Monday, December 28, 2009

A New Use For Chestnuts

Last night, I made dinner for my dear friends Matteo and Mary who were in NYC visiting. I decided to make braised short ribs (grass-fed, from Grazin' Angus Acres) to celebrate winter, Mary's birthday, and their visit. I had bought some dried chestnuts at the farmers market around Thanksgiving, but hadn't yet decided how to use them. Thinking that their starchy, nutty sweetness would pair well with the short ribs, I started to brainstorm.

To use dried chestnuts, they must first be reconstituted in simmering water. After about an 45 minutes, they were soft and delicious. I've seen mashed chestnuts on menus, so went at them with a potato masher. They didn't react as I expected. The chestnuts became lumpy and meal-like, almost like a very dry pasta dough. I then put them through the food processor and the effect was magnified. As polenta is a natural pairing with short ribs, I decided to go out on a limb and treat the meal like cornmeal polenta.

I decided take a mainly traditional approach (such as Mark Bittman's "Polenta Without Fear") with slightly less liquid, plus freshly ground nutmeg, black pepper, sea salt, and fresh thyme. It took a little longer to come together than polenta usually would, but once it did, the results were outstanding. Creamy, nutty, sweet, savory, and a perfect accompaniment to the slightly-spicy chipotle-spiked braising liquid sauce from the ribs. Didn't take pictures, unfortunately, but this was one of my best inventions to date.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Into the deep blue sea...

Into the deep blue sea...
Originally uploaded by Utter Brandomonium

I hadn't been to a truly industrial supermarket in a while.

Christmas Eve day, I ran to the A&P to get a few things, and was astounded by what I saw. The 'supermarket pastoral' so common in markets was more of an Alice-In-Wonderland-meets-7-11. Nothing in this store would have tricked anyone into thinking they were buying just-off-the-farm goodness. The density of packaged and artificial foods was overwhelming, and wholly terrifying. I found myself mesmerized by the walls-upon-walls of "N.F."

"N.F." = "Not Food." My fiance and I call anything artificial, pre-packaged, processed, or sometimes just out of season "N.F." I labeled all the butter-substitutes in my mother's fridge "Not Food!" with a thick black permanent marker, and then did the same in her pantry. Even though my parents generally source their food responsibly, needless to say I did a lot of labeling that day. I would have needed an army to label everything in the store.

I took out my iPhone, which serves as a fabulous spycam (and takes pretty good pictures for a phone) to document some of the most appalling parts of the store. I added these to my "Fresh Direct" series that I've been building on my Flickr page. This particular picture, from and endless "sea" of tuna fish cans, evoked an odd sense of drowning. It was like seeing an entire school of fish, caught in purse seine nets, canned on site and delivered right to the store. Nauseating thought. The rest of the pictures speak for themselves. They start here.

Even though it's December 27th, we still manage to go to the farmers market every Sunday, and avoid most of the garbage sold as "food" in supermarkets. This is the season for braising, making root vegetable soups, getting creative with kale and apples, and finding new uses for dried beans and legumes (I recently discovered the joys of French green lentils.) While not much is in "season" right now, it's still possible to eat locally and deliciously. The online behemoth Epicurious has a map that shows you what's in season in your area right now. Broccoli, carrots, cabbage and squash seems pretty limiting, but you'd be surprised how many things you can do with these.

Off to the farmers market...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Food in Technicolor!

Food in Technicolor!

Watermelon Radish

Heirloom Carrots

Most Colorful Salad EVER

Originally uploaded by Utter Brandomonium

It's been quite a while since I posted. That will change soon. There's been quite a bit going on in my life, but I'll be able to update this soon.

For now, this is a photo post. At the end of fall, we put together a few super colorful meals, including a salad of radishes, persimmons and cucumbers. Nature has a way of providing beauty, subtlety, and nourishment all at once, without any "cleverness." That's a preview of what's to come. For now, enjoy

Sunday, September 27, 2009

As Far As The Eye Can See

This has been floating around a decent amount lately, so I'll share it here:

Just how far away can one get from the generic convenience of Starbucks, Subway, or OfficeMax at any given time? Turns out, not very. Stephen von Worley at Weather Sealedset out to chart the urban sprawl of America by mapping the 13,000+ locations of McDonald's across the lower 48 states. With the aid of Agg Data, he created a striking map of the US, colored by distance to the nearest domestic Mickey D's. Gorgeous, but terrifying.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Faulty Choices

Huge news per! I signed this petition, and it looks like it actually made a difference!

