Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Compost Chronicles: I Fought the Law, and the Law Won

Corporations, municipalities and organizations all over America are making zero-waste commitments, setting 5, 10 year goals to create programs that will ensure nothing that they buy or use will end up in a landfill, but will instead be reused, recycled or composted. Many experts, such as the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, consider zero-waste programs to be one of the quickest, cheapest and most effective ways to fight climate change. Given Chicago’s reputation as one of the greenest cities in America, it probably would surprise you to learn that it neither has made nor could make a zero-waste pledge at this time. What’s the hold-up? The law in Illinois as currently written effectively prohibits commercial composting of food scraps. In this feature, I’ll explain why and, more importantly, what you can do help get the offending and out-of-date provisions off the books.

Illinois requires commercial composting facilities accepting any material, other than landscape waste, to obtain a pollution control facility permit from the State Environmental Protection Agency. The Chicago Ordinance requires any composting operation to have a permit unless the waste, food or landscape, is created on-site, composted in-vessel (conducted in a fully enclosed container), and the resulting compost used on site. To explain, if a school were to compost its food scraps in full enclosed composting equipment, like an Earth Tub, it would have to use all of that compost on its property – it could not sell it or give it away to farmers, community gardeners or landscapers. Some may ask ‘what’s the big deal?’ A lot of businesses have to get permits or licenses to operate. Perhaps, the answer is found in the name of the permitting section, the Pollution Control at the State Public Nuisance Cessation and Abatement at the City. Composting, a life creating process, is considered a nuisance, a pollutant, by the government. And as a result, the permitting process is going to be an arduous and expensive one.

This has been the practical effect. According to Ken Dunne of the Resource Center, a municipality could charge up to $300,000 to site a composting facility within its limits. Consequently, as of today, there are no commercial composting facilities in Chicago that accept food scraps. In fact, according to findacomposter.com, a service of BioCycle Magazine, there is not a single composting operation in Illinois that accepts food scraps. The Resource Center’s composting site on 70th Street in Chicago was shut down by the City in 2003. A project that was to involve the Resource Center and the City of Chicago never materialized. The Resource Center is still operating, funding its operations through its recycling activities. The Center collects compostable food scraps from a limited number of restaurants and events, like Green Fest. It then brings these compostable materials to a composting facility in County Line, Indiana, where it is mixed in with other materials. Because of this mixing process, the resulting compost is used for landfill cover, not for farm purposes. Food waste represents 15-20% of residential garbage, without food scrap composting, we are squandering a valuable resource that could be used to enrich our soil.

So much for the bad news; the good news is that change may be on its way. Senator Heather Steans has introduced a bill, SB99, that would allow food waste to be commercially composted in Illinois. The bill seeks to amend the Illinois Environmental Protection Act to remove food scraps from the definition of garbage. It then defines “food scrap” to mean “compostable material that (i) results from the handling, processing, preparation, cooking consumption, or sale of food and (ii) is separate from either a household waste stream or a municipal waste stream.” It includes within this definition biodegradable food containers, i.e. compostables. The bill also goes on to exclude composting facilities that accept food scraps from the definition of pollution control facilities, thereby removing them from the arduous permitting process. The bill essentially treats food scrap composting in the same manner as landscape composting, allowed in Illinois for years.

The Fact Sheet, which accompanies the bill, focuses on the economic benefit of the amendments. It recognizes that the cost to process a food scrap composting site in Illinois is prohibitively expensive. It then asserts that “the bill will open up the ability for investors to form food waste composting facilities, creating jobs in Illinois and selling Illinois-made compost all over the country.” Only after the Fact Sheet concludes that the bill would prolong the life of Illinois’ landfills, does it note that it would reduce gases that contribute to climate change.

In the current financial and political climate in Illinois, starting with the economics of the situation is probably the best approach to take with the legislature. While it may seem that SB99 is a win-win piece of legislation that creates jobs, increases business opportunities and saves the environment, there are deeply held misconceptions about composting, which sank a similar piece of legislation in 2005 despite strong support by then Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn.

To pass, the bill needs your help. SB99 is before the Senate Environment Committee on Thursday February 26. Call or email your Senator and urge them to support this important legislation. Food scrap composting is critical to the fight against climate change. It would reduce the amount of waste brought to our landfills, thus decreasing methane emissions. It is also a valuable soil conditioner that reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As Kay McKeen of SCARCE (School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education) put it, “our soil is a valuable resource, one that can be healed.” This cannot happen through chemical means, but instead by the nutrient-rich compost from our food scraps.

