Month: October 2015

Cod Creole: an easy fish dish adding great flavors to white fish

Cod Creole: an easy fish dish adding great flavors to white fish

If you are tired of fried fish and fish with a lemon butter sauce, maybe it’s time to make a delicious creole sauce and use it to cook your fish. We made this simple half-hour meal using cod because that’s what looked good in our market, but it would work well with any white fish and pretty well with oilier fish as well. And we loved it!

This recipe is adapted from the book Turn Up the Flavor.

The original recipe suggested some red bell peppers, but if you have a few more interesting peppers around you can toss those in too. We found some sweet yellow peppers and a poblano pepper we’d picked recently from our now frost-ridden pepper patch. You could toss in a jalapeno or two, depending on how much heat your diners prefer.

  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 “other” peppers, depending on what you have available
  • 1 Tb olive oil
  • 1 diced onion
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups tomato juice
  • 1 Tb Sriracha or other hot sauce
  • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 lb cod filets, or other white fish
  • 2 scallions, chopped diagonally
  • Brown rice

Sauteing vegetables
Sauteing vegetables
Heat oil in a large pan and add the peppers, onion, and celery. Saute until softened, and add the garlic. Cook 30 seconds.

Tomato juice, Srirach and Worcesterhire
Tomato juice, Srirach and Worcesterhire
Add the tomato juice and then the Sriracha and Worcestershire. Simmer about 4 minutes.

adding fish
Add the cod
Add the filets and nestle them among the vegetables.

Cooked cod
Cooked cod
Cook covered until the fish is opaque, about  8 minutes.

Cod creole with scallions
Cod creole with scallions
Spoon into serving bowl and decorate with chopped scallions.

Cod creole plated with brown rice
Cod creole plated with brown rice
Serve with brown rice.
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Halloween candy: How to decide

Halloween candy: How to decide

Halloween candies
Halloween candies

Every year a lot of ink is wasted on advice about what kind of candy to give out on Halloween. If you want to make yourself unpopular, give out non-candy like state quarters (which someone might swallow). To see if you can get your house egged, try giving out some trinkets like tattoos or tiny toys instead of candy.

And some, like our colleague Analiese Paik, who writes the Fairfield County Green Guide (and deletes any critical comments on her blog) suggests you try for organic, non-GMO, Fair Trade overpriced politically aware candies.

Let’s be clear: these are foodie, yuppie theories with no basis in fact.

  • As we noted yesterday, there is no evidence that Fair Trade benefits the farmers it is supposed to help. Most of the money ends up with the producers and the fair trade organization itself. And Fair Trade labels on chocolate are even more questionable, since all it means is the candy company bought some: not which candy it was put in, since the chocolate is indistinguishable.
  • The “Organic” designation itself is just a marketing label. There is no evidence that organic foods are safer or more nutritious. And since both conventional and organic farmers spray their crops, both might have spray residues. But these are much smaller than the residues from insecticides the plants themselves create for protection.
  • “Non-GMO” is just another marketing slogan. Biotech crops are completely safe. There is no evidence after nearly 20 years of biotech crops being grown that anyone has ever had any ill effects from such crops. And even if there were, the concept of “non-GMO sugar” is absurd, because sugar is a pure compound which contains no DNA.
foodbabe And of course, Vani Hari, the Food Babe, whose star has fallen as her overwhelming ignorance has become more apparent, suggests a list of crazy candies that no one will like, all to satisfy her fallacious dietary restrictions, and to earn her commissions on these disgusting treats.
Meanwhile, some wag has put together a list much like hers, but with a couple of ridiculous alternatives, like “dirt and twigs” and “organic razor blade apples.”  Incidentally, there is no evidence that razor blades (or needles or drugs) ever were put into Halloween candy, so relax about that urban legend. joke candy list

Look people, this is not a political holiday where you take stands on your peculiar and unscientific theories. It’s a fun holiday where kids get some candy. Parents can ration the candy as they see fit, but a few days of sugary treats is not a serious issue. Sugar is not toxic. And if you are buying the candy just to give away and have no children at home, just behave like grandparents and give the kids what they like. Childhood is too short to make Halloween some sort of weird political statement!

When is ‘The Daily Show’ going to be good again?

Trevor Noah by Peter Yang
Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show on September 29, and has had four weeks of shows to get into the stride of things. And now he’s taken a week off. This may be because of the World Series and the Republican debates, but this is an awfully short first act to begin to really see where Noah and his producers want to go with the show.

