Dying Onion Easter Eggs – The Beauty of Imperfection

If you’re of a certain age and grew up with garish Hanna-Barbera cartoons, you harbor some nostalgia for Easter eggs dyed in lavishly fake hues not found in nature. Bubblegum pink, say, or Tang orange. But aesthetics have changed since then, especially among those of us who have embraced sustainable living. We crave something more in tune with the earth using natural dyes and decorations, which is what Lia charged me to bring to you in this post.

onion-dyed-easter-eggsThankfully, there are plenty of resources for how to make dyes by boiling colorful ingredients (think beets, blueberries, and the like) to extract their pigments, which you then use to dye hard-cooked eggs (the egg-dying equivalent of using henna to color your hair). What’s Cooking America has clear instructions to make fruits, vegetables, and spices into dyes. Culinary Musings has groovy ideas for using rubber bands and tape to create batik-like patterns.

I admire people who have the patience and steady hands to turn everyday objects into works of art . . . but the truth is, I’m just not one of them. I tried to shift this assignment to one of my colleagues–Jackie, maybe, since her beautiful gyoza are edible works of art. But, no, Lia thought my Everywoman lack of handicraft skills made me an ideal candidate. If we found a project that I could master, anyone could succeed.

So off I went in search of the simple.

Luckily, Lia mentioned something about using onion skins to dye eggs. This requires nothing more than eggs, papery onion skins, cheesecloth, and kitchen twine. I loved the idea of using humble items that I had on hand to create subtly beautiful patterns reminiscent of marbled endpapers from old books. Even better, I could cook the raw eggs and dye them in one step.

The real beauty of this project is that it’s all about imperfection. The onion skins don’t have to be uniform sizes, and they needn’t be wrapped perfectly around the eggs. In fact, the more they overlap, and the less perfect they are, the more interesting the results.

Use white-shell eggs, so the subtle colors from the onion skins show up nicely. A combination of the papery skins from red and yellow onions will give the eggs a marbled yellow-and-brown pattern. Here’s what you need:

  • Selection of papery skins from red and yellow onions
  • White-shell eggs, at room temperature to prevent them from cracking when added to boiling water
  • Cheesecloth, cut into 6-inch squares (2 yards is plenty for 6-8 eggs)
  • Kitchen twine
  • Vegetable oil

Place skins in a bowl of warm water to soften them. Dip an egg in warm water. Drape pieces of skin around the egg (similar to doing papier mache). Wrap the egg in a double layer of cheesecloth; secure with kitchen twine. Repeat with as many eggs, onion skins, cloth, and twine as you like.

Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Gently lower eggs into pan. Cook 11 minutes. Transfer eggs to an ice bath. Unwrap eggs and gently wipe them dry with a clean towel. Dip a towel in oil and rub each egg to give it a pretty sheen.

What to do with those leftover onions? Sub them for the peppers in our Sweet Pepper Confit or Quick-Pickled Red Onions (which will work with any kind of onions) to serve with your Easter meal, or on a sandwich with leftovers.

A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and NOURISH Evolution’s editorial director. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health.

Distinguish Between Farmer and Food Producer

As I was a writing a piece about food policy (nothing like trying to wrap-up agricultural policy in 500 words when the Farm Bill itself is 1,770 pages), a clear distinction stood out between a “farmer” and a “food producer.”

farmer vs. food producer

To me, and I think to many of us, “farmers” are those who work the land. They’re the ones who get dirt under their fingernails and whose eyes light up when conversation turns to compost. But while that may be the portrait for the people growing your food, it isn’t necessarily the portrait of the people who own America’s farmland or who are producing your food.

Let’s start out with some basics. First, nearly half of the country—over 1 billion acres—is farmland. Yet only 4% of the owners own nearly 50% of that farmland. And according to data from the USDA, there is a very high correlation between sales volume and how directly involved the owner/operators are with the actual land. Take, for instance, small-scale family farms (which make up 90% of the number of farms in the US). Their owners do 70% of the labor themselves. Bump up to a very large-scale family farm or a non-family farm and the number drops to only 19%.

