“Coopetition” and the Spirit of Artisanal Food

I shouldn’t have been surprised in the least when Michaela Hayes, owner of Crock and Jar, a Brooklyn-based company that specializes in making pickles and the teaching the art of pickling and canning, said that a main tenet of her … Continue reading

What Vermont Blueberries Helped Me Remember

Maybe a dozen miles as the crow flies, it took us nearly forty minutes to get there. We went up a dirt road and crested a mountain, down the other side until deep ruts turned to asphalt. And then we … Continue reading

Small Town Farmer’s Market & Freezing Peaches

image

I was visiting my hometown of Fredonia, New York for a few days that finally, for the first time, coincided with the new local farmer’s market. That this farmer’s market is only two summers old is worth noting, as Fredonia is home of the first Grange in the United States (location, about three blocks from the shot above). Sure, this area has always been known for its agriculture, and road-side farm stands have long been offering local produce (and sometimes, produce from far away as well, but that’s another story), but the local farmer’s market represents, I believe, a shift in the way that my hometown neighbors think about where their food is from.

When I was young we often frequented the road-side stands during the summer and fall (I most vividly remember choosing ears of sweet, perfectly ripe corn) in addition to the tomatoes, zucchini, raspberries and other surplus items Nani or Grandma handed off when we visited. The farm stands were easy –  we passed a half dozen on the road that led from my childhood home to the closest town center – and the produce was at the peak of ripeness. OF COURSE we would buy from the local farmer who had harvested that morning rather than buying corn from the supermarket, with its browning silk and dry husks.

When and why did this mentality change? I wonder. Because about the same time I moved out as an adult, first for college and then to a big city eight hours away, my grandmother’s garden began to shrink and the supermarkets grew. Lives got busier. There were fewer mouths to feed. The big grocery stores just made shopping so convenient.

I see now that my urban gardening efforts were influenced by my small-town agrarian upbringing: the idea that we only ate corn in the summer because that was the only time it was available (other than in cans). I started growing things to recapture those flavors; my appreciation for the environmental, economic and health benefits came later. And I would like to think that my efforts helped to inspire my parents to both, separately, re-incorporate local and seasonal produce and products into their diets.

Not that I can take all of the credit. My efforts were followed by a societal (re)surgence of farmer’s markets, organic growing practices and general thoughtfulness about where one’s food came from. I saw more local (to my hometown) farms go organic and stores open – despite the tough economy – that offered locally grown, processed and produced food items. And, perhaps most telling, the new Saturday farmer’s market in the town square was crowded (I’ve been told) from June to October.

I went for the first time this past weekend. My mom and I walked, thinking we would just pick up some corn and maybe some fruit. My aunt had more zucchini than she could ever eat and had recently given my mother several large ones. Her neighbor also uses part of her land to garden and regularly offers up eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. But when we saw these large, fragrant and perfectly ripe peaches my mother insisted we get them.

“Do I have to can them?” she asked. Neither of us relished a few hours in a steamy kitchen during the particularly humid weekend. I told her that I froze my peaches in zip-top bags and would break off pieces for smoothies.

“Perfect. That’s what we’ll do.”

image

 

We brought home an overflowing eight-quart basket and washed and peeled the fruit. The ripest we sliced and ate right away. My mother made a peach crisp with others and we doused some fresh ones in lime juice (for flavor and preservation purposes) and served them for breakfast the next day. The rest we put into bags that we just barely topped with local apple cider that we had bought at the farmer’s market as well to add acidity to improve the preservation of color and texture. Apple juice would have been preferable, but the spicing of this cider was pretty mild and wouldn’t affect the peach flavor much.

 

image

We sealed them, squeezing as much of the air out as possible and then laid them flat to freeze. Perhaps, for the first time ever, my mother won’t have to buy a peach from the grocery store all winter long.

 

 

Pickled Strawberries, Round 2

image

Of all the wisdom I have imparted in the past couple of years, my pickled strawberry recipe has been one of the most consistently popular posts. I recall being inspired to make these after visiting Garden at the Cellar, a particularly tasty farm-to-table restaurant helmed by Chef Will Gilson, where pickled strawberries were featured with one of the daily specials. The next day I basically swapped strawberries for cucumbers in a pickle recipe to see what might happen. And well, they were a tad strange. Certainly interesting and unique, but it was as if they too perfectly straddled the line of sweet and savory. I brought them to a few dinner parties and friends were excited to taste them, but would chew them thoughtfully, perhaps taking just one more to ensure that their flavors were a bit too odd to go back for a third. I still assert that they can make a nice accompaniment for a charcuterie platter or cheese plate, but only for the more adventuresome palate.

