First up in my new Fresh Meal Ideas series is an easy, flavorful pasta dish. Pasta provides a perfect blank canvas for highlighting seasonal vegetables. While I love pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil, I’m unfortunately not pulling those summer delights out of the garden (or finding them at the farmers market) in late January. What I did have on hand was kale and squash, which sounded like an excellent flavor combo.
I started by roasting a large butternut squash I picked up at the farmers market last fall. Winter squashes—such as butternuts, spaghetti squash, acorn squash and delicatas—have a long storage life, so when you see them at your farmers market, stock up and stash them away for winter eating. (There are two main keys to eating seasonally and locally throughout winter: storage crops and preserved foods.) We have several winter squashes sitting on our dining room table right now.
Slow-roasting squash in your oven is super-simple, and it brings out the incredible sweetness of the fruit. Butternuts are especially good when prepared this way. They taste like pie. Really—a dense, delicious, nutritious food that stores well and tastes like pie (jump on the squash bandwagon if you’re not already there). To roast a butternut, cut it in half long-ways, and scoop out the seeds (save the squash seeds for roasting and you’ll have a fine treat later). I usually cut those two chunks in half again to make four large pieces total. Set the chunks face-up in baking dish, add a half-inch of water to the pan, and put it in a 400-degree oven. Bake for about 90 minutes, or until the squash meat is very soft when pierced with a fork. I error on the side of overcooking squash, as I actually like when the corners brown.
It works well to roast squash ahead of time so you have it on hand to add to dishes such as pasta (that’s what I did in this case). After the squash is cooked and has cooled a bit, the skin is easy to peel off with a small knife.
For this pasta dish, cut the butternut squash into large chunks after you peel it.
Next up, prep your pasta. I used organic, vegetable orzo pasta for this dish. I like getting different types of organic pastas in bulk at our local co-op—and I generally bring in large zip-top bags or mason jars to fill up with bulk pastas and other grains so I don’t create any packaging waste. I wash out and re-use zip-top bags dozens of times before they bite the dust. This particular bag used to house frozen carrots from the garden.
Boil the orzo pasta in water until tender, drain, and set aside.
Next, melt a couple of tablespoons of pastured butter in a large skillet (use olive oil instead if you prefer). I used Tillamook butter from the Tillamook, Ore., dairy cooperative. Tillamook makes excellent products—if you’re an Oregonian, you’re probably very familiar with its cheddar cheeses—and they don’t give hormones such as rBGH (also called rBST) to their dairy cows. There’s a good chance any non-organic butter, yogurt, cheese or other dairy product purchased at the supermarket came from cows pumped with rBGH, a genetically engineered synthetic hormone used to boost milk production. This artificial hormone, originally developed by Monsanto, is banned in 31 countries and has been shown in several studies to increase risk of cancer (especially breast and prostate cancer) in humans. It’s not so hot for the dairy cows either, increasing likelihood of lameness and a painful condition called mastitis— which, in turn, means increased use of antibiotics in the cows. Yuck to all of that. Always look for organic dairy products and/or those from smaller, local dairies that don’t use growth hormones.
After you melt your no-thanks-to-cancer butter in a skillet, toss in half of a chopped onion and about a cup and a half of chopped kale. Sauté on medium heat for about 5 minutes, and then add a few cloves of fresh, finely chopped garlic. Sauté for a couple of more minutes, and then toss in the chunks of squash and cooked orzo pasta.
Stir well and heat a minute or two more, and grind in some cracked black pepper and sea salt. Serve as is, or serve with a bit of grated cheese on top.
So how does this fresh meal idea stack up on a few important criteria? Let’s check it out.
The kale (a lacinato type) came from my backyard garden. Kale is incredibly cold-hardy, so if you have a garden, you should be able to keep it growing into winter. You can also grow it or find it at market in fall, chop it roughly, and freeze it for winter use. The winter squash and onion came from my local farmers market. I bought both items in bulk in fall to have on hand for winter use. I bought a big box of onions in October that we keep in the cool garage, and have been using all winter. The garlic came from a local farm and I purchased it at our co-op—which is where I also purchased the pasta. The pasta itself was not made locally—so that’s one area for improvement. The butter was produced here in Oregon, but could have been even more local had I made it myself (making my own butter is one goal I have for the future).
Everything I used in this dish was organic—not necessarily “Certified Organic,” but organic (the farm I bought the onions and squash from doesn’t certify, but everything is “no spray”). So I know that no polluting chemicals were used in producing these ingredients. Because I used mostly local ingredients, there aren’t a lot of food miles associated with this meal. I didn’t create any trash in making this dish—only some compost.
Kale and squash are both nutrient-packed foods. Kale has cancer-fighting compounds and butternut squash is rich in vitamins A and C. Garlic boosts immunity and has many other health benefits (some people I know make it a point to eat at least a clove of raw garlic every day). Butter from pastured cows has healthful properties and is far-and-away better for us than any butter-wannabe monstrosities such as margarine. This meal was free of pesticide residues, GMO ingredients, and synthetic hormones—a status that seems like it would be the norm for foods, but sadly isn’t. I’d say this meal was quite healthy.
