Thursday, January 6, 2011

My Desire to Buy Local and My iPad Love Affair

I’m increasingly trying to buy local because I really believe that a small business keeps money in a community. Its not terribly easy in Lebanon. But, food has been easy: My weekly pilgrimage to Souk Al Tayyeb and patronizing my local mom and pops stores has been a joy- I know the people picking my food and baking my bread. That extra few dollars is worth it to me. But what happens when the desire to buy local conflicts with other values? Or lifestyle? Unraveling the pitfalls of consumerism has truly kept my mind busy lately…

So, I have an iPad, and it has served me well. After moving countless times in the last 8 years, I am tired of packing up all my books and letting them sit in my Dad’s basement- the iPad allows me to keep the books I buy with me wherever I go. As a masters student, I download all my reading onto my iPad instead of getting it printed at the printer, saving thousands of pages in a single semester. This iPad also does other magical things, like deliver books wirelessly to me that I would not otherwise be able to buy in Lebanon. eReaders in general save paper in many other ways- on my iPad I get 4 magazine subscriptions, buy countless books, and read the New York Times every day. All those pages must add up.

But what about that voyage across the Pacific that my iPad took? Do the toxins emitted from that ship cancel out all of my saved paper? What about the economic system that has placed that iPad factory in China in the first place? Do my few thousands of saved pages make up for the fact that a woman in China is making next to nothing to put that iPad together? Or what about the fact that my own country will inevitably suffer from our position as a tireless consumer of imported goods? Or…what about the fact that I can only buy these online books from major corporate, profit-driven booksellers such as and Borders?

That’s what has me worried- I don’t want to go home to Point Reyes this summer and be a hypocrite. I want to buy books from Point Reyes Books. Point Reyes Books supports my local community with donations, by hosting great events, and by employing locals. But Point Reyes Books can’t zoom books onto my iPad. When I leave after the summer, I will have to leave my poor books behind, sitting on the shelf, when I wish they could be with me.

So far my solution is this- there are books I have not been able to buy on my iPad. Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities is one of them. Apparently a major American classic is not worthy to be on the iPad. It was, after all, written in 1961.
So, instead of being tempted by’s cheap prices, I will head down to the bookstore when I arrive in Point Reyes and buy my copy there. At least then I can hang out with the Smart Meter protesters that I have been admiring from a far (I will make sure not to bring my iPad and offend their electromagnetic sensitive sensitivities) and not feel like a total hypocrite…

Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about the incredible impacts a small local business can have. I wish I didn’t see the consequences of the neo-liberal economic mantra which is rotting my country from the inside out. I wish I could tell myself that the pollution created by these corporations that feed our consumerism is really just us using our God-given ingenuity on this earth God gave us because that is what God wants us to do. But I can’t.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Point Reyes, West Marin Commons and the Smart Meter Battle

The more I learn about urban planning, the more I realize that the small town that I come from is as close to a utopia as it gets. For so long the insulated community and slow pace of life repelled me, and during Christmas breaks two weeks in Point Reyes was nearly more than I could bear. But at the simplest level, the people of Point Reyes have claimed their rights to dictate what happens to the land, buildings, and environment that surround them. They have said no to the corporatization of their town, and have resisted the encroachment of the state government and its privatized service providers. Only from Beirut, while studying urban planning and policy and hearing stories of utopia’s never realized, have I been able to realize how incredible my hometown is.

Point Reyes is a quaint town 50 miles north of San Francisco, nestled between rolling hills and a sharp majestic ridge at the base of Tomales Bay. Populated by the odd bedfellows of ranchers, artisans, migrant hippies and Mexican immigrants, Point Reyes is regionally known for its liberal, independent bent. With no town government structure, Point Reyes’ official voice comes in the form of a district supervisor. So who plans Point Reyes? Who responds to the needs of the community?

