This is Your Brain on Sardines

Gross no more! Sardines are packed with biovailable Omega Fatty Acids. They’re cost-effective and surprisingly tasty.

Sardines: not gross.

That’s news, right? I grew up on a cattle farm in the Midwest. The amount of beef I ate through age 17 is enough for my entire lifetime. It did send me into a decade-long vegetarian and vegan cycle, from which I’ve recovered. But my current protein kick is sardines.

I’ve always equated sardines with anchovies, the tiny little fishes used as pizza toppings. And though I’ve often turned to canned tuna for a cost-effective, ready-to-eat source of protein, I shuddered at the thought of sardines. Grossness.

However, I was recently discussing Omega 3s with my chiropractor, a happy, healthy, holistic paleo-enthusiast. She’s of such sound mind and body that her word is gospel to me. She recommended I lay off of the Omega supplements (super costly, btw) and eat fish. Daily. And not tuna, which is a larger fish that’s likely to contain more mercury, so it should only be eaten a few times a week. She recommended salmon, scallops, oysters (which even she admitted to finding unpalatable) and shared that one of her favorite fishes is sardines. I nearly scoffed and gagged at the same time. The odor of anchovies from grade school pizza parties flooded my memory as she assured me they were delicious on salads and in a variety of dishes. Eating Omega 3s as part of food makes the fatty acid much more easily available (bioavailable) to your body. You have to eat anyway, she argued. Why not get your nutrients in the form of food?

It made sense. And, as a primarily paleo eater, I’m always on the hunt for a bargain. Omegas are mega important to me in the winter, as seasonal affective disorder is part of my life I combat with Vitamin D, a light lamp, a gym membership and lots of hot baths. I actually wrote a song about it that’s a hit with folks who hear it. So, I strode into the food co-op with a mission. On the shelf above the wild-caught tuna fish were rows of sardines: in water, in oil, in tomato sauce. I opted for a variety in oil with lemon. You can’t go wrong with that combo. I also grabbed a box of herring kippering snacks for good measure. The fish revolution was beginning.

I got this boxed tin of sardines home ( Wild Planet is my preferred brand) with little idea what to do with it. I didn’t want to eat them cold on a salad; the idea of those textures didn’t appeal to me. So I sautéed some chard and kale in bacon fat with garlic and threw the sardines and the oil in, just long enough to heat them up. I plated the weird stir fry, along with my typical carb of choice: a mashed sweet potato with butter. Then I hungrily dug in.

It was awesome! My brain tried to cling to memories of anchovial disgust, but my tastebuds embraced the smoky flavor and robust texture. Canned tuna pales in comparison to sardines, which are typically deboned and beheaded before canning. I was in. Sardines are now an item on my shopping list.

Here are a few recipes I’ve tried or look forward to trying. I probably won’t eat them every day, but 3-4 times a week as an easy fallback meal is likely. Please let me know if you have any sardine insights to share!

And here’s your somewhat topical music video.

Wicked Gardener

The next cover of

The next cover of “Worst Homes & Gardens.”

My name is Holly and I’m a bad gardener. But let me explain.

Despite my best intentions, the ol’ community garden plot slowly grew into a weed jungle again this year. You leave a piece of land to its own devices for a week and it does its damnedest to erase all evidence of your interference. (Also, you sow your seeds on Labor Day Weekend and then vacate out of state for a week or two, as I have the past few years, and … yeah.) The plot was lousy with the scourge that is bindweed, aka Convolvulus arvensis, a cousin of the morning glory that invades the soil and winds its way up plants, pulling them down, strangling them in the process and blocking their sun exposure. The only known ways to kill bindweed are 1) RoundUp, which is strictly verboten in the community garden and nothing I’m inclined to use; 2) Pouring boiling water all over the plot, which, like a normal garden, isn’t flanked by electric outlets and I don’t own a cauldron; and 3) Covering the 17’x10′ plot with a black tarp or sheets of plastic for, oh, say three years.