Victory: Members Force Health Organizations to Back Away from Food Labeling Ploy

Hey Changemakers,

This week thousands of members took on the food industry's new marketing scheme to persuade customers to buy more highly processed foods - and won a major victory.

The new marketing program, called "Smart Choices," is a front-of-the-package nutrition-labeling program designed in theory to help shoppers make smarter food choices.

But as the New York Times exposed last week, the selections are anything but healthy. One of the selections is Froot Loops, which was chosen, according to one board member, because "it's better for you than donuts." (No, we're not kidding. We couldn't make this up.)

Despite the program's dubious standards, it maintained the appearance of legitimacy because researchers associated with three reputable organizations - American Diabetes Association, American Dietetic Association, and Tufts University - were on its board.

In response, thousands of members sent letters to the presidents of these three major research institutions urging them to remove their name from the program.

The result? All three organizations responded to the pressure this week by publicly distancing themselves from the food labeling scheme and officially asking Smart Choices to remove their name from its website and marketing materials - thereby publicly embarrassing and discrediting the program.

Mark this as a victory for consumer advocacy on the web. If anyone still questioned whether the Smart Choices program had any legitimacy, they now have their answer. And if food companies had any question about whether they'd be able to introduce a new marketing program to sell more unhealthy foods without repercussion, they now know there are thousands of consumers who will be watching.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Relaxed Assumptions

The dysfunctional relationship food companies have with consumers, insurance providers have with those being covered, and investment companies have with their investors are remarkably similar. I suppose similar conclusions could be drawn about business in general: there is often a great mismatch of interests between buyers and sellers. Unless acting in the best interest of a client will increase profits, clever and often deceptive marketing strategies aimed at maximizing sales will be practiced, at the expense of the consumer. In economics a similar concept is known as a "moral hazard." (Not entirely unrelated, this last weekend I couldn't help but watch in fascination as a California Highway Patrolman hid patiently behind a sign with his radar gun, waiting for an unsuspecting speeder to pass. Both he and I were hoping for a violator: it would have fulfilled the cop's quota, and provided me with a bit of sadistic entertainment. My point: praying for a speeding driver is not in the best interest of anyone.)

Just this week, Michael Pollan discussed a scenario in which this could change, as a result of the food industry and the insurance industry becoming at odds over American's health. The argument is actually quite intriguing. Currently, the U.S. industrial food system produces lots of cheap, high-calorie foods, and as a result, Americans are getting fatter and sicker. If health care reform prohibits insurance companies from charging more to "higher risk" persons, and simultaneously requires coverage to sick individuals, then it is in the insurance industry's best interest to push the food industry to change it's ways. On this blog, I have often said that the food system and our national health are inextricably linked, so it will be interesting to see how this actually plays out.

When not pushing to reform the multi-trillion dollar health care system, President Obama has been pursuing other equally lofty goals. Today, on the one-year anniversary of Lehman Brothers' collapse, he was on Wall Street, touting the need to reform of the financial system as well. His speech primarily addressed the need to prevent further financial meltdowns by forcing institutions to act more responsibly, through the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. A major focus of overhaul would be the financial derivatives market.

The moral hazard associated with redistributing risk, through the creation and sale of derivative securities, was a major component of the Great Recession. In my current profession, I spend a good deal of time discussing the underlying models and pricing methodologies for fixed income derivatives. I'm not exactly a financial engineer, but I act as a "translator" of sorts, explaining various models with names such as the Black-Scholes option pricing model (which I puckishly call the "B.S." model), the 2-Factor Gaussian Copula, the Hull-White version of the Linear Gaussian Model, Jump Diffusion Option-Adjusted Spread, and the "Stochastic Alpha Beta Rho" model, otherwise known as SABR ("Saber"). Got that? Good. Now give us your life's savings and we'll put it to work.

