Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

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The chicken and the egg

December 8, 2009

During this last week I have been bestowed with one of the greatest honours of my life. Booker Prize, you ask? Bip-bow. Pulitzer? Shmulitzer. Miles Franklin? Huh – that old rag!?

Nope – this week, I had a chicken named after me.

That’s right, read it and weep, non-chicken-namesakers.

My friend Mistress Alice of the Mountains, aged eight and a half, and her brother Paddy, four and a half, are the proud new carers of two lovely chooks from the increasingly famous and brilliantly conceived Rentachook, where you rent chooks and coop for six weeks on a try-before-you-buy basis, so you can see if chicken-human cohabitation suits you both.

And I am told that on the journey home to the mountains with the chooks in the back of the car, Paddy and Alice pondered on the names for their new friends. By the time they reached home, Paddy’s chook was named Shirley, and Alice had chosen Charlotte. Both fine chook monikers, I’m sure you’ll agree (although Monica would have been nice too?), and I am assured by Mistress Alice’s parents that Chicken Charlotte genuinely is named for me and not some schoolfriend competitor for Miss A’s affections. Strange but true.

I am more chuffed than I can say. And here she is, above. Has there ever been a more beautiful specimen of chook womanhood?? Read the rest of this entry ?

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Shopping vs ‘sourcing’: scrap the sanctimony

October 4, 2009

ecoshoppingIn adding the postscript links to the Julia Child post here the other day I was led to the Julie Powell New York Times op-ed piece on organic food that apparently raised the hackles of foodie multitudes in the States a while back. I happen to agree with every word she writes in this piece about food snobbery and class. Her main objection is the moral high ground taken by those who only eat organic food, and their derision of ordinary folks who shop at crappy supermarkets:

What makes the snobbery of the organic movement more insidious is that it equates privilege not only with good taste, but also with good ethics. Eat wild Brazil nuts and save the rainforest. Buy more expensive organic fruit for your children and fight the national epidemic of childhood obesity. Support a local farmer and give economic power to responsible stewards of sustainable agriculture. There’s nothing wrong with any of these choices, but they do require time and money.

When you wed money to decency, you come perilously close to equating penury with immorality. The milk at Whole Foods is hormone-free; the milk at Western Beef is presumably full of the stuff – and substantially less expensive. The chicken at Whole Foods is organic and cage-free; the chicken at Western Beef is not. Is the woman who buys her children’s food at the place where they take her food stamps therefore a bad mother?

“That’s not cooking, that’s shopping.” This epigram has been attributed to Julia Child and several other chefs of an older generation, in reference to the tenets of California Cuisine. It is sometimes used – often pronounced in a snooty French accent or Childean warble – by devotees of the organic movement (like Doug Hamilton, writer and director of the documentary “Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution”) to mock these fusty old-school cooks. For the newer generation, a love for traditional fine cuisine is cast as fussy and snobbish, while spending lots of money is, curiously, considered egalitarian and wise.

Like Powell, I’m as farmers-market addicted as the next gal, and I prefer to buy organic and free range stuff for the sake of the soil and the animals rather than any belief in its ‘safety’ for my own health (the various studies concluding that organic food is no healthier for humans than other food are perhaps dispiriting, but they are there – and claims from organic food producers like this one, that “Eating non-organic food will lead to ill-health with medical costs that will be far greater than the price of healthy eating” are  just simplistic rubbish).

If I’m honest, one of the main reasons I like to ‘source’ (we can’t say ‘buy’ anymore, don’t you know?) food from small fancy grocers and farmer’s markets is that it just feels nicer.

Supermarkets are ugly, and horribly lit, and often more expensive than other shops, and there’s hideous music, and the fresh food has been in cold storage for a year, and one is confronted by more people speaking viciously to their children, and the packaging is aesthetically displeasing and there’s too much plastic, and the cold food section freezes your bones, and the space is vast and impersonal and noisy, and so the whole experience just makes one feel one has been turned into a mindless participant in the whole mass-production, over-processed consumerist nightmare.