He’s hired several new correspondents: Roy Wood, Jr, who seems to have a great deal of experience and knows what a Daily Show “correspondent” needs to do to be funny. Wood has appeared several times and has done a fine job. Also announced but barely showing are Desi Lydic who showed up once, and Australian comedian Ronny Chieng, who’s also made just one appearance.

Stalwart Jordan Klepper has been a regular and has really hit his stride as an excellent comedian and faux interviewer in the Daily Show mold. But we’ve seen Jessica Williams, one of the show’s undoubted stars only twice, and Hasan Minhaj is doing a Broadway show for the next few weeks. Aasif Mandvi is nominally on the staff, but we’ve not seen him at all that we can remember. And while Al Madrigal is still listed, we’ve seen him but once.

So while Klepper and Woods have been helping out, a lot of the Daily Show has just been Noah. And how is he doing? He’s…just…not…very…funny.

Perhaps it is his odd, halting delivery in a South African accent that’s at fault, or maybe the fact that despite the fact that the Daily Show is an American comedy show, Noah is really new to the U.S. and seems unfamiliar with so many things. He does not really come across as very warm or as very interesting: there’s something distant about him, and a bit too cool. He doesn’t get particularly riled up about the absurdities he is reporting and he doesn’t involve you very much in his delivery.

In fact, when you hear him reading jokes written by the same Daily Show writers as Stewart had, they just don’t land very well: he seems awkward with them.

While The Daily Show has in the past used cable news as a foil to make fun of politics, they’ve pretty much dropped the easy jokes you can make about Fox News, and made few about CNN or other networks either. This is supposed to make the show more easily transportable to other electronic media, but what really gives that a boost are great comic bits that show up on YouTube, and there just have not been very many of those.

OK, it’s only been a month and Noah will surely get better with more experience. The question is whether people will stay with him long enough. When Jon Stewart left, we knew there would be a big problem filling his chair because he’d had 16 years of practice making this show look easy. It’s not easy, and bringing in a foreign standup comedian with little American comedy experience has not made this an easy transition.

What does ‘Fair Trade’ coffee mean?

Coffee Cherries
Coffee Cherries

You may hear advice from foodie experts that you should always buy Fair Traded items such as coffee and chocolate, for their social benefits. But, if you look into research on Fair Trade, the advantages are not so clear cut. The articles we found paint a somewhat conflicting picture.

Fair Trade began in the Netherlands in 1988, initiated by the Max Havelaar Foundation. The idea was to find a way for small producers to have a chance at a reasonable floor price for their commodities, starting with coffee. A decade later this had evolved into the Fair Trade Organization (FTO). While Fair Trade programs exists for cocoa, bananas, sugar and artisan crafts, a substantial portion of Fair trade commodities are coffee beans, because they are compact and relatively valuable per pound.

In the Fair Trade system, small coffee growers were encouraged to form cooperatives and sell their coffee to the cooperative, which guaranteed a floor price, originally about $1.20 per pound. Fair Trade certified traders would then buy from these certified Fair Trade producers, paying at least the floor price plus a “social premium” which was to be used for social or economic development in the producer’s community. The traders then sell the coffee at a markup to the roasters and eventually to the retail market. Retailers also pay a small premium back to the FTO which helps support the organization and its marketing. Thus, Fair Trade coffee is bound to cost more, but it may not be better coffee.

The whole idea behind this system was originally information asymmetry. Coffee producers had no idea what the actual market price that day would be, and the Fair Trade system leveled this out and gave them a predictable income. In addition, the traders paid the producer co-ops up to 60% of the crops value in advance, charging a small interest rate, which gave them a way to meet farming expenses before the crop was harvested. An excellent history of this entire process is given by Kimberly Elliott.

The Fair Trade USA (originally called TransFair) split off from the FTO in 2011, primarily because it wanted to reach out to small producers and their laborers who were not covered by the FLO, and who were not organized into co-ops. However their program is otherwise much the same.

Pricing above the price floor

But what happens when the market price rises far above that floor price, as it has now? In this case, the producers can get more for their coffee outside the Fair Trade system, and often sell their higher quality beans at higher prices. They then sell their lower quality beans to the Fair Trade traders at the floor price. Thus, the coffee with the Fair Trade label can be of considerably lower quality.

