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Going full boar at Catalan September 24, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, Houston, Sustainability, Texas.
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Every now and then, a meal becomes an event you’ll never forget. That’s what happened Sunday at Catalan, one of Houston’s top-rated restaurants.

Chef Chris

Catalan, an anchor of the newly thriving Washington corridor, has caught the eye of many a writer in the couple of years since it’s opened, right up to the New York Times, and master chef Chris Shepherd is a big reason why. His bold, no-holds-barred, what-the-hell style has earned him a following that’s as passionate as his own commitment to his art. But what really drew me was his staunch advocacy of the buy local movement. He plans his entire menu around what he finds at the local farmers’ markets and what local growers can provide him.

“It’s not just the right thing to do; it means better quality,” he explained when I met him on Friday. He was already cooking up plans for Sunday’s feast, and when he invited me, of course I couldn’t resist.

It all started when Farmer John Laughlin showed up on his doorstep with a wild boar. Laughlin’s farm kept getting raided by these wild hogs, and nothing he did could drive them away.

(more…)

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Bringing nature to the mall September 16, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Nature tourism, Sustainability, Utah.
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The 1,200 acres of high-plains wetlands were saved from development to create the Swaner EcoCenter, explains Annette Herman, Executive Director.

The 1,200 acres of high-plains wetlands were saved from development to create the Swaner EcoCenter, explains Annette Herman, Executive Director.

Images featured the elegantly woodsy Swaner Ecocenter surrounded with waving grasses, long-necked waterfowl, blue skies and the dramatic Wasatch Range. So it was no small surprise that Nora, our guide, pulled into a shopping center right across from WalMart and dropped us off. “It’s right over there,” she said. “I’ll park the car and then come join you.”

I contemplated getting a gelato first, or maybe window-shopping at the little boutique. Then I remembered why I was there.

It turns out the the pictures didn’t lie. This is no ordinary shopping center, and the Swaner family is a big reason why. The ecocenter sits at the heart of 1,200 acres this family bought and saved from development and, land which has been restored into a surprisingly wild habitat right off I-80. It’s tucked into the Newpark Town Center, which is striving for LEEDS environmental design certification (the ecocenter has already set the standard with a platinum LEEDS designation, the highest ranking). Located as it is on the edge of this mixed-use condo community and resort area, it’s ideally located to reach out to shoppers and residents who might otherwise not give a thought to visiting an educational center dedicated to nurturing and raising awareness about the environment.

Here’s a sneak preview:

Park City: A summertime eco-adventure August 24, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Nature tourism, Sustainability, Utah.
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Mention Park City and Gortex-clad skiers come to mind among the Christmas-card-pretty lodges nestled among the snowy peaks. But once the snow melts and the summer sun warms those picturesque peaks, another, greener scene emerges, and that’s the one we were treated to on this trip.

Historic downtown Park City comes alive every week for the Park Silly Sunday Market.

Historic downtown comes alive for the Park Silly Sunday Market.

Park City is now marketing itself as an eco-destination, and notwithstanding its reputation as a getaway for the rich and famous, the city government as well as private citizens have worked hard to preserve the natural beauty of the place while lowering its carbon footprint, and some interesting initiatives have emerged. A vibrant arts community gives the city a colorful, quirky edge. All of this, combined with hundreds of miles of hiking trails and a landscape that begs for human interaction, give the green traveler multiple reasons to be here.

Our tour began with a trip to Olympic Park just in time to see the Flying Aces, an amazing troupe of Olympic skiers who wowed the crowds with a series of gravity-defying acts like triple-triple flips and twists before landing in a pool of water before our eyes.

Our next stop was just as amazing, but in a different way: The Swaner Ecocenter, an environmental study center and nature preserve located on the edge of a shopping mall. This was my personal favorite, and I’ll write more on this later.

But every Park City day must include a bit of decadence, so we paid a visit to David Perkings at High West Distillery. This turn-of-the-century livery building on historic Main Street is being converted into a high-class restaurant and whiskey and vodka tasting room that will be the first of its kind.

A favorite Park City pastime in the summer is mountain biking, so I signed us up for a class with Mike Broome, an expert mountain biker with Deer Valley Resort. Asked my biking level, I pondered a bit and responded intermediate; let me just emphasize, for the record, that a lifetime of road biking, even participating in a marathon, does not render one an intermediate mountain biker.  Mike outdid himself trying, but after my hour-long lesson, I’ve reclassified myself as a mountain biker wannabe. More on this later, too.

