Monday, January 31, 2011

Meatless Monday: I'm a Mushroom Farmer! (Part 1)

Here's how I got started…

He knew I would love this story. So my night owl husband got me out of bed to see the two “mushroom guys” who were being interviewed by Carson Daly on “Last Call” on June 24th of last year.

Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez started BTTR (pronounced “better,” an acronym for Back to the Roots) Ventures in 2009, after graduating from UC Berkeley. Their dream? To establish a closed loop, zero waste urban mushroom farm, using recycled coffee grounds as the growing medium.

The idea came to them as students in a business ethics class. After some experimenting in a fraternity house kitchen, they successfully grew a crop of oyster mushrooms in a bucket of coffee grounds, and then sold their idea to the Whole Foods in Berkeley. They won $5000 in UC Berkeley's 2009 Bears Breaking Boundaries competition and launched the company after graduation. Soon they were selling oyster mushrooms to all 30 Whole Foods stores in Northern California.

BTTR Ventures currently removes 8,000 lbs. of coffee grounds from the waste stream each week. Since its start the company has diverted and transformed over 260,000 pounds of Peet's Coffee grounds. 

This dynamic duo has gone on to win a long string of awards including being named to the 2010 Business Week list of Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs. BTTR Ventures now employs seven people and sells mushrooms to 90 Whole Foods stores, with the goal of selling to all 300 by year's end. 

These entrepreneurs are also committed to making their community a better place to live. They donate a portion of their profits to charity, are involved in mentoring programs, and hire workers through JOBS NOW! BTTR Ventures also sustains ten school and community gardens through its donations of premium soil enriched by the mushroom mycelia (roots) remaining after their mushroom crops have been harvested.

Alex and Nikhil introduced a line of mushroom kits (sold in some Whole Foods stores and online) in March 2010 with the goal of bringing sustainable grow-at-home products into households across the country. BTTR Ventures estimates that already families have grown some 45,000 pounds of fresh mushrooms with these kits.

I bought several kits as holiday gifts and recently started one of my own. Here is a photo of “my farm” taken earlier today. Look for more on fungi and a farm update next Monday.

I try to blog on food or food issues each Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Snowku for You

Feathery white flakes
Large as a tufted titmouse
Swirled through the night sky

The devil appeared in the cherry tree mid-day on Wednesday the 26th, after the small storm, a mere footnote to the big one that followed late that same night. The second image was taken from the same window the next morning. We've been shoveling for days here—steps, sidewalks, porches, roofs, driveways, and passages to the street. The January updates will have to wait until early February…

Monday, January 24, 2011

Meatless Monday: Salsify Makes a Comeback

Happy Monday everyone.

In 2010 celeriac (aka celery root), the chubby root vegetable with a pale and hairy visage, made the jump from farmers’ markets and specialty food shops to the produce bins of large supermarkets (at least here on the East Coast). Perhaps 2011 will be salsify’s year to make a comeback.

Only in Eataly have I tasted this root vegetable. It was early in November, the height of salsify season. Batons of Salsify was the only item that my cousin and I could not identify on the description of the antipasto plate. Rather than admit our ignorance, we decided to go for it. We were not disappointed.

The batons looked like baby carrots, only paler and not quite as plump. They had been braised until firm but not crunchy in texture and had a deliciously subtle taste. We could not imagine what form they had assumed when they were whole, but it was fairly apparent that salsify was a root vegetable.

Let me tell you the story of salsify, gleaned from cookbooks and googling. 

Salsify is indeed a root vegetable — long and tapering. Thomas Jefferson is said to have grown it. Scorzonera has a black skin; there is also a lighter-skinned variety with a grayish tinge. 

Salsify’s season is Fall to Winter. Late last year it could be found at a few green grocers in the New York boroughs, but this formerly favored root has not yet found its way back north and east to New Haven.

James Beard's American CookeryRenowned chef James Beard included salsify in his magnum opus American Cookery (1972): “Salsify was a popular root vegetable for many generations and then suddenly seemed to drop into disrepute. It was originally called oyster plant because it was said to have the flavor of oysters— so much so, says Mrs. Rorer [author of a 1902 cookbook often referenced by Beard], that vegetarians made Mock Oyster soups. The claim for its flavor I have never found to be true.” I would agree with chef Beard. I did not taste the oyster. Beard suggested scraping and boiling the roots (in “acidulated water” because the roots turn color almost immediately after peeling), and then provided three suggestions for serving: dressed with butter; sliced in a cream casserole; or puréed, combined with beaten eggs into salsify cakes, and then fried. James Beard is long gone, but his memory lives on at the foundation named after him. On this page of the foundation's blog you can learn more about salsify and see some celebrity top chefs featuring it in their recipes. 

