Monday, January 30, 2006

You Go, Garlic!

I might have known.

It happens pretty much every year... during that first warm spell of the winter or early spring, I dash heedlessly outside to work or play, only to come back inside with a cold or a sore throat.

And so here I sit, nursing a red, raw throat with lots and lots of tea (mostly green tea or herbal tisanes) liberally laced with some good local honey.

But above all, when that soreness starts to make my throat ache and swallowing becomes just a bit more arduous, I reach for my own home brew: garlic "tea."

I know, I know... my first reaction when I read about this herbal "cure" in a book on herbal teas was disbelief and apprehension. But I promise you, between this and gargling with salt water, there's almost nothing better for my sore throat.

Of course, even though I've come to appreciate the taste of this brew as much as its effects, I've learned to make it even more appealing with the addition of fresh ginger. So when that first tickle creeps into my throat, I stock up on the basics: garlic (local and organic!), ginger, lime, and honey.

A cup of this in the morning and again at night... with copious amounts of other light teas with honey throughout the day... and my throat is feeling better in no time.

But you'll forgive me if you don't hear much from me over the next couple of days!

Sore Throat Soother

Also referred to as my "garlic tea," the original recipe for this came from one of my herb books (title now forgotten). My variation can be used in two different ways when you're sick: with the garlic for a sore throat, and without for upset stomach, flu, and generally feeling under the weather.

1 clove garlic, minced
1" fresh ginger, peeled and either chopped or mashed
juice of 1/2 lime
1 generous spoonful of honey
1 c hot water

Place garlic, ginger, lime juice, and honey in a mug, and pour in hot water. Stir until honey is dissolved. Sit back and sip slowly, swallowing the garlic whole (but probably not the ginger!), letting the warmth and the sweetness soothe your throat.

Makes 1 dose; repeat as needed!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

O-tay, Buckwheat!

Not only is breakfast the most important meal of the day, in my book it's usually the most important meal of the whole weekend.

After all, it's usually only on the weekends that I have enough time to make something out of the ordinary, like cinnamon rolls or croissants or biscuits and grits. And it's only on the weekends that I can persuade friends to join me for the occasional lavish brunch.

But sometimes weekends are the perfect time to break out of the usual rut just enough to try a variation on an old favorite. And as much as I love my pancakes, it's rare that I go beyond my usual recipes and pull out an old-fashioned treat: buckwheat griddlecakes.

Though I didn't grow up on buckwheat pancakes, my Dear Papa did, as well as one of my Opera-Loving Friends, and I have been assured by both that the recipe I use (from Vegetarian Times) is very like what they enjoyed as growing boys.

And what's not to enjoy? The darker flavor of buckwheat gives depth to the whole wheat flour, and though the slightly runny batter makes thin pancakes (almost like thick crepes), every bite of these speckled cakes is packed with a hearty flavor.

It's been a long, long time since I enjoyed this recipe. Long overdue!

And now that I've refreshed my memory as to just how tasty buckwheat can be, I think I'll have to look up the recipe for buckwheat blini that I now recall was part of my reason for buying the buckwheat flour in the first place.

Maybe... next weekend?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

To My Astonish-mint...

It's winter.

At least I think it's winter, judging by the calendar.

But compared to the chilly winds and constant snow of most of December, January has been positively mild with temperatures consistently in the 30s and 40s (sometimes higher!) and rain in lieu of snow (including the occasional thunderstorm?!).

In short, it feels more like March outside, and the world around me would seem to agree.

I've spotted robins and rabbits throughout the month, and my spring bulbs are up an inch on average. And when I cleaned up the herb garden this morning, I found even more surprises:

--My rambling rose canes, left unpruned in the fall, were already budding leaves.

--The sweet woodruff, tucked under fallen leaves, has greened up to such an extent that I could make May wine for Valentine's Day.

--And yes, my faithful spearmint is already making a comeback:

I don't expect this warm weather to last, and it's certainly not quite warm enough to warrant making a pitcher of mint iced tea, but getting a whiff of that fresh mint along with the sweet scent of sunshine on garden dirt made me feel that spring truly isn't that far away.

I'm sure the snow will return soon, and this mint might wither away, but for today, it was springtime in my garden.

The Most Important Meal of the Day

It's Saturday morning. The sun is shining, and the temperatures, already balmy, are predicted to reach 50 degrees. I've got a long list of chores and projects to tackle today, and, clad in my scruffy old jeans and work shirts, I'm ready to jump into action.

Well, almost ready.

After all, as the Chef Mother used to remind me, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, fueling you with good food that provides the energy to help you get your work done.

