September 22, 2011

Best Way to Cook Okra: Okra Apple Spice Muffins

I was overtaken by okra this summer. I grew it for the first time this year, and I have to admit that I didn’t have much experience with this veggie beforehand. It turned out to be such a hardy, productive crop that I was soon on a quest to find the best way to cook okra.

Fresh Okra in orange bowl on countertop

I tried traditional fried okra: slices dredged in egg wash, coated with cornmeal, salt and pepper, and then fried. I thought it was OK—pretty ho-hum. Okra is unique in its gummy, mucilaginous texture and, like fresh okra (pictured above), the fried version still tasted pretty slimy (which some people really like … but for me, it was a turnoff).

After that, I invented a few okra dishes that I would probably rate a seven—one was a potato okra soup and the other was a chunky okra, tomato and corn sauce over cornbread. But finally, thanks to the inspiration I found in a recipe for Okra Cupcakes with Fennel Frosting on the Cupcake Project website, I created my perfect 10 of okra recipes: Okra Apple Spice Muffins.  

Okra Muffins, Baking With Okra, Best Way to Cook Okra

Ingredients:

1½ cups organic white flour
1 cup organic whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup organic butter (plus a bit more for greasing muffin pan)
1/3 cup organic cane sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs from pastured hens
1/4 cup local honey
3 tbsp maple syrup
1/2 cup organic milk
1/2 cup apple or pear juice
About 1 cup organic okra, processed
1 whole organic apple, cored and processed

Instructions:

Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in one bowl, stir well and set aside. In another bowl, mix the butter, sugar and vanilla until fluffy. Mix in the eggs, then mix in the honey, syrup, milk and juice. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Next, pulverize the okra and apple in a food processor for about 15 seconds, then fold into batter.

Grease a muffin pan with butter and add batter to cups so that the batter is about level with the top of the pan. Bake in an oven preheated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Makes 12 muffins.

Even if you don’t like okra, try this recipe. Instead of adding slime, the okra just makes these delicious muffins moist and fluffy. You can also try some variations of this recipe; for instance, I baked something similar using okra and grated zucchini instead of apple. If you try these muffins or a variation of them, I’d love to hear how you liked them. Or, if you have any okra recipes to share, I’d like to hear about those, too!

Photos by Doug Snodgrass

September 18, 2011

Happy Farm Animals

I’ve been farm sitting for some wonderful friends/coworkers this weekend and have been hanging out with a lot of happy farm animals indeed. This Kansas farm is home to pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, chickens, geese, turkeys, a couple of donkeys, big dogs, little dogs and one cuddly house cat.

This is my fifth (I think) time watching over things on this farm and, as luck would have it, a few of those times—including this one—occurred when there were new piglets. I love piglets. I love how social they are, how they skip and run around, and how they do something to make me laugh or smile about once every 10 seconds.

Instead of going on and on about how nice it is to see animals on a farm that are actually content—and that have the space to express their natural instincts—I’d like to just show you some pictures of them. Enjoy!

This is Albert the pet goat, who walks over to the gate every time someone comes outside. Albert and I got into a bit of a standoff last time I was out on the farm. It involved him, me, a fence, and me getting shocked by said fence as I tried to secure it. But we were able to put the past behind us and have a nice visit this time around.

Pet Goat on a farm in kansas


Black and White Pet Goat on a farm in Kansas

A couple of young turkeys out ranging and looking at me with slight suspicion.

 

Besides the piglets, this donkey is one of my favorite animals on the farm. I’m not sure of its name, so I’ve been calling it Donkey Friend, the name created by my friend Jennifer (a fellow farm sitter). Donkey Friend always comes up to the gate to see me, and gets lots of scratches behind the ears and pets on the nose.

Cream Colored Donkey by Hay on farm in Kansas


Petting a Donkey on a farm in Kansas

A Donkey Friend and Sheep Friend looking quite pensive.

Sheep and Donkey Closeup

These geese crack me up. They are so vocal, and can never decide whether they want to follow me around or run away from me. 

Gray and White Geese


Gray and White Geese

And here’s Gus, the handsome, friendly farm dog.

Brown Farm Dog by gate

And next, pigs! These are all black mulefoot hogs.

