Dear Diary: Our Experiments
Question: How do I eat more locally and healthfully?
Answer: Buy weird vegetables at the farmer’s market
There’s nothing better than eating a super fresh, ultra-local, completely in-season, organically grown, incredibly flavorful tomato from the neighborhood farmer’s market. But alas, tomatoes aren’t in season in my region just yet, and they won’t be for a while. Neither will other stand-by vegetables like cucumbers, bell peppers, or zucchini. Luckily, spring farmer’s markets in the northern hemisphere offer a literal cornucopia of other veggies to enjoy.
One of the biggest tricks I know for eating more locally and healthfully is simply to cook more vegetables—and by this I mean a greater variety, not just a greater quantity. Introducing new things to our diets is intimidating. None of us want to waste our time and money on something we don’t know how to prepare, or aren’t sure we’ll like. But adding diversity not only makes cooking and eating more fun, it also introduces nutrients to our bodies and flavors to our palates that we never knew we were missing.
This week, I’ll introduce two cool weather crops you may not be familiar with-- available now at a farmer’s market near you—and give you a recipe to take the guessing game out of an unfamiliar purchase. Both are from the brassica family (relatives with cabbage, broccoli, arugula, and mustard greens) – which contain nutrients proven to be detoxifying, cancer-fighting, and heart disease-preventing.
Tatsoi is an Asian cooking green closely related to bok choy. It can be identified by its bright green spoon-shaped leaves. Tatsoi’s nick-name is“spinach mustard,” which is appropriate since it’s got a spinach-like texture, and a mild mustardy flavor. It can be eaten raw in a salad, steamed, stir-fried, or thrown in a soup. You may even have been unknowingly loving this versatile vegetable in one of those pre-washed salad mixes you’ve been getting at the supermarket.
Hakurei (pronounced hawk-ur-eye) turnips are also Asian in origin. These small (ranging in size from golf ball to baseball) white root vegetables are sweet and tender, nothing like a bitter purple-top turnip you may be familiar with. They have a mild spiciness reminiscent of their cousin the radish, without quite the bite. No need to peel or cook, they can be eaten raw if you want.
Spring “What Do I Do With This?” Stir-fry
To prepare hakurei turnips, trim greens and little roots from the bulbs of one bunch of turnips. Slice thinly.
In a very hot wok or large frying pan, melt one tablespoon coconut oil (or other vegetable oil). Add prepped hakruei turnips and one bunch of spring onions (including the green parts, roughly chopped). Stir-fry until turnips are tender, about 4 minutes.
While turnips and spring onions are cooking, trim the stems from one bunch of tatsoi and chop leaves roughly. Add to hot pan and cook until greens are just wilted. Remove from heat.
Toss vegetables in 2 tablespoons peanut butter, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, and 2 teaspoons light vinegar (such as rice wine vinegar, apple cider, or white wine vinegar). Serve over quick-cooking rice noodles or hearty brown rice. For more protein as a main dish, add stir-fried chicken or tofu.
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as side dish
But I've also had a lot of fun figuring out for my stubborn self what works and what doesn't. Tomatoes are easier than I thought to grow from seed; greens have some problems, depending on the green; direct sowing is worth it as long as the weather's cooperating. And the harvest has begun (albeit slowly). I'm planning a bed of mesclun greens under tomorrow night's chicken, and my daughter and I pulled some wayward carrots that were never harvested last year.
Question: How close do you live to a farm?
Answer: Closer than you might think.
I just spent a warm spring evening with my son and his cub scout pack exploring the Garfield Community Farm. One of Pittsburgh's many hidden gems, this farm is nestled under a water tower at the top of a steep hill in a transitional city neighborhood. Now in its fourth growing season, the farm has reclaimed almost three acres in abandoned residential property and works with local churches and the surrounding community - and its staff and volunteers do a great job teaching local groups about gardening and nutrition. Even if the kids are a little wiggly at the end of the day.
This field trip got me thinking - how easy is it to find an urban source of food (like a farm or community garden) in your neighborhood? Though Pittsburgh's a green city, I never knew there were so many places that grow food so close by. I now know of two multi-acre farms within three miles of my house – within city limits. That's why I'm excited to learn more about Growing Cities, a documentary due out at the end of the year about the many places across the country where urban agriculture thrives. Just like permaculture in Garfield is new and exciting, so are all the other diverse ways Americans are responding to the urban ag movement, in ways unique to each farmer and each city they call home.
It's easy to jump on the urban ag bandwagon - plant a seed. Help some children learn how to garden. Check with your local food pantry about sourcing fresh food. Reach out to places that aren't well-served with produce. Reclaim some lost space. Bring your community together. Someone in your area may already be doing it.
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Question: Why should we grow our own food?
Answer: Let's keep going...
