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The Organic Food Guy

What's the Right Vegetable Oil for Kitchen Use? (1/11/09)

It’s not only important that your cooking oils are organic and free of agricultural adulterants and chemicals, but that they are the right oils for the type of cooking you’re doing. A lack of understanding can be detrimental to your health. If your oil smokes when frying or sautéing, it not only emits an acrid smell, but healthy fats in the oil can be transformed into unhealthy trans fats. In addition, free radicals are formed that can oxidize cholesterol in your bloodstream to create artery-clogging plaque. Discard any oil that has reached its smoke point. Use this table to determine which oil is the best to use for your purposes.

High Heat Oils: These are oils to use for high heat applications like frying.
Avocado - smoke point 510 F.
Almond - smoke point 495 F.
Apricot Kernel - smoke point 495 F.
Sesame - smoke point 445 F.

Medium High Heat Oils: Good for sauteeing and baking.
Canola - smoke point 425 F.
Grapeseed - smoke point 425 F.
Walnut - smoke point 400 F.
Coconut - smoke point 365 F.
Soy - smoke point 360 F.
Peanut - smoke point 355 F.

Medium Heat Oils: Full flavored, unrefined oils good for sauces and salad dressings, and for medium heat sauteing, where the oil's flavor is integral to the dish.
Sesame, unrefined - smoke point 350 F.
Toasted Sesame - smoke point 350 F.
Olive, extra virgin - smoke point 325 F.
Corn, unrefined - smoke point 320 F.
Coconut, unrefined - smoke point 280 F.

No Heat Oils: These unrefined oils have a robust flavor and such a fragile structure that they're best used on a finished dish or blended into a dressing or sauce without heating.
Borage - smoke point 225 F.
Flaxseed - smoke point 225 F.
Wheat Germ - smoke point 225 F.
Evening Primrose - smoke point 225 F.

Of all these oils, the one with the most health benefits is olive oil. Unfortunately, most of the olive oil sold in the United States is rancid or inferior, especially those oils imported from Europe or the Middle East. Just in the last five years, California organic olive oils have achieved quality levels that make them as good as any in the world. You can see the names and contact information of suppliers by visiting:


Invite Some Oysters to Dinner (1/18/09)

Oysters are now farmed in the cold waters of northern California north to Canada. The native oyster of these waters was Ostrea lurida, the tiny but impeccable Olympia oysters that were gobbled to extinction by the people who came for the Gold Rush. A sparse few are still harvested in Washington.
Oysters called Crassostrea gigas were imported from Japan and formed the basis of the early West Coast oyster farms, such as Hog Island in Tomales Bay north of San Francisco, where they are called Sweetwaters. Tomales Bay, on the border of Marin and Sonoma counties, is also the breeding ground - or water - for the Great White Shark. Sweetwater is just one of the names for C. gigas. Others include Golden Mantle, Kumamoto, Portuguese, Preston Point, Quilcene, Fanny Bay, Rock Point, Skokomish, Wescott Bay, Willapa Bay, and Yaquina Bay, depending on where they're grown - but they are all the same species. These are meaty fellows that can be quite good and sweet during the cold winter months. During the warm spring and summer months, they develop a reproductive sac with an unpleasant muddy look and taste.
The East Coast native oyster is Crassostrea viginica, called a variety of names depending on where they're grown. On Prince Edward Island they're called Malpeques. On Cape Cod they are Wellfleets. At Long Island they are known as Blue Points. Farther south yet they are Apalachicolas. These spawn at any time during the year, and so never develop the muddy sac.
The European oyster, Ostrea edulis, is known by a variety of names. In France it is Belon. Grown on the East Coast, it's known as the Euro Flat. Grown on the West Coast, it's called either Belon or Euro Flat. Impoverished is the man or woman who doesn't love a fresh raw oyster drenched in nothing but lemom juice with perhaps a grind of fresh black pepper.

Recipe: Oysters Razas

Cindy Pawlcyn is one of the chef/luminaries of the restaurant scene in San Francisco and the Napa Valley. At Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena, Chef Pablo Jacinto came up with these incredible appetizers. They're easy enough to make and impossibly delicious. Get the best oysters you can (which means Malpeques, in my book).

The Oysters

24 oysters

Raza Sauce

2 cups mayonnaise
2 Tbl. minced shallots
3 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
4 Tbl. tequila
1/2 cup grated asiago cheese
1/2 Tbl. fresh ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients and refrigerate until needed.

Raza Spinach

2 Tbl. olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2 chipotle chilis, minced
3 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 lb. spinch, destemmed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat oil and soften shallots, chilies, and garlic, but don't brown. Add spinach, salt, and pepper, and cook until just wilted. Mix all together. Spread out on sheet pans to cool.

To prepare the Oysters Raza

Serves 4

Frankenfood for Sale -- Cheap (1/25/09)

People often ask me why they should spend the extra money on organic food. One good reason is to make meals from scratch from wholesome ingredients instead of heating up ready-to-serve meals from the freezer aisle at the local supermarket. Reading the ingredients on some of these heat-and-eat meals may give you pause, as it did me. I checked the ingredients on several typical ones at my local supermarket and found the following. "Marie Callender's Complete Dinner of Herb Roasted Chicken and Mashed Potatoes with Broccoli and Carrots" advertises, "Now! Tastier Mashed Potatoes", and I can see why - they're loaded with cream, butter and salt. This meal contains 35 grams of fat and 1240 mg. of salt. Marie's picture is on the box and she does seem to be developing a double chin.

"Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, Cafe Classics, Beef Pot Roast with Whipped Potatoes", fell farther down the slippery slope of modern food science. You Don't get beef, according to the box, you get "beef product". It consists of beef, water, dextrose, soybean oil, modified cornstarch, potassium chloride, salt, potassium and sodium phosphates, caramel color, and natural flavors. The gravy includes "rendered beef fat". I know why this is called lean cuisine - one bite and you've had enough.

"Kid Cuisine Corn Dog with Apples and Blue Watermelon Flavored Sauce, Corn, French Fries and a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup" is a kid's meal from the folks at agribusiness conglomerate ConAgra. Note to parents: read the ingredients before serving, unless you hope the sodium nitrite, calcium stearate, sodium erythorbate, disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate, polyglycerol polyricinoleate and such will calm junior's jitters.

"Michelina's Signature Chicken Marsala with Garlic Mashed Potatoes" ostensibly contains three ingredients (chicken, potatoes and gravy), but the box list 139 ingredients. Yes, 139. And among the chemicals you'll actually find some food. The point is that big food processing companies have every reason in the world to create food products that are convenient, are at least tolerable to the tastebuds, and are cheap. If they have to use chemical flavorings, colorings, preservatives, texturizers, and such to do it, well okay. If they load their products with sugar, fat, and salt, well, those substances taste good - in fact, they're almost irresistible. No wonder that a burger and fries with a soda are the mainstays of the fast food industry: fatty meat, salty and fatty fries, and sugary soda pop. But as even a casual look around America will tell you, something's wrong with either our food or the way we eat, or both.

Cold-Brewed Coffee (2/1/09)

Have you heard about cold-brewed coffee? It has less acid, caffeine, and bitterness than coffee brewed with boiling hot water.
It's not hard to make. Set your coffee grinder on regular and grind a quarter pound of organic, Fair Trade beans. Organic means the environment where the coffee is grown is protected. Most coffee plantations are planted where rain forest has been cut down, destroying bird habitats and unleashing a host of ecological problems. Fair Trade means the coffee growers are being paid a premium that helps lift them out of poverty.
Place the ground coffee in a quart jar and fill the jar to the top with cold, clean water. Screw on the top, give it a shake and set it on the kitchen counter for 24 hours. At the end of that time, pour the contents of the quart jar into a French coffee press (also known as a press pot), push down the filter mechanism, and pour off the coffee into a pitcher. Discard the coffee grounds. It may take two pours to press it all.
You can do one of two things at this point. Either pour the cold-brewed coffee into ice cube trays and freeze, then store the frozen cubes in a plastic freezer bag. You can use them later to make iced coffee. Or, pour some into a saucepan to be gently heated for a hot cup of coffee. Store the rest in the cleaned quart jar in the fridge.
Adjust this recipe to your personal taste. If you want stronger cold-brewed coffee, use more ground coffee per quart of water. If it's too strong for you, add water to the brewed coffee until it's just right. In the end, you'll get all the flavor of real coffee with less of the acid and caffeine.

Air-Cooled Chicken:
So Who Cares? (2/8/09)

So you should care. When chickens are slaughtered, they are quickly eviscerated, dipped in hot water to loosen feathers, and then quickly de-feathered. This leaves a warm carcass - and the right conditions for the growth of harmful bacteria like salmonella.
And so most chicken processors give the carcasses a dunking in an ice-water bath to cool them down. But think - if one chicken carcass is contaminated with harmful bacteria, that bacteria enters the cooling water and can spread to all the other carcasses dipped in that water. It's not the ideal sanitary situation.
The answer has been the development of air-cooling machinery over the past few years. Instead of a plunge into ice water, the chicken carcasses are dried and chilled with a blast of super-cooled air. If there is a contamination of any carcass, it's not spread to all the others in the processing line. The lack of moisture on the chickens also helps control the spread of any pathogens.
Not all organic chickens are air-chilled, but many are. Look for it on the labels, or ask your butcher. It simply makes sense.

The World's Best Berries (2/15/09)

No berry is more delicious than the strawberry, nor more loaded with agricultural chemicals when it’s grown conventionally. Pickers who have to enter the poison-drenched fields call strawberries “the devil’s fruit,” not just because of the backbreaking labor it takes to harvest them, but also because of the toxic environment of the fields. Over 7,800,000 pounds of agricultural chemicals were used on strawberries in 2001 in California alone. That’s 39,000 tons. In a study by the Environmental Working Group of 42 fruits and vegetables, strawberries had the highest concentration of chemical contaminants. And yet no berry is more beloved by children, who are most susceptible to bodily harm due to these chemicals. That’s perhaps the chief reason to seek out organic strawberries—but there are others. Strawberries are delicate things—quick to lose their evanescent esters and other fragrance and flavor compounds, soft and easily crushed in transit, and prone to rapid molding. And so the big, conventional, commercial growers use varieties like Tioga in California, Surecrop through much of the country, and Blomidon in the northern states and Canada. What these types lack in quality they make up in firmness and shipping ability. But how unfortunate are those folks who’ve only tasted these tough, flavor-challenged commercial types. Here are some commercial berries to look for. If you live where the wild strawberries that grow east of the Rockies are found, they are by far the best berries in the world, but they’re seldom found in commerce.

Alpine Type

Alpine Yellow—Long, conical berries are highly aromatic, great flavor.
Baron Solemacher Improved—Berries are an inch long, “wild” flavor.
Ruegen—Small fruits with the intense flavor of wild strawberries.

Everbearing Type

Chandler—Bright red berries of very good flavor from UC Davis.
Mara des Bois—Wild woodland type ripens late summer, early fall.
Selva—Produces good-flavored fruit summer through fall.
Tristar—Deep red flesh, skin with excellent flavor for an everbearer.

June-Bearing Type

Cavendish—A Nova Scotia introduction with an excellent, sweet flavor.
Delmarvel—A sandard of quality in the Mid-Atlantic states; large fruits.
Fairfax—Early season bearer; dark red when ripe; aromatic, flavorful.
Royal Sovereign—An old English variety with a distinct, delicious flavor.
Sequoia—Frequently planted in U-Pick farms; excellent quality.
Sparkle—Wins my personal taste test as best-flavored hybrid strawberry.
Suwannee—Large berries that are also frequent taste-test winners

Organic Junk Food (2/22/09)

Is it possible to make organic junk food, and is it being sold? You bet. One way to define junk food is anything that’s heavy on the fat, salt, and carbohydrates like starches or sugar. All these ingredients can be organic, but if they’re turned into candy, sweet drinks, burgers and fries, pizza, and such, they are still junk food. They may lack the load of chemicals used in agriculture, or the artificial compounds placed in the foods by food scientists to extend shelf life, texturize the product, and enhance flavor, so in that way they are better than their conventional versions—but they’re still junk food.
I do a lot of shopping at Whole Foods, because I know I can get fresh, organic meats, fish, and vegetables there. But even Whole Foods has two long frozen food cases just stuffed top to bottom with pre-made meals, ice creams, frozen pizzas, and other highly processed foods.
The best way to shop any supermarket—and the most economical and healthy for you—is to shop the outer edges of the store. If you’ll notice, that’s where you find the meat, fish, dairy, bulk bins, and vegetables. It’s the middle aisles where you find the most processed and manipulated foodstuffs.
It’s important to eat organic, but junk food is junk food, whether it’s organic or conventional. As organic foods have entered the mainstream, food manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon by offering organic knock-offs of common, highly processed, junk foods. Don’t fall for it.
Whenever possible, eat organic, fresh, in season, local fruits and vegetables, meats, milk, and other whole, unprocessed foods.

Our Daily Bread (3/1/09)

Probably no change in our culture sums up the emergence of the organic ideal more than the change in our bread.It wasn't that long ago that bread in America meant the tasteless, gummy, white slices used to hold sandwich ingredients together. It was a utilitarian product, not a palate pleaser. It's hard to believe we ever got along without the wonderful discoveries we've imported from Europe: pain levian, made with a natural starter; good baguettes that must be eaten fresh from the oven to be at their best; ciabatta, the Italian word for slipper, which is a flat bread with an airy, soft interior and a light, thin crust; quintessentially German dreikornbrot (packed with grains and seeds and bursting with natural goodness), and many other types of fine bread.

My thoughts ran along those lines when I recently brought home a loaf of sourdough from the Acme Bakery of Berkeley, California and tore - literally - into its dark brown crust. I tore off a chunk of crust with my side teeth and crunched in. It had yielding parts, tough and chewy parts, and crisp and crunchy parts with a browned and roasted, nutty wheat flavor. Inside, the bread was moist, stretchy, and chewy. Its aroma combined a dominant sourness with a satisfying, warm, and yeasty graininess. The smell of this bread brought back memories of afternoons when I was about 10, climbing into beams of the neighbor's dairy barn, jumping off into the dry hay, and smelling dusty alfalfa and timothy, oats and chaff, fermenting corn silage, milk and cows, all mingled together. But the Acme loaf is not the bread of my childhood - not by a long shot.

"There's a big change going on with bread", says Joseph Rodriguez of Uprising Bread Bakery in Brooklyn. "The top bakers in Paris are going organic. True artisans all over the world are sticking to pure, organic ingredients." Uprising is an organic bakery started three years ago by Rodriguez and Nicole Lane, his wife. The bakery, with two retail outlets plus sales to markets and restaurants in New York City, makes 12 or 13 kinds of naturally-leavened breads daily, including Italian country bread, special breads like potato and rosemary and carmelized onion, ciabatta, and French-style baguettes. "We don't use commercial yeast," Rodiriguez says. "We've created a natural starter culture and refresh it often - it gives a slightly sour flavor to the bread, but not as sour as San Francisco sourdough."

If you remember, it wasn't that long ago that organic, whole grain bread was hard to find. And now it's here in abundance.

Five Reasons to Juice (3/8/09)

I once asked Joan Gussow, a well-known nutirtionist, what vegetable is best for us to eat. Without hesitating, she said "Kale. But the problem is that nobody eats enough kale for it to make much difference." That's not true when you have a juicer, because you can put as much kale through it as you wish.

A few rules about juicing are in order. Always use fresh, organic produce to avoid the agricultural chemicals used on conventional produce. Don't store juice - drink it within five minutes after you make it. The reason is that juicing vegetables releases enzymes that immediately start to break down the health-giving factors in the food. And start with refrigerator cold, raw vegetables. Warm vegetable juice isn't nearly as palatable as cold.

About two-thirds of the juice should be carrot juice. This makes the juice sweet, creamy, and delicious. For the other third, I use pasley, kales chard, peeled cucumber, celery, and one beet.

Here are five reasons why making vegetable juice and drinking it regularly is a good idea.

1. You get the benefits of an armload of vegetables - more than you'd ever eat at one sitting - in each glass.

2. Raw vegetable juice stimulates a healthy mix of intenstinal flora, and given that nine out of ten cells in our bodies are intenstinal flora, when they're healthy, we're healthy.

3. Vegetable juice is full of soluble fiber that aids regularity.

4. Juice is packed with a wide array of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and other nutritional factors.

5. It tastes great!

Proof That Organics Are Better (3/15/09)

Apologists for the conventional food industry have claimed for decades that organic food and conventional food are the same when it comes to nutritional value and flavor. Well, now you can simply refer them to “Organic Foods: Are They a Safer, Healthier Alternative?” in the Fall, 2008, issue of Nutrition in Complementary Care (NCC), a journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Dieticians are professionals in the study of food and nutrition as it impacts health, so it’s interesting to learn what they have to say about organic food. This article is peer-reviewed and loaded with two pages of references to studies published in scientific journals. The authors of the NCC article put together a table that summarizes the nutritional value of organic versus conventional foods.

It analyzed 41 different scientific studies and found these results: Regarding beneficial fatty acids in milk, “organic milk has higher polyunsaturated fatty acids, total omega-3 fatty acid, a more beneficial omega-6:omega-3 ratio, higher alpha-linolenic acid, and higher levels of conjugated linoleic (CLA) fatty acids.” Human breast milk was also studied for its content of essential fatty acids and mothers who ate organic produced more of the health-promoting fatty acids in their milk than mothers who ate conventional. Comparing organic and conventional lettuce, spinach, kale, endive, chard, cabbage, celeriac, turnip, beets, corn salad, potato, radish, and corn, organic produce contained more vitamin C than conventional. When the same produce was tested for iron, magnesium, and phosphorus, again organic food contained more of these essential minerals than conventional.

Several studies looked at antioxidants like phenolic acid and salicylic acid, and again organic foods contained more of these beneficial compounds than conventional.

Flavonoids are immune-system boosters with a wide range of health benefits. Studies looked at the amount of quercetin and kaempferol, and once again, organic food contained more of these flavonoids than conventional.

Not every study showed the benefits of getting more nutrient punch in your organic food. Some showed the benefits of what you don’t get by choosing to eat organic. Nitrates in foods can cause a wide range of illness, including cancers, birth defects, type 1 diabetes, and more. “Overall, the data indicated significantly lower nitrate content in the organic crops versus conventional crops,” the article says. A second study found nitrate levels 83 percent higher in conventional crops than organic crops.

Conventional produce had more crude protein than organic. This was explained by the heavy use of soluble nitrogen fertilizers on conventional farms and the consequent increase in nitrates in the crops. “Organic crops take up nitrogen more slowly, and do not have spikes in growth,” the researchers reported. “This allows attention to other metabolic plant functions like vitamin C production.” Other scientists found that “although organic foods may contain less total crude protein, their essential amino acid profiles are perhaps actually higher. Given the increase in nitrates from synthetic fertilizers used in conventional farming, the lower total crude protein in organic crops may be an indirect benefit.”

The article goes on to summarize the high levels of pesticide ingestion when conventional food is eaten. The conclusion: “An average six to 11 year old child is exposed to chlorpyrifos at doses four times the dose the EPA considers acceptable for long-term exposure…the results suggest that diet is the primary culprit for pesticide exposure in children.”

Overall, the article draws this final conclusion: “The evidence suggests that organic foods are more nutrient dense with regard to the specific nutrients cited above, and may in fact be safer in terms of pesticides and related risks.” It’s nice when scientists back up what we’ve known all along. A study done in England recently said eating organic food gives one the equivalent of an extra meal each day, without any extra calories. The organic food is simply more nutritious.

Why would that be? What makes organic food more nutritious? The answer lies, I think, in the concept of health. Organic crops and farm animals are healthier than their conventional counterparts. They get the nutrition they need from organically-treated soil in the form they like it, when they need it, and in the right amounts. All their systems for building tissue, making fruit, and warding off pests are operating at optimum levels. Health is transferable. As the old organic adage says: healthy soil makes healthy plants makes healthy people.

Is Big Organic Simply Organic Agribiz? (3/22/09)

From its beginnings well over half a century ago, organic farming and gardening has focused on three things: environmentally sound agriculture and horticulture, eating food grown as close to home as possible, and eating food when it’s in season.

In the past 10 years, a huge number of people have grasped those ideals because they make sense. Who foesn’t want clean food that represents the local community—its farmers who grow the food that grows best locally?

But those huge numbers of people have created a drain on the small-scale, local system of organic farming the supplies food for farmers markets and supermarkets with an organic bent, such as Whole Foods.

Demand consistently outstrips supply. This has two effects. First, it can raise prices for organic foodstuffs. And second, it can create large corporations that develop new strategies for supplying the demand. This second effect is on full display in the case of Horizon and Aurora organic milk products. Instead of milk being produced locally, it is produced in giant conglomerations of cows spread around the country. Agribiz has taken notice and begun exploiting the organic market. And now come the first inklings that big corporations may be violating the spirit, and quite possibly the letter, of the USDA’s organic rules.

“While USDA bureaucrats drag their feet on closing key loopholes in national organic standards, retailers, wholesalers and major ‘organic’ brands are continuing to sell milk and dairy products labeled as USDA Organic, even though most or all of their milk is coming from factory farm feedlots where the animals have been brought in from conventional farms and are kept in intensive confinement, with little or no access to pasture,” according to the Organic Consumer’s Association.

The OCA is expanding its boycott of Horizon and Aurora organic dairy products to include five national private label organic milk brands supplied by Aurora, as well as two leading organic soy products, Silk and White Wave, owned by Horizon's parent company, Dean Foods. It’s time to turn up the heat on the Shameless Seven, as OCA calls them.

“While thousands of organic consumers and a number of natural food stores and cooperatives have joined the boycott, major national large grocery retailers have ignored it. Aurora Organic supplies milk for several private label organic milk brands, including Costco's ‘Kirkland Signature,’ Safeway's ‘O’ organics brand, Publix's , High Meadows, Giant's ‘Natures Promise,’ and Wild Oats organic milk. Aurora Organic received a failing grade from the Cornucopia Institute’s survey of organic dairies for its practice of intensive confinement of dairy cows,” the OCA reports.

For action to keep organic rules strong, check in with OCA’s website at:
http://www.organicconsumers.org and http://www.cornucopia.org.

A Real Spring Tonic (3/29/09)

Now that it’s late March, snow and ice have melted in all but the cold tier of states along our northern border with Canada. In the old days, when almost every family lived on a family farm, winter fare consisted of what you put up—without refrigeration. Peaches and cherries were brandied. Apples were cut into slices and strung on strings to dry, then stored in jars in the cupboard. Onions hung in sacks in the attic. Winter squash survived through the winter just fine in a cold bedroom. Potatoes, carrots, parsnips, and other root crops lived in barrels in the root cellar. Cabbage could be stored fresh by pulling it up roots and all and hanging it upside down from the attic rafters. Or it could be made into sauerkraut. Bacon was smoked and kept in a cold room, wrapped in paper to keep vermin away. The hens still laid a few fresh eggs every day, though winter production was down. A pig was slaughtered in late November and sausage was potted and covered with lard. Parts of the pig were made into scrapple and head cheese. Hams and hamhocks were salt-cured and smoked. But there was precious little in the way of fresh greens to eat. That’s why when the snow melted away, those early farm families went out to gather ingredients for a spring tonic—a celebration of nature’s first greens.

In the basket went wild onions, green tops and all. A few violet leaves. The first, tender dandelion leaves—lots of them. If you lived in California, there was miner’s lettuce. Where spring water flows, the first leaves of watercress appear. And those farmers knew to start spinach, chicories, and other hardy greens in the fall, cover them with a deep layer of hay, and uncover them in early spring to add their emerging leaves to the spring tonic.

These, and other edible plants that show the first green of the year, were a welcome relief after a winter of heavy, preserved foods from the pantries and rootcellars of the farms of the 18th and early 19th centuries in America. Soon after that bracing, bitter spring tonic, the oak trees began sprouting their leaves, and when they were backlit by the sun, they appeared golden yellow. Poet Robert Frost saw this and wrote:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.

Why Organic Beef Matters (4/11/09)

New scientific work shows that the amount of nutrients in organic food is higher than in the same amount of the same kind of conventionally grown food.
More “nutrient dense” is the phrase the scientists use.

A “State of Science Review” just issued by the Organic Center in Enterprise, Oregon, went through 97 scientific studies and found that average content of 11 nutrients were 25 percent higher in organic than in chemically grown food plants. A University of California study in 2007 additionally found that the longer a field was managed organically, the larger the difference in nutrient levels between organic and conventional tomatoes.

And the same thing holds true for beef cattle raised organically compared to conventionally. Organic beef—especially from free range, grass fed cattle that do not finish their lives eating grains like corn—contains much more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), one of the essential fatty acids that promotes our health. And milk from organic cows also contains more CLA.

The digestive tracts of grass fed organic cattle also do not harbor virulent strains of E. coli bacteria that can cause illness and death in human beings. Those virulent strains develop in the digestive tracts of cattle fed grains to fatten them before slaughter. Cattle are not natural grain eaters; their stomachs are not set up that way. Nature intends them to eat grass.

Organic beef is also not fed routine antibiotics. When cattle are forced to live in large herds in filthy feed lots where they are fattened for slaughter, they are prone to infections and diseases, so antibiotics are routinely given to them. These antibiotics promote the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria (they kill off most bacteria except those that are resistant and these then reproduce).

Organic milk cows are not given hormones to force greater milk production—hormones that cause illness in humans. Conventional cows do get hormones that force 20 percent more milk from the animals. But the quality of the milk is so bad that Europe won’t import it.

The bottom line: when cattle or milk cows are raised organically and graze pastures handled organically, that meat is more nutrient dense, cleaner, and healthier for us.

The Obamas’ Organic Garden (4/19/09)

As I watched Michelle Obama on the news fecklessly poking at the grass on the south lawn with the point of a shovel, I realized that she doesn’t have a clue about organic vegetable gardening. She’s simply going to get her groundskeepers together and order up a 55-variety vegetable garden and then go back into the White House and pursue her work.

Her heart’s in the right place, though. Putting an organic vegetable garden on the White House grounds is a fine idea. But actually making a performing garden presupposes more knowledge than most people realize. And making the garden authentically organic presupposes even more knowledge on top of that.

First of all, 55 different vegetables is an enormous number of vegetables. I can’t even imagine what all of them will be. Will there be crosnes? Jicama? Ground cherries? Each veggie has its special requirements—some like an acid soil with a low pH and others like an alkaline soil with a high pH. Celery likes to be planted in a boggy soil, while herbs like thyme and rosemary like a dry soil. Corn likes a soil rich in the major nutrients of potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen while tomatoes want a soil that’s moderate to low in nitrogen. Some onions and strawberries will stop growing after the summer solstice, while other onions and strawberries keep producing all summer. Okra likes it midsummer hot while peas and spinach like cool weather.

You don’t just remove the sod from a big square and start planting all these vegetables in whatever soil is under the sod. Proper soil improvement takes a good three years unless you bring in truckloads of ready-made compost. And if you only plant in the spring, then you’ll have a single harvest sometime around the end of July and nothing from the garden after that. To make the garden productive throughout the growing season means you have to plant and replant time after time.

Some vegetables are prone to wilts and diseases while others aren’t. Cabbage moths and cabbage loopers will attack your cabbage family crops (kale, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, etc.). Not might attack. Will attack. You have to know how to prevent these attacks without using pesticides (if you are going to have a real organic garden). Squash bugs and stem borers will attack your squash family plants. Striped and spotted cucumber beetles will attack your cucumbers. Cutworms will topple your seedlings. Mexican bean beetles will find your beans. Potato bugs will find your spuds. And army worms will advance on your whole patch. You need to know how to prevent these pests from getting your veggies before you do, and how to ward them off when they appear.

All of this is doable, of course. But watching Michelle poke at the soil brought me back to my first gardens, which were disasters. Becoming a good gardener is a lot like becoming a good doctor. There’s a world of knowledge behind each and every person and each and every crop.

Frozen Organic Produce From China and a Very Bad Bill (4/26/09)

If there are any rules for how to eat properly, they would be, in this order:
1) eat organic, 2) eat local, and 3) eat what’s in season. Now the demand for organic food has increased so dramatically that America’s organic farms can’t keep up with it. And no wonder—there’s not very much money in the new farm bill for small farmers, let alone organic farmers.

So, China steps in to fill the market with food grown there, frozen, and shipped over here. In 2005, about $136 million worth of organic products were shipped here from China and sold through Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s markets. There are no current figures, but they are sure to be much higher now. The problem is that in the wake of recent health scares in pet food and poison toys from China, many consumers would shy away from organic food from China. Not only is the food questionable, but its carbon footprint is huge, having been shipped all the way from Asia.

Citizens’ concerns over food safety are being used to promote passage of a truly noxious piece of legislation in Congress, H.R. 875. It’s a bill put up by Monsanto and other agribusiness corporations trying to seize control over all agriculture. It was introduced by Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), whose husband runs a polling and political consulting firm, among whose clients is Monsanto.

While purporting to be about food safety, the bill is really about defining as safe only Monsanto’s Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The bill has teeth, including prison time for those who transgress its rules, but it is also vague about exactly what would trigger the penalties. It calls for a bureaucratic administrator with draconian lawmaking power to create definitions so that Monsanto’s competitors could be run out of business or thrown in jail.

Progressive activists are calling this bill “The Food Fascism Act,” and from the sounds of it, that might be the proper name. Small farmers have a tough enough time of it, trying to compete with food from China and big American agriculture without this toxic legislation.

You can find out more about the bill and find a link to the text of the bill at: http://www.peaceteam.net/action/pnum959.php

More Nutrition From Less Food (5/3/09)

That sounds like a prescription for losing some weight - getting more nutrition from less food.
But that’s what new studies are showing about organic food versus conventional.