Black Mulefoot Hog closeup


Black Mulefoot Hog looking through farm gate

Here, you can see the contrast in size between Sam, the enormous male, and one of the new piglets.

Black Mulefoot Male and Piglet

This awesome scene is something you would never see at a large-scale factory farm: a mama pig, papa pig and baby pigs all hanging out and cuddling.

Black Mulefoot Hog Family

A piglet rooting around, learning how to be a pig.

Black Mulefoot Piglet Rooting

In this photo, you can see the runt of the litter on the right. This piglet is quite a bit smaller than the others, so naturally I was drawn to it. I think it might be a little more simple-minded than the others ... when its siblings were nursing, it totally ignored the food source and instead climbed up on top of its mom, ears flopping, looking around happily from this perch.

Black Piglets on a Farm

Hanging out in the mud pit. As Joel Salatin would say, this type of environment totally allows the “pigness of the pig” to shine through.

Pig in Mud Pit

Piglets exploring around the mud pit area.

Piglets by Mud Pit

 “Hello. Would you like to join me for a drink?”

Black Hog Drinking Water

Finally, a rooster that for some reason I always want to name Clive. He’s a tough old bird. He acts like he might want to fly at me with talons drawn, but he never has. He just likes to strut around like a badass, making sure that I can see him.

Black and White Speckled Rooster

Happy days on the farm! It is funny that even after only five short stints with these animals, I have a donkey friend, a rooster nemesis and a complicated relationship with a goat. If anything, that only makes me appreciate that animals have personalities, and they deserve humane treatment and respect. And Clive, I highly respect even you.

Photos by Shelley Stonebrook

September 12, 2011

Effects of Pesticides on Children

I just finished reading about yet another study researching the effects of pesticides on children. This study specifically links pesticide exposure and ADHD. The study was published in the journal Pediatrics, and according to the article I read, “Children with substantially higher levels of a breakdown product of neurotoxic organophosphate pesticides were twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. The university researchers conclude that parents should buy organic for their kids. Numerous other researchers stress the importance of women eating organic at least six months before conception and throughout pregnancy, too.”

pesticide sign warning people to stay away because chemicals are in use

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long been abreast of such problems with our kids and the often-pesticide-laced foods they eat. In fact, here’s a statement the EPA made several years ago:

“Children are at a greater risk for some pesticides for a number of reasons. Children's internal organs are still developing and maturing and their enzymatic, metabolic, and immune systems may provide less natural protection than those of an adult. There are ‘critical periods’ in human development when exposure to a toxin can permanently alter the way an individual's biological system operates … Adverse effects of pesticide exposure range from mild symptoms of dizziness and nausea to serious, long-term neurological, developmental and reproductive disorders. Americans use more than a billion pounds of pesticides each year to combat pests on farm crops, in homes, places of business, schools, parks, hospitals, and other public places.”

It may be worth reading the above statement twice to fully digest it. After you do, picture this:

In one part of the U.S. government is the EPA with this information. In another part of the government—the same government—are people allocating funds for school lunch programs that feed children almost exclusively non-organic foods.

But, before I go down a spiral of cynicism about this issue, I will say that I think it’s awesome that universities and organization continue to do studies that bring these issues to light; I think it’s great that such studies are starting to garner some attention by the mainstream media; and I’m glad to know that there are more and more farmers out there every day who are ditching the pesticides and using natural methods to grow food for us.

If you want to reduce pesticide exposure and have been thinking about eating more organic foods, be aware that buying products at the store with the “organic” label isn’t the only way. You can always go to farmers markets and just ask farmers if they spray their crops (being “certified organic” isn’t the only way to be organic). You can also try growing more of your own food. Or, punch your Zip code into Local Harvest, and try to find a farmer in your area who offers the foods you’d like to buy. I got strawberries at a dirt cheap price by using the Local Harvest website earlier this summer. I talked to the wonderful lady who grew the berries about her growing practices, and her little farm is totally no-spray.

Another point to keep in mind is that fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t the only types of foods that can have pesticide residues on them. Processed foods can come with a lot of pesticide residues, too, as these types of foods often contain a lot of soy, corn and/or wheat—all crops that are usually grown in huge fields that get doused with pesticides often.

I think the most important thing to do after reading this post is just tell a few friends about this issue if you haven’t already. The more we spread the word, and the more we vote with our dollars and our actions, the closer we’ll get to change.

