Sunday, November 20, 2011

Free Sale

There are several reasons a person will host a yard sale; first is that you really need some quick cash and you're selling what will make you the most money. The second reason is when you're trying to unload some stuff from your house to clear out clutter and you've finally realized you're never going to use that toaster oven with the broken knob you put in the basement to save for the 'cottage' you will probably never own. The third reason is death, divorce or threat of death or divorce if you don't get rid of some of your crap.

Our case was a mix of the second and third, if we did not get rid of some junk soon, divorce or death was bound to occur. We were to the point where if we were robbed and our home was vandalized no one would be able to tell cause it was such a pit of junk and despair. If we didn't do something about it soon there would be a knock on our door to be featured in the next episode of hoarders and you could all watch us cry and scream as we refuse to get rid of our really weird collection of toilet paper rolls that we insist we might need in 8 years when our child is in school and could potentially have an art project that called for nothing other than 1,000 toilet paper rolls.

I hate just throwing usable things away and there is no excuse for not being able to load up items that have life left and drop them off at any convenient Goodwill donation center where someone in need can get some use out of them; Goodwill is an excellent example of a way to help the local community and of course you get a tax write off receipt. Double win. I however was feeling very lazy looking at the pile of donations that I would need to load into the truck, load the kids up because apparently its illegal to leave a 2 year old and an infant home alone and drive downtown to drop them off - it was all built up in my head that the kids would be screaming and I would be cussing because I already didn't feel like dropping these things off. Light bulb goes on: lets just let Craigslist know were giving stuff away and see who comes to take it off our hands, I figured at least half of it would go which would make the few remaining items much easier to load up for Goodwill.

Don't try to make me out to some sort of saint here, I did this purely for selfish reasons and to attempt to avoid guilt because all I really wanted to do was load this stuff in a dumpster. But what ended up happening was really surprising and very rewarding. I posted a Craigslist ad Saturday night listing a few of the items we were giving away and letting everyone know they would be available for free starting at 10:00 am in our driveway - please don't knock, don't call, don't email, just take it all. We had an idea of what we were going to give away and both of us were holding onto a few things we just couldn't let go of because maybe we will need it even though it had been collecting dust in the attic for all three years that we have lived in the house.

I was busy tending to infant needs when my husband asked if I wanted to get rid of anything else because just about everything we had put out there was gone already, it was 10:15 am. I looked outside and there were about 15 people standing in the driveway taking the things that were out there and waiting to see what else we brought out. I felt somewhat overwhelmed, I felt like I had to keep giving things out since so many people showed up for the ad I placed. So I ran around gathering more things I thought I could do without, threw my hoodie on because I had done nothing to myself since waking up 2 hours prior and brought them outside to let the crowd pick through them. And then it happened, someone said something like, "thank you so much," and I looked up and looked in their eyes and saw real appreciation. Here I have bitching all weekend about having so much stuff I can't even step through my house without tripping and I realized a lot of these people don't have much at all. I gave a brand new unopened box of Victoria Secret perfume samplers that I really did appreciate as a Christmas gift from my mom last year but haven't had time to wear with kiddos and all, to a teenage girl that was there with her dad. She was so happy to get this that the ice melted off my heart and I felt like returning all the who-pudding and the last can of who-hash to Whoville with my little dog and Santa costume. We rummaged through the whole house pulling out things we thought people could use this winter that we just didn't need as much as we thought we would. Winter jackets with snow pants, small tables we had in storage, shoes, boots, high heels, books, toys, a desk, incredibly expensive bridesmaids dresses I wore once, vacuums, and more - literally at least a truck load of things, all good usable things we just didn't need anymore. We talked all day about how great it felt to see the people who came over to take these things. It felt so good, so much better than getting a tax write off receipt from a Goodwill drop.

