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Monday, February 29, 2016

Evaluating our food supply -- and how we feel about it

Photo by Randi Workman, via ksl.com

Perhaps more compelling than the question "Do we know what is in our food?" is pondering, "Do we want to know?"

My thoughts have thus ranged after a recent TV news story in my neighboring city of a woman reporting she found a snake head in a can of green beans. The woman was working with teenagers in their church kitchen to prepare a meal for senior citizens and noticed the snake head when they lifted beans out of a slow cooker. She threw the beans out and notified the store, which refunded her for the 30 cans she purchased. The manufacture  withdrew that particular lot from the marketplace.(Click here to read story.)

The gross-out potential of such a story is high (as Indiana Jones would say, "Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?"), and unsurprisingly people flooded an online comment board with plenty of "Ewws!" and "I'm never eating green beans again!" Others shared stories of their own less-than-appetizing finds inside commercially prepared products -- such as a starling in a can of spinach and a mouse baked in bread.

Er, excuse me while I regroup.

OK, are we back?

Such anecdotes can make one swear off ever buying processed food again! Eww, eww, eww! Other commenters were nonplussed and pointed out that it's unrealistic to expect a completely clean food supply. After all, these normal-Joe commenters said, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows certain levels of insects in the food we buy.

Sure enough, the FDA's Defect Level Handbook lists acceptable levels of what the organization deems "natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans." It's an interesting read, although please don't do so over lunch! And while I'm always on the prowl for good Scrabble words, I could have gone my entire life without learning a new one from this document: excreta. 

Here's a sample for a pantry staple, peanut butter. Measurements in the right box indicate maximum acceptable level.

The FDA handbook glossary defines aesthetic as "offensive to the senses." No kidding.

All of this certainly motivates me to grow as much of my own food as I can. Yet, interestingly, I believe my experience raising food tempers my response and broadens my perspective. I know that snails slobber on tomatoes. I know that grasshoppers and birds -- and all sorts of things -- poop in the garden. I wash produce, cut out blemishes and move on. I've bottled apricots, handling each one individually, and still not seen the tiny white worm until it ended up floating in my sealed jar. (That time, as my first foray bottling, I threw the jar contents out, but now I would just pick out the worm.) I've pulled a daddy-long-legs off my dinner salad, no big deal. I know certain things are unavoidable even with food that I closely inspect and handle every step of the way. 

Back to the story of the snake head, consider that those people didn't notice it right away either, when they opened the can. The woman found it later when pulling the beans out of the pot. 

I don't like dwelling too much on my food and think these stories of animals in products are the memorable, icky exception to the rule. In the name of not starving I choose to give the benefit of the doubt that growers, processors and regulators are doing the best they can. In the end I appreciate these thoughts from people who chimed in on the snake-in-a-can story:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

First spring day!

Feb. 16, 2016

Last week my sons and I slipped on frozen sidewalks as we headed to school. This week the temperature climbed to the 60s, a sudden warmth so magical you could hear it -- as icicles dripped and rooftops purged their burdens of snow down giggling rainspouts.

The laughter called me outside. I've had rather a blue season, whether it was affected by winter or not I can't say, but a hard season nonetheless. This first spring day woke my soul like a buried seed warmed sufficiently to want to reach for the light. I'm ready to make a change.

I went for a walk and met an older woman laboring to free a large branch downed in winter's first harsh storm. She was delighted when together we pulled it from its snowbank trap.

The sun and blue skies urged me to my garden beds, which have been hidden beneath white for the last two months. Yet there they were, a few spots of deeper, drifted snow here and there, but the plot otherwise warm and spongy-brown. I turned over a quick row and sprinkled some spinach seeds. I hoped to find a ladybug, and lo and behold, I did! I spent several satisfying minutes watching it climb over snow. I've never seen that combination. Or have I just never wanted to before? It was marvelous.

When spring emerges from winter's icy hold so quickly it's like an eager child throwing off the covers and jumping out of bed. That's the first spring day. Then the seasonal shift enters a bit of adolescence and identity crisis, teasing between two extremes. Warm? Cold? Tempestuous? Calm? Right now as I write this, after all, hail and thunder are playing outside. Take shelter, ladybug! Sometimes that first spring day arrives after the calendar definition, sometimes before.

April 15, 2015. 

Yes, spring is changeable. So am I. Perhaps that's why I'm so eager for it to fully arrive.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Great backyard bird count

Join the Great Backyard Bird Count now through Feb. 15 by spending just 15 minutes observing your yard and counting the feathered friends you see. Sounds like a nice break to me!

