Chicken Mayhem!

(Or, may-hen...?)

I often find chicken behavior to be quite amusing and endearing. I can't wait to someday have some space of my own to keep hens!

My horse lives in what is called a pipe stall or pipe corral - his stable has a roof, but each horse's individual space is separated by widely-spaced horizontal metal bars, and not wooden walls. This allows for ventilation as well as social interaction between the horses. A few scrappy hens and roosters live in the barn as well, and at night they roost on the highest bars of the horse stalls.

Last night when I went to visit my horse, I noticed one of the roosters acting funny - examining something on the ground and skirting nervously around it. I took a closer look and saw that it was a little snake! It was about 7" long and as thin as a pencil (maybe one of these?), and writhing in the dirt of the barn aisle. As I was debating whether or not to catch the snake under a bucket, a hen ran up and boldly snatched the snake in her beak!

She then began running around and weaving between the horses' stalls, dropping the snake a few times and picking it up again. Finally, she pecked the snake at the tail end, and slurped the whole thing down like a piece of spaghetti!

I've seen snakes in nature videos and in science class swallowing a whole mouse - but I had never seen a snake swallowed whole before! Very interesting and unexpected. That's probably the most "exotic" wildlife experience I've had so close to home!

On Tuesday evening I actually had another fun hen experience when I was helping my friend in her garden. I was cleaning the chicken coop (my specialty), and had managed to get 8 of the 10 hens out of the coop and into their adjoining wire-enclosed run.

I asked my friend if I should catch the two stragglers and put them in the run as well, but my friend said not to bother. The sun was setting, and chickens are supposed to have a strong instinct to take cover at night. If either of them escaped while I had the roof of the coop open, they should soon return home by themselves anyway.


One immediately flew out and began having a ball on the big compost heap next to the coop. My friend gets aged horse manure and wood shavings trucked in to use as mulch and compost, and the hen was having the time of her life scratching at the heap and throwing compost everywhere. Occasionally, she would lose her foot-hold and come sliding down the mulch mountain, with an avalanche of compost following her :)

When I was done cleaning the coop, I lifted the door that divides the coop from the run. The eight hens came streaming back into the coop. Instead of joining her sisters back inside the coop, the free hen enticed another four of them to join her party outside!

Soon, we had four hens digging in the compost heap ecstatically, and another running amok in the yard (probably the original ringleader). She took a peck of chard here, a nip of spinach there, and ran over the freshly planted pepper seedlings. The chickens didn't show any sign of wanting to return home, despite the fact that it was getting quite dark. Eventually, we rounded the loose hens up one by one and shut them in the coop for the night.

They will have their chance to spend time in the chicken tractor to uproot weeds and dig up grubs soon, but hopefully we'll be more careful not to let them range quite as freely as they did Tuesday night!


Kitchen Upgrade

Back in the fall of 2008 when I made a commitment to cook from scratch more regularly, I began upgrading my cookware.

At the time, I owned only 2 teflon-coated frying pans (one with a lid), and 2 teflon-coated pots (a large one for cooking pasta, and a smaller one for sauce). Everything was at least 4 years old, and the larger pot was beginning to peel on the inside. I was also using a dull chef's knife, and a flimsy, plastic-handled paring knife. Cooking was not fun.

I decided to replace my cookware and knives for two main reasons: safety, and pleasure.

I was concerned about safety after noticing the teflon coating flaking off from the inside of my larger pot. I had previously thrown out another cheap set of cookware that had the same problem a few years prior. I was also worried about using dull, cheap knives to cut produce. Not only was I afraid of slipping and cutting my hand, but my paring knife blade was so thin, I was afraid it might actually snap!

I try to be cautious about accumulating too much stuff, particularly after downgrading to a very small apartment. However, if I were truly going to cook more often, I needed better equipment. The second reason for my upgrade - pleasure - factors in here.

I had noticed that at a friend's house, cooking was fun. This was mostly because she is an experienced cook, and whips up a lot of delicious, exciting dishes. But I also noticed that her matching, high-end cookware and knives seemed to make the process easier. I'm sure this was mostly psychological, but nevertheless, I thought that investing in better tools might make cooking more pleasurable for me.

I would not advocate that anyone go out and spend a lot of money on gadgets that are just going to sit around an accumulate dust. I upgraded my kitchen piece by piece, after doing a lot of research.

In particular, I found a few articles from National Geographic's Green Guide to be helpful. Apparently, teflon coatings degrade over time, and flaking is not uncommon. Even if they don't peel visibly, they can give off toxic fumes. I decided that to play it safe - and to avoid having to constantly replace my pans - I would go for a different material that would hopefully last a lifetime.

I decided on Calphalon's tri-ply stainless line, and Lodge cast iron pans, and accumulated pieces one by one.

Calphalon tri-ply is made of aluminum (for heat conductivity) sandwiched between two layers of stainless steel (for lack of reactivity with food), not only on the base, but all the way up the sides as well. It is considered by many to be a more reasonably-priced, but high-quality alternative to the pricey All-Clad brand. In addition, Calphalon's lids are glass instead of the metal lids that come with All-Clad, which is nice so you can see what's going on without lifting the lid.
The set shown below is very affordable compared to buying the pieces separately, but I decided not to get the set. I didn't need all the pieces included, and don't have the space to store the items I wouldn't use very often.

In fact, I didn't end up buying anything that comes in the set. I used 20%-off coupons at Bed Bath & Beyond to buy the 8-quart stock pot (the set comes with a 6-quart pot) and the 3-quart chef's pan. At a Linens 'n Things store closing, I also bought the 5-quart sautee pan. I don't use the sautee pan very often, as it's quite huge, but it comes in very handy for stir fries. The stock pot and chef's pan are used several times a week, and I couldn't be happier.


