Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Valentine's Menu: Black Truffle and Wild Scallops on Mashed White Beans

Some lament the commercialization of holidays like Valentines day, others decry that it is a made up Hallmark Holiday, and while these arguments cannot be refuted, they also shouldn't stop us from having fun.

For our part, we avoid buying each other presents or cards and instead focus on having a lovely, romantic day.  Though we have dined out in the past we now prefer to cook at home, making a meal that is decadent and fun.  Decadent does not have to mean environmentally unhealthy, however, especially when you live in an area that produces truffles which some believe rival the Italian.  Both black and white truffles grow abundantly in Oregon and Northern California, and though they are quite expensive the flavor is phenomenal and unique.  Wild scallops, which have been unsustainable in the past, have seen massive increases in population size recently, and most sources now say that scallops can be fished sustainably and are okay for environmentalists to eat (though if you can find out the info, individually caught is better than dredged).

Valentine's Day Dinner

It is important for us to use every excuse to spend time with and honor the people we love, regardless of whether the excuse is tradition or Hallmark made.  The way we do this, however, is up to us and not the card companies or the traditions.  Cooking a meal made from the best available local and sustainable ingredients instead of purchasing cards and chocolate boxes and dining out turns our expression of our love for each other into a reinforcement of the way we choose to live.  And personally I think it is more fun.  Speaking of fun, for desert we made a chocolate Fondue, dipping homemade donut pieces from that morning along with some fancy marshmallows

Our Valentine's Breakfast
So, for your scrutiny, here is the dinner recipe:

Wild Scallops with Black Truffle Brandy Reduction and Mashed Great Northern Beans
Serves Two
Truffle 1Image via Wikipedia


1 small Black Truffle (~1/2 oz.)
6 medium to large Wild Scallops (~1/2 lbs.)
1/2 lbs Dry Great Northern Beans (or Cannellini)
1 large Shallot
3 oz VSOP Brandy
2 tbsp dry White Wine
6 tbsp Olive Oil
4 tbsp butter
1 Green Onion, finely chopped

The night before cooking, rinse the beans and visually inspect for rocks.  Cover the beans with water in a sauce pan and leave to soak overnight.  The following day, discard the soaking liquid and rinse the beans once more.  Cover with water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until beans are tender, about 1 hour.

Chop the black truffle very finely.  Alternatively, you can use a mandolin, cheese grater or vegetable peeler to get smaller and more regular pieces.  Melt 2 tbsp butter into 2 tbsp olive oil in a small pan, and add the truffle.  Simmer over a low heat until well browned.  This will mellow the funkiness of the black truffle and draw out its flavor (this step is not necessary with white truffles).  When truffle pieces are well browned, cover and keep nearby.

When the beans are done, drain the cooking liquid, reserving about a half cup.  Using a food processor or blender, mash the beans with 1 tbsp olive oil, the white wine, 1 oz of Brandy, and a pinch of salt and pepper.  If needed, add the cooking liquid a little at a time to control consistency.  When beans are well blended, return to the sauce pan and keep warm over a low heat.

Dice the shallot finely and brown in 1 tbsp olive oil.  When it is well browned, add it to the beans along with half of the black truffle and oil mixture, stirring well.

Sear the scallops over medium-high heat in 2 tbsp olive oil, about 5 minutes per side.  When scallops are finished, place them on a bed of the mashed beans on serving plates.  Quickly deglaze the pan with the remaining 2 oz of brandy, add the remaining truffle and oil mixture, remove from heat and stir the remaining 2 tbsp of butter to finish the pan sauce.  Pour the sauce over the scallops and mashed beans, garnish with green onion, serve immediately.

The Final Product
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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Urban Gardens and Homesteads: efficient, local healthy food

I saw this post on Treehugger about rooftop greenhouses on new affordable housing units, and I was a little surprised by some of the comments.  While I was not at all surprised by the conservative comment about tax dollars going to "people who are unable or unwilling to work" (right or wrong, a blog about sustainability is not the right forum),  the general doubts about the value and efficiency of these fairly simple fixtures was puzzling to me.

There should be no doubt about the value of producing food in the middle of the city, where most of the food has to be trucked in from very far away.  Intensive urban gardening improves air quality, reduces heat island effects, and provides fresh local produce to urban dwellers.  It is also easier to grow organic in a greenhouse, because the environment is more controlled and there is less need for herbicides and pesticides.