If you don't know your senator, search here

And then call or email to them the following.

Phone and Email Script for Support of Composting Legislation

Hello. My name is ________. I want to ask you to co-sponsor Senate Bill 99. SB99 is a bill that will allow commercial food waste composting in Illinois.

I support SB99 due to the following:
(Choose any of the following)

• Composting reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Properly aerated composting significantly reduces methane produced by decomposition. Methane has many more times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide.

• Composting reduces the amount of waste going to landfills. Currently, organic waste that could be composted makes up 1/3 of the waste in Illinois landfills.

• Creating commercial composting facilities separate from landfill facilities will create new jobs throughout Illinois. Currently, many organizations that wish to compost food waste export it for composting to surrounding Mid-western states. We should keep these jobs in Illinois.

• Using nutrient rich compost, the product of composting, instead of chemical fertilizers in crop cultivation and gardening will reduce the quantity of chemicals leached into our drinking water and food crops. Reducing dependence on chemical fertilizers is beneficial to ecological, animal, and human health.

• Illinois law should follow the example of states such as Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, California, Pennsylvania, and New York that have well established composting regulations. Illinois law should not lag on this issue.

I strongly believe that Senate Bill 99 will provide significant environmental and economic benefits to the state of Illinois. I request that you co-sponsor Senate Bill 99. Thank you very much for your time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Compost Chronicles: Composting Times

Great article about urban composting in the New York Times. It can be done!

Monday, February 16, 2009

What's This? Collard Greens


For those of us who try to eat locally year round, greens make up a big part of our Winter diet. Both light greens, like cabbage, and dark greens, kale, spinach and chards, are a savior when tomatoes, eggplants and summer squash are a distant memory. And the great thing about most of these greens is that the cold weather softens and sweetens many greens making them easier to eat and to cook.

The green pictured above is an ancient one, cultivated by the Greeks and Romans. They were brought to America by the British settlers and the name, collard, is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for cabbage, colewort. Collards were rapidly adopted by the slaves as a substitute for the greens they knew in Africa. As a result, collards remain a staple of the cooking of the American South. They are also popular in Brazil, where according to an old folk tale, a woman isn't ready for marriage until she knows how to shred the green properly.

Like other dark leafy greens, collards are high in fiber and rich in Vitamin C. Collard greens can be long cooked as is common in Southern cooking or flash cooked, especially in the Winter. Here's my favorite recipe for kale, which is somewhere in between. I add a boost of flavor at the end with a bit of glace - highly reduced veal stock, but this isn't necessary especially when the greens are really fresh.


Quick Braised Collards
Serves 4

1 bunch collard greens
1 tablespoon bacon grease
1 tablespoon veal demi-glace
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

METHODS: Remove the hard stems by folding the leaves in half and cutting them away from the stem. Slice about 1/2-inch thick. Heat the bacon grease in a medium-large saucepan. Add the collard greens and cover with water by an inch. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender, approximately 1/2 hour. You may need to add more water. Drop the glace in and simmer for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Compost Chronicles: Earl the Earthworm

My son, the budding environmentalist, was inspired by a book to ask for a very unusual birthday present. Last November, Tim Magner of Green Sugar Press contacted me about the possiblity of some sort of collaboration with Purple Asparagus. About a month later, I received a package with Magner's three books, "N is for Nature," "An Environmental Guide from A to Z" and "Earl the Earthworms Digs for His Life." Sundays and Mondays are my nights to take Thor to bed and rebuffing his request to read the Lorax for the twelfth day in a row, I grabbed "Earl." He was fascinated by the book. After I explained the idea of a worm bin, and a slight bit of encouragement, Thor decided he wanted one for his birthday.

So on its way from Montana is a Tumbleweed Worm Farm from Planet Natural along with a bunch of red wiggler worms. More to come after their arrival.