This means that as farms grow into bigger and bigger businesses, the ones who own and operate them are more likely to be managers and marketers and accountants and less likely to be actual farmers. In other words, they move along the continuum from “farmer” to “food producer.”

This week, if you’re curious, Google the company behind the label on your produce or packages and see if you can find dirt under their fingernails.


Pasta with Asparagus and Prosciutto

This pasta recipe is springtime in a bowl–use the freshest asparagus you can find. You’ll be amazed by how much richness and flavor just one egg yolk can bring to a dish.


1/2 pound whole wheat spaghetti
1/4 cup water
Sea salt, to taste
1-1/2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and sliced on the bias into 1/2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced and then sliced crosswise into narrow ribbons
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chicken stock
1 tablespoon minced parsley

Prepare pasta according to package directions, cutting back 2 minutes on cooking time. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water.

While pasta is cooking, bring 1/4 cup salted water to a boil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add asparagus, cover and cook for 3-5 minutes or until asparagus is just crisp-tender. Drain into a colander and return pan to heat.

Swirl in oil and when hot, add garlic and prosciutto. Sauté for 1 minute and add asparagus back to pan. Continue cooking another 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until asparagus just begins to char in places and garlic and prosciutto have crisped.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons reserved pasta water, egg yolk, Parmesan cheese and chicken stock.

Return drained pasta to pot over medium-low heat. Add egg mixture and toss. Add asparagus mixture, salt to taste and toss again. Cook 2 minutes or until sauce thickens and starts to stick to pasta, adding additional pasta water by tablespoon intervals if sauce seems dry. Toss with parsley just before serving.

Serves 4

The Great Burrito Challenge: Fast Versus Fresh

by Cheryl Sternman Rule

Faster, faster, faster! As the dinner hour approaches, time seems to speed up and the thought of cooking a from-scratch meal may overwhelm even the most well-intentioned among us. Ever count how many drive-thrus you pass on your commute home from work? I hope you’re a math genius, because the numbers add up remarkably fast. It’s no surprise that the cheap price and sheer convenience of fast food makes it a seductive option for millions of Americans each day.

But what if we broke down the “cost” of that convenience into all of its correlating parts? The quality of the ingredients; the nutritional profile of the meal; the financial cost; the environmental impact; time; flavor, texture and color; and the social experience at the dinner table. Only by examining all of these factors can we truly gauge whether, on busy nights, the drive-thru is truly the better option.

fast-freshTo do this, I served the same meal—beef and bean burritos—on two consecutive nights.  The first night, the meal came from Taco Bell’s drive-thru.  (My children looked at me in bug-eyed horror when I announced my assignment. Had I, their mother, been body-snatched by an alien?) The second night, I attempted to replicate the same burritos at home. I don’t claim that this was a 100% scientific comparison, but the overarching lessons are revealing nonetheless.

Ingredients: Props to Taco Bell for making it very easy to see exactly what is in their food. The full ingredients list of the Beefy 5-Layer Burritos I purchased can be found online here (click “see what’s inside” and then “ingredient details). It doesn’t take long to see hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, and preservatives among the flour, beef, cheese, sour cream, and beans. Could it be worse? Sure, but when I made similar burritos at home (see recipe below), I was able to mimic the final meal with far fewer overall ingredients, without hydrogenated oils and with fewer preservatives, colorings, and chemicals. I also cooked with organic, grass-fed beef, organic tortillas, organic beans, and organic low-fat sour cream. Winner? My version.

Nutrition: One Taco Bell Beefy 5-Layer Burrito had 550 calories, 8 grams of saturated fat, 1640 milligrams of sodium, and 9 grams of fiber. The sodium is especially interesting: a single burrito contained 71 percent of the daily recommended limit (2,300).  My homemade burrito, which I served with romaine and mashed avocado, had the same amount of saturated fat, but fewer calories (488), more fiber (11g), and, at 871mg, slightly more than half the sodium of Taco Bell’s. The avocado in my version also added healthy unsaturated fat. Winner?  My version.