For years, agribusiness has claimed that there are no studies proving that organic food is any more nutritious than any other kind of food. But that’s just a lie. Many studies conducted over the past few decades have shown that organic food is more nutritious and the studies are coming in faster and more complete now that organics has reached the mainstream.

The new buzzword is “nutrient density.” And organic food has more of it. Scientific studies show that as yields of crop plants rose under chemical cultivation, nutrient content fell. The chemical fertilizers boosted yields, but resulted in declines of five to 40 percent of some minerals in vegetables. Thomas Powell, writing in The Avant Gardener for April, 2009, quotes a famous study from 1981 showing that as phosphorus fertilization increased on raspberries, the phosphorus in the plants increased but other nutrients dropped by 20 to 55 percent. Recent studies show that in 43 garden crops, protein content has declined by six percent and that of three vitamins has decreased 15 to 38 percent since 1950.

In other words, chemical fertilizers flush out big yields of poor quality foods because the soils aren’t replenished any anything other than the three macronutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. And those are in soluble form that quickly leaches out of the soil, fouling the ground water.

Nutrient density increases under organic cultivation, however. The Organic Center of Enterprise, Oregon, has recently released a “State of Science Review.” It shows that in 97 published studies, average content of 11 nutrients was 25 percent higher in organically grown than conventional produce.

As organic gardeners and farmers know, the secret to greater nutrient density lies in the rich soil produced by this method. A University of California study published in 2007 found that “the longer a field was managed organically, the larger the difference in flavonoid levels in organic versus conventional (tomatoes).” Well, of course. Organic soils are fertilized with compost, and compost is the rotted residue of plant tissues. It’s nutrient recycling, so the soil has everything that the new generation of living plants need to build themselves strong, healthy bodies. And build ours the same way.

Here Comes Srawberry Season! (5/10/09)

No berry is more delicious than the strawberry, nor more loaded with agricultural chemicals when it's grown conventionally.

Pickers who have to enter the poison-drenched fields call strawberries “the devil’s fruit,” not just because of the backbreaking labor it takes to harvest them, but also because of the toxic environment of the fields. Over 7,800,000 pounds of agricultural chemicals were used on strawberries in 2001 in California alone. That’s 39,000 tons. In a study by the Environmental Working Group of 42 fruits and vegetables, strawberries had the highest concentration of chemical contaminants.

And yet no berry is more beloved by children, who are most susceptible to bodily harm due to these chemicals. That’s perhaps the chief reason to seek out organic strawberries—but there are others. Strawberries are delicate things—quick to lose their evanescent esters and other fragrance and flavor compounds, soft and easily crushed in transit, and prone to rapid molding. And so the big, conventional, commercial growers use varieties like Tioga in California, Surecrop through much of the country, and Blomidon in the northern states and Canada. What these types lack in quality they make up in firmness and shipping ability. But how unfortunate are those folks who’ve only tasted these tough, flavor-challenged commercial types.

The best strawberries, in my opinion, are the tiny, native wild strawberries of North America that grow east of the Rockies (Fragaria virginiana). In the Pocono Mountains, they ripened in the second week of June. The fields around my boyhood home were carpeted with them—they grew prolifically in the poor shale and clay soils of our hilltop. When the hot June sun baked these fields, great clouds of strawberry fragrance would rise to meet me and I spent many happy, sweaty hours down among the grasses and weeds, eating them straight from the plants. The berries are only the size of your little fingernail, but each packs all the intense strawberry flavor of a full-size hybrid berry—and then some. I was lucky to be back in that vicinity a few Junes ago and drove to that hilltop to see if I could find some wild strawberries. I hadn’t tasted them in probably 30 years or more. As I entered an open field near my former home, I was greeted by the familiar smell of strawberries, and looking down, saw them dangling red and ripe from their little plants by the hundreds. I got a small paper cup from the car and quickly filled it, then drove down to the village diner where I had my first job (washing dishes) and ordered a scoop of vanilla ice cream. When it was set in front of me, I poured the wild strawberries over it and dug in. Though time has, I’m sure, dulled my senses somewhat, they were still as rich and luxurious a flavor as I remembered.

Something of the wild strawberry’s flavor persists in our cultivated varieties, because it’s one of the parents of our modern hybrids. Wild strawberry plants were taken to France about 1600, and a century later, another wilding (Fragaria chiloensis), from the Chilean coast, was also transported to France. The two species crossed by accident about 1750 and the first modern hybrid (F. x ananassa) appeared. Much work was subsequently done in England to bring about a wide range of cultivars. Eventually the hybrids returned to the Americas to become the basis of the strawberry industry here.

I’ve begun to see the little European wild strawberries called fraise des bois—woods’ or Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca)—in farmers markets, but only occasionally. Like the native American wildings, they have a rich, intense fragrance and flavor that’s irresistible. If you’re lucky enough to have a good source of these or of F. virginiana, consider making strawberry wine. A friend of mine went on a picking spree and made several gallons from virginianas, and it was a rare, heady, syrupy wine, best taken in small Port glasses or poured over vanilla ice cream.

Some varieties of hybrid berries produce a big crop in June and then are finished for the season. These June-bearers are usually better flavored than everbearing types that produce a sprinkling of berries throughout the summer. Something about the intensity of the June sun brings up the sugars and flavors of strawberries, and also their nutritional quality. These berries contain up to 77 mg. vitamin C per 100 gm. fruit, as well as folates, potassium, and dietary fiber.

Commercial berries for shipping—even organic ones—must be picked before they’re fully ripe or they get too soft. This means that the best berries are going to be locally grown—the nearer your house the better—so that they can ripen fully on the plant. And they will be from June bearing types. Then they’ll be soft, juicy, and dripping sugar, with a hint of pineapple in their flavor. These are the ones to buy by the flat for freezing. Although strawberries don’t freeze very well texturally—if they’re soft going into the freezer, they’ll be mushy coming out—they will make wonderful frozen smoothies paired with bananas and other fruits when put through a blender. If you slice them and freeze the slices individually on wax paper laid on a cookie sheet, then put them in freezer bags when frozen hard, they can be added to winter fruit compotes.

But the glory of strawberries is to get really flavorful June-bearing varieties grown organically and picked at their peak of ripeness and eat them fresh, maybe with a little cream or red wine and sugar, but at their very best just by themselves. Should you choose to use them in cooking or with other foods, they make some heavenly flavor marriages: classy with Champagne, perfect with crème fraiche or mascarpone, delicious with oranges and tangerines (whose acidic zestiness enhances strawberry’s flavor), harmonic with pineapple, and classic with rhubarb—among other flavor pairings. And I haven’t even mentioned chocolate.

Pesticide Peddlers Diss Michelle's Organic Garden (5/17/09)

I don't know if you saw Stephen Colbert's ironic send-up of the chemical agriculture industry recently, but it was priceless comedy. And richly deserved. It turns out that the Mid-America Croplife Association (MACA), which represents chemical companies that produce pesticides and other toxic substances, is in a dither about one of these three things: guess which.

1) The high price of chemical raw materials
2) Rising costs for transporting chemicals
3) Michelle Obama’s organic garden

If you guessed number three, you are correct. In an email they sent to their supporters and clients, a MACA spokesperson wrote, “While a garden is a great idea, the thought of it being organic made us shudder.” Maca then sent Mrs. Obama a letter asking her to please consider using chemicals—what they call “crop protection products”—in her garden.

MACA’s letter is part of a decades-long propaganda and disinformation effort to convince people that crops cannot be grown without chemicals. The old agribusiness mantra was, “If agriculture went organic, half the world would starve.” It’s utter nonsense, of course. Under organic culture, soil is improved as its used, crop yields are equal to or better than conventional agriculture, the produce is free from toxic chemicals, soil erosion is curbed, droughts are less destructive because spongy organic soil holds water better, organic food is often more nutritious than its conventional counterparts, and ecosystems on and around organic farms are not disrupted by chemicals and are strengthened by the purity of the agriculture practiced there.

I can just see the MACA flacks sitting in their conference room, shuddering away as pictures of Michelle’s organic garden are shown on TV. That little garden is a fearsome thing and a danger, all right. It’s a danger to their profits.

Easy Lettuce All Season Long (5/24/09)

As long as you have a spot that gets three or four hours of sun a day, you can grow your own organic lettuce for salads all season long.

Here are some things you need to know about lettuce to get started.

1) Morning sun is best, but if all you have is afternoon sun, that will do as long as the plants get no more than four hours of sun each day.
2) Lettuce likes it best in cool weather. In very hot weather, make sure the soil stays moist but not sopping wet, and even move your plants to a shady area.
3) You can certainly grow lettuce in a garden, but you can also grow it in almost any container that has drain holes in the bottom. Cardboard boxes lined with plastic lawn and leaf bags, with drainage holes poked in the bottom, and filled with organic compost from the garden center work just fine and cost very little.
4) Figure 15 plants of looseleaf lettuce per person. A cardboard box planter as described above will hold three rows of five plants each. So create a box for each member of the family.
5) Plant looseleaf varieties like Oak Leaf, Black-Seeded Simpson, Deer Tongue, Salad Bowl, Ruby, Prizehead, and others. These take about seven weeks to reach harvestable size.
6) When harvesting, take only a few outer, larger leaves from each plant, leaving the inner leaves and roots in place. This “cut-and-come-again” technique allows you to keep harvesting from the same plants for many weeks.
7) Start a second set of boxes about half way through your growing season (early July in the mid-Atlantic states). The spring-planted lettuces will bolt by the hot weather of mid-summer. Bolting means they are sending up a flower stalk to make seed, which turns the plants bitter and unusable. The second set of boxes will take over for the first set as they begin to bolt. Discard plants that begin to bolt.
8) You don’t need to use fertilizer if you use well-made compost. It has plenty of grow power.
9) Make sure the soil is constantly moist, but not sopping wet.

If you use these simple steps, you’ll be able to grow your own salad lettuces all season long.

Are Organic Bananas Really Safe? (6/7/09)

Strangely enough, although bananas are grown far away in tropical and often exotic regions of the world, they are one of the most ubiquitous organic fruits available to us. The reason is that while many of our other fruits are locally-grown, and therefore of spotty organic availability, bananas come to us through a huge network of large corporate plantations and international delivery systems. We may believe our organic bananas come from dedicated, small-scale, organic family farmers, but that’s a romantic notion that’s almost never the case.

The Dole corporation is the largest supplier of organic bananas to the U.S., Western Europe, and Canada, but there are also Quinta Organica, Organics Unlimited, Sabrosa, and Eco Organic. Denny Gibson of Puget Consumers Co-op (PCC), the largest consumer-owned food co-op in America with 40,000 members and seven stores in the Puget Sound area, says that when the superior organic bananas provided by Quinta Organica aren’t available, the co-op turns to Dole. Because of Dole’s historical record as a chemically-oriented, agribusiness giant, some members challenged PCC about selling Dole bananas. Gibson and his wife Monica toured some of the big suppliers in South America, including the Dole organic banana plantation in Manabi, Ecuador, and here’s what he reports:

“Overall, we felt the plantation was well organized, the employees had a clean and safe working environment, and the administrators expressed a commitment to organic farming methods, fair treatment of their employees, and protection of the natural environment. Granted, it was a one day visit, we aren’t soil scientists, and we didn’t have a chance to interview the employees. Industry insiders claim Dole executives have said publicly they really ‘don’t believe’ in the organic ‘fad,’ and that Dole imports every [farming] input possible instead of making it locally, which doesn’t support sustainable agriculture. But what we saw was quite positive compared to what most people might imagine from a multinational corporation.”

One of the smaller organic producers is Quinta Organica, located in southern Ecuador. PCC’s customers have commented on the superior flavor, creamy texture, and consistent appearance of Quinta’s bananas. Quinta’s founder and CEO, Werner Forster, says the difference is due to rich, fertile soil and organic fertilizers, proper care of the plants, and harvesting the bananas at a slightly more advanced stage of development.

Whether Quinta or Dole, organic banana culture is light years more eco-friendly than conventional. Here’s why. First of all, farm workers and banana wranglers are exposed to harmful chemicals. On the plantations, conventional growers fertilize the soil with 1.5 tons per acre of 8:10:8. The numbers refer to chemical nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the fertilizer. Unless organic matter is returned to tropical soils, they soon lose the life in the soil that depends on actively decaying organic matter. Without a rich diversity of soil life, diseases and pests can proliferate.

“Black sigatoka fungus in banana plantations has reached global epidemic proportions,” according to Dr. Emile Frison, a Belgian scientist who heads the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain, as reported in New Scientist magazine. He says the Cavendish banana variety is being attacked around the world by Panama disease, a soil-borne wilt that destroyed the superior Gros Michel strain of bananas in the 1950s. Fungicides are proving increasingly ineffective, but Dr. Frison is looking to biotechnology and genetic modification to save the world’s bananas and plantains, on which half a billion people depend for a staple food. He’s looking in the wrong place.

It’s been shown that soils teeming with soil life prevent outbreaks of diseases and funguses that wreak wholesale destruction on crops, especially the kind of fusarium wilts of which Panama disease is a type. The problem is that lifeless chemical soils fertilized with nothing but mineral macronutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium have no autoimmunity to diseases, whereas rich, organic soils do. Conventional banana growers also use a host of toxic chemicals against pests. Nematodes (destructive soil worms) are controlled with carbofuran, Dasanit, Ethoprop, and phenamiphos. Yet nematodes can be controlled organically by proper tillage, sun exposure, and crop rotations with nematode-destroying Pangola grass. Black weevil is controlled with dieldrin and heptachlor; banana rust thrips with dieldrin, diazinon, and dursban, and banana scab moth with injections of pesticides into the growing stems. Yet all of these are controlled with non-toxic techniques on organic banana plantations.

As for fertilizers, bananas and plantains are heavy feeders. Harvesting five tons of fruit from an acre depletes the soil of 22 pounds of nitrogen, four pounds of phosphorus, and 55 pounds of potassium. Instead of applying chemical fertilizers, if the old plant stems and leaves from one plantation acre are chopped and incorporated into the soil, 404 pounds of nitrogen, 101 pounds of phosphorus, and 1,513 pounds of potassium are returned to the soil. If this material is composted with other organic matter, even more is returned. The result? Under organic cultivation, the soil improves in health, amount of soil life, availability of nutrients, resistance to soil pests and diseases, and its ability to produce extra high quality bananas and plantains.

Organic bananas are well worth seeking out because their production avoids a host of toxic chemicals that affect everything from the health of the plantation soils and surrounding ecosystems, to the health of the workers who grow and handle them, to the health of those of us who eat them.

Organic Chocolate That Supports Indigenous People (5/31/09)

In the late 1970's, a man named Brant Secunda was studying shamanism under the tutelage of Don Jose Matsuwa, a Huichol Indian from Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. He subsequently had a visionary dream of people eating chocolate, which filled their bodies with love.

Cut to the present day, where Secunda has now established Shaman Chocolates, part of the proceeds of which goes to support the Huichols in their efforts to retain their pre-Columbian culture—possibly the last North American tribe to have kept their indigenous culture fully alive. Secunda also started the Dance of the Deer Foundation, based in Santa Cruz, California, that conducts seminars and tours for people interested in the Huichol culture and artwork. Their artistry includes astoundingly beautiful “paintings” made from colored string and beeswax. Chocolate has figured in the Huichol culture for thousands of years, much as it did with the Aztecs and other indigenous Mexican tribes. The Huichols used it in ceremonies and as offerings to Mother Earth in appreciation of her many blessings.

I’ve sampled Shaman Chocolates—they’re completely organic and carry the USDA Organic seal as well as the CCOF seal—and they are delicious. Seven types of bars are available: extra dark, dark, dark with raspberries, dark with coconut, milk chocolate, milk chocolate with macadamia nuts and Hawaiian pink salt, and milk chocolate with hazelnuts.

It’s a good feeling when buying these chocolates to know they are helping to protect the Huichol culture. One result has been the building of a high school so Huichol students don’t have to leave their villages, and support for the first Huichol to go to college—a young woman who is studying law in order to help her tribe protect itself from pressures to give up the traditional ways in favor of joining with mainstream and modern Mexican culture.

To find a store near you that carries Shaman chocolates, visit www.shamanchocolates.com/StatesForStores.html. This site not only will take you to local stores, but has a button that takes you to an online shopping page.

Websites About Organic Food: Eat Green to Eat Clean (6/14/09)

Here are four websites you should know about if you’re interested in the fresh, local, and organic food.

The first is Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org/).
This excellent site lists farms, community support agriculture organizations, farmers’ markets, restaurants, groceries, co-ops, and other sources of organic food near you. It also lists food and farm events nationally, and supports blogs where online communities form around good, fresh, local, seasonal organic food.

The second is the Eat Well Guide (http://www.eatwellguide.org/i.php?pd=Home).
The site will point you to organic farmers within a selected number of miles of your house. You can also search by foodstuff. I searched for organic lettuce and was given two farms within 20 miles of my house that sell organic salad greens.

At the third website, the Food and Water Watch (http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/food/global-grocer),
you can find out where your food is coming from. I put garlic in the site’s search feature and discovered that there was a 318 percent increase in garlic imports from 1993 to 2007. It also told me that less than half the garlic sold in the U.S. is now grown domestically, and that 93 percent of imported garlic comes from China. Yikes!

The fourth website, the Sustainable Table (http://www.sustainabletable.org/home.php),
is chock full of good information about sustainable and organic food, including which foods contain harmful chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and the like. It also links to The Eat Well Guide.

What-or Who-Is Killing Our Honeybees? (6/21/09)

Honeybees not only supply us with honey, but they pollinate our crops - everything from apples to winter squashes. They are an extremely important part of the food chain that leads to human beings, and they have been dying around the world by the billions due to a mysterious killer called, for want of a better name, colony collapse disorder. Up to 70 percent of all beehives in the world have been affected. In France alone, approximately 90 billion bees died over the past 10 years, reducing honey production by 60 percent.

Now a group of German environmentalists and farmers calling themselves the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers has sued Bayer CropScience, a subsidiary of giant Bayer AG (yes, the same company that makes the aspirin) chemical conglomerate. The suit alleges that is Bayer’s pesticides, imidacloprid and clothianidin, that are killing off bees wholesale. The lawsuit notes that colony collapse disorder started occurring about the same time as the Bayer pesticides began to be marketed.

Both pesticides are systemic chemicals used to coat crop seeds. The chemicals work their way from the seed through the whole plant—including its pollen and nectar. They impact the central nervous systems of the insects, which then die. The pesticides not only contaminate the plants grown from treated seed, but enter the environment through rain washing them off the seeds. They persist in the soil and find their way into whatever is growing there, posing widespread danger to honeybees and other insects.

The two insecticides earn Bayer about 800 million Euros a year, and the company is fighting any attempts to prohibit their use. The French, however, have recently banned them, as has Germany. Bayer produced many studies claiming to show that the pesticides are safe and environmentally friendly, but the boards of environmental protection in France and Germany declared them to be flawed. When Bayer applied for a permit to sell the pesticides in Canada, the Canadian Pest

Management Regulatory Agency said, “All of the field and semi-field studies were found to be deficient in design and conduct.”

In the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council recently filed a lawsuit in federal court to force the federal government to disclose studies it ordered on the effect of Bayer’s pesticides on honeybees. The EPA ordered the studies as part of the process for approving Bayer’s registration for the pesticides during the Bush administration. The approval was then granted. The NRDC believes that EPA has evidence of connections between the pesticides and colony collapse disorder, but has not made the studies public. More than a third of all honeybee colonies in the United States have died off since the disorder was identified in 2006.

Organic Food Producers Get a Big Boost from the USDA (6/28/09)

"Organic will be integrated across all agencies at USDA" Deputy U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan told those attending the Third Annual Organic Summit in Stevenson, Washington, two weeks ago.

“Here’s where I’d like to fulfill a promise I made to many of you…and that is, organic should be integrated across all agencies, not just the National Organic Program, but each and every agency at USDA should have some engagement with the organic sector. Organic can no longer be stove-piped at USDA,” she said.

Starting this week (June 14-21), the first-ever wide-scale survey of organic farming in the United States will be launched as the Organic Production Survey. Information from the survey will be used to shape USDA policy and priorities with an eye toward helping small organic producers grow their operations into mid-sized farms and ranches.

Merrigan said that the main thrust now of the National Organic Program will be to rigorously enforce the standards that were drawn up to define organic. “We spent a lot of time developing standards, and now let’s make sure they have the teeth and that they are followed and adhered to,” she said.

How things have changed in 35 years. In the mid-1970s, organic activists at Organic Gardening magazine and Congress developed the National Soil Fertility Program, which aimed to survey all the organic waste in this country that’s dumped into landfills, and how much soil building compost it could make to be returned to the land as fertilizer. A pamphlet about it was given to the state secretaries of agriculture at their yearly meeting in Washington, D.C. Brushing it brusquely aside and refusing to accept the pamphlet was the Texas Secretary of Agriculture who said, “Don’t bother me with that #$&@.”

And one day when I was an editor on the magazine, I stopped to speak with someone at USDA Headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland. The man, an agricultural scientist, showed me into his office, closed the door, and locked it. “Why are you locking the door?” I asked.
“If anyone saw me talking with someone from Organic Gardening magazine,” he said, “I’d get fired.”

How times have changed.

How to Make Apricot-Lemon Preserves (7/5/09)

One of the best things about summer is when the organic apricots appear in the markets. When you find really good looking ones with a blush on their cheeks and a sweet ripeness yet firmness of texture, make this preserve. Apricots have an affinity for lemons that will surprise you. Use them on English muffins oron really good toast. They also make a wonderful sweet-sour glaze for boneless, skinless chicken breasts, for pork chops, and on pastries. Note the recipe calls for several stages over a day or two. It’s worth the time and effort to make a batch—and you can only do it when the best apricots are in season. And that seasonal peak arrives in early July.

5 lbs. unpeeled ripe organic apricots
6 cups sugar
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
6 ½-pint canning jars with lids
Canning pot with rack

1. Pull the apricots apart at their seam line and discard the pits. Place the fruit halves in a bowl with the sugar and stir until well mixed and the sugar has dissolved. Cover the bowl and set it aside for four hours (or place it covered in the fridge overnight).

2. When you’re ready to cook, place a stack of saucers in the freezer, then turn the fruit into a heavy pot and stir in the lemon juice. Set the heat to medium-high, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Cook until the fruit reaches the jelling point. (Drop some of the preserves on a freezing cold saucer. After the drop chills, swipe a finger through it. The finger mark should remain and the surface of the preserves should wrinkle a little. Do this several times as the mixture boils, because if the fruit is overcooked and scorches, it will be too thick and acquire an acrid taste.) As soon as the jelling point is reached, immediately remove the pot from the heat. Turn the contents of the pot into large baking dish, let cool, cover with foil, and refrigerate.

3. The next day, sterilize the jars and lids in boiling water. Return the apricot mixture to the pot and bring the pot to a boil. Remove from the heat and ladle the preserves into the jars, leaving ½ inch head space. Put on the lids and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, making sure the jars don’t touch each other or the bottom of the pot and that there are at least 2 inches of rapidly boiling water above the lids. Makes 6 half-pints.

Have You Seen Food Inc. Yet? (7/12/09)

Folks who eat healthy, clean, and environmentally friendly organic food already know why their food is so good, but other folks may need some convincing. They need to see Food Inc., a new documentary movie about the American food industry by filmmaker Robert Kenner. It will convince them that there’s a good reason why so many people are choosing organic food for the health of their families, for the families of farmers and farm workers, and for the health of the earth itself.

In a recent review of the movie in the June 29, 2009 New Yorker, David Denby called the film, “…an angry blast of disgust aimed at the American food industry…The seemingly vast array of foods in a typical supermarket is not so varied as we might think,” because so much of it is based on cheap, often genetically-engineered corn in its many disguises, like high fructose corn syrup, and because “much of it is produced and controlled by a few enormous food companies that have operated without serious government regulation in recent years.”

It’s about time that a good documentary chronicles the cynical abuses of the food industry, and the terrible effects it has on the health of Americans and the natural ecosystems that operate on planet earth. We’re just now learning that, just as pesticides have had the effect of breeding superbugs that are resistant to ordinary insecticides, and antibiotics are breeding antibiotic-resistant supergerms, so herbicides are breeding herbicide-resistant superweeds out of the common field weeds of North America.

We can see the effects in the obesity that’s around us everywhere, in soaring rates of type 2 diabetes, and in a populace that ranks lowest among first world countries in measures such as infant mortality and rates of some diseases. Some say that America has the best health care in the world. That’s true if you look at medicine practiced on people who are already sick and who can afford such care, but the best health care in the world starts with good, wholesome, healthy, organic food on the plate at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Sick animals—of which you’ll see plenty as Food Inc. explores the horrific way in which farm animals are raised at factory farms—transfer sickness to the people who eat them. Healthy animals, such as those raised organically, transfer that health to the people who eat them or their products like milk and eggs. That’s true health care.

Why Organic Food Is Cheaper in the Long Run (7/19/09)

Yes, organic food costs more to produce. Things on the organic farm tend to be small-scale compared to the farm-by-numbers practices of Big Ag. More passes through the fields on tractors are required for many organic crops. Open-pollinated and non-GMO seeds cost more. Farm animals are raised in humane conditions instead of being herded into small confinements and doused with chemicals. Organic foods aren’t filled with cheap extenders and chemical flavorings that obscure the tasteless creations of industrial food companies. Resources on the organic farm are allotted to the environment as well as to the production of food and fiber. There’s composting to be done—an expense conventional farms don’t have. There are many other reasons why it costs more to produce organic food.

But that’s just looking at the small picture. Is organic food really more expensive when we look at the big picture?

Fifty years ago, people spent about 13 percent of their income on food and about five percent on health care. Today the average American spends about five percent of his or her income on food, but more than 20 percent on health care. Obesity has reached epidemic proportions. It’s estimated that one of three children born today will develop Type 2 diabetes. Why all the obesity and sickness? Blame the lousy food that flows from the industrial food factories. It’s loaded with salt, sugar, and fat. Corn and soybeans dominate as ingredients—and they are genetically altered. Meats are contaminated with antibiotics that have bred MRSA—antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Pesticides and herbicides add to the toxic burden that creates sickness in consumers, in farm workers, and in the land itself.

A diet of organic food, on the other hand, guarantees that the food is raised free from chemical toxins, with no genetic modifications, and that meats are raised humanely without antibiotics and hormones. Organic food tends to be locally produced, which supports local farm communities. It’s cheapest when it’s in season. Healthy farms produce healthy foods which produce healthy people. In addition, there are no costs for rescuing streams and ground waters from toxic contaminants. Soil erosion is reduced because soils are enriched with water-holding, spongy humus that is the product of decayed organic matter.

As more organic food is produced, the price disparity with conventional food narrows. Every dollar spent on organic food is a vote for wise, clean, wholesome farming and for our own health and the health of our families. We may pay a little more at the checkout counter, but we won’t be paying the horrendous social and environmental costs of Big Ag later.

We Didn’t Trust Horizon Milk Anyway (7/26/09)

Horizon bills its milk as organic. It might or might not meet the letter of the law - the USDA’s National Organic Program—but it certainly doesn’t meet the spirit of the organic law.

Horizon, owned by Dean Foods, has always raised large dairy herds under less than adequate conditions for positive health of the animals. And now Dean Foods is setting up a lower-priced product category they’re calling “natural dairy,” which simply means conventional milk and milk products. It will be sold under the corporation’s Horizon label. Dean is doing the same thing with its line of soy milk products called Silk—switching from organic to conventional soybeans.

The result, of course, is that the new “natural” dairy category will compete with its own organic brand, and with other, more legitimate organic brands around the country. Many organic dairy farmers are complaining that they could be ruined by the size and strength of Dean Foods’ marketing clout.

In a related story, it turns out that under the presidency of George W. Bush, the USDA’s National Organic Program, which is the rules for determining whether a food is organic or not, was ignored and sometimes overruled.

The Washington Post recently wrote a scathing indictment of the NOP and its director, Barbara Robinson. She overruled the professional staff at the NOP by allowing synthetic additives to be included in organic baby food after a phone call from a powerful Washington lobbyist. Robinson overruled her staff, which determined that DHA and ARA oils should not be approved, especially for baby food. Hexane, a neurotoxic solvent specifically banned in organic food production, is used to extract the oils from seaweed and soil fungus. That’s just one example.

What can we do as concerned organic-minded individuals to make sure USDA’s National Organic Program keeps the organic laws strictly enforced? One thing is to know what’s happening. The Washington Post story is at:

The next thing is to write to USDA Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1400 Independence Avenue SW, Washington DC 20250 and demand that the National Organic Program be fully implemented so that food and fiber labeled organic are truly organic, and enforced so that those who violate the law are prosecuted.

Tips for Identifying Organic Food at the Farmers’ Market (8/2/09)

Two things you should know when buying food at a farmers’ market. One, are you dealing with an actual farmer who grew the crop or with a purveyor who buys his or her food somewhere else and resells it at the farmers’ market? And two, is the food you’re buying really organic—and how can you know?

The actual farmer will know the variety name of the food—Red Haven peaches, Detroit Dark Red beets, and so on. After all, he or she bought the seed, planted the trees, and chose the varieties. Purveyors may or may not know the variety, usually not. Also, real farmers will have produce that’s not uniform. Some peaches or beets may be runty, or of an odd shape. Big supermarkets don’t want these, but they are just as tasty as the uniform ones, if not moreso.

