The next big thing in sustainable protein: Bugs!

I recently had a birthday, and Mr. HP surprised me with these:

chocolate bugs

CHOCOLATE-DIPPED INSECTS.

What a lucky girl I am!

Mr. HP set up a chocolate-dipped bug tasting for six at a Southwest Virginia winery. The accompanying pours were less for wine appreciation and more for steeling of nerves.

no bugs thanks

The buggy treats came from My Chocolate Shoppe in downtown Charlottesville, which has created quite a buzz (get it) locally with its chocolate-dipped worms, crickets, and scorpions. The bugs are farmed and baked in California, shipped to My Chocolate Shoppe, and hand-dipped on site.

bugs and wine

As insect farming is a rising trend in sustainable and ethical protein production, I felt compelled to write about my entomophagy experience here.

Sustainability of insect farming

We all know factory farming is bad for the atmosphere, waterways, local community, resident animals, facility workers, and potentially consumers of the end product. Production of traditional livestock (chicken, pigs, and beef cattle) contributes more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than the transportation sector and consumes vast amounts of freshwater. Factory farms pollute waterways with fertilizer, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. CAFOs are blights on their surroundings and poison their neighbors with chemical runoff and manure lagoon leaks. Antibiotic use in livestock is causing the development of resistant strains of bacteria that are difficult to treat in humans. See my notes from a US Food Systems course I took last year for more horrifying details and appalling statistics.

As the global population continues to expand, there will be more and more pressure on the land to produce enough protein to feed everyone. Insects can fill this need with a much smaller footprint on the environment; they simply don’t require the land, water, and food resources that chickens, pigs, and cattle do. Insects produce fewer greenhouse emissions, their containers can be stacked on shelves, and insect farming doesn’t involve the hormones, antibiotics, fertilizers, and pesticides that CAFOs rely on.

It takes 2,900 gallons of water, 25 pounds of feed and extensive acreage to produce one pound of beef and just one gallon of water, two pounds of feed and a small cubicle to produce a pound of crickets. – “Edible insects a boon to Thailand’s farmers

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Thus, considering all factors, the actual food conversion efficiency of insects may be 20 times that of cattle. This means insect farming — along with other forms of “microlivestock”, could be one of the elements of a sustainable global agricultural future.- “Edible bugs and insects: Are these high protein critters the future of food?

Bug farming ethics

Are the bugs treated ethically while alive? Are they humanely slaughtered? I believe so. Farmed insects are raised in dark colonies, as they are found in nature; they are provided food, and protected. When harvesting time rolls around, they are chilled to a natural hibernation-like state, and from there the temperature is lowered until they die quietly.

Insects raised in farms live in teeming dark conditions (preferable environment), with ample and abundant food supply, no natural predators, no risk of outside diseases or parasites, and when they’re culled we lower the temperature so that there’s no violent death or change in state (because insects are exothermic their metabolism slows until they go into a coma-like sleep without any pain). I can’t think of a more humane way to raise our meat. – Robert Nathan Allen of Little Herds, via NPR

Bug nutrition

Bugs are a high protein, nutrient-rich, low fat and low cholesterol food. Insect protein is a complete protein, meaning all nine essential amino acids are present. Bugs are also are significant sources of zinc, iron, and vitamin A.

According to Chapul, makers of cricket-based protein bars, insects have:

  • 15% more iron than spinach
  • 2x more protein than beef
  • as much B12 as salmon

The table below (source) compares insect nutrition against that of chicken, beef, and salmon:

Warning to those with a shellfish allergy: bug exoskeletons are made of chitin, which also makes the shells of shrimp, crabs, and lobsters.

But how did they taste?

We decided to eat the worm first, as it was the least intimidating, and we’d eat in in a single bite so we wouldn’t have to see any innards. It was… not bad. The worm had no flavor, so it just added a rice krispie-like crunch to the chocolate.

Next was the scorpion, which was a similar no-flavor-big-crunch addition to the chocolate as the worm. No problem.

The cricket had the biggest gross-out factor, in my opinion. Its body is meatier than the other two. And sure enough, I didn’t like it. It had a bitter flavor along with its crunch.

plates of bugs

It was a fun experiment. But – surprise – we Americans have been eating bugs all along in processed food. The FDA allows certain amounts of insect parts, including pieces, larvae, eggs, and sacs, in foods like dried herbs, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, coffee beans, flours, peanut butter, sauces, and more. This article estimates that “on average an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it.” Sorry to break it to you, but you’re already an entomophagist! Congrats!

I had no plans to eat more bugs in the immediate future, but while researching this post I enjoyed reading the Exo “Why Crickets” page so much I ordered a couple of their cricket-flour protein bars to try. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Parsnip Party!

Cheenius is here to tell us a tale of parsnip wrangling. Thanks, Cheenius!


As everyone knows, Cheenius loves to make things from scratch — because who wouldn’t want to spend way more time and effort on soup then anyone else in her circle? But, in this case, Cheenius was feeling pretty proud of having grown her own parsnips, and needed to show them off.

whole parsnips

You’ll notice the actual parsnips look unlike anything you’ve ever purchased at a grocery store, and more like unmentionable body parts from Jabba the Hutt. Turns out they maybe needed a little more water than Cheenius gave them, which meant they turned woody and cankerous.