Financial cost: Here’s where fast food blows all competition out of the water. I’d tucked $20 in my pocket before setting out for the drive-thru, assuming the burritos would cost about $5 apiece. I was stunned to see the final price: $.89 per burrito, plus tax. It took me a minute to realize what that meant: fast food is so shockingly cheap, it’s difficult for any fresh food to come close. My homemade burritos costed out at roughly $2.05 per burrito, which is more than twice as much, but still inexpensive by almost any standard (a family of four could eat my meal for $8.20), especially given that most of my ingredients were organic and the beef was grass-fed. From a purely financial perspective, though, the fast food was cheaper, hands down. Winner?  Taco Bell.

Eco-cost: Each Taco Bell burrito came wrapped separately in paper and the order was packed in a plastic bag. My raw ingredients, of course, had plenty of packaging, too. But are there additional environmental costs to the fast food meal? The feedlots where cattle are generally raised and slaughtered for fast food are likely to exert a much higher environmental toll that the grass-grazing cows used to make the beef in my burritos. The organic veggies in my version didn’t require the use of pesticides, either. Don’t forget that environmental costs can often be quite complex, extending deeper than merely the final packaging. Winner?  My version.

Time: From the time I told my kids to get their shoes on to the time we sat down to our drive-thru meal, exactly 18 minutes had elapsed. When I cooked the burritos myself (from ingredients I had already purchased), it took exactly 22 minutes to get the food on the table. The drive-thru saved only 4 minutes. Winner? Taco Bell, but barely.

Flavor, texture & color: If the Taco Bell burrito hadn’t had the 18 ingredient nacho cheese sauce, the two meals might have tasted similar. But the cheese sauce, which included an unidentified catchall “natural flavor,” lent the TB burrito a gooeyness and impossible-to-replicate taste. Texturally, the TB burrito was mushier, too; the tortilla continued to steam in its paper wrapping and plastic bag, so when we got it home it had softened considerably. By contrast, heating my tortillas individually over a gas flame imparted a great puffy crispness. Serving a 2-minute side of mashed avocado and shredded romaine with lime added color, texture, and freshness to the home-cooked meal.  Winner? My version.

The overall dining experience: When we returned from the drive-thru, it seemed silly to put out placemats or even plates. We tossed the bag of food on the table, ate it straight from the packaging, and finished the meal in less than 10 minutes. Two of us woke up in the middle of the night to drink water, which is unusual. Was our thirst from the high sodium content? I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible. When eating our homemade burritos, we set the table properly and took our time discussing our days, and the differences between the two meals. Winner?  My version.

So what’s the lesson here? There are actually several. Fast food is cheaper, yes, but it’s not all that much faster if you have your ingredients handy, and the hidden costs are greater than they may at first appear. Ultimately, remember this: if you need to, you really can cook a 20 minute dinner using organic, quality ingredients—and avoiding most artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives—for less than $10 for a family of four. And (trust me on this) you and your family will feel a lot better if you prepare the meal yourself.


Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.

Homemade Beef and Bean Burritos

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

Talk about fast food.  This quickie meal uses high quality store-bought ingredients, pantry spices, and fresh veggies to deliver an improved version of a fast-food staple.  Nothing fancy here, but when your schedule is frenzied and you’re considering the drive-thru, consider this 20-minute DIY meal instead.  Decrease the chipotle slightly if you’re serving less adventurous palates.

burrito-beef-beanFor spice mix:

1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile pepper, or less, to taste
3/4 teaspoon salt

For burritos:

1/2 pound organic grass-fed ground beef (85% lean, or leaner)
One 16-ounce can low-fat vegetarian refried beans (“salsa-style,” if available)
1 tablespoon water
Four 8-1/2-inch to 9-inch flour tortillas
1/2 cup shredded Mexican-style cheese blend
1/4 cup light sour cream
2 limes, quartered
3 cups shredded romaine lettuce, from one 8-ounce heart of romaine
1 avocado

Heat a medium skillet over medium high heat for about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare spice mix by combining all spices in a small bowl. Stir to combine.

Add ground beef to skillet and brown, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Add the refried beans, water, and spice mix, lower heat slightly, and cook until flavors meld, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Turn off heat, and cover skillet.

Heat each tortilla directly over the burner of a medium gas flame, turning two or three times with tongs, until puffed, speckled and pliable, about 45 seconds. (Alternatively, heat in a dry pan on an electric stove.) Repeat with remaining tortillas. Lay tortillas on a cutting board.

