Risotto Variations

I’ve eaten more rice the last couple weeks than I usually do in a couple months. I’m just not a rice person. It’s fine as long as there’s some sloppy curry all over it, but I’m not usually in the mood for straight rice. Risotto, including brown rice risotto (!), has meant I’ve been eating it several days a week. It’s cheap and not actually absurdly caloric .. if we can resist adding a bunch of cheese. Here are some variations that we’ve been doing off the basic recipe I last posted.

Mark Bittman conveniently posted a squash and brown rice risotto article not too long after the last post. It turns out that making risotto with brown rice works pretty well. It’s still so tasty you have to stop yourself from overeating, but it’s not quite so rich as arborio. His recipe was the traditional method, over the stove, but I basically translated it to the pressure cooker methods by guessing. It worked out alright though I probably could have let it sit at pressure a couple more minutes. The water hadn’t quite absorbed and so I had to cook it down a bit on the stove after adding some wine. Poor me.

After making several variations, I can confidently state that this recipe is pretty forgiving. If you use too much water, you let it cook down. If you use too much squash, you have more creamy squashy sauce. If you use too much cheese … who am I kidding? Does that even happen?

The basic outline goes like this:

  • Sauté in some oil some onion, diced small, until it gets at least translucent if not on the way to caramelized.
  • Add veggies such as: peeled and diced winter squash such as butternut or unpeeled (!) delicata; mushrooms, any kind, diced.
  • Add X cups of brown or arborio rice. My pressure cooker looks like it can probably handle at most 3 cups of rice (given that we’ll be adding twice as much water shortly).
  • Stir a bit to toast in the oil. It will start to look translucent but shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.
  • Add twice X cups of water. For brown rice you can probably use a splash less.
  • Seal your pressure cooker and bring up to pressure.
  • Once at pressure, lower heat and cook for 7 minutes for arborio rice and maybe 9 or 10 for brown.
  • Quick-release the pressure by running water over the pressure cooker.
  • At this point, if you still have some water left you can cook it down. Optionally add wine.
  • Right before serving, stir in shredded cheese. We’ve mostly been using Cougar Gold from Washington State University. It’s delicious.

That’s the outline. It’s really forgiving. Pressure cookers are not as scary as you might think. Mine is a relatively cheap $30 (from the relatively expensive store Bed, Bath and Beyond) and has lasted me years with no trouble. Not only can you cook dried beans in it faster, you can cook fantastic risotto in it. Go forth and pressurize some rice and veg. You’ll be glad you did.

Simple Stories Suppress Your Voice

Activism often rejects nuance. In environmental activism, the story is often that an evil corporation is destroying the environment or your health with the support of a corrupt regulator. Elected officials don’t care either because they’re ignorant or paid off. The public has no power, often due to active misinformation spread by the corporate bad guy.

But I’ve come to see this a bit differently. For many of the issues I’ve looked into, while there is a problem, the activist explanation of the cause is too simple and the proposed solution is easily ignored. The thousands who believe the simple story will not ultimately be heard. Take as an example the comments on the petition to stop use of the pesticide clothianidin based on believed risks to bees. These comments represent a real problem with how the public influences policy. Citizens feeling ignored is not good for democracy.

The public comments in favor of a ban are just too simple. Many are variants of text offered by activist groups. The greatest number of comments come from petitions tallied together from petition campaigns). Many comments are so simple — “Suspend Clothianidin. Stop killing bees.” — that I can’t imagine regulators will give them any weight. Some are just incoherent:

I strongly oppose the aerial spraying of Clothianidin or any other insecticide for any reason whatsoever. This is a violation of personal rights for every person exposed to toxic chemicals against his or her will, for most of us without our knowledge and for all of us without consent. … Further, not being made aware of treatment, its risks and benefits, and then being given no choice in the matter is in frank violation of the Nuremberg Code. Thanks, but no thanks, Big Brother.

Clothianidin’s most common uses don’t involve widespread spraying and, so far as I know, not aerial. Opposing all pesticides is of course utterly impractical. Bringing up Nuremberg is just absurd. Other comments blamed Monsanto erroneously (it’s actually Bayer that makes clothianidin):

Your decision to continue to allow Clothianidin to poison bees is short-sighted and wrong and makes one think that someone in the EPA must be taking a bribe from Monsanto.

