About That Burger… (understanding the world of meat)

(Article original published on The Dirt on Organic Gardening)

Buying anything from the grocery store these days can be confusing.

There are so many items to choose from that it’s easy to get lost in all the labels, prices and lingo. It’s no surprise when people wonder, “What am I actually buying?”

Meat is one of the worst culprits.

This isn’t just any Thanksgiving leftovers sandwich! The turkey and the ham was picked up locally from my friends farm! No guessing at the quality there!

Like with eggs, there is regulation on the terms applied to different kinds of meat. It’s understanding those terms that’s the challenge.

Different stores have different means of categorizing their meat, but most places label their meat according to the USDA.Meat labeling is a complicated process. It isn’t only about what happens on the farm, but also about where the animal is being processed—where it’s being cut, packaged and sold.

These days, though, even conventional groceries are adding more descriptive packaging that shows in many cases how the beef was raised, and even on what kind of diet.

Most of the terms used have very specific meanings:

Organic—To be labeled “organic,” a product must be certified by a USDA approved agency. Organic meat and poultry must be fed only organically-grown feed (without any animal byproducts) and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics. The animals must have access to the outdoors, and animals that chew cud must have access to pasture—although they don’t actually have to graze on that pasture to be considered organic.

Natural—Meat and poultry labeled “natural” should not have any added artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives, or artificial ingredients, and should be “minimally processed”—defined by the USDA as a process that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. “Natural” has no bearing on the way the animal was raised or the food and additives that it was fed.

Grass-fed— A grass-fed animal’s diet should not be supplemented with grain, animal byproducts, or synthetic hormones. They should not be given antibiotics to promote growth or prevent disease (though they may be given antibiotics to treat disease). Note that “grass-fed” does not guarantee that the animal was pastured or pasture-raised.

Cage-free—This means that birds are raised without cages. What this doesn’t explain is whether the birds were raised outdoors, or in a pasture, or in overcrowded conditions indoors.

There’s a great glossary put together by SustainableTable.org that thoroughly defines all of this meat processing lingo. Knowing these terms will definitely help to guide you through the grocery store!

Some stores, like Whole Foods, have an entire chart that attempts to clear up the confusion so that as a consumer you feel a little more in control of your purchases. Whole Foods Market works in conjunction with a non-profit organization called Global Animal Partnership that aims to classify meat based on the environment where it’s raised.

Whole Foods claims to have a high standard of meat, and even Step 1 (the lowest classification), “… requires more from our farmers and ranchers than we have ever asked before.”

This statement is quite vague if you think about it—what was being asked before?

Step 1 also states: “Animals live their lives with more space to move around and stretch their legs.” Again vague. Unless you go see this farm, who knows what they’ve classified as “more space”?

Step 2: “Animals are provided with enrichments that encourage behavior that’s natural to them—like a bale of straw for chickens to peck at, a bowling ball for pigs to shove around, or a sturdy object for cattle to rub against.” Again, that sounds good. I am sure the typical consumer would read this and think “That’s so great! What a nice thought, a bowling ball for pigs!”

Step 3: “Pigs, chickens and turkeys might live in buildings but they all—yes, each and every one of them—have access to outdoor areas.” This step makes me think of the “cage-free” farce.

The marketing team that came up with these steps was very clever. The wordage is put in a way that makes the consumer see positivity, but at the same time there is a lot of wiggle room. On the cage-free spectrum, you’ve got a packed barn where they’ve simply removed the cages but they’re still cramped—all the way to a farm where animals have so much free roaming space they can spend the day avoiding that other animal they had that awkward interaction with the night before.

Step 4: “When living outdoors, chickens and turkeys get to forage, pigs get to wallow and cattle get to roam.” This is sounds a little better, but there is still the question of why they say “when living outdoors.” This could mean that they are packed away most the day but get a few hours here and there to roam freely and be animals. This step is pasture-centered, so it is clear that the animals here are offered more freedom, and allowed to be more animal-like. Yay for them!

