New Flavor Combination for Cooks to Experiment With

I plucked a juicy blood-orange off of the tree in my backyard this morning before heading to work.  I ate it after lunch and placed the peels in a paper bowl I had sitting at my desk.  Later, I went to the break room where we have a popcorn machine.  I grabbed a bag of popcorn and sprinkled (doused?) it with some parmesian-garlic flavored salt.

When I got back to my desk, I dumped the orange peels in the trash.  (My wife would scold me because she likes to use the peels to flavor her cooking.)  Then, I poured some of the popcorn into the bowl.  Accompanying the popcorn was all of the parmesian-garlic flavoring that I had added.

This mixed with the oils from the orange rind to create a delicous combination of flavors.  And it was definitely the flavor of the rind and not the orange fruit that tasted so interesting.

Although I can cook, I usually leave the more creative aspects of the culinary arts to Wen-Ling.  However, as an avid eater I know a good thing when I taste it.  Orange peels with garlic and parmesian definitely make a good flavor combination.  This is a   heads-up to all the cooks out there who want to experiment with something new and interesting.


Market Places

I am sharing these photos from a couple of trips I made to Taiwan with Wen-Ling. They are of a market place in the town of Sijhih, just east of Taipei. This market might be my favorite place in Taiwan.

Every morning vendors set up in an alley about a half mile from my mother-in-law’s home. They sell every type of food imaginable, from baked goods to fresh vegetables to freshly caught fish.

“Fresh-caught” isn’t a marketing phrase. The photo showing the fish with their tails tied to their gill-flaps is about more than just presentation. It is also to prevent these live fish from flopping off the table. The shrimp you buy are still moving, too.

Vegetables are all local. There is one garden/farm just around the corner from the market, next to a laundromat, in the middle of the city. It occupies maybe a half acre, but probably less. Lying in a ravine, all sorts of vegetables are grown there, along with tropical fruits like mango, papaya and some trees I don’t recognize. Other nearby farms also provide produce.

Along with the produce, vendors sell shoes and clothing, toiletries, and knick-knacks. The vending is all done between the hours of about 6 am and noon. By one o’clock it has reverted to a residential area. The vendors are basically setting up in the entrance ways to homes. Most homes in the city occupy three to four floors. The ground floor typically has a garage-like front with a living-room behind it. Bedrooms are usually on the third and fourth floors. The kitchen will also be found on the first or second floor.

I love the intimacy of this market place, the way neighbors easily meet and mix. I don’t understand the local alliances, the politics, and the personal tensions that exist. I bought some pastries one morning and brought them back to my mother-in-law. She wanted to know who I had purchased them from. It turns out I bought them from a woman my mother-in-law doesn’t do business with. None-the-less, we did all share the food. Perhaps it would have tasted better if it had been prepared by my mother-in-law’s friend.

I share these photos to highlight the differences between the typical American corporate market place and the traditional Chinese market. The Chinese market sells local food. If we consider the notion of degrees of separation, the typical customer at a Chinese market is separated from the producer of the food by two or maybe three degrees. In other words, the vendor may be the farmer who grows the chickens or the vegetables. Or, she may be a middleman between the customer and the fisherman.

How many degrees of separation are there between the American customer and the farmer who produces our food? We have the people who work at the grocery store. There are truck drivers connecting the grocery with one or more wholesale buyers operating cold-storage warehouses. Then there are the farmers. It may be four or five degrees of separation.

In Taiwan much of the food is probably produced within a forty mile radius of where it is purchased. In the U.S. the radius is probably a thousand miles, maybe more. In fact, some of our food may even come from Taiwan!

It is true that in America we can enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits throughout the year. Our food is relatively inexpensive. No one is deprived. But there are environmental costs associated with such a diet. And there are economic vulnerabilities. For instance, both Taiwan and America depend heavily on foreign oil. But, if our oil supplies were cut for an extended period how likely would starvation be in American vs. Taiwan? My guess is that Taiwan would fare much better.

In any case, my real motivation is to point out that there is an aesthetic component to the Chinese culture of food that is sorely lacking in America. And, it’s not specific to China and Taiwan. India has it, as does almost any developing nation. Our food culture here in America is an industrial culture, heavy on engineering, but largely lacking in beauty. I would gladly give up my local Fry’s supermarket if I could trade it in for an alleyway of vendors near my home.

