Sunday, May 30, 2010

One Important Lesson to Learn from the Gulf Oil Spill

 May 24th, the Oil Slick has clearly hit ground in the
Mississippi River Delta, and an arm reaches towards the Gulf Stream

There are many lessons to learn from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, some of them technical, some of them philosophical, but there is one lesson which I have not heard mentioned nearly enough.  It is voiced occasionally, and sometimes in high profile media like the New Yorker, where it was recently mentioned in their "Talk of the Town" section.  That lesson, which is perhaps the most important, is simply stated: oil ain't what it used to be.

In a recent post I talked about peak oil and what it means for the future of our society.  In a nutshell, the oil that we can get out of the earth is finite, and at some point production will take a very sharp downward curve.  What I did not mention, however, is that on the downside the oil is more expensive to find, harder to get to, much harder to get without significant ecological impact, more difficult (and energy intensive) to process and refine, and more difficult to transport.  So as reserves are diminished, supply will decline even faster unless discoveries are ramped up even more, hastening the end of oil (assuming demand remains constant).

The first oil wells were drilled on dry land, but off shore drilling has a long history as well.  First in lakes and shortly after in very shallow coastal waters, rigs were built to drill oil below bodies of water.  However, up until about 1947 the deepest water that we could drill under was about 20 feet.  But necessity drove us further and further out to sea, and into deeper and deeper waters.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig on Fire, Shortly Before Sinking

As long as the history of drilling for oil is the history of accidents in drilling oil.  Beginning on land, explosions and fires claimed many lives in early years.  By now most of the safety issues have been worked out for drilling on land, but most of the operations in this country today are offshore, and every time we push the limits of what our technology is capable of we increase the risk of a devastating spill.  In fact, all of the largest oil spills in the history of drilling have occurred since 1969, when an oil rig drilling under 188 feet of water had a blow out resulting in 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Santa Barbara Channel.

The current disaster happened on a rig drilling at a depth of 5000 ft below the ocean surface, which is just under 1 mile.  Drilling at that depth is difficult and complicated by many factors such as high pressure.  Although we theoretically have the technology to drill safely at that depth, and deeper, the recent disaster highlights the fact that the margin for error is so slim as to make it effectively unsafe.

In short, we have drilled and burned much of the oil that is easy to get, near the surface, and can be drilled with relative safety.  As long as we continue to burn oil for fuel, another spill is not only possible, it is probable.  I don't harbor any illusion that we could flip a switch and all suddenly be driving electric cars, or using bio-diesel instead of gasoline, but I do think that it is incumbent upon each of us to think long and hard about how we use oil and how much we want to be using oil.  Change is not easy, nor immediate, but in this case it is important that we affect it as soon as possible.

Cannellini Marbella: a Vegan Spin on a Traditional Mediterranean Dish

The first time that my wife cooked for me, back when we were dating, she made Chicken Marbella.  It was delicious.  Little did I know it was one of only a handful of things she knew how to cook!  Of course now she is as good a cook as me (largely due to my tutelage).  But the Marbella is still a wonderful dish, and we still make it occasionally.  Courtney got it from her mother, Jan, who contributed it to a state department cookbook many years ago.

Last night we decided to give it a new twist.  We didn't have any meat in the house, as we are trying to eat vegetarian as often as possible, so we decided to give Cannellini Beans Marbella a try.  It was a delightful experiment, and one we are sure to repeat.  The base of the sauce is chopped prunes, crushed olives and capers, simmered in white wine and red wine vinegar.  It is sweet, salty, and tangy, providing a complex and exciting glaze to liven up the Cannellinis,  The process is pretty simple and the cooking time is very quick, making this an excellent weeknight meal.  The fact that it is vegan makes this a very green weeknight meal.

While Chicken Marbella is a baked dish, this version is all prepared in one pan on the stove top.