So with this year’s batch of fresh-picked strawberries I decided to tweak my own recipe, this time using my grandmother’s bread and butter pickles as a basis. I made two version, one more local than the other. Both turned out well – although the version with honey is a bit sweeter and more complex. These are certainly on the sweet side – the amount of added sweetener ensured that, although in the future if I started with sweeter strawberries I would cut it down even further. As it was, this season’s berries didn’t quite hold up to last season’s. So for all those looking for a pickled strawberry recipe, I ask you to give some feedback on this one. I think that if I were to make this again, I’d stick with honey as a sweetener and add maybe black peppercorns for bite or substitute balsamic vinegar in place of some of the white vinegar. Oh well… maybe next year.

Sweet Pickled Strawberries

*fills about a pint jar of strawberries

In a sauce pan, over medium heat: heat 1 cup vinegar, 3/4 – 1 cup sweetener (depending on sweetness of berries, sweetener used and personal taste) and 2 tablespoons of salt. Perhaps a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract. Heat until the sweetener and salt are dissolved and the liquid reaches a simmer.

Meanwhile, clean and de-stem enough small, ripe, blemish-free berries to fill a clean pint jar. Layer in a few clean and unbruised mint or basil leaves.

Pour the boiling liquid over the strawberries. Once at room temperature, store in the fridge. Let them sit 12 – 24 hours or more before serving.

Watch me pickling!

Locavore (Kitchen) in the (Winter) City

I am certainly not in the minority when I state that I am sick of winter. There are still hefty drifts outside that haven’t melted despite almost two weeks where the temperature spend hours above freezing. Last night I watched the rain turn to snow – as in I saw that very minute that it happened – and it was almost beautiful. Almost. If it were a few months ago – hell, one month ago – I might have found it beautiful. But now I am done. And not just because of the weather. I am eager to get outside and do something, anything, with the earth. And the problem is not only the temperature, but the snow that still coats my tomato pots and provides obstacle to opening the gate and trudging to the compost bin at the garden. It is these little things that I did not anticipate in this particularly snowy and cold winter. And while I chose my home – the house itself and the location on which it sits – for many reasons that have to do with its proximity to people and places and things to which I want to be near enough to help weave the fabric of my daily existence – I also knowingly gave up space and traded open fields for fenced-in lots. But particularly in the winter, when my world always seems a little smaller and colder and darker, do I feel the import of these choices, both in the ways they improve my life, but also in the ways it is made more challenging. Below is a non-exhaustive list of thoughts, lessons and challenges of this year’s locavore winter kitchen – in the city.

– Root Storage 1: We are lucky enough to have a mostly non-leaking, and relatively vast and clean basement for a city dwelling. My husband has commandeered most of it for his music studio and the rest is filled with boxes and tools and holiday decorations and three studded snow tires and our tenant’s storage and our chest freezer. But in this one corner, right when one gets to the bottom of the stairs, there is a concrete shelf, about three feet high and equally deep, that runs along about ten feet of our foundation. A corner of this has been designated our wine cellar and root cellar. Who knows, maybe that’s what it was originally intended for one hundred plus years ago when it was built. I kept the red onions and butternut squash that I bought in bulk it separate, ventilated boxes, but some light got in and a few of my onions are sprouting. When they do that, they basically take the energy from the veg itself and put it all into a new, green shoot. The onion becomes mushy and inedible. I need to go through these boxes soon and chop up and freeze the squash I have left and sort out the good onions from the bad, maybe moving some to the fridge to slow the aging. Next year: better storage boxes.

– Root storage 2: I also keep root veggies (and a cabbage!) in separate paper bags literally throw atop each other in an area above our back stairs. It’s pretty chilly (but not as much so as the basement) but totally dark. The humidity is a bit less too, which shows itself in the somewhat wrinkled rutabegas and beets. But these are easily revived and I’ve successfully kept my winter farm share veggies here while I tried to cycle through them in stews and roasts. Next year, I plan to perfect this system, perhaps by storing some veggies hidden in wine crates filled with rice.

image

– Canning storage: I know I am not supposed to keep these out in the sunlight, but frankly I am running out of storage space. I think I hit upon a generously perfect number of quarts of tomatoes – by far the item I miss the most in the winter. My goal for the canned tomatoes: not to “save” them. I’m always debating whether some use or recipe is “worthy” of my home-canned tomatoes. I have been better this winter (probably because of the amount I canned) to just use them up when a recipe calls for it – such as stews, marinara and other Italian sauces, chili, slow cooking braises, etc. That’s why I canned them after all.

