Improving Black Women (and everyone else)’s Diets By Any Greens Necessary

The crowd outside this year's Boston Vegetarian Food Festival

Although vegetarianism has a reputation for only appealing to crunchy granola types, I’ve always found a surprising range of fellow vegetarians to share recipes with.  The local food movement, along with concerns about health and climate change, seems to have inspired even more people to start exploring vegetarian food.

I knew that something was different this year when I walked up to the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Roxbury, where the annual Boston Vegetarian Food Festival is held, and saw a crowd lined up at a vegan frozen dessert truck, waiting for their soft serve. The company, which calls itself Like No Udder , was doing boffo business. It was cold out, so I was able to resist temptation.

Inside, the festival was just as crowded. The diversity of products and people was truly impressive. From vegan shoes to coconut milk ice cream, the 15th annual Boston Vegetarian Food Festival—now expanded to two days—had it all.

For inspiration, I went to see Tracye Lynn McQuirter speak.  McQuirter, author of By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat, has been a vegan for over twenty years.  She’s a great advertisement for plant-based diets. A nutritionist, she’s a beautiful black woman who bursts with excitement about eating raw kale.  She swears her kale recipe is the most popular one in the book.

McQuirter explains, “I’m targeting black women because we are in a health crisis – 85 percent of us are overweight.  But everyone in this country can benefit from eating plant-based food.”

When my sister Louise and I went to hear her speak at the Chicago Green Festival this spring, the crowd was much less diverse, and McQuirter was much preachier. This time, she focused on her personal story of how hearing 60’s comedian, civil rights activist, and vegetarian Dick Gregory speak when she was a student at Amherst College inspired her to go vegan.

She encouraged everyone to take their health and eating habits to the next level.  For example, she suggested that non-vegetarians visit the Meatless Monday web site and go meatless once a week.

Although, of course, I want everyone to eat healthier food and reduce the amount of meat they eat, I’m particularly eager to have the people I know and love in the black community change their diets, so they will live long and prosper. I was glad to see how many black people were in the audience for McQuirter’s talk, because I think she’s very persuasive, especially now she’s toned down the lecturing.

I bought her book at the Green Fest, but immediately gave it to my mother-in-law, Doris, so I haven’t had a chance to try any of her recipes yet. I bought another copy today and am eager to see if she can change my attitude—which is bad—about kale. As far as I’m concerned, kale is just not necessary. If McQuirter can persuade me to love it, there’s hope for all of us.

Anxiety at the Fish Counter: Wild or Farm-Raised Salmon?

Salmon photo by Ian Britton, courtesy of FreeFoto.com

I’ve developed a severe case of “fish anxiety.”  First, it was hearing about PCBs and mercury in farmed-raised salmon. Then it was the stories about overfishing cod. Now it’s worrying about whether Gulf Coast shrimp are still safe to eat.

Should I only buy wild fish?  Should I avoid certain species? Should I just buy fish when it’s caught locally?

Even though I belong to a community-supported fishery, it doesn’t offer  enough quantity or variety to meet all of my household’s fish-eating needs. As a conscientious consumer, who’s trying to support food that is healthy, is environmentally sound, pays producers a fair wage, supports local economies, and is sustainable over the long run, it’s really hard to figure out what fish and seafood I should buy.  While there is a variety of consumer seafood buying guides I plan to explore, my goal is to educate myself—and you—about what to buy.

Four Fish, by Paul Greenberg

Take salmon, for example.  I’ve been reading Paul Greenberg’s excellent book, Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food. According to Greenberg, salmon grow best in free-flowing, oxygen-rich, fresh-water rivers that are protected by timber cover. Thanks to industrialization—dams, agriculture runoff, industrial waste—and overfishing, there are very few good salmon-fishing rivers left in the US. Today, the only Atlantic salmon available in supermarkets is farmed; most of the Pacific salmon you see at the supermarket is wild, but the supplies are dwindling.

I was fascinated to learn that the first effort to farm salmon began around 1400, although the vast development of farm-raised salmon didn’t happen until the ’70s. Thirty years ago, there was no salmon in Chile, and now Chile is the second largest salmon-producing country in the world. As producers became very efficient at farming salmon, the prices dropped, and producers started farming more and more salmon to make up for lost income.

Similar to industrial farming on the land, high-density salmon farms create pollution and waste and spread disease. Most farmed-fish are not well separated from wild populations, so diseases can spread to the wild fish, and the genetic populations get mixed. Both farmed and wild salmon feed on smaller fish, but wild salmon eat lower on the food chain, where there is less concentration of contaminants like PCBs.

Kwik'Pak Fisheries is a community fishery run by the Kupik people.

It would be wonderful if we could all eat wild salmon, but there simply isn’t enough wild salmon on the planet to satisfy the demand. Greenberg believes that we need to develop food policies that incorporate both wild and farm-raised salmon.  His book describes some promising ways that salmon can be farmed in a more environmentally sound way that protects wild salmon.

