In search of healthy and fun meals to feed my family, with an eye toward sustainable living.

Here you'll find recipes & ramblings about keeping my family fed with what's available in Alaska between local produce, a little bit of wild harvest, and the modern grocery store.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


"Sourdough" is a nickname for old-timer Alaskans (especially miners), because in the Gold Rush days, the only way to get bread or pancake to rise without the use of Baker's yeast or eggs was, of course, by using a sourdough starter.

In Alaska lore, one earned the title "Sourdough" after having lived thru at least one winter, whereas the newcomer who has not seen a full winter yet is called a "Cheechako".

"Sourdough" by Fred Machetanz, Alaskan painter (1908-2002)

Photo credit:

When the Prof and I got married, one of the most unusual gifts we received was a live culture of "Jedadiah's Sourdough Starter" together with a recipe book and a beautifully handcrafted bread bowl. Alas, Jedediah did not survive the trip to Alaska -- the bowl, however, did!

Sourdough is a live culture of bacteria, and the lactic acid produced by these bacteria causes the "sourness". According to Wikipedia, sourdough starters are actually stable symbiotic culture of bacteria and the yeasts Candida milleri or Saccharomyces exiguus, which usually populate sourdough cultures symbiotically with Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.
Look back at the species name of the last critter: now that's a cool scientific name, named after another Gold Rush city famed for it's sourdough! These sourdough cultures later made it North in the Alaska Goldrush, up the Yukon, to the Klondike and Nome! And my kitchen...

Eldest (a.k.a. Kitchensister) made her own from scratch earlier this year: mix equal quantities of water and unbleached flour, keeping it in a warm place, loosely covered. Some recipes call for the use of potato water, a teeny bit of sugar, and sometimes even the skin from grapes, as they have some good bacteria & yeasts on them (the important critters for populating the starter come mostly from the grain outer shell, not so much the air in your kitchen).

Whether your sourdough comes from a friend, a freeze-dried culture bought at the supermarket (available in the tourist section of many Alaska stores), or you started your own from "scratch", the most important thing is to keep feeding it.
Every day (occasionally I'm forgetful and skip a day), I feed my sourdough by adding some water and flour, and stirring it: it keeps that culture of critters alive and multiplying. (Otherwise you end up with more dead than alive, it gets more and more sour, and can even start turning nasty colors on the container's sides -- if that happens, don't panic. Just stir it up, spoon out some from the middle into a new clean container, and feed it with fresh water and flour.)
If I know I won't be using my sourdough for a while (vacation, or general laziness), then I put the starter in the frig. There the processes slow down, but I still should feed it every week or so.
Turns out, you can even freeze it, thaw it out later, and start again with feeding it, but it's nearly like starting from scratch (patience!) -- it will take several feedings before your starter starts bubbling again and acting like a sourdough...

There's lots of do's and don'ts surrounding sourdough. Don't use metal is one rule often mentioned. Indeed, a metal container will cause the acidity to react chemically, which you don't want -- so always use glass or ceramic for your starter. But there's also the rule to never use a metal utensil, only wood or plastic. Turns out, using an occasional stainless steel spoon to stir your dough is no big deal -- that's too short of a contact time to be a problem (just don't leave that spoon sitting in the starter).

It's good to cover your starter, but never tightly. The cover needs to be loose to let the air escape -- sourdoughs have been known to explode, esp during transport! If your sourdough needs to travel somewhere, be very careful: keep in a cooler or thermos, and loosen the lid frequently.
Also, don't let sourdough get too hot, or subject it to ultraviolet light -- that kills it!

The first couple of days a newish starter may not have much "umph" to it -- it needs to be babied for a few more days. Feed it every day (toss some if you find your container getting too full), and pretty soon you'll see it bubbling away. Those bubbles are good sign! Even better, mix up a batch of sourdough pancakes, and if you'll know right away if your sourdough starter is up to snuff!