Photo by Flickr/andypowe11

September 10, 2011

Homemade Wheat Sandwich Bread

Baking my own bread was something that used to intimidate me. But before the “intimidation period,” there were quite a few years of my life when it honestly didn’t occur to me to bake my own bread on a regular basis. Naturally (or so it seemed), it was something I got from the store.

Then I entered the period when I noticed I couldn’t always pronounce all the ingredients in the breads on store shelves, and I thought homemade bread was something that I probably ought to be baking … but I figured there was a good chance I’d screw it up. I was slightly scarred by an experience I’d had 10 years earlier in which I’d attempted to use a bread machine to make a bread that, according to the picture, would turn out soft, fluffy and about the size of a football. After following the instructions exactly, I’d ended up with something the size of a baseball—and about the same consistency as one. 

Tangentially, as a woman, I have to admit that there may have even been a voice in the back of my mind telling me that to stay home baking bread would have been some sort of defeat. Didn’t women stay home baking bread, rearing little ones and sewing back before they became enterprising members of the public sphere? If I ever did have those thoughts, I’m happy to say I’ve shed them completely. I think the home once again becoming a site of production—of empowering self-reliance for both men and women—is not only hopeful, but essential. The authors of recent books, such as Radical Homemakers, agree.

These days, I enjoy quiet days at home, tending to rising dough when it needs me. The smell and feel of dough, and of bread fresh out of the oven, make me happy.

If you’ve ever hesitated to take the plunge and routinely make bread at home, I can assure that it’s not only possible, it’s lovely. (An added bonus is that making your own bread will save you money.)

Here’s a recipe for a simple loaf of homemade wheat sandwich bread.

Homemade sliced wheat sandwich bread sliced on cutting board.

Ingredients:

1¼ cups warm water
1 tbsp organic cane sugar
1½ tsp active dry yeast
2 cups organic whole wheat flour
2 cups organic white flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp local honey
2 tbsp organic butter (preferably from pastured cows), melted
1 tbsp olive oil (to coat bowl the dough will rise in)

Instructions:

Stir sugar into warm water, then add yeast. Let sit for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir flours and salt in a large bowl. When yeast is ready (it should expand and get bubbly in the water), add the water mixture, honey and melted butter to the dry ingredients. Stir until you have a raggedy looking dough (it won’t form a ball yet).

Dump dough onto a clean, dry surface and begin working/kneading it with dry hands. In a minute or two, it will form a more solid ball. Knead for about 10 minutes.

Coat the inside of a clean bowl with olive oil, roll your ball of dough in the oil until it’s coated, then let the dough rise in the bowl for about 2 hours at room temperature. It will look like this:

Rising Wheat Bread Dough in white bowl.

After 2 hours (the dough should be at least doubled in size), punch the dough down, work it in your hands for a minute and form it to fit in a loaf pan. Let the dough rise again in a loaf pan for about an hour (until the dough rises well over the lip of the pan) at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake bread for 25 minutes, then rotate the pan in your oven 180 degrees to ensure even heating, and bake for another 15 minutes.

Remove bread from the loaf pan right after taking it out of the oven, and let the loaf rest on a rack or wooden board for at least an hour before slicing into it.

And there you have it: a once intimidating roadblock turned into a delicious experience! And it’s an experience that honestly doesn’t take that much of your time. Sure, the dough needs time to do its thing, but you just get to take a break from whatever else you were doing to tend to it every now and then. 

I keep my homemade sandwich bread in a bag inside the fridge to keep it from drying out too much, and then I just slice it as I need it, lightly toasting it before eating. This bread has a nice, soft crumb and a hint of honey flavor. It’s great toasted and topped with cheese and tomatoes from the garden, as a side with soup, or with homemade jam for breakfast. Yummm.

If you try making your own bread, let me know how it turns out. Also, if you have a favorite bread recipe that you like to make, I’d love to hear what it is.

Growing wheat in a pretty wheat field.

A note on ingredients: I list organic ingredients here, but if you have other options on hand, use what you have. A dream of mine is to one day grow a small area of wheat every year, thresh it, and grind it into flour. Until I’m able to do that, I purchase organic flours from smaller companies, such as Bob’s Red Mill and King Arthur, that care about creating high-quality, healthful flours. You can also check at farmers markets, as some small-scale market growers offer flours and other whole grains.