And, since I've challenged myself to eat more local foods this year, breakfast is the right time of the day to start working those local foods onto my plate.

I've got a busy day ahead with lots of physical labor involved, so I decided I needed one of my favorite hard-working-woman's breakfasts:

--My favorite hash browns with local potatoes and a local free-range egg scrambled in

--Vegetarian "sausage" (not local, but I do like it on occasion)

--Grape juice, still as fresh as the day I bought the grapes at the farmers' market

--Organic coffee laced with local milk

No, not a completely local breakfast, but I'm still working on it. And it will definitely fortify me for the day ahead as I make vegetable stock, clean up the herb garden, spruce up the garage, make soup, paint baseboards, tackle new stitching projects, walk to the grocery store...

Now that's fuel efficiency for you!

Tastes Grape, Less Filling

I don't drink juice every morning for breakfast, but when I do, I like the good fresh stuff as much as possible.

But now that the last of my oranges have been squeezed and drained, what am I supposed to do for my juice fix?

Well, Dear Readers, if you'll remember back to late summer when I rhapsodized about the fragrant Concord grapes I found at the farmers' market, you'll also remember that I had tucked away three quarts of luscious dark unsweetened grape juice in the freezer for just this eventuality.

So last night I pulled the first quart from the freezer and set it in the fridge to thaw overnight, and though it was still slightly slushy this morning when I poured a cup, I wasn't about to be deterred by mere chunks of ice.

Never mind that it's January. With the first sip, I tasted those fresh, sweet grapes again and had a momentary vision of standing amidst the grapevines with the warm September sun releasing the fragrance of the fruit, the leaves, and even the soil.

Grape juice never tasted this good before, even though I drank it constantly as a kid... but having the connection to the region where the grapes were grown, to the kind people who grew them, and to the process of making the juice makes this morning refreshment all the sweeter.

It's a grape way to start the day, don't you think?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Expanding Horizons by Eating Locally

The latest in the Tyee's series on the Hundred-Mile Diet is now available online:

"The Incredible Expanding 100-Mile Diet"

Though I haven't cooked much this week, I've been relying on some leftovers of partly-local foods (that creamy spinach pesto pasta lasts a while, and so does my minestrone with homemade pesto). On top of that, I hope next week to pick up bags of whole wheat flour, oats, and cornmeal from a local grist mill... not to mention fresh butter from my favorite local dairy!

Seems that eating locally is catching on in a lot of places!

Has it caught on with you yet?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Seduction by Chocolate

Dear Readers, I've been holding out on you.

In my baking frenzy earlier this week, I not only made the double batch of sunshine cookies, but I also revisited one of my favorite chocolate desserts: the creation of nearly a year ago, my Dark Chocolate Seduction Torte (formerly known as the wicked brownies).

With seven layers of rich, dark chocolate, daring spices, and nuts... and with textures varying from crunchy to fudgy to irresistibly molten and messy... this torte has, in the three previous times I've made it, turned otherwise intelligent friends into incoherently babbling and moaning puddles of chocolate-loving bliss.

So... what better dessert to make for a special guest who declared chocolate to be an essential food group and "the darker, the better"?

None, really.

This is an ideal dessert to make for Valentine's Day, when you want to treat that special someone with a little extra care and attention... or when you want to indulge in a rich but messy dessert that is an awful lot of fun to share.

But me... well, I don't think that such a special treat should be reserved for one day of the year, so I pulled it out early. And though I shared squares with a number of deserving friends, I saved enough for my guest to have a second helping (which was immediately and gratifyingly accepted) as well as to take some for the road.

I'm sorry to disappoint my Dear Readers by refusing to post this recipe here on the blog. For one thing, it's very long and involved, and for another, it's a very dangerous recipe to have in your repertoire and should be used with care and discretion. There's no telling what effect such a seductively decadent dessert might have on your guests.

I'm certainly not telling.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Sunshine of My Heart

You wouldn't think that after a big round of holiday baking I would be ready to head into the kitchen for another round, would you? Especially when I myself was well off sweets for the holidays?

Oh, my Dear Readers, if you think that, you don't know me very well.

As I've mentioned before, I'm not immune to appeals to my culinary vanity. And when I get rave reviews for my newest recipe, sunshine cookies, from almost everyone who received them in their Christmas boxes and baskets, how can I possibly say no when some of those same people beg for more?

I can't. I just can't.

So tonight I found myself stepping into the kitchen immediately after work to start mixing up a double batch of cookies for care packages and local handouts. Yes, a double batch! Fortunately, this recipe doubles well and my arm is strong enough to handle mixing all of it, so I just dove right in.

