Smoke and Mirrors – Sustainable Palm Oil

On the heels of writing about how the food industry is suddenly responding to consumer demand that our food supply be sustainable, I stumbled upon an article about how Unilever and Cargill, the two leading exporters of palm oil, were in the process of sourcing only sustainable oil.  I wrote a small piece nearly two years ago examining the destructive properties of large-scale palm oil production in Indonesia, and was encouraged to believe that something had changed.  Indeed, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a “Palm Oil Scoreboard,” which evaluated the efforts of several large companies, declaring that most of them were making a concerted effort to source palm oil that “protects both High Conservation Value and High Carbon stock forests.”  But in a concentrated effort to locate these sustainable palm oil plantations in Indonesia I was stymied; the reason being that little has changed except the spin.  The exact same “safeguards” are in place just as they have been since 2004, and they are inadequate at best.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004 and created a certification process known as Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, or CSPO.  This process allows manufacturers to purchase certificates that can be redeemed for palm oil which they then can claim is from segregated, fully traceable supply chains.  Companies can legally claim that their products are not produced on plantations responsible for deforestation, loss of animal habitat and destruction of local economies.  If you spy the stamp “GreenPalm” on your candy bar, you are supposed to be assured no orangutan had died to satisfy your sweet tooth.

RSPO and CSPO were created with admirable intentions.  The problem lies in the fact that the issued certificates could be essentially meaningless as the little palm oil that is actually CSPO is much more expensive to purchase.  The big companies aren’t willing to pay more, thus forcing producers to cheapen the load by adding more unsustainably produced oil into the mix.  The producers sell the GreenPalm certificates which the end user redeems and is then able to make a sustainable claim.  In this system, GreenPalm certificates tend to mask traceable and sustainable supply chains.  Nick Thompson, CEO of New Britain Palm Oil, listed as an authentically sustainable producer of palm oil, says that “although we understand the theory behind GreenPalm certificate trading we have always thought that because the associated claim is so weak, the value to any buyer would be correspondingly low and therefore represent too little incentive to the growers…The value of certificates is pathetically low and the fact that such a massive percentage of GreenPalm certificates are being redeemed by a very small number of companies illustrates their lack of franchise in the market.”  Another producer of palm oil, Agropalma of Brazil, rated by Greenpeace as the top maker of sustainable oil, issued a statement saying that “we are also against GreenPalm certificates and believe there is no sustainability where there is no traceability.”

The fact remains that Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil.  Agropalma operates in Brazil and New Britain Palm Oil in Papua New Guinea.  Companies such as Unilever and Cargill, among others, source their palm oil from Indonesia.  That these companies claim to be working towards the purchase of sustainable oil may be true, but they are also being forced to do so by 2020, and that may certainly be too late.  In the interim, vast tracks of land continue to be deforested.  Given that the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (ISPO) dissociated itself from the RSPO and pledges to make its stringent standards mandatory for all producers of palm oil in the country by 2020, business interests in the area are conducting huge land grabs in anticipation.  So not only are current programs ineffectual in stopping deforestation, the threat of stronger mandates appears to be ramping up production of palm oil and the subsequent razing of rain forests.

The sad irony lies in the fact that palm oil replaced the much maligned ingredient necessary for the production of processed food, trans-fat.  Palm oil may not be as injurious to human health, but the consequences of its massive production are dire for the planet.  It is estimated that Indonesia’s peatlands hold approximately 57 billion gigatons of carbon which is steadily contributing to greenhouse gas emissions as the forests are being destroyed.  Work is being done to replace palm oil with a substance that “matches palm oil’s key properties almost identically,” but it’s still in the early stages of development and its cost is as yet too high.

Greed, politics and corruption are, of course, at the root of our blind willingness to destroy the planet.  Good intentions by U.S. companies or the standards set by the ISPO may prove to be too little too late, particularly as China and India are the world’s biggest buyers of palm oil.  All of the countries in the world must act now if we wish to preserve the rain forests of Indonesia.

Recipe of the Week

This is an incredibly simple recipe, exceptionally delicious, but it takes about three hours to make.  Once you get it on the stove, however, it needs little attendance.

Pappardelle with Wild Boar

1 lb. ground wild boar

3 small stalks of celery, minced

4 Tbls. onion, minced

1 tiny carrot, minced

4 sprigs of fresh rosemary

1 small can of organic tomato paste

2 Tbls. flour

2 tbls. olive oil

5 cloves garlic, minced

8.8 ounce package of dried pappardelle

1 bottle of Italian red wine

In a large soup pot, preferably cast iron, heat the oil.  Add the meat and brown.  Add the carrot, onion and celery, stirring and cooking for about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic, rosemary, tomato paste and flour, stirring it all together.  Add the wine, bring to a simmer, cover and allow to simmer on the lowest heat for at least 2 hours.  I checked the pot and stirred in every half hour, and it was fine, needing no more liquid.  Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain but don’t rinse and stir into the sauce.  This dish requires no sprinkles of cheese.  It feeds at least four people.

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A Quiet Revolution

I’m still chuckling over the Carl’s Jr. television ads featuring gorgeous women devouring monstrous hamburgers while the words “hormone-free,” “grass-fed,” and “free-range” are prominently displayed.  Their latest ad, apparently shown on Super Bowl Sunday, has a well-endowed female beauty parading down the street in a bikini while chewing on one of those burgers.  “This ad tells you that Carl’s Jr. sees this as enough of a mainstream issue.  They’re realizing that this is something people want and not just something that a bunch of activist, doomsday folks are trying to push,” said Michael Hansen, senior scientist with Consumer’s Union.  Indeed, Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for CKE Restaurants, Carl’s Jr.’s parent company, says that “sales of the burgers have exceeded projections.”  And now, as many of us predicted, the trend is expanding into other food industries.  The ice cream behemoth, Breyers, announced last week it will stop using milk from cows treated with rBST.  Unilever, Breyers’ parent company, also owns Ben & Jerry’s, Fruttare, Good Humor, Klondike, Magnum and Popsicle, all of which they plan to include in the rBST ban in the next few years.  Alessandra Bellini, vice president of brand development at Unilever North America, says that “these industry-leading changes are the latest in our commitment to do right by parents and the environment.”

