Food Inc. opening in Canada

I was at our favourite fruit & veggie stand at Kensington Market last weekend, when I heard a woman asking one of the regulars at the store what he was doing the following monday evening. She happened to have a pass for two for a preview screening of Food Inc. at the Varsity Cinema (close to where we live) and couldn’t go. The guy said he couldn’t go and I quickly said “has the movie opened yet? I’m dying to watch it!” I had just written  a post about it the previous day and I wanted to watch it so badly that my initial shyness fell to the way side. She turned to me and said “would you be interested in going?” Oh yeah! “Pass by my store in 15 mins and I’ll have the pass for you.”

The movie opened the last edition of Toronto’s International Film Festival and was released in threatres across the US last Friday to much media attention, leading to some interesting discussions. The screening we attended this past Monday was followed by a Q&A session with local activists as well as Gary Hirshberg, founder and CEO of Stonyfield Farm and one of the people interviewed in the film. There were no surprises for me in the movie. It felt like a film version of the Omnivore’s Dilemma and dealt with the dark side of the American food industry (whose model is exported all over the world, so don’t think you are off the hook for living in Canada or other countries), and deals with everything from the rise of food-born illnesses, the development of deadly strands of e-coli or salmonella, factory farm workers, the powerlessness of farmers who refuse to play the game according to the big industry’s rules, and the presumed powerlessness of consumers. It’s dark and it leaves you stuck between disgust, anger, and frustration.

The basic message sent by Gary and all the others is that although we have known that there are serious problems with the food industry for years, nothing will be done until we are able to make it a mainstream issue rather than a concern of activists only. And to get there, people need to know where their food come from and what is hidden in it. It’s all about transparency and education really. You can’t just pretend it doesn’t affect you. That people are over-reacting. I mean, we are all under the illusion we know what we eat. But that can often be an illusion. Take hamburguers, for example, the quintessential North American food. We all know that eating too many burguers is not really good for us but we assume that’s because too much meat is bad and that’s what burguers are, right? Ground beef. With perhaps a bit of preservative. But do you know that the entire meat industry in the US is controlled by four companies? And that 80% of the hamburguer meat available in the market is washed with ammonia? And that it is washed with ammonia because that meat originally had a much higher content of e-coli bacteria than meat ever had before. You know why? Because cows are fed corn, which their bodies have not evolved to be able to digest. So either you eat hamburguer laced with ammonia or you may share Kevin’s fate.

I have written before on this blog about the importance of knowing what you eat. Some people tell me it is too difficult to eat healthy, that they don’t have the time or the knowledge, or that organic food is too expensive. That’s not necessarily true. Good food can be deceavingly simple. If you are not sure where to start in the kitchen, I highly recommend any of Mark Bittman’s books (or even his site) since they are very didactic and based on principles of cooking rather than holding on to steadfast recipes. As for organic food being more expensive than “conventional” food, yes, that’s true, but only if you don’t consider the hidden societal, health, and environmental costs of this so-called conventional food or the real reason fast food is so cheap. The real reason is that since the entire American food industry is controlled by four or five companies, these multibillion-dollar players have enough power and influence to bend food safety rules and guarantee massive subsidies, allowing them to sell food at well below the cost of production (incidentally, conditions in these factories are so dire that these business have to rely on hiring the powerless – such as illegal immigrants – to work in them) . If sustainable farms could get half of the same subsidies, you wouldn’t have to choose based on price. Also, if there was more demand for organic products, more organic products would be produced. We see that beginning to happen. During the Q&A Gary Hirshberg mentioned how his company’s decision to go for organic sugar made a huge impact on its price and availability. When they made their first orders, organic sugar cost nearly five times the price or regular sugar. With the higher demand, more farmers turned to organic farming methods (which achieve the same yields as “conventional” methods) and began to produce more sugar. Now Stonyfield is able to buy sugar for the same price, if not cheaper, than regular sugar.

There is certainly a segment of the population than cannot afford a 50-cent difference on a particular produce. That is a shame and I’m glad there are organizations dedicated to making organic food more accessible. But many of us can afford to pay a little more to ensure not only optimal health but also encourage the organic food industry. It’s all a matter of priorities. And my health has priority over any other luxury in my life because without it, let’s face it, nothing else really matters.

So do yourself and the planet a favour. Learn about the issues. Watch the movie.

If you have trouble playing the video above, watch it on the official site.

Easy dinner

Easy dinner: North African Couscous Soup

I wasn’t very inspired when I got home today and the pantry was a bit on the bare side but I also didn’t want to go shopping. So I started browsing my new favourite cookbook and came across this recipe for North African Couscous Soup. The main ingredients? Celery (or fennel, carrots, zucchini), 1 cup couscous, and a bit of tomato paste. Check, check, check. Seemed too simple to pass. In less than half an hour I had a super tasty meal with enough leftovers for at least another couple of meals. I didn’t take a picture but here’s the recipe:

North African Couscous Soup

3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, small, minced
½ cup celery or fennel, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Za’atar (or 2 tsp ground cumin)
1 cup couscous, preferably whole wheat
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 liters vegetable stock or water
salt & freshly ground pepper

Directions

1. Put the olive oil in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the za-atar and sprinkle with salt & pepper. Stir constantly to keep the spices from burning and cook until just fragrant, about a minute. Add the couscous and continue stirring and cooking until the couscous begins to toast and darken, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste until it is evenly distributed and begins to colour, another minute or two; then add the stock and stir to dissolve the tomato paste.