The most famous of these models, the Black-Scholes model, requires some major assumptions to be "relaxed" in order to make it spit out reasonable answers. It assumes that volatility, or the financial world's way of saying "variability" with respect to the underlying asset, is constant. To most people the impact of this assumption is difficult to grasp, and its effect on the price of the option contract only minimally understood. All major derivatives models make similar assumptions, and those selling them do their best to downplay the effects.

Before I offend some very smart, devoted people, I will stop here and state that much of the basic work behind these models is sound on a theoretical basis, and that these models have on the whole, contributed greatly to theoretical as well as mainstream finance. (If you want to read more about this topic, Nick Mocciolo has written a paper entitled "The Cost Of Black Scholes" which is a fantastic summary of the issue outlined above.)

So what do derivatives pricing models and nutrition science have in common? Both take complex processes that occur "naturally" and reduce them to a series of rules that govern the interaction of their various components. In the case of derivatives models, price, volatility, time, and interest rates are the major parameters. In nutrition science, they are fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, proteins, antioxidants, and the like. This "reductionism" is necessary to gain understanding of a complex system as it is often necessary to break them down into more "digestible" components. The danger lies in over-simplification, and failure to see the entire system as greater than the sum of its parts. Ignoring the impact of the underlying assumptions made in derivatives pricing models can mislead investors about the risks of a particular instrument. And failing to understand the role of nutrients in a balanced diet would lead one to believe health can be obtained by taking a series of pills and dietary supplements. Neither are true, and acting based on these assumptions alone is dangerous. Sure, scurvy and rickets have been virtually eliminated, but some may argue that this has been offset by the rapid rise of obesity, and early-onset Type-II diabetes.

Giant food companies selling novel high-tech food products, and investment banks touting riskless returns, would like you to believe otherwise. They have used these simplistic reductions of complex processes to sell their ever-changing assortment of wares. And in both cases, the complexity and evolution of the current, in fashion, de facto model adds to consumer confusion.

A perfect example of this was William Neuman's front page story of the New York Times business section last week, entitled "For Your Health, Froot Loops." In an insulting and outright misleading effort by some of the biggest U.S. food companies, a new program entitled "Smart Choices" was launched, claiming to give consumers front-of-package guidelines for healthy eating. By using the rules of the current nutrition model, Froot Loops made its way onto this list. How is this possible? Per the article:

Froot Loops qualifies for the label because it meets standards set by the Smart Choices Program for fiber and Vitamins A and C, and because it does not exceed limits on fat, sodium and sugar. It contains the maximum amount of sugar allowed under the program for cereals, 12 grams per serving, which in the case of Froot Loops is 41 percent of the product, measured by weight. That is more sugar than in many popular brands of cookies

I could write an entire post on this alone. A simple stroll through the middle aisles of the supermarket yields a cacophony of counterintuitive, misleading, confusing nutrition "information." The packaging of almost every processed food item makes health claims such as "high in fiber," "hearth healthy," "low-fat," "low-sugar," "loaded with antioxidants" and so on. It's a simple formula: Convince consumers they have a new set of problems to solve, then sell them new, expensive solutions. How else could someone actually believe that a cookie diet is a good idea? Same is, and was, true of financial derivatives. Just as bankers are screaming "inefficiency" in response to increased regulation and due diligence, and insurance companies do their best to obfuscate reform that will cut into their profits, the giant food companies use ever-changing tactics to prevent any kind of consistent food labeling or nutritional guidelines from being adopted.

The boring moral of this story is actually quite simple: stay diversified in your investments and your diet, and avoid anything that seems too good to be true. It probably is, and is just making you fatter, sicker, and someone in a corner office much, much richer.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Choice is an Illusion

When discussing the issues that are prevalent in this blog - food policy, environmental degradation, conservation, energy policy - I often feel frustration with the general publics lack of interest or attention. Ever since former Vice President Dick Cheney said that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," I have wondered how it is possible to relegate these values to the same category that contains, "cleanliness" or "frugality" (Benjamin Franklin actually listed 13 such virtues in his autobiography.) To consider such values ones of personal choice is abominable.

