The Connection Between Human Health and Soil Health

What’s the connection between soil and human health? It’s an intriguing question that family physician and author Dr. Daphne Miller discusses in the lecture above and in her book Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing. In the research for the book Miller visited farmers who, as she put it, “farm in the image of nature,” who approach the farm as a living organism.

While she cautioned that there is little research behind the connection between farming practices and health, she suspects that biodiversity on the farm may be an important factor in our well being. To back this idea up she cites:

  • Erika von Mutius, who found an intriguing connection between children who grew up on farms and their lack of asthma and allergies later in life.
  • Research that is taking an Integrated Pest Management approach to cancer, treating it as a symptom of a lack of internal biodiversity.
  • Studies that have shown the higher nutritional value of eggs from chickens raised on pasture.

It seems obvious that there’s a connection between the health of a farm and our own health. Biodiverse soils produce healthier, more nutritious food. And way too much of the food we eat comes from farms where the soil is treated as a sterile growing medium. As Miller notes, “We are the soil.”

The Genetic Diversity of Watermelons

Navaho Watermelon

Damn those supermarket watermelons! Every one I’ve bought this summer has been mealy, old and tasteless. Why? Yet again, the folks who sell us our food have decided to grow only a handful of the over 1,200 known varieties of watermelons.

The one pictured above is a Navaho watermelon I picked up at the National Heirloom Exposition. Note the vibrant (and tasty) red seeds. Navaho watermelons are sometimes called “winter melons” since they can be stored for a few months.

Another watermelon I tasted at the Exposition was a yellow fleshed variety called Orangeglo. It was probably the sweetest and tastiest watermelon I’ve ever eaten.

The problem with supermarket watermelons is not due to the seedless vs. seeded issue. Seedless watermelons are created with a complex genetic process you can read about here. What’s more relevant to taste is how early watermelons are picked, how long they’ve been sitting around and the limited varieties commercial growers plant.

The Heirloom Exposition eloquently demonstrated the benefits of genetic diversity with its watermelon display and tasting. And that diversity is something we can all address in our gardens, if we have one, by planting unusual seeds. You can bet I’m going to try growing watermelons in next summer’s straw bale garden.

What kinds of watermelons have you grown and what’s your favorite?

Sweet Potatoes for Breakfast

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Yesterday I talked about the worst breakfast ever. Today I’ll tell you about my new favorite breakfast.

Erik knows what he’s going to have for breakfast every day: Grape Nuts. He’s had Grape Nuts for breakfast pretty much every day since I’ve met him, excepting travel, special pancake-type breakfasts, or the occasional Grape Nut outage.

I’ve never been a fan of the cereal myself, since I learned as a child, much to my disappointment, that it contained neither grapes, nor nuts, but instead was composed out of tiny particles of cardboard.

I’m a restless breakfasteer.  I like variety. Typically I range between oatmeal, muesli, yogurt, toast or leftovers foraged from the fridge.

Lately, though, I’m very happy on this new kick of eating roasted sweet potatoes for breakfast. I chop up a bunch of yellow fleshed sweet potatoes (often called yams in the US, though yams are actually a different animal altogether), toss them in oil and salt and roast them in a hot oven until they begin to brown. (If you don’t ever roast sweet potatoes, give it a try. They are wonderful.)

A sheet full of sweet potatoes lasts me three or four days, which is about as long as I want to keep them in the fridge, and then I make a new batch. I just eat them straight out of the fridge in the morning. They are surprisingly good cold.

I eat them in this minimalist way, but of course you could heat them up. You could also toss them with nuts, or yogurt or raisins, or all three. I’ve thought about this, but never can be bothered to put in the extra effort.

(ETA 9/27/13: I’ve been eating the sweet potatoes with yogurt, fruit and nuts and it is really, really good. Sort of like eating a Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole for breakfast. The fact that didn’t have the wherewithal to crack open the yogurt container and the nut jar until very recently speaks to my deep lethargy on hot summer mornings. )

Why do I do this?

1) This breakfast suits my complete and utter lack of morning ambition. I scoop a cupful of these into a bowl and go and sulk in a corner, nibbling, until I wake up enough to face the world.

2) I’m trying to avoid processed carbs. And that’s hard when you’re married to the co-founder of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers Club. I could live on sourdough bread. I’ve resolved to ban toast from breakfast. Oatmeal and muesli aren’t overly processed, but I’m awful tired of them.

3) Sweet potatoes are a much vaunted “super food”. Primarily, they are incredibly rich in vitamin A and beta-carotene. So high, in fact, I wondered if I might OD on vitamin A from eating them daily. The answer is no. You cannot harm yourself from eating too many sweet potatoes. You can take too much A in pill form, or too much cod liver oil, and you can kill yourself outright eating Retinol packed polar bear liver (should you have that golden opportunity), but the worst the vegetable form can do is turn you vaguely orange ( a revertible condition) and eating 1 sweet potato a day is not going to do that.