Suffice it to say, we earned our apres-biking activities. Lucky for us, Sunday brunch at the Stein Eriksen is a sumptuous event in itself – consistently voted the Best Brunch in the State, and with everything from seafood to petit fours to accompany traditional favorites like eggs benedict with salmon and maple-smoked bacon, it was plain to see why.

Our final surprise was the Park Silly Sunday Market, an open-air market peopled with artisans and performers as well as farmers and foodies. Amazingly, the founders set out to make this a zero-waste event, and they’ve largely succeeded. But this one, too, is worth a story of its own. So stay tuned, and I’ll fill you in on that later.

Meanwhile, some images my camera found along the way:

Roads Less Traveled hits the Houston Green Scene August 11, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Houston, Sustainability, Texas.
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I’m excited to announce some new collaborations that will be taking Roads Less Traveled to a greater audience and in a greener direction.

YolandaGreenChannel 39’s Going Green With Yolanda Green, Houston’s only TV program dedicated to sustainability, is now featuring my blog on its website, http://www.39online.com. Going Green is an exciting initiative in itself, with Yolanda bringing conservation initiatives to a whole new audience. From the new smart grid technology to invasive species, Yolanda is on it, and all her episodes and a whole lot more can be viewed on the website. Since my focus is sustainable travel – including attractions here at home in Houston – it seemed a perfect fit. Scroll down to the area next to Going Green Highlights to find Roads Less Traveled.

HoustonGreenScn121I’ll also be collaborating with Houston Green Scene, which will feature a weekly column from my blog pertaining to sustainability at home and sustainable travel elsewhere. Houston Green Scene is an innovative new website and forum founded by local entrepreneur Mona Metzger covering green initiatives in the Houston area.

Especially if you live in the Houston area, but even if you don’t, take a minute to check out Going Green With Yolanda Green and the Houston Green Scene. You can also follow them on Twitter – @HoustonGreenScn and @YolandaGreen39 – and on Facebook.

Other environmental initiatives I’ve become involved in are the Last Organic Outpost, an urban farm in the inner city that’s currently planning a knockout Harvest Festival and the Transition Houston group, part of a rapidly growing global movement preparing for a sustainable transition to a less petroleum-dependent future. More on both of these later — but meanwhile, it’s good to know that there’s a whole lot going on in Houston’s green scene, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

Marvelous Matagorda July 25, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Nature tourism, Sustainability, Texas.
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East Bay at sunrise

Hundreds of miles of coastline stretch from Galveston to the Coastal Bend. I’d always wanted to explore that stretch in between where the Colorado River meets the sea. But aside from a state park on an island that is no longer accessible, nobody I spoke to could say much about what I might find there.

This only made me more curious. So one day I picked up the phone and started calling around. And before I knew it, I was packing my bags and headed for the coast.

What I found surprised me: spectacular beaches, abundant wildlife, great food, a fascinating history, fishing to die for and friendly folks who will make you feel right at home.

What I didn’t find was an overabundance of tourists. A couple from Fort Worth, a father and daughter from Houston, a family from Pearland and a handful of locals — but mostly, miles of white sand pounded by surf and backed by graceful dunes.

Last week I got to spend a couple of glorious days soaking up some of the best this region has to offer. On Aug. 9, the story will appear in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Meanwhile, here’s a preview.

SA hotels make “World’s Best” list July 17, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, San Antonio, Sustainability.
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Recently I was in San Antonio to visit the new stretch of the famed River Walk, and to visit with chef John Brand, the culinary wizard behind the remake of two River Walk classics, Pesca and Las Canarias.

Brand has distinguished himself with a cuisine that is both cutting-edge and creative, while being an active adherent to farm-to-table and sustainable harvesting practices. Here’s an interview I did with Brand at Las Canarias after a memorable lunch in May.

Pesca and Las Canarias and their parent hotels, the Watermark Hotel and Spa and Omni’s La Mansion del Rio, have more to celebrate this month than a new stretch of the River Walk. Both hotels made Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best Hotels” list — the only hotels in Texas to have received this honor.

