Monday, February 28, 2011

Meatless Monday: It’s Pancake Time!

Having pancakes for supper this week or next would be in keeping with a time-honored Christian custom. The penitential season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, — March 9 this year. The Tuesday before is traditionally a day for using  up all the rich foods observant Christians “give up” during these 40 days preceding Easter. 

Fats are among the foods the faithful eschew for Lent. To ensure that no food goes to waste, families feast on this Tuesday, consuming all the taboo foods (formerly including eggs and dairy products) that won’t last for 40 days hence the name Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”). Pancakes are often the food of choice, since the cook can create a meal using up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house, merely by adding a bit of flour.

How long have Christians been indulging in pancake feasts? At least since 1445 when the women of Olney, England competed in their first recorded pancake race!

Fat Tuesday is known as Shrove or Shriving Tuesday in the church calendar. In the past, all Christians used to shrive, or present themselves to a priest for confession and absolution of their sins on that day. The tradition of the Olney pancake race is believed to have begun when a woman busily making pancakes lost track of time, and upon hearing the bell summoning the faithful to confession, raced out of the house to the church, still wearing her apron and with her frying pan in hand. Each year female residents of Olney race from the Bull Inn to the parish church wearing an apron and cap (as well as their normal clothes) and wielding a frying pan with a real pancake. They must toss the pancake once at the start and then again at the finish of the race. There are prizes for the fastest runner, the oldest runner, and the one who raises the most for charity. 

Since 1950, the race has taken on an international flavor. After seeing a photo of the Olney race in a magazine, the president of the Jaycees in Liberal, Kansas challenged the women of Olney to a friendly competition. The women of Liberal have been running a charity pancake race of identical length, and with the same rules, ever since. The day is now designated as International Pancake Day. The current tally is 34 wins for Liberal and 25 for Olney. There was no winner declared in 1980, because a truck blocked the finish line in Olney. 

In an early observance of the occasion, I whipped up a batch of my husband’s favorite cornmeal pancakes. The recipe was gleaned from an elementary school field trip to the Boothe Memorial Park and Museum in Stratford, Connecticut some 8-10 years ago. I still retain vivid memories of a bus filled with little kids from the city on a big trip to this “farm” some 15 miles (1/2 hour) away. That day we tried out stilts, looked at antique farm equipment, visited a blacksmith’s shop, watched a demonstration of weaving, and made pancakes. Everything was a new experience for many of the students, most of whom had never seen farm animals. One girl was so afraid of the chickens that when asked to harvest an egg for the pancakes, she burst into tears. When we arrived back at the school, she hopped down from the bus and proclaimed, “I never though it would feel so good to have the sidewalk under my feet again.”

Here’s the recipe. It’s really easy and I bet you have the ingredients in your cupboard.

Cornmeal Pancakes

Sift together:
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Add: 1/2 cup boiling water

Stir into batter:
1/4 cup milk 
1/4 cup cup canola oil
1 well beaten egg
1 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

Drop large tablespoons of batter onto a hot, well greased
 frying pan or griddle. 
Turn the heat down, and cook the cakes until brown. 
Then flip them over and brown on the other side. 
Serve with maple syrup and enjoy!

For those of you who can’t get enough of a good thing — tomorrow, March 1, is IHOP’s 6th annual observance of what IHOP calls National Pancake Day. From 7 am-10 pm IHOP is serving up complimentary short stacks. In return, IHOP asks that you donate a little something to Children’s Miracle Network or a designated local charity. To date IHOP has given away over 10 million buttermilk pancakes in National Pancake Day events.

Those of you who live in the New Haven, CT area can get another pancake fix on Saturday, March 5 from 9 am until noon at the United Community Nursery School Open House and Pancake Breakfast — $2/each or $6/family of 4. There is yet one more opportunity after the Sunday, March 6th service at United Church on the Green (service at 10:30 am, pancakes around 11:45, free).

Whether you choose to dine out, to make your own, or to do both, ENJOY!

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.”