A blog in The Economist compared living standards in Uganda and Ethiopia in both Fair Trade and non-Fair Trade areas, and concluded the Fair Trade agricultural workers often earned lower incomes. They found that people living in ordinary rural areas enjoyed a higher living standard than seasonal and agricultural workers receiving a subsidized wage in Fair Trade areas. They concluded that Fair Trade “failed to make a positive difference.” You can read the entire paper the blog  refers to by Cramer, Johnston and others here.

Coffee studies in Costa Rica and Guatemala

Professor Colleen Berndt published an excellent 2007 monograph on her field work in Costa Rica and Guatemala, explaining in some detail her observations on whether Fair Trade works there. Commodity, or exchange grade coffee grows mostly in sunny plains and in poorer soil, while higher priced premium coffee beans are grown in the highlands. Most Brazilian coffee, for example is commodity coffee.

Most of the Fair Trade cooperatives in Costa Rica are in regions not favorable for growing high quality coffee. And the certification costs for a cooperative are substantial; $2000 to $4000 to join plus an annual inspection fee. There are significant costs in running such cooperatives: management employees must be paid out of the small social premium they receive. And there is substantial evidence of corruption in these co-ops, meaning that the social premium seldom reaches the farmers.

In addition, many coffee plantations can be run by a single family except at harvest time, when they must hire laborers, usually migrants, to help in picking the coffee cherries. Of course the cherries don’t ripen all at once and it takes skilled pickers to harvest only the ripe cherries. If they pick less ripe ones, it diminishes the quality of the coffee. The Fair Trade system, however, provides no incentive for high quality coffee.

In any case, the FLO rules require that these laborers be paid at least the minimum wage, although there is no way to enforce this. So these laborers are unlikely to benefit from the social premium of Fair Trade. Studies have shown that while Fair Trade and the earlier International Commodity Agreement (ICA) have no effect on poverty reduction.

Instead, Berndt points out that some quality outlets like Allegro, Peets and Starbucks  have independently encouraged development and socially conscious business practices because it is to their overall benefit.

Financial confusion in Fair Trade

In another interesting review from Stanford, Haight praised the FLO system, but points out that the high price of coffee today compared to the floor price had caused some problems. Originally, farmers suffered from information asymmetry: they had no idea what the going market price was, but today every farmer has a cell phone and knows exactly what the prices are. She points out that while the Fair Trade price was intended to be a floor price; some traders argue that they shouldn’t have to pay more than that price, making it the ceiling price. Haight also points out that the Free Trade system requires a great deal of record keeping which is difficult for farmers “who can barely write their own name.”

And finally, an article by Vaklila et. al. concludes that a larger share of the retail prices of Fair Trade coffee remained in the consuming country than conventional coffee. In other words, quite contrary to expectations, Fair Trade empowers roasters and retailers rather than the farmers themselves.

Fair trade retail pricing

Because we don’t know what quality of beans end up going into Fair Trade coffees, we can’t tell what would be a fair price. If the retailers have to pay a licensing fee back to the FTO, how much are they marking that up to make selling produce worthwhile? There is really no way to know.

Among their dozens of coffees, the Starbucks Online coffee store shows only one Fair Trade coffee variety, Café Estima Blend, retailing for $13.95 a pound.  Most (but not all) of Starbucks coffees are priced lower than this, but a few are the same price and a couple are higher. How can we judge their relative quality? There is really no way to do that other than a taste test, which is difficult to carry out in a double blind, unbiased fashion.

Conclusions

Finally, an article that Myers wrote for (of all places) Cracked summarizes the principal problems with the Fair Trade system. His four main points are that

  1. Growers are paid very little more for Fair Trade coffee.
  2. Consumers are charged much more for Fair Trade coffee, since the Fair Trade wholesale markup is $0.65 per pound, and the retail markup much greater.
  3. Fair Trade is essentially a marketing organization, making money from these licensing fees.
  4. Growers receive a higher percentage for non Fair Trade coffee.

So to conclude, the Fair Trade system does not seem to provide much financial support to the farmers and farm workers as was intended, and seems to lead to lower quality coffee being sold as specialty coffee under the Fair Trade label. If you choose to buy Fair Trade coffee, you are probably not supporting actual growers, but more the retailers and other middlemen. Based on the research in these articles, there seems little reason to buy Fair Trade labeled coffee.