Here’s the story in the San Antonio Business Journal.

Of course, it can’t hurt that they’ve got a world-class chef at the helm of their two restaurants. Congrats, y’all.

A farm with art – and heart July 6, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Houston, Sustainability, Texas.
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After a month of travel, these thirsty boots were aching for something more than the road — a place to dig in and put down some roots in the heart of this vast city. And right in the heart of one of its most blighted neighborhoods, I found it.

Cidette Rice, 5, Last Organic Outpost volunteer (and rock star)

Cidette Rice, 5, Last Organic Outpost volunteer (and rock star)

It’s a place where I can roll up my sleeves, grab a tray of squash seedlings and a shovel and put them in the ground. A place where I can reach down and run my fingers through dirt as soft and rich as that of my mother’s garden. A place that draws kindred spirits from far and wide and from right next door to work that soil. Folks like Cidette, who worked side-by-side with me to plant about 100 squash plants on Saturday, and a host of others who have contributed to an exuberantly lush expanse of vegetable abundance on a back street in Houston’s Fifth Ward.

The Last Organic Outpost is more than a garden, it’s an urban farm. It’s the brainchild and the lifework of Joe Nelson Icet, who has poured his sweat and his muscle and his life’s savings into this acreage and the other lot that surrounds his home.

“It’s not just about gardening; it’s about building a community,” Joe said.

Joe Nelson Icet, founder of the Last Organic Outpost, at the gate of his community farm

Joe Nelson Icet, founder of the Last Organic Outpost, at the gate of his community farm

About 10 years ago Joe was trying to figure out what to do with himself after a rough divorce. His job as a refrigeration maintenance man paid the bills, but didn’t fill the hole in his soul. He was looking for a mission, and as he began to plow up his yard and fill it with vegetables, he found it: to create an urban farm belt on the vacant lots in the inner city.

He found other abandoned lots to cultivate, and a community of people to help him. He found artists to come and lend their creative touch to the spot. And then he found the love of his life to help him – or, more accurately, she found him.

The vivacious Marcella Murff is now the red-haired, barbecue-cooking, bikini-wearing muse of the garden, and Joe’s never been happier.

I discovered the Outpost just days before departing for a monthlong global sojourn, and I lamented the fact that I wouldn’t be around to help for awhile.

“No worries,” said Marcella brightly. “Just think of how your garden will have grown when you come back.”

The whole story is here in Lisa Gray’s account in the Houston Chronicle, the article that first led me to Joe, and I’ll always be grateful.

“Fertility is the gateway to the soul,” Joe told me. “We start with the land and we heal it, and we end up healing ourselves.”

I looked around me at the assorted crew that had gathered to weed and hoe, a group as diverse as the vegetables they’d come to tend; I looked down at my own too-white, too-soft hands, and I saw that he was right. I grabbed a shovel and I dug in.

Farmer Joe gives Maddalena Romano a lesson in weeding.

Farmer Joe gives Maddalena Romano a lesson in weeding.

Time for a photo break!

Time for a photo break!

Patrick Taylor, flower child of the day

Patrick Taylor, flower child of the day

Food Inc., a horror film you must see July 4, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, Sustainability.
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Normally I avoid violent movies, but this was one I knew I had to see. And it’s far more disturbing than the worst slasher flick – because it’s true.

It’s a gripping story about the violence being perpetrated not just on the miserable hordes of dumb beasts, but on us all.

It’s a tragedy that will move even the skeptic to tears.

And it’s a message of hope in a time of change.

See the trailer, and then, if you haven’t already, go see the movie. Please. It will change your life, and maybe even the way we do business in this country.

Cultural Safari in Tanzania July 1, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Africa, Food, Sustainability.
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When I told people I was planning a trip to Tanzania, the first question was: “Are you going on safari?”

Well, I didn’t see giraffes and elephants and lions. But since “safari” is the Swahili word for “journey,” I can honestly say I did!

Look for the full story in the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News travel section, or just click here to read it online. Meanwhile, njema safari (happy travels)!

TANZANIAFor more stories from this incredible journey through the real Africa, from celebrating the election of Obama in hubub of Dar es Salaam to making new friends in the Bukoba countryside, see Tracy’s blog, Postcards from Tanzania.