Place 1/2 cup beef and bean mixture, 2 tablespoons cheese, 1 tablespoon sour cream, and a generous squeeze of lime down the center of each tortilla. Fold in the edges and roll up, burrito-style. Place seam side down on a plate. Repeat with remaining burritos.

Serve burritos with plates of shredded lettuce and mashed avocado, both spritzed with lime.

Serves 4

Understand Ecosystems

In this age of green, the term “ecosystem” gets tossed around quite a bit–from technology to tide pools. But it’s an important concept to grasp, as in really understand, when talking about creating a sustainable food system.

Traditionally, we’ve talked of the food chain. But an ecosystem is more like thousands of threads braided together than it is a neat series of links (plankton, small fish, big fish). Whether you’re talking about agriculture or aquaculture, wide open ocean or wild prairie plains, each has a unique set of environmental and biological factors that make it home to a specific mix of plants and animals that, when in balance, all thrive together.

Why is this important? Because trying to alter an end result—be it saving a vanishing species of fish or curtailing greenhouse gas—while ignoring the native ecosystem is like trying to light a candle while it’s underwater. Julie Packard of Monterey Bay Aquarium believes we need to evaluate aquatic ecosystems as a whole in order to save the oceans (and the life within them), rather than working on species-specific solutions. And many believe we need to shift toward more traditional, closed-system farming techniques (where, for instance, manure produced by cows is used to fertilize the land that grows their food) in agriculture.

It’s a little word, a big concept, and the foundation of talks to come.

This week, lock on to the meaning of ecosystem.

Buffalo Blue Burgers with Celery Slaw

The inspiration for these buffalo burgers is somewhat obvious — the combo of hot sauce, blue cheese and celery is a buffalo wings classic — but the tie to sustainability and healthy ecosystems might not be as clear. I was turned into a buffalo (bison) lover by Dan O’Brien, of Wild Idea Buffalo, who talked about bringing back bison in order to save his beloved South Dakota plains. The two, it seems, are healthiest when living together … a perfect illustration of a thriving ecosystem. These flavorful burgers will be a hit at any summer barbecue.



Early Spring Menu

Weather is so strange. In the East, y’all are just cleaning up after a veritable hurricane. Here in the West, after months and months of cold and rain, it’s suddenly 80 degrees and gorgeous blue skies. So while my husband fetches a rose to sip outside tonight, I’m going to pull together an early spring menu:

early-spring-menuGrilled Crostini with Fava Bean SpreadThis nibble comes together super-quick once the favas are shelled, so you can whip it up and be back outside before the conversation even hits a lull.

Fusilli with Artichokes and Swiss Chard I love this dish. It’s winter and spring and light and creamy all at the same time.

Lemon-Herb Lamb ChopsThis makes a perfect first grill–tender lamb chops bathed in a garlicky, lemony marinade. Mmmmm.

Blood Orange GranitaThis granita makes the most of the last of the blood oranges in a light, refreshing dessert.

And I have to throw in a favorite sandwich for this time of year too:

Radish and Goat Cheese Baguettes Everything about this sandwich makes me happy. The radishes–so vibrant and colorful–come straight from our backyard, the bread from our local bakery, and the cheese from grazing goats just a few miles away. Even the olive oil comes from a local producer.


Heritage Meat and Poultry: Eat it to Save it!

By Jacqueline Church

I dined on a Mulefoot pork chop at Cochon restaurant in New Orleans with a rush of pleasure, anxiety, and guilt. If this hog breed is endangered, should I be enjoying it so much? I thought. But in truth, the pork is what brought me to the restaurant; by eating the endangered breed, I was actually helping to save it.

heritage-breedsThe Mulefoot is just one threatened breed listed by Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste and the American Livestock Breed Conservancy. Both organizations seek to preserve endangered foods, including vanishing breeds of pigs, turkeys, cattle, and poultry. For example, did you know over half the swine breeds listed in the USDA Agriculture Yearbook of 1930 have disappeared?