References

  1. World Fair Trade Organization
  2. Elliott, KA, “Is My Fair Trade Coffee Really Fair?” Center for Global Development, 2012.
  3. P., “Not so fair trade,The Economist, May 19, 2014.
  4. Cramer, Johnston, al., “Fair Trade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda,” SOAS, University of London, April, 2014.
  5. Berndt, C. “Is Fair Trade in Coffee Productive and Useful?” Mercatus Center, George Mason University, June, 2007.
  6. Haight, C. “The Problem with Fair Trade Coffee,” Stanford Social Innovation review, June, 2011.
  7. Valkila, J, Haaparanta, P and Niemi, N. Empowering Coffee Traders? The Coffee Value Chain from Nicaraguan Fair Trade Farmers to Finnish Consumers. Journal of Business Ethics, December, 2010.
  8. Myers, G “4 Reasons Why Fair Trade is a Scam,Cracked, Nov 28, 1912

The Great Healthy Yard Project: a talk at the Wilton Library

Lewis' book
Lewis’ book

Last night we heard a talk by Diane Lewis, MD on The Great Healthy Yard Project (their web site is tghyp.com, run by Lewis from her home in Bedford, NY. Trained as a nephrologist (kidneys) and an internist, Lewis is not currently practicing medicine but devoting her time to promoting her project: reducing groundwater pollution by reducing the use of lawn chemicals. The talk was co-sponsored by Wilton Go Green, the Wilton Conservation Commission and the Wilton Garden Club, who introduced the speaker. The talk was recorded and will soon be on the Wilton Library’s website.

Lewis has also written a book on this issue with the same title, which is available on Amazon. She also has published articles summarizing her views in the New York Times and in the Baltimore Sun. A short 3-minute video on the tghyp website summarizes her position.

Lewis’ thesis is that “chemicals” from our lawns and gardens run off into the groundwater and eventually are found in our drinking water. As to which chemicals are of greatest concern, Lewis was quite vague as she mentioned none specifically. Were insecticides of more concern than fertilizers? Probably, but she didn’t actually say so.

She noted that the EPA is quite concerned about this runoff claiming that there is runoff in 70% of streams. The EPA does have a page with good and specific recommendations here. You can also find good descriptions of the problem at the US Geological Survey web site.

Lewis feels that this runoff into our drinking water is a serious problem and that it may be cumulative and could “damage our DNA,” although she presented no evidence for this somewhat surprising conclusion.

Endocrine disruptors

Central to her argument is that these (unspecified) chemicals are endocrine disruptors which even at very low levels may cause harm to humans. The whole idea of endocrine disruptors is controversial, however, and has not been definitively established.

The Endocrine Society has published two reports in this area. The 2009 report described the problem but noted that “Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to make direct links between such epidemiological observations and exposure to given chemicals.” And, a key scientific paper in Science was withdrawn because of apparent scientific misconduct.

Needless to say, there are naysayers in this area, and one published by EndocrineScience.org criticizes the Endocrine Society, but this report was published by a manufacturer’s group, the American Chemistry Council.

Lewis suggested that these endocrine disruptors could be the cause of increased breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, ADHD and autism, but really offered no science to support these views. When I talked with her afterwards, she said there were papers on rats showing that they take on autistic symptoms after treatment with some “chemicals,” but did not cite one specifically. She suggested that these chemicals could be one of many contributing causes, and this is borne out in papers (also here and here). But one problem with this hypothesis is that recent work shows that there has been no increase in autism occurrence in the past 30 years.

Confusion and misinformation

In her gardening segment, Lewis lost ground with reality by suggesting somehow that “eating organic food” would be beneficial, even though there is no evidence that organic food is more nutritious, tasty or safer in any way.  In fact, the classic paper by Bruce Ames showed that the toxic and carcinogenic pesticides generated by plants themselves were present at a level 10,000 times higher than any pesticide residues.

She also suggested that the decline in Monarch butterflies was caused by the planting of “GMO” crops, but backed off when I pointed out that large agriculture plowing fields to remove milkweed as well as eliminating by herbicide is the actual cause.  This whole issue is explained here by Amber Sherwood-K and Jon Entine. The slide that suggested that a solution would be “Don’t eat GMOs,” was thus complete nonsense.

She also went astray in suggesting that the WHO had declared that glyphosate (Roundup) was carcinogenic. In fact this was done by the IARC, a subcommittee of the WHO and in doing so they ignored substantial evidence to the contrary, as described in this report in Scientific American. And they have also found caffeine, alcohol, sunlight, and the hairdressing profession in that same category.