Once again, Monsanto is involved.  They developed this genetically engineered hormone in 1993 in order to artificially increase milk production in cows by 10 to 15 percent.  The FDA, as is its wont, rapidly approved the artificial hormone, despite the fact that no study had occurred examining possible side effects in either the cows that were injected or the humans consuming the milk.  The FDA accepted Monsanto’s “study,” which tested the hormone on 30 rats for 90 days, a study that was never published.  In 1998, Health Canada decided this study was reason enough for a review preceding approval of the drug and banned its use.  The European Union, Japan, Australia and New Zealand quickly followed suit.  All of this followed a 1991 report by Rural Vermont that showed that rBST injected cows suffered serious health problems.

Monsanto is, of course, fighting against this trend in the industry to source milk from rBST-free cattle.  Calling on the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission to do their bidding, Monsanto has asked that they stop “deceptive milk labeling practices [which] have misled consumers about the quality, safety, or value of milk and milk products from cows supplemented with recombinant bovine somatotropin.”  In the two letters written by Monsanto and sent to the government agencies, they specifically cited twelve companies who Monsanto says are using “false or misleading advertising” when promoting rBST-free dairy products.  John Thomas, present of Thomas Dairy, one of the companies named in the letters, acknowledges the power of Monsanto.  “They’re a huge company, and they can put pressure on small companies like us to get in line with what they want.”

Rick North, project director for the Program for Safe Food at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, believes Monsanto is fighting back because of lost profits.  He says that “Monsanto is getting clobbered in the marketplace” because dairies nationwide are going rBST-free.  In 2005, our very own Tillamook Creamery Association made the decision to ban rBST even in the face of pressure from Monsanto.  Since then, the trend eventually enveloped all of Oregon’s dairy producers, as well as Safeway in Oregon and Washington.  There are too many dairy producers in the country to list who have abjured the use of rBST, however Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor, is on the list, as well as a growing roster of restaurants and coffee shops.  Starbucks and Chipotle Mexican Grill among them.  Rick North simply said that “a hellava lot of dairies have gone organic or [rBST-free] since 2002.”

Consumer demand is obviously increasing production of organic foods and people are seemingly willing to pay more for milk.  A study done by the American Journal of Agricultural Economics Association outlines why sales of organic milk are increasing across the nation.  Sales of all organic food was estimated to be $35 billion in 2014.  That Breyers has joined the ever-increasing list of companies promoting “clean” food is heartening.  Unilever even has a “Sustainable Living” website, which also promotes the reduction of salt, fat and sugar in their products.  Americans are waking up to what corporations have been doing to their food and industry is paying attention.

Recipe of the Week

There are few salads better than a Caesar Salad, and if you make your own dressing it will be extra special.  Not hard to do if you own a food processor, although it can be done manually as well.

Caesar Salad

For the dressing:

2 eggs

2 TBLS lemon juice

4 cloves garlic, minced

4 anchovies

1 cup olive oil

1 tsp worcestershire sauce

Put all the ingredients in the bowl of the food processor except the oil.  Using a drip attachment, if you have one, turn on the processor and pour the oil into the attachment until it’s gone.  Taste for salt, although I don’t think it’s necessary.

For the croutons:

You’ll want some good French bread, preferably a bit stale, but fresh will work, too.  Cut the bread into cubes, any size you like, and drizzle with a light coating of olive oil, salt and pepper.  Spread out on a sheet pan and bake in a 350 degree oven until crisp.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before storing.

Caesar Salad

Pull off the tops of a bunch of Romaine lettuce.  Wash well and remove the leaves.  You should leave them whole for a better presentation.  Coat the lettuce with dressing, add the croutons, and shave some good parmesan over the top.

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Good Food, Good Life, Part II

Nestle is still at it.  The Swiss Multinational corporation has been trying to gain essential control over the water from Oxbow Springs, near the town of Cascade Locks, a small village in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.  Nestle began their pursuit of the Oxbow Springs water in 2008, but had been thwarted by public protests and lawsuits brought against it by Food & Water Watch, which has battled with Nestle over this issue throughout the U.S.  Food & Water Watch also sued Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), which had been encouraged to pursue the deal by former Governor Ted Kulongoski.  Current Governor John Kitzhaber also sides with ODFW.  The fight is back on, however, as a judge sided with ODFW last fall, potentially allowing for a “transfer of its water right” to support Nestle’s bid.  In effect, the state of Oregon would “trade” its legal right to the Oxbow Springs water to Nestle.  Previously, Nestle worked on a deal that would have allowed them to purchase water from the Cascade Locks city government.

This so-called trade is so completely one-sided as to raise suspicions of political meddling.  The state would hand over the ownership and control of the water to Nestle and the city of Cascade Locks would get about fifty $10 an hour jobs that would, from examining past history of the company, disappear after a short time.  This trade would also require no public interest review.  As it has done all over the country, Nestle would be able to purchase water for a song and then sell its bottled water for thousands of times more to consumers.  “They will pick a place with spring water resources that needs jobs, then they’ll overpromise on jobs, overestimate their economic impact and underestimate their environmental impact,” said Julia DeGraw, an organizer with Food & Water Watch.  When Cascade Locks Mayor Tom Cramblett says “it’s a win for everybody,” one suspects he has over indulged in those free hot dog parties Nestle has been sponsoring in his town for years (nitrite poisoning?).

Aside from the obvious dangers to a community when they cede rights to their water (and they will pay more for their water than will Nestle under this deal), a much larger conversation should be taking place concerning the consumption of bottled water at all.  Americans drink 21 gallons (79 liters) of bottled water per capita per year.  The marketing ploy of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) is to convince people that bottled water is healthier than tap water.  Joe Doss, president and CEO of IBWA, says that “many consumers are focusing on healthful choices for themselves and their families, and they know that safe, convenient, refreshing bottled water has zero calories and is the healthiest option on the shelf.  They also appreciate the reliable consistent quality of bottled water.”  The apparent success of the  IBWA marketing campaign is evident from the fact that bottled water sales are greater than those of milk, coffee and juice.  The public is left unaware that dangers lurk in bottled water not existent in tap water.  A 2008 Environmental Working Group investigation revealed not only that dangerous chemicals infested much bottled water, but also are present in the bottle itself.