Steps 5 and 5+ are the most positive sounding, and tend to be the highest quality meat you could acquire from Whole Foods. “At Step 5, the well-being of the animals is the primary focus; efficiency and economy are secondary. Animals raised to Step 5+ standards must be born and live their entire lives on one farm.”


Little piggies at my friends farm. I bought pork from her one season and got to meet the pigs and see how humanely they are raised.

Pasture raised vs. grass fed

A common misunderstanding is that pasture-raised and grass-fed go hand in hand. If an animal is pasture raised, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the animal was 100% grass fed. Many cows, sheep and goats are grain finished. (It’s a common practice to change a meat animal’s diet from grass to grains in the last few months of its life to fatten it up before slaughter. There is controversy over whether this is healthy for the animals, and ultimately, the consumer.)

Like I’ve said before and will say again, if you want confidence in what you’re eating, the best way to buy any product is directly from the farmer. I currently buy most of my meat from Kookoolan Farms in Yamhill, Oregon.

The regulations for farms that offer meat shares, Like Kookoolan Farms, are very different than the USDA regulations.

Regardless of which grocery store you are buying your meat from, getting meat directly from a farm is a completely different experience.

The ground beef in my fridge from Kookoolan came from one cow, not many. When I ordered my half lamb, I got to speak to the butcher and specify my cuts.

There’s a sense of control you get when you buy meat directly from the farm that you could never get from the grocery store. Large-scale meat production especially is incredibly detrimental to the environment. It’s important as a consumer to understand not only what it is you’re buying, but the entire process that its production is a part of.

Custom-exempt meats

What does “custom-exempt” mean for slaughter or processing?

A custom-exempt plant, exempt from continuous USDA-approved inspection, can only slaughter and process livestock for the exclusive use of the owner, the owner’s family, and non-paying guests.

Packages of custom-processed meat and poultry must be labeled “NOT FOR SALE” (and cannot be labeled with “grass-fed” or other claims). This label is required because by law, the meat cannot be sold, traded, bartered, or given away to a food bank or similar charity, for example.

And this is why you have to buy your beef when the cow is still alive. You’re not buying beef—you’re literally buying the cow!

Custom operations are typically thought to process game meat for hunters, but they usually offer processing services to anyone who wants an animal slaughtered or processed for personal use. Slaughter and processing businesses that operate under this exemption are inspected by both USDA and state inspectors on a regular basis—typically once or twice annually. Custom-exempt slaughter and processing (also called “cut and wrap”) plants are expected to meet the same requirements for sanitation and construction that USDA-inspected plants must meet.

In summary, it’s most ideal if you can buy your meats locally from a small sustainable or organic family farmer—assuming of course that you’re not growing your own.


One of my favorite homemade burgers to date! This ground lamb burger meat came from the 1/2 lamb I bought from Kookkolan farms! Topped with thinly sliced yellow squash, tomatoes, fried eggplant and a creamy parsley sauce – ALL veggies from my garden!

If you don’t have the option of buying from your local farmer (you need a lot of freezer space to store even a quarter of a cow), try to buy the most humanely raised option whenever possible.

Szechuan-Style Beef and Green Beans

Nothing gives me more satisfaction than harvesting a ton of veggies and then throwing them straight into dinner. I’ve been grazing off my string beans recently, but besides eating them raw right off the trellis, one of my favorite bean dishes is Szechuan-style beans.


I had just defrosted some beef from my cow share from Kookoolan Farms, so I decided to incorporate all my fresh ingredients together. I had also picked up some apples from Birds and Bees Farm, and wanted to try them out in a less classic apple pairing. The result was amazing; this dish took very little prep and was super delicious. I hope you’ll all agree!

Garden harvest!

Garden harvest!


Szechuan-Style Beef and Beans – Serves 4

1lb of green beans, washed and trimmed.

1 eggplant, sliced in sticks

1 red pepper, sliced crossways.