The other way to get rid of it: hours upon hours of weed pulling all summer.

Now, let’s stop and think about summer. Just yesterday, the blitzkrieg of weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, campouts, neighborhood festivals, street parties and such had many of us booked up for weeks on end. If you have time for weed pulling in the summer, you are likely retired or an extreme introvert who wouldn’t mind being introduced to this garden plot, thick with accursed weeds, that I waited three years to get.

Did I mention the plot is about 1.5 miles from my house? Definitely not too far, but given a day at work and an evening activity, I generally made it to the garden once or twice a week early in the season to check the weed progress and water the tomatoes, peppers and cabbage.

There were several survivors. Plenty of summer squash and zucchini, a decent amount of kale and rainbow chard, and the odd wild raspberries made stopping by the garden a bit fun. I also discovered two tiny peppers and a lone radish. All delicious. Maybe it’s my agrarian genes, but there is no satisfaction like eating food that you and the earth collaborated on. And I assume the brussels sprouts are still growing …

Out of shame of its shabbiness, I often visited my garden under the cover of night. The weed bed was beneath a streetlight, glowing yellow on the bikepath beside it. I would fill my plastic grocery bag with what I could carry while swatting at the army of mosquitoes intent on inserting their thirsty probiscuses into my flesh.

Next to the the seasoned lifestyle farmers of Madison, Wisconsin, my paltry plot was an eyesore on the verdant landscape. Beautiful strawberries in the early summer, carrots, cabbages, lettuce, peas, green beans dancing up poles and enough tomatoes and peppers to exceed every salsa and marinara sauce canning dream. And nary an unchecked weed.

Madison is a master gardener’s playground. I simply cannot compete. Next season, I’ll plant some store-bought herbs and tomatoes in buckets and pots on my porch. There’s plenty of to sunshine be soaked up around the flat. Plants located just steps away have a much higher likelihood of flourishing.

Until then, I will machete my way through the weeds to recover the wheelbarrow and shovel I bought at the beginning of the season, presuming they’re still in there.

I hope to convert the wheelbarrow into a kayak cart (or bribe a friend to). But that’s another blog post.

Here’s a ’90s video for you. (Before Scott Weiland got too deep into the Layne Staley bit!)

In Which I Fall into Food

This mouse was found in the toy aisles of Target, trying to pass off his bananas as freshly harvested. I don't buy it, food elitist! Unless you're speaking English with a Latin-American accent, you're a food elitist! BUSTED!!!

This mouse was found in the toy aisles of Target, trying to pass off his bananas as freshly harvested. I don’t buy it, food elitist! Unless you’re speaking English with a Latin-American accent, you’re a food elitist! BUSTED!!!

The coming winter will soon find itself in my firm mental embrace and me swathed in layers of materials designed to evade its cold clutches.

But til then, fall is rockin’ the food kasbah. Listen up!

Rainy Saturdays are the best time to visit the Madison Farmers Market. My eyes were relieved to see no more than 2, possibly 1, strollers around the entire Capitol Square! Our haul included 1 medium buttercup squash ($4), 3 small spaghetti squash ($2), a vege-fractal broccoli romano (broccoli romanesco if you’re Americani or simply anywhere but Roma) ($4), one 4-pound, local, antibiotic-free chicken carcass ($12) and one Chai-der from Espresso Royale ($3ish). Yes, that last one is a mix of chai and cider. You need it inside of you. Oh! And the best farmers market find was a Hen of the Woods mushroom, ½ pound at $6 a pound. Local food proprietors claim that this is their season to flourish. A fantastic risotto was made with the chickeny hen and a few shitakes for good measure. The next day found the chicken (roasted), buttercup squash (also roasted) and broccoli romano (sautéed in butter) in tonight’s dinner, inspired by this bitchin’ recipe and wine suggestion compliments of the Willy Street Coop and Star Liquor.