[Ed: For purposes of comparison and poking fun at Cheenius, here’s a picture of normal-looking parsnips -]

normal parsnips

After some research, Cheenius learned that she needed to chop out the middle woody parts, which left her with not much to roast:

chopped parsnips

Not to worry! The recipe called for a leek, so there was a little more volume in the roasting pan. Phew!

roasted parsnips

After roasting, simmering, blending the various bits, and then tripling the amount of cream (I mean, c’mon: if anyone appreciates adding dairy it’s Cheenius!), the soup actually turned out quite good:

parsnip soup

[Ed: Cheenius did not take a picture of the actual finished product, so the above is a stock photo.]

[Ed: Get it? Stock photo?]

[Ed: It’s not really a stock photo, it’s from this recipe. Sorry, I cannot resist a pun.]

Mr. Cheenius commented on a certain grittiness to the dish. Evidently Cheenius got a little lazy when it came to actually washing the parsnips, and also doesn’t own one of those vegetable scrubbers (Christmas gift idea, anyone?). Still, they agreed that this could easily be their main go-to root vegetable soup, and extra dirt just means it’s that much more homemade. Here’s the recipe if anyone is inspired (thanks to Marie Taylor for sharing!):


Ingredients

1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into medium-size pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil (not extra-virgin)
1 1/2 cups (about 1 large) chopped leeks, white and light-green parts only
4 sprigs lemon thyme, divided
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock, divided
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Method

Heat oven to 350°F. In a medium roasting pan, toss parsnips with oil. Roast, covered with foil, 20 minutes. Add leeks and leaves of 2 thyme sprigs; toss to coat with oil; splash with wine. Roast, covered with same foil, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, 30 minutes. Discard any burned bits.

In a large pot, bring veggies and 2 cups stock to a boil; reduce heat; simmer 10 minutes; let cool slightly.

In a food processor, blend soup on low until smooth. Return blended soup to pot; add cream. Bring soup to a very low simmer; season with salt and black pepper; add enough of the lemon juice to cut the sweetness to your deisred level.  Add remaining 1 cup stock to reach desired thickness.


Anybody else have a good parsnip recipe?

Stockholm’s Best Burgers

exterior view of Flippin' Burgers

Just before Team HP left on a short jaunt to Stockholm, the ever-observant Mr HP caught a tip in one of Huffington Post’s ubiquitous Top X Most Amazing [Random Thing]s Ever lists: the Number One Greatest Burger Outside America is at Flippin’ Burgers in Stockholm–and, per the article:

All Widegren’s beef is grass-fed, sourced from local farms, and ground in-house. A nearby bakery provides the buns.

As a recently recovered pescatarian, I have discovered that I love a good burger, but my rule is that I will only eat a burger if it’s from a local, happy, pastured, hormone- and antibiotic-free, humanely slaughtered cow. Flippin’ Burgers does it right:

Well, we only buy meat from small producers who have an eye on animal husbandry and slaughter. With animals staying outside and eat grass because they simply feel the best of it… Right now, we use E-marked Archipelago Meat from a small slaughterhouse in Värmdö who slaughter animals mainly from farms in the Stockholm archipelago. We have also worked with  Swedish Grass Meat and Greens Farms .

In Charlottesville this summer, Mr HP and I have enjoyed a Sunday tradition of burgers and beers at Champion Brewery: Every Sunday Champion hosts JM Stock Provisions and their magical grill of delights, serving fantastic burgers from local, pastured, hormone/chemical free cows, and man, are they good. So we were excited at the prospect of local happy-cow burgers on Sunday despite being 4200 miles from home.

Flippin’ Burgers has a wait for tables ALL THE TIME. We arrived at 5 and still waited for a half hour at the bar. While there, we got some tips from the (normal-sized) man next to us polishing off his order of FIVE cheeseburgers.

Flippin' Burgers bar

Flippin' Burgers menu

Based on our bar friend’s recommendation, we opted for Burglers, a basic cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and house sauce. Mr HP got a double because he is extra manly. My sad phone pictures do not do the food justice, so you’ll have to take my word for it that these burgers were excellent: juicy, flavorful, not too saucy, and the buns were fresh and not overly bready (you know how sometimes there’s too much bread for the quantity of innards? these were well-sized).

Flippin' Burgers Burgler

Part of the fun of the Flippin’ Burgers experience was the Americanish diner scene. The food was American-inspired: burgers, fries, and Ben and Jerry’s milkshakes. The Swedes next to us ordered Blue Ribbon beer (PBR to you and me). The Spotify station (Spotify started in Sweden, remember? Seems like all restaurants/cafes/stores here have “Check out our playlist on Spotify” signs.) was heavy on early-90s American Top 40. But we were surrounded by Swedish-speakers and we were drinking Swedish beer, so all culture was not lost.

