Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Morality of Meat

I just read a really scary book.

It wasn’t written by Stephen King or James Patterson . It wasn’t even fiction. But the tales of necrotizing pneumonia and pus filled abscesses caused by a virulent strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria made my hair stand on end.

Maryn McKenna, an award-winning science and medical writer, has created a terrifying and vivid portrayal of drug-resistant staph in Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. The book has the style of a crisply written detective novel from its first paragraph, comprised of one line:

“Tony Love’s knee ached.”

This ordinary knee ache resulted from a collision on the volleyball court in the Chicago school gym where he scraped his elbow. From this small ordinary childhood injury, came a knee so swollen that this healthy teenager could not put weight on it. The first visit to the ER resulted in a prescription for Motrin and hot towels. A few days later, the teen was in so much pain that he could not walk, go to the bathroom, or even eat. The family made a second visit to the ER where they were referred to U of C’s children’s hospital. Within minutes of their arrival, Tony’s condition worsened and he crashed into septic shock. His body was wracked with infection – a voracious antibiotic resistant staph known as MRSA. Tony ultimately recovered after months of treatment and a few more months of rehab, but the story of how a little bit of bacteria felled an otherwise healthy kid is just the beginning of McKenna’s nightmarish portrayal of the infection that could hit any one of us at any time.

MRSA stands for methicillan-resistant Staphyloccus areus. As the historians among us will recall, the antibiotic era began during World War II. Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the mold that birthed penicillin on a culture dish of Staphyloccus (staph for short) in 1928. Twelve years later, a set of researchers proved the drug’s value to U.S. pharmaceutical companies who then manufactured the drug and sent it to Allied troops curing battlefield infections that previously were fatal. The public saw penicillin’s release in 1944. While it was heralded as a wonder drug, even its creator was beginning to fear the ability of the bacteria to circumvent the drug’s protection.

Given the wont of Americans to overdo, this fear was justified. Penicillin was added to face soaps and body creams and was prescribed to excess. The nimble bug evolved, getting stronger. Much of the book follows the bacteria and its aftermath. Appearing first mainly in hospitals where the patient’s resistance is weak, the bacteria then developed a community strain, infecting individuals with no connection to hospitals, either patients or workers, killing, in some instances, healthy children within hours.

The real story, however, is not the spread of this Superbug, but the system that we constructed to give it life. The over prescribing of antibiotics by busy doctors, overcrowded prisons, and poor hygiene are part of this perfect storm that we’ve created. While these are large contributors, we must not forget the livestock industry.

Between 70 and 80 % of the antibiotics used in this country are given to animals raised for food. While some of these drugs are given to sick animals, the majority is provided either preventatively (i.e. so that otherwise healthy animals will not get ill under the wretched confinement system that they are forced into) or as sub-therapeutic doses to help the animals gain weight so that they can reach slaughter sooner. Despite connections made between the antibiotics used in livestock production and resistant bacteria that infects individuals working with these animals, the livestock industry has claimed that this relationship is not proven with absolute certainty. (Whatever ever happened to the precautionary principle in science?). Their case is growing weaker by the day.

In the late 2000’s, a strain of MRSA know as ST398 emerged in the Netherlands. For years, the Netherlands instituted a stringent “search and destroy” policy to prevent the spread of MRSA. Anyone suspected of carrying MRSA (a patient previously admitted to a hospital in a foreign country or with a leaking wound) went immediately into isolation upon arrival to rid them of the offending bacteria. The system worked. According to McKenna, in 2000, only .03 % newly admitted patients in the Netherlands were carrying MRSA as compared to 2.6 percent in the U.S.

Then the young daughter of a pig farmer arrived at a hospital colonized with MRSA. A doctor from the Netherlands interviewed by McKenna stated that “I saw twenty patients colonized in a year, max, and in every case we knew the source. I had not seen a MRSA infection in fourteen years. Yet here was this little child, who had not been in a hospital abroad. It was amazing.” And, as McKenna adds, unnerving.

