Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Efficient cooking, made complicated!

I was at a fundraiser in Eugene last week, and got in a conversation with a local woman (whose name I did not catch) about the most energy efficient way to cook. She told me that the pressure cooker was the most efficient kitchen appliance. The entire conversation was nagging at me for a few days afterward, however, and it wasn't until just the other day that I realized why. The straightforward way of thinking about this issue was actually totally backwards.

First, here are some of the straightforward facts that she was operating with. When we cook, we either burn some fuel (natural gas, charcoal e.g.) or use electricity to heat our food. Electricity can heat food in a couple of ways: most electric heating elements are just a simple resistor (a material that resists electric current), which turns 100% of the electricity it resists into heat with theoretically perfect efficiency. All electric heating elements have the exact same basic efficiency, from your portable space heater to your hairdryer to your electric stove. Electricity can also be used (as in a pressure cooker) to pump hot steam into a contained space, which increases the temperature even more efficiently. This increase in efficiency is similar to the way that a geothermal heat pump heats a house more efficiently than an electric space heater. Burning anything to cook is less efficient, and also releases more carbon gas.

All of this, however, misses some important points about how we use our homes. The assumption is that the heat will be used to heat the food, and then be lost to the universe. After beginning my first winter in a place that actually gets cold, I realize that this is just not true at all. When the oven is running all day, the thermostat controlled home heating doesn't turn on. The point is, in the winter there is no such thing as 'waste heat.' And since my oven heats the house with the same efficiency as the built in heating system (the apartment has electric heat) there is no functional difference between one and the other. In fact, the oven is more efficient in a way, because the heat is being used for two purposes: first to heat the food and second to heat the home.

Back before the power grid and natural gas hookups, every home had one fire that ran more or less non stop and served every function that requires heat in the home. Over that fire, water was boiled and food was cooked. The fire provided heat for the home, light for that room, and a place for the family to gather all winter long. Today, we have a separate appliance for every function. An oven, a pressure cooker, a crock pot, a toaster oven, a fridge, freezer and heater, not to mention all of the various motors that we need (a blender or a mixer, e.g.), and our countless entertainment devices. All of these things consume energy and use it for one and only one purpose. When you start thinking in this way, it becomes obvious that the pressure cooker is not more efficient in the winter, because there is no "waste" heat going in to your home.

So then what do we do in the summer? When it is too hot for that extra heat to be useful, the issue is reversed. Then that waste heat is really wasteful, because it will cause your AC to work extra hard! So if it is really hot, chilling out with a cold dish is ideal. This is also just obvious when you think about it, summertime is when we want to eat salads and sandwiches and (some of us at least) gazpacho. We want cold food because we are hot. In the winter, when it is freezing outside, it is lovely to have baked goods, homemade soup, etc. all of which requires the oven and stove to be burning away all day long. This is a not a coincidence. When you go back to that one fire scenario above, people didn't want the fire burning all day and night when it was ninety degrees out, and they did want it when it was below freezing. In other words, our habits have been developed over centuries, and the recent innovation in technology has thrown us a little out of whack.

I am not a Luddite, I love technology. But sometimes our really advanced and clever solutions (like using electricity to make your house cold) cause us to forget the really simple solutions that we have been using forever (light linen clothes, cold food and drink). And sometimes those simple solutions are extremely satisfying.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Stock Pot

The other day I made a lentil stew. I was not expecting much out of it, I have made it before and it is usually bland and only moderately satisfying. This time, however, I was shocked to discover that, although I did not do anything interesting with it, it was totally delicious. The kind of delicious that finds you moments later scraping the last bit of stuff from the side of the bowl wondering if you should have seconds, extending the bliss, or savor it tomorrow as leftovers, repeating the moment.

I retraced my steps. What had I done differently this time? I used the same spices in roughly the same proportion, I added tomatoes, but that hardly explained the drastic change in quality. I concluded in the end that there was only one real difference: I had used chicken stock that I made from scratch.

The tradition of making stock is all about efficiency, utility, and reducing waste. Back when meat was extremely expensive (you had to pay a chicken in grain for months and months to get one meal's worth of meat), people felt the need to extract every milligram of protein, mineral, and flavor from their animals. In many cultures, the practice of boiling the bones and remnants of your harvested livestock developed to reduce the waste. Not because they were concerned with waste, mind you, but because the food product of the animal was so valuable that it was crazy to just throw it away.

Although this process was developed to utilize the waste, the result was so delicious that it became an important part of the cuisine of many cultures, and today is ubiquitous in the culinary arts. While dehydrated stock (bullion) and canned stock have been around for as long as the technology of canning and drying, they were originally developed as a convenience for travelers or otherwise encumbered people who could not make their own. Stock prepared from scratch is considered to be superior by most (myself included), and few restaurants will admit to using canned stock these days.

So why is it that most home kitchens have sacrificed flavor for convenience? Canned stock has become so common that most of us have never made stock at home. Also, it is quite time consuming, and many cannot imagine spending 5 hours around the kitchen, even on a Sunday. To make matters worse, those who endeavor to make a first attempt can be permanently put off by a single failure (there is nothing worse than spending 5 hours on food, and ending up with something unsatisfying). However, making stock is not difficult or labor intensive; even though it takes a lot of time it requires almost no attention. Stock keeps in the refrigerator (though it must be taken out and re-boiled every 3 or 4 days) and freezes without loosing any of its flavor, and a good stock will vastly improve the flavor of the most simple dishes. If you, like Courtney and I, are trying to eat less meat, stock adds that meaty flavor to your vegetarian dishes. And finally, if you have never had home made stock, it tastes amazing compared to the can, which was the point of the lentil story at the top of this post.

So, after all that, here is a simple recipe for stock. I will try to cover the common pitfalls that can lead to an unsatisfying result.

Basic Chicken Stock:

Carcass of 2 chickens:

The simplest way to get the chicken material is to keep all of the less appetizing parts of a chicken that you have roasted previously (the back, the bones, the giblets, and wings are good for stock). You can freeze the remains after roasting and make the stock whenever you want. Alternatively, you can try to find a 'stewing hen' (chickens which lay eggs for many years don't yield good meat). There are other ways (buying a huge pack of chicken wings) to get good stock material, but they mostly defeat the purpose of utilizing waste.

1 or 2 Carrots, roughly chopped
1 Onion, quartered
2 Celery stalks, roughly chopped
1 Bay leaf
1 or 2 Other fresh Herbs (optional, don't go crazy)
Water to cover, at least 1 quart

The key to stock making is simplicity. Remember, this is not supposed to be a finished product, it is an ingredient. I never add salt or spices to stock at all. I typically use thyme in addition to the bay, and not one other thing. Simplicity yields versatility, and that is the key for a tasty stock that can be used as a base for any meal. As Chef Shaun Hill says in The Cook's Book (my favorite kitchen reference), the stock pot is not a "swill bin," for tossing in any scraps and junk. That is what the compost bin is for.

First, roast the chicken parts in the oven at 400 F to render away all fat and brown all over. Do not allow any part to burn, but deep browning adds a rich flavor and generates the color of the finished stock. When the browning is done, move all the chicken to the stockpot, drain off all fat and deglaze the roasting pan with water. Pour the deglazing water into the stock pot.

Put all the remaining ingredients into the stock pot and add enough water to cover. Bring to a boil. Simmer until the bones are disintegrating, several hours. Check the stock regularly, skimming off any foam or impurities, and adding more water if the level drops below the other ingredients. It is important that the solids remain submerged for maximum flavor extraction, but more water than just enough is not necessary, and will only dilute the stock.

When the stock is ready, strain the liquid into another container with a ladle. the solid ingredients may contain some more liquid, so allow them sit for few minutes or press them to extract the last bit of stock.

Allow the stock to cool to room temperature before storing in the fridge or freezing. Stock will most likely jelly when cooled. If stored in fridge, take out and bring to a boil every three or four days to preserve. Keeps in freezer for up to a year. This stock will be fairly concentrated, and can be mixed half and half with water when making soup or stew. Add a little less water if making risotto. Do not dilute if making sauce.

Chicken Stock on Foodista

Monday, November 30, 2009

Passive House

In a recent issue of Dwell magazine, there was a home featured which was certified as a Passive House. For those of you who are not familiar with this term, it is a European system for creating and certifying energy efficient homes which has recently come to the US. As one who has studied LEED in depth and frequently lamented the inelegance of LEED for Homes, I was initially seduced by the simplicity of the Passive House system and their consistent results in performance.