Flippin' Burgers diner scene

Ice cream case

Stockholm Brewing Co

We considered sharing a milkshake for dessert, but instead shared another burger for dessert. Five Burger Guy’s ladyfriend recommended the Cricket burger, which is not made of crickets, but rather a burger topped with cream cheese, pickled onions and jalapenos, inspired by the Cherry Cricket in Denver; this was our dessert.

Flippin' Burgers Cricket

Oh what a terrible picture. The onions were sweet, so it was sort of dessertesque. I wonder how the calorie count compares to that of a milkshake… no, I don’t want to know anything about the calories involved in this meal. It was an interesting and surprisingly tasty combo, but the more traditional burger was better in my opinion.

In conclusion, pastured, local, happy cows make the best burgers, and if you’re craving a top-notch burger in Stockholm and have the time to wait for a table, check out Flippin’ Burgers. If you’re craving a top-notch burger in Charlottesville, meet me at Champion on Sunday!

Recent relevantish reads

I enjoyed these articles and think you might too!

cows at Mountain Home Farm

Soon, Your Food May Dine on Insects — which is a much more natural food source for animals than soy:

However, food producers are likely to feel the pinch as the world’s population climbs to nine billion by 2050, while rising incomes in large countries like China and India lead to greater demand for meat-rich diets. So entrepreneurs, researchers, and even the United Nations are looking for an animal feed less expensive than the soybeans and fishmeal typically used today. Insects like mealworms and fly larvae, a natural food for wild birds and fish, could be a near-perfect replacement. With several startups planning industrial-scale operations, it may not be long before some poultry or fish entrées are raised on a regular diet of bugs.


I backed a Kickstarter campaign to help Mountain Home Farm in Vermont become an all-grass dairy farm. Consider skipping your daily latte and throwing them a few bucks! The campaign has less than a day to go!


Scientists sniffing out the Western allergy epidemic: my obsession with gut bacteria continues.

The bacteria that cover our skin, line our mouths and fill our guts not only outnumber our own cells by about 10 to one but may play a vital role in training our immune systems. Changes to our lifestyles are influencing these microorganisms, and allergies are the consequence.


Monsanto, Under Attack for GMOs, Has a New Defender – this is a WSJ article, so the link may not work, sorry. Monsanto has a young, Silicon Valley-type executive trying to persuade people that the company isn’t evil:

Mr. Friedberg, a former Google Inc. executive, now oversees the “precision agriculture” services Monsanto sells to farmers, a major initiative encompassing high-tech planting equipment, soil and seed analysis, and weather modeling.

The lifelong vegetarian has also emerged as an unlikely champion of Monsanto at a time when the company—and the business of genetically engineering crops that it pioneered—face intensifying attacks.


12 Signs You Need to Eat More Protein covers 12 situations, symptoms, and signs that indicate a direct need for more dietary protein, including:

  • You’re getting older
  • You’re always hungry
  • You lift weights or endurance train
  • You primarily get your protein from plants

Any of those sound like you? Just make sure to get your extra protein from HAPPY ANIMALS!


A Call for a Low-Carb Diet That Embraces Fat

This isn’t really news as we’ve seen a zillion studies with similar results, but apparently “this is one of the first long-term trials that’s given these diets without calorie restrictions.”

Dr. Mozaffarian said the research suggested that health authorities should pivot away from fat restrictions and encourage people to eat fewer processed foods, particularly those with refined carbohydrates.

Translation: Eat real food! 


 Diet Soda May Alter Our Gut Microbes And Raise The Risk Of Diabetes

Remember that the food you eat is feeding your gut biome. Take care of it!

Diet sodas may alter our gut microbes in a way that increases the risk of metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes — at least in some of us… It’s clear that our gut microbes are not just passive organisms hitching a ride on our bodies, says Kirsten Tillisch, a gastroenterologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “They’re affecting our health in active and powerful ways.”

Babe(s) in the Wood

Here is the first guest post from the fabulous Ewe-nique!


Since the HPs, Cheenius, Mr. Dr. Cheenius, and the Tiny Twosome were all off to more exotic locales over Labor Day, it fell squarely on my shoulders to ensure that at least one of us attended the 2014 “Meet Yer Eats” Farm Tour. I accepted this self-directed mission with gravity and pride. In fact, I was so stealthy in my plan that the whole thing was unbeknownst to HP until I sent her this guest post and begged to be featured.

Meet Yer Eats

For those not familiar with the “Meet Yer Eats” Farm Tour, it is an annual Central Virginia event where a number of local farms roll out their welcome mat and offer the general public the chance to explore and “meet” their food sources. As an avid cook, locavore, and conscientious (i.e. picky) eater, I think that we can all benefit substantially by learning about and being aware of where our food comes from.

I must admit that my choice of farm this year was driven by an ulterior motive. As a longtime vegetarian, and more recently a pescatarian, I’ve been considering including other meats in my diet again for the past few months. However, one of my chief objections to the carnivorous lifestyle has long been the manner in which the consumed animals are raised and slaughtered. Thus, I decided to truly meet my eats and visit Babes in the Wood, a farm out in Dillwyn, Virginia that raises free-roaming, forest-foraging pigs.