Once modern, large factory farms emerged in the 1920s, pigs, turkeys, chickens and cows were bred to be docile and mature quickly. Animals were moved from pastures to crowded feedlots and fed cheap food that often made them sick (which led to widespread antibiotic use). And stressed animals on unnatural diets produce meat that is inferior in taste and quality. The good news is, conservation, biodiversity and superior taste are all part of the re-emerging food values inherent in heritage breeds.

Heritage breed farmers like Lisa Richards, owner of Mack Hill Farm in Southern New Hampshire, practice environmentally sound biodiversity. She and her husband raise Tamworth pigs–hardy foragers prized for lean, fine-grained meat. The farm is also home to sheep that yield milk for making yogurt and cheese (as well as whey that feeds the pigs), and chickens and Midget White turkeys that pick through manure in the pasture, breaking the parasite-bacteria cycle so the pigs can safely root the manure back into the soil as they forage.

This natural approach means that heritage breeds take longer to reach market weight and require pasture to roam and forage … which costs more than raising them on a feedlot … which means farmers can only raise heritage breeds if there is a market for them. Which brings us full circle.

As my Cochon experience demonstrated, chefs are a crucial link in the farm-to-table journey. Heritage breeds have long enchanted chefs, who are introducing diners everywhere to them. Chefs and consumers swoon over heritage breeds’ distinct characteristics, like high intramuscular fat and rich, fine-grained meat.

But diners are sometimes stunned at the prices of heritage products, which can cost $5-$10 or more per pound (reflecting a truer cost of food production than their conventional counterparts). Nonetheless, there are ways to incorporate heritage meat and poultry into your food budget.

Ask for it. I discovered heritage pork (a Tamworth-Berkshire cross, labeled only as “fresh pork shank”) for $3.99 per pound at my specialty grocer. Costco now carries D’Artagnan, which represents sustainable, humane small family farms and cooperatives. LocalHarvest.org can help you find farmers who sell directly to consumers, at farmers’ markets, and through CSAs in your area.

Eat less meat. The average American consumes 15 cows, 24 hogs, 900 chickens, 12 sheep, and 1,000 pounds of other assorted animals in their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That‘s a half-pound of meat per day–almost twice the USDA’s recommended 5 ounces of lean protein for a 1,800-calorie daily diet.

By consuming smaller portions of more heritage meats, buying from farms or specialty grocers, and demanding heritage breeds at your mega-mart, you can help improve your family’s health, the environment, and breed diversity. As the Ark of Taste’s motto says, “Eat it to save it!”

jackie-thumbJacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.

Redefine Your Understanding of Fat

The ancient Greeks had three distinct words for love. Philia, a love borne of loyalty and familiarity, would never be used to describe the passionate attraction of eros or the deep contentment of agape. I think we need to take that concept—having words that describe the intricacies of a more general term—and apply it to the word “fat.”

redefine-fat-gheeHere’s my take:

  • Food Fat – This is what what’s clinically called “dietary fat.” This actually applies to a class of macronutrients that consists of several different types of fats: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and so on, which can be broken down further into omega-6 fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, etc. Although it was demonized for making us fat, it has since been proven that there is no direct link between dietary fat and weight gain.
  • Body Fat –  The fat on our bodies is comprised largely of what is called “adipose fat.” Beneath the skin, it insulates our innards. Around our organs it acts as a protective buffer. And all fat in our body is on call to burn for energy when needed. Body fat, in correct proportions, serves several vital functions. It’s when we have too much that it becomes unhealthy.
  • Thought Fat – This is my term for the way we throw around “I’m fat.” It’s the cultural judgment we impose on ourselves and others for carrying an excess of body fat.

Why is this important? Because all three terms have distinctly different meanings, yet we tend to muddy them all together in our minds and sentences. A glug of olive oil (a healthy food fat) will elicit a response of “that will make you fat.” And in that sentence is the implication that the olive oil will add adipose fat to your body (which it won’t, not directly anyway) and that adipose fat is a bad thing (which it isn’t in correct quantities). You can see how those five little words carry three misconceptions and a grand assumption that a little bit of a healthy oil will lead to an excess of body fat, which in and of itself imposes a judgment.

This week, catch yourself—both what you say out loud and the chatter in your head—and redefine your understanding of fat.