2. Bring the soup to a boil, then turn the heat down to low, cover, and cook without disturbing until the couscous is plump and tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.

Print version here

Indulgence

I have heard many admit that they don’t have the energy (or the confidence) to cook themselves a meal they could find in a fine (often fancy) restaurant. They may do it for guests but not for themselves unless it is a special occasion. My problem is that I’m too impatient. I can’t wait until a special occasion presents itself to make something a little bit more elaborate for dinner. Sometimes it isn’t even that elaborate but it’s just something that you may eat at a French restaurant but not something you’d consider attempting. The truth is that I like nice food but as a graduate student, can’t really afford to eat at really nice places. So I’m left to trying to make it myself.

Tonight’s meal was inspired by some wild leeks I found at the market. At the fishmonger’s I came across some wild scallops and bought them without really knowing how I’d make them. Once I got home, a quick search at The Google got me some tasty suggestions: Wild Leek and Parsley Risotto and Pan-seared Scallops with Butter Herb sauce. The ingredients were simple enough and I had most of them at hand: scallops, parsley, a good white wine, vegetable stock, unsalted butter… The result?

scallops.jpg

The picture was terribly over-exposed but you get the idea. It was simply divine. Alan moaned throughout the meal and we speculated that something like this would probably cost about a hundred dollars for the two of us (with wine) at a nice restaurant. Oh, the wine was a nice Wolf Blass Sauvignon Blanc. Now we’re off for an ice cream…

Lunch tomorrow

Curried carrot salad with quinoa and plain yogurt

Yummy homemade lunch

This was adapted from a recipe originally published in Bon Appétit and which I came across in one of my favourite food blogs. The original recipe uses carrots only but since I wanted to make it into a meal in a bowl, I decided to add some quinoa. So this is my version:

Ingredients

* 1 cup plain yogurt
* 2 large green onion, chopped
* 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint (I probably used closer to 1/4 cup)
* juice of 1 lemon
* 3/4 to 1 teaspoon curry powder (I used closer 2 tsp)
* 4-5 small carrots, peeled, coarsely grated
* 1/4 cup dried currants
* 1 cup quinoa (I used half red and half white quinoa)

Preparation

Cook the quinoa in 2 1/2 cups of water, set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, grate the carrots, mix the first five ingredients, and once the quinoa is cool enough, mix everything in a bowl and add a bit of salt and pepper to taste.

Note: it yields enough salad for 4-6 people

Sylvester’s Cafe

GSULocated on the top of the GSU building in a little alley with the grand name of Bancroft Ave, Sylvester’s Cafe is one of U of T’s best kept secrets. When I first started my PhD, one of the first things I was told is that despite its size and central location, good food is hard to come by on campus. That certainly turned out to be true; most of the cafeterias on campus are served by Sodexo and serves fast food of the worse quality. So I ended up having to walk further away or bring my lunch from home. That was until I discovered Thérèse and her wonderful café. The menu is short, the influence is Mediterranean (Thérèse is Lebanese, raised in Egypt), and everything is made in house, with the freshest ingredients. Prices are unbeatable and portions are normal and not the over-sized amounts one encounters in most restaurants. Usually I feel guilty when I eat out for lunch since I always feel that I could have made something better-tasting and more nutritious at home but Sylvester’s is one of the few places where I can eat guilt-free.

Menu

Sylvester's

Yummy lunch
This is what I had last time I was there. Usually I have either the Mezza plate, Yum Yum 1 or 2. This one is a new dish and it’s Fava beans with lemon garlic tehina & tomato sauce, a very Lebanese dish. It was VERY good and exactly what I needed in a rainy, cold day.

Life can be simple…

Why wait for a special occasion to have a special meal? Why make a big fuss when you do want to have a nice meal by spending all day in the kitchen? After a nice day cycling and meeting friends, I didn’t feel like cooking something big for dinner. So I came across this winter caprese salad, which seemed simple enough and was even better with a bit of balsamic, which was followed by some bread, decadent St Andre cheese, and whatever I had in the fridge (jams, olive tapenade, marinated eggplant) and wine. And for dessert? Some fresh strawberries, organic kefir from Pinehedge Farms, and a bit of maple syrup. Every bite and every taste was a little piece of heaven. Life is good…

Diet, nutritionism, and health

I believe we are what we eat but for the longest time the whole notion of counting calories, talking about carbs, fats, proteins and nutrients seemed a bit odd to me. I tried supplements and stopped because I don’t care what anybody says – I don’t think my urine should be bright orange/yellow/green. So here I was interested in food but utterly confused by all the nutrition advise out there. Until I discovered Michael Pollan. As a historian, I can recognize his research as good and his arguments as solid. But most importantly, it all makes sense in a way that even our great grandmother would agree. If you don’t have time to read his books, at least watch this video.