Using sourdough:
  • Never add anything other than flour and water to your starter.
  • Before using or feeding, always stir the "hooch" (liquid that separated & floats on top) back in.
  • If you feel that your sourdough is a bit too sour for your tastes, add some baking soda to the recipe to neutralize (sweeten) it -- but not to your starter!
  • Keep this in mind for your recipes: salt decreases the yeasties' activity, while sugar increases it.

Sourjacks (a.k.a. Sourdough Pancakes)
from Ruth Allman's Alaska Sourdough recipe book

2 c. starter (room temperature, fed last the day before)
2 T sugar
4 T oil
1 egg
1/2 t salt
1 scant teaspoon baking soda (more if your starter is real sour!)

Mix first 5 ingredients well. Have your griddle hot before proceeding.
Add soda (some dilute w/ water in a jigger first), fold in gently (don't beat!) and very soon you get this chemical reaction that is a joy to behold: the batter fills with bubbles and doubles in bulk. Pour batter on hot griddle. Flip.
Yummy with syrup!

My variation of this recipe (and a few other sources) is to make a few shortcuts, and to make smaller quantities, because I just can't cook them fast enough, and the batter starts going flat before I got them all cooked...

First I make a dry mix that I store in a jar ("Felix"):
2 c flour
1/2 c sugar
2 T salt
2 T baking soda

To make Pancakes, I use a container that holds at least 4 c liquid (beware of expansion!)
1 c starter (room temp, etc)
1 egg (optional, but makes darn good pancakes)
tad of oil (about 1 T)
tad of milk or buttermilk (1-2 T)
1/2 c of my dry mix

Proceed the same as above, with griddle hot and ready before the soda-containing dry mix gets stirred in. This should start expanding immediately if you're sourdough is good & sour!

Sourdough Bread without added yeast

2 c sourdough starter (proofed: freshly fed, bubbly and frothy, called a "sponge")
this may take several hours depending on your starter (if starting with refrigerated starter, this may take 6-8 hrs).
When the sponge is ready, start adding flour and mixing it in 1/2 c at a time --this takes
approximately 3 c unbleached flour (amounts can vary greatly).
Also, as desired, add up to 2 T olive oil, up to 1 T sugar, and 1-2 t salt.

Knead the dough until it feels right (flexible, not too heavy).
Let rise in a warm place, covered with a dishtowel (preferrably a clean one!) until doubled in bulk -- again, this may vary greatly, but will probably take longer than yeast breads you might be used to baking.

Punch down the dough, knead a little more, form loaf, and let rise until nearly doubled in size. Bake at 350F for 30+ minutes. I check mine when it has a nice crust, and thump the bottom and if it sounds good and "hollow", it's ready.
Cool on rack, resisting cutting right into it!

I tell ya, it felt like a great achievement when I baked my first loaf of successfully risen sourdough bread without any added yeast!!!

Sourdough Rye Bread
Rye lends itself better to sourdough baking than just plain yeast-- in fact, most Northern Europeans still make their Rye bread with sourdough. And good German "Roggenbrot" is one of the foods I still miss the most from Germany, so, I gotta make my own. I've made rye bread with yeast, but I'm hoping to embark on sourdough rye baking soon!
Searching for a good rye bread recipe, I came across a very interesting story and recipe from a Lithuanian American at
For a NY Jewish Sourdough Rye recipe (using a special rye sourdough starter, and old rye bread) , go to Recipe Rascal.

Finally, check out this blog dedicated to sourdough baking,

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Soups in Winter

During the cold months (which some would argue constitutes some 9+ months of the year here in Alaska), I love to have a pot of soup going on the stove and some bread baking in the oven. Soups can also be my "fast" food when I'm too busy to cook a full dinner: just defrost some soup, add salad or sandwich/panini.
I was surveying my freezer today, and I have a bunch of homemade stocks -- everything from fish to beef to chicken/turkey. Plus there are several types of beans, from white to black, from chickpeas to lentils. Now to some soup recipes -- no quantities, as usual -- soups are sooooo easy & perfect for using up left-overs.

