Is There Such a Thing as Guilt-Free Shrimp?

Lots o' shrimp

The season for Northern Shrimp typically begins in December.

Shrimp is a staple in our household. It’s easy to cook, versatile, and, tastes good virtually any way you prepare it.

Although I’ve known for a long time that 90 percent of the shrimp that we eat in the US is farm-raised under unsavory conditions, I’ve never figured out what to do about it. Pretend I don’t know? Eat it, but feel guilty? Only eat wild shrimp? Stop eating shrimp altogether?

(For terrific reporting about the shrimp business, I recommend Jim Carrier’s piece, “All You Can Eat: A journey through a seafood fantasy” in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion and Barry Eastabrook’s article, “Do I Dare to Eat a Shrimp?” in the March 2007 Gourmet.)

Until recently, I’ve made an effort to purchase or order shrimp that was designated as wild,” whenever it looked good and/or I felt I could afford it.  I just assumed that “farm-raised = bad, wild shrimp = good.”

This week, I realized that it was time to ditch my simplistic approach to choosing shrimp and try to learn something about what I was buying. First, Legal Sea Foods Restaurant “stirred the pot” by hosting a well-publicized, $115-a-plate dinner in Boston on January 24 featuring Atlantic cod, haddock, and tiger shrimp—fish that sustainable seafood experts encourage consumers to avoid. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends that consumers avoid purchasing black tiger shrimp because farming harms mangrove forests and artisanal fisheries.

The mainstream media, bloggers and many respected organizations have been buzzing about the dinner. According to the Boston Globe, Legal’s stated that “outdated scientific findings unfairly turn the public against certain species of fish,’’ so they are serving the “blacklisted fish” to counter “misinformation” about sustainability.

Since I eat at Legal’s fairly often and think of them as seafood experts, I decided to try to find out if they were justified in serving farm-raised shrimp. Although not everyone agrees, I learned that some people believe shrimp farming is here to stay and it can be done in a sustainable way.  I also found out that wild shrimp fishing isn’t problem-free.  The nets the shrimpers use can pick up anywhere from 2-10 pounds of unwanted seafood and junk (known as “by-catch”) for every pound of shrimp. Even though they sort through the haul, save the shrimp and throw the other fish back, it’s often already dead. So much for my simplistic farmed = bad, wild = good equation.

In my favorite article about the Legal’s brouhaha, titled “DON’T PANIC: Sustainable seafood and the American outlaw,” marine biologist and blogger Miriam started by confessing that despite what she knows about shrimp farming, she can’t resist eating a “Surf ‘n’Turf” burrito with shrimp now and then. She interviewed Rich Vellante, Executive Chef of Legal Sea Foods, about what he put on the menu for the famous dinner. Vellante said Legal’s had sent people to Vietnam to inspect the shrimp farming operations and there were “certain stipulations” that had to be followed, but he didn’t have the details of what that meant, and Miriam was unable to get hold of anyone else who did.

She was, however, able to locate the latest scientific findings (from  June, 2010), indicating that–despite massive mangrove restoration–shrimp farming continues to cause severe water pollution in Vietnam. So even if Legal’s has found some responsibly farmed Vietnamese shrimp, it’s certainly not all good.

Coincidentally, my Cape Ann Fresh Catch Community Supported Fishery (CSF) share this week consisted of featured 5 pounds of whole, head-on “Northern Shrimp” (Pandalus Borealis).  The Northern Shrimp fishermen have virtually eliminated the bycatch by using nets with a mesh size that minimizes unwanted fish and by not using mechanical devises to sort the fish that could damage the ones that are thrown back in the sea. Seafood Watch rates Northern Shrimp “a good alternative,” and the Blue Ocean Institute gives it its highest (Green) ranking.

A plate of pasta

Northern Shrimp are easy to peel, but small.