Purveyors, on the other hand, tend to have fruits and vegetables that have been sorted by the wholesaler and look neatly identical. You won’t find odd-ball varieties, but rather the standard varieties that wholesalers sell to supermarkets. The purveyor will act like a grocer, not a farmer. They usually won’t have any business name displayed, or a business card to offer. If they do have a card, it will say something like, “John Smith, Farm Fresh Produce.” A farmer’s card will usually feature the name of the farm: “Justa Farm, Organic Produce in Season, Paul Harps, Proprietor.” A purveyor can say a crop is organically grown, but that doesn’t prove it’s so. If it is truly organic, the purveyor will have documentation from a certifying agency. He’ll be able to name the certifier and show you the agency’s symbol. He may have the USDA’s green and white organic seal. Beware of purveyors who say, “The crop isn’t certified, but it’s organic.” They may sometimes know the variety of foodstuff they are selling, but they most likely won’t know the cultural details—where and how the crop was grown. The farmers market may be a one-day event for a purveyor who’s ready to move on to greener pastures tomorrow. I’m not saying you have to be paranoid about food fraud, but it pays to be suspicious if food sold as organic by a purveyor who has no documentation. Caveat emptor is always a good policy.

The value of separating the farmers from the purveyors is manifold. First, the farmers can pick their fruits and vegetables when they are at their peak. Vine-ripened berries don’t last long in the supermarket pipeline. They soften when ripe, and tend to disintegrate before they reach the store’s shelves. But a farmer can pick his berries in the evening and have them at the farmers market the next morning. So many fruits develop amazingly delicious qualities only when they are picked ripe, and that goes for everything from avocados to watermelons. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and so Bartlett pears should be purchased when they are still hard and preferably green. If left on the tree, they turn to brown mush from the inside out.

Purveyors, even purveyors of organic produce, must buy the same wholesale fruits and vegetables that go to the organic sections of supermarkets. So their produce is bedeviled by the same problem as the big markets—it has to be picked early to ship well and to get the premium price that the first guy in with the crop can demand. And that means watery avocados, sour kiwifruit, and insipid melons. This problem doesn’t much affect vegetables—they tend to be more delicate and choice when picked on the young side. But it certainly does apply to fruit.

Some of the finest fruits are actually found only at farmers markets, and picked from the wild. Growing up in Pennsylvania’s countryside, I could tell the time of year by the wild fruits that were available. The tiny wild strawberries—each of which had twice the flavor of any large commercial berry—were ready in mid-June. The black raspberries, or black caps as some called them, were invariably ripe on the Fourth of July. Wild huckleberries came into season in mid-July, and about the same time as the wineberries. Wild grapes, Vitis labrusca, get ripe in August, and as boys, we were able to smell them from 100 feet away and climb the trees where they hung in festoons. The only time I’ve ever seen any of these astoundingly delicious fruits for sale has been at roadside stands, farmers markets, or sometimes at farms where the kids have set a few boxes out on a bench by the parking space. Once picked, most won’t keep for more than a day. Picked ripe, they are all incomparable. I’ve grown any number of commercial black raspberries offered in the fruit catalogs, and none of them even come close to the evanescent aroma and flavor of real black raspberries from wild bushes with their dusty violet, prickly stems. And when I was a kid, I could get a pint of black raspberry ice cream that contained—I could tell by the taste—the real thing. But nowadays, you either have to pick them yourself or find them at farmers markets or roadside stands.

How do you tell whether food is organic or not? If it is, the farmer or purveyor will display a sign naming the certifying agency that guarantees it’s organic, such as CCOF in California, Tilth in the Northwest, or NOFA in the Northeast. Beware the purveyor who says it’s organic but has no proof.

You can determine whether the farmer is organic by asking him or her how they handle insect infestations. All farmers have to deal with pests and diseases, but organic farmers have a distinct set of methods to control them without poisons and will generally be happy to discuss the techniques with you. One such method is the use of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a disease that affects only caterpillars. All organic farmers will be aware of it. If your farmer doesn’t know what Bt is, chances are he’s not organic. So ask questions. The answers will tell you straightaway whether the farmer is truly organic.

J.I. Rodale, an Unlikely Organic Guru (8/9/09)

When I joined Rodale Press, as it was called in 1970, as an associate editor of Organic Gardening, J.I. Rodale was still alive. I had gotten to know him years before due to family interconnections with the Rodales. One of his daughters married a good friend of my wife’s sister: that sort of thing—and I admired his clean-looking, well-ordered organic farm (the first one in the whole nation then) near Allentown, Pennsylvania.

I didn’t know at the time that J.I.—for Jerome Irving—was destined to become an iconic figure in the organic movement.

He began “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine in 1943, when the new agricultural wonder drug was DDT and was being spread with abandon on victory gardens and farms across America. He had figured out, through a voracious reading habit, that synthetic chemicals would lead to sickness and disease in the ecology of life. This was 20 years before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and long before ecology even became a subject of study in universities. He saw clearly way back then that the way to farm and garden was to work with nature, not defeat her chemically.

And yet he was an unlikely guy to be such a pioneer. He was brought up in the milieu of New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th Century. He kept his New York-Jewish accent his whole life, and his love of Yiddish theater, too. It was Rodale who suggested to the Manhattan city council that street lights should be timed on the city’s avenues so that someone driving the speed limit would find lights turning green as he or she approached them—a trick used almost everywhere today.

He moved to eastern Pennsylvania to work with his brother developing light switches. But his interest lay in publishing. As his business—Rodale Press—flourished, he handed the light switch business to his brother and built the headquarters for his publishing business a few blocks away. The light switch business turned into Lucent Technologies, a pioneer in mercury switches and a big player in electronics today.

In 1950, he began Prevention magazine, built upon the same premise as Organic Gardening: that the way to health was through proper nourishment, that proper nourishment prevents illness. The motto around Rodale Press was that healthy soil builds healthy plants and animals and that when people eat healthy plants and animals, they stay healthy. Prevention spawned the natural vitamin and nutritional supplement business that is a multi-billion dollar business today. That’s right, before Prevention, it didn’t really exist.

The theme of health continues at Rodale today. It publishes the very popular magazines, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Bicycling, Runner’s World, and so on. You can see the connection.

I worked with J.I. on various projects in my first two years at Rodale Press. By that time, he devoted a lot of his time to writing plays that harkened back to the old Yiddish theater that gave him so much pleasure as a youngster. He even bought his own theater in Greenwich Village and put on his plays there. Critics panned the plays unmercifully, but J.I. kept on writing plays until he died in 1971.

It’s not his plays that he is remembered for. He had a quick, and quixotic, brilliant mind, and he achieved what few people achieve: a transcendent illumination of a truth that the world is still coming to grips with: farming and gardening can be practiced entirely naturally, without synthetic chemicals, if we augment and encourage natural principles—and the results will be improved soils, healthy crops, higher yields of better tasting and more nutritious crops, robust ecologies, and a better, healthier world, including the people in it.

Although he was thought of as a crackpot in his time, he never wavered from his belief. He had been to the mountaintop and been given a glimpse of radiant truth, which he dutifully spread. He has been fully vindicated. He should get a statue on the National Mall.

The Best Organic Tomato Sauce (8/30/09)

Now that the best tomatoes of the year are in the stores and farmers' markets, I have to share this recipe with you, because it has brought much joy to my dinner table and the folks who eat there. It could hardly be simpler—and that is its virtue. I like it with capellini, but it goes equally well over any kind of hot-from-the-pot pasta.

The secret here is that everything should be organic. Before I give you the recipe, here’s an email I received today from a young New Jersey man who understands the value of organic food. He kindly praised my book, “The Organic Cook’s Bible,” but I kindly praise him for turning his family organic. Despite all the disinformation being spread about organics by agribusiness and their flacks, this man has seen through it:

“I am writing this because I want to express my gratitude to you for writing the book, ‘The Organic Cook's Bible’. I feel you have done a great service to me, my wife, and many other cooks throughout the world.

“What I can say about this book is that it's a true eye opener. After considering the Organic Factor in every kind of food, I've been inspired to live my life as organically as possible. For the past few months now, I've been shopping only at organic and natural health food stores, sticking to about 90 percent organic foods. Organic fruits and vegetables certainly have a hundred times more flavor, and grass-fed beef burgers don't make me feel guilty at all.”

Raw and Delicious Organic Tomato Sauce for Pasta

5 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped into lumpy pulp
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons finely chopped basil
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pound cappellini (angel hair) pasta, cooked according to package instructions

Place the tomatoes, shallots, vinegar, salt, and pepper in a bowl and mix well. Set aside for 10 minutes, then put through a large sieve and let drain. Add the drained solids back to the bowl. Add the basil and oil and stir to mix. Serve at room temperature over steaming hot pasta.

“Organic No Healthier Than Conventional” (8/23/09)

Organic food is no more nutritious than conventional. No scientific proof of organic foods’ superiority. Two billion people will starve if the world’s agriculture goes organic. Organic food is dangerous because it fertilizes the soil with manure. And all of it is lies. Outright, bald-faced lies, told by flacks for the agricultural chemical companies.

In researching my book, The Organic Cook’s Bible, I filled a filing cabinet full of scientific papers that showed organic food to be more nutritious. And since the book was published in 2007, there have been many more studies showing the same thing. The United Nations is teaching organic agriculture in Third World countries and saying that organic farming holds promise of avoiding starvation for millions of people. Many studies show that organic farm yields are about the same, if not better, than conventional yields.

So along comes a report by Dr. Alan Dangour, a Registered Public Health Nutritionist, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, that reviewed scientific studies for the past 50 years showing no significant nutritional differences between conventional and organic produce, meat, and milk.

Dr. Dangour, however, only allowed 55 studies to be considered. There were 162 studies in all. When all the studies were taken into account, according to a news story in The Independent, organic produce was frequently higher in nutrients than conventional. For instance, beta carotenes were 53 percent higher and flavonoids 38 percent higher in organic produce.

Peter Melchett of The Soil Association, the UK’s organic group, wrote, “The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and conventional produce.”

Carlo Leifert is professor of ecology at Newcastle University and has been conducting a $17 million EU-funded study into nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods. He attacked the Dangour study. His initial research found that organic milk contained about 60 percent more antioxidants and beneficial fatty acids than conventional milk. Provisional results from the same study suggest that organic wheat, tomatoes, cabbage, onions, and lettuce also had between 10 and 20 percent more vitamins. None of Professor Leifert’s work was included in the Dangour review.

Dr. Dangour looked at studies going back 50 years. Back then there was little research into organic food. Most studies were done at land grant colleges and paid for by agricultural chemical companies. Modern research is showing that organic food is indeed more nutritious than conventional, and yet, the headlines keep appearing. I’ve quoted one as the headline on this report.

A Great Use for Organic Corn (8/16/09)

Sweet, tender, creamy corn is so luscious simply boiled on the cob that it’s hard to believe it could be better. But when someone takes the time to dig a pit in the seashore sand and burn a driftwood fire in it until there’s a bed of red-hot coals, then load in wet seaweed, a few bushels of corn, lobsters, and soft-shelled clams, and top it with more seaweed and wet burlap until the corn and seafood are all roasted and steamed, right there could be your first dinner in paradise.

This staple food has come a long way since a Mexican annual grass called teosinte crossed with another wild grain (scientists don’t know which, and they don’t know precisely when, but it was probably sometime well before 6,000 BCE) and the resulting species began to sport small, ¾-inch heads studded with seeds. The first evidence of cultivation of this plant by Native Americans was discovered in the Tehuacan Valley of Puebla, Mexico, and dates to 5,500 BCE.

By the time Columbus arrived 6,992 years later, the plant had changed into its modern form—dependent for its survival on human hands to pull the seeds off the cobs and plant them individually a foot or so apart. Over that time, the Native Americans learned to boil their corn in water into which they threw wood ashes. Although they were stone age people living without modern science, they knew what was good for them. Today we know that niacin—a necessary vitamin in the human diet—is locked up and unavailable in corn, and societies that depend on corn for the bulk of their protein are liable to develop pellagra, a particularly nasty disease caused by niacin deficiency. Adding ash to cooking water, however, makes the water alkaline and converts the niacin into a form that can be assimilated by humans—a process scientists call nixtamalization. Perhaps Native Americans discovered the secret of unlocking niacin using divination, or a sixth sense, or maybe the way I discovered baby corn—by pure dumb luck.

When I was learning to grow vegetables organically, I planted my first corn crop in soil so poor I had to open up a four-inch- deep channel in the brick-hard earth with a pick. I planted the seeds a foot apart in five rows three feet apart, like the seed packet said, and pretty much forgot about the corn. Later that summer I found spindly little stalks about a foot and a half tall growing among the weeds. They had small, two-inch ears, which I dutifully harvested. I thought they looked like the baby corn that was showing up in Szechuan dishes in New York, so I tasted one—hmm, sweet and tender. So I harvested the bunch of them—got maybe two handfuls from the whole darn patch—and wokked them into a stir fry. That’s how I discovered that Chinese baby corn is just that—immature corn picked very young, and not a separate kind of corn. Later I learned that because corn grows so large so fast, it needs enormously rich soil and plenty of water to produce big, fat ears. Once I provided those conditions, I was swamped with corn.

I also learned that sweet corn is a mutation of Indian or field corn—the starchy corn that’s used mainly for cattle fodder in the United States. A mutant gene slows the conversion of sugar to starch—but only until the ear is picked. As soon as it is picked, the corn begins turning its sugar into starch. For maximum sweetness, then, you have to get the corn to the pot of boiling water immediately. (Don’t add salt to the water, it toughens the kernels’ seed coats and makes them chewy.) Corn breeders worked on this phenomenon and came up with corn that contains the so-called “sugary enhanced” gene, which produces added sugar in the kernel. We’re not talking genetic engineering here, but just regular, old-fashioned sexual reproduction and the careful selection of superior resulting strains. Genetic engineering involves opening up the DNA inside of genes and adding genetic sequences from other organisms that perform certain functions, or fail to perform them, or prevent their performance. Eventually—and I remember the day in the late 1970s when the delivery man brought a trial box of ‘How Sweet It Is’ into the office of Organic Gardening—breeders found corn with the so-called shrunken gene (sh2), which slowed the conversion of sugar to starch so completely that this Xtra Sweet corn, as it’s known, will stay sweet for two weeks after it’s picked.

I’ll say this for Xtra Sweet corn—it’s really sweet. So sweet that some people find it cloying. I’m on the edge: if it’s fresh-picked, fine. Then it’s poppy and juicy and sweet. But don’t let it sit for two weeks. It’ll still be sweet, but it will also have lost many of the goodies and enzymes that make fresh corn taste so good. Treat it like any other corn, which means eat it as soon as possible.

Corn laid out for sale should be iced down in summer heat. I remember the sweet corn vendors coming to Pennsylvania from southern New Jersey, the back of their trucks loaded with sweet corn in their husks over which ice was poured. Cold water ran in rivulets from the bottoms of their flatbeds. The corn—usually ‘Luther Hill’ or ‘Silver Queen’—was picked that morning and perfect. You could tell because the cut ends were still green or whitish green, and juicy-crisp when nicked with the thumbnail. When corn gets old, the cut ends are white and fibrous looking, and feel dry when nicked. When really old, they’re brown. Nobody ever thought of stripping the husks open to inspect each ear of corn the way people do here in California. It astounded me when I moved to this state to see shoppers standing by a mound of sweet corn in its husks, pulling down the husks from ear after ear, tossing ones they didn’t like back on the pile for later poor suckers to buy, I suppose. If I were the store manager, I’d toss these people out of the store on their ears. You can feel through the husks when an ear is full and fat and when it’s not. You can pull open just the top of maybe an ear or two and give it the fingernail test: if the kernel expresses clear juice when it’s pressed open with a thumbnail, it’s too young. If it expresses a milky fluid, it’s just right. If the kernel is dry and doughy, it’s too old. But maybe, just maybe, these people are looking for corn earworms!

Corn earworms are those fat gray grubs that chew into the kernels at the tips of the ears. If the earworms have been there for a while, they can chew their way down toward the mid-length of the ears, but that’s rare. Despite their rather grubby appearance, and the trail of frass (earworm poop) they leave in their wake, earworms are natural. If the choice is between pesticides and earworms, I’ll take earworms any day. Usually they are just in the tips of the ears and the tips can be broken or cut off easily and discarded, earworm and all (though I admit a pang of sorrow for the comfy earworm, lodged in her delicious home, having to go live in a dark garbage bag which will eventually be twist-tied up and sent to the dump).

However, the presence of earworms does not necessarily mean that the corn is organic. You can spray the heck out of corn with pesticides, but the poisons won’t reach down into the ears under the tight husks to kill the earworms. Earworms are really a sign of poor field management. If corn is grown in the same field year after year, the earworm populations will build up and up. A good organic farmer will never grow corn in the same field year after year. His or her corn will be relatively earworm free because of good management. And more nutritious, too. Tests by the University of California showed that organic corn contained 54 percent more bioflavonids, a cancer-preventing antioxidant) than the same crop grown with chemicals. The presence of earworms is a minor inconvenience, says nothing about organic versus conventional farming practices, and simply means that the farmers aren’t rotating their crops. No big deal.

If finding an earworm bums you out, think of all the things that corn gives us. Bourbon! My folks are from Kentucky, “where the corn is full of kernels and the colonels are full of corn.” But also tortillas, tamales, scrapple (a Pennsylvania Dutch pudding made of corn meal and ground waste parts of pigs that is sliced and fried in lard; if you’ve never had scrapple, count yourself lucky), corn syrup, popcorn, hominy grits, polenta, hush puppies, corn pone, corn bread, hoe cakes, johnny cakes, bannocks, spoon bread, and--hallelujah!--corn smut, a fungus that invades corn and looks like the growth of a gray and blackish-purple alien creature on the corn ear, but which is a delicacy called huitlacoche in Mexico, where it’s steamed or fried.

Corn has many culinary affinities, among them bacon, butter, cayenne, cheese, lemon, lime, onions, black pepper, and salt. In fact, it is, along with beans, a vegetable shmoo. For those too young to remember, the shmoo was an animal invented by the cartoonist Al Capp, who drew L’il Abner for many years. The shmoo gave eggs, tasted like ham, and loved to be kicked. I don’t know about kicking corn, but in every other way, it’s as versatile and delicious a vegetable and grain as we have.

Here’s a recipe for a fabulous corn dish called humita. I first ran into humita at a restaurant called Grandma’s House near Mendoza, Argentina, and was delighted at its richness and delicate flavors. In subsequent days eating at a variety of restaurants, I saw that humita—a mild and tender preparation made with freshly grated corn kernels--is a national dish in Argentina, often accompanying great portions of grilled beef.

Under different names, humita is known throughout the Americas, especially Spanish America. A sweetened version is preferred in the northwestern parts of Argentina and is made with cheese, onions, lard, and sugar, and is spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, or anise. But the following is my favorite.

4 cups freshly grated corn kernels (about a dozen ears)
¼ cup olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 sweet pepper, chopped
1 tomato, peeled, seeded, chopped
1 Tbl. paprika
1 cup milk
1 Tbl. cornstarch
2 Tbl. sugar
14 oz. jack cheese, cubed or in strips
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. brown sugar
Salt to taste

Cut kernels off cobs. Squeeze remaining corn milk out of cobs with the back of a knife. Or slice down through the rows of kernels of a few of the ears with a sharp knife and then scrape out the milk and flesh with the back of a knife. Place this in a blender and whiz to a grainy consistency, not a fine puree. Heat oil to medium and make a sauce with the onion, sweet pepper, tomato, and paprika. When the vegetables are tender, add grated corn and the cup of milk in which the cornstarch has been dissolved. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for about five minutes until mixture has slightly thickened. Season with salt to taste. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, and brown sugar. Oil a casserole dish, pour in the humita, cover with cubed cheese, and sprinkle a little brown sugar and a shake of cinnamon over the cheese. Bake in a 325 F. oven for about one hour, or until cheese on top begins to brown and humita is tender and fluffed up. Serve hot.

4 cups grated organic corn kernels (reserve corn husks)
¼ cup olive oil
1 large onion chopped
1 tsp. or less ground cumin
1 tsp. anise seeds
1 cup milk
1 Tbl. cornstarch
2 Tbl. brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

Reserve inner, soft husks. Remove all silks from ears and husks. Place husks in a deep pot with 1 tsp. salt, and cover with boiling water. Parboil for three minutes. Take the pot off the heat drain the husks. Grate corn kernels as in recipe one. Heat oil and fry onion for about two minutes, or until clear and softened. Add cumin, anise seeds, grated corn, and milk with dissolved cornstarch in it. Bring to a boil and simmer gently until mixture thickens, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Remove from the fire, stir in brown sugar, salt, and pepper. Butter or oil a casserole with a cover and carefully line it all the way around inside with parboiled husks, first the sides and then the bottom. Use scissors to trim husks for the bottom to the casserole’s dimension. Husks on the sides must be placed with pointed ends upwards, so they can later be folded over the top of the casserole. Pour half-cooked humita into the husk-lined casserole, fold over the pointed husk ends and cover with additional husks. Place a heavy cover on the casserole and bake in a 300 F. oven for about 1½ hours, until humita is tender and fluffed up. For maximum drama and fun, serve covered hot from the oven to the table. With diners watching, remove the cover and husks that were placed on top, opening up the folded-in husks lining the casserole sides, using a large spoon. The corn husks (chalas in Argentina) enhance the fresh corn aroma of the humita. Even though they are not edible, they are the main seasoning for this very special dish. Serves 4.

Hooray for Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times (9/13/09)

Sometimes a writer fashions a thought that has escaped everyone else for years and years, putting a problem so succinctly and trenchantly that it’s awe-inspiring.

New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof did that on the paper’s op-ed page on August 23, 2009. Here’s his lead paragraph: “Yamhill, Ore.—On a summer visit back to the farm here where I grew up, I think I figured out the central problem with modern industrial agriculture. It’s not just that it produces unhealthy food, mishandles waste, and overuses antibiotics in ways that harm us all. More fundamentally, it has no soul.”

Kristof recounts the kind of soulful farming that went on at his family’s farm in the Willamette Valley and contrasts it with conventional “modern” farming methods. He finishes by admitting that he’s “wistful for a healthy rural America composed of diverse family farms that offer decent and varied lives for the farm animals themselves…In contrast, a modern industrialized operation is a different world: more than 100,000 hens in cages, their beaks removed, without a rooster, without geese or other animals, spewing out pollution and ending up as so-called food—a calorie factory, without any soul.”

Essayist and farmer Wendell Berry has touched on these themes, as has writer and farmer Gene Logsdon, both of whom I count as friends. I’m sure we would all agree with Kristof that farming without soul produces food without soul, and that food impoverishes us in ways we can scarcely imagine. Just think—every dollar spent on factory chicken, such as purveyed by Colonel Sanders or in the meat cases of supermarket America, is a vote for inhumane conditions where chickens spend a hellish existence for a few short weeks until they are slaughtered and put out of their misery.

Now consider organic farming. If any form of food production can be said to have soul, it’s organic farming. Animals are cared for. Insects aren’t considered “the enemy.” The whole farm is thought of as a living system, and the farmer’s job is to protect its health and increase its welfare. It enriches the soil as the soil is farmed, rather than depleting it. It protects all the life on the farm, from the tiniest microorganism in the soil to the biggest bull in the pasture. Someone once said that the best crop of an organic farm is the people who grow up there. Yes. They have soul, as Nicolas Kristof has so insightfully put it.

Be Careful with Sun Tea (9/6/09)

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a biology class taught by Mr. Weaver. He had one of the students go to a nearby field and cut a swath of weeds and hay and bring it back to class. We put this bunch of field hay into a large jar and filled the jar with water. It sat on the windowsill in the classroom for a while, and after a number of days, we put drops of this water on slides and put them under the powerful microscopes our lab was equipped with.

A wonderful world appeared in the eyepieces. There were all sorts of fascinating minuscule critters in that drop of water. I remember rotifers, little creatures with wheel-like mouthparts that moved in waves, bringing detritus into their maws. There were parameciums (paramecii?), one-celled creatures that were basically a mouth and a gut and an anus. And amoebas, too, little blobs of protoplasm that squinched and squelched their way through the liquid. The “hay infusion,” as Mr. Weaver called it, was crawling with life, some of which, he said, would make us very sick if we ingested it.

Which brings us to sun tea. To make sun tea, you take the herbs or teas you wish to make tea from, put them in a jar of water, and set the jar in the sun for—some say a few hours, some say a few days. Since the water and the herbal “hay” aren’t sterilized, I say that the paramecii, amoebas, and rotifers, along with a host of other microorganisms and one-celled critters designed to give you the runs, start growing as soon as conditions are right. And the right conditions would be the herbs in water in the sun.

So I’d recommend that if you want to make sun tea, make it strong by using a lot of herbs, leave it in the sun for no more than two hours, strain it and put it into glass containers with closed lids, and put it in the fridge right away. Use it up within a few days. From what I saw through the eyepiece of that microscope all those years ago, you do not want to send those critters down your gullet and into the nice, healthy ecosystem of beneficial bacteria in your gut.

Herbicides in Your Drinking Water (9/27/09)

So even if you eat organic food exclusively, chances are you are getting a hefty dose of herbicides in your drinking water. In the August 23, 2009, issue of The New York Times, Charles Duhigg wrote an article entitled, “Debating How Much Weed Killer is Safe in Your Water Glass.” Here are his first few paragraphs:

“For decades, farmers, lawn care workers, and professional green thumbs have relied on the popular weed killer atrazine to protect their crops, golf courses, and manicured lawns. (Atrazine is manufactured by Novartis, a subsidiary of Ciba-Geigy and Sandoz drug companies.)

“But atrazine often washes into water supplies and has become among the most common contaminants in American reservoirs and other sources of drinking water.

Now, new research suggests that atrazine may be dangerous at lower concentrations than previously thought. Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights, and menstrual problems.”

The article shows that in some areas of the United States, up to 70 percent of the population is exposed to high levels of the weed killer in its drinking water, and that at certain times of the year when herbicides are being applied to cropland, concentrations in drinking water spike 300 times higher than levels that Purdue University researchers think produces low birth weights among newborn babies.

But the problem may not be limited to atrazine. Roundup, made by Monsanto, contains the weed killer glyphosate, which is said to be less toxic than atrazine. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Far from it. Roundup is 41 percent glyphosate herbicide and 15 percent “inert ingredient,” identified as polyoxyethylene amine (POEA) that acts like a detergent to allow the glyphosate to penetrate the waxy surfaces of leaves more easily. Japanese physicians investigating 56 cases of Roundup poisoning found that POEA is three times more lethal than glyphosate, according to the British medical journal Lancet (2/6/88).

What’s an organic-minded person to do?

I can only tell you what I’ve done. I purchased a water filtration system called Aquasana. The double filter cartridges fit into a case that’s mounted under my kitchen sink. There’s a spigot that delivers the filtered water right next to the main spigot of the kitchen sink. I’ve signed up to have fresh cartridges delivered to my home every six months, so the water is always pure. It works like a charm. Set a glass of regular city water next to a glass of Aquasana and the difference is amazing. The Aquasana water tastes clean and pure. I keep a bottle of it in the fridge at all times, and enjoy drinking it throughout the day whenever I’m thirsty.

If this sounds like an endorsement, it certainly is. It turns out that Aquasana is the cheapest of all the in-home filtration systems on the market and, according to Consumer Reports, does the best job. I’m thrilled to have really good water that tastes like pure, fresh spring water, available in my kitchen at all times. If water is going to go down my throat, it will have come through the Aquasana system.

I have no interest in Aquasana other than pure water. I don’t own stock in the company—I don’t even know if it’s traded on the stock exchange. I don’t know anyone associated with the company. I was looking for a water filtration system just to make sure I wasn’t poisoning myself with atrazine, glyphosate, and other agricultural chemicals and industrial nasties, when I ran across the information in Consumer Reports.

According to the CU article and the company’s literature, Aquasana filters out chlorine, lead, VOCs (volatile organic chemicals, including herbicides and pesticides), THMs (trihalomethanes), cryptosporidium, giardia, and MTBEs, among other harmful microbes, parasites, and chemical substances. Its patented process leaves in natural minerals for the healthiest, best tasting water possible.

If you want to augment your commitment to organic foods with a source of really good-tasting, clean water at far less cost than buying bottled water, visit www.aquasana.com. See for yourself.

Is an Apple Just an Apple? (9/20/09)

In the spring of 1838, Mrs. Richard Cox, the wife of an English minister, walked out her back door and encountered her apple tree in full and glorious bloom. She watched a honeybee working one of the apple blossoms, and was struck by the beauty of God’s and nature’s ways. On a whim, she tied a piece of yarn to the spur where the blossom was.

Months later, she found that the blossom had been pollinated and there hung an apple where her yarn was tied. When it was ripe, she opened the apple and extracted five seeds that were inside.

Anyone who knows much about apple culture knows that apples don’t come true to seed. That is, if you plant an apple seed, you don’t get the kind of tree that the seed came from, but rather a chance group of apple genes that mostly produce little, sour, worthless apples.

Mrs. Cox grew out her seeds. Four of them grew into trees that bore little, sour, worthless apples. But the fifth was a revelation! It was the most delicious apple she’d ever tasted. It was the first Cox’s Orange Pippin, and within 20 years was the most popular, sought after, and cherished apple in England, and remains, to this day, one of the world’s most superior apples.

Which goes to show that by remaining open to nature, by following our feelings, and by being close to nature, amazing things can happen. This is one of the secrets of organic gardening and farming. Conventional, industrial agriculture has no time for such nonsense. The land and its creatures, plant and animal, are treated ruthlessly, with one eye on the bottom line and the other eye on the bottom line, too. There is certainly no room for the kind of apotheosis that Mrs. Cox experienced all those years ago.