1lb ground beef

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 apple, chopped into small bits

1 cup vegetabe oil

Stir Fry Sauce –

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or whatever kind you’ve got

1 tablespoons sesame oil

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon sriracha

2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

2 teaspoons cornstarch

A dash of ground ginger and garlic powder

  1. Start by making your stir fry sauce – Mix together the cornstarch and vinegar, once cornstarch is fully mixed in then incorporate all other ingredients. Measurements are totally loose, just taste and adjust as needed! Set aside.
  2. Get a pot going with the vegetable oil and heat it on medium. Oil is ready when beans immediately start to simmer in the oil.
  3. In batches add all the green beans, eggplant and pepper. Cook only for about a minute and set aside in a bowl with paper towel at the bottom for excess oil. Set aside when done.
  4. Add beef into pan with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and cook until pink is gone. Remove a bit of the extra fat and throw in your minced apple. Mix fully into the beef.
  5. Add all veggies into the beef and apple mixture and stir together.
  6. Pour sauce mixture over the beef and veggies and mix fully, cooking for another 5-10 minutes.
  7. Serve over noodles or rice!


Scalloped Zucchini and Potatoes

Someone mentioned scalloped potatoes to me recently, so it just seemed like it was meant to be when John from Birds and Bees Farm offered me potatoes as well as onion and jalapenos to play with for the week. I was lucky enough to score a few zucchinis from a fellow gardener, and so scalloped potatoes and zucchini came to be.

This recipe only takes a little bit of prep and is super delicious!


Scalloped Potatoes and Zucchini – Serves 6

8 medium red potatoes – sliced into ¼ inch rounds

3 medium zucchini – sliced into ¼ inch rounds

2 jalapeños – deseeded and minced

1 onion – minced

1 c milk

2 tablespoons butter

1 c shredded mix of mozzarella and parmesan

1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 350
  2. In a small pot heat the butter and milk right up to a simmer and turn off. Stir in the salt and pepper and set aside to cool slightly.
  3. In a cast iron or Pyrex dish layer the zucchini and potato along the bottom.
  4. Sprinkle with minced onion, jalapenos, half the cheese and half the hot milk and butter mixture over the top.potatoes1
  5. Repeat with another layer of zucchini and potatoes followed by the jalapenos, onion, cheese and milk mixture.
  6. Cover with tinfoil and bake covered for 30 minutes. Remove the tinfoil and bake for another 10 until cheese on top is nice and crispy!
  7. Enjoy as a side dish or even breakfast by topping a slice with a poached egg!


Eggplant and Zucchini Parmesan (Gluten-Free!)

I’ve never really been big fan of eggplant; I tend to find the texture pretty off-putting. For some reason though, the few times I have eaten eggplant parm from a restaurant, it’s super delicious. I tried making it once about 5 years ago and it wasn’t very good to be honest.

For the first time in my life I am growing eggplants, and as they got bigger and bigger I had the thought to try to cook them once again. I thought that maybe, since they were such beautiful eggplants that grew in my front yard, that they would make a delicious eggplant parm – I was right. I picked up the zucchinis from a fellow gardener classmate and they called out to me to be a part of the dish as well. Pretty simple to make, and totally gluten free too!

Beautiful mini-harvest of beets, green tomatoes and eggplants!

Beautiful mini-harvest of beets, green tomatoes and eggplants!

Eggplant and Zucchini Parmesan – Serves 4

2 medium eggplants, slices lengthwise

2 medium zucchinis – slices lengthwise

1 egg

1 tablespoon of water

2 C of almond meal

2 teaspoon of salt, pepper and garlic powder.

½ c of canola oil

1 c tomato sauce (simply homemade or from a jar!)

1 c mixed of shredded mozzarella and parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons Fresh or dried basil, minced

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 and pull out a large Pyrex or baking dish measuring close to 8×8.
  2. Pour the oil into a deep pan or pot for breading that is big enough to hold the large slices. Heat the oil on medium. You can test by dipping a small section of the breaded zucchini or eggplant into the oil, it should bubble up immediately.
  3. Set up a breading station by pouring the almond meal and the salt, pepper and garlic powder into a pie dish (or deep plate) and do the same with the egg and water, mixing it all fully.
  4. Bread and fry each piece of the zucchini and eggplant, setting them on some paper towel to absorb a bit of the oil and to cool slightly.
  5. Layer the zucchini and eggplant along the bottom, spoon a few tablespoons of tomato sauce on top, followed by a layer of cheese. Repeat until all the zucchini and eggplant are used up. Top with basil and cheese.
  6. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until cheese is bubbling.
  7. Let it cool slightly before enjoying!
Finished product