Visit http://gbbc.birdcount.org for all the details.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Seed packet Valentines

Plant seeds of joy for your garden-minded friends and family with Valentine cards made from seed packets. It's a playful, practical gift that will keep you on the recipient's mind throughout the growing season. The ones I made today are from easy-to-find seed varieties, which I plucked up 10 for a buck at the dollar store. Sure these valentines are corny, but isn't that what smiles are all about?


Let's be SWEET HEARTS (plant: sweet basil)

You are the best thing in my COSMOS

We are MINT to be! (plant: spearmint)

I CARROT A LOT about you!

You can't be BEET

This next batch is a little more obscure, drawing more from words on the packet than the plant itself:

You are my ANNUAL CHOICE, Valentine! (plant: phlox)

I find you CHARMING, Guaranteed! (plant: viola)

Valentine, you are Hot & Spicy! (plant: jalapeño pepper)

As I've pored over seed catalogs I've noticed many plants that convey sentiment in their very names:

(quotations indicate cultivar names)
“Angel face” floribunda rose
Bleeding heart
“Daydream” tulip
“Everlasting” sweet pea
Honesty plant
Obedient plant (eh, maybe not!)
“Romance” narcissus
“Valentine” sunflower

Here are other seeds that could be great for Valentine cards:
“Black Valentine” beans
“Hearts of Gold” cantaloupe
“Hungarian Heart” tomato
"Marvel" lettuce
"Tendersweet" carrot
Instead of traditional trinkets, you could give a growing, botanical version:
“Diamond” eggplant
“Golden treasure” pepper
“Chocolate beauty” pepper
“Teddy bear” sunflower
“Lady Godiva” squash, anyone? (Nah, Godiva chocolates are probably better.)
Show that you appreciate your Valentine’s special qualities by pointing out:
“Good Mother (Stallard)” beans
“Provider” beans
“Country Gentleman” corn
Use your imagination, and let plants do the talking this Valentine’s Day. Take it from me, though. These may be incredible plants, but for the holiday’s sake steer clear of sending a message with "Envy" zinnia, “Lazy Housewife” beans or “Seneca Red Stalker” corn.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Tips for cooking winter squash

Often times the biggest challenge to using a winter squash is cracking it open. Those squashes are hard! Even cooks with the sharpest knives and best knife skills can struggle making a dent. After the conquest of cutting open you still must contend with seeds and slippery, slimy strings.

Try these two approaches instead:

1. If the size is right, cook winter squashes whole in a slow cooker. Wash squash, make sure lid fits securely and cook on low for about 5 to 8 hours, until you can easily pierce a knife all the way through. I don't add water. Cooking period is about half that long on the high setting, although the low setting has the advantage of little risk of overcooking. You can pop a squash in the slow cooker in the morning and walk away. Once cooked, let the squash cool slightly. Cut in half vertically and easily remove strings and seeds. Then scoop away flesh from the peel. Use right away or freeze for later.

2. Soften squashes whole in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes to make them easier to cut. Then remove strings and seeds and cut into pieces for further cooking.

At this point you can go back to the slow cooker, stacking as many pieces as will fit. Or roast in the oven for about an 45-60 minutes, or loosely covered in the microwave checking after 20 minutes. I don't recommend cooking whole in the microwave, for obvious explosive reasons.

Here's one of my family's favorite squash recipes (named after my husband!):

Squash-haters' special request bisque

2 lbs. winter squash (butternut is especially good)
1 large onion
1-2 cloves of garlic
1-2 stalks celery
2 quarts good quality chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup cream (can also use evaporated milk)
Favorite herbs (sage or rosemary work well)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup chopped ham (optional)

Heat oven to 350. Prepare squash by removing seeds and stringy fibers. Place pieces cut side up in pan, uncovered, and put in oven. (It's OK if oven hasn't reached full temperature yet.)

Alternately, you can put prepared pieces in a covered dish in the microwave and cook for 20 minutes. This is quicker than oven method, but I think the roasted flavor the oven imparts is worth it if you have the time.

While squash is baking, mince garlic and chop onion and celery. Add vegetables, bay leaf and chicken stock to a large pot. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, and let vegetables cook until extremely soft.

Check squash in oven for tenderness after about 40 minutes. When done, remove skins from flesh. (If it's too hot to handle, let cool while you do the next step.)

Remove bay leaf from stock mixture and discard. Ladle softened vegetables into blender or food processor and process until smooth. (Do so in batches if needed.) Puree squash with small amount of stock.

Combine everything back into your pot. Slowly stir in cream and warm over low heat. Adjust seasonings and add ham. Serves 8.