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Have you ever tried to de-clutter your kitchen, and had problems deciding what to throw away? Or have you moved to a new place, only to wonder where you should start in rebuilding your cooking haven? Here is my own personal list of my top 5 “things I must have.” I have cultivated this list over almost a decade of constant moving and rebuilding, in dorms, apartment kitchens smaller than many closets, shared kitchens, and the few times I’ve had unfettered access to large kitchens with lots of space and appliances. I find that most of the same basic rules apply!

I’ve excluded my experiences in kitchens in which I had limited or no electricity or limited or no water, for the sake of streamlining to the majority of people reading this. But if you have such limited utilities and want to talk about maximizing the cooking fuel or water you do have, I’d be happy to hear how you manage and to discuss those situations as well! Just make a comment below!

5) Blender or processor

Did you ever have to make up your mind? Photo from foodprocessorsreview.com

Do you really need both? Perhaps a few people out there may feel like they do, but most of us usually only use one or the other the vast majority of the time. The main difference is that a food processor will chop things up without making the food too fine; a blender will cream and pulverize ingredients for extra-smooth shakes or soups. I generally prefer a processor to a blender, but only because I don’t tend to make many smoothies. Plus, there are other ways to make relatively smooth soups, like gazpacho for instance. (Recipe to come!) Just think–just like there was ice cream before ice cream makers, there were creamy soups before blenders!

If you really feel that you can’t get by without both, you might want to consider killing two birds with one stone with a duo blender-processor. Cuisinart, for example, has a few options for less than $100. I’ve also heard good things about Magic Bullets.

4) Teapot (regular or electric)

The electric kettle. My exception. Photo from diytrade.com.

I find that many meals–whether from scratch or from a box–call for boiling water to be added to something. Save time by investing in a teapot–even the old-fashioned ones usually come to a boil faster than an open pot, and you can more easily control the amount of water you use (and waste). Any water you don’t use can simply be reserved in the teapot for next time.

Electric kettles make for almost immediate gratification, which, depending on how often you use it, can make a big difference in your cooking. Even if I do generally discourage electric appliances, this is one of the main exceptions that I make for myself. It can be a real timesaver if you need to bypass the drip coffee machine by using it either with a French coffee press or instant coffee in a pinch. Finally, I find that it actually encourages me to drink more tea, which is always a good thing.

3) A really sharp knife

Note how the blade extends into the handle on this Henckel's Chef Knife. Photo from zwilling.com.

Yeah, this may sound obvious, but I ignored this one for many years thinking it just wasn’t THAT important. A sharp knife makes a world of difference in almost all your meals, from slicing strawberries for dessert to dicing onions to peeling yuca and trimming and cutting through meat. Of course, it’s fantastic if you can invest in a number of sharp, quality knives specifically designed for meat, vegetables, bread, or for paring; but really, if you have to minimize and you only get one shot, make it just a really sharp, quality knife, and a chef’s knife if you can, which should be able to do most of all of those functions (except for maybe the paring).

Look for knives that are made from one solid piece of metal. If you can, avoid those that are comprised of a piece of metal attached to a second piece, usually plastic, for the handle. One-piece knives are stronger and you don’t have to worry about them breaking off in your hand on a particularly difficult cutting job. Finally, I prefer a straight blade to serrated because of the clean precise movement it makes, not only affecting the chi of the food but also just the ease of cooking and the time and effort you have to put in (which, in turn, affects your personal chi as well!).

2) A toaster oven instead of a microwave

Depending on the type of toaster oven you get, you can do much more than just reheat and toast things. Photo from hamiltonbeach.com.

If you are a person who’s constantly on the go, you may adore your microwave. I completely understand; I was once a constant microwaver myself. But now, aside from the occasional leftover reheat, I have almost completely taken the microwave out of my life. Health reasons and simply texture and taste have converted many from the deceptive simplicity of microwaves to the beauty of cooking with toaster ovens.

Why a toaster oven? Well, it usually can cook anything from veggies to meats without the preheating required by regular sized ovens, and it can usually work in only a little bit more time than a microwave. Also, it actually bakes the food (rather than just radiating it) so that you can achieve the crispy texture or browned edges you may be going for, instead of the scalding-hot-on-the-outside, ice-cold-on-the-inside, gelatinous goo we often end up with when heating something up in the microwave.

When I lived in Spain I was only given a microwave in my apartment. Meaning, no oven, just the microwave. So I invested in a toaster oven and was worlds happier for it. When I lived in Maryland, I had the oven but no microwave (and hardly any space for it if I were to have one–gotta love small East Coast apartments!). In both cases, the microwave was not missed.

So if you have to minimize and choose one, I’d say go for the toaster oven, or even stick with the regular oven over a microwave. You’ll be healthier, and your food will taste better, with very little time sacrificed.

1) A decent spice rack.

One of my favorite things about open-air markets: the spice section!!! Photo from ravirajspices.com.

Spice racks are number one for a reason. Even if you have no food processor, no teapot, and even no toaster oven or microwave, if you have any source of cooking fuel you have to have a good selection of spices in your kitchen. Granted, spices are not hardware the way a knife or appliance is. But, spices are just so darned important to the quality of your cooking that I had to put it in here. They are the first thing I go shopping for when I move to a new place, just ahead of the sharp knife.