Incidentally, fat makes some of sweet potato’s nutrients more accessible, so you have every excuse now to eat those babies with butter, or roast them in oil.

4) I like getting this big hit of nutrition first thing in the morning. It’s sort of like exercising in the morning — do it early and then you don’t have to think about it the rest of the day. I mean, you should think about it the rest of the day, but if my nutritional choices for the rest of the day turn out to be less than stellar (i.e. “Does ice cream count as lunch?”)  at least I had my sweet potatoes.

What do you eat for breakfast? (Restless as I am, I’ll probably be looking for new alternatives soon.) Do you eat the same breakfast every day, like Erik, or are you a wanderer, like me?

Review: Quaker Lower Sugar Instant Oatmeal

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I prefer long cooked oatmeal when I’m at home, but we’ve always packed instant oatmeal with us when camping. I think the habit goes back to when Erik and I took epic backpacking trips, and food weight was a prime consideration. Now, camping is a more gentle endeavor–but the instant oatmeal has become a tradition, an easy no-brainer for sleepy grey mornings in the woods, even though its nutritional qualities are highly suspect.

While doing a quick shop for a recent camping trip, I was reaching for the usual box of oatmeal when I saw one next to it marked “lower sugar.”  In my extreme naivete, I said to myself, “That’s fantastic! They finally cut down the sugar! They could easily reduce the sugar by half and lose none of the flavor.”

Well, Quaker did reduce the sugar significantly (from 12 g. per serving to 4 g.), but they did so by adding sucralose, the artificial sweetener known as Splenda (and kicking up the sodium significantly).

The front of the box says nothing about artificial sweeteners. Diet foods will have a jaunty “With Splenda!” label, but this cereal apparently isn’t being marketed that way. The only indication that you’re dealing with a fake sugar product is in the list of ingredients, which I hadn’t checked. And that was a mistake, I know. When treading the dangerous waters of industrial foodstuffs, you really do have to bring your magnifying glass–and a chemical reference–and read the ingredients.

So I proceeded merrily to the woods, and to  breakfast the first morning, where my camping buddy and I discovered that our oatmeal tasted dreadfully synthetic and sweet, like Diet Coke, or toothpaste. There are few flavors in the world I dislike more than the taste of artificial sweeteners. The worst of it was that the sweetness persisted in the back of my mouth for hours. Fortunately, it was only a two day trip, and we were able to scrounge together random snack foods to eat for breakfast the second morning.

Soon after, I attended a nature class where we camped and the food was provided for us. The instructors had picked up a box of this stuff unwittingly, not even noticing the “lower sugar” label. They were horrified when I told them it had sucralose in it, and took it off the table.

This is why I’m blogging about this. I have a sneaking suspicion (call me crazy!) that most Root Simple readers don’t buy many processed foods, but if I can save any of you from being stuck in the woods with nothing to eat for breakfast but a box full of yuck, my job is done.

Incidentally, I checked the Amazon reviews of this product, and they are quite good. There was only one outraged fellow, who said basically what I’ve said here. Everyone else thought the product was just fantastic. I suspect that folks who consume fake sugars on a regular basis would find nothing objectionable in the flavor.

Don’t Wash Raw Poultry

According to research it’s a bad idea to wash chicken before cooking. Why? As the clever video above shows, washing can spread pathogens. The research, conducted by Drexel University, led to the following advice:

Although raw chicken and turkey can carry bacteria on their surfaces, research has shown that washing raw poultry under running water in your kitchen sink is a bad idea.

If germs were visible to the naked eye, you would see that washing poultry just splashes bacteria all over you, your kitchen towels, your countertops, and any other food you have nearby, such as raw foods or salads. This can make people sick, especially young children, pregnant women, older adults and the immunocompromised.

Instead, just take raw poultry straight from the package into the cooking pan. The heat from the cooking process will kill any bacteria that are present. Then clean up any splashes and wash your hands with soap and hot water.

Via Barfblog.

The Organic Minefield: How organic are your organic eggs, soy and dairy?

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I wish the label “organic” meant all that I mean when I use the term, but unfortunately organic is not a a guarantee of sustainable agricultural practice, much less humane treatment of livestock.

The Cornucopia Institute promotes sustainable organic agriculture and family farms, and helps consumers parse the difference between greenwashed and genuine organic farms and suppliers.

