope my girls also benefit from learning about where their food comes from and sharing.  In the fall, the friends will gather for a corn feed and to make lefse from the huge crop of potatoes. But it’s summer now and time to watch the corn grow higher and higher.

Pretty maids all in a row

Friday Night Pizza Night – Grilled Veggie Pizza

14 Jul

Little Miss Rolling Dough

Friday night is pizza night in our house. I make my own crust and let the girls roll out dough for their own mini-pizzas.

Even though I make the dough from scratch, it feels like a night off. My thinking is that if I load it up with veggies, it’s a night when I’m not on the hook for making a balanced meal.

But, humidity and hot summer weather derails pizza night. I avoid turning the oven on at all costs. Several weeks went by. I missed pizza night. I finally decided to try grilling pizza. Oh-my-wood-fired-goodness. It’s so easy I feel like it’s cheating. Why did I wait so long? It’s done in a flash and my house stays cool.

I fire up the Webber gas grill on high and get it up to about 400°. I turn the heat down to about medium, put the pizza on the grate on a metal pizza tray with holes in the bottom. I close the lid and wait about 10 minutes. I learned the hard way (burnt crust) that pizza on the grill requires a bit of babysitting. No matter. I just stay on the deck, glass of wine in hand, while the girls play.

Veggie Pizza

Recipe and instructions for pizza crust

Risen Dough

Dough

Recipe Makes Two Thin-Crust Pizzas

Sauté yellow peppers, peeled zucchini slices, and onion in olive oil until browned a bit.

Veggie Pizza Fixins

Drizzle olive oil on the unbaked crust and add the veggies.

Veggie Pizza Base

Top with cheese and pop it on the grill.

Shredded Cheese

Pizza on the Grill

Delish!

Grilled Crust. So Good!

Memory Lane: Remembering Sandi

10 Jul

My mother-in-law, Sandi, grew up in South Minneapolis. Sadly, she passed away in 2007 before our first child was born.  Searching through boxes of pictures, we found a picture of Sandi as a young child standing in front of her childhood home.

Sandi as a Little Girl

We drive past the house at least once a year and think of her. My husband wanted a picture of our daughters in front of the home for a long time now, but we were nervous. The house is not in the family anymore and we have no idea who lives there. Yesterday we gathered our courage and descended upon the house.

We rang the doorbell and had a good story prepared, but no one was home. We felt we needed to accomplish our mission, so we snapped quick pictures and took off.

Look at the side by side.

Present...Past...Present

It was really important to my husband. I’m so glad we trespassed. We now have new memories of a very sweet lady.  Rest peacefully Sandra Arlene. We love and miss you.

Present Perfect

California Olive Ranch Tasting Menu at Café Levain

8 Jul

Like me, you have probably attended a wine tasting or two. Have you ever sampled olive oil varieties? Until Wednesday I had not had the opportunity to taste many different types of olive oil. Happily, California Olive Ranch and Adam Vickerman of Café Levain invited me to an elegant olive oil tasting event on Wednesday.

Mike Forbes from California Olive Ranch and Goblets of Olive Oil

I love cooking with olive oil, but I do not usually spend much time selecting a bottle at the grocery store. I often make my decision on price.  Hefting the giant bottle of olive oil into my jumbo cart at Costco, I remember one of my favorite Homer Simpson quotes:

Olive oil … asparagus … if your mother wasn’t so fancy, we could shop at the gas station like normal people.

Well, after the Café Levain olive oil soiree, I now have a better appreciation for fancy shmancy oils.

Mike Forbes gave instructions for quaffing olive oil.  Pour into a glass, cup the bottom with one hand and place your other hand over the top of the glass. Gently swirl the oil for about 30 seconds to warm it up and release aromas. Remove your top hand and take a small sip. Roll it around your mouth. And then cough. Sipping olive oil is not the easiest. Mike explained some tasters rate olive oil as a one, two or three cough oil. The peppery notes in my glass of Millers Blend made me cough once. I liked sipping the oil, but preferred tasting the remaining oil with crusty bread.

