About this Blog

As I go into my second year blogging about cooking and eating locally, I am thinking more and more about my own heritage. Why is cooking and eating locally sourced food important to me? What values am I honoring by doing this and how were these values instilled in me.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dig into Your Roots!

Some of the most frequently asked questions regarding eating locally grown foods are:  What's available and when, and can you get enough nutrients eating only produced within your region.

I live in northeastern Massachusetts about 15 minutes from the southern New Hampshire border and approximately 30 miles northwest of Boston. We can get snow as early as mid-October and have experienced blizzard conditions as late as April 1st. As I write this today, the first day of spring, it is snowing outside. Our growing season is far more limited than in southern areas of the United States and California, so while vegetables like kale grow through December and peas can be planted while snow still covers the ground in March, many of the vegetables you find being spritzed in the produce section of your average supermarket don’t grow here during the winter months.

And yet, there are a variety of possibilities for winter eating...especially if you enjoy root vegetables like I do.

We joined a winter CSA program this year at the same farm where we enjoyed our spring, summer and fall vegetables. I was excited to continue my adventures eating locally, but I had some questions as well. What would we get and would it be enough to keep things interesting as well as provide a balanced diet.

The winter offering has been a well balanced combination of cuts of meat from animals that have been raised by our farmer as well as squash, beets, garlic, onions, potatoes, carrots, rutabagas, parsnips, apples, honey, maple syrup, local artisan cheeses and eggs.

In winter, while snow piles up outside and the temperatures dip down into the teens, I like to keep the house warm and filled with comforting aromas by cooking lots of warming soups and stews or slow roasting larger cuts of meat and/or vegetables. So, our farm offerings have fulfilled my hopes for the season.

However, each time I pass the produce section at my local Whole Foods market on my way to the bulk food aisle to stock up on grains, beans and nuts, I question whether my choice to exclusively eat local produce is adversely impacting our overall health. Shouldn’t I grab a couple of oranges and a head of broccoli just in case?

So, I decided to do a little research.

In order to keep the investigation manageable, I decided to focus on one vegetable, the rutabaga, and one nutrient, Vitamin C. I chose the rutabaga since it was not as familiar to me as a carrot or a beet and I chose Vitamin C since it is believed to be so vital to a healthy immune system.

In case, like me, you’re not as familiar with the rutabaga, here is a little background.

The rutabaga is believed to be the result of a chance hybridization between a wild cabbage and a turnip and is believed to originate from Scandinavia. It looks like a turnip. In fact, until just this week, I thought the rutabaga was a large turnip.

The rutabaga is a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables which includes broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale. Like its cousin the broccoli, raw rutabaga has a pungent smell though much more subtle. Rutabagas can be roasted, boiled, steamed or mashed very much like a potato and has a light sweet flavor. I used rutabagas this season in meat stews both with other root vegetables and on its own. Rutabagas can also be eaten raw, simply peel them with a vegetable peeler. You can slice them for a snack or chop, dice or grate them onto a salad.

Through my visits to a variety of nutritionally focused Web sites, I confirmed that while leafy greens and citrus fruits are certainly touted as being the best source of vitamin C, rutabagas are also an excellent source. I was also interested to learn that one cup of rutabaga has about the same amount of vitamin C as a large tangerine. In addition to this, because the glycemic load of a rutabaga is lower than a tangerine, a rutabaga is better at regulating blood sugar levels making it a better choice to maintain a healthy weight.

I have to admit that at the end of my nutritional investigation I still don’t feel as if I have a definitive answer to my question about nutrients. However, what I take away from the exercise is that you can’t really compare rutabagas to tangerines anymore than you can compare apples to oranges; they all possess unique qualities. I also suspect that the value of an individual food has more to do with how all of its elements work together within the body as well as its freshness and the way in which it was prepared. 

For me, the answer to the question about nutrition is practical good sense: eat a variety of fresh, whole foods -- fresh being the key.

I recognize that I have a bias, I do believe local is the best way to obtain nutrient dense produce. Given the choice between a fresh rutabaga from the farmer down the road or a limpy head of broccoli from outside the New England area, I’ll choose the rutabaga. And with gas prices creeping toward $4.00 per gallon, local seems to be an economically wise choice as well.