They release quick reference charts on various subjects, as well as reports which get into food issues in detail. But the main reason I’m posting this is because they produce useful quick reference charts for brand names and stores. I’ve just found their dairy chart, and wanted to share it with you, and thought I’d share some others as well while I was at it. We’ve posted about the eggs score card before, but it is important enough for a repeat. Check it out:

Organic Dairy Scorecard

Organic Egg Scorecard

Organic  Soy Product Scorecard

Organic Cereal Scorecard

Note: Links to scoring criteria are at the top of all the scorecards, with the exception of the dairy scorecard. In that case it is located at the very bottom.

Delicious Cauliflower

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For me, cauliflower is a vegetable which eludes inspiration. I eat it raw. I roast it. I’ve made soup with it once or twice. That’s about the sum of my historic use of cauliflower. Now, everything has changed. I’ve found a recipe for cauliflower which I love.

It comes from a book called Vegetarian Dishes from the Middle East, by Arto der Haroutunian. I think I’ve mentioned it before. It’s a good, reliable book. Lately I’ve been on a deep Middle Eastern jag, cooking out of this book every day. Erik is in hog heaven, because he hasn’t had to cook in weeks. I’m in heaven because I’m eating exactly what I’m craving.

Anyway, back to the cauliflower. It’s an easy recipe that comes from north-west Syria, where, according to the author, it is considered a regional specialty. It has a lovely, rich flavor. I never knew tomatoes and cauliflower could be such good friends. The ingredients are pretty basic. And we all have a lonely can of tomato paste on the shelf that needs to be used, don’t we?

We’ve been eating it hippie style, over brown rice, but it would be more elegant over an herbed pilaf, or it could be used as a side dish. I suspect it would be good cold, too, but we’ve never had leftovers.

Cauliflower in Tomato Sauce (Kharnabit Emforakeh)

  • 1 large head of cauliflower
  • 6-8 tablespoons of oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 3 green/spring onions, sliced thin (I’m sure you could sub. regular onion for this)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2-3 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • juice of one lemon  (maybe 2 tablespoons–to taste)
  • parsley for garnish

Wash, core and break up the cauliflower into bite sized florets.

Steam, boil or elsewise cook the cauliflower until it is just tender. Don’t overcook, because it will receive some more cooking down the line. Drain if necessary.

Add the 6-8 T of oil to a big frying pan. My favorite cast iron pan is 10 inches and it’s crowded for this, but it works. Heat the oil and add the cooked cauliflower. Fry over med-high heat, turning carefully with a spatula, until the cauliflower is kissed with little brown marks.

Remove the cauliflower from the pan at this point and set aside. Add the green onions and pressed or smashed garlic to that same frying pan. Add a splash more oil if it seems dry, and cook these for just 2 minutes or so. Don’t let the garlic burn.  Then add the tomato paste and the water, which thins it, as well as the salt and pepper, and let that all cook for another couple of minutes.

Next, return the cauliflower to the pan and toss it with the sauce. Let it cook a few minutes more until it’s nice and hot and the sauce has a chance to sink in.

Just before you take it off the heat, sprinkle the lemon juice over the cauliflower. The author calls for the juice of 1 lemon, which is a very imprecise quantity–basically, this is very much a “to taste” thing. I find 2 tablespoons works for me.

Garnish with parsley and serve.

Serves 4

Variant: I really like tomato paste. I sneak it straight off the spoon. If you’re like me, you can up the amount of tomato paste in the recipe–double it, say. This results in a thicker, redder sauce and much more pronounced tomato sauce flavor. The original version is subtler, more classy.

The tale of the worm bin celery

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This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant

Secrets of Kimchi Revealed in Pictures

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Hae Jung shows off her special Kimchi gloves.

I spent this morning with Hae Jung Cho and Joseph Shuldiner going over some of the recipes we will be teaching at a hands-on workshop at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. Hae Jung showed Joseph and I how she makes kimchi. Here’s a few of her secrets starting with:

mini shrimp in kimci

Fishiness! Hae Jung said you can make kimchi without mini-shrimp and fish sauce, but it just won’t have as much umami.

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Then there’s the special hot pepper flakes that can be found in any Korean supermarket. They come in a course grind for kimchi and a fine grind for use as a general seasoning. Before the Portuguese arrived in Korea with peppers from the New World, kimchi was more like sauerkraut.

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Before stuffing the kimchi into a crock, Hae Jung showed us a way of folding the “sohk” (the mixture of the pepper flakes, fish sauce, mini-shrimp, onions, daikon radish, some greens, garlic and ginger) between the leaves of Napa cabbage that had first soaked in brine the night before. You don’t have to do the special folding, but it’s considered classy.

From this point the kimchi sits at room temperature for a day or two and then goes into the refrigerator. We packed it into a giant crock.

I’m really looking forward to tasting this!