Wednesday, May 27, 2009

You can please some of the people all of the time...

and all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time.

So the saying goes, and so it goes in the kitchen. As a relatively skilled and confident cook who primarily cooks only for myself I usually do pretty good with liking what I cook. I rarely have outright failures and I can usually find some silver lining even in my flops. The exception makes the rule, however.

Two months ago I bought a tub of chicken livers from Kookoolan Farms at our year round farmers market here in SW Portland. I had never cooked with chicken livers before and honestly never really eaten them either. I was a little intimidated but knew I would get around to them eventually.

Liver is quite possibly the most nutrient dense animal food on earth. Oysters may be a close second but liver is an amazing super food. Liver is chock full of vitamins A, B12, and folic acid. It is amazingly high in bioavaliable iron, copper, zinc and chromium. It contains nitrogen compounds that the body uses to produce DNA and RNA. It's also an amazing source of CoQ10. Seriously, this is some healthy health food.

Unfortunately, most Americans aren't very fond of organ meat. We didn't grow up eating it (possibly because our grandparents had to eat it during hard economic times and forced their kids to eat it who swore to never force their kids to eat it) and many folks think it is gross or dirty. There is also advice out there to avoid liver when pregnant because of it's high levels of retinol, a form of Vitamin A that seems to have been linked with birth defects.

Actually, even main stream nutritionists agree that an animal's liver doesn't store toxins, it just repackages them for storage elsewhere in the body. The vitamin A debate seems ridiculous to me. Native people ate liver as regularly as possible and no one died of vitamin A poisoning and if birth defects were common people would have stopped eating liver. The Wise Traditions article by Lynn Razaitis disucsses this issue in depth. She says that studies in Italy and Switzerland in the late 1990s, as well as almost all medical text books written before WWII indicate that liver is fine for pregnant women with doses of 30,000-50,000 IUs of Vitamin A. That's 4-5 oz of beef liver or 7-8 oz of chicken liver. She also quotes the Merck manual in noting that the few cases of Vitamin A poisioning are either due to synthetic vitamin A in multivitamins, or due to eating large portions of polar bear or seal liver. The synthetic vitamin toxicity was at doses 100,000 IU of vitamin A over many months. It takes about 10 oz of beef liver or 16 oz of chicken liver to give you that much vitamin A. Every day. For months.

I don't know about you, but I couldn't get 16 oz of chicken liver in me every day for a month. I couldn't get it in me over the course of a month if my recent liver experience is any indication. Remember how I said I don't usually have flops in the kitchen? Yeah, my chicken liver pate was a flop. I think it tasted exactly like it was supposed to, I just didn't like it. Here's the recipe I used. It's a variation on the recipe from Nourishing Traditions and I think it's a good one. It's just so, well, livery.

Chicken Liver Pate

3 tbs butter
1 lb chicken liver
1/2 lb mushrooms
1 medium yellow onion
2/3 c white wine
2 clove garlic
3/4 tsp ground dried rosemary
1/4 tsp ground dried sage
1/4 tsp crumbled dried organo
1/4 tsp dried dill
1 tbs lemon juice
4 tbs butter
salt and pepper

*Sautee the onion and mushroom, seasoned with pepper and a little salt, in 3 tbs of butter until soft. Add the liver, trimmed of the tendons and cook until firm but still barely pink on the inside. Add garlic and herbs to the pan then the wine. Cook over medium heat until the pan is almost dry. Let mixture sit until cool.

*Pour the liver and onion mixture into a food processor. Grind until a coarse paste and then add soft, but not melted, butter a spoonful at a time. Grind until smooth. Add the lemon juice and taste for salt and pepper.

This recipe actually had a lot of interesting flavor. I think in the future I would increase the herbs a bit but the mushrooms and liver really stood out. The problem is, well, that liver flavor. It's kind of metallic, and kind of earthy. But not in a good way. Luckily my roommate loved it and I found that I could get down a couple tablespoons at a time in a sandwich with radishes, cheese and mustard. I still have about 4 oz in the freezer. Maybe in a month or two I'll be ready to go back for round two.

Photo by These Days in French Life

Do you have a liver recipe you like? Have you ever eaten a liver pate that you really enjoyed? What do your friends, kids, spouse, housemates say about liver? Like runny egg yolks, I'll choke it down until I like it... it's just that nutritious.

