Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Point And Counterpoint

A local news station here in San Francisco recently ran a story about the benefits of small local farm, free range, so called "heritage" meats.  Because the farms are smaller operations, they have tighter controls over the conditions the animals live in, and proactively work to ensure their animals enjoy a proper diet of good food, clean water, and sunshine, all while moving about freely.  It is also worth noting that none of the pig's tails are docked, or cut down to a nub, a practice in commercial farming operations to keep the pigs from chewing on each other's tails while confined several animals to a cage.  Watch the video here:  New Trend Toward Purebread Meats.

In counterpoint to all of that, one writer believes the locavore small farm, free range idea is actually more hazardous to our health.  James McWilliams, author of the upcoming "Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly"
states that in fact because of the protocols of sterile efficiency that commercial factory farms must practice, they are much less likely to produce something hazardous to our collective health.  In his New York Times op-ed piece, McWilliams uses vague and ambiguous statistics to tell us that basically we are paying twice as much to make ourselves twice as sick. His basic argument is that because free-range animals are not in a controlled environment, they are exposed to potential contaminants that an animal in a commercial operation technically would not be exposed to.  The problem for McWilliams is that there is no chance a pig with the ability to roam free and away from it's own waste is dirtier or more hazardous than a pig crammed into a pen with 5 or 6 of his cousins.  

Oh, and by the way?  The study McWilliams sites for his article was funded by the National Pork Board, as noted by the NYT editor.

Now, discuss.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Springtime Tour Of McEvoy Ranch

Last Saturday, the missus and I took advantage of the season's first truly warm and sunny day, and spent part of the afternoon touring the grounds of McEvoy Ranch, a small, organic olive oil producer in northern Marin County.  The tour was organized by the good folks at Marin Organics, a community association dedicated to promoting the organic and sustainable small farms of Marin County.

Nestled in the green, windswept hills just outside of Petaluma, McEvoy Ranch is one of California's first olive oil producers.  Founded in 1995 by Nan McEvoy, granddaughter of Michael De Young, the founder of the San Francisco Chronicle, McEvoy ranch was originally meant to be a retreat for Nan's family and a place for her grandchildren to enjoy the outdoors.  She eventually decided to plant some olive trees, and not being able to do anything on a small scale, created McEvoy Ranch which is now home to 18,000 Italian olive trees.  Soon, the ranch will be truly self-sufficient, with the installation of a windmill to generate all of the necessary energy for the operation of the farm.

The tour took us around the estate, from the irrigation ponds through the orchards, to the chicken palace, and up the sun-soaked hillside where they have begun planting grapevines in between rows of olive trees.  The tour finished with a stop in the small processing facility, crowded with sleek Italian machinery, and finally into the tasting room where we sampled last years batch of olive oil.  The pure, light green extra virgin olive oil produced at McEvoy Ranch is sweet and grassy, with a soft, peppery bite at the end.  

Throughout the tour, we learned about the labor-intensive processes that go into growing and harvesting the olives, the difficulties they face as an organic farm in preventing pests and diseases, and of course the meticulous care and attention necessary to press and bottle the precious olive oil. 

It was a beautiful day spent getting back to nature and learning how one of our most beloved ingredients finds its way from the farm to our tables.  Everyone on the tour took home a jar of delicious McEvoy olives, and most took advantage of the small but well appointed store and organic herb garden.  A 375ml bottle of McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil will cost you about $20, so this isn't your every day cooking oil.  Use it to dress salads or just drizzle over some toasted bread.  And for the truly ambitious, McEvoy Ranch even sells potted olive trees for you to take home and plant in your own garden.

McEvoy Ranch products can be purchased online or at their store at the San Francisco Ferry Building.  The ranch is not open to the public, but they do offer tours like the one we took periodically throughout the year.  Details can be found at the McEvoy Ranch website.

Marin Organics offers tours and special events of Marin County's agrarian bounty to its members and the general public alike.  For more info, to sign up for their  newsletter or become a member, visit the Marin Organics website.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Will They Think Of Next?

I discovered this little gem at the grocery store just the other day.  My reaction was similar to the one you are probably having right now.  It's ok, the feeling will pass.  Yes, it is an iced coffee drink, made by a pomegranate juice company.  According to the label, it has all of the great flavors of an iced cafe au lait, but with the added bonus of "stimulating health benefits"from the ultra-potent polyphenol antioxidants mixed right in.  Yep, right there in that little bottle.  Fancy iced coffee and a high dose of free-radical huntin' badass polyphenols, all in one tasty beverage.

Evidently Pom just couldn't leave well enough alone, and had to branch out away from the hyper-expensive bottled juice market.  In all fairness, the coffee didn't taste all that bad, somewhat similar to those toxic Starbucks Frappuccino thingies, except this one doesn't taste like an industrial solvent.