So it stands to reason that visiting a market where there’s open air, and one person selling meat, and another selling cheese, and another selling salad (picked leaves in bags rather than whole lettuces, I might add; I’m not averse to that kind of packaging and processing)  and so on, is a whole lot more pleasurable. But morally superior it ain’t. And it can far too easily topple into into fashion-driven pretentiousness (as we’ve discussed before), and, as Powell points out in her piece, can be as unattractively consumerist as any supermarket:

With his gastronomic tests, Brillat-Savarin sought to find others like himself, of whatever economic status, who truly enjoyed food. It’s easy to do the same today, but the method isn’t to assume that everyone at Whole Foods is wise and everyone at the Western Beef benighted.

Instead, look in their carts. Some shop at Western Beef for nothing more than diet cola and frozen bagels; some at Whole Foods for premade sushi and overdesigned bottles of green tea. These people have much in common. So, too, do the professorial types poring over the sweet corn and dewy blueberries at the greenmarket and the Honduran family at the discount grocery, piling their cart high with rice and dried beans and canned tomatoes and all the other stuff you need to make something out of nothing much.

End of rant. Read the whole Powell opinion piece here.


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Oils aint oils

September 27, 2009

olive oilThe Lunging Latino’s remarks on his fave Italian olive oil in this post here reminded me of a conversation with my friend C recently, where she declared, having read a bit on the subject, that she would never again buy Italian olive oil.

Apart from wanting to support local olive oil producers and reduce the environmental effects of transporting stuff across the oceans, she told me that Italian olive oils are subject to so much adulteration and fraud that it’s difficult to tell if you are ever actually getting what the label says.

This startling conversation sent me to a disturbing New Yorker article from a couple of years ago setting out the slippery olive oil adulteration issue in Italy. The upshot, according to this article, is that owing to some dodgy labelling laws, lax governmental investigation, corruption and outright criminal fraud, some of the biggest olive oil producers in Italy (Bertolli, Nestle & Unilever, for instance) have sold adulterated oil from other countries as Italian extra virgin olive oil and collected millions of dollars in Italian subsidies designed to support domestic producers.  Olive oil labelled ‘Made in Italy’ apparently may be Turkish, Tunisian, Greek or Spanish, and may just as easily be adulterated with hazelnut, soy, canola or sunflower seed oil and even artificially coloured green to look like olive oil.

A few unnerving quotes from this article by Tom Mueller, which is well worth reading:

  • In 1997 and 1998, olive oil was the most adulterated agricultural product in the European Union, prompting the E.U.’s anti-fraud office to establish an olive-oil task force. (“Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks,” one investigator told me.)
  • For the past ten years, Spain has produced more oil than Italy, but much of it is shipped to Italy for packaging and is sold, legally, as Italian oil.
  • The [criminal] ring, which allegedly sold its products in northern Italy and in Germany, is accused of coloring low-grade soy oil and canola oil with industrial chlorophyll, flavoring it with beta-carotene, and packaging it as extra-virgin olive oil in tins.
  • Zaramella, a garrulous sixty-six-year-old former businessman, has made oil from olives grown on his small farm in Umbria since 1985. He began to study olive oil systematically when he found that the local farmer who tended his trees had been cutting his oil with sun-flower-seed oil. “Fraud is so widespread that few growers can make an honest living,” he told me.

Do read this article, as there’s lots more in it than I can reproduce here.

So now I’m thinking I’ll take on C’s policy and buy local olive oil, which presumably is free from this level of adulteration and corruption (okay, so this move was also prompted yesterday by a rather stunning supermarket special of three litre tins of Cobram Estate EV oil for $20 – I bought two tins) – at least for general cooking, if not dressings or other special stuff.