Cannellini Beans Marbella:
(Serves 4)

2 Cup Precooked Cannellini Beans, or 1 Can
2 or 3 tbsp. Olive Oil
2 Cloves Garlic
1/4 cup Chopped Prunes
1/4 cup Green Olives, pitted and crushed
2 tbsp. Capers, with brine
2 Bay Leaves
1 tsp Oregano
1 tsp Parsley
1/4 cup White Wine
1/4 cup Red Wine Vinegar
2 tbsp Brown Sugar (or demerara)
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to taste

Saute the garlic and prunes in the olive oil until garlic is softened, but not browned.  Add the rest of the ingredients except the beans, and bring the liquid to a boil.  Bring down to a simmer until the liquid reduces to a syrupy glaze, about 15 minutes.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.  Add the beans and stir to coat with the sauce.  Continue stirring until beans are heated through, about 5 minutes.  Serve immediately.

Cannellini Beans Marbella

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The 2,385 Watt Lifestyle: expressing your life in terms of wattz consumed

I read a really great article in the New Yorker magazine last week about Saul Griffith (who I mentioned in connection to his guest blogs on Boing Boing a while back).  It was a really good article, but what I want to mention now is that it led me to one of Saul's ongoing projects, a site called WattzOn.  Here, after filling out a pretty brief questionnaire, the site lets you know how much energy your lifestyle is consuming, and puts it into terms that help you visualize what that means.

I discovered that my lifestyle consumes 2,385 watts (although there are a few things left out of that figure, the site is not perfect) which is below average for an American, and a little below average for a WattzOn user.  That wattage equates to burning 2 gallons of oil per day, or the power required to run 40 incandescent light bulbs non stop.

Mostly, my energy savings come in the housing category, as I live in a very efficient town house.  My biggest consumer, however, came as no surprise to me.  It was my car.  We live in a kind of suburban area right now, which is far from my ideal lifestyle, and as a result we end up driving a fair amount.  On balance, living in a very efficient house saves more energy than the extra fuel consumed by my car living in the suburbs, but I really wish that I didn't have to drive and lived in an efficient house.  Then I could easily get that wattage down below 1800, which would equate to the power generated a 26x26 ft. solar panel, or a wind turbine with a diameter of 16 feet.  That is actually a reasonable amount of energy for one person to use from renewable resources only.  Much more than that, and you're gonna need coal fired electricity.

So in summation, check out WattzOn, it is a great site and it will really help you understand the way your lifestyle and power consumption interrelate.
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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Brining, Butterflying and BBQing a Whole Bird

Chicken is a slightly more sustainable option than beef, pork, or any other livestock.  Less water and grain go into raising them, they produce less hydrocarbon gases in their lives, and they come to harvest much more quickly and efficiently.  Also, BBQed chicken is extremely tasty.  A well marinated piece of chicken from the Q is much preferable, in my (ok, not so) humble opinion to an ordinary burger or dog.

While cooking meat over coals in your yard is not the most sustainable way to heat food, it happens to be delicious.  Also, there is a little trade off to cooking inside during the summer if your oven is competing with your AC.  Depending on where your oven and stove are located in your house, they can warm the place up as much as a fire place or small furnace.  This may be lovely in the middle of winter, but in the summer months it means cranking up the AC or suffering miserable consequences.  Getting out doors and heating your food there can help you avoid turning the AC on, perhaps even all day.

So here is my recipe, tested on a recent sunny day here in Oregon.  It came out absolutely delicious.  The brining adds tons of flavor and keeps the chicken superbly moist on the grill.  Combine that with the smokey aroma and the texture of the crispy grilled skin, and you have the ultimate BBQed  meat experience.