This dish was incredibly good—especially thanks to the rich, sweet flavor of the roasted squash. I like the flavor of kale, but some people find it a bit overpowering. Sautéing it in butter with garlic and onions tempered the green’s flavor a bit, hopefully making this a tasty meal even for those suspect of kale (I live with someone who’s suspect of kale, so I know this viewpoint exists).
Easy as pie—actually, way easier. Because I roasted the butternut squash a day ahead of time, the preparation and cook time of this meal totaled about 15 minutes. If you plan to roast your squash the same day you’ll make a pasta dish with it, just start the squash a couple of hours before mealtime.
As with any recipe, I invite you to experiment and make this your own. Use other vegetables if you can’t find kale or butternut squash. Add some diced chicken from a local, pastured bird for a protein boost. Use extra garlic and perhaps some herbs to amp up flavor. If you try this dish, leave a comment and let me know how it turned out!
February 01, 2013
October 30, 2011
Eggs used to be much simpler—and so did the activity of buying them. Families collected eggs from their hens, used them in their households, and sold the extras. My dad grew up on a farm, and he helped sell his family’s eggs. He’d put the “Eggs” sign in his front yard when there were some available. “Extra large, large, medium and small—come to Stoney’s and get ’em all!” That was his slogan.
These days, clever (and often deceptive) marketers, aware of growing consumer worry about where eggs come from, include all kinds of promises on egg carton labels. Decoding this labeling can be confusing and make it frustrating to tell which eggs are actually sustainable, healthy and come from humanely raised animals. So what are the best eggs to buy and why?
First, the status quo for commercial egg production (these details won’t be fun to read, but knowing this information and getting pissed off about it is a good thing): The baby chicks that are destined to become high-production egg layers start their lives in huge hatchery operations where the unwanted male chicks are either ground up alive or tossed into dumpsters and left to suffocate. If you’ve ever been around baby chicks, imagining tossing hundreds of those balls of fluff into a dumpster—alive—is probably enough to make your stomach turn.
The female hens are shipped to gigantic warehouses where they will live relatively short lives in “battery cages.” These hens are the most intensively confined animals in agriculture, so cramped together that they can’t even spread their wings. They are denied all of their natural instincts: They cannot peck, scratch in dirt, take dust baths or “nest.” Because they are so cramped and have nothing to peck at, they’ll turn to cannibalism, pecking at each other. To prevent this, commercial hens are “de-beaked” before they’re confined, which means a hot blade cuts off their beak, one of the most sensitive parts of their body (this is done without anesthesia). Some liken this to a child having her fingertips chopped off.
In a natural environment, when a hen is about to lay an egg, she seeks a safe place and makes a nest of grasses, hay, small twigs and other materials. When crammed together with other birds inside of a battery cage, she has none of these options, so is in a constant state of stress. When she’s about to lay an egg, she desperately seeks the corner of her tiny cage, but there is no safe place to go.
An industrial chicken warehouse houses up to 100,000 hens. Because of the huge amount of waste concentrated in one of these warehouses, a cloud of fecal dust hangs in the air and the facility reeks. Some liken the amount of pollution coming from one concentrated factory farm to that produced by a small city, creating significant environmental and public heath concerns. One example: According to the National ResourcesDefense Council, “Runoff of chicken and hog waste from factory farms in Maryland and North Carolina is believed to have contributed to outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, killing millions of fish and causing skin irritation, short-term memory loss and other cognitive problems in local people.”
There are no windows in the warehouses and bright artificial lighting is kept on around the clock to increase egg laying production. Industrial hens eat cheap feed from genetically engineered (GE) crops—the growing of which is itself associated with large-scale environmental pollution—and lay nutritionally inferior eggs.
Laying hens are bred to have such high production rates that their bodies can barely keep up with the rate at which they lay. Rather than the 20 to 30 eggs they would lay naturally each year, industrially farmed hens lay more than 275 eggs per year, according to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Calcium from a hen’s bones becomes depleted as she lays more and more, and her bone structure becomes weak. Many hens live in their cages with broken legs. Others get their heads stuck in the cages and are trampled by their cage mates. Many die every day. In fact, because most activities in the warehouses—such as feeding, watering and egg collection—are automated, the most time consuming aspect of the operation is removing the dead birds from the cages.
Once the laying hens’ productivity starts to decline, they are shipped to slaughter. Their handling is rough, and more legs and wings are broken in the process of transport. They are given no food or water for up to 36 hours in a cramped truck as they’re transported to a slaughtering facility.