Want to try: “cheddar” cauliflower. It’s orange cauliflower. I uncertain if its taste varies from the uncolored counterpart. It may be a well-engineered Sconnie food ploy… Please advise if you have insight.

As climatical greyness encroaches, I’m picking through what remains of my backyard and community gardens. A multitude of baby kale spurred a stem-in roasted kale chip experiment. Tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, cumin and salt and baked at 400F for about 12 minutes, the stem added structural integrity to the wee leaves. Do it! A bunch of purple kale and a generous half cup of Thai basil remain for the backyard haul, in addition to a few green-and-yellow, tiger-striped heirloom tomatoes that escaped the clutches of squirrels who eat one bite and leave the rest to rot. Squirrels …

A jog past the community garden Sunday yielded a cup of Brussels sprouts, a few nearly-ripe San Martino tomatoes and last fresh raspberries I’ll pull from that and surrounding plots this season. The former were toted home in an unused doggie bag donated by a kindly passerby. After a season of mythically proportioned weeds, I’ve decided to give the bit of land another go. A season of late planting and unexpectedly draining travel messed up my gardening groove. And a new job. That’ll do it! I’ll garden more prioritiously next year. The satisfaction of preparing and digesting nourishment from plants coaxed out of the earth with nature’s permission is incomparable.

As the summer slides into fall, I look forward to clearing my plots of the detritus of plants that were born and flowered that year. I’m grateful for the opportunity to interact with nature on a more intimate level next year, with a more knowledgeable, understanding care and respect. With a better idea of what to expect.

TL;DR: Squash is brilliant, as will be what lies ahead.

Yum! Invasive Fish Species!

Graphic by

Graphic by

I want to eat all the invasive fish species. Not right now, of course. But over time.

Did you know many common fish like tilapia and smallmouth bass are actually invasive species? Probably not. Over time and generations, it’s been forgotten that these fish are not native. That takes the stigma out of eating them. After all, who wants to eat something considered “invasive”?

I do. Because invasive fish are wild caught, rather than farmed. Eating them is helping the environment along with providing nutrients. I want to try all of these fish fried, in ceviche, grilled, smoked, maybe some fusion methods of cooking I’m not yet privy to.

Technology is helping me, and all of the invasive fish lovers out there, get one step closer to that delicious, nutritious dream.

The New Yorker describes the case of the lionfish, an invasive species plaguing parts of the Caribbean and the Southeastern United States. USGS created an app that helps researchers and fisherman track lionfish. The app lets users document how fish many are in a given area and what methods are used to catch them.

For many fishermen, either professional or hobby, this app could turn fishing for invasive species into a high-precision endeavor. But first, in the name of sustainability, the market for invasive fish species must be established close to home.

Chicago’s WGN TV reported 15 million pounds of Asian Carp are caught annually by one seafood processor. But the market for Asian Carp, a name that refers to four types of fish invading U.S. waterways via the Mississippi River, is in China. It’s fantastic that there’s a market for these fish. But it seems excessive that they’re shipped halfway across the globe when the healthy appetites of Midwestern fish fries could polish off tons of them.

If companies like Sea to Table can partner with local sustainable fisherman to overnight their catch to restaurants around the U.S., certainly a Midwestern seafood processor can flash freeze Asian Carp and sell it throughout the region.

It may take a media campaign from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and it will definitely take the opening of many minds, but we owe it to our waterways and overall ecosystems to eat invasive species near the regions they’re invading. Not only does it save fossil fuels, but it raises awareness.

Current cultural food trends, like local food and foraging, as well as developing cheap food sources, feed right into eating invasive species locally. C’mon foodies and food advocates: give an invasive fish species a taste.

