Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What is a GMO?

In case you didn't know (which you wouldn't unless you were also following my Dog Island Farm blog), we've got a new challenge on the horizon and this time we want you to join us in it. The challenge is to go a month without GMOs. The challenge will begin January 1st, 2013. 

One of the primary arguments the pro-GMO side likes to make is that people have been messing with the genetics of plants for thousands of years through hybridizing and GMOs are no different. Actually they are better, because the change in genetic information is controlled. Surprisingly, a lot of people are duped by this excuse so let's set the record straight.

First, lets discuss what hybridization means. Hybridizing means you take two organisms of the same species with desirable traits and breed them together. Some of the offspring that result will have those desirable traits. First generation hybrids or F1 hybrids are the resulting offspring. They have desirable traits but they may not all breed true for the next generation (F2), but some will and those will be chosen for the next breeding (F3). Eventually the traits stabilize. With plants this means you now have a stable open pollinated variety that will always breed true.

Hybridization can occur between different species (called hybrid speciation). In the case of equines (genus: Equus), you can breed two different species together, a horse (Equus ferus caballus) and a donkey (Equus africanus asinus), but the offspring, a mule, will be sterile and cannot reproduce. Some hybrid speciation can result in fertile offspring which can lead to a new species, however, in nature this is rare. Again, however, the genus must be the same for this to occur.

GMOs are different. GMOs are the genetic mashup of two organisms that are completely unrelated - most times they aren't even in the same kingdom. I say mashup because it is actually not a controlled insertion of genes from one organism into another. For the most part, it's completely random with mixed results. The resulting offspring might end up with the desired trait but it is unknown what other traits have come along for the ride or got messed up in the process.

Scientist can isolate the genetic traits of the species they want to insert into the crop. Most of the time that is about as controlled as it gets. They take this genetic material and insert it into another species through one of several different ways. They can either use viruses, bacteria, syringes or a gene gun to get that material into the nucleus of a cell. Here's some more info:

The process of insertion is uncontrollable and entirely random. The genetic engineer cannot yet target the insert to a specific site in the genome, nor preserve the intended structure of the insert itself. This results in many unpredictable and unintended effects. Depending on where in the genome and in what form the foreign genetic material is inserted, the resultant GMO will have distinctly different properties. The insert could jump into a gene of the host and disrupt its function, or the strong promoter signals in the construct could lead to inappropriate over-expression of host genes. - Institute of Science in Society

The two GMOs that are the most ubiquitous in our food supply are Bt and Roundup Ready GM crops. Corn, soy, cotton, canola and sugar beets are the most prevalent. Bt crops are crops that have had genetic material from Bacillis thuringiensis (Bt) inserted into their DNA. Bt is a naturally occurring soil bacterium. It produces a toxin that dissolves the digestive tract of caterpillars. Bt can be used as a pesticide on organic crops. It is unstable in sunlight and degrades rapidly - within a few hours - after being applied. Bt crops, however, produce this toxin systemically - inside every cell of the plant for the entire life of the plant. The toxin cannot be washed off and it does not degrade. The FDA doesn't label it because it considers it to be a pesticide with is the job of the EPA to label. The EPA won't label it because they consider it food. It's enough to make your head spin.

Roundup Ready Crops (RR) are crops that are resistant to the herbicide Roundup, also known as glyphosate. Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide meaning it's absorbed into the plant that is sprayed with it. These crops were produced by inserting genetic material from a bacterium found near a glyphosate production factory. Like the Bt crops, the pesticide is systemic and cannot be washed off so when you eat RR crops you're also ingesting the herbicide they were sprayed with. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It's Been Awhile

Yes, I've been away for way too long. My writing here faded out over the past year because I had started focusing on my other blog, Dog Island Farm. Yesterday we hit 2 years since we started our year without a grocery store. Some things have changed.

We had finished up our first year and had loosened our restrictions half way through our second year. We still weren't grocery shopping much at all except for the random soy sauce and sugar. Our visits to restaurants were still limited to about once a month or less (more of a money thing than anything because I'm a cheap bastard) and I haven't stepped foot in Costco for food at all (we went in once looking for some random electronic device but walked out empty handed).

Also, some other big news, my stepson moved in with us full time back in June, so that has changed things quite a bit. It's amazing how much food a teenage boy can pack away in one sitting. He also started high school in mid-August (gone are the days of starting school after Labor Day). He made friends quickly and everything is going smoothly.