Fresh orange peel, tiny chunks of candied ginger (those darker spots in the dough), real almond and vanilla extracts... can't you just taste those crisp, not-too-sweet but oh-so-satisfying morsels right now? Don't you feel a little more healthy just for thinking of the vitamin C packed into these treats?

Well, maybe you can't, but a select few will be able to enjoy them soon. All right, more than a few people, seeing as how a double batch made eight full pans of cookies (approximately 130 cookies, but who's counting?).

Initial quality control checks have revealed that the usual standards of flavor and quality have been maintained, and additional quality control experts will be called in for sampling tomorrow evening. I think it's safe to say, though, that once again these cookies pass the test.

And with the skies looming gray again, we all need a little extra sunshine.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Feeding a Crowd and Feeling Proud

Over the past year or more, I've shared with you many tales of the cooking lessons I've given my lovely sous chef Phoenix. Her skills have grown so much in the time we've been working together that for two years in a row now she has gone home for the winter break and prepared a Winter Solstice dinner for her family (since her mother takes care of the Christmas meal).

And when you think that when I first started with Phoenix, she was unsure how to peel a carrot... well, I think you will agree that she has come a long, long, splendid way, indeed.

I'm very proud of her for pulling together this year's Solstice dinner and trying some new things. But I'll let her tell her own story, copied with permission from the email she sent me last week:

My Winter Solstice Dinner went very well. Because Mom was feeling a little more anxious and overwhelmed than usual at this time of year... I decided just to cook for the immediate family to help keep the stress level down a bit. It turned out very nice (and tasty!) nonetheless, and Aidan and Eli [younger siblings] even helped out in the kitchen.

The Menu:

French Nut Bread- which I baked that morning. It turned out a little toasty, apparently our oven bakes in about half the time that recipes call for... wish I knew that beforehand. Still, I was very proud of myself, it tasted great, and I (and I'm pleased to say everyone else) loved it.

Lemon Glazed Beets and Carrots- which I also prepared that morning and stuck in the crock pot so I would have room on the stove later that evening, and one less thing to worry about. They turned out beautifully. So pretty! The kids weren't so fond of them, but the beet lovers in the family were certainly appreciative.

Steamed Kale with Olive Oil- actually, I had very little to do with this other then to give instructions. For the most part, Aidan took care of it with a little bit of guidance. She was very excited not only to help, but to eat it, too! In fact she had been bugging me all week asking when/if we'd be having kale. It's wonderful how such a simple dish can be so satisfying!

Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto- aaaaaah, yes. Very, very tasty. Since I was only cooking for seven, (hehe, ONLY seven), I went ahead and pulled out Mom's big stove pot, doubled the recipe, and didn't worry about turning it into casserole. Turned out I probably didn't need to double it. Although we ate a bunch that night, I was eating risotto for the rest of the week. Guess it's a good thing I like squash! (I did have trouble finding arborio rice and was afraid I would have to make a trip to Wooster to get some. However, with a little help, I was able to find it, and discovered a marvelous natural food store in Mt. Vernon. Apparently they've been there 30 years or so... and I never even knew they existed!)

Cardamom Glazed Pears- and what is a fine dining experience without a wonderful dessert? These went over exceptionally well. Absolutely delicious. (Wouldn't you know it, cardamom is also hard to come by in Mt. Vernon. Hooray for natural food stores!)

I really took a couple of risks, seeing as I'd never had some of these dishes before, let alone never having made them! It was worth it, and everything turned out well. But my solstice celebration didn't stop there. I took a couple of slices of bread and some of the cardamom pears to Gramma and Grampa M., which I believe they enjoyed for breakfast the next morning. After spending some quality time with them, I headed back out to the country to visit with my Gramma G. as well as bring her a pretty loaf of the wonderful nut bread.

Yes, I'm definitely proud of how Phoenix has blossomed as a chef. (Not to mention as a food writer!)

Congratulations to the best-ever no-longer-apprentice chef!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

I'm as Corny as Kansas in August

I'm as corny as Kansas in August,
I'm as normal as blueberry pie...
(from South Pacific)

Born and bred here in Ohio, you can well imagine that I grew up with a deep and abiding love of corn: corn on the cob, cooked corn, popcorn, you name it!

(And given my offbeat family, I developed another love of corn, too, as you can probably tell from my exasperating use of word play on this site.)

But lately, my corniness has completely revolved around a rapidly-dwindling bag of locally-ground cornmeal.

Even though I love corn as a vegetable, cornmeal itself has never been very high on my list of favored grains, and I have to be in the right mood to enjoy it thoroughly. In the past week or so, though, I have definitely been in the mood.