First a few that are pretty much just vegetables, and cook up fairly quickly:

Apple-Onion soup
Sauté equal amounts chopped, peeled apples and onions in butter until soft. Add stock or water to cover, then simmer for 10 minutes. Cool and purée. Serve sprinkled with Stilton or other blue cheese.

Mostly-Red Mid-Winter Soup
I sort of "invented" this is one to use up those red chard or beet stems after cooking the greens, with inspiration from Glacier Grist recipes (see GG#52). Basically can make it with any winter vegetables hanging around the frig this time of year (good way to use that cabbage!)
Saute onions, add shredded cabbage, celery, fennel (if you have it), beets and beet stems, carrots. For flavor, it's nice to add garlic, ginger, pepper or paprika. Cover with stock & simmer until vegetables are tender. Blend into smooth paste, correct seasoning (salt, pepper), and serve with dollop of yoghurt or sour cream.

Sweet Potato-Kale Soup

Sauté chopped onion in butter, then chunks of sweet potato and stock or water to cover. Simmer until the sweet potatoes can be pierced with a knife, then add chopped kale and cook until wilted.

Leek-Potato Soup

Saute leek slices in butter, add potatoes and stock or water to cover. Simmer until potatoes are soft. Blend all ingredients, then add salt. pepper, cream and parmesan cheese to taste.

African Peanut Soup

from an old post -- see recipe here.

Legume soups take longer to cook when you start with dried legumes, but a shortcut is to use canned beans or to keep a variety of pre-cooked beans in the freezer. Legumes make good hearty meals with all that protein: I have quite a few soup recipes under legumes here.

NEXT IS FISH. Fish Soups are also very quick and easy to make. When I process salmon, halibut or lincod in the summer, I freeze the smaller pieces in bags labelled "Fish for soup".
Here is a new family favorite:

A french soup that can be made with most any firm-fleshed fish. According to tradition, there should be at least five different kinds of fish in a proper bouillabaisse. In Marseille, considered the mecca of bouillabaisse, they use at least seven, not counting the shellfish. There are lots of veggies in this soup,one of the key ones being fennel and zest of an orange!
Saute onions, leeks and fennel in olive oil, add garlic, zest of 1 orange, saffron (optional), thyme and /or tarragon, chile or cayenne pepper. Add fish stock or water, chopped tomatoes (canned ok) , diced red potatoes, carrots or parsnips, and seafood (such as cod, halibut, scallops, shrimp, clams, etc). During the last 5 minutes, add white wine, clam juice and/or lemon juice, plus salt and pepper to taste.
Traditionally served over french bread with Sauce Rouille (see full Bouillabaise and Rouille recipe complete with quantities here)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cooking up a mess of Cajun greens

My men LOVED dinner tonight, praising it as the best batch ever made -- so I'm trying to write down what I did: a little bit of this, and a dash of that...
Originally this dish, called simply FLANKS AND GREENS, came from Paul Prudhomme "Fork in the Road" cookbook, which is a whole lot healthier than his earlier works. His recipe calls for Flank Steak, but you can substitute other beef cuts, or probably other meats as well (moose, anyone?). It's very much a dish along the lines of a meal featuring the vegetables with just a small amount of meat for protein and flavor, without the meat being the central attraction.

Prep-work is the name of the game here -- lots of work goes into getting all the ingredients ready, but it cooks up super fast. Sometimes I make a double batch of meat, and freeze it without any greens, then cook it w/ fresh greens after thawing out (which makes it a super fast meal!)