What is not quite as obvious, however, is that a green house attached to a residential space can be, if managed correctly, extremely energy efficient as well.  Greenhouses naturally absorb heat all day long from sunlight, and that heat is trapped in the air inside the greenhouse.  That is why a green house can grow plants through the cold seasons in most climates.  That heat can also be used, however, to augment the heating system in an attached residential space during the cold months (a process called isolated gain), and can be an important part of a general passive heating system.  In the summer, when there is waste heat in the residential spaces, they can be vented to the rooftop greenhouse for some passive cooling as a result of the passive-stack effect.  In short, rooftop greenhouses can have a huge positive impact on building efficiency.

While the gains in energy efficiency can be significant, the issue of food production in urban centers is just as important.  For as long as cities have existed we have had problems with getting enough food to city dwellers (think of the Roman Empire shipping in tons of grain from Egypt).  In the latter half of this century we thought we had solved those problems for good by cultivating produce that transports well and shipping food all over the world with cheap fuel.  Now that we know about global warming and pollution, we have realized that our solution to the problem of 'enough' has generated a number of new problems related to 'how.'  Urban homesteads help mitigate this issue, whether in a greenhouse, a backyard, or in planter boxes on a 20th story balcony.  If even a percentage of produce can be home grown instead of trucked in, the reduction in fuel consumption is directly related to the reduction in demand for transported goods.

Some would argue that home grown vegetables, especially heirloom varieties preserved by seed bankers (many seed bankers will give you a few seeds for the cost of postage, just to keep their favorite varieties in wide circulation), can greatly improve your quality of life as well.  The taste of freshly picked vegetables is distinctly different, and many people will tell you (though I don't know enough about it to unequivocally agree) that they are much more nutritious.  Whether or not the health benefits are true, keeping a vegetable patch is worth it just for the flavor.  And while maintaining a quarter acre lot requires a large amount of work, keeping a little patch inside or on your porch requires very little maintenance.

A while back I made a sauce from different heirloom tomatoes for a braised oxtail, and reserved two slices from each one for a caprese appetizer.  Both the sauce and the caprese were delicious.  The sauce was much more complex for the variety of tomatoes, and the Caprese really highlighted the unique and different flavor of each variety.  It was one of the more amazing culinary evenings at Chez Cross.

Oxtail braising in Heirloom Tomato Sauce

Heirloom Tomato Caprese
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Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Failure of Zero Sum Carbon Credit Markets

In light of the recent scandals of scammers ripping off companies for millions of dollars worth of carbon credits, I thought it would be good timing to drag up this notion from a paper I wrote while in college.

Carbon Credit Markets don't actually do anything.  Before you grab your pitchfork, hear me out.  Businesses and governments rave about CCMs and the great good they are doing.  They talk about how much they have accomplished with these markets, and how much they have reduced carbon emissions.  However, a common sense analysis shows that the markets don't do anything at all, and in some ways could actually be slowing things down.

First of all, the Carbon Credit Market does not exist naturally.  A CCM only exists when there is a mandatory government regulation on emissions.  The government says that all companies have to reduce carbon emissions by x% by this date.  So, it is the regulation that results in the carbon gas reductions, not the market.  Then what does the market do?  Well some companies aren't going to make the required reduction by that deadline, and others will surpass it.  The CCM allows manufacturers who cannot meet the mandated reductions to purchase offsets against their failures to avoid paying fines.  And who do they purchase these credits from?  From people who exceed the required reductions.

This market may create an incentive for innovators to exceed the reductions, but guarantees that these innovations will not have a net positive effect at the same time, because exceeding the reductions is only incentivized to the extent that the overall mandated reduction is not met.  In other words: good companies only do better than expected to the extent that bad companies don't play along.  Therefore it is a zero sum market with no tangible positive result.

One of the reasons that this whole scam is so well loved by businesses, by the way, is that the value of  a carbon credit must be lower than the cost of paying the equivalent in fines.  Otherwise the company would just pay the fine instead.  This has two results: the financial penalty for companies that don't meet the reductions is softened (which is bad), and that financial penalty is sent to the shareholders of the good companies instead of a dedicated government fund (which is bad if you are a socialist and good if you are a conservative capitalist).

Personally, I think that the companies that don't meet required reductions should just be fined, and the fines should be earmarked for specific green projects.  You could still encourage exceeding mandated reductions with tax incentives.  But ultimately, it just rubs me the wrong way when people claim that the Carbon Credit Markets are doing so much good in the fight against global warming, when it is the mandated reduction that is doing all the heavy lifting.  The CCM is just a PR trick, because our culture prefers the word 'market' to the word 'mandate.'