I don't consider these values to be issues of personal choice based on preferences. They are issues based on right and wrong. Careless, reckless, wasteful business or personal choices result in the destruction of our environment, depletion of natural resources, devastation of biodiversity, and as has been discussed more recently, harmful to basic human rights. The organization, Business for Social Responsibility ("BSR") published a short paper recently on this topic, and it points out that "climate change means more competition for fewer resources, and the future will favor those who are already well off, while affecting the disadvantaged the most." Oxfam's report "Climate Wrongs and Human Rights" goes into far more detail, and included the following powerful quotes:

‘The frequency of the flooding is worse compared to ten years ago. Last October we had water up to our knees for four days. We don’t know why the weather is changing. We are very worried about losing our home, about losing our crops, about going hungry.’
– Ho Si Thuan, a rice farmer in Quang Tri province, Viet Nam

‘In the past there was enough rain…but now things are different. The rains have disappeared. The drinking water that we used to fetch from the riverbeds can no longer be found. There is a lot of thirst; even the few livestock we own have so little water. What can I do to address this thirst? I get so anxious. There aren’t enough words to express the pain.’
– Martina Longom, a farmer and mother in Kotido district, Uganda

These are not issues upon which to tread lightly. When I hear that people don't have the time to recycle plastic bags, or don't feel that turning the air conditioning down makes a difference, or simply choose to remain apathetic, I have little to no tolerance.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a story "Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security." John Kerry said he's been talking about this for years, but it "has not been a focus because a lot of people had not connected the dots." The truth is, it hasn't been politically or economically popular to "connect the dots" until now.

Recently, my company sent out a firmwide email about the new color-coded bins for recycling, composting, plastic bags, landfill, etc. Shortly thereafter, I heard a chorus of voices declaring it as a "waste of time" and "stupid" and even "they make garbage too complicated here. It's all the same, who cares." People will deny or look for fault in anything that challenges their lifestyle. If sorting trash is the right thing to do, then that implies we've been doing it wrong. But what's wrong with poverty, hunger, disease, water scarcity, and war? Those are just "personal virtues" anyway.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Terrifying (Unsurprising) Trend

Since I started this blog, a recurring theme has been the link between the way we eat in this country, and the skyrocketing rates of obesity. The current healthcare debate has brought about a wave of articles about the cost of obesity, including an excellent piece in this week's Time by Bryan Walsh. By some estimates, obesity is costing us $147B a year.

It is unlikely from the content of this page, but I am a fixed-income financial nerd by profession. Last year, as the housing market began to unwind, and the financial crisis set it, an often mentioned topic was that of record US Household Debt. A key component of the creation of the housing bubble that burst so dramatically, was an equally large bubble in credit. The reckless practices by banks and lending institutions, coupled with high consumer confidence and rising housing prices, led to the US personal savings rate dipping into negative territory.

I couldn't help but draw the connection between careless spending, and a broader carelessness in America. In a world dominated by Lipitor, fad diets, ever-changing nutritional standards, aggressive food marketing, Americans have expanded almost as fast as the housing market. Just like Countrywide giving $800,000 loans to unemployed janitors, using the rational of ever-rising home prices, the big food companies do their best to convince us that Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes are "smart choices."

Based on childhood obesity data from the CDC and the Federal Reserves US Household Debt data, I decided to put the two together. The relationship is staggering. The actual correlation of the two data sets is .998, almost perfect.

We all know how the housing market story ended. Where this leads, with respect to our national health and the safety of our food supply, is yet to be determined. What has been determined, sadly, is a pattern of behavior that plagues us in America: why deal with the problem today, if I can put it off until tomorrow?

Tomorrow is getting closer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Golden Rule, err, Arches

Today this story in the Daily News was published, outlining an often-ignored danger of living in the inner city: fast food. This is not exactly news, of course, but at least it's being discussed more often, and publicly. Inner city residents have little to no access to fresh produce, but almost limitless, cheap, high-calorie, nutritionless industrial fast food options. Why? Easy: Cost.

