Urban Artisanal: Sophia’s Greek Yogurt

In my upcoming book Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food, I interviewed more than fifty pickle, cheese, chocolate, and spirit artisans from around the country – many in person, some on the phone, and … Continue reading

On “Artisanal” and “Sustainable”

As I’m researching and writing my book Small Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Cheese, Chocolate, Pickles, and Alcoholic Spirits, I purposely chose the term “artisanal” in part because it seemed to be the best to represent that handmade, … Continue reading

Why I Eat Meat, or What My Nani Taught Me About the Importance of Food Culture

My Nani – my Italian-American grandmother – was brought up during the Great Depression. She used to tell the story of how her immigrant father would walk miles to his dangerous job building bridges on the outskirts of the small … Continue reading

On Personal Efforts Towards Sustainability: Inspired by the 40th Anniversary of the Publication of Diet For a Small Planet

I was sitting in the same auditorium in Cooper Union where presidents had spoken and the NAACP had been founded, listening to Anna Lappe introduce her mother Francis Moore Lappe and activist Vandana Shiva on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the publication of Frankie Lappe’s Diet For A Small Planet. To great applause Anna asked the audience who had bought vegetables from a farmer’s market in the last month. Many hands were raised. Who was part of a CSA? Again, most hands in the audience went up. She asked who knew what a kohlrabi was – once again, most in the audience raised their hands. She then asked, jokingly, who knew how to cook kohlrabi. I briefly thought back to the first time I saw a kohlrabi – in my adulthood, just a few years prior during one of the first pick-ups after joining my CSA. It looked alien, with few qualities to indicate what kind of vegetable it might be: spherical, but not grown underground or on a vine; purple skin, too tough at the size I received to be edible. I took it home, peeled it and roasted it: my solution to all of the more familiar vegetables with which I was becoming reacquainted that first CSA season. I wonder how many of my fellow audience members had a similar experience.

Then Anna asked who had grown up, like she and her brother had, with Diet For A Small Planet as their parent’s guidebook. While many people around me raised their hands, again laughing, knowingly, I kept mine down for the first time amidst the half-dozen questions meant to build community among the large crowd. The truth is, despite my CSA membership and compost bucket and urban gardening cred, I am relatively new to the politics of growing my own food. Sure, I keep up with the latest news in GMO regulations and can spout statistics about both urban and rural food deserts, but I came to local eating via taste and cost and nostalgia. Maybe a decade ago now, I had a locally-grown vine-ripe tomato for perhaps the first time in my adulthood, realized its vast superiority and knew I needed access to what had instantly become my favorite food. I also found that cooking dishes from my childhood – food my Italian Nani had cooked until her early death that I wanted to explore as a means to get to know her – required fresh herbs. And fresh herbs were expensive. So I started to grow my own. And then, once I became addicted to the fresh flavors of seasonal produce, I saw an advertisement for a local CSA. I did the math: it would be cheaper and easier to pay my farmer up front for a (hopefully) steady weekly pick-up of organic local, seasonal fruits and vegetables. So I joined, and slowly learned more about the politics surrounding my decision. But, while I knew a great deal about the national and global issues surrounding the fight for environmentally and physically healthy sustainable food sources, I had still thought about my choices through a very personal lens. I was choosing a way of life, and I believed that others should as well. Sure, sometimes it was hard, I preached, but it was worth it in the end.

Throughout the evening’s addresses by Francis Moore Lappe and Vandana Shiva, I was welcomed to an important, more global view. I know the evils of Monsanto and genetically manipulated seeds, but I began to see them through a new lens. Large agri-business has long said that they are working to create better seeds to help feed the world’s growing population; the existing structure, they argue, can’t work on its own. But Frankie and Vandana assert that the world has always been able to feed itself; that the altered seeds and increased cost and monoculture is harming the soil, stressing the farmers and creating super-weeds and –pests that cause more damage than what they were trying to breed out. Further, Monsanto’s manipulation of the system to disallow the saving of seeds (read work by Vandana Shiva and Francis Moore Lappe, watch Food, Inc. or otherwise search a myriad of sources to learn more) has made farming on difficult or prohibitive for many people across the world. “Seeds should be free,” Vandana Shiva said more than once. “They are the first link in the food chain, and if seeds are not free then people cannot be free.”

And it was in that moment when everything the two women were saying began to make sense. I wasn’t hearing anything new, per se, but I was understanding it differently. People are flocking to urban farming (some assert that it is a trend that will fade as quickly as it took root, pardon the pun, however I – and many others – believe it is a lasting social change) because that is the most basic way that they can protest the increasing corporatization of daily life. By linking themselves to the very first action needed to sustain life, they are taking control of their own. My act of farming was more than a search for flavor, but a search for control over my options. I didn’t like what my local grocery store was offering, or at what prices, so I decided to change it at a personal level. And when dozens and hundreds and thousands of people decide to do the same thing, small stores that support sustainable practices are built and organic farms are tilled and heritage plants are grown. I was – am – a part of a revolution.