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Good Design in Shipping Container Construction

Read an article of Treehugger while drinking my morning coffee, and was piqued by this post by Lloyd Alter.  Basically it was attacking some cabins made out of used shipping containers built by the Boy Scouts of America on Catalina Island.  And while most (or all) of what he said about those cabins was true, he then went on to attack shipping container construction in general.  That is what piqued me.
"It is about time for architects to face up to the reality that shipping containers are designed for freight, not people, and by the time you adapt them to people there is barely any shipping container left."
 Well, that may be true, but do wood frame construction houses look like a pile of 2x4s when they are done?  This is just a silly argument.  Even if you remove all the siding completely, you are still reusing the structural steel without going through a very high energy recycling process.  Also, this technique utilizes a material that is currently waste.  Empty, used shipping containers are piling up at all of our major ports and big cities, because it is more expensive to ship them back to where the goods come from than to manufacture new ones.  In what way is using them to build houses not better than using new steel?  Or conventional wood framing?  I am willing to stand corrected if someone can give me a good answer.

I know as well as anyone that most shipping container design looks pretty ugly, but just because many examples look like a bunch of shipping containers stacked into a big ugly box doesn't mean that it has to.  And really, is this any more ugly than the big steel and glass corporate power towers that have been popular in this country for so many decades?  No, it is just as ugly.  To say it was more ugly would be to diminish the legacy of Corbu.

Poorly designed shipping container construction is not the fault of the shipping container, it is the fault of the person designing it.  To prove my point, I will add a slide show of beautiful homes and buildings that use shipping containers as structural elements, right below my "about me" on my blog.  It should be up later today.
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Monday, February 1, 2010

Feed lot Beef that is Good For the Environment?

I don't believe it.  I didn't believe it.  I'm still a little suspect, but it seems to be true.

Courtney and I took a trip to Long's Meat Market this weekend to pick up our weekly chicken (likely the only meat we will eat this week), and on the way there we saw a horse drawn carriage, driven by two men in complete western regalia with requisite handlebar mustachios, loaded with several cases of Ninkasi beer.  I felt a little like I was living in some weird holiday beer commercial for a moment, but it passed.  When we arrived at Long's, we were surprised by a long line outside.  At first I thought they were really busy, but soon it became obvious that the line was not to get in, it was leading to a pop up tent where some men were grilling hamburgers and handing out samples of beer.  All for free.  Needless to say, we got in line.

As we learned eventually, the event was a launch for a new beef company called Oregon Natural Meat.  They claimed that their product is more environmentally friendly, because they upcycle grain to feed their cattle.  I was highly skeptical, but willing to eat the free food all the same.  Shortly before we got to the front of the line, the beer commercial caught up with us.  Turns out those cases of Ninkasi we had seen on the way were headed for us.  The horse drawn cart pulled into the parking lot, and the cases of beer headed for the sample stand.

I stated in a previous post that Concentrated Feed Lots are really damaging to the environment, and that grass finished beef was significantly more eco-friendly, but sure enough, as soon as you make a rule there is an exception.  ONM fattens their cattle on grain before slaughter, but they do it very differently.  First of all, they are a small company which only distributes locally, so there isn't the pollution issue of concentrated feed lots.  Because they are small and family owned, there is more oversight in the process, and the health of the animals is observed rather than assumed.  They are fed a grain diet for richer meat, but unlike the concentrated feed lots the diet is 100% vegetarian, with no antibiotics or growth hormones, no animal byproducts, and (the most disgusting CFL practice, in my opinion) no manure.

A substantial portion of the feed comes in the form of malted barley that has been used to brew beer, a byproduct of the brewing industry (in fact it comes from Ninkasi, hence the horse connection).  So the primary ingredient in their diet is something that would be waste, isn't fit for human consumption, but is good for them.  They explained this whole concept with a very informative seeming info graphic which actually was just pretty and not really very informative:

Aside from 'upcycling' the used grain, ONM seems to do everything else right as well.  They are devoted to sourcing all of their cattle and suppliers locally, and only distribute locally as well.  They handle the cattle as humanely as possible, and don't engage in the breakneck speed processing that most large meat packers do (the pace of conventional meat packers reduces quality control and increases the rate of human injuries).  The result is beef that is good enough for the finest steak house, produced in an ecological and healthy manner.