First, I started off with a sweet potato pot pie that used cooked cornmeal to form a polenta base for the spicy lentil-tomato mix and the baked sweet potato topping. Though the entire dish was good, I often found myself eating the top two layers first and saving the well-seasoned polenta layer for last, savoring every bite.

Then yesterday morning, I decided I was really in the mood for cheese grits, one of my old Southern standbys. I'm out of grits specifically, but the cornmeal is coarse enough that it made a slightly more creamy version of this dish, thickened with some good locally-produced sharp cheddar cheese. A comforting meal on a cold morning!

And today, I finally got around to making the pot of chili I'd been wanting all week long... and how can you have chili without cornbread? So once I'd gotten the chili started and simmering, I whipped up a pan of cornbread (from the excellent basic recipe found in the original Moosewood cookbook) and a bowl of guacamole.

Hot and spicy chili, cool and creamy guacamole, and tender, tasty cornbread... what more could I want?

Well, the answer to that lies in the second line of the song quoted above, because once the song got into my head, I knew I needed to make a blueberry pie. But let's face it, none of my friends would class me as "normal," so of course my pie must be a little out of the ordinary, a small concoction made with a leftover whole wheat pie crust and local blueberries from the freezer plus a streusel topping of local oats (from the same grist mill), maple sugar, spice, and oil. Bliss!

And "if you'll excuse the expression I use," such good food always makes me "high as a flag on the Fourth of July"!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Local Values

Just spotted this on the Gristmill blog:

"Is local the new organic?"

Looks like the local foods train is picking up more passengers... and helping people to find common ground in values that run deeper than their differences of opinion.

What great news!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Living in the Pasta

Let me be quite clear: I will never be an Atkins fanatic or any sort of low-carb counter. I think it's been perfectly obvious on these pages that I love my grains -- and the less refined or processed, the better (well, for the most part).

So I'm sure you will understand completely when I say that after a dark, dreary day, I want a comforting dinner of pasta.

I have my usual quick-fix pasta dinners of broccoli-walnut pasta and good ol' spaghetti, and if I'm feeling slightly more ambitious, I might whip up something even more nourishing, like pasta e ceci.

For Christmas Day, I joined my "family" in town (including my adorable "nephews") for dinner, and though I hadn't been interested in eating much all that weekend, I tucked into the Absent-Minded Professor's spinach-cheese stuffed pasta shells with reckless abandon, along with a second helping of salad. And the best gift given to me that night was an extra pan of that pasta to take home and see me through the break. (Thank you! Thank you!)

When I visited the grocery store this past weekend in search of new local foods to try, I discovered a new brand of locally-produced cheeses and dairy products -- hardly surprising since we're in Amish country here. And when I spotted the part-skim ricotta cheese, the memory of those pasta shells came back to me and gave me an idea for a quick, comforting dinner this week.

I pulled out the recipe for "Penne with Creamy Walnut Sauce" from the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites cookbook and decided to make that tonight. Personally, I think the recipe title is misleading, because the sauce is more cheese and spinach than walnuts, but since I like it so much, I'm not going to argue the point. (Much.)

Call it a semi-local meal: though the whole wheat pasta, frozen spinach, parmesan cheese, and spices were not grown or produced locally, the dish did include that Amish country ricotta, basil from my own pot, locally grown walnuts, and some of the oven-dried cherry tomatoes I made this summer.

Like a rich, creamy pesto, the sauce coated the pasta beautifully (it works so well on any chunky pasta), and the tomatoes added just the right contrast in color and flavor. Add a glass of red wine (though preferably not the Merlot I found in the root cellar while cleaning last week -- I think I missed its peak!) and you're set for dinner.

(Of course, I always think that Italian food should be followed by chocolate, but I didn't have a chocolate dessert at hand, so I made do with the last of the pumpkin drop cookies. Not a hardship, really!)

The beauty of this pasta sauce recipe is that it makes a large amount (at least if you're cooking for one) -- so I will be enjoying this dish for many more nights.

Unless... I decide to use it as filling for lasagna or pasta shells...

Now there's a pastability!

Creamy Spinach Pesto Pasta

Here's my variation on the Penne with Creamy Walnut Sauce recipe from the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites cookbook. Being a lazy cook at times, I find it's easiest just to throw everything into a bowl and puree it with my handy immersion blender... carefully, of course.

