Forgotten Foods: Theory + Thoughts

The idea behind ‘Forgotten Foods’ has everything to do with the foods we have forgotten we can supply, rather than buy. It is a slow and never ending process, but little by little I am learning how to get the very most out of the things that I eat. This means trading in the convenience of store-bought and/or packaged items that can instead be harvested from the land. It means utilizing more of the foods I do buy from the store. This also means taking more care to understand the supply chain of any and all products that I consume. I generally follow a few major ‘rules’

  1. From Michael Pollan’s philosophy: Eat Real foods, Not too much, Mostly plants
  2. If you can make it yourself, don’t buy it in a box
  3. If you buy it, buy it in season and as close to the source as possible.
  4. ALWAYS know your source, keep it as local as possible

Here, you will find some daily tips and tricks, as well as reasons for doing so. My food philosophy is rooted in an ambitious dream of food sovereignty- the ability to supply my own needs from the abundance around me. Until that day, this will be a relationship heavily influenced by picking battles, mild yet unavoidable hypocrisy, and doing the best I can with what I have. If I were to categorize my diet (in the literal sense of the word) as its own new fad, it would be something like the lovechild of a vegan, ketogenic, and localvore’s diet- I’m an local enthusiast that believes in lots of seasonal-green-whole-foods, good fats, clean meats, and regular fasts…though most of this is getting harder and harder to source. The keystone of this philosophy, in line with the theme of this blog, is little by little. These tips are the ‘pocket changes’ that you can make slowly and surely over time to break the chains holding you to the processed, ready-made, planet polluting, people enslaving, big man companies. Do so as these ideas speak to you- you need not change your life in one big, radical move. Try some out and let me know what you think. Build the community up and share your tips in the comments if you so please!

Veggie Scrap Broth

This is quite possibly the easiest, most successful tip that I can put out there. If compost is not something overtly available to you (for whatever reason), this is a great way to reduce your own food waste + use the very most of your veggie scraps. All you need is a freezer-safe contraption and whatever veggies don’t make it to your plate each night.

As you prepare your regular meals, hold on to the veggie scraps you typically toss out- garlic/onion outer skins, citrus peels, pepper tops/seeds, mushroom blemishes, potato skins, leafy greens that you didn’t get to in time…you name it! Keep it in the freezer until you get a solid supply going. Each week, or whenever it gets full, empty the contents into a crockpot and fill with water. You might have 2-3 cups of frozen scraps for a medium-large crockpot. Cook on high overnight. In the morning, you will wake up to an amazing smelling veggie tea, otherwise known as broth! Use the broth to cook your other goodies like rice, noodles, or potatoes. Alternatively, use as a base for simple veggie soup or sip it on its own. The options are endless. I love spicing it up by adding any ginger or turmeric scraps, some black peppercorns, and something hot like jalapeño seeds. I may then use the broth to sip on during a fast or any time I need a little kick in the tush.

Kick Your Chicken Breast Infatuation

Am I the only one that as a kid thought chicken breasts and/or thighs were just how chicken happens? Chicken is one of the most widely consumed meats on the market, and one of the sketchiest supply chains. It almost seems like a “Gateway Meat” for folks either trying to clean up their diets (generally according to the latest fads, no further comment here) and/or get off the veg head life. I’m not going to tell you to stop eating chicken. I’m not going to tell you to start eating chicken– this isn’t an argument for or against choosing to consume…but for those that do, I’m going to give you a simple tip to get picky with your chicky.

Stop buying parts of a chicken. Just don’t do it. In no sustainable world does it make sense to buy a few pieces of many animals. I don’t care if they are free range, it just doesn’t make sense. I promise I’ll get off my chicken pedestal in a minute, but I have grown passionate about this. If you are going to eat meat- and I am of the theory that yes, humans benefit deeply from a diet that includes meat- you gotta do your research. Rather than going to the store and getting the family pack of ready-to-grill thighs, breasts, etc, head to the farmers market and find you a good chicken guy. He’s got eggs (probably from chickens, ducks, and quails), maybe he’s got some greens, and he’s got your chicken. Buy a full chicken. No half-assing it. Maybe get some eggs, and hell, some of that arugula while you’re there. Here’s what happens with the chicken when you get home:

  • Prepare the slow cooker with a bed of onions, garlic, carrots, celery, and any other hearty veggies you want
  • Put your chicken in the slow cooker
  • Add spices, dressings, sauces per your mood
  • Forget about chicken for the next five hours and go live your best life
  • Take chicken + veggies out, separate meat from bones, put bones back in the crockpot with the frozen veggie scraps that you have been saving from tip number one. Leave overnight for a delicious chicken-veggie broth to cook, drink, freeze, party with.

