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Food Blog: Live Nutrition Updates

Now here's some real California culture

The UC ANR publication 'Farmstead and Artisan Cheeses' helps new cheesemakers start up their businesses.
Thanks to the happy cows of the California Milk Advisory Board, many know that California leads the nation in milk production. While you may think of Vermont or Wisconsin when you think of cheese, specialty cheeses make up about 11 percent of California's cheese production, creating a growing niche market.

Today artisan cheesemaking is a $119-million dollar industry in Marin and Sonoma, and the two counties are home to the second-largest concentration of artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in the country. The trend in farmstead and artisan cheesemaking shows no sign of slowing — membership in the California Artisan Cheesemakers' Guild increased 15 percent in 2014.

Navigating the start-up of any business is hard work, but cheesemaking has its own special challenges. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources has published a bestselling manual designed for the beginning cheesemaker. Farmstead and Artisan Cheeses: A Guide to Building a Business walks readers through the steps necessary to establishing a cheesemaking business.

California has a rich history of cheesemaking, this year the Marin French Cheese Company celebrates its 150th anniversary, making it the longest continually operating cheese company in the United States.

Starting in the mid-1990s, California cheesemaking began a renaissance with a handful of dedicated small producers. UC Cooperative Extension advisors nurtured the emerging farmstead and artisan cheesemaking culture. Working with local producers, they developed the cheesemaking certificate program offered at the College of Marin and published what is now the leading book on building an artisan and farmstead cheese business; industry surveys lent credibility to the emerging market and enabled the growing ranks of cheesemakers to secure start-up funds.

Marking artisan cheese is a value-added option for California dairies. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Last July, Sacramento played host to the annual meeting and competition of the American Cheese Society, and California cheesemakers received top honors. In a field of 1,685 cheeses and cultured dairy products, Oakdale Cheese & Specialties of Oakdale took home the top prize for Aged Gouda, American made, Dutch style, and also garnered Third Place "Best in Show." Another venerable California cheesemaker, Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese, won Second Place "Best in Show" for it's Bay Blue.

So where do you start if you'd like to try your hand at cheesemaking?

The California Cheese Trail website offers a wealth of information about cheesemaking classes for everyone from the novice making their first ricotta at home to professional certificate programs. Likewise, Grown in Marin, a resource of UC Cooperative Extension in Marin County, posts an exhaustive list of resources for the North Bay, epicenter of the California's artisan cheese movement.

The 9th annual California Artisan Cheese Festival takes place March 20 - 22, 2015 in Petaluma. This celebration of real California culture brings together artisan cheesemakers, chefs, and the public for three days of seminars, tastings, and farm tours.

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 at 9:40 AM
Tags: cheese (1), cheesemaking (1)

Future looks bright at UC Ag Field Day

More than 3,500 FFA and 4-H high school students from California and surrounding states will gather on March 6 and 7 at UC Davis for the annual Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Field Day. The smart, passionate youth will compete in two dozen agriculture contests, from livestock judging, to agricultural mechanics, to floriculture, to computer applications, and more.

FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers of America) and 4-H are youth development programs that help prepare young people for careers in the rapidly changing world of agriculture. 4-H, which is offered in California by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension, allows members to choose from projects in science, engineering, technology, animal science education, nutrition, healthy living and many other experiential learning activities.

Each year the young competitors spend countless hours preparing for the field day, the largest of its kind in the state.

Meat judging is among the competitions at Ag Field Day.

“Competing in Ag Field Day instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic, the value of research, and the benefits of scientific methods for solving real-world problems in agriculture,” said Yousef Buzayan, a 2011 Ag Field Day participant now double-majoring in Managerial Economics and International Agricultural Development at UC Davis.

Ag Field Day is run and managed completely by UC Davis students who gain valuable experience in leadership, communication, and teamwork.

“Of all my experiences at UC Davis, managing Ag Field Day was definitely the biggest challenge, and with it came the biggest rewards,” said Mary Kimball, executive director of the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, California, who helped organize Ag Field Day as a student in 1992. “I learned how to manage many moving parts, and I learned that the best way to get things done well is to do it as a team.”