Tim Magner's books are available on his site and also at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Purple Asparagus Family Dinner at Tampopo

Join Purple Asparagus for a family dinner at Tampopo. Tampopo is a bright, friendly, family run Japanese restaurant named after the famous Japanese noodle western. Yes, that's right, a movie western about noodles. Chef Daniel Choe will treat us to a feast of home-style dishes, pristinely fresh sushi and of course noodles. In addition to a fabulous meal, we'll enjoy cultural activities both from Japan and Chef Choe's native Korea.

5664 North Lincoln
Chicago, IL

Sunday February 15, 2-4:30pm.

Space for this event is limited, so sign up now. Ticket prices for members are Adults and teens, $25.00; Big Kids (5-12), $10.00; and Little Kids (4 and under), free. Ticket prices for non-members are Adults and teens, $30.00; Big Kids (5-12), $12.00; and Little Kids (4 and under), free.

To purchase tickets, you can either send a check written to Purple Asparagus to

Purple Asparagus
c/o Melissa Graham
1824 W. Newport Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657

Or you can pay by credit card by visiting Brown Paper Tickets.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What's This? Burdock


I usually don’t like to include chef-y recipes on my blog. By this I mean, ones with a lot of steps or unusual ingredients. I make an exception when I make something so good out of an ingredient that is as ugly as it is difficult to tame. Even the word, burdock, conjures images of witches over a cauldron stirring potions that will turn their enemies into scaly, slimy beasts. It doesn’t help that it looks like a utensil to be used for this purpose.

Research on the root doesn’t present any more of an appealing image. Burdock is a biennial thistle whose dark green leaves can grow up to 18-inches in length. The edible portion, i.e. the roots, is food for the larva of the Ghost Moth and other Lepidoptera, such as The Gothic, Lime-speck Pug and Scalloped Hazel according to Wikipedia. Over at Botanical.com, Mrs. M. Grieve calls its taste “sweetish and mucilaginous.” Thus, there’s little surprise, that burdock, which was referred to in several of Shakespeare’s plays, has fallen out of fashion in European cultures in recent centuries.

Burdock does remain popular in Japan, where it is known as gobo, and has experienced a slight resurgence of popularity in western cuisine because of macrobiotics, which recommends its consumption. For the rest of us, burdock remains a relative unknown. It’s available at Whole Foods and occasionally through Fresh Picks from Harmony Valley in Wisconsin.

Raw, burdock has a slightly bitter taste, which can be softened by soaking in cold water for 5 to 10 minutes prior to cooking. It also is best thinly shaved either by an adjustable vegetable slicer or with a vegetable peeler. The appearance of shaved burdock, a little like linguine, was the inspiration for the following recipe:


Mushroom Braised Burdock with Soba Noodles, Mushrooms & Fresh Ricotta
Serves 2 as an entrée or 4 as an appetizer

This recipe has such an earthy quality to it because of the combination of the burdock, mushrooms & buckwheat of the noodles. It can easily be converted to a vegan recipe by substituting the butter for oil and omitting the ricotta cheese.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound button mushrooms, sliced ¼-inch thick
4 burdock stalks
2 cups mushroom stock, recipe follows
2 shallots
¼ cup Madeira
2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
¼ pound soba noodles
¼ fresh ricotta

METHOD: Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a sauté pan over medium heat until melted. Add ½ of the sliced mushrooms and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook until lightly browned and remove to a bowl. Repeat with remaining butter and mushrooms. Turn the heat under the mushrooms to medium heat, add previously cooked mushrooms, add Madeira, bring to a simmer and reduce slightly. Turn the heat off. Fill a medium shallow bowl with cold water. Scrub clean or peel the burdock root. Shave it with a vegetable peeler, dropping the shaved pieces into the cold water. There will be some waste. Bring a large stock pot full of water to a boil. In a medium saucepan, bring the mushroom stock to a vigorous simmer. Add burdock and cook until tender, approximately 10 minutes. Salt the boiling water and drop the soba noodles in; cook for 6-7 minutes. In the meantime, add the burdock and stock to the mushrooms and reduce the liquid until almost evaporated. Taste for seasoning and add kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Drain the noodles, add to the mushroom mixture and toss to coat. Serve in shallow bowls topped with clouds of ricotta.

Mushroom Stock

Stems from 2 pounds of mushrooms
¼ cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 sprig thyme

METHOD: Cover the ingredients with 2 inches water in a medium sauce pan. Bring the water to a simmer and cook for 1 hour.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Hope and Change at the Table

An account of the intimate dinner that I cooked for the new First Lady.