But farmers and gardeners who grow organically cultivate connections with the soil and its plants, with nature and its animals, that can allow insights to break through. Although he pre-dated the development of organic agriculture, Luther Burbank (1849-1926) was that kind of farmer. There are stories of Burbank on his knees, promising his blackberries and prickly pear cactuses that he would let no harm come to them if they’d drop their thorns and spines. And Burbank did indeed introduce the first thornless blackberries and spineless cacti, which are still sold to this day. In fact, the country’s most popular plum, the Santa Rosa plum, is named for the California town where Burbank lived and worked. He developed this fabulously delicious fruit by crossing Japanese plums with other types, and, it’s reported, asking the plants to produce a fruit they’d be proud of.

Think of that the next time you are tempted to buy some product of soulless conventional agriculture. All plants and animals are fellow creatures on this planet. When they are treated properly—raised organically—they may respond with flavors, fragrances, and nutrition beyond our expectations.

What Are College Kids Drinking? Organic Coffee! (10/4/09)

“Singing glorious, glorious, one keg of beer for the four of us. Thanks be to God that there are no more of us, for one of could drink it all alone—damn beer!” That was the refrain at Collegiate Beerfest, also known as my college days, but now it seems that the drink of choice is coffee. And good for college kids, because the casual cup of coffee is no longer casual.

Coffee is the world’s most popular beverage (after water), with an estimated 400 billion cups consumed worldwide every year. Over $10 billion in coffee was traded worldwide in 2000—an amount of trade surpassed only by petroleum. I don’t know about you, but I start my day with a freshly-brewed cup—organic, of course.

The best thing about coffee is the smell of the roasted beans. It’s seductive, enticing, alluring—promising a paroxysm of fulfillment of the sense of taste. But the flavor seldom delivers on the rich promise of the aroma. I have had, on three occasions that I remember, a cup of coffee that has delivered, but I can count those cups on the fingers of one hand. I remember my first—like one always remembers a first love. I was just 17, and it was a cup of a brand called La Touraine, made of coffee with an admixture of roasted chicory root, New Orleans style, brewed in a large samovar-like contraption. I tried many blends of coffee and chicory after that, trying to replicate the experience, but it has eluded me to this day. My second coffee apotheosis was a particularly memorable cup of A&P Eight O’Clock that I had in the kitchen of a friend in New Jersey one egg-yolk-sunny morning when I was 28, sitting at a well-worn card table. I cupped the mug in my hands to accept its warmth and plunged into its mysterious, burnished, dark and chocolatey interior, amazed at the complexity and generosity of the flavor. Subsequent cups of Eight O’Clock at all other venues were disappointingly ordinary. The third—and last perfect cup that I remember—was delivered to my table at the end of a great dinner at Stevenswood Lodge along the cool, foggy coast of Mendocino County, California. I wasn’t expecting such perfection, but there it was. I said to my wife Susanna, “Damn—that’s a great cup of coffee!” Let’s see—if I’ve had a cup of coffee to start my day since I was about 15, that makes 17,500 cups of coffee. Three memorable cups out of 17,500 is a winning percentage of 0.00017. And yet I soldier on, knowing there’s a perfect cup awaiting somewhere. I suspect my experience is not that unusual. Or maybe I’m just fanatically picky.

The highest grade of coffee is Coffea arabica, usually called just arabica. Today the market is being flooded with lower quality Coffea canephora, also called robusta, mostly from Vietnam and Brazil. This is causing immense social disruption in coffee-growing countries.

Truly good coffee should meet certain requirements. It should be grown at high elevations (mountain grown) and be specialty grade arabica. However, as with wine, you can have an award winning coffee from a plantation one year and the next it will be unremarkable. The best bet is to find a company whose product you know, like, and trust is truly organic, shade-grown, and high-grade arabica, and stick with them until you find something even more to your taste.

Coffee should be stored away from light or in a light barrier bag in a cool dry place (not the refrigerator). It should be frozen only if you are going to store it for longer than a month. Freezing will change the cell structure of the coffee bean and also change the way it grinds.

The following is a letter I received from Randy Wirth, co-owner and head roaster of the Caffe Ibis Coffee Roasting Company of Logan, Utah:
Caffe Ibis is a 26-year-old custom roasting house with a focus on triple certified coffees from around the world. We have a selection of 25 coffees that meet all three of the following critieria:

If you want to find out more about specialty coffee and some of the important issues today, you can visit the following sites:
--www.scaa.org (Specialty Coffee Association of America)
--www.transfairusa.org or www.fairtradecoffee.org
--www.natzoo.si.edu/smbc (National Zoo and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center)

Randy’s intrguing letter sparked further research on my part. I discovered that when organically grown within the shade of a rain forest, coffee trees don’t need the agricultural chemical fertilizers and insecticides required by full-sun, monoculture coffee plantations. Mammals, insects, fungus, and other life forms in the rain forest create a healthy biodiversity that eliminates the need for pesticides and other lethal agricultural chemicals in coffee production. But there’s more. The great diversity of life in the rain forest includes migratory birds that summer in the United States and Canada, and winter in the American tropics. Populations of migratory birds that use the Central and South American rain forests as winter grounds are being seriously depleted by clear-cutting for, among other reasons, full-sun coffee plantations. The National Zoo and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center encourage us to drink “bird-friendly coffee.”

A healthy, biodiverse ecosystem that includes coffee trees protects not only migratory birds, but the entire ecosystem of plants, animals, and even the fertility of the soil and integrity of water supplies. In the tropics, nutrients don’t build up in the soil the way they do in cold winter regions. If a leaf falls to the ground, it’s soon dismantled by creatures like microorganisms and worms and its nutrients sucked up by plant roots and used to build trees, vines, and other life forms. Everything is upstairs. When a rain forest is clear-cut, almost all the nutrients in the system are thus removed. If the land is replanted entirely to coffee trees, it becomes a monoculture of one plant species, unable to provide for the great diversity of life of which rain forests are capable. Nutrients must be supplied in the form of chemical fertilizers. Because the natural enemies of the coffee pests have been destroyed with the rain forest canopy, the pests are free to multiply in plantations consisting entirely of their favorite food, and so pesticides need to be applied and reapplied. Because the shading, sheltering canopy has been removed, groundwater supplies dry up. Nutritionless soil with hardly any organic matter becomes exposed to tropical sunlight and laterizes—a soil scientist’s term for “turns to stone.” When you choose triple certified shade grown coffee, you’re protecting a valuable ecosystem, including the human beings who live in it and from it.

The world coffee market is now being flooded with cheap, inferior coffee grown in such full-sun plantations around the world, especially Vietnam. Prices for this coffee are so low that many coffee farmers receive less than the cost of production for their beans, which drives them off the land. The land may then be bought by corporations that clear-cut in order to plant full sun coffee. Transfair attempts to pay enough to keep indigenous coffee farmers on the land so they can grow their coffee under the rain forest canopy. While this helps, too many coffee farmers are seeing their incomes shrink and life becoming more untenable. Even during the good years, when crops do well and prices are high, growing coffee provides barely enough income to sustain a family. In bad years, things grow desperate. That’s where Bill Fishbein, founder of Coffee Kids in 1988, stepped in to help. Coffee Kids, based in Santa Fe, is an international non-profit organization established to improve the quality of life for children and families who live in coffee-growing communities around the world. Coffee Kids helps these families liberate themselves from economic dependence on the coffee crop by providing income-generating alternatives. For more information about this worthwhile organization, visit www.coffeekids.org.

More and more organically-minded coffee businesses in the United States are trying to help desperately poor coffee farmers. Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers of Portland, OR, works directly with family-owned coffee farms in Central America to insure they can uphold stringent standards to produce premium-quality coffees for which they are paid premium prices. Allegro Coffee Company of Thornton, CO, outside of Denver, a subsidiary of Whole Foods Market, forges relationships with its growers, assuring them of a fair price, requiring that they use sustainable and traditional coffee growing techniques, and bringing members of coffee co-op farms and family farms to Denver from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, even India, so they can see how their coffees are roasted and marketed. The JBR Coffee Company of San Leandro, CA, has developed a program called “Source Aid” to help organic coffee growers in Central America through the efforts of its green bean buyer, Pete Rogers. To find out more, visit http://www.naturefriendly.org. Another eco-friendly and farmer-supportive company that sells 100 percent shade-grown, organic arabica is Rapunzel. Visit http://rapunzel.com/products/coffee.html. I guarantee that a trip through these websites will be an eye-opener regarding our daily cup of coffee.

It’s often said that when we buy organic products, we are voting for a clean, environmentally-safe agriculture with our dollars. In the case of coffee, we are also voting to help the impoverished families who grow this beverage in some of the most economically-deprived places on earth.

The Specialty Coffee Association of America gives the following advice for brewing the perfect cup of coffee:
For every ½ gallon (64 fluid ounces), 3.25 to 4.25 ounces of coffee should be used, depending on your taste. If too little is used the coffee will be weak or watery. Too much and the coffee is too strong and may be bitter. For the best extraction results (how much actual coffee flavor material is in the cup), the brewing temperature--the temperature of the water as it passes through the coffee--should be between 92°C and 96°C. If the water is not hot enough, too little flavoring material is extracted. If it is too hot, the extra molecular activity of the water decreases the extraction process and the coffee is also too weak. This temperature range is achieved if the water is simmering, just short of a full rolling boil.
Brewing time: from the time the water first makes contact with the coffee to the end of the brewing period, the SCAA standards for drip grind are four to six minutes; for regular grind, six to eight minutes, and for fine grind, four minutes. The finer the grind, the more particle surface area is in contact with the water. The more area that’s in contact, the quicker the extraction process.

If coffee is held on a heat source, the proteins in it begin to break down and the beverage deteriorates and becomes bitter and harsh. Storing brewed coffee in a closed, insulated container like a Thermos at 80°C to 85°C is best for maintaining the freshness of the coffee.

Why ‘Organic’ Means More Than Food (10/11/09)

The concept of “organic” started with the perception that modern agriculture is a destructive process. It’s a deadly one. Just look at what we call the chemicals that enable industrial agriculture: pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, where the suffix “~cides” has the same meaning as in the words homicide and suicide.

Industrial agriculture leads to soil erosion and eventually soil ruin. It produces unhealthy food. It has no respect for life (see beef feedlots, chicken factories, etc.). It fouls the earth, the air, and the waterways of the earth. It concentrates power and money in the hands of greedy industrialists. In essence it leads to sickness—sickness from the ground up, sickness of the plants and animals that feed off industrial agriculture, and that includes us.

The organic idea is to try to understand nature’s laws, rules, energies, and tendencies and try to work with them instead of against them to grow our crops and food animals. And sure enough, organic agriculture pays off in a cleaner environment, in rebuilding depleted soils and staving off soil erosion, in more humane treatment of animals, in more nutritious food, and in diverting money from the agribusiness industrialists.

But that’s just agriculture. The fundamental organic insight—that we get better results when we work with nature rather than against her—is applicable in many other kinds of human endeavor, environmentalism and ecological preservation among them. Enhancing nature’s laws, rules, energies, and tendencies produces a confluence of benefits—we get the desired result but also a lot of unforeseen benefits--whereas working against nature produces a confluence of detriments. We may get our one desired result, but also a lot of unforeseen bad things happen. For instance, using a pesticide may indeed kill off almost all of the pests that are ravaging our crop, but there always a few of the insects that are immune to its effects. These breed and suddenly a whole race of pesticide-resistant insects is back attacking our crop worse than before. Not only that, but we’ve killed off all the beneficial insects that might help control the pests, because beneficials—those insects that eat other insects--are much more susceptible to pesticides than plant-eating insects.

The organic idea was a paradigm shift. But a new paradigm shift looms on the horizon, one that springs from the local food movement that argues that we should eat food produced within our local foodshed. A local or regional foodshed is defined various ways -- a simple 100-mile radius, for example, is often used in “eat local” campaigns. One of the qualities of a local foodshed is that the agriculture is sustainable—that is, it can be farmed in perpetuity because the methods used don’t destroy as they farm, rather they restore nutrients to the land, protect the water, and fit the yields of foods grown on the land to what can be sustained. Organic farming is a good example of a sustainable agriculture.

The new paradigm shift that’s slowly arriving goes beyond organic agriculture and beyond agriculture altogether. The best description of the approaching paradigm shift that I’ve encountered is contained in a book called The Vegetarian Myth, written by Lierre Keith. The book is brilliant and extremely radical. And by radical I don’t mean angry, violent, or anarchistic. I mean it gets to the root of the problem with the way we human beings feed ourselves. The problem is, she says, agriculture itself. That is, the tearing open of the earth for the wholesale planting of seeds. This discovery, some nine or 10 thousand years ago, has led us to the sorry state we find ourselves in today: militarism, nuclear weapons, global warming, environmental degradation, mass starvation, and all the other ills of modern times.

Her answer is to let the earth have its way, as it did for the millions of years before agriculture arrived. Let climax ecologies rebuild themselves. Let us find our food from amid the fecund mix of plants and animals that form local ecologies, as our ancestors did from time immemorial until the dawn of agriculture.

Pie in the sky? Sure. Radical? Very. Is the genie of agriculture out of the bottle permanently? Probably. Could the earth sustain the current six billion people if we returned to hunting and gathering? No. Could we reduce the earth’s population of humans to a level consistent with sustainability? Yes—through attrition and birth control. Would it mean paradise regained? Of a sort, yes. Our hunting-gathering ancestors had their problems, but a fouled, dying earth wasn’t one of them. Many studies of the bones of early man show that he and she were generally very healthy people, as are modern indigenous peoples eating what they hunt and gather.

Should we start thinking about ways to heal the earth and live sustainably on what she can feed us? Sure. Why not? One way to start is by reading Keith’s brilliant book, The Vegetarian Myth.

Does Organic Food Really Taste Better? (10/18/09)

Yes, organic food generally tastes better than the same foods grown conventionally. You can find a ton of studies that show that organic food either doesn’t taste as good, or is no better tasting than conventional foods. But in well-designed studies, such as Washington State University’s recent test on strawberries, organic foods consistently win the test. Apples are the most frequently tested food for their taste qualities, and again, in the best designed studies, organic consistently is found to taste better. To see these studies yourself, simply Google the question that headlines this essay. I’m not going to bore you with summaries of the tests in this space.

What I am going to do is give you some of the reasons why organic food tastes better than conventionally grown food.

First and foremost, organic food is grown in soil enriched with compost, which itself is a mixture of decaying plant matter and animal manures that have thoroughly decomposed into sweet-smelling and harmless fertilizer. This organic fertilizer contains good stores of the major plant nutrients—potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen—plus all the trace elements contained in the materials it’s made from. These include zinc, magnesium, manganese, sulfur, molybdenum, selenium, and many others. In other words, organic fertilizer contains the full range of plant nutrients in the form plants like and in the proper amounts for optimum plant health. When the apple tree grows its apples, it has all the little trace elements on hand with which to build flavor compounds. And that holds true for all crops, including vegetables and the animals that eat those vegetables. And so our eggs, meat, and milk also are crafted from the full range of nutrients. In addition, compost returns organic matter to the soil, causing a bloom of healthful soil bacteria and other microorganisms that help feed the plants.

Conventional agriculture, on the other hand, fertilizes with just three nutrients—potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen—and these in soluble chemical form that pollutes ground water. There’s no organic matter to build a rich, spongy soil, and so conventional plowing exposes the soil to erosion. Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides kill off many of the beneficial microorganisms in the soil. Crops, and the animals that eat those crops, are thus deprived of the full range of nutrients that plants need to produce really rich-tasting food.

Another reason why organic food tastes better is that organic farmers keep yields at a sustainable level rather than forcing every last pound of vegetable matter from the soil. This makes for more concentrated flavors in the organic food. Scientific studies have shown that organic food is higher in anti-oxidants, which are not only beneficial for our health, but protect the fragile molecules of taste and fragrance in the food.

Organic farmers are more likely to choose varieties of foods that are known to taste better, while conventional farmers tend to choose varieties of crops that yield the most. For these and many other reasons, organic foods do generally taste better.

I recently saw Penn and Teller’s program, Bullshit, on cable TV. For this episode, they “debunked” organic food and invited “scientific experts” to tell why organic food simply costs more, doesn’t taste any better, and in fact is dangerous for your health. Because of my long years of research into the subject, I recognized the so-called experts for who they really were: flacks for the agribusiness industry and chemical manufacturers.

In one segment shot at a farmers’ market, passersby were asked to sample two unlabeled food items and say which they thought tasted better. Everyone they used in the program chose the food that was revealed to be conventional. Could they simply have not used the footage of people who thought the organic food tasted better? Or could they have simply lied and said that the organic items were conventional?

Wait, what is the name of their program again?

Toward an Organic Utopia (10/25/09)

So. Where are we really going with environmentalism, with organic agriculture, with our green ideas? What’s the goal? What will the world look like, be like, and what will our lives be like if we get what we want and achieve the world we’re striving for?

First, we have to realize that green living, alternative energy, organic farming, and environmental protection are short-term goals. They are steps on the way, but they aren’t the ultimate goal.

Simply put, the ultimate goal is an earth in balance.

We have far too many people on the planet now, and we are wrecking the place. That doesn’t mean we need to immediately kill off excess human beings. Populations can be reduced over time through attrition and education, plus intelligent birth control. But we do need to ask ourselves, what is the optimum human population of the earth? That is, what number of people represents a population that can live from the natural bounty that the earth produces, without agriculture?

For the earth is fecund and produces a natural bounty of food if nature is allowed to reach an ecological climax state. When I was a young teenager, my friend Ditty and I wandered the hills and forests of eastern Pennsylvania and we were never hungry. We found food everywhere—in the streams, in the trees, buried in the earth, hanging ripe and sweet from wild brambles, dropping from shrubs, hanging in low clusters from little strawberry plants.

Among the trees in the forest are many that produce high quality protein: beech, hickory, pecan, pinyon pine, chestnut, hazelnut, and more. Yes, chestnut. The American chestnut, once the dominant tree in the eastern hardwood forests, is making a comeback since scientists have back-crossed it to resist the chestnut blight that killed these magnificent trees in the early 20th Century.

Are we talking about returning to a hunting-gathering society such as existed before the agricultural revolution? Is there something wrong with agriculture?

Yes, there is. Once people started farming, the land became “theirs.” And once the land was someone’s property, it had to be defended. Hunting and gathering societies tend to think of the land as the property of life as a whole— humans, animals, plants. That doesn’t mean there weren’t warlike societies among hunter-gatherers. But carnage was rare and certainly there were no high tech world wars.

This is pie in the sky, isn’t it? Maybe. But humans lived this way for more than a hundred thousand years before modern civilization occurred, with its wars, rat-races, diseases, and barren cityscapes. Examination of the fossil bones of our hunter-gatherer ancestors show a robust people, devoid of most of the diseases of civilization: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, even tooth decay.

When the pilgrims landed in what is now Massachusetts, they were a scurvy lot of disease-ridden, misshapen Europeans scourged by the Black Death and many other diseases. Their food was inferior. They wrote in their journals about the magnificent physiques of the natives—their inherent nobility—their fairness—their advanced politics—and their beautiful, strong bodies, both men and women.

As Joni Mitchell sang long ago, “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” And the garden is the Garden of Eden, man and woman in their natural state, before they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

If this sounds naïve—a return to Rousseau’s idea of the Noble Savage that he espoused in the 18th Century, I’d advise skeptics to check the anthropologists and what they have to say about indigenous hunting-gathering societies of the past 100 years. These people work about 17 hours a week. They lead low-stress lives with plenty of time for love and laughter and story-telling and communion with nature. They are happy. And they are healthy.

What are we?

Our impulse toward green living, carried to its logical conclusion, may just carry us back some day to the place we started from, only now we are wiser and can be more aware of the pitfalls that await those who wrest life from nature instead of taking what nature so gently and beneficently provides.

A Thanksgiving to Be Thankful For (11/1/09)

Thanksgiving is coming up in a short while. This time, let's make it all organic food. From the turkey to the ice cream, it’s not only quite possible to eat entirely organic, but it’s also easy these days. That’s something to really be thankful for.

There was a time, not that long ago—30, 35 years ago--when if you wanted organic food, you had to raise it or grow it yourself or know someone who did. Now it’s all as close as our nearest supermarket.

Of course it was fun having a garden, raising rabbits for meat, having a goat for milk. It was a real learning experience. It still makes me thankful I can just buy organic food at the market. Because let me tell you, raising and growing your own food and putting up enough for wintertime is a lot of work. Whew! Been there, done that.

I’m thankful that I don’t have to give my money to food producers who are in bed with the likes of Monsanto, the company that comes on with a smiley, helpful face as it pumps you and your world full of toxic chemicals and genetically engineered food. No, when you buy organic, you are supporting farmers who love the land and the creation that lives on it and from it.

When I eat organic, I know that the animals who give us our meat, eggs, and dairy products are treated humanely. I’m tremendously thankful for that. When I was a boy, I knew a kid who was cruel to animals. It made my skin crawl. Nowadays, just look in the meat, milk, and egg cases full of conventional products and you are looking at the end result of a chain of events that treats animals as product. Product doesn’t have feelings. Or at least feelings that are respected.

I’m thankful that my Thanksgiving dinner will be made from whole foods like potatoes, leafy greens, beets. Nothing will be processed or chemicalized by flavoring agents, texturizers, emulsifiers, high fructose corn syrup, fillers, TVP, coloring agents, preservatives, or all the agricultural chemicals used on the farms that grew the ingredients. It will all be just plain food—but I know how to make it tasty: make it simple and let the natural flavors of the foods shine.

We will have wine with dinner. As Father Robert Capon wrote in his fine book, “The Supper of the Lamb,” “Only the purblind can fail to see that sugar in the grape and yeast on the skins is a divine idea.” And it was Benjamin Franklin who averred that wine is a sure sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

So at our Thanksgiving this year, my prayer of thanks will be to God for setting nature spinning on this planet and for the natural bounty she provides for us—without the help of agribusiness.

Some of My Best Friends Are Worms (11/8/09)

Although I've been an organic gardener for 40 years and therefore have made many, many compost piles over the years, there’s always been a problem.

And that is, I had to build a compost pile all at once. One day I’d get all my materials together—leaves, any garden waste, whatever vegetable kitchen scraps I had on hand, a bucket of chicken manure—and make a nice layered pile five feet square on the bottom and three feet square on top and about three feet high. I’d turn it every two weeks. It would heat up, rot furiously, and in 6-8 weeks, I’d have finished compost ready to feed my garden.

The problem was, I had a constant stream of vegetable kitchen waste coming from my kitchen every day. I couldn’t add it daily to the compost pile. That would be like cooking a half dozen eggs by adding one to the skillet every three minutes. By the time the last one was done, the first three or four would be overcooked. Or if I stopped cooking the eggs when the first ones were done, the last ones would be underdone. Same with the compost pile. If I added my daily kitchen peelings to the pile, by the time the bulk of the pile was finished working, the most recent additions would hardly have begun to break down.

Just tossing the kitchen scraps into a bin was no good. That’s not making compost. That’s making a stinking mess of rotting garbage that attracts vermin.

And then I found worms. Specifically the kind of worms called red wigglers. I bought two worm bins. These are three round plastic trays that fit snugly one atop the other and sit on a base with legs. They have perforations all over the bottom of the trays, plus a spigot in the base where liquid can drain out.

I found a guy who sells red wigglers not far from my house and bought enough for the two bins. I primed the bins with torn strips of wet newspaper, some leaves, and green matter and put my worms into the bottom trays.

Then, each day I add the day’s kitchen scraps to the bottom trays. After those trays (remember I have two bins) are full of vegetable scraps and the worms have reduced the scraps to a fine brown soil, I start adding to the tray above it. As the worms finish with the bottom tray, they move up into the tray above through the perforations. Eventually, every three months or so, the bottom trays are completely finished—turned into worm castings, richer than plain compost, and seven times richer in nutrients and humus than good garden soil. This stuff is black gold.

So I lay a plastic tarp on the ground and dump the contents of the bottom trays on it. There are still plenty of worms in it, but these worms don’t like light, so they wiggle down into the compost. I lift off the worm-free top layer of this ultra-rich soil with my hands and put it in a bucket. I repeat this on three or four subsequent days until all that’s left is a little soil and a mass of worms. I put the worms into what was the second tray but is now the bottom-most tray, clean off the trays I’ve just emptied with a hose, and they now become empty top trays on the worm bins. Then I simply repeat as necessary and reap the benefits.

There is no smell. The finished worm castings—all my kitchen scraps that have been digested and excreted by the worms—are a gardener’s dream. They are clean-smelling and you should see my roses react to them, to say nothing of vegetables.

The worms solved my problem. Now my daily kitchen scraps are turned into the best soil on earth. For my part, I have to follow just a few simple rules. First, don’t let the worms dry out. Every so often I’ll give the top trays a squirt of water with the hose just to keep things moist in the bins. Second, there are some edibles you don’t give the worms. No animal products like meat, egg scraps (shells are fine), or dairy, such as cheese. No citrus rinds. Nothing from the onion family, meaning no onions, garlic, scallions, or chives. And nothing hot and spicy like hot chilies. Other than that, they get all vegetable waste.

My worms do the composting work for me and do it better than I ever could.

The Organic Cheese Revolution (11/15/09)

In France, where the best cheeses come from - the ones that inspired Americans to make artisanal cheeses in the 1970s and on from there—the milk is usually raw, organic, and taken from animals that are treated with respect.

And now the same is happening in this country. Yes, there are those who say that raw milk is dangerous and should be pasteurized before being made into cheese. But those who know real cheese, great cheese, know that as long as the milk herd is tested regularly for brucellosis and other diseases, the milk for cheese will be wholesome and delicious.

There’s an organization called the American Cheese Society that holds a yearly contest and awards medals to the best cheeses in the country. Sally Jackson in Washington State usually wins something, as does the Hubbardstown goat milk fromagerie in Massachusetts, and many others too numerous to mention.

I know that right here in Sonoma County we have one of the best cheesemakers (remember Monty Python’s Life of Brian? “Blessed are the cheesemakers?”) in the country, if not the world. Her name is Soyoung Scanlon, and her brand is Andante. Her cheeses are choice, small, expensive, but ever so delicious. Her animals—sheep, cows, goats—take grass and leaves and pasture and turn it into the finest milk. And she turns that milk into the finest cheeses.

Out at the coast in Pt. Reyes Station, the Cowgirl Creamery makes fabulous cheeses from local organic milk producers. Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese is renowned the nation over.

It is so gratifying to see dairies raising their milk-producing animals organically, the right way, and producing milk the envy of cheesemakers all over the world. And then making cheeses that win medals at the American Cheese Society’s competitions year after year.

I recently spent a morning watching the milking of sheep and cheese being made from their still-hot milk at Bellwether Farms on the Marin-Sonoma County line not far from the Pacific Ocean. The sheep ran into their stalls to be milked as though they enjoyed it—and I’m sure they did. The milk was taken immediately to the cheesemaking room where it was inoculated with the enzyme that curdles it. Within an hour or so of being milked, the milk from those sheep was cheese, resting in storage rooms to age.

The whole process was organic. The cheeses are wonderful. This is the way to eat. Now think about when you were a kid. Remember Kraft singles in individual plastic packets? See how far we’ve come?

There's No Such Thing as an Apple (11/22/09)

No such thing as an apple? Then what is that red fruit I have packed in my lunch bag? It is a Braeburn, or a Jonagold, or a Honey Crisp, or a Fuji, or—heaven forbid—a Red Delicious. The word “apple” is a category of fruit, not the fruit itself, for apple is an abstract term, while all real apples are specific varieties.

The same is true of all fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, or whatever else we’re eating. And here’s the thing: not all varieties are created equal. Some apple varieties taste better than other varieties (Winesap tastes better than Red Delicious), some are more fragrant (Cox Orange Pippin is more fragrant than Rome Beauty), some have better texture (Honey Crisp has a better texture than just about any other apple you can name). Some are better baking apples than others: Wealthy is a better baker than Smokehouse, for instance.

And the same is true of any foodstuff you can name. When you pick up any fruit or vegetable at the store, you are picking up a cultivated, named variety. If you are interested in the quality of the food you eat, then it behooves you to get to know the varieties that give you what you’re looking for. But how do you do that?

Here I’m going to make an up-front sales pitch for a book I wrote entitled, “The Organic Cook’s Bible.” You’ll find it on Amazon or in bookstores everywhere. There’s a section in the back of the book, printed on green-edged paper so you can easily find it, where I identify the best varieties of fruits and vegetables by name and by their qualities. I’ll give you a sample. When you go to the store to buy carrots, for example, the supermarket will very seldom tell you what variety you’re buying. But if you buy carrots at the farmers’ market from the farmer who grew them, he or she will surely know what variety they grew because they will have ordered the seeds. And they may have chosen a certain variety for its great flavor, because that’s what small-scale truck gardens are all about. They are about quality, not quantity. So—here’s the variety entry for carrots from “The Organic Cook’s Bible.”

The most flavorful carrots are not necessarily the most nutritious, as the list below shows. Carrots, like many others of the umbelliferae group (dill, fennel, parsley, celery, celery root, parsnips, chervil—any plant that has an umbrella-like seedhead), are highly aromatic, a trait that is preserved through even intense cooking.

Baby or Gourmet Carrots
Parmex—A spherical carrot the size of a golf ball with excellent flavor.
Amsterdam Forcing—A purple carrot with a succulent flavor.
Kundulus—A standard for full-flavored baby carrots.

Elevated Vitamin A
Beta-Sweet—-A release from the Texas Vegetable Improvement Center with 40 percent more beta-carotene than ordinary carrots, a maroon color from cancer-preventing anthocyanins, high sugar content to attract children, and an improved texture.

A-Plus—Two and a half times the beta-carotene of ordinary carrots.