Two weeks ago I missed my weekly farmers' market trip through sheer stupidity (I just forgot to go). So instead I decided to hit up Larry's Produce in Green Valley. It's just a giant produce stand. I will not be doing that ever again. While the prices were phenomenal it was clear right away that most of the produce is not local (bananas and mangoes? reallly?) and the quality was horrible. 

Last week we missed the farmers' market again because we had to do an event that day. Instead we decided to make a rather large trip to Trader Joe's - something we hadn't done in a very long time. It's safe to say we won't be doing that again anytime in the foreseeable future either. It wasn't because of the quality of the food, which was infinitely better than Larry's. No, it was because of the cost of the food. Trader Joe's has always been cheaper than the big supermarkets but because we hadn't shopped at a grocery store for so long we hadn't experienced the rise in food costs so we weren't acclimated to them. It was sticker shock to say the least. This trip was 20% higher than what it was for us 2 years ago. With stagnant income it's just not something we can do like we used to. With the drought in the Midwest this year food prices are going to continue to skyrocket.

The farmers' market on the other hand has not had a rise in food prices like the grocery stores have. Stone fruit and apples still only costs $1.50/lb and mushrooms are still only $3/lb. These are the same prices they were 4 years ago when we moved here. And of course the quality can't be beat. Let's also not forget that by purchasing directly from the farmer we're keeping our money in the community and that farmer is getting all the money that I'm paying him rather than just a few cents for every dollar.

Buying food from sustainable farmers looks like it's really going to be our best option. By being sustainable they are less affected by erratic weather because they take care of the soil properly and they are diversified. Unlike agribusiness and their monocrops, if one crop fails they have many other crops to help support them. In the Midwest that one crop was either soy or corn and when those failed the farmers didn't have anything to fall back on. It's also important to note that the native prairie, which is very diversified, of the Midwest would have survived this year's drought with proper management. Grazing livestock on it would have been the best option rather than growing a monocrop to feed livestock. Now there's no crop to feed livestock which are being mass slaughtered. When one domino falls in our current food system, they all fall. It's not sustainable and we need to rethink the entire system.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Finding Your Whey - June Challenge: Cheddaring

We've covered several different cheeses now, including the basic mesophilic hard cheese, which I'm sure you've got aging right now. This month we're going to kick it up a notch and try our hand at cheddaring - which isn't just for cheddar. Cheddaring is the process of cutting the drained curd into strips and allowing them to set at 100 deg F for 2 hours.There are actually several different cheeses that are cheddared including Derby and Leicester and of course Cheddar.

There are several ways to make cheddar. The shortcut is farmhouse cheddar, a more involved way is stirred-curd cheddar and then there's the more challenging traditional cheddar. The first two do not actually involve the process of cheddaring but you can choose any of these depending on how comfortable you feel. You may have already tried cheddar last month. If you tried farmhouse cheddar then try a harder one to make. If you went all out and did traditional cheddar then this time make a flavored cheddar - jalapenos, sage, caraway, horseradish - or try one of the other cheeses that involve cheddaring.

Cheddar, which dates back to the 16th Century, takes its name from a small village in Southern England. Legend has it that a Stone Age skeleton was found in ancient caves over the Cheddar Gorge. Above it's head hung a vessel of goat milk that had turned into a hardened into a pleasant tasting cheese. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be tasting something thousands of years old. 

Don't forget to share your cheesy adventures! 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Finding Your Whey - May: The Hard Stuff

It's time to get serious about cheesemaking. This month we're going to be making hard cheeses! The first steps are very similar to last month's cheeses as we'll be using mesophilic culture to acidify the milk and rennet to coagulate the milk. These hard cheeses are generally much more involved than the previous cheeses we made. From start to end of pressing can take several days. I usually like to start making a hard cheese on a Friday afternoon so that I'm done by Sunday. Of course you don't have to be actively doing something with the cheese that entire time, but you do need to be around.

It's also time to add to your cheesemaking equipment the cheese press. You can purchase them from various online retailers but I've found the best deal at Hoegger Supply Company. You'll need to also make sure to get the pressure gauge so you know how much pressure you're applying. The other option is you can make one fairly easily. We made it and it cost about $30 plus the 2lb cheese mold I had to purchase separately. This press doesn't need the pressure gauge. Instead we use old gym weights we found for the press. We'll be aging these cheese for longer so you'll want to also get cheese wax and a wax brush.

I'll be making one of these cheeses with you (names that aren't linked can be found in Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses).