The coffee seems to be made with some pretty wholesome ingredients, or at least nothing that takes several Ph.Ds to pronounce, and including the caffeine from the coffee there are only 5 of them.  The coffee is certified organic, so at least it's got that going for it, which is nice.  Shockingly, not a altogether bad bottle of juiced-up iced coffee.  You know, if you're into that sort of thing.

For more info on Pom Iced Coffee, check out

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Two Cheesecakes In One Day

Even though it is one of my favorite things to make, it is on rare occasion that I unleash the cheesecake.  Maybe it's the amount of time spent meticulously pressing the crust against the sides of the springform pan.  Maybe it's the attention dedicated to getting the flavor just right.  It could be the eternity spent with the hand mixer stuck in the bowl.  Or,
 maybe it's because each cheesecake takes 2 1/2 pounds of cream cheese.  Yeah, that might be it.

This is what 6 pounds of cream cheese looks like, in case you were wondering.

Needless to say, I save the cheesecake recipe for special occasions.  Last week, we had such a special occasion that it required not one, but two huge, rich, creamy and delicious cheesecakes.  That occasion was my father's 60th birthday party, attended by some 2 dozen of his closest friends and family.  While others would be supplying snacks and finger foods, it was my responsibility to create enough decadent dessert for all to enjoy.  And that meant 2 whole cheesecakes.

I chose to stay safe for the first cheesecake.  I kept the filling basic, and covered it with a homemade pomegranate jelly and strawberry slices.  Can't go wrong with plain cheesecake and fruit topping.  I got a little more adventurous with the second go around, and pulled together a chocolate espresso cheesecake that had people smacking their lips and licking their forks.  Here's what we did to throw both of these desserts together:

Basic Cheesecake Recipe:

2 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar

5 8oz packages (2.5lbs) of cream cheese, softened
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup heavy cream

Crust:  Preheat oven to 375 deg.  In a bowl, use a fork to mix the graham cracker crumbs with the sugar and melted butter until moist.  Pour mixture into a 9 inch springform pan.  Using a fork and your fingers, press the crust up against the sides, corners and over the bottom, making sure it is packed firm.  The crust should reach the top of the pan, but it is up to you if you want it to.  Bake the crust for 5 minutes or until golden.  Remove and let cool.

Filling:  Increase oven to 450 deg.  In a large bowl with an electric mixer, begin to combine the sugar, flour, vanilla and cream cheese.  Combine eggs and egg yolks one or two at a time.  Beat in cream.

So this is the basic cheesecake recipe to work from.  You can really go anywhere from here.  For the two I made for the party, here is what you will need to do:

Plain Cheesecake With Fruit Topping:
Add the zest of 1 lemon, and the juice of 1/2 lemon into the filling mixture.  Combine until mixture is smooth, and as lump free as possible.  Using a rubber spatula, finish mixing the filling, and pour carefully to the top of your prepared springform pan.  Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce temperature to 250.  Bake for one hour, until set but not firm.  A toothpick inserted into the center should come out caky, not wet.  Remove from the oven and let stand for about 1 hour before placing in refrigerator.  Chill overnight.

An hour or so before serving, spread a thin layer of pomegranate jelly (or whatever sounds good to you) over the top of the cheesecake, and ring the edge with strawberry slices.

Chocolate Espresso Cheesecake:
Melt 1/2 of a 4oz Ghiradelli 100% cacao baking bar with 1/2 a stick of butter.  Mix in 1 cup of sugar, and slowly stir in 1/2 cup of milk or cream.  Whisk until chocolate is smooth.  If it appears grainy or lumpy, add milk a little at a time until it is smooth.  To the basic mixture, add 3 Tablespoons of instant espresso powder.  Add more if you need, to taste.  Slowly pour in the chocolate mixture, a little at a time, running the hand mixer on low as you pour it in.  Taste your filling, and add more chocolate as necessary.  Mix with hand mixer on high until most of the lumps are gone, and finish mixing with a spatula.  Follow baking instructions from above.

An hour or so before serving, using a fine grater or microplane, grate a chuck of the baking chocolate, dusting the top of the cheesecake with chocolate powder.  Then, using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel backwards against the edge of the piece of chocolate making little delicate curls.  Use a spoon to shake the curls over the top.

The best part about the cheesecake is its adaptability.  From that one basic recipe, branch off and try whatever flavor sounds good.  go crazy.  Just make sure you use high quality ingredients, and taste the filling often as you build flavors.  And remember, there is such a thing as too much chocolate.

Everyone had a great time at the party, by the way.  The cheesecakes were a hit, and I'm pretty sure I heard a chorus of "oohs" and "mmms" and "aaahs" from the gathered guests.  It was great getting to see my dad enjoying the company of friends and family, all brought in to town to celebrate his day.  It was a good day.