Greenberg points out that if we seek to feed people efficiently by growing the most salmon using the least amount of feed, it would be logical to support the genetically altered salmon produced by AquaBounty Technologies in Waltham, Massachusetts now seeking FDA approval.  AquaBounty says its salmon grows to maturity in half the time of other farmed salmon, and because it is reproductively sterile, it eliminates the threat of interbreeding.

While Greenberg may be right, I’m not quite ready to embrace genetically altered salmon.  Until farm-raised salmon produced by better standards is available, I’ll buy less salmon, purchase wild salmon when I can, and be prepared to pay more for it.  And I’m going to look into one of Greenberg’s other suggestions: wild Yukon River salmon from the Kwik’Pak Fisheries.  Kwik’Pak is a community business run by the Yupik people.  It was certified by the Fair Trade Federation in 2005, although I can’t find any current information about their membership on the FTF web site. Nonetheless, they seem worthy of support. Their fish is available on the Internet, but I’m going to look for it at restaurants and grocery stores. Hopefully, it’ll be coming soon to a supermarket near you and me.

And I’m going to keep trying to educate myself on what to buy at the fish counter, so I can overcome my fish anxiety.

Cooking Up a CSF Feast with a Jody Adams Bluefish Recipe

Grilling the bluefish

Grilled Bluefish with Pomegranite Glaze

Michelle and I spent six woman-hours last night cooking a delicious dinner featuring the bluefish from our final Community Supported Fishery (CSF) delivery for the August 2010 season. The six hours doesn’t include the time I spent trolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods looking for pomegranate molasses (couldn’t find it so we made our own from pomegranate juice), chicory (must not be in season, so I bought other greens), and whole coriander seeds (not in stock, had to make do with ground coriander).

Cooking molasses

Cooking down the pomegranate juice into molasses

The pomegranate glaze features the aforementioned pomegranate molasses, garlic, red onion, mint, coriander seeds and orange zest, and it’s a delicious complement to bluefish, which I always think of as a very “fishy” fish because it’s so dark and intense. Although the molasses has sugar in it, there’s only a hint of sweetness in the sauce.  The rich flavor is a perfect foil for the oiliness of the bluefish.

The reason the dinner took so long to make—besides making the molasses from scratch—was that it was actually five dishes. In addition to the bluefish, the recipe called for “Dukkah,” garlic yogurt sauce, farro, and “Fiery Greens.”  While the entire recipe is not online, there’s a link for the fish and a similar yogurt sauce at starchefs.com.

Farro with carrots, celery and onions

Farro, which I’ve never made at home before, is a delicious healthy grain that reminded me of barley, although the grains are larger and toothier.  Adams adds the farro to a sauté of onion, celery, carrots and garlic and cooks it with chicken stock—we used veggie stock—and bay leaves.

Cooking the greens

Fiery Garlic Greens featuring broccoli rabe and arugula

The greens are blanched and then sautéed with lots of olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper flakes. The Dukkah is an Egyptian seed, nut and spice mix of blanched almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and coconut, all of which have to be separately toasted and then ground together.

The Six Hour Recipe

Dinner was worth the wait!

The mixture of all these tastes on the plate—sweet, spicy, fishy, oily, salty, bitter—was what made it worth the effort.

Besides the recipe, the other star of the evening was the bluefish from our CSF, Cape Ann Fresh Catch. I was delighted to open my email on Tuesday and find that the fish of the day was a gorgeous two-pound bluefish fillet. I picked up my share at Community Servings, cut it in half, carefully wrapped the pieces in plastic wrap and freezer bags and froze them. When we opened one of the packages, we defrosted it and it was still beautiful and as good as fresh.

Our CSF bluefish

Beautiful fresh bluefish from Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF

This is the first time that I’ve belonged to a CSF, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to support local, sustainable fishing and learn a little about the ups and downs of the industry. Each week, we get an email telling us what they’ve caught, the boat that caught it, a little information about the fish, a recipe, and a blog post.  Over the six weeks, we’ve enjoyed a variety of fish, including hake, fish dabs and bluefish.

The catch—no pun intended—is sometimes there is no catch.  Deliveries have been cancelled due to quality issues and weather. While as a CSF member, you share the risk with the fisher folk, Cape Ann has made an extraordinary effort to provide us with the best possible fish each week.

If you’re lucky enough to live in their delivery area, I encourage you to sign up for Cape Ann’s next season, beginning November 1,  or check out this list of CSFs around the country.

What’s Cooking at the Museum of Science?

It was a beautiful fall day in Boston today, the perfect day for an outdoor cooking demonstration on the banks of the Charles River at…the Museum of Science?

The last place I expected to see a cooking demonstration was a science museum, but when I think about it, it makes sense.  Growing and preparing food involves many sciences, including agronomy, nutritional and environmental sciences, not to mention molecular gastronomy.

But, as Chef Chris Douglass said, cooking requires both art and science. Understanding that something you are roasting will “carry over” cooking when you take it out of the oven is the science, he said, but “getting it right is the art.”