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Freebie Friday 2.25.11

Worthy Things to Do, Listen To, or View that Won’t Cost You a Dime 

TGIF once again. Welcome to another edition of Freebie Friday. The blog is a little lighter than usual on Green tips this week, but there are a few. I’ve tried to include something for everyone.
  • First off, a reminder for parents or teachers of doodlers that the registration deadline for Doodle 4 Google (one of last week’s Freebies) — Wednesday, March 2 — is fast approaching. Check out the details here.
  • Tax season is upon us! The next Freebie is a Living Green Tax Tip. I hope that you all embrace the concept that much of your unwanted stuff could become another person’s treasure. Those of you who have made donations and are able to itemize your deductions may be able to derive some monetary benefits from having done a good thing. If you are scratching your head about how to assign values to the list of items you have given away, check out the valuation guide posted by the Salvation Army. FYI, small items can always be dropped off at Salvation Army collection points. Their truck will pick up and carry away some, but not all, larger items. Call 1-800-SA-TRUCK (1-800-728-7825) to find out the nearest drop-off location or to determine if they are interested in picking up what you would like to donate. 
Many of you are looking forward to the Academy Awards on Sunday night. Since everyone needs to have a little fun, and I’m a movie fan, I’m devoting a chunk of blog real estate to links I’ve found to help you prepare for the evening.
  • At Fandango, you will find a synopsis and trailer for each of the films nominated in the major categories.
  • If you are in an Oscar-picking pool and want a leg-up on your predictions, check out this article from The Official Google Blog discussing search trends as a clue to picking Oscar winners. Then visit Oscar Search Trends to see which nominees are being searched most. 
  • Print out a ballot here. Good luck! 
  • Finally, remember that The Warriors of Qiugang: A Chinese Village Fights Back is available for viewing free online. This Academy Award-nominated documentary tells the story of villagers in China who fought to close the chemical plant that was ruining their way of life. [For more see link originally posted 2.11.11]
Happy last Friday of February. There will be more Freebies on Friday, March 4, and plenty of other things to consider between now and then! Come back soon and please tell your friends.

FYI Why a piñata? Just like a blog link, until you open it, you won’t know what’s inside.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Meatless Monday: Talking Pie

Pie is the new cupcake according to the New Haven Advocate, my local weekly paper. The month of February has been declared Great American Pie Month. And today, Presidents’ Day, is often observed by eating a slice of cherry pie (after a return from shopping the plethora of sales) in honor of our first president. Why? Well, George Washington, according to a tale made popular by Mason Locke Weems in 1809, chopped down a cherry tree as a lad, and when confronted by his father, confessed to the deed, saying, “Pa, you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” And we have been eating cherry pie on this day ever since.

What better post topic for this special day than pie?

According to an article called “History of Pie,” the original purpose of a pastry shell was to serve as a baking dish, storage container, and serving vessel, not always meant to be eaten. This same site includes an historical timeline for pies which lists the earliest ancestor of the modern pie appearing among the Neolithic Egyptians sometime around 9500 BC. It also describes “animated pies,” a form of banquet entertainment in which small birds, animals, or even people would emerge from a pie when it was cut open and then provide entertainment. [Sound familiar?]

It is unlikely that what we know as pie was part of the first Thanksgiving feast, but filled fruit pies have been popular in America since the 1700s. The Shakers, a communal sect which flourished in New England, Ohio and Kentucky in the 1800s, were renowned for pies of seasonal fruits such as their Shaker Lemon Pie, in their communities and in the outside world. Their pie crusts were made of butter or shortening, in large amounts. Keep in mind that what they called “shortening” was actually rendered beef fat. 

Betty Crocker's Pie & Pastry CookbookIn the 1926 pamphlet What to Cook and How to Cook It (compliments of the Springvale National Bank in Springvale, ME), one recipe for pie crust appears. It called for 3 cups of flour to 1 heaping cup lard. In the 1972 edition of the Betty Crocker Pie and Pastry Cookbook, the Standard Crust recipe called for vegetable shortening (or lard), and an oil crust was a variation. By the 1990s, most recipes called for shortening, which by now was a strictly vegetable-based product, such as Crisco.