Meanwhile the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment completed a 4-year assessment for the EU, considering 150 new toxicological studies, all available existing toxicological studies (more than 300) and nearly 900 peer-reviewed publications, concluding that

the available data do not show carcinogenic or mutagenic properties of glyphosate nor that glyphosate is toxic to fertility, reproduction or embryonal/fetal development in laboratory animals.

Gardening advice

In the last part of her talk she suggested growing more local plants that would require less care and fertilizers that could run off. Some of particular interest were cardinal flowers, Joe Pye weed and Monarda (bee balm).

We found it surprising that in this talk she avoided mentioning any “chemicals” by name, and she told us this was because this was a layman’s talk. Without naming them, she mentioned that some were listed in her NY Times article. These were glyphosate, carbaryl, malathion and 2,4-D. Of these, glyphosate and 2,4-D are herbicides of very low and relatively low toxicity. Carbaryl (also called Sevin) and malathion are moderately toxic to humans (and carbaryl to bees), but are generally used only in small amounts in gardens and probably are not major runoff candidates. Glyphosate binds to the soil and is seldom found in runoff.

During her talk Lewis had a great deal of trouble pronouncing bacillus thuringiensis, which might indicate that she is uncomfortable pronouncing these chemical names and thus leaves them out of her talks.

Overall, as a chemist, I was not happy with her demonizing the entire class of “chemicals” as all bad without any specific science to back up her assertions. However, her heart is generally in the right place in wanting to reduce runoff from suburban lawns into our water supply. We haven’t treated our lawn with anything in years, so we are way ahead of her, perhaps primarily because we are lazy or cheap, but our lawn still looks fine when it rains enough.

We try Silverton’s buttery biscuits

We try Silverton’s buttery biscuits

Tucked  in this month’s Saveur magazine is a little article by Ruth Reichl about making biscuits. Her simplest recipe uses on cream, flour, salt and baking powder, but  her more elaborate one, attributed to Nancy Silverton, is so over the top we had to try it.

Silverton’s recipe (which others have also written about) uses 5 cups of flour, 5 sticks of butter, leavening and buttermilk. All of that butter is folded into the flour along with rolling, folding and turning, making the biscuit more like a puff pastry, or maybe a croissant, where that sort of turning and folding is common. Fortunately, while you have to chill the flour and freeze the butter, and then freeze the biscuits before baking, the actual time working on the biscuits is way less than for any puff pastry.

The ingredients are simple

  • 5 sticks of unsalted butter, frozen
  • 5 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 2 Tb + 2 Tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tb kosher salt
  • 1 Tb sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 Tb melted butter
  • Flakey sea salt

You will also need more flour to flour the board.

butter stick to be shredded Shred the frozen butter in a food processor
butter in cuisinart It will look like this. Scrape it into a bowl
shredded butter and flour Mix the flour, salt, baking powder, sugar and soda in another bowl, and freeze both the butter and the flour mixture for at least 30 minutes.
butter and flour tossed Toss the butter with the flour. Then add the buttermilk and stir to form a uniform dough.
dough on board Turn out the dough on a floured board. You can continue to mix in any flour that wasn’t incorporated.
FOLDED Roll the dough into 10 x 7 inch rectangle, and then fold it into thirds, folding one third to the top and then the other third to top that, like a letter.
folded and turned Rotate and roll the dough out to 10 x7 again and fold again 3 more times.
dough scored Roll out the dough to  12 x 10 inches, and cut into pieces. Reichl’s recipe suggests 12 pieces, but we found that 16 seemed to make a better size biscuit.
on cookie sheets Place biscuits on two parchment lined baking sheets and freeze for at least 2 hours.
unbaked biscuit Brush the biscuits with melted butter and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt, such as Maldon. Make sure the biscuits are about 3″ apart before baking.
baked on sheet Bake one sheet at a time at 425° for 10 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 400° and bake 10-15 minutes more until golden brown. Let them cool  5 minutes before serving.
one biscuit We found these flakey, buttery and delicious, but extremely filling, of course.
Open biscuit Even broken open, you can see some of the layering.

You could bake all 16 at once and serve to guests, but you could keep the remaining biscuits frozen to serve later. Once they are frozen solid, drop them into a zip-lock bag, and keep them in the freezer until you are ready to serve them. They will probably last a month or more in the freezer.

We are not sure that the sea salt is needed as it makes the biscuits awfully salty. It depends on what you are serving them with.