Farmhouse Cheddar
Monterey Jack
Drunken Goat


Good luck! This is going to be a lot of fun!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Finding Your Whey - April: Moldy Cheese isn't always a bad thing

We're still working with soft cheeses so no need for a press yet, but you might want to start thinking about getting one or making one as next month we'll be starting with some basic hard cheeses. You will need some cheese molds (forms) though.

This month, however, we're going to be working with acid, rennet, cultures and mold! Yes, you heard that right. Mold. Mold is what makes brie such a wonderful gift from heaven. It's what makes blue cheese blue. Molds help the cheese develop more flavor and can also act as an inhibitor of undesirable mold. Some molds, like the ones for brie and camembert are surface molds while molds for blue cheese work within. They effect the color, smell, taste and texture of the cheese.

Feel free to experiment. has some recipes for the more common cheeses like brie and blue cheese. Also Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses has quite a few recipes you can check out.

I made Bucheron which is basically a camembert made with goat cheese and aged for an extra long time. The form is also different as it's more of a cylinder rather than your typical camembert or brie shape. This cheese doesn't have the soft gooey insides that the other two are known to have and the flavor is much stronger. I'm also planning on trying out brie.

This recipe was going to take 3 days to make so I made sure to do it on a weekend I was going to be home for. It required 2 gallons of goat milk which was going to take us quite awhile to stockpile. To stockpile raw milk we simply froze quart jars of it as we collected it until we got all we needed.

I had 4 small molds for making chevre, which ended up being enough. Five molds probably would have been more ideal though because I was really having to cram the curds into the four to make them fit. I also needed cheese mats, and a food grade plastic box to allow the cheese to retain moisture and keep the cultures from contaminating the wine fridge.

The first thing I had to do to make it was pasteurize the milk since it's a soft cheese and isn't aged long enough. I really hate pasteurizing milk just because it can take so long but if I wanted to make this cheese I was going to have to.
To pasteurize you need to heat the milk to 145 deg F and hold it there for 30 minutes stirring to keep it evenly heated. I find that my floating brewing thermometer works best for this but I have to rubberband it to the stirring spoon because my pot isn't deep enough for it to float. After the 30 minutes is up you want to cool it off as quickly as possible in an ice bath. I cooled it of to 86 deg F so I could inoculate the milk without reheating it.

 This recipe required a Mesophilic DVI MA starter culture, Penicillum candidum and Geotrichum candidum, rennet and a brine solution.

Once the milk was down to 86 deg F I simply added the cultures, stirring until well blended. I then added the rennet stirring up and down. I left it overnight to firm up.

Without cutting the curds I scooped them into the molds filling them. The molds only took about 2/3s of the curds. I let the curds sit for just over 4 hours and then refilled the molds, packing the rest of the curds in. I allowed them to sit overnight to completely drain. The next morning I removed the curds from the molds and brined them for 10 minutes.

The brine was made up of 2 pounds of noniodized salt mixed into 1 gallon of water. Heat up the water until it's nearly boiling and mix in the salt until it's dissolved. When it cools some of the salt may precipitate out. You know the salt content is right when the cheese floats. If the cheese sinks there's not enough salt. This is good to know because you keep the brine to reuse - adding water and salt when needed. Over time it will develop it's own character from whey and cultures that are slowly added with each batch of cheese. Some cheesemakers have had the same brine for decades.

After I brined the cheeses I laid them on the cheese mats and put them in the box. The first day I repositioned the cheeses several times. I put the box in my wine fridge set about 55 deg F then for the next week I turned them to make sure they were evenly drained and allowing the mold to develop evenly over the cheese.
After three more weeks of aging the cheese was ready. It was distinctively different from brie though being quite a bit stronger. It's not creamy like brie either. It's a delightful cheese that I will make again.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Find Your Whey - March: Time to Get Cultured

It's March's Cheese Challenge. We finally have a name thanks to some brainstorming from Sean over at Punk Domestics. This month we're finally getting a bit of culture. We're going with soft cheeses so you won't need to worry about having a press yet.

So far we've done cheeses that are acidified with acids such as lemon juice and citric acid. Now we'll be using cultures that acidify cheese. There are two primary types of starters that come in two forms. The first type, which we'll be using this month, is the Mesophilic Starter. It prefers low-temperature cheeses. The second type is a thermophilic starter which is used to make high-temperature cheeses.

