Saturday, October 30, 2010

What is Fair Trade, anyway?

Given it’s almost Halloween, it seems appropriate to talk about chocolate for a minute. I’m not a fanatic like some people I know (Joyce) but I do love a little something sweet after a meal and lately I’ve really taken to dark chocolate. And I mean good dark chocolate, not the junky stuff they sell at Duane Reade. They say dark chocolate is a health food so I figure as long as I don’t do anything crazy like scarf down a whole bar at one sitting, I’m doing my body a favor, right?

My current favorite is from Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade member and maker of very delicious chocolates. I like their Organic Extra Dark Chocolate bar, made with 80% Panamanian cocoa beans. The remaining 3 ingredients are cocoa butter from the Dominican Republic, organic sugar from Paraguay, and vanilla from Madagascar (that's right - no corn syrup, artificial flavors, or emulsifiers like soy lecithin). It says on the wrapper “By choosing Equal Exchange fairly traded products, you support a food system that builds stronger farming communities, creates a more equitable trade model, and preserves our planet through sustainable farming methods.”

This all sounds great and true to my assumption a product with Fair Trade certification is a good thing but I have to admit, I don’t truly know what Fair Trade means. Chris Martin of Coldplay is an advocate, but should I really trust a rock star (other than Bono, of course) to guide me on matters of ethics? Since I’m on the fence on that one, I did a little research…

Fair Trade is most commonly associated with coffee, which was the first agricultural product to be certified Fair Trade in 1986. But the real beginnings started more than forty years prior, in the 1940’s, when European and North American church groups, in an attempt to alleviate suffering in poverty-stricken and underdeveloped regions of the world, began importing and selling those citizen’s handicrafts. Because their products were sold to customers directly, without a middleman, the impoverished were able to receive a fair price and higher return for their products.

The next few decades saw much of Fair Trade’s growth occur in Europe where it was often tied to political groups taking a stance against what they saw as the growing dominance of global corporations in the marketplace. The main vehicles for Fair Trade, Alternative Trading Organizations (ATOs), flourished. Over the years, the focus of Fair Trade shifted from handcrafted goods to agricultural commodities.

Fair Trade arrived in the United States in 1986 with Equal Exchange, makers of my delicious chocolate bar. The three founders met while managing a food co-op in New England and decided they wanted to do something to raise awareness and respect for where food comes from, how it’s grown, and who grows it. They chose fairly traded coffee from Nicaragua as their first product. Back then coffee was not the ubiquitous beverage it is today; the guys from Equal Exchange bet on coffee’s huge growth potential and man, were they ever right. Twenty years later, the company is going strong selling a range of organic and/or sustainable products that includes tea, cocoa, chocolate, sugar, bananas, nuts and berries from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States.

The do-gooder side of me loves the concept of my Fair Trade chocolate bar and what it stands for: stable, profitable income and safe working conditions for small-scale farmers; investment in local communities; encouragement and support for environmentally-safe farming practices. The food-lover side of me craves the creamy, rich, non-bitter taste of this dark chocolate (an 80% chocolate bar that’s not bitter and chalky is a miracle, actually). And it’s organic to boot.

There is no doubt Equal Exchange is more expensive than Hershey’s. I wish it weren’t so; living in Manhattan I pay through the nose for everything and for once it would be nice to catch a break on something. But life is about choices and I don't think food is the place to start skimping on cost. The fantastic taste, ethical production, and championing of the Little Guy makes it worth the extra $$ to me.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

New York Magazine guide to Greenmarket Apples

Looks like I'm not the only one obsessing about apples!  There are so many apples in this guide I'd like to try, it's hard to know where to start.  Similar to heirloom tomatoes, the names, history, and descriptions of heirloom apples are a delight to read and the 28 listed here are no exception.

What makes an apple an heirloom?  Generally speaking, it's a named variety that has been passed down through families, communities, or regions for generations.  Each year as homes are sold and developers purchase small orchards, many of these special (enthusiasts would say magical) apples disappear along with part of America's cultural history.  

Unlike an heirloom tomato, it's not as simple as saving an apple's seed to grow another genetically identical tree.  To do so, a cutting from one tree must be grafted to the rootstock of another tree. Trees grown from a seed will produce hybrid fruit, which is one reason why there are over 14,000 documented apple varieties in North America since the English brought seeds over from Europe.