For my bustling fam of two, this crocked chicken lasts at least four to five meals each. We leave it in the fridge, typically as shredded chicken, to add to any quick lunches and/or lazy (and delicious) dinners. The broth can be used to cook rice, make a soup, or just to have on hand for a snack. Win-win-win.

A final note on chicken. This a great meat to get behind, when done right. More and more towns are beginning to incentivize backyard chicken farming, and for good reason. These natural composters are great for your backyard ecosystem, stimulating your compost operation and gifting you a bounty of beautiful eggs. Starting your own or supporting your neighbor’s chicken project is a great way to keep things out of the hands of big factory farms where chicken operations can be horrendous for animals, humans, and the planet in general.

Get to Know Your Yard

If you have some land, begin to see at it as a garden gifted by the land. As you start to recognize different weeds, you may find that you have the perfect salad already growing out your back door. Last spring we began to identify the different flowers, plants, and weeds growing wild in our yard and found an abundance of dandelion greens, amaranth leaf, and edible clovers. You might get lucky, as we did, and find a mushroom here and there (though be sure to call for backup to safely identify it). Always exercise caution and common sense when eating wild foods, but keep your curiosity heightened! Always leave more than you take and get familiar with the replacement rates of different species. Certain herbs that you buy in the store are easily transplanted with little to no maintenance (including mint, basil, ginger, and turmeric!). Keep peeping this blog for more specifics of wild foods, but open your mind to exploring your own land too.

Kombucha

Oh, the wondrous world of bubbly, probiotic teas. If you are already a Kombucha drinker, stop everything you are doing and start brewing your own. You will save $$$ and fall in love with the creative process afforded by this effervescent elixir. If you haven’t gotten on the ‘booch train, that’s okay too…it can be an acquired, though highly recommended taste.

To get your own SCOBY, do a quick shout out to your friends, fellow hippies, yogis, etc. I know I’m stereotyping here, but if the shoe fits? You’ll likely come across one within a month. Otherwise, there are several places to purchase one online, or even start to grow your own from a store-bought Kombucha (though I have zero experience with how/if this is possible…Siri will know!). Once you have a SCOBY you’re good to go. Use a large glass vessel, preferably with a wide mouth for the best SCOBY health. The bare-bones recipe is about 1 gallon black tea + 1 cup starter liquid (Kombucha from a previous batch) + 1 cup of sugar. Make sure the tea is at room temperature and all sugar/starter liquid mixed before adding the SCOBY, then set in a cool, dark place with a cheese cloth/ tea towel tied over the top to protect from any foreign organisms. After 5-7 days, start testing your brew out using a (reusable!) straw until the sweetness-to-acidity is at your preferred ratio. Depending on the SCOBY, it could take anywhere from one to two weeks to ferment. Each batch will produce a baby SCOBY, which you can remove and give to a friend, or keep until it gets too big to handle. Dehydrated scobys also make great dog treats!

I like to think of the SCOBY as a somewhat sentient entity. SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. Some call it a mushroom, a fungus, the Mother, etc. You want the health of your SCOBY to be priority numero uno. If you see any sorts of mold growing, your batch has been compromised. Additionally, you may find that your SCOBY reacts differently over time- the first few brews may be hard to pin down the perfect timing, but after the SCOBY gets used to your tea, it will start to crank out the goodness with more gusto- and consistent quality. This is where we get to have fun and start tweaking the recipe. If you have other wild teas and/or sugar sources available, see what happens when you turn them into Kombucha. Adding fruits, herbs, and spices during the second fermentation is also a lot of fun! If you are into craft beers, you can even start playing with hops to see what you come up with. The world is your oyster, ferment it!

Tallow: A Case against Coconut

Before you lose your mind, I’m not here to tell you that coconut and all of its lovely, luscious derivatives are bad for you. Hell no. But maybe, just maybe there is an alternative that is better for the planet and just as good, if not better, for you too. Let’s talk about Tallow and all of its lovely uses! If you know me at all you know I use coconut oil for just about everything, so trust me when I say this 10 minute read is worth your time.