A closer look makes it clear, however, why Passive House is so neat where LEED for Homes is so messy: it focuses almost entirely on one aspect of green building, the heating and cooling load. While LEED attempts to cover every relevant topic from sustainable site selection to reusing materials, Passive House is primarily concerned with making the building envelope (ext. walls, roof, windows, doors, and accompanying insulation) as efficient as possible.

While this focus has led Passive House to generate a much easier to follow program with much more consistent results, it can by no means be considered a complete guide to green building. LEED still offer the only comprehensive guide that I know of for addressing all of the many concerns of sustainability (even if it addresses each imperfectly).

That being said, Passive House is still an excellent program. They boast a measured and verified energy savings of about 90% over conventional construction, and many Passive House homes can be heated sufficiently by the waste heat of a hair dryer, or even just the body heat of the occupants. Since Buildings consume a whopping 60% of electricity consumed in this country, that kind of efficiency has a substantial and direct impact on sustainability.

The home featured in Dwell, for example, used a form of passive geo-thermal heating (as opposed to a ground source heat pump), in which the air intake ran through buried coils to be warmed without any energy consumption before it even entered the house. The temperature was maintained with an extremely efficient insulation system. This simple, elegant solution to thermal comfort can be implemented in any climate (coils are buried below the frost line) and works for both heating and cooling, because the temp. below the topsoil is constant, and conveniently a pretty comfortable 60ish degrees F. If the incoming air is that warm, it requires only the slightest additional push to reach cozy levels (hence heating with a hairdryer).

In summary, passive house offers an in depth analysis of one important aspect of green building, and in its focus provides excellent solutions. In conjunction with a more holistic approach like LEED, the result is a vastly more sustainable building.

And after all that serious stuff, here is another BB post about what may be the cutest thing that you will ever see, ever. A little tip: it gets better the more you watch it.

Understanding Energy

[Update:  I probably should have included this disclaimer originally, if you have a solid understanding of physics this will probably be redundant] I just finished reading this post by Boing Boing guest blogger Saul Griffith, and it is an absolute must read for anyone who is interested in energy, efficiency, sustainability, going green, or the way things work in general.

I recommend that you have a little spare time when you read this, so that you can follow the links and really get into what he is talking about. It is not light reading (I would call it medium) and gets a little technical, but mostly puts the information into plain English that anyone (English speaking, that is) can understand.

Mr. Griffith is clearly a person who both understands the realities of the situation and is not at all deterred by the complexity (which he shouldn't be, he has a PhD from MIT). Even when talking about trade-offs and the difficulties of alternative energy sources (like electricity for cars) there is no hint of despair or defeat, just the kind of straightforward analysis that leads to better problem solving.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gluten Free Gumbo: Begin With a Gluten Free Roux

Signature gumbo from Bozo's Seafood Restaurant...Image via Wikipedia
I made gumbo last weekend, which as we all know, starts with a roux. Gumbo is the ultimate comfort food
for anyone with a southern mother (like me), and as the house was filled with the signature smell of Cajun cooking, I felt at home here in Oregon for the first time. The recipe below does not contain exact portions, because I always just make it up as I go. Instead I describe the process and give some guesses.

As those close to us know, Courtney is allergic to wheat, which is one of the only two ingredients in roux. I had made gumbo once or twice with a quinoa flour roux, which was alright but somewhat disappointing. The quinoa did not thicken up the way roux should, and added a strange nutty overtone. So this time I consulted the all knowing Internet, and was shocked by the dearth of information on gluten free roux. There was only one decent link to Gluten Free Girl and this video, but that is a french roux and I needed a Cajun one.

I decided to wing it. Believe it or not, the most simple solution turned out perfectly. I grabbed a bag of GF All Purpose Baking Flour from Bob's Red Mill (a lovely company) and used it exactly as I would regular flour. It thickened up just the right amount, browned well, and tasted delicious. I almost think they should market it separately as 'GF Roux Flour.'

Cajun roux is different from french roux primarily in that vegetable oil is used in stead of butter (any fat can be used for roux, but different regional cuisines have different traditions). It is also used differently, as a thickener for stews and soups (gumbo, jambalaya e.g.) and not so much as a thickener for sauce (veloute or bechamel would be thickened with a french roux).

Cajun roux is made with vegetable oil for two reasons: first it is cheaper than butter (a lot of Cajun recipes use ingredients that are cheap and abundant in the south), and second because you can make the roux much, much darker in oil. With a french roux, the butter will burn before the roux cooks to the right color, which various cookbooks have described as "the color of peanut butter," "a deep nutty brown," "walnut," etc. Whatever you call it, you'll never get there with butter.

Gluten Free Basic Gumbo

Canola or other high heat oil (about a half cup)
GF all purpose flour (about a half cup)
Chicken stock (about 4 cups)
Andouille Sausage (a link or two) cut into bite size bits
Left over or pre-cooked chicken (about a pound)
The holy trinity: onions, green bell peppers, and celery (about 2 cups, roughly diced, even portions of each)
Shrimp (half to a whole pound)
Fresh herbs (bay, thyme, parsley, etc.)
Cooked plain white rice
Gumbo File (ground sassafras leaves)

For gumbo, make the roux in a heavy pot or dutch oven (cast iron is best) by mixing roughly equal part oil and flour. Cook over a high heat, stirring constantly, until the flour reaches the desired color (several minutes). When the roux is dark enough, add the holy trinity and the chicken stock to cool it off a bit and stop the flour from over cooking. My mother always sauteed the trinity in the roux for a few minutes before adding the stock, allowing them to brown a little. Either way tastes very good. After the stock, add the chicken and the fresh herbs.

In a separate pan, grill the andouille sausage until it is well browned all over. Remove with a slotted spoon, adding the sausage to the gumbo without transferring the extra fat. Bring the gumbo to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.

About 5 minutes before serving, add the shrimp. When the shrimp is cooked through, remove the pot from the heat. Serve over rice sprinkled with gumbo file, with Tabasco or other hot sauce at the ready.


For those with a heat tooth: adding a jalapeno or two with the trinity will please. Alternatively (or additionally) add cayenne pepper with the herbs.

For those with a taste for Thai: serve the finished gumbo with fish sauce and sriracha instead of Tabasco. I did this last time I had it, and I thought it was just about the most delicious thing I ever had, and I now believe fish sauce is the perfect condiment for gumbo.

Seafood Gumbo: instead of (or in addition to) chicken add crab legs, crayfish, scallops, or any other fish or crustacean really. Add it with the shrimp, careful not to overcook.

Vegetarian/vegan: Gumbo z'herbes is a traditional lenten version of gumbo for catholic southerners. Leave out the chicken and andouille sausage. To get some of that andouille flavor add cayenne pepper, black pepper, paprika, garlic, and plenty of sea salt. In place of the meat, throw in a mix of greens such as collard greens, spinach, dandelion, etc. This site gives an excellent list of greens to include, but I think the extra step of par boiling the greens is really unnecessary, just trim and chop into spoon able size and boil in the gumbo itself. Obviously, use vegetable stock instead of chicken.

Gumbo on Foodista
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Wind and NIMBY

An interesting post on Boing Boing about the politics of getting wind turbines constructed. The comment thread is also (a little less) interesting, but basically the response to most of the comments is "these are precisely the issues that would be worked out with more dialogue and planning, which is what the original poster is advocating."

On the aesthetic argument, I don't think they are particularly attractive or ugly, but when you see a field of them all rotating at the same time, there is definitely something mesmerizing and fascinating about them. The more important issue, however, is how they look compared to the alternatives.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Greens and Beans Part III: What I Miss About Meat

I posted a long time ago about how cooking vegetarian and vegan is more green, and suggested a few basic ideas for vegetarian cooking. But vegan cooking, now that is a lot harder.

As mentioned previously, for someone new to non animal cooking it is really easy to make food that tastes like cardboard. Vegans will tell you that they don't miss it, but meat adds a lot of flavor to food, in a lot of ways. Vegetarians get much of it back with butter, cheese, eggs and cream, which vegans eschew. However, by taking a look at what meat brings to the table, one can start thinking of ways to replace the flavor aspect of the meat, and not just the protein and iron.