Moreover, the used bottles extract an environmental cost.  According to the Water Project, “bottles used to package water take over 1,000 years to bio-degrade and if incinerated, they produce toxic fumes.  It is estimated that over 80% of all single-use water bottles…simply become litter.”  It also “takes over 1.5 million barrels of oil to meet the demand of U.S. water bottle manufacturing.”  In addition, as pointed out by Dr. Michael Warhurst, Friends of the Earth’s senior waste campaigner, “it is  another product we don’t need.  Bottled water companies are wasting resources [it takes 3 liters of water to package 1 liter of bottled water] and exacerbating climate change.  Transport is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, and transporting water adds to that.  We could help reduce these damaging effects if we all simply drank water straight from the tap.”

Nestle has long maintained, and correctly, that when they lay claim to water sources all over the country they are simply responding to consumer demand.  Indeed, IBWA’s sales projections indicate increasing consumption of bottled water in the next few  years.  Nestle’s desire to gain control over the water from Oxbow Springs is merely an addition to their profit making objectives.  That they now have acquired the right to the water rather than having to trade the water simply speeds up the process.  “It’s a simpler more direct way to accomplish the same objective,” said Dave Palais, Nestle’s spokesman for the Cascade Locks Project.  And this is not a “win” for the small community at Cascade Locks.  Tiffany Pruit, a former Cascade Locks City Council member, is at least raising questions about environmental effects, even in the area, as she wonders where funds will emerge when the town’s one-lane main street is inundated by 200 trucks each day.  The fight isn’t over, but Nestle has been maneuvering to get at the water of Oxbow Springs since 2008, and they are prepared to wait longer.

Drink tap water.

Recipe of the Week

I don’t often prepare pasta, but I was given some fresh pasta sheets and decided to make lasgagne.  This is a vegetarian meal, with one simple trick that made it exceptional.

Spinach and Goat Cheese Lasagne

For the sauce:

1 28 oz. can of organic, fire-roasted whole tomatoes, pureed (I prefer Muir Glen)

6 to 8 cloves garlic, minced

3 stalks celery, diced

1 small carrot, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

3 ounces local goat cheese

Heat the oil in a large, cast iron pan.  Add the vegetables and saute until the onion is translucent.  Add the garlic and tomatoes, reduce the heat and simmer for about 1/2 hour.  Turn off the heat and allow to cool for about 15 minutes.  Stir in the goat cheese.

For the lasagne:

2 bunches spinach

1 pound fresh pasta sheets

2 cups grated parmesan

Remove the leaves from the spinach and wash well.  Put the leaves in a large pot, turn the heat to high and, while stirring, wilt the leaves.  Drain and squeeze dry and chop.  Grate the parmesan.

In a large casserole dish, coat the bottom with a little of the sauce.  Cut your pasta sheets to fit the pan.  Sprinkle half of the spinach, half of the parmesan and half the sauce.  Repeat.  Cover the lasagne with foil and bake for 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  The goat cheese adds a lovely smoothness to the dish.

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Government Sponsored Poison

I’ve heard it takes forty years, on average, for people to accept new ideas or information.  For instance, many people still believe  you can contract trichinosis from eating under cooked pork.  What caused trichinosis in the past was the practice of feeding pigs meat scraps, which was abandoned in the 70s, and the very few people who get the disease now get it from eating wild game.  What inspired this immediate digression was the mild shock I experienced when reading that a new study has “found” that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is toxic.  While any reinforcement on the dangers of consuming this product is welcome, such information has been available for some time.  Two years ago I found plenty of evidence concerning the evils of HFCS, and wrote a post, Sugar Bowl, in January of 2013.  At the time, it was well established that consumption of HFCS, even in moderation, is a major cause of heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia and liver failure.  The Corn Refiners Association, however, has spent a good deal of money to convince Americans that HFCS is no different, and in fact equivalent, to cane sugar.

The new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Utah, which will be published this March in the Journal of Nutrition, concentrated on mice.  Wayne Potts, Professor of Biology at the university, says “that mice instead of humans are good test subjects because 60 to 80 percent of what is toxic in humans is toxic in mice and vice-a-versa.”  Professor Potts also presented the study as “the most robust study showing there is a difference between high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar at human-relevant doses.”  And this difference is the idea people find so hard to accept, even as the information has been available for years.

Dr. Mark Hyman, who has been studying HFCS for more than a decade, acknowledges that sugar in any form causes obesity and disease.  Having said that, however, he, as well as many others, go on to point out the differences between sugar and HFCS.  “HFCS and cane sugar are NOT biochemically identical or processed in the same way by the body.  HFCS not only spikes insulin since it goes right into the bloodstream, it also goes right to the liver triggering the production of triglycerides and cholesterol.  High doses of free fructose have been proven to literally punch holes in the intestinal lining allowing nasty byproducts of toxic gut bacteria and partially digested food proteins to enter your blood stream and trigger the inflammation that we know is at the root of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and accelerated aging.”  A 2012 UCLA study also demonstrated that “a diet steadily high in fructose slows the brain, hampering memory and learning.”

The link between disease and obesity to HFCS began to become apparent in the mid-70s, when the diabetes-obesity epidemic began.  This was precisely the time that there was a switch from sucrose being the main added sugar in the American diet to HFCS.  HFCS became ubiquitous  and is currently present in most processed foods, including canned vegetables, as well as its obvious presence in soda pop.  But Americans apparently continue to either ignore the information available to them concerning HFCS or choose to believe the propaganda put forth by the corn industry.  The Corn Refiners Association’s continued assertion that there is no difference between sucrose and HFCS can certainly be a factor in our overall consumption.  The average American eats 35 pounds of HFCS a year, which is not hard to imagine when over 90% of processed food contains the substance.  In human history, we’ve gone from 20 teaspoons of sugar a year per person to about 150 lbs. of sugar per person per year.  Although that may seem like a lot, it’s easier to comprehend when you realize that one soda contains at least 15 teaspoons of sugar, all of it HFCS.