Asking "why" again, though, is far more disturbing. Our government, lobbied heavily by various players in the agribusiness-industrial complex, has constructed a farm bill, and has adopted agricultural policies that subsidize the raw materials of this grossly profitable industry. Earlier this year, David Leonhardt of the New York Times put together this chart based on data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics:

The cost of "food" has gone up, but the cost of junk food has fallen dramatically. Fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood prices have risen steadily, but sodas, notably, have fallen consistently. This is not hard to explain: soda is made of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and water (if it's diet, then it's just novel calorie-less rearrangements of corn anyway). Corn is subsidized heavily by the government. Soda producers can thus buy the raw inputs under cost, and the final price of their product falls.

Fast food is just another result of the heavy subsidization of commodity crops that are used as cheap raw inputs. This is making us fatter (yet malnourished), devastating the environment, and leading to a public health crisis. Yet in all this talk of health care reform, not a whisper about this topic. It's political suicide for two reasons:

1. Massive campaign contributions by agri-giants, and
2. Demonizing over 50% of the population (and I'm using an extremely conservative estimate) who are overweight, doesn't win any votes.

But according to the CDC, obesity related healthcare costs may have reached $78.5 BILLION, in 1998. That was 10 years ago. And since then, obesity rates have steadily risen. You do the math.

Mr. Leonheardt had another column in last Sunday's NYTimes magazine as well, and continued with this theme. "The debate over health care reform has so far revolved around how insurers, drug companies, doctors, nurses and government technocrats might be persuaded to change their behavior. And for the sake of the economy and the federal budget, they do need to change their behavior. But there has been far less discussion about how the rest of us might also change our behavior. It’s as if we have little responsibility for our own health. We instead outsource it to something called the health care system"


Monday, August 17, 2009

Peach Pickles!

- Beth Brandon

I could write about a million things right now, since I just returned from
my good friend Katie's farm in Cranston, RI where I've been working and playing and swimming and eating for the past week and a half.

I think I'll start with this: pickled peaches (since my other post was about peaches, and I now have a new favorite to add to my repertoire of things to do with stone fruits).

I spent a day home from the farm to make pickles, sauerkraut, and homemade mayonnaise, which will certainly be in an upcoming post... My day of pickling was fairly freestyle, perhaps because I have a good deal of experience with pickles and perhaps because I was on vacation. In any case, I recommend you start out with this basic proportion:

2 c. honey
1 pint vinegar - white or red wine or mixture of both
about 5 lbs. of peaches, pitted and sliced

I kept the skins on the peaches, but you can remove them if you like. There's a possibility that your skinned peaches will turn brownish after a while, but adding some lemon juice to each jar would probably help.

Put the honey and vinegar in a large heavy pot. Add to that your typical pickling spices; here are some suggestions:

coriander seeds
fenugreek seeds
mustard seeds
black peppercorns
whole chili peppers
cinnamon stick
whole cloves

Bring this mixture to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Pack raw peach slices into hot, sterilized jars. Ladle hot vinegar-honey mixture over peaches, leaving 1/2" head-space at the top of the jar. Assemble 2-piece caps.

You can either let the jars cool and put them in the fridge to eat within the next few months, or process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. (Processed, the pickles will keep unrefrigerated for up to 1 year.)

I'm leaving out a lot of details on the ins and outs of canning, but if you're new to it, look here for a helpful guide.

Using the same recipe but with the addition of garlic cloves, I made some of the best pickled carrots I or any of my friends had ever tasted! Now is the time. Make some pickles and pull them out in 8 months when crispy and fresh have all but left your taste vocabulary.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blistered in the Sun

Been really busy lately and haven't had much time to post, but tonight came home and decided it was time to get busy in the kitchen. Had some beautiful lamb in the freezer, and our fridge was loaded with farmers market produce. This included some baby eggplants that were calling to me. Lamb+eggplant is a natural combination. So here's the menu:

• Local red lettuce and tomato salad with sprouts and sweet peppers; dijon-balsamic vinaigrette
• Roasted "Charmoula" marinated lamb loin, with mint-garlic pesto, on eggplant-garlic-pepper puree.
• Corn on the cob
• Blistered shishito peppers with pink sea salt

Not going to post full recipes here, but here are some details.