But then, as soon as I felt a vital part of something bigger, I just as quickly worried that I wasn’t doing enough. All three women who shared the stage were working on systemic change – global change. It seemed almost quaint that I touted canning and freezing and composting in my tiny urban kitchen. Maybe I was just one more of the million thirty-something hipsters who decided that it would be cool to spend hours making fancy pickles for holiday gifts. I was musing this while I walked the ten blocks to meet a friend for dinner afterwards, quickly forgetting my dilemma when he bought us a bottle of French wine to go with the house-made bread and butter. Later I thought: wasn’t this meal symbolic of my lukewarm commitment to the cause that I was so fired up about just hours earlier?

Since the event, I have come to see that the reality is somewhere in the middle. I love that Frankie and Anna Lappe and Vandana Shiva inspired me to become more involved in the larger fight for sustainable food. As activists, that is their job and they have done it well. I am in awe of their incredible work around the world and will continued to look to their writing for guidance and inspiration. And when I have kids they will likely be raised with the same consciousness that so many of the folks in the audience of their talk were.

But I also have come to realize that any effort is valuable – and that my personal efforts are still commendable. I can always do better; we all can. But in the end I grow or buy locally more than 90% of the produce, meat and dairy that I consume. Further, I add green space to the world, and inspire people to do the same. I’ve had friends say that they thought composting or canning was hard and inaccessible to them until I explained it in person or in writing, a compliment that makes me very proud. And I have worked long hours on a book, coming within a year, with which I hope to inspire even more people to do the same. I am proud of my efforts and also energized to do more. But like the single person planting a single seed, all systematic changes must start with the personal. Not everyone can be on the front lines of policy-making and activism; some of us must work in the garden and make a difference seedling by seedling. Thus, I will remember that I am changing the world with every planted seed.

Straying…

Last night I spent $60 at Whole Foods – representing the largest bill that I have racked up at any grocery store in more than a year. This is not something I am proud of. I know $60 is a nominal bill at this store – and that amount would get you a bit more food at Shaw’s Supermarket and even more so at Market Basket, another local chain so cheap that I have been known to willingly fight their multi-lingual throngs and narrow aisles strewn with saw dust to buy a few cans of chick peas. But the more I delved into my locavore lifestyle, the more I realized that I could get almost everything I wanted – generally without sacrifice – from the farmer’s themselves, or at least from specialty shops that have hand-chosen each purveyor. My shopping trips became the modern version of how my Nana – my Nani’s mother – would assemble the ingredients for a meal back in Calsinasetta, Sicily: farmer’s market (or in my case, CSA) for the produce, meat from the farmer who raised the animals, milk to drink or make mozzarella and ricotta also from a local farmer, or cheese made by another local artisan. The garden in the back for herbs and other items in season. Perhaps the local store for staples that could not be grown or obtained through the purveyors in the neighborhood. I’m not sure of my great grandmother’s freezing or canning abilities, but I have also been tapping into my preserves from the previous year: pickles, tomatoes, jam, salsa, peaches and root-cellared beets, cabbage potatoes, onions and turnips among others.

But yesterday: for lunch I finished the cole slaw from our second-to-last cabbage and couldn’t imagine eating another batch. I had defrosted pork chops in the fridge, but I just wanted a quick, fresh meal. Seafood maybe. It was five o-clock and we were in a time crunch. And needed toilet paper. And I could go for some fresh fruit. So my husband and I wandered around Whole Foods, choosing pre-made salmon burgers for dinner, grabbing some fair trade bananas and raiding the bulk food for cashews and split peas. Steve chose some yogurt (we had been eating an awful lot of egg and kale frittatas recently) and a veggie side dish from their fancy salad bar. I picked out a few interesting links of store-made sausage. Oh and the made-from-recycled-material toilet paper.

Sixty dollars later we were sitting down to a salmon burger that was dense as a hockey puck, eating a variety of veggies that would not have been distinguishable had we been tasting them blindfolded. For these alone we had paid more than $15. We each choked down the last bites of the burger – more panko than fish – and Steve said, “I guess that’s why we don’t eat out much.”