Brined, Butterflied and Barbecued Bird:

1 Whole Chicken, raw
1/2 Gallon Cold Water
1/2 Cup Kosher or Sea Salt (not iodized)
1/2 cup Brown Sugar or 1/3 cup Honey
1/4 Cup Vinegar
2 Bay leafs

Large Pot (~2 gallon) with Lid
Very Sharp Chef's Knife or Poultry Shears
4 Long Metal Skewers

(promise more pics the next time I make this)

The night before cooking, prepare the brine by mixing all of the above ingredients except the chicken in a pot large enough to hold everything.  Stir until salt and sugar are dissolved.  It might be easier to dissolve these ingredients in a cup of the water and all the vinegar over a gentle heat, and then stir into the rest of the cold water.  Avoid heating the brine too much, however, it should be kept as cool as possible.  When brine is ready, add the chicken, upside down (legs pointing up).  Make sure that it is completely submerged, and that the cavity is filled with brine.  If there is not enough brine to cover the bird, add more water and salt at a ratio of 1 cup water to 1 tablespoon salt until the bird is covered.  The bird may have to be weighted down to remain submerged.  Cover and keep in the refrigerator over night.

The next day, remove the chicken from the brine and wipe of any excess liquid.  Discard the brine, do not reuse or incorporate into another recipe.  On a large cutting board, set the chicken upright and with a very sharp, large knife, cut out the backbone.  From top to bottom separate the spine from the rest of the bird first down one side, then the other.  Alternatively, use poultry shears to cut out the backbone.

With the spine removed, pull open the bird and flatten it out, so what was the inside is now down, and the meat is all up.  Press down firmly on the breasts, cracking the ribs to make the bird flatter.  This will allow for more even cooking on the grill.

Use 4 metal skewers to hold the bird in this flat position, and to hold the wings and legs as much as possible apart from the breasts and thighs.  Make sure that the bird can be lifted from these skewers and remain flat.  Cut a few slits in the thickest part of meat to speed cooking.  Coat the entire chicken, both sides, with olive oil, especially around the slits and where pierced by the skewers.

Sear both sides on a very high heat grill.  Next, move it to a medium heat part of the grill and allow to cook through, approximately one hour, turning and rotating every 15 minutes.  Covering will make heat more even, but coals will burn at a lower temperature, slowing cooking time.

Test for doneness by sticking a toothpick or another skewer into the joints between the leg and thigh, the wing and breast, and into the thickest parts of meat.  Test in several locations.  If any redness is still in the liquid that runs out of any test holes, continue to cook until all new test holes produce only clear liquid.

When it is done, remove from the grill and cut into breasts, wings, thighs and drumsticks.  If any red liquid is found when cutting, put the pieces back on the grill, or wrap in tinfoil and finish in the oven.  If not, serve immediately.

You can add almost any herbs, dried or fresh, to the brine.  Check out Foodista for tons of brine recipes.  A little goes a long way, it will completely infuse the meat.

Smaller birds will work even better: pheasant, quail, and game hen.  They will cook much quicker, however, in proportion to their size.

Brined, Butterflied and Barbecued Bird (Chicken)

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Alternatives to Beef as Barbecue Season Approaches

Up here in the Pacific North West, when the sun shines you notice.  You don't just notice in fact, you suddenly feel like wearing shorts and firing up the grill, even if it is still in the mid 50s outside.  So as BBQ season fast approaches, I thought I would try to inspire my handful of readers with a few grilling ideas which do not involve beef or pork.

Now don't get me wrong, I love hamburgers and ribs.  I just feel that it is important to limit how much livestock I eat.  As good as beef is, feed lot beef is wasteful in a number of ways.  But at the same time, I don't want anyone to feel that their barbecue is in any way compromised by the lack of beef.  So here are some ideas for successful grilling in a slightly greener fashion.

Vegetables seem to be an afterthought for many 'Qers, but certain veggies for certain people make the meal.  Courtney's favorite (and one of mine too) is corn, grilled on the cob and in the husk.  It is really easy to do, very low maintenance, and delicious.  You literally just throw it on, husk and all, and when the outer layer of the husk is just about burned through, the corn should be done.  Other vegetables that can be grilled whole are any kind of peppers (they cook quickly, so keep an eye on them), asparagus (always place them perpendicular to grill), and long string beans (choose big, thick beans for best results).  Coating any of these veggies lightly in oil will help them keep their moisture, but is not necessary.

