Pressure Cooker Risotto is Amazing

I recently obtained Modernist Cuisine at Home. Most of the recipes are, honestly, impractical or unlikely to ever be used. But it’s a pretty book and the attitude towards cooking as processes that have reasons behind them that aligns with how I think about food: it matters how it tastes at the end, not that a particular method was used.

Fortuitously, our friend next door had been picking chanterelle mushrooms and she brought us some (thank you!). Adam suggested we make mushroom risotto but then balked at the time and energy: he’s studying and I’ve been reading and was planning an easy dinner so I didn’t have to do much work. But he remembered that Modernist Cuisine at Home might have something for us and discovered you can make risotto (and many other rice dishes) in a pressure cooker. So, tonight we cooked our first recipe from it.

As usual, I didn’t follow the exact recipe but used it as a template (I don’t think I’ve ever cooked a recipe exactly as written other than breads). The specific recipe for vegetable risotto called for a complicated mix of stock and fresh veggie juices (and finishing with an absurd quantity of gouda cheese and butter). But the text emphasizes experimentation so I just stuck with the basic rule of keeping liquids and the rice in correct proportion. Here’s approximately what I did.

Approximate Ingredients

Amount Ingredient Notes
1 cup (dry) Arborio rice
1/2 medium Red onion Diced fairly small
1/2 pound (?) Chanterelles Cut into chunks maybe 1 cm by 2cm
2 cups Veggie stock It’s a little less (see below)
1 tablespoon Olive oil
1/2 cup Sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt As usual, this is a matter of taste


First the mushrooms need to be prepped. Clean them well. Mine came from a friend who’d been collecting in the rain, covered in dirt and pine needles. Awesome, but not so good in risotto. Unfortunately they were dirty enough I felt it necessary to use water (breaking the usual rules for how to prepare mushrooms). Once they were clean, trimmed and chopped up, I cooked them in a dry skillet. The skillet didn’t stay dry for long and yielded half a cup of mushroom liquid which I drained and kept in reserve.

Then, I cooked the onion in the oil until golden. At this point I added the mushrooms and the rice. This was “toasted” for a little while until the rice started turning just a bit shiny and translucent.

Next up, I topped off the mushroom liquid with homemade veggie stock up to just above 2 cups of liquid. I added the liquid to the rice (strained thru cheesecloth due to sediment), stirred, and then put the pressure cooker lid on. Once the pressure cooker was at pressure, I turned down the heat and set a timer for 7 minutes per the recipe.

Once the timer went off, I followed the recipe and did a quick release of the pressure. If you’ve never done one, what you do is put the pressure cooker in your sink and run water over the top. The temperature change will cause the pressure to release suddenly. Sometimes with a full pot of beans it will even force liquid in the pot up and over!

Once the pressure was released, I had a nice creamy risotto. The cheese and salt were added and stirred in and served. I’ve never made a risotto myself (though I’ve watched others) and this was incredibly easy compared to the usual method of stirring continuously for half an hour (at least). We’re almost out of arborio rice and since this is so easy we might need more sooner than we thought!

GM Corn Oil is Just Like Non-GM Corn Oil

In a recent post, I had a footnote that claimed purified corn oil is basically identical regardless of whether or not it came from GM corn or not. I’d read up on it months ago and didn’t feel it necessary to provide explicit links since it’s not exactly a hard case to demonstrate. But it seems useful to have some of those links sitting around.

First, purified oils in general contain no detectable proteins. Further, the EPA notes, that Bt proteins are broken down readily by normal food processing (e.g. cooking) and in the digestive system. Since the major modifications in transgenic corns currently only add or modify expression of proteins (e.g. production of Cry proteins), it seems unlikely that if processing removes these proteins, a GM corn product could be different from its non-GM counterpart.

However, there is a remaining question: did modifying corn to add traits to produce Bt toxins or to tolerate herbicides change the composition of the produced plant other than the desired proteins? Various published research I’ve found suggests the answer is that there are no differences: Bt corn composition, Bt corn in pig nutrition, and review of nutrition studies.

While this is a cursory look, more competent people than I have looked into it and found no significant differences in GM and non-GM foods. Further, purified substances like corn oil are chemically the same because they are refined to the point that the actual differences are removed. There is little evidence to suggest that current GM corn oils are different than non-GM corn oils.