– Compost: I have been very good about composting, even in the depths of winter. What I did not anticipate was that I would have no access to our community garden compost bin for such a long time. I have a smaller counter top bin that I will empty into my back hallway mini-composter but depend on the community bin when my at-home system gets too full. Like now. There’s nothing much I can do at the moment except keep cramming in scraps (my system depends on a microbe accelerant and not oxygen) until enough snow melts where I can access the garden. Next year – try to start with an empty at-home bin when the snow starts flying – oh and pray for less snow.

– Food: Like last year I rarely go to the grocery store. I depend primarily on our storage veggies, canned goods and frozen meat for most meals, supplementing it all with fresh greenhouse greens from our deep winter farm share that we pick up every two weeks. For additional items we try to hit the new winter farmer’s market that sets up camp on Saturday mornings about six blocks away. Dairy and eggs come from Sherman’s along with occasional grains, beans and lentils. We’re still picking up ten pounds of meat once a month from Chestnut Farms. I’m not militant – I drink coffee (locally roasted Rao’s) every day and go through plenty of peanut butter (locally produced Teddy). I buy a scone. We always have olive oil on hand. We go out to eat on occasion. My husband brings home dark chocolate and wine from the store where he works. I live a pretty delicious life.

Looking over this list, I am pretty proud of my decisions and I can honestly say that none of this is hard. Shopping locally is no harder than shopping at a grocery store. Eating locally sourced beef stew with root vegetables is no harder, and arguably more delicious, than eating anything else. Sure this depends on some planning ahead and general willingness to cook (planning and cooking being two things I genuinely enjoy) but now it is all second nature to us. And while the costs are more than if I were a pure bargain shopper (buying the cheapest eggs and meat and dairy are, well, much cheaper, but don’t at all coincide with my political or health beliefs), they are by no means extravagant and certainly within reach of a working musician and adjunct professor’s budget. Being locavores in the city (and I often use the plural because my husband is an active participant) – even in the winter – is relatively easy, certainly more kind and generally more healthy and delicious than however we used to eat in the depths of winter.

Eating: It’s A Family Affair

I tend to take the holidays off from eating locally. Not that I ever claim a 100% success rate, but when I return to my hometown a day or so before Christmas Eve I quickly realize that I would starve and/or alienate my Italian-American extended family by NOT eating the oyster stew, sausage bread, carbonara, cheese & sausage, veggies & dip, cookies etc. that populate my mother’s home. Eating, you see, is a family affair. To eat (and to cook) is to show love. If it weren’t for this reciprocal action, our familial emotions would probably be quite stunted.

Regardless, I did have a few revelations about our collective consumption this holiday, and despite my mostly NOT local eating, I feel pretty good about the decisions I make overall and how they might be helping others think a bit more about their food choices.

#1 – I actually do a pretty good job of eating  – and shopping – locally. I rarely enter a major supermarket and haven’t bought meat NOT raised by someone I’ve met since sometime in 2009. Sure, when I’ve been at friends’ houses or out for a meal I haven’t been so careful. But in general I can find the farm that produced most of the products in my home on a map of New England (and stretching a bit into upstate NY). I feel really good about that. (Of course then I have to try very hard not to judge when my mother has maple syrup or honey that COULD be easily sourced locally, but isn’t.)

#2 – It’s about quality not (ok, sometimes and) quantity. Food I ate with abandon in the past doesn’t interest me. A few years ago if I was offered scalloped potatoes sprinkled with Doritos (who knew my NASCAR-loving step-brother was such a semi-homemade cook!?) I would take a helping with a smile. But this time I took a forkful to be polite and moved on to something else. Sugar-free cookies or fat-free muffins? I appreciated the cook’s resourcefulness, however I couldn’t stomach the aspartame or processed non-fat butter substitute. As often as I could this time around, I chose quality small-batch cheese over store-bought hunks eaten mindlessly. And I tried to bring the ingredients I cared about (see aforementioned “fancy” cheese) and stuck to items that I felt good about eating – even if I ate them immoderately.