"Charmoula" is a somewhat generic term for a north-African olive oil based spice paste, that generally includes ground chilies, cumin, salt, garlic, lemon, onion, coriander, saffron, etc. For this particular spice paste, I used:

olive oil
pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
sweet paprika
ground cumin
minced garlic
ground black pepper
kosher salt
dash of white wine vinegar (didn't have a lemon, but needed acid)

The eggplant puree was actually one of the best concoctions I've come up with in a while. Started by blackening the eggplants on all sides in a cast-iron skillet. After about 20 minutes, I let them cool, then peeled them and scooped out the softened flesh. Next, pureed in a food-processor with a little bit of salt and pepper. Meanwhile, sauteed finely diced garlic, hot peppers, sweet peppers, and zucchini until all were softened (but still slightly firm), and folded it all together. This creamy, spicy-sweet puree was a perfect compliment to the lamb (but tasty as hell on it's own)

The pesto was just fresh mint, olive oil, and garlic with a bit of fresh black pepper. Brightened the whole thing up and transformed a pretty comforting meal into a much more summery affair.

Shishito peppers are the closest thing to pimientos you can get around here. These small, tender, slightly spicy peppers are best prepared simply: tossed with a bit of olive oil, and blistered in a hot cast-iron skillet (or grilled), and tossed with a bit of sea salt. I have to get them fast.... Dunnie will make these disappear in a flash.

Shishito Peppers

Lamb loin chop w/ mint-garlic pesto, eggplant-pepper puree, corn on the cob

Blistered shishito peppers

(You can see I got jipped on these suckers!)
(Dunnie ate twice as many as me)

A Note on Nutrition

Large post coming on dinner tonight, but in the meantime, came across this article from the American Cancer Society, on tomatoes as a cancer-fighting superfood. Why is this relevent? Well, along the lines of my previous post about organic food and nutrition, this is a perfect example of the benefits of foods being greater than the sum of their parts. The tomato, and it's components, are healthier than the components taken individually as supplements. Wow, nature is more efficient than humans after all!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Farm(ers Market) to Table

Farm Food
Originally uploaded by Utter Brandomonium

Both last night and tonight, dinner preparation had a dual purpose: make something to eat, and to use up some (slightly) aging produce. Tonight's was not your run-of-the-mill dinner by any means. A farm egg scramble with the unbelievable eggs from Knoll Crest Farms, some Salumi, spring onions and rosemary from my window. And a salad of early tomatoes, raw sweet corn, red quinoa (brought back from Peru!), fresh mint, and chili flakes. YUM!


recent interview with Joel Salatin (of The Omnivores Dilemma and Food, Inc. fame) about farming, food, tolerance, sustainability and how to relax was posted on If you can put aside the stigma associated with the website's name, this is an amazing piece.

Joel is truly an inspiring figure. He writes and speaks with an eloquence, conviction, and clarity of thought rare amongst scholars, let alone farmers. Some of his ideals are pushing the utopian, but he is unapologetic and believes deeply in his purpose.

Regarding what is wrong with the food industry, his assessment boils down to four things: soil, hubris, safety and respect. The following excerpts highlight each:

"The soil is the only thread upon which civilization can exist, and it's such a narrow strip around the globe if a person could ever realize that our existence depends on literally inches of active aerobic microbial life on terra firma, we might begin to appreciate the ecological umbilical to which we are all still attached. The food industry, I'm convinced, actually believes we don't need soil to live. That we are more clever than that."

"The food industry views everything through the skewed paradigm of faith in human cleverness rather than dependence on nature's design"

"The food industry actually believes that feeding your children Twinkies, Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew is safe, but drinking raw milk and eating compost-grown tomatoes is dangerous"

"...a culture that views its life from such an arrogant, manipulative, disrespectful hubris, will view its own citizenry the same way--and other cultures"

Please, read the rest here

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Greater Than the Sum of it's Parts

Jim Giles of the New Scientist published this article in response to the story I already reacted to, stating that organic food is no better than conventional. Thank you Jim!