Then I bought some Lodge cast iron cookware, which have become my every day pans. I first acquired the "combo cooker" from the Sport Chalet camping department. It includes a deep 10" pan and a shallow pan that also serves as its lid. They were great, but a bit too large for 1-2 eggs, which looked very lonely cooking on just one half of the pan. So I bought the tiny 6-1/2" diameter skillet from amazon.com, also available at Sur la Table. The mini-pan is AMAZING. It gets used almost every single day for eggs - it's perfectly sized to fry one to two.

If anyone doubts that cast iron can really substitute for the ease of teflon-coated pans when cooking eggs, trust me - it really works! I've had my mini-pan for only a couple months, and it's already well-seasoned enough to not only make fried eggs that slide right out of the pan when cooked with only a tiny smear of butter, but can also create omelets that will flip easily without leaving any residue.

I did make a few early mistakes in my experimentation with cast iron cooking. Acidic foods should generally be avoided, as they strip the "seasoning" that forms on the pan that prevents foods from sticking. I cook pasta sauce in my Calphalon stainless steel chef's pan instead. At once point, I did have to re-season the deeper Lodge pan (I found an article in Mother Earth News), but that's the beauty of cast iron - if you mess it up, you can renew it. No more tossing out cheap, busted teflon pans!

Below is a turnip dish I whipped up in the shallow 10" Lodge pan, as I described in another recent post.

I also upgraded my knives after finding a killer deal on a set of Wusthof "Culinar" knives. Unlike pots and pans, knives don't take up much space, so even though I don't use every single knife in the set very often, it made sense to buy the set. I think amazon made some kind of pricing error, because I bought it for only $250 in December. After shopping around a bit, I realized that this price was way too cheap to be believed, so I bought it immediately! Good thing - now it's at a more realistic (though beyond my price range) $500.

The two main brands in this price range are Wusthof and J. A. Henckels. After reading reviews, I haven't determined that there is much of a difference in quality - it's mainly personal preference for the feel. A female friend of mine told me that when she tried out some Henckels while building her wedding registry, the handles felt too large for her hands, so she went for Wusthof. Based on that assessment, Wusthof seemed like it might be a better fit for me, too.

I am very pleased with my new knives, and my boyfriend agreed that I had made a sound purchase. Everything is easier to cut now, including onions. And the set even has a bread knife, which many knife block sets do not include.

I have no complaints about any of the cookware I've acquired in the last few months. Everything works well, and seems to be of solid quality. I think investing in better equipment was well worth the cost. I didn't spend an insane amount - about $540 total - which would have been $890 if I hadn't searched for the cheapeast retailers and used coupons. Hopefully these pieces will last me a lifetime. Plus, I did end up cooking much more frequently after upgrading my tools, so the per-use cost will soon be next to nothing!

What about Bokashi??

You may be wondering, "what's up with all of these non-Bokashi posts lately?"

I hope you have found my posts on topics such as gardening and cooking interesting, and at least somewhat related to composting.

My Bokashi cycle is currently in limbo, and will hopefully be back in action by this weekend.

Two weekends ago, I went to attend to Bokashi batch #2 that has been decomposing in my planter. I noticed then that the Rubbermaid tub that I use to transport completed compost to my gardener friend's house had gone missing, along with the trowel I keep inside! I had been storing my equipment outdoors, hidden (I thought) behind the bushes, because my apartment is so tiny. I'm hoping it was a simple misunderstanding with the apartment building's gardener, because I don't like the idea of a thief poking around under my window...

In any case, I just bought a new trowel and tub (which will have to take residence in my car or in my horse's tack locker to avoid another theft), and intend to empty the batch that's in the planter very soon. In fact, now that I have a yard, I will likely use the completed compost on-site! My gardener friend is coming over on Saturday to help me evaluate the plot.

Then I can finally empty the full kitchen bucket (my third batch, which has been resting since 3/31) mix it with soil in the planter, and start adding scraps to the bucket again. My freezer is getting full!

Path to Freedom film screening: Food Matters

On Sunday evening, I attended a local film screening and potluck hosted by Path to Freedom. They host these events in Pasadena monthly, and the previous one I attended was in December.

Now that it's spring, the potluck portion of the evening was held outdoors. Participants were asked to bring a vegetarian dish that is as "local" as possible.

I made deviled eggs using free-range brown and white eggs from the South Pasadena farmer's market, nested on a bed of fresh lettuce from my friend's organic backyard garden. The lettuce helped improve the presentation, and also kept the eggs from sliding around the serving dish while I transported them :)

The hosts provide compostable plates and utensils, but encourage participants to bring their own reusable dinnerware. One handy idea that I learned by observing veteran attendees at the last event was to bring a container with a lid, so that after you're done eating, food scraps won't soil the inside of your bag. I brought my 7-cup pyrex storage container, which worked perfectly!

This month's documentary was called Food Matters. In a nutshell, the film's point was to illustrate that proper nutrition is key to preventing health problems, and even for curing many degenerative diseases. Many of the experts interviewed for the film believe that while modern medicine is extremely adept at treating acute injuries, it is less competent when it comes to chronic illnesses. A diet heavy in raw foods and vitamins was promoted by the film, and drug treatments (as well as cancer therapies such as radiation) were criticized.

I found the film very interesting, but as with my reading of Nina Planck's book, Real Food, I tried to take a step back instead of immediately buying into everything it was suggesting. I always have to ask myself, "are they rightfully exposing a truth that has been obscured from popular knowledge, or might this also be propaganda?"

One of the recurring themes in the documentary was that cooking foods destroys a lot of the beneficial enzymes, and that a diet should be predominantly raw - at least 51% of every meal. I wasn't sure if this was by volume or weight - definitely not the same thing. Picture a big fluffy ball of sprouts vs. a cantaloupe...

I am already consuming raw milk, raw honey, and fresh fruits. However, I know that I personally couldn't be happy as a 100% raw-foods vegan. I haven't tried it before, but cheese and milk are huge staples of my diet, along with whole wheat pasta. These food items add an enormous amount of happiness to my daily life, and I can't give them up entirely.