Now, we are not locavore militants: just this past week we ate Thai takeout (cost: $20) and one morning I woke up to find that Steve had made his favorite midnight snack of boxed pasta and warmed-tomato-paste-and-water (cost: <$1). And it’s not about the money, although we’d likely eat at one of the local farm-to-table restaurants a lot more frequently if we had the funds. To me, it is about value. And not just value for my money, but value for the earth and the people who provided the food and the food itself. If I am going to eat salmon, I want that fish to be honored: harvested sustainably, prepared deliciously. I will pay a fair price for that. I considered the value of the Thai take-out – something we eat rarely, but I worked late and my husband had a gig and we had one hour to spend together in between. It was almost certainly not local or organic, but that was the price I was willing to pay to be filled with tasty food and catch up with my husband. This is a convenience I have that my Nana did not, and I do not feel guilty taking advantage of it on occasion.

Eating local is hard to do – especially in this shoulder season when the stored produce is nearly gone and the spring breezes make me yearn for the not-yet-ripe foods of summer. But it took me straying with a completely average and typical meal like the one I had last night – a meal not unlike thousands, probably millions of people eat every day – to appreciate and redouble the efforts I make every day to eat locally, sustainably and deliciously.

Locavore on the Road: Fishing in the Florida Keys

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Cleaning our catch back at the dock

 

When I was young – between the ages of six and twelve, perhaps – I caught maybe a dozen fish a year. This more than made up for my consumption during that time, as I all but refused to eat fish – especially the fish sticks and tuna salad that so many of my contemporaries considered a food group. My parents took a yearly spring break trip to the Florida Keys for many years, meeting friends and family who also had kids my age. How to entertain a gaggle of children in a part of the country not known for much except sport fishing, scuba diving and palm trees? Why make a reservation for four adults and ten kids on a party boat for deep sea fishing, that’s what.

With sandwiches for us kids, beers for the dads and tote bags stocked with sunscreen and hats by our mothers who were thrilled at a few uninterrupted hours of sun-tanning and daiquiris on the pool deck, our group would fill up a full third of the sturdy and spare boat. All but impervious to rollicking seas and harsh sun, I sat for the full three hours on the hard fiberglass bench with my line in the water, waiting for the tell-tale tug from a fish below. I remember being told to give the line a sharp yank and then reel in the hundred feet of line to check as to whether I had a snapper (which we got to keep if it was large enough), a grunt (a bottom-dweller that we threw back no matter the size) or an empty hook. Rarely would we pull up anything else; always, if it was a keeper, the mates would help us take it off the hook and give it a mark with the knife they kept sheathed around their waist – ours was always two notches on the head. All the fish went into one cooler, to be disseminated by mark once we returned to the dock, and, for a few extra dollars, filleted for us by the crew. Our large group back then always had the biggest haul – a few dozen fish among us, to be sauté-ed up in brown butter and local plantains back at the resort. That was the only fish I would eat all year – fresh, sweet from the plantains and butter, and faintly salty from its morning spent in mother ocean. I knew then what quality seafood tasted like, and couldn’t stomach the smell or fishy taste of its counterpart back home in western New York.

Times have changed now that I am an adult – helped in part by my proximity to quality seafood and a proclivity for culinary adventure. And while I have been eating fish (never ever tuna from a can, but pretty much any sustainably caught, fresh seafood I can get my hands on) for more than a decade, I had not caught my own since those sunny days in Islamorada. Until this Thanksgiving.

Our spring break trips have long since ended, but a decade ago my father started a new tradition of a week in Key West over Thanksgiving. I occasionally join him and my stepmother with a rotating cast of family. This year my husband came for the first time and we all decided to spend an afternoon fishing. Much was the same: the buckets of squid and ballyhoo hunks at our feet for bait; the spray of salt water and bait brine that coated and stung our skin as we dropped and reeled our line, checking for fish or stripped hooks; my competitive streak kicking in when I went too long without catching a keeper.

Yet it was the differences that struck me: did it just seem as if everyone was catching fewer fish than in my memory? Why were we now keeping any sized grunts – so named because of the noise they made when taken out of the water – when before they weren’t deemed tasty enough to eat? I would answer those questions in time, but for an afternoon I was content to drop my line in the water and wait for that nibble, picturing the sweet and savory dinner that awaited me at days end. I only contributed two fish to our final haul of about five pounds of fillets, but dinner still tasted as sweet, salty and satisfying as it had more than twenty years ago. Or maybe more so, because I know how rare and special an afternoon spent with family seeking the ocean’s offering was.

 

Dinner: Snapper, Grunt and Grouper Fillets in Brown Butter with Bananas

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Butternut Squash, Fennel, Apple Sage Soup

A true taste of fall. With my many hand-picked local apples (mostly of the McIntosh and Rome variety), I made a few sweet items, but wanted to add some apple-y depth to a savory dish as well. I had a lovely butternut squash from the farm share – actually from a few weeks ago, but butternut are some of the heartiest squash for long-term storage – and a few bulbs of gorgeous fennel from Saturday’s farmer’s market. To stave off the first frost of the season, I decided to combine them all into soup.

