When Better Trumps Perfect

by firsthandfoods on May 14, 2014

Mark Bittman’s recent editorial in the New York Times, Leave Organic Out of It, makes a compelling point.  When the movement to build a better food system gets urgently framed in the context of single, albeit important, issues — like GMOs or organic – we can forget to focus on the big picture. If the point is to eat well, he points out that we can all do that right now by consuming more real (vs. processed) foods.  And, if the point is further to take care of our planet and all of its inhabitants, then we are going to need to fundamentally restructure our food system through policy reforms, shifts in our food culture, and commitments in the private sector.

We’re asked all the time at Firsthand Foods if our meat is organic or doesn’t contain GMOs.  We’d love to be able to say unequivocally, “yes.”  The conversation need go no further.  In truth, we cannot yet affirm either.  Even though we’re working toward these improvements, it’s going to take some time before organically-raised, GMO-free feed sources are locally available and affordable for our livestock producers.

In the meantime, purchasing Firsthand Foods’ meats has a big impact on building a better overall food system.  Our customers are helping us create a local, transparent supply chain for pasture-raised meats that respects small-scale, independent farmers and meat processors, the animals who give their lives for our food, and the planet that must sustain future generations.  No, its not perfect. But we’re grateful to be headed in the right direction.



Yum, Chicken!

by firsthandfoods on May 7, 2014

We’re excited to be able to offer local, pasture-raised chicken to our (M)eat Local Box customers.  This spring, we are sourcing our chicken from Johnny and Sharon Rogers in Roxboro, North Carolina.  The Rogers raise Cornish Cross meat birds, a breed of chicken that adapts well to living outdoors and is known for its superior flavor.  They raise birds in moveable tractors, which they transport across their pastures frequently, helping to fertilize the soil and control pests.  Each tractor is built to provide shelter from hawks, foxes and other predators, while still enabling the birds to scratch and forage to their hearts content.  The Rogers feed their birds a standard grain ration, taking care to avoid the use of antibiotics and animal by-products.  (Hormones cannot be legally used in chicken production.)   

Rogers' chickens raised on pasture Rogers’ chickens raised on pasture.

Pasture-raised chicken is especially tasty compared to meat from birds raised in crowded, confined conditions.  First, because they live outdoors, these birds get plenty of exercise, which keeps them healthy, eliminates the need for medicated feed, and enhances meat quality.  This pastoral lifestyle also affords them the chance to scratch and peck in their natural setting and eat grass and grubs, which adds flavor to the meat.

When they leave the farm, the Rogers’ chickens are slaughtered at Chaudhry’s Halal Meats, a USDA-inspected plant in Siler City where they are “air chilled” to ensure proper cool-down.  This process has numerous advantages over the more common method of immersion in chlorinated cold water.  Air-chilled meat, because it doesn’t absorb water, has more flavor and is both dense and juicy.

Firsthand Foods staff has been buying chickens from Johnny & Sharon for a couple of years now.  With very little preparation, just a little butter, salt & pepper, their chicken is incredibly tasty and provides 2-4 meals worth of meat, depending on the size of your family.  And don’t forget to make a healthy batch of stock with the bones!



Drew’s Clues: Bone Marrow

by firsthandfoods on May 7, 2014

In this month’s (M)eat Local Box subscribers will find some marrow bones.  Marrow is the delicious, fatty interior and is a real treat.  Marrow is used for all kinds of things like enriching sauces (see bordelaise) and broths (such as Vietnamese pho) but if you’re only having it once in a while I recommend simply roasting the bones and scooping the marrow onto bread. BONE-MARROW-1-WATERMARK-1024x768

A quick Googling for bone marrow recipes will invariably result in countless versions of marrow with grilled bread and parsley salad.  This now classic dish was made famous by chef

Fergus Henderson at his restaurant St. John in London.  Chef Henderson literally wrote the book that spearheaded the nose-to-tail eating trend called The Whole Beast and I can’t recommend it enough.