We could of had a yard sale, we could have made maybe a hundred dollars, maybe even two. We could have marked each item with a price, and sat outside all day waiting for people to buy these items that we didn't want anyway. We could have bickered back and forth with someone trying to pay $3 instead of $5 for a dress I paid $180 for and will never use again. But by having a free sale, we got rid of all of the things we didn't need in our lives anymore and passed them onto someone who would use them, and maybe even cherish them. 'Tis the season for giving.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Dirty Dozen of Fish

Fresh caught Louisiana shrimp
On the 'safe' list of sustainable choices
Photo courtesy of eightylbs
I love fish, I love seafood, I love just about anything that is caught, netted or man handled out of that deep blue water. This was always the one exception to my 90% vegetarian lifestyle and as usual ignorance is bliss. At a restaurant I felt like I could safely order the grilled tuna without compromising our precious earth or supporting the practice of industrial farmed livestock. In my mind I would see a happy little tuna swimming through the wide open sea enjoying its tuna life and then it would gently be pulled from the water and brought fresh to my plate, always prepared rare and guilt free and delicious. And of course nothing is ever this simple. I did not know about the conditions in which many fish are farmed or caught and the regulations (or lack there of) of this industry. This simple and to the point '12 Fish You Should Never Eat' article on Rodale helped shed some light on the situation, a bright light that opens your eyes and makes you see things you didn't want to see, kind of like when you finally put a good light bulb in the closet and apparently there's a ton of dust, dirt and crusty socks that you overlooked before. The crusty socks part being the metaphor for I love fish and now I see that I shouldn't be eating the kinds I love most.

Most of us are familiar with the dirty dozen; what vegetables to buy organic, apparently there is also a dirty dozen in the fish world. 12 of the most over fished, mercury laced, over medicated and under regulated fish you probably eat on a regular basis.

  1. Imported Catfish
    Antibiotics that are banned in the U.S. are used regularly in Vietnam where nearly 90% of imported catfish come from. Swai and Basa, the two most popular types imported, aren't technically even catfish so inspection isn't as strict as it is for other imported catfish.

    Make sure you know where your catfish came from. Domestic farmed catfish is safe, farmed responsibly and is really tasty. 

  2. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
    Highest levels of mercury of any type of tuna and they are way overharvested to the point of almost extinct. Giving up tuna altogether is best, but if you must and I mean must, chose American or Canadian albacore tuna because they catch them young and it will contain less mercury.

  3. American Eel
    I really love bbq eel sushi, so I'm sad to see this info: highly contaminated with PCBs and mercury. There are also some problems with over fishing and pollution.

  4. Imported Shrimp
    Award for the dirtiest on the list and about 90% of shrimp sold in the U.S. is imported making it pretty hard to avoid. 
    "Imported farmed shrimp comes with a whole bevy of contaminants: antibiotics, residues from chemicals used to clean pens, filth like mouse hair, rat hair, and pieces of insects," Cufone says. "And I didn't even mention things like E. coli that have been detected in imported shrimp." Part of this has to do with the fact that less than 2 percent of ALL imported seafood (shrimp, crab, catfish, or others) gets inspected before its sold, which is why it's that much more important to buy domestic seafood.
    Gross. Endless shrimp at Red Lobster looks even nastier.
    Buy Oregon pink shrimp, or U.S. Gulf Coast Shrimp.

  5. Atlantic Salmon (both wild-caught and farmed)
    Farmed salmon is actually one of the reasons wild Atlantic salmon stocks are so low and are now illegal to capture. 
    Thousands of fish are crammed into pens, which leads to the growth of diseases and parasites that require antibiotics and pesticides. Often, the fish escape and compete with native fish for food, leading to declines in native populations. Adding to our salmon woes, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is moving forward with approving genetically engineered salmon to be sold, unlabeled, to unsuspecting seafood lovers. That salmon would be farmed off the coast of Panama, and it's unclear how it would be labeled. Currently, all fish labeled "Atlantic salmon" come from fish farms.

  6. Imported King Crab
    Identity issue here - Imported King Crab is often misnamed and mislabeled as Alaskan king crab making you assume its from Alaska when really its likely from Russia where limits on fishing aren't strongly enforced.

    Even though it says 'Alaskan' and you might feel like a boob asking, ask if it is actually from Alaska were they are more responsibly harvested.