If you would like to check out the nutritional content of some of your favorite foods or a fruit or vegetable you are just getting to know, here are some Web sites I found to be very useful:


http://nutritiondata.self.com/ (This site has a tool that allows you to compare one food to another.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Squashed Out

Sometimes, even with all of the variety we enjoy through our local CSA, we can get too much of a good thing.

I look forward to seeing piles of brightly colored, oddly shaped winter squash in front of the farm stand just as the air begins to get crisp here in New England. Like a hoarder, I buy them up by the armful and pile them in baskets on my dining room table and kitchen counter.

For me, winter squash is the quintessential symbol of abundance and nourishment. It is an excellent source of Vitamin A and C.  It is a very good source of Folate, Niacin (a nutrient important for HDL levels), Thiamin, Vitamin B6, Calcium and Magnesium. 

Until this winter, I thought my family ate a lot squash. So, I was thrilled with the many varieties I found in my crate: butternut, buttercup, acorn, carnival, delicata, spaghetti and sugar pumpkins. I baked them, cubed them, pureed them, roasted them, stuffed them and made soup (See Soup for a Snowy Day).

We continued to receive more squash into our winter share, which I had expected; however, now in early March, I am tired of squash.

When I went to pick up our share two weeks ago, I was overjoyed to finally see a bag of fresh baby spinach in our crate. This was a real treat after all of the root vegetables that carried us through the winter; however, I hoped that the CSA manager did not see the brief disappointment that must have passed over my face when I saw the two butternut squash tucked into the crate as well.

I wouldn’t dream of complaining. Since we live in a town house without access to a little plot of land on which to grow my own vegetables, I am more than grateful to accept whatever goodies arrive in my crate.

However, I am squashed out.

Back in the car, I wondered what to do with the squash. The easy answer would be to give them to a neighbor or make another batch of squash soup. I still had some dried chili peppers, a couple of apples that were really only good now for baking and some broth in the freezer. But then I remembered a dish that I had made back in November using squash, sausage, barley and kale that Peter and I had really enjoyed. I hadn’t repeated the recipe because kale was gone for the season.  However, now I had some fresh baby spinach, so I thought I would try the recipe again with a few different ingredients.

Thank goodness for hot house spinach. It arrived just in time to revive a dying food love affair.

If you have a good recipe for winter squash, please share! I need to start building up a reserve of new dishes to try next winter.

Here’s my recipe for barley risotto with sausage, squash and greens:

Barley Risotto with sausage, squash and greens

1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 pound sausage
4 cups stock (vegetable, turkey or chicken all work fine)
1 cup pearled barley
1 medium yellow onion or three shallots, chopped (I like to use shallots with sausage)
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
3 dried chili peppers, chopped (or to taste)
1 bunch kale or several handfuls of baby spinach, chopped (I tend to use my eyes to judge)
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
salt and pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, cook sausage through until done.
Remove cooked sausage from pan and set aside.
If sausage is extra greasy, remove some of the fat from pan then add onion or shallots, garlic and chili peppers.
Cook, stirring constantly, until vegetables are tender.
Add pearled barley, stir and then add broth and season with salt.
Bring to boil.
Turn heat down to simmer and cover.
Cook until barley is not quite tender.
Add squash cook until squash is tender.
Add kale or spinach and cook until greens are just tender.
Add cooked sausage, Romano cheese and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Buying food through a CSA is better than shopping at a supermarket

If you’re a mom like me, then you know that cooking two to three meals a day for a family can quickly enter the realm of the mundane. So, anything that keeps me interested and inspired draws me into the kitchen. Belonging to a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) through a local farm has made shopping and cooking for my family more interesting, tapped into my creativity and provided us with a greater variety of better quality food that is as convenient as shopping at my local supermarket.

Convenience versus Connection

I don’t look forward to my trips to the supermarket; however, they are a necessary part of the routine of family life. For me, pacing up and down the same generic aisles each week can be a soul deadening activity, so making the weekly chore more interesting and engaging makes the task something to look forward to doing rather than something to avoid.

