Because All Eaters Have a Stake

All of us eaters are activists, whether we realize it or not. We have a major stake in the kind of food system we support with our food choices.

There has been a flurry of activity lately on various food issues, filling my email inbox with alerts on everything ranging from pink slime in school lunches to labeling of genetically engineered foods to ensuring that powerful Monsanto doesn’t tamper with sweet corn. Because there should always be a bit of time dedicated to voicing our support for a healthy, sustainable food system, I wanted to share these with you.

Take a moment today and support the important advocacy efforts below. I know I will!

USDA, STOP USING PINK SLIME IN SCHOOL FOOD

FDA, LABEL GENETICALLY ENGINEERED FOODS

WALMART, SAY NO TO MONSANTO’S SWEET CORN

Have a great weekend!

My Favorite Food Books of 2011

Life has been a whirlwind the past few weeks since Thanksgiving, filled with traveling spouses, busy weeks at schools, and wonky injured lower backs. I would love to share with all of you details of my experiences learning how to make delicious challah from scratch, and how my kids reacted to roasted pumpkin Thai curry I decided to try out in the midst of the madness. But that wonky lower back is still with me, and time in front of the computer is scarce this week. So instead, in the spirit of the holidays when we all tend to cook/bake more, as well as wrack our brains for those perfect gifts, I though I’d share my favorite food book acquisitions from this year.* I hope this provides inspiration on various fronts.

Happy days to all of you!

Lena

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What are you making for Thanksgiving this year?

The countdown to Thanksgiving is in full effect at our house, with both girls looking forward to what has become perhaps their favorite holiday of the year. Perhaps it is the ritual, the expectation of certain foods, the mellow family vibe, or the vacation from school. All of the above is most likely.

We do a potluck Thanksgiving with Jonah’s family, which means we’re off the hook for the turkey but deeply involved in all matters related to dessert, stuffing and cranberry sauce. We like to stick with the standards but this year, I’m taking things a new direction.

Instead of apple pie, I’m making David Lebovitz’s heavenly apple marzipan galette.

Pumpkin pie will likely become a tart this year, with this homemade graham cracker crust. I’m also be tempted to substitute creme fraiche for a part of the heavy cream that typically goes into the custard.

This stuffing is drawing my attention as a great base, with  handfuls of wild mushrooms, mushroom stock and fresh herbs as additions.

For cranberry sauce, I never stray too far from this classic Saveur recipe. Jalapeños have traditionally been excluded but who knows how I’ll feel next week?

Share your ideas and favorites!

Food Day

Today is Food Day! Time to Cook, and Take Action: Tell the FDA to Label GE Foods

Today is the first time Food Day is being celebrated in the United States in close to 40 years! Food Day is a nationwide grassroots mobilization that encourages Americans to eat healthy, delicious food grown in a sustainable and humane way and to advocate for smarter food policies.

In honor of this event, and because I strongly believe that eating is always a political act, I am asking for your collective support for a new campaign that seeks to address one of the most pressing food and environmental issues of our time. The Just Label It campaign strives to tackle the increasing problem of genetically engineered plants and animals in our food supply. The use of GE crops has profound environmental and health implications. At this time, the public does not know if foods they buy contain genetically engineered ingredients.

We deserve to make informed choices about our food supply from every perspective. If you agree, I ask you to support this petition, which  asks the FDA to make the labeling of foods containing genetically engineered foods mandatory. Let’s help them meet this goal of mobilizing millions of Americans around this issue by the end of the year!

Here’s a great, SUPER SHORT video called “Dining in the Dark,” to watch and share with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Now that you are inspired, sign the petition! Tell the FDA you have a right to know what’s in your food.

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Boxed Mac’N’Cheese Saves the Day!

Our family has been in sick mode this week, which translates into a lot of triage and late nights working, and not a lot of energy to put toward the evening meal. So I wasn’t at all surprised to find an essentially empty refrigerator at 5:00PM yesterday, as I began to contemplate what’s for dinner. What options did I have before me? Not many, it turned out. I decided to center a quick and healthy meal around an unlikely candidate: boxed macaroni and cheese.

No, it is not an ideal dietary staple.

No, it does not compare to any homemade version (unless you are Ava and dislike melty cheese).

Yes, it is made from organic ingredients.

Yes, we happen to have a secret love for this queen of processed foods.

My guilt was instantly assuaged by the suite of accompaniments I decided to pull together to round out the meal. There was zucchini-cilantro soup awaiting in the freezer (reminder: freeze everything you can for a rainy day!). A lonely but gorgeous head of purple cauliflower was roasted with garlic, olive oil, capers and secret ingredient anchovies. A “crisper bin special” green salad was quickly thrown together, saving one orphan kale leaf, half a carrot, a head of fennel and a little lettuce from their compost bin fate).