The drive out to pastoral Dillwyn was winding, warm, and sunny. I’d been out VA-20 South many a time, but never this far south. I knew that I had ventured into uncharted territory when I passed a larger than life inflated chicken outside of an establishment called Lumpkin’s.

Since this was a solo expedition, I played one of my favorite alone-time games on the drive out: Rockin’ Road Name Revue. Believe me, people get creative on the backroads of Virginia. I won’t bore you with the entire list, but here were my top favorites:

  • Troublesome Creek Road (That pesky creek is forever making mischief.)
  • Little Heaven Road (Leading to a trailer park, but… perhaps a reference to the Tiny House movement as chronicled by the Tiny Twosome on HP back in June?)
  • B-A-H Road (I can only assume this name is in reference to sheep or that it is one Bad Ass Homestead.)

I arrived at Babes in the Wood in time to wander around before we began a tour of the farm. In addition to sighting the piggies from afar, I also ventured over to the chicken coop and a small barn where there were a few calves hanging out.

Farmyard scene

Bill Jones, the owner and founder of Babes in the Wood, took us on an excellent hike in the farm woods, where he answered a bevy of questions from our curious group. Here are the highlights of what I learned:

  • Bill raises English Tamworths, a breed that is well suited for forest life. The Tamworths have a lovely red coat and enjoy foraging for their food.
  • The sows give birth approximately twice a year (although if a sow had a very tough birth or large litter, Bill will only breed her once during that year), and the average litter size is eight piglets.
  • The pigs are fed at the farm once a day, and then are free to forage as they like throughout the forest.

Forest scene

  • Quite a few of us were eager to know how Bill keeps track of his pigs since they are free to wander. The simple answer is, he recognizes them when they arrive for the daily feeding, and if they don’t show up, he goes looking for them.
  • Unfortunately, I did not bring my pen and paper, so I don’t recall the exact number of pigs that are currently being raised on the farm. The numbers tend to vary with the seasons. However, Bill does keep the number proportional to the acreage of the farm (only two to three pigs per acre). If there are too many pigs per acre, their extensive rooting for food exposes the roots of the trees and can cause the trees to fall.
  • The pigs are approximately 12 to 15 months old when they go to slaughter.
  • Pigs are considered ready for butchering based on their weight, with about 300 pounds generally being the desirable weight.

Whilst traipsing through the woods, we kept keen eyes open for Kevin Bacon, the farm’s boar, but he regrettably did not show his snout. Bill mentioned that Kevin had decided a day or so ago that he was going into the woods and not staying in the pen. Apparently, one cannot persuade a 400 pound boar to change his mind if he has other intentions. Another fun fact: Kevin will grow to approximately 1000 pounds!

On our forest tour, we wandered down to a creek in the woods in hopes of sighting a few pigs, the creek being one of their favorite hangouts. However, the piggies must not have been in the wallowing mood, because we did not spot any near the creek. We did see a large sow hanging out in the woods by herself, and Bill mentioned that she had been feeling under the weather for the past few days. During this conversation, I learned that the primary health risk that his pigs face is pneumonia. The onset of the condition is sudden, and the pigs can die within three days of showing symptoms, so it must be caught and treated quickly. Thus, Bill had been keeping a close eye on this girl.

sick piggy

As our hike drew closer to the farm’s estate, we found many pigs hanging out near the farm’s fence. Many of the older pigs were relaxing, quite sensibly, in the shade of the trees, while the younger ones were cavorting together in a large group.

pig digs

Though the pigs are somewhat skittish around visitors (there was a lot of oinking and running away as I drew near), they are very social among themselves and establish a clear pecking (or perhaps porking?) order that lasts throughout their lives. The pigs are no stranger to putting a fellow pig in his or her place, and sometimes squabble amongst themselves to enforce this social hierarchy.

I’d like to present an analysis of the traits that can determine an individual pig’s status within his or her drove:

pig trait analysis

Toward the end of the tour, I got down to the nitty gritty and asked Bill about the manner in which his pigs are slaughtered. Interestingly, Bill is not allowed to slaughter and butcher the pigs himself if he is going to sell the meat to the public. Instead, by law, he must have the pigs processed at a USDA-approved facility. Hearing this initially raised my hackles a bit, but after I received the full story, my worries were abated.

Bill, as I mentioned, knows his pigs by sight. Every few weeks, he identifies the ones that are ready to be butchered and catches them (which is usually just the case of closing the gate when they come to the farm pen for their daily meal). The pigs then spend a few days in the pen, where there is plenty of space and lovely mud to wallow in, so that they can get used to the enclosed quarters.

mud wallow

When it is butchering day, he personally takes the pigs down to Blue Ridge Meats, his butcher in Front Royal.

Bill mentioned that his butcher is certified humane, but as we both agreed, like “certified organic”, “certified humane” can encompass a variety of abattoir environments and practices. Here’s the skinny on what goes down for the Babes from the Wood:

  • The pigs are slaughtered individually, and the other pigs are not exposed to the death of their fellow animals.
  • The pigs are killed with a single shot to the back of the neck/head, and then they are bled out and butchered. I thought that the “shot” was an electrical shock of some sort, but I forgot to clarify, and after doing some Internet research, it might also be a captive bolt gun. The common alternative to this practice is that the pigs have their throats slit and are bled out while they are still alive and, quite literally, screaming.
  • At Bill’s butcher, on a really, really, busy day, they may butcher up to 20 pigs. Contrast that with a typical commercial factory farm, which may slaughter thousands of pigs per day.
  • I checked out Blue Ridge Meats’ website post-tour, and was pleased to see that they clearly support and adhere to the humane butchery of their animals.

