Monday, June 29, 2015

Sustainable Eggs

When I think of seductive foods, some of the things that come to mind are Pasta Carbonara, a gorgeous Caesar Salad, blanched asparagus spears and toast points dipped into a barely soft-boiled egg, or a small guilty pleasure like sneaking a spoonful of raw cookie dough.  When I think of these foods, I think of the luxurious feeling on my tongue, the delicious saltiness playing against the rich creaminess, the deep satisfaction of the complex relationship of the act of eating, tasting, smelling, and yet providing for basic physical nutritional needs.  What I usually don’t think of is the potential for illness with the possibility of hospitalization or even death.  However, all of the foods just mentioned have a common ingredient that could lead to such an outcome:  undercooked or raw eggs.  
Most cooks are very careful when handling raw chicken, being aware of potential salmonella contamination.  They typically cook the chicken to 160 F – the USDA’s recommendation to kill the salmonella bacteria – wash their hands, surfaces and utensils carefully after handling raw chicken, and keep everything separate.  Some cooks are even cautious of eggs.  However, most cooks are not likely aware that the USDA also recommends that eggs be cooked to 160 degrees.  This would essentially preclude not only the above-mentioned foods, but also most breakfast egg dishes, Hollandaise sauce, homemade mayonnaise, and even many eggnog or ice cream recipes which call for little to no cooking of the eggs.

While this may seem like heartbreaking news to many food lovers, there are several ways to accommodate many of these classic dishes while minimizing the health risks associated with salmonella contamination.  One of these ways is in the selection of the eggs you purchase.  Current industrial farming practices are geared towards maximizing output while economizing on inputs.  Inputs in egg farming include, amongst other things, feed and space.  As a result, the egg-laying hens are often housed in extremely cramped enclosed quarters involving small, stacked cages with very little exposure to sun and low-cost grain to feed them.  These conditions work toward creating an environment that is conducive to sickness, virus and bacteria that are spread easily.  While the regulated industrial farms take steps to lessen the spread of disease through regimens of antibiotics and other additives, some farmers take a different approach through more sustainable farming practices.

Sustainable egg and chicken farms are rising in popularity.  Most of these farms have gotten rid of the compartmentalized cages and give the chickens more room to roam, sunshine, fresh air, and a more varied diet, including grasses, bugs, supplemented by organically grown grain.  The outcome of these free-range, organic practices is healthier chickens that are exposed to less disease and producing far superior eggs.  Further, sustainably raised eggs are richer in nutritional values such as folic acid, vitamins B6 and B12, calcium, zinc, sulfur, magnesium, carotenoids, and choline, to name a few.  Additionally, these eggs have a richer flavor with a firmer structure that makes for a far different experience with even the most delicate dish.

While purchasing sustainable eggs is not an absolute guarantee of preventing food borne illnesses, it goes a long way towards healthier and tastier menu.  Moreover, you can further reduce risk of contaminated eggs by washing the outer shell off first before cracking them open, since that is where most of the salmonella bacteria live on eggs.  So, find your local organic free range chicken farm and eat that creamy Caesar salad, have your velvety Eggs Benedict and enjoy a luscious Pasta Carbonara.

Date Night Pasta Carbonara

Carbonara is a great date night food – particularly when trying to make an early… *impression*.  It’s silky, rich, opulent, sensuous, and satiating.  I made this early on for my husband while we were dating; I’m pretty sure it was what sealed the deal for us.  My husband has been cooking professionally in restaurants for more than 20 years, so I knew I couldn’t just slap together any old pasta dish on a plate and bat my eyelashes (although this had worked on dates in times past).  I need something downright luxurious.  So, carbonara seemed to be a really good option for my Midwestern, pork-loving guy.  It has bacon – an aphrodisiac in and of itself.  Then add the egg, cheese and some fresh black pepper and you have a little piece of heaven on your plate.  Carbonara is a really classic dish and it seems like almost everyone has their own way.  I have tried a thousand different recipes, and had pretty well settled on Nigella Lawson’s recipe, that incorporates dry vermouth (or white wine) that is cooked down with rendered pancetta.  It adds an extra depth to the dish. My version uses bacon ends cut into pieces (that I talked about in my Lentils and Rice post), which works just as well.