Well, the citizens, of course. Since my childhood, Point Reyes has been full of active, vocal, community-oriented citizens that outright reject the notion of corporations infiltrating their town and are willing to attend county meetings to make sure their voices are heard. Point Reyes, along with other county communities, is currently fighting the instillation of “Smart Meters” by Pacific Gas & Electric. These meters constantly emit short bursts of electromagnetic transmission, and have not been fully studied for potential health risks.

Shortly before coming to Beirut, I went home and saw “No Smart Meter” signs wrapped around every old-fashioned meter in my neighborhood. I saw signs downtown, articles in the local newspaper, and a website devoted to preventing the installation of these meters. Having come from Washington DC where the installation of such meters would likely go unnoticed, my first thought was, “Don’t these people have something more pressing to worry about?”

My Mother- originally from Indianapolis and tends not to be interested in politics, community activism or anything else that requires contact with other humans- had been attending the meetings where the leaders of the “No Smart Meter” movement have explained their concerns to the community. She said she wasn’t concerned when she first heard about it, but word of mouth and the meetings had convinced her she didn’t want a Smart Meter in our home, and she was able to coherently explain to me why. I was immediately suspicious, and knew I had to find out more about these people who had against all odds inspired my Mother to wrap a “No Smart Meter” sign around the box in our front yard. What exactly was afoot in Point Reyes?

Out of curiosity, I recently joined an online community forum started by a group called West Marin Commons. I wanted to know how vibrant this apparent community of activists that I have seemingly dismissed really was. It turns out that this West Marin Commons is creating a new community dialogue- one where the community comes first, and the people’s voices are able to create the imagined future of the town. Over the past few years, this community spirit has manifested itself in many ways: from the creation of public spaces such as a walking trail and a community garden to hosting community harvest dinners and organizing shared transportation and the money-free exchange of goods.

The community spirit that had inspired my Mother to take a personal stand against Smart Meters and the work of West Marin Commons, which brings together young and old to plant and plan, simply amazes me. I have noticed an uncharacteristic pessimism in my response to urban planning theory- perhaps produced by my last three years working for an unwieldy and unresponsive government organization. Suddenly, discovering that my hometown is making the romantic planning processes that I initially dismissed actually work has me trying to re-evaluate.

What about Point Reyes makes participatory planning and community driven initiatives work? For one, there is little anonymity in Point Reyes. Somehow, most people know one another. There is a strong sense of what the community doesn’t want. Along with that lack of anonymity comes the opportunity to build a real community. Second, Point Reyes doesn’t really have the “luxury” to sit back and let the mechanisms of governance work. While I have come to believe that the impositions of government top down planning often do more harm than good, it is interesting to think that a place like Point Reyes has never been planned by a planning commission, per say. Certainly the county has tried to come in and add a stop sign here, or re-pave a road there, but it seems as though there is a lot of latitude for the production of space at the local, grass roots level.

Even at such a small scale, it is fascinating that groups such as West Marin Commons have decided to not only to work on public spaces and community projects, but also to create local dialogue about the foundational issues of production by encouraging local exchange and barter systems and keeping monetary wealth in the community by buying local. The fact that the neoliberal epidemic of privatization has not reshaped Point Reyes makes me wonder either how we avoided it or why it never came for us.

Is the answer to this question one of scale? Is it affected by the fact that most of the wealthy businesses in Point Reyes do not own the land that they produce on because it is part of an agricultural land trust? Or is it Point Reyes’ natural aversion to anything mainstream? I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with Point Reyes’ “anti-establishment” vibe, but it is starting to grow on me. Knowing that my town defies the odds by planning for itself actually impresses me.

These days it seems the meager political representation Point Reyes has is unwilling or unable to stop the installation of Smart Meters against the will of the people. However, the people have not given up. A recent post on the community forum warned residents of a Smart Meter truck sighting. Over the course of a few hours, new posts popped up, updating the status and location of the truck, calling on kindred spirits to go and confront the installer. The sense of community that has been created in Point Reyes gives latitude to divergent opinions while respecting common values and elevates the rights of its citizens to choose what is imposed upon them by the outside world. I’m rooting against the evil meter matrons from afar, hoping they have to encounter my Mother’s wrath and hear her community-developed articulation of why the Smart Meter isn’t for her or our town.