Wal-Mart — The good, the bad, and the ugly

Wal-Mart is using its martket clout to keep food prices low. This article mentions three methods. I like this one:

Shrink the goods. Ever wonder why that cereal box is only two-thirds full? Foodmakers love big boxes because they serve as billboards on store shelves. Wal-Mart has been working to change that by promising suppliers that their shelf space won’t shrink even if their boxes do. As a result, some of its vendors have reengineered their packaging. General Mills’ (GIS, Fortune 500) Hamburger Helper is now made with denser pasta shapes, allowing the same amount of food to fit into a 20% smaller box at the same price. The change has saved 890,000 pounds of paper fiber and eliminated 500 trucks from the road, giving General Mills a cushion to absorb some of the rising costs.

This makes eminent sense. Why drive trucks that are only partially full? Denser packaging saves money and hurts no one. It’s a win-win situation.

The second method, cutting out the middleman, is a common business tactic. Instead of buying its brand-name coffee “from a supplier, which buys from a cooperative of growers, which works with a roaster”, they go directly to the cooperative. So, if costs go up their “efficiencies” allow them to keep the retail price lower.

Is this a good thing? I have blogged about my growing support for buying locally-grown food. I have also voiced my complaints about the high prices at some of the farmers’ markets here in Phoenix. I want to go a little further by pointing out that low-price is not my ultimate measure of whether to purchase a product.

Wal-Mart does have low prices. But, I am one of those shoppers who recognizes the social costs imposed by big-box stores. I willingly pay a higher price to support local businesses. Besides, I can’t stand being in a Wal-Mart, or most other corporate retailers. There is something deeply depressing about Wal-Mart. Its not just the blue branding. It’s written on the faces of the employees and shoppers.

So, if Wal-Mart cuts out the middleman in order to keep costs lower, it may mean you pay slightly less for your coffee. But, you will pay in other ways. They force out local businesses. They pay low wages. And they are just plain ugly.

The third method employed by Wal-Mart to keep prices low is to buy locally. “By sourcing more produce locally – it now sells Wisconsin-grown yellow corn in 56 stores in or near Wisconsin – it is able to cut shipping costs.” This turns out to be a bad thing, though. The article goes on to describe how Wal-Mart is forcing these local suppliers to eat the higher costs of production. In other words, the local growers are not able to pass their costs on to the consumer.

So, although Wal-Mart is buying some of its food locally, they may be doing local producers no real favors.

Criticisms of Local Farmers’ Markets

A couple of days ago I wrote about the Phoenix Farmers Market. Today I would like to share some criticisms.  Some of my criticisms are revealing about who I am.  Others are shared constructively.  I do, after all, support efforts to increase local food production for many reasons. 

For example, it is beneficial for local communities to have local producers thrive from the business of their neighbors. Economic independence goes hand-in-hand with political independence.

Local food production can also be more efficient by a variety of measures over the reigning paradigm of a global food market. Certainly, it is more efficient in terms of energy inputs. Eating locally is one way to conserve energy.

Another reason, to which I am particular, is that local food production makes local places more beautiful. Phoenix has much beauty. Unfortunately, we have more than our share of ugliness, too.

Many recent arrivals have no idea just how rural Phoenix was thirty years ago. Today we have mass produced communities sitting on once rich farmland. These mass produced housing developments are supported by big-box corporate chains supplying mass produced food from all over the globe. I remember citrus orchards where large condos now sit. I recall date orchards now occupied by malls. Fields of cantaloupes are now fields of cars on baking asphalt surfaces.

I used to keep bees in a very different environment from the one we now ‘enjoy’. I prefer the Phoenix I remember to much of what has replaced it. I believe we can have an urban environment that is much more attractive than our present predicament.  Local production of food would help, enormously.

Wen-Ling and I went to this farmers’ market expecting to pay more than what equivalent food would cost us at our local grocer’s. It seems that ‘local’ and ‘organic’ imply ‘expensive’. We were still surprised at the cost of most of the items at this market.

The market promotes itself as a ‘sustainable’ alternative. But, expensive is not sustainable. If Wen-Ling and I had to buy the bulk of our food from this market, we could make do. My food would costs would be quite high, but we could swing it. However, this is only because my income is much better these last few years.

I understand that some of the costs might be justified in a number of ways. Everyone wants to have excess income, to either save or spend. I know from personal experience how stressful it can be when the income fails to meet, or barely meets, the expenses. The farmers put in a lot of work to create the product. It’s nice to be rewarded, and very nice when the rewards are ample.