One may be excused for believing that if you don’t douse your coffee with sugar and stay away from desserts, that you’re managing your overall consumption.  But given that the Western diet has morphed from eating whole, non-processed foods to almost exclusively processed foods, that assumption is a false one, and dangerous to boot.  If you want to be stupid, as the UCLA study suggested, you can continue with a blithe disregard for hard science.  To keep you and your family healthy, however, you must cook from scratch, stop drinking soda and avoid as much processed food as possible.  You’ve known this since the mid-70s, and  your forty years are up.

Recipe of the Week

The one processed food I usually have in my house are canned tomatoes.  I prefer Muir Glen Fire Roasted Whole tomatoes, as they are organic and have few other ingredients.  Each 28 oz can, however, contains 3 grams of sugar.

Pasta with Proscuitto, Mushrooms and Tomatoes

1 lb pasta – any one you like is fine, but try for a more robust pasta such as penne, and the organic imported versions are the best

3/4 lb crimini mushrooms, stems removed and sliced

8 large cloves garlic, minced

1.5 cups of pureed whole tomatoes

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 or 5 anchovies, chopped

1 tbls. fresh rosemary, minced

1/8th lb. proscuitto de Parma, cut up

fresh parmesan

Chop the garlic and rosemary first and set aside.  Prepare the mushrooms – if they are dirty, wipe them with a towel rather than washing them.  Puree the tomatoes and set aside.  Chop the anchovies.  Fill a large soup pot with cold water and about 2 tsps salt.

Heat the oil in a cast iron pot.  Add the mushrooms and anchovies and cook until the mushrooms have released their moisture.  Add the garlic, stir for about 30 seconds and then add the tomatoes, rosemary and proscuitto.  Turn the heat to a simmer, and cook the sauce for about 1/2 hour.  While the sauce is cooking, turn on the pasta water.  When it comes to a boil, put the pasta in and stir until the water returns to a boil.  Cook until al dente, about 8 minutes, then drain but do not rinse.  When the sauce is done, add the pasta and stir.  Serve with fresh parmesan on the side.

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Chipotle’s Pig Problem

On the heels of Carl’s Jr.’s announcement in mid December that they would offer a clean, non-industrial burger to its menu, Chipotle Mexican Grill let it be known last week that they were dropping pork products from their menu.  The difference between the two decisions is that where Carl’s Jr. did market research in an attempt to bolster their bottom line, Chipotle Mexican Grill made a political decision, and dropped a product.  CEO Steve Ells has temporarily pulled carnitas from their menu, citing the failure of their supplier, as Miller Tabak analyst Stephen Anderson said, “to comply with the company’s pig housing standards.”  And where the Carl’s Jr. move appears to have made a huge impact on the way beef will soon be produced in this country and was largely applauded, Ells decision was perceived as a negative, with the value of its stock falling, albeit temporarily.  The reaction could also stem from the fact that CKE Restaurants Holdings, the parent company of Carl’s Jr., rakes in about $1.3 billion in profits, whereas Chipotle earns roughly $758 million.

Nevertheless, this move by a smaller fast food chain will contribute to the growing consumer demand for sustainable products.  And as people become more aware of not just how pigs are raised but what the health consequences are from eating industrial pork, they are more likely to demand changes in current farming practices.   Currently, as with beef, demand for humanely raised organic pork exceeds supply.  Chipotle Mexican Grill still has at least 1,800 restaurants nationwide and thus has the ability to encourage more humane treatment of pigs and cattle.  As I stated last week, Chipotle has also decided it must import grass-fed, humanely treated beef from Australia, as it is now sometimes forced to sell conventionally raised beef as humanely raised cattle are often difficult to source.  Chipotle’s decision has raised a few eyebrows, but Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesman, said “we would rather not serve pork at all than serve pork from animals [conventionally raised].   Replacing the supply we have lost…will take some time, but it is important to us to maintain our high standards for pork, and we will continue to see some shortages while we work to increase the available supply.”

Niman Ranch, a consortium of U.S. family farmers committed to “humane animal raising standards,” already a supplier to Chipotle, recently announced they will increase their supply of fresh pork to the chain.  This is a temporary fix, however, as Niman will draw from an emergency reserve.  Chipotle has declined to publicly name the suspended supplier, but intends to resume a business relationship if that supplier improves living conditions for its pigs.  In the interim, Niman says it is “working with our family farmers on a long term basis to help encourage them to grow more animals, which will result in increased supply in the long run.”  Chipotle and Niman alone cannot alter the current overall condition of industrial pig farming.  But efforts to reverse the long term practice of confining pigs to crates where they are unable to move has gained popularity among consumers, causing Target, McDonald’s and Campbell Soup, among others, to refuse pork raised in this manner from their pork supply chains.  And despite the drop in stock price immediately after Chipotle’s “no more pork” announcement, switching from conventionally raised pork to those humanely raised in 1999 caused carnitas sales to double, even as the price increased by one dollar.  And while there are currently not enough organic pig farmers in the U.S., the Rodale Institute has initiated a 333 acre organic farm in Pennsylvania that raises, among other things, organic pigs.  The farm serves as a demonstration on how to convert from conventional practices to organic farming.  Chipotle’s is hopefully just on an increasingly longer list of businesses that push for organic farming practices.  That they have long been in the business of raising consumer awareness is laudable and will contribute to future change.

Recipe of the Week

I was awarded the giant ham bone from our Christmas gathering (a Niman Ranch product), and decided to make ham stock.  It takes far less time than chicken stock and enhances bean soup immensely.

Ham Stock

1 ham bone

1 whole onion, skin and all, quartered

4 or five celery stalks, untrimmed

2 carrots

Put all the ingredients in a large pot and just barely cover with cold water.  Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer for at least two hours.  Strain.  Take the meat off the bone and freeze for later use in soup.