It perhaps goes without saying that salt and black pepper go first. I tend to prefer a big bottle of sea salt, and whole black pepper that comes in a grinder bottle so that it comes out fresh every time. I also often use grated parmesan cheese as a flavor enhancer with a wide range of meals, to add a little extra saltiness and depth to the flavors of the food.

After that, your most important spices will depend on the types of meals you most frequently make. This will include “non spice” additives such as particular staple ingredients that can last a long time in your cupboard or fridge, that give a particular flavor or texture to your food.

For instance, if you make a lot of South Asian meals, you’ll want curry powder, maybe some cardamom, and perhaps some ghee (which is not a spice but still essential). If you are more into Southeast Asian cooking, you may prefer to have Thai basil and (your non-spice) coconut milk on hand. Do you cook a lot of Tex-Mex? Then you might prioritize your stock of dried habañero, jalapeño and cayenne on your spice rack.

Think of your own preferences, and then make sure that you are always fully in stock with the ingredients you love most. This may also help to encourage you to experiment with them more often to create fusion meals that are all your own.

My own fall-back cuisine is Mediterranean-influenced; so I tend to have a lot of sweet basil (dried as well as fresh), oregano, parsley, paprika, and olive oil in my kitchen. I also like to keep on hand some ground dry mustard, coriander seed, cinnamon, cardamom, unsweetened cocoa powder, vanilla pods, and some lemons for fresh juice and zest.

To sum it up: pick the spices that you love most, and make sure you have enough of them on hand to experiment when you’re feeling creative!

When I was living in Madrid, my fellow foodie friend Cecilia, ever the dutiful snacky snack scout, randomly and miraculously found a great Cuban restaurant called Meson Cubano. (Note: She found this place through http://11870.com/–good for all kinds of businesses and restaurants, anywhere you are!)

Although the restaurant was not far from our flats, we nearly got lost on the city’s seemingly arbitrarily signed streets, saved only by the GPS on her ever-useful Blackberry. Even so, we were just about to give up at one point–when from the monotonous drab stone buildings of central Madrid, suddenly sparkled the colorfully painted exterior of Meson Cubano. You could almost hear the choir in the background.

Just a little bit of heaven, in the heart of Madrid!

Walking through the bright orange door was like transporting from Europe directly to the Caribbean. The atmosphere was warm and inviting. About 3 people seemed to be running the place: a husband, wife, and daughter, with a few friends coming in for a few drinks and to chat with them throughout the evening.

They only had a few things on the menu. Humble though the selection was, each item was absolutely sublime!

So one of the heavenly side dishes was “yuca con mojo.” I absolutely adore yuca, whether fried up with salt (as my favorite Peruvian restaurant near DC makes) or boiled up with veggies and stewed meat (like I had in Nicaragua). But this particular way of preparing yuca took the proverbial cake. And so I share it with you here.

We always ate this with other top recommendations from the owners, who were super friendly and all too willing to sit down with us, pour us some complimentary rum and hang out with us for a while for some relaxed chit chat. They told us yuca con mojo would go good with ropa viejo, arroz congris, and an ice cold mojito made with lots of fresh mint. And boy, were they right!!! (Yes, more of these recipes are to come!) But, if you don’t cook Cuban yet, just feel free to throw this together with any meal where you need a tangy, starchy side dish. I actually made it to accompany my Baja-style fish tacos the other night.

Yuca is a tuber that is used in cooking throughout Central and South America, much like taro in Polynesia. This is not to be confused with the yucca plant, a hardy plant with spiky leaves which those of us from Las Vegas are used to seeing when driving out of town. Yuca is a starchy addition to any meal and can easily replace potatoes, which explains why many Latino restaurants will offer yuca fries alongside potato fries. If you haven’t at least tried them, what are you waiting for? It’s fabulous!

The humble yuca. Photo from agroexportpococi.com.

I wanted to find a recipe that mirrored exactly what I had at the restaurant. I had asked the owners and they mentioned that it was a very simple recipe with lime and onion, so I kept to that. I did manage to find this recipe, which looks amazing! As it was, I didn’t have lemons and I didn’t have quite as much yuca on me as the recipe called for, so I improvised. The quantities used were more or less eyeballed, so go ahead and just play with the proportions to your own taste!

Skill Level:  MEDIUM (If you buy pre-cut yuca, makes it a bit easier!)

Preparation time:  About 15-20 minutes, including peeling and cutting the yuca, onion, and garlic.

Cooking time:  About 50 minutes.

Servings: 3-4.

2 medium yuca roots

1/3 cup lime juice

1/2 onion, sliced into thin rings and halved

3-4 cloves of garlic, sliced

about 2 tbsp olive oil, for frying

1 tsp salt

Set some water to boil in a pot.

While you’re waiting for the water to come to a boil, you can prepare the yuca. First, rinse off the yuca and use a sharp vegetable knife if you have one. The yuca actually isn’t that hard to peel if you have a sharp knife. And once you get past the tough skin, it’s actually quite soft on the inside. To get an idea of how to peel the yuca, you can watch this video.

