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Archive for May, 2012

Season’s Greetings!

The hours of my surgery clerkship have my internal clock a little out of whack, but don’t worry, I’m not 7 months out of step.  Actually, I’m all-abuzz about the arrival of spring, and all the great things that this season brings! (I’m also all-abuzz because I have a full weekend off for the first time in 3 weeks… Hazzah!).

I don’t think there’s a place I’ve been where spring doesn’t bring a certain sense of joy and optimism- there’s something about the change in temperature, the awakening of plants, and the enthusiasm of spring mating games (human and otherwise) that makes this a very special time of year. While I haven’t been able to enjoy as much of the spring weather, spring sun, and spring scenery as I would like (not to mention the spring mating games), I am enjoying taking advantage of one of the benefits of spring- the food!

To me, the start of spring is signified by the start of the asparagus season.  While I’ve had limited success growing it myself (probably a combined issue of a poor planting location and an inability to let the first couple years of spears grow unmolested (you shouldn’t pick the spears for the first few years so the crowns can grow to be big and strong… I suppose patience (at least for asparagus) is not one of my redeeming characteristics)), there is a farm ½ a mile down the road that produces it by the bucket load.  As soon as the roadside stand comes out, you can be guaranteed to find asparagus in my fridge.  This asparagus is fresh, with no need to *snap* the bottoms off and with excellent texture and flavor. For a month or so, asparagus is a staple of my diet, and there are days when I’ll have it at every meal of the day (honestly- asparagus, poached eggs, and Hollandaise sauce- it works for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!).  Outside of this brief season, I’ll never buy asparagus (you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment), and if I happen to be served asparagus at other times of the year I’m puzzled by the physical resemblance but gustatory dissimilarity between the tender and tasty spring spears I’m accustomed to and the tasteless stringy curiosities I’ve been served mid-winter.

My mention of poached eggs, asparagus, and Hollandaise sauce was no accident. Not only is this one of my favorite meals, but it’s also (at least to me) an excellent seasonal meal. While my hens produce eggs year-round, they outdo themselves in the spring. Production is up, and as they feast on new grass and fresh bugs, the quality (and flavor!) of their yolks increases. Similarly, butter from cows grazing on spring grass is brilliantly yellow with a decadent taste. Combined (with a squeeze of a not-so-local lemon) these ingredients come together to form a culinary delight that complements asparagus and poached eggs perfectly (as well as a number of other delicious things).

In my book, asparagus is the ultimate ‘spring-tiding’, yet there are other signs of spring (along with the orange yolks of my chickens’ eggs) that I look forward to every year. Spring brings the first fresh greens (arugula being my favorite), and fresh fruit-like-substance to the table. Rhubarb, a stem that is transformed by stewing and sweetening into a dessert, is another tiding of spring. My father reasons (and he might well be right), that the only reason anyone ever ate rhubarb is that it is one of the earliest spring products. If this curious, tart, stem came to maturity during the summer, between waves of berries and stone fruit, it seems unlikely that it would be paid much attention, but as one of the earliest edibles of the year, it finds it’s way to our table.

There are a number of great books that explore the difficulties and pleasures of seasonal and local eating. I read “The Dirty Life” last year, and recently enjoyed “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”.  “The Dirty Life” documents the life of a young couple that work a farm that provides a complete pantry (from maple syrup and flour to vegetables and meat) CSA style, while “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” follows the year long adventure of a family that aims to ‘eat local’ for a year. The task in both books is daunting and the process is time consuming (and at times limiting) yet the benefits, and the connection such a commitment brings to the environment and your food are vast.  I highly recommend both books, especially to those that enjoy reading about the trials and tribulations of farming and eating local. (By no means are either book “Paleo”, as both authors embrace grains, yet the tenets of ‘eat local, eat seasonal’ are ones that I think all should embrace.)

I am not a puritan. I enjoy non-local, non-seasonal fruits and vegetables, and some of my dietary staples are things that never have been and never will be local or seasonal to my environment (Oh, to live in a place where avocados, cacao, coffee or coconuts are local or seasonal!). Yet every winter I await the coming of spring and the bounties that the ensuing seasons will bring. The pungent reminder of asparagus recently consumed harkens the arrival of a bounty of crops that the following months will bring!