Finished product

Egg Semantics

As consumers, we tend to think that the label on our products are telling us something about what we are going to buy. When you go to buy a loaf of bread, reading the label is what might sway you in one direction or the other towards purchasing it. The problem is that most of the stuff you’re reading on that label is completely unregulated, and constructed carefully by a PR team to look a certain way so that you’ll buy it. The USDA does a decent job of regulating food so that it’s “safe” for us to eat, but not a good job of protecting the environment. Because it’s not the USDAs job to watch out for the environment, the regulations generally have nothing to do with humanity of raising the animals or the condition they’re living in – but mostly how the animals is processed before it gets to the grocery store. When it comes to eggs, I find these terms to be quite misleading.

More beautiful farm fresh eggs!

Beautiful farm fresh eggs!

Not too long ago I really had no idea about any of this, and when I would buy eggs from the grocery store I would just pick the ones with the most hot phrases on the carton like “cage free” “free-range” “natural” or whatever other nonsense it would say. When I started working with a local farm I was given a dozen eggs one day from their farm chickens. These chickens live in the orchard on the farm. They have a coop to go into at night, but throughout the day they have plenty of space to roam freely.

Happy chickens at Birds and Bees Farm.

Happy chickens at Birds and Bees Farm.

First off, the eggs from these chickens had the most vibrant orange yolk. The color of the yolk has a lot to do with what the chickens are eating on a daily basis. At Birds and Bees Farm these chickens are eating whatever is naturally available to them. They eat the bugs from the fruit, the grass and pick their way through the soil.


From Left to Right- 1. Fred Meyer “Simple Truth” Organic 2. Trader Joes Cherry Lane 3. Farm Fresh Chicken Egg 4. Farm Fresh Duck Egg

These chickens are free range and cage free, and that has nothing to do with any USDA regulation. So what are these regulations? Straight from the USDA website –

Free-range. This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.

Cage-free. This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.

Lets look first at what “free-range” really means. According to the definition above, chickens must be provided shelter with unlimited access to food and water with continuous access to outdoors. You see how it says “access” to outdoors, not “living in an outdoor environment”. This means that a warehouse jammed-packed with chickens, food and water bowls, and a patio they can go onto is considered “free-range”. I spoke to the farmer at Birds and Bees, and he told me that a lot of the big chicken farms have a small patio that the chickens can go onto, but since there’s no food or water left outside, they have no reason to go out there. It’s not like a grass patch full of bugs the chickens are free to roam – it’s simply “access to outdoors”. There is also no regulation as to how long the chickens are allowed access to the outdoors, just that they have it. This hypothetical egg farm is just as free-range as Birds and Bees chickens, says that USDA regulation.

When you see “cage-free” eggs, this means the chickens are able to freely roam. Roam freely? Doesn’t sound very regulated. Cage-free doesn’t even mean that the chickens need access to outdoors. If you took a warehouse full of caged chickens and then removed all the cages around the chickens, they would become “cage-free”.

It’s hard to think of these things, because when you see these terms on an egg carton they’re generally accompanied by a picture of cartoon chickens around a barn – relaxed, free and happy as hell to be supplying you with their eggs.

Fresh duck and chicken eggs straight from my farmer!

Fresh duck and chicken eggs straight from my farmer!

A lot of the time you can buy eggs from a farmers market for just as much as some expensive Whole Foods brand. This definitely doesn’t mean that every brand of eggs at the grocery store shouldn’t be trusted, but don’t be fooled by the labels. At the end of the day, eggs are just another product that a company is trying to sell you in order to make money.

Nothing beats buying local!

(article originally written for The Dirt on Organic Gardening)

Time To Garden

My favorite time of the year is here! I’ve been working on the garden for months now, it’s so great to finally be able to put some plants in the ground. So begins the obsessive plant-watching! Each day I carefully inspect them all, looking for new growth (and sneaky bugs).