The idea behind the dish is pretty straightforward:  bone marrow is rich and fatty and if eaten straight up really benefits from being paired with something sharp and fresh.  Bone marrow on toast with no accompaniment would be delicious but you wouldn’t want much.  Add to that an herb salad with capers, raw shallots and lemon juice and you have something special.

So it’s nothing new but here’s a bone marrow recipe that you can’t go wrong with:

-Heat oven to 450°.  Lay bones on a foil lined sheet pan, marrow side up.

-Once the oven is ready, roast the bones for about 15-20 minutes, or until the marrow is soft but not completely melted.  Don’t over do it or you’ll end up with bones and a pool of fat.

-Meanwhile combine about a cup of cleaned flat leaf parsley leaves with a thinly sliced shallot, about a tablespoon of capers (drained), a tablespoon of lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

-Serve the bones with some good bread (grilled would be ideal but toasted is fine), the salad and some sea salt.  Spread the marrow on the bread using a thin spoon, season with the salt and pile on some of the salad.


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Drew’s Clues: Pork Spareribs

by firsthandfoods on April 8, 2014

Included in our (M)eat Local Box this month is a rack of pork spareribs.  The spareribs are cut from the section of the rib cage that runs along the side or belly, while the baby back ribs are from the section that is closer to the back or loin.  Our spareribs are cut “St. Louis Style”, which just means they are trimmed of most of the bone or cartilage that runs along the bottom of the ribs.  This makes it much easier to cut through the meat in between the ribs.

pork ribs diagramAnd speaking of that meat, in my opinion it is some of the tastiest on the hog.  Rib meat really can’t be beat for flavor and sweetness.  Only trouble is, it is pretty tough stuff that needs to be cooked long and slow in order to reach a state of supreme edibility.  There are a number of ways to achieve this.  They can be cooked in the oven, on a gas grill or on a charcoal grill.  The charcoal grill is what I like and think it bestows the best and most complementary flavor to ribs.  It does require a bit more work than the other options, but ribs are sort of a “project” meal so go ahead and embrace the project.

As for seasoning, the most traditional style would be a rub, but a standard brine works great too.  For my most recent attempt at ribs I borrowed from a Thai recipe.  It suggested combining ¼ cup honey, ¼ cup soy sauce, ¼ cup Shaoxing wine (I happened to have this around but you could replace with sherry or some other booze if you don’t have time to run to the Asian market), 2 tablespoons finely grated ginger, ½ teaspoon pepper and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon and marinating the ribs over night. I used a large gallon size Ziploc for this and turned it over a couple of times to make sure that all the ribs are well coated with the marinade. This quantity of marinade is intended for 4 lbs. of ribs.  When you’re ready to cook, set aside a few hours and get your grill going.  I use a standard Weber kettle grill and got a charcoal chimney going with a full load of briquettes.  Once they’re lit, place the briquettes all the way to one side of the grill before replacing the grill grate.   You’ll want to wait until the temperature of the grill dies down to about 200-250°.  Hopefully your grill has a built in thermometer but if not use an oven thermometer.  Place the ribs on the grill opposite the charcoal and cover with the lid making sure the vent holes are over the meat in order to draw the smoke and heat through the ribs.  The trick is keeping this relatively gentle grilling temperature going for 2-3 hours.  I like to add a couple unlit briquettes every half hour or so.  Turn the ribs a couple times during the process and once they’re tender glaze them with diluted honey (about ¼ cup honey to 2 tablespoons of hot water) for about 10 minutes.  Let the ribs rest for a few minutes before digging in.  You could serve these with sticky rice and a salad, or just cold beer.

Oh, and if you happen to not have a charcoal grill or just don’t want to mess around with all that you can cook them in an oven or on a gas grill.  The bottom line is you want to cook them at around 200-250° for 2-3 hours.  In the oven you can do this on a rack over a sheet pan.  In both cases turn the heat up for the last 20 minutes or so and glaze with the diluted honey.  These methods won’t necessarily provide the nice smokiness, but will avoid the difficulty of keeping the temperature just right on a charcoal grill.