Sadly, 90% of the apples consumed today in the United States consist of only 11 different varieties.  These varieties are not favored because of taste; they are favored because - you guessed it - they can withstand the rigors of transportation over thousands of miles from Washington State (or, out of season, Chile and New Zealand) to get to market.  Wouldn't you rather eat an apple grown for its complex flavor, juiciness, and/or texture than for its ability to not bruise??

I say resist the urge to buy a Red Delicious (currently the commercial leader, pulling in 40% of all apple purchases in the United States). Walk past the commercial jars of applesauce on the grocery store shelves (most likely made with apples from another country).  Drive by the supermarket, head straight to a farm stand, and pick up a locally grown apple variety that may or may not look a little homely compared to its waxy, bodacious, and bland distant cousin, Red Delicious.  Give it a chance; I bet you find it has personality and taste to spare.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Calvados Applesauce with Butter Walnut Crumbs

Fall finally feels like it’s here for keeps; the temperature has dropped enough that I need a light jacket to run around town in,

the shadows are growing longer, the daylight growing softer, and the ornamental grasses in the park have donned their tassels.

On Saturday at the Tribeca farmers market my favorite edible sign of fall, apples, was out in full force.

I eat an apple every (week)day pretty much without fail. I’m a creature of habit when it comes to eating (see my egg post) and when I’m at work I have an apple around 3:00 or 4:00 because A) it’s good for me and B) I’m always hungry.

I buy my apples from Terhune Orchard on Saturdays at Union Square throughout the winter, spring, and summer because their apples always retain their crisp texture. I’ve tried buying from other farmers and I hate to say it but they often disappoint; their apples are usually soft and mealy, which is just horrible in an apple. Part of an apple's appeal is biting into it and hearing a snappy crunch...

What sets Terhune apples apart is the way they are stored; in addition to keeping them in cold storage at a low temperature (common practice on farms), the room is also equipped to maintain the air’s oxygen concentration at low levels (not so common). Both these factors combined vastly increase the life of an apple.

But it’s fall now so it doesn’t matter which farm I buy my apples from; they are all fresh off the tree, crisp, and delicious. Prospect Hill Orchard comes to the Tribeca farmers market from Ulster County, NY and has a nice selection of apples, including heirloom and organic, as well as the usual suspects.

For the past month I’ve been hoping to cook or bake something with apples but have failed miserably; there never seems to be enough hours in the day. On Saturday morning Ruth Reichl’s tweet sent me over the edge: “Silver sky. Storm’s end. Baking bread perfumes the house with its warm, brown scent as apples, butter, Calvados melt into chunky sauce.”

That’s it; apples here I come! I’m starting with an applesauce dessert and who knows what will be next. Stay tuned.

Applesauce with Butter Walnut Crumbs
Adapted from Gourmet, December 2004

This is so easy! No excuses, people!

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon finely chopped pecans or walnuts
1 slice firm white sandwich bread with crust, coarsely ground in a food processor (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup bottled chunky applesauce (I made me own; see below)

Garnish: lightly sweetened whipped cream

Heat butter in an 8-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat until foam subsides, then cook nuts and bread crumbs with a pinch of salt, stirring constantly, until golden, 2 to 3 minutes.

Spoon applesauce into a goblet or other glass, then sprinkle with crumb mixture.

Calvados Applesauce
Adapted from Gourmet, January 2003

Given whom the tweet came from, I knew exactly where to find a Calvados applesauce recipe. I went to Gourmet online and there it was.

I doubled the recipe and halved the amount of sugar originally called for. I also used Golden Delicious apples because the Gala’s had sold out by the time I got to the stand.

I’m sure you can leave the Calvados out if you want but I found it added a nice depth of flavor.

1 lb Gala apples
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons Calvados

Peel and core apples, then cut into 1-inch pieces. Bring apples, water, sugar, zest, and cinnamon to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, 15 minutes.

Remove lid and simmer until most of liquid is evaporated, 5 to 10 minutes. Add Calvados and simmer, stirring occasionally, 1 minute. Mash apples with a potato masher or a fork to a coarse sauce, then cool.