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Capitalism Saves the World!

A whopping 72% of consumers apparently equate the advertising word “natural” with healthy, which is astonishing in and of itself.  What’s more surprising, however, is that a major national fast food chain paid attention to that figure and applied it to their business.  To see a Carl’s Jr. television ad, and I usually mute the sound and avert my eyes, that announced a new “all natural” burger last week shocked me completely.  The burger has no hormones, no antibiotics and is sourced from grass-fed, free-range cattle.  We don’t do that here, of course, at least not on that scale, so Carl’s Jr. has to import the beef from Australia.  The burger is still astonishingly unhealthy – it has 44 grams of fat, 1,220 mg. of sodium and 760 calories – but that fact is almost beside the point, even as most commentators focused on that particular issue.  What makes this move profound is how it will affect the U.S. beef and fast food industries.

McDonald’s has seen a drop in sales for many years, despite other efforts to lure in a more health conscious crowd with fruit smoothies and salads.  It’s entirely likely, then, that the corporation will soon be adding a “clean” burger to its menu in order to compete.  The National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) “What’s Hot” survey for 2015 certainly demonstrates a growing appetite for “environmental sustainability,” “locally sourced meats and seafood,” and “grass-fed beef.”  A Carl’s Jr. representative, CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder, explained that the move was not encouraged by animal rights advocates; that it was not a political move.  “Our objective has never been to tell people what to eat, but to serve them what they want to eat,” he stated.  Mr. Andy Puzder simply read the NRA survey and decided the move to sell grass-fed burgers would benefit the company’s bottom line.

Imported beef from Australia fits no one’s definition of locally sourced meat.  Although Cargill has been supplying markets for years with grass-fed Australian beef, which has proven to be a prescient business decision, the “Big Four” beef packers (Tyson, Cargill, Swift & Co. and National Beef Packing Co.), aside from Cargill, have been slow to recognize the trend toward more sustainable practices.  Only since Carl’s Jr.’s announcement have these companies initiated efforts to create a business model involving grass-fed beef.  A commentator on the Big Four recently posed the question being asked behind closed doors within the cattle industry.  The question is “Are we ready and can we supply domestic grass-fed beef at a price point that is attractive enough for the Big Four packers and their primary customer base.”

Carl’s Jr.’s parent company, CKE Restaurant Holdings, Inc., also owns Hardee’s, which is apparently concentrated in the South and Midwest.  This restaurant chain is currently market testing an all natural burger as well.  Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s,  has stated that “the new burger may represent the first step in a larger move toward natural products.  We are looking at other ingredients in the menu that we may be able to make cleaner.”  Haley also remarked that when the all natural burger was first offered in Southern California, “it was one of the best-scoring products we’ve ever tested.”

Other national chains, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill, have been serving clean meat for years.  They, too, have found it difficult to find enough grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free U.S. beef, and recently announced they would be forced to import Australian beef.  This announcement caused the Texan Agriculture Commissioner, Todd Staples, to lash out at the restaurant chain.  Chipotle Mexican Grill also want their beef to be 100% GMO free, which automatically eliminates Big Ag cattle that are fed GMO corn.  But as co-CEO Steve Ells has stated, “the restaurant chain doesn’t want beef that’s been shot up full of hormones and antibiotics; instead it’s looking for true grass-fed beef that are free from those foreign substances, and Australia is a leader in that field.  The meat produced by these ranchers is ‘grass-fed’ in the truest sense of the term:  these cattle spend their entire lives grazing on pastures or range lands, eating only grass or forages.  [And] the cattle are raised without added hormones, antibiotics or growth promotants by ranchers committed to humane animal husbandry.”  From what I understand, the CAFOs in the U.S. can’t come anywhere near this standard.  Yum Brand Foods, which owns Taco Bell and KFC is also set to jump on this particular band wagon.  Greg Creed, CEO of Yum, stated recently that “restaurants need to be more transparent about the ingredients they use and to decrease the use of preservatives.”

Although I persist in denouncing industrial fast food, I realize that this initial move by Carl’s Jr. and its advertising campaign is a major game changer.  The beef industry will be forced to respond if they wish to compete, and more and more people will become aware of how the food they eat and feed their children is produced, and how that food affects their health and the environment.

Recipe of the Week

This soup is super simple, vegetarian and wonderful.  You can easily eliminate the blue cheese and the soup will still be great.

Potato Leek Soup

4 russet potatoes, poorly peeled (you know, just don’t take off all the peel) and chopped

3 leeks, washed – the white part coarsely chopped

8 cups water

1 Tbls. sea salt

1/2 cup cream

2 Tbls. butter

3/4 lb blue cheese

1 cup chopped parsley

Put the potatoes, leeks, water and salt in an appropriate sized pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer for about 50 minutes.  Add the cream, butter and blue cheese and puree.  Add the parsley and serve.

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Dumb Diet

Much has been made concerning a new study, led by Kelly Purtell of Ohio State University, that provides evidence that eating fast food is not only a major contributor to the obesity epidemic but also damages brain development in children.  The study, which is behind a paywall, cataloged the fast food eating habits of 8,544 children at age 10, assessed their current test scores in math, science and reading, and then compared the results three years later.  The study revealed that “52 percent of the children in the study ate fast food up to three times weekly, 10 percent had it four to six times a week, and 10 percent had it every day.”  Not surprisingly, the children who ate fast food every day scored lower on tests than children who never ate fast food.  Similar studies, however, have been conducted over the years, yielding many of the same results.

Research was done in 2010 by Dr. Sophie von Stumm from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, which examined “whether the type of children’s daily main meal – comparing fast food with ‘slow’, freshly-cooked food – impacted on children’s cognitive ability and growth.”  Like the Ohio State University study, this research also accounted for socio-economic status, television watching and exercise.  The results showed that childhood nutrition has longstanding effects on IQ.  Another study conducted in 2009 came up with the same conclusions, in that a diet devoid of fresh food lowers IQ.  This information is not new.  And, sadly, government inaction remains steady.  Aside from this evidence presented by the scientific community, no single politician in the U.S. has made any attempt to rein in or regulate the fast food industry.