On Super Tuesday, we booked our hotel; the night of the election, our plane tickets. Perhaps we were optimistic, but if Barack won, I wanted to be there. I was in Washington for law school in 1993 and on that cold January evening, I saw all the frothy dresses and polished tuxes trotted out for President Clinton and so wished that I too could go to the ball.

There was, however, one small detail that I neglected to remember – I hate crowds. While watching political rallies on the small screen, they always so seem so inspiring – strangers rubbing shoulders for a common purpose. But in reality, they just make me itchy. As the crowd estimates continued to rise after the election, we began to rethink our travel plans. Cancelling the trip was not a possibility. Our itinerary included flying through Long Island to drop off our son, Thor, with my mom and dad. For months, he had been telling friends that he wanted Barack to win so that he could visit his grandparents. Plans had been made, play dates arranged –- it was set. At the very least, we were going to New York.

Taking the money we would have spent on ball tickets, peak hotel rates and all the rest, we booked a suite at the Sofitel and reserved tables at Gotham Bar & Grill, Blue Hill & Daniel. While Barack, in his polished tux, and Michelle, in her very frothy dress danced to “At Last” at one of the many inaugural balls on January 20, we lifted a glass of champagne at the uncrowded Restaurant Daniel on the Upper East Side.

In retrospect, this post hoc decision made perfect sense given that my support for Barack and his campaign were not born as the result of one of his soaring crowd-pleasing speeches, but instead at a similarly intimate dinner that I cooked for Michelle and four of her closest friends.

After the momentous announcement was made on another cold day in early 2007, a smattering of Obama signs began to appear in Chicago windows. It was around this time that I got the call. During the previous October, I had donated a package to Healthy Schools Campaign for their annual benefit. Called “A Sustainable Evening,” it was a multi-course dinner with pairings from Candid Wines. I often donate packages like these to charities with which I’m involved. They’re great PR and surprisingly, given the price they tend to fetch, about a third of a time the bidder doesn’t redeem. This time was different.

Cindy Moelis, a good friend of Michelle’s, had purchased the item. Originally, she’d planned to use it for her and her husband. But as the campaign began in earnest, she realized that over the next few months, and perhaps years, there would be few opportunities for Michelle to spend an intimate evening with her close female friends. Accordingly, the dinner was intended in some respects to be a last hurrah, though one without fanfare – just a simple evening of good friends enjoying good food and wine. Working with Cindy, we developed a menu that took into account Michelle’s taste, the guest’s dietary restrictions and our philosophy of sustainable sourcing. The event was challenging in many respects. Off-site catering has many difficulties, ones that are only compounded when a site visit or even communication with the host is not possible. We also had the time of year to contend with; April, the month of the event, is a sort of netherworld for local eating in the Midwest. The growing season hasn’t kicked in, but the thought of yet one more root vegetable is too much to bear.

Despite these challenges, the event went beautifully. We served a trio of snacks to start: crisp wafers of Wisconsin parmesan, salt-crusted almonds and local radish slices topped with herbed goat butter. The first course was a salad of local baby greens and herbs topped with seared Maine diver scallops and dressed with vinaigrette made from an artisanal California cider vinegar. We served a soup: rich chicken broth, cooked down twice, in it, a single ravioli filled with a mixture of sweet peas, Prairie Fruits Farm goat cheese and grey shallots. The ravioli was topped with a tussle of frizzled Wettstein’s ham and pea shoots. The entrée was seared King salmon filets set atop a potato puree surrounded by a moat of rich red wine sauce made from Lynfred’s Vin de City Red. The filets were garnished with a handful of asparagus tips. In the bread basket, there was rich foccacia, rosemary crackers and country bread — all house made. Our dessert was a rhubarb crème brulee partnered with Meyer lemon madeleines. We finished up with French-pressed Intelligentia coffee and truffles from Coco Rouge.


After the tumultuous primary and campaign, that night all seems so long ago, but I remember Michelle being down to earth and kind. Malia and Sascha were there with the children of the other guests (they all ate pizza and played games downstairs). Malia was thoughtful and composed; Sascha, a pistol. But I particularly recall our departure as I was the only member of our team to get a big hug and kiss on the cheek from Michelle – a moment that I treasure.