Any kind of zucchini or summer squash is great on the grill too, but should be cut into long, thick slabs first.  Eggplant gets the same treatment.  Since you are cutting into these vegetables, you should coat them well with oil to keep them from drying out too much on the grill.  For the same reason, cook them quickly on the hottest part of the grill for best results.  Onions, garlic, or anything similar are great grilled, and after grilling can be used to make sauces and salsas smokier.

Last word on vegetables: you can cook almost anything else in a tinfoil pouch.  This is particularly good for root vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, etc.  Cut larger vegetables into rough cubes so they will cook a little faster, and rub the inside of the tinfoil pouch with oil to seal in the moisture.  This is really more like steaming or baking than it is grilling, but since the coals are already hot/ the propane is already burning, why not throw it on.  My brother Nathan, who is possibly the best chef who never got paid to cook, does sweet potatoes whole wrapped in tinfoil  You can tell when they are done by inserting a toothpick right through the foil on the grill.  If it goes all the way through easily, they are ready.  And remember, when you are done that tinfoil is recyclable, no matter how dirty it got during its use.

Yeah, but where's the beef?  I have a little secret that I want to let you in on: ground beef tastes like nothing.  Don't believe me, do you?  Try a little experiment.  Cook a hamburger with no seasoning, no sauce, no oil, just beef and grill.  Eat it like a steak, no bun, no condiments.  The result: blander than tofu.  My first experience with a garden burger was a real eye opener: if the bun and the condiments are the same, the garden burger tastes just about as good as the real deal.

I draw the line at tofu hot dogs, though.  Partially because they really are less flavorful than their meaty counterpart (hot dogs are made with tons of salt and delicious but deadly nitrates), but also because it is a pretty sorry end for some tofu.  I think tofu should be treated like tofu, marinated in an Asian or Hawaiian sauce, and grilled in big square slabs.  Tofu has its own great tradition, and by trying to make it something it is not we just further convince carnivores that it is bland and boring.

Grilled Tofu w/ Homemade Spicy Teriyaki sauce
To get those perfect grill marks, turn 30 degrees halfway through cooking each side

So to sum up the meat replacements, it is all about the sauce.  I recently posted my Cross Country BBQ Sauce on Foodista, and I think it is just about the perfect sauce for anything grilled.  It also happens to be quick and easy to prepare, and very versatile.  Simply adjusting the proportions can make it more sweet, spicy, tangy or salty.

And finally, if you absolutely must have meat, try cooking chicken instead of the bigger polluters: beef and pork.  Tomorrow I will post a recipe for cooking a whole bird on the Q.

Cross Country Bbq Sauce on FoodistaCross Country Bbq Sauce

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

To Dream of Less: A New Operating System for the American Dream

People talk a lot about the American Dream.  There are a few different versions, but I think at the core is making something of your situation that is better than what you were given.  When you try to pin down what that translates to in the real world however, the answer is almost always 'stuff.'

A three bedroom home with a two car garage.  A new car.  A bigger car.  A faster car.  Lots of cars basically.  A riding mower.  A space in the house that is just mine.  A space in the house to work.  A space in the house that is just yours.  A space in the house for the kids.  More Space, in other words.  A pressure cooker.  A new microwave.  A bigger Barbecue.  A professional cook for weeknights.  A better vacuum.  A new dishwasher.  A maid that comes twice a week.  A cleaner life with more convenience.  A bigger TV.  A smaller computer.  A bigger laptop.  A new phone.