Long Tapered (7-10 inches)
Gold Pak 28—An All-America Selections winner for taste and texture.
Imperator—Standard supermarket carrot; much better when very fresh.
Danvers—Full-flavored, rich orange color; best for roasting.

Medium Long (5-6 inches)
Nantes Half Long—One of the finest-flavored carrots available.
Touchon—A French type of Nantes; exquisite taste, texture.
Scarlet Nantes—A Nantes type with a reddish orange color.

Yellow Carrot
Yellowstone—Mild flavor; makes contrast with richer types.

Red Carrot
Rothild—High in beta-carotene, with good flavor and red color.

The book names specific, high-quality varieties for over 100 fruits and vegetables, with over 700 varieties in all.

So what I mean when I say that there is no such thing as an apple is that all foods are specific varieties, and you can get to know the best by using my book. By the way, it was nominated as Best Reference of the Year 2008 by the James Beard Foundation. Just sayin’.

What Is Obama Thinking?(11/29/09)

I loved it when Michelle Obama caused an organic garden to be planted on the White House lawn. The President didn’t get much involved in the project, but I supposed he backed it. Now I’m not so sure.

President Obama has nominated Islam Siddiqui as the U.S. Chief Negotiator for international agricultural trade. Siddiqui is a top official from CropLife, the pesticide industry’s trade group. He’s spent years fighting bans and restrictions on harmful agricultural chemicals. He has worked to increase pesticide use, to overturn health and safety bans, and to undermine the strict rules of the organic label when he was at the U.S. Department of Agriculture by proposing that under his office’s “organic” rules, sewage sludge and even some synthetic pesticides would have been able to be used in organic agriculture. There was such a public outcry against this that the USDA dropped the proposals.

His nomination makes a mockery of Obama’s proclamation that he would not have lobbyists in his government. CropLife is the pesticide industry’s lobbying arm. Siddiqui lobbied to minimize restrictions on pesticides in the North American Free Trade Agreement. He was successful in exempting American farmers from the worldwide ban on the soil fumigant, methyl bromide, a potent ozone depleter.

If he’s confirmed in this post, he will have the power to influence agricultural trade negotiations and corresponding environmental and health regulations with countries all around the world.

If you want to take action, call the White House at (202) 456-1111 and politely tell President Obama to drop the nomination of Islam Siddiqui as chief agricultural negotiator in the office of the United States Trade Representative.

Organic Citrus! (12/6/09)

It's nearing the height of the citrus season - December through March - and now is when Florida citrus really shines. California and Texas both grow good citrus fruit, but the fruit just doesn’t sweeten up in the same way it does in Florida.

My citrus epiphany came one winter day when I was visiting the home of the late Bern Laxer, owner of Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. Bern was a driven man, full of pep and energy. He decided all his salads would be grown organically, at home, by him, and so he composted his restaurant’s kitchen waste and grew the field greens in a large plot behind his house. I was working for Organic Gardening magazine at the time and went to visit him to get an article for the magazine. We talked. I took notes. Eventually I got what I needed for the story and was leaving when I noticed a grapefruit had fallen to the ground from an organically cultivated tree in his front yard. I asked him if I could have it. “Sure,” he said.

That grapefruit became my lunch and it was an unbelievably delicious, tree-ripened, incredibly sweet and flavorful citrus apotheosis. Although I can’t find tree-ripened Florida citrus here in California, I can—and do—order some Florida fruit each year by mail. There is just something in the hot days and warm nights that allows Florida fruit to reach heights of quality that are unattainable elsewhere.

But why organic citrus? Does it have to be organic?
Look at the benefits.

First, conventional fruit is sprayed with pesticides. Do you cook? Do you ever have a recipe that calls for citrus zest, the shredded little bits of the peel? Lots of recipes do, and you’d better make sure your citrus for zesting is organic or you’ll be adding toxic agricultural chemicals to your food.

Secondly, ever notice how wonderfully orange conventional oranges are? That’s because they’re dyed and often given a thin coat of wax to reduce transpiration so they don’t dry out on their long journeys to Everytown, America. Organic citrus, on the other hand, may have some green on the peel, maybe a blemish or two where a bug took a nibble. But there are no dyes, no preservatives, no pesticides.

Third, organic citrus tastes better because the soil is amended with compost, the decayed remains of plants, containing all the nutrients that plants need in order to maximize their potential for flavor. And organic growers are more likely to plant and harvest super delicious varieties, like the Marsh grapefruit and the Meyer lemon.

It’s easy to find organic citrus online. Just Google organic citrus fruit and you’ll be presented with scores of sources.

An Organic Herb Garden (12/13/09)

The single most important thing you can do to improve your home cooking is to have a garden of fresh herbs. Even if you’re doing nothing but opening a jar of spaghetti sauce and boiling up some pasta, tossing in a handful of fresh herbs like oregano and thyme will bring the dish to life.

Having a garden of fresh herbs can be easier than you think. You don’t even need a yard, as most culinary herbs thrive in pots.

Which herbs to grow? Think Simon and Garfunkel: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. But also oregano, chives, winter savory, spearmint, borage, and lemon balm.

That’s 10 herbs. Do you have a sunny porch, deck, or patio with room for 10 pots? Sure you do. Make sure the pots hold at least a gallon of soil, and even larger is even better. The pots absolutely need to have drainage holes in the bottom. You might want to set them on a piece of black plastic to prevent the run-off water from staining the deck, porch, or patio.

Buy a couple of bags of organic compost at the plant nursery. Mix the compost with an equal amount of a mixture of sand and vermiculite, also available at the plant nursery. So your finished mix is 50 percent compost, 25 percent sand, and 25 percent vermiculite. This is a nice loose potting soil that will hold lots of water. Soil in pots dries out much faster than soil in the ground, and your plants need the soil to be moist—but not sopping wet—at all times. So water frequently.

When you harvest, take whole stems from here and there on the plant, leaving plenty. Don’t shear off stems wholesale with shears or scissors or you’ll be taking away the plant’s ability to feed itself and grow strong.

In the kitchen, strip the leaves from the stems with your thumb and forefinger and discard the stem. All the herbs’ potency is in the leaves. This doesn’t apply to chives. When you harvest chives, select several long spears, leaving plenty. You can then snip the chives into bits with scissors.

Some notes on the herbs:
Rosemary is strongly scented. A little goes a long way. Use it with garlic to flavor lamb.
Thyme is so useful in so many dishes. You can never have enough thyme. Try some of the scented thymes, like lemon thyme and caraway thyme.
Add fresh oregano to pizzas, pastas, and all tomato dishes.
Chives, snipped into pieces, are great in egg dishes like omelets.
Winter savory is known as the “bean herb” in Germany. Cook a few sprigs with your beans and you’ll see why. It adds just the right flavor.
Borage flowers are a pretty blue and taste like cucumber. Decorate salads and tall drinks with them.
Lemon balm, also called Melissa, makes a light and lively lemony tea.
Spearmint, of course, is for your mojitos and mint juleps.

Plant up your herb pots in mid-spring and you’ll have fresh herbs right through the summer and well into fall. In warm climates, you’ll have them year ‘round, but you’ll need to re-pot them after two years or they’ll be too crowded in their pots.

So it’s pretty simple to have fresh herbs close at hand when you’re cooking—and it will make a world of difference.

A Fly in the Organic Ointment (12/20/09)

For the word “organic” to mean anything, it has to mean something, and what it means is spelled out in the 2002 regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, setting the organic rules.

Big agriculture tried from the beginning to dilute those regulations, working to have certain pesticides and even sewage sludge containing heavy metals included in the definition of organic. But a public outcry beat back those attempts.

Now it’s happening again, and it concerns milk, and it’s a really serious matter once again. Aurora Dairy of Colorado has been sued in a class action lawsuit by organic milk consumers in 40 states, claiming that Aurora, which supplies store brand milk to 20 of the largest retail chain supermarkets in America, has been factory farming milk and selling it as organic to big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target, which in turn have been selling it to consumers as organic at cut rate prices.

In an almost incomprehensible turn of events, Organic Valley, the nation’s second largest organic milk marketer and a cooperative of honest organic dairy farmers, has underwritten a brief supporting Aurora’s side in the lawsuit. Even more disappointing is that the co-op provided financial support allowing the Organic Trade Association to file an amicus brief opposing the class action lawsuit brought by the consumers in 40 states.

Organic Valley’s involvement came as a shock to some of its own co-op members, including Kevin Engelbert, a nationally known organic leader and dairy farmer in New York State. “Can this possibly be true?” he told Cornucopia, an organic information organization. “Has Organic Valley made a pact with the devil? I know the Organic Trade Association is controlled by the big money interests,” but not Organic Valley, whose members assiduously try to insure that their products meet both the letter and spirit of USDA’s organic law.

Aurora, for its part, claims it’s prohibitively expensive to continue developing organic products.

Analysis and research by Cornucopia and the USDA, which is charged with prosecuting violators of the organic law, suggests that as much as a third of the nation’s organic milk supply comes from giant factory farms. According to Cornucopia, Dean Foods, the country’s largest milk marketer, and an Organic Trade Association member, has been widely criticized in the organic community for procuring much of the milk for its Horizon organic brand from mega-dairies allegedly breaking the same rules as Aurora.

You’ll notice a link to the Organic Trade Association on the home page of this website. You might want to let them know how you feel about this. A strong organic law is like a dike against the ocean of conventional food out there. Even a little breach soon turns into a failure of the whole dike. And if that happens, the whole validity of organic food goes down the drain.

Apple Pie with Cheese or Ice Cream? (12/27/09)

It doesn’t make any difference whether you eat your apple pie with cheese or a la mode. I would say the following recipe makes such good apple pie that it needs no gussying up. Ditto with the crust recipe.

But here’s a tip. When the Honey Crisp apples are in the store, use them for this pie. They are truly superior. When they’re not in the stores, use whatcha got. Granny Smiths are good. Fujis, Galas, or Braeburns might be good, too. But Honey Crisps are the bomb.

There is a store not far from my home called Mom’s Apple Pie with a real mom (Betty Carr) and real apple pie. It used to be surrounded by Gravenstein apple orchards that supplied the year’s first fresh apples to all of America, but the bottom fell out of the market due to controlled atmosphere storage in Washington State—but Mom’s Apple Pie remains and the pies are as good as ever. This pie is even better, believe it or not.

For the Pie:

6 medium apples
½ cup brown sugar
1 Tbl. cornstarch
1/8 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1 ½ Tbl. butter
1 Tbl. lemon juice
1 Tbl. white sugar-cinnamon mix

1. Quarter, peel, and core the apples and cut the pieces into thin slices. Place the apples in a bowl. Combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg and add them to the bowl. Toss the apple slices gently with the dry ingredients until they are evenly coated.
2. Line a nine-inch pie pan with one of the pie crusts. Place the apple mixture in the shell and sprinkle it with the lemon juice, then dot the top with the butter. Preheat the oven to 450 F.
3. Place the second pie crust on top and trim excess. Squish the top and bottom crusts together along the rim of the pie pan with the back of a fork. Lightly sprinkle the top of the crust with a tablespoon full of cinnamon and white sugar mixed half and half. Make five two-inch slices in the top crust with a sharp knife. Place a sheet of aluminum foil on the oven rack to catch any drips. Bake at 450 F. for 10 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350 F. and bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the juices are running. Makes one pie.

For the Crust:
This recipe makes enough dough for two crusts—one top, one bottom—for your apple pie. The secret is simple: everything should be ice cold.

2 cups all-purpose flour, taken from the freezer
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter, chilled
4 tablespoons canola oil, chilled
½ cup ice water

1. Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Cut the butter into eight pieces and add them to the flour along with the canola oil. Using two knives, cut the butter into the flour until the pieces of butter are smaller than peas.
2. Add six tablespoons of ice water and toss the mixture lightly using two forks. Add more water if needed so that you can press the mixture together into a ball that retains its shape. Wrap the ball in wax paper and refrigerate for at least two hours, preferably overnight.
3. Cut the ball into halves and using a chilled stone or a chilled, floured board, roll the first half into a round larger than the bottom of the pie pan. Using a rolling pin, flip the far edge of the round over the pin toward you and roll up the dough onto the pin. Carry this to the greased pie pan and lay the dangling edge of the dough over the near edge of the pan. Unroll the dough into the pan. Trim excess (any dough that hangs more than an inch over the edge of the pan) with scissors.
4. Fill the bottom crust with the apple filling. Now repeat step 3, rolling out the top crust so it generously covers the pie. Again trim off any excess with scissors. Press the edge of the top crust into the edge of the bottom crust to make a seal, and flute the edge with the back of a table fork. Cut five two-inch slices in the top crust. Bake as instructed above.

Note: Be prepared for compliments.

It’s Wise to Use Sage (1/24/10)

The word sage means wise. A wise woman is a "sage femme" and a wise man is called a sage. And the garden sages, both culinary and ornamental, are members of the genus Salvia, which translates as salvation or saving. And so the herb sage has been considered one heavy duty plant through the ages.

Sage is as pretty in the garden as it is useful in the kitchen. Besides common green garden culinary sage (Salvia offiucinalis)with its nubbly texture, purple sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) sports dark greenish purple leaves, three-colored sage (S.o. ‘Tricolor’) has leaves with green, white, and pink variegations, and golden sage (S.o. ‘Icterina’) has green and gold markings. Other species of salvia have culinary uses, too, such as the bright red flowers of pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) that add dots of pure color to salads. All told, there are dozens and dozens of salvias in commerce, most of them ornamental.

But for cooking and that appealing sage flavor, no cultivar beats the plain old green species. The fresh leaves have a friendly spiciness and a musky, even medicinal scent. Those qualities become intensified when the leaves are dried. Whether home-grown or purchased as fresh sprigs at a farmers market, sage is easy to dry. Just tie the stem ends of the sprigs together and hang the bundle from the ceiling in a warm, dry place out of direct sun. When the leaves are crisply dry, you can rub them vigorously between your palms or mash them in a mortar with a pestle and watch them turn into a fluffy mass that you can then store in an airtight jar in your spice cabinet.

The most common culinary use for the herb in America is for flavoring the Thanksgiving turkey’s stuffing—and I admit that one of my favorite foods in this world is sage stuffing hot and moist from spending long hours in the oven inside the bird. But that’s just the most obvious use. Make a thin-crust white pizza and decorate the center with a star of six sage leaves, one for each slice. Sage tea has been used as a sovereign remedy for colds, sore throat, and tonsillitis, and as a digestive aid. In ancient times, it was thought to promote wisdom.

Ordinary green sage is quite potent, especially when dried, so use it judiciously. It pairs well with other strongly flavored herbs like rosemary and oregano, as well as the lemon herbs like lemon balm and lemon verbena. Sage exalts fatty meats like pork, sausages, veal, and poultry. Stuff a rolled pork roast with a mixture of chopped sage and apples. It also makes a warm partnership with liver and onions. And speaking of onions, mix finely chopped sage and parsley and add it to the batter you use to make fried onion rings. Tie fresh sage in a bouquet with parsley and thyme and add it to soups and stews, removing it before serving.

Sage has an affinity for Italian dishes like pizzas, focaccia, pastas, and gnocchi. It adds a pleasant herbal note when used in small quantities with mild cheeses. Chop it finely and use it in your cornbreads and biscuits. Use it to flavor bean, lentil, and pea soups.

Add a fresh sage leaf to other herb teas when you brew them to augment and enhance their flavor. Add a pinch to tuna salad, to seared ahi, and to baked or poached ocean fish.

You don’t have to have a garden to grow sage at home. It takes to pot culture beautifully. Just buy a plant in spring, plant it in a generous pot that has a drainage hole in the bottom, with potting soil for a growing medium, and keep it moist but not sopping wet during the summer months. You’ll have plenty by Thanksgiving.

If you want to use it in other dishes besides turkey stuffing, here are some ideas:

Saltimbocca is a classic Italian dish that jumps into your mouth, if the name is accurate, for that’s what saltimbocca means. It can jump into mine anytime. If you have an aversion to veal, use chicken breasts pounded to ½-inch thickness. However, organic veal is humanely raised—by law.
4 veal cutlets, pounded to ½-inch thick or thinner
8 slices of prosciutto, thinly sliced
4 slices of Fontina cheese
2 Tbl. butter
¼ cup dry white wine
½ tsp. fresh minced sage
¼ tsp. Dijon mustard
1. Top each of the veal cutlets with two slices of prosciutto and a slice of Fontina. Roll them up, turning in the ends so the filling is completely enclosed. Secure them with toothpick skewers, but don’t let the ends of the toothpicks stick out too far, as it will make it impossible to brown the rolls all over.
2. Place a skillet on high heat and add the butter, then the rolls, turning them frequently for about five minutes of cooking, until well-browned all over.
3. Remove the skillet from the heat and place the rolls in a serving dish. Place the serving dish in a warm oven while you put the pan back on the heat, adding the wine and scraping up any browned bits. Add the sage and mustard and mix well. Pour this sauce over the rolls. Serves 4.

Your Own Organic Stuffing
Yes, store-bought stuffing mix is traditional, but you can make just as tasty a stuffing using all organic ingredients. Notice that the recipe starts well before the big day.

2 lbs. organic white bread
Giblets from 1 organic turkey, cooked and chopped
½ small onion
7 whole peppercorns
8 oz. loose ground pork sausage
3 Tbl. butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tsp. dried sage
1 large egg, lightly beaten
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. fresh ground black pepper
1. Buy two pounds of sliced organic country bread (made with white flour, not whole wheat, rye, or sourdough). Place the slices in a large bowl, exposed to air, turning once a day until stale. This will take about four or five days. Cut into ½-inch cubes.
2. On turkey day, simmer the giblets, half onion, and peppercorns in water to cover. When they’re done, about an hour and a half, strain off the cooking water and reserve. Chop the giblets, onions, and peppercorns finely.
3. Cook the sausage in a skillet over medium high heat until just done, about seven minutes, turning and separating into little pieces. Remove sausage from the skillet, reduce heat to medium low, add the butter to the skillet, and cook the onions in the butter until they’re golden.
4. In a large bowl combine the bread cubes, giblet mixture, celery, onions and butter, sausage, sage, egg, salt, and pepper and toss to mix thoroughly. Use the giblet cooking water to moisten the stuffing, but be careful. A little too much moisture renders the stuffing clumpy and dense. Keep the stuffing just lightly moist and fluffy.
5. Stuff the turkey loosely, both in the body cavity and under the neck skin. Don’t pack it tightly. The rest of the stuffing can be cooked in a lightly greased dutch oven on the stovetop on low heat. Stir from the bottom occasionally and add a little water by pulling the stuffing aside and dribbling a little water onto a bare spot on the bottom if the stuffing appears to be drying out. It’s done when it’s all hot and steamy and the celery is tender—about an hour and a half. Correct the seasoning and serve hot in a separate bowl from the prized stuffing that comes from the bird.

The Organic Web of Life (1/17/10)

If one gardens organically long enough, the big picture emerges. And the big picture is this: the more kinds of creatures that inhabit a system—whether garden, farm, meadow, or forest—the healthier it is.

Each creature has an ecological role to play. Microorganisms eat fungus strands. Funguses disassemble fallen leaves. Ladybugs eat aphids. Birds eat ladybugs. Mice eat birds’ eggs. Foxes keep mice in check. And finally, microorganisms and many other creatures eat foxes.

Life in a healthy garden is a strong tapestry of many strands, woven together, interacting to keep any one organism from dominating and causing problems. Like the American Constitution, it’s a system of checks and balances. It’s a grand circle, this web of life.

Given this perspective, it becomes obvious why poisonous chemicals, whether fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides, or herbicides, wreak such havoc in a tightly-knit system. These chemicals tear apart nature’s carefully constructed and balanced web of life.

With the web torn asunder, suddenly certain creatures are released from predation. Their numbers begin to multiply unchecked. What was once merely a happy player in the garden becomes a problem.

The organic approach is to maximize the diversity of life in the garden. This starts with feeding the soil microorganisms lots of organic matter. Actively-decaying organic matter creates a healthy bloom of bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, and many other microorganisms which make up a diverse and healthy soil ecology.

These microscopic lifeforms produce a mix of nutrients in the soil that feed plants exactly what they want, in the forms they like it, when they want it, in the quantities they want. And thus the plants grow healthy.

As a healthy human being is able to ward off disease, so healthy plants can ward off not only diseases, but even insect damage, as insects preferentially attack weak and unhealthy plants.

These healthy plants help to nourish animals and humans in such a way that we grow healthy, too. Good and proper nutrition, born from healthy plants growing in healthy soil, is one source of human health.

So organic gardening is not just about gardening without chemicals. It is an insight into the workings of nature that allows the gardener to interact with nature for the health and betterment of every member of the entire system, including the gardener herself.

If all farms and gardens and properties were handled organically, nature would have an open invitation to create her healthiest and most diverse systems everywhere, with a return of endangered species, the sewing up of the torn web of life, and a fullness of life we’ve not experienced since the days of unspoiled wilderness.

Vacation on an Organic Farm (1/10/10)

Have you ever been exhausted but at the same time feel overjoyed by the exhaustion? Working for hours at farming or gardening can do that to you. Although you may be so tired you can barely move, you are overcome by a feeling of accomplishment. And not just mental accomplishment, but rather physical accomplishment, in the real world, where you can see the results of your hard work.

The best part about farm and garden work is that you then get to replenish your drained body with the fruits of your labor: real, honest, organic food. Yes, organic food tastes better than conventional food, especially when you’ve had a hand in growing it yourself.

You don’t even need to have a garden or be a farmer to have the experience. There’s an organization called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoof.org) that started in England in 1971 and has grown considerably over the years. Right now there are over 15,000 people at organic farms around the world trading a few hours of work a day for food and lodging, more than double the number who took part in the deal five years ago.

Over 2,200 organic farms are now hosting travelers who find they can do farm chores like milking goats and making compost for just a few hours a day in return for a place to stay and good food to eat.

Farms are located in Central America, South America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific islands.

WWOOF hosts grow food organically, are in conversion, or use ecologically sound methods on their land. They provide hands-on experience of organic growing and other learning opportunities where possible, and they provide clean dry accommodation and adequate food for their volunteers.

WWOOF volunteers need a genuine interest in learning about organic growing, country living, or ecologically sound lifestyles. They help their hosts with daily tasks for an agreed number of hours. The transactions between volunteers and hosts are off the money economy. There may be a small charge by the hosting country or WWOOF, usually in the $30 range.

The Plan and the Pledge (1/3/10)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made some small advances in funding organic research and development for American farming—but not much. The big agribusiness companies like Monsanto, Cargill, Dow Chemical, and others have the money and they call the tunes.

You can see the same problems when you look at the public health debacle and other evidence that Congress is dysfunctional these days. The reason why seems clear: Many Congresspeople, Democrat or Republican, Senator or Representative, are bought by corporate America through the kindly ministrations of the lobbyists.

However, the problem isn’t with Congress. Who doesn’t want money showered on them, especially money that can be used to do what legislators have set as their first priority—getting elected or re-elected? The problem isn’t the lobbyists—they are just doing what they are paid to do. And the problem isn’t even corporate America. As long as corporations can get their way by funneling money to legislators, why not?

The problem is the money.

And right now a majority of Americans, from tea partiers on the right to furious progressives on the left, are angry, really angry. So here’s an idea on how to channel that anger and solve the problem at its root:
We—and I mean a broad coalition from the left and right—propose a new law, the Congressional Compensation Act. The law states that Senators and Representatives shall be given a salary. Make it a good one so they can live comfortably. And they and their challengers will be given a set and equal amount of money to mount their election or re-election campaigns and free time on radio and television to advertise when re-election time comes around. Everyone gets the same amount of money and free ad time, but they can choose to use the money and buy their ads on media as they will.

And that’s it. It will be illegal to contribute money to any legislator’s office or campaign. No free plane rides. No free vacations. No gifts. No nothing. Period. If anyone is caught giving money to a member of Congress, they shall be prosecuted. If any member of Congress takes money, they shall be prosecuted. And penalties will be stiff.

Okay—that’s Part One of The Plan. And realistically, Congress would never pass such a plan, for it would gut their ability to become rich and powerful, and run with and play with the big boys and girls. And so we have Part Two of The Plan: The Pledge. We ask every candidate for Congressional office, whether incumbent or challenger, to pledge to vote for the Congressional Compensation Act. If they refuse to answer, we will take that to be a no. We tell the incumbents and their challengers that if they do not back the Act, we will make sure they will not win their primaries. And we do this by letting every voter know that together we are strong and can enforce this. This is not a partisan effort. Party affiliation is immaterial. The important thing is to clean up government; i.e., get money out of politics. There’s no reason why the American citizenry can’t force The Pledge from every Congressional legislator or legislator wannabe. If they say yes, we work for their election. If they say no or weasel around answering, we work against their election. And so Congress becomes packed with those who’ve pledged to pass the Congressional Compensation Act.

Now, experience teaches us that people campaigning for high office will say just about anything to get elected, but once elected, they sing a different tune. If a backer of the Act reneges on their pledge and refuses to vote for the act either by abstention or by voting no, they will be targeted for elimination from office at the next election. If we have the consolidated power to extract The Pledge from them, we have the power to remove them from office. But we must act in concert through an organization such as Showdown in America.

Think about the result of having legislators who earn a salary for doing their job as citizens, but can receive no other remuneration. They might actually start legislating in favor of the will of the people in this country instead of fat cats and huge corporations. Wouldn’t it be great to return to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people?

OG Has Come Back to Life (1/31/10)

Organic Gardening magazine has suddenly come back to life after having fallen asleep for the past 25 years.It never was just about gardening when J.I. Rodale founded it in 1943 as “Organic Farming and Gardening.” It was foremost about the awakening of environmental consciousness, first as it applied to how we grow our food. In those days, most farmers and gardeners were enthralled with the miracle of chemicals—chemical fertilizers, yes, but especially insecticides like DDT that would wipe out all the bugs on the farm and in the garden, and we’d all live happily ever after.

Rodale pointed out that these chemicals were destroying nature’s web of life, tearing it apart, threatening the health of everything and everyone. For Rodale, it was always about health—wholeness. He was so far ahead of his time that initially, not many people understood what he was talking about. He was dismissed as a kook. He was vilified. He was ridiculed. But he was also right.

And then Rachel Carson examined a small piece of the new, holistic thinking that Rodale had espoused and wrote “Silent Spring,” a book in which she showed that DDT and other agricultural chemicals were harming the birds. She had more bona fides than Rodale, and people listened to her. And through Carson, a lot of people discovered that J.I. Rodale and Organic Gardening magazine had been sounding the same trumpet all along.

I joined Rodale Press, as Rodale Inc. was then called, in 1970 as associate editor of Organic Gardening. Eventually I became the Managing Editor. In 1970, the magazine had about 230,000 subscribers. By 1980-, when I moved within the company to direct its fledgling Electronic Publishing division, it had 1,200,000 subscribers. They weren’t all coming to the magazine to learn how to compost their kitchen scraps. They were coming because the magazine provided a new world-view, a new context for thinking about thenatural ecosystems from which we draw our health.

Then in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Rodale scored a major success with Men’s Health magazine. Organic Gardening went back to being primarily a gardening magazine. And it slowly wandered back outside of the rushing torrent of contemporary thought, which was then more devoted to style and the go-go-go of making it in business than it was about understanding the health consequences of mismanaging the nitrogen cycle on our farms.

However, the seeds had been sown. The organic food business grew by leaps and bounds. Whole Foods sprang up. Suddenly folks everywhere were demanding clean, organic food. While the magazine lost its relevancy to the mass culture’s demands for organic food, organics had become a runaway hit, growing by 20 percent a year in products sold, for year after year.

Now take a look at the most recent issue of Organic Gardening. It looks like it’s beginning to find its groove again. Maria Rodale, J.I.’s granddaughter, has just taken the helm of the company and her eye is back on the big picture. In fact, Maria believes that it is the organic insight—the holistic way of looking at the world—that will ultimately save the world. We see eye to eye on that. We either work with nature’s forces, tendencies, and laws or we will perish--or become so degraded we’ll wish we’d perish.

It’s a good feeling to know that this magazine, which represents everything that’s healthy and holy in this world, is returning to its roots.

Must-Have Seed Sources (2/7/10)

It's that time of year again. Even though the world may be locked up tight in winter's icy grip, now’s the time to pore over your seed catalogs and order the little packets that will grow into delicious, garden-fresh organic produce.

Don’t have a garden? You can always have a small one by gardening in large containers with drain holes in the bottom, filled with good rich compost from the local nursery. All you’ll need is a sunny spot, something to tie your tomatoes up to, and seeds.

But where to get the best varieties and seeds? Here’s a rundown of some seed catalogs you should be aware of. Rather than give you mailing addresses, I’m going to give you URLs where you can peruse the wares of these companies and even order seeds over the internet.

For all-around great seeds for time-tested plants, you can’t beat the W. Atlee Burpee Company of Warminster, Pennsylvania. Burpee’s been around for a century. I’ve grown their seeds for over 30 years and am always pleased. Check them out at www.burpee.com.

For tomatoes, head to www.tomatogrowers.com, where you’ll find hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and tons of useful information about how to grow tomatoes. Don’t miss this website.

In centuries past, almost everyone had a garden, and a tradition grew up within families and among friends that the very best varieties were passed down through the generations by swapping or inheriting precious seeds. The Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, has a catalog full of these heirloom varieties just waiting for you to try them. Visit www.seedsavers.org.

You will find all organic seeds—and wonderful varieties—at Seeds of Change, whose marketing arm is at Spicer, Minnesota. The catalog guarantees all seeds have been organically grown. See for yourself at www.seedsofchange.com.

Like the idea of growing your own onions? You’ll find all types at www.dixondalefarms.com. This Texas firm ships 400 million onion plants a year and has been doing so since 1913. When I grow onions, I get started plants from Dixondale.