1 pkg frozen spinach, thawed, or 10 oz fresh spinach, steamed and drained
1/2 c toasted walnuts
2 c low-fat ricotta or cottage cheese
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c loosely packed fresh basil
1/2 tsp salt
ground black pepper to taste
1 to 1 1/2 lbs chunky pasta, preferably whole wheat
1 heaping T oven- or sun-dried tomatoes

In a food processor or blender, combine the spinach, walnuts, cheese, garlic, Parmesan, basil, and salt and puree until smooth, working in batches if necessary. Add pepper to taste and set aside.

Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta, then return it to the pan and add enough sauce to coat the pasta to your liking. Toss in oven- or sun-dried tomatoes and combine thoroughly.

Serves 6 allegedly, but I usually stretch this out over several nights, only cooking as much pasta as I need on any given night.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Cute as a Pumpkin

Two sturdy little pie pumpkins, among the last holdouts from the farmers' market, have sat patiently on the kitchen table for a few months, waiting for me to decide how to cook them.

And I've had plenty of ideas, really I have! But it seems like every time I've been ready to reach for one of those brilliant orange globes, something else comes up and I'm off to cook something else.

Back in October, Dear Reader Tina sent me her friend Melanie's recipe for pumpkin drop cookies, and though I've been meaning to try it ever since (I've had the cream cheese in the fridge for two months!), I only pulled it out tonight, ready at last to bake something sweet again.

I halved and seeded the pumpkin and baked it along with the sweet potatoes destined to top the pot pie I was making for dinner. And after I finished dinner, I pulled out the rest of the cookie ingredients and went to work.

Like a number of other cooks I've met or read, I have great difficulty in sticking absolutely to a recipe even the first time through. Sometimes it's because I don't have all the same ingredients, and sometimes I just want a different combination of flavors. And though I don't mess with the "absolutes" in a baking recipe (such as baking powder or soda), I'll often tweak the other ingredients to my liking.

Thus I'm sure it will come as no surprise when I tell you that:

--I switched the sugar to maple sugar and Sucanat
--I switched the flour to half unbleached and half whole wheat pastry flour (my usual baking ratio)
--I increased the amount of a few spices
--I declined to add raisins in favor of using the last of my grain-sweetened chocolate chips (what can I say? I like chocolate!)
--I reduced the amount of sugar in the frosting and used maple sugar and cane juice crystals instead of confectioner's sugar

The resulting cookies were rather homely but endearing little amber lumps studded with chocolate, and they had a soft, moist, tender texture and a good balance of flavors. The cream cheese frosting, though a little soft, had just the right sweetness with that depth of caramel flavor from the maple sugar. And believe me when I tell you that the only reason I actually frosted the cookies instead of just dipping them into the frosting and then directly into my mouth was that the cookies were too soft to hold up as effective scoops. (Yes, I did try, and it was an exquisitely delectable mess.)

After rigorous and extensive quality control checking (six cookies!), I am pleased to tell you that not only does this recipe have my seal of approval and thus merits being shared with you all, but that these cookies also make a pretty good breakfast.

They're so cute! How could I resist?

Pumpkin Drop Cookies

Shared by Tina, who got the recipe from her friend Melanie, who got it...??? I've made a number of changes in the original recipe, because I find I don't like cookies overly sweet. You can easily make this with canned pumpkin, but I find the flavor of browned baked fresh pumpkin to be a real treat. Serve with tea or milk... if you can resist just shoveling them into your mouth!

1 small pie pumpkin OR 1 c canned pumpkin
1/2 c maple sugar
1/2 c Sucanat
1/2 c unsalted butter, room temperature
1 T freshly grated orange peel
1 c unbleached flour
1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/2 c raisins, chopped nuts, or chocolate chips

If using fresh pumpkin, halve and seed the pumpkin. Lay cut side up on baking sheet and bake for one hour (or until fork-tender) at 400 F. Allow to cool, then peel off the skin. Mash thoroughly.

Cream together pumpkin, sugars, butter, and orange peel until smooth. Sift in flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices and mix until well blended. Add raisins (or nuts, or chocolate chips) and combine evenly.

Drop small teaspoonfuls of batter onto cookie sheets. Bake at 375 F for 8-10 minutes, until set. Allow to cool on pan for a couple of minutes, then remove to cooling rack. Cool completely. Frost with Cream Cheese Frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

3 to 4 oz soft cream cheese
1/3 c unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c cane juice crystals
1/4 c maple sugar
1 T milk or soy milk
1 tsp vanilla

Cream all ingredients together until smooth. Use a knife to frost cookies. Allow frosting to set (it may be a little soft).