For more real food recipes and tips check out the Real Food Wednesdays blog carnival!!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Kookoolan Farm Tour

I think every kid should get to visit a farm at least once in their life, don't you think? I've been teaching a veterinary science class to homeschooled kids these last six months and recently made sure that these kids had visited a farm. It wasn't just any farm, it was a Kookoolan Farm.

Kookoolan Farm is a small, pastured based farm in Yamhill, OR about an hour outside of Portland. Chrissie and Koorosh, the farmers, keep three Jersey cows for raw dairy, chickens for eggs and meat and have a licensed poultry processing facility there. They also partner with what is becoming a co-op of farmers to get humanely raised, grass fed meat to paying customers in the Portland area. They are a really amazing, real food farm.

The first thing my students noticed was the 3 week old calf tethered in the front yard. He was born on the farm and was tethered out so visitors could pet him to gentle him. One thing I found really interesting was Chrissie's comments on her Jerseys being, em, insistent mothers. As a dog person this makes perfect sense. When we breed a strain of animals to do one thing we get a fair amount of "logical conclusion" behavior. For example, Labradors have been bred to retrieve and many labs have weird mouthy/eating/carrying things around behavior. Jack Russell terriers were bred to chase rats so we see obsessive chasing and visual stimulation behaviors. Well, apparently when we breed cows to do nothing but be pregnant or nursing we get some "logical conclusions" behaviors around mothering. Chrissie says one of her cows gave birth and the other two were mothering the one calf so aggressively that she had to buy two more calves from other local farmers. This is one of her teddy bear calves. He is 5 days old and he sucked on my thumb. Soooo cute!! Baby cows are pretty much adorable.

Next we got to tour the chicken houses. Kookoolan has had up to 500 chickens at a time, though this year they are running a slightly smaller operation. The hens are free range and roost and next in one of two large sheds with some feed along with the next boxes. She noted the symbiotic relationship between the chickens and the cows. They feed a little bit of whole wheat to the cows that they don't digest, but entices the chickens to scratch through the manure. For as many animals as there were in her small yard, there really was very little animal smell.

It was fun to see the different personalities of the different chickens. Some came right up to use to see if we had anything for us while others scattered as we came near. Chrissie is raising another 100 chicks in a brooder with the hopes of having them come into egg laying around Christmas, when her current layers will be on their winter break. This will provide her with a steady supply of eggs through the holiday season, when we humans like to eat eggs in things like pumpkin pie.

We also got to see the milking house and talk a little bit about raw milk production. In Oregon it is legal to sell raw milk on the farm if you keep only a small number of animals and don't advertise. The kids noted some chickens drinking some milk out of a pan on the ground and this led Chrissie to tell us about their testing procedures for the milk. They use the standard milk test of a somatic cell count to determine cleanliness of the milk. This count detects white blood cells in the milk which indicate an immune response in the animal. In Washington and California, where raw milk is legal and licensed by the state, somatic cell counts must be below 10,000 cells per mL, and commercial dairies that pasteurize their milk have an average somatic cell count of around 300,000 cells per mL! At Kookoolan farm if somatic cell counts are any more than a few hundred cells per mL the milk goes to the chickens. That morning Glitter, one of their milk cows was dealing with a cut on her leg which caused her cell count to be higher. The milk was probably perfectly safe for human consumption but like most small farmers Chrissie's product is either perfect, or not good enough.

Another thing that so impressed me about Chrissie and Koorosh is the partnerships they've been able to form with other farmers in their area. They are raising beef with their immediate neighbor who is now 70 years old and doesn't want to work as hard as he used to. He raises the calves on his land and Chrissie and Koorosh market the meat to real-food aficionados in Portland who will pay top dollar. They've formed a similar partnership with a neighbor across the highway who raises lamb. For years he was driving to Woodburn to sell his grassfed lamb for 85 cents per pound on the hoof. By partnering with Kookoolan Farm and tapping into the premium meat demand they are now commanding a considerably higher price, and actually making money on their lambs. Yet another farmer raises pheasants and turkey, and others allows Chrissie's meat chickens to be raised in their orchards and vineyards.

The most amazing part of all of this is that Chrissie and Koorosh have only been doing this since the fall of 2005!! Chrissie says she never even had a pet before they bought their first batch of day old chicks. They had never milked cows or butchered chickens. They were managers at Intel and are simply willing to take the risks required to start a farm. Chrissie says she works harder now than she did at Intel, but is happier and healthier by a country mile.