Once you have peeled the yuca, remove any tough parts and cut up into pieces about 2-3 inches in length and 1/2 inch wide. Place the pieces into the water once it reaches a boil. Add the salt and a few squeezes of lime juice if you have some to spare. Cook for 45-50 minutes or until the yuca is soft. Drain and set aside.

Frying up the onions and garlic with the yuca waiting in the background. Trust me, this smells SO good in your kitchen!!!

While that is boiling, heat up the oil in a small saucepan and fry up the garlic, onions, olive oil and reserved lime juice, stirring occasionally to avoid burning. When the onions and garlic have softened, remove and pour over yuca in a bigger saucepan, stirring until just slightly browned around the edges. Remove from heat and serve!

One of the all-time best side dishes... EVER!!!

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Here Come the Clones

It’s nothing new that the US is actively pursuing the integration of cloned animals into the domestic food supply. It’s worth noting, however, that the program aimed at putting clones on the market is coming along at a quick enough clip.

The BBC reports that dead animals are being used to clone new cows for “the perfect steak”–the idea being that we can’t analyze the qualities of the meat until the animals are dead.

So–American perfectionism at its best–the US is pushing forward with clone integration into the food supply. Although there are currently only about 1000 clones in a total of 100 million cattle, the number is expected to grow. The process is more or less like this: The farmer buys a clone (apparently at about $17,000 a pop) that is guaranteed to produce “good” meat. The farmer then breeds that clone with natural born cattle in order to improve his/her herd’s beef production.

Europe is not interested in integrating clones and would rather continue to use natural born cattle in its meat and dairy production. US cloning companies dismiss this attitude as economically uncompetitive. Generally speaking, Europe uses the precautionary principle in dealing with food safety. The principle, which is most often used in international agreements and fora, basically states that if it hasn’t been proven to be healthy for consumption, it shouldn’t be consumed. The US, on the other hand, while supposedly basing its own (poorly implemented and enforced) food safety law on the same principle, generally approaches it as: “if no one has died from it, it’s probably safe, so let’s sell it to the public and sue other countries that won’t import it .” Don’t believe me? Read more here.

So. Clones have not been proven to be any different than natural born specimens; but, there also hasn’t been a very long research period before throwing it on the shelves. In fact, the current “exploratory” period is purely economic. While the percentage is still quite small, there is a very slight chance that tonight’s burger on your plate is part clone.

Whether or not this bothers you is your choice of course. But it’s something we should all at least be aware of. The lack of general public information about where our food comes from, especially in the US, is what is motivating me to list this kind of thing on this food blog. I hope you find it relevant and at least a little bit useful.

So. What’s next? Well, Whole Foods has banned the sale of clones and cloned offspring. But what about the rest of us?

Marty and his clone, Blinky. (Note: Not really.) http://forexcare.net/capitalism-nowadays/

Clones. It’s what’s for dinner.

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Not to get too down in the dumps these days, but shark week has been the perfect time to examine the state of the seas and the foods we take from them. And while shark week may now be over, we shouldn’t stop thinking about the message that it tries to convey each year. (Although there has been some debate as to how effective and on point Shark Week has actually been.)

As we already know, researching our food sources is not always a pretty picture, but it is always definitely worth knowing about. After all, what you feed yourself and your family has lasting consequences.

And if you’re a seafood lover, there are a few things to consider. First, we want to make sure that the food we’re eating is not going to hurt us. Second, it’s best to choose foods that don’t rattle the food chain, so that we can continue to enjoy them for a long time to come.

On that note, the Seafood Watch Guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium offers very helpful suggestions on sustainable, healthy options. Environmental Defense also offers a list based on health considerations and environmental protection standards. It’s easy to just print one of these out and take it with you to the store, and it makes such a big difference to the health of the ocean!

We are currently experiencing the sixth great wave of extinction all over the world. According to experts, more than 50% of the world’s species could disappear within 50-100 years. This is considered the biggest extinction since the fall of the dinosaurs!  Click here for more.

While maybe no one person can single handedly save the entire world, together we can actually turn the tide on some of these frightening statistics. It’s been known to be done–so why not help it along?

It's easy enough to control what kinds of seafood we buy--so why not?

And the good news is, there are plenty of tasty recipes that can be made with sustainably harvested, non-endangered sea critters. Case in point: Baja-style fish tacos, made with fresh halibut.

Deep fried Pacific halibut. Delicious... and earth-friendly

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When we think of food, most of us just generally think of how to cook it and eat it. But this blog is not just a recipe blog; it’s dedicated to exploring our connection with our food sources from around the world, from start (life) to finish (your meal). Different cultural traditions have different ideas about food, and the more we understand the world we live in, the better choices we can make about how we live. And… how we eat.