But, apart from your own tastebuds, do any of you know how to tell a good extra-virgin olive oil from a dud? And how can we be sure that our own fledgling olive oil industry is free from adulterated or bogus oils sold as EVO? Would love to hear more from you all about this slippery issue …

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Pot, stock (& two smoking barrels)

August 16, 2009

roastvegstockOne of the (let’s be honest, rather many) obstacles to me becoming a vegetarian – as opposed to a passionate lover of all kinds of veg – would be what do to about stock.

I often toy, more than idly, with the idea of abandoning meat for all the good ethical & environmental reasons – but also love the richly layered flavours, velvety texture and million uses for a good chicken stock.

In the past, whenever I have made veg-only stocks, they’ve always been watery and bland affairs. But recently, prompted by dinners for total vego guests, I have begun making a kickarse vegetable stock, given a huge lift in flavour, texture and colour by first roasting all the veg until seriously caramelised.

It’s so simple – chuck whatever veg you have in the fridge into a pan, slather with heaps of olive oil, turn up the heat and blast it in the oven. My latest batch, pictured here midway through the roasting, included pumpkin with skin on, carrots, shallots, red onion, garlic, lots of celery, a bunch of spinach stems and a tomato. Once they’re lovely and roasted almost as dark as you can get them without burning, remove from the oven and toss into a big pot of water with the usual peppercorns, bay leaves, and salt.

I simmered it for a good few hours, reducing by a third and then topping up and reducing again, then straining it. The result is a gorgeously dark golden stock full of flavour and a very light sheen of olive oil.

This stock was perfect for Friday night’s vego dinner for eleven.

The starter, smoking barrel number 1 (stay with me, I’m clutching at headline straws here!)  was a mighty good caprese-style salad with burrata, that decadent mozzarella ball filled with cream, that you break into luscious pieces and plonk down with slices of ripe tomato, torn basil and some salad leaves; I dressed it with the usual balsamic & good oil. SB # 2, dessert, was a high-fat free-for-all known as Karen Martini’s baked lemon cheesecake with pistachio & biscuit base… we’re talking ricotta, cream cheese, goat’s curd – hmm, must add that to the festival of cheesecake from last week.

Returning Now to the point –  stock came in with this pumpkin risotto courtesy of the River Cafe (first cooked for me very recently, like so many good things, by the Empress…). It is delicious and easy. So moreish, in fact, that a guest who “doesn’t eat pumpkin” (and who was somehow swindled by his wife, I believe, into thinking this was sweet potato – a whole other post coming up on food aversions!)  happily hoed into a second helping. The stock, I reckon, certainly helped give it some oomph and silkiness.

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Becoming broad-minded…

July 9, 2009

driedbroadbeansHaving got my dried bean anxieties off my chest, I am happy to report that I am now running my fingers through those slippery little beauties at every opportunity (thankyou Steph for the advice to get over myself …)

Once I remember to do the soaking – pretty easy, you must admit – the course is set, and it forces me to actually make the thing I had planned. And everything I’ve done – okay, two things (a repeat of the cassoulet, but with dried beans, and this one) – are tres simple and delicious (even without a pressure-cooker, Empress…)

A couple of years ago we stayed a fortnight in a rented house in Puglia, in the south of Italy, with some educated friends who knew that although Puglia was in the daggy, bogan bit of Italia, it also had the most spectacular coastline, beautiful towns and THE most incredible food. Anything we bought at the supermarket was astoundingly good quality, from chooks to calamari, and if we bought at an actual market market, even better.

Anyway, there are two things I remember very clearly from the menu of one restaurant we went to in the elegant town of Lecce (earlier researched by Italophile Jane, who speaks the language beautifully and knows her food): a rich, tender dark casserole of horse meat, which was meltingly delicious* and a smooth, delicate but complex broad bean puree for dipping stuff into – ditto.

So I was very pleased recently to see this recipe for Pugliese broad bean puree with chicory in Gourmet Traveller’s Italian edition, and made it today. It is the simplest thing in the world (and note to the confused, i.e. me, broad beans are fava beans, apparently) but creamy and delicately layered in flavour and silky in the mouth. I haven’t yet done the chicory and garlic oil bit, but plan to in the next day or two.