About 95 percent of eggs sold in the United States come from the system I just described. That’s a staggering number. And I’ve only highlighted a few of the main horrors of this system—not all of them. Most eggs in a typical grocery store come from this system. It’s a sick industry that considers dollars and cents and not much else. Unfortunately, even those cartons that say “cage free” may not contain eggs from a better system. Let’s break down some of the common claims.
“Cage Free” and “Free Range” Eggs. Sounds great, right? I always thought looking for such labels meant I could feel guilt-free about my egg purchases. But what this really means is that the hens aren’t raised in battery cages, but are most likely still raised in a cramped warehouse with concrete floors. The photo directly below shows the typical life for hens laying “cage free” or “free range” eggs. For chickens that naturally want to forage and scratch in the dirt, it still isn’t much of a life. They’re still most likely de-beaked and still come from commercial hatcheries. Furthermore, these claims don’t have anything to do with the type of feed the animals are given, and they are most likely eating the same commercial GE feed as battery hens. For more information, see Cage-Free vs. Battery Cage Eggs.
“Vegetarian Fed” Eggs. This claim is pretty laughable. Chickens are not naturally vegetarians. In fact, chickens love eating all kinds of bugs and worms, in addition to grasses, seeds and vegetation. A label of “vegetarian fed” is pretty much a guarantee that the eggs are from an industrial system and that the hens that laid them have never spent a minute outdoors on pasture. Chickens are omnivores, and the best eggs come from chickens eating an omnivorous diet. The only reason for feeding chickens a vegetarian diet is to try to decrease the risk of disease that may be introduced from feed containing potentially contaminated animal byproducts. Overall, this is not a label to seek out, but to avoid.
“Organic” Eggs. The eggs labeled organic are usually the most expensive option in a store. But all this label tells you is that the hens that laid these eggs weren’t given antibiotics and didn’t eat feed that came from crops doused with commercial pesticides. They ate organic, vegetarian feed. That’s a good thing, right? Well, if the hens were still raised in poor conditions in a polluting warehouse, still de-beaked and still from hatcheries, the certified organic feed isn’t much of a consolation. While on some products the “organic” label is a positive, in the case of eggs it doesn’t tell you enough.
“Pastured” Eggs. As far as I know, this is one claim that hasn’t been completely co-opted by agribusiness. Unless through some insane twist of rhetoric someone starts calling a concrete warehouse floor a “pasture,” I think looking for eggs from pastured hens is a good thing. Still, it’s a good idea to ask questions about the hens to see whether their daily time on pasture is limited in any way. You can also ask farmers whether they get their hens from commercial hatcheries or hatch chicks on the farm. If hens truly live their lives on pasture, eating lots of grasses, seeds, worms, grubs and insects, they lay incredibly delicious, nutritious eggs with dark yellowish-orange yolks. Studies show that eggs from pastured hens have four to six times as much vitamin D as eggs from factory-raised hens. These superior eggs also have less cholesterol, less saturated fat, more vitamin A, more omega-3 fatty acids, more vitamin E and more beta carotene. They’re practically not even the same food!
Sourcing and eating eggs that come from hens raised on pasture with dignity is better for the environment, better for the animals and better for you. I hope instead of just feeling hopeless and disgusted about the way most eggs are produced, you feel empowered to find alternatives and support farmers who treat their animals with respect. Here are some resources for finding the best eggs:
Search EatWild’s state directory of farmers. Simply click on your state on the yellow map and read about farmers selling meat, eggs and dairy products from pastured animals in your area. You can also search LocalHarvest for eggs in your area. In some cases, these farms will list farmers markets and retail outlets where you can find their products. In other cases, they may sell direct from the farm. Sure, driving to one of these farms may not be as convenient as picking up cheap eggs at the store. But you can make it a fun, worthwhile trip. Get a few friends together, go to one of these farms, say hello to the farmers, spend your money on something you can feel good about, and while you’re there, stock up on other products the farm sells in addition to eggs. I’ve never gone to a farm and purchased something, then later felt like it was a waste of money or a waste of a trip. However, I have purchased items at a grocery store that I didn’t feel great about and later thought it was a complete waste of money.
If you do start sourcing healthy, local eggs from ethically and sustainably raised hens, don’t forget that most restaurants buy and use cheap battery-cage eggs, and most products in stores that contain eggs use them, too. Read labels and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to be the person in a restaurant who asks where different foods come from. Just think, what if 10 people were to ask a server at a restaurant about where the eggs come from, then at that restaurant’s next staff meeting, that server were to speak up and say, “Hey, lots of people have been asking about our eggs. Maybe we should look into better sourcing.” Change—and even the hope for change—comes from each one of us. And that’s something to get damn excited about.
Finally, the next time you’re driving on a country road, keep your eye out for an “Eggs” sign in someone’s front yard. Some families raising chickens still take part in the simpler system of selling their extras to passersby.
Top two and bottom photo from Flickr/Creative Commons; third photo from Wikipedia/Creative Commons
Top two and bottom photo from Flickr/Creative Commons; third photo from Wikipedia/Creative Commons