However, we paid $5 for a dozen eggs, $4 for four ounces of cheese, and $8 for eight ounces of honey. That is expensive!

Some products we didn’t buy include home-canned fruits, vegetables, and jams. I saw asparagus, carrots, and cauliflower all steeping in small glass jars, priced at $8 each. At those rates, I would be paying more than a dollar for a single spear of asparagus, or two dollars for the remains of a single carrot.

I also didn’t buy any pickles. A woman offered me a sample of her product, also priced at $8/jar. I accepted her offer, and these sweet pickles were tasty. I was intrigued, so I asked her if she grew her own cucumbers. Her response was surprising. She said she didn’t do the pickling herself. If she did, a jar would cost me $100 for the amount of work she would have to put into it.

She told me she bought jars of dill pickles from the store, drained the juices, and soaked them for a week in her own solution of sugar and spices. She then brought them to the market and sold them at a markup. That’s not my idea of home-production. That’s also not my idea of sustainable.

Several vendors were selling produce. One guy was selling mostly garlic. Another producer had a large corner booth with various bins of produce, all of it fresh. We bought our vegetables from him. But, when we tried to engage him in a little conversation about his farm, he was less than forthcoming. Perhaps he was tired. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I found this interesting because I used to produce honey and sell it at swap meets.  I always took time to answer questions.  I wanted to clear up misconceptions about bees, as well as to promote an understanding and an appreciation for my product.  I am more likely to pay a higher price to support a local producer if he or she is also a neighbor with whom I have a bond, even if the bond is just friendliness.

I am curious to discover how the vegetables are grown, and what techniques are used. This producer didn’t advertise himself as “organic”. And that’s fine. I might still buy if I perceive a general concern with the environment, and that non-organic applications are used judiciously.

A couple of other guys were selling vegetables, with a large sign that screamed, “Organic.” I spoke to them for a while. I wanted to know where they were growing their food. They told me, but what I was told didn’t quite add up. What I am about to say isn’t an accusation, because I don’t know. I am merely voicing my suspicions.

They have a farm inside of Phoenix proper. They lease their land, and have been on it for six months. Real-estate speculators buy raw land and sit on it until the right deal comes along. Tax rates on large properties bought under these circumstances can be quite high. These two farmers were leasing 25 acres, which might cost the owner of the land more than a hundred thousand a year in taxes. But, a lower rate is awarded to agricultural land. This is designed to not punish farmers with taxes they could never afford.

A speculator can lease out a minimum of 25 acres for agricultural use and his land is then taxed at the lower rate. These two farmers can get the use of the land for practically nothing and the landlord still makes out. It’s a good arrangement for everyone.

I am skeptical to the claims of ‘organic’, though, for the following reason. They have only been farming the land for six months, and they had beautiful, large vegetables. It takes a while to build soil fertility to the point that a variety of vegetables grow so well.

It may be that the land was farmed by someone else before they brought their operation there. In that case, there might be a lot of residual fertility in the soil from the efforts of the previous farmers. I could accept their claims to being organic under those circumstances.

The first year we dug up our garden after buying our house we had a great garden, because the lawn that previously occupied the space had been heavily fertilized by the previous owner. The next two years weren’t so good. These guys might be enjoying the same situation.

But, if the land was just an abandoned field in an urban area, I am more skeptical to their claims of being organic. You just don’t plant seeds and magically enjoy such great yields.

Like I said, this is just my skepticism, and I am in no position to know for sure.

This past Thursday, Wen-Ling and I went to another farmer’s market in Chandler after work. There was one producer left when we arrived. He had a good assortment of fruits and vegetables in plastic bins. Unlike the producers at the Phoenix market, he didn’t have prices on any of it. So I asked, “How much are these vegetables?”

“They’re all different”, he replied.

“Well, I expect that. But, how much do they cost?”, I asked again.

“Each bin is different”, he told me.

So I explained myself. “I am not going to put any of these into a bag until I know how much they cost. That way I am not surprised when you ask me for the amount. I need to know this information to decide how much I going to buy.”

He then told me how much the green bell peppers were. He seemed pissed. “And what about these red bell peppers?” In barely hidden anger he told me. Then I had to ask, “What about the broccoli?” At this point, my wife informed me that she was not buying anything from this person. We walked away empty handed. If you are selling something, basic courtesy towards your customers is not an option if you want even one sale, let alone repeat sales.