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Pondering the Purpose of Food Hubs

by firsthandfoods on April 2, 2014

Last week was a whirlwind of activity for many of us in the business of aggregating, distributing and marketing local foods.  The Wallace Center’s National Food Hub Convening took place in Raleigh.  With more than 400 individuals in attendance from across North America, there were 3+ days of tours, training, strategic planning and, of course, lots of conversation in the hallways with like-minded practitioners.  Those of us leading the charge here at Firsthand Foods learned a lot, and have come away with an even stronger conviction that for us, being a food hub MUST be about advancing our mission of creating a more environmentally sound, economically just and socially responsible food system.  Numerous food hubs have come into existence in recent years to reestablish connectivity between larger-scale buyers and smaller-scale farmers at the local level.  But if that goal is pursued without “minding the mission,” then food hubs run the risk of just simply making it easier for the dominant players in our current food system to reap financial benefits from local food supply chains.  And if history is any guide, there are limited to no “trickle down” benefits for small-scale farmers and rural communities.  This argument is well articulated in a recent blog post by Charlie Jackson and Allison Perrett of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP).  They artfully conclude:

We need to be careful to not let the well-meaning efforts to build the infrastructure of local food get in the way of the deeper social change that will ultimately transform our food system. What we don’t need is to grow the movement only to end up looking like what we set out to transform.

For an insightful critique and call to action for the local food movement go to ASAP’s blog and read the full text of Charlie and Allison’s post.


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Nitrate-Free Bacon: Myth or Reality?

by firsthandfoods on March 24, 2014

When the Firsthand Foods’ team began to get serious about making bacon, we decided, due to popular demand, to offer a “nitrate free” product. We came up with a bacon brine that utilizes celery juice powder as a natural preservative instead of sodium nitrite. The bacon that resulted is delicious! And left us wanting to know more about exactly what’s going on with that celery powder. What are nitrites and is our bacon really nitrate or nitrite free? Here’s what we’ve figured out from our research:

What are nitrates and nitrites and what do they do?

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are salts that are used in curing or preserving meat and fish. Sodium nitrate is a naturally occurring mineral that exists in lots of green vegetables, which we (optimistically!) consume all the time. Sodium nitrite is derived from sodium nitrate and is the compound that actually contains the antimicrobial properties that are desired in the production of bacon, hot dogs, salami, etc… In the case of salami, sodium nitrate is added during preparation and it then breaks down during the fermentation process into sodium nitrite, which helps prevent the growth of the deadly botulism bacteria. In the production of products like bacon, ham and hot dogs, which aren’t fermented, straight sodium nitrite is added. Besides preventing botulism, the presence of sodium nitrite provides the characteristic pink color and piquant “cured” flavor to these meat products.

Are nitrates and nitrites bad for you?

Yes and no. Turns out that nitrates exist in fairly large quantities in green vegetables. When we consume dietary nitrate our body converts it into nitrite, which increases nitric oxide in our blood stream and helps lower blood pressure. The stuff that’s actually bad for you is nitrosamine. This is created in the body when those green vegetables react with our acidic gastric juices. However, those vegetables also contain anti-oxidants, which keep nitrosamine production in check. Nitrosamines are also created when sodium nitrite is heated to a particularly high temperature. Nitrosamines have been linked in studies to cancer and so they are considered carcinogenic. Because of these studies, the USDA has imposed limits on the amount of sodium nitrite in cured meats and requires the addition of ascorbic acid (an antioxidant) in order to restrict the amount of nitrosamines that we consume. The other thing worth mentioning about these studies that link nitrosamines to cancer is the fact that a person eating enough bacon to ingest a dangerous amount of nitrite is eating, well, a lot of bacon. This equates to the consumption of a lot of meat, saturated fat and salt, in addition to sodium nitrite. If you are consuming traditional nitrite cured bacon, try to avoid burning it and be sure (surprise!) to maintain a balanced diet so that you’re eating antioxidant containing vegetables and/or fruits along with that bacon.