Go ahead, make it – basically it’s a broad bean version of hoummus. Lemon juice, garlic, oil, salt, whizzed up with the beans which are earlier cooked in chicken stock. Really good. And aren’t dried broad beans so beautiful to look at, apart from anything else?

*Before anyone freaks out about eating horse, I see no problem with it if, like me, you also eat pork, lamb, etc etc. Morally it’s entirely equivalent – which, I admit, means it is deeply complicated and basically indefensible. But the separating of some animals from others for purely cultural culinary reasons is ridiculous. Same with dogs, crickets, rat, whatever.  If you eat a clever, sensitive animal like a pig, you can’t judge anyone for eating a dog or a horse. And if you feel fine about eating animals of lower ‘intelligence’, why is that? Okay, lecture finished…. sigh. Enjoy the beans.


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Reducing your waste line

June 21, 2009

foodwasteAustralians, I am told, throw away three million tonnes of food each year, averaging 145kg of discarded food for every man, woman and child.

And Sydneysiders are apparently the worst offenders – half of our weekly domestic garbage is food. While so many people in the world have no food at all, we throw half of ours away. Obscene. And not just because of the sheer wastefulness of it, but the environmental impact – disastrous levels of methane, a damaging greenhouse gas, arise from all this organic matter going into landfill.

I must admit I’ve been less watchful of this than I should be, and have used the fact that we have a worm farm rather too nonchalantly when it comes to disposal of unused food.

Senor, on the other hand, has always been a vigilante in this area, using my regular Monday evening absence from home to act as a kind of weekly fridge bottom-feeder, eating leftovers and concocting some often rather unusual dinners for one (corn cobs and curry sauce with a mayonnaise & raspberry coulis chaser? Mmm-mm! Just another instance of the usefulness of his iron-clad stomach).

But I hereby declare a personal war on food waste. Last night, having spied a very weary eggplant in the bottom of the crisper, I rang the Empress for a tip or two, then made baba ganoush for the first time ever.  It was easy, pretty quick, and extremely good. And a perfectly usable whole eggplant was saved from the worms.

For other fridge scraps, I invoke the memory of my Aunty Pat, who stayed with me for a month or so many years ago. I worked near home, and would pop home for lunch. Every day there was some incredibly delicious soup she’d made from what I had seen as highly dubious scraps and nubs of past-it veg in the crisper. Occasionally it didn’t do to think of what some of that veg had looked like, but the soup was always amazing.

So, how do you reduce food waste?

There are a few websites devoted to this issue, containing lots of tips and tricks for preventing waste, but I have to say that anyone with half a brain could figure out a good proportion of them (‘freeze leftovers and reheat later’ and ‘keep vegetables in bags to keep fresh longer’ – ingenious!) And the Australian one is rather depressingly skewed towards the use of Tupperware, its major sponsor (no mention of the greenhouse gases produced by manufacture of plastic, of course). And lots of reader tips involve that apparently very popular practice of popping leftovers of all kinds into ice cube trays [“too much bouillabaisse? just pop excess into an ice cube tray for use as needed“], which I have always found amusing. How many ice cube trays does a person have??

The main advice, of course, is not to buy too much perishable food in the first place – sounds crazy, but apparently it works! And secondly, don’t cook too much food.

At the very least, get yourself a worm farm, if not a proper compost bin, so that unusable food scraps don’t go into landfill. We have a spanking new worm farm with two thousand head of worm, ready to chomp. We had to set our old worms free when the building work began, so are hoping our new batch are as ravenous as the old ones. All the advice is that worms won’t eat onions & garlic, but our old lot chowed down on them with relish, so fingers crossed that the newbies are similarly omnivorous.

Anyhoo, check out these sites; some of the readers’ tips are not bad, and quite a few are good for a laugh. However, I reckon we could get a much more interesting list going here.