First, animals are mostly salt water. Meat naturally contains a lot of moisture and a lot of salt, along with several other organic compounds that create the complex flavor. Remember when your 7th grade science teacher told you that your blood is chemically similar to seawater? Well the same is true of cows, chickens, pigs, and all other tasty animals. So, to get that complex saltiness, the best replacement is Sea Salt. Sea salt tastes better because of random inclusions, and if you are cooking meatless do not be shy about sprinkling a little extra in there. Also, if your ingredients are generally dry, adding some moisture can help break down food and bring out flavors. I always use some water, some acid like vinegar or citrus juice, and some alcohol like wine when I cook.

Next item: fat. Most meat contains a lot of fat naturally, to which restaurants almost always add more fat. Fat serves a lot of purposes in cooking, lubrication and moisture retention e.g. It also makes food taste richer and more satisfying. At this point a health conscious person will probably protest, saying "so your answer to tastier food is to add salt and fat?" I know it sounds like a recipe for a heart attack, but think about this: if you have chosen to cook a vegan meal, you have chosen to remove a ton of fat and salt, I am just recommending you add some of it back in. Also, you can use healthier sources of fat like olive or canola oil.

Finally, there is the slightly lesser known concept of umami, which is basically the savoriness of meat. Think of a simple chicken or beef stock, and that is exactly the flavor of umami. It comes from the amino acids in protein rich foods, and it is sorely lacking in many vegan recipes. But don't despair, there are several simple ways that you can get it into your meatless dishes.

The first is mushrooms. I personally feel that the "white" and "brown" mushrooms you get in the grocery store have no flavor at all, a dissatisfying texture, and may not actually be real food. But if you are saving $$ by not buying meat you can splurge a little on fancy mushrooms, and you will be rewarded for your extravagance with excellent flavor. Other umami makers: seaweed (in its many forms), soy sauce, and wonderful miso paste. Miso paste is the basis for miso soup, as you might have guessed, but when used in place of bullion it is excellent as a base for any vegan sauce or soup, especially when flavored with soy sauce and served with delicious fried chanterelle mushrooms... mmmumami.

In short, we evolved to love the flavor of meat, but that doesn't mean that we have to eat it with every meal. And with a little creativity, we can trick our tongues into getting that salty, fatty, umami sensation without a single animal product involved. Since meat and dairy production is way more damaging to the environment than vegetable production, cooking vegan on a regular basis actually makes a big difference. Especially if your vegetables are local. Also, since animal products are more expensive (generally) than vegetable, you can save a ton of money too.

Homegrown Electric Vehicles

So, yesterday I went to a little social event for greenies at Davis' Restaurant in downtown Eugene (I would have put a link to their website, but they have not one). It was hosted by Helios Resource Network, and co-hosted by Arcimoto, and the CEO (who I kind of hate for being successful at 23) gave a brief speech about their company.

Arcimoto is a start up producing electric vehicles, and they are doing it a little bit differently. They are working with technology that has been around for long enough to be cost effective to produce an affordable car, one that you can plug in to a conventional wall socket for all of its juice needs (they claim it charges fully in 6 hours), and they are making it look pretty spiffy too. While most electric cars have specially designed engines and crazy battery technology in order to move the weight of a full sized vehicle, Arcimoto is solving the problem by making a much smaller car!

This is a really simple, elegant and in hindsight obvious solution to the problem of engineering an electric vehicle. They went with a three wheel chassis (the car registers as a motorcycle, technically), and made a body just big enough to fit two comfortably. The result is a much lighter car that can be moved by a much smaller motor, and powered with a much more simple battery.

Now for the next part, which is possibly even cooler: they plan to manufacture and sell the cars locally. You may wonder (as I often have) why there aren't already electric cars everywhere, if it's so easy to make them. The answer is really stupid: big car companies can't figure out how to make a profit off of them. Currently most of the money in the car business is in service, and electric cars don't need any much service at all (a DC motor may need the brushes replaced once every seven years, and other than that it is good to go). Conventional autos need tons of service, so the car companies are willing to deal with marginal profits on the vehicles with a guarantee of years of necessary repairs (this is a gross over simplification, but it captures the basic idea).

So the Arcimoto solution: side step the existing auto industry entirely. Figure out the local market, set the price point for a decent profit, and let the consumer drive maintenance free for 7 years. Ford and the others are so locked into their current (lack of) profit models that they can't imagine doing anything like this (which is why they love hybrids so much: call it green without actually changing much).

The Arcimoto Pulse is not exactly perfect, a brushless motor would be better and the lead acid battery has its own ecological issues, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of an internal combustion vehicle in the sustainability department. Especially when the whole local production thing is taken into account. So I give the Pulse a huge thumbs up. If every city a company like this, generating electric cars locally, we would see a lot of innovation, a much more interesting market, and better air quality. Now if we could just stop getting our electricity from burning coal...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm back! (where was I?)

Sorry to my many followers (that is, my family and a few old friends) for failing to post for so long. Lets face it, if there isn't money on the table it's hard to be reliable. So where was I for so long? Aside from the many illegitimate excuses for not blogging, there were a few good reasons (still trying to decide if being really sick was an excuse or a reason). Among them, I have been devouring the new LEED 2009 reference guide: "Green Building Design and Construction." I don't think I could explain it without boring the bejesus out of anyone who is not a LEED AP, but there are a lot of really good and important improvements in the new system.

That being said, I was very saddened today by a post on Boing Boing (the most read blog) about ClimateCounts, a dubiously motivated non-profit that rates fortune 500 companies on their 'greenness.' What saddened me was not the post, but the absolutely defeatist comments from the BB readers:
  • "The very idea of "green" capitalism is a logical fallacy, and most of these companies have historically atrocious records of polluting the globe and abusing human rights. Those scores are useless, completely and uncompromisingly so."
  • "The bottom line is that most of what we do to assuage our own environmental damage is pointless unless we are living off the grid in the woods growing our own food organically and wearing animal skins."
This pessimism about environmental issues is not serving anyone. It is probably true that these companies have a history of being environmental monsters, but does that mean change is impossible? Of course not. They may be reluctant, but many are making changes, and even incremental changes have a positive effect. And while I would agree that the fisrt marriage of capitalism and 'green' was nothing but pure marketing hogwash, I would not agree that green capitalism is a logical fallacy (and just to be a jerk, which logical fallacy would that be? post hoc? slipperty slope? hmmm...).

Capitalism is about economics, the green movement is about sustainability. Their goals might seem contradictory at times, but in reality they are two completely different fields which can be made to work together. The absurdity of the above argument is clear if you replace capitalism with other economic regimes: the statements 'green socialism is a fallacy,' and 'green mutualism is a fallacy' just don't make any sense. Economics and sustainability are not mutually exclusive in any way.

I am also a little tired of the concept that in order to be green you have to live in the wilderness, off the grid, and make clothes from the skin of dead animals (I wonder if that poster was imagining skins of domesticated food stock or hunting for those skins, either way not necessarily more sustainable than cotton fiber). Quite frankly, there isn't room in the wilderness for every person alive to have their own acre of farmable land, and there isn't enough natural groundwater to support that many farms indefinitely.

For better or worse, over half of the world's population are now city people, and that is why cities have become the focus of most green movements. We need a lot of infrastructure to support our current population, and spreading people out into the woods would mean more of that infrastructure, and all of it less efficient. That is why focusing on green development, renewable resources and sustainable energy is so important, and why this defeatist claptrap about it all being pointless is so damaging.

I admit that things look pretty bleak when you get down to it: CO2 has a long life in the atmosphere (exact numbers are difficult to come by) so even if we stopped burning anything right now, we would not reach stability for at least 50 years. Mercury has a much, much longer life in the oceans (it can cycle through the food chain many, many times before anything like safe deposition). But how could it possibly help to throw in the towel? So the solution isn't simple, isn't easy, and won't happen overnight. All the more reason to roll up our sleeves and get started.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Puppy Kibble

Today, I decided to take the plunge into DIY dog food. We got the books, we did the research, we talked to our (completely unhelpful) vet, and now we are making Cleo's food. Well, sort of.