Joy of CookingThe Joy of Cooking (1973 edition) urged readers to plant seeds for scorzonera if they plan to grow their own and advised that the roots taste best after being stored for several weeks at a temperature “just above” 32°. Once again there was advice about ways to avoid discoloration, including a suggestion to cook the salsify before peeling it. The Joy offered two recipes — one for salsify in cream sauce, the second for salsify fried with a cornflake coating.

A third cookbook in my collection — Fannie Farmer (1981 edition) also gave a brief reference to salsify. In this case salsify was described as a good accent in stews and meat pies and as a vegetable accompaniment to a variety of meat dishes. The recipes are basic — boiled and served with butter, or mashed with cream and butter. Fannie described the flavor as being “a little like oysters.” That’s more credible. 

None of the post 80s cookbooks in my collection made any mention of salsify. I did find this contemporary (in time and in taste) recipe for Damon Wise’s Pan-Roasted Salsify online. It actually sounds quite like what I ate at Eataly.

Now all I need are some roots. It has been suggested that salsify is a gardener’s plant — and that the best way to ensure a supply is to grow your own [or perhaps to get someone with a garden to grow some for you.] Heirloom seeds can be found at a number of sites such as this one. The variety in each case seems to be Mammoth Sandwich Island Salsify. 

The smell of dirt and spring is such a nice thought today. [It’s  2 PM. It’s under 13°. This is way too cold for the Connecticut shoreline…] 

Check back next Monday so I can tell you about my mushroom farm.

I try to blog on food or food issues each Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Women — Don’t Burn Those Bras!*

Today I call attention to a little-discussed problem — bra hoarding. 

Over 307 million people live in the US, and 51% are female. Most of those females (75% of whom are over 18) wear a bra, at least some of the time. Many women own one or more they never wear (and never will wear) for one reason or another. This adds up to millions and millions of unworn bras! Most of these garments are taking up valuable space because their owners are clueless about what to do with them, short of throwing them in the trash. 

Thanks to a recent post from my fellow blogger Joanie, I have an alternative to the trash bin. Beginning on Monday, January 24, and continuing through Valentine’s Day, you can donate your unwanted bras to women and girls who WILL wear them, by dropping them off at your local Soma Intimates store. Last year Soma collected more than 28,000 bras. This year’s goal is 50,000.

In a press release for the event Soma president Laurie van Brunt states, “A bra is one of the least donated, but most needed items for the homeless and victims of domestic violence. While donating a bra may sound like a small thing, it makes a big difference to women who have to make the choice between putting food on the table and buying a bra.” 

Gently used bras will be donated to local women’s shelters and breast cancer survivor groups. If a bra is not wearable, it will be given to The Bra Recyclers, a textile recycling company focused on “doing our part to recycle and reuse bras (textiles) that unnecessarily go to landfills.” In addition, Soma Intimates will donate more than 1,000 new bras to Dress for Success.

Check out the Soma site to find a store near you. For New Haven readers, that would be the Milford Marketplace (home to Whole Foods and other fine stores). 

If you don’t get around to sorting your undies by the drive's February 14 deadline, you can mail them directly to The Bra Recyclers in Gilbert, Arizona. The Bra Recyclers has also partnered with Angel Wings International to send bras to women in Haiti.

Here in Connecticut we’ve just finished shoveling out AGAIN! and an Arctic blast is on the way. What better way to spend a housebound weekend than by starting your spring cleaning? How about one drawer as a first step?

One last thing, just for fun… here’s a bra that’s not likely to be heading to a collection box.