They both come in two forms a direct-set starter or a prepared starter. Direct set is by far the easiest type because all you need to do is add it directly to the milk. Prepared starters require a lengthy process to create, but they also ensure that you no longer have to buy the starter because, like yogurt, you can just keep it going. Unfortunately the prepared starter is only good for 3 days in the refrigerator and a month in the freezer.

There are several types of cheese you can make this month that will work. I'm going to be making a sun-dried tomato feta in olive oil.Unfortunately this must be aged for up to 4 weeks so I'll be posting about making it next month.

Other cheeses that you can make are (Cheeses that don't have links are found in the book Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses):

Cottage Cheese
Cheese Curds
Cream Cheese
Swiss and French Style Cream Cheese

Don't forget to share your experiences!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Catching some Levain (aka Sourdough Starter)

San Francisco is famous for their sourdough bread which runs wild around there. Fortunately we can all catch our own wild sourdough starter, which is also called levain. Levain is the French term for sourdough starter and has been used for centuries to make bread. Bread made with Levain may even be healthier for you than breads made with commercial yeast. Sourdough actually has a lower glycemic index than regular bread. The levain also breaks down phytic acid in grains. Phytic acid blocks the absorption of minerals and vitamins. Levain also shows promise for people that are intolerant of gluten because it helps degrade and deactivate the proteins that adversely affect people.

Nowadays you can purchase commercial sourdough starter, but what fun is that? Plus you can't boast that you actually caught the wild levain that made your bread. The bonus is that it's super easy to do and doesn't take much, but you don't have to tell others that. Go ahead and let them think it took you days of complicated procedures to obtain.

 So are you ready to get blown away? To catch a levain all you need is some flour and an equal amount of water in a wide mouth container or bowl. Yep, that's pretty much all you need. And all you do is mix the flour and water together and set it outside for a couple of days. Bring it in, keep it in a relatively warm spot and once it starts to form bubbles on the surface you can go ahead and store it in the fridge. The only thing you do need to do is occasionally feed it equal parts of flour and water once a day. It should have a slightly sour smell to it, which is a good thing. You can keep your levain going for as long as you're willing to take care of it, or if something goes wrong like it gets moldy.

So how do you use your levain? I like to make a nice no-knead artisan bread with it. The following recipe makes two loaves or one really big one if you're up for it. However, for a larger loaf the baking times will be longer.

 In a large bowl mix together 3 cups warm water (about 110 deg F), 1-1/2 Tbs kosher salt and 1/2 cup of your levain. Add 7-1/2 cups flour and mix. It should be a wet dough, but not sloppy. When you measure the flour you want it to be level cups, which you can get by using the flat back edge of a knife to scrape excess flour off evenly. Cover and allow this to sit for at least two hours in a warm, dark spot.

This dough will not rise like breads made with commercial yeast so don't worry too much. After two hours you can put it in the fridge to store or make a loaf right away. The dough, because it's wet, is much easier to handle when it's cold though, so I usually put it in the fridge for about 2 hours before I plant to bake it.

When I'm ready I pull out half of the dough and while working quickly I shape it into a ball by pulling the top down over the sides stretching it. I then place this ball in a bowl that is lined with a heavily floured non-terry cloth towel. Sprinkle a bit of flour on top and then cover with the edges of the towel.

Allow it to rest and do a bit more rising for an hour. 40 minutes into the rise place a dutch oven (cast iron of course works the best, but you can use any type as long as it has a lid) in your oven and preheat to 450 deg F. The purpose of the dutch oven is to steam the bread for the first part of the baking. This helps develop a moist crumb while allowing for that real crunchy crust. Of course the heavier the lid the more steaming action you're going to get, which will further help develop larger holes in the crumb.

When you're ready to bake pull out the dutch oven and remove the lid. Pick up the towel and bread and quickly (and this can take some practice) and gently roll the dough out of the towel into the hot dutch oven. Quickly put the lid on and put it back in the oven. Bake with the lid on for 30 minutes then remove the lid and bake for an additional 30 minutes or until the crust is completely browned. Don't overcook though as the bottom can and will burn if left too long.

Remove the bread from the dutch oven and place on a cooling rack. Allow to cool until you can handle it and then serve. You have now mastered the no-knead artisan bread.

A note about ovens and not getting the perfect loaf. Every time I did this recipe it came out well, but not as good as I knew it could be. I always thought I was doing something wrong. When we got our Wedgewood I quickly realized that not all ovens are created equal. Our previous, cheapo oven just couldn't do the job and it had made me feel inadequate. So if you have a hard time making that perfect loaf of bread it may not be your fault at all, but rather the oven that you are using.