10 Things I Learned from the City’s State of the Food System Report

Last month, the City of Austin’s Office of Sustainability released the State of the Food System Report, a well-designed e-booklet full of lots of factoids about the city’s food economy and programs.

Data isn’t always fun to dig through, but the city should get props for packaging a whole lot of information in 24 little pages.

Ada Broussard, a manager at Johnson's Backyard Garden, gives fresh vegetables and information about the community supported agriculture farm in East Austin at the Earth Day Fair at St. Edward's University on April 22, 2015. Photo by Jay Janner for the Austin American-Statesman.
Ada Broussard, a manager at Johnson’s Backyard Garden, gives fresh vegetables and information about the community supported agriculture farm in East Austin at the Earth Day Fair at St. Edward’s University on April 22, 2015. Photo by Jay Janner for the Austin American-Statesman.

Here are 10 things I didn’t know until I read it:

  • 73 percent of all AISD schools have a teaching garden, while only a third maintain 4H programs.
  • Less than 1 percent of the food consumed in Travis County is produced locally, but Austin has 23 urban farms, more than any city of its size in the country. Agua Dulce, an aquaponics farm in Southeast Austin, was the first to officially receive a certification of compliance with the (once controversial, you’ll remember) Urban Farm Ordinance.
  • In 1974, nearly a third of milk consumed here was produced nearby. Now, there is no milk production in Travis County, even though it has about 1,130 farms.
  • Of the 52 community gardens in Austin, there are zero available plots.
  • The city has more than 24,000 chickens inside its city limits, housed in both urban farms and some 3,100 Austin households with backyard birds.
  • Of the $4.1 billion total economic impact of food (which is the same as our creative sector), nearly half of it ($1.98 billion) comes from eating and drinking out. We spend $449 million at grocery stores. (The report also says that 40 percent of the total economic impact from the food sector is created through tourism, but I can’t find a way to make those number make sense in my head. If tourists aren’t likely to spend much money at farmers markets and grocery stores, most of their money has to go toward eating out, but that would mean they spend nearly all of the $1.98 billion of the eating and drinking dollars without Austinites contributing much. I don’t know about you, but the Austinites I know like to drop dollars at restaurants and bars. I’ve put in a question to the city on this one.)
  • There are 325 food retailers, with a total of 85 that are considered full service stores with food.
  • There are 1,000 food trailers and 6,000 restaurants.
  • Even though a quarter of children in Austin are considered food insecure, we waste more than $208 million of food yearly.
  • 14,322 households are participating in the Curbside Organics Collection Pilot, which started in 2012.

Austin360Eats: Getting off the beaten (tourist) trail

It’s always fun to see Austin food through a visitor’s eyes.

Last week, Jen Lover, who writes a restaurant recipe column for the Charlotte Observer, was eating her way through Austin, where she hit up Chi’lantro, Banger’s, Odd Duck, Micklethwait Craft Meats and Gourdough’s for some of our city’s most eye-catching dishes.

Two of her photos (she’s @jenniferlover on Instagram) that really caught my eye, though, came from two barbecue restaurants that visitors don’t always find out about: Freedmen’s and Slab BBQ, both of which are participating in an event called CigarBQue on May 28 at Vuka that Lover is helping coordinate. (You can find out more at cigarbque.com.)

Slab, 9012 Research Blvd., doesn’t have near the hype of its downtown counterparts, but I’ve always enjoyed the wide range of barbecue styles that it offers. Lover snapped a succulent photo of Slab’s Tony Montana, made with pulled pork, sausage, pickles, queso and spicy mustard sauce. Lover also posted a photo of smoked beets with chèvre and balsamic glaze from Freedmen’s, the barbecue restaurant near the University of Texas campus at 2402 San Gabriel St.

Share photos of what you’re eating in Austin by adding #Austin360Eats to your posts on social media, particularly Instagram. We pull the photos into a photo gallery (below) and publish our favorites in print every Friday.

Dude, Sweet Chocolate hosting pop-up at Métier on Friday

Katherine+Head+Shot+w_TapeKatherine Clapner of Dude, Sweet Chocolate in Dallas will be hosting a pop-up sale at Métier Cook’s Supply from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday.

Clapner, who was once a pastry chef for Stephen Pyles, now makes dark chocolate sauces, truffles, marshmallows, cocoa-infused balsamic vinegars, granolas and more.

You can find details at metieraustin.com.

Austin Bakes for Nepal set for May 23

Austin Bakes has raised money for victims of the Japan tsunami, Bastrop wildfires and West chemical explosion.

Austin Bakes for Nepal is a citywide fundraiser that will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on May 23. Photo by Nathan Russell Photography.
Austin Bakes for Nepal is a citywide fundraiser that will take place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on May 23. Photo by Nathan Russell Photography.

This month, local blogger Lisa Rawlinson is rallying fellow bakers for another citywide bake sale to benefit those affected by the earthquakes in Nepal.

The sales will take place at nine locations across Austin from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 23 with proceeds going to AmeriCares. (Click here to find out more about how the money will be used.)