*The title contains a reference to the burning of bras by feminists in the 1960s to call attention to their cause — according to snopes, a myth — at least at the 1968 Miss America pageant where the law-abiding protestors could not obtain the necessary permit to set the contents of the trash can on fire.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Meatless Monday: Things You Might Not Know (and a recipe for Meatless Chili)

On Friday our usual radio show was missing from the airwaves and we happened to stumble upon NPR’s On Point, live from Boston’s WBUR. The topic of the day was “Vegans Take America.” Guests included Kim O’Donnel, author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook; Isa Chanda Moskowitz, who wrote the recently-published Appetite for Reduction: 125 Fast and Filling Low-Fat Vegan Recipes; and Mollie Katzen, author of two books I know well: Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Since Meatless Monday was referenced quite a few times during the course of the program, I thought it would make a worthy link. While searching for it, I made a few surprising discoveries about the Meatless Monday movement.

Here is the first. Readers of a certain age will certainly recall the television commercial featuring Mr. Whipple, the grocer who admonished customers, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.” And why is this relevant? Mr. Whipple and Meatless Monday are both the brainchildren of New York City ad man Sid Lerner

About a decade ago Lerner’s doctor had told him that his cholesterol and blood pressure were too high and that his diet was a big part of the problem. In an interview last May Lerner stated, “My wife and I were on the advisory board of an environmental group at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2003, cholesterol and saturated fat were in their heyday. We wanted to know how much meat was too much. It turns out we were about 45 percent over what the USDA recommends—or three out of 21 meals a week… Using President Roosevelt and the rationing of meat during World War II as inspiration, we dusted it off, using alliteration as our guide. We started Meatless Monday in 2003 and it's blossomed ever since.” Lerner still eats meat, although less of it and certainly not on Monday, and emphasizes that the movement’s goal is incremental change, without guilt.

The second surprise should have been no surprise once I learned the identity of the mastermind behind the movement. Meatless Monday has gone global! A quick tour of the Meatless Monday site will give you an idea of how many restaurants, institutions, public figures, and bloggers around the world have already embraced the cause. Furthermore, Lerner conducted a survey last summer in which he found that 20% of the people interviewed had heard of Meatless Monday. 

Inspired by all I had read, I decided to get ready for Meatless Monday by cooking up a big batch of an old favorite — vegetarian chili. I always start with a recipe from The Complete Round-theWorld Meat Cookbook, by Myra Waldo, a book my grandmother gave me as a wedding gift [no longer in print]. By substituting a few vegetables for Myra's diced boneless beef, I have morphed her recipe for Texas Chili con Carne into the following:

Meatless Texas Chili
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 large pepper*, chopped
4 medium (or 2 large carrots), peeled, then diced
1 medium sized eggplant, peeled, then diced
1 29 oz can tomatoes 
1 14.5 oz can tomatoes
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons chili powder (I like Penzey’s 9000)
1 16 oz can kidney beans
1 16 oz can black beans
2 cups cooked brown rice
*Try to purchase organic; peppers are No. 7 on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.

Heat the oil in a large pot. Sauté the onions and garlic until soft. Then add the other vegetables, stirring frequently until tender. Mix in the tomatoes and seasonings. Cover and cook over low heat for at least two hours. Add the beans and rice, taste for seasoning and cook 10 minutes longer. This recipe makes 8 generous servings (at least).

Note that a good substitution for the eggplant [I know some of you out there are not fond of this vegetable] is zucchini. Note also that this is a vegan recipe if you forgo the cheese. This is the perfect comfort food for a cold Winter's day. Enjoy!

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Most Patient Person in the World

I do believe I met her on Monday. She smiled. She greeted me with “Happy New Year.”  She asked politely how she could be of service.

She was the sole postal clerk in a post office with 14 patrons queued up when I arrived, and three times that number when I left. This is a branch post office, Yale Station to be exact. 

New Haven has no post office downtown. It did have one — on the ground floor of the Robert N. Giaimo Federal Building, one block from the New Haven Green. After Oklahoma City, the main entrance was made the only entrance, and scanners were installed. Traffic for the post office caused a security overload on a building which also housed Social Security, the IRS and the FBI (until their new building was completed). The post office was closed. As a “temporary” measure a vacated space on lower Chapel Street, former home to an adult bookstore, was converted to house the rental boxes, and stamp machines were put in place. The stamp machines are now permanently out of service, the boxes are accessible for limited hours, and if there are plans for a new downtown post office, they are a deep, dark, secret. 