1. Using up carrots: My first contribution will be ol’ Guillaume’s carrot puree, used to thicken his BB – I made too much, but have used it twice since, in thickening a chicken cacciatore and a lamb and pea mixture for a pie. Wherever a recipe calls for thickening with flour, chuck in your puree. You could even pop it into an ice cube tray to create easy-to-use individual portions!

2. Grow your own herbs: which means only using what you need. I’m forever throwing out half-bunches of parsley or thyme (I know, I should be freezing them into damn ice-cubes – but growing them is more pleasurable and aesthetically pleasing to boot).

Okay, now your turn. What do you do to reduce food waste?


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Raising the steaks

April 18, 2009

steakWas discussing with a similarly red-blooded friend yesterday how we could each happily go vegetarian if it weren’t for the love of a bloody good steak. Or a good bloody steak, more to the point.

Even so, it behoves us to continue to consider the ecological and moral impact of eating meat, I think.

So I read this Salon article with interest, an interview with Jeffrey Masson, the author of “The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food“.

He’s rather more emphatic than the omnivore-friendly Michael Pollan, and certainly more in-your-face than David Foster Wallace (whose essay on the lobster I love precisely because of the way he canvasses his own uncertainty about these matters).

Rather, Masson takes the Peter Singer approach of total veganism as the only moral way to live.  I’ve only read this one interview with Masson, and already find his voice deeply irritating (elsewhere I see that he is the kind of person who says things like “When I was teaching Sanskrit at the University of Toronoto in the 1970s …”of course he was teaching Sanskrit…)

But sad to say, I can’t find much fault with his logic. It seems pretty basic – and like Foster Wallace, he’s convincing about carnivores’ denial being the only thing that allows us to keep chowing down on cow:

… so many more people now want to eat organic and local and fresh, and that’s all to the good. However, I notice, and what I find wonderful is in these organic farmers markets sprouting up all over the country, you rarely see animals.

I think part of the reason for that is people don’t want to see it. It’s not like a market in France where you can go and choose a chicken, and they kill it for you right there. We do not like to be reminded of where our meat comes from.

Later, he elaborates on this denial:

What is the difference between a pig and a dog in terms of cognitive abilities, ability to be clean and affectionate? Pigs would sleep at the foot of your bed if you allowed them. They’re very clean. They love to be stroked. They’re affectionate. The difference between a pig and a dog in terms of their emotion, not at all. In terms of their willingness to accept us as a kind of co-species, also nothing. In fact, they’re closer to us in a way than cats. You can call the pig, and the pig will come.

The only difference is that we have decided, in our great wisdom, that we are going to eat them, and we’re not going to treat them as pets. We’re not going to name them. They’re going to grow on farms. They’re a commodity for us. They’re not a living, sentient being. We don’t see them, we don’t look into the eye of a pig and see another being there.

Where do you think that this denial comes from?

I think that every society has always had a certain amount of guilt when it comes to killing an animal. Look at indigenous Americans. They used to do ceremonies. They took it very seriously. It was not something that they engaged in lightly. And I think that the explanation for that is not a religious explanation. It’s because they felt bad about killing them.

Anybody with any kind of feelings, with any kinds of sentiment, goes out and if they have to kill an animal, they feel bad about it.

For most of us, the experience of eating meat is pretty sanitized. We don’t have to kill the animal, and as you say we don’t have to call it what it is when we eat it.

We change the name. We call it “hamburger.” What kind or resonance does the word “hamburger” have for you? None. They don’t say: “Give me the cow.” They don’t say: “Pass the pig.” They say: “Give me bacon.” “Veal,” even.

This last bit reminds me of a friend’s shamefaced guilt a few years ago in allowing her small daughter to go on believing that ham “comes from” pigs in the way that eggs come from chickens, or milk from cows. Not that Mr Masson lets us get away with thinking milk or eggs are okay, either, damn it all.  

Oh lord. What’s there to say, if you don’t want to join the ranks of hippie-hating Shooters Party types but still want to eat steak? Think I’ll go running back to Michael Pollan …