For more information on eating invasive species, check out conservation biologist Joe Roman’s website and call to action,

From Sea and Fishery to My Belly

LogoI choose my food very carefully. I’m not a foodie; I’m a food advocate. I advocate for food to be transparently produced with the highest ecological and animal welfare standards. I want to make the best choices for the planet and the animals on it. I’ve had the opportunity to research, write or live every aspect of the food production, manufacturing and distribution chain. An attitude of stewarship, from my experience, is best when paired with consideration to human physiology and cultural practices.

For years, I ate a vegan and vegetarian diet. After growing up on a cattle farm and eating an abundance of steaks, roasts and ground beef for the first 17 years of my life, I gradually exited the meat game when I moved away to college. I still remember finishing off that last packet of chicken-flavored ramen. PETA’s seminal shock-umentary “Meet Your Meat” and a growing knowledge of industrial CAFOs were enough to put me off of carnivorousness.

Never one to turn down a challenge, I decided to kick my food-based activism up a notch in grad school. I went full vegan. Pollution from dairy farms and the oddity that humans are the only animal that drink milk beyond infancy, let alone the milk of another species, seemed counterintuitive. But my body reacted instantly. Since all of the information I’d seen on veganism indicated that it was the healthiest thing a human could do for their body, I attributed the onset of acne (which I’d never experienced at the age of 22) to stress from my first desk job, an internship. However, it was likely due to stress on my body from cutting out a source of nutrients that my ancestors had evolved to utilize.

About eight years later, I found myself constantly famished. In the meantime, I had relapsed into carnivorous territory for a few years in New York (after successfully maintaining a vegan diet for months in Costa Rica, which was no picnic). A move to Madison, Wis., later and this glutton for punishment went vegetarian and then vegan again. But when an herbalist suggested I cut soy out of my diet, I realized I had to start eating eggs or spend most of my time hungry and hunting for food. A month later, I stood bewildered in the dairy aisle, confounded by choices of eight different concentrations of milk. After the dairy experiment, I was still not in the best health and remained quite hungry, so I got on the pescatarian bandwagon. (Most restaurants in Madison have amazing fish frys on Friday evenings. That and the cheese curds encouraged some dietary shifts.)

As I integrated more healthful sources of animal protein into my diet, I felt it my responsibility to stick with the most local and organic options. I buy organic whole milk from Sassy Cow Creamery and organic, soy-free eggs from M&M Farms. (I recently made huevos ranchers with two types of eggs: M&M’s and a leading national organic brand. M&M’s yolks were much oranger and the shells were stronger too.) I willingly pay more for these products because, in a capitalist economy, every dollar is a vote. I vote for sustainability.

I feel priveleged because I realize the opportunity to vote with your food dollar is a luxury for many. I have access to these products and the money to spend on them. I make it a priority. College loans can wait: I need fresh food!

I’ve extended that effort to the seafood that I eat. I take the same attitude with fish as I did with meat. I eat it at restaurants, which makes it a bit trickier to get information on where the fish was sourced from. Some of the best fish frys are at local mom-and-pop joints with other priorities than sustainability. But there are plenty of local-food restaurants in town whose fish frys I’m destined to try. Seafood is new to me and it’s a learning process I enjoy.

As part of the Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association, I’m committed to sharing the same information I look for when making choices about what I eat. I hope to enlighten and am always interested in questions and feedback. Thanks for joining us on this sustainable seafood journey! I’m sure it will encourage us to be more mindful of not just the food we eat, but the world in general.

Check out the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch App to help you make the most sustainable seafood purchasing decisions.

Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association: Under the Sea and Onto Your Plate — Responsibly

Logo(July 14, 2014) Something’s fishy.

The most recent data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations shows annual world fishery production of 158 million tons, up an astonishing345% from fifty years earlier. Global per capita consumption of seafood has nearly doubled to 19 kilograms annually in the last 50 years, and by 2050, the population is expected to balloon to 9 billion. Despite the vital importance of seafood as a world food supply, there is relatively little conversationoutside the scientific, activist and conservation communities about how to replenish and maintain it. Everyone plays a role in the health of the oceans, and with more information, can contribute in ways that accumulate to make a sizeable difference.