Nevertheless, I have long suspected that I need to add more fresh produce to my diet anyway. I am recovering from a lifelong aversion to most vegetables - as a child, fresh carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes were about all I would eat, along with the occasional cooked broccoli, cauliflower, peas, or corn on the cob.

A couple years ago, I actually made a new year's resolution to eat at least ONE legitimately green thing every day. Otherwise, days would go by without any vegetables being consumed at all - let alone the 3-5 servings typically recommended. I was in fact able to stick to my resolution that year, and vegetables have become part of my daily diet - in limited quantities. My taste for veggies is finally expanding, perhaps due to a maturing palate. However, I am still nowhere near eating the quantity I should be. I eat very little meat, so my meals are heavy in whole grains and dairy or eggs. Unless I'm eating a salad, vegetables are merely a small side dish.

Upon viewing Food Matters, I renewed my commitment to consuming a higher proportion of fresh veggies. One expert that was interviewed for the film - Andrew Saul - particularly caught my attention. He was very likable, and his sense of humor really showed in his interviews, and on his website as well. His recommendation of juicing vegetables particularly appealed to me.

Since I still find masticating a large quantity of vegetables each day to be fairly daunting, juicing seems like it might be a good solution for me.  There will be a lot of pulp leftover, but I'm not worried about losing fiber in my diet, as these are vegetables I wouldn't be consuming otherwise.  I plan to save the pulp in the fridge to give to my friend's hens.  I have a juicing machine on loan, and will report back on my progress!

I almost forgot to mention - each Path to Freedom film screening is followed by a brief quiz.  I remembered this from last time, and took notes throughout the film, because there is a prize for answering all 10 questions correctly!  Winners receive either free admission to the next event, or $10-off at the Peddler's Wagon store.  

At December's event, I used my $10 prize toward a set of glass food storage canisters.  On Sunday, as I approached the Peddler's Wagon table, something immediately caught my eye, and I knew exactly what to get...

Bokashi bran!  

I am almost done with the last of the Bokashi mix I had purchased from Gaiam back in October to get my composting process started.  Fortuitously, Peddler's Wagon had a tub right there at the event for... $10!  I paid only tax, and walked home with a fresh batch of Bokashi bran to continue my kitchen composting.  Excellent!

Book Review: Real Food

Over the past few months, I've read two popular books about the way modern Americans eat: Real Food, by Nina Planck, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. I'm now in the middle of a third well-known book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.

I have enjoyed all three books, and found that reading them in the order listed above was a good strategy, as each book goes into successively greater detail and analysis.

Below are my thoughts on the first book I read, Real Food: What to Eat and Why, by Nina Planck, 2007:

I rate this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It's a good starting point to spark your thinking about what we as a culture tend to eat, what we used to eat, and what we should eat.

Planck's reasoning is framed mainly from a nutritional perspective. She references medical and anthropological research to support her claim that "real" foods - i.e. produced and prepared using primitive or traditional methods - are the most healthful, whereas modern, processed foods are more dangerous to our health.

She argues that humans have evolved to eat certain types of foods, including meat, but that modern food technology has created foods that are bodies are not built to use in the right manner. According to Planck, modern foods are the root of modern health problems such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Planck seeks to debunk what she sees as a myth, pervasive in American culture, that low-cholesterol and low-fat foods are the healthiest. She believes that animal products - and the fat and cholesterol contained within them - are not inherently bad for us. Instead, it's conventional factory-farming practices, as well as refined foods such as processed sugar, that threaten our health.

According to Planck's food philosophy, we should eat eggs from pastured chickens, grass-fed beef, and plenty of wild-caught fish, but should avoid refined foods - including isolated soy protein - which she considers a health-food impostor.

Planck is a one-time vegan who has come to firmly believe that eating animal products, including meat, is natural and healthful. However, she is adamant that the consumer should make every effort to obtain animal products raised using the most stringent, ethical methods possible. Interestingly, she argues this primarily for reasons of nutrition, with environmental and animal-rights concerns being secondary.

Conventionally-grown vegetables and fruits may contain harmful residues of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. However, Planck argues, compared to eating a small amount of meat from an animal who consumes non-organically grown plants, you would have to consume a massive quantity of chemically-sprayed plant products directly to accumulate the same amount of toxins in your body.

I liken it to thinking about how mainstream it has become to worry about consuming mercury when eating fish. Fish who eat other fish develop higher concentrations of mercury in their flesh, so those highest up on the food chain should be consumed very sparingly. The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes a seafood guide that outlines the recommended frequency for consuming different types of fish. The guide is based on the risk of different types of fish to our health, as well as on the different fishing or farming practices used to acquire each type of fish.

Planck advocates consuming organic, free-range, grass-fed, wild-caught, etc. as much as possible when eating animal products, but feels that it is less necessary to buy organic when consuming plants.

The book was certainly eye-opening for me, as I was only beginning to consider factors apart from convenience and price when determining what to eat.

However, I was a bit disappointed by the book's lack of structure. The author seemed to bounce around and circle back a lot instead of thoroughly exploring each topic she introduced. For me, this diluted the message of her book. Others may not find the somewhat disorganized format to be as distracting, but for me the lack of cohesion made it harder to distill the take-away points.

Also, although Planck provides citations for many studies to form the basis of her theories, I felt that I should take her assertions with a grain of salt. The anthropological observations she described were interesting, but not as persuasive to me as the empirical medical studies she referenced.

Still, if you have the time, Planck's book is certainly worth a read. After finishing Real Food, I re-evaluated my own diet as follows:
  • As I described in another recent post, I've adopted Planck's strategy of spending more on animal products to ensure that they were raised in a fashion that imparts the greatest nutritional benefits - along with doing less damage to the environment and the animals' welfare.

  • I also try to obtain local or organic produce as often as possible, but am not willing to pay quite as much of a premium as I do with animal products. I generally avoid cheap milk, eggs, and meat.

