May 3, 2010 at 1:57PM
By Alexandra Zissu
As a longtime The Daily Green blogger, on the occasion of the publication of my second book, The Conscious Kitchen, I'm using my "Ask An Organic Mom" space for the next 8 weeks give or take to invite you to join me on the Conscious Kitchen Challenge.
What does it mean to have a Conscious Kitchen? It's a little different for every person, but at its heart, it means knowing where your food comes from, what it is, and how good it is (or isn't) for you and for the environment. It also encompasses the energy it takes to cook, what you're cooking on and storing food in, and even how you clean up and handle waste.
We all know we need to be eating better foods local, organic, local and organic, humanely raised meat, wild and well-caught fish, packaged foods containing five pronounceable ingredients or less but they're not always so easy to find. Or it's not always so easy to motivate to find them. Think of this like you think of New Year's resolutions. Choose your own personal goal make it attainable for better success and then together we'll methodically get you there. Keep in mind that any conscious steps are better than no conscious steps 10 percent is better than no percent.
Week 1: The Kitchen Self-Exam
Week 2: Food Shopping
Week 3: Fruits and vegetables
Week 4 Challenge: Meat
If you eat meat, and I do, eating only the good stuff is a great way to get a conscious bang for your buck. As I write in The Conscious Kitchen, "It's well documented that the conventional factory-farm method of raising animals for food especially cattle is an energy-intensive, inhumane (for animals and workers), water-guzzling, poisonous-emissions-releasing, earth-polluting endeavor... Omnivores who have no interest in giving up their bacon or steaks should switch to sustainable, humane versions of their favorite proteins. Immediately."
So: this week's challenge involves several parts.
1. Eat less meat.
2. Buy carefully. Source, purchase, and cook meat from humanely raised local animals that lived reasonable lives on pasture not in cages and ate a good diet that didn't include hormones, antibiotics, animal byproducts, or genetically modified feed. Yes this costs more than conventional meat. But you're saving money by not eating as much meat. Use your saved cash on less of the better stuff.
While this kind of meat sounds a bit like a needle-in-the-haystack product, it's not. That said, it is difficult but not impossible to find at your average supermarket. If you have access to a butcher who specializes in grass-fed and organic meats, you're all set. If you don't, try picking up a chicken or a steak while you're shopping for your fruits and vegetables at farmers' markets and natural food stores. These are the places that are the most likely to stock good, safe, humane meat.
But wait! Before you go shopping I need to tell you that pastured meat isn't the same thing as conventional meat it tastes, feels, and smells different. In a good way. Animals that have been roaming around grazing, pecking, and rooting also often need to be cooked a little differently. Attention must be paid to fat content. The parts of them that get the most exercise and practically all pastured chickens benefit from braising and other techniques that will break down the muscle. If not, you may wind up with rubbery, chewy meat. This isn't the meat's fault. Cook it right and it'll be delicious. You can always ask the person selling pastured product for cooking directions.
Ok. Now: time to shop. Below is a description of how to procure meat at the where-to-shop spots discussed in Week Two of The Conscious Kitchen Challenge.
You're likely to run into a whole host of meats at the farmers' market. I have a list of things to do and questions to ask when buying meat in Conscious Kitchen that are invaluable for any shopper. Basically, you need to decide what you want. What are your own must-haves? Is organic more important to you than animal treatment? Do you want fresh or frozen? Then you need to ask questions as you shop to find out if what you want is available in the market. Ask how the animals were treated, what they were fed, and even how they were slaughtered. If someone is feeding soy in a part of the country where there isn't much soy, or there is only genetically modified soy, find out what they're using and where it is from. Inquire about hormones and antibiotics, too. Many small farmers will give antibiotics to sick animals. This is vastly different than feeding it prophylactically to caged animals. If you want 100 percent grass fed beef, make sure to ask how the steers are finished and what they're given to eat in the winter when grass isn't on the ground. If you buy something, get it home, and don't like what you got, don't give up entirely. Ask more questions the following week. Explain what you didn't like and how you cooked what you bought. The farmer may know just the cut for you.
With a CSA (short for "community supported agriculture"), you know more about what you're getting. You're not going blindly up to a new farmer at a market and attempting to establish trust. You'll be able to read about the farm or farms making up the pastured meat collective before you join, so all of those questions about feed, treatment, drugs, and slaughter might already have been addressed. When you buy a share, they tend to be delivered once a month, typically frozen. Some give you whatever they choose to give you; others allow members to order cuts and parts. If you're looking to get hooked up with a meat share, ask your vegetable farmer if they know of one. Or look one up on LocalHarvest.org. If you want a specific cut or offal that isn't being offered, speak up. A farmer might be more than happy to cut to order. And these are nose-to-tail collectives. They might not be offering hearts or kidneys because they don't sell overly well in America. But that doesn't mean they don't want to. Speak up to get what you want.
FARMS AND FARM STANDS
Ask the same questions here as you're asking at the farmers' market: What's organic? What's local? How are the animals raised are they outdoors on pasture? Are they caged? Who is growing them? Check all labels and packaging. If you go to the farm and it doesn't have animals, you should be very curious about where what they're selling comes from. Farm visits are a great way to see how the animals look, and to peek at their living conditions and feed. But remember this isn't Disneyland or a museum or a kid's fairy tale. It's a working farm. Farmers are busy and animals tend to be quite dirty creatures. You would be too if you were outside all day long rooting, wallowing, pecking, scratching, and grazing. You can sometimes buy a whole animal through a farm and share with several friends. This will certainly fill your freezer and is a great option for people who are interested in doing things like making sausage or doing some cutting at home.
You need to be an educated and excellent label reader to find good meat at a supermarket. It is no joke hard work. The odds are stacked against the conscious eater in this arena. Here is where you will run into copious amounts of pre-cut and pre-ground flesh, fresh and frozen. And inevitably all of the plastic packages are covered in claims. Most of them trigger trust in consumers, but many are ultimately bogus meaningless and unregulated terms. For more information on what meat labels and terms mean ("natural," "cage-free," "no hormones administered" and so on) and if they can be trusted, check out Consumer Reports GreenerChoices Eco-labels glossary at GreenerChoices.org, or pick up a copy of Conscious Kitchen. Once you're educated, you'll still want to give yourself time to try to find the best items in a supermarket. It takes a while. Looking for meaningful third party certification helps -- like USDA organic, Animal Welfare Approved, and Certified Humane. These labels mean different things and some are more regulated than others, but packaged meat bearing any of them is vastly preferable to its conventional counterparts overflowing the supermarket shelves. While you're there, ask for the meat you really want by dropping a comment in the comments box or talking directly to the meat guys themselves. And rally friends and neighbors to do the same thing. Demand equals supply. Squeaky wheels do tend to get oiled. Squeak up.
Next week, we'll move onto dairy. Meanwhile, let me know how you're doing or if you have any questions by posting in comments. Or, if you happen to be in the New York area, come tell or ask me in person. Check my website for times and dates of ongoing Conscious Kitchen events http://www.alexandrazissu.com/events/.
The Conscious Kitchen: The New Way to Buy and Cook Food - to Protect the Earth, Improve Your Health, and Eat Deliciously is an invaluable resource filled with real world, practical solutions for anyone who has read The Omnivore's Dilemma or seen Food, Inc. and longs to effect easy green changes when it comes to the food they buy, cook, and eat.