What’s up with celery powder in “nitrate free” bacon, ham, etc…?

As mentioned above, green vegetables contain nitrates. If you want to cure meat without the pure synthesized form of sodium nitrite, the naturally occurring nitrate in celery can be used. During the curing process, the nitrates in celery powder break down into nitrites and provide all the benefits of botulism prevention, bright pink color and that delicious cured flavor. For full disclosure, the USDA does not consider celery powder or any other “natural” form of nitrate to be a curing or preserving agent but rather a flavoring agent.

So are there nitrates or nitrites in there or what?

Our products can be legally and technically labeled “nitrate-free,” because the brine we use contains no synthesized sodium nitrite. It contains celery powder (and thus “naturally occurring sodium nitrite”), sea salt, cherry juice powder (ascorbic acid), maple sugar and some spices.

But to be completely transparent about it, due to the basic rules of chemistry, products that include celery powder do end up containing naturally-occurring nitrate and its derivative, sodium nitrite. We could choose to make our bacon without celery powder but it would be gray in color and, quite honestly, not as tasty. We’ve opted for striking a balance between flavor, appearance, and ingredients that speak to our customers’ interests in a more natural product.

When it comes to bacon, ham and cured meats, we believe in providing our customers with wholesome, high-quality products made from welfare-approved, pasture-raised animals sourced from local farmers. We encourage you to indulge in these specialty products in small quantities balanced with a good dose of seasonal fruits and vegetables.



Local Slaughter Plants Provide Critical Infrastructure

by firsthandfoods on March 5, 2014

Sunday’s NY Times includes an editorial from author and farmer, Nicolette Hahn Niman in which she documents the devastating impact of an unjustified meat recall on area businesses, especially small-scale farmers. Reacting to a recent 8.7 million pound beef recall at the only meat slaughter plant available to Northern California ranchers, she suggests a variety of improvements to federal inspection programs and demonstrates the important role that small-scale slaughter businesses have in getting meat from farm-to-table.

At Firsthand Foods, slaughter plants are second only to farmers in their significance to our business.  Without them, we would have no meat to sell.  North Carolina is home to approximately 20 slaughter plants that provide services for small-scale independent farmers and wholesale businesses such as ours.   We’re proud to be a part of supporting the growth of these small businesses.

So, next time you give thanks to the farmers who supply your food, consider too your local slaughter plant.   For they are the ones working behind the scenes to make it possible for us to enjoy tasty local meat without having to spend too much time really thinking about where it came from.




GMO Concerns

by firsthandfoods on March 3, 2014

We are concerned about the prevalence of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture.  Most of the corn and soybeans produced in the U.S. have in some way been genetically-modified.  At this time, it is extremely challenging for farmers to source non-GMO feed.  This is due both to the prevalence of genetically-modified seed and to the lack of verification procedures that can reliably and practically identify GMO from non-GMO seeds and feeds.  The exception to this is organically-grown seed stock and feeds, in which use of GMOs is prohibited.  But even organic crops can be inadvertently contaminated with GMOs.  In an ideal world, all of our farmers would have access to affordable GMO-free products, including organic seeds and feeds.  However supplies are very limited in North Carolina, and what is available is prohibitively expensive for most small-scale livestock producers.

That said, we do have farmers in our network who have production systems that include non-GMO feeds.  Some of our farmers, if the weather is cooperative, have sufficient pasture to produce quality, finished beef solely on grass and forages and thus are able to avoid the use of supplements all together due.   A few of our farmers raise their own non-GMO barley and oats to include as a supplement to grass and forages. Others have local access to non-GMO feeds.  We are currently working with our pork producers to encourage the development of feed production and processing methods that eliminate reliance on GMO-feeds.