It turns out that the family were pig farmers, part of a network of small family farms being “subsumed by large American-style operations with thousands of animals.” The researchers surmised, correctly, that the pigs acquired MRSA and passed it onto the farmers and their families. As this superbug is apt to do, the strain spread from the Netherlands to Canada and then to Iowa. The fear is that this not only will this bacteria act like ordinary staph, colonizing on the skin and in the nose, but that it could potentially act as a contaminant causing foodborne illness. How scary is that?

Before reading Superbug, the question of confinement raised animals was an ethical one for me – whether the misery inflicted upon animals and, for that matter, the humans working in those facilities by the putrid conditions outweighed the need to eat cheap meat. Even the environmental degradation resulting from the inevitable careless management of CAFOs seemed a distant and intangible casualty. For me, Superbug has changed the argument from one of ethics to a moral imperative. In every hamburger of unknown origin, I see Tony Love’s face or even worse that of Carlos Don IV.

Carlos was another healthy kid who left on a school trip to the mountain and returned with a 104°F fever. The first doctor diagnosed Carlos with walking pneumonia so his mother kept him home bundled and hydrated until she realized that he was beginning to hallucinate. She rushed Carlos to the hospital and the doctor’s ultimately diagnosed his condition as MRSA. A long slow death march ensued during which Carlos’s lungs dissolved and clotting choked off the blood to his lower intestines, legs and arms. In two weeks, he was dead.

After reading Carlos’s story late in the evening, I woke my son from a dead sleep to scrub his hands clean. I hugged him as tightly as I could.

Here at the Beet, we like to have a local or personal angle. I just came back from Portland where I was speaking with a friend from Berkeley. She’s devoted to sustainable causes and eats well – I think she may even largely keep a vegetarian diet. Yet, she told me about the antibiotic staph infection she contracted after staying in the hospital for post-op. She eats well, she takes care of herself and yet, she has been impacted by this terrible scourge caused by the misuse of antibiotics. This isn’t about you or me or our personal choices, but how we protect society at large.

On the same trip, I had the pleasure to hear Ruth Reichl speak and she implored the audience to reject confinement raised animal. As she put it, if everyone stopped buying them and eating them, the practice would be history. Knowing what I now know, I think it’s a moral duty.
For more on this issue, read this recent New York Times Op-Ed piece by a former USDA head: Cows on Drugs.

Monday, April 26, 2010

I Love the Smell of Mercaptan in the Morning: Asparagus, Sorrel and Prosciutto Pasta


And so does Little Locathor.

Mercaptan is a sulfurous compound that exists in onions, garlic, a skunk’s secretion, and asparagus. A very distinctive aroma in the WC (that would be polite shorthand for bathroom)occurs when the digestive system breaks down the compound. Some folks have the gene to break down the substance, others don’t. I do and so does Thor.

We ate our first local asparagus last night, which led to lots of potty talk over dinner about asparagus pee pee. He declared that asparagus is now his favorite vegetable, as he stuffed his mouth with the green logs, pushing aside the pasta I thought was the safe selection on his plate. When his dad asked whether it had supplanted cucumbers as the go-to green veggie, the little smart ass correctly noted "That's a fruit, Dad."

Asparagus, Sorrel and Prosciutto Pasta
Serves 4

1/2 pound linguine or spaghetti
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 spring onion, thinly sliced
8 ounces asparagus, trimmed (I trim by snapping the ends where they bend - you can use the "waste" to make a lovely soup or for your compost pile)
1 small bunch sorrel (optional, but it gives the dish a nice tangy flavor)
2 slices proscuitto
1 tablespoon fresh chevre

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Pour in pasta and cook according to the package. While the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Cook the onion and asparagus in the butter until the asparagus are almost tender. Add prosciutto and cook for another minute. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Pour a scoopful of pasta water, about 1/2 cup, over the asparagus. Scrape in the sorrel and cover with a lid. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until the sorrel is wilted. Remove the lid and cook the liquid down until just about a tablespoon remains. Stir in goat cheese until melted and the sauce is creamy. Add the pasta coating it with the saucet. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve in shallow bowls.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What's on Your Plate?