Makes 3 1/2 to 4 dozen cookies

The Natives Are Restless

Some time ago, I read Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabham, about one man's year-long quest to eat not just local foods, but foods native to his region (in Arizona, believe it or not!). And though I failed to review the book here and gave it only a passing glance elsewhere, the ideas Nabham presented stuck with me, simmering on the back burner.

Those ideas have returned to the forefront, thanks to a link Matt shared with me for an NPR story about endangered native species -- fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, animals -- that once graced our regional dinner tables. And lo and behold, Nabham's group RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) has issued a report on those species, including stories of some that are now extinct and some that are making a comeback.

One of the less-often-touted advantages of local foods -- but one that eventually enters your awareness as you become exposed to what is available locally -- is biodiversity. Of all the foods we have available today, only a handful of species are generally represented at your grocery store. But at the farmers' market, you may find many more, and even those added varieties may only represent what is native to your region.

For example, at the farmers' market this past year, I bought Kennebec potatoes over the usual Russets and Yukon Golds; Mollie apples instead of Jonathans or Galas; and Fairy Tale eggplant instead of the big varieties found anywhere else.

Part of my reason for buying these different varieties, of course, was simply the desire to try something new. But in trying something new, I also wanted to send the message that I wanted to experience and appreciate the differences in taste, appearance, and other characteristics found in out-of-the-ordinary varieties.

Nature has provided us with a dazzling diversity of foods and flavors, many of which are dependent on the growing conditions of their native regions. Why would we want to trade that glorious bounty for the limited selection at the supermarket, where many varieties have been carefully bred to last longer for shipping, thus losing some of their flavor? Why would we want to risk the health of our food supply by relying on a handful of species that grow ever more susceptible to disease and pests? (Remember the Irish potato famine?)

The only reason I can think of to explain why anyone would settle for less variety is that they simply don't know -- or don't care about enjoying what is all around them. Nabham puts it beautifully:

The real bottleneck to the revival of native, locally grown foods is a cultural -- or more precisely, a spiritual -- dilemma. ... Until we stop craving to be somewhere else and someone else other than animals whose very cells are constituted from the place on earth we love the most, then there is little reason to care about the fate of native foods, family farms, or healthy landscapes and communities. (Coming Home to Eat, p.304)

There are, of course, many people who are working hard to support biodiversity through sharing seeds, providing heirloom varieties, and cultivating native foods, and in small ways I've tried to contribute to some of these efforts (such as swapping heirloom tomatoes -- and ideas! -- with the Archivist). There's plenty of room for others to help, too, whether in growing your own or supporting those growers who do.

Variety is the spice... and everything else!... of life.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Souper Bowl

I've been meaning all week to do something with that lovely golden vegetable stock I made over the weekend, but I never got around to it until last night.

Just in time, too! as the winds rolled in and dropped the temperatures to the freezing point, enabling the wet snow to stick around a little longer. So on a damp and chilly night, what else was I to do but pull out a favorite soup recipe?

I've made no secret of the fact that the humble potato is one of my favorite vegetables. And when you roast potatoes with onions and garlic until they're brown and crusty, then toss them into simmering stock, puree the lot, and thicken the liquid a little further with cornstarch and some good local milk... well, what's not to love?

Creamy and richly colored and flavored, speckled with a generous scattering of thyme and pepper, this roasted potato soup warms the stomach... and the heart... on a chilly night.

I even decided to dress it up a little bit, in the time-honored Bistro style, with bread crumbs toasted with parsley and garlic and a dash of olive oil. (After all, such a garnish worked well on the lusciously creamy roasted garlic soup my Granola Girl and I had the good fortune to enjoy last week for lunch!)

What happiness! I had been tempted to steam some kale or toast some of this week's bread (cornmeal-millet), but such a soup makes an incredibly satisfying meal all on its own.

Good thing, too, as I've got about 2 quarts left!

Let the cold weather return... I'm ready.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Eat Like You Live Here: January

As promised, I'm issuing a formal -- but fun! -- challenge to all my Dear Readers.

In the interest of spreading the awareness about local foods, I'd like to start Eat Like You Live Here: A Year of Local Eating, with monthly "challenges" that I hope will help us all look a little more closely at the food we put on our tables as well as encourage our friends, neighbors, and local businesses to support local foods, too.

(And yes, if the phrase sounds familiar, the title of the challenge comes from the theme of my local farmers' market. It think it sums up the whole idea beautifully!)

I know, a year is a long time, but don't worry! The idea here is not to expect that absolutely everything you eat from day one will be local, though I hope many of you will consider it an eventual (if not fully attainable) goal. We'll start small and explore the many ways that you can find and support local food producers.