More heirloom seeds are available at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri. Visit them at www.rareseeds.com.

Folks on the West Coast have their own dedicated garden seed company in Territorial Seed Company of Cottage Grove, Oregon. Here you’ll find the best varieties suited to the special conditions of the Pacific Northwest, especially the coastal zones from Santa Cruz, California, north into British Columbia. You will find them At www.territorialseed.com.

Well—that’s a handful of really fine seed companies where you’ll find anything you can think of for your 2010 organic garden. See you around the tomato patch. But start now. Time’s a wasting.

Organic Cooking Oils (2/14/10)

Finding and using a good source of organic oils for culinary use is essential for several reasons. First, many mass-produced cooking oils such as canola, soy, corn, and cottonseed—are from plants that have been genetically engineered to resist damage by herbicides or to incorporate the gene that expresses the caterpillar toxin produced by Bacillus thuringiensis.
Second, sewage sludge containing heavy metals may have been used on the fields where the conventional oils were grown and been taken up by the plants. Or, if the fields were fertilized with chemical fertilizers, they may be depleted of trace minerals and organic matter, which can affect the quality of the oils grown on them.
Third, agricultural chemicals like pesticides have a tendency to accumulate in plant fats—such as the oil in the seeds—and in fat tissues in our bodies, too.
Fourth, bulk oils are usually extracted by a process that utilizes hexane, a petroleum by-product and nervous system toxin. While the hexane evaporates at the end of the extraction process and is said to be completely gone from the oil it extracts, it poses a risk to workers. And while the FDA vouches for the safety of chemically-extracted oils, I for one don’t find their assurances reassuring.

All these worries are void if I buy organic oil.

While my personal recommendation is to use organic extra virgin olive oil for most kitchen uses, I understand that many folks will prefer to use other oils for various purposes. Olive, canola, peanut, sesame, almond, and avocado oils have more than 50 percent monounsaturated fat—the kind that helps lower bad cholesterol. Canola, corn, safflower, sunflower, walnut, sesame, hemp seed, and soy oils are rich in polyunsaturated fats that contain the important omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, necessary for proper growth in children and the maintenance of cardiovascular health,brain and visual function, and cell replacement in adults. But there’s a catch.

Recent studies suggest that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 may be most important in obtaining their health benefits, such as lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease. If your intake of omega-6 fat is too high, it competes with the omega-3 fats and prevents them from doing their beneficial work, which may lead to an omega-3 deficiency. For a healthy balance, it is recommended that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the diet should be 3 or 4 parts omega-6 to 1 part omega-3. The right balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids enables the body to reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, prevent irregular heartbeats, and promote cardiovascular health. The typical western diet has a ratio estimated at 20:1.

The following table shows the ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 in various vegetable oils.
Remember, you want a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in your diet of 3 or 4 to 1.

Oil/Ratio (omega-6 to omega-3)
Canola 3:1
Corn 8:0
Flaxseed 2:7
Olive 1:0
Peanut 4:0
Safflower 8:0
Sesame 6:0
Soy 7:1
Sunflower 8:0
Wheat germ 7:1

Unfortunately, corn, safflower, sunflower, walnut, sesame, hemp seed, and soy oils, while they are rich sources of omega-6, don’t have much omega-3. The essential fatty acid in olive oil is primarily omega-9, which doesn’t upset whatever the balance of omega-6 and omega-3 is in your diet. Omega-9 fatty acids are important monounsaturated fats, and one of the chief reasons why the olive oil-rich Mediterranean diet contributes so splendidly to cardiovascular health. It’s been proven to lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, and has more antioxidants than any other oil.

Fish such as cod, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and salmon are excellent sources of omega-3. That’s why mom made sure you got your cod liver oil. But I can’t think of any culinary use for it. In the old days, you got your daily dose from a spoon. Today fish oil supplements are sold in convenient gel capsules. The point is that if you choose to use a lot of omega-6-rich oils in your cooking or on your salads, you might want to consider omega-3 supplementation. Two vegetable oils that do have a proper ratio of these essential fatty acids are canola and flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil is especially good because of its greater amounts of omega-3 than omega-6, which will balance some of the excess omega-6 we get in our western diet. It should not be heated, however, but rather used cold as you would use any unheated oil, on salads, as a dip, in home-made mayonnaise, in smoothies, and in shakes. Some folks are leery of canola oil because they may have heard it contains erucic acid, which studies show causes heart lesions in lab animals. It’s an old finding. Canadians began a series of hybridizations of the rape plant—the source of canola oil—after World War II that led to varieties with less than two percent erucic acid. Today’s canola (for Canadian oil) has acceptable levels of erucic acid.

When oil used for frying or sautéing gives off smoke, it not only emits an acrid smell, but healthy fats in the oil can be transformed into unhealthy trans fats. In addition, free radicals are formed that can oxidize cholesterol in the blood to create artery-clogging plaque. Discard any oil that has reached its smoke point. Use this table to determine which oil is the best to use for your purposes. The information was supplied by the folks at Spectrum Organic Products, Inc.

Uses/Oil Type/Smoke Point

High Heat Oils: These are oils to use for high heat applications like frying.
Avocado - smoke point 510 F.
Almond - smoke point 495 F.
Apricot Kernel - smoke point 495 F.
Sesame - smoke point 445 F.

Medium High Heat Oils: Good for sauteeing and baking.
Canola - smoke point 425 F.
Grapeseed - smoke point 425 F.
Walnut - smoke point 400 F.
Coconut - smoke point 365 F.
Soy - smoke point 360 F.
Peanut - smoke point 355 F.

Medium Heat Oils: Full flavored, unrefined oils good for sauces and salad dressings, and for medium heat sauteing, where the oil's flavor is integral to the dish.
Sesame, unrefined - smoke point 350 F.
Toasted Sesame - smoke point 350 F.
Olive, extra virgin - smoke point 325 F.
Corn, unrefined - smoke point 320 F.
Coconut, unrefined - smoke point 280 F.

No Heat Oils: These unrefined oils have a robust flavor and such a fragile structure that they're best used on a finished dish or blended into a dressing or sauce without heating.
Borage - smoke point 225 F.
Flaxseed - smoke point 225 F.
Wheat Germ - smoke point 225 F.
Evening Primrose - smoke point 225 F.

An Organic Spring Tonic (2/21/10)

One of the wonderful things about living in the country is all the wild food you have close at hand. In another few weeks it will be early spring and time to put together a wild spring tonic salad—one that will lift your winter-drenched spirits and light you up from the inside out.
The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote about this time of year:

For winter’s rains and ruins are over
And all the seasons of snows and sins,
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins.

For time remembered is grief forgotten.
The frosts are slain, the flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

Make sure all the ingredients for your spring tonic salad are from clean, unsprayed places so that you’re not ingesting herbicides or pesticides along with your greens. Make the basis of your salad the tender leaves of dandelion just beginning to unfold. If you live in California or the Pacific Northwest, you’ll add miner’s lettuce to the dandelions.

Throughout the country, wild onions will be sending up their slender, chive-like spears. Gather a few and snip half-inch lengths into the salad. You can even dig up a few of the small bulbs and slice them as pungent additions to the mix. Can you find a few early violets opening their sweet-smelling flowers? In they go--but just a few for color. Live out west? Add yellow mustard flowers or the blossoms of wild radish instead of violets.

The salad will be fresh tasting and bitter. That’s what the old-timers were craving after a winter’s worth of boiled potatoes, sauerkraut, and salt pork.

If you live in the city, you can still put together a spring tonic salad. Just head down to your local organic supermarket. Now is when the watercress is at its finest. You may even find it with the roots attached so it’s living food. Cut off the roots and the long stems and the leaves will be the basis for your salad. Add mache, also called corn salad, if you can find their small heads of paddle-shaped leaves. Buy some water chestnuts, peel them, and slice them into the salad. Buy a chicon (spear-like head) or two of Belgian endive and slice them into the salad. A tight head of red raddichio will add its chewy bitterness to the salad. Slice a clove of garlic into thin slivers and add them.

Now there’s a bitter spring tonic salad right from the store. Either way, the bitter salad is just the thing to restore and balance your winter-weary taste buds to get ready for the monumental pleasures of summer to come.

And keep your eye out for “The Big Summer Cookbook,” by yours truly, coming from John Wiley & Sons this spring. It gives you hundreds of recipes for using that monumental summer bounty.

Maria Sinskey’s Organic Manicotti with Sheep’s Milk Ricotta (2/27/10)

I attended a cooking class at Rob Sinskey's organic winery where his wife Maria made these manicotti for the class. They were by far and away the best manicotti I’ve ever had. If you want to impress someone or a bunch of someones, make these. Maria says this is her great grandmother’s recipe transcribed by her mother. “Manicotti has been served at every family gathering for as long as I can remember,” she says. “This dish freezes very well and can be popped in the oven frozen, covered with foil for reheating. I suggest making extra and freezing it for your next unexpected soiree.” If you can find it, use Bellwether Farm’s sheep’s milk ricotta.

Maria advises that the pancakes can be made a day ahead and stored at room temperature between sheets of wax paper overnight. The sauce can be made two or three days ahead and stored in the refrigerator. It’s not necessary to reheat the sauce before assembling the manicotti, as they will be thoroughly heated in the oven.

For the manicotti pancake batter
2 cups organic all-purpose flour
2 tsp. kosher salt
6 large organic eggs
2 Tbl. extra virgin olive oil

Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs until smooth, then mix in two cups of water and the olive oil, lightly beating the eggs, oil, and water together. Stir as you pour the egg mixture into the flour. Stir in the liquids very slowly to avoid lumps. Beat until smooth. Let the batter rest 20 minutes covered. Brush or spray a seven-inch diameter non-stick crepe pan with olive oil. Pour just under two ounces of the batter into the pan and roll it around to thinly cover the bottom. You can measure this with a two-ounce ladle or a measuring cup slightly less than ¼ cup full. If the batter seems too thick, add a little water and stir so that the batter will easily spread as you roll the pan around to coat the bottom. Cook on one side until the batter is set and the edges begin to curl from the sides of the pan. Use enough heat to cook the crepes quickly. Flip the pancake over and cook for a few seconds on the other side. Stack the pancakes between layers of wax paper with the pale side of the pancake up. Let cool. The pancakes can be stored at room temperatures overnight. Wrap them tightly with cling wrap after they are completely cool. Makes about 40 pancakes.

For the tomato sauce
Maria says that it’s far better to use good canned tomatoes than inferior fresh ones, and she’s right. Both organic canned tomatoes and tomato paste are available. If possible, they should be just tomatoes—no salt or citric acid added. If they do contain salt, omit adding any more salt to the recipe. If the canned tomatoes have basil with them, that’s fine. In fresh tomato season, use eight pounds of fresh, organic, ripe Italian plum tomatoes like Roma or San Marzano.

7 lbs. canned peeled organic plum tomatoes (8 lbs. fresh)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely diced
8 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 cup organic red wine
2 Tbl. tomato paste
½ cup chopped fresh oregano
½ cup chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
Kosher salt to taste
1 Tbl. sugar (optional)
1 Tbl. toasted whole fennel seed
1 bay leaf

If using fresh tomatoes, blanch them and remove the skins. If using canned, drain the tomatoes and reserve the juice. Now the procedure becomes the same. Working over a bowl, cut out the hard spot where the tomato attached to the plant. Gently open the tomato and let juice and seeds fall into the bowl. Tear the tomato into chunks and place in another bowl. Repeat until all tomatoes are done. Pour the juice and seeds through a strainer held over the tomato chunks. (If using canned tomatoes, pour the reserved juice from the cans through a strainer held over the tomato chunks.) Discard the seeds. Heat a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and onions and cook until the onions are golden. Add the garlic and cook further until the onions are lightly browned. Don’t let the garlic burn. Add the red wine. Turn heat down to medium low and simmer for five minutes. Add the tomato chunks and juice, tomato paste, chopped herbs, crushed red pepper, and two cups of water. Season with salt if desired. Add the sugar if the tomatoes seem too acidic. Add the fennel seed and bay leaf. Simmer uncovered over low heat for 1 ½ hours if using canned tomatoes, or two to three hours if using fresh, until the sauce thickens and the flavors have married. When finished, remove the bay leaf.

For the ricotta filling
If you can’t find sheep’s milk ricotta, use the best cow’s milk ricotta you can find.

4 lbs. sheep’s milk ricotta
2 Tbl. chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
¼ tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
4 large eggs

In a large bowl, mix everything together but the eggs. Beat the eggs lightly and fold in until thoroughly mixed.

The Method

Place two heaping tablespoons of the filling along one edge of each pancake and roll it up. Ladle some of the sauce in the bottom of a glass or ceramic baking dish to coat, and place the manicotti, seam side down, in the dish. After the dish is full of manicotti, ladle more sauce over the top to cover. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake at 350°F. for 40 minutes. Uncover for the last 10 minutes of baking.

Monsanto News (3/7/10)

Anyone concerned with the purity of the food supply and the need to eat organically should be aware of Monsanto Corporation and what it’s up to. Perhaps the best way to gauge Monsanto’s influence over America’s food supply is to give a pop quiz. See how many answers you get right:

1. Monsanto makes almost all the _____ that’s used to produce high fructose corn syrup.
A. Flint corn
B. Genetically modified corn
C. Corn waste

2. High fructose corn syrup is found in
A. Thomas’s English Muffins
B. Coca Cola
C. Yogurt
D. Cough Syrup
E. All of the above

3. Monsanto controls ________ percent of all genetically modified organisms.
A. 100 percent
B. 90 percent
C. 50 percent
D. 20 percent

4. Monsanto’s GMO products appear in _______ percent of processed American foods.
A. 100 percent
B. 70 percent
C. 40 percent
D. 15 percent

5. Corn genetically modified to withstand Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide caused what in lab rats?
A. Heart disease
B. Birth defects
C. Hair loss
D. Kidney, liver, heart, spleen, adrenal gland, and blood damage
E. All of the above

6. Monsanto cleared _______ in profit from its 2008 operations.
A. $3.5 billion
B. $2 billion
C. $700 million
D. $500 million

7. If you own a farm next to a farm where Monsanto seeds are used, and if pollen from Monsanto’s plants fertilizes your seeds, Monsanto has established the right to _______ you for violation of the copyright on its seeds, and to collect royalties.
A. Sue
B. Blacklist
C. Slander

And regarding that last question, consider the case of Tennessee farmer Kem Ralph who, in 2004, served eight months in jail and was fined $1.3 million for lying about Monsanto cotton seeds he was hiding in his barn, claiming they weren’t even his seeds and that he was saving them for a friend. By the way, Tennessee’s fine for possession of cocaine is $2,500.

The answers are B, E, B, B, D, B, A.

Body & Soil (3/14/10)

It's not surprising that the same forces of nature that create living soil, plants, and animals also create us. Life is a continuum, after all, from the simplest one-celled prokaryote—a cell without a nucleus--to the most complex collaboration of eukaryotes—cells with a nucleus and mitochondrion—such as human beings. All life is cells and all cells respond to the grand scheme of nature.

And so, the life in the soil, including bacteria, fungi, worms, actinomycetes, insects, and many other creatures, are all subject to the grand scheme. And so is the life in us.

Did you know that nine out of 10 cells in the human body are the bacteria that live in our intestines? And that these bacteria are related in form and function to the soil bacteria? Both in soil and in our bodies, these bacteria are responsible for dismantling the organic matter we feed them (in the case of plants, we call it compost; in the case of humans, we call it food) and releasing its nutrients so they can be absorbed by plants and animals.

Bacterial action releases nutrients from organic matter. Living plants absorb them through their roots. Humans absorb them through their intestines. Think of a root as a long tube covered with tiny root hairs that absorb nutrients from the soil in which the root grows. Now think of an intestine as a long tube lined inside with villi that are similar to root hairs in form and function—only with an intestine, the soil is inside and it is within the intestine that bacteria are dismantling organic matter to release its nutrients. It’s as if animals learned to pull their roots up and out of the soil, turning them inside out, so they could walk about the world instead of being rooted to one place.

And so our bodies and the soil have a lot in common. And as said before, all life is cells and all cells respond to the grand scheme of nature. So what is this grand scheme of nature?

Put simply, it is nature’s drive to reach a climax ecology. And that means to pack as many life forms into a habitat as possible so they set up a system of checks and balances that keeps the habitat healthy. The more biodiversity, the healthier the system becomes. The habitat might be a farmer’s abandoned cornfield that’s moving from a monocrop of corn, which is a precarious situation vis a vis health, and returning to a meadow of native annual and perennial plants—a much more stable and healthy arrangement. But nature doesn’t stop there. She wants that meadow returned to a climax ecology, and so the meadow over time will return to forest in naturally forested regions like the eastern United States. And certain trees will dominate the upper story of the forest while others occupy the substories, and the ground is covered with plants like skunk cabbage, ground pine, trout lilies, and many other plants. And through all this wonderland of plant life birds fly, squirrels climb, and deer move ghostlike in the shade. It may take many centuries, but left alone, the climax ecology will return, for that’s the most stable and healthy use of a habitat.

And what about us? Can we set up a stable climax ecology within our intestines so that our gut bacteria’s ability to wrest every last nutrient from our food and feed it to us is maximized? Yes—and it doesn’t have to take centuries. It can happen quickly if we eat plenty of raw fruits and vegetables—easy enough to do if we eat fruit and salads regularly. A nutritionist once told me that if half of our diet is raw fruits and vegetables, the other half can be Twinkies and we’ll still be healthy. That’s hyperbole of course, but his point was that it’s not that difficult to maximize our health by feeding our gut bacteria what they like. And what they like is the same thing that soil bacteria like—raw organic matter. It’s what the bacteria are fit to handle, and dismantling organic matter is the job they love to do. This doesn’t mean you have to be a vegan or even a vegetarian. Just making sure you are eating plenty of raw fruits and vegetables will insure that there is a great diversity of symbiotic bacteria developing in your intestines, doing their job of keeping you (their host) healthy.

In other words, when your intestinal flora is happy, you are happy.

The Green Food Resolutions (3/21/10)

New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco are considering passing “Green Food Resolutions,” but the small town of Signal Mountain, Tennessee (population 7,000), beat them to it. It was the first in the nation to pass a Green Food Resolution, which is, “an ordinance designed to counteract the massive health and environmental damage created by large-scale factory farms and the meat industry, by encouraging local farms, plant-based diets, ecological sustainability and nutritious eating habits.”

It said, in part, “RESOLVED that the Signal Mountain Council promotes expansions of the number of Farmers' Markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, Community Gardens, and other venues for providing healthful plant-based foods, and encourages food retailers to offer more plant-based options.”

It sounds like a mixture of organics and vegetarianism. I’m down with the idea of the resolution, but not with the idea that healthy eating means eschewing meat. Well-produced organic animal protein is a vital part of a healthy diet. If someone wants to be a vegetarian or vegan, that’s fine by me, but animals have been a part of the human diet since our modern species of humans appeared 100,000 years ago, and probably was a part of the diet of our progenitors long before that. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, eat vegetables and meat, too, and we share 95 percent of our genome with them.

We’re now entering a phase where we realize the value of animals raised humanely without the use of antibiotics, hormones, or other chemicals.

The Green Food Resolutions have been launched in many cities across America by Farm Sanctuary, a vegan organization that works to end not just cruelty to farm animals, but their slaughter and consumption as food as well. Ending cruelty is a worthwhile and noble goal. Ending the consumption of meat, milk, and eggs by humans is a radical notion. It’s a shame that the two goals have to be merged by Farm Sanctuary. While I respect their right to espouse whatever views they wish, that respect should be a two-way street. Let’s institute organic standards for the husbandry of farm animals—essentially cruelty free and humane treatment. That’s a goal all compassionate people can accept.

Gardens Are Only as Good as Their Soil (3/28/10)

Now that the peas have been planted and spring is here, the gardening bug is biting hard. Long-time gardeners will know this, but those just starting out with home vegetable, fruit, or ornamental gardens need to know this: your garden will only be as good as your soil.

So the question becomes, what do we mean by “good” soil?

Good soil is rich loam, and loam is a mixture of sand, silt, clay, and actively decaying organic matter such as compost. A rich loam will have about five percent organic matter, about 15 percent sand, and the rest equal parts silt and clay. Too much sand, and the soil will dry out too fast and you’ll need to be watering too frequently. Too much clay and your soil will be sticky when wet or hard and impenetrable when dry.

Good garden soil will feel crumbly in your hands. You’ll be able to shove your hand down into it easily. It will be dark and brown. The more closely it resembles coffee grounds, the better. Roots can really grow vigorously in this kind of soil, and roots are the plants’ feeding organs, sucking up water and nutrients from the soil.

If you are starting from scratch, be patient. It takes at least three years to turn hard, lifeless soil into rich crumbly loam.

Here’s how to do it. Make sure you have a source of actively decaying organic matter. You can make your own compost (that’s a story for another day, but you can find the basics of how to make compost online), or buy it by the bag, or seek out sources of nutrient-rich organic matter, such as stable or stall sweepings and make heaping piles of them that heat up and rot. Then use the rotted result when the heat cools down—using fresh manure or stable sweepings can burn young plants.

Start small. You can pack a lot of food crops into an area 25 by 10 feet—that’s 250 square feet. Double dig the soil. That is, turn over and loosen the soil about a foot deep, then, moving soil aside, dig down a second foot deep in the layer under the first layer. Rent a tiller for the initial layer, or dig two layers deep at once by having a local farmer come over and rip your soil with a ripper attachment on his or her tractor.

Remove large rocks and roots from the soil. Add a layer of compost six inches thick over the new garden area and then cover it a foot deep in spoiled hay or unspoiled hay if you don’t mind paying for it. Make sure the hay doesn’t contain mature plant seeds.

Plant by pulling back the hay until you see the compost, then plant into the compost. After the seeds have sprouted and the plants rise above the hay, snug the hay back up around the growing plants. In the fall, when the garden is finished, spread another foot of spoiled hay over the surface. Let it sit exposed to the winter weather.

The next spring, turn the rotted hay into the soil, then add another six inches of compost and another foot-deep layer of spoiled hay, repeat the same planting procedure as the year before, finishing with another layer of hay in the fall. In the third year, repeat the procedure once again.

I guarantee you that by the spring of the following (fourth) year, you will be amazed at the condition of your soil and the abundance of food or flowers it produces. You will have excellent soil and, as a consequence, an excellent garden.

The Black Currants Are Coming! (4/4/10)

Most Americans have not eaten an actual currant, because if you look for them in the supermarket, you find small, dried, raisin-like fruits that are, in fact, small, seedless, dried Zante grapes. They are called currants simply because they look something like dried black currants.

But it’s worth seeking out real currants because of the diversity of their flavors, their usefulness, and—if you have a yard in the northern half of the country—they make pretty deciduous shrubs that once a year shower you with sweet little fruits.

I have grown three types of true currants—red, black, and white—plus gooseberries, which I include here because they are of the same genus (Ribes) and are something like an oversized currant. Of these, my favorites are the black currants (Ribes nigrum), prized across the countries of northern Europe, especially Germany. They barely cling to productive life here in the hot, dry climate of California, but in Pennsylvania, they were supremely easy to grow. I could take cuttings in the spring and simply stick them into a bed of compost-enriched soil, and by fall, they’d have reliably grown roots and were ready for transplanting to the permanent currant patch. By the time I sold the property, I had 50 black currant bushes, each six feet tall, laden with jet-black, shiny berries the size of small peas each June.

Some people say they aren’t very good raw, but not me. Yes, they have a strong musky flavor, but it’s rich and luscious. I find that commercially processed black currant jams, jellies, fruit juices, and even cassis—the liqueur made from black currants—have lost the musky flavor that makes black currants unique. Yet, when I make black currant syrup at home by simply cooking the berries with some sugar, then straining it, some of that unique flavor is retained. Black currants are very disease resistant and so are almost always grown without the need for chemicals, which doesn’t exactly make them organic. Organic is not just the absence of chemicals, but rather a method of enriching the soil, promoting biodiversity, and working with nature to improve the garden or farm ecosystem as crops are grown and harvested. The bottom line is that fresh black currants at farmers markets and roadside stands will almost surely be free of toxic chemicals, even if the farm isn’t certified organic.

The same applies to white and red currants (Ribes rubrum), and to gooseberries. White currants, which are a sport of red currants that lack the red anthocyanin pigment, are rare to find at the markets, but if you see them, certainly buy them for out-of-hand eating. They are the sweetest and mildest of the currants. The red ones are very tart when they first turn a watery light red in July. If allowed to hang on the bush, they turn a darker, richer red, and that’s when they are really good—still tart, but less so, and sweeter, with a succulent flavor. They also make fine syrups and jellies, and the best melba sauces have a dollop of fresh red currant or red currant jelly mixed into their raspberry base. They’re also an ingredient in Cumberland sauce, a tangy red currant/mustard sauce that’s traditional with cold meats… except the first time I encountered Cumberland sauce, it was at Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, served in a warmed chafing dish with small, little, finger-sized hot dogs as hors d’ouvres, of all things.

Gooseberries (Ribes hirtellum) are about two or three times larger than currants, and somewhat milder-flavored, with a flavor likened to grapes, kiwis, and even apricots. One can use them to make gooseberry fool (stewed gooseberries topped or blended with whipped cream or custard), which is a name I love and which I’m tempted to use as a pejorative. They have a mild tartness to them and are made into jams and preserves. Having grown them, I can attest that they have wicked thorns that the gardener must negotiate when pruning. I could only do the job shirtless, as the proximity of my bare skin to the gooseberry bushes made me extremely conscious and careful of the job at hand. When a gooseberry thorn punctures the skin, it sends a deep intense pain right down to the bone, a pain that lasts for a very unpleasant couple of minutes. My revenge was to eat them by the mouthfuls.

Black currants have been crossed with gooseberries to create a hybrid called the Jostaberry. The fruits are black, closer to a gooseberry in size than to a black currant, and lack the musky, resinous flavor of the black currant. They are occasionally found at farmers markets and roadside stands.

Finally, there are a couple of American native currants that grow wild. Ribes americanum and Ribes odoratum (with its pleasant clove scent to the flowers) produce small, red-black currants on medium-sized bushes. Their fruits are seldom seen in commerce but their genes are found in many of the commercial varieties.

You’ll probably never find true currants of any stripe at the supermarket, but look for them in their June and July seasons at the farmers markets. Whether you make jelly or jam or simple sauce, currants will make the best sort of glaze, to be brushed over fruit toppings, cakes, and pastries. Alpine strawberries can be dipped in currant jelly syrup and then dotted over tapioca puddings or cakes. Ricotta-filled blintzes will come alive when currant jelly syrup is poured over them, accompanied by a dab of crème fraiche. Stir red currant syrup through a banana smoothie for an ambrosial drink. Strew fresh white currants over a summer salad. Their uses are myriad.

If you can put this dessert together, you will wow whoever comes in contact with it. One of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Black Currant Sauce
4 cups black currant berries
1 cup sugar
Squeeze of lemon juice

In a saucepan, over medium heat, heat the black currants and sugar until the berries soften, the juice runs, and the sugar dissolves. Cook until all the juice is expressed. Strain into a bowl, add the lemon juice, and stir. Chill and reserve.

Lemon Bavarian
Although this isn’t a particularly difficult dessert to make, it does take attention to detail. It’s made the night before it’s served. The Bavarian can be frozen after its made and trotted out days afterward, but it will have a slightly different—although still excellent—consistency. Limoncello is the lemon-based liqueur made on the Amalfi coast of Italy.
1 cup plus 3 Tbl. sugar
2 organic lemons
1 ½ Tbl. unflavored gelatin
7 egg yolks
2 tsp. cornstarch
1 ½ cups whole milk
2 Tbl. limoncello
5 egg whites
Pinch salt
½ cup chilled heavy cream

1. Place two tablespoons of the sugar into a mixing bowl and add the zest of two organic lemons.
2. Juice the zested lemons into a measuring cup through a strainer to catch the seeds. You should have about ½ cup of strained lemon juice. Sprinkle the gelatin into the lemon juice, stir, and set aside to soften.
3. Add the egg yolks to the lemon zest-sugar mixture in the mixing bowl and beat until smooth with a wooden spoon. Gradually beat in one cup of the sugar until the mixture is very smooth and pale yellow. Beat in the cornstarch. Heat the milk until almost boiling and dribble it into the egg yolk mixture, beating all the while.
4. Pour the mixture into a saucepan or double boiler and heat gently, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens just enough to coat the wooden spoon. Be careful not to cook too fast or hard, certainly not to boil, or the egg yolks will curdle. If they curdle, all is lost. As soon as the mixture coats the spoon, take it off the heat, add the limoncello and gelatin mixture, and beat for a few moments until the gelatin is completely dissolved and mixed.
5. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites and a pinch of salt until soft peaks form. Sprinkle on one tablespoon of sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Fold these egg whites into the hot custard in the mixing bowl. Place it in the fridge, and fold the mixture several times while the mixture is cooling, which keeps it from separating, until it’s cold but not quite set.
6. Beat the whipping cream until doubled in volume, then fold it into the custard. Turn the custard into a mold that has been rinsed in cold water and the excess water shaken out. It can be an eight-cup ring mold, simple metal bowl, or whatever. Cover the filled mold with wax paper and place in the fridge overnight. Before serving, remove the wax paper, dip the mold in very hot water for one or two seconds, then cover the bowl with a chilled serving platter and invert so the Bavarian drops free onto the platter.
7. Slice this Bavarian into individual servings, place these on chilled serving plates, and drizzle plenty of black currant syrup over each slice. Serves 8.