  7. Shark
    Who doesn't want to be a badass and say they eat shark? Well, time to find other ways to pick up chicks at a bar:
    Problems associated with our eating too many sharks happen at all stages of the food chain, says Cufone. For one, these predatory fish are extremely high in mercury, which poses threats to humans. But ocean ecosystems suffer, too. "With fewer sharks around, the species they eat, like cownose rays and jellyfish, have increased in numbers," Cufone says. "And the rays are eating—and depleting—scallops and other fish." There are fewer of those fish in the oceans for us to eat, placing an economic strain on coastal communities that depend on those fisheries.
  8. Orange Roughy
    Just don't even eat this one, ever. It takes up to 40 years for orange roughy to reach full maturity and they reproduce late in life. Do the math, if you're eating one it's going to make it really hard for the population to recover. And if it says 'sustainably harvested' it's BS.

  9. Chilean Sea Bass
    Am I the only one that thinks Dumb and Dumber when I hear the word Sea Bass?
    We're looking at extinction of this species within 5 years unless we stop eating this fish. Also, most of the Chilean Sea Bass sold in the U.S. was illegally harvested and this is a fish that is high in mercury. Pretty much don't ever eat this one either.

  10. Atlantic Flatfish - Flounder, Sole and Halibut
    This is a group of fish caught off the Atlantic coast and it's populations are also crucially low due to heavy contamination and overfishing. Pacific halibut on the other hand seems to be doing ok, so choose that for dinner instead.

  11. Atlantic Cod
    New England fisherman rely on this for their economy, however, the species is now listed as just one step above endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. Pacific cod is a better choice and one of Food and Water Watch's best fish picks.
    Apparently this is what Atlantic Cod look like. I just
    assumed they came out of the water deep fried.
    Photo courtesy of j.corke
  12. Caviar
    All forms of caviar come from fish that take a long time to mature, which means that it takes a while for populations to rebound. If you really need to impress someone, and caviar is the only way, go with American Lake Sturgeon or American Hackleback/Shovelnose Sturgeon caviar from the Mississippi River system.

Soooo... What's left to eat? Its easy to look at that long list of things not to do and frown, but turn that frown upside down because there are a lot of sustainable and delicious species to choose from. The Monterey Bay Aquarium keeps an up to date list of sustainable seafood choices available in different regions of the U.S. found here. Some of my personal favorites include U.S. farmed catfish, lake whitefish, yellow lake perch, red snapper and of course U.S. Gulf of Mexico shrimp (always great sales at Whole Foods!)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Slow Food | Dorking Chickens

Silver Grey Dorking Rooster
The time finally came for three of our Dorkings to meet their fate. I think the anticipation for this day was pretty much one sided. I knew when they first arrived that a few would be sent to 'freezer camp' earlier than the others. With over 8 roosters, problems were bound to occur. It's always the small ones that raise the most hell too, so this is not an example of the size a Dorking can reach, but more of the quality of this table bird.

If you're not yet familiar with the concept of slow food, I'll save the smartass remark that it is the opposite of fast food because it's really much more than that; it is an idea and a way of life. Popular fast food chains provide a meal, generally through a drive through window, in a matter of minutes for convenience of their customers.The taste of the meal is up for debate but 'over 200 billion served' is a remarkable feat. Most grocery stores now provide whole rotisserie chickens at an unbelievably low price of something like $4.99. A loaf of white bread can be as low as .89 cents. Hot dogs, on sale now 2/$3. Any meal you desire is pre-made, pre-baked and pre-fried and always at some remarkably low price. For supply to keep up with demand agricultural practice had to change. Industrial livestock are almost unrecognizable compared to their ancestors. Chickens are now crossed a scientific 4 different ways (nothing kinky, just specific grandparents chosen and then their offspring crossed with very specific other offspring...yeh confusing) to achieve the result of a large fast growing bird that produces the best feed conversion ratio. With this 'super' breed you sacrifice a lot of the flavor that is found in a heritage breed and you are sacrificing the identity of the animal. Chickens that are ready to butcher in 6 weeks instead of 6 months taste different. Pigs that are fed high energy grains for fast growth instead of given the opportunity to forage like they were meant to do taste different. "Today, the pork industry rests on a three-way cross between a few highly selected strains of the Duroc, Hampshire, and Yorkshire breeds which have been chosen for performance under intensive husbandry."