Top photos by Shelley Stonebrook; wheat photo by Flickr/jayneandd

September 07, 2011

Sustainable Food: 10 Reasons to Care

My journey to becoming an environmentalist—a designation I’ll wear with pride regardless of any stigmas—didn’t start out with a passion for local, sustainable food. But it quickly went there.

When I began learning more and more about the horrors of mainstream, industrial food production a few years ago, it shook me. And it saddened me. I’m a different person today than I was before I learned those things. I had a lot of thoughts that went something like, “Oh my god … What are we doing to ourselves, this Earth and other living creatures? How in the world did we get here and how can we turn it around?”

Food is tied to almost everything. And, to me, it’s the perfect point of convergence for thinking about sustainability—because it literally sustains life. Without nourishment, we don’t exist.

Here are 10 reasons why I think food is so important, and why I’ve come to care about it.

1. Gardening Is a Gateway Drug. I feel a powerful mix of excitement, peace, awe and gratitude when I plant a seed and watch it become a plant that becomes my food. This process astounds me—and I love it. If we hope to build a positive wave of environmentalism and a generation of people who are good stewards of the Earth and the living things here, the first step is to plant a seed that helps them care about this place and their connection to it. And planting actual seeds is the perfect recipe. When you touch dirt every day, become familiar with life cycles, and care for living, growing plants, you can’t help but feel a sense of connection. On the whole, there are an overwhelming number of people living on this Earth right now who are profoundly disconnected. They live indoors, they work indoors, their lives are screens, highways and food prepared by a corporation. I think the more people who do something even as simple as growing a tomato plant, the better the world could be. It may start as a tomato, but if the spark of connection grows, that tomato could be the gateway to something bigger.

Squash and Eggplant Harvest with pattypan squash, zucchini and swiss chard

2. Food Grown the Right Way Is Healthier. A basket of vegetables you bought at the supermarket is not equal to a basket of organic vegetables you grew in your backyard. And I don’t just mean the taste. The nutritional value of industrial food has been steadily declining for the past several decades—so that basket of grocery-store veggies actually has far less nutritional value. Here’s a big reason why: A field of industrially produced vegetables receives a steady input of water and commercial fertilizers at the soil surface, which in turn leads to small, weak root systems on each plant. Because the plant has no need to grow deep roots to access water deeper down in the soil, it doesn’t (plants only work as hard as they need to). A plant’s root system is where nutrient uptake happens, and a small, weak root system equals nutritionally weak fruits. A further reason is that fruits (tomatoes, peppers, squash, what have you) don’t reach their full nutrient potential until they’re ripe. In our mainstream system of picking produce unripe so that it can be shipped great distances to end up in a grocery store, the food simply doesn’t have the chance to acquire the nutrients that would have developed during ripening. A third reason is that commercial produce is bred with two main goals in mind: large fruits and high yield per plant. These breeding goals have led to more watery fruits with less nutrient density. These reasons are just the beginning, and say nothing of the pesticide residues on standard supermarket and restaurant produce. I hope to write much more about this topic in the future, but for now I’ll say that it’s important and it may be industrial ag’s biggest secret (in a closet of many secrets).

3. Food Can Equal Compassion—or Not. A lot of food offered in grocery stores and restaurants involves torture. There’s no denying it. The status quo: meat birds bred to have such large breasts that they can’t walk, laying hens crammed in battery cages being denied their natural instincts to scratch and roost (and occasionally enduring starvation to force molting), mama pigs caged down tightly in metal gestation crates so there’s no risk of stepping on her piglets, piglets that naturally want to sleep and cuddle with their mother in a “nest” she’d create in nature are instead on concrete and only given access to their mom through a metal cage, calves destined to be veal caged so tightly they literally can’t move or develop any muscle (done to create more tender meat), cattle in filthy feedlots eating grain their stomachs aren’t even meant to process … this is a beginning of a long, tragic list. By turning a blind eye to this kind of treatment that’s entrenched in our food production, I think we create a scary, dangerous social ethic. If we’re willing to put up with this, what else are we willing to put up with? Alternatively, there is a humane, compassionate way to raise animals for food. I’ve been witness to it in several contexts, and the farmers and ranchers I know who raise animals in this way are smart, compassionate, helpful, kind people.

