Sunday, June 20, 2010

Shopping and Cooking, Chef-Style!

Every week, many of us grocery shop and then come home and over the next few days or so, cook or otherwise prepare and eat the food we bought. Nothing out of the ordinary there. But last week I did just that and it was great fun with a delicious outcome and lots learned in the process. What was different? Well, I did it all with fabulous zero-waste chef and food guru, Greg Christian.

Christian is well known in the culinary world for his pioneering initiative in sustainability as it pertains to food. He is a nationally recognized for developing the Organic School Project whose focus is to get healthy food choices into schools and help educate children on related topics. I'm personally very interested in the OSP, and you should be too! Greg also ran a zero-waste catering company for several years and is now doing consulting work for restaurants who want to learn how to practice sustainability or move toward zero-waste goals.
Zero-waste means that Zullo's, where Greg is currently consulting, doesn't have garbage service. They don't throw anything away. Everything is either cooked, composted, recycled, or otherwise reused. Imagine the impact on our landfills and out world if we all followed these practices! Other than being very careful about their inputs (not buying things with any or excess packaging for starters) they use re-purposed containers to hold re-useable items like rubberbands. It seems so obvious once you see it yourself, but it's really quite ingenious.

What was originally planned to be a trip to Zullo's kitchen to watch him cook, turned into a shopping trip to buy our ingredients on Wednesday and then making a wonderful soup for my family under his direction on Friday. We headed out to Chicago's famed Green City Market Wednesday morning to get our veggies, and as we walked through the grass, Greg invited me to try something new. Instead of having a list in mind and shopping with that agenda, he said you can learn how to ask what it is you need. Not what you want, or what a certain recipe calls for, but to just look and relax and see if anything jumps out at you. You might even want to hold it to see how it feels. It's the way that he shops and knowing what people need is a gift that he has, but Greg says you can hone that sense and your body and mind will benefit from it.
So I walked around looking at beautiful stacks of colorful, fresh organic produce with that in mind. I'm sure I don't have this gift, or have not yet discovered it if it's there, but what jumped out at me first were these unbelievably sweet, sparkling-red, juicy strawberries. They were so ready to eat their heady aroma hit me before I even reached the table! They were grown by Dave at Leaning Shed Farm, and he was a joy to talk with and get to know. Greg got some too, and boy did my whole family gobble them was that something we needed? hmmm, guess so!
Along the way, Greg introduced me to several of the farmers and friends working the market booths. It was fun to talk to them and hear their stories...of surviving the latest tornado, retiring from a 9-5 gig just to work even longer hours doing what they love, and how they have found such benefit from connecting with the earth and eating such fresh fare. Here's a little video clip of our wheat grass shots being juiced (Thanks again, Greg!). What a great way to start a day. Pow!

At the same farm booth where we got our wheat grass, some dark purple leaves seemed to be calling my name. Maybe I needed them? What were they? Amaranth, I was told. They looked interesting and after we stood with them for a few seconds, Greg got an idea...why not make some soup with the amaranth for my family? How cool! Yes, let's do that! So I bought some amaranth, 2 kinds of young onions, baby swiss chard and some rainbow chard. Add to that black beans Greg gets from a fantastic farm and my chicken broth, and we had the makings of the tasty soup Greg would teach me to make on Friday morning...more on that later.

Our time at Green City Market ended at Zullo's tent, where I ate the most delicious lamb hand pie. It just melted in my mouth, and the pastry was light and tasty. They also offer up pizzas and focaccia, perfect for a hearty snack or a light lunch, and easy to walk around with. And of course good for any time of day, you must try their Zeppole - Zullo's version of apple cider doughnuts that simply are amazing. Served in a paper and newspaper cone, they are easy to pop into your mouth as you walk the market (and then you can recycle the cone!). Maybe a little TOO easy! Yum! You can find the up-to-date list of Zullo's markets here. My family likes to frequent them at the Logan Square Farmer's Mkt. Definitely check them out!

Fast forward 2 days...I met Greg at Zullo's kitchen super early
(as in, I was there at the early time that I usually unwillingly roll out of bed to tend to one of my small children. These guys don't sleep in!) and ready to work. I was set up at the sink and I washed all my produce and laid it out to await instruction. Doesn't that look beautiful? The dark purple leaves at the top right are the amaranth. Onions (white and "red") on the left and the rainbow and swiss chard on the right. Greg showed me how to cut and chop my bounty as we warmed up the chicken broth with the black beans. The cooking experience included a knife sharpening lesson and lots of info from how to make marinara to how to dry herbs, and the time flew by. I went home with enough delicious soup to feed my family 2 dinners and still had some left over for a lunch!. Here it is served up at home with some crusty homemade olive oil bread. I highly recommend you try it! The flavors are surprisingly complex for being made with such simple ingredients, and it's chock-full of healthy vitamins and minerals. I'll activate this link when my in-depth article covering as much of Greg's knowledge as I could absorb is published on, including the recipe for our soup: "Black Bean Soup with Stuff"! Don't forget to check it out (it will probably run by the end of the month). You can substitute ingredients depending on what you find at the market, and depending on what you feel YOU NEED. Now get cookin'!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Recharge Your Batteries and Enter Your Best Photo!