I’ve been thinking about this evening in light of the heated discussions in the food community about who should be the White House chef in President Obama’s administration. A “controversy” recently resolved by the retention of Chef Cristeta Comerford and the appointment of private chef Sam Kass to serve under her. Ordinarily, our Sustainable Evening package has a strong educational component. Both the folks at Candid Wines and I really enjoy talking with guests about sustainable methods of production, the farmers, producers and wineries from whom we source and generally about the philosophy of sustainability. In fact, in many instances, the guests sit in the kitchen with us and it becomes an interactive event. While it would have been wonderful to have the opportunity to do this with such a high profile individual as Michelle, when we learned what the intent of the dinner was, we limited the didactic element to a minimum – essentially a description of each dish and a short presentation on the philosophy of our companies. Based upon this experience, I’ve been both amused and troubled by the debate on the role of the White House chef.

Initially, I thought it interesting how so many high profile food writers could misunderstand the role of White House chef. As Walter Scheib, Executive Chef in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, has made clear in his interviews on the subject, the job is not to promote one’s own agenda, but to serve at the pleasure of the president and first lady. As Tony Mantuano told Phil Vettel when asked if he would want the job: "I don't think so," he said. "It'd be like being the chef of a giant hotel. You have to make peanut butter and jelly for the kids, plus private dinners, room service—unless you’re a big corporate hotel guy, I'm not sure you'd want it." Taking the job also means no book tours, no television shows. Imagine the absurdity of Rick Bayless or Art Smith severing ties with their successful restaurants and media enterprises to become a banquet chef.

But what really bothered me was how many titans of the food world were in effect calling upon the Obamas to fire the first female executive White House chef. These demands were particularly egregious when it turns out that she had been doing all along exactly what they were urging. Former White House Chef Scheib has made it clear that Chef Comerford sources locally, uses organic and sustainable products, including grass fed beef and sustainably caught fish. In fact, much of the produce used for the first family was grown in a small roof top garden at the White House. The problem seems not to be that she wasn’t doing the desired thing; instead, it was that she hadn’t become famous in doing so. Doing her job well, discretely and without fanfare was insufficient.

It seems that Sam Kass is the ideal candidate for his new job under Comerford. Obviously, he does his job well, but is also discrete. With the exception of Time Out Chicago, Kass’ name never came up in any of the articles speculating on the White House chef. He also clearly cares about the public good. While I never made it over to any of the Re-thinking Soup sessions at Hull House, several of my friends and colleagues have spoken at them and thought highly of the events. In fact, Kass’ “speech” reprinted in yesterday’s New York Times Well blog introduces two of them — Jean Saunders of Healthy Schools Campaign (the same organization to which I donated my Sustainable Evening package) and Josephine Lauer formerly of Organic School Project. However, in these events, he was bringing in the experts to speak, instead of pushing his own agenda. I think this experience too will serve him well. I would imagine that neither the President nor the First Lady will would want a lecture on sustainable fisheries or the benefits of grass-fed beef each time that they sit down to dinner. The table can be a place for discussion and learning, but for someone with stressful job, its restorative properties are more important. While it’s certainly positive that Kass is knowledgeable about sustainability issues, as Comerford I’m sure is as well, other qualities such as discretion and a sense of duty are equally important in such a sensitive assignment. The role of White House chef is not a bully pulpit. I wish the Kass the best of luck. I would assume that neither his employers nor his new boss will be much of a problem for him. Rather, his biggest critic may well be the public, which seems to prefer a “celebrity” face over a dutiful servant.

Two recipes from our dinner:

Radishes Topped with Goat Butter

4 ounces goat butter, softened
2 tablespoons mixed chopped herbs (such as basil or tarragon, chives, chervil or parsley)
1 bunch radishes, stemmed and cleaned
Coarse sea salt for garnish

METHOD: Mix together butter and chopped herbs. Slice radishes thinly and soak in cold water. Dry slices and top with goat butter. Garnish with coarse sea salt.

Cheese Wafers

½ pound parmesan cheese, grated (I use Stravecchio, a parmesan-style cheese produced in Wisconsin)

EQUIPMENT: Baking sheet, silpat or parchment

METHOD: Preheat oven to 350° F. On a parchment or silpat-lined baking sheets, scoop out teaspoon size rounds of grated parmesan cheese. Bake until crisp about 7-10 minutes.