So here’s what’s happened since last time…

First, here’s what the yard looked like when I first moved into the house.

It looked pretty for a picture, but wasn't very functional. There was a very thin layer of mulch covering some landscaping tarp. Whenever it rained, the mulch would shift, exposing the ugly black tarp underneath. On top of that, the raised beds were very old and falling apart.

The yard looked pretty for a picture, but wasn’t very functional. There was a very thin layer of mulch covering some landscaping tarp. Whenever it rained, the mulch would shift, exposing the ugly black tarp underneath. On top of that, the raised beds were very old and falling apart.

Last year I ripped out those front bushes, and added a new bed for tomatoes.


The problem with this is it was just a mound of soil with a backing I made with stuff from around the yard. I liked my trellis design using sticks from around my house, but it was pretty short and weak, and my tomatoes easily took over the entire thing.

I took a course on Permaculture this year, so I figured it was time I re-did it all. So I started up a Kickstarter campaign for all the materials needed, which was successfully funded in no time (thanks so much to everyone who was a part of that!)

Then I got really lucky, and my old friend Weston moved into my house, turning out to be a killer carpenter and always down to help me build whatever I needed. Seriously, my saving grace in the garden. One day I said, “Hey, I want a small box for my carrots and beets that I can line with chicken wire to keep the diggers out.” I showed him a picture of what I was thinking, and (no joke) 30 minutes later I had this –

What a champion

What a champion

So here’s what we’ve done so far this summer!

We ripped up all the landscaping tarp, and Weston built my 4 new beds, creating a small path in between them all.

We ripped up all the landscaping tarp, and Weston built me 4 new beds, creating a small path in between them all.


Weston and Django on the mulch pile

I got a whole delivery of mulch (a little too much if I might say so myself) to put in all the walking space. Great for looks, but also helps with erosion and mud problems when it’s really rainy.


I spread all the mulch around, and installed archways with hog panels for growing beans. I think it will look pretty awesome when the pole beans have begun to creep up the archway!


I added a 3D spiral bed and planted it with 2 kinds of lettuce, spinach, celery, strawberries and beans to creep up the second archway.


Another angle from the 3D spiral bed.


Looking towards the spiral bed from the other direction. The middle bed has 6 different kinds of tomatoes, 3 kinds of basil, strawberries and more beans towards the back end to wind up the archway.


The corner bed has 6 different kinds of peppers and onions planted along the outside!


We found a cool old sink for 5 dollars and turned it into a bird bath.


I also got my first wheelbarrow!

It’s only just begun. Not too long and I’ll be cooking up fresh ingredients straight from my garden – I can’t wait!

Slow-Style Baked Beans – It’s BBQ Season!

It’s that wonderful time of the year where we clean out our cars, coolers and tents and prepare for camping and BBQ adventures.


I love camping food, and a can of baked beans has always been a crucial camping staple. They’re so easy to throw on the fire and eat piping hot after a long day of exploring. A friend is coming into town this week and we are planning on spending a night out in a state park cabin. I’ve never made baked beans before, but a few weeks ago a friend gave me a jar of these super gorgeous local heirloom beans. That combined with my farm fresh pork belly in my freezer = the slowest, most magical baked beans ever.


If you’ve never soaked beans before, there are lots of great articles on how to do it. You can use really any kind of bean for this recipe, but I feel very strongly that you must start at step one with dry beans. The process takes almost two days, but the work is minimal. If you want all the flavors to really meld with each other, it helps to be able to cook the beans overnight without turning them to total mush.

Slow-Style Baked Beans

2 cups of your favorite dry beans (soaked according to soak charts)

1 lb of pork shoulder (or uncut bacon)

1 white onion

4 cloves of garlic

1/2 of tomato paste

4 T brown sugar

2 tsp each of salt, pepper and paprika.

1 1/2 water

  1. After beans have been soaked (and thoroughly rinsed), add them to crock pot with all the other ingredients and turn it on low.
  2. In about 12 hours, open it up and remove the pork and chop into super small pieces. Add the pork back into the mixture and stir, raising the crock pot up to high. Let it cook for another 1 hour before serving!
  3. Enjoy!