I slice the meat REALLY thinly, against the grain (stir-fry style) , and work the spice mix into the meat before cooking it. I don't use much meat -- one steak feeds the 4 of us easily.
The spice mix:
1 T cumin seeds, whole
1 t each black and white pepper corns
dried mexican pepper, such as chipotle or poblano
1/2 t mustard seeds
--grind all these in a spice grinder.
1 t each garlic and onion powder
1-2 t thyme
1 t Hungarian paprika
1+ t salt (if that's not enough, add more salt at the end when tasting finished product)
Work this spice mix into the meat slices. Set aside.
also need flour for thickening
optional: Tabasco sauce or other hot sauce (I serve this at the table, esp. if I don't make it very spicy on account of whimpier diners, such as daughters and sometimes myself!)

1-2 onions, chopped
2+ cloves garlic, chopped
1 T+ jalapenos, chopped (fresh or canned)
1 bunch mustard greens
1 bunch red chard or beet greens
1 bunch kale or collard greens
1 bunch spinach
optional: other bitter greens, such as endives, sorrel, dandelion greens

Prepare all veggies ahead of time: wash and remove tough stems of greens. Chop or rip leaves into smaller pieces (don't bother drying the greens in a salad spinner -- you will need that extra moisture when cooking).

Heat oil in pan and saute onions. Add garlic and jalas. Add meat & spice mix. Cook until the meat is no longer pink. Make a roux by adding flour (for thickening) and water as needed.
Once there is a good brown roux, start adding the greens (whatever amount fits, starting with the toughest first, usually kale or collards) and cover with lid, checking occasionally until the greens have cooked down and there's room for the next batch.

Serve over rice. This dish is rich and dark -- not exactly pretty to look at, but tasty and VERY healthy!

picture credit:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Menu for mid-January

This past weekend we went on a cabin trip, and our meals were simple, yet tasty.
Upon returning, I continued to cook simple meals as we're catching up with life, laundry, etc.
"E-zy" Meals, to me, is defrosting something cooked previously in a more industrious state -- so we ate wholesome tasty food. I LOVE having a freezer full of ready meals!

Wed we finally got some fresh produce when the CSA box arrived, plus I went grocery-shopping, and now the frig is full of fresh ingredients again. (Aside: I used to worry about whether we could get thru the produce in our CSA box during the week before the next one arrived, and now I'm buying extra vegetables!)

Sunday (at cabin): jambalaya w/ carrots and sausage
Monday: Gumbo and crab
Tues: Mexican: burritos w/ black beans & chorizo, grilled veggies & meat.
Wed: Chili and cornbread, green salad
Thurs: Flanks & greens over rice
Fri: Thai fish soup or bouillabaise, Pasta w/ carrots, cabbage & roasted walnuts, salad
Sat: Beet and Carrot soup, Pasta w/ goatcheese, broccoli & smoked salmon, green salad
Sun: Bubble & squeek, roasted turnips, celery roots, potatoes, salad

Sunday, January 10, 2010

QUINOA: the Incas "Mother Grain"

I was asked by friend "what to do with Quinoa?"
She wanted to give it a try as part of a gluten-free diet as a substitute for wheat and other grains: in fact, it has the highest protein content of all "grains" -- and unlike others, it has all 8 essential amino acids, so it is a very wholesome food indeed.

First of all, let's clarify: Quinoa isn't truly a grain (all grains are graminoids or grasses), rather, Quinoa is in the goosefoot family (Chenopodium), and is thus more closely related to spinach, beets and tumbleweed.
So, kids, eat your tumbleweed!!!