Tallow is the nicer, more marketable name for rendered beef fat- generally collected from around the organs, especially the kidneys. Once processed, the fat turns into a solid substance used in candles, soaps, skin salves, and, for the purpose of this article, YUMMIES.  In the past, it was common to use tallow as a cooking oil due to a high smoke point, stable shelf-life, and relatively easy extraction. As the ketogenic and paleo lifestyles continue to gain popularity and we begin to reframe our feelings on fats, we can turn back to tallow as viable source of some essential nutrients.

Before discussing these nutrients, it is of the utmost importance to get on the same page about sourcing. Tallow, as with any fat you plan to consume for your health, must be rendered from only the most natural animals possible- factory farm animals need not apply. Just as many of the nutrients, vitamins, and good-for-ya’s are stored in the fats of healthy animals, so are the toxins and bad-for-ya’s stored in the fats of unhealthy, grain-fed animals. Think of it this way- any time a cow feels stress, a cocktail of stress hormones will course through its body, ultimately solidifying in the fat cells. If you are consuming a poorly fed animal with high stress levels (due to poor diet, limited space, and generally bad conditions), you are essentially consuming the aftereffect of the buildup of those hormones as well. While the horrendous environmental effects of large-scale conventional farming are beyond the scope of this article, suffice to say destroying the land for a bit of tallow would be overkill. So, if you are unable to come across a beyond-organic, pasture-raised cow on a sustainably designed operation…it’s best to just pass.

What’s in the box

Tallow is a rich source of the good fat Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), a fatty acid known best for its immunity-building, inflammation-fighting, and fat-burning properties. In some preliminary studies, CLA helped to reduce cancerous tumors as well. Cows that are able to eat their natural diet of grass will have a more balanced omega-6 to omega-3 content, which translates to higher levels of CLAs. CLAs have also exhibited insulin-resistant properties, meaning they help to reduce circulating glucose in our bodies.

Tallow is also a great source of vitamins A, D, E, and K, as well as a range of antioxidants and antimicrobials, meaning it is great for your skin! Because the cellular structure is similar to that of our own skin’s sebum, we easily absorb the vitamins when placed directly on the skin. These vitamins nourish the skin, improve elasticity, and promote cellular regeneration. You can therefore use tallow as the oil to make soaps, salves, and lotions (I made a fan-freaking-tastic lavender + eucalyptus massage cream that far exceeds any deep tissue lotion I’ve ever bought!), but in this article I’ll speak specifically to use as a cooking oil.

How can I get me some?

Making your own Tallow is quite simple, especially if you have access to a local butcher. We worked with the cows at Hacienda Sur, an artisan beef farm on the pacific coast of Costa Rica. These cows are some of the happiest, healthiest cows I have ever encountered. They are a cross between Wagyu, Angus, and Brahma, bred specifically for a superior meat that can stand the climate without getting stressed out. The farm pays such close attention to the herds that their stress levels are taken into account at the time of butchering- the less stressed they are, the healthier the product.  I know that the idea of butchering cows will send some folks into a squeamish tailspin, but I challenge you to consider learning about truly sustainable practices, because they do exist. Naturally raised (not “natural” in the sense of USDA standards…really natural- as according to the ruminate’s true nature) animals produce far less waste and can actually help the land as well. When combined with natural irrigation and solar power, it gives the farm a carbon-negative footprint while also building up the grassy habitats for other creatures too. The methane gas produced by the cows is not nearly as toxic when they aren’t eating toxic food…imagine that! But I digress.  Where were we?

If you can get your hands on this high quality fat, the rest is cake. Simply put the fat in a large cheese cloth, tie the cloth, and set it in a crockpot on low for 10 hours (or more, or less, you’ll see!). As the fat begins to melt, it will seep out of the cheese cloth while the tissues remain inside. The tallow will be a nice, golden color with a slightly sweet smell (however, if it smells rancid, it probably is and something went wrong!). While it is still warm, transfer the liquid tallow to a glass jar for storing, and wring out whatever you can from the cheese cloth, discarding the rest. As it hardens, the tallow will turn a crisp, pure white and stay solid even in higher temperatures- we carried ours through the dry season in Central America without any melting issues. You can use it to cook just about anything; I generally reach for the tallow when cooking/sautéing at high heats on the stovetop, or as a bit of extra flavor when making rice, beans, and soups.