  • I no longer feel guilty about eating whole eggs, rather than just the whites. Even as a child, I liked the yolks the best! I have tried buying cartons of liquid eggs whites before, and found them to be an unsatisfactory substitution for eggs. Many people consider egg whites to be a health food, but Planck believes whole eggs to be much more beneficial.

  • I verified with a friend who is completing a joint MD-MPH program, with a focus in nutrition, that eating egg yolks will not directly lead to high cholesterol and heart disease. She said I should feel free to eat whole eggs, as long as I don't consume an insane quantity every day. :)

  • I began drinking whole-fat, un-homogenized milk (Trader Joe's sells cream-top organic milk by the half-gallon). As a child, I always drank whole or 2% milk - skim tasted like glorified grey water to me. I switched to skim from 2004-2008 because that seemed like the "adult" thing to do. Now I'm back to enjoying a daily glass of sweet, rich, creamy real milk - and the switch has not caused me to gain weight.

  • I recently took it one step further and tried raw milk (which is un-pasteurized as well as un-homogenized), as Planck recommended. I've had absolutely no digestive issues with the change. Whole Foods carries raw milk options.

  • When cooking, I use olive oil and real butter, never margarine. Vegetable oils are made solid through hydrogenation. Therefore, margarine = trans fats!

  • Soy: I still love tofu, but instead of using vanilla soy milk in my coffee, I now use organic half-and-half or whole milk. I never use non-dairy "creamer" - which is actually made with both high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oils!

  • I still consume some refined and processed foods. Old habits die hard, and there are certain processed foods that still make me salivate! I want to live life and enjoy different kinds of flavors - but I am more selective and try to practice moderation.

  • Although I switched to brown rice and whole wheat bread and pasta several years ago for everyday consumption, I still bake with some white all-purpose flour and white sugar.

  • I also still indulge in store-bought cereal along with occasional snacks and desserts, but always examine the ingredients.

I'm still trying to establish and maintain a healthy diet that works for me. I want to feel healthy and like I am making ethical food choices. However, I am still recovering from being a lifelong picky eater, and taste is very important to me. I've made a lot of improvements in eating nutritiously over the last couple years, particularly in the last few months since I started cooking from scratch and getting involved in gardening.

However, a typical meal for me is heavy in pasta (whole wheat, at least!) and dairy, with some vegetables and fruit on the side. I think the balance on my plate needs to be reversed - so that is my next goal.


A Garden of My Own! (?)

I found my current apartment in Burbank because my landlord is also my horseback riding instructor.  She owns a few adjacent rental properties near the stables, including my building, and a guest cottage behind my apartment building's parking lot.  

Today we were chatting at the stables, and I mentioned that on Sunday night I'm going to another one of the film screening and potlucks hosted by Path to Freedom.  When she heard that I was interested in vegetable gardening, she encouraged me to convert the yard of the guesthouse into a garden!  Apparently anything that is currently dirt and not grass is fair game - how exciting!

I went to scope out the current state of the yard, and the available area for vegetable gardening is quite sizable:

There is also a small area abutting the cottage where I would like to set up a composter and maybe some planters with herbs:

I have a few concerns - namely my own lack of experience - but also the abundance of shade.  The entire garden area is lined with beautiful, mature trees, shown below.  While I personally prefer shade to sunlight, I'm not sure that most vegetables would feel the same way.  Also, while there aren't very many weeds on the ground right now, I suspect it's because the soil is thin and hard.  Putting in raised beds might be a good solution, but I will have to do some research on where to get low-cost building materials and soil.  I have seen ads for free dirt on craigslist before.  Now my Bokashi will be put to use right at my own home!

Unfortunately, even though I have immediate access to an abundant supply of horse manure and bedding - a highly compostable mix - I don't intend to use it for garden compost at this time.  Stabled horses take medications, supplements, and anti-parasitic boosters that would linger in the manure, and possibly also in the the vegetables that grow in the compost.  


Grocery Stores

I try to get the bulk of my fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as free-range beef and raw honey from the local farmer's markets and my friend's garden. However, that doesn't cover all the food groups. Where do I get the rest of my food?

The answer is that for me, there is no one-stop solution in Los Angeles. In any given week, I visit a combination of Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and "ethnic" grocery stores. Below are my recommendations of what to find at each, and the reasoning behind my preferences.

Trader Joe's: I used to live one block from the original Trader Joe's on Mission St. in South Pasadena. I never stocked up on groceries for the week, and instead relished my daily walk to the neighborhood market to pick up frozen dinners. I still visit TJ's on a weekly basis, but now skirt the packaged meals in favor of ingredients for dishes that I make from scratch (or nearly from scratch).

Produce is more reasonably priced than at "conventional" grocers such as Ralph's or Vons, but Trader Joe's is a packaging nightmare. There is very little produce that isn't presented in plastic bags or boxes, and the prices are not lower than at the farmer's market.

However, Trader Joe's does have very good prices on the following:
  • Whole wheat pasta: about $1.29 for a 1 lb. bag
  • Whole wheat bread: the cheapest bagged, pre-sliced loaf is $1.99
  • Recycled toilet paper and paper towels
  • Pine nuts and Flax seeds: surprisingly cheaper than from the bulk bins at other stores
  • Water crackers: the price just dropped to $0.99 per box, down from $1.29!
  • Bananas: $0.19 each for regular, $0.29 each for organic; yes, they are imported tropical fruits, but if you're going to eat them, this is the place to get them.
  • Free-range eggs: roughly the same price ($3/dozen) as the farmer's market, though more likely to be "factory organic" than farmer's market eggs
  • Fair-trade coffee
  • Gourmet cheese: priced by weight, and labels indicate whether the milk was hormone free, and whether they were made with animal rennet or microbial rennet (my preference).
  • Baking needs (chocolate chips, flour, organic sugar)