Storage: I recently learned you're supposed to refrigerate it, and not store it for months in a cupboard-- that was news to me, but it does make sense that quinoa's proteins would degrade if stored too long.
I don't refrigerate mine (too little room in my frig!), but I do mark the date of purchase so that it does not linger too long...
Washing: Many recipes call for washing/soaking/rinsing quinoa to rid it of its bitter saponins.
This may not strictly be necessary (most quinoa commercially available in the US has the saponins removed already) -- I've never heard my family complain about the taste, but it may be a good idea if you find it has a bitter taste. Soak in warm water for at least 5 minutes, then rinse it, using a fine sieve.
Cooking Proportions: 1.5 to 2 cups liquid for each cup of quinoa.
If you rinse it first, go for 1.5 ratio, esp if using a rice cooker (yes, you can!)
I often heat up stock or broth, then use the 2/1 ratio and cook until all liquid is absorbed.
Uses for Quinoa: replace any recipe that calls for rice or cous-cous.
For breakfast, eat it like oatmeal with honey, nuts and dried fruit.
Make a vegetarian chili by replacing the meat with quinoa.
Use it in brothy soups, such as chicken-vegetable soup, replacing the noodles.
Bake with it: add some cooked quinoa to your favorite bread or muffin recipe.

Quinoa w/ fennel and sun-dried tomatoes
olive oil
onions, chopped
fennel bulb, chopped
celery stalk, chopped
carrots, you guessed it: chopped
sundried tomatoes, cut into smaller pieces (soak in warm water and add w/ veggies, unless packed in oil -- then add at the end w/ olives)
garlic -- finely chopped
1/2 t dried thyme
1 cup quinoa
1.5 cups stock, broth or water
1/2 t salt (unless using a salty broth)
optional: calamata olives
fennel greens, chopped

Saute veggies in olive oil, add spices, add quinoa, stir everything well. Add broth and simmer for about 15 minutes until liquid is absorbed. Let sit for another 5 minutes or so, then fluff with a fork and add olives and chopped fennel greens before serving.

Quinoa & Fruit Winter Salad
recipe from Eldest -- and may I add is perfect for winter when you're low on fresh vegetables...

cooked quinoa
raisins (or cranberries)
scallions (or red onions)
canned mandarin oranges
orange zest
peanuts (or cashews)
sesame or other delicate, aromatic oil

Yesterday, I made a yummy mexican-style Quinoa bean salad I posted a while back (see here), and here is a whole bunch more quinoa recipes on the website

Photo credit: http://andescrop

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

When life gives you lemons (or frozen beer)...

Over the holidays we put some beer on the porch to cool down before a party -- and promptly forgot about it completely. Result: 3 beer bottles frozen solid!
When life gives you lemons (or frozen beer, in this case), find some recipes that use beer, and cook with it.
First, I made a really good batch of beer bread. I like making bread -- the whole process of kneading the dough, letting it rise, punching it down, etc. To me it's a real treat when I have the kind of relaxed day at home that lets me bake a batch of homemade bread.

Not having a recipe exactly, I just make up my own:
Borealkitchen's Beer Bread
1 bottle of beer (I used an IPA)
2-3 t dry yeast
tiny bit of sugar (just a dash)
unbleached white flour
rye flour
whole wheat
optional: 1 t caraway seed, crushed

Heat beer (approx 1.5-2 cups) in the microwave- warm but not hot to the touch. Doesn't matter if it's previously frozen or gone flat because you forgot all about a beer you poured yourself the night before. If I didn't have enough beer, I would just add water.
Stir yeast and sugar into warm beer, let sit briefly. Pour 1 c white flour into mixing bowl and add the beer-yeast mixture. Let this form a "sponge" (this really is the correct term!). This may take 10-15 minutes, during which time I putter around the kitchen, unload the dishrack, etc.
When the sponge is ready, add the rest of the ingredients (I know I don't list quantities-- I go for a ratio of about 1/2 white to dark, with rye constituting maybe a 1/4 to 1/3), mixing with big spoon or dough blade of food processor until dough starts holding together. Take out of the bowl and knead by hand with extra flour on the counter top.
Then I oil my big ceramic bowl and put the dough in, cover w/ clean dishtowel, and set it on or near the woodstove (make sure it's not too hot!). I pull out a good book, or check my email, or bake a batch of cookies, or start making a batch of soup, or just putter around for an hour or 2, checking occasionally on the dough, waiting for it to double in size.
Then I punch the dough down and knead it again, put it in a lightly greased loaf pan, and let it rise again -- this second rising seems to go a little faster. Bake in preheated oven for approx 30 minutes. I test it by taking it out and tapping the bottom -if it sounds right, it's ready to come out and cool on the rack. And if you have a pot or soup or stew going, you're all set for a dinner tonight!