Seasonal bounty: Spring greens, Spring eggs, rhubarb, asparagus, and (teensy) radishes

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Odd Bits

Earlier this week I received a newsletter from PaleolithicDiet.com that included the challenge to write a blog post about what you would cook if you were selected to receive a copy of Jennifer McLagan’s book Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. In all fairness, I don’t need a copy of McLagan’s book (I already own one), but I like having a topic that I’m enthusiastic about and that doesn’t require I pull any scholarly papers and reference my sources! I like to write, but I haven’t had time to really research some of the more academic topics I’m interested in recently. I accept Patrik’s challenge, and if he wants to send me another copy, I’ll make sure to share it with someone that will love, appreciate, and use it!

Perhaps more important that what I would (or do) cook from Odd Bits, is why I cook offal. To me there are three main reasons (in no specific order).

1: It’s the right thing to do, in respect for the animal you are eating.

As I mentioned in my post on the ethics of eating meat, I have raised (and slaughtered) my own chickens for a number of years.  When I learned to “process” chickens, I was taught to save the heart and liver, both organs that I knew I should eat, but ones I’d never eaten before. My parents are British, and while it may have deeply pained them, I’d never been one for steak and kidney pie, nor had I been one to eat other ‘odd’ bits of animal. I, like so many, fell victim to the ‘eww’ factor of eating odd bits and stuck to the traditional muscle meats. This changed when I started killing my own chickens. First- I knew how much time and effort went into raising and butchering these animals, and throwing away edible bits just seemed wrong. Second- and more importantly, I was taking an animals life, and while I had done my best to make their life (and death) as pleasant as possible, it only seemed right that when I killed them, I used all the bits I could. Third- at that point I was well on the slippery slope to “evolutionary wellness”, and had been reading up on the nutritional benefits of eating organs.

I’ll admit that the first time I cooked chicken livers and hearts I needed a bit of Dutch courage. After imbibing a couple glasses of a delicious Marlborough region Sauvignon Blanc (my weakness when it comes to white wine), I briefly sautéed fresh livers (cut into bite sized pieces) and hearts (halved) in a generous portion of butter and then topped them with salt and fresh pepper. With my Dutch (or perhaps I should say Kiwi?) courage, I took my first bites and was hooked. While I rarely eat chicken these days, if I spot hearts and livers from pastured chickens for sale at the farmers market I usually nab a couple pounds. Not only are they delicious, but it seems only right that if we kill an animal, we should make the most of that sacrifice.

The same concept applies to the cattle that my family raises. I think the old guy that runs the slaughter house we go to gets a kick out of me and my enthusiasm for odd bits (or at least he’s good natured about humoring me- I can imagine him telling his friends about some ‘young woman with a hankering for weird cow parts’), and it seems like each year my list of ‘bits to save’ gets longer. Along with the cut sheets for our animals I include a cover sheet that includes all the extra bits I want to make sure he saves for us. Usually this butcher will return the heart, liver, tail, and tongue, but I’ve added sweet breads, kidneys, marrow bones, and fat to the list. This generally adds a couple extra boxes to my pickup run, and he had a funny smile last time he handed over a 40+ lb box of suet, but he complies (and I think I might need to start making soap- I probably already have a lifetime supply of tallow!). Much like with the chickens, I feel it is important to get the most out of the animals that my family has cared for that have died to feed us.

2: Offal is darn nutritious!

Not only do I think it is morally appropriate to eat ‘nose to tail’, it’s also an excellent nutritional choice. Organ meats are rich in compounds that are lacking (or low) in other parts of the animal. Liver, for example, is very rich in vitamin A (although you should never eat Polar Bear liver- it is so rich in Vitamin A it is toxic!), many of the B vitamins, and iron (to only list a few). Heart, kidney, marrow, and sweet breads all offer different nutritional profiles. I’m generally not joking (nor am I alone) when I refer to liver as “Nature’s multivitamin”.

3- Odd bits are tasty!

Once you get over the ‘weird’ factor of eating different bits of animals, you’ll start to realize they’re really not so odd and that they can be VERY tasty. Tongue tacos, grilled heart, sautéed liver (+/- bacon), steak and kidney… these are all very cookable dishes that can be very delicious. Just like anything else in the kitchen, you can mess them up, but cooked right, these dishes are a delicacy! There’s a reason that some of the fanciest restaurants serve offal, and it’s not just the ‘wow’ factor of serving something unique- offal is delicious!

