Category Archives: Animal Welfare

Meatballs

At this time of year especially, as we settle in for a long, dark, rainy winter, and the demands of the Christmas season are cranking up, book club is a respite from storms both literal and metaphorical.  It is an island of rest, warmth, and good cheer.

Book club was at Mechele’s last week.  The book was Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy.  Mechele set a festive holiday table, and served a delicious meal, as always.  And there were presents!  Wonderful presents were exchanged.  But the present I want to talk about, the one that is important here, was Diana’s gift.  “We called him Bully,” she said, handing each of us a package of frozen hamburger wrapped in butcher paper and decorated with cascading ribbons.  “It’s grass-fed beef,” she continued.  “It would be good for meatballs…”

A pound of hamburger from a cow (or bull, to be precise!) that was raised on Diana’s farm, free-range and grass fed, slaughtered on site by a mobile butcher, then handed over bedecked in ribbons with the casual elegance that is quintessentially Diana…I was momentarily speechless with the beauty of such a gift.  Then I think there was squealing.

I didn’t wait long before following Diana’s suggestion about the meatballs.

Michael made his classic marinara sauce this weekend, and I rolled a couple dozen meatballs—enough for dinner, and some to spare for the freezer.

I have always subscribed to the baked meatball school of thought, putting a brown crust on meatballs in the oven before adding them to my sauce.  However, lately I have been reading recipes that call for dropping the raw meatballs directly into the simmering sauce, to cook gently and, so they say, emerge tender and delicious.

And because we like to do things the scientific way, we started half of the meatballs in the oven, turning them occasionally until crusty and brown, then finishing them in the sauce.  The other half went directly into the sauce.

The verdict?  Both were good.  Very good, in fact.  A classic, flavorful mouthful of the richness of beef and pork, enhanced but not overwhelmed by the other ingredients.  But I must admit to a slight preference for the meatballs that were simmered without baking.  They held their shape well, but were beautifully tender in texture, just as promised—a pleasure to eat.

I will still bake meatballs when they will be served on their own, but from now on, whenever there is marinara involved, my meatballs will be simmered.

Meatballs

  • ¾ cup dried breadcrumbs
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • ¼ lb mild Italian sausage
  • ¾ cup ground parmesan
  • 2 tbsp dried parsley flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 garlic cloves, pressed

Combine breadcrumbs and milk in a large bowl.  Add eggs and whisk to blend.   Add all remaining ingredients and gently mix until combined.

Roll mixture into golf-ball sized balls.

At this point, the meatballs can be refrigerated overnight, or frozen in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper, then stored in an airtight freezer container until ready to thaw and use.

To cook meatballs: Carefully distribute in a single layer in pot of sauce.  Bring to a simmer, then lower heat.  Cover and simmer until cooked through, about 20 minutes.

Makes about 24 meatballs.

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The Butcher and the Vegetarian

The Butcher and the Vegetarian—by Tara Austen Weaver

In The Butcher and the Vegetarian, Tara Austen Weaver searches for answers to her health problems and severe fatigue.  When told by her acupuncturist to steep some medicinal herbs in chicken broth, Weaver finds herself at a pivotal moment.  She was raised a vegetarian, and while she acknowledges frequently eating meat in restaurants and friend’s homes, she has never bought or cooked it for herself.  The book chronicles her exploration of butcher shops, farmers markets, ranches, backyard grills, and learning to cook meat in her own kitchen.

It is enjoyable to follow along as Weaver proceeds from the seemingly straightforward question of “should I or shouldn’t I,” to ever more complex questions that are inherent in thoughtful meat eating.  How much is too much?  How should it be cooked?  Where does the meat come from?  Is it possible to be an ethical carnivore?

This book really is a story, a memoir—not a rant or an academic discussion of meat as food.  The tone is personal, light and never preachy, just like Weaver’s food blog, Tea & Cookies–even when dealing with serious issues.  Weaver introduces a colorful cast of characters, including butchers, cowboys, and my personal favorite Biggles, a joyous Meat Master.

The Butcher and the Vegetarian was especially interesting to me as I have been on nearly the opposite trajectory in the last few years—eating less and less meat, as I have become increasingly committed to only buying humanely raised animal products.  Weaver’s experimentation with how to fit meat into her familiar vegetarian meals mirrors my own process of expanding my repertoire to include more plant-based recipes.

Weaver also addressed the social implications of what we choose to eat (or not eat).   It can be difficult  to balance our own preferred way of eating against the desire to fit in, to be included, to not annoy or alienate our loved ones.  What really stuck with me was her heartfelt plea for mutual understanding at the end of the book:

“My friends may not understand, but I know they want the best for me.  I’m hoping they’ll still invite me to the party, and let me make my own choices about what I do and do not eat.