Whole Foods: Shopping at Whole Foods is kind of like reading a fashion or design magazine - inspiring, drool-worthy, but I can barely afford many of their offerings. They have decent prices for a few items if you look carefully, but most items are quite expensive. I only buy things there that I can't find easily elsewhere within a few-mile radius, such as:

  • Raw, whole milk: the Glendale location offers 2 brands of unpasteurized milk; one is about $6 for a quart in a glass bottle, and the other is $10 for a half-gallon plastic jug. I bought the plastic one because the label gave a lot of information about the farm, and I liked what I read.
  • Gourmet cheese: fancier than the Trader Joe's selection, offering some of the same speciality varieties as cheese boutiques such as the Cheese Store and Say Cheese, such as the popular California goat cheese brand Cypress Grove Chevre.
  • "Natural" beauty products: my favorite brands such as Earth Science, Desert Essence Organics, and Kiss My Face have wide selections at Whole Foods. These types of companies tend to use non-irritating ingredients, recycled packaging, and don't test their products on animals.

"Ethnic" grocery stores: These range from small, family-owned neighborhood shops to big-box stores, but what they have in common is exceptionally low prices on some types of items, and less-flashy real-estate and merchandising. Examples include:

I shop at these stores purely for low prices, because that's the advantage these stores offer. "Food ethics," particularly with relation to animal products, is not what concerns their main customer base the most - low prices and ingredients specific to cultural cuisines is what they provide. I recommend visiting these stores for the following:

  • Bulk spices, dried herbs, and nuts (with the exception of flax seeds and pine nuts, which are cheaper at Trader Joe's): They generally come in crinkly plastic bags, but there are some bulk bins as well. You will never buy a little bottle of dried thyme from a regular grocery store ever again after seeing the pries at one of these stores.
  • Cheap produce: I try to get my produce from my friend's garden or the farmer's market, but in a pinch, I stop by an ethnic grocery. There is no reason to spend an exorbitant amount at a Ralph's, or accumulate lots of plastic packaging at Trader Joe's.
  • Bulk Mediterranean goods: Imported olive oil, canned chickpeas, and tahini (sesame paste) are by far cheaper at these stores than anywhere else. TJ's has reasonable prices on California olive oils, but for Italian or other European oils, you can get 2L for $14 or so at an ethnic grocery store.
  • Meat, eggs, and milk are all very cheap at these stores - but I do NOT buy these products. I prefer to spend more money in order to get better nutritional quality and flavor, and also to know that the animal was not raised in a factory environment (both for animal ethics and environmental concerns). I am a little more flexible on whether my fruits and vegetables were raised on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but I do not like to compromise with animal products.


What I cooked with my farmer's market spoils

I typically plan my week's menu ahead of time. When I am eating alone, I can usually cook one or two dishes and bring them as leftovers for lunch at work all week. For dinner I have a simple cheese plate with crackers and fruit (and a dab of fig jam). Breakfast is either a fried egg with toast, a homemade fruit and yogurt smoothie, or cereal if I am running quite late.

I must confess an addiction to Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds - an industrial-food vice I haven't been able to give up (along with an occasional indulgence in Flamin' Hot Cheetos with Lime). However, my boyfriend made granola from this recipe last week, and it seemed like a promising tool to wean me of my daily HBoOwA habit!

I bought a jar of raw honey from Bill's Bees at the South Pasadena farmer's market last week to use in yogurt, and in the homemade granola recipe. Bill gives customers samples of the various types of honey he offers - I tasted orange-blossom, sage, and almond tree honey. Orange-blossom is a bit floral (think jasmine), whereas almond is complex and almost alcoholic (Bill commented that some people think it's "bitter," but that he doesn't see how honey can be bitter). Sage seemed just right to me, so I bought a 16 oz. glass jar for $6.

I also tried J & J's range-fed beef for the first time last week, and it was so good that this week I decided to get another pound to keep in the freezer. My diet is generally ovo-lacto-vegetarian, so I need a break from meat this week (since it takes me a week of eating some every day in order to polish off a pound!).

Last week after I let the beef thaw in the fridge for a day, I made about 1/4 pound into a burger patty, which I seasoned with salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. I grilled it lightly on both sides in my small cast iron pan, and sandwiched it with crumbled blue cheese, sliced tomato, red onion, and toasted Trader Joe's whole wheat bread (the kind that's $1.99 per loaf). I didn't want to use too many condiments or dressings, since I wanted to be able to really taste the beef. WOW. It was delicious. The difference in cost between J & J's and grocery store beef is worth it to me not just for ethical and environmental reasons, but also for the taste.

The next day, I cooked the remaining 3/4 pound of beef into a pasta sauce. I sauteed the meat with chopped red onions, and seasoned it with salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, dried thyme, and dried oregano. After draining the fat, I added some red wine, let it evaporate a bit, then added a jar of store-bought marinara sauce (I haven't yet worked up the courage to make my own sauce from scratch yet) and some chopped tomatoes I had sauteed on the side.

I served the meat sauce with Trader Joe's whole wheat rotelli (cooked for 4-5 minutes after adding to boiling water - NOT the 9-11 minutes specified on the package!) and topped it with some chopped fresh basil and freshly grated parmesan. The pasta dish was delicious, and provided me with lunch for the rest of the week.

The prior week, I used the heirloom tomatoes in another pasta dish. The original recipe calls for pancetta, but I adapted it with turkey bacon (I hope this isn't sacrilege for Italian food purists!). The turkey was chopped and fried, then a bit of crushed fresh fresh garlic was added to the pan. Next, the chopped tomatoes are added and sauteed for a few minutes with the meat. I then tossed the tomatoes and turkey with cooked pasta and added arugula, and freshly grated parmesan cheese. I bought a 1/4 lb. bag of baby arugula from the South Pas farmer's market, which was absolutely delectable, warmed and very slighted wilted in the pasta.