Basically, dogs need vitamins A through K and basic minerals like potassium, magnesium and such, most of which will be covered by a well rounded diet (that is, feed the dog different stuff every day, not just chicken). The only thing that she will definitely not get enough of is calcium, and especially for puppies too much or too little is a big problem. Eggshells have tons of calcium, but must be ground in a coffee or spice grinder (not just crushed) to be edible and effective.

So, although I am pretty sure I know what I am doing, until I am 100% positive, I am mixing our home made food with store bought puppy kibble, about half and half. That way, I can be sure that the correct blend of vitamins, minerals and nutrients is getting to her.

My first dog food recipe, I will call Puppy Potato Salad. This is modified from the Tuna and Potato Dinner recipe from This Book. We didn't have tuna packed in oil, so I used some canned herring (which had been sitting in our pantry untouched for months, don't even remember why we bought it) instead, after much research into its healthfulness and a little taste test with Cleo.

First, I boiled some potatoes. Only one would end up in her meal, but if I am going to heat up that much water anyway, I might as well make potato salad tomorrow. Next I mashed the herring with the oil it was packed in (dogs, especially puppies need a high protein, high fat diet).

To the herring, I added some yogurt (dogs need good bacteria in their gut just like us), grated carrot and parsley for vitamins and fiber. A little olive oil for fat content, and finally I cut up the potato (about a half cup, chopped) and mixed it in.

The result looked really terrible, but Cleo loved it. Mixing the home made food with store kibble, it made about six servings. The ingredients were probably around $3, so that makes 50 cents a meal. Not quite as cheap as a pure kibble diet, but much healthier (I hope) in the long run.

Eventually, the goal is to feed Cleo mostly with the scraps of our kitchen, but plan our meals so that the scraps will be just what she needs. I figure we should spend some time preparing her meals pretty much separately, but at least trying to overlap the ingredients. Over time, ideally, most of our vegetable waste will be composted, and all of our meat and fatty scraps will go to Cleo. In other words, the long term goal is to make Cleo part of a more sustainable kitchen.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wild Mushroom Risotto

I have made this dish (or some variation) about 10 times in the last month, and every time it has been amazing. This is due in large part to the fact that the Pacific North West has an abundance of edible wild mushrooms. From the impressive looking Lion's Mane to the improbable Chicken of the Woods (it tastes like chicken, really), the mushrooms up here are really something else. Many delicious species grow on decaying hardwoods, and the climate up here is perfect for both hardwood trees and mushrooms.

Risotto is a little scary to some because it is easy to burn. But once you get the hang of it, it is an excellent base for improvisation. You can throw in seafood or mushrooms, some chopped vegetables, or you can take it in new directions with spices. If you cook a topping or additive separately, it can be combined at the end. It is basically a rich and creamy base for whatever flavor you want to support. The signature texture breaks down when reheated, but it is still delicious, and in my opinion makes excellent leftovers when eaten within a few days. It takes about 30 minutes all told, but 15-20 minutes of that time requires constant attention. So it can be made quickly, but do not plan on multitasking.

Wild Mushroom Risotto:

1 1/2 Cups Risotto Rice:

It is essential that you use the correct rice. Only short, fat grains will do. I always use Arborio, but Carnaroli (which I have never seen in the grocery store) is apparently traditional. These particular types of rice are more starchy, and break down differently from other varieties.

4 Cups Stock:

This is where you get most of the flavor (aside from the fatty creaminess of the butter). Chicken stock is most common, but fish or vegetable stock is a perfectly acceptable substitution depending on the other ingredients. I do not recommend mushroom stock for wild mushroom risotto, actually, because the flavors might compete (the stock will probably be made with very different mushrooms). Use a vegetable or chicken stock instead. Whatever the flavor, use the best stock you can find, or better yet stock that you made yourself. Since this is the flavor base, make it a good one. Using a vegetable stock makes this a vegetarian recipe.

Up to 2 cups chopped Mushrooms:

Any variety will do, but some kind of fresh wild mushroom is best. I like chanterelles a lot, but last time I used Fried Chicken Mushrooms (which don't taste like fried chicken, really). You can also use dried mushrooms, which should be refreshed in a little water. If you do this, you can mix the re hydrating liquid with the stock to retain all of the flavor.

1/2 cup white wine
2 shallots (or 1 onion)
2-4 cloves Garlic (optional)
1 tbsp. olive oil
5 tbsp. butter.
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Get all of the ingredients ready and close at hand before you start cooking. Clean and roughly chop the mushrooms, dice the shallots (and garlic) finely, put the stock in a small sauce pot, the olive oil and half of the butter in a large skillet. Have the wine measured and in reach. Grate the required amount of cheese and keep nearby. When everything is prepped, measured and handy, you are ready to get started. This is important, because once the rice is in the pan, you cannot walk away from it until it is almost finished.

Bring the stock to a boil, then turn down the heat to a low simmer, and keep it there. Heat the skillet until butter melts and blends with olive oil, then add shallots (and garlic). When shallots are softened (do not brown) add the rice and stir to coat the grains completely with fat.

Stirring constantly, add the wine, and simmer until completely absorbed. Repeat this process with the stock one ladle full at a time (still stirring constantly) until all of the stock is gone. If you stop stirring or walk away to do something else at this point, the liquid could evaporate very quickly and the rice could burn.

Add the mushrooms about 5 minutes before the risotto is done (that is, when you are ~2/3 of the way through the stock). Once all of the stock is absorbed, remove from the heat completely. At this point, dice the remaining butter and add it a few cubes at a time, stirring until it is melted. Then add the Parmesan cheese, again stirring until completely melted. Season with salt and pepper (white if you have it) to taste. Ideally, serve immediately. Otherwise, keep covered and serve within 20 minutes. Avoid reheating as this will cause the oil to separate, damaging the presentation (but not really the flavor).


For a vegan risotto, use Earth Balance instead of butter. Earth Balance is the only butter replacement that tastes almost as good and acts similar in cooking, and it also has no trans fat or hydrogenated oil. I have made risotto with this product a few times, and it works very well.

For a seafood risotto, use fish stock (if you can find it) or vegetable stock, and add shrimp at the same time as you would the mushrooms. If you are adding other seafood, consider cooking it separately and combining it right before serving, or using the risotto as a bed.

Other soft vegetables that can be eaten raw should be added at the same time as the mushrooms. Hard vegetables that need more cooking (tubers, rough greens, etc.) and meat should be cooked separately and combined right before serving. All together, I would not add much more than 2 cups of other ingredients per 1 and 1/2 cups (raw) rice.

Pictures to come soon, bon appetit. Scratch that, I just checked and I don't have any pictures of that one. I don't know what I was thinking. But here's a link!

Risotto on Foodista

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Sweet Life

So on top of getting the tour for free ($5) and getting some free slices from La Perla (~$10), I also got a gift card to Sweet Life Patisserie, value $10, for volunteering at EWEB last weekend. At first I thought this gift was a Trojan Horse, a nice idea but full of sad Courtney later (pastries and wheat allergies usually do not mix), but it turns out that Sweet Life has several gluten free options!

Now, gluten free is not their specialty, but like many shops in this area, they are definitely hip to it. So, I just wanted to write a quick post about them, and include a photo of what $10 bucks can get you when you only stick to the GF stuff.

Flourless torte, GF brownie, truffle, and "Venus Nipple"

I haven't told Courtney yet that I bought all this today, so she should be very pleased when she gets home.

Book Review: Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I just finished this book, and I recommend it highly. As you all know, I talk a lot about food on this blog, and food is entirely the subject of this book.

Animal Vegetable Miracle is the autobiographical story of Ms. Kingsolver and her family as they try to eat only local food for a year. As she lets you know right off the bat, they are not totalitarian about it, but they go much further than most would. It is made easier (and harder) by the fact that they live in a fertile valley and own a little bit of workable land (they also own a large amount of unworkable forest where they go hunting for morels, which makes me very jealous), which allows them to grow most of that food themselves.

Kingsolver was an accomplished fiction writer before she published this book (The Bean Trees comes highly recommended by both my wife and mother in law), and her skill with prose brings this story to life in vivid detail. She paints her daughters and her husband with color and life, and even more impressive: she approaches the character of herself with the proper blend of humor, humility, and respect.