I chopped one butternut squash, 2 apples, 1 fennel bulb and a few chopped sage leaves and placed them in a sauce pan and just covered them with veggie stock. I cooked until the fruit and veg were very soft (maybe 25 minutes on medium heat) and then added some salt, pepper, and a dash of nutmeg, to taste. Then I blended everything until smooth – a handblender is the ideal tool, but the blender would work well too (just be careful – it’s hot!).

There are ways to dress this up with olive oil, a drizzle of pesto, or served with garlic toasts. But I think it is pretty perfect as is, too.

The Easiest Apple Crisp

What a perfect fall weekend! Warm in the sunshine, a bit crisp (not the edible kind) in the shade. The ideal day to pick apples! I couldn’t decide on my favorite kind of apple was so I did a little mix and match at the orchard and will throw in a few different kinds into my apple crisp later on today. I have finally memorized my favorite recipe. As much as I try, I don’t love the complicated oaty topping versions. Just give me straight up sugar, flour and butter (in a 2:2:1 ratio, mix up with a fork until chunky and toss over chunked apples) with some cinnamon, clove and nutmeg thrown in for spice. I bake it at 350 for 25 minutes or so, watching to make sure the sugar starts to carmelize and the apples are soft. Sometimes I put a little liquid in the bottom of the baking dish to help steam the apples and keep it all moist. Maybe a tablespoon or two of apple cider or calvados (or one could use water, I suppose). Perfectly fall and totally delicious.

Shell Beans: Cranberry and Tongue of Fire

shell beans

A delayed post from my pick-my-own excursion at the farm the other day. I filled half of a paper grocery bag with shell beans – from varying sources I found them called both Cranberry beans and Tongue of Fire beans. I got these for the first time last year and I was so pleasantly surprised! First of all, they are gorgeous. The long pink and white speckled pods each hold maybe 5 or 6 large similarly dappled beans. That these are fresh is amazing. I wouldn’t eat them raw, but when you cook them – depending on your dish, they become soft in about 10 to 15 minutes of boiling time – they have a great meaty-ness to them. I took almost an hour to shell the whole bag and then froze some (last winter I pulled out a container and made a great cassoulet), dried some in the dehydrator (just a  few hours), and then cooked some up with kale and garlic. The only downside is that they lose most of their dynamic color when cooked.

Tongue of Fire Beans and Kale

Boil the shelled beans in the bottom of a saute pan in enough water to cover them (and/or broth and/or wine) until tender -about 10 – 15 minutes. Keep an eye on them and add a bit of water if it starts to look dry. You want the pan to be wet but not have more than 1/2 inch of liquid on the bottom. Toss in some chopped fresh garlic and a drizzle of good olive oil saute until just tender. Add freshly washed chopped kale, salt and pepper, and cover the pan so the kale can steam. Toss with tongs every few minutes and finish with another drizzle of good olive oil and maybe a few pinches of smoky salt to taste. Yum!

Pick-Your-Own at the Farm

I am lucky enough to have generous pick-your-own limits at the farm from which we get our weekly CSA. The farm is about 90 miles from Boston, so we only get out there once or twice a year, generally if we are coming or going someplace close by. Today we stopped in and spent an hour or so picking raspberries, shell beans, green and wax beans, hot peppers, tomatillos, basil, cherry tomatoes and cut flowers (including up to 3 sunflowers!). We brought it all home, and immediately froze some raspberries, dehydrated some cherry tomatoes and hot peppers (just inherited a dehydrator!), and cooked some fresh pasta sauce with tomatoes and basil. In the coming days I plan on preserving and cooking the rest of our goodies – keep posted!

Freezing Raspberries

Wash and allow to dry completely. Then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet until frozen (2 hours). Transfer to freezer bag.

 

Dehydrated Tomatoes

Slice to 1/4 inch, place on dehydrator racks. Dehydrate at 140 degrees for at least 10 hours, or until dry to the touch and unable to be dented. I plan to transfer these to a jar and cover with olive oil for my own “sun dried tomatoes”. Or you can seal in a jar or freeze. These won’t be as dry as the peppers, so use somewhat quickly or risk mold.

Dehydrated Hot Pepper

Slice and remove ribs and seeds (as desired – seeds make it hot!) and place on dehydrator racks. Set machine at 135 or so and allow to dry for at least 8 hours – depending on water content and thickness of veg. Make sure completely dry! I will grind some of these into powder to use as seasoning and keep some of them whole – sealing it all in spice jars.