There’s No Conspiracy: Agriculture is Complicated

Some recent articles on agriculture have simultaneously claimed that our current agricultural system has problems (it does) and implied there is a conspiracy to ignore risks and change the system. But both articles do their desired movement a disservice. They encourage conspiratorial and extremist view points in their adherents and imply that farmers are at the best lazy or stupid, if not outright dupes of large agribusiness. That’s no way to encourage real political and social change to improve our agricultural system to reduce environmental impacts. It just plays into a polarized narrative of amoral (or evil) agribusiness uncaring of its effects on the environment against noble environmentalist campaigners.

Simple Fixes Rarely Are

The first article was a Mark Bittman opinion piece about a recent study published in the journal PLOS One. The study itself is good science about how to maintain yields in commodity (corn and soy) cropping while significantly reducing pesticide and synthetic fertilizer inputs. Brandom Keim’s article in Wired is a much better explanation of the results. However, Bittman’s will reach a much larger audience and sadly it encourages the idea that there is some conspiracy to prevent “better” agriculture from taking hold. The very title “A Simple Fix for Farming” says that it would be easy to move to this kind of farming leading to the immediate question: why haven’t we? Bittman’s description of the study publication encourages the conspiratorial view:

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study’s sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

This is the second paragraph of the piece and it implies that the media ignores it, that major science journals rejected the work and the USDA barely tolerates it. The article later clarifies that the study was submitted to the journals Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but both declined to publish it. Now, if you are aware of the field even in the slightest, you would realize this study is not ground-breaking. The study itself even cites other similar work. That alone makes it less likely that the top-tier journals would publish it1. So there’s no conspiracy there.

Since the study itself, while good work, isn’t actually finding anything that would surprise many in the field, a non-conspiratorial reader might wonder why these methods haven’t taken hold. Why wouldn’t farmers move to a system that requires fewer pesticides (less harm to them and the environment)? Why wouldn’t farmers move to a system that requires less fertilizer (less cost to them and lower environmental impact)? But Bittman believes there is a conspiracy: there’s no benefit to the “chemical companies” so obviously that’s why farming still pollutes more than it has to.

Pesticides are Useful

The second article is a blog post by Tom Philpott on a study in Nature on the effects on bumblebees of low doses of two insecticides, a pyrethroid (λ-cyhalothrin) and a neonicotinoid (imidacloprid). The results themselves are not terribly surprising in light of previous research: pesticides that will kill bees at higher doses seem to be causing problems at lower doses. There’s a great deal of worry from activists and environmental groups that the neonicotinoids are particularly harmful to bees. Given that the US corn crop almost entirely uses neonic seed coatings (which moves small amounts of the insecticide throughout the plant, including to pollen which bees eat), concern is not unreasonable.

But Philpott’s piece, like many about the neonicotinoid insecticides, portrays the issue as one about the EPA ignoring evidence of harm to protect Bayer’s profits (the maker of many of the neonicotinoid insecticides). In this world view, the reasons why the neonics are popular aren’t really relevant and getting rid of neonics would somehow magically restore bee populations. Moreover, activist literature tends to uniquely blame neonics for bee declines, even though the evidence is far from clear. Pesticides are likely involved, but it seems likely it’s the broad spectrum of insecticides harmful to bees. Honeybees (useful as a proxy for many pollinators) have been declining for decades, long before neonicotinoids. In North America, where honeybees are a “non-native” species, wild populations have declined by 90% since 1950. Recent problems with colony collapse (usually seen in captive populations) seem less apocalyptic in this context, though obviously still cause for concern.

The activists are probably right that pesticides are overused. However, their claim is usually that we don’t need pesticides at all2 which is an idea that I hazard to guess most farmers would laugh at. Moreover, the seed coating neonicotinoids (as I’ve noted before) are actually pretty useful: small amounts of insecticide on the seed is a low-cost, low-risk (to the farmer) method that mostly only targets the pest species. That certainly seems better than costly sprays or ground applications. A less conspiratorially inclined reader might thus ask: if neonics are so dangerous why are farmers using them? Are they actually more dangerous to bees than other insecticides a farmer might use[^]? Are there alternatives that would reduce their use?

False Conspiracy Narratives Won’t Fix Our Problems

The common theme to these posts is the idea that Big Bad Industry is in bed with Hapless (or Corrupted) Regulators. Farmers are caught in the middle and either have no choice or just don’t care. The environment is being destroyed.