Michelle Obama, however, did take a stand at increasing public awareness of the need to improve the quality of the food we feed our children.  Shortly after arriving at the White House, Ms. Obama planted a garden, at the time declared organic, but which in fact merely eschewed the use of chemical herbicides.  The garden did not strictly adhere to the official regulations as to what comprises an organic garden.  Over this seemingly simple attempt to supply vegetables to the White House kitchen as well as serving as an educational tool for children, Big Ag groups went nuts.  The Mid America CropLife Association, a group that represents Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Crop Protection, among others, sent a protest letter to the White House.  Ms. Obama also instigated a program, “Let’s Move,” which espoused the virtues of physical activity and personal responsibility in nutrition.  She ramped up her approach in 2010, and delivered a speech at a Grocery Manufacturers Association conference, where she called on the industry to “not just tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children.  That starts with revamping…your efforts to reformulate your products, particularly those aimed at kids, so that they have less fat, salt and sugar, and more of the nutrients that our kids need.”

The fast food industry responded to Michelle Obama’s challenge by, A: not doing anything, and B: by actively opposing any chance of regulation.  In 2011, a federal task force drafted voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children that was forcefully killed by a massive lobbying effort by Walt Disney, Nestle, Kellogg and General Mills.  These companies and other groups also dramatically increased their lobbying muscle.  Eighty three million dollars was spent by such groups during the Bush administration – now more than $175 million has been spent since Obama took office.  A small sum of this money convinced Congress to declare pizza a vegetable.

It’s been well established that fast food is bad on every imaginable level.  That the industry needs to be regulated is also an idea that’s well established, but politically difficult, particularly in the U.S.  One tactic that has been deployed is to turn the issue of whether or not to consume fast food from an issue of personal responsibility to one of concern about national public health.  “It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of dedicated people and it takes research,” says John F. Banzhaf III, a law professor at Georgetown University.  And as Michelle Simon of the Prevention Institute says, “because government is so beholden to industry that it can’t do a proper job protecting the public through regulation, we are left with no other recourse but to turn to the courts.”

If we wish to protect the developing brains and bodies of our children, much more needs to be done to curb the nefarious practices of the fast food industry.  Calorie counting aside, all additives should be publicly aknowledged and increased nutritional education offered in our schools.

Recipe of the Week

I’ve made chicken enchiladas with tomatillo sauce many times.  On this occasion, however, I decided to “beef” it up and the results were quite good.

Chicken Enchiladas with Tomatillo Sauce

1 whole roasted chicken, preferably organic or free-range

1 medium onion, peeled and quartered

2 to four jalapenos, sliced in half and seeded

1.5 lbs. tomatillos, husked

12 cloves of garlic, unpeeled

1 bunch spinach

1 small bunch cilantro

2 cups chicken stock or water

10 flour tortillas, preferably homemade using organic flour

salt and pepper to taste.

fat free yogurt

Lightly coat a roasting pan with oil, turn the oven on to 400 degrees, and place the onion quarters, tomatillos, jalapenos and garlic cloves on the pan.  Place in the oven and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.  I recommend removing the garlic before the other vegetables so the cloves don’t burn, after about 10 to 15 minutes.  When the vegetables are done, remove them to a blender or food processor, including any pan juices.  Add the spinach and cilantro and puree until smooth.  Place the mixture in a pan along with the chicken stock or water and cook down until it’s been reduced by about a third.  Remove all the chicken from the bone, and remove the skin.  Chop or tear up the chicken and add to the pot after the sauce has been reduced.  Taste for salt and pepper.

Ladle some of the sauce on the bottom of a large roasting dish.  Remove the chicken from the sauce and place a portion on the tortilla.  Put one or two dollops of yogurt on the tortilla and loosely wrap up.  When all the tortillas have been filled, cover with the remaining sauce, cover with foil and cook in a 350 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes.  I had a little sauce left over, which I froze and will probably use in  rice dish.

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Belching Bovines

It boggles the mind that anyone would celebrate their own demise, and yet there exists a now more powerful group of people who are doing just that.  “This is a major victory for farmers and ranchers who consistently tell many of us that they are concerned about the potential of the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers’ overreach into [their] operations,” said Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson.  He’s referring, of course, to one of the riders in the new budget bill that requires the EPA to withdraw a new rule that defines how the Clean Water Act applies to certain agricultural conservation practices and halts the Corps from regulating farm ponds and irrigation ditches under the Clean Water Act.  In addition, industrial farmers and ranchers will not be required to report greenhouse gas emissions from their “manure management systems.”

A 2010 report, “Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities” by Carrie Hribar, who was then the Project Coordinator – Education and Training National Association of Local Boards of Health, outlines just what is involved in a CAFO manure management system.  These are decidedly not family farms where limited amounts of manure are successfully employed to fertilize a diversity of crops.  “Large farms can produce more waste than some U.S. cities –  a feeding operation with 800,000 pigs could produce over 1.6 million tons of waste a year…Annually, it is estimated that livestock animals in the U.S. produce…somewhere between 3 and 20 times more manure than people…[And] though sewage treatment plants are required for human waste, no such treatment facility exists for livestock waste.”  It’s also important to note the contents of CAFO produced manure, especially since the disposal of such voluminous amounts ends up leaching into ground water, lakes, rivers and streams.  “It can contain plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, pathogens such as E.coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals used as additives to the manure or to clean equipment, animal blood, silage leachate from corn feed, or copper sulfate used in footbaths for cows.”  Moreover, a recent report by GRAIN, an international non-profit, details how much the large industrial feedlot operations contribute to the climate crisis.  The report breaks down aspects of our modern agricultural system to reveal that between 44% and 57% of all greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the global food system.