I learned the art of pie making with Crisco, and when I used it, I was a master of the perfect pie crust. The crust was always flaky, and light, and rolled out so well. And then Crisco got a bad reputation. When it was first introduced in 1911, Crisco was the first shortening to be made entirely of vegetable oil and was considered a healthy alternative to lard. We now know, however, that the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil from which Crisco is made is a trans fat, which raises bad cholesterol, lowers healthy cholesterol, and increases the risk of heart disease. Butter has turned out to be a better choice than Crisco, and oil (such as canola) an even better alternative.

Non-Animated Healthier Shaker Cranberry Pie
Here comes the challenge. I have been working hard at perfecting an oil crust. I am getting better at it, but my oil crust has never come out quite as flaky as my Crisco ones. And yesterday I made a big mistake. I made the crust ahead and formed it into two balls which I put in the fridge. Later, when I went to roll them out (cold, the mistake), they disintegrated into crumbs. I gathered the crumbs up, added a little water and made two new balls. I had trouble rolling the dough out to full size, but I managed to put together a pie. 

For years my tradition was to make a cherry pie on this date, using canned cherries from Washington state. This year I decided to go more seasonal and local. My filling was a slight reworking of a recipe I had for Shaker Cranberry Pie. Its base was 1 cup of Cape Cod cranberries (from the freezer) and 1 cup organic Thompson raisins. I mixed a heaping 1/2 cup [reduced from 3/4] sugar with 1 tablespoon flour, and 1 teaspoon vanilla, and then sprinkled it over the fruit. I mixed everything well and turned into the pastry. I baked it at 425° for 35 minutes, using pie shields on the edge for the first 20 minutes of cooking. The pie came out oh so tasty, but as the pie had baked, it diminished in size, and the crust was, well, not flaky. It had more of a container quality to it, and was more like a poptart. 

My pie was certainly healthier than the earlier Shaker version. It’s half gone already. And I’ll do better next time. Once I achieve the perfect oil crust recipe, I’ll be certain to post it. Recipes welcome.

Happy Presidents’ Day!

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, February 18, 2011

Freebie Friday 2.18.11

Worthy Things to Do, Listen To, or View that Won’t Cost You a Dime 

TGIF once again. Since the first Free Things Friday was a hit, here’s a second edition — new name, same idea. Once again, I’ve tried to include something for everyone.

  • The first link is for parents and teachers who have a doodler in their midst. It has both time and age restrictions, so don’t delay, and do pay attention to the rules. If you have a dreamer with an artistic bent, this one’s for you. Doodle 4 Google is an opportunity for students to use their artistic talents to redesign Google’s homepage logo. This year’s theme? “What I’d like to to someday…”  The prizes are awesome. 
  • The next one is for the procrastinator who has not yet sent this year’s Valentines, the planner who is already thinking about next year, or the sentimentalist who likes to send messages of love all year long. Map Your Valentine, launched this past Monday, allows you to send a unique message with a map or image (using Google Maps and Street View) of a favorite spot to “remind your Valentine of a special place.” Give it a try.
  • While you (and the rest of the nation) were watching Jeopardy to see whether super-computer Watson would emerge as the new champion, you may have found yourself wondering whether you have what it takes to beat Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter, or even Watson. If you really want to find out, check out this online quiz at the Jeopardy site to determine whether you should continue to pursue that dream.
For some of you, a long-weekend is fast approaching, and travel may be in your plans. Here are a few tools to help you plan that trip, near or far.
  • If you will be traveling by land, check out Google Maps to plan your route. There are options for driving (taking or avoiding the highway, paying or avoiding tolls), walking, bicycling, or using public transit (in some cities).
  • If you will be packing a suitcase, check out this much-viewed YouTube “Packing Like a Pro” video showing just how much you can cram into a small bag if you do it carefully. If you are flying, you just might be able to avoid a checked-bag fee.