Enter the Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association (SSBA). Five independent bloggers from the worlds of food, science, culture and regulation have banded together, each creating weekly blog posts to bring seafood sustainability into ongoing conversations about food, corporate responsibility and environmental stewardship. Together, their social media channels reach roughly 50,000 subscribers, a substantial audience and robust network for the SSBA to begin its campaign.

  • Richard Auffrey of The Passionate Foodie is a licensed attorney in Massachusetts, an award-winning food and drink writer and a sake educator.
  • Holly Henschen of The Futurist Farmgirl is a long-time food journalist, nature-lover and former Midwestern farm dweller who’s written for publications including: The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and Food Manufacturing.
  • Tom Siebertz of Chews-Worthy, formerly of the NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service, is a regulatory & food labeling specialist, as well as a student of food science, business and regulatory affairs.
  • Jason Simas of The Food Safety Blog is founder of Grant, Hamilton & Beck communications consultancy and directs social media communications for the food safety and sustainability life science company iPura Foods.
  • Kerrie Urban of Urban Foodie Finds co-founded Blog and Tweet Boston and writes on topics such as organic vs. natural foods and sustainability, as well as local farmers and small businesses.

The growing world population taxes water supplies, as well as the wildlife and food sources that inhabit them. Sustainable practices are vital to cultivating the seafood that remains and ensuring these creatures continue viable food sources for years to come. Look forward to cogent conversations from the Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association that aim to integrate this imperative topic of choice into the growing movement toward responsible food.

Visit the Sustainable Seafood Bloggers Association members on their respective blogs and on Twitter at #SSBAFish.

Contact: Jason Simas

(805) 438-4268

The Avant Gardener

My first trek into the community garden plot Saturday was glorious! A sunny, breezy Saturday morning. I would like a week of those, please.

It’s time for this farm girl to get reacculturated into toiling in the soil. I’ve developed a bit of a complex surrounding gardening. I grew up on a farm with a sizeable garden. My experience: when you put things in the ground and they get enough water, they grow. I’m starting to wonder if that’s a simplistic perspective or if that’s the truth and I’m actually over-thinking it. Only time will tell!

I’ve waited three years for this coveted garden spot. It’s along a happenin’ bike path, near the cool community center and a block from my fave coffee shop. My plot is 15×17 and slopes downward. I’m not sure yet if I’ll construct some terraforming (my trip last fall to Peru has me intrigued on that agricultural angle) or if I’ll make some large mounds.

I used the rake I hauled over haphazardly on my bike to scrape off last year’s straw. My arsenal of gardening tools is currently non-existant, so I borrowed my plot neighbors’ shovel and  removed some wayward weeds. As my grandfather said, “A weed is anything that grows where you don’t want it to.” Among the weeds were some scallions/onions/leftovers from last year that had formed a sort of uni-union… It made me think of a rat king. It was an onion king. The onion king is dead. There are also a bed of tulips between my plot and the bike path, but they’re not doing so hot. There are no blooms and it appears they weren’t buried deep enough. Their bulbs are showing, their buds are not. I may have to dig them up.

I wheel-barrowed (it was a borrowed barrow) my straw-cetera to the community pile and hauled back a few loads of rich, dark compost. All in all, it took an hour, but then I laid back in the nearby grass and soaked in some sun. It was lovely to make light conversation with dog-walking neighbors who ambled by. One commented on the rhubarb in the neighboring plot. I didn’t even realize it was rhubarb. For farmgirl shame!

