Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Thanksgiving feast with local, organic food

A Thanksgiving feast with local, organic food

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I’d like to be able to say that my concern for the long-term good of planet earth guides all of my decisions about the food I buy and consume. But the fact is, I do most of my shopping where it’s convenient, and I’m as likely as anyone to hesitate when the sticker price on organic food is higher than the conventional alternative.

But I think Thanksgiving represents a fantastic opportunity for being more mindful about food—being thankful, first and always, to have enough, but also appreciating where it comes from, thinking about my relationship with the people who produce it, and cultivating an understanding of how food production for humans affects the rest of life on earth. Since contemplating these matters always leads me back to the same place, which is a renewed commitment to seeking out locally produced, organic food, I’ll spare you the philosophy.

Instead let me tell you about a conversation I had recently with Alisa DeMarco, who knows local food and what to do with it as well as anybody in east central Illinois. DeMarco is currently chef and associate cheesemaker at Prairie Fruits Farm just north of Urbana. Before coming to Prairie Fruits Farm, she trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, after which she spent some time cooking in Austin and was then chef at the Great Impasta in Champaign. (DeMarco also currently operates Big Spoon Custom Culinary Services.)

Over lunch at the reinvigorated Common Ground food co-op in Lincoln Square Village, DeMarco outlined her plans for a Thanksgiving Day feast featuring local food. [Photo: some of the local, organic produce currently available at Common Ground, including leeks, carrots, brussls sprouts, and chard.] She emphasized that a person need not make any painful accommodations to put on a locally sourced meal, given the abundance and variety of local food available now in east central Illinois.

Since Thanksgiving can be an all day affair DeMarco suggested that a cheese board would be the place to start and, naturally, cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm would be essential to that, along with, perhaps, a mix of sliced apples and pears.

The first course of a meal could then be a soup, featuring either butternut squash, or pumpkin, or maybe even both together. (See recipe below.)

Follow that with spinach salad, wilted with a little bacon from Stan Schutte’s Triple S Farm or another local meat producer, and topped with toasted walnuts.

For the main course nothing beats a locally raised turkey, although you’re unlikely to find one of those if you haven’t already arranged for it. If you’re stuck with a grocery store bird this year, you might make a note to yourself to sign up for one with a local producer at the farmer’s market next summer. DeMarco said she would be making her stuffing with a traditional mix of herbs and onions, but that it would also feature fig and walnut bread from Stewart's Artisan Breads and Desserts in Monticello (217.586.7816 |

We talked about so many possibilities for vegetables and potatoes that I won’t try to recount them all here. But DeMarco made the point that when you start with local produce, simple preparation is the key since the flavor is in the food itself.

While Thanksgiving is a great time to be mindful about the food we eat, it’s also a good time to recall that there are many among who need help just to get by right now. So as you’re planning what you’ll buy, you might also budget for a donation to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank. They can provide $10 worth of food for families facing hunger for every dollar contributed to them.


Silky Butternut Squash Soup with Nutmeg Cream, from Alisa DeMarco

serves 8

4 lbs butternut squash, peeled, cleaned and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 stick unsalted butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
3 apples, peeled and diced
2 quarts vegetable stock
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 cup heavy cream
freshly grated nutmeg
fresh thyme, finely chopped

In a large 3-4 qt. saucepot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, garlic and celery and sweat, stirring occassionally, until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add apples and squash along with vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables and squash are just tender, about 20 minutes. Working with a blender or food processor puree soup until smooth. For a finer texture, pass soup through a sieve and return to pot. Adjust with additional stock if necessary. Add 1/2 cup of heavy cream, cinnamon, cayenne and additional salt and pepper to taste. Whip remaining cream to soft peaks and add freshly grated nutmeg. Re-warm soup and serve ladled into bowls garnished with a small dollop of nutmeg cream and chopped herbs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

World’s largest fossil forest documented by Illinois State Geological Survey scientists

World’s largest fossil forest documented by Illinois State Geological Survey Scientists

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Three hundred million years ago the landmass that we know as North America occupied a place on the globe straddling the equator. Its climate was consistently warm and it received about 10 inches of rain per month throughout the year. Under these conditions the landscape of what’s now Illinois was dominated by lush, peat swamp forests where the waterlogged soil kept dead plant material from decomposing fully.

But changes were in the offing. The glaciers nearer the earth’s poles were retreating, giving rise to alternating wet and dry seasons in the tropics, which included Illinois. This meant that the waters emptying into the shallow sea nearby were charged with great loads of sediment. When a major earthquake south of Danville suddenly dropped a section of peat swamp below sea level and the water rushed in, this sediment accumulated at an astonishing rate, maybe as fast as ten feet in one year. As the sediment coalesced into shale, many of the plants that it covered were preserved, and a fossil forest was formed.