Every kid should get to visit a farm, and every person should get to eat food produced with as much attention and care as the food produced at Kookoolan Farms. You can see more of my photos from the farm visit on my Flickr page. Also, please check out their website for more information on their practices, their cheesemaking classes and their offerings. And then find a farm like them near you to get your own real food.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Greens, Greens, All the Meadow is Greens!

I didn't grow up eating greens. Honestly, I'm still getting used to the idea. As a kid we occasionally had spinach, though usually as salads not as a cooked vegetable. These days my dad is known to cook some napa cabbage I'm pretty sure he never cooked collards or turnip greens for us. We probably wouldnt've eaten them.

My first real introduction to greens came a number of years ago when I was working at a school with an organic garden. The woman who had planted the garden had planted about a dozen kale plants and they survived right through the winter. No one I worked with particularly liked kale and the plants were a bit aphid infested so we didn't want to donate them to the food bank. Being the poor AmeriCorps member that I was I decided to take these giant leaves home and see what to do with them.

I consulted my favorite source for basic cooking instructions - Cook's Illustrated. They recommended a steam sautee method where the greens are cooked over or in a small amount of water and then sauteed in flavored oil. Yeah, that's good stuff. Especially when that flavored oil is bacon grease.

This method works particularly well for hearty greens like kale, collards and turnip greens. I prefer a simple sautee for tender greens like chard and beet greens.

Last year as I was learning about edible plants I kept running into a lot of plants referred to a potherbs. These are green plants who's leaves are best eaten cooked as opposed to salad greens. As some of these "potherbs" showed themselves this spring I realized it was time to learn to love greens.

Nettles and comfrey are two greens that grow abundantly in my neighborhood and have found their way into my kitchen recently. I experimented with nettles earlier this spring and love their flavor but hate having to deal with them. They taste minerally and are wonderful well salted. Last week I harvested some comfrey that I had scouted out last summer but hemmed and hawed over eating at that time. Many sources note that comfrey contains chemicals called hepatoxic pyrrolizidine which can cause liver damage. Susun Weed speaks eloquently about how comfrey has gotten this, in her research and experience, undeserved reputation. The basic gist of Susun's article is that the toxic chemicals are found in the wild comfrey, not the cultivated one, and even then mostly in the roots and to a lesser degree in the stems and leaf ribs. The tipping point for me was when I saw comfrey listed in my Joy of Cooking as an eating green. Sauteed greens, here I come!

Steam-Sauteed Hearty Greens

1 bunch of kale or collards or mustard greens or comfrey or a mix
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tbs bacon grease, or olive oil, or coconut oil
a shake of red pepper flakes
a pinch of salt
a dash of red wine vinegar

*Clean the kale and remove the leaves from the stem. Chop or tear the leaves into fork sized pieces. Heat a couple inches of water in a pan big enough to hold all of the kale. When it is boiling add the greens, stir a bit with a wooden spoon or tongs and cover. Let the kale steam a minute up to five then drain in a colander.

*While the kale is draining and drying a bit heat the fat in a sautee pan or wok. Add the garlic and red pepper and cook until the garlic is starting to brown a bit. Add the kale and toss and turn with tongs. Cook until the kale is fully incorporated with the flavored oil. Sprinkle with salt and then finish with vinegar.

I used the same steam-sautee method with the comfrey as I do with kale only made sure to cook it well in the water first. With kale I only steam it until it changes color but I made sure the comfrey was cooked through. I also made sure to harvest the smallest leaves I could find and remove all the ribs from the leaves. It was just a gut feeling, but I went with it. Wild vegetables are not terribly interested in you eating them, so it's best to treat them respectuflly. I sauteed it in refined coconut oil with some garlic and chipotle flakes. It was fantastic.

If you haven't grown to love greens yet start with chard. Chard is a sweet, tender little green with hardly any of the bitter flavors or odd texture other greens can have. Use plenty of garlic, bacon or other good cooking fat and a goodly splash of vinegar right at the end. You'll be enjoying greens and ready to move on to potherbs in no time. And if all else fails, eat them with macaroni and cheese. You can handle just about any vegetable mixed with macaroni and cheese.

For more great recipes and real food ideas check out the Real Food Wednesday blog carnival!