Food is a funny thing; it can bring us together, but it can divide us as well—vegetarian, carnivore, vegan.  I’m trying not to get stuck at the bottom of that chasm.  Sharing meals is important to me.  As a child raised at a dining table that was lonely, the act of sitting together to eat feels sacred.  This is how I create my community; this is how I care for those I love.  Regardless of what we eat, we should all be able to eat together.”

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Beef and Tofu Stir-Fry

How do you handle weekday meals?  I place a high value on healthful, home cooked weekday lunches and dinners.   However, the reality is that there is only so much time in the evenings, and I don’t want to spend all of it in the kitchen.   The occasional Taco Bell meal isn’t going to kill me, but it’s not what I’m going for on a regular basis.

Fortunately, I seldom get tired of eating the same thing for several meals in a row, provided that it was something worth eating in the first place.  Many Sundays, Michael and I cook up a big afternoon meal.  Ideally, that roast chicken or lasagna, or what have you, will produce enough leftovers to stock our respective refrigerators with containers of leftovers.  Things certainly do crop up occasionally to prevent the Sunday food-o-rama though, like a sudden urge to go out for udon instead of cooking…

At whatever point in the week it is time to cook again, stir-fry is my salvation as a solo diner.  It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s versatile, and it’s mostly vegetables.  Add a bit of protein, some form of cooked grain on the side, and hey presto—in less than 30 minutes, a healthful meal is served.   I like to make a big wok-full–enough to stash three or four future meals safely away in the fridge, stacked like gold bricks at Fort Knox.

This stir-fry is a riff on a recent recipe from Bon Appetit Magazine.  When I use meat, I am careful to buy grass-fed, humanely raised products, and let’s be realistic—that’s not cheap meat.  So for that reason, and also just for the sake of good nutrition, I tend to use it in small amounts.  In the case of this stir-fry, a couple of ounces of steak, along with twice as much tofu,  provide all of the authentic stir-fried beef flavor one could want.

Healthful, economical, convenient, yes.  But it also smells heavenly–if heaven is a spicy, Szechuan sort of place; and it tastes even better.  And the interplay of chewy beef, yielding tofu, and almost crunchy zucchini make for a textural delight in the mouth.

This recipe will serve four nicely for dinner, or one for dinner, lunch, dinner, and lunch.

Beef & Tofu Stir-Fry

  • 3 oz steak, cut into 2-inch-long, 1/4-inch-thick slices
  • 6 oz extra firm tofu, cubed
  • 1 tsp grapeseed oil
  • 1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 12 ounces fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, thickly sliced
  • 1 medium zucchini, sliced into thick half-rounds
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 6 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 3 teaspoons chili-garlic sauce

Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add ginger and mushrooms; stir-fry until mushrooms are tender, about 3 minutes. Add beef to skillet; stir-fry until beef browns but is still pink in center, about 1 minute. Add zucchini and onions; stir-fry 1 minute. Stir in tofu, hoisin and chili-garlic sauce; sauté until peas are crisp-tender, 1 to 2 minutes.

Serve with rice or another cooked grain.

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132

A Green and Pleasant Land

Bed, Breakfast, and Happy Chickens

Before my trip to England, people warned me about the food.  The frequently repeated refrain was, “I had a wonderful time in England, but the food was AWFUL!”  They would then elaborate with stories of tough meat, mushy vegetables, and general blandness.

When I got home from England, everyone asked me, “How was the food?” A few without apparent expectations, but most with a raised eyebrow and a wry tone of voice.

I’ve heard the stereotypes, and I’ve also seen recent travel shows that describe a food renaissance in England in the last decade or so.

Salad with Goat Cheese, Beetroot, and Vinaigrette

My experience of British food was uniformly positive.  From start to finish, I was impressed by the emphasis on fresh local ingredients.  Different artisan cheeses and meats were featured in each location, and a lot of care was evident in  both the cooking and presentation.  The menus, even in the smallest village pub, used terms like local, farm assured, free range–and vegetarian options were well represented and clearly marked.

Artisan Cheese Board at The White Hart Inn, Winchcombe

After walking through pastures dotted with placid grazing sheep and cows all day, I had no qualms about the ethics of eating the local meat.

Grass Fed British Beef

And I was blown away by the layered and nuanced flavors.  Savory, rich, tangy, bright… all of the senses were engaged, and everything was perfectly balanced and plate-lickingly good.  I tried to taste the local specialty everywhere, and I was never disappointed.

Devilled Pigeon with Savory Mustard Sauce on Toast at the Royal Oak, Painswick

So I thought I’d share a few more of the many spectacular meals we had in that green and pleasant land, before I wrap up the posts on England and get back to the equally pleasant but more quotidian business of Seattle food.