Crusty Bread and Millers Blend Olive Oil

I have a strong interest in the food supply chain and food’s journey from farm to fork.  Mike’s explanation of California Olive Ranch’s innovative growing techniques captured my attention. Their olive varieties are grown on a 5,000 acre ranch in Northern California. Instead of trees, they grow their olives on trellises. The picture he showed of their fields looked identical to a wine vineyard. Growing olives on trellises allows them to employ drip irrigation and use 80 percent less water. This approach allows them to use modified wine harvesting equipment to minimize bruising and create higher quality oils. From what I can tell, their techniques are creating amazingly flavorful oils and winning an increasing number of industry awards.

Tasting the Millers Blend oil, I closed my eyes and reveled in the freshness of grass, citrus and pepper. I could also taste a tangy hint of eucalyptus.  Sumptuous.

Café Levain treated our group of 50 food lovers to a deliciously creative menu featuring many of California Olive Ranch’s olive oil varietals.  Our menu:

Chilled pea and kohlrabi soup

Farmer’s market salad with a buttermilk-tarragon vinaigrette, radishes and lettuces from the restaurant’s garden, Donnay chevre, and candied nuts.

Sitka sound red king salmon prepared with arbequina extra virgin olive oil, laughing bird shrimp, marinated white beans, English shell peas, and chili oil.

Charred beef hangar steak with fingerling potato confit, a balsamic reduction and oyster and shiitake mushrooms.

Dessert featured a trio of olive oil cake, panna cotta, and vanilla bean gelato using three olive oil varietals.

Olive Oil Tasting Menu

I was smitten. Café Levain exudes warmth and casual elegance. I don’t know if it was the golden summer evening light filtering through the windows, the charming company of my fellow food writers, the luxurious food or the magnificent wine pairings. Two days later I am still glowing from the experience. 

Those who know me well know that I am sometimes a picky eater. I decided to dive in, enjoy the flavors and forget for an evening that sometimes I don’t like mushrooms or radishes. I ate every morsel of our five-course meal. For me, the chilled pea and kohlrabi soup, fingerling potato confit, balsamic drenched mushrooms, and salmon were stand-outs. That evening was also the first time I tried a wine pairing with a meal. I am a wine enthusiast, but not an expert. I have to say that I totally get it now. The right food matched with the right wine is like the first time I met my husband – kismet.  In my opinion, the hangar steak, a fatter cut of meat, and Cline Zinfandel (2007), was the best pairing of the night.  One bite with the steak and big red wine was akin to a warm handshake between old friends. Even with that perfect match, my absolute favorite was dessert. The olive oil cake was divine with just the right mix of sweet and salty enhanced by a delicate salt crust.  Bliss!

I encourage you to try a gourmet olive oil in your cooking. For the local folks, you can find California Olive Ranch oils at Lunds and Byerlys.  My favorite summery dish with olive oil is lemon spaghetti. You might also like to try Susan Power’s raw sprouted cucumber salad. Now that I mention Susan, pay attention to the stunning food photography on her blog. She is planning to teach a food photography class soon and I aim to be one of her first students. I need all the help I can get with photographing my food.

Excuse me while I call Café Levain to make reservations for an anniversary meal in November…

Summertime Splashing – Wordless Wednesday

6 Jul

My oldest daughter is three now and I think she is forming the memories that will stay with her forever. I remember running through a sprinkler as a child. Hot sun, cool water drops, gentle breeze and freedom. I hope this memory stays with her.

Summer Child

I’d give all wealth that years have piled,
The slow result of Life’s decay,
To be once more a little child
For one bright summer day.