You can also substitute spinach or baby spinach for the arugula. Spinach tends to wilt a bit more, making for a different textured dish. I actually have never been fond of arugula in general, finding it a bit strong and bitter - but the baby arugula from the farmer's market was a big winner!

South Pasadena Farmer's Market

Today is Thursday, which is when the weekly South Pasadena Farmer's Market is held. Before I moved to Burbank last fall, I lived only a couple blocks from the Mission and Meridian metro station where the farmers market is set up from 4-8pm.

Recently, I have made an effort to start going again. It's not that far out of my way when I'm returning home from work. But now I go specifically for produce. In the past, I went to socialize with friends and get dinner from the food stands (think pupusas, tamales, Peruvian fried rice, bratwurst...), and I largely ignored the produce vendors besides occasionally picking up a basket of strawberries. There are only about a dozen small tents in the back of the market, and the cooked food vendors up front seem to be the main attraction.

However, upon closer examination (or due to my somewhat recently expanded palate for vegetables), the produce vendors actually have a lot to offer. This was my third week in a row of visiting the farmer's market, so I'm starting to get a sense of what is in season. I came with shopping list in hand and visited three vendors. At the first tent, I bought a colorful bunch of Swiss Chard, two varieties of tomatoes, two small bags of basil, and an onion, for a total of $9. Another vendor had pears and fuji apples for $1.75 per pound - I spent $5 there. Finally, I purchased a $5 pound of California range-fed ground beef (not pictured).

The same vendor that sells the chard and tomatoes also sells eggs from free-range chickens for $3 a dozen (the carton contains both white and brown eggs), which is quite a good price! I am especially a fan of their heirloom tomatoes. Below is a close-up shot of the heirloom variety next to a more typical tomato for color comparison. They are so deep red as to be almost brown, and are intensely flavorful! I've become quite a fan, and have bought a few of this type on my last three visits. If anyone recognizes the breed, please let me know :)

Right now there are a lot of baby squash, particularly zucchini, and strawberries are also abundant. I also saw some asparagus and broccoli still, which in my friend's garden are both done for the season. Citrus fruits are plentiful, but there were also several vendors selling fuji apples. Some stands were dedicated to a single product, for instance potatoes, baby greens, sprouts, and of course the honey and beef that I mentioned previously.

FYI, I would advise bringing not only your own sturdy shopping bags, but also some smaller plastic or mesh bags as well. They are helpful to keep different types of items separate in your larger tote, and if you are buying something that's priced by the pound and not by the bunch, the vendor needs to be able to weigh your items in a plastic bag. The sellers all provide plastic bags for this purpose, but they are generally of the handled shopping-bag variety, not the thin produce bags you see at grocery stores. Sorry if this is just obvious to everyone else, but even though I brought my own large shopping totes the first time, I still found that I needed to use the vendors' plastic bags as well.

Now, I must confess, there is actually a farmer's market in Burbank only 2 miles from my apartment. Sadly, I still have not gone in the 8 months I've been a Burbank resident. The farmer's market is held on Saturdays from 8:00am - 12:30pm. I have commitments every Saturday afternoon, so mornings are often packed with other errands. However, I have vowed to check it out - SOON!


April in the garden

Here are a couple snapshots of what the garden looked like last weekend. For the last few weeks, California poppies have been in full, traffic-cone orange bloom all over the area. My friend has a native plants garden in her front yard that currently looks like the poppy field from the Wizard of Oz. A few poppies decided to sprout up in the backyard vegetable garden as well.

I'm not a great photographer - some of the poppies are in the background of the photo below. In the foreground you can see colorful chard:

Citrus trees have been bearing fruit for the last couple months. In my friend's garden there are large pomelos, grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, and two types of oranges. At the South Pasadena farmer's market last week I saw many stands selling citrus fruits. Additionally, Bill's Bees, a local honey vendor at the market, particularly recommended orange-blossom honey, as so many citrus trees in the area were flowering recently.

This weekend we planted bell pepper seedlings as well as the squash that had been started from my Bokashi compost soil. We also pulled up the broccoli that was now past its season and threw it to the chickens, who had a party among the uprooted broccoli forest that we threw to into their enclosure.

In a raised bed in the back of the garden, some of the strawberries were beginning to ripen. These have also been plentiful at the farmer's market recently, with most vendors selling a 3-basket pack for $5-7. Next to the strawberries, carrots and lettuce also grow in the raised bed.

I planted the carrots from seed a couple months ago. Since the seeds are so tiny, it's impractical to start them inside. It's much easier to sprinkle a handful of seeds, cover them with a thin layer of soil and mulch directly in the raised bed, and thin them once they've grown a bit. Below are some of the baby carrots we thinned out to allow the remaining carrots room to grow properly. My horse really enjoyed the treat! He usually gets only carrot roots, but loves the greens as well when they are available.

We also harvested the last of the turnips, which are best eaten when they are 1"-2" in diameter for maximum tenderness (according to their seed packet's label). Pulling the little bulbs with the single, thin, pointy root gently out of the ground is such a satisfying feeling for some reason.

Below are the turnips, washed and separated from their leaves and roots. I must take a moment to rave about my OXO salad spinner. Back in my lazy-chef days of buying bagged salad greens, I couldn't fathom why anyone would own a salad spinner. It seemed like such a gimicky gadget, and a waste of money. Then I started cooking with whole ingredients, and shaking out spinach with a colander and towel began to get tedious. At a friend's house, I used the OXO once and was hooked. It's much larger and sturdier than other salad spinners I've seen, and I highly recommend it! It's pricey (about $30 even on amazon.com), but would be a good use of those $10-off or 20%-off coupons from Bed Bath & Beyond!