4. Food Relates to Energy. Energy seems to be one major faction of the environmental movement. It’s an incredibly important faction, but it’s by no means separate from the issue of food. Most foods are shipped far and wide before they end up on dinner plates. That takes a lot of energy, and so does ensuring that all kinds of produce appear in grocery stores every season of the year. Industrial, monoculture farming is profoundly energy intensive, and the amount of food we waste (I’ve read some estimates that say it’s as much as 50 percent) means a lot of wasted energy, too. The amount of processing much of our food goes through also takes energy.

5. Food Relates to Water. Clean water is another aspect of environmentalism that’s closely connected to food production. Not only do we use a lot of water to produce food, but we’re also harming our water supply through our enormous use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Because of the huge fertilizer inputs on industrial farms, fertilizer runoff flows down streams and rivers and into the ocean. This excess nitrogen in the water creates enormous algae blooms that deplete the oxygen from the water, creating “dead zones” where little else can survive. Concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs), which have their own set of runoff problems, are also disastrous for the water supply.

6. Food Relates to Soil. Top soil is an amazing gift that allows us to grow food, and we’re eroding it year by year through industrial farming practices. Sustainable farming actually enriches and builds soil by the addition of organic matter, whereas today’s mainstream farming techniques strip the soil of its goodness. For an excellent breakdown of soil’s importance and how we’re harming it, check out the film Dirt.

7. Food Relates to Justice. This issue is best addressed with a series of questions: Who has access to fresh, healthy food? Who doesn’t? How do the answers relate to class, race? When a corporation uses workers to apply pesticides to crops or fruit trees, who has to handle the chemicals? How is it affecting their heath? Who decides which chemicals are allowed on our food and creates food policy? How does that relate to lobbying and the flow of money? Who’s exploited when food comes at an incredibly cheap cost?

8. Food Can Create Community—or Not. In all my life, I think the times when I’ve felt the strongest sense of community had to do with food. Whether it was helping at a school garden, working in a community garden, chatting with farmers at my local farmers market, helping a friend can tomato sauce, preparing a group dinner with friends, or helping my neighbor weed her garden, I felt connected, engaged … and I felt happy. Compare those examples with a typical grocery store experience. I feel pumped when the person checking me out even talks to me or looks at me. (And now there are even machines that we use to check ourselves out at the store instead of people!) This is a group of great people I worked with to start a school garden at an elementary school in Lawrence, Kansas:

Group Starting a School Garden at Sunset Hill Elementary School in Lawrence, Kansas

9. The Current Food System Is Reducing the Planet’s Lifeforce. When I say “lifeforce,” I’m referring to the planet’s biodiversity. The diversity of life on this planet is shrinking at an alarming rate, and a huge reason is food. As our food system has evolved and corporations have increased “efficiencies,” fewer and fewer plant and animal species are bred and used. Thanks to organizations like Seed Savers Exchange and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, some rare plant and animal species are being saved, but this issue is still concerning. Another way food production relates to biodiversity loss is simply that a lot of land is cleared for monoculture farming. I saw a photo of the Amazon forest the other day that showed huge soybean fields replacing what were once trees teeming with life. The photo showed fields as far as the eye could see, with only small patches of forest left.

10. Food Production Can Empower. In a world that includes war, poverty, apathetic governments, unfair laws, scary environmental problems and countless other issues that cause many people to throw up their hands in despair—and even more people to disengage and live in a bubble of TV shows and personal affairs—food offers a tactile, meaningful way to take control of something. Not every issue works quite like that. For instance, while I care about energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, right now I don’t have the money to make the initial investments to outfit my home with renewable energy systems. So I try to use less energy—but that doesn’t feel very proactive or empowering. On the other hand, I have the power to choose to buy organically grown food at a farmers market, grow as much of my own food as I can, preserve excess, cut down on waste, compost, and use only eggs and meat from pastured animals. And that feels great!

If you also care about sustainable food, or love cooking or gardening, I hope you’ll check back often and join the conversation. I love sharing ideas, recipes, news and gardening tips—and I have no doubt that I’ll learn more through writing and engaging with people who have similar passions.

Top photo by stock.xchng; bottom photo by Shelley Stonebrook