An Ecological Mexican American Chica:
Doing all she can to live sustainably in body, soul, and on this planet earth.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Truth About Your Meat: It Used to be Alive

What did Mr. Fish do to deserve your disgust for his looks, especially if you're going to enjoy his flesh?
(Photo courtesy of Denise Chan, Flickr Creative Commons)

That beautifully buttered, seasoned, boneless, skinless filet of salmon you eat was once a slithery, scaly fish with googly eyes swimming in the ocean. So then, why is it so gross to buy a whole fish from the market to bring home to cook? Why was I tempted by the perfectly pink square slab of boned and skinned salmon, even though it was five times more expensive? Why did the girl at the check-out register cringe and squeal in disgust at the sight of the fish?

Because we are so far removed from our food, we forget that our meat comes from live, moving animals with legs, fins, eyes, and mouths. How many of us would kill an animal for food, if we had to? Would we be able to look the cute, furry lamb in the eye, knowing that hours later he or she will end up on our plate in broiled cubes with mint and feta? Would you be able to pluck the feathers off the chicken before putting it in the oven?

These situations don't even require us to kill the animal - they simply requires us to come one step closer to the animal's state of being alive. A fried chicken leg has become something we eat out of a box, not the part used by the chicken to walk around the farm (that is, if it's lucky enough to be a free-roamer). Sometimes, it's not even referred to as a leg, but as a drumstick. We call meat steaks and filets, not muscle and flesh. We eat beef, not cows. Pork, not pigs. Poultry, not chicken. Seafood, not fish. Yet, that's what it is. We are eating cooked, dead animals.

So, I resisted the temptation to buy the boned and skinned fish. And even though the whole fish had its tail and head cut off, and it had already been gutted, it still looked like a fish - not the kind you eat on a plate, but the kind that wiggles around in the water with pulsating gills and glub-glub mouths. It looked frightening, unappetizing, and monstrous. I decided to be brave and get more intimate with my fish.

At first, I didn't want to use my fingers to rip open the plastic wrap on the Styrofoam tray. I held one end of the tray with a paper towel and tried to remove the wrapping with a fork. When that method quickly proved inefficient and clumsy, I was forced to use my fingers. I tried not to to be bothered by the feeling of the slippery scales against my skin. And after a few minutes, I discovered the scales weren't as slimy as I had thought them to be. It was cold and clammy, but not slimy - and surprisingly smooth. Then I had to put the fish in the sink to rinse it.

Although I was comfortable touching it here and there, I couldn't bring myself to grab it firmly with my hands. I awkwardly slid it off the tray into a colander on the sink. I was able to rinse one side of the fish without touching it. But flipping it over to its other side - well, I was just going to have to go in there grab it with two hands. So I did. No choice. You can't spear a fish with a regular eating fork, and you can't use salad tongs to grab it.

After covering it in olive oil and stuff it with herbs, then wrapping it tightly in foil, I was becoming less and less squeamish about the fish. I had to keep reminding myself it was just like the salmon filets I purchased at the store, except one or two steps of preparation back in time - closer to its state of being alive. Otherwise, there was no difference. It's a great exercise, if you ever have the opportunity to choose a whole fish over the fileted fish. And if you find you can't do it - well, then, you decide - should you really be eating it? (For the record, this was some of the best fish I've ever had. Cooked on the grill. Highly recommend it. It's inexpensive, feeds many, and will impress your friends.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fighting Aphids the Natural Way

Aphids on Kale
After the 10-month drought and 100-degree heat finally ended in Central Texas, and a very measly spring vegetable harvest, we were excited to plant our fall garden in early October in our Austin home. This time, instead of trying to plant every kind of vegetable that can possibly be grown during the corresponding season, we decided to go with a more limited variety of hearty plants. We received a great tip from Resolution Gardens on planting vegetables that are not only seasonal, but also appropriate for the local climate and soil. Here is their recommended list of vegetables for October:
  • Vegetable seeds – Beets, Carrot, Mustard, Onion, Garden Pea, Radishes, Spinach, Turnip (early October: Chinese Cabbage, Collards, Garlic, Lettuce) 
  • Vegetable plants – Chinese Cabbage, Collards (and other Greens), Lettuce, Spinach, Turnip, Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Chinese Greens (Lettuce and Spinach can be planted throughout the fall if they are given frost protection). 