I made the dish during one of my first, ahem, “weekend” dates with my husband.  He loved it.  Since it fared really well, I have added this into our dinner rotation every few months for a nice date night dinner.  However, being from the Midwest, my husband finally confessed that the carbonara seemed incomplete without peas.  As a California girl, I had never heard of such a thing.  Peas in carbonara?!?!?!  Apparently this is a very essential Midwest regional addition that I was unaware of.  But, to appease my husband’s tastes for comfort food, I have since added peas to my recipe, as well some fresh parsley.  This has strayed from the simplicity of Nigella’s original recipe, but it is still a luxurious and sensuous date night dish.

The eggs in this recipe are cooked through residual heat of the pasta, so use good eggs.

Carbonara with Peas

  • 1 lb spaghetti
  • 1/2 pound bacon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (or vermouth)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (freshly grated)
  • black pepper
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup frozen peas
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • Fill a large pan with salted water and bring to a boil. 
  • Cut the bacon into ½ inch cubes.  Coat a large pan that will fit the pasta later with oil and heat over medium low heat until the oil starts to shimmer.  Cook the bacon in the oil until crispy but not crunchy.  Add the white wine or vermouth and reduce by almost half until the wine bacon mixture is syrupy. Take the pan off the heat.
  • In a bowl, beat together the eggs, Parmesan, cream and some pepper. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the package, but start to check it 2 minutes before the indicated cooking time and drain when al dente, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water before draining. Put the pan with the bacon back on the heat and add the drained pasta, tossing well to coat. Add a little of the reserved pasta water to lubricate if necessary.
  • Remove the pan from the heat again and add the eggs and cheese mixture, quickly tossing everything to mix.  Add the peas and grind more pepper to taste.  Toss and cover pan with a lid and let sauce thicken and peas warm through with the residual heat from the pasta.
  • Add parsley and grate fresh nutmeg over the pasta just before serving. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Allergy-Friendly One-Dish Meal

A good friend of mine recently had an emergency where she had to take her 3-1/2 year old to the hospital for an acute health situation. Her husband is in the Coast Guard and happens to currently be working on a project on the other side of the country, so it’s just the two of them. One of the things that I do when others are in need is try to figure out how to feed them. Not only will I cook, but try to organize others to take feeding shifts. Now, both my friend and her daughter have some pretty severe food allergies and the list is long. I think my head actually started to spin when she provided a complete list of food don’ts. And, again – these are allergies, not preferences. So, any cross-contamination could lead to potentially serious medical reactions. Some of the top offenders are gluten and all things dairy. And if anyone has ever known, loved, or had to cook for someone with actual Celiac Disease, gluten occurs in more than just wheat. And many processed foods or food products somehow have gluten, such as soy sauce. Okay. No gluten and no dairy. Check.

Also, this dish had to come in one container. There is no room in a shared hospital room for multiple courses in a fancy plating. Okay – so a one-container dish. I also only had about 90 minutes to prepare it. So, I looked at her loooooooooooooong list of allergy restrictions, looked in my fridge, freezer, and pantry, and decided to do a lentil and rice dish. I searched the internet for lentil and rice dishes, and found this delicious (and easy) looking dish from Aarti Sequira on the food network. I made some changes, such as adding some meat proteins (chopped bacon and chicken) to make it more of a one-dish meal, made some substitutions for what I had in my pantry, and altered some of the preparations in order to streamline the cooking time. But I tried to stay pretty close to the spice profile of this dish and it came out amazing. The recipe that below is my version of this wonderful dish.

Now for the sustainability part – The main components of this dish are onions, lentils, and rice, all of which are inexpensive ingredients where you can splurge on the organic and keep on budget, that keep well in the pantry, and provide a pretty substantial and filling meal. The original recipe is vegan (if you omit the yogurt suggestion), and can be kept that way by skipping the bacon and chicken. However, it is also extremely flexible and you can use up other random vegetables you have around (like carrots and sweet peppers), or leftover cooked meats, like the chicken I added, reducing potential food waste.

Moreover, lentils are not only a powerhouse, economical protein, but are a great crop for farmers to grow to recharge their fields. They do not require chemical fertilizers and nitrogen-fix depleted soil. As these become more of a staple in American diets, it becomes a more and more attractive option for farmers to implement in a financially, and environmentally stable crop rotation system.