Bakers will be set up at the following sites during that time:

You can donate to the cause ahead of time by going to the Austin Bakes for Nepal FirstGiving page. To find out how you can participate, send an email to Rawlinson at fullandContent@outlook.com or look for a post on the blog at austinbakes.com.

Austin360Cooks: Are low-carb shirataki noodles worth the diet hype?

I’m always suspicious of low-calorie foods.

I first saw shirataki noodles at Central Market a few years ago and scoffed at the low-carb/calorie branding for these ready-to-eat noodles. One look at the label, and you’ll learn that these fat- and gluten-free noodles are made primarily with a flour from a Japanese yam that is super low in carbs and calories but high in dietary fiber.

I don’t know about you, but I eat food for nourishment, flavor and fuel, and zero-calorie foods don’t really fit that mission. However, I am always looking for new ingredients to try, especially if they’ll save me a step or two in the kitchen, so I went ahead and bought a package to try in a quick weeknight stir-fry.

The package warns that the slightly curly noodles are neutral in flavor and can have a “mild earthy smell” when you first open the bag. Following the instructions, I rinsed off the liquid in which they are stored and set the noodles aside while I stir-fried a big pan full of broccoli, carrots, onions, garlic, kale and shrimp.

After the shrimp had started to turn pink, I threw the noodles in the pan, along with additional sesame oil, rice vinegar and soy sauce to coat the translucent strands. I munched on one and, sure enough, it didn’t have a whole lot of flavor, so I added a few more dashes of liquid, as well as a shake or two from an all-purpose Asian seasoning from McCormick’s.

The noodles never really soaked up the flavor of the sauce, but the vegetables and shrimp were able to carry the dish — seasoningwise — while the noodles added just the right carb-like texture that I like to balance out the protein and veggies. When I posted the photos on Instagram, several readers said they weren’t fans of shirataki noodles precisely because they don’t soak up seasoning as much as other Asian noodles, and another said they reminded her of her Atkins diet days.

One person pointed out that in the 1960s, a writer in Japan who subsisted only on these noodles died of malnutrition. I’d say you could die of malnutrition eating only one kind of a lot of things, so that part didn’t worry me too much.

I was encouraged to read that Serious Eats writer J. Kenji López-Alt always keeps a bag of them in his fridge, so I think I’ll probably pick up a bag from time to time — that is, when my epic stash of dried noodles I picked up while researching this week’s story on international markets runs out — even if just for the delightful springy texture they added to my meal.

We’d love to hear about new ingredients you’ve been trying in your kitchen or any other cooking projects that you enjoy. Just add the #Austin360Cooks hashtag to your posts on social media or email us at abroyles@statesman.com. You can see what other home cooks in Central Texas are cooking by searching the hashtag in Instagram or going to food.blog.austin360.com.

Get meals in Mason jars delivered to your home, office

homeinajarsaladWhen you look at a Mason jar, you might see a glass for drinking water, a vessel for canning jam or a craft project waiting to start. Amanda Rey sees an alternative to Tupperware for storing easy-to-deliver meals.

In recent months, Rey started a company called Home in a Jar that sells a week’s worth of prepared meals that are stored in ready-to-microwave glass jars. For $90, you can buy seven entrees and seven desserts that Rey will deliver to you. Most of her customers are college students from Austin, College Station and Waco, but she also sells quite a few meals to people who live in condos downtown.

Each week’s menu includes meatball lasagna, chili and cornbread, chicken and dumplings, turkey meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and a pot roast dinner. The desserts range from red velvet cake and cherry cheesecake to a smoked pineapple upside down cake.

You can order the meals by calling Rey at 512-290-5277 or sending an email to homeinajarco@gmail.com. You can find the full menu and details at facebook.com/homeinajartx.

Poll: Without Blue Bell, which ice cream are you buying right now?

We’ve been polling readers to get their reactions to the Blue Bell recall for the past few weeks, tracking how many of you would buy Blue Bell again (73 percent) and how many would buy Blue Bell again knowing that they knew about listeria for two years (48 percent).

Now, we want to know which kinds of ice cream you are buying at the grocery store now that Blue Bell won’t be back for at least a few months. Last week, we did a taste test with five brands, but I’ll add a few other options for the sake of this poll.

With no Blue Bell in sight, putting other ice creams to the test

With news last week that Blue Bell knew about listeria in its plants for several years and that it is still cleaning its manufacturing facilities, it doesn’t look like their beloved ice creams will be back on store shelves anytime soon.

We thought it was time to try some of the other vanilla ice creams on the market to see which would be a good replacement for Blue Bell’s signature Homemade Vanilla.

IMG_7537

Truth be told, there aren’t that many options to choose from. Each grocery store has a house brand, but beyond that, we have Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s, Dreyer’s and Breyers. I couldn’t find a plain Ben & Jerry’s vanilla, but I picked up containers of five vanilla ice creams that were as close to “homestyle” that I could find: Safeway Selects Vanilla ($4.39, 1 1/2 quarts), Häagen-Dazs Vanilla ($3.98, 14 oz.), H-E-B Creamy Creations’ Homemade Vanilla ($4.48, 1/2 gallon), Dreyers’ Va Va Vanilla ($3.88, 1 1/2 quarts) and Breyers Natural Vanilla ($3.86, 1 1/2 quarts).