So if you're in Davis and see thousands of high school students on campus, you'll know who they are: tomorrow's leaders striving and thriving in Ag Field Day competitions. The future of agriculture is in good hands.​

New Valentine’s Day trends are good for kids

Last Valentine's Day, Nick Spezzano (Terri's son, in white shirt and bow tie) enjoys fresh vegetables and fruit with his classmates.
At some point in the last few decades, Valentine's Day in elementary schools ceased to be about sharing heart-felt sentiments on simple paper cards. It turned into a candy fest.

Now, with growing attention to the obesity crisis and increasing rate of type 2 diabetes in children, the tide is turning. Many school districts have begun to put limits on classroom parties and teachers are asking parents to provide healthy snacks.

Terri Spezzano, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor and the mother of two school-age boys, is delighted by the turnabout. She has found that, with a little creativity, healthful Valentine's Day parties can be just as fun for kids.

“Last year, I brought strawberries to my son's classroom. We can get local strawberries in California almost year round,” Spezzano said. “Strawberries are always a huge hit with kids. They're fun and shaped a little like a heart.”

Spezzano, who is also director of UCCE in Stanislaus County, manages a staff of 10 nutrition educators in Stanislaus and Merced counties who regularly visit classrooms to teach children about making healthy food choices. USDA provides funding to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources so UCCE offices around the state can offer these educational programs in schools serving low income families.

“Around Valentine's Day, they'll make strawberry smoothies, because they're pink and delicious,” Spezzano said.

Before bringing goodies to school for Valentine's Day, Spezzano suggests parents talk to the teacher. Even if conversation hearts, cupcakes, fruit punch and chocolate are permitted in the school district, the teacher may not like the idea.

“I wouldn't want to teach a class full of first graders strung out on sugar,” Spezzano said.

Spezzano advocates for healthy school parties, but she isn't opposed to allowing children to enjoy some sugary treats.

“I don't want to tell kids, ‘You cannot have sugar,'” she said. “That can lead to sneaking and hoarding and that's where we see more obesity problems.”

Spezzano offered the following suggestions for making Valentine's Day healthy and fun:

Sharing kind sentiments are a great way to celebrate Valentine's Day. (Photo: Jessica Christman, Factory Direct Craft Blog.

  • Give out Valentine-themed pencils or erasers. “These are available at dollar stores at a really good price,” she said.
  • Provide small boxes of raisins.
  • For a special treat, try the new “sour” raisins.
  • Serve heart-shaped pizza, offered by many pizzerias in mid-February. Be sure to pick healthful toppings like bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms rather than high-fat “meat lovers” or double-cheese pizza.
  • Cut fruit, cheese or sandwiches into heart shapes using a metal cookie cutter.
  • Don't be afraid to go “back to basics” and allow children to exchange simple paper cards with a kind note, no candy needed.

UC Cooperative Extension offers two nutrition education programs. UC CalFresh provides nutrition education to low-income adults and youth. The UC Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program targets limited-resource families and children.

An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 6:26 AM
Tags: nutrition (98), Terri Spezzano (3), Valentines (1)

Tomatillos add Mexican flavor to California gardens

Tomatillos look like Chinese lanterns growing on a vine.
With spring quickly approaching, it is the ideal time to plan a summer garden in California. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash are common and relatively easy to grow. But gardening veterans and rookies alike may want to add some ethnic flavor by cultivating tomatillos.

UC Cooperative Extension advisor Maria de la Fuente said she has planted tomatillos in her backyard garden every year since she moved to California from Monterrey, Mexico, in 1995. De la Fuente serves UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in various roles. She is the director of UCCE in Monterey County, an advisor to commercial specialty vegetable producers in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties, and the Master Gardener coordinator in Santa Clara County. She said she personally uses tomatillos regularly to make fresh green salsa, green pico de gallo and flavorful traditional sauces for dishes like chili verde.

“You could use green tomatoes, but it doesn't taste the same,” de la Fuente said. “There's really no substitute.”

Tomatillos are native of Mexico and a staple of Mexican cuisine. De la Fuente, who lives in Santa Clara County, said she starts seeds indoors in March and transplants into her garden in mid-May with great success.