Questions About Meat Packaging & Storage

by firsthandfoods on March 3, 2014

1. What is the red liquid inside my meat package?

Many people think that the red liquid inside the bag of meat they have purchased is blood. While red in color, it is technically not blood but a mixture of water and myoglobin (a protein in the muscle fibers responsible for giving meat its red color). Blood is actually removed during the slaughter process. The meat you have purchased from Firsthand Foods comes inside a plastic bag that has been vacuum-sealed to remove all the surrounding air (and thus improve shelf life). As the meat ages, muscle fibers break down, and water and myoglobin cells are released inside the bag.

2. Sometimes I smell a strong odor when I open my meat package. Does that mean the meat is bad?

No. The odor is associated with the natural aging process that occurs when meat is stored under refrigerated conditions. Enzymes activate the aging (or tenderizing) process. Because our meat is sold in vacuum-sealed packaging (unlike meat sold in many retail settings), any odor or off-gassing associated with enzymatic activity will build up inside the bag. When you first open the bag and release the vacuum seal, the odor may be pungent but should dissipate after the meat is rinsed and no longer in contact with the liquid and/or plastic bag.

3. How do I know if my meat has “gone bad?”

Typical signs of spoiled meat include a slimy residue, tacky texture, odor, and/or off-color. It is worth noting that a change in color ALONE does not necessarily indicate spoilage. Many factors influence the color of meat, including the age, species, sex and diet of the animal, the specific cut of meat, and how the meat is stored. Changes in color during storage are normal.

4. How long can I store my meat in the freezer?

We recommend storing your meat no longer than 6 months in the freezer. Make sure the vacuum seal stays intact. Remember, it is best to freeze your meat immediately after purchasing it if you don’t intend to consume it right away. Freezing “halts” the spoilage process but does not reverse it. If you  keep the meat in your refrigerator for 2 weeks and then freeze it, when you later remove it from the freezer, you will need to cook it right away as the shelf life will be minimal. If the vacuum seal breaks, you will likely notice signs of freezer burn or white dried patches on the meat. It is safe to eat but will be dried-out and tasteless.




Pasture-Raised vs. Grass-Fed Beef

by firsthandfoods on March 3, 2014

Just like grass-fed cattle, pasture-raised cattle live outdoors on pasture their entire lives.  And like grass-fed beef farmers, pasture-raised beef farmers focus their attention on their grazing system, optimizing the use of their pastures and the unique ability of cattle to convert grass & forages into high value protein.  However, while grass-fed cattle consume only grass and forages, pasture-raised beef producers have the flexibility, particularly during times of drought, harsh winters and/or poor forage quality, to feed cattle approved supplements.

Just like humans, young & growing animals need a consistent, balanced diet to be healthy, resist disease and grow.  A diet high in grass but with moderate use of approved supplements allows farmers to ensure consistent weight gain.   In addition, beef from cattle raised to gain weight consistently throughout their lives will have greater marbling (fat content within the muscle), which is the key to tenderness and flavor.

Younger animals have been shown to yield more tender beef.  Ensuring consistent and sufficient weight gain to reach harvest weight in less than 2 years on grass alone can be challenging in North Carolina – due to weather, forage quality and other factors.  Some of Firsthand Foods’ producers have the land base and resources necessary to ensure consistent weight gain solely on forages but most pasture-based beef producers rely on additional feed supplements to achieve this goal.

The decision to supplement grazing animals is also an economic issue for farmers.  The more time it takes to raise an animal, the more it costs a farmer in use of land resources and management time.  Conventional tools for speeding and controlling growth include the use of a high grain diet, hormonal implants and growth-promoting antibiotics.  These tools are NOT used by Firsthand Foods’ producers.  When forages are not sufficient, supplements provide farmers, particularly those with small acreages, with a tool to help them earn an acceptable return for their efforts.