With that in mind, Shark Week (and, it seems, the week after Shark Week) is a good time for us to take a deeper look at the current state of the oceans and their ecosystems. If you’ve been dutifully paying attention to your shark programming, you will have noted that there is an annual migration of Great White sharks from Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California, to Hawaii between December and July. People still don’t know exactly why they migrate for such a long distance, but the guess is that they go to Hawaii to mate. Another group of Great Whites come from Northern California to more or less the same area around Hawaii, although the two groups have never been witnessed interacting.

And this leads me to today’s post. Most people only think of the lushly forested islands and the clear blue waters around Hawaii. But few think of a growing island of plastic trash known as the Pacific Garbage Patch that looms nearby. This giant trash pile is the size of Texas (some say twice the size of Texas) and is made almost exclusively of discarded plastic that has found its way from the many waterways that feed into the vortex of currents. While it is not unequivocally proven, there is evidence that much of the trash comes from California. Other garbage “patches” are now forming in gyres around the Pacific and around the world. But the one near Hawaii remains the largest by far.

Trapped plastic trash in our waterways is a major and growing problem. Photo from http://www.juiceonline.com/juice-heart/the-great-pacific-garbage-patch/

Aside from just being kind of gross, why is this a big deal? Birds mistake many of the plastic pieces for sea life and fill up on the trash. Worse yet, they regurgitate these plastic bits into the stomachs of their young, leading to starvation because no real food has been transferred. There would be no space for it in any case.

I'm pretty sure this turtle isn't finding this meal tasty. Photo from http://bgviewsnetwork.com/green/2009/04/the-great-pacific-garbage-patch/index.php

Fish are also being affected as the ocean is invaded by miles and miles of plastic, suffocating any zooplankton (fish food) that would grow on the surface of the water. Turtles and other sea animals are all interconnected on this food chain and are being impacted as well.

Picture from http://www.thewaterfilterladysblog.com/2010/03/great-pacific-garbage-patch.html

Maybe this one huge island of trash won’t directly impact the seafood on your plate. But the fact that many more of these islands are sprouting up around the world, wherever the currents meet, is something that we as consumers should at least be aware about. To learn more and find out what you can do to help, visit Greenpeace’s action site on the Garbage Patch. Greenpeace has been at the forefront of fighting this beast for some time.

Once we really get to know about the problems our oceans are facing, we realize just how fragile and vulnerable they are. And this is yet another reason we should take an extra moment to think about the kinds of seafood we buy! It only takes a little bit of effort to follow a Sustainable Seafood guide, and the benefits are well worth it!

Baja-style Fish Tacos

My grandmother, who was from Baja California, used to cook for me all the time when I was very young. Unfortunately, I never learned her cooking secrets. So I’m on a mission to learn to make all of my favorite Mexican dishes, much like I did with Armenian meals.

The one good thing about being exposed to a particular cuisine, even if you don’t know how to make anything, is that you know how to EAT it. Meaning that you can tell from a recipe whether or not you are going to like it. So, after some poking around on the net, I chose to base my recipe off of this fish taco recipe on NPR. I did, however, tweak it a bit, and those changes are noted below. One thing I did consistently omit was cilantro, of which I am not a huge fan. So if you want to add it I suggest looking at the original recipe on NPR.

I have to say–my mother hates fish, so she ate all of the other ingredients together in a tortilla, with a little shredded cheddar added. And she loved it! So this can work as a vegetarian dish as well.

Beer-battered fish for fish tacos

Yum-o! Wow, I can't believe I just typed that

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time:  About 10-20 minutes depending on fish preparation.

Cooking time:  2-3 minutes to cook, 1 minute to reheat.

Servings: 6-8.

2 lbs. fresh white fish (you want a meaty fish like halibut–which also happens to be a sustainable choice 🙂 )

2 cups all purpose flour

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/4- 1/2 tsp cayenne (to taste)

1/2 tsp dry ground mustard

1 tsp dried whole oregano, rubbed to a powder (if you don’t have whole oregano, don’t sweat it–it just tastes a bit more intense)

2 tsp salt

1 tsp ground black pepper (I always prefer to grind it myself to bring out the flavor)

approx. 14 oz. cold beer (I used Corona)

the juice of 3 limes

a bottle of canola oil (for frying)

Heat the oil (at a height of about 2 inches) in a deep pan.

While that is getting ready, thoroughly mix the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Add the lime juice and the beer, to where you get a thick but not stiff consistency (you want it to be able to slowly drip off the fish).

If you’d like your fish to have a little extra flavor, I would suggest rubbing a little bit of salt into the fish before you start cutting it up. This will give it a little extra “oomph” once it’s cooked. For even more zing, let the fish sit in some white vinegar and a splash of lime juice and salt for about 10 minutes before you cut it up. Be careful not to let it sit for too much longer than this or you’ll end up with ceviche! The vinegar and lime will actually “cook” the fish a little bit but it also imparts a tangy flavor before you douse it in the batter.

Cut the fish into small strips, as NPR’s recipe says, about the size of your pinky finger. I would suggest even smaller than that, maybe half a pinky–keep in mind that the batter is going to expand while frying and you are going to end up with pretty big pieces that you are trying to cram into a tortilla with a bunch of other stuff.

The oil should be hot enough that if you drip a tiny bit of batter in, it pops right back up to the surface and immediately begins to turn golden.