Beef with Stout

This recipe is a modification of recipe by Irish food writer Darina Allen. See her website with weekly Irish recipes at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
Instead of baking it in the oven, this recipe could probably also be made in a crockpot.

2 lbs (900g) lean stewing beef, eg. Chuck
seasoned flour
3 tablespoon olive oil
2 thinly sliced onions
1-2 c celery, carrots, and/or turnips, chopped -my addition, I like to add loads of veggies!
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon dry English Mustard
1 tablespoon concentrated tomato puree
1 strip of dried orange peel
a bouquet garni made up of 1 bay leaf, 1 sprig of fresh thyme, 4 parsley stalks.
1/2 bottle of beer: Beamish, Murphy or Guinness
approx 2 c beef stock
optional: mushrooms, sauteed in butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
fresh parsley

Cut the meat into 1½ inch (4cm) cubes and toss in seasoned flour. Heat some oil in a hot pan and fry the meat in batches until it is brown on all sides. Transfer the meat into a casserole and add a little more oil to the pan. Fry the thinly-sliced onions until nicely browned; deglaze with the stout. Transfer to the casserole, add the stock, sugar, mustard, tomato puree, orange rind and bouquet garni. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer in a very low heat, 150C/300f/ regulo 2, for 2-2½ hours or until the meat is tender.

Meanwhile wash and slice the mushrooms. Saute in a very little melted butter in a hot pan. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Set aside. When the stew is cooked, add the mushrooms and simmer for 2-3 minutes, taste and correct the seasoning. Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley. Note: This stew reheats well. You may need to add more sugar to the recipe if you find it a little bitter.

Lastly, there is the vegetarian German Beer Soup, perfect for a beer gone flat:
Hot German Beer Soup
1 quart beer (light is milder, use dark for a richer flavor)
1 T butter
2 T flour
1 T sugar
lemon: peel and chop the rind, juice 1/2 of lemon
1 stick cinnamon
6 whole cloves
2 egg yolks

optional "Snowballs" (eggwhite dumplings)
2 egg whites
2 T sugar
dash of cinnamon

Pour beer and let stand for several hours until it's gone flat. Heat in saucepan.
Meanwhile melt butter and stir in the flour and sugar, whisking and cooking until it has a rich caramel color. Add this by the spoonful to the hot beer, along with lemon and spices. Bring to a boil and simmer for approx 15 minutes. Remove from stove and add beaten eggyolk and snowballs, if desired. Serve in mugs when your loved one come in from the cold after skiing or sledding (BTW, alcohol contents is very low!)

Beat eggwhites into still peaks, gradually adding sugar. Drop by spoonfuls onto the hot soup which has been removed from heat, and cover with lid. Let it sit for 5-10 min, letting snowballs swell an cook. Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve.

There are also some recipes that call for cream/sour cream in the soup, and serve it over bread and Swiss cheese, such as this one here, found on Several readers comment on how bland this recipe was, and that it tasted too much like beer! Beer soup is definitely not for everyone, especially the sweet version w/ cinnamon... Note: I've seen recipes that call for hot pepper sauce & garlic too -- so there's the potential for making it spicy!

And now a German recipe that calls for cabbage and beer, from
Cooking with Beer Taste-Tempting Recipes and Creative Ideas for Matching Beer & Food
by Lucy Saunders

Kriek Cabbage

1/3 cup dried sweetened cherries
1 cup cherry ale or kriek (a Belgian cherry lambic)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon minced orange zest
1 tablespoon minced shallots or mild sweet onion
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
10-12 oz. red cabbage, tough outer leaves
removed and cored, quartered, and sliced thin
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Place the cherries in an oven-proof dish and cover with the cherry-flavored beer. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and heat in the microwave for 1 minute on high power; remove wrap and let cool.