Energizer has teamed up with National Geographic to host the third annual Energizer Ultimate Photo Contest, and they want you to enter! All you need to do is sort through your best pictures and enter them here for a chance to get your photo published in the Dec issue of National Geographic. And get this: the grand prize is a National Geographic Expeditions trip for two to Greece! How cool is that?

The six categories are animals/wildlife, nature, people/cultures, travel, weather and action/energy, so keep that in mind while picking your favs. Pictures will be judged by renowned photographer Jim Richardson on how well they capture the essence of the theme (25%), their impact and creativity (50%), and composition/technical quality (25%). But don't be intimidated, last year one of the category winners was shot with a regular digital still camera! So go ahead and send in your most adorable shot of Fido in the park, your most awe-inspiring vacations pic, or the one of your children you love so much that you actually had it printed and framed (because if you're anything like me, that only happens if the photo is really special!). So you might have TONS of pictures to look through now. Or maybe you will be heading out to take some spectacular shots to enter. Either way, get going! You must enter before midnight the night of June 30th, so no procrastinating!

But the fun doesn't end there. As a special perk for my readers, I will be picking 3 lucky followers to EACH receive TWO 4-packs of Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries! (And Energizer was kind enough to give me some to try as well - Thanks, Energizer!) Energizer's Ultimate Lithium batteries are an eco-friendly alternative to regular alkaline batteries in several ways. First off, they last way longer (up to 8 times as long!), so they create less waste. Second, they are made using lithium (duh!), which is the lightest known metal. This is important because most of the concern surrounding the environment is caused by heavy metal pollution and accumulation. Lithium is also a very "active" metal, so it can deliver a great deal of power while using less material and at the same time is 1/3 the weight of a "regular" alkaline battery. Two more attributes are that its construction is leak resistant, which is very important to the environment, and it has a storage life of 15 years so it won't lose its juice just sitting around waiting for its turn. All of these qualities make the Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries a great choice for your digital camera or other high-tech device (or for your kid's favorite battery-operated toy...that is if you want it to "keep on going").

Sign up to follow the EcoActivista blog and then leave a comment below telling me your favorite color, and I'll enter you in my random drawing. It's that easy! You don't even have to necessarily enter the photo contest, but you should...what the heck, right? I know you want a free trip to Greece too!

Friday, June 11, 2010

What Are Your Kids Eating?

There has been a lot of buzz recently in regard to school lunches. Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution series highlighted the issue in one town and its region (Huntington, WV), but what's the story at your kid's school? Do you know? Do you care?

My son is only 3, and he's all set to start attending public preschool here in Chicago this Fall. I am counting myself lucky so far that his 2.5 hrs of class per day will not include a school lunch. The school he'll be attending is progressive in many ways, but as far as I know, they still serve the same type of crap for lunch that most schools in the States are re-heating. So, I figure I have 2 years to incite some real change before my child lines up with his friends to get his servings of surplus processed meat, fruit-flvored gelatin, and chocolate milk...where should I start!?

If you are not aware of the big issues surrounding school lunches, here's a guest post from a great blog on the topic.
Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project The woman who writes the main blog, Mrs. Q, is an Illinois school teacher who has taken it upon herself to eat the school lunch every day and report on the contents and her experience to draw attention to the big problems and issues. Namely, they are: over processed foods, lack of fresh or properly cooked fruits and vegetables, an overabundance of packaging and waste, massive amounts of sugar, and general poor overall quality. She's even having blood tests done 6 months apart, so I'm really interested to see how the results come back... These lunch options directly reflect much of the convenience food that's on the grocery shelves today, so you have to figure many of the kids are eating this way all the time and many (maybe even most?) parents don't see a problem. But kids these days are in trouble. Obesity reigns, diabetes is an epidemic, and I suspect many other health problems are a direct result of all the preservatives and chemicals that are in the food America feeds its children.

I wonder if there's any way to start a city-wide "food revolution" of our own, or if I should just start with my own child's school and take baby steps. This will more than likely turn into something I'll need to devote quite a bit of my own time and energy to in order to see real results in 2 years, but I know deep in my heart it will be worth the effort. I have worked hard here at home to nourish my children as best I can from making their babyfood, feeding them organic dairy, grains, meat and produce whenever possible, and offering them a wide variety of tastes and textures. If you ask my kid what color bread/noodles/rice is, he'll say "brown", and I'd love to keep it that way. He can recognize herbs by smell and by sight and knows how to strip a sprig of thyme. It's pretty funny that my son is virtually a self-made vegetarian and the three things I've always had trouble getting him to eat in almost any form have been meat, eggs, and potatoes (the un-vegetable). Yes, even fries! He'll eat sweet potato fries, and now once in a while I've seen him munch a couple of regular fries down if someone puts them on his plate, but for the first 2.5 years of his life, he wouldn't even try one (not that I was trying very hard to change that!). A friend got him to bite into one at a restaurant once and he spit it out! Hahaha. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure that if offered chicken nuggets, nachos, hot dogs and pizzas on a regular basis, both my children would easily succumb to the new diet and happily munch away on the garbage next to their friends. But that's the whole problem and the bottom line is that that's not OK with me. Especially not 5 days a week!

So the deadline looms ahead of me and I'm starting to gather resources and gear up for this hurdle...but I'll wait until the 2010-2011 school year begins before I call the principal's office and ask for a meeting, and permission to spend a day in the cafeteria.

I welcome any ideas and comments!

Photo by bookgrl