Ginger Lemon Chicken Soup

My favorite soup when I’m sick...the garlic, lemon and ginger in this soup really hit the spot!

1 small chicken, cut up into manageable pieces

2 whole carrots, peeled

1 onion, skin removed, cut in half

1 head garlic, peeled and smushed

Lots of ginger (I added two 6 inch long pieces, peeled and grated into the stock)

4 hot thai peppers (or any pepper that suits you)

2 lemons worth of juice


Salt to taste

12 cups water

½ cup of rice, vermicelli or little star pasta (optional)


I know some people throw the onions, carrots and garlic in unpeeled, but I find that taking a few minutes to peel them creates much less foam and much less skimming work for me!

To make my stock nice and hearty, I brown the chicken pieces in a splash of olive oil in the bottom of the stock pot. Once they are nice and golden, throw in the carrots, halved onion, garlic, peppers, a sprinkle of peppercorns and grate the ginger over the top. Then, pour in the water, bring to a boil, and reduce to low, uncovered. The longer you cook the stock the better- but I find that after 2 ½ hours, especially if you brown the chicken first, the stock is of satisfactory taste.

Strain the stock and return to the stock pot. Let the chicken cool until you can handle it. At this point you can throw the stock in the fridge over night and skim the fat off the top, or you can just move ahead with a rich stock! When the chicken is cool enough to touch, pull the meat off the bone and throw it in the pot. Once all the chicken is returned to the stock, over a medium flame, add the rice/vermicelli/pasta if you wish and cook till soft- usually only a few minutes. Add the lemon juice and salt to taste! At this point I usually grate more ginger into the final soup, but you will have to see how you feel about the ginger-lemon combo! A little cilantro garnish is a nice touch too…

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More brigadeiros...

Mexican Mocha- instant espresso granules and cinnamon rolled in cocoa
White Rose- rose water and lemon juice rolled in crushed pistachio
Black on Black- chocolate rolled in dark chocolate flakes

Monday, December 6, 2010

Brigadeiros, Lebanese Style

So, my food soulmate Ari (who I recently reconnected with on Facebook) was telling me about her obsession with brigadeiros, a Brazilian take on truffles. After 2 minutes of conversation, I was gathering my purse and keys and heading to the corner store to gather the ingredients for this incredibly simple but delisious treat. Traditionally, they are just made with coco, sweetened condensed milk and butter. Ari mentioned she has tried all sorts of combos, and we decided that brigadeiros with a hint of rose water rolled in pistacios would be worth a shot.

I made a batch of regular brigadeiros rolled in chocolate jimmys and a batch of “Lebanese” brigadeiros- both barely survived the night. Kudos to Risha for participating in the womanly bonding experience of rolling brigadeiros.

14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
4 tablespoons coco, unsweetened
Splash of vanilla
1 tablespoon butter

For the “Lebanese” version add:
1 Tablespoon rose water or 1 teaspoon rose flavor
Crushed pistachios for garnish

About 15 Servings

This is disgustingly easy. Throw everything in a pan over low heat. Stir constantly for about 10 minutes, when you will notice a dough starting to form. Basically, the sugar in the condensed milk starts to caramelize and you will smell something delightful. Keep stirring until the dough is pulling away from the pan, and starts to act as a solid mass. Better safe than sorry- make sure it is really sticking together before turning off the heat.

Set aside for a few minutes until it is cool enough to handle. Using cold (or butter smeared!) hands, grab a little nubblet of dough and roll between your hands into a ball. Dip in pistachios to coat, and you are done!

These are amazing hot, amazing cold, amazing period- as long as they are in your tummy!

Timman Bagila (Rice with Fava Beans)

Timman bagila is an Iraqi dish, though it is originally from Iran, where it is called bagila pilaow. I would hesitate to call my version authentic, as I cook it to my own tastes, but the traditional components of dill, fava beans, rice and lamb are the stars of this dish. I cook it in a complex way, but once mastered, it is a no-brainer and a guaranteed feast!