Eye fillet of grass-fed beef.Image via Wikipedia
While grass fed and grass finished beef is still the simple rule for determining environmental impact, it is clear that there are some grain fed cattle that also score excellently on the ecological report card.  This is
really great, because while grass fed beef is delicious, it is leaner and a little more gamey.  If you know this going in, it is a perfectly wonderful taste, but many restaurants shy away because their customers expect the flavor and texture of grain fed beef.  A company like Oregon Natural Meat is a perfect solution, because they produce a product that is superior to conventional beef in every way and is much closer to being sustainable.
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Healthy gluten free Pancakes

That's right, I said it, healthy pancakes.  Don't believe me?  Read on.

Courtney and I (though mostly Courtney) have been making these pancakes for some time now, and they are delicious.  Despite the fact that they are more healthy, the texture and flavor are not sacrificed in any way.  Here is how we came up with this recipe.

Because of Courtney's allergies, we can't use wheat flour.  So in searching for alternative grains, we studied the different characteristics that different flours have: some have more protein, some more fiber, etc.  We also learned that almond meal, flax seed meal, and various other dried ground protein sources can be substituted for a certain amount of grain flour in most recipes.  Flax seed adds tons of fiber (and a lot of omega 3 fatty acids), and almond meal is pure protein.  They also both add oil naturally, eliminating the need for added fat.  We replace half of the grain flour with almond meal in our pancakes, and add flax seed instead of oil.

But you still cover them in butter and maple syrup right?  So how can that be healthy?  Well, actually we don't use butter or maple syrup (okay, sometimes, but we try not to).  Instead, we top our pancakes with yogurt and some kind of fruit sauce.  Pictured below: Trader Joe's Apple Cranberry Butter.

I love maple syrup, but since it is basically just pure sugar I really can't justify having it all that often.  I used to think that pancakes and syrup must be eaten together, but Courtney opened my eyes to the possibilities of alternative toppings, and now I don't know how I could have been so blind before.  The Apple Cranberry Butter has only 6g of carbs per tbsp (although there are probably 2 or 3 tablespoons on the plate), which is much better than maple syrup, which has 14g in the same volume.  We use unflavored yogurt, which adds a little protein and some live active cultures without adding any sugar.

Since we eat vegetarian more often than not, the addition of almond meal, yogurt, and flax seed meal provides some much needed protein to our diet.  There is also a vegan variation below, for maximum positive environmental impact.

So, half the carbs of regular pancakes plus vastly more protein and lots of healthy stuff like omega 3 fatty acids and probiotics, and I am sure that you won't believe until you try it, but they taste just as good as regular pancakes.  I bet if I served them to you without telling you the ingredients, you wouldn't expect they were healthy at all.  The almond meal in these pancakes makes them very, very filling, so I recommend making them small and only eating a few.  So, here is the recipe.  Enjoy.

Gluten Free, healthy pancakes
Yield: 8-10 small pancakes

1 cup GF Pancake Mix  (we use Arrowhead Mills Gluten-Free Pancake & Baking Mix, 28-Ounce Packages (Pack of 3)) or Buckwheat
1 cup Almond Meal
4 tbsp Flax Seed Meal
2 eggs, beaten
~1 cup milk, milk substitute or water
2 tbsp Honey (optional)
Sweet Spices (optional) such as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, etc.
~1 cup Yogurt
~1 cup fruit sauce (anything that strikes your fancy, canned or homemade)
Canola or other high heat Oil (for greasing the pan)

Combine all of the dry ingredients and whisk together, breaking up any lumps.  Separately, combine the egg, honey, and about half of the liquid (milk, water, etc.), and whisk together.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry, and whisk together until thoroughly mixed.  Add more liquid, a little at a time, until batter is the right consistency.  It should be a little runny, so that the batter will flatten out into a circle quickly when put on the griddle, and not doughy as you would make bread dough.

Pour about a third of a cup of the batter onto a hot griddle or skillet (cast iron works very well).  When bubbles appear in the pancake (about 2 minutes over medium heat), use a spatula to test how well it is holding together on the bottom.  If the bottom is solid, flip it right away.  After about the same time on the other side, it is ready to serve.  You can make as many at a time as you have room for.  If you can only make one or two at a time, keep them warm in a very low oven (around 180 F).  They will keep very well in the oven for as long as it takes to cook the whole batch.

When all of the batter is used up, serve two pancakes per plate topped with yogurt and fruit sauce.  Leftovers will keep in the freezer or fridge and microwave quite well.

Vegan variation:

Replace egg with 1 tbsp extra flax seed meal, and soak flax seed meal in water for a few minutes before combining with the other ingredients.

Instead of yogurt, try a coconut milk or soy yogurt substitute  Alternatively, just double the fruit sauce or syrup and leave the yogurt out entirely, or use Earth Balance spread as you would butter.
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