“They grow like weeds, but I also buy a lot in the store,” de la Fuente said. “I make a lot of green salsa.”

Tomatillos, small green or green-purple to red fruits that mature inside paper-like husks, can be a healthful addition to family meals, according to the UC CalFresh nutrition education program, which developed a fact sheet in English and Spanish for cooking and eating tomatillos. Tomatillos contain Vitamin C, Vitamin K and potassium and are naturally low in calories.

Crab molotes with avocado tomatillo salsa. (Photo: California Avocados, CC BY 2.0)
Purple and red-ripening cultivars often have a slight sweetness; green- and yellow-ripening cultivars are more tart. Both types can be used for salsas and sauces. The fruits are white inside and meatier than tomatoes, which are in the same family, but a different genus.

To grow tomatillos, spread seeds on moist soil in an egg carton or shallow tray, place in a sunny location inside and keep the soil moist. When the plants are about six inches tall, transplant about three feet apart into garden soil that has been mixed with compost or humus. Select an area where they will get plenty of sun and be sure to plant more than one as two or more are required for proper pollination. The plants will grow to about 3 or 4 feet high and will need support to keep the fruit off the ground.

Tomatillos look like delicate Chinese lanterns on the vine. They are ready to harvest when the fruit fills and splits the husk, but leave the inedible husk on until use. Tomatillos may be kept in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for about two weeks. For preservation, they may be frozen fresh or cooked. Prepared tomatillo salsa, chutney, relish, jam and sauce may be preserved using boiling water or pressure canning methods.

To prepare tomatillo sauce, gently squeeze the vegetable from the husk. Wash in cool, running water to remove stickiness from the skin. Sauté 2 cups chopped tomatillos, 1 diced onion and 1 diced garlic clove in 2 tbsp. oil. Add ¼ cup of water and heat until the vegetables are soft. Purée in a blender. De la Fuente suggests adding fresh cilantro to enhance the flavor of the sauce.

The CalFresh fact sheet says parents may feed children 6 months of age and older cooked tomatillo and sweet potato puree. Toddlers may be offered small pieces of cooked tomatillos and carrots. Older children may enjoy the vegetable served with cooked potatoes and onion as a burrito filling, or the pureed sauce as a dip with quesadillas, bread or raw vegetables.

An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at 10:36 AM

More reason to eat your legumes

The farmers who first introduced Missoula, Montana-native Liz Carlisle to the revolution taking place deep in her home state's grain belt were a diverse group that included lefty liberals, fundamentalist Christians, and freewheeling libertarians. But they shared a common plight: Years of drought and costly chemicals had damaged their bottom line and their soil, and threatened their family farms.

Carlisle, a recent geography Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, where she is now a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems, first encountered the group when she worked for U.S. Senator Jon Tester. They were disparagingly called “weed farmers” by Tester's more conservative constituents because of the messy, low-lying appearance of the plants they farmed: organic lentils.

Lentils were a natural for Montana's water-stressed landscape. When there's no water, the plants neither wither nor bolt—they simply pause their growth cycle. So they don't require irrigation. On top of that, they also preserve nitrogen in the soil, fertilizing themselves and leaving behind healthier soil for the next crop.

By cooperating instead of competing, the group of former conventional farmers built a successful company, Timeless Seeds, and showed doubters, including their own state university, that sustainable farming was both possible and profitable.

Carlisle, who studied with Michael Pollan and received book-jacket support from food luminaries including Marion Nestle, Frances Moore Lappé, and Raj Patel, is herself part of the colorful cast of characters she paints in the book: She was a professional country singer and learned that the “amber waves of grain” she sung about didn't live up to their hype as she gigged her way across the country and chatted with farmers after shows.

Carlisle implanted herself in the community of Timeless Seeds farmers across four years of dissertation research, and through their story she lays out a workable vision for sustainable agriculture in the age of climate change.

Read her San Francisco Chronicle Op Ed article and a book review of Lentil Underground, which calls the book "an important contribution to the sustainable agricultural genre."

Posted on Monday, February 9, 2015 at 7:44 PM

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