In conclusion…

It’s only in our modern society that ‘nose to tail’ eating is not the norm. I’d wager that for most of our evolutionary past, humans have taken advantage of all the edible bits an animal had to offer. While many still find ‘odd bits’ off-putting, the interest in them is growing. That’s not only obvious by the publication of books such as Odd Bits, but also by observing changes in the people around me.  When my family sold our first beef cattle, few (if any) customers wanted ‘odd bits’.  As I find customers that are interested in evolutionary eating, my stash of unclaimed offal diminishes (I think I miss the extra tongues the most!). I’m happy, however, if others start to embrace offal, in it’s many forms. Eating offal is delicious, nutritious, and shows respect to the animal you’re eating.  If you’re intimidated by the idea of cooking offal at home, order out (Korean BBQ is a great way to have tongue (and if you’re brave, intestines-yum!)) or you can go the route I travelled and obtain a bit of liquid courage*!

*attempt at your own risk!

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I’m currently on my surgery rotation, which has left me with little time not spent in the hospital, driving to the hospital, or sleeping (in the wee hours of the morning I will be found making coffee and when I get home in the evening I make a good dinner… that about fills you in on my life for the past few weeks and the ensuing month.). Surgery is an exhausting clerkship, and for the most part students are kept pretty busy during the day running around the floors checking up on our patients, tracking down information, seeing consults, or “scrubbing in” in the OR. Sometimes, when I have a chance to slow down (or when scrubbed in on a case where there isn’t a lot to see) I’ll find myself mulling over the system in which I’m working. I’m sure I’ll write about my thoughts and experiences on surgery at some point, but recently I’ve been thinking about medicine in general. I don’t think it’s much of a secret that my real interest is health, which for some reason often seems to be conflated with medicine, though it is increasingly obvious that the later does not always beget the former.

I am, by no means, anti-medicine or anti-medical technology. I am, undyingly, a nerd, and when I see what “we” can do, and how we do it, I am often amazed and in awe. Surgery is full of “I can’t believe we can do this!” moments, and the technology that has been developed, and the knowledge that has been discovered, is truly staggering. Yet sometimes this amazement leaves me feeling hollow. There are procedures, devices, and medicines that cure, reverse, prevent, and heal, but often it seems like we’re doing a lot of work to fix problems that should never happen in the first place. We can do so much, but maybe we shouldn’t have to.

The Fifth Element has been one of my favorite movies for years. I probably haven’t watched it in almost a decade, but I still think of it fondly.  My recent musings on our capabilities (with a certain unease about how frequently and pervasively we feel the need to patch a problem instead of fix or prevent it) has left me thinking of this scene… it is a favorite.

The reality is, the study of disease and the development of techniques and technologies to treat preventable diseases frequently leads to the advancement of science and knowledge. In a way, science and technology ‘wins’ at the expense of the people who suffer from preventable diseases. I’m not a conspiracy theorist- I don’t think this is all a big cynical plot and I don’t think pharmaceutical companies are trying to prolong a problem- they’re simply filling the niche (oh natural selection, you are everywhere) that has been created by the lifestyle that we live.

This thought is a recurring theme as I become more immersed in hospital life, and it is not one I can easily disconnect. When you see a patient in her mid-forties with a list of medication longer than my college transcript (trust me, that’s saying something!), coming in for her fourth surgery (you can take out troublesome body parts like the appendix, gallbladder, and sigmoid (or more) colon, but, inevitably, surgery begets more surgery, and you’ll see someone coming back for a hernia repair at an old incision site or a lysis of adhesions from a prior surgery), you have to wonder- can’t we do better? I don’t necessarily mean “we” the medical community, but more “we the people”. Health is in our hands, and while we have been greatly mislead by (generally) well-meaning government and institutional suggestions, ultimately the pursuit of health is in our hands.

There is a lot of misinformation to overcome and a lot of intricacies that people like to fight about, but for a lot of people health IS simple.  Live like a human.  Eat like one, move like one, sleep like one, and interact like one.  Eat real food, get out and move, spend time with people that fulfill you, feel the sun on your face and get a good night’s sleep… it might just keep you out of hospital (though there’s little hope of that for a 3rd year medical student!).

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