Thus, in my opinion, if you are trying to source humanely raised and slaughtered pork, you need look no further than Babes in the Wood. These are happy, healthy pigs who are extremely well cared for and have the chance to lead a natural, piggy lives before they are butchered with consideration and compassion. [Ed: And Mr. HP assures you that Babes in the Wood pork is DELICIOUS. You can get a sandwich at their tent at Charlottesville’s Saturday City Market, in addition to buying packaged meat.]

Having exhausted Rockin’ Road Name Revue on my way out, I found time on the drive home to reflect on my visit and compose a few pig-related haikus, also known as hamkus:

meat on cloven feet
bacon, ham, sausage, pork are
names for pigs we eat

 

My dear porcine friend,
I’m glad you had a good life
up until the end.

And with that, I’ll turn, appropriately, to the words of Porky Pig to sum up this post: “Th-th-that’s all, folks!”

happy pig

Adventures in Brazilian steak eating: the Rubaiyat restaurants

While in São Paulo last week, I was lucky enough to feast at A Figueira Rubaiyat, one of the city’s top restaurants. The “figueira” part of the name comes from the magnificent Bengal fig tree, over 100-years-old, that the dining room was built around. Here’s a picture from the restaurant’s website:

… because the pictures I took don’t do it justice:

branches

roof

top

trunk

But probably more interesting to you, dear readers: who are the cows served at A Figueira Rubaiyat and its sister restaurants in the Rubaiyat Group?

The Rubaiyat Group claims to be a “Farm to Plate” operation that rears pasture-raised beef cattle, chicken, and pigs on their own farm in Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, since 1968. The animals are “fed naturally and raised in freedom,” according to a press release; but it is unclear from everything I could find online if “naturally” means they’re not fed hormones or unnecessary antibiotics, if the cows are finished on grass or on a feedlot, and if humane slaughtering practices are employed.

The meal was enormous and delicious and we were too busy cramming food into our faces for me to take any pictures, other than of the tree as we were leaving. Sorry. Imagine, along with the steak and fish entrees: fresh breads; an appetizer platter of sliced salami, olives, mozzarella balls and tomatoes, and salmon chunks; sides of grilled veggies, puffed potato slices, and hearts of palm; and an elaborate dessert buffet that we were sadly too painfully stuffed to try.

I’m sure you’re wondering if I ate steak. Unfortunately for me (by all accounts from my cohorts at the table), I didn’t do this research into the origins of the beef until after our dinner, so not knowing if the meat was from happy cows, I didn’t try the steak. Instead, I tried the exotic-sounding pirarucu, a large, ancient, air-breathing fish from the Amazon. It was good, but the steak eaters said there was no comparison to the meat. I’ll just have to go back to Brazil to try it!

In closing, since I didn’t get a food shot, here’s a cityscape. It’s a really neat town.

Sao Paulo

Food System and Nutrition Fun with Coursera

Coursera is an online educational platform that partners with colleges and universities around the world to offer free courses across a wide variety of topics. I’ve taken a few classes and enjoyed them all: the lectures, quizzes, and projects have been well designed, and it’s obvious a lot of work has been put into them; and the flexibility of the weekly assignments makes it easy to fit the coursework into my schedule. I highly recommend checking out the list of courses being offered if online learning is your cup of tea.

Below are details about an upcoming course I am super excited about, and two others I have taken in the past that are relevant to Haute Pasture.


Gut Check: Exploring your Microbiome

Imagine if there were an organ in your body that weighed as much as your brain, that affected your health, your weight, and even your behavior. Wouldn’t you want to know more about it? There is such an organ — the collection of microbes in and on your body, your human microbiome.

From University of Colorado Boulder

About the Course

The human body harbors up to ten times as many microbial cells as human cells. What are these microbes and what are they doing? How can we study them to find out? What do they tell us about ourselves? Just as our human genome records traces of who we are and the conditions we have adapted to during evolutionary history, our microbial genomes may record traces of what we have eaten, where we have lived, and who we have been in contact with. The microbial ecosystems in different parts of our bodies, which differ radically from one another, also supply a wide range of functions that affect many aspects of human health.

Join us on a guided tour of the human gut and its microscopic inhabitants. We will first review what microbes are and how they get into our bodies. We will then discuss the methods we use to study microbial communities and briefly explore how gut microbiome data are analyzed. This information will provide us with a foundation to explore current microbiome research. We will cover topics such as the influence of the gut microbiota on our nutrition, health and behavior. Did you know that gut microbes may influence how sick we get or the way we feel? The course will culminate with an in-depth review of the American Gut Project, the world’s largest open-source, crowd-sourced science project, from how it works to what it’s taught us up until now.