I’ve got seedlings growing under my kitchen table, which was the best spot to hang my borrowed grow lamps. Three types of tomatoes are sprouting, as are green peppers, kale,

The green beans are running the show under the table and the peas are strong understudies. There’s some rosemary and Thai basil making an entrance, but not too dramatically. I’ve got designs on some cilantro once the other guys are in the ground. Hopefully, the weather will cooperate with my plans to make that happen on Labor Day weekend, for I’m headed to Colorado for a work/backpacking trip soon after! Then I’ll construct an anti-rabbit fence and employ my gardening sidekicks to vigilantly guard the plot.

May your early gardening be as exciting as mine, and/or may you live vicariously through my gardening adventures. Here’s a little gardening soundtrack for your ears.

Butter Tales and Saturated Fat Stories

My father, Lynn Henschen, center front, has been proudly eating butter for 56 years. He's pictured here on his family farm in Central Illinois circa 1960 with my grandfather LaVerne, left, Uncle Terry, right, and great grandfather Albert, center back.

My father, Lynn Henschen, center front, has been proudly eating butter for 56 years. He’s pictured here on his family farm in Central Illinois circa 1960 with my grandfather LaVerne, left, Uncle Terry, right, and great grandfather Albert, center back.

I never thought I’d say this, but my dad was right all along.

For the last 15 years or so, my brothers, sister and I (and probably my mom) have been somewhat cruelly teasing my father about his love for dairy, particularly butter. There must be butter in the house at all times. Sour cream and milk are similar staples. A temporary dairy shortage in the kitchen is a veritable natural disaster. Of course, those foods are a way of life for a man who grew up on a second-generation dairy farm. In my youth, each trip to a restaurant (likely a steakhouse) meant Dad was ordering a T-bone and baked potato with extra sour cream and butter.

Delicious? Of course. Healthy? Hardly. Or so we thought. A recently published meta-analysis of health studies shows that saturated fats don’t have the deleterious effects on heart health that were preached for decades. While more research into the matter is necessary, these findings shut the refrigerator door on a dry slice of food history.

At the same time, recent data shows a 25 percent jump consumption of butter in the last decade, bringing it to a 40-year high. Part of that equation is a shift away from trans fats. The consumer trend of preferring less-processed counterparts is undeniable. If there’s one things Americans do well, it’s get on a dietary bandwagonwhole hog.

As far back as I can recall, the nutritional intelligentsia has cycled through crazes that demonize a single food or macronutrient: fat, calories, carbohydrates. But my father, the cattle farmer, Mr. Meat, Milk and Potatoes, stood firm.

According to New York Time food writer Mark Bittman, data show that sugar and ultra-processed foods are the “real villains in our diet.” Given the knee-jerk reversal of opinion on saturated fat, one could choose to take that information with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, ‘less processed=better for you’ is a growing consumer perception. This brings food manufacturers to a fork in the road. One path is to find ways to reduce the processing their wares undergo. The other is to continue in the same direction and see where they end up.

A move toward less-processed food puts many manufacturers in a pickle. But solutions may be simpler than they appear from the outset. There’s a burgeoning science in reformulating foods for shorter shelf-lives and using alternative sweeteners and additives. The move toward less-processed foods isn’t upsetting the applecart; it’s an evolution. One that a growing number of consumers are willing to pay for at the checkout.

When I was a teenager following ‘90s food trends (Surge and Lunchables, anyone?), my father harped on me for refusing to consume any sliver of fat I found in the steaks and roasts abundant in the family’s meal rotation. “That’s the best part,” he’d say. “Your body needs fat to live.” It was true, but teenage-me didn’t want to hear it. I ate as little fat as possible, as did most health-minded folks at the time.

This week, for the first time in years, I brought butter home from the grocery store. Three pounds of it. Now, note that two of those were unsalted and ended up in a cake and icing. The other pound was for personal consumption — over an extended period of time, mind you. I’m not even a quarter of the way through the first stick. But butter is back in my life.

So, along with butter, I’m eating crow. To my dad, the dairy freedom fighter: You were right. The science is in. You can have your cake and eat it too.

This was originally posted on on Feb. 28, 2014.