Lamb Shanks- I used 3 lamb shanks, bone in, cut in half by the butcher

2 Cups Basmati Rice, soaked in water for at least an hour

Olive Oil

1 Cup Dill, chopped

1 bag frozen fava beans (lima beans work as well)

1 onion

2 cloves garlic

Juice of 1 lemon

1 loomi Basra ( a dried lime, totally optional)





Serves 4

Start by rinsing the lamb shanks and patting dry. Place lamb shanks in a heavy oven safe pot with a lid. Pour a few tablespoons olive oil over the shanks and rub with cinnamon, salt and pepper. Sprinkle in a pinch or two of your dill, and place in a 425 degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

In the mean time, chop your onion and garlic. When the lamb starts to become fragrant, pull it out of the oven and cover with water. Reduce your oven to 300. Put half of the onion and both cloves of garlic in with the lamb, and pierce the dried lime and throw it in with the rest of the components. Cover, and place in oven. This lamb should cook at least 2 hours, but 3 hours will give you lamb that melts right off the bone!

When your lamb is starting to look quite delicious (or you are getting very hungry!) place a large pot on the stove, and sauté the rest of your onion in a little olive oil. Take the lamb out of the oven, and set up a platter, bowl or cutting board along side. Pull each shank out of the broth with tongs, and fork the meat off of the bone- after 3 ½ hours I didn’t even need a fork. The meat fell right off on its own! Reserve broth and discard the lime.

At the same time, pour wet rice and a few pinches of turmeric and 1 tablespoon of salt into another pot over medium-high heat and cover with water. Moving back to the onions- go ahead and throw your meatless shank bones in with the onions and sauté- this will really give the dish extra flavor! After about 5 minutes, pull out the bones and discard. Pour in your bag of fava beans, and sprinkle turmeric over them and stir to coat- the turmeric will help make your fava beans look really beautiful and green! Add the rest of the dill, and throw in your reserved lamb meat, and cook together for another few minutes, then add about ½ cup of water and simmer for 2 or 3 minutes more.

Pour the bean/onion/meat mixture into a bowl. At this point, you should have par-boiled rice with softening kernels that have absorbed most of the water. The rice should be wet, but there should not be much extra liquid. In your large onion pan, run a paper towel over the bottom to clean out any dill, and pour in enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan and place over medium heat. Spoon enough rice into the pan to coat the bottom in a layer of rice. Shake the pan a bit to make it a nice even layer and let it cook for a minute or two so it starts to brown on bottom.

Scoop a large spoonful of beans and meat and place over the rice. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Then, add another layer of rice. Repeat a few times, sprinkling each bean layer with cinnamon, and end with a top layer of rice. Ideally, you want to be mounding the rice and beans in a pyramid- if you form the rice in this way, it allows the steam to build nicely around the rice and it also helps create a nice crust on the bottom of the pan.

Poke a few holes in the rice with the back of your spoon, and ladle about 1 ½ cups over the rice, pouring it into those holes. This is not an exact science- you don’t want to cover the rice at all- it is more about pouring enough in that there is liquid about ¼ of the way up your rice pyramid.

Cover the pan, and turn the burner down as low as it goes. You should be ready to go in about 15 minutes! Pick up the lid, and stick a spoon down into the deeper layers of rice to make sure it is cooked through and the liquid has been absorbed.

If the rice is done, scoop the rice onto a large serving platter without disturbing your bottom crust. Sometimes God is on your side and the crust will slip out. Other times you can stick your pan into the sink with some cool water underneath, and the crust will loosen. Usually, you have to scrape it out. What ever happens, arrange your golden crust on top of the platter, and you are ready to serve- unless you are me and refuse to eat any rice without a delicious sprinkling of nuts. Today, I sautéed up some almonds and pistachios and sprinkled them over the rice.

I know it sounds terrible and complicated, but once you start mastering the processes and learn that great rice dishes like this require simple but numerous steps, it becomes easy!