The story is fun, informative, and engaging. It looks closely at every aspect of our food culture through the lens of a family trying to decide what to eat, which makes a lot of difficult issues very accessible. This sense of family involvement is not just a literary device, either: her husband and her elder daughter contribute essays which pepper the text (as Ms. Kingsolver puts it, the younger daughter contributes chicken eggs, because apparently it is difficult to work out a book deal for minors).

Courtney picked this book up when we were looking for information on starting a home garden, and although it is by no means a how-to text, it contains tons of useful information about growing your own food. It also manages to get its message across without seeming moralistic or judgmental, largely because one gets the sense that Kingsolver is herself not judgmental, but rather just an ordinary (albeit it eloquent) woman trying to figure out how to do things right.

In short, a must read for anyone interested in food.

Monday, October 5, 2009

EWEB green and solar homes tour

Yesterday I had the pleasure of helping out at EWEB for their Solar and Green Building Tour (part of the Solar Oregon program. I asked to help out early, so that I could take one of the tours and see some of the green homes Eugene was highlighting.

The first stop (for my group) was the Inkwell Building in Cresent Village, which won LEED Gold certification for the Core and Shell and LEED Platinum for the interior of their office. They followed LEED pretty much to the letter, and the result was a comfortable, beautiful office space. The rest of the tour consisted of three homes, each with completely different approaches to being green.

It was a really fun day, and I especially enjoyed talking with the builders and architects about what strategies they implemented to go green, and why they chose those over other possibilities. It was interesting to learn that many of my favorite methods for energy efficiency in Southern California were not always easy or effective to implement here.

For example, solar thermal water heaters are a snap in SoCal, but you have to purchase really high tech expensive ones in climates that drop below freezing for long periods in the winter. While one house chose to go with this option, the In-Law unit designed by Rainbow Valley did a cost analysis which showed that for their project it would take forever to pay off the initial expense (largely because it was a home for one person who only lived there part of the year). They chose a tankless water heater which was very efficient at providing the small amount of hot water needed.

In speaking with Alec from Rainbow Valley Design, he was lamenting how difficult it is to find valuable information about many of the "green" products available for builders. For example, he told me about a door they sourced which touted that it used locally harvested, sustainable wood. After he bought it, he found out that they did use local wood, but shipped that wood to China to be cut and assembled with cheap labor and then shipped it back. Well the point of local is that you aren't burning oil to ship it across the globe!

I told Alec about another builder on the tour who informed me that the hardwood floors in his house were green something or other certified, I had never heard of the certification he mentioned. I asked what that meant, he said "it's supposed to be better." I asked if it was FSC certified, he replied that he had no idea. So what's green about new maple if it isn't FSC certified?

My favorite home aesthetically speaking was the Sage House, by Arbor South Architecture. It was LEED Platinum, the highest rating offered by the US Green Building Council. The floors and some of the exterior features were done in beautiful re-purposed wood, and the structural beams were a glue lam product that I had not heard of before, which uses the chips and scraps from milling. They also used it as an interior design element to wonderful affect. The exterior features were redwood that was salvaged from the seats of an old theater through BRING Recycling, a fantastic local non-profit.

The In-Law I mentioned above, however, was great because of its extremely efficient use of a tiny square footage. Smaller homes are inherently green because they use less materials, cost less to heat and cool, and generate less waste. This place was 585 square feet, and it felt like at least 800. That is just good design.

The presence of a disabled man on the tour highlighted the issue of accessibility, which is usually not thought of as being a green issue. People get old. Sorry, everyone, that was a downer I know, but it is unavoidably true. People get old, they get injured, they slow down, sometimes they have children who are born with different abilities. Any honest assessment of the life cycle of a building should take this into account, plan for accessibility and easy mobility with a cane, a wheelchair, and even potential space for a care taker. It's not just about the current client, either, it is about resale and future owners.

The best house in terms of accessibility was definitely the "Earth Advantage House" built by David E. Smith. With wide hallways to accommodate wheel chairs and a roll in shower (no curb, just extra tiled floor for a wheelchair or walker to roll right in) in one bathroom, this house was certainly suited to the needs of any potential residents.

The tour finished up at La Perla, a new Pizzeria in town (of the fancy pizza variety) with really excellent, traditional wood oven cooked pizza. Their food was pretty fantastic, and I tortured Courtney by eating several slices in her presence (they had some wheat free food too, so she wasn't starving).

Thinking about the differences in local climate here and in SoCal and how they affect construction choices reminded me of some studies I had done for a sustainability class at UCLA that focused on Los Angeles City's practices, and looking back over them, I think maybe they deserve to see the light of day. So I think I may brush them off, fix them up, and publish them with google docs. If I follow through, I will link to it later.

That's it for now, bravo EWEB, and thanks to everyone who opened their homes and offices for us to see.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

(No Sugar) Sweet Tomato Sauce

Most commercial tomato sauce adds sugar to balance out the natural acidity of the tomatoes and the savory from the added salt. If you pick the right tomatoes and leave the pulpy seed part in and spice them well you get enough natural sweetness from the tomatoes themselves. I found out yesterday that Sweet Bay, as opposed to regular Bay, really really brings the sweetness out of the tomatoes. Here is what I did, it took two hours, at most, but I never keep track.


Picking the tomatoes is the most important part of a good sauce. I don't promote a specific variety (some people swear by romas, for example), but I have a completely unfounded, un-tested and unshakable belief that whatever variety, the best tomatoes are slightly small and extra deep red when compared to their neighbors. For sauce, over ripe tomatoes are great because they are sweeter, and the perfect shape and firm texture of younger tomatoes is useless in the sauce.

I began by cutting the stem out and roasting the tomatoes in an extremely hot oven (450 degrees), lightly coated in olive oil. If you want to include some peppers (sweet or hot), I recommend roasting them too. Once the skin bursts from the flesh and begins to blacken, they will be very easy to peel. Peel them over the roasting pan, which should have high walls, as they may turn into mush at this step. Don't take out the seeds, the pulpy part in the middle has the most flavor.

Onions or Shallots, Garlic:

I begin every sauce that I make, just about, by frying two or three medium shallots, or one small onion in a sauce pan with some olive oil, along with some finely chopped or crushed garlic (the sauce pan should be big enough to hold all the ingredients at the end). If I am cooking vegetarian, I always add butter to get some extra fat and salt. If I am cooking vegan, I add more olive oil and salt. How much garlic? I usually use about six times as much as the recipe calls for (because I am afraid of vampires, of course). If you, like most Americans, don't have the same devotion to this pungent bulb, one or two cloves will be plenty.

Although this is usually the first step, for this recipe I started the onion family right after putting the tomatoes in the oven. When the garlic and onions/ shallots are starting to brown, I cool them off and deglaze with the following:

Vinegar and Wine:

I heard somewhere (I think from my old room mate Austin) that you should always add some acid (vinegar or citrus), some alcohol (usually wine or vodka), and some water (which is provided by the tomato juice in this case) to every meal, because these different solutions react differently with food, bringing out different flavors. Now I am no chemist, so I take this advice completely on faith. It has served me deliciously so far. Yesterday I used White Balsamic Vinegar (my current favorite, it is cooked and aged differently from regular balsamic, and it is c-h-e-a-p at Trader Joe's) and a half cup of the white wine I talked about yesterday.

What I didn't tell you about that wine yesterday (because I had not read the label yet) is that Evesham Wood grows their grapes with zero irrigation, only the natural rainfall feeds their vines. You may be thinking "oh yeah, sure, in Oregon, but what about the rest of us?" In response, I say, booyah. The guys in the last link apparently have no desire whatsoever to market themselves, but they produce an amazing zinfandel that Courtney and I had the good luck to stumble on in Cambria as we were coming up the coast. Oh, yeah, and they don't irrigate either. In Southern California.

Anyway, if the tomatoes are not ready yet, take the onions off the heat until they are. When the tomatoes are ready, peel off the skin and dump all contents of the roasting pan into the sauce pan. Next, add the...


Fresh thyme is the most important herb for any savory dish, in my opinion. After that rosemary, sage, marjoram and oregano, or whatever else I have handy take roughly equal second place. Somewhere, someone right now is cursing at the computer and saying "what about fresh basil, you jerk." Well, I don't like to use fresh basil in something that I am about to boil for an hour, I usually reserve it for a cold, summer sauce like pesto. If you want basil in your marinara, I suggest adding it near the end of cooking.