Today’s event, “Citizen’s Chefs Meet Boston’s Best,” was part of a weekend kick-off for the Boston’s Museum of Science’s two-year “Let’s Talk About Food”  initiative. Six of Boston’s top chefs—Jody Adams, Chris Douglass, Tiffani Faison, Rahul Moolgaonkar, Jason Santos, and Ana Sortun—were paired with six non-professionals—“citizen’s chefs”–to demonstrate how to cook a delicious, healthy, sustainable meal that can be prepared at home.

Writer and journalist Louisa Kasdon, a project consultant for “Let’s Talk About Food,” told the crowd that she hopes that the Museum of Science will serve as a “Big Tent” to bring people together to discuss all aspects of food and food policy.

As a long-time PescoVegetarian, I was already familiar with the cooking techniques and nutritional value of many of the foods being used, but I was delighted to collect some new recipes and expand my knowledge.  Here are a few tasty tidbits I picked up, accompanied by a slide show of photos by Michelle Johnson:

Commentator Edith Murnane, Food Policy Director for the City of Boston, said that Brussels sprouts were one of her favorite vegetables, because of their sweetness.  “As we go into later fall and winter months, Brussels sprouts become even sweeter,” she noted.

“This is the only time of the year when you have two seasons of vegetables at once” [both summer and fall], chef Ana Sortun pointed out.  “Right now, leeks are magical,” she said.

Chef Tiffani Faison, runner-up on Season One of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” cooking competition show, stated that it can be hard to get kids to eat fish. Faison showed us how to make “meatballs” from scallops and monkfish, two fish that “tend to be a bit sweeter” and appeal to kids.

“Bluefish are local and they are good for you,” said Chef Jody Adams, who demonstrated her “Grilled Bluefish with Pomegranate Glaze, Garlic Yogurt and Fiery Greens” recipe. “Lots of people think bluefish are too oily, but fresh bluefish is delicious and doesn’t taste too oily,” Adams said. She also prepared farro, which she said has a lower gluten level than wheat and is her “favorite grain in the world.”

Ana Sortun combined escarole, cucumber, dill, parsley, spearmint, garlic, lemon, and  olive oil with Greek-style yogurt to create a “Cacik,” described in the program as “anything or everything green with thick garlicky yogurt.”

Commentator Kathy McManus, Department of Nutrition Director at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, sang the praises of Greek yogurt.  In addition to being wonderfully thick and rich, McManus said, “Greek-style yogurt has twice the protein and is lower in carbohydrates and sodium than regular yogurt.”

Since I love Greek yogurt, I was glad to hear that.  But I went home reflecting on something else McManus said: “Being mindful and thoughtful and savoring our meals is as important as the foods we eat.”

And that, dear reader, is where the art of food trumps the science.

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Boston Local Food Festival Brings Bostonians Together to Meet and Eat

The Boston Local Food Festival on Saturday, October 2 was a mashup of people and food on Boston’s waterfront by the Children’s Museum. The event—a first for Boston—brought farmers, fisherfolk, restaurateurs, artisanal food producers, and eaters from the Boston area together to share their passion for local food.

Volunteer duty

Volunteer Rachel "HealthyChicks" Chemerynski helps The Food Project unload their truck.

I shivered in the pre-dawn chill as I walked across the deserted Congress Street bridge at 6 am Saturday morning to begin my volunteer stint, but by the time I left that afternoon, it was a perfect sunny fall day and the festival was so packed, I could barely make my way out.

Beautiful turnovers and brioches from Canto 6 Bakery & Cafe in Jamaica Plain.

From free samples of milk, chocolate, hummus, and the smoked fish patés from Nantucket Wild Gourmet & Smokehouse to the dishes from local restaurants and vendors, all priced at under $5, everywhere I looked and smelled, there was food, glorious food. In between the eating opportunities were learning opportunities galore: Educational exhibits, food demos, and a seafood “throwdown” between chefs Didi Emmons and Jason Bond.

In addition to generating excitement and support for local food, one of the goals of the festival was to ”facilitate collaborations between local food farms, businesses, and public and non-profit organizations” and the festival organizers, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston, certainly succeeded.

Jeff Barry, founder of Boston Organics, an organic produce delivery service, and a sponsor and supporter of the Local Food Festival, told me, “Putting this event together has created so many good connections. Boston Organics provided produce from farms, breads from Nashoba Bakery, and food for sandwiches for the volunteers, but we couldn’t figure out how to get all the stuff here [when they needed it].  We knew that Katsiroubas Bros. [a wholesale fruit and produce company] was bringing a truck, so even though I didn’t know them, I called them yesterday to ask for help and they delivered it for us.”

Boston Local Food Festival

Boston Organics Founder Jeff Barry

Barry concluded: “The food system and infrastructure are dominated by the larger entities.  This event came together through using informal networks, and that’s how the local food system will come together.”