~Lewis Carroll, “Solitude”

Cake Wreck Salvaged Into Cake Balls

5 Jul

Our 4th of July was a comedy of errors and this cake falling apart was the icing on the cake. Some days just don’t go according to plan. So, when life gives you lemons, I say pass up the lemonade and make cake pops!

Cake Balls

Let me back up. I planned to make a double layer lemon cake with strawberry filling, cream cheese icing and fresh strawberries on top.

I made the batter.

Strawberry Lemon Cake Ingredients

The lemon cakes were perfect – spongy and fragrant. I added the strawberry filling.

Lemon Cake with Strawberry Filling

I carefully added the second layer.

Double Layer Lemon Cake with Strawberry Filling

I started to frost my beautiful creation.

Frosting a Double Layer Lemon Cake

And then, like a road buckling in a heat wave, my cake failed.

Cake Wreck

Cake Wreck

CAKE FAIL!

I laughed. Seriously? To get this far and have a huge wreck of a cake? Tragicomedy.

I know where I went wrong. I didn’t let the cakes cool completely, plus the house was 78 degrees. The warm cake couldn’t handle the design and crumbled. I am so impatient! Next time I will pop the cakes in the freezer to cool down before frosting.

I stared at my cake wreck and wondered if I could salvage any part of it. I remembered my friend Amanda, the amazing i am baker, telling me about cake balls. It sounded crazy to me. Who would bake a cake, frost it, and then mush it altogether? But, my cake wreck stared at me gloating. I decided to turn my lemon cake into lemon cake balls.

I found these directions for cake balls online, mushed the cake wreck into a bowl and chilled the “batter” for a few minutes. I tried to use an ice cream scoop to make the balls, but my scoop was worthless. I ended up rolling the balls by hand. I plopped them on a wax paper covered cookie sheet, stuck a pretzel stick in each and put them in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Assembling Cake Balls

Then, I melted white chocolate squares in a bowl, took the chilled cake balls out of the freezer, and dipped each cake ball in the melted chocolate.

Making Cake Balls

Don’t forget to add the sprinkles right away because the coating hardens pretty quickly. I put the completed cake balls back in the freezer because they started to get too warm.

Between the rolling, chilling, coating and sprinkling, it took over an hour to make a dozen cake balls. My husband finally came in and suggested I call it a day because I was missing out on the fun outside. They were cute and yummy, but so dang time-consuming. Cake balls are like mini sugar bombs. They were so sweet it was like mainlining sugar.  If I attempt cake balls again I’ll do a couple of things differently.

Crazy Cake Balls

1. I’ll opt for a less sweet cake and try a semi-sweet or dark chocolate coating

2. I’ll skip the pretzel step because as the cake ball warmed up the pretzel stick started to fall off. I think it’s easier to coat the cake ball without the stick.

3. Invite friends over. These babies are fussy and require so many steps. If I had a helper or two, making these might actually be fun instead of a big ol’ drag.

Cake Balls aka Sugar Bombs

Let me know if you make cake balls and have any good tips for me.

PS: If you managed to read the whole post without *snorting* childishly at all the ball and stick references, you are way more mature than me.

Patriotic Pancakes – Red, White and Blueberries

5 Jul
Want to see the festive 4th of July pancakes I made?

Red, White and Blueberry Pancakes

The batter is standard Bisquick mix with added touches of vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Pancake Batter

I divided the batter into three bowls and added food coloring.

Red, White and Blue Batter

 I added the blueberries to the “white” pancakes when I flipped them on the griddle. They got a little runny and too purple, so next time I’ll keep the pancakes plain and pour the blueberries on the cooked stack of pancakes.

4th of July Pancake Fixins'

My daughters loved the red and blue pancakes, but truthfully, as an adult I feel like I’m eating Play-Doh.

Red and Blue Pancakes On the Griddle

There’s nothing that amazes my daughters more than a huge stack of pancakes and a fancy flourish of whipped cream. They were delicious and fun to eat.

4th of July Pancakes Stack

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