While shopping at my local supermarket is convenient, it is an anonymous activity far removed from the original source of the food we eat. When I go and pick up my CSA share, the crate has my name on it. I can chat with other like-minded CSA members just steps from the fields where our food is grown while chickens forage at our feet. I have gotten to know the farming family who grew and harvested my food, am able to ask questions about growing practices and have the opportunity to directly express my gratitude.  When I enter my local supermarket, no one knows my name, I don’t engage in conversations of more substance than to ask for a pound of ground beef or to remind the cashier that I have a reusable bag.

For me, shopping at my local supermarket versus getting food through a CSA is akin to the difference between thirty minutes on my treadmill and a thirty minute walk in the woods with my dog -- one gets the job done and the other feeds my soul.

Demands Creativity

For better or for worse, modern life rarely leaves us with many interesting problems to solve. I think the reason we seek out so much reality TV, overeat and feel generally dissatisfied is that while daily living has become much more fast-paced and complex; the tasks required of daily living have become too simple and mechanical. Our minds need creative problems to solve and solving these problems provides a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Before I started my journey sourcing and cooking locally grown foods, the way I planned our weekly meals was pretty routine. On Saturday morning, I’d sit down with a stack of cooking magazines and recipe books, develop a menu, write out a shopping list and then head to the supermarket to purchase the ingredients. For ease and convenience, many magazines, like Everyday Food, will develop the recipes, menus and shopping lists for you. Some supermarkets will even deliver the groceries right to your door.

Now my Saturday morning begins with a I drive to my CSA farm, which is about the same distance from my house as the closest Whole Foods Market. When I get there, I am greeted by one of the members of the family farm who gives me a crate of fresh, locally grown food. I don’t need Sudoku because each week, after I pick up my CSA share, I am engaged in creative problem-solving in order to develop interesting and tasty ways to use the foods I find in my crate.

This week, for example, we received the following items: two dozen eggs, two small butternut squash, a one pound package of lamb sausage, a lamb shank, hot house tomatoes, a bag of hot house baby spinach, russet potatoes, parsnips and a container of fromage blanc artisan cheese.

Using some items that I keep stocked my pantry, dried ingredients from the summer harvest and homemade turkey stock from the freezer, I developed a barley risotto with lamb sausage, butternut squash, baby spinach, dried chili peppers, garlic and onions. The lamb shank, potatoes and parsnips could become part of a stew, or the shank could be the base for a stock. I can bake, roast or fry the potatoes as a side dish or bake and stuff them as a main meal. Tomatoes and baby spinach can become a salad or combined with the eggs to make a frittata. I could have used the lamb sausage for this purpose as well. The fromage blanc still has me puzzling.

Better Quality More Variety

Purchasing vegetables, fruits and eggs from a local farm means that your food is going to be far fresher than anything you will find in your local supermarket – even if, like Whole Foods Markets, they make a point to obtain stock from local farmers. Fresher food means two things to me:   1) it won't go bad within days of purchase saving me money; and 2) it will have far more nutrients than something that has been sitting on a truck or in a grocery store bin for days after harvest.  This summer, we were eating lettuces that had just been harvested the morning I picked up our share. Short of growing your own vegetables, you can’t get fresher food.
Our farm raises grass-fed beef, pork, lamb and poultry. These animals get plenty of sunshine, are provided with plenty of room to graze and forage, are well cared for and are humanely slaughtered. These facts honor the part of me that is committed to ecology and cruelty-free animal-husbandry, they also mean that our meats and eggs are tastier and are less likely to be exposed to contaminants, shot full of hormones and antibiotics and in general come from healthier animals.

Finally, we are provided with a variety of foods. A simple example of this variety, are the eggs that I find when I open the carton. They are not simply brown or white or even all the same size. Some are white, some brown, some speckled and some are even a light green! Occasionally, I’ve even found something in the crate that I have never seen before. This past season it was garlic scapes, kohlrabi and cranberry beans.

I admit that as a result of changing my shopping habits, I have less time to do other things like watch television.  Preparing fresh, whole foods takes time and commitment. I couldn’t tell you tonight’s TV line-up and I missed the Oscars the other night; however, I look forward to cooking my family’s meals each day and we are healthier for it.

If you're interested in finding a CSA or other farm fresh food options in your area, check out the Local Harvest Web site: http://www.localharvest.org/.