The Phoenix market was welcoming, although a bit pricey.  This guy was both expensive and surly. 

As we discussed it last Saturday night over dinner, I struggled with the issue.  I want to support local agriculture.  But, I also want affordable food.  I understand that these people want to be rewarded for their work.  What is a fair reward, though?

I have always had my own desire to have a farm.  Years ago after I returned from the Peace Corps, I bought ten acres in Amado.  I was building a beekeeping business while teaching.  I didn’t have a lot of money, and so I was roughing it.  I bought raw land and put an old trailer on it.  I drove an old pickup, and didn’t have much in the way of personal posessions.  I was in it for the love of it.

These people, I hope, are in it for the love of it, too.  But, when the prices are high it makes me wonder whether they are in it more for the money.  It makes me wonder what their lifestyles are like. 

My wife and I currently own a used home.  We furnish our home with discarded furniture.  We don’t own a television.  We have one working computer.  The previous computer was used for eight years before it was replaced.  We drive one car.  I ride a bike to work most days.  If these people are living more extravagantly, I hesitate to pay those prices.

I also know from personal experience that farmers’ markets in other countries aren’t so expensive.  Incomes in those countries are also lower.  Are higher prices justified in a wealthier economy?  Is it merely supply and demand?  I saw other people buying.  Were they buying because they like the freshness of the produce?  Were they buying for the novely?  Or, were they buying out of a conviction that spending this money was a better investment in the community?

I might need to go back to find out.  But, in the mean time, I will also be looking for alternatives to expensive local produce.

Phoenix Farmers’ Market

Last Saturday, Wen-Ling and I paid a visit to the farmers’ market on Central Avenue in Phoenix.  It was a warm, bordering on hot, sunny day.  We were looking forward to the trip.

We wound up buying a fair amount of food.  Wen-Ling had sampled some orange blossom honey and had to have it, even though we have a jar of honey at home already.  That was ok with me.  Before I met Wen-Ling, I used to keep bees.  I appreciate the product and everything that goes into producing it.

I bought some Rainbow Valley Farmer’s Cheese.  It is a rennet-free cheese.  Although I enjoyed it, I prefer cheese produced from rennet.  It has a much fuller flavor, and a somewhat better texture.  This cheese was made from vinegar.

We also bought some fresh vegetables, as well as a dozen chicken eggs and a big goose egg.

We ate the goose egg on Sunday morning as part of an omelet.  It tasted great.  What was quite remarkable about the egg was just how thick the yolk was.  It resisted the puncture of the fork.  When we were scrambling the egg, the yolk created a lot of drag within the egg white. 

The omelet was completed with the addition of some of the vegetables we had purchased Saturday morning.  It made for a very satisfying meal.

 The farmers’ market is certainly worth checking out, if you have the chance.  In addition to the market, they also put on classes.  On May 17th, they will have a Solar and Sustainable Open House (off-site), May 21st they will discuss preparing your garden for summer, and on May 24th they will have a class on raising urban chickens.

In a future post, I will spend some time discussing some of our criticisms of the market.  Wen-Ling and I spent our dinner on Saturday discussing our impressions, and they weren’t all positive.  Stay tuned for that.


This Evening’s Meal

This evening I came home to a beautiful meal. Wen-Ling prepared it from some food that she bought through a local CSA (community supported agriculture) chapter.

The CSA provides food on a subscription basis. They drop off once a week at Community Christian Church near us in Tempe. The food is locally grown.

I spoke to Andrew a couple of weeks ago. He was the CSA representative two weeks back manning the drop-off at the church. He told me Crooked Sky Farms sells their produce through a number of CSA drop-offs in the valley. They operate two farms, one in Glendale, and another in southern Arizona.

During the summer months the food comes from the farm in southern Arizona, where the higher altitude allows for cooler temperatures. Glendale, in the heart of greater Phoenix, is too hot for most produce during the summer months. But, Glendale is ideal for growing vegetables during fall, winter, and spring.

Wen-Ling had sent me to check out the CSA chapter two weeks ago. They bring food to the church once a week. Subscribers come in from 4 to 7 pm to pick up what Crooked Sky Farms has produced for that week. If my memory serves me correctly, each subscriber was entitled that week to something like three grape fruit, seven or eight potatos, a bunch of carrots, some dandelion greens, a fennel plant, some dried beans, some nuts. I might be forgetting some of what they had.