#3 – Despite some incredibly sugar-laden and super-processed foods being eaten with abandon by the dad’s side of my family, in some ways they are inspirational as the original locavores. Grandma featured home-grown, -canned and -cellared pickles, sauces and roasted veggies on her Christmas buffet alongside the misnamed whipped topping and candied fruit salad “ambrosia”. Recognizing the mutual interest in local and minimally processed food – albeit for different reasons – has helped us find a way to connect. My grandma has lived in the same house for the last 50 years and didn’t finish the ninth grade, but she and I can talk for hours about how late beets can be harvested and how the caterpillars are predicting a cold start and finish to the winter.

#4 – Much of the extended family (on my mother’s side) cares about humane, local and/or sustainable eating as well. My mom’s two brothers shared a locally born and bred cow this past year (named “D” for “Delicious”) and most of my cousins, their spouses, my aunts as well and my mom and I all grew at least some of our own food and canned local vegetables, pickles and jams this past year. My cousin and step-father both hunt as well – although not exactly to decrease their carbon footprint. We had a locally caught and smoked fish on Christmas Eve and a platter of pickled and canned veggies for Christmas. This attention to local, sustainable and healthy eating by no means originated with me: my oldest cousin has long worked for a non-profit environmental agency and her sister is a vegan blogger. And while our approaches to healthy and humane eating can be quite different, what we realized over a glass (or three) of local wine was that we all want the same thing: for people to be more conscious and thoughtful about what they eat.

And that is my continued goal for the new year.

Loving Local Tomatoes for Mass Farmer’s Market Blogathon: Pasta-less Lasagna

*This post is in support of the Mass Farmer’s Market Blogathon, sponsored by In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens. In support of the local food we love, please consider donating to Mass Farmers Markets.

This has been the summer of the tomato. Ripened early because of the weather, we have been enjoying caprese (my favorite summer meal – or perhaps favorite meal of all time) often, and this year it was often served with my homemade mozz. The beautiful red and yellow tomatoes I bought at last week’s market made for some gorgeous jars of preserves that will be certain to cheer me up come January. But what else to do with the tomatoes? Especially now the cooler weather has made firing up the oven a bit less of a chore?

Last Saturday’s haul from the Union Square Farmer’s Market was an inadvertent inspiration. I had bought a bunch of eggplant and zucchini (in addition to the tomatoes) to grill for what was going to be a fabulous BBQ blow-out on Sunday afternoon when the weather intervened. Thus to use up an even larger-than-usual store of produce I decided to concoct a pasta-less lasagna.

First I needed to make the sauce, and using up the tomatoes that were too bruised to can (and were starting to attract fruit flies) was an easy decision. I simply saute-ed some chopped garlic in olive oil, added chopped tomatoes a few minutes later and then let it simmer to thicken up, eventually adding chopped fresh basil, salt, pepper and a dash of balsamic.

In the mean time I sliced my eggplant, zucchini, beets (which I parboiled) and tomato very thin (1/2 inch or so), aiming for long pieces, rather than rounds, when possible.

Next I assembled like a lasagna: a splash of sauce on the bottom of a square baking dish, layers of veg, then fresh mozz, then ricotta or marscapone, browned ground sausage (if you’d like – I did), more sauce, then repeat. I ended my dish with a final layer of mozzarella and then cooked in it a 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until  the harder veggies were cooked through.

Served with a glass of wine and some crusty bread to soak up the liquid (and because the tomatoes are fresh off the vine, they produce a thinner and juicier sauce than one you’d get from an industrial can or jar) I didn’t even miss the pasta.

I Love Tomatoes! Canning Whole and Diced Tomatoes

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…. I love thee in a caprese. I love thee in a marinara with garlic and fresh basil. I love thee straight from the vine. I love thee with fresh mozz atop a pizza. I love thee so much that I cannot imagine the long, cold winter months without a taste of your summer sweetness. Thus: I spent yesterday afternoon preserving thee in jars for those chilly days that would come all too soon.