I cut the turnips into thick slices and also halved the leaves lengthwise. I added the turnips and greens to boiling water and simmered for several minutes while I sauteed chopped turkey bacon in my cast iron skillet (I will rave more about cast iron in a later post!). When the bacon was ready, I drained the turnip water and added the turnips and greens to the pan. According to some recipes I referenced online, draining the water helps to remove any bitterness the greens might have had. I sauteed everything for a couple minutes and seasoned with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and onion and garlic power (my universal seasoning for vegetables lately). I must say it was delicious! And this is from a former vegetable skeptic (if not outright veggie-phobe).

Bokashi Update: First batch complete!

The first batch of Bokashi compost that I completed has made it all the way to nourishing plants at last - but not without a few glitches along the way!

The online tutorial that I referenced had advised that after one month, the compost would be finished.  After four weeks, I uncovered my planter and stuck a trowel into the soil/compost mix and discovered that the planter was still dominated by substantial chunks of food.  Now, the website I had referenced indicated that the planter should be covered for 2 weeks, whereas I left the plastic on the whole time.  I'm not sure how much of a difference this made, but I will experiment with future batches.

This photo is actually from the second batch of Bokashi compost, which has been outside for a few weeks and has now settled to about 2/3 of the original volume.  Many of the food scraps still retained much of their original structure before they met with my trowel.

In any case, I chopped up the chunks with my trowel and mixed everything thoroughly once more.  The soil/food mixture had indeed settled quite a bit, to about half of its initial volume.  After another couple weeks, it appeared noticeably different once more, with a much more even, crumbly consistency.

I scooped it all into a lidded plastic Rubbermaid container and took it over to my gardener friend's house to have her take a look.  I was nervous that I had messed it up, since it had been about twice as long as I thought it should take, but my friend said the compost looked beautiful! We sifted it through a slotted plastic tray to separate out the largest chunks.  Well over 90% of the material seemed to have broken down quite well.  We threw the bigger chunks (corn cobs stand out in my memory as having been particularly stubborn) into the Tumbleweed composter.

In order to make the sifted compost into potting soil, we mixed in perlite, which according to the ever-handy Wikipedia, is used to "prevent water loss and soil compaction."  Perlite is a volcanic glass that to me looks just like small styrofoam beads.  

My friend then used our fresh potting mix start seeds indoors.  Gardeners often plant seeds indoors, especially in climates less mild than ours here in Southern California.  That way they are protected from temperature and weather extremes, as well as from pests, and gardeners can get a head start on the growing season even before the last frost.  The seedlings are transplanted to the garden after they have established a few leaves and roots.  Seedlings that already have a few inches on them won't have to struggle as hard to push up through the soil and mulch (which we lay over the ground to discourage weeds from growing). 

My friend also started some seeds in regular commercial potting soil, and labeled the seed trays with the source of the soil - regular or mine.  Unfortunately, I lost the race!  After a couple weeks, all of the seeds planted in the regular soil had begun to sprout, while only a couple of the Bokashi-soil seedlings had struggled to life.  We began to fear that the Bokashi compost was too raw, and might have killed the seeds!

Fortunately, I got so behind on updating this blog that I can happily report that Bokashi is not poison after all!  My seedlings were off to a slow start, but nonetheless eventually sprouted, and as of last weekend were transplanted to the garden as 3" tall little butternut squash and watermelon plants!

Stay tuned for photos of the Bokashi-nourished plants as they grow this summer!


White Rabbit CSA: Even MORE fun with chicken tractors!

At the start of the new year (yes, this post is long overdue!), while visiting loved ones, I had the good fortune to visit a CSA farm in Vero Beach, Florida.

A family friend recently started volunteering with the CSA. The CSA is relatively new, but the scale is quite impressive. It is set on about 5 acres within a larger, certified-organic family farm of about 30 acres. The CSA already has about 60 members, who each commit $15 and one hour of labor per week in exchange for fresh produce from the CSA farm.

Due to the agreeable Florida climate, even in January they had a beautiful crop of lettuce ready for harvest. Drip irrigation lines supply the lettuce with water through flat hoses.

White plastic was used to mulch the young strawberry plants seen below:

In exchange for their labor and membership fees, the CSA participants earn "bunny bucks" - points toward their choice of produce.

We went home with some mixed greens and peas, courtesy of our generous friend's labors on the farm, and enjoyed a delicious salad for lunch. The organically-grown greens were truly more flavorful than the store-bought, bagged variety!

My most favorite part of the CSA farm was the mobile chicken coop and pig tractor!

The chicken coop is built upon a trailer bed. The bottom of the coop is completely open to the ground, to allow the chickens' droppings to fall through to the ground beneath.

The chickens lay their eggs inside the coop, but otherwise are 100% free-range. It's hard to tell from the photo, but the chickens at White Rabbit CSA are enormous! They apparently have no difficulty foraging for food. The roosters and hens have complete freedom to wander over the property, though they mostly stay clustered within a few yards of the coop, as there is plenty to eat.

The mobile coop is moved every so often, along with an enclosed pig pen which then goes onto the spot vacated by the chicken coop. The pigs root the chicken droppings into the soil, helping with the next step of the composting process.

In case you are concerned about the pigs looking crowded in the photo, they did have enough room to turn and move around. I don't know much about the care of pigs, and whether they need exercise. I do know that in conventional concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), or "factory farms," pigs do not have as much space to move around, and also have to endure concrete flooring, which impedes their natural digging and rooting instinct. The mobile pig pen definitely seemed to allow them to carry out their natural pig behaviors, although I'm truly not informed enough to comment on the amount of space they were allowed.

The chickens certainly did enjoy limitless mobility, though!

The family who owns the farm has another business converting vehicles to run on biodiesel fuel (which they also produce on site). Below is one of the converted cars they have for sale:

They also operate a store on the premises, for residents who appreciate the locally-grown, organic produce, but wish to purchase food outright, rather than volunteering with the CSA. You can read more about the CSA through either of their websites - I just wanted to share some photos from our wonderful visit!

More fun with chicken tractors

I've been continuing to help my friend in her garden almost weekly, and it's been fun - and delicious!