More and more of us are not interested in sacrificing taste and the pleasure of good food for fast convenience. All good things take time. Part of the slow food initiative encourages everyone to "slow down and use their senses to enjoy quality food with awareness, learning to choose good food that is produced in harmony with the environment and local cultures." One of the first steps is understanding where your food comes from; exactly how did those greasy chicken legs plastic wrapped to a yellow foam board arrive at the grocery store for my convenience, and am I ok with that? How was that burger made that arrives through the drive through window within minutes of my ordering it at that magic 2 way board of endless options that I hide behind in the comfort of my car, and am I ok with that? How many people don't even know any different?
Muskegon Farmers Market
Photo courtesy of nancyblujean

I consider growing my own food, having the financial resources to afford organic produce and access to a local farmers market all luxuries. I know some people do not have these opportunities and maybe don't even understand the importance of these resources. There is a world outside of your grocery store and there is a road that does not lead to the drive through window. 

When I was researching which breed of chicken I wanted to raise as table birds, Dorkings just made sense for me. Dorkings are an ancient breed dating back to roman times and are known for their gourmet table quality; hence the anticipation for the day they meet their maker. Dorkings can take up to 2 years to reach full maturity; some males can reach a weight of 13 lbs and females over 8 pounds. The three roosters we processed Sunday were only 4 months old, and even though they were of a reasonable size to eat they definitely had not yet reached their full potential. My husband was brave enough to do the deed himself again. We used the same set up we used when we processed our very first rooster. Each bird was treated with great respect and the deed was done quickly to avoid any suffering. They were in a bucket of salted ice water before they even knew what happened.

Leg of a Dorking Rooster; very dark chicken
meat full of flavor.
We waited two days to cook one of the chickens, to let the soul rest as my dad would say. My husband put one of them in the crock pot stuffed with apples and onions and accompanied it with half a bag of baby carrots and an array of herbs and spices. 10 hours later dinner was served with a record setting number of 'mmmmms' and 'dammit this is good.' If I can describe chicken as sweet and have that make sense, then I will say this chicken was sweet, yet savory and with full flavor. The texture was perfect; a light chew, very moist, tender and unforgettable.  The leg of the chicken was almost as dark as cooked beef and the breast was crisp white - a beautiful contrast on your plate - something Ansel Adams could have photographed and made into famous artwork. Anyone who says chicken is just chicken either had their taste buds pack up and leave long ago after putting up with years of bland or poor tasting food, or has never had the opportunity to taste a heritage bird who was allowed to free range and fed an organic diet. It was well worth the time and the wait.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Zingerman's Roadhouse

Photo courtesy of The Awesome Mitten
It's hard to wrap a label around Zingerman's Roadhouse. The extensive bourbon list and separate menu for fresh oysters makes me want to describe it as classy or high end; the prices certainly reflect this description. The vintage camper permanently parked outside, the oyster shells used as a landscape medium and the tacky yet whimsical display of salt and pepper shakers displayed in cases throughout the establishment authenticate it as a true 'roadhouse.' And then there is the actual menu; corn dogs, hamburgers, five different choices of mac and cheese, pot likker stew, something called Hill Billy Charcuterie Garnie and an exclusive collection of artisan cheeses from across the U.S. on a display board as an appetizer, just to name a few. It's like a dream where around every corner is something unexpected, previously not related to the latter and yet so comforting and natural.
Photo courtesy of RubyJi

The waitstaff was also a part of this dream; friendly, like someone you were meant to be best friends with and just hadn't had the opportunity to hang out yet. She knew everything without being arrogant about this great skill almost as if she attended some sort of grad school specializing in the Zingerman's menu that focuses on where it's food is sourced from, what oysters have the most brine and who makes each beer on the drink list with the exact description of floral hints and honey top notes that are left on the palate after each sip and continue to dance in your mouth. I was overwhelmed with options, I wanted it all.

