19 February 2013

Fool-proof method for keeping horsemeat out of your house

So in Europe they're dealing with a food supply scandal where an abbatoir in Romania may or may not have sold horsemeat that may or may not have been labeled as such to a French food processor that may or may not have mixed the horsemeat with beef, where it may or may not have been included in steeply discounted single-serve lasagnas, meat pies, and other microwave-ready boxed meals in supermarket freezer aisles.

Now, horsemeat isn't intrinsically a poor food, unless the horse was treated with a drug not otherwise allowed in horse destined for human consumption, the detection of which was one clue that led to the scandal. But generally, it's my understanding that it tends to be less fatty and richer in iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than the grain-finished beef that Americans usually get. And I'm told it has a grassy flavor somewhere between that of beef and venison, which is at worst unobjectionable and at best mighty tasty. But if you don't want to eat it, you shouldn't have to; and if a package of food doesn't list horsemeat on the label, you should be able to trust that there's no horsemeat in the package. Anything else is fraud, pinching money out of your pocket.

But evidently you can't trust labels, even from high-profile international brands like Nestlé. This is because the path that ingredients take from the field or stockyards to your table is a circuitous one, crossing state lines (or national frontiers) over and over again. Ingredients pass through multiple hands, literally and metaphorically, as they're processed into the end product. And at every step, a processor needs to take its cut and make a profit on the value they're adding to the foodstuff. How do they do it? By using the cheapest ingredient or method possible before they finish touching the product and moving it to the next actor.

Then the final vendor does their balancing act with pushing down the retail price as low as possible while still eking out a profit. One of the problematic products in the U.K. was a bolognese sauce that retailed for £1.00/500g, or about $1.75/lb., or about $1.75 for a pint jar of red pasta sauce with meat. Think about it: that's an extraordinarily low price. If you were to make a pint of red sauce with ground beef in it, you'd need a couple of pounds of fresh tomatoes, perhaps a quarter pound of beef, a little bit of onion and other flavorings, a little oil, and some lemon juice and/or sugar, depending on the tomatoes.

Let me try to price it out if I were to make this sauce today at home. Winter is an awful time to buy fresh tomatoes, but it looks as though I get get a couple of pounds of tomatoes for $5.00; a quarter pound of beef for $1.25; enough onion for $0.25; and let's say another $0.25 for everything else in the ingredient list plus cooking fuel. My version of the sauce costs $6.25. It would likely be cheaper in the summer, when I can get deals on tomatoes. I could save some more by starting with a cheap cut of meat and grinding it myself, or teaming with another household and buying an entire side of beef to share. I think, though, that it would be very difficult to get my pint of meat sauce under about $3.00 while still using quality ingredients.

How to manufacturers do it, then? By buying their tomatoes in quantities larger than six items at a time, of course, with long-term contracts the scale of which I haven't seen since I studied the UCC in law school. The difference between what Campbell's pays for the tomatoes it puts in its soup and juices and what you pay for the tomatoes in your salad is, shall we say, disheartening. Same with the beef they put in their ravioli versus what you put in your sloppy joes. A single producer, a cooperative of farms, or an agribusiness operation will give Campbell's a better price than you'll see at the grocery or farmers market, because you can't possibly match the soup company's economy of scale.

That's only part of the story, however, because there are other actors between you and the tomato field when it comes to industrially produced food. Different components in the package's ingredient list may come from different suppliers, and the food may be only partially produced in one location before it's shipped elsewhere to be finished. Everywhere along the line, the actors will seek to maximize their profits. They'll opt for cheaper raw materials, which may not be as high-quality as what you would buy for your household. What kind of quality do you think you'll get when you pay $1.75 for a 16-ounce jar of pasta sauce?

A butcher in a BBC article explains that it's about "knowing and trusting the people [you] do business with." You can get to know your producer, abbatoir, transporter, and vendor; or you can learn a few languages and travel all over Europe trying to figure out which processor or factory is looking to save a few euro here and there by cutting the ground beef with ground horsemeat:

How's your French, German, Turkish, Greek, Dutch, and Romanian?
See the BBC page for a clickable version of the map with more information.

So, the Rowhouse Livin' fool-proof method for keeping horsemeat out of your house? Don't buy pre-packaged food with a price that's too good to be true. In fact, avoid pre-packaged, processed food whenever you can, because what you gain in price you lose in quality, nutrition, and trust, every single time. If time is a problem, try these: (1) use weekend downtime to make larger batches of food and freeze leftovers in smaller containers for later meals; (2) regularly prepare an extra portion of dinner in the evening, and enjoy it for lunch the next day; and (3) dust off the crockpot and use it at least once per week.

And with that, I'm off to lunch: a couple of slices of home-made pizza left over from Sunday dinner with friends. Absolutely no horsemeat in this pizza. Bon apétit!

13 February 2013

Visualize . . . wasting no food

The Natural Resources Defense Council has issued a report (PDF) about the amount of food that Americans waste every year. Now, not all of it is wasted in the home; a good deal is wasted all along the line, according to the report, from the field to the factory, the distribution chain, and the end points of restaurants and our dining tables.

There's not much, if anything, you can do about how much food is lost before you put your groceries away, I don't think. One should probably assume that the invisible hand will prevent farmers, middlemen, restaurateurs, and grocers from wasting too much food in the interest of maximizing their profits. I guess the invisible hand has done the math and figures that there's an acceptable amount of food that it can allow to slip through its fingers to keep its profits up. That is, at some point it must cost more to save or continue handling some amount of food than it costs to lose or dispose of it.