One more essential herb, as mentioned above, is Bay. Once all of this is in, boil until the tomatoes are pretty much dissolved. This step is what takes all the time, but luckily all you have to do is stir it every 10 to 15 minutes. And hey, since the oven is still hot, now would be the perfect time to put a small chicken or medium winter squash in there (assuming you already prepped it before hand). When the tomatoes are mushy enough (purely subjective) it is almost ready to serve. Taste it and see about adding salt and pepper (to me by the way, pepper always means black, red, white, and paprika). If you have parmesean handy, don't worry about the salt so much.

I always make way too much sauce, not because I don't know how to plan a meal but because the sauce is always smoother and the flavor is always more evenly absorbed when you freeze it and re-heat it later.

Yesterday I threw a squash in the oven while the sauce boiled which I will call pumpkin?, because I have no idea what it was. Courtney said it was probably pumpkin adjacent. We tried to toast the seeds, too, but that was a complete failure, perhaps because we forgot to coat the seeds with oil. The pumpkin? was delicious though, and the sauce was excellent. The flavor of home made tomato sauce is a little different every time, but it is always more interesting than grocery store canned sauce. The time commitment makes this a weekend recipe, but the easy freezing means quick delicious pasta later.

Final note, since I started the no sugar thing up there, serving this sauce with white kidney or cannellini beans instead of pasta is a good low carb alternative for diabetics or otherwise dieting people.

Marinara Sauce on Foodista

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why wait for a holiday?

Today, at the local farmer's market, I went a little over board. Now that I am home, I ask myself, do I really need two different kinds of wild mushrooms? That one wasn't entirely my fault, there was a mushroom pusher there, and she got me hooked with a free sample of Lion's Mane (the fuzzy behemoth pictured below). And when you say no to a pusher they can get violent. Some of you will probably say that yes, everyone needs as many wild mushrooms as they can get their hands on, but I am a recent convert to fancy mushroom eating so lay off.

A sample of today's take from the Lane County FM

My most frivolous purchase of the day, I think, was a tiny baby sweet bay tree at $12.50 (an expensive item by farmer's market standards). It was a total impulse buy, but I have a feeling I am going to be very happy with it, and possibly quite soon. I wasn't sure when I bought it, but it turns out that you can use bay leaves fresh as well as dried, and unlike most other herbs, it has more flavor fresh. A quick google search also revealed that bay was named herb of the year by the International Herb Association (it also revealed that there exists an International Herb Association, who knew?). So, even though national plant a tree day is still a ways off (I have no idea when it is actually, does that make me a bad environmentalist?) I am going to plant a bay tree in my back yard.

The Bay Tree is the tall fellow on the right

After running completely out of cash, I decided it was time to come home. On the way back, unfortunately, I realized that I had accidentally parked next to a wine shop that specializes in local organic wine, and my walk to the car took an unexpected 90 degree turn to the left. I inexplicably found myself inside the wine shop, and somehow accidentally purchased the bottle of Oregon made Chardonnay in the picture above. If this bottle turns out to be good, I will probably accidentally park in front of the same wine shop every week for the rest of the farmer's market season (after that, I will have to admit it's on purpose).

The rest of my take was pretty normal: corn, squash, tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, and (I can feel my beard growing faster as I write this) an organic cotton bag to carry it all home in. I am thinking of turning the tomatoes into sauce, and testing the theory that fresh bay has more flavor...

In whatever form, this produce (along with some beans and wheat free pasta that we already have handy) will make something like 10 vegetarian meals for Courtney and I (that is, 20 meals total). The price tag was $53, including the wine and the cotton bag (which was 8.00 dollars! Come on, I know its organic cotton, but really?), which means that each farmer's market meal we make with this stuff will have cost us roughly $2.65 plus the cost of beans. That is a pretty darn good deal, especially considering that I splurged a lot on this trip.

Food grown by traditional means to be sold locally is usually quite cheap (the wild mushrooms were spendy, but they taste so good), and heirloom vegetables frequently taste much better because they were selected for flavor over hundreds of generations (conventional farming favors breeds that transport well over flavor-licious heritages). On top of that, much less energy goes into the production.

Take the case of the tomato, do you know how to grow a tomato? Well, conventionally, you start by purchasing genetically modified tomato seeds with the terminator gene, right? Of course. Next, you till the soil and add synthetic fertilizer (a petroleum byproduct) and spray highly toxic herbicides that kill everything except crops genetically modified to survive, right? Obviously. Plant the seeds. Water. Spray regularly with highly toxic pesticides that kill everything except crops genetically modified to survive. Finally, harvest the tomato, wrap in plastic, and put it on a truck bound for Mexico. Soon, a different tomato will arrive on a different truck from Mexico, and you purchase it at a local grocery store (supporting local is good, right?). Drive the tomato home, cut it up and top with olive oil, fresh basil, salt and pepper. Serve on a slice of buffalo mozzarella. That's how you make petroleum caprese.

Alternatively, the dirty fruity hippie way: plant the seeds from an organic tomato (which doesn't have the terminator gene) in your back yard, fertilize with compost (made from stuff that would otherwise be trash), water, weed with your hands, and finally harvest. Carry (not drive) the tomato into the kitchen and follow the directions above to make zero energy caprese, so called because you used literally no energy to grow the tomatoes. The slightly less dirty, less fruity hippie way? Buy a tomato grown using similar methods at the farmer's market. No work, no fuss, no Mexico.

If the pasta sauce comes out good (assuming I actually make it), I will add the recipe tomorrow, and I will also keep you updated about the Oregon wine. Apparently, Authentica (that wine shop) specializes in Oregon Pinot Noir, which I never knew was a thing until just today. Finally, I just looked up plant a tree day, by the way, and it turns out that it is called Arbor Day, and the date differs from state to state and country to country, based on the best time to plant trees in a given climate. The nationally recognized Arbor Day is the last Friday in April. Cue music, "The more you know..."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sustainable Eats: Greens and Beans Part II

Courtney and I eat meat. We are carnivores. But as carnivores go, we are pretty bad at it. We have frequently committed to a week of vegetarian cooking, or a month of eating meat only once a week (if you count farm raised clams and wild Alaskan salmon as vegetables). We also cook vegan meals from time to time. Why do we do this? Because no matter how much you love meat, you have to recognize that eating large amounts of beef for every meal is not a sustainable practice.

Buying grass finished beef is a little better, but it is very expensive compared to conventional beef. Vegetarian cooking, on the other hand, is significantly cheaper than the cheapest meat. Removing meat from just a few meals a week can greatly improve your food budget. If you are not going completely vegetarian, the health risks (low iron or protein intake) are negligible, especially if you eat beans, legumes, nuts or a meat replacement (tofu, e.g.) with each veggie meal.

Another excellent source of iron is clams, mussels or oysters. Farmed, these delicacies are also highly sustainable. There is nothing simpler than steaming clams in some white wine, with chopped onion and parsley and a little butter. They can be served in their shells with the steaming broth. Clams usually have more iron than similar amounts of beef (note: canned clams may have significantly lower iron content, fresh farmed are best).

If you are going for a vegan trial, however, more planning is required. The two main concerns are how to get the nutrition you need and how to make tasty food. Well, in the taste department I have two bits of advice: oil and sea salt. A lot of the flavor of meat comes from the natural salt and fat content, and when switching to a no meat diet doubling the salt and adding a little extra oil can go a long way. Sea salt specifically contains a number of things which are basically impurities that mimic meat flavor (the blood of most animals is similar chemically to sea water).

Another tip on vegetarian cooking: roast your vegetables. A little browning is vital to a complex flavor without meat, and a little black won't hurt either. Combined with the sea salt, this technique will produce a savory flavor that will make you forget about the lack of meat.

Finally, mushrooms are great in meatless dishes. They provide some texture, some body, and although I think white mushrooms are pretty flavorless, most varieties provide a rich umami flavor that is otherwise hard to come by without some animal product involved.

In terms of nutrition, the biggest concern aside from iron is protein, and for this beans are your best bet. Canned or dried, mashed or whole, beans and other legumes are packed with protein, low in fat and even have some fiber. They tend to soak up whatever flavor is around, so I usually add beans right at the end, otherwise everything else in the dish will lose its flavor.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should tell you that while writing this post, I was planning, preparing, cooking and eating hamburgers. What can I say? I told you I was a carnivore. Besides, it was sunny all day today, and there probably won't be another good day to BBQ until spring. I did use grass fed beef though, and it was the first time that we cooked meat in a week, so I can't feel too bad.