Additionally, the bacon that I used in this recipe came from a package of bacon “ends and pieces” that I buy in bulk. Sustainable pork is wonderfully flavorful, and has a better environmental impact, but it can also be hard on a modest budget. I find that so often when I use bacon in cooking, I am cutting it up into small pieces and cooking it. I don’t need to get the pretty center cut bacon, and the less pretty bacon ends and pieces tend to be much less expensive per pound. I ask my butcher for the ends and pieces, buy a few pounds (also capitalizing on bulk pricing), then freeze it in ½ pound bags, so when I need bacon for a recipe, I can pull it out and cut up what I need.

Lentils and Rice with Chicken

1 cup brown or green lentils (not lentils du Puy), sorted for debris and rinsed *see Notes below

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (if skipping the bacon, increase oil to 2-3 tbsp)
1/4 lb chopped bacon
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns
3 medium onions, thinly sliced (red or yellow will work)
Pinch of sugar
1 medium carrot chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
Kosher salt
1 cup basmati rice
3 cups water
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 (1-inch) cinnamon stick
1-1/2 to 2 cups chopped cooked chicken meat
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast (optional) 
*see Notes below
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice

Pour lentils into a medium saucepan and fill with enough cold water to cover the lentils by about an inch. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, as the lentils cook, grab a large skillet and pre-heat over medium-low heat. Chop up the bacon into 1/2 inch pieces. Put oil into pan and let it warm up for a minute, then add bacon. Cook until bacon is crisp, then remove from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the cumin seeds and cracked peppercorns to remaining fat in the pan and cook, shaking the pan once in a while until the cumin seeds darken a touch, about 1 minute.

Add the onions and carrots, sprinkle with a dash of salt and pinch of sugar and cook until the onions turn dark caramel brown, stirring often. This will take about 15 minutes. Splash the onion mixture with a little water if they stick to the bottom of the pan.

While the onions are cooking, cook basmati rice according to directions on package with 2 cups of water. Place cinnamon stick in cooking water through the cooking process.

When onions are done, sprinkle in the ground cumin and cayenne; sauté about 1 minute. Add the cooked rice and cinnamon stick to the onion mixture. Add the cooked lentils, remaining cup of water, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook until the water is evaporated. About 5 minutes before the mixture is done cooking, add in the chicken.

Add in the cooked bacon and taste the rice for seasoning. Add in the nutritional yeast, chopped parsley and a little squeeze of lemon juice. Remove the cinnamon stick and re-adjust seasoning as necessary. You can also garnish with a little yogurt at the end.

Adapted from:

*Notes: I have used pre-cooked steamed lentils available in the refrigerator section of the grocery store for this with much success. You can skip the first cooking step if you use this short-cut.

The nutritional yeast is a gluten-free, vegan product. It is usually found in health food and organic stores, but is starting to become more available in other commercial grocery stores. I used it in place of yogurt to help moderate the heat of the cayenne. This is optional, but a good added a nice richness to the dish.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Blog Reboot!

When I first conceived of this blog, I was a single woman who had just finished a Master’s in Sustainable Business, and very involved in various food-related organizations.  I also liked to cook.  I wanted to share how I cooked sustainably for myself as a party of one, and friends and family. 

Then life got busy.

I embarked on several branches of my career path – consulting, teaching, and writing educational programs.  I dated.  I started dating one person in particular.  I got married, had a child, and continued to work.  And cook.  (How do you think I got married?!)  So, what was once the Sustainable Food and the single girl morphed as life happened. 

Now I’m back.  I’m still cooking and fully committed to sustainability, but I had to refocus on what the term “sustainability” meant to me – and my family.  “Personal sustainability” took on a whole new meaning as I started to experience things like career ups and downs.  Moments of prosperity, and moments of austerity.  But one thing has been a focus – I love to eat.  And often I need to eat and cook within a budget; and the tighter the budget, the more planning I found I needed to do.  This will be the lens that this blog will start to take on – sustainable food planning on a budget.

I also am dismayed that it took SIX years to pick this blog back up.  I am recommitting to myself and to this blog to produce content.  My plan is once a week.  I figure if I state this commitment publicly on the internet, I am more likely to follow through.  So, I will focus on trying to update somewhere around Mondays.  (Maybe Sundays, maybe Tuesdays, but early in the week.)

Okay, so, with that, here we go!