It all came together in about 40 minutes, and most importantly, allowed us to enjoy a family meal during a tough stretch.

Join the Hunger Challenge, September 11-17, 2011

September is national Hunger Action month. There are now more than 44.6 million people on food stamps in the US, the largest number in history. Joining many other like-minded organizations around the country, San Francisco/Marin Food Bank is inviting community members to take their Hunger Challenge next week, starting Sunday. The main goal of this effort is it to experience how challenging it is to eat healthfully on $4.92 per family member, per day (the amount granted to food stamp recipients). Our family is leaving town next week, but prior to our trip, we will be eating simple and inexpensive meals in honor of this Challenge.

As I contemplated our participation, brainstorming frugal recipes, figuring out the best approaches to stretching a meal, one thing became clear: this Challenge is really about more than exploring whether it is possible to create nourishing meals on a food stamp budget. There is also the question of whether those who rely on food stamps even have the time to allocate toward meal planning and preparation. For the working poor striving to makes ends meet, especially in outrageously expensive cities like my lovely San Francisco, time is as precious a resource as money. Earnings aren’t going far enough, so people take on more work to make ends meet. There seems to be a direct path between this reality, and the fast food restaurant. I will keep this at the forefront of my mind as I prepare food for my family next week.

With 15 million children living in poverty in the United States today, we clearly have an enormous problem to contend with. I encourage all of you to take this Hunger Challenge next week, even if it is just for a day. If nothing else, take the time to have a family conversation about hunger to generate awareness among all generations about the urgency of this issue.

For more context, check out the ABC News series “Hunger and Children in America”

Slow Food USA is also doing a $5 Challenge aiming to prove that a “slow food doesn’t have to cost more than fast food.”

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Beware of Pine Nuts, All You Pesto Lovers!

Last Friday, while preparing a quick snack, I decided to break open a bag of Trader Joe’s Pine Nuts. I tossed a few into my palm and devoured them. Then a handful. Then another. They tasted great, I couldn’t get enough.

Fast forward two days to Sunday evening, when out of the blue, I developed a terribly bitter taste in my mouth, rendering all food unpalatable. Great for a dieting purposes I suppose, but food lover that I am, the situation was totally unacceptable. Not to mention entirely mysterious. Where could this have come from?

I waited a day or so before succumbing to a complete freak out. Fearing the worst after eating a lot of homemade jam over the weekend, I immediately suspected botulism. Luckily, “bitter taste in mouth” is NOT a symptom of that dreaded disease. But what I quickly discovered is that I do have a case of “pine mouth,” apparently a relatively new but increasingly common problem associated with the consumption of Asian pine nuts.

Pine Mouth is a huge bummer, though doesn’t seem to have a real health impact. It does cause that telltale bitter taste, especially when consuming sweeter foods. It takes a good 1-2 weeks to entirely disappear. And doesn’t make cooking much fun. I was ready to toss everything I made into the compost because I had no sense of how it really tasted.

The US Food and Drug Administration is researching the matter but in the meantime, the best way to avoid pine mouth is to steer clear of any pinenuts that come from China, Korea or Russia (as is typical for pine nuts sold at Trader Joe’s and Costco apparently). For reference, these tend to be more conical in shape, in contrast to the European pine nuts that are slender and elliptical – and most importantly, do not appear to be implicated in this problem.

For more information, see here:

http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA400911/Pine-Mouth-Syndrome-Leaving-a-Bitter-Taste.html

http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm247099.htm

http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/pine-mouth-pine-nuts-leave-bitter-taste-lingers/story?id=11097222

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Surviving Back to School Step 1: A Family Meal Calendar

While it has been great fun posting about my baking endeavors and lazy summer meals, reality struck with a vengeance right around last Monday! This happened to be the first day of third grade for Ava, as well as the last day of “lazy” camp mornings for us. Despite my best intentions for the opposite, I found myself totally unprepared, perhaps because I haven’t yet adjusted to having to function at full throttle in the middle of August. Which to most people outside of San Francisco is considered the height of summer.

By morning #3, it was apparent that our usual patterns we’re failing. The “what do you want for breakfast today?” under duress left us frantic (duress in this case equals having to be out the door by 7:40 at the latest to make it to school on time) . Lunch went great for a few days, then we became the recipients of the nearly full lunch bag and “hangry” late afternoon tantrums.