Despite the fact that the fossil forest now lies 250 feet below ground, scientists have been able to see it in recent years--in the ceiling of the Peabody Energy Company’s Riola coal mine. As miners dig out the coal seam—which is all that ancient undecayed plant matter, aged and compressed—they have opened up access to the underside of the lowest layer of the fossil forest. A person looking up at the ceiling in the Riola mine sees a slice of ancient forest floor, a worm’s-eye view, if you will.

Geologists John Nelson and Scott Elrick with the Illinois State Geological Survey say that at four square miles the fossil forest south of Danville is the largest preserved coal-age forest yet documented.

This forest lived and died long before dinosaurs roamed the earth, so there are no T. rex bones to be discovered there, and none of the 50 or so species of fossil plants found there is new to science.

Of course that doesn’t make them any less fascinating.

Largest and among the most abundant are the giant lycospids, which are also known as “scale trees” for the scale-like patterns on their bark. Reaching heights of more than 100 feet, giant lycospids grew like leaf-covered poles, developing a branching crown only at the end of their lifespan. [Photos by Howard Falcon-Lang: Part of the trunk of one type of giant lycospid, showing scale-like bark pattern, and tree fern branches with leaves attached.] Tree ferns, which are not closely related to modern ferns, made up the other most abundant and widespread group of plants in the fossil forest. Tree ferns were characterized by a large crown of feathery fronds, some of which are preserved with stems and leaves all still connected in the ceiling of the Riola mine.

Because it represents such an extensive sample, examination of the fossil forest has allowed the geologists and paleobotanists collaborating with them to answer the important question of how the mix of plants varied across the landscape of a coal-age forest. Previously, researchers could only speculate about the composition of forests at that time, since they had been able to study only isolated fragments of them.

You can’t go look at the ceiling of the Riola mine for yourself, but you can see a fossil covered slab of shale taken from it on display in the coal-mining exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. You can see also see more photos of it online at

Thursday, November 06, 2008

University of Illinois retrocommissioning team working to save planet one building at a time

University of Illinois retrocommissioning team working to save planet one building at a time

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When people envision reducing their carbon footprint they tend to look into the distance and see a greener future defined by shiny solar panels and towering wind turbines. But the fact is, both individuals and institutions can reduce their carbon footprint much more directly—and save money at the same time—by making the most of opportunities to conserve energy in the heating and cooling of existing buildings.

With this reality in mind, a new group was brought together last year within the Division of Engineering at University of Illinois Facilities & Services. Dubbed the retrocommissioning team, the group includes engineers, field technicians and tradesmen, who are working together to tune up campus buildings one at a time. The purpose of the retrocommissioning team is to restore optimal operating conditions for the heating, cooling, and ventilation systems of campus buildings, and to make or facilitate upgrades to components of those systems where that is feasible.

The team typically spends about two months on each building it works with, and it employs a highly systematic approach. That entails a thorough analysis of available documentation on mechanical systems by engineers, and a comprehensive investigation of operating conditions, equipment, and more by field technicians and tradesmen. The retrocommissioning team also depends on clear and open communications with the people who use the buildings they work on, since their intent is to best serve the needs of building users, not to restrict them.

One straightforward thing the retrocommissioning team does is to identify the maintenance issues that tend to multiply in overlooked places as facilities age—things like clogged ducts, stuck dampers, damaged coils and worn out sensors. [Photo: A blocked air silencer at the Tryon Festival Theatre had greatly reduce HVAC efficiency there.]

Beyond attending to such issues, the retrocommissioning team directs a great deal of effort toward enabling facilities operators to work more effectively. For example, at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts, the team installed digital controls and set up a web-based graphic interface that allow the director of facilities to monitor climate conditions for every part of the building from his computer. [Image: A web interface like this one allows facilities operators to monitor climate conditions and mechanical systems.] This system replaces one that required a person to visit each space to check on conditions there, no mean feat in a facility as large as Krannert.

Precision controls make it easier for facilities operators to dial back or shut down climate control systems when spaces are unoccupied, which can result in great reductions in energy use. In many parts of the Music Building, for example, significant mechanical systems are now shut down between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., saving about $15,000 a month in energy expenses.

If you think that’s a lot saved, you’ll be even more impressed by the overall numbers the retrocommissioning team is compiling. To date they have completed work on five buildings, and they are currently engaged with two more. In general they are able to reduce energy use and utility costs by 20% in the buildings they tune up. They calculate that the work they have done so far will result in an annual savings of approximately $875,000 per year. At the rate money is saved on energy, the work of the retrocommissioning team pays for itself in a period of just one to three years.

None of this is to downplay the pressing need for development of alternatives to fossil fuels. Rather, it’s to emphasize how retrocommissioning can help us move toward a sustainable future, in the words of one team member, “saving the planet one building at a time.”