We are please to co-present with My What's on Your Plate, a documentary that follows two eleven-year-old multi-racial city kids as they explore their place in the food chain. Sadie and Safiyah take a close look at food systems in New York City and its surrounding areas. With the camera as their companion, the girl guides talk to each other, food activists, farmers, new friends, storekeepers, their families, and the viewer, in their quest to understand what's on all of our plates.

The girls address questions regarding the origin of the food they eat, how it's cultivated, how many miles it travels from the harvest to their plate, how it’s prepared, who prepares it, and what is done afterward with the packaging and leftovers. They visit the usual supermarkets, fast food chains, and school lunchrooms. But they also check into innovative sustainable food system practices by going to farms, greenmarkets, and community supported agriculture programs.  They discover that these programs both help struggling farmers to survive on the one hand and provide affordable, locally-grown food to communities on the consumer end, especially to lower-income urban families.

In WHAT'S ON YOUR PLATE?, the two friends formulate sophisticated and compassionate opinions on the state of their society, and by doing so inspire hope and active engagement in others.

All screenings listed below are free and open to the public and will be followed by conversation sessions led by healthful food advocates and farmers.  Please spread the word about this wonderful opportunity to reach out to our kids with this conversation starter!

Don't miss this film called by Michael Pollan "exactly the film we need now."

The Menomonee Club for Girls and Boys
Saturday, May 1 at 6pm
1535 N. Dayton, Chicago
(snack provided by Gourmet Gorilla

Uncommon Ground: Dinner & A Movie
Sunday, May 2 at 3pm,RSVP required
1401 W. Devon, Chicago773-465-9801
The screening is free. Dinner is $30.00 for adults, $15.00 for kids (exclusive of tax, tip and beverages)
RSVP to Uncommon Ground at 773-465-9801
rooftop farm tour after the film!

Academy for Global Citizenship
Monday, May 3 at 4:45pm
4647 West 47th Street, Chicago
773-582-1100(with special guest Harvest Moon Organic Farm)
Growing Home's Wood Street Farm in Englewood
Thursday, May 6 at 2:00pm
5814 S. Wood St., Chicago

Gary Comer Youth Center
Friday, May 7 at 4:00pm
7200 S. Ingleside, Chicago
773-358-4100(snack provided by Centered Chef Food Studios)
rooftop garden tour led by Green Teens after the film!

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
Saturday, May 29 at 11:00am
2430 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Asparagus are Coming, The Asparagus are Coming: Asparagus with Green Garlic Aioli

I'm a freak. There I admitted it

I just got an email from Irv & Shelly's Fresh Picks, a Peapod for locavores, telling me that asparagus will be available in the next delivery. It literally elicited a shriek from me.

I was at a lunch a few weeks back where I was served a beautiful Artic Char topped with steamed pencil asparagus. I pushed those aside and dug into the fish. A friend sitting next to me commented on the irony of me, the head spear, not eating the asparagus. She asked why? I told her because it's not local.

There are only a few foods about which I take such a hard line. Just like tomatoes and strawberries, asparagus is a truly great food, but it just doesn't taste as good when it isn't from around here. No, these foods are worth waiting for.

Like a crocus peeking its head out from under the dead leaf cover, my Fresh Picks email proclaimed spring’s triumphant return.

There's no need to gussy up the first asparagus of the season. Here's my super simple asparagus recipe that I'll be making time and time again until the asparagus make their departure in early June.

Sautéed Asparagus
For 6 servings

2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and rinsed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt

Heat the butter in the pan over medium heat. When the foam subsides, add the asparagus and toss to coat. Cook for 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low, cover the pan and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Add salt to taste.

If you do feel the need to gild the lily, try this aioli. It's also great on lamb.