To drink I chose the New Holland Mad Hatter IPA, one of many Michigan craft brewed choices presented on the drink menu. And then I had to take each step one at a time; choosing an appetizer, oysters, meal and dessert seemed too overwhelming to happen all at once. I sipped the Mad Hatter and decided to tackle the oyster menu: I recall approximately 6 different options for freshly flown in oysters either raw or smoked with barbeque sauce. I haven't had raw oysters in years, mostly because its hard to find good ones around Michigan. I had no idea how to pronounce some of the options that were on the menu and I recall myself saying something like (as I'm pointing to the choice) "this one sounds delectable" so as not to sound incompetent. I ordered the same kind of oyster barbequed and raw just to sample the difference. Barbequed wasn't really my thing, it really took away from what I always enjoyed most about oysters; the freshness of the salt water brine that lingers in your mouth. The raw version was what I audibly described as perfection. Serious perfection. It was topped with home made horseradish sauce just sharp enough to catch your attention but not take away from the oyster itself. The brine was refreshing, cool and sweet like a holiday in the Hamptons.  I wanted to just sit there and enjoy the flavor in my mouth for hours on end. I wish had ordered more than one. Dammit why did I only order one. My husband ordered the Sea Island Sweet Potato Fries they were huge, breaded perfectly and quite addicting. 
Oysters served on ice
Photo courtesy of Gandhu & Sarah

On to the main course. It was a toss up between the Creole Pot Likker Fish Stew and the Lamb Chops. What was so impressive about the lamb chops was the little clover next to it on the menu, this clover indicated this was a lamb purchased at the local Chelsea 4-H fair and actually had the name of the person who raised and sold this lamb right in the menu. There is nothing I like more than seeing local food in a menu and owners who take pride in supporting their community, though it did take me a second to get over the fact that I might be eating little Johnny's pet lamb. I got over it - I chose the lamb chops and I chose them rare. I chose rare because no one ever has the balls to bring out food that is actually rare and it is usually served toward the end of medium rare; Zingerman's apparently has balls, because it was rare. Beautifully red in the center with great texture and surprisingly little as far as spice and salts go. For sides I chose bacon braised greens and topped them with their own pepper soaked vinegar, Zingerman's farm squash blend and a side of mushroom mac and cheese. Of the sides the bacon braised greens were my favorite, with the vinegar they were just the right combination of smokey, sweet, bitter and hot. My husband ordered Chef Alex's Bearded BBQ Plate which included slow pit-smoked Memphis-style ribs, BBQ Beef with Alex's Red Rage Tomato BBQ sauce, South Carolina pulled pork and pit-smoked chicken with green tomato BBQ. Served with mashed local potatoes and bacon-braised greens. A real mans dream come true - this amount of smoked meats on one plate should require a red checked flannel shirt and inappropriately bulky leather boots with no hint of shine to them ever. Neither of the plates were fancy, and the sweet potato fries were actually brought out in a basket like some sort of roadside dive would offer. The portions were sizable and homemade bread was also brought to the table. We were more than stuffed by the time it was all over. I was so sad to see it end. I eye-balled the butterscotch pudding on the dessert menu for a long time before I convinced myself I would be sick if I attempted to eat anymore and passed, promising myself that next time I would save room for dessert. 

Zingerman's Deli
Photo courtesy of *Kid*Doc*One*
At one point during the meal my husband pointed to the 'water boy' declaring that was the owner. I thought differently and assumed it was, in my very own words, "some hippie who needed a job." And yes, of course, our waitress verified the water boy was indeed Ari himself and I felt pretty sheepish about the situation. Ari is one of the co-founders of Zingerman's and the author of several books including "Zingerman's guide to giving great service" and "Zingerman's guide to good eating," both concepts you can clearly see in the roadhouse's service and menu. What a rare treat to see the owner of a prominent restaurant on a Saturday night take the time to ensure his customers water glasses are full and to interact with the staff and guests, apparently this is common practice here. It felt like I crashed some extravagant barbeque and the owner of the house was mingling after he just got done serving all of his house guests his favorite meal consisting of comfort foods and recipes handed down from his great grandmother.

America used to grow their own food, raise their own meat and rely on partnerships with local farmers to prepare the evening meal; what was in season is what was served at the time. Zingerman's has partnered with Real Time Farms to help you understand where your food comes from and changes their menu daily to reflect what is in season and available fresh for your plate. I'm angry that this is considered a 'movement', shouldn't it just be common sense; support local and serve what is fresh and in season because it tastes the best? Sadly Zingerman's is one of the only restaurants I have encountered that does just this, so it's hard to contain them within just one category or label. Zingerman's is also a coffee company, bake house, candy shop, creamery, mail order and deli to name a few. Zingerman's is what every restaurant in America should aspire to be.