I took the shrimp home and immediately washed them and removed the heads, as instructed. It was surprisingly easy to remove the heads—just a little twist and they were separated from the bodies–but because these are small shrimp, it took an hour to go through all five pounds. I made shrimp linguine with sautéed onion, garlic, olive, tomato, and pea pods. Many people rave about the sweet flavor of Northern Shrimp; I can’t say I noticed any special taste, but I really enjoyed eating my meal, guilt-free!

Unfortunately, I can’t get all the fish I need from my CSF, but I’ve resolved to do my best to “know my fish” by asking questions at the fish counter and at restaurants. Despite Legal Sea Foods’ skepticism, I believe that the lists of which sea foods to choose and which ones to avoid are a wonderful starting point, so I’ve downloaded the free iPhone apps for both Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute. (Blue Ocean also offers a FishPhone texting service to receive ocean alerts with info on new rankings or breaking ocean news.  To opt in, text BLUE to 30644).

While I know I won’t be able to resist the occasional shrimp taco, in the future, I may smile at the person behind the counter and ask if she knows where they get their seafood.

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How to Make a Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John

Black-Eyed Peas

These black-eyed peas have been soaked overnight.

When the clock stroke midnight on New Year’s Eve, did you dive a spoon into a pot of Hoppin’ John so you’d have good luck in 2011? Don’t worry, I didn’t  either. But I made up for it today by cooking up a pot of what I’ve dubbed  Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John, so hopefully I’ll be swimming in green this year.

Hoppin’ John is an African-American dish that is eaten on New Year’s for good luck.  The main ingredient is usually black-eyed peas (said to be brought to America by African slaves working on the rice plantations), served with rice.  To cinch the deal, people usually eat some kind of greens—the color of money–with their Hoppin’ John.

There seem to be as many versions of Hoppin’ John as there are stories about how it got it that odd name or why it brings you good luck.  My theory is that it’s basically a pretty healthy dish, and, as they say, “Health is Wealth.”

Black-eyed peas take less time to cook than most other beans, but they don’t have much flavor. Hoppin’ John is usually made with bacon or a ham hock, but vegetarians have to find other ways to give it a kick.  Since one of my New Year’s resolutions is to find new ways to encourage myself and others to eat healthy and local foods as much as possible, I was eager to create a cheap, healthy recipe that would please both vegetarians and meat-eaters. I hope this dish will help you enjoy a happy, healthy 2011.

Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John

Ingredients

Olive oil spray
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and julienned
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 hot green chili, cored and most or all of the seeds removed, depending on how hot you like your food
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained, and cooked until barely soft (you can substitute 2 packages frozen, thawed and rinsed or 2 15 oz. cans, rinsed)
1 14.5 can diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon smoked paprika (regular paprika will work, but the smoked paprika adds a nice kick)
½ teaspoon salt (adjust to taste)
½ teaspoon pepper (adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke (adjust to taste)
1 12 fl. Oz. bottle dark beer
Tabasco sauce (to taste)

Coat a large sauté pan with a few sprays of olive oil and heat pan to medium.  Sauté the onion for a few minutes until it begins to soften.  Add the red pepper, celery, carrots, and hot pepper and stir occasionally for three minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add the diced tomatoes with their juice.

Drain the black-eyed peas and add to the pot. Stir in the bay leaf, thyme, smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and Liquid Smoke. Pour in the beer. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the liquid is reduced but there is still some sauce. Remove the bay leaf. Add Tabasco sauce and adjust seasonings to give it the kick you will need to get through 2011 in health and wealth!

Hoppin' John

Kickin' Vegan Hoppin' John over brown rice, served with a side of collard greens.

Serve over a bed of cooked brown rice with a side of collard greens for extra good luck.

Heirloom Beans: More Than A Hill of Beans

A hill of Rancho Gordo beans.

Until recently, if you’d asked me if I’d be willing to pay $7 or $8 a pound for a bag of dried beans, I’d have said, “Are you kidding? Why pay that much for something you can pick up at the supermarket for less than a dollar? Beans are beans.”