I had chosen to walk, not drive, to the post office on Monday. The weather was nice, and I was mailing an envelope, not a package. I had plenty of stamps, but the envelope had to be certified with proof of delivery. I had a choice of two locations—Brewery Street (1.1 miles) or Yale Station (.7). Yale Station is a much nicer walk. The line being serviced by one clerk was a bummer really, but I decided to wait. Surely there would be help on the way. There were glimmers of hope. A woman made a brief appearance but failed to open up her line before she disappeared. A second woman came out long enough to supply some smaller bills (from her own purse) as change. One patron gave up. By now there were only six ahead of me. So I waited. 

It was cold outside but getting very toasty in here. The room was beginning to smell. The line now snaked to the door. But just then patrons’ requests began to be less complex. The line began to move in a perceptible manner. My turn arrived! 

The friendly clerk asked the requisite questions about the perishability or potential hazards of the contents of my flat number 10 envelope. After my transaction she asked whether I needed stamps or supplies. I told her that was all, thanked her and said I hoped she would have help soon. She calmly replied that she was the only clerk on duty. She added that she knew although it was not fair to the customers she was required to ask a number of questions, and that occasionally there would be people in line posing as customers to verify that she was asking the questions. I expressed my disbelief, thanked her again, and made my way to the door past a few dozen customers, mostly students catching up on vacation news and discussing shopping for classes.

All was calm on this pleasant afternoon. But do a quick search for this post office on yelp and you will find a one star rating and very low customer satisfaction. A sign at the Chapel Street location directs customers here or to Brewery Street (also prone to lines). Not everyone in New Haven has a car. Not everyone is perpetually calm. At some time or another most everyone has something to mail.

Is the current situation really the best plan for a service struggling to stay in business? The most patient person in the world is doing all she can to keep the customers satisfied. She could really use some assistance. And the postal patrons in downtown New Haven could really use a post office of their own.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Meatless Monday: It’s a Frugal Thing

Happy Monday everyone.

By now most of you have heard that “going meatless” one day a week is healthy for you and for the planet. But have you ever thought about how healthy it is for your wallet? 

A bean-based meal, particularly if you soak and cook the beans yourself, is hard to beat in the frugality category. If you’re planning a dinner party on a budget, and if you have some time on your hands, choose a main dish with beans as a base. With all the money you save, you’ll have some to spare for a few more costly ingredients. 

We did that last week when we celebrated the first Meatless Monday of the new year with four friends, omnivores all! The dinner’s main course was Provençal Tomato Bean Gratin, a recipe from the New York Times which readers may recall from a post last March. As a side, I prepared Green Chile Corn Pudding, a new recipe from the Whole Foods site. Both were tasty and well-received. The most expensive ingredients were two cans of organic tomatoes ($1.79 each) and a small piece of Gruyére cheese ($2.85) for the bean dish, and 3 cans of chiles ($1.50 each) for the corn pudding. The bag of beans was $1.19. People had seconds, but there were still ample leftovers.

The star of the meal, however, was a sandwich inspired by one I had at a café years ago. For my attempt to replicate the recipe, I had splurged on the following ingredients: a jar of organic fig spread ($5.99), a package of organic baby arugula ($3.49), a 4 oz. log of goat cheese ($4.49), and a bag of Chabaso Bakery’s Olive Oil Ciabatta STIX™ ($2.99). 

To make the sandwiches I first cut each of the three STIX™ in half lengthwise. I was a little behind, so the first guest to arrive pitched in as sandwich assistant. She spread a thin layer of fig on one half of each pair, and a third of the goat cheese on the other. I sprinkled arugula on top of the cheese and closed up the sandwiches. We cut each stick into six pieces. Success — the sandwich of my dreams! There were no leftovers!

The carbon footprint for the sandwiches was a little large with the fig spread traveling from Croatia (4000+ miles) and the arugula most likely from California (around 3000 miles). The goat cheese was from Vermont, though, and Chabaso Bakery IS in New Haven. I try to be a locavore, but I admit that I am not hard core, particularly when planning a party to brighten up these oh so very short Winter days. 

The menu also included black-bottom cupcakes and libations (some local while local wine may be a problem, local beer is not). No one missed the meat  — no one! And nothing went to waste — I assure you! What better way to start off the new year than by celebrating Meatless Monday with a few friends?

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Sharrows: Seen Any Yet? Do You Know What They Mean?

The title of this post is not a typo. Sharrows is an actual word.