  • Calculate the carbon footprint of your trip with the best carbon footprint calculator I’ve found. If you are calculating the footprint of a flight, be sure to check “include radiative forcing” to obtain the most accurate reading. This site also has calculators for various forms of ground transportation. Please do consider purchasing carbon offsets or making a donation to environmental group if it is in your budget. [More on this topic in a post from the past.] 
  • Finally, before you pack, it might be useful to determine the weather at your destination. Weather Underground is my favorite weather site. The first internet weather service, it has developed the world’s largest network of personal weather stations (nearly 19,000 in the US and over 13,0000 across the rest of the world). This excellent site contains a wealth of weather resources including maps, videos, and blogs. And, yes, the name comes from the lyrics of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Happy Presidents’ Weekend and safe travels to all. Please pass these links around. Come back soon!

FYI Why a piñata? Just like a blog link, until you open it, you won’t know what’s inside.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New Haven Starts to Think Outside the Bottle

The Aldermanic Chambers of New Haven’s City Hall came alive last night as dozens of supporters turned out for a hearing before the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee on a proposal to end the purchase of bottled water by the City of New Haven.

The bill, introduced by Alderman Justin Elicker, would prohibit the use of public funds to purchase bottled water — both the drums of water used in municipal buildings and the bottles of water currently being purchased for resale to New Haven schoolchildren. According to Elicker, the water currently purchased for use in public buildings is “purified water” from the municipal water supply of Worcester, Massachusetts, which is then bottled and trucked some 100 miles to New Haven.

Alderman Elicker made a thoughtful and detailed presentation replete with props (a sample water cooler jug, a bag of squashed empty water bottles, and refreshments for the alders in attendance — jars of water he had collected from fountains at city schools), expert witnesses from the Regional Water Authority (with handouts), facts, and even a little humor. Elicker had traveled around New Haven sampling water, and vouched for the cleanliness of the school water fountains and the coolness of the water (except in one instance where the cooling mechanism was faulty and he duly reported the problem). His passionate plea left few with any doubts that this idea was a good one. A point that Justin made, that the RWA representatives also stated, and that would be repeated by supporters throughout the evening, was that tap water is much more highly regulated than bottled water. Tap water must be deemed safe from source to tap, while bottled water has no source protection. 

Many spoke in support of the proposal. They included a regional director from the Think Outside the Bottle campaign; Justin Haaheim, environmental organizer for Act New Haven; Yale undergraduates working on a campus campaign to Think Outside the Bottle, some of whom had conducted a “Tap Water Challenge” taste test before the meeting; Yale Recycling Coordinator C.J. May who had a couple of magic tricks up his sleeve; and Yale faculty who offered both scientific and spiritual/ethical reasons to support such a ban. A group of Glastonbury high school students in matching tie-dyed t-shirts were perhaps the biggest crowd pleasers. Members of a group called PeaceJam, which works to create positive change through the inspiration of Nobel Peace Laureates, they spoke of the “fill station” they had succeeded in getting installed at their school, congratulated the board for “considering” this action, and urged everyone to “Be the change.”

One of the last to testify was community activist Aaron Goode, who promised to supply a reusable water bottle “with your name on it” for any City official who had a problem with the cooler ban. 

No one from the Board of Education, which has concerns over implementation of the plan, was able to attend last night’s meeting. Instead, board members sent a request to delay the vote, conveyed through Rob Smuts, the City’s Chief Administrative Officer and a supporter of the proposal, along with a message that the Board of Aldermen could not tell the Board of Education how to spend its money. This request did nothing to sway the opinion of Aldermen Elicker who had been unhappy with the Board of Ed’s general lack of support. The motion as presented by Elicker passed unanimously, without amendments, and will go before the full Board of Aldermen for a vote at its March 7th meeting.

If voted in to law, the ban on bottled water would yield some savings in the range of $31,000-$32,000 in savings, equivalent to the cost of 3,000 textbooks, according to Elicker. It may not do much to close the $57 million budget shortfall the City currently faces, but it is a cut that should have been made a long time ago. New Haven wants to be known as a Green city. What easier way to continue to Walk the Walk than by taking this simple step? 