But—as I’ve learned–beans are not just beans.  If you go to the grocery store, you can usually find about a half-dozen kinds of beans for sale.  If you go to a natural food store, maybe you’ll find a dozen.  But there’s a planet full – literally – of different kinds of beans.  According to Wikipedia, over 4000 varieties of beans have been cultivated in the US alone.

Heirloom beans are pure, distinct varieties that have been cultivated for generations and can be regrown from seeds every year.  Like heirloom tomatoes, each heirloom bean has a distinct flavor profile and is suitable for specific recipes.

This fall, I attended a panel on Heirloom Beans at the Chefs Collaborative Summit, where my bean knowledge grew faster than Jack’s beanstalk. (Chef’s Collaborative also has a nice little publication called Cooking with Heirloom Beans that you can download for free from their website.)

Panelist Mike Holleman, director of culinary development at Indian Harvest in Bemidji, Minnesota, passed around a basket of 20-year-old beans for us to look at.  He told us that, technically, the beans were still edible, but since the older a bean is, the longer it takes to cook, you wouldn’t want to use them.

Although maybe some of the chefs in the audience could tell, to be honest, I’d never have known that these beans were practically as old as some of the emails in my Inbox. My advice: Know Your Farmer.  Since you can’t tell how old your beans are just by looking at them, you need to find a reliable supplier whom you can ask.

Since beans are seldom served without lots of other ingredients, I don’t know what most of them taste like. Like coffee and vodka, the best way to learn about beans is to taste them straight up.

I went on an heirloom bean hunt.  While they haven’t made it to most supermarkets, you can find some varieties at natural foods stores and gourmet stores. In addition, you can order them online from companies like Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food in Napa, California.  (If you need instructions, Rancho Gordo has a very funny little video on how to cook beans on their website.)

Christmas Lima Beans that have been soaked overnight.

For my first experiment, I decided to buy a bag of Rancho Gordo’s Christmas Lima Beans at South End Formaggio in Boston. I wanted to try them first, because I like Lima beans and these ones supposedly taste like chestnuts.

Like other kinds of Lima beans, Christmas Lima Beans are flat and oval-shaped.  The beans are ivory-colored, with mottled reddish markings.  Although they did turn chestnut-brown when cooked, their rich, earthy flavor reminded me more of mushrooms than chestnuts.  With the addition of sautéed onions, carrot, fennel, mizuna, and a few herbs, the beans made a delicious stew that even my dinner guests who were not bean-lovers  enjoyed.

Although $6.99 still sounds like a lot for a bag of beans, when you think about it, it’s a lot cheaper than most other forms of protein.  I fed four people and had leftovers for several more meals.  I’d say that amounts to a lot more than a hill of beans.

So, one bean-tasting down, 3,999 varieties to go.

Can Institutional Food Be Tasty and Healthy?

Meal preparation assembly line

City Fresh Foods staffers assemble Caribbean meals for clients.

Given the low rates that public institutions–such as schools, elder care facilities, and child care centers–are able to pay, is it possible to produce institutional meals that taste good and are good for you? City Fresh Foods founder Glynn Lloyd boldly states that “Bottom line – it doesn’t have to be crap.”

The market for government-subsidized prepared meals tends to be dominated by the big companies like Sodexo and Aramark that produce most of the institutional food served at universities, hospitals, military bases, and the like.  While the big guys are changing some of their practices to use local suppliers and provide healthier foods, these corporations are not going to make fundamental changes to our current food system.

City Fresh logo

City Fresh logo

The Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston recently sponsored a tour of the City Fresh building, which is tucked away in an industrial corner of Roxbury in the former Dancing Deer Bakery factory.  The company prepares 8,000 meals a day, primarily for the “public market”–-publicly-subsidized meals at schools, child care centers, elder care facilities, and other institutions. It’s a highly capitalized, labor-intensive, low-margin business– a far cry from the tiny inner-city catering business that Glynn Lloyd started in 1994.  Today, City Fresh employs 75 people, and 95 percent of them are from the neighborhood.