BUWEA women thumbnailFor a story about the amazing group of women who drew me to this remote region, and how they are changing it, see From Texas to Tanzania: San Antonio network changes African lives.

Zanzibar thumbnailAnd for story and videos from an exotic little side trip to the legendary Spice Islands — a land of Omani towers, red colobus monkeys, sparkling white beaches and mahogany forests — see Hakuna Matata in Zanzibar.

John Brand: From Farm to Kitchen June 1, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, San Antonio, Sustainability, Texas.
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It wasn’t easy to improve on the two landmark River Walk restaurants that John Brand took over nearly a year ago. But Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and Pesca of The Watermark Hotel and Spa – and pushed them over the top.

His beef comes from a farmer in Floresville, his quail from Bandera, his grits from Converse and his tomatoes from Hidalgo County. But he’ll go much further afield to find the best-quality sustainably grown ingredient when necessary, such as the free-range veal he imports from New Zealand.

“If I can’t get fresh ingredients, I’m not going to serve the dish, period,” he said. This meant eliminating some longtime favorites, like the squash blossom and huitlacoche soup.

Another element came into play for the swordfish. “They’ve been heavily overfished for some time now,” he said. “We’ve come to the point that my kids aren’t going to be able to see those fish. And the crab they were using came from Southeast Asia, where they’re destroying the wetlands and making more people die from tsunamis.

“Besides,” he added, “If it’s really good, it doesn’t need to be deep-fried.”

It was a risky move. San Antonio’s River Walk draws a traditional crowd, fond of their fried foods and Tex-Mex and not as keen on cutting edge cuisine as some of the high-end resort crowds Brand has served in the past. A number of them demanded to talk to the chef.

“In most cases, when I explained to them my reasoning, they understood,” he said. “If it’s on the menu, we’d better be truthful and know where it’s from and know how it’s raised. If you can’t do it from scratch, don’t do it at all.”

Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. “There were two paved roads in the whole county,” he recalls. He earned his pocket money hiring himself out to local farms for $2 or $20 a day, he says. He still looks the part, his blonde and tanned good looks and a shy earnestness tempering his frank words.

He was the oldest of six, and they all took turns cooking recipes that Mom left for them on index cards. The ingredients were simple, so technique was everything.

“I didn’t know what a pomegranate was until I was 19 years old,” he laughs. “Salt, pepper and butter – that’s about all I had. Use what you have, that’s what I learned. And I learned you can’t cook with an ego. Leave the ego to the guests; let them decide what’s great and what’s not.”

Perhaps his aversion to industrialized agriculture stemmed from the time his father had to go to work for hog containment facility – a dreadful place to a sun-drenched farm boy. “Those pigs never saw the sun,” he says, shaking his head.

Despite his early affinity for cooking, he says, he never intended to be a chef. His first restaurant job was in Wisconsin at the age of 16, but it wasn’t until two years later, working as a cook in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., that he realized he had a flair for fine cuisine. He worked his way up through the business over the next 12 years to some of the finest resort restaurants in the country in Aspen and Beaver Creek, Colo., Virginia and Scottsville, Ariz.

What’s most surprising about Brand, given the sophistication of his menus, is that he never received formal culinary training. Instead he learned from other chefs and from working his way up through the profession. It could be said, in fact, that he’s a farm-to-table chef in more ways than one.

Lunch is an excellent time to sample a few of his creations, when he has a collection of delectable “small plates” on the menu. Despite his aversion to deep-frying, he made a small concession to fine effect: the crispy jicama tacos, lightly fried and filled with fresh tuna, roasted tomato diablo, avocado and grapefruit. And his Stuffed Dates with Blue Cheese and Bacon, shimmering in an aged sherry and brown sugar crust, must be tasted to be believed.

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The desserts, from the Blackberry Tuile with Honey and Black Currant Tea Ice Cream to the Ecuatorial Chocolate Mousse, were simply divine.

Along the way, Brand read “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” an indictment of industrialized agriculture by Joel Salatin that strengthened his resolve to provide integrity in his ingredients. Now, when he’s not working or at home gardening with his three sons, he’s browsing websites like www.chewswise.com or www.blueocean.org to stay up on sustainability and food security issues.

It’s not easy, but it’s been rewarding – and San Antonio readers have just given him a resounding seal of approval, voting Las Canarias Best Hotel Restaurant of 2009.