Oregon Trail Part VI: Sweet Home

The final day of our trek up the coast, we wake up in another extremely cute little motel in Klamath, CA, the Ravenwood. We departed from this location after being advised by some locals to stop for lunch in Grant's Pass, OR. The advice came with a warning that in Oregon they love their one way streets, trying to be more European, probably. There was a just a hint of nose turning toward those uppety Oregoneans by the locals here in Northern NorCal. I refrained from asking if they had ever been to San Francisco.

The 199 forked off from the 101 shortly after Klamath, to cut across country and bring us back around to the 5. I don't know if it was just the fresh perspective of a new day, but it seemed to me that the Redwoods along the 199 were even more beautiful than those along the 101.

Within an hour of driving, we crossed the state line in a thoroughly underpopulated patch of forest halfway between the 5 and the 101. Despite there being no obvious change in the landscape, the road signs made it perfectly clear that we were not in Kansas anymore. You can't always put your finger on it, but a subtle difference in the wording of comands gives you the sense that you have entered a different place, like we had driven across the border into Canada.

At the advice of the Klamath locals, we dutifully turned off the freeway at Grant's Pass to get lunch. Unable to make a decision in such a big town, we pulled into the largest and most obvious restaurant near the freeway, and this is what we found:

The Taprock restaurant, right on the Rogue River (unrelated, as I was sad to discover later, to the Rogue Brewery, which is on the coast in Newport, OR). As lunches go, it was 'spendy,' as the locals say, but worth the money. Actually, the view and the ambiance was worth the money, the food was just the icing. After the meal, we walked around the little manicured footpath which serves as a line for the riverboat tours that launch from the restaurant's little dock.

The rest of our trip was a short journey through Normal Rockwell's America, a perfect pastoral landscape book-ended on either side with a perfect pastoral landscape. We were tired and anxious to get home, but we drove a little slow anyway to take in the view.

Driving through the country brings some dormant patriotic feelings out in city dwellers like us. Being close to working farms reminds us of our roots, where this country came from. I have never lived on a farm. I have never worked on a farm. I have never even attempted to garden before moving up here (we are just getting started now, stockpiling compost for next spring and a few hearty winter crops). But the idea of the self sustaining farmer is so deeply embedded in the American subconscious that it is impossible not to feel a kinship, at least with the idea.

Since arriving at our new home, we have been making an effort to buy local, organic food as much as possible. I used to think that organic was just some fruity hippie thing, but the more I look into it, the more I realize that at the least, conventional farming is not sustainable. It kind of boggles the mind that in farming, conventional means planting genetically modified seeds with the terminator gene, spraying them with massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides that they are specifically bred to withstand, and shipping the product all over the world while importing tons of produce along parallel routes. Growing vegetable with natural fertilizer, weeding instead of using herbicide, and selling them locally is what we call the 'fruity hippie' way of farming.

We have also started buying 'grass finished' meat, which is more expensive, but we eat less meat than most anyway. Grass fed and grass finished means that the animal never spent any time in a concentrated feed lot, which seems to be the source of most current food safety concerns (all of those recent vegetable scares can be traced back to original contamination from feed lot waste). Also, it might just be psychological, but I think grass fed beef tastes much, much better than feed lot beef.

It is a little leaner, and I know it has a much higher concentration of omega 3 fatty acids, and it doesn't have that smell that beef from the supermarket usually has. I hate that smell. I got a cut of NY from one of the many local butchers (Springfield is a hunting town, and most hunters don't want to do the labor of butchering their catch) Longs, and grilled it up the way I usually grill a steak: rubbed with pepper and paprika, 4 minutes per side on an extremely hot grill (turning 30-45 degrees halfway through each side to get that crisscross look). It was one of the best steaks I have ever cooked. In my opinion, this is the only way to cook steak, other cuts you can cook however you like, but steak must be seared on a grill. (Note: if you use red pepper, it will turn into pepper spray on the hot grill. I always do this, and end up coughing and hacking through the rest of the meal prep)

This Saturday, we are looking forward to the Lane County Farmer's Market, where we can continue our support of local farmers. There is really no downside to fresh, traditionally grown vegetables and pasture grazed meat from local farmers: it tastes better, it's healthier, and it supports the community you live in. Win, win and win.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Green Pet Care

Since we have adopted Cleo, we have been confronted with a hundred new choices a day. What food do we buy? Wet, dry or mix? How many toys does she need (a: a lot)? what kind? How do we train her? Crate or no? There is so much that has to be done right away, so many decisions, that how green the choices are doesn't even enter the equation at first.

Truth be told, keeping pets is not really a green practice, in the strictest sense, because you need to feed them and provide them with entertainment, all of which usually takes up energy. One of the main criteria for making decisions for you pets, however, is a big part of going green: health. All green programs contain a substantial portion about the health of people, and pets are people too.

When you choose food for your animals, you want what is good for them, and unfortunately that can be very hard to determine. Every source of information seems to conflict, and most of the advice you get is downright bad. We trusted a pet store clerk who swore by one brand of dog food, and foolishly did not read the ingredients before leaving the store. When we got home and double checked, the second ingredient was corn, followed by wheat.

Although dogs are omnivorous by nature, a much larger portion of their diet is naturally meat, so if some kind of animal protein is not the first ingredient the food is not good. After that protein (usually chicken meal) fruits, vegetables and some grains are okay, but many dogs have difficulty digesting wheat and corn, so grains should be rice, barley, or some other alternative grain. Soy protein is also a big red flag, as soy is no part of a dogs natural diet, and usually it is used instead of some other meat protein.

Toys are a big issue too. We heard (unverified) that the squeaky part of squeak toys can come out if the dog destroys the toy, and they can choke on it (plus squeak toys are annoying). But trying to find a dog toy that doesn't squeak is like trying to find bread that doesn't contain wheat (possible, as anyone who knows us knows, but hard).

Then we came across someone on the web who wrote about making toys from random junk in your house (I think Courtney read that at the Bark). Instead of throwing away old socks, knot them up turn them into chew toys. If you have old water bottles you can stuff them in those old sock (without the cap) as a pit stop before recycling. Of course you have to make sure that you aren't giving your dog something toxic, or something that will break into pieces that she can choke on, but this is just part of the creative process of turning trash into toys. The maker in me loves this idea. Although the person who posted these ideas was talking about saving money, it is also a green practice for all the reasons that I love the make movement.

It seems in general that the more you control what you give your dog, the healthier it will be (kind of obvious, once you state it). For that reason, we have been thinking about making our own food for the dog, a practice that seems crazy at first but makes more sense the more you think about it. Dogs have been with us for thousands of years, and prepackaged dog food has been around for less than a century. So for the thousands of years minus a hundred before that? We fed our dogs similarly to how we fed ourselves, and it worked out fine. We haven't committed yet, but if we do I will be sure to keep everyone updated.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Complete Fail

Well, it is October 1st and I have obviously fallen far short of my goal of posting something every day for the month of September. There were plenty of distractions, other obligations, etc. I could blame the move, setting up the new house, trying to jump start a career in a new city with no contacts, but that would all just be excuses. The real reason, however, is Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and everything within 18" of the floor.

That's her, the light and darkness of my increasingly small world. Courtney and I knew that getting a small puppy would be difficult, but as it turns out it is exactly halfway between adopting a full grown, well behaved cat (at a 2) and having a baby (an 11) on the scale of responsibility. At her age (8 weeks when we got her, just 10 and a half now) taking care of Cleo is a full time job. About a week ago I realized I had not posted anything for several days, and the pledge I made earlier in the month was hopelessly lost.

"Maybe I can make a deal with myself," I thought, "a post a day is gone, but maybe I can compromise, go for 30 posts by the end of the month. The pledge will be broken, but I will have accomplished the same goal. I will have to post two or three items every day for the rest of the month. It will be hard, but not impossible, right?"

It turns out that it was completely impossible.

Cleo requires constant supervision while awake. She must be taken outside every 30 minutes for a potty break or we run the risk of an accident, and every accident sets the training schedule back several days. She takes frequent naps, but the for the first few days all we did during the naps was sit, shell shocked, wondering why people get dogs.