2. Stir together the olive oil, orange zest, shallots or sweet onion in a 10-inch heavy sauté pan placed over low heat. sauté gently until the shallots are translucent and tender, about 3 minutes.

3. Add the cabbage, red wine vinegar, cherries and beer, stirring often, and cook for 15 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve.

Borealkitchen's Note: I don't happen to have Kriek or red cabbage lying around. But I do have another bottle of previously frozen IPA and a head a white cabbage, so I'm planning to give this recipe a try with the following variations
skip the cherries -- maybe try an Alaskan version with dried cranberries?
Heat oil and saute onions, add cabbage, grated orange zest, beer-infused cranberries, salt and pepper (skipping the vinegar too).
I'll let you know how it turns out, and what the fam thinks -- cabbage is not exactly their favorite...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Menu for early January

No CSA box this week -- just working on various hardy root crops stored in frig and cellar, plus taking stock of what's in the freezer... Need to do a Costco run too!
Started some Mung sprouts today, and looking hard at the head and a half of cabbage...

Having completely ran out of bread, and not feeling like venturing out Monday morning ("I got a throat", an expression coined by one of my kids), I even baked some homemade bread -- aaaaah, heaven: a quiet house now that everybody's gone back to work/school...

MON: corned beef, potatoes, cabbage & homemade Beerbread
TUES: Thai Kitchen (eating out)
WED: Leek soup, braised greens, Baked Ziti, Soprano-style, salad
THUR: Chicken&veggie stir-fry w/ sprouts, rice, potstickers
FRI: Gimme More Pie (recipe here), braised greens, roasted potatoes
SAT: Porrotos Granados (recipe here), empanadas, carrot salad
SUN: Pasta w/ veggies, smoked salmon and goat cheese, green salad

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Eating less meat

When I was young, I was a vegetarian for many years. Like many young people, I used to think in "black and white" terms: meat was bad, vegetables were good. I had read Frances Moore Lappe's book "Diet for a Small Planet" my first year in college (having just moved to the US after living in a developing country, I was aghast at the waste and conspicuous consumption) -- I became convinced that meat production was a waste of our planet's scarce agricultural resources. By the time I had children I started eating meat again -- in fact I craved it when I was pregnant!

I didn't give all that much thought to how food was raised as I was busy raising and feeding my growing family -- I was thinking less about the environment and more about cooking well-balanced meals and avoiding junk food! But it does turn out that meat production can be very wasteful indeed, and is perhaps becoming more so than when Lappe's book was first written! I'm now coming back around to thinking about those issue again. A big turning point for me was reading Michael Pollen's In Defense of Food and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

As I've been learning more about where our food comes from, I find I don't care to eat industrially-produced meat, and the alternative (organic, local, wild) is much more difficult and expensive to come by. I have friends here in Alaska who will only eat meat they hunted or caught themselves -- but alas, hubby is not "into" hunting, and our freezer is already out of salmon fillets. ASIDE: in many parts of Alaska, churches and other non-profit organization have volunteers who will process road-killed moose, and the meat is donated to food banks (plus the volunteers get a cut -maybe I need to sign up in order to get some "church moose"?) -- since it is illegal for the driver of the vehicle to simply take home the moose they ran over! EOD, End of Digression.
I'm realizing more and more that not all meat (or eggs and dairy for that matter) is bad -- rather, it can vary greatly. For example, cows are naturally grass-eaters, but in an effort to grow beef faster and faster, they are now fed a diet of mostly corn (which is difficult for them to digest) and thus cattle are given lots of hormones and antibiotics. These are showing up in our drinking water! DNA analysis shows that between corn-fed hamburgers and HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) that's used heavily in processed foods and sodas, Americans are starting to have a food signature that's mostly corn (an interesting movie to see is King Corn)!
The implications of how food is raised have huge impacts not only on the nutritional food value of our food, but on the health of our planet as well. So I'm finding myself eating less and less meat. I'm not a vegetarian, and I do think it's natural for humans to eat meat -- evolutionarily we're omnivores after all -- but yet, I feel less and less like eating industrially-produced meat.