Since January is a traditional time for looking back at what we've learned and looking ahead to the future, this month's challenges will build on what we've all learned so far about local foods and get us ready for more active support later on:

1. Educate yourself on why local foods are better than those trucked or flown in from across the country or the globe. I've certainly written a great deal on the subject here on this site, but don't just take my word for it. Visit some of the sites listed on the right or mentioned earlier this week to understand what your food truly costs and why eating locally is better for the environment, for local business, for local communities, for the economy, and, yes, even for national security.

2. Share what you learn with others. Talk about how local food production fits into issues of sustainability or reviving local economies. You may find other people who are interested in learning more... or who have more information to share.

3. Start looking at what local foods are available. It's definitely the "off" season for us here in Northeast Ohio, so finding fresh local produce is tricky. Talk to your local grocer and explain your interest in eating locally-produced foods. See what they can find. After all, they're in the business of meeting customer demand.

4. If you're having a tough time finding local produce right now, don't forget to check the labels on the boxes, cans, jars, and bags of food you find on the shelves elsewhere in the store. You may be pleasantly surprised to find a number of products that come from your region. (Here's a hint: try this especially at smaller, locally-owned groceries instead of the big chains, and look at the "house" or lesser-known brands.)

5. Vote with your wallet! Purchase and sample something new that is local to you. And hey, if it's good, tell people about it!

Do you have to meet every one of these challenges? No, of course not. I'm not going to track you down and grade you on your progress. These are just ideas to get you started, and if you have other ideas, I invite you to leave comments.

I'll return to the challenge at the end of the month and let you know what I've discovered, and I hope many of you will chime in with what you've learned, too. The more we share this information and these ideas, the more positive impact we'll have in encouraging local food producers.

Of course, this challenge will also have a positive impact on our individual lives, and I hope you'll be interested in sharing some of your stories along the way. Just in starting my gradual shift toward more local foods last year, I found that my eating habits had changed: I no longer ate so much, I enjoyed more fresh vegetables, I used fewer refined ingredients, and my meals became more balanced. On top of that, I built some good connections with farmers at the market and with local merchants. Will the same happen for you? I offer no guarantees, but I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the improved quality of living you'll enjoy!

So let's start the New Year right: look around and start learning even more about your area and the surprising bounty it provides. And as you learn, share with others. Tell them what you're doing and why. You'll be able to make it sound so irresistible that they'll want to know more.

After all, it's a joy to Eat Like You Live Here.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Where's My Dinner (From)?

What do all these foods have in common?

Oh, come on, you know the answer.

That's right... they're all local (to me) foods. Along with the squash, honey, and walnuts from the farmers' market, you'll find here some of my potted herbs, canned goods (peaches, pickles, jam), and even the occasional jar or can of processed food that was locally produced. Even though it's January and I haven't harvested anything fresh (except those herbs) for a couple of months, I'm still finding ways to enjoy the local bounty.

And after today, I have added inspiration for continuing to support local foods... and to encourage all of you to do the same.

After reading a recent article about the local foods initiatives being promoted through the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and the Ohio State University, I contacted Matt Kleinhenz, Extension Vegetable Crops Physiology and Production Specialist at the OARDC, to find out more and to learn what more we consumers can do to support our neighboring farms and food producers. We finally caught up with each other this afternoon and shared an enthusiastic hour-long discussion that I will try to summarize for you.

Matt indicated that the work he's doing in regard to local foods fits into the broader issue of sustainability (naturally), and he is attempting to draw in partners from many points of view: those who are interested in farmland preservation, those who want to boost local businesses, and those who are active in environmental issues, among others. After all, many people have influence over how our land is used, from City Council and the local Chamber of Commerce to the farmers, business figures, and developers with a direct economic interest, and we consumers need to pay attention to what happens in these areas and be willing to raise our concerns and needs, too.

But above all, Matt stressed the importance of "voting with your wallet." You know how I feel about supporting the local farmers' market (three words: Just do it!), but what else can you do? Here are a few excellent ideas that came up in our conversation:

1. Get to know the farmers. Talk to them at the market, let them know you're keenly interested in local foods, and ask them to consider extending their growing season in order to provide produce into the winter. And encourage everyone you know to do the same. Farming isn't a hugely profitable business, and farmers may be reluctant to invest in a longer growing season unless they hear many people asking for it. If they do make the investment, back them up and continue to support them with your purchases.