[You can read more on the February 16th meeting at the sites of the New Haven Independent, the New Haven Register (where there are also videos), and the Yale Daily News.]

Monday, February 14, 2011

Meatless Monday: Valentine’s Day Edition

In celebration of chocolate…

I had always hoped that chocolate would someday end up on the good for you list. And it finally did — not every kind, and not in large quantities. But dark chocolate, in moderation, is indeed (at least for now) being promoted as a food with benefits for both your heart and mind.

What better post on a day where hearts proliferate and chocolate is much exchanged, than one outlining the story of chocolate and spelling out what makes one kind better than another.

The True History of Chocolate (Second Edition)What we know as chocolate has its origins in the ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America, where cacao beans were so valuable that they were used as currency. Anthropologists Michael and Sophie Coe wrote a comprehensive volume, The True History of Chocolate, rich in details about a number of topics including chocolate’s significance in the Mayan and Aztec cultures, how chocolate became the rage after the explorers introduced it to Europe in a sweetened form, and the methods for chocolate’s mass production in modern times.

The Cleveland Clinic is world-renowned as a center for treatment of cardiac (heart) disease. In 2010 it published an article on its website titled “Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled.” In summary, the article states that chocolate is rich in flavonals, naturally-occurring compounds with a number of healthy qualities. Flavonals are rich in antioxidants, which help the body’s cells resist damage. Current research also shows that they lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and lower cholesterol. A paper presented at the April 2010 meeting of the American Academy of Neurology found that eating chocolate may lower your risk of having a stroke.  The health blog of Consumer Reports summarized a study where stressed-out subjects improved after eating a little bit of dark chocolate every day for two weeks. WOW!

But before you grab that milk-chocolate covered caramel bar, please read on. Not all chocolate is created equal. First off, the more the cocoa is processed in the making of a chocolate product, the more flavonals are lost. Until chocolate manufacturers perfect techniques that preserve these flavonals from start to finish, you are better off indulging in chocolate that is dark (rather than milk chocolate) and cocoa powder that has not been Dutch processed (treated to reduce its acidity). You should also watch out for extra ingredients that add fat or calories. The Cleveland Clinic advises enjoying a moderate amount of dark chocolate (one ounce) a few times a week, along with other foods rich in flavonoids. These choices include: apples, red wine, tea, onions, and cranberries — in moderation — particularly when it comes to wine.

Have you ever wondered how a cacao bean is transformed into that neatly-packaged bar on the store shelf? The people at Equal Exchange tell the tale in The Chocolate Journey: From Bean to Bar. There are many steps and many people involved in the process. The Smithsonian Museum offers a brief summary and a short video which concludes with some delicious-looking recipes.

As with most products, some cocoa is grown and processed in a more ethical manner than others. Chocolate labeled as “certified organic” is made of cacao grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, typically cultivated on small plots under existing forest canopy, helping to preserve biodiversity. Chocolate sold through the Fair Trade Federation guarantees a “fair price” to producers and sets rigorous, transparent social and environmental production standards. 

Global Exchange has launched the Raise the Bar Hershey Campaign, pressing Hershey, one of the largest and oldest chocolate companies in the US, to join the movement and start sourcing Fair Trade certified cocoa. Watch the trailer for The Dark Side of Chocolate and read the Hershey CSR report online if you want to learn more about this issue. 

Valentine’s Day is here. What should you do if you want to give your honey some good for them and good for the world chocolate? It’s not too late. Some Fair Trade and Organic bars are available in retail stores. Green & Black’s Maya Gold is one. For more ideas, check out the chocolate bar guide at GoodGuide and then see what your local store carries. Those lucky enough to have a Ten Thousand Villages store nearby can find Fair Trade chocolate there. 

In the future, when you have a little more time, check out the online stores at Equal Exchange and Global Exchange.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Remember — moderation, and take time to savor the flavor! 