After a few weeks of trying to train the puppy and retrain ourselves, we have wrangled her nap schedule into 3 two hour naps, at regular intervals throughout the day, and during those intermittent naps we do everything that people have to do to survive in the modern world. Grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, cleaning, going to the bank, paying our bills, reading dog training books and websites, everything must be done while Cleo sleeps, or else it will not get done. She is asleep right now, that is the only reason that I am writing.

But, hopefully, her regular schedule will allow me to use more and more of those two hour breaks every day, and finally I will be able to get back to this blog. So, with that in mind, I will attempt a few more posts today while Cleopatra, Queen of the floor sleeps.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Oregon Trail Part V: In the Company of Giants

Day four of our so far wonderful trip up the coast, and so far we have seen the Hearst Castle, The Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, and countless coastline vistas. We have also seen a gradual change in ecosystems up the coast. We begin in the chaparral of Southern California, where open fields are populated with dry grass and sturdy bushes, and small trees only grow in the canyons where the runoff from several hills converges. As we head north, the grasses get greener, the bushes get fuller, and the trees get both taller and more numerous.

We are traveling from 34 degrees North, just 4 degrees off from the driest latitude around, to 44, which is half way up to the wettest: 60 (right around Juneau Alaska). Along the way, the evidence of the steadily increasing rainfall is clear: the climate becomes more lush and green as we go. Latitude is not the only determinate in rainfall, however, smaller weather patterns have a large roll to play too, especially near large bodies of water like, oh, say, the Pacific Ocean. For many reasons which I don't understand at all, the coastal redwood groves of Northern California and Southern Oregon get enough precipitation to qualify as rainforests, and it is truly amazing what those trees do with all that water.

After a couple of hours of driving below the speed limit on very curvy roads through the redwood forest, Courtney and I stopped at the Founder's Grove. There, a tiny loop trail guides you around several redwoods, which grow taller than any other species of tree. The trail also takes you past several fallen trees (fallen from natural causes) which are covered in ferns and other plants. The bases of these fallen trees are 20 foot tall masses of gnarled roots, and it is hard to describe what being in the presence of a tree that is more than twice as tall as you when it is on its side feels like.

Courtney next to a fallen giant

If you ever drive through, I recommend the avenue of giants, which follows the old 101 freeway (it will only add an hour, maybe, to your trip). I also recommend that you make time to go for a hike, jump in the river, or even camp for a few days. Sadly, we just blew through. We barely had time to stop and take it in, and really didn't take in enough. Ah, well... I suppose we will have to come back some day and do it right.

I thought about adding some moral about preserving open spaces, deforestation, etc. but while I was there, I wasn't thinking about anything except how beautiful it was, how impossible and amazing that these massive life forms grew from nothing except the water in the ground, the energy from the sun, and the carbon from the air. What could I have to say that would do anything but take away from that?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Oregon Trail Part IV: The City, the rainforest, and the green roof

Day three, we woke up in a 'Good Night Inn' in Salinas, which makes two bad ways to wake up. Not that Salinas is so terrible, it's just a truck stop town (literally, the motel parking lot had a large section devoted to semi parking) with not one building more than 20 years old. And not that the Good Night Inn was so terrible either, for the money (the cheapest motel in three towns) it was surprisingly not gross. But still, we're basically city folk, so we were out of our element. Not too much time passes, however, before we are back in our element: stuck in traffic in 'The City,' as the locals call it (not Frisco, unless you want to start a fight).

The California Academy of Sciences
, in Golden Gate Park, was pretty cool. Amazingly, having come from the Monterey Bay Aquarium just the day before, I was not disappointed by the Aquarium they had there (and I don't like fish that much). But the crown jewel here is really the tropical biosphere (literally, a giant sphere of Plexiglas). You walk around a path slowly sinking into the ground towards the entrance, which is kind of like an airlock to keep the hundreds of live butterflies inside the sphere. The sphere is a living museum of the tropical rainforests, full of specimens of plants, insects, snakes, amphibians and birds. The more venomous and carnivorous specimens are caged, but the butterflies and many birds roam free, and occasionally engage in human encounters.

You walk up a twisted path that takes you through the different layers of the rainforest, and at the top, there is an elevator back down, guarded by two attendants armed with butterfly nets. I am not kidding. The elevator lets you off in the Aquarium, so I recommend going that way first.

Another interesting feature: the green roof. The entire roof of the Institute (minus skylights for day lighting and a small paved area for guest observation) is planted with indigenous species of grasses, flowers, and other small plants. It is an ongoing experiment, actually, they are watching how the species interact with each other. So, I thought I would take a second to talk about the many, many reasons I love green roofs.

California Academy of Sciences roof

Green roofs provide many practical functions for a building, whether residential or commercial, single family or multi-unit. For one thing, they provide excellent insulation, which can help to reduce heating and cooling bills. If you live in a place with hot summers, they also actively cool off the roof using no energy whatsoever (the plants evaporate some of their water, which releases heat naturally). Also, if designed well, they provide usable open space for the occupants of the building, like adding a little extra park land to your site. If you commit to planting local species, you might not need to water them, and they can actually strengthen the local habitat by providing a safe haven where the bees can get and the local herbivores cannot. On the subject of water, if you live in an area with storm water runoff problems, green roofs help by absorbing excess instead of flushing it straight into the drain.

Finally, although they can cost more to install (extra structure to hold the extra weight), they actually require significantly less maintenance than traditional roofs, and can last many years longer before major repairs are required. In the long run, they can be much cheaper than many customary practices for roof construction.

Back to the trip, we capped the day off with an excellent meal in Sonoma at The Girl and the Fig, where I had sweet meats for the first time. Oddly enough, I had just heard an old episode of Good Food about someone cooking through the Whole Beast cookbook, so I was sharply curious about these lesser used pieces of animal flesh (the author of Whole Beast, utilizing all of his British dry humor, said [roughly]: if you're going to kill something it is only polite to use the whole animal). And one the subject of food, now that I think of it, the cafeteria at the Institute was the best cafeteria I have ever eaten at, bar none.

All in all a great day, but nothing that has happened so far was even close, really, to day four - the redwood forests.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Oregon Trail Part III: Sea otters and Sustainable Fisheries

Day two, we wake up in Cambria tired from sleep deprivation and a long day of driving. We are also excited about the day ahead of us, and glowing about the day behind. The main attraction today is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which we have been told is The Aquarium by which all others are measured. It is an impressive measuring stick.

As we drove up the coast, through foot hills along cliffs and over bridges, I was listening to back episodes of Good Food, a favorite radio show of Courtney and I. In one episode, Mark Bittman (author of "How to Cook Everything" and "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian") came on to discuss sustainable seafood, and mentioned the Monterey Bay Aquarium, specifically the fact that they offer a simple pocket guide to sustainable seafood. So of course, we picked a few up.

Of course, the 'simple guide,' as Bittman points out, glosses over some issues and provides some information that seems useful, but is impossible to apply at the market. So, I thought I would recap a little and provide some links.

Here is the issue in a nutshell: for most of human history the ocean has provided much more fish than we can possibly catch and consume. But recently, and I mean very recently, we have started catching and consuming much more fish than the ocean can provide. And really, that is impressive. Fish farming is sometimes a good alternative, but in some cases it is much, much worse. Farmed salmon, for example, requires feeding tons and tons of wild caught fish, and their waste flows directly into coastal waters (the 'farms' are pins in the ocean) contaminating the areas where they are grown. Meanwhile, wild salmon fishing in the pacific is sustainable (even if the way the fish gets to market is not), so farmed salmon is essentially a useless practice.

Clams, oysters and mussels, on the other hand, are best when farmed. And just to highlight the confusion, sustainability of fisheries is only one small part of the seafood minefield. The next biggest mine is mercury. If you haven't heard, it's in almost everything that we take out of the sea. And the crazy part is we put it (the mercury) there.

Our experience at the aquarium was awesome, especially the otter exhibit (did you know that otters eat floating on their backs, and use their chest as a table? neither did I). Sea horses and jelly fish are also amazing, but I don't have enough room to talk about them here. In short, the Monterey Bay Aquarium was a great experience, and very educational. I highly recommend it to anyone who is going through the area, and also highly recommend making one of the scheduled otter feedings.