I didn’t think I’d be devoting my afternoon to this endeavor, but 1/2 bushels of tomatoes were only $18 at the local farmer’s market so I readjusted my plans. I would so much rather have my own tomatoes to use for sauces and stews in the winter than buy cans from the grocery store – the flavor was so much better and I knew exactly what I was ingesting. Plus, I tend to use tomatoes as a base for many of my deep winter slow-cooking braises and soups that I never seem to have enough on hand, so I figured I could spend a beautiful summer’s afternoon indoors.

Once home I dug out my quart jars, washed them with soap and water and got my large canning pot filled with water and heating on the stove. The sterilizing and then sealing of the jars in the boiling water are by far the most time consuming steps in the canning process. I put the jars I was going to use (today’s batch would be 7 quart jars, which will use only about 2/3 of my half bushel, but my canning pot can only hold that many jars at one time and I didn’t feel like standing over a hot stove deep into the evening) into the water bath to sterilize for ten minutes once the water started to boil. I also put the lids that I would need into a pan on the stove and covered them with water. Once they boiled for a few minutes I put the pan aside for later use.

Next I washed and de-stemmed the tomatoes while boiling a second sauce pan (more wide than deep) half-full of water on another burner. I also prepped a large mixing bowl half filled with ice and water. Once the water on the stove top started to boil, I placed my tomatoes into the pan for about 30 second each, next moving them to the ice water for 1 – 2 minutes, and then finally to a colander to drain and finish cooling. At this point my kitchen had water and tomato juice covering most surfaces.

I was dreading the skinning step, but it was even easier than I remembered from the last time I canned: once the tomatoes were cool, the skins really did slip right off, with only a few so stubborn that I needed my paring knife to fishing them off. I was trying to come up with a creative use for them, but helping out in  the compost was the best that I could summon.

Next, I placed about half of the tomatoes back into the (cleaned) sauce pan with just enough water to cover them and turned the heat on medium high, waiting for them to boil. Luckily I realized in time that some of the tomatoes would be too large to fit into the jars whole, so I halved and quartered the bigger fruits.

By now the jars had been sterilized so I carefully, only burning myself slightly, pulled them from the water and got them ready for the tomatoes. In each jar I put 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid (lemon juice can also be used) and a teaspoon of salt. The former is to balance the ph for storage, the latter is for flavor.

Once the tomatoes and water had boiled for two minutes I filled the quart jars, leaving about a half inch headspace. I used a plastic knife to release any air bubbles, cleaned the rim of the jars and then put on the lids, only screwing on the rings loosely. These jars all went back into the canning pot and boiled for 45 minutes to finish sealing.

Sure my kitchen floor was damp and my towels were stained with red juice. But I knew when I pulled those jars from the cupboard months later, when there might be snow on the ground and no leaves on the trees, that I would remember this day, the sweat dripping from my brow (more from the humidity than the exertion), and the satisfying pops I heard as the jars sealed in the taste of summer.

Harvesting Garlic

Finally, more than seven months later, I am reaping the benefits of my planted garlic cloves. I watched the green shoots grow – the first sprouts in the garden, four months ago now – and knew that this day would come. I read about when to harvest garlic: mid-summer was generally when they would be ready; I’d know when because the tops will “die back”. As with most of my garden experiments, I couldn’t exactly picture or pin-point how or when this would happen. But sure enough, as I was weeding the other day, I saw unequivocably that those garlic tops were dead. So dead, that if I hadn’t been careful, I might have cleared away the brown, straw-like former-sprout and not even know that there was a garlic bulb below the dirt. I poked around (my garlic is interspersed throughout my garden) and saw that most of the garlic tops were dying and I would need to be harvesting all those beautiful bulbs soon. But what did I do after I dug a dozen or so heads (smaller than I thought they’d be – and with a bit of a red tinge to them) from the ground?

In my internet research, I found a lot of ideas. Preserving in vinegar, freezing whole or chopping cloves and dehydrating are some ideas. Most of these methods also keep the all or most of garlic’s health properties as well. All fine and good, but I wanted them as close to their harvested state as possible. One source said that that freshly harvested would keep 4 – 12 months at room temperature. (I have the few I dug up the other day in my little garlic bowl – a pot with a top and a few air holes that is meant to keep the garlic aerated but dark.) But I will also throw a bunch of heads in a mesh bag in the “root cellar” nook of my basement, as a few other sources recommended. It sounds like aeration is important, as is darkness and temps that don’t much fluctuate. I’ll report back. In the meantime, garlic, zuke and spinach stir fry over lentils tonight for dinner!