Given all of this, I came up with a new approach that will hopefully set us on the right track: a food calendar. In its simplest version, it looks like this:

The plan was to pick a consistent breakfast idea for every Monday, Tuesday, etc of each week, so that everyone was on board in terms of cooking and eating expectations.  And while we were busy planning breakfasts, why not plan lunches too? It also seemed like an excellent way to engage the kids in the food planning process so that when they complained (as they surely will) about having oatmeal on Tuesday, for example, we would be prepared to remind them – gently and with the utmost patience of course  -  that it was their choice in the first place. I expect that monthly revisions at the outset, but that will still be a great improvement over daily scrambling (and I don’t mean eggs).

Witness the completed plan. We are very proud.

School Lunch, New Ideas Please!

On more than one occasion recently, I’ve found myself speaking to a parent about food, mentioning this blog, and immediately getting a request for a post on school lunch.We all can agree that a well-fed child has more patience, more capacity to learn and weather the storms of a school day, and arrives home in a much better mood.  Given the fact that kids often have only 20 minutes to grab a seat, eat, drink socialize and clean up, actually finishing lunch poses a major challenge. It took Ava (and us) until the middle of 2nd grade to figure out our general recipe for success.

Now in my ideal world, children would eat a fresh, healthy, sustainably-sourced and delicious school lunch with their peers on a daily basis. But since that vision, at least in San Francisco, is a long way off, many parents stick to packing a bag lunch. At least some of the time. Which means parents and kids are in constant need of inspiration and ideas, especially as we near the end of the school year and burnout is setting in (at least in our household).

Here is a list of our best lunch strategies, in no particular order. Please add yours to the mix!

1. Hot lunch goes over much better than cold. I can get away with a sandwich (either PB+J or salmon salad, sometimes goat cheese + olive spread) at most once per week. I rely on a kid-sized Thermos to keep the food relatively warm.

2. For hot lunch, its all about leftovers. Having food on hand for lunch is as much a motivator to cook a good dinner as anything.

3. Quick hot lunch components we have time to make in the morning include warmed up beans and a quesadilla (which does get cold but she doesn’t seem to care); tortellini/other pasta and Parmesan cheese; quinoa + garbanzo beans; and similar combos.

4. We used to pack a multi-course spread in small portions. That didn’t go over so well, with lots of food coming home and no longer appetizing after hanging around for hours in a lunch sack. New strategy: pare things down to the very basics: water bottle, hot lunch and fruit or vegetable. This seems to be working.

5. If we get complaints about lunch (to the tune of “I don’t want XYZ anymore!”) it has to be accompanied by a replacement option. Otherwise, the options get limited way too quickly.

6. Cucumber yogurt salad, aka raita or tzatziki, plus bread and butter. Mix a delicious plain yogurt with chopped pieces of cucumber, dill, salt, pepper and maybe one clove of garlic diced into tiny pieces. Throw in a slice of whole grain bread and butter plus fruit.

7. Soup! Yes, this falls into the leftovers category. But worth calling out. Split pea soup, lentil soup, chicken soup, are consistent hits.

8. Sushi. I’ll pick up an avocado roll the day before, make some brown rice as a side, and send it to school. Yes, it’s not exactly homemade. But close enough!

I can’t wait to hear what you would add to this list!

The Dinner Journal

I am not the most sentimental person but this recent post from my friend Simran’s blog A Little Yumminess definitely caught my attention. I love the idea of impromptu, collective journaling of our family’s daily dramas. I love that it’s informal, and unfussy. I imagine that the minimal effort yield super sweet results.

Would any of you give this a try at home? I think we will.

Collecting Memories Around the Dinner Table

March 23, 2011 by Simran S. & Stacie D.

Because family dinners are about so much more than eating, one of the things we’ve been doing lately is jotting down a little note or doodle from the day while we’re sitting together at the table. During the rush of the week it’s one of the only times when we’re all together and have the chance to talk and catch up.

This is sort of a lazy person’s journal, but in this case one for the whole family. Our version is simple, a bowl (an excuse to use one of the fancy Waterford crystal bowls we got many moons ago as a wedding gift) filled with index cards and pens. It’s a permanent fixture on our dining room table and as we eat and talk we pass around a blank card and write a little something about what we ate, our favorite part of the day, things we want to do, a piece of trivia, or just a silly story or doodle. Luca makes sure we never forget to “do our card” and he loves to ask us to pull one out at random and read what we wrote during previous dinners.

Life seems to move at the speed of light most of the time so it’s nice to capture some of those tiny minuscule moments. Even if we’re stressed and the food is less than great, it also reminds me that this is my favorite part of the day.