Why bother…

Well, why bother with anything? Because it is a simple, healthy, sustainable way to lower your own footprint and utilize your human-ness for good! Sure you could use coconut oil from the store instead, but there is something magical in creating your own foods, especially when they are so rich in nutrients and cultivated in your local community. So often this part of the animal is tossed away to rot and never used. Whether you eat meat or not, I am a firm believer in extracting the highest amount of nutrients and uses from any organism that I consume, plant and animal alike. We get so caught up in generalizations about the cost-benefit analysis of veganism vs. ominvourism, most of the time pointing fingers at each other just to highlight how we’re all wrong, and quite often this analysis comes without ever having stepped foot on a food-producing farm. Rather than arguing about our food philosophy, can we all agree that the more efficiently we use any food, the less we waste? Isn’t that what matters most? I have been living in Costa Rica for about two months and am utterly astonished by the amount of mono-cultivation I see here: pineapple, banana, and PALM. Hundreds of thousands of MILES of jungle have been routed out by plantations to produce these goods. Planes whiz by at all hours of the day to fumigate. Fruits are marked and covered in plastic bags to signify time to harvest. It is an atrocious mark on an otherwise highly sustainable country. As a coconut worshiper myself, seeing these plantations has helped me to truly acknowledge my role in monoculture and waste, regardless of what the labels on the packages I’ve so carefully selected say. I promise myself to learn more about the process of coconut cultivation before buying any more products. It’s true what they say, Knowledge is Power, and if I don’t fully know, then my power to make a decision is compromised. Perhaps ridding myself of coconut altogether is not the answer (part of me hopes this is true!) What I do know is this: In choosing to harvest your own tallow, a byproduct otherwise thrown away, you are directly contributing to a more sustainable and healthy mission, and I can get on board with that!

palm

 

 

Rancho Margot: Lessons in Sustainability

We arrived here in Rancho Margot after a four hour public bus ride through the Costa Rican countryside, plus another hour by shuttle along a twisting and turning dirt road.  [Note: this trip was quite literally the country-SIDE of massive mountains with tiny roads and lots of big buses. Not everyone on our bus had a seat, so there was plenty of excitement! The entire trip cost about $8, compared to a fancier bus for $50, or private taxi for $100]. There is a lot to be said about the experience of travel itself, but for the sake of some semblance of brevity, I’ll keep this post anchored in our first few days living on a sustainable farm in the jungle (still not sick of saying that!).

The most salient, overarching theme that I see from macro to micro processes here would have to be Symbiosis. Every single aspect of life at Rancho Margot is sustaining something else. It’s difficult to even identify a beginning; the only trace of origin is in the owner, Don Juan’s, vision. Even there, I’m sure there is more (and I’m excited to find out!).

Let’s say things begin in the garden (you’ll soon see that they don’t, but for argument’s sake, we’ll make the assumption). When Rancho Margot was established in 2004, the land was pastured with little to no wild jungle. Over the past 10+ years, the land has been allowed to return to a more natural growth, with banana/papaya/cacao trees abound and countless shrubs, flowers, and herbs. As you will frequently hear, Nature is always Perfect, and they have allowed her to do her thang again! So, back to the garden. We consider this system to be Agrocology- much like permaculture, sustainable agriculture, etc- we are planting in harmony with the land, directing the natural water source in a way that does not destroy the land and enhances the soil. Different vegetables call for different beds, different orientation, and different partnerships. Let’s take the Bell Pepper as a micro-example. These beds are oriented more vertically because there are several horizontal beds above them, slowing the flow of water down the small slope. Normally, to plant beds in line with this slope would cause the water to rush too fast and overtake the beds and strip the soil of its nutrients. The bell peppers have big root systems, and are therefore planted in the center of the bed with a few feet between each one. Bryan, the head gardener, noticed that bugs were eating the leaves and causing damage to the peppers. Rather than spraying insecticide (never EVER permissible here, organic or not), Bryan simply plants arugula between the pepper plants. Arugula, like garlic and lemongrass (also good options) acts as an insecticide with its pungent smell and does not compete for resources due to its smaller root system. These plants work in concert to keep the bugs out, keep the nutrients rich, and create ….drumroll please….. fresh PRODUCE! This process is reproduced in endless variations to create enough fresh vegetables to feed a bustling restaurant, nearly 50 employees, and all of the animals (approximately 700 chickens, 70 pigs, and 15 cows).