These are the victories being celebrated today by the men who control the fossil fuel based industry, and who, with the help of their henchmen from ALEC, are working to block any action on climate change.  Aside form the damage already done, ALEC’s agenda includes proposals that would eliminate the EPA (their budget has already been slashed by $60 million, which was their budget in 1989), block Obama’s rules to limit carbon pollution from power plants, expand off-shore drilling, weaken protections from air pollution and eliminate protections for endangered species.  Aliya Haq from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says that ALEC’s new motto should be “limited government, unlimited pollution.”

While it’s clear that Big Ag wants to continue and even expand the policies that weaken government oversight, it’s also clear that the American people do not support these policies.  It wouldn’t be obvious by the outcome of the last election, but that’s only because nobody voted.  If every registered voter goes to the polls we have a chance of keeping big polluters in check.  Vote, and buy meat, if you consume it, from small, sustainable and nearby farmers.

Recipe of the Week

This ubiquitous potato dish, found in most Spanish restaurants, is both satisfying and delicious.  I usually make it without any additions, but thought Manchego would liven it up for a holiday dinner.

Spanish Tortilla with Manchego

1 cup olive oil

4 russet potatoes, washed, left unpeeled and sliced very thin

1 large onion, sliced

4 eggs

about 1/3 lb manchego, a Spanish cheese you can find in specialty shops or a good grocery store

Heat a large cast iron frying pan with the olive oil.  Turn down the heat to medium low and begin adding the potato slices to just cover the bottom of the pan.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and add a layer of the sliced onions.  Continue this until the potatoes and onions are gone.  Make sure the heat is low enough so the potatoes don’t brown, and flip them now and again, for about 40 minutes, until the potatoes are mostly cooked.  While the potatoes are cooking, crack the eggs into a large bowl, beat until foamy, and add a half teaspoon of salt along with the grated manchego.  When the potato mixture is done, drain them over a bowl to save the oil, then press them into the egg mixture.  Allow to sit for 15 minutes.  Heat the same frying pan, and add about two tablespoons of the drained oil.  Pour the egg/potato mixture into the pan, with the heat at medium low.  There are two ways you can proceed from here.  Traditionally, and this is the best way, you allow the potatoes to crisp up for a few minutes.  You then place a large plate over the top of the frying pan and carefully flip the potatoes out of the pan onto the plate.  If needed, you add a little more of the leftover oil to the pan, slide the potatoes back in and crisp the other side.  You can do this for three or four times.  The tortilla can then be served hot or at room temperature.  If, however, this process is too difficult, I’ve found that after pouring the potato mixture into the pan the first time, and allowing it to crisp for a few minutes, you can simply transfer it to a 350 degree oven, uncovered, and cook for 30 minutes.

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Just Say No

“House Republicans are at it again,” said Sierra Club director Michael Brune.  “In their last act of the 113th Congress, polluter cronies are holding key, must-pass funding bills hostage in the hopes of extracting various and sundry poison pills to appease their fossil fuel and Big Ag patrons.  These attacks range from attempts to gut protections that safeguard clean water, public land and wildlife to opening the floodgates for more dirty money in  politics.”  Thus we have an encapsulation of the budget bill recently passed, and while nobody wished to endure another government shutdown, it seems this budget was passed in haste with little opposition.  It’s depressing and perhaps indicative of the fight that will follow.  But in stumbling over the bad news of a Republican controlled Congress, a tiny bit of exciting and good news was revealed and demonstrates how determined individuals, using the tools of the marketplace, can thwart and perhaps redirect the mercenary intent of Big Ag.

I refer to the actions of the recently formed Urban School Food Alliance (USFA), a coalition of six of the largest school districts in the country.  Formed during the 2012 School Nutrition Association’s annual convention, the USFA took action to safeguard the nutritional needs of many of our neediest children and to perhaps stop the meat industry from their reliance on antibiotics to control growth.  Last week the USFA announced that they will only purchase antibiotic free chicken.  As the federal government refuses to consider the elimination of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, despite recommendations of leading health and medical organizations, this is a big deal.

The USFA consists of New York City public schools, Los Angeles Unified School District, Chicago Public Schools, Dallas Independent School District, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida.  Together these districts feed 3 million students daily, and have a budget of $550 million a year to spend on food and supplies.  This purchasing power allows them to perhaps create an institutional market for antibiotic free chicken as well as replacing non-compostable trays and utensils with compostable items.  “The standards we’re asking from the manufacturers go above and beyond the quality of the chicken we normally purchase at local supermarkets,” says Eric Goldstein, USFA’s chairman.  And not only will they require a “no antibiotics ever” policy, they’ll also demand that chickens be raised humanely and fed an all vegetarian diet, which, by definition, means no more animal by-products in the feed, a common industrial practice.

Getting antibiotics out of our food is essential, and this move by the USFA goes a long way as a first step in encouraging the industry to change the way it raises animals for meat.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 2 million Americans suffer from an antibiotic resistant  infection every year, with 23,000 people dying.  British Prime Minister David Cameron recently sponsored a report estimating that so-called super bugs, if left unchecked, could result in 10 million deaths around the world annually, as well as costing $100 trillion in the global economy.  The FDA currently relies on a failed voluntary restriction system by the industry to curb antibiotic use, so it would seem the only way to stop the overuse of antibiotics is to refuse to buy antibiotic treated meat.

And these are only the first steps planned by the USFA.  With the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a law firm has been recruited to set up a nonprofit corporation for the alliance, and has contributed to discussions that will help the school districts decide what to buy next.  Other school districts are also asking to join the alliance, making their economic impact on the industry that much greater.  Mark Izeman of the NRDC, believes that “the alliance could be a template for sustainability efforts by other big food bureaucracies.  What works for school districts, after all, should also work for institutions like hospitals and universities.”

We’re still talking chicken nuggets, here, and any steps taken by the USFA will not necessarily translate into changed eating habits for many Americans.  But “short-term environmental and health benefits are not the only goals,” says Eric Goldstein.  “Using recyclable plates or serving healthier chicken sets an example that students may carry into adulthood, and that other school systems may come to see as standard.  It sounds corny, but we all believe in this.”  At any rate, the actions of the USFA are a significant beginning in the education of the American public concerning their understanding of what Big Ag does to undermine our health and the health of our environment.  Food is expensive, but by forcing large producers to treat their animals humanely and without the use of antibiotics, you can bet they’ll find other ways to contain costs and make a profit.