Glynn and Sheldon Lloyd

City Fresh founder, Glynn Lloyd (l) and his brother, Sheldon Lloyd (r)

“We have to provide a good service,” Glynn Lloyd says, “because our staffers have kids in schools who get our meals. Even my grandmother was getting City Fresh meals.”

While Lloyd confesses that their meals are still far from where they want them to be, City Fresh is trying to make the food as healthy as possible. Diabetes and obesity are rampant in communities of color. “Our kids are dying,” Glynn Lloyd says.  “We need to push the envelope.”

While many of the challenges are financial—how do you deliver a prepared, hot meal for well under $2.00 a person?—there are also more practical issues, like chicken bones, to chew over.  City Fresh tried to serve children fresh chicken, instead of the high-fat, processed chicken nuggets served at most schools, but the children only get 15 minutes to eat.  “Our kids can’t cut the chicken,” the school administrators said, so City Fresh had to resort to the dreaded chicken nuggets.  The City Fresh version is made from whole breast chicken meat, but they are still battered and flash fried.

Machine for bagging bread

City Fresh staffer operates a bread-bagging machine.

City Fresh buys from as many local vendors as possible, which helps keep money circulating in the community.  They get their bread from a local bakery and grass-fed beef from a farmer within 100 miles of their facility every two weeks.  They also buy local produce from their sister company, City Growers, which is trying to turn vacant urban land into sustainable farms.

While I was impressed by City Fresh’s efforts to create tasty, healthy meals on the shoestring budget that our society has allocated for publicly supported institutional meals, what I took away from the tour was that this is a social problem that no one company can solve.  Maybe, just maybe, if we tried subsidizing local food systems instead of industrial agriculture, we could all eat better food.

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.

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.”

A Sweet Discovery in Jamaica Plain…and Maybe Your Neighborhood, Too!

Cupcakes on wheels

Cupcakes to go

I headed over to Stillman’s Farmers Market at the Loring-Greenough House in my beloved Jamaica Plain to pick up some fresh local tomatoes on Thursday afternoon and was charmed to see a little white food truck parked in the driveway.  Strictly in the interest of journalism, I went over to investigate.  I was delighted to discover  The Cupcakory, a new addition to the local food scene.
The cupcake lady

Diane DeMarco is the owner and chef of The Cupcakory

Cupcakes and food trucks continue to be two of the hottest food trends, so a cupcake food truck is a genius combination.  Diane DeMarco bakes her cupcakes in small batches daily, using the best fresh, local and organic ingredients available. She works out of the Crop Circle Kitchen, a culinary incubator with commercial kitchen facilities based at The Brewery in Jamaica Plain, where many other local food producers are turning out delicious products.

DeMarco’s products are all vegetarian, including one vegan cupcake each day. I was immediately excited when I saw that she had a Salted Caramel on Chocolate Cake. I’d never heard of salted caramel until recently, when I tasted batch ice cream’s fabulous salted caramel vanilla ice cream.  By the way, Batch also operates out of Crop Circle Kitchen.

Salted Caramel Chocolate lusciousness

To further my journalistic commitment, I purchased a salted caramel chocolate cupcake and took it home for a taste test.  I stopped by  City Feed and Supply to pick up a pint of Batch’s salted caramel ice cream to go with it, but, sadly, it was sold out! Fortunately, I enjoyed the cupcake, even without the ice cream. The chocolate cake portion was moist and chocolaty but not too sweet, a perfect foil for the salty, creamy, sweet decadence of the frosting.

Plenty of customers have already found their way to the Cupcakory

“I don’t really do the typical American buttercream, which is butter and confectioner’s sugar,” DeMarco told me.  “I make the cupcakes to my own specifications, so I always want feedback. When people liked the salted caramel chocolate, I was thrilled, because now I know my tastebuds are pretty good.”

The Cupcakory has only been on the road for a month and is still figuring out where to go. Thus far, they’ve  been at various locations in Jamaica Plain, as well as the SOWA Open Market in the South End. Keep your eyes open – you may happen upon them at your local Farmers Market soon.