Fish & Chips at the Mounts Inn, Stanton

Vegetable Curry with Rice and Papadum at the Royal George Hotel, Birdlip

Pork Tenderloin with Black Pudding and Apple Compote at the Royal Oak, Painswick

Goat Cheese & Vegetable Tart with Watercress

Pork & Stilton Sausage with Champs and Gravy at the White Hart Inn, Winchcombe

Jamie’s Italian in Oxford

Salad Nicoise in London

It’s good to be a sheep on pasture

**

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First Do No Harm

My grandfather was a dairy farmer.  His whole life was adapted to the needs of his cows, planting and harvesting, milking twice a day.  I have ridden through the fields in the wagon behind his tractor as it filled with corn.  I remember the cows ambling into the barn at milking time, the smells of silage and clean manure, the fascination of watching the milking machines and following the course of the fresh milk up into the pipes and through to the warm, richly scented milk room from whence the Land O’ Lakes truck would come and pump it all away.  I saw newborn calves with their mothers in box stalls, and watched my Uncle Ed remove a milker from one teat and shoot milk into a cat’s mouth for my amusement.  I would giggle helplessly and beg, “Do it again!” and he would grin and say, “Go on and play now, just don’t get too close to their tails.”  The cows weren’t pets, but there was nothing going on in that barn that a little girl couldn’t see. 

I was discussing the book Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, with a coworker, and he said that a friend of his who read it went vegetarian as a result.  “Maybe I shouldn’t read it then,” I said, “Because I love meat!”  But I was intrigued by the reviews, and reading food books is what I do, so I put it on my library list.  It finally came last week. 

I didn’t really expect this book to change my mind or my behavior in any major way.  I’ve read Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan and plenty of books that address factory farming.  I already know that animals every bit as intelligent and capable of pain as our pet cats and dogs are living and dying in misery and filth.

I put a lot of effort into buying meat and eggs that are cruelty-free, healthful, and delicious.  But my resolve is full of holes.  I don’t hesitate to eat whatever meat is served in restaurants or at friend’s homes.  I’ve been known to pick up a carton of eggs at the regular grocery store in a pinch. 

I’ve been thinking for a while now about the meat I eat in restaurants.  I eat out a lot, and I love the pleasure of sitting down with a friend and catching up over drinks and dinner; I enjoy good service and good food.  Where did the chicken in my Tikka Masala come from?  I know where.  But I can’t imagine my life without Chicken Tikka Masala in it.  Or Gyros, or Pho, or three-star Chicken Pad Kee Mao.  I tell myself that at least I’ve reduced the amount of factory-farmed meat I eat.  But the unpalatable truth is that I simply can’t bear to let go of these beloved foods even though I know their true cost. 

And then there’s the meat my friends serve.  I enjoy their cooking and don’t want to spurn their hospitality.  Meals are about sharing and community and friendship.  I don’t want to reject that or declare myself an outsider.  I don’t want to be a self-righteous pain in the ass who requires a special meal.  And what do I even say?  Am I a vegetarian?  No.  I just find the particular meat you generously chose to buy and prepare on my behalf unacceptable.  Clearly that doesn’t work.  So I make the trade-off and I eat it. 

This is the mildly uncomfortable place where things stood until I read Eating Animals.  I don’t know why this particular book did it, except that it was in my hands at the right time.  We change when we’re ready to change.  The book was a well-written (although perhaps at times hyperbolic) and very personal account of the author’s investigations into the meat industry and his own moral reflections.  For him, vegetarian is the way to go. 

By the time I finished this book, I had to stop the swirl of conflicting thoughts in my head, and think about what I know for sure:

  • Factory farmed animals live miserable, painful, unnatural, crowded lives.
  • Commercial slaughterhouses are dirty places where inhumane treatment is the norm, and torturous deaths are common.
  • The American meat industry is designed to produce maximum profits, not high quality meat or acceptable living and dying conditions for animals.
  • Commercial meat is flavorless, and full of antibiotics, hormones, fecal matter and other contaminants, bleach, and food-borne pathogens.
  • The above conditions are not necessary to feed the world.  We’re not feeding the world as it is, and we could still effectively feed ourselves and also give chickens enough room to turn around, not make pigs live in wire pens over shit lagoons, nor dismember cows that are still alive.

And on a more personal level:

  • I believe that it is ethically acceptable to farm, kill, and eat animals as long as these are accomplished humanely. 
  • I want food that tastes good and is free of contaminants.
  • I love meat and don’t want to stop eating it.
  • I don’t want to make my friends and family uncomfortable.
  • I don’t judge other people’s decisions about food.  I am only accountable for myself.
  • I can no longer in good conscience eat meat from an animal that suffered throughout its life and died an unnaturally painful death for my meal.

So I decided to give up factory-farmed meat for lent.  During this time of sacrifice, we step out of our ordinary routines.  We slow down and reflect.  We strip away the inessential to make room in our lives for the transcendent.  I’m giving myself a timeout to become a truly ethical omnivore.  I know I don’t want to hurt any more animals.  The karmic debt stops accruing now, and I’ll figure the details out as I go.

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