Nancy Reagan was right – you can just say no.  Buy local.

Recipe of the Week

I almost always just sprinkle my green salads with extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar, which is fine, but sometimes I want a little more flavor, especially when using more hearty greens, like kale.  This recipe will make about 1.5 cups.  Easier to make if you have a food processor with a drip attachment, but you can do it by hand as well.

Parmesan and Dijon Salad Dressing

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1 tsp. dijon

2 cloves garlic, minced

a pinch of one or two of your favorite dried herbs

1 tbls. grated parmesan

a little fresh parsley, minced

salt and pepper to taste.

Mix all the ingredients but the oil in the food processor bowl.  Pulse to mix, then pour the oil into the drip attachment.  Taste for salt and pepper.  If you must do it manually, put all the ingredients in a large bowl except the oil.  Using a whisk, very slowly add the oil to the rest of the ingredients while constantly whisking.  The rate at which the oil is added should be almost in drips.  It takes a bit of patience, but emulsifies the dressing.


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The Back Door

Back in April of this year, Representatives Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) introduced a bill called the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014, which offers up the clearest example of doublespeak I can imagine.  Others have labeled this bill the DARK Act, or “Denying Americans the Right-to-Know Act.”  The bill officially is purported, according to a press release, “to protect consumers by eliminating confusion and advancing food safety.”  What it really would do is preempt states from requiring labeling of genetically engineered food; prevent the FDA from requiring GE labeling; codify a failed voluntary labeling system; allow “natural” foods to contain GE ingredients and permit meat, milk and eggs raised from animals fed GE feed to be labeled as non-GMO.  That Mike Pompeo would propose such a bill and make such false statements as “GMOs are safe and…use less water and fewer pesticides” is understandable.  Pompeo’s career and personal fortune are due entirely to the aegis of the Koch brothers.  G.K. Butterfield, an otherwise upstanding proponent of voting rights, appears to have been hogtied by his states’ economy and is willing to stand by the endorsement of the bill by the North Carolina Farm Bureau.

This bill, then, is a culmination of effort by the Koch brothers, Monsanto, Syngenta and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), all closely aligned, to prevent the inevitable, albeit slow moving, passage of GMO labeling laws throughout the country.  They’ve already spent millions to stop such labeling initiatives in Oregon (and the jury’s still out on that one), California, Washington and Colorado.  This back door solution would once and for all stamp out the chance of GMO labeling laws gaining a foothold.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t bet on seeing this bill get out of committee, but unfortunately other factors are at work to undermine the health and safety of the American public.  Negotiations continue around the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), which has also been branded by corporate proponents as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  Monsanto, et al, are pushing for inclusion in the agreement to remove GMO labeling requirements, weaken food safety standards, allow exposure to untested chemicals and halt green energy policies.  And the Obama administration is behind these efforts.

U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who is currently negotiating TAFTA with the EU, is seeking “to establish common regulations of genetically modified foods, which includes consumer labeling.”  Dena Hoff, VP of the National Family Farm Coalition, says that “once again, U.S. trade advocates are working to give corporations their TAFTA created ‘rights’ to violate the rights and wishes of people to know what is in their food.”  She goes on to say that “GMO labeling is desired by at least three of every four consumers [and] it is time for U.S. trade to respect the sovereignty of nations and the desires of the people who live in them.”  And Andrew Ranallo of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy says that “the White House has seen to it that corporate rights are a priority during trade negotiations with EU, and that includes a controversial provision known as the Investor-State provision,…a measure that gives corporations a right to use secretive tribunals to mount legal challenges to local, state or federal laws that they deem potential threats to expected future profits.”

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2007, he publicly declared that GMO foods should be labeled.  He promised that, as president, he would work to “let folks know when their food is genetically modified, because Americans have a right to know that they’re buying.”  After he was elected he has said nothing in favor of GMO labeling and has instead presided over an FDA run by Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, and allowed the USDA to willy nilly approve new GMO crops.  He also, as  you may remember, signed the Monsanto Protection Act, which protected that company from the federal courts.  We’ll see what comes of the bill proposed by the Koch lackey, Pompeo, as well as any contribution TAFTA negotiations bring to the table.

As much credit as I give to Obama for the good he has achieved in the face of continuous opposition, I remain wistful for such giants as Teddy Roosevelt, who fought to contain corporate destruction.  I would be very much pleased to hear the following statement from President Obama as was declared by Roosevelt to Congress in 1907.  “To waste, to destroy, our national resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right hand down to them.”  And then he did something about it.

Recipe of the Week

This dish is apparently a ubiquitous Egyptian street food, and although it requires some effort, it’s quite good.


For the Sauce:

1.5 TBLS olive oil

2 TBLS minced garlic

2 TBLS red wine vinegar

2.5 cups organic tomato sauce

3/4 cup water

1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)


5 cups water

3/4 cups lentils

1 cup long grain rice

2 TBLS olive oil

1 cup elbow macaroni

1 large onion

For the sauce.  Heat the olive oil  in a pot, add the garlic and stir for no more than 30 seconds.  Add the vinegar, stir in briefly, then add the tomato sauce, water and pepper flakes.  The canned tomatoes have enough salt in them, but taste for salt and pepper if you wish.  Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Add the oil to a large pan and saute the onions until they are soft.  Add the rice and cook until the rice is golden.  Cook the lentils in the water until nearly done, then drain and save the water.  Add the lentils and two cups of the cooking water to the rice.  Bring to a boil, then cover with a tight lid.  Cook for ten minutes on low heat, then turn off the heat without removing the lid and let sit for 30 minutes.  In the meantime, bring salted water to a boil and add the noodles, and cook until just done.  Drain but don’t rinse.  When the rice is cooked, stir the noodles into the pan, taste for salt and serve with the tomato sauce.


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