Some comments do try to provide an original argument around sustainable farming but then make claims that EPA scientists would know are unproven and suggest alternatives that are laughable:

I am a future sustainable, diversified farmer. I support the ban of the use of clothianidin. Studies show this pesticide to be the culprit of colony collapse disorder in bees. … The use of more wholesomely derived pesticides such as Pyrethrin, Sabadilla, insecticidal soaps or garlic sprays could be supported.

By contrast, a comment from an entomologist both acknowledges that the pesticide may be overused but that suspension of use isn’t supportable by the evidence:

Because they provide a useful instrument in the IPM[integreated pest management] toolbox, I fully support the recent decision by EPA to deny the suspension requested to suspend the use of clothianidin. While still a toxic insecticide that can cause concerns when used inappropriately, and perhaps overused, removing it from grower’s use will only cause them to return to more toxic and problematic materials, viz., a return to greater use of soil insecticides…

In my review of the literature and from discussions with those associated with bees, clothianidin would NOT be considered a cause of colony collapse, albeit it is a possible cause of a number of bee kills that have been reported. And while significant, recent published research has indicated that hives can easily survive the bee kills associated with an insecticide, albeit a cause and effect relationship has yet to be firmly established even for that. More research is needed on that specific question. But bee kills, while a major concern, is NOT colony collapse per se.

Comments by a farmers group sound much more reasonable, even though I know they have a vested interest:

A strong majority of our state’s corn farmers have chosen to invest in clothianidin, which has improved grower productivity, income and efficiency. For these reasons our organization supports its continued use. Controlling pests has always been a big issue for farmers, but doing so in an environmentally conscious and sustainable manner is just as important. Clothianidin is an important tool in controlling agricultural pests. It is proven to control wireworms, black cutworms, white grubs and other early season pests that attack corn seeds and seedlings at a period when they are most vulnerable. Because of this early control, farmers don’t have to apply as many chemicals or make as many passes through fields. That means there is less potential runoff, energy use, emissions and soil compaction.

I really recommend paging through the comments and getting your own impression. But let’s take this comment as it represents the simplistic story in a couple sentences:

We must stop using this harmful chemical! There is absolutely no excuse not to. It’s harmful to bees, and without them our food supply is devastated. Show that you care more about people than the corporations lining your pockets. The corruption you’re demonstrating is disgraceful.

That’s the activist story in short. I’ve paged through around two thirds of the comments. The overwhelming majority of those in support of the petition are this simplistic story. Sometimes it’s dressed up with a couple cherry-picked studies.

In stark contrast, arguments in opposition of the petition are usually well argued. They list benefits to the farmer (for whatever crop the author cares about), but most at least acknowledge risks to bees, with varying degrees of complexity in understanding them. If the comments supporting a ban were similarly nuanced, they would note at least some benefits to farmers even if the conclusion of the comment was still that clothianidin shouldn’t be used. Which kind of comment is more likely to have influence on the EPA’s decision?

It may be usual that public comments read this way, but I think it is a sign of a larger problem. At least a hundred thousand people (or more) voiced a belief that clothianidin should be banned because it’s one of the greatest risks to bees. They really believe that. They may not know much more than what PANNA or the Center for Food Safety said in a blog or petition, but they believe it. However, in all likelihood they are not going to influence the EPA’s decision. It didn’t have to be this way.

Current research (in my opinion1) supports both stronger limitations on how clothianidin is used (e.g. to reduce risks during planting) and a lot more research, both into low-dose effects and just general effectiveness2. The anti-pesticide groups could be arguing for specific limitations on clothianidin use or new research on it. They could be trying to get laws passed to make pesticide use approvals require more data on effectiveness before approval3. Instead, they waste energy and the good will of hundreds of thousands of people on the unlikely request of a ban. Instead, they beat a drum saying that a ban is the only way to save the bees which unsurprisingly leads many people to believe it. The EPA has already rejected emergency restrictions on clothianidin. The agency is unlikely, given current evidence, to ban it outright. Concerned citizens who commented will feel disenfranchised, fulfilling the other part of the story that the regulators are corrupt. That’s not good for democracy4.

  1. I recommend reading some of my previous posts on the subject.
  2. I’ve had trouble finding much data on when clothianidin seed coating actually increases yield. Is it just such cheap insurance that it’s always applied, to the detriment of the environment?
  3. I see this somewhat like medical drug approvals. If a new pesticide is equally or more harmful to the environment without significant benefit, it’s possible it shouldn’t be approved at all.
  4. I’ve been stewing about ways people feel enfranchised in a democracy that aren’t just voting. Hopefully I’ll write some more on this topic, maybe not about clothianidin.