Andrew said they try to challenge people to eat at least one or two types of plants they normally wouldn’t find at a local grocery store. For instance, the dandelion greens and fennel were the unusual ingredients for that week.

They also brought locally baked bread and fair trade coffee from some local vendors. The coffee, of course, was not produced in Arizona. It was more likely from Mexico or Central America. But the bread was from a local producer. Those items were not part of the weekly subscription price. You purchase them separately.

Wen-Ling visited them today. They had eggs from another local producer, as well as goat cheese, which you see adorning our salad in the photo above. The goat cheese is from Black Mesa Ranch in Snowflake, Arizona. Snowflake is not what I would consider truly local to Phoenix. It is a couple of hours from here, above the Mogollon Rim. But, it is a hell of a lot closer than Europe or even Wisconsin.

The rest of the salad ingredients came from Sunflower Marketplace here in Tempe.

The salad had lettuce, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, and the goat cheese. Wen-Ling also ground and sprinkled some home-grown rosemary. The only dressing was a tablespoon of olive oil. The combination of the kalamata olives with the goat cheese was tremendous. The goat cheese by itself was tasty but light. When combined with the olives it provided a very rich flavor. The artichoke played nicely into the flavor.

The dish of potatoes, leeks, and carrots was seasoned with some olive oil in which Wen-Ling has been steeping some chillis, rosemary, orange peel, and who knows what else. It added a spiciness that creeps up on you after you have had a bite or two. Delicious.

What was remarkable about this dish, too, was the flavor of the carrots and the texture and flavor of the potatoes. Because it was locally produced, the potatoes were very different from the type you get at your typical grocer. I guess the best way to describe them is they didn’t seem old. They weren’t the slightest bit shriveled and they had a meatier texture. The carrots were much more flavorful than the kind you get in an orange bag. They were slightly sweet, like home grown carrots. The leeks were very tender because they were young and smallish. Most grocery stores sell giant, mature leeks which are often on the tough side.

We intend to sample what they provide about once a month. We may eventually try out a subscription on a weekly basis. But, we weren’t sure about committing to that through the summer. Our schedules might conflict with the weekly pickup.

After this evening’s meal, though, I am intrigued with the possibility of subscribing on a weekly basis. It might provide a nice way to augment what we grow in our own garden with other fresh, locally-produced food.

No Ice Cream Yet, But Sustainability May Exist In Small Pockets

Yesterday I wrote about my desire to make my own ice cream as a way to strike back at the food producers who shrink their products as a strategy for inflating prices while keeping prices relatively constant.  By selling smaller amounts for the same price, they don’t have to mark their prices up and explicitely tell the customer that inflation is taking place.

I talked it over with my wife.  She likes the idea, too.  So, I spent a short amount of time searching for a local milk producer.  My goal is to find someone who, preferably on a small scale, is producing either cow milk or goat milk.  I didn’t find a producer, yet.  But, I did find a couple of interesting links.

One link is to Downtown Phoenix Public Market.  This appears to be a farmers market.  We intend to check them out this coming week.  Hopefully, by meeting and talking to people we can find a supplier of milk.

Another link is to Phoenix Permaculture Guild.  Their members include people raising livestock within the city.  Mostly chickens and ducks, from what I see.  But, again, maybe someone knows someone who “gots milk”.  Not industrial milk.  Rather, wholesome milk.

Several days ago I was also surfing on the web for evidence of local sustainable culture here in Phoenix.  I came across Phoenix Slow Food.  This is local chapter — or convivium, as they call themselves — of Slow Food USA.  They also look like an interesting group of people.  They are fighting the fast food culture by slowing eating down and making it much more of an intimate experience.

This especially struck a cord with me since I recently read Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal, by Eric Schlosser.  Schlosser’s book is an eye-opening work that reveals the effects of the fast food culture on the economy, people, our communities, and on our individual health.  It certainly makes a person think.  It has me thinking about alternatives.

Of course, I am interested in alternatives for other reasons, too.  A big item in my anxiety closet is the phenomenon of peak oil.  I’ll probably be blogging about this more in the future.  Peak oil, in simple terms, is the end of cheap energy, at least for the foreseeable future.  There is evidence that we are at peak.  The implication is that life as we know and enjoy it cannot be sustained.  To what extent this previous statement is true is open to debate.  And that is part of the motivation for this blog.

I am interested in using this blog as a vehicle for discovering, and writing about, what people are doing that is sustainable here in the Phoenix area.