In addition to fresh eggs and last fall's zucchini that I wrote about previously, I've also enjoyed broccoli, turnips, winter squash, endless sugar snap peas, oranges, grapefruits, and even pomelos!

Cleaning the chicken coop has become one of my regular tasks.  My friend never enjoyed it, but I actually get a kick out of it!  Two hens usually get put into the chicken tractor, while the other eight are shooed, tricked, or carried out of the main coop (where they lay eggs and roost for the night) into the chicken wire enclosure that's attached to the coop.

Here is the chicken tractor in action:

The sides and roof are made of chicken wire to keep out predators (and to keep the chickens from demolishing areas of the garden where they aren't wanted), while the bottom is open so the chickens can scratch away happily.  The roof is also covered with a tarp for shade.

The hens that are not spending their day in the chicken tractor can move freely between the coop and the attached enclosed run.  We toss them lots of weeds and grubs that we dig up while tending the garden!

Bokashi update: Burying the fermented waste

By now I've actually filled up my container three times.  Here are some photos of the first time I emptied it.  I used this helpful tutorial to learn what do.

After filling up the bucket and letting it sit sealed for two weeks (while still regularly draining the "tea"), it was time to empty the fermented contents and mix everything with dirt.

What you need:
  • A place to bury your food waste.  If you have a yard, you can bury it straight in the ground. 
  • If you live in an apartment, like me, you can use a planter box or any large container (e.g. a Rubbermaid tub).  Just make sure there are drainage holes on the bottom!  If you are doing this on a patio or balcony, it would be a good idea to put a tray underneath to catch whatever drains out of those holes...
  • Also, if you have no yard, you will need some dirt.  I bought a bag of topsoil from Home Depot, and used about half.  In the future, my gardening friend said I could take some dirt for free, and bring it back enriched :)
  • A garden trowel and gloves.
Step 1 - Spread a layer of dirt in the bottom of your planter:

Step 2 - Add a layer of fermented food waste from your Bokashi bucket - YUM!!! 

Step 3 - Continue to alternate layers of dirt and scraps.  Make sure everything is mixed well.  Chop up any big pieces of food, if you hadn't already cut the scraps into small pieces before adding them to the bucket.  You should not be surprised if the food hasn't changed much in appearance yet:

Step 4 - Once all the food waste has been added and well-mixed in, finish with a final layer of soil:

Step 5 (Not Shown): Cover the planter with something to keep out rain.  I used a large plastic trash bag and tucked the ends under the planter so it wouldn't blow away (or get yanked off by the neighborhood cats).  Now let it sit for at least 4 weeks to finish decomposing.  The food scraps will break down and the mixture will take on that familiar compost look.  

Hint: I uncovered the planter and did some additional chopping and mixing with a trowel to help break up the stubborn bits.  My compost took a total of about 6 weeks the first time before it looked done.

Kombucha: Final Chapter

Sorry for the long silence! It's certainly not been for lack of topics - only lack of free time! I have much catching up to do. First order of business - a brief commentary on the reply I received from GT's Kombucha about what happens to their used glass beverage bottles after consumers return them to Whole Foods.

I had been hoping that they wash and re-use their bottles, but it turns out they truck them to a recycling center - which customers could have done in the first place.

Now, I don't want to give off the impression that I've been all worked up for months over the practices of a relatively small and local company that is only a drop in the bucket that is the modern consumption and waste cycle.

The company stated that they "are not able to reuse the bottles because of the amount of processing that is involved to sterilize the bottles again." It's not clear to me what makes the "amount of processing" prohibitive. It could be because they lack the equipment or facilities to do it themselves. Perhaps they use a third party bottling facility who isn't willing to sterilize used bottles for only one of their customers. Perhaps they are concerned about wasting water and energy, and somehow making and sterilizing new bottles isn't as resource-intensive as washing used ones (this logic is a stretch). Who knows...

In any case, I don't mean to single out GT's Kombucha as the epitome of evil, wasteful practices by any means. I just think the situation is just symptomatic of a larger problem in our culture. Think of all the everyday things that come in glass jars or bottles - wine, beer, iced tea, mayonnaise, pickles, apple sauce, salad dressings... etc. Glass containers are so commonplace, most people are probably oblivious to the type of packaging an item comes in. We're quite used to a way of life where glass containers are emptied, then recycled or thrown away.

In the 20th century, and in the modern day in many places outside of the US, glass is re-used, not just recycled (or trashed). Think about the drinking glasses you use at home. Can you imagine recycling or throwing away your drinking glasses after just a handful of uses? They are the same material and shape as glass food and beverage containers - just marketed differently.

A big part of the problem is that we don't have much of an incentive to re-use food and beverage containers. At best, we get a few cents back for taking them to a recycling center. We no longer see the value of the glass material itself, because we don't pay much for it upfront. Until consumers are presented with more of a financial incentive (or penalty), it will be difficult to get people's attention and encourage an attitude shift toward the life-cycle of glass containers.

In the meantime, there are changes we can make in our individual habits that aren't too difficult. As I've mentioned before, recycling is only one of the "three Rs", and it's the last resort after reducing and reusing. Focusing on reducing not only lessens packaging waste, but also helps save money, and possibly your waistline as well! I try to buy bottled drinks such as Kombucha or ice tea only sparingly. I also cook from scratch as much as possible and make things such as pesto at home instead of buying it from the store.

I haven't been able to avoid buying food in glass jars altogether, but when I do, I wash and save the containers. Glass is so versatile and durable. It is dishwasher-safe, and unlike with plastic, there is no concern about BPA or other chemicals leaching into food or drinks. And unlike metal containers, you can easily see what's inside without opening them!

Along with a few "fancy" glass food canisters that I've purchased, my pantry contains a collection of re-used glass containers that house bulk herbs and spices that originally came in thin plastic bags. My spice jars may not look uniform, but they do the job quite well!