But here at the homestead, it's essentially 100% unacceptable to waste food, where "to waste food" means to throw it out or let it go bad before I use it. It costs almost zero dollars for me to lose or dispose of food. My trash collection is free, because it's a no-cost-added service from the City of Philadelphia, paid through my taxes. (I don't compost because I don't garden, for architectural reasons.) Now, how much does it cost me to put food down my sink disposal? I blush to confess I've never done that math. I use some amount of water, some amount of heating gas if the water going down is warm, and some amount of electricity. Outside of the cost of the food itself, if I run the disposal for 10 seconds, I will ballpark and say it costs me 2 cents. Some days I run it twice, some days I don't run it; so let's say that I run it once per day, and thus it costs me $7.30 per year to run my disposal. I'm fine with this cost, and here's why. The way I run my disposal is to cram the waste and food trimmings into the drain before I wash the dishes. Then I run the disposal as I drain the sink after doing the dishes. Not only does this get the garbage down without splashing odors into the kitchen, but it also serves to really flush out the disposal and maintain it in a clean condition. In fact, I run the disposal when I drain the sink whether I have garbage down in it or not, for that cleaning effect. And I'm OK with paying $7.30 per year to keep my kitchen smelling a little better than kitchens I've lived in that didn't have sink disposal.

That figure, though, doesn't include the food I'm throwing into the disposal. The most important thing for me to remember here is that the Rowhouse Livin' invisible hand works differently from that of the farmers, middlemen, restaurateurs, and grocers mentioned above. For me, when I don't use food that I buy, it's squarely a problem of throwing money away.

What to do? The Unclutterer blog suggests buying a dry-erase marker notetaking solution, but I'd rather do something that doesn't require whipping out my credit card. Instead, I visualize actually throwing money away. Two pounds of potatoes have turned irretrievably green and sprouted in a back corner of the kitchen? That's two crisp dollar bills floating out the door and into the sanitation truck. A can of beans went all bulgey after I missed it during my last emergency food rotation check-in? That dollar makes a loud "thump" when it lands on the bottom of the kitchen garbage can. Kiwi fruit were 3 for $2 but I ate only two of them before the last one shriveled and got moldy? That's two quarters, a dime, a nickel, and two pennies clinking around the disposal blades with the kiwi's core.

It doesn't seem like much; but if you saw 67 cents in a little stack on the sidewalk, wouldn't you pick it up? After all, you could buy a kiwi fruit with it.

11 February 2013

Potatoes are cheap

Every summer I quit baking potatoes because it's so hot and I don't want to heat up the house by using the oven. Then it's well into winter before I remember, hey, potatoes are cheap and the house is cold, so why don't I bake or roast potatoes for dinner tonight?

Cookbooks and the internet discuss the difference between waxy and starchy potatoes. I tend to get whichever variety is least expensive. This week it was ordinary russet potatoes. I coarsely chopped them into dice, tossed them with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, and oregano, and baked for about 45 minutes at something like 375 F.

Served with grated cheese, it makes a decent light dinner with fresh vegetables like sliced bell peppers.

Baking bread right afterward saves me a few pennies in cooking gas, too.

And of course we had leftovers. I did a sort of a gratin, spreading the potatoes in a Pyrex pie dish and dropping a few ounces of mozzarella cheese on them. I had an acorn squash already in the oven, baking away -- so when it was about 15 minutes from being done, I said "Move over, bacon" and slid the potatoes in until the cheese was melted and a little browned.

But zounds! Still more leftover potatoes! But just a little bit. I'll have 'em with eggs for breakfast.

10 February 2013

Pricey pasta follow-up

Yesterday I complained that pasta at my local supermarkets is stubbornly refusing to get down to my price point, which is $1.00 or under per pound. I checked a second grocery store today, and no luck: the lowest price was still $1.19, and I'm too stubborn-headed to cave and buy a box to make my shelf look better stocked.

What do I do now, then? Mostly, I'll go a little easy on the pasta until I see it again at my price point, which I'll hopefully see soon in a clearance sale. I feel as though we're overdue for one. I probably make pasta for dinner too frequently anyway; we could use more variety in our dinners. I know I have some corn flour masa kicking around, so perhaps I'll make corn tortillas one night this week.

As for tonight, it's semi-potluck dinner with friends. I host a pizza dinner once or twice a month, asking guests to bring sides, desserts, and bottles. I'll make two pizzas: one plain and ordinary (or maybe with one non-challenging topping, like sweet peppers), and one a little more interesting. Tonight, I'll top the interesting one with baked acorn squash purée and caramelized onions, flavored with some sage:

Bon apétit!

09 February 2013

Cold weather, pricey pasta

Here in mid-Atlantic Philadelphia -- very squarely outside of New England -- we dodged the big nor'easter just as we did Superstorm Sandy in the fall. It's stupid cold outside (I don't tolerate the cold well at all) but other than some icy sidewalks we don't have much to complain about.

Except for the price of pasta. I remember seeing sometime last year that wheat prices were going to go up permanently, and the price rise seems to have taken hold. Lately I haven't found pound boxes of pasta for less than $1.19 locally. (Barilla on "sale" at 4 boxes for $5.00 doesn't cut it for Rowhouse Livin', though that's our preferred brand for taste and texture reasons.) Now, I have a good supply here at the homestead to wait a little longer, in case a deal does come along. I mean, I think I'm low, because I have two full half-gallon jars, which is about 4 pounds' worth of pasta. But we do go through pasta really quickly, being mostly vegetarian and totally cheapskates: main dishes, side dishes, starchy stretchers in a crockpot full of soup, and so on.

So I'll try the supermarket again tomorrow when I go on a quick run for some items I missed at the store today, but I'm afraid I'll be disappointed again. And not just at the cold, cold wind blowing tears out of my eyes. I guess I should have invested in wheat futures last summer!