2. When you're traveling and come across a local farm or farmers' market that provides goods you'd like to buy again and again (but you may not be in the area often enough to do it), ask the farmers if they would be willing to ship their goods to you. I know, some of my Dear Readers may be thinking, "But doesn't that defeat the point of local foods?" No. Here again you're supporting small local food producers directly and are willing to work with them to provide a market for their goods. (This is why I'm perfectly happy to accept dates, oranges, and pecans from my Wonderful Parents on their travels: I've got them "trained" to support the small local growers!) Some farmers may not be willing to ship: again, it's an investment for them. Smile, be encouraging and polite, and point out the benefits to them. You might be surprised!

3. At the local grocery store, talk to the manager or the staff about your wish to buy local foods. Are locally-grown fruits and vegetables labeled as such? Does the store provide local produce in the "off" season? Ask the store to label foods as local and buy more local goods... then show your support by buying them. Do the same at local restaurants: ask if any of their foods are locally supplied, and support those restaurants that do support local growers while encouraging others to start.

4. While at the grocery store, don't forget to think about processed foods, too. Many of us are accustomed to looking at the labels for nutritional information, but if you look closely, you'll also find out where a product was packaged and perhaps even grown. Many of the smaller name brands are locally based, and we're fortunate in Ohio to have several to choose from. A quick glance at my pantry shelves revealed the following Ohio brands, for example: Mid's (pizza sauce), Gia Russa (chickpeas), Dei Fratelli (canned tomatoes and sauce), and, of course, Smuckers. Given that every food has its season and that we can't truly have everything fresh all the time, we have to remember to look at the labels on processed foods, too.

5. Finally, I myself would add food preservation (home canning and the like) and sharing with friends. There are few sweeter pleasures than having fresh local foods fill your pantry all winter, thanks to your own hard work -- except to share that bounty with your friends and to open their eyes to how good local foods taste as well as how easy they are to support. Truly, this can be the most convincing way to spread the news by "word of mouth"!

Matt suggested a number of sites for further reading and ideas:

--Entrepreneurs for Sustainability
--Farmland Preservation in Northeast Ohio
--Ohio Farm Bureau Federation
--The True Cost of Food from the Sierra Club
--as well as some of the links previously mentioned on this site (see sidebar)

One of the ideas that struck me most in our conversation was that not only do local foods keep us in touch with the land, with the seasons, and with our neighbors, but that local foods also shape our identity as people living in a particular community in a particular region.

Think about that. Really get deep inside that thought for a moment. We can all remember certain foods from our childhoods that exemplified who we are/were and how we were raised. Did you, like me, enjoy fresh corn on the cob for dinner, followed by a watermelon seed-spitting contest with your dad, during one glorious week in August every year? Did you help your mother or grandmother make jam or jelly in the searing summer heat? Do you remember the fragrance of certain ethnic dishes that whispered "holiday" or "family" to you?

We are what we eat. And by extension, we are where we eat. The tomato I grow in my backyard will taste different to me than the tomato that comes from California. The grapes I buy at the farmers' market will make juice that tastes more real to me than anything I can find frozen in a can. Why? I know where these foods originate: I have some sense of the soil and the water and the light in which they have grown, because I share that same soil, water, and light. They taste like home.

So by buying local foods, we can preserve that sense of local identity, that feeling of coming home with every bite.

I am deeply grateful to Matt for his time and his willingness to swap information, and our discussion generated some exciting ideas, some of which I intend to explore further and share with you as they develop. (Stay tuned... I'm going to issue a fun challenge to all my Dear Readers!)

Until then, I'll be enjoying some of those local foods from my larder and my freezer (the pizza I made tonight included local sauce and broccoli; not a bad start), and I'll be looking for more ways to support the local food scene.

Hope you will, too!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Taking Stock

Welcome to the New Year!

Aside from the last round of holiday baking early last week and the reheating of leftovers or foraging for small snacks, I've barely set foot in the kitchen.

All those plans to cook and freeze entrees for later use? All for naught.

But with the start of the New Year, I'm finally ready to cook again. (OK, truth be told... I'm running low on ready-made dishes and I'm starting to get hungry.)

So I stepped into the kitchen this morning to take stock of the situation... or rather, to make stock of the situation.

Sadly, I'm out of all my good local potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions, though I did throw some good organic garlic from the Cheerful Lady into the stock pot, along with a couple of ice cubes of frozen parsley from my garden. At this time of year, I take what I can get.

And so, "bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble..."

...until an hour later, it's time to strain the contents of the pot and enjoy that beautiful golden vegetable stock.

Some of the stock went right into a comforting vegetable pot pie, and the rest will be used in soup later this week. (I'm thinking about a roasted potato soup, though we'll see what I'm in the mood for later.)

Any way you look at it, it's a good start for the year!