Beyond the plants, we have the soil. We all remember the learning in school about the deforestation crisis and farmers clearing rainforest only to find that the soil is not conducive to production. So…how do we make a sustainable ranch in the middle of the jungle? Compost + Agroculture. After you establish the system for planting, which is basically to say after you have figured out how to work with your water source, your next step is to create a home for nutrients and microorganisms to blossom. Here, the cows and piggies are fed clean, good food (more details in future post about the livestock!).

Pig Feeding Area
All buildings have forest growth on top, lowering the heat and contributing to more naturaleza! This is where the pigs are fed and manure is collected.

The feeding areas are located on the second floor of a building, with iron grates in the floor so that their excrement collects underneath the building. This area is also on a slope, and when propelled with water from a hose, collects down in the compost building. It will then go through a system of filters to separate the solid from the liquid, where the liquids are diverted to a biodigester (to become the harvestable methane gas for the kitchen + hot water). The solids are shoveled into a system of piles where all they combine with the organic matter from the kitchen and farm (think your leftover food, scraps, etc) and microorganisms harvested from the mountain (think little fungis and mycelium that decompose the forest matter).

Each day the piles are churned and moved, creating lots of heat (enough to burn if you are not careful) and eventually breaking down all of the matter into a nutrient dense mulch, which is then used throughout the garden. This process is constant, producing approximately 10 tons of soil per month. In addition to this compost, we also work with Lombricompost- or worm compost. The separation process is the same, this time coming from the cow barn, the poo is washed down to another building where the solids and liquids are again manually separated. California Red Worms are then introduced to the solids, beginning the process of digesting all of the bad bacterias and leaving behind the richest soil we produce. To separate the worms from the finished product, we line a bed in strips alternating manure with compost and the worms naturally leave the soil (it has no more food for them!) and make a run for the manure. After a few days the worms are all in the manure and the soil is ready for the gardens. This stuff is so nutrient dense that it acts like a super fertilizer and is primarily used for germinating seedlings because it is both gentle and effective. With both types of compost, only a small amount is needed on top of the vegetable beds. Because the water is controlled and guided so as not to wash away all of this prime-time compost, a little bit goes a long way.

 

And that’s not all! Whew, it is a lot though, no? Okay…so more on the compost. As mentioned briefly above, the liquids that are separated from the solid manure find there way to a biodigester. This is essentially a massive stomach used to harvest methane gas to power the grills in the kitchen and, when needed, to warm the water. The liquid makes it way down the hill to another building where it is housed in a massive tank and given time to ferment. The fermentation process recreates the methane gas (like a big cow fart), which is piped directly to the kitchen. The liquid byproduct, which our teacher promises is clean enough to drink (not gonna try it), is then sprayed on the fields as a nutritive water/fertilizer. Again, every last bit has a purpose, and it’s all cyclical. The plants are cultivated with the help of compost and its derivatives, and are then fed to the animals so that they can then create more compost to support the plants and on and on and on.  If it were not for the clean food that the animals eat, this process would not be successful, but could in fact be harmful to the environment. Additives such as GMO’s, antibiotics, growth hormones, insecticides, and pesticides at any point in this process could potentially flourish and contaminate the compost, working against both the animals and the gardens and eventually making their way into our food and water sources.

 

In addition to the compost, there is another secret ingredient in the gardens at Rancho Margot. Yes, it’s love, but more tangibly, it’s patience. All of the seeds for future veggies are taken directly from each harvest. For example, if you have a row of tomatoes, the gardener will choose the best looking tomatoes, extract the seeds and allow them to dry on a piece of paper. When the time comes, he will use those specific seeds to plant his new tomatoes. These seeds have knowledge of the land already, because they were there before and therefore have a better likelihood of flourishing. For some vegetables, the replacement is even quicker. Goodies like turmeric, ginger, and taro can be replanted immediately, using just a portion of what is harvested. Simply trimming and replanting the root will suffice (you can even do this with roots you buy from the store!). Nothing is wasted.

There is so much to add, including a MAJOR piece of this puzzle- the hydroelectric system- but I’ll save that for another day. Every day on the ranch is a day of learning and growth for everyone. I consider myself very fortunate not just for being here, but for the opportunity to truly immerse myself in the process of day to day sustainability. “Easy” is not the word, but “Possible” is. This first hand experience in sustainability has opened my eyes to the world of possibility in just one week. The attitudes and visions of everyone here have helped me to see a future that human’s aren’t destroying- a future where we are actually living in harmony with nature. And that’s some powerful stuff y’all. More to come!