A “sharrows” mark demarcates a roadway shared by motor vehicles and bicycles — a street too narrow to have a dedicated bike lane, but part of a designated travel route for cyclists. The arrow portion indicates the direction of the traffic, and the mark’s position on the road surface indicates where cyclists can ride on the street without being hit by a suddenly opened car door. The marks are prominently displayed, visible to both driver and cyclist.

The pictograph has gone through several metamorphoses. An early version was test-driven in Denver, CO in the 1990s. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) marked a number of streets in a 1998 pilot project, and later carried out further experiments on the effectiveness of several variants of the markings and their placement. The SFMTA presented a detailed report on the project’s outcomes at the Pro Walk Pro Bike Conference in Seattle in September 2008. You can read the complete report hereThis well-illustrated fact sheet explains the details of the marks’ recommended placement on the road surface. A number of cities have since incorporated such sharrows into their plans for safe streets.

The sharrow above appeared on Grove Street in downtown New Haven, CT late in the Summer of 2010 as part of the first phase of improvements recommended in a 2009 bicycle safety plan created by Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates. The planners, hired by the City to find ways to make New Haven safer for cyclists, designated several bicycle routes to, through, and around the city to be marked with sharrows as a short-term improvement. As Jim Travers, head of the Department of Traffic stated in an article in the New Haven Independent“These are shared road spaces. The street is not solely designed for the automobile. We are promoting biking on this road.” 

Many cyclists (including me) prefer bike lanes, but these marks do seem to increase motor vehicle drivers’ awareness of cyclists. I have to admit I was dubious at first. But you can’t miss these marks from either a motor vehicle or a bike, and their general meaning is not too hard to decipher. 

Google “sharrows” and you will find that many places are considering their use. If these modern-day glyphs have not yet appeared on the streets in your city, the chances are pretty good that they will show up sometime soon.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Meatless Monday: Waste Less

Happy 2011 everyone!

On this first Meatless Monday of 2011 it seems fitting to propose a New Year’s resolution — to waste less, food in particular.

In her most recent newsletter Lidia Bastianich, host of the television series Lidia's Italy, cookbook author, restaurateur, and partner in Eataly, pledges that in 2011 she will make a conscious effort to “not waste food” and invited her readers to make the same commitment. She states, “This effort will be made not only by myself, but by our employees in our restaurants and retail shops. I will also take the opportunity to share this message in the media, and my teachings throughout the year.” Lidia also invites readers to participate in her site’s discussion board — Community Table — to exchange ideas on ways to make such change possible. There are already 12 pages of comments!

In his blog journalist Jonathan Bloom “writes about why we waste food, why it matters and what we can do about it.” Jonathan states that “Americans waste more than 40% of the food we produce for consumption… At the same time, food prices and the number of Americans without enough to eat continues to rise.” Jonathan has been researching the topic of food waste since 2005, when he learned of food rescue efforts as a volunteer at a homeless shelter.

He has also written a book — American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food, for which he provides this summary: “American Wasteland examines how we waste nearly half of our food, chronicling waste from farm to fork. The book discusses why food waste matters and offers suggestions on what we can do better. American Wasteland is a journey through our food chain that raises questions about how our approach to eating has changed so much and what it means… A word of warning: It’s a book that forces you to reconsider your approach to food. Because once you’re looking for food waste, it’s hard to miss.”

Both Lidia and Jonathan are optimistic that together we can make great progress towards lessening food waste and getting more food to the hungry. The concluding words of American Wasteland’s introduction read, “You may be amazed by how freely and easily we dispose of food, from farm to fork. But it can be equally amazing how freely and easily we can diminish our vast squandering. To achieve that feat, though, we need to fully understand and acknowledge the scope of the problem.”

Who can possibly the dispute the merits of cutting down on waste? I’m in. I resolve to finish every box of cereal I buy (whether I like it our not), and to finish the produce I have before purchasing new. Together, let’s celebrate our leftovers and the contents of those doggy bags and turn them into a smorgasbord. This shouldn’t be too hard to do.

You can check out Jonathan’s and Lidia’s sites for more tips, or this 2006 NPR interview Ted Robbins conducted with anthropologist Tim Jones, who opens his fridge to determine not what he wants to eat, but what he needs to eat.

In closing, here is an adage from my youth: “Take what you want, but eat what you take. You can always go back for seconds.” It’s a start…

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”