How George Bush Tried to Destroy Organic Food (4/11/10)

One sure way to destroy the integrity of the organic food industry is to fail to enforce the organic food laws, which are very strict about what constitutes organic food.

That’s just what the Bush administration did.

And this is according to the USDA’s Office of Inspector General, which audited and investigated the USDA’s National Organic Program under the Bush years. The Inspector General’s final report was issued March 9 and confirmed the allegation of prominent organic industry watchdog groups that under the Bush administration, the USDA did an inadequate job of enforcing federal organic law.

“Some of the most troubling findings,” says The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, include the USDA’s failure to follow through on enforcement after violations of the organic law were confirmed by federal law enforcement investigators. “And when enforcement was pursued, the USDA delayed action for as long as 32 months. And the NOP could not document for the Office of Inspector General the status of 19 complaints it received since 2004 that alleged illegal activity,” the Cornucopia Institute reports.

According to Mark Kastel, senior policy analyst at the Institute, “The Bush administration allowed factory farm production to proliferate, gaining as much as 30 to 40 percent of the organic dairy market, in addition to industrial-scale production of eggs and beef.”

However, once the Obama administration took over and Tom Vilsack was appointed Secretary of Agriculture, things began to change. One of Vilsack’s first actions was to appoint Dr. Kathleen Merrigan as Deputy Secretary of the agency. Dr. Merrigan is well known in the organic community as a person knowledgeable about organics and farming and food regulations. She in turn appointed Miles McEvoy to replace Dr. Barbara Robinson, the Bush appointee who headed the National Organic Program, and McEvoy declared “the age of enforcement” was at hand for the NOP.

Not a moment too soon.

It’s not surprising that the Bush administration would ignore the law and let big agriculture have its way. What is surprising is that during all the Bush years since 2002, when the National Organic Program was made into law, very little investigative journalism was done to reveal the extent of the enforcement deficiencies at NOP.

Nanofoods--Another Reason to Eat Organic (4/18/10)

Ever hear of nano-foods? No? Well, that's on purpose. Most of the larger companies developing nano-foods are keeping their activities quiet (when you search for the term 'nano' or nanotechnology' on the websites of Kraft, Nestle, Heinz and Altria you get exactly zero results).

According to the website Nanowerks, “In the forefront of nano-food development is Kraft Foods, which took the industry’s lead when it established the Nanotek Consortium, a collaboration of 15 universities and national research labs, in 2000. Kraft’s focus is on ‘interactive’ foods and beverages. These products will be customized to fit the tastes and needs of consumers at an individual level.

What does this mean? What is nanotechnology, and what is a nano-food?

Nano- is a prefix that means ultra-tiny. Ultra-tiny particles such as carbon nano-tubes are being used in hundreds of ways to jigger our food supply. Yet New Scientist magazine recently reported, “Injecting carbon nanotubes into mice shows they can trigger toxic responses similar to asbestos fibres, causing a strong immune response and possibly cancer in the abdominal cavity, researchers say.” In another study, when mice inhaled carbon nano-tubes, all of the test subjects died within 9 days.

So how is nanotechnology being used in our food?

One way is to encapsulate nutraceuticals (foods with pharmaceutical properties) in capsules so small you can’t see them, and put them in products like cooking oils. Another is to put flavor enhancing chemicals into nano-capsules and mix them into foods. (To see what flavor enhancers can do, Google “excitotoxins.”) Another is to put nano-tubes (like the ones that killed the mice) into foods to increase their viscosity and ability to gel. Another is to put plant-derived steroids into nano-capsules and use them to replace the natural cholesterols in meats. Another is to seed foods with microscopic nano-particles in order to increase availability of nutrients in foods.

And the list goes on. And that’s just a partial list of what’s being developed for foods. Nanotechnology is also being used in agriculture, food packaging, and in food supplements.

But surely the FDA or EPA is monitoring nanotechnology in foods, right? Wrong. There is no oversight. There are no regulations. Foods containing nano-particles don’t have to be labeled as such.

But nanotechnology is not allowed in organic food products. That’s yet another very good and important reason to eat organically.

Is Organic Food from China Safe to Eat? (4/25/10)

The short answer is "No."

China has a long record of exporting shoddy and harmful products, from poisonous toys for children, to deadly pet food, to chemical-laden drywall that exudes harmful gas, to foods like peanuts contaminated with cancer-causing aflatoxin molds. Why should their so-called “organic” foods be legitimate?

According to Whole Foods, China’s food products are held to the same standards that apply to organic farmers here in the U.S. If you look at who certifies Chinese foods as organic, you’ll see QAI, which stands for Quality Assurance International. But QAI doesn’t certify Chinese foodstuffs. It simply certifies that the food has been certified by another company.

I say the certification trail grows too long for complete assurance that Chinese organic food really is organic. There are too many hands and too many steps and too much temptation for corruption along the way to trust Chinese organic food.

It’s going to take more than glib assurances from a Whole Foods suit to ease my skepticism. I want to know who exactly is doing the certification, inspecting the farms, testing the soil, watching the production lines. We just found out that during the Bush years, the USDA was lax in enforcing the organic laws here at home, although that has tightened up now that Obama is President. If things were lax here, how much better will they be in China, where schools collapse in earthquakes because unscrupulous cement purveyors sell weak cement to school building contractors?

No—I’m sorry. I read packages. And I believe that the best and safest foods are locally grown, organically-produced, and available in season. If the package says China, I’m outa there.

Organic Gains Even in a Weak Economy (5/2/10)

Despite an economy in recession and folks keeping a tight hold on their wallets, sales of organic products in the United States grew by 5.3 percent in 2009, to reach $26.6 billion in sales. Of that figure, $24.8 billion was for organic food, the remaining $1.8 billion in organically-grown products like cotton.

That represents millions upon millions of people voting with their food budgets for clean food produced in an environmentally sustainable way. According to the 2008 Organic Production Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 14,540 organic farms and ranches in the country that year covering 4.1 million acres. That means more than 4 million acres free from toxic chemicals, safe for wildlife and domestic plants and animals, and safe for farmers, ranchers, and people who use and eat their products.

The top 10 states in number of organic farms were, in decreasing numbers of farms, California, Wisconsin, Washington, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio, Iowa, and Vermont.

The average annual sales of organic farms was $217,675, compared to $134,807 for U.S. farms overall. That’s a difference of $82,868 in premium prices paid to organic farmers for their products. Farm expenditures were higher for organic farms, at $171,978, compared to all U.S. farms at $109, 359. And that’s a difference of $62,619 more expense for the organic farmers. That still gives organic farmers over $20,000 more income than the average U.S. farmer. Nice. Even without taking all the environmental benefits of organic farming into account, farmers who go organic can expect a better bottom line than if they farm conventionally.

A farmer has to wear many hats, and wear them well. He or she has to know and understand soil science, agronomy, agriculture, plant pathology, entomology, meteorology, hydrology, marketing, and economics, among other disciplines. If farmers take a good hard look at the economics of farming, maybe more of them will switch to organics.

This growth is heartening, but around the world, organic growth is even more dramatic. In 2008, nearly 1.4 million farmers, orchardists, and ranchers farmed 86.5 million acres organically, according to BioFach’s “The World of Organic Agriculture.” The acreage total was up nine percent over 2007. Meanwhile, according to IFOAM’s “Organic Monitor” estimates, global organic sales reached $50.9 billion in 2008, double the $25 billion recorded in 2003. IFOAM is the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.

While we still have a long way to go before world agriculture is entirely safe and naturally productive under organic agriculture, we are definitely on our way to that world.

The Latest from the GMO Front

The latest news from the genetically modified crop front is—unfortunately and predictably—the same old news: overuse of GMO crops is having unforeseen negative effects.
Unforeseen by conventional farmers who buy the genetically altered seeds, that is. Here’s what’s happening:

Before companies like Monsanto developed the ability to genetically modify crops, they produced old-fashioned herbicides and pesticides. These chemicals did a good job of killing off almost all the pests in the fields where they were sprayed. Almost all the pests, that is, except the few mutant pests who had a natural resistance to the chemicals. These few reproduced and soon the fields were hopping with pesticide-resistant insects.

And so farmers had to move to the harder stuff—chemicals with higher toxicity. And the death spiral was on until today, millions of tons of ever-more-toxic chemicals are used worldwide to control pests and weeds. At great cost to farmers, the environment, and we who consume the farm products.

Enter genetic engineering. This so-called panacea was supposed to reduce the amount of pesticides used in agriculture, and to some extent, it has. But it’s replaced the toxic chemicals with something that produces the same negative effects: resistant pests. As you know, genes form the control panel of life. Humankind learned over the past 30 years how to gain access to this control panel. Now, there is a gene in certain bacilli that programs each bacillus to produce a substance toxic to caterpillars. Organic farmers have been using it for many decades, under the name Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. It works well and can be applied on an as-needed basis to control corn earworm and other pests whose larvae are caterpillars. Bt doesn’t harm other creatures—only caterpillars.

The genetic engineers thought it would be a good idea to take that disease-causing gene from Bacillus thuringiensis and stick it into the genetic make-up of corn. Today more than 80 percent of the corn grown in the United States contains the gene for the caterpillar toxin. Every cell of the GMO corn carries that gene, even its pollen and so every cell is toxic to caterpillars. GMO corn pollen can travel long distances in a stiff wind, and it has been landing on the host plants of other caterpillar-larvae insects, such as monarch butterflies, killing the butterflies and other insects without discrimination.

And you know what else is happening? Now that the Bt gene is in every cell of virtually every corn plant in the U.S., some mutant insects have developed resistance to it. It won’t be long before the toxic corn will selectively wipe out those caterpillars without resistance, leaving only those with resistance to breed. And so another natural, useful tool to control insects will have been needlessly destroyed.

The same thing is happening with weeds. “Roundup Ready” plants are genetically altered to resist damage by the weed killer glyphosate, trademarked as Roundup. So you can plant your Roundup Ready crops and then kill almost all the field’s weeds with Roundup. Almost all the weeds—except those with a mutation that allows them to resist damage from glyphosate. And so while ordinary weeds die off and don’t reproduce, the mutant weeds reproduce happily. Sound familiar? It’s the same process as with Bt, and with conventional pesticides before them.

But surely we here in the U.S. must be as proactive as the Europeans, who by and large disallow the sales of GMO foods and require food labels that state whether a food contains genetically engineered ingredients. Um, no. If the U.S. government has its way, a powerful intergovernmental group may soon prevent anyone anywhere from labeling GMO food.

This group is promulgating the Codex Alimentarius—guidelines regarding food safety and labeling standards used by the World Trade Organization to settle international disputes regarding food and agriculture export agreements.

The Credo Action group (www.credoaction.com) reports that according to draft language circulated by the FDA, the U.S. will oppose a proposal at an upcoming meeting of a Codex committee that would allow the labeling of GMO food. “Unfortunately,” Credo Action says, “the Obama administration has incorporated pre-existing Bush administration positions stating that Codex should not ‘suggest or imply that GMO foods are in any way different from other foods.’”

Not only would this position allow GMO crops into the organic food supply, where it is expressly prohibited (who can tell if it’s GMO if no one is allowed to tell if it’s GMO?), but the position paper declares that mandatory labeling laws such as they have in Europe are “false, misleading, or deceptive.”

I don’t know about you, but I detect the hand of Big Agriculture—Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Cargill, and the rest of the usual suspects--in these positions. Who else would want to deny the public the right to know what’s in their food? Who else is selling GMO seed (Monsanto recently had to reduce the price of its GMO seed for corn, cotton, and soybeans because farmers were balking at paying its oppressive prices)? Who else profits from false, misleading, and deceptive propaganda about its products except those who call labeling laws for GMO ingredients by those very names?

It’s the old political trick of pointing the finger at your opponent and calling him or her in public what you secretly are in private. Laws requiring food companies to state when they use GMO products give consumers the choice to buy or avoid those products. You can just about hear the discussions in the boardrooms of Big Ag: “We can’t let people know there are GMO ingredients in their food. They might refuse to buy it. Here’s an idea: let’s make rules that say you aren’t allowed to reveal whether or not a food contains GMO products!”

As Bob Dylan wrote, “Look out, kids. They keep it all hid.”

Sweet Cherry Pie (5/16/10)

Cherries start coming in during June, but the best pie cherries arrive in July when the tart cherries are ripe. Sweet cherries just don’t have the acid snap to make a succulent pie. Cherry pie demands a scoop of vanilla, so who are we to argue? Kirsch is available at most markets or liquor stores. Make sure your ingredients are organic!

1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup Kirsch
4 cups pitted fresh pie (tart) cherries (or frozen if fresh are unavailable)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup butter
Cold water

1. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Mix the sugar and cornstarch in a saucepan, then add the Kirsch and enough water to make a smooth batter, about ½ cup. Set the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil. Continue to boil until the mixture thickens, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cherries, cinnamon, allspice, and almond extract, and mix well.

2. In another bowl, mix together the flour and salt. Add the butter and, using 2 knives, cut it into the flour until the flour has a mealy texture. Add cold water a tablespopon at a time and toss it through the dough with two forks until the dough forms a ball.

3. Divide the dough in half, making one half slightly larger than the other. Lightly flour a board or smooth surface and roll out the larger half into a 12-inch circle.

4. Line a 9-inch pie pan with the crust. Fill the pie pan with the cherry mixture. Make a top crust from the second ball of dough, slitting it in several places. Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375ºF and bake for 50 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven to cool on a rack.

Flaky Pie Crust

I’ve heard many ideas about how to make a flaky pie crust but none are as simple and effective as this recipe.

2 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ cup (1 stick) cold butter
1 ½ Tbl. canola oil
1/3 cup ice water plus more as needed

1. All ingredients should be as cold as possible. Sift the flour and salt together into a mixing bowl. Add the butter and canola oil and cut it into the flour using 2 knives, until it resembles a coarse meal. Add the water, quickly tossing it through the dough.

2. Press the damp dough together. It’s a good idea to use a spatula between your hand and the dough, so you don’t transfer the heat of your hand to the dough. If the butter melts, it soaks into the flour and loses the ability to make a flaky crust. If it forms a ball that doesn’t fall apart, you’ve added enough water. If it’s still crumbly, add ice water one tablespoon at a time until it does form a ball. When the dough holds together, cut it in half, press each piece down into a six-inch round, and wrap in wax paper, then refrigerate.

3. Refrigerate for an hour before rolling the pieces out to make a bottom crust that’s 12 inches in diameter and a top crust that’s 10 inches in diameter. Makes 2 crusts.

The President’s Cancer Panel and Organic Food (5/23/10)

It doesn’t get any more mainstream than the President’s Cancer Panel, established in 1971, and currently comprised of three distinguished physicians appointed by President George W. Bush. They report directly to the President, and recently delivered a 200-page report urging Americans to reduce cancer risks by, among other things, eating organic food.

Somewhere in heaven, J.I. Rodale should take a bow, for he warned us about the links between environmental chemicals and cancer, and the benefits of eating unpolluted organic food, seventy years ago. The agricultural chemistry industry called him a “nut,” a “kook,” and a danger to the country.

But as the Cancer Panel points out, our regulatory agencies—the EPA and FDA in particular—don’t do a good job safeguarding citizens against cancer-causing chemicals, and the result can be disastrous to our health. Their report notes that the danger is greatest during pregnancy, when the fetus is most vulnerable, and that 300 contaminants have been detected in the cord blood of newborn babies, which means amniotic fluid is also a chemical soup. “To a disturbing extent,” the report says, “babies are born ‘pre-polluted.’”

“Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety,” the report says, “and many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated.”

The report gives a list of things people can do to reduce their cancer risk. One of those things is “to give preference to food grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and growth hormones.”


In related news, Congress now has before it the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which it has yet to pass. This bill, if enacted into law, would prevent agribusiness from routinely using antibiotics on meat and milk animals, a common practice that encourages the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And that means when human beings develop infections, those antibiotics are rendered useless to fight them.

Donald Kennedy, a former FDA commissioner and now professor of environmental science at Stanford, recently wrote, “Agribusiness argues—as it has for 30 years—that livestock need to be given antibiotics to help them grow properly and keep them free of disease. But consider what has happened in Denmark since the late 1990s, when that country banned the use of antibiotics in farm animals except for therapeutic purposes. The reservoir of resistant bacteria in Danish livestock shrank considerably, a World Health Organization report found.” You might encourage your Congresspeople to vote for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.


In more related news, pesticides are now being linked to the development of ADHD in children. According to a report on Health.com, which quotes a study that appeared in the journal Pediatrics, “Children exposed to higher levels of a certain pesticide found in trace amounts on conventionally grown fruit and vegetables are more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than children with less exposure. Researchers measured the levels of pesticide byproducts in the urine of 1,139 children from across the United States. Children with above-average levels of one common byproduct had roughly twice the odds of being diagnosed with ADHD.”

What is the pesticide at fault here? Organophosphates, which disrupt the nervous systems of insects. “Organophosphates are designed to have toxic effects on the nervous system,” says the lead author of the Pediatrics study. “That’s how they kill pests.” These pesticides act on a set of brain chemicals closely related to those involved in ADHD, the author said, “so it seems plausible that exposure to organophosphates could be associated with ADHD-like symptoms.”

Organophosphate pesticides are among the most widely used pesticides in conventional farming. Recent tests showed residues on 28 percent of frozen blueberries, 20 percent of celery, 25 percent of strawberries, 27 percent of green beans, 17 percent of peaches…and on and on.

The bottom line once again is to eat organic food, where no agricultural chemicals are used in production and residues are vanishingly small where they exist at all—and then exist only because of spray drift from nearby chemical farms.

Cold Water Coffee (5/30/10)

Cold-brewed coffee is all the rage among coffee aficionados these days, and it could hardly be simpler to make. The following recipe makes a coffee concentrate, but one with less acid and less caffeine than coffee brewed with hot water. When using, try it mixed 50/50 with cold nonfat milk, then heated in a microwave for 2 1/2 minutes. For black coffee, dilute the concentrate with an equal amount of water or even twice the water. Freeze some of the concentrate into ice cubes and use them with an equal number of regular water ice cubes to make iced coffee. Ah, iced coffee—it could be the most refreshingly cooling summer drink of all. Reduce this recipe by half if using a mason jar:

1 pound coffee beans, finely ground
9 cups water

1. In a large jar with a screw-on lid, place the coffee grounds and add the water. Screw on the lid. Let stand on the kitchen counter out of direct sunlight overnight.

2. Strain the coffee into a pitcher through a fine sieve, several layers of cheesecloth, or cloth tea-brewing bag, then through a paper coffee filter to catch any hazy sediment.

3. Store the concentrate as ice cubes or covered in the fridge for 4 to 5 days.

What Food Companies Are Doing to Make Us Sick(6/6/10)

Well, it's unfair to single out the food companies for making us sick. The makers of drugs, personal care products, plastics, mattresses, electronics, and many other manufactured items use hundreds of chemicals to make their products, and the chemicals they use either enter our bodies directly or find their way through circuitous routes into our air, food, and water and then into us.

In this instance, let “us” include not only individuals, but the as-yet-unborn. Developing fetuses swim in amniotic fluid that contains hundreds—yes, hundreds—of chemicals. It’s one thing for adult human beings to encounter chemicals, but for those of us still developing, especially those still in the womb, the development of our delicate endocrine and nervous systems, among others, can be compromised by this toxic overload.

In a full-page ad in The New York Times, physicians at the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York said in part, “We are deeply troubled that an estimated 12 million American kids suffer from developmental, learning, or behavioral disabilities. Attention deficit disorder affects three to six percent of our schoolchildren...certain pesticides cross the placenta and enter the brain of the developing fetus where they can cause learning and behavioral disabilities…Exposures to organophosphate pesticides during pregnancy can result in abnormally low brain weight and developmental impairment…A University of Arizona study found that children exposed to a combination of pesticides before birth and through breast milk exhibited less stamina, and poorer memory and coordination, than other kids.” For more information, see www.childenvironment.org.

The Environmental Working Group found an average of 232 chemicals in the cord blood of 10 babies born late last year, according to CNN’s recent series, “Toxic America.” “For 80 percent of the common chemicals in everyday use in this country, we know almost nothing about whether or not they can damage the brains of children, the immune system, the reproductive system, and the other developing organs,” said Dr. Phil Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “It’s really a terrible mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.”

The mess is especially messy in the area of conventionally produced food, such as beef cattle and their use in fast food outlets. Remember the deaths caused by E. coli at Jack in the Box a few years ago? Turns out that there are now six more strains of E. coli that have pretty much been ignored but have recently caused a spate of kidney failures and other problems across the country. These strains are not tested for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture right now, but there is pressure for testing to begin. Why no testing? Dr. Richard Raymond, who was the head of USDA’s food safety division from 2005 to 2008 said he stopped short of banning the rarer strains of E. coli in ground beef “because he thought he would not be able to defend the decision against industry criticism,” according to an article, “In E. Coli Fight, Some Strains Are Largely Ignored” (N.Y. Times, May 26, 2010).

These bad E. coli strains develop in the guts of cattle fed grains to fatten them before slaughter. Grain is an unnatural food for cattle and their unbalanced digestive systems allow these bad bacteria to develop. The beef then finds its way into local markets, school lunch programs, and, especially, into fast food outlets.

Who owns these fast food companies? According to Harvard Medical School researchers,, 11 large companies that offer health, life, and disability insurance owned about $1.9 billion in stock in the five largest fast food companies as of June, 2009. The fast food companies included McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell. The insurance companies include Massachusetts Mutual, Northwestern Mutual, and Prudential Financial. Ah yes, the health insurance companies—the ones that pick our pockets should we happen to fall ill.

“The insurance industry cares about making money, and it doesn’t really care how,” says the senior author of the Harvard study, J. Wesley Boyd, M.D.

So, it’s not just the big food companies that are making us sick and poisoning our babies, it’s corporate America straight across the board.

Our best defense, of course, is to be scrupulous about eating organic.

Our Organic Planet (6/19/10)

Organic gardeners and farmers like to say they work with nature, not against her, and that’s the secret to the health of their soil and the products—vegetable and animal—that derive from that soil.

That’s true, but it’s also a very human-centric way of understanding organics. The deeper truth is that wild nature herself is organic, and as practitioners of agriculture and horticulture, human beings simply have to avoid interfering too aggressively in order to be organic, too.

Consider the forest primeval, or any place on earth where green things grow. This year’s detritus—deciduous leaves, bits of twigs and bark, insect bodies, dead animals, and so on—falls to the ground where it decays through the action of funguses, microorganisms, worms, and other creatures and becomes the compost from which next year’s plants will take their nourishment. The organic gardener’s compost pile is just this same process confined in a small place.

Another saying of the organic community is that the greater the diversity of an ecosystem, the greater its health. Look at a farmer’s field of corn or soybeans. Not much diversity there, and so those fields are vulnerable to attack by pests, requiring the use of pesticides if the farmer is conventional, or less toxic controls if the farmer is organic. But look at wild nature. In a climax ecosystem, just about every trophic level is filled. There are canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs, perennial forbs, and annual plants. Diversity reigns. And in the wild places where humans haven’t damaged the ecosystem, health reigns, too. Yes, there are plant-eating insects, but there are also insect-eating insects, and rarely do the plant eaters destroy their own food supply completely, because to do so would be to destroy themselves in the process.

All the lessons one needs to learn in order to be a good organic gardener or farmer are laid out in wild nature. Nature isn’t the kind of teacher who will lecture you, but she is a teacher who will show you how to operate. From us, she requires that we use our intelligence to understand her ways and mimic them in our gardens and on our farms.

The beauty part is that her classroom is always open, her lessons are always profound, and the learning can last a lifetime.

Let's Make Paella (6/27/10)

It’s summer. Cheap, good Spanish red wines are in the stores. All we need for the perfect outdoor dinner party is a steaming paella—organic of course. Here’s my favorite recipe for this traditional Spanish entire-meal-in-one-pan dish. To be truly authentic, you need a two-handled paella pan, available at good cookery stores. They come in several sizes, but buy one at least 18 inches in diameter or 24 inches or more if you’re going to feed a small crowd. The following recipe feeds 12. Halve it for six people. Note that you start a day before you make the paella by marinating the chicken overnight. This recipe is adapted from one produced by Kitchen On Fire (www.kitchenonfire.com) in Berkeley.

For the chicken:

3 Tbl. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. smoked paprika
½ tsp. ground cayenne
1 ½ tsp. finely minced garlic
3 tsp. lemon juice
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
12 small chicken drumsticks or 24 drumettes (the first wing joint)

1. Combine the seasonings and chicken in a large gallon zip-lock bag or a bowl.
2. Close the bag or cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator overnight.
3. Before you start the paella, place the chicken on a baking sheet and roast at 375 F. for about 30 minutes. They will finish cooking in the paella.

For the paella:

6 Tbl. extra virgin olive oil
12 oz. spicy sausage, such as andouille or merguez, cut into 4-inch pieces
6 cups short grain rice
½ cup tomato, chopped
½ cup onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. saffron threads
12 cups chicken stock
2 Tbl. kosher salt
24 cherrystone or manila clams, scrubbed
24 black mussels, debearded and scrubbed
12 large shrimp, shells on
2/3 cup fresh garden peas, blanched
2/3 cup piquillo peppers, cut into thin strips
2 lemons, cut into wedges

1. Place the paella pan on a grate above a charcoal fire or gas grill so it reaches a medium high heat. Too high a heat will cause burning. Add the olive oil and coat the bottom of the pan with it.
2. Add the sausage and fry it for one or two minutes, stirring it frequently.
3. Add the rice and stir it around constantly for 2 minutes.
4. Add the tomato, onion, garlic, and saffron, mixing it into the rice.
5. Add the chicken stock, chicken pieces, and salt.
6. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. (On a charcoal grill, pull coals to one side and place paella pan on the other side. Leave grill uncovered.)
7. Add the clams, mussels, and shrimp.
8. When the stock is mostly reduced, add the peas and piquillo peppers.
9. Remove any unopened shellfish. Stir gently until the stock is absorbed.
10. Serve hot onto individual plates with a lemon wedge, or let diners serve themselves from the communal pan.

Maria Rodale's 'Organic Manifesto' (7/4/10)

First there was Jerome I. Rodale, called Jerry by his friends and J.I. by everyone else, who, in the late 1930s, when civilization was celebrating the invention of DDT to control crop-destroying insect pests, cried, “Stop!” He knew at that early date that agricultural chemicals were wrecking nature. So in 1943, he started a little magazine called Organic Farming & Gardening. He saw that human health was built from the ground up: healthy soil produces healthy plants produces healthy animals that eat them, and this health passes right into the humans who sit atop the food chain.

He also saw that human health doesn’t depend on effectively healing people after they get sick as much as it does on preventing sickness in the first place; so, in 1950, he started Prevention magazine.

After J.I. died in 1971, his son Bob took over the company, known then as Rodale Press. Bob saw that besides eating organic food and taking necessary vitamins and minerals as diet supplements, health also depended on vigorous physical activity. He developed a large book publishing division. And he began publishing fitness magazines like Bicycling and Runner’s World, and gave the green light to the fabulously successful Men’s Health.

When Bob died in 1990, his widow Ardath chaired the board and handed the reins to executives outside the Rodale family. Meanwhile Bob and Ardath’s daughter Maria was growing up and working in various parts of the company. In recent years, especially since the death of her mother in 2009, Maria has guided the company, publishing Women’s Health to join the line-up of health and fitness magazines. Maria has become CEO and Chairman of Rodale Inc., placing a family member back at the head of this family-owned company.

Doing some investigative reporting, she has now published a book called, “Organic Manifesto—How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe.” In it, she examines the unholy alliances formed between the chemical companies that produce fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and genetically altered seeds, the agricultural educational system that is virtually subsidized by those same companies, and the government agencies in thrall to powerful lobbyists, all of which perpetuates dangerous farming practices and deliberate misconceptions about organic farming and foods. Interviews with government officials, doctors, scientists, and farmers from coast to coast bolster her position that chemical-free farming may be the single most effective tool we have to protect our environment and, even more important, our health.

There is a small industry devoted to telling lies about organic agriculture. Dennis Avery, for instance, directs the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues and regularly produces screeds telling people the nasty ways in which they and their children will die from eating dirty, filthy organic food. The Hudson Institute is a conservative think tank supported by agribusiness corporations who use people like Avery as mouthpieces for their propaganda. Could the Institute’s antipathy toward organic food also be due to the fact that Cuba has won international acclaim for converting its agriculture to organics? You know what right wingers think of Cuba.

The “Organic Manifesto” should help set the record straight. Ms. Rodale inherited a positive, health-oriented, environmentally-sound, and ecologically protective world view along with her genes from the founders of the organic movement in America. If you’re interested in the book, follow this link:


Organic Food Sales Go Through the Roof (7/11/10)

Despite the distressed state of the economy, U.S. sales of organic products grew a healthy 5.3 percent during 2009 to reach $26.6 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association. Of that figure, $24.8 billion represented organic food. And within the category of organic food, 2009 organic fruit and vegetable sales rose 11.4 percent over 2008 sales. Most dramatically, organic fruits and vegetables now represent 11.4 percent of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales.

Here’s more encouraging news. Certified organic farm, orchard, vineyard, and pasture acreage reached more than 4.8 million acres in 2008. This means that 4.8 million acres in the U.S. are safe places for farmers, farm animals, wildlife, and all the creatures who might visit that land. Run-off is reduced under organic cultivation, meaning fewer streams, lakes, and rivers and fewer sources of ground water will be polluted with soluble chemical fertilizers. Soil erosion will be curtailed on those acres. Drought conditions won’t be so severe because organic soils hold water like a sponge and this will reduce the need for irrigation.

Once again, nature reveals that when you do things organically—in harmony with nature rather than working to defeat her—you can expect a host of unintended benefits to arise.