This course starts October 6th and it should be fascinating!


The Meat We Eat

The Meat We Eat is a course designed to create a more informed consumer about the quality, safety, healthfulness and sustainability of muscle foods and address current issues in animal agriculture in developed and developing countries.

From University of Florida

About the Course

The average American is now at least three generations removed from production agriculture.  This leads to the disconnection between how the public views agriculture and how scientists and producers view it, resulting in consumer distrust of science and commercial food production.  It is this lack of trust which leads to consumer confusion and the urge to grasp at multiple solutions.  However a growing number of consumers in developed countries are aspiring to “know where their food comes from”.  Animal agriculture needs to explain the technology which will be used to sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050.

Lectures will cover all aspects of muscle foods production, processing, preparation, cooking and storage.  Additionally, the role of muscle foods in a balanced diet will be addressed as will issues which contribute to consumers limiting or eliminating meat from their diets.

I took this course in the summer of 2014. The final project for the course was a multimedia presentation on meat cookery; mine is here.


An Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Perspectives from Public Health

Explore how food intersects with public health and the environment as it moves from field to plate.

From Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

About the Course

A food system encompasses the activities, people and resources involved in getting food from field to plate. Along the way, it intersects with aspects of public health, equity and the environment.  In this course, we will provide a brief introduction to the U.S. food system and how food production practices and what we choose to eat impacts the world in which we live. Through several case studies, we will discuss some key historical and political factors that have helped shape the current food system and consider alternative approaches from farm to fork. The course will be led by a team of faculty and staff from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.  Guest lecturers will include experts from a variety of disciplines, including public health and agriculture.

I took this course in early 2013, and wrote several posts (really just bulleted lists of my notes) about the course:

Overview

Week 1: Introduction to Food Systems, Equity and the Environment

Week 2: Food Systems, Food Security and Public Health

Week 3: Public Health and Environmental Implications of Industrial Models of Food Production

Week 4: Food and Farm Policy

Week 5: Alternative Approaches to Food Production

Week 6: Diet, Food Environments, and Food Access

The Great Locavore Dinner Party Challenge

We all agree (right?) that there are environmental, societal, nutritional, and taste benefits to getting your produce and animal products from local farms, but how many locally-sourced ingredients are actually in *your* average dinner? The always-entertaining Cheenius, Mr.Dr. Cheenius, Butter Boy & Butter Babe (aka the Tiny Twosome), and friends challenged themselves with a special dinner party to see how local their cooking could get. Here’s Cheenius to tell you more…


lakeside dining

Locavores . . . eating local . . . blah blah blah local.  Cheenius and friends decided it was time to meet the challenge head-on and hold a Local Food Only Dinner.  Each guest made something that was primarily sourced from near-by foods, which gave us an interesting menu:

Local beer, wine, and cider (duh)
Baba Ganoush
Deviled Eggs
Tomato Mozarella Salad
Potatoes Au Gratin
Roasted Corn/Black Beans/Peppers/Tomato/Feta Salad
Roasted Potatoes
Blueberry Pie
Peach Honey Ice Cream

(No main dish, but did we really need one?)

local beverages

local caprese

Everything was quite tasty, especially the Potatoes Au Gratin from Butter Babe, and we were having fun (discussing Ebola, etc.) until Cheenius ruined it with . . .

MATH.

She and Mr.Dr. Cheenius made everyone score their dishes as follows:

  • Grown or made yourself = 3 points
  • Grown within 50 miles = 2 points
  • From anywhere in VA = 1 point

It was a weighted average, so you had to consider the percentage each ingredient made of the whole dish, and then multiply by the point system, and then add them up.  All this on a Friday night?  Ridiculous.

corn, tomato, avocado, bean salad

local blueberry pie

Obviously Cheenius, with her own garden and eggs, won, but she graciously bestowed jars of local honey as prizes to the 2nd and 3rd place winners.  One lucky guest also won for most local human (if you count Northern VA as Virginia).

Good times, may have to make it an annual event!

Coursera course “The Meat We Eat” meat cooking project

Over the past several weeks I’ve been participating in a basic overview meat sciences and technology course from the University of Florida, via Coursera, called The Meat We Eat. The course description, from Coursera, is:

The average American is now at least three generations removed from production agriculture.  This leads to the disconnection between how the public views agriculture and how scientists and producers view it, resulting in consumer distrust of science and commercial food production.  It is this lack of trust which leads to consumer confusion and the urge to grasp at multiple solutions.  However a growing number of consumers in developed countries are aspiring to “know where their food comes from”.  Animal agriculture needs to explain the technology which will be used to sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050.

As a proponent of sourcing meat and meat products from local, sustainably run farms raising pastured, ethically treated animals rather than from massive industrial operations where output, rather than animal/environment/worker welfare and product quality, is prioritized, I thought it was important that I understand more of the details of large-scale commercial meat production. I’ll type up some lecture notes in another post; here I will discuss my final meat cookery project.