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, February 11, 2011

Free Things Friday

Worthy Things to Do, Listen To, or View that Won’t Cost You a Dime

TGIF. I’m sure at least some of you will be online for part of today or the weekend ahead. I’ve been doing my share of surfing and bookmarking. Here is my current short list of bests. I’ve tried to include something for everyone.
  • Sing a Song. Pass it On. In Out of Many We Are One artists Joanie Spear and Thomasina Levy articulate the need for Americans to find common ground in a difficult time. Listen to the song while you watch the video, then download an mp3 and the words and music, all for free. The artists write, “We hope you will take this song to your friends, your singing groups and choirs and sing it!”
  • If you plan to buy an appliance at a Presidents’ Day sale, check out the ENERGY STAR site before you shop. You can also find current rebates at this site. Be good to the planet and to your wallet. An old post of mine might be helpful, too.
  • Answer one of many calls to action. Here are just two. If you live in California, you might consider signing the petition for calling for one million green cars. If your municipality or any group with which you are affiliated is still buying bottled water, consider pledging to Think Outside the Bottle. For talking points, watch The Story of Bottled Water, one of the videos in the Story of Stuff project. Those who live in New Haven will have an opportunity to call for the end of the City’s purchase of bottled water at a public hearing on Tuesday night.
  • Find out just how good your shampoo (or deodorant, and now even the chocolate you plan to buy for Valentine’s Day) really is for you, the people who make it, and the environment. You can search for ratings on all types of products at GoodGuide, also available as an app for your iPhone. More on GoodGuide in a future post.
  • Watch The Warriors of Qiugang: A Chinese Village Fights Back, a documentary nominated for a 2011 Academy Award. Co-produced by Yale Environment 360, Warriors tells the story of villagers in China who fought to close the chemical plant that was ruining their way of life. The entire 39 minute film is available for viewing online.
  • Go Ahead, Laugh! Portlandia, a new comedy series starring SNL’s Fred Armisen, pokes some good-natured fun at the Green life. The series is being shown Friday nights on IFC at 10:30. If you don’t get that channel, you can watch free clips here. Be sure to check out “Is It Local?”
  • On Saturday, February 12, beginning at 10:30 AM, watch the TEDX Manhattan conversations on “Changing the Way We Eat.” Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel will be speaking at 2:45 PM EST.
  • Download one of my favorite songs, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Now free on iTunes. Get it while you can.  

That's it for today. Valentine’s Day is coming. Please remember to share with a friend or loved one.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Meatless Monday: More on Mushrooms

Happy Monday everyone.

Yes, mushrooms are the topic once again. But please humor me while I tell you some things you may not know about fungi and why they make a perfect Meatless Monday post. 

First of all, mushrooms are not meat. But neither are they vegetables. In fact, fungi form their own kingdom. Members of the fungi kingdom (which includes edible mushrooms) and the animal kingdom (which includes us) are more closely related to each other than they are to plants! Since neither animals or fungi can make their own food as plants and algae can, they are known as heterotrophs. 

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the WorldAll heterotrophs are not the same. While we ingest (or sometimes “inhale”) our food, fungi absorb nutrients from outside their bodies. Since fungi can digest compounds from a wide range of sources — both living and dead — they play an important role in the ecosystem. Their ability to consume any carbon-containing substance has led mycologist Paul Stamets to experiment with cultivating oyster mushrooms as a means of remediating oil spills. In fact, Stamets has written a book, Mycelium Running, describing the many ways mushrooms can help save the world — from filtering pathogens to providing a source of nutrients and medicines.

A fungus discovered in Oregon is 1998 is the world’s largest living thing, many times larger than a blue whale and, except for small outcroppings of mushrooms at its surface, hidden from our view. [What we know as a “mushroom” is actually the fruiting body of the organism, which erupts from an underground system of branching, thread-like mycelia in response to an environmental stimulus like rain.] This pathogenic honey mushroom fungus, occupying nearly four square miles of soil, causes the conifer-killing Armillaria root disease. Its age is estimated to be 2,400 years, but it could be as ancient as 8,650. Reports are that the honey mushrooms are edible but not particularly tasty to everyone.