In another matter, I recently went over to the Robert Mondavi Winery where three acres of grapevines are being started using the Waterboxx, a simple device that captures moisture from the air to supply plants with just enough water to get them started through the first year, after which they will be dry farmed.

The Waterboxx was invented by Peter Hoff, a Dutch engineer who was there describing his invention. Trials of the Waterboxx are going on at Mondavi, but also Spain, France, Kenya, Morocco, Holland, and Ecuador. Ninety percent of plants started with a Waterboxx survived, while only 10 percent irrigated by overhead watering or flooding survived in trials on desert land in Morocco.

After the first year, the Waterboxx can be removed from the plant and used on another. The device allows the reforestation of land from deserts to denuded mountainsides. It might be especially valuable in a country like Haiti, where almost all woody plants have been stripped and used for firewood.

For more information, visit www.groasis.com.

Now’s the Time to Plant Your Fall Garden (7/18/10)

These may be the days of blistering summer heat, but in less than two months, the nights will be turning colder and the days will be in the heavenly seventies during the day. The humidity of August will blow away, revealing the clear, clean, blue sky of September—and in much of the upper portion of the country, the summer garden will only last until October’s frosts bring it down.

So right now is the time to plant your fall garden. Think about the crops that like the cool weather and start them now. Spinach, kale, broccoli, potatoes, rutabagas, chard, cauliflower, lettuce, peas, and even late crops of bush beans, beets, and carrots will produce before the first frosts. You can plant fast-growing crops like radishes and turnips even later, toward the end of August in much of the country.

Of course, in the blazing heat of late July and August, your new, tender seedlings will need some protection from the fierce sun. Cover them with floating row covers, or plant them where they will get mid-day shade from something you can later remove, like a wheelbarrow. Whatever works.

Even on the West Coast, with its 300-plus day growing season and Mediterranean climate, the fall garden can start going in now—but you folks can plant squashes and other heat loving crops because the cold weather doesn’t really set in until November, and then you may not get a frost until December.

Back East, a lot of gardeners get the gardening bug at the end of the long, cold winters. In April and May, food gardens are put in. They yield brilliantly through June and July. But then in the heat of mid-summer, the weeds really get going and the thought of weeding on a humid, 90-degree day doesn’t seem so good. And so the garden goes to ruin, and by September, it’s entirely over.

Don’t let that happen this year. Garden smart. Put in your fall garden now. Enjoy fresh, home-grown food from now until frost. It may take a little time and sweat now, but you’ll be happy you did it when the cool weather rolls around.

An Organic Solution to Third World Poverty (7/25/10)

Every year, millions starve or are laid low by poverty and malnutrition. Why? Look at all the unused land in the world. There’s actually plenty of land to grow all the food we need and more. Some of it is waste land, desert, deforested and worthless, right? But maybe not so worthless.

“There’s not enough water,” people say, and sure enough, water is a critical and limiting factor of world agriculture. And yet our world is two-thirds water. There’s water in the air, in clouds. In reality, there’s plenty of water.

But there’s no energy to run our machines. We have to cut down our forests to get wood to burn for fuel so we can cook. We are poor! So people say. But as they are talking, the sun beats down upon millions and millions of square miles of surface with enough energy to fuel every stove, heating unit, cooling unit, and electrical appliance on earth. And the wind blows, too.

There’s no shortage of anything except the will to do something about it.

Unfertile soils that won’t grow crops? Amazonian indigenous people figured that out 1,500 years ago when they invented slash and char agriculture. Instead of burning what they slashed, they roasted it in smoldering fires and turned the resulting biologically active charcoal into the soil. Today those soils are among the most productive on earth and here’s the thing: they are self-propagating. The charcoal creates conditions that allow the soil to build up under cultivation, rather than deplete. Today those soils are six feet deep with enormous fertilizing power. Just google terra preta or biochar and see for yourself.

But there’s no water, people say. You can’t grow crops without water! But Peter Hoff has come up with a simple, cheap device that surrounds a growing plant, hordes water jealously and doles it out to the plant in tiny increments—just enough so that the plant strikes a deep root that can make contact with soil moisture. The device even gathers moisture from the night air to replenish its reservoir, even in desert conditions, and all without using energy. Interested? Visit www.groasis.com.

No tractors? No way to turn up the soil? Get with the Permaculture program. This group has been advocating permanent agriculture (food-bearing trees and shrubs) for decades. Just google Permaculture and you’ll see.

There’s plenty of everything, you see, except caring. And that’s where organics comes in. As organic gardeners or farmers, you do care. You care about the health of the planet, the welfare of the plants, animals, and humans on the planet. If you are in business as an organic grower, you care about profit, but not to the exclusion of planetary welfare. What Big Ag and corporate America never tell you is that the value and wholesomeness of what they produce isn’t important. They could be making grommets or galoshes. What’s important is none of that. It’s profit for their shareholders and the people who run the companies. That’s their bottom line.

Are You Eating Fake Foods Without Knowing It? (8/1/10)

What do I mean by "fake food?" Perhaps fake food is best described by first defining what I mean by real food.

Suppose a young steer is put out to pasture. It grazes on the pasture’s grass, eating the food that its body is built for. It has access to clean water. Maybe there’s a grove of trees for the steer to use for shade when the sun gets too hot. It’s a calm, clean, low-key life for this steer. It’s not stimulated by growth hormones. It’s not fed antibiotics and would only be given antibiotics if it got a bacterial infection. Its urine and feces are naturally recycled into the land. It lives a good life until one day it is led quietly and gently into a low area filled with odorless carbon dioxide, and it painlessly passes out from lack of oxygen. Then, unconscious, it is killed. Butchering takes place in clean and sanitary conditions. The various cuts of meat go their separate ways and the leftovers (horns, hooves, hide, bones, intestines, etc.) are sold off.

One of the cuts of meat is a top sirloin steak. This steak is aged in ideal cool conditions for 21 days, long enough for the flavor of the meat to be enhanced by the actions of enzymes naturally present in the meat. This is also long enough for some of the intercellular collagen and other tough materials to soften, rendering the meat tender as well as flavorful.

You or I go to the supermarket or butcher and buy this “organic, grass-fed, aged” steak. The meat has all the flavor it’s supposed to have, but without any chemicals, antibiotics, pesticides, fattening grains, or other unnatural additives—including water. Did you know many meats, especially pork products, are pumped full of water? Up to 30 percent of the weight of some hams is water, sold to you at many dollars per pound.

Our grass-fed steak has much more of healthful conjugated linoleic acid—a beneficial essential fatty acid—than ordinary beef. It tastes great. This is real food.

Fake food looks like the real thing, but it’s not. Because the steers are raised in confinement pens, they are routinely given antibiotics because they live amid deep pools of their own waste. The grains they are fed have been grown with pesticides and herbicides, chemicals that can pass into their bodies and lodge in their fat. These grains fatten up the animals, filling their tissues with hard fats that cause cardiovascular disease in humans. The meat is flushed into unnaturally weak growth by hormones. Slaughter is efficient, but not easy. Butchering is often quick and sometimes unsanitary. I know. I’ve seen it.

Back on the farm, that organic steer’s life and death have left no permanent scars or depleted, eroded soil. The steer may have eaten annual or perennial grasses nearly to the ground, but the grasses’ roots continue to hold the soil together during winter rains. All the animals’ wastes are sparsely spread in the pasture, and washed by rains into the soil where they fertilize next spring’s crop of fine, clean, green grass.

But back in the feedlot, the concentrated pools of fecal matter are washed into the groundwater where they foul wells, hyper-fertilize streams, ponds, and lakes, forcing the growth of clogging, oxygen-depleting algae, and causing the eutrophycation of the water. Fish die. Chemicals used in the feedlots wash into waterways, further damaging them. The feedlot is a stinking mess that is spread to the surrounding watershed. The conventional steak you buy looks real, but it’s not. It’s a commodity, processed using modern technology and much of that technology has unintended consequences that are detrimental to our health.

The bottom line is taste. Which steak do you think tastes best? Even if you couldn’t tell a difference, knowing how the steak came to be would enhance its flavor.

Now multiply these kinds of insights throughout our food supply. Compare how an organic potato, strawberry, or head of broccoli is raised with how they are grown conventionally. Be aware that researchers in both the U.K. and U.S. are finding major diminishment of mineral levels and declining levels of other nutrients in common vegetables grown conventionally. But not in organically-grown vegetables. One scientist at UC Davis did a 10-year study and reported, in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, that organic vegetables contained up to 30 percent more phytochemicals than conventional vegetables. Phytochemicals is a scientific term for natural nutrients created by plants within their own tissues. They are the goodies that are so good for us.

The Best Home-Made Salad Dressings (8/8/10)

This recipe originally was for a soup, but then my spouse suggested we try it as a salad dressing—and bingo! It made a great salad dressing—light, low-fat, and designed to go with cold, crunchy salad greens. The cucumber is not peeled, which gives the dressing a pleasant green color, but make sure you use the long, slender hothouse cucumbers that are sold wrapped in plastic. And, by the way, you can serve it as a refreshing soup with spicy-hot food. It’s best served icy cold, whether as a dressing or a soup.

2 unpeeled hothouse cucumbers, cut into ½-inch rounds
2 cups plain, non-fat yogurt
1 clove garlic, rough-chopped
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Place the cucumber and yogurt in a blender and puree until mixture is smooth and homogenous. You may need to do this in several batches.
2. Add the garlic, vinegar, salt, and black pepper, and then blend again until smooth.
3. Freeze three-day portions in pint freezer bags and place one portion in a small covered half-pint jar to store in the fridge. Use within three or four days. Thaw frozen bags as needed.


Here’s another cold recipe that makes a salad dressing as good, if not better, than the one above.

2 peeled young cucumbers, seeded and cut into ½-inch rounds
2 avocados, peeled, pitted, and flesh scooped out
1 small shallot, chopped
2/3 cup plain non-fat yogurt
1 cup non-fat milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon Japanese rice vinegar
1 tablespoon mint, chopped
Pinch cayenne pepper
Pinch salt

1. Place all the ingredients in a blender and puree for 3 to 4 minutes, or until smooth.
2. Set a strainer over a bowl and strain the puree through the strainer, working the soup gently through with a spoon so that any hard bits remain in the strainer.
3. Cover and refrigerate, freeze three-day portions in pint freezer bags, except for one portion placed in a small jar with a lid and placed in the fridge for use over three or four days. Thaw frozen portions as needed.

Why Wines Made from Organically-Grown Grapes Taste So Pure (8/15/10)

I recently tasted a group of wines made by Paul Dolan and grown near Hopland in Mendocino County, California. Dolan was for many years at the helm of Fetzer winery in Hopland, a pioneering winery using organically-grown grapes. His tenure at Fetzer was marked by many green innovations, including the planting of clover, vetch, and umbelliferous crops between the vine rows in order to enrich the soil and provide habitat for beneficial insects that keep the plant-eating insects in check. Dolan has taken that approach one step further with his ‘Deep Red’ wines, whose vineyards are certified Biodynamic by Demeter, the certifying agency for Biodynamic farms.

The wine that impressed me the most was his 2007 Deep Red—a blend of over 50 percent Syrah with the rest Petite Sirah and Grenache. Yes, it shows rich, round flavors with a deeply fruity core and sturdy structure formed from the iron-rich, deep red soils for which the wine is named. But beyond that, it shows purity.

What do I mean by purity? Think of a watercolor painting. When the colors are applied correctly, they have a clear, pure, jewel-like appearance. Amateur watercolorists often overlay complementary colors, which produces muddy results. In a wine, purity is like the jewel colors in a fine watercolor painting. No muddiness. No thick and impenetrable areas of flavor. You can taste right through the flavors, and they are bright and transparent to the palate.

How does Dolan produce wines of such purity? The answer lies in his Biodynamic approach. Biodynamics is based on organic farming, but goes further. The farm is viewed as a whole, living organism. How is any organism kept healthy? Proper nutrition. In the Biodynamic system, that means recycling every scrap of organic matter through the transformative composting process and returning it to the land. Compost is the engine at the center of life. It is the destination and source of life, all at once. As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “That which is Nature’s mother is her tomb; what is her burying grave, that is her womb.”

Biodynamic culture also means having mobile chicken coops so the hens are always scratching at new areas and finding insects and their larvae to eat, and fertilizing the area with their droppings, before the mobile coop is moved again. It means setting up housing for owls and bats—scavengers who keep rodents and flying insect pests in check. It means having fresh water and insectiaries so beneficial insects can easily pass through their life stages, cleaning the farm of pests as they do so.

It means not only thinking of the farm horizontally—across the fields and vineyards—but vertically: taking into account the phases of the moon and the rising and falling of water in the earth. It means being humble about what we human beings know of the life on the farm and the energies of heaven and earth, so that we are open to learn, for there is no end of knowledge in nature and none of us can know it all. But we can improve, and on a Biodynamic farm such as Dolan’s, the improvements are all toward the health of the farm as a living whole organism.

Because of the health of the vines and his Biodynamic approach, Dolan produces wines of crystal purity. The wine lets the light come shining through.

We Are Sinking in a Chemical Swamp (8/22/10)

The news was astounding. When researchers tested the blood in the umbilical cords of newborn babies, they found 273 different commercial chemicals. That means that all those chemicals passed the placental barrier and reached the developing fetus’s body. Babies today are swimming in a contaminated sea of chemicals called the amniotic fluid.

Then the news broke that there are about 80,000 chemicals sold commercially in the U.S. today, used in almost every manufacturing process, from TV dinners to furniture polish. But surely the Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration has checked these chemicals for toxicity and issued guidelines for their safe use, right?


“Under current laws,” writes Lyndsey Layton in The Washington Post for August 1, 2010, “the government has little or no information about the health risks posed by most of the 80,000 chemicals on the U.S. market today.” She reports, for example, that Kellogg recalled 28 million boxes of Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, Corn Pops, and Honey Smacks this summer because of elevated levels of 2-methylnaphthalene in the packaging. Complaints came in from consumers about a strange taste and odor, and some cases of nausea and diarrhea were reported. Kellogg issued a statement saying a panel of experts they hired concluded there was no harmful material in the products. But the FDA has no data on 2-methylnaphthalene’s impact on human health. The EPA also has no data on the chemical’s health and safety—even though they’ve been seeking that information from the chemical industry for 16 years.

But it gets worse. When the Toxic Substances Control Act was passed in 1976, it exempted from control 62,000 chemicals then in common use, including 2-methylnaphthalene. Furthermore, chemicals developed and sold into commerce since 1976 don’t have to be tested for safety. The chemical companies are supposed to forward any safety data to the government, which will then decide if further testing is needed or if the chemical should be banned. Talk about a disincentive for doing safety testing! The chemical industry isn’t in business to protect the health and safety of the public. It’s in business to make chemicals and sell them for a profit.

Now, nature has created a system for keeping harmful substances away from babies in their mothers’ wombs. Among many other functions, the placenta can screen out toxic substances. But the placental system developed before there were manmade chemicals, and the screening system prevents mostly natural toxics—toxins in plants for the most part--from reaching the baby. The fact that 273 synthetic chemicals crossed the placenta from the mother to the baby shows that not only does the placenta fail to deal with manmade synthetic chemicals, but that we all are living in a chemical swamp, and that no one is doing much testing at all about the safety of tens of thousands of chemicals.

There is something you can do. Eat organic food and only organic food. Many if not most of the chemicals in our bodies come in through the food we eat. By its very definition and by law, organic food cannot be grown or processed with synthetic chemicals. For the health and safety of us all, and especially for women either pregnant or thinking about conceiving, organic food is pure food that will not add to the toxic load we all carry.

The Organic Harvest Is at Hand (8/29/10)

The wonderful thing about this time of year is that the locally-produced, organic food is at its most abundant, highest quality, and lowest price. This is the time to buy as much of those foodstuffs that dry, can, or freeze well and put up as much as you can for the cold months, when the same foodstuffs will be at their scarcest, lowest quality, and most expensive. Here’s a list of what I generally put up:
--Tomatoes. You can put them up as whole peeled, canned tomatoes; as canned spaghetti sauce with onions, garlic, and fresh herbs like oregano and basil, or simply freeze whole tomatoes, skins on, in gallon freezer bags. When you want fresh sauce for pasta or pizza in January, thaw out a few and cook them. As they cook, the skins will lift right off. I put up about 48 quarts of spaghetti sauce and freeze a few dozen whole tomatoes. If you live in an area where winters will freeze out your basil and oregano, simply cut stems of these herbs, tie them together, and hang upside down in a dry, dark, warm closet until the stems snap when bent, then store them as dried herbs in the freezer. Oregano will freeze well as a fresh herb, or whiz these herbs in a blender with enough water so they form a thick puree, then pour into ice cube trays and freeze. Store the cubes in plastic freezer bags. When making winter sauce or soups, simply toss a cube or two into the pot. Here’s a trick that will bring your spaghetti sauce to life. Add one half teaspoon of ground cinnamon to each gallon of sauce and stir in well before canning.

--Peaches. In a large bowl, make syrup from two parts water, one half part lemon juice, and one half part honey. Buy fresh yellow freestone peaches by the flat. Boil them a batch at a time for about two minutes, then run under cold water and slip off the skins. With a paring knife, cut crescent-shaped slices from around the peach, dropping them into the lemon-honey liquid. Place a dessert’s-worth of peaches in pint freezer bags along with just enough liquid to cover and twist-tie or zip lock the bags closed, then freeze.

Here’s an old-fashioned recipe for peach liqueur: in a large stone crock, pour a thin layer of sugar in the bottom. Cover the sugar with a single layer of sound, fresh, ripe whole peaches, then cover these with sugar. Add another layer of peaches, then sugar, peaches, sugar, peaches, until you reach about six to eight inches from the rim. Cover the top of the crock with plastic film, wax paper, or several layers of cheesecloth, then with a large plate or other heavy cover, and finally cover with a towel or cloth. Store this in the back of a room-temperature closet until the Christmas-New Year’s holidays. Open the crock and ladle the liquid that has formed into a funnel set into the spout of plastic one-gallon water jugs, leaving three or four inches of head space at the top of the jugs. Screw on the caps and freeze for 24 hours. Working over a large basin, cut away the plastic and crack open the frozen ice. Discard the plastic and frozen ice. The liquid that runs into the basin can be poured into jars with tight lids and stored in the fridge. You will find it to be liquid gold.

--Berries. Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries can be placed one layer deep on baking sheets and quickly frozen in the freezer. Then place the berries in freezer bags and store in the freezer. Add a bag to the peaches when you serve them during the winter.

--Strawberries. Whiz strawberries in a blender with a tablespoon of lemon juice until they form a thick puree. Place one cup of this puree in pint freezer bags and freeze, storing them in the freezer. Strawberries frozen whole or as slices tend to turn to mush when thawed, so freeze them as puree. You can then thaw and swirl through home-made ice cream during the winter, or combine with frozen blanched rhubarb stalks and cook gently to make a strawberry-rhubarb pie filling.

--Peas. Grow a fall crop of English or garden peas or buy fresh at the farmers’ market. At home, blanch the pods in boiling water for two minutes, then drain and store a meal’s worth of the unopened pods in quart freezer bags with as much air excluded as possible. In the winter, fill a bowl with hot water from the tap about 45 minutes before dinner is ready and place a freezer bag of peas, still in the bag and still in their pods, in the hot water. A few minutes before dinner, open the bag and shell out the peas into a saucepan, discarding the pods. Add a little water and gently heat just until the peas are hot and serve immediately. They will taste like summer.

This is just the beginning of what you can do with the end-of-summer organic bounty all around us now. If you don’t have a freezer, you might consider investing in one. When you think about what you pay for commercial frozen foods or imported fruits and vegetables in the wintertime—especially when you think about the agricultural chemicals used on those wintertime foods and the fact that the varieties are not chosen for taste but rather for their shipping qualities—it makes a ton of sense to put up your own food when the harvest season is upon us.

A Short Course on Arugula (9/5/10)

Let’s define terms before looking into arugula. Arugula has so many common names, and so many different plants are called arugula, that it takes a botanist to pick them apart, and even then the botanists give this versatile green a couple of names—something they rarely do. While the correct scientific name is Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa, most plant scientists just call it Eruca sativa.

The Latin name Eruca has given rise to a slew of common names. In Greece it’s roka, in France it’s roquette, and in Italy, over 2,000 years of cultivation have resulted in a bunch of monikers: ruchetta, rughetta, regula, and rucola. In England and America it’s known as rocket, while in America it has still another name, arugula. You can hear the sound of the Latin name rattling around in all the common names. And there are at least three other, very different plants that aren’t Eruca at all but are called arugula. This herb has gone in and out of fashion over the centuries since colonists brought it to North America from England. It was popular in Colonial days but was out of fashion in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. It’s wildly in fashion again now, however, and with good reason, for when the leaves are picked young, they’re lightly peppery and add zing and snap to a mesclun mix or lettuce-based salad. But that’s just the beginning of what arugula can do in the kitchen. Before deciding its use, though, the organic cook needs to know what sort of arugula he or she is dealing with.

The plants are members of the big crucifer family that includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, rutabaga, radish, mustard, watercress…I could go on. Many members of this family have a spicy pepperiness to them: mustard, radish, curly cress, and watercress among them. So, too, does arugula. In the spring, the young leaves have a mild peppery flavor and resemble the leaves of turnips and radishes (although they aren’t fuzzy or hairy like them). As hot weather arrives, raw arugula leaves become unpleasantly peppery and fuzzy little hairs do develop on the undersides of the leaves. They get tougher in texture. At that stage, arugula is better used as a potherb or as a cooked green. Cooking reduces pepperiness but increases a pleasant bitterness that works well against savory and sweet flavors like beans and onions, but still, easy does it with mature, summertime leaves.

Although the peppery flavor diminishes after the plant flowers, the leaves are usually too tough then to make pleasant eating. The flowers, on the other hand, are a delight. Creamy-white little mustard-like edible flowers have fine red veining and make a pretty garnish on salads, adding a light orange aroma that you can detect if you hold a handful of them to your nose. In ancient Rome, the seeds were used as a condiment, and in India and Pakistan today the seeds are pressed for jamba oil, as it’s called there. Besides true Eruca, two species of the genus Diplotaxis are sold as “wild arugula.” Diplotaxis erucoides is a herb that tastes very similar to true arugula and might be found in some farmers markets. It’s not hard to find in Italy, where it’s often cooked with pasta or dry beans. In The Cook’s Garden Seed catalog of organic seeds, it’s listed as “Selvatica Arugula.” Diplotaxis muralis might also be found at the odd farmers market or Italian market as “wild arugula.” It goes by the name of rucola selvatica, or sylvetta. (Where’s a taxonomist when you need one?) And if you have a Turkish market near you, check for “Turkish arugula,” which is really Bunias orientalis. The wild arugulas and Turkish arugula are even more peppery than true arugula, and have leaves that are more slender and finely toothed. They’re usually eaten as a potherb or cooked with beans in their native country and in eastern Europe, where they’re popular. Yet another plant is called rocket: Hesperis matronalis, also known as dame’s rocket. This is a pretty meadow and roadside weed that has naturalized in the eastern U.S., but it’s not a culinary item.

But most likely you’ll find true arugula at the markets. Mid- to late spring is a good time to find choice leaves for salads. The ideal is to find leaves about four inches long, which are at their peak of freshness. Much that’s grown commercially in the west is organic because it’s not a plant that attracts many insects. The pepper in the leaves is probably a defense mechanism against insect attack. But in the eastern states, the common flea beetle hones in on crucifers and bites tiny holes in the leaves. The presence of some round holes the size of a pinhead indicates that the plants weren’t sprayed. Careful organic market gardeners have many tools to foil the flea beetles, but if they’re around, a few usually find a way to leave their calling cards in the form of little round holes.

Because fresh arugula gives off a warm, tingly smell, it makes a fine bed under ingredients like sun-dried tomatoes, slices of pear, radicchio, sliced chicken breast, shrimp, blue cheeses, carpaccio, pine nuts, pecans, and slivers of avocado drenched in lemon juice. Slice a piece of focaccia open and line it with a few arugula leaves, some crumbly goat cheese, and a slice of Italian deli meat for a fine sandwich. A few chopped leaves in potato salad alleviates its mayonnaisey blandness.

Bernadette Burrell is the chef at Dempsey’s in nearby Petaluma, and she says arugula is one of her very favorite ingredients to use at the restaurant. She grows it at home in her organic garden. “I like to put it on hot pizza so it just wilts, then drizzle it with a little olive oil,” she says. As for me, I throw some leaves in the bean pot and have stuffed home-made ravioli with arugula mixed with provolone cheese and porcini mushrooms and served them in a light and lemony cream sauce. Another interesting use for arugula is as an ingredient in creamed spinach—a dish that has lately gone out of style but is always a crowd pleaser. Make your creamed spinach as usual, but add a cup of chopped, fresh arugula to the spinach before steaming it.

Another way to use arugula is to sow a flat of soil with seed and place out on a deck or sunny porch. When the peppery seedlings show four leaves, cut them off and use like any other sprout. It’s as a player in mesclun that arugula really shines, though, giving bite to what otherwise might be bland or bitter. Toss this mesclun with some chopped, pickled artichoke hearts and the pickling solution from the jar, sprinkle on a few oil-cured olives (pit them first), then top with shavings of Reggiano-Parmigiano cheese. So simple. So good.

Organic Energy (9/12/10)

At least the dumb-ass choruses of “Drill baby drill!” have quieted down since the Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil fouls our shores, threatens to disrupt our pristine arctic ecosystem, and supports repressive regimes in the Middle East.

The Western United States is being fractured to extract oil from shale. Plans are afoot to build lots of nuclear power plants, when we can’t even dispose of the nuclear waste we’ve already generated—waste that will remain deadly for hundreds of thousands of years.

Appalachia has been laid waste and mountaintops shorn off and pushed into pure water streams in pursuit of coal.

Isn’t it time for organic energy?

Remember high school chemistry? You dissolved an electrolyte in water, inserted an anode in one side of the beaker and a cathode in the other, and turned on the electricity. Oxygen bubbled from the anode and hydrogen from the cathode. You captured some hydrogen in a test tube and held it up to a flame to hear the “hydrogen bark” as it burned, recombining with oxygen and leaving only a little water vapor behind as the end product.

Now think about the oceans—millions of square miles of electrolytic solution that covers two-thirds of the earth. An endless supply.

Now think that modern solar cells that we install on rooftops generate electricity that not only power the needs of the household within, but also many times produce enough electricity for some to be sold back to the power grid, literally making the electric meter run backwards.

Now think of all the sunlight that falls on the world’s oceans. All the energy stored in Earth's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas is matched by the energy from just 20 days of sunshine. Each square meter of the earth collects on average the approximate energy equivalent of almost a barrel of oil each year, or 4.2 kilowatt-hours of energy every day. This energy is inexhaustible, renewable daily, and causes no pollution.

Now picture solar electrical panels set into the ocean, especially in the tropics where the energy is most intense. The electricity generated can be sent to attached tanks filled with sea water, and the hydrogen and oxygen generated can be captured. Tanks of the gases can be brought back to land and used as fuel for automobiles, turbines that generate electricity, and all other power needs. When the oxygen and hydrogen are burned and their power utilized, the end product is water vapor that returns to the sky and falls as rain that makes its way back to the oceans.

It’s all renewable, a hundred percent clean, and inexhaustible. It’s organic. Why aren’t we doing this?

Hint: we live in a corporatist state these days, and corporations make lots and lots of money selling fossil fuels that pollute our earth and spread disease among its creatures.

Why the Grass Is Always Greener (9/19/10)

Seems like I've always had dogs and cats. And over the years, I have learned one thing about these animals. The cats always want to eat the dog food and the dogs always want to eat the cat food. And that’s even though the foods are formulated especially for dogs and cats. Although we think of these pets as dumb, they aren’t dumb at all. The cat is thinking, “Why does the dog get that food and I don’t? I’m going over there and eat that dog food.” And the dog is thinking, “How come I don’t get what the cat is getting? I’m going over there and eat that cat food.”

I finally solved the conundrum by giving cat food to the dog and dog food to the cat. Reverse psychology. It worked. When they went to eat the other species’ food, the animals then all got their proper nutrition.

It got me to thinking about the way Americans are fed. While folks in other countries, such as Canada and the nations of the European Union, require their food suppliers to state on the labels whether the foods contain any genetically modified organisms, the food lobbies in the United States have paid enough money to our elected representatives that they will not pass similar legislation here. In fact, food companies not only don’t state whether their products contain GMOs, they aren’t even allowed to state whether they contain GMOs on their labels.

The conventional dairy industry has tried to get legislators to pass laws preventing milk producers from stating on their labels that they don’t use bovine growth hormones on their cows—forcing the poor critters to exhaust themselves producing inferior, hormone-laced milk by the gallons. That’s right. They don’t want you to know that organic milk producers don’t use antibiotics and hormones on their cows. They won’t proudly own up to their own depredations and say, “We use bovine growth hormones on our cows, producing cheaper milk for you and giving your little girls and boys a head start on developing nice big breasts.” Oh, haven’t you heard? Girls, especially, are entering puberty at earlier and earlier ages these days. Not only that, they don’t want you to know that organic milk producers don’t use routine antibiotics on their cows, drugs that create strains of super bugs that the medical profession is terrified about. Because our strongest antibiotics no longer kill them.

Bob Dylan, always about 40 years ahead of his time, summed it up nicely in Subterranean Homesick Blues when he sang, “Look out, kids, they keep it all hid.”

So what does all this have to do with my dog who only wants cat food and my cats, that only want dog food? They can’t read the labels either. And yet, they’d be better off eating the foods formulated for them and forgetting about the politics. There’s a lesson there.