The Assignment

Document preparation of a meat recipe, discussing the details of the type and cut of meat, its packaging and appearance, storage, cookery method, sanitation, and food safety issues. I chose to cook a steak dinner, as beef is currently the only non-fish meat I am eating, and as an extra challenge, I wanted to grill the steaks. I’d never grilled steaks before, myself. (See here for another recent foray into cooking steak–I’ve only recently added steak into my pescatarian-for-over-ten-years diet.)

What I cooked

The Charlottesville, Virginia farmer’s market has several local meat vendors; I chose Wolf Creek Farm based on their wide variety of cuts of beef, and a prior positive experience. Wolf Creek breeds and raises their own cows on a pure (chemical fertilizer-free) grass diet, without antibiotics or hormones. They value environmental stewardship, healthy animals, and happy workers and community, while creating products customers will enjoy.

Wolf Creek Farm

Wolf Creek Farm’s website describes the stark contrasts between their small-scale beef production and typical industrial beef production:

“Our grass-fed, natural beef is a result of carefully selected herd genetics, that:

  • enjoys animal husbandry based upon intensive personal care and respect with no force-fed hormones and no antibiotics
  • is finished only on lush natural grass pastures with no grain or other supplements
  • is processed calmly with artisan skill in a small and clean rural abattoir with no need for irradiation and no antimicrobials
  • produces cuts that are dry-aged, safe, and nutritious

Contrast this with the beef produced by the industrial beef conglomerates who control 98% of the US beef production, where:

  • animal husbandry consists of force-fed hormones and constant antibiotics in a mechanized process
  • finishing is accomplished in confinement feed-lots by feeding grain that is produced under significant chemical fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide loads, combined with feed supplements containing antibiotics such as Rumensin to inhibit rumen gas build-up and bloat from the grain and Tylosin to reduce liver infections caused by bacteria from pH imbalanced rumens, ionophores, synthetic estrogens to promote growth such as Revlar which are banned in Europe, liquefied fat, and other protein supplements
  • processing is accomplished in an industrial slaughter-house with minimum wage labor on a disassembly-line where the emphasis is on speeds reaching over 400 animals per hour and requires irradiation and hot steam chamber antimicrobials at the end of the line to ensure the meat is “safe”
  • cutting these tens of thousands of wet-aged carcasses produces co-mingled meat containing high levels of saturated fats”

Beef prices by cut

Not being very steak-savvy, I asked the purveyor to recommend a steak for grilling. His immediate response was “rib steak.”

Beef retail cuts

How is a rib steak different from the better known ribeye steak? They’re basically the same, but the rib steak is bone-in while the ribeye is not. Rib cuts are harvested from the rib primal, which covers the upper rib cage. A rib steak is comprised of three major muscles, Longissimus Dorsi, Spinalis Dorsi & Multifidus Dorsi, and as this area of the cow is not used for locomotion or weight-bearing, the meat is naturally tender and marbled with fat.

Rib cuts

The meat is butchered at the farm’s abattoir, hung in cool storage for 21-28 days to dry age–wherein natural enzymes tenderize and flavor the meat–and then vacuum sealed and flash frozen. The steaks at the market were stored frozen in clean coolers. I chose two steaks: one was 0.98lb, for $16.57, and the other was 0.82 lb, for $13.87. Rib steaks are $16.50/lb plus tax.

Frozen steaks

In addition to the two steaks, I picked up some shiitake and oyster mushrooms (1/4 lb for $4), and an avocado ($2), and two tomatoes ($1.50) to go with some cucumbers from a friend’s yard.

How I cooked it

My initial plan, based on the meat purveyor’s suggestion, was to sear the steaks over high heat on the grill for 10-15 seconds a side, and then let them cook a couple minutes per side over 250-300 degree heat. But then a friend told Trusty Sous Chef Mr HP and I about reverse searing and we were intrigued.

‘A small but vocal population of steak lovers swears by the “reverse sear” technique. The theory behind this method is that cooking the steak in the oven first will dry the outside of the steak while slowly cooking the inside and keeping it tender. If the outside of the steak is dry, it will then sear faster and more efficiently in a hot pan.’ — from Mark’s Daily Apple

The new plan: start the steaks in a 275 degree oven until they reach 100-110 degrees, and then move them to a hot grill to sear the outsides.

Step 1: Thaw the steaks.

In the fridge, overnight. Our fridge is around 38 degrees.

Thawed steaks

Step 2: Unwrap the steaks and pat them dry. Then wash hands.

Pat the steaks dry

Step 3: Salt and pepper both sides of the meat.

Salt and pepper the steaks

Step 4: Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Preheat the grill to high. When the oven is ready, load in the steaks on a rack to facilitate air circulation around the meat.

Steaks go in the oven first

(Meanwhile, chop cukes, tomatoes, and avocado. Mix in a large bowl with a bit of olive oil and balsamic or wine vinegar.)

Chop the veggies

(Then chop up the mushrooms, keeping the shiitakes separate from the oysters, as cooking times differ. Heat a dry skillet to medium, add the shiitakes first, and then the more delicate oysters a couple minutes later. When the mushrooms are almost cooked, add some butter to the pan for a boost of flavor.)

Mixed mushrooms

Step 5: When the steaks reach 100-110 degrees (not the 87 pictured below), remove them from the oven onto a clean plate.