Each time we achieve one of these goals, it seems that very shortly we find ourselves having exactly the same goal once again.  I have a flat screen, LCD HDTV, I want a bigger one.  I have an iPhone 3G, I want the new 4G (or whatever, 6G, 7Q, 10JT) as soon as it is available.  I have a moderately fuel efficient car, I want an electric vehicle.  The trouble is, I know for a fact that each time I acquire one of these things I will quickly tire of it and want something newer/bigger/faster to replace it.

Recently, I have been dreaming of less.  I dream of wanting less.  I am not living the dream, not yet, but I am dreaming it.  I dream, instead of a new car, of having no car at all.  I dream of living in a place where I can walk to work, walk to the grocery store, walk to a restaurant, pub or theater, and walk to a  public transit line for everything else.  I dream of no car insurance, no car maintenance, no gas prices, no car washes, and mostly no driving.  I hate driving.

I dream, instead of more space, of just enough space.  I dream of having no storage, and being forced to get rid of everything I can't store.  I dream of having only things I need and use frequently.  I dream of getting the most out of every space and every thing that I own, of loving my spaces and cherishing my things.  I dream of liking my stuff enough to care for it, keep it, and enjoy it, rather than dreaming of replacing it.

I dream, instead of getting new things, of getting very old things.  I dream of finding things that have worked for many years, which show little sign of wear and every intention of working forever.  I dream of caring for these things, of keeping them working, and when I no longer have use for them of finding other people who do.

I have been dreaming lately of making my situation better with the dream of less.  This is the American Dream, though it may not look like it on the surface.  I dream of taking what I am given and making it last longer, making it worth more, making myself happier, and making the world a better place.  In short, I dream of making a better life for myself and my family, and it seems that every day that better life needs a little more less.
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Saturday, May 15, 2010

The End of Oil and the Future of Transportation - from planes and cars to trains and buses

National Train Day was last Saturday, and cities across the country celebrated.  In the spirit, I thought it would be a great time to follow up on my previous post about Anthony Perl and the future of transportation.  The second edition of his book Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil is out this month, and I think it is a very important work.  When Mr. Perl presented at the HOPES conference, he outlined the concepts of his book and painted a picture of the future that we face whether we like it or not, whether we plan for it or not, and whether we accept it or not.  The fundamental principle which drives his vision of the future is the end of oil.

That end is a long way off, by any measure, but before the end there will be a steady decline in oil production which will raise prices likewise steadily until the average person, even in the richest nations in the world, will not be able to afford to drive.  Basically, the amount of oil in the earth is finite.  We are burning through it at a steady rate, which will only increase with a growing population (although improvements in fuel efficiency could offset this somewhat).  At some point, the discovery of new reserves will decline and eventually stop.  At some point each individual well will reach its peak and begin a rather rapid descent in production.  At some point, the amount of oil being produced world wide will stop increasing, and will begin to decrease at a rather fast pace.  At some point after that, we will have got all we can get, and we will have burned through it.

You may be thinking right now that I am talking about some far off future, some backdrop for a Sci-Fi story, but in reality most of the analysts put the time frame for peak oil within my lifetime and many of yours.  Some analysts say that we have already peaked, and the decline is about to begin.  That is actually the case in the US and Mexico, and the OPEC nations have some interesting ambiguities in their reporting of reserve levels.  The estimates for exactly when the world as a whole will reach peak oil are pretty disparate, but everyone agrees that the peak will come, and we probably won't know that it has happened until we are looking back at it with about 5 years of good data.  That being said, it does look pretty likely that we will peak before mid century, and probably within the next 10 or 15 years.  So while I may not live to see the end of oil, I may live to see it recede permanently from my price range.

So what does a world without oil look like?  Since almost half of the oil we produce goes to making gasoline, we would have to find some alternative to gas powered cars, buses, motorcycles, scooters and go-carts, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, generators, and chainsaws.  That 'almost half' does not include, unfortunately, jet fuel, which means an alternative to travel by plane, or diesel fuel, which means an alternative to shipping things with trucks and container ships.  So in other words, every method of getting stuff from one place to another place would have to be re-figured, along with a few of our favorite methods of cutting things into smaller pieces.