When the oil is ready, start dropping about 3-4 pieces of fish at a time into the batter with tongs, making sure to coat the piece and letting it drip a little bit before placing into the oil. Let the fish cook for 2-3 minutes each; flip it over about halfway between to ensure an even golden color.

Remove the fish to a rack, or alternatively to a bowl with a few paper towels to absorb the oil.

Reserve the oil for later if you plan on reheating! Let it cook for about a minute each–it comes out even crunchier the second time around!

Chili salsa (with chili arbol)

I know I have touted the benefits of foregoing the machinery, but in this case I find that it’s worth the time and effort saved, especially considering how many little elements are needed to put together one little taco! Here we go:

Watch out now--it's hotter than it looks!

Skill Level:  EASY (although you may wish to use gloves if you’re sensitive to spice)

Preparation time:  About 10 minutes.

Servings: at least 6-8. Watch out though–it’s hot!

30 or so chilies arbol (if you don’t have a Latino market near you, you should be able to find this in the “ethnic foods” section of most supermarkets with the spices)

1/4 cup water (I find any more than this makes the salsa a bit runny)

1 tsp white vinegar

1 garlic cloved, smashed with side of knife

1 tsp olive oil

Cut the stems off of the chilies. If you like your salsa hot, this is all you need to do. If you want to tone it down a bit (I recommend this), de-seed the chilies by pinching them and breaking them apart. The seeds should just fall out, and you can brush them away. Set the rest of the pinched chili bits aside.

Heat up the smashed garlic clove in the olive oil to bring out the flavor. When it’s a bit softened, remove from heat.

Put the chili bits, the garlic with its oil, and the water and vinegar in a food processor and blend until you have a nice thin consistency.

Mayonnaise sauce

This is really almost too easy to even post as a recipe

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time:  About 1 minute.

Servings: at least 6-8.

A few tablespoons of mayonnaise

1 tsp white vinegar

1 tbsp water (more if needed)

This may be the all-time easiest thing I’ve ever posted, and ever will post. Take a few  tablespoons of mayonnaise (I prefer La Costeña mayonnaise with lime juice) and add the vinegar and water. Mix until consistent. This will balance the spice of the chili salsa nicely.

Avocado tomatillo sauce

Like guacamole's smoother cousin

1 avocado

1/2 tomatillo

1/4 tsp salt

about 1/2 tsp lime juice (feel free to add more if you love lime)

2-3 tbsp water

Peel and pit the avocado. You want a nice fresh bright green color inside, and hopefully soft as well which will make for a creamy salsa texture. Combine all ingredients in a food processor, and blend until consistent. Here’s a picture of a tomatillo in case you haven’t cooked with one before:

So purty

Pico de Gallo


1/2 medium yellow onion

2 Roma tomatoes

1 Serrano or Anaheim pepper, seeded

2 sprigs green onion

juice of 1/2 lime

about 1 tsp salt, or to taste

Again, this one is super easy. And no processor necessary. Just dice the onion, the tomatoes, and the pepper, finely chop the green onion, and mix everything in a bowl. Some people add a bit of finely chopped garlic, but I like it fine without it. Basically what you want to see is an even distribution of white, red, and green throughout the bowl, a rough ratio of 1:1:1. Pico de gallo can last a day or two in the fridge but is really served best fresh.


What more you’ll need:

corn tortillas

shredded green cabbage

Heat up some soft corn tortillas (I like yellow corn). I usually hear people talking about heating them up on skillets, but the way my grandmother used to do it was right over the open flame on the stove. I prefer to do it this way myself, because I like the taste of a tortilla just ever so slightly charred around the edges. In order to do this though just make sure the heat is as low as you can go, to give you more time and better chances of getting an evenly heated tortilla.

Layer in the avocado tomatillo, the chili salsa, the mayonnaise salsa, the fish, the pico de gallo, and the cabbage into a heated tortilla. You can squeeze a little extra lime over everything for good measure if you’d like. Then fold it over–and enjoy! I find it best served with a nice cold Corona (with, yes, just a little bit more lime thrown in!)…

Yes you can!

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In honor of the self-described “best week of the year,” I will be posting on the lives of sharks and the oceans in which they live. Why? Because what they do–and what happens to them and other sea critters–greatly affects what ends up on our plates.

As any real Shark Week nerd knows, sharks are truly amazing creatures that are far more than the killing machines depicted in movies like Jaws and in general folklore. We are just beginning to understand the complexities of shark behavior, and we certainly have to appreciate the role sharks play as top predators. Some species pose no threat to humans and are critically important to their respective ecosystems. We are also learning more about how they can help us. They have powerful antibodies that could be recreated and used as medicine for humans.

Not exactly the pet you take home... but deserves to be left alone. Photo from http://scienceblogs.com/deepseanews/2007/04/whale_sharks_do_it_deeper.php.

However, these incredible creatures are facing serious threats from humans. No, this isn’t just from retaliatory kills (i.e. after a shark attack on a beach, which can result in the death of innocent sharks in the area). Humans are also killing sharks through a process known as “finning”; that is, hauling the shark onboard, slicing off its fins, and throwing the shark back in the water–alive.