But I think that narrative is false. For Bittman’s piece, there are good reasons why farmers may not have taken up these kinds of methods — and they are given right there in the study. The study notes that the conventional rotation takes about a third less labor. That’s a lot of labor. Labor in most industries is generally more expensive than materials and I would be surprised if it weren’t the case in farming. Industrialized farming (with machines, pesticide and fertilizer inputs, etc.) has allowed a very small number of farmers to more than feed all of us. Food is also extremely inexpensive. Why would a farmer, with no regulatory or economic incentives switch to a method of farming that looks to cost him more time and money? In other words, this “simple fix” might be simple on paper, but practically unlikely without broader social (and regulatory) change.

For Philpott’s piece, he also doesn’t consider underlying reasons why things are the way they are and how we change them3. Neonic seed coatings are very cheap, don’t require farmers to later buy more expensive applications (that put them at more risk) and mostly work. It’s likely that most farmers don’t need the seed coatings all the time, but since it’s so cheap and low impact there’s little incentive to forego them since the risk of crop damage is harder to prevent later in the season. Moreover, I can find little research on predicting when a planting might benefit from the seed coating and when it wouldn’t. Is it any wonder farmers would choose cheap, easy, risk-reducing strategies?

We won’t change anything by sitting to the side and telling farmers: “you’re doing it wrong and should use these other costlier and riskier methods”. If we want a less environmentally damaging agricultural system, we aren’t going to get there by berating farmers and throwing our hands up at the power of the “chemical companies”. We get there by changing incentives: if we want fewer pesticides we have to pay for them.

The current big fight in agriculture and food is around GMOs and whether they should be labeled. That should be a side story. That energy could be going towards pushing for rational regulations, incentives and labeling programs. Michael Pollan recently wrote an opinion in support of California’s GMO labeling initiative on the basis that it will let the public flex its influence against the industrial agricultural system. Adam Merberg notes that the proposition has unintended collateral damage, but it’s also a missed opportunity to direct people’s real concerns about agriculture to solve real problems with pesticide use, fertilizers, carbon emissions and more. Instead, food and agriculture writers are encouraging a polarized world view that demonizes the people running the industry we want to change. That’s just not going to work.

  1. Most top-tier journals, including Science, Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, preferentially publish science papers that they perceive as being significant or new or groundbreaking. PLOS One, where this paper was published, is special. The journal’s philosophy is that all submitted papers that meet a scientific bar of quality — peer-reviewed, etc. — should be published without consideration of the reviewers’ or editors’ perceptions of its significance. The idea is that the science that turns out to be most relevant and high impact over the long-term often isn’t clear immediately and thus all quality work should be published to show impact or not.
  2. To be fair to Philpott, I don’t believe he thinks pesticides have no place in agriculture. However, given the comments that appear on his posts, I believe his readers are getting that impression. Other activists on pesticide issues are far more explicit in their belief that all pesticides are always bad.
  3. His other posts on neonic pesticides have a similar tone and outlook, primarily blaming Bayer’s supposed corruption of the regulatory process for the continued use of this class of pesticides.

Election 2012: The Small Stuff

I’ve already gone over the major non-candidate items on my ballot. But I’m a completionist, so this post quickly goes over some smaller state and local questions.

Vote to increase state revenues (advisory votes 1 and 2)

I’m not absolutely certain but I suspect the only reason we’re being asked to vote on these is because it raises state revenues and previous versions of the current initiative 1185 obligate the legislature to send increases to the voters in some cases. In any case, the state needs more revenue to pay for things we actually need. Removing some deductions for financial institutions and petroleum extraction doesn’t strike me as a particularly awful place to find new revenue (actually increasing broader taxes is politically off the table). So I’m voting to maintain (approve) these laws passed by the legislature.

Approve King County proposition 1 to maintain a property tax levy

The levy is to support the (pre-existing) automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS). While I have strong doubts that fingerprinting as it is currently used is an effective and fair forensic method, rejecting a property tax levy to maintain an existing system isn’t really the way to advocate for reforms in criminal forensics. I’ll be approving this levy.

Approve the city of Seattle proposition 1 to fund the Alaskan Way seawall

I might not think the in progress Alaskan Viaduct replacement tunnel is the best way to fix the waterfront, but the seawall does need repair and improvements. That takes money. So again, I’ll be approving this proposition.

That’s all for the initiatives, referenda, and advisory votes on my ballot. I may or may write about candidates. I suspect anyone who knows me can guess who I’m likely to vote for though. 🙂

This post is part of series on the 2012 election, focused on the state of Washington. I highly recommend having a look at the state’s main voter guide before casting your ballot.