We ended up planting carrot, chard and radish seeds, along with Chinese cabbage, broccoli, spinach, and kale seedling transplants from the The Natural Gardener. The first few weeks, everything was sprouting beautifully, until some of our plants – particularly the cabbage and kale – started developing holes and looking pale and withered. Upon looking closely and inspecting underneath the leaves, we saw mounds of these little dark green insects shaped like sesame seeds. I snipped off a kale leaf, dropped it in a plastic baggie, and we returned to The Natural Gardener to identify these bugs.

Once there, at first glance, one of the staff identified the problem as a combination of munching caterpillars (causing holes) and juice-sucking aphids (causing leaves to grow pale and withered). But just to be sure, they placed my specimen beneath their ultra-high-powered-digital-microscope. Who knew these little things had such life and personality! The one we saw in the microscope happened to be a loner hanging out on a remote section of the leaf, but normally aphids tend to gather and pile up in tiny areas by the dozens. And if that weren’t bad enough, they are born already pregnant. (Sort of alien-like, if you ask me.) These little buggers can multiply faster than rabbits!

Homemade Organic Pest Control for Aphids
At any rate, we didn’t want to use chemical pesticides, in an effort to maintain our garden completely organic and sustainable. So the folks at The Natural Gardener prescribed 1 quart of water mixed with 1 to 2 teaspoons of soft liquid (non-detergent) soap. They instructed us to apply the mixture right onto the leaf – it has to get on the aphids in order to suffocate and kill them. But those little suckers are stubborn. Even post-mortem, they cling to the leaf, so unless you want them their rotting carcasses on your vegetables, you still have to spray-wash them away after they die. (But don’t spray so hard that you pummel and drown your poor plants with cascades of water.)

Unfortunately, the soap and water mixture did not really help at first. As an alternative to Seventh Generation liquid soap, we tried Dr. Bronner’s lavender liquid soap. The aphids simply kept reappearing. (Fortunately, the caterpillars never came back after we applied one treatment of certified organic Thuricide.) The good news is that eventually, the aphids did finally disappear, but only after we lost both of our cabbage plants and one of our four kale plants, and left a slight bit of damage on the remaining plants.

I can’t say we did our best, though. There are many things we didn’t try. We didn’t try ladybugs. We didn’t try luke warm water (we had used room-temperature water). We didn’t try Neem oil. We didn’t try other liquid recipes recommended on various sites. We didn’t inspect as religiously as we should have. Some of our gardener friends from the farmers market have told us that if you go the organic route, you have to be out there every day and be persistent in fending off the pests. Sometimes, you have to resort to hand-plucking off the bugs if you want to get down and dirty, in order to win the battle.
Hand Spraying Aphids with Soap and Water (and then you still have to pluck off the dead ones)

Let me know if you try the soap and water solution we used from The Natural Gardener and whether it was effective in getting rid of your aphids. Or try some of these other natural aphid control solutions:
Happy aphid killing!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Spring 2011 Garden - First Attempt at Growing Vegetables

Spring 2011 Garden, a set on Flickr.

We'd been going to the farmers market since October of 2010, so we finally gathered the courage to try our own hand at organic gardening this past spring of 2011. We purchased all the supplies at the Natural Gardener - the soil, fertilizer, mulch, seeds, and seedlings. Shand built the garden bed (2 x 8 feet) at home with his tools, using natural cedar wood. We spent about $200 by the time we got everything installed and planted.

Not too long after we put the garden in, we added a structure with netting to keep birds and larger animals away. We also built another contained area for the potted plants. Without any training or classes, we gave our best attempt at growing our own food, not realizing we'd be heading into the hottest and driest summer in recent Texas history

We did yield some crops, but the output was minimal. We definitely didn't get our money back, if you're doing a strict financial analysis - penny in vs. penny out. But if you look at the value of being able to eat home-grown produce, consumed within minutes of being picked, the value was priceless. Stay tuned for a recap of our attempt at fall gardening.