Green Garlic Aioli
Makes approximately 2 cups

1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
¾ cup canola oil
1 garlic clove, mashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
1 tablespoon finely chopped green garlic
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Food Processor Method: Combine the whole egg, egg yolks, lemon juice and mustard in the bowl of a food processor. Through the feed tube, pour the olive and canola oils in a very slow stream while the machine is on. The aioli is done when it’s thick and emulsified. When fully emulsified, the mixture will make a distinctive slapping sound against the sides of the bowl. Add both garlics. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

By Hand: Combine the egg yolks and mustard in a medium size bowl. Wrap a kitchen towel around the base of the bowl to anchor it. Pour the oils into the egg mixture in a slow stream until the two are emulsified. Add the garlics and lemon juice. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Fixing a broken mayonnaise: It is almost certain that if you make mayonnaise or aioli more than once, it will break. There’s no need to start over. Simply whisk 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard in a mixing bowl, add 1 tablespoon of the broken mayonnaise (make sure that you stir it up first to ensure that you get oil and egg in the sample), whisk together until the mixture thickens. Slowly add the remaining broken mayonnaise, whisking constantly until emulsified.

Doctoring store bought mayonnaise: If you’re concerned about using raw eggs or pressed for time, you can easily doctor a commercially produced mayonnaise. Take 2 cups of store bought mayonnaise (I suggest Hellmann’s) and add the lemon juice, Dijon mustard, both garlics called for in this recipe. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cheating from the Freezer: Sweet Pea Agnoletti

Book Photos 017
Photo Credit: Stronghold Photography

Everytime I check Facebook or Twittter these days, it seems that one of my left coast friends is celebrating the arrival of spring, touting the juicy strawberries, fat favas, or thick asparagus stalks that they've picked up from the market. To those pals, I have only this to say.

You suck.

When I go to the grocery store, it's so hard not to succumb when confronted with rows of upright asparagus and stacked packs of fragrant strawberries. Yet, I know that it won't be guilt that will plague me if I do - they just won't taste as good as the local version. I can wait.

I did, however, cheat from my freezer. With a little extra La Quercia prosciutto from a recent demo, I turned last season's English peas into a Pea Agnoletti with a Pea and Prosciutto Sauce, popular with both big and little kids alike.

Photo credit: Stronghold Photography

Sweet Pea & Goat Cheese Agnoletti with Prosciutto & Spring Onions

Making pasta is a really fun activity for kids and it’s a lot easier to do than you think. Nevertheless, if you don’t have the time or inclination, square wonton wrappers are a fine alternative.

For 6 servings

10 ounces shelled peas, fresh or frozen
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons fresh goat cheese at room temperature
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3 large egg yolks
3 tablespoons canola oil
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
5-7 tablespoons cold water
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup thinly sliced Spring onions
¾ pound prosciutto, thinly sliced
½ cup shelled peas, fresh or frozen
¼ cup white wine
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Heat the butter in the sauté pan over medium heat until the foam has subsided. Add the shallots and sauté until softened and just slightly colored – 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. Cook the frozen peas for 5 minutes in a microwave. Purée the peas in a food processor or mash with a potato masher. Add the cooled shallots and goat cheese to the peas. Process or mash until well mixed. Season with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, about 5 grinds, or to taste.

Measure the flour onto a clean work surface and make a well in the center. Put the egg yolks, oil, salt and 5 tablespoons cold water into the well, mix with your fingers of one hand. With a dough scraper or a table knife, mix the flour into the liquid being careful not to break through the walls of flour. Keep cutting in the flour until the majority of the water has been absorbed. If the dough is dry, add the additional water little by little. Knead until relatively smooth – the dough will still appear to be slightly dry. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a half hour to allow the glutens in the dough to relax.

Divide the pasta dough in quarters and work with one piece at a time, keeping the remainder refrigerated. Flatten the dough with your heel and put through the largest setting of the pasta maker. Fold the dough in half and put it through pasta maker, folded side first, eight more times. Roll the dough through the pasta maker 4 more times, reducing the setting each time and ending on setting 5. Lay the dough onto a floured cutting board. Cut into 2½ inch squares. Slice any remnants into ¼ inch slices, which can be dried, frozen and added to soups. Repeat with remaining dough.