The shark, now devoid of its powerful fins, cannot swim and sinks to the bottom of the seafloor, where it dies. The fins are used to make “shark fin soup,” which is considered a delicacy throughout the world and in China especially.

Shark fin soup. Photo from http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=5191 (referring back to topnews.in).

The first question most people ask upon learning about finning is: “Why don’t they at least kill the shark and put it out of its misery?” The second question usually is: “Why don’t they just keep the shark onboard to use all of it and not waste the body?” Sadly, the answer to both of these questions is: money. Time is money, and the time it would take to kill the shark before throwing it back into the deep blue is simply not worth it to the fishermen. It is also much more profitable to keep the (high-priced) fins and throw the rest of the (relatively worthless) shark meat out of the boat so as to keep the haul light and ready for more catch.

So. Why is this on a food blog? Well, maybe you are not one of those people who enjoys eating shark meat, fin or otherwise. Regardless, it is important for us to know how shark harvesting practices fit in with the larger picture of how we catch our seafood. Everything in nature is interdependent for survival; lions depend on buffalo and zebra, wolves depend on caribou, and sharks depend on seals, fish, and other sea animals for sustenance. If we take sharks out of the equation, other populations are affected. Likewise, messing with sea life lower on the food chain is going to affect the health of the shark population that feeds on it.

Just as we should inform ourselves about water contamination, factory farming practices, and what the true threats are to our edible plant production (pesticides, GMOs, soil depletion and erosion), we should not forget about the health of the oceans and rivers that we depend on for food.

We want them to look like this... (photo from http://dvice.com/archives/2008/10/newest-cancer-t.php)

... not like this (photo from http://www.top10costarica.com/2009/03/10/costa-rica-leads-call-at-united-nations-for-shark-protection/)

For more on shark finning and shark conservation, check out this interview with marine biologist Randall Arauz in Costa Rica. And even if you don’t eat shark fin soup, this is a good week to think about the seafood that we do eat. Monterey Bay Aquarium has an easy to follow, easy to download Seafood Watch Card that lists the fishies that are okay to eat and those that we should avoid, based on fishing and farming practices and population counts. Definitely worth a look!!

Thanks to Animal Welfare Institute and SeaWeb for their advice on seafood watch lists.

We’ve all had a fancy schmancy meal that would have been impossible without a food processor. Or even just a milkshake or fruit shake from a blender. So many of our foods are processed by machines; in fact, most TV shows that promote “fast and easy cooking” tout machines as the best way to save time and effort. Sounds good to most of us on the go.

Feng Shui principles may point us toward a more traditional way of preparing our foods. Taking a closer look, we see that many “old world” ways of growing, hunting, gathering, and preparing food emphasize the role of food as integral to psychological ties with the land we live on, as well as health-related and social aspects of our lives. These traditions consider food as more than just items to be purchased on sale, rushed and wolfed down so we can hurry to the next thing on our to do list without even fully knowing all of the ingredients and additives that are in what we eat.

Cream can be whipped with just a fork. Granted, it takes a while, but when traveling or if your mixer breaks--it's worth the effort! I do it just to save myself the extra mess of cleaning up the machine.

Feng Shui is all about encouraging a balance of energy in our lives. Most of us are familiar with the application of this philosophy in the home, and especially in interior design. In this post we’re going to look at the application in food gathering, in the kitchen and in particular at the tools we use to handle and prepare our food.

What is Chi?

The goal of harmony extends to everything from the foods we eat to the materials we use when storing and handling our food, to the atmosphere in which we serve and enjoy our food. The idea is basically to encourage a healthy and consistent energy flow–the qi, or chi–that moves through and around everything and everyone around us. Many of us have heard of the idea that our chi can be off-balance; that we need to achieve equilibrium between the yin and the yang for instance. Other energy concepts like auras and chakras have also become associated with Western notions of chi.

But chi is not just something that puts us in a bad mood when it is “off”; it is not just the “vibe” you get from a particular area of the house; and it is not created from being calm and sitting in the lotus position and chanting “Om” to yourself. Chi is the life force that exists in all of creation, on every plane of existence, according to Chinese/Taoist tradition and philosophy (as well as many others). If not properly tended to, the chi of a given person, place, or thing can be thrown out of whack. This can lead to illness, misfortune, and a variety of other negative consequences.

Feng Shui chart. Retrieved from http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=97&catid=3, which has a good general explanation of the basic principles of Feng Shui.

So how do we “properly tend to” our personal chi?  There are books to be read, and long discussions to be had regarding personal chi and our health. Traditional Chinese medicine takes a holistic approach and doctors will usually first speak to the patient about lifestyle and current stress sources, then start the physical examination by checking the patient’s tongue to indicate any ailments in the body. Next, herbs and other food sources are specifically recommended, depending on the patient’s particular ailments. Food consumption is viewed then not just as a mechanical cycle of ingesting and burning calories, but as a strategic and vital aspect of maintaining health and balance in all aspects of one’s life.