IMG_7545I found willing taste testers in the newsroom to try each of the samples, without knowing which was which, and vote for their favorite. Although they didn’t all agree on a single flavor, there were several clear favorites. Five of the tasters voted for H-E-B Creamy Creations as their top pick, with two others picking Häagen-Dazs, and all of them said their first choice tasted the most like how they remember Blue Bell tasting.

It seemed like we had a clear winner until restaurant critic Matthew Odam tried them all and declared the airy Safeway Select — one of two samples made with corn syrup; Dreyers also has corn syrup — as his favorite, with Häagen-Dazs coming in second. H-E-B’s vanilla, the only one made with artificial flavors, landed at the very bottom of his list.

I’ve been asking grocery store cashiers if they’ve noticed people buying less ice cream right now, and none of them said they’d noticed a dip in sales.

How have your ice cream eating habits changed in the past few weeks? Have you started buying other brands — or did you avoid Blue Bell in the first place because of taste, price or their use of high fructose corn syrup?

Recipe of the week: Spinach- and Cheese-stuffed Chicken Breasts

comfort-food-cookbook_0Sloppy Joes, chicken potpie, mashed potatoes and meatloaf.

Comfort food can mean something different depending on where and when you grew up, so it’s a good thing Old Farmer’s Almanac picked veteran cookbook author Ken Haedrich to figure out which ones should be featured in its newest book, “The Old Farmer’s Almanac Comfort Food” (Old Farmer’s Almanac, $19.95), which came out last fall.

Haedrich settled on more than 200 recipes, most of them surprisingly modern, such as a basil leaf-studded tomato tart and bourbon-glazed salmon. However, many of the dishes, such as a beef and mushroom stew, chicken and dumplings and carrot cake, will take you back to your grandmother’s kitchen. I like this recipe for spinach and cheese-stuffed chicken breasts, which can be quite indulgent when topped with the lemon garlic parsley sauce. If you’re watching calories, leave that part out.

SpinachCheeseStuffedChicken
Spinach and Cheese-Stuffed Chicken Breasts from “The Old Farmer’s Almanac Comfort Food.” Photo by Becky Luigart-Stayner.

Spinach- and Cheese-Stuffed Chicken Breasts

2 thick, boneless, skinless chicken breasts
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups finely chopped mushrooms
3/4 lb. fresh baby spinach
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tsp. dried basil
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 cup Italian-style bread crumbs
For the lemon-garlic butter sauce:
3 Tbsp. butter
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a large, shallow casserole and set aside.

Halve the chicken breasts and pound the pieces into large, thin cutlets. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Melt 2 Tbsp. of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat, add the onion and mushrooms, stir, and sauté for 5 minutes, or until soft. Add the spinach, garlic, and salt and pepper, to taste, and stir. Cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Uncover and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the excess liquid evaporates.

In a small bowl, mix together the ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese and basil. Add salt and pepper, to taste, mix, and set aside.

Working with one piece of chicken at a time, smear one-quarter of the cheese mixture over the breast, then mound on it one-quarter each of the onion-mushroom mixture and the feta cheese. Fold one side of the chicken over the filling, then roll the chicken into a neat bundle. Brush with the beaten egg and roll in the bread crumbs to coat. Place in the oiled casserole, seam side down, and insert a toothpick through the chicken to secure it. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

Melt the remaining 4 Tbsp. of butter and spoon over the chicken. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the chicken is firm, juicy, and no longer pink.

For sauce: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat; add the garlic. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until the garlic is very lightly browned. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice, parsley, and pepper, to taste. Serve over the sliced chicken. Serves 4.

—  From “The Old Farmer’s Almanac Comfort Food” (Old Farmer’s Almanac, $19.95) by Ken Haedrich

Whole Foods to open lower-priced chain next year

rbz WholeFoods Domain 32Talk about burying the lead.

In Whole Foods’ quarterly report today, the Austin-based grocer quietly announced that it would be launching a “new, uniquely-branded store concept” that will focus on lower prices and target millennials. (You’ll remember that last week, we did a 10-item price comparison between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and Whole Foods lost.)

Co-CEO Walter Robb, who did not announce a name for these new stores, said that they are in the planning stages and are negotiating leases for the stores that will open sometime next year. The store said more details would be available by September.

From the report:

“Today, we are excited to announce the launch of a new, uniquely-branded store concept unlike anything that currently exists in the marketplace,” said Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods Market. “Offering our industry-leading standards at value prices, this new format will  feature a modern, streamlined design, innovative technology and a curated selection. It will deliver a convenient, transparent, and values-oriented experience geared toward millennial shoppers, while appealing to anyone looking for high-quality fresh food at great prices.”

The Company is building a team to focus exclusively on this new concept and is currently negotiating leases. The plan is to begin opening stores next year, and given the more standardized design and product assortment, the Company expects a fairly rapid expansion from there. “We believe the growth potential for this  new and  complementary brand to be as great as it is for our highly successful Whole Foods Market brand,” added Robb. “We look forward to sharing more details about this exciting new venture sometime before Labor Day.”