Why I Won’t Be Buying Nature’s Path Mesa Sunrise Flakes Anymore

The “alternative” and “organic” food makers are to my mind very innovative. Nature’s Path is a good example. Instead of straight corn flakes, they offer a flake blend that is corn, flax and amaranth. Yummy. Instead of just raisin bran, they have products like Pumpkin Raisin Crunch which has wheat flakes, oats, pumpkin seeds, raisins and just a hint of sweeteners and seasoning. It’s not just wheat and sugar tasting. But unfortunately, the alternative brands tend to also believe in and advertise ideas that I find wrong. Most just make exaggerated statements about health benefits of organic or specific nutrients. Most are also at least somewhat anti-GMO albeit often it seems primarily for marketing reasons. Nature’s Path however is actively anti-GMO and spreading scary misinformation about GMO foods. For that I am going to give up two of my favorite cereals. It’s not really a hardship, but it takes a lot for me to feel a company is so odious I can’t buy a product I like.

Still, you might say: so, what? It’s just cereal. And actually, normally I would just let it go because it is just cereal and I’m not going to buy boring cereal I don’t like just to avoid giving money to support ideas I don’t like. It’s not like the people who run General Mills probably don’t also believe things I disagree with. But Nature’s Path has specifically endorsed the wildest and most harmful ideas about transgenic foods — that GMO products are basically poison forced on us by an evil and complicit regulatory system to allow evil companies to impose their deadly products on farmers and unsuspecting consumers.

To drive home just how wrong Nature’s Path is about GMOs, they retweeted an endorsement of the Genetic Roulette movie this week. This film was made by a non-scientist and is full of unscientific and absurd claims. The book upon which it’s based has been thoroughly debunked. According to the film makers, GMOs may be the cause of increased incidence of cancers, autism, allergies and more. There is little evidence for the first1 and none for the rest. It is pure speculation with no explanation as to mechanism. One could just as easily claim that watching the Dr. Oz program has those effects. Like most anti-GMO activist material, it unscientifically groups all products they consider GMOs together. Roundup Ready soy is the same as Bt corn or the Arctic Apple despite very different traits and use patterns. Recommending that movie is not simply spreading different points of view or encouraging conversation about food production. It is actively misinforming your supporters.

But there has to be a balance here. I still believe that conventional, mainstream agriculture is largely more harmful than it needs to be. Moreover, the kinds of products that my local co-op or Whole Foods sells are gustatorially more interesting to me (and ethically more appropriate for me) than most of what Safeway carries. The Safeway doesn’t even carry eggs I would buy, for example2, much less a variety of awesome olives or beans in bulk. To their credit, while Whole Foods supports the Non-GMO Project their support seems much more calculated. They know their market segment largely believes GMOs are bad so they have to appeal to that. While I might wish they would try to educate their customers and perhaps sell Arctic Apples when they arrive (reducing food waste seems in line with organic ideals), it is perhaps too much for me to expect.

So I won’t be boycotting every product produced by people who announce their non-GMO position. But I can’t in good conscience support a company that would endorse such actively harmful ideas about agriculture as Nature’s Path has. Not everyone has access to or can afford organic or non-GMO products. Telling people that their only choice of conventional, likely GMO, food is dangerous to them — when they most clearly are not3 — is immoral. Moreover, encouraging people to believe false ideas about GMOs encourages people to believe projects like Golden Rice are also harmful. Nature’s Path is actively trying to scare people with lies about modern food. There is a line to the ethical compromises I make with modern capitalism and whether I should or should not buy from people who say odious things. And Nature’s Path crossed it.

  1. The “little evidence” here is because there are some studies that seem to show evidence. However, like a recent study that has been roundly criticized, research showing harmful effects of GMO crops are at worst poorly done and at best unreplicated. However, I can’t actually say “no evidence” since those studies do exist, but they don’t represent a broader scientific assessment.
  2. I prefer to buy eggs that are from hens that probably aren’t mistreated. Even mainstream “organic” or “free range” labeled eggs are likely from hens kept in tight quarters or having had their beaks clipped. Probably I should give up eggs, but I like them. So intead I buy ones I think are less likely to be awful.
  3. I am particularly saddened that people believe ingredients like GMO soy or corn oil or GMO-derived citric acid could harm them. Purified oils are, assuming they come from similar source crops, basically identical. If you took Bt corn and then took its non-Bt sibling (that is identical except for the Bt trait) and made oil using modern processes, you would not be able to tell the difference. For additives like citric acid, it’s even worse. Those are very simple chemicals. Belief that GMO corn origin citric acid is any different than any other purified citric acid is basically identical to belief in homeopathy.