Place a ½ teaspoon of filling onto each of the squares slightly left of center. Brush the left and top sides with water and fold in half by taking the bottom right corner to the top left corner. Press the edges lightly to close and then push out from the center to get rid of any air bubbles, pressing on the edges to seal firmly.

Fill a pasta pot with water and bring to a full boil. While the water is coming to a boil, heat the butter in 9-inch sauté pan over medium heat until the foam subsides. Add onions and sauté until softened. Add prosciutto and cook until warm. Add a teaspoon of kosher salt to the boiling water and add pasta. Boil 2 minutes or until the agnoletti float to the top. While the pasta is cooking, add peas and wine to the sauté pan and cook for 1 additional minute. Drain the agnoletti and toss with 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil so they don’t stick together.

Put the agnoletti onto a platter and dress with sauce. If desired, garnish with pea sprouts.

Monday, April 5, 2010

No Duh, New York Times: Chickpea and Swiss Chard Stew

My son recently added a new phrase to his vocabulary. While in Florida with grandparents, he visited the Kennedy Space Center. His answer to dad when asked what he saw: "Space Stuff, Dad. Duh!"

While I've been in guilty in the past of such a laconic interjection, it's been a while. I'm not sure where he acquired it, but it's now been rattling around in my head.

So when a friend sent me an excerpt from a New York Times article, date unknown, which read: "[S]tudies suggest that involving children in meal preparation is an important first step in getting them to try new foods."

My reaction? Duh!

Anyone who works in childhood nutrition can tell you that cooking with kids is the best to get them to try new foods. A kid who wouldn't go near a pea on his plate at home, may well gobble them up at a school cooking program. The tastes and predelictions of the little locavore remind me of this on a regular basis.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about our Purple Asparagus appearance at the Winter Market at Ebeneezer Lutheran Church where we made Black Bean Salsa. While a fan of beans, black ones in particular, Thor's never been partial to this recipe (the red peppers making it a no-go). He asked to make one and then gave it to his dad to eat. Later on in our session, bored of walking around, he asked to make another. Since I was knee deep in beans, onions, and munchkins furiously whisking, I obliged. Turning around, I found him devouring it, peppers included.

Quickly following up on this food success, we bought a Pizza with Multi-Color Peppers. A little suspicious of this, he asked if we could put black beans and tortilla chips on the pizza as well since together is how he liked them. I did not oblige, but I did pick off the yellow and green peppers. Devoured again. Tonight we sealed the deal by making a chickpea stew, filled with silky red pepper chunks. Yum, he declared.

While I'm not wild about the slacker addition to his vocabulary, I'm pleased as punch to add another vegetable into the food repertoire.

Chickpea and Swiss Chard Stew
Serves 4

1 small bunch Swiss chard (purchased from the Chicago Botanic Garden at that same Winter Market)
1 small leek
1 1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons basil
1 tablespoon cilantro
2 large garlic cloves
2 tablespoons white wine or extra dry vermouth
1 cups tomato puree
1 pinch cinnamon
5 green olives, pitted and chopped
1 roasted red peppers, chopped
3 cups cooked chickpeas, liquid reserved
whole milk yogurt and whole wheat pitas

Remove the stems from the chard and chop. Cut the chard leaves into long strips. Wash the leeks and chop. With a knife or a mortar and pestle, grind the basil, cilantro and garlic to a paste with a large pinch of salt. Heat the olve in oil in a dutch oven over medium heat. Saute the leeks and chopped chard stems for about 5-7 minutes or until softened. Add the herb-garlic paste and saute for an additional minute. Pour in the wine and reduce slightly. Add the tomato puree, cinnamon, green olives, and red pepper. Cook for 10 minutes. Add chickpeas and 2 cups of the liquid. Bring to a simmer. Add chard leaves, cover and cook until the chard is wilted and the broth reduce. Serve warm with a dollop of whole milk yogurt and whole wheat pitas.
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