Checking temperature in oven

I found that when the steaks hit the target temperature, they took on a grayish color (see image below), which I will use next time as an indicator that it’s time to check temp, rather than the paranoid stabbing of the steaks every couple minutes that I employed here.

Steaks out of the oven

Step 6: Drop the steaks on the hot hot grill to sear for 2 minutes each side.

Grilling the steaks

Check the degree of doneness using a meat thermometer. As we learned in class, palatability is maximized at 145 degrees, which is right between rare (140 degrees) and medium rare (150 degrees). My steak, being smaller than Mr HP’s, would be a little more cooked, but that was ok with me as I’m just getting back into the eating steak swing of things.

Checking temperature of steak

Step 7: Move the steaks to a clean plate and cover loosely with foil for ten minutes, to let the juices reabsorb into the meat.

The picture of that wasn’t interesting so I am sparing you.

Step 8: Serve and enjoy!

Dinner is ready

Cooked rib steak

Storing Leftovers

The steak was fantastic, and the only “leftovers” were fatty bits and the bone from each steak; luckily we knew a certain dog who would be very interested in helping take care of those. The gristly pieces went into a sealed container in the fridge to be portioned out over the next few meals, but he got to enjoy a bone right away.

Steak leftovers

Leftover rib steak bone

Leftover rib steak bone

Summary

This experiment was a great success. The quality of the steak, the ease and results of the reverse-sear cooking method, and the simple but complementary sides (which were completely local except for the avocado, so that’s a potential place for improvement) all exceeded our expectations.

Estimated costs

Steak 1: $16.57

Steak 2: $13.87

Mushrooms: $4

Cucumbers: free

Tomatoes: $1.50

Avocado: $2

Total meal cost: $37.94

Total meat cost: $30.44

Meat’s percentage of total cost: 80%

Recent reads about food, farming, and health

Local Foods: From Fad To Force And What It Means For The Food Industry

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-zacka/local-foods-from-fad-to-f_b_5502757.html

“The trend has gone viral, as consumers are voting ‘local’ with their dollars and having a profound influence on the nation’s food systems. Their enthusiasm has led suppliers, grocers and restaurants to change and adapt by adding locally produced goods to their offerings year-round.”


What you need to know about P90X, Insanity, Weight Watchers, Shakeology, Cleanses, and Nutrisystem

http://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/2014/06/23/what-you-need-to-know-about-p90x-insanity-weight-watchers-shakeology-cleanses-and-nutrisystem/

A quick comparison of the trendy quick-fix diet/fitness products–what works and what doesn’t.


Local to the extreme: This project puts the farm right in the grocery store

http://grist.org/food/local-to-the-extreme-this-project-puts-the-farm-right-in-the-grocery-store/#.U6hWaokqWNI.twitter

“Three days a week in downtown Raleigh, N.C., fans of fresh fruits and veggies can pick up their local tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, potatoes, squash, and blackberries inside a 200-square-foot shipping container… In the 8,000-square-foot, scaled-up version, Greene imagines an open bottom floor that would hold the main grocery and a café for selling drinks and deli meats. Above that, eight shipping containers supported by beams and equipped with side panels for growing herbs and greens, nourished by what Greene calls the “Living River Growing System” — a raceway tank that looks and acts like a stream, filtering and channeling nutrient-filled water to the seven-foot-high growing panels. On top of all this would sit a greenhouse roof.”


These maps show where all the world’s cattle, chickens, and pigs are

http://www.vox.com/2014/6/20/5825826/these-maps-show-where-all-the-worlds-cattle-chickens-and-pigs-live

“The Earth currently has 19.6 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cattle, and 980 million pigs. If you added up all the world’s livestock, they’d weigh more than humans and all other wild animals combined….These maps are useful for tracking the environmental impact of ever-expanding livestock production as well as keeping tabs on the potential spread of disease like avian flu.”


Widespread impacts of neonicotinoids ‘impossible to deny’

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-27980344

“The scientists say the threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.” Neonicotinoids could be poisoning bees, and aquatic invertebrates, which are the basis of many food chains. Their use in a prophylactic way is compared to antibiotics abuse in farm animals.


Why the locavore movement’s next big move is seafood

http://grist.org/food/why-the-locavore-movements-next-big-move-is-seafood/

“Something like 86 percent of America’s seafood intake is imported (most of that is farmed), while we send away most of our own wild-caught fish.”

“We eat more shrimp than almost the next two most popular seafoods combined (salmon and canned tuna)”

“[Alaska] by far produces more seafood than any other state, probably by an order of magnitude.”

“I was trying to figure out if there was a Michael Pollan-esque line like ‘eat food, not too much, mostly plants.’ The best I could come up with was: ‘Eat American seafood, a much wider variety than we currently do, mostly filter feeders.'”


16 Things That Affect Your Gut Bacteria

http://www.marksdailyapple.com/16-things-that-affect-your-gut-bacteria

Foods (red wine! dark chocolate!), sunshine, exercise, antibiotics, probiotics, Roundup (in GMO soy and corn and CAFO animal products), smoking, time, dirt