But I digress — back to edible mushrooms and their nutritional properties. Mushrooms are a low calorie, low sodium source of protein, dietary fiber, iron and other essential minerals, as well as a variety of other compounds purported to have medicinal properties — a wonder food, particularly for a vegan. A good source of some B vitamins, mushrooms do lack A, C, and D. While A and C are found in many fruits and vegetables, getting enough dietary D can pose a problem for vegans. 

Nutritional data for the oyster mushroom
But here’s one more interesting thing. Mushrooms are one of the few food sources in which ergosterol, the precursor to vitamin D, occurs naturally. Researchers have discovered that a small amount of vitamin D is synthesized in mushrooms by exposure to naturally occurring UV light, and that this conversion can be accelerated by exposing the mushrooms to 18-20 additional seconds of UV light during processing. In short, mushrooms are already a really good food, and some day may be an even better one. 

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four MealsNot everyone can experience the thrill of harvesting mushrooms in the wild, as Michael Pollan described in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Yet in 2011 there is no reason to be mushroom deprived. While it is true that in the past mushrooms were only sold canned, now both fresh and dried varieties are readily available in most supermarkets and green grocers. According to a 2007 article in Scientific American, a large button mushroom farm can produce as many as one million pounds of mushrooms in a year. 

Mushrooms are a rather pricey source of protein, particularly when compared to beans. But they are versatile and you can use them sparingly, fresh or dried, to enhance a number of dishes, making them a perfect choice for Monday and every day.

The idea of growing edible fungi at home, has recently well, you might say, “mushroomed.” The New York Times has described “inoculation parties” for would-be backyard mushroom farmers, and countless others are growing them on their windowsills. Next week I’ll let you know what’s up with the mushroom kit I started.

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.”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Woodchuck Wednesday Redux: Special Groundhog Day Edition

If Woody the Woodchuck could exit his ice-encrusted burrow tomorrow, he'd be dead meat.* It's a good thing for Woody and for us that he's trapped inside. We don't need any woodchuck (Marmota monax, AKA groundhog) seeing his shadow this Groundhog Day. Here in New Haven, on the Connecticut coastline, we've received over three feet of snow in the last month, way more than normal. We are ready for Spring.

Which brings us back to Groundhog Day. Just how did the groundhog known as Phil in his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, PA become the official prognosticator of Spring’s return each February 2? According to the FAQs on the official Groundhog Day site, “The celebration of Groundhog Day began with the Germans, Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers. They brought with them the legend of Candlemas Day [observed on February 2], which states ‘For as the sun shines on Candlemas day, so far will the snow swirl in May…’ The settlers found that groundhogs were plentiful and were the most intelligent and sensible animal to carry on the legend of Candlemas Day.” According to the established tradition, if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather. If he does not see his shadow, there will be an early spring.

The site further proclaims that the Phil making his prediction tomorrow is the same Phil who popped his head out on the very first Groundhog Day in 1887! He gets his longevity by taking one sip of a special punch at the Groundhog Picnic each summer. [And if he is like Woody in New Haven he also eats a diet rich in organic vegetables pilfered from area gardens.] Phil’s predictions are made to the Groundhog Club president in Groundhogese, and then translated by the president for the world.

Results from a study described in a 2005 issue of the National Geographic indicate that Phil’s days as a weather predictor may be numbered. According to those Italian and American atmospheric scientists, “Winter as we know it likely will disappear in the Northeast.” The year mentioned? 2105! It’s hard to believe on a day like today.  

Back to February 2, 2011. You can view “Punx Phil”’s prediction live at approximately 7:25 am EST, friend him on Facebook, or follow his tweets. You can send a celebratory Groundhog Day eCard or even earn a Foursquare PA Groundhog Day badge that can be unlocked ONLY on February 2, 2011. 

Groundhog Day (15th Anniversary Special Edition) [Blu-ray]
My plans to celebrate the day? I’m going to watch one of my 10 favorite movies — Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, with my best friend.

Have a good one! And all you survivors of the very recent “monster” storm which rolled across the country — Watch out for those icy patches!

*See my original Woodchuck Wednesday post.