Chi and Food Sources

Perhaps a future post will delve deeper into the study of Chinese traditional medicine and holistic health practices. But the point for now is that food is viewed as sustenance that can wield healing benefits. Plants grow on the earth; basic life forms grow in the seas. Small animals eat these things (as do we). Bigger animals eat the small animals (as do we). And we also eat the bigger animals that eat the small animals that eat the basic life forms. Unless you’re a vegetarian, you are part of a unique place in the food chain–the very top. That means above the lion. (Note: we may not regularly eat lion meat, and they may be dwindling in numbers; but people do still hunt them.)

A simplified food chain example. Retrieved from http://www.vtaide.com/png/foodchains.htm, a good site to explain the study of food chains and food webs.

I'm happy that my whipping cream is Humane Association certified and comes from organically fed cows. But, why do I have to go to Whole Foods to have this option?

Along those lines, we might be interested to know what has entered into our natural food chain–like chemical pollutants from agricultural runoff for example, pesticides from commercial farming practices, or contamination from effluent or other sources. As many of us know, environmental problems can affect our food, and that’s why many of us have “gone organic.”

But why is organic even necessary? How did we get to the point that “natural” is so special that it can be sold at premium prices? Why is a person who wants uncontaminated and natural food automatically deemed a “health nut”? Well, a lot has to do with marketing. I will address the history of food marketing and production in America in a separate post.

Chi and Food Safety

So–past the initial gathering of the food–you’ve got your “raw” food product. This means plants and animal (and microbial) products. Everything we need for our bodies to function optimally can be found in these two categories. And yet we often consume many things that are not in any of these categories. Again–this will go in another post.

Now then. After the food has been gathered (post harvest, post hunting, whatever), it often goes through some sort of processing. Chemicals (or in many cases, more chemicals) are used to either create a specific food product (i.e. sugar from sugarcane) or to preserve or enhance some aspect of the food.

Maybe you don’t care about any of this. Maybe you don’t see why any of it should matter. Surely someone is out there wisely regulating this stuff, right?

Wrong. At least in the US we can see that the regulations either are not strict enough, or they encourage the use of non-traditional farming methods such as feeding hormones to cows and dunking chicken carcasses in chlorine before packaging. Other countries won’t even accept US meats and poultry for import for these reasons. (More to come in later posts.)

Mass produced meat in the US is pumped full of hormones (for size) and antibiotics (to fight the filthy conditions in which they live). Photo retrieved from http://forexcare.net/capitalism-nowadays/

The industrialization of our food production has resulted in unprecedented yields to the farmer and a new level of convenience to the consumer. But it has also led to outbreaks of salmonella, e. coli and other harmful microbes in the US. How long does a scare on a spinach or meat recall last before it fades in the collective memory of the public? And that’s not mentioning mad cow disease or avian flu or swine flu, all of which have been linked to modern farming practices (strains of the latter two have recurred throughout history and are generally not spread through consumption, but their widespread reach are relatively new).

So. What can we do to counter some of the negative “energy”–whether it be microbial, chemical, or simply just the negativity of dirty farming practices–that may be introduced into our food by the time it reaches our plates?

Chi and Preparing Food

The appliances and tools we use to store, freeze, cook, slice, whip, and blend affect not just the freshness and texture of our food, but also the energy–the chi–of that food.

Sharpened knives give a "clear and precise" quality to food, according to Fahrnow.

Dull knives, aluminum and teflon surfaces, and even the chemicals in our drinking water can all affect the taste, the quality, the texture, and even the health benefits of our food. For more ideas about Feng Shui in the kitchen, you may be interested in a book called Feng Shui and the 5-Element Kitchen by Fahrnow et. al. The book migrates from discussing food preparation to the atmosphere of our kitchens and recipes to improve our health.

My take on all of this can be boiled down into the following:

  • Buy local, and buy organic when you can.

This minimizes transport and increases the likelihood of fresh, healthy produce. Some produce tends to hold on to more pesticide residues than others. Click here for the Environmental Working Group’s 2010 [Easy] Guide to Pesticides in pdf and iPhone app formats. Small farmers may not have an organic certification, but they can be as good if not better in their sustainable farming practices, so it’s well worth looking into the local farms in your area and asking them questions about their methods.

  • Eat natural foods, not diet foods.

Unprecedented levels of morbid obesity and “Western” health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are directly linked to our diet. Our predecessors were able to maintain their health (and a generally healthy weight) for many thousands of years–by eating wholesome foods in the quantities they needed, not by starving themselves or ingesting chemical sweeteners.

  • Buy unprocessed foods whenever possible.

    Buying natural, raw foods gives you versatility in meal options as well as greatly improved flavor and nutrition.

Nutrient for nutrient, you are saving money–there are far fewer markups on “raw” ingredients than on prepackaged foods. Not to mention the difference you’ll feel by eating real food versus a bunch of stuff you can’t pronounce. If you don’t have access to a farmer’s market–try to grow at least a few herbs yourself. You’ll be surprised at the flavor as well as the health benefits that fresh produce provides.

  • Keep appliances to a minimum.