While fuel accounts for most of the uses of petroleum, there are a number of other products that it is hard to imagine being the same without petrochemicals that are byproducts of the fuel industry.  Primarily, if you like having stuff made from plastic, you should start recycling now because it will be very difficult to match current plastic production rates with nothing but orange peels as raw materials.  A number of mechanical lubricants are also made from petrochemicals, as well as some personal hygiene products (anything made with petroleum jelly, e.g.).  Petrochemicals are a prime ingredient in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides as well, so organic farming will be basically foisted upon us.  Are you a painter?  Because you can kiss acrylic paint goodbye too.  In short, petrochemicals have worked their way into just about every industry on almost every level.  For a more comprehensive list of stuff that we can't make without oil, follow the links on this page (there are a lot of them).

That last paragraph aside, however, transportation really is the biggest issue.  Not just moving people, but moving stuff quickly and efficiently all over the world.  As an example: unless you live near a train line in California, you may have trouble getting fresh vegetables year round.  Fresh seafood will also be difficult unless you live in a city with a big port.  And even then, the fishing boats will have to be sail powered, because diesel is out, which means your seafood supply will be somewhat weather dependent

But ultimately, the ability to get in your car and go wherever you want whenever you want will be gone forever.  Likewise, the ability to visit your relatives and friends across the country or around the globe will be severely reduced since airplane travel will be effectively over.  So what do we do in this bleak post apocalyptic world to travel, ship, and eat exotic foods?  Well according to Anthony Perl, we had better start building trains now, cause that is going to be our best option.

If this country was connected with a comprehensive network of high speed trains, powered by electricity, we could cut our oil consumption by, well, as much as we wanted to right away.  More importantly, as oil becomes more scarce and less affordable, high speed trains will provide a viable alternative to long distance freight and travel, while light rail can provide an alternative to commuter vehicles.  Of course, these will be powered by electricity, but there are already a number of very bright people working on making electricity more sustainable (check out what these guys are doing with wind).  By hooking trains up to the power grid instead of burning fuel, they are poised to run on green energy as soon as it is supplied to the grid.

The Obama administration has approved 8 billion dollars to build new high speed train lines, and that is a really great start.  Unfortunately, it is not nearly enough.  Trains are expensive to build, operate and maintain, and the revenue from fares is unlikely to provide a profit model that is favorable to the private sector in the short term.  This means that any new train lines are unlikely without government funding, and to get a train system that is up to the job of replacing airline travel, we will need many times more than the 8 billion currently allocated to train funding.  It is worth it, however, because the alternative is that in 20, 30, or even 50 years, we will be back to the 1700s in terms of transportation.
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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day, Sue

My mother is an English Teacher, a songwriter and a poet, and to her I owe what ever gift with words I can claim.  Because of her influence, I have a familiarity with the English language and a love of words that has served me well in every endeavor in my life.  The ability to cleverly turn a phrase or concisely state your views is the ability to shape your reality and the perceptions of those around you.  Through communication we engage our world, and those who can bend language to their will can accomplish anything.  So for my gift with words: thank you.

My mother is an activist, an idealist, and an advocate, and to her I owe my hopes and my aspirations, my ideals and my passions.  Always on the side of the underdog and ever hopeful against all odds, my mother taught by example that if we hold ourselves to our ideals in every endeavor it is possible to achieve the impossible.  So for my ideals and my hope: thank you.

My mother is, of course, a mother, and to her I owe my life.  She is the mother of three boys, and the grandmother of a boy and girl.  She has given us everything that we are, and all that we will be.  So for everything: thank you.

Happy Mother's day, to all the mothers in my life: Mary, Jan, Seymantha, and all the rest.  But most importantly, to Sue, happy mothers day.

Love, your son,