This past year our family has been eating more vegetables, legumes and whole grains, due in part to getting a weekly CSA box full of fresh organic produce! And I must say that I feel healthier and even have lost some of that 40+something weight gain (without even trying -- I certainly am not the "dieting" type (more on that topic on my post Diet is a 4-letter word).

But really, how much meat do we really need to eat? Humans certainly can and do thrive on a mostly vegetarian diet. I admit that while I enjoy a good cut of meat, I find myself less willing to buy what's for sale at the grocery store. Right now I'm reading an interesting book by Nicolette Hahn Niman called Rightous Porkchop (Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms). The more I learn about the food industry, the more I want to get away from industrially-produced meat. I stand there in the grocery store and wonder: did this meat come from a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) where animals are kept in horrible conditions, standing knee-deep in their own excriments while being fattened on corn products and kept from getting sick only by heavy administration of antibiotics? Were these eggs laid by chickens crammed into barns by the thousands, unable to walk even a few steps? Did the bacon come from pigs produced in a giant warehouse operation that produces more wastewater pollution than a small city?

I do recommend the movie Food, Inc (Santa brought me that for Christmas), which does a good job of reporting on food issues without being overly sensational. It makes a really good point about how we vote on food issues every time we're at the checkout stand of the the grocery store -- as our food purchases get scanned, we VOTE with our dollars: for example, as organic products are making more and more gains in the US/World market, industry is starting to pay attention! Within the last few years, our family has switched first to organic milk, then many of our vegetables, chicken and now also beef. And of course we do love eating our Alaskan Wild salmon!

I'm still working on figuring out eggs -- there are a few with the label "organic" and many more with the less meaningful label "natural". Some brands advertise they're antibiotic and additive-free, vegetarian-fed (= no animal by-products), and even cage-free. But does "cage-free" mean they really get to roam the farmyard, or did they get an itty-bitty "yard" attached to a giant facility that very few of the chickens can even get to? Vegetarian feed is better than ground up recycled dead chicks, but then again, eating bugs is actually an important and normal part of a chicken's diet...
Ideally I'd like to raise our own chickens, but I'm worried about the wildlife factor here: would raising backyard poultry act as an attractant to the many bears (black and brown) that occasionally roam our neighborhood? I wish I could find a good local source of eggs that don't cost an arm and a (chicken)-leg! These last few years I've been buying Wilcoxfarms Omega-3 eggs available at Costco (chickens that are fed grass-based diets do lay eggs that are higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids) -- but it's still part of a huge factory-style operation (I think?!) -- but then again, one step at a time: at least they're not as bad as some of the other industrial producers out there...

So here I am, puzzled. I go grocery-shopping (and vote!) every week, and I want to do what's best for my family and for my planet. My boys/men certainly do like their spicy food and meat, while my daughters and I would be happy eating mostly vegetarian. So the compromise I'm making is that I try to cook more and more with organic/local produce, and while I do cook with meat several times a week, I use smaller quantities than I used to. For example, I might use sausage more as a spice than a main ingredient, or make stir-fry or curry with more vegetables than meat. I've learned a couple of things over the last few years:
  • change seems easier when it's gradual.
  • if I cook too "healthy" and lean, then they eat more snacks/junkfood inbetween meals.
  • I am the queen of the kitchen:)
  • they will eat what I cook --an awesome power, I know -- and I'll try not to let that get to my head!

Photo credits:
Meat from
Eggs from