Most of the best food I’ve had in the world was crafted in the most humble of kitchens. Yes, it may take a bit more work, but I swear you can taste and feel the difference in the energy and freshness of the food. If you absolutely must use a processor or other electric appliance to prepare the food, so be it. But try to make it the exception rather than the norm. Fahrnow even suggests letting food “sit” a while after blending or processing to let the energy “calm down.”

  • Use the most natural cooking fuel possible.

In a study, plants grown in water previously boiled in a microwave grew crooked and wilted. Plants grown in water boiled by electric stove were slightly sickly but a small improvement. Better yet were plants grown in water boiled by a gas stove. Plants grown in water boiled by wood were healthy and straight. You decide what this means to you, if anything. Of course, I use a microwave from time to time, but I do try to minimize it. At the very least it might make you wonder why pregnant women aren’t supposed to be around microwaves in use. In any case my general motto is, natural is better. Just seems intuitive.

  • Keep a happy home.

Maintain a clean, bright, and organized kitchen and dining space. Make meals an event to share with the family. You’ll notice the food tastes better just because of the good vibes around the table. Fahrnow et. al also suggest that the state of mind of the cook also can affect the flavor of the meal. Believe what you will, but perhaps there is a reason some food products are advertised as “Made with Love.”

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Now that I’m back in the US, I am much more wary of the food I buy at the supermarket, and I have been doing a bit of research, some of which I will be posting in the next few weeks.

So I was thrilled earlier this week when I found organic strawberries at Whole Foods. Strawberries are more susceptible to harboring pesticide residue than many other crops, so it’s worth paying the extra dollar per pound if you can. After I brought them home, I placed them on the counter to mull over their fate. But the strawberries were looking at me from behind their plastic cage, and I just couldn’t take it so I decided to eat them that very day.

For those who have not been to Las Vegas in summer, let me tell you: it’s effing hot. I wanted something refreshing and light.

At first, I thought of strawberries and cream with mint. But, I had no mint in the house, and I haven’t planted any yet. However, I have recently planted some basil, which is in the mint family. Basil, and especially sweet basil, is an exceptionally versatile herb and can complement sweet as well as savory dishes. A little voice in my head told me to just go for it.

So. I took inventory of the types of cream I had in my fridge–Devon double cream (an imported cream from the UK that is high in butterfat content), creme fraiche, sour cream and heavy whipping cream.

As much as I love creme fraiche, I wanted less of a sour taste and so I opted for the double cream and the whipping cream (making what I call a “triple cream”–hehe). I added in some cinnamon, brown sugar, and lemon elements, and voila! This was the tasty result:

Skill Level: EASY

Preparation time: About 10 minutes.

Servings: Varies. I just made one for myself.

1/4-1/2 pound fresh strawberries

about 3/4 cup heavy whipping cream

3 tsp Devon double cream

a pinch of fresh lemon zest (using a small grater to grate the lemon peel)

a few dashes of ground cinnamon

about 2 tsp dark brown sugar (alternatively you can use raw sugar)

5-6 large fresh basil leaves (just picked from the plant if possible)

Prepare the strawberries by washing, then cutting off tops and quartering. If they aren’t particularly sweet on their own, you can add a little bit of sugar or your choice of sweetener and stir the strawberry quarters, creating a very light syrup. Click here for more on preparing strawberries and general strawberry info.

Roll up the washed basil leaves and slice into strips.

Rolling the basil and slicing into strips.

Mix the Devon double cream with the cinnamon and brown sugar.

Whip the whipping cream, adding the lemon zest after it’s reached maximum fluffiness. Leave the whipping cream for last if you can, or at least add the lemon zest at the last minute. Letting it sit for a while with the lemon zest in it will cause it to curdle a bit. This doesn’t affect the flavor, just the texture.

Line the bottom of a parfait glass with the strawberries. (If you don’t have a parfait glass, I find that wine glasses also work.) After you get a good base of strawberries, spoon the Devon cream mixture to form the next layer, followed by more strawberries. Add the whipping cream on top. Garnish with a strawberry quarter, cinnamon and brown sugar, and a few pinches of basil. You now have a quick, easy, refreshing summer treat ready to eat. Enjoy!!

And, if you have leftover strawberries and basil like I did, make some lemonade and throw them in there! As it happens, I had some Simply Lemonade in the fridge, which made my work even easier.

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Chances are, if you’re reading this, the world as we know it has not ended. But, just in case it does, we now have some of the world’s most prized chili peppers preserved in a doomsday-proof underground bunker. I mean, the first thing that comes to mind when I think “major global disaster” is “Where is the Cholula?”

Well, never fear. In a weather-proof compound on the small island of Svalbard, far north of the Norwegian coast, frozen seeds of selected chilies will accompany other seeds collected from around the world. These safeguarded seeds are considered a “deposit box” of sorts, to restart our crop systems should the world undergo major changes that wipe out our food supply. Read the full article here.

Climate change appears to be the main impetus for the seed salvaging project. With an unpredictable climate and the likelihood of increased incidence rates of severe storms and other major weather events, not to mention sea level rise that will threaten much of the world’s coastal areas and crop-covered flood plains, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to have a bit of a savings account in the food bank. Click here for more.

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