Here in Wisconsin, where I live, the last frost date is supposedly May 15th. That means I’ll still have to wait an entire week to get into my community garden plot (silly rules!), but in the mean time I’ve been compiling a list of the Top Ten Reasons to Grow Your Own Food. If you didn’t catch my last post, you can read it here. I thought this whole series would take two, maybe three posts to complete, but it turns out I have a lot to say on this topic. I hope you’ll bear with me over the next few weeks as I reveal the rest of my list! Now, without further introduction, here are #8, #7, and #6.
8. Tradition. Many of us who are already growing our own food learned at the feet of our parents and grandparents. As a kid, I vividly remember the obligatory garden tour as soon as we got to Grandma’s house, complete with the newest contraptions she had devised to thwart greedy bunnies. As an adult, I now realize how much my love for soil and sun is a culturally inherited trait from my mom, my grandma, and from her mother before her. If I ever have kids, you can be sure I’ll teach them everything I know about growing their own veggies so that they can carry the tradition forward. What do your family’s gardening traditions mean to you? How does your culture grow food differently from mine?
7. You know where it’s been. Have you ever watched a movie like Food Inc. or read an article on something like “pink slime” and wondered, “how did I not know about this?” There’s a lot of sketchy business that’s hidden from the consumer’s eye. Not only do I think it’s morally outrageous that many ingredients and processes in our food are not even labeled, I also find it downright icky. Wouldn’t you rather know that your spinach salad came out of the (super-bug free) backyard instead of having to worry that it might give you a deadly case of e-coli?
In addition to health and ickiness concerns, I also think it’s vitally important to know where your food comes from. American culture does not seem to value food, and it shows: we mix, mold, reconstitute, inject, reject, and infect our food to the point where it doesn’t actually look like food anymore. For example, if the only contact you’ve had with broccoli is in your cheesy broccoli soup, you might have no idea that broccoli is related to cabbage, or that it grows in tight clumps which are actually flowers-to-be, or that it has leaves. Yes, leaves! What if everyone knew what food actually looked, smelled, and felt like; how it tasted? Would we be a little more hesitant to eat “broccoli” that’s been boiled to bits and mixed in with cheesy gorp?
6. Taste. I’ve been luckier than most folks when it comes to eating vegetables , eggs, and even meat as close to the source as possible. I’ve eaten eggs that were laid minutes earlier, pulled up carrots and rinsed them with a garden hose for a sweet snack, and happily snacked on a patch of strawberries right off the vine. This kind of experience can’t be recreated by a fancy restaurant or even your local farmers market; try growing your own and tell me that straight off the vine (or out of the dirt, off of the stem, and so on) isn’t the best you’ve ever tasted. If you take care of your soil and give the plants the conditions they need to thrive, you can eat like a king for the cost of your seeds.
Show your soil some love! http://www.cleanairgardening.
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Question: Can you be a good seasonal cook?
Answer: Of course you can!
For our industrial food system to really change, we all must make a concerted effort to change our dietary habits. Eating seasonally and locally is one thing we can do to support small independent farms and sustainable agriculture practices. It also, conveniently, is the best way to enjoy really delicious food. Fortunately, it isn’t a huge sacrifice to incorporate seasonal eating habits into our lives. Here are a few tips to get going:
1. Take the guessing game out of produce. Shop at a farmer’s market or join a CSA to ensure that your food is fresh, in-season, and local. Or better yet, grow your own! The freshest ingredients make the best food. As an added bonus, you’ll be encouraged to try new and exciting things in order to fill out your diet in all seasons. I find that I’m tempted to buy out-of-season-yet-familiar items if I shop for produce at the supermarket. To find out what’s in season in your state and locate a farmer’s market near you, check out the National Resource Defense Council’s Eat Local page.
2. Use cookbooks and recipes as reference materials, not strict formulas. As of late, I am really loving books that focus on techniques and flavor combinations rather than precise instruction manuals. My new favorite is The Flavor Bible, which is an encyclopedia-style reference book. It gives the peak season, primary taste(s), commonly used preparation techniques, and compatible flavor groups for hundreds of ingredients. For your beloved standbys, think about ingredients that could be substituted or left out when they aren’t in season. For example, when I make tacos in the spring, I leave off the diced tomatoes and replace them with a garnish of tangy radishes in lime juice. As chef Madame Jehane Benoit said, “A recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation."
3. Utilize the Internet for inspiration and instruction. While I love sitting down on a rainy day with a cup of coffee and a stack of cookbooks, I resort to digital formats for quick ideas on specific ingredients. Try Yummly, a very customizable and searchable database of thousands of recipes. Or try YouTube for instructional videos on how to prepare new veggies.
Everyone and their mother has a food blog these days, so take advantage. The nice thing about blogs (as opposed to other online recipe formats) is that the recipes found on them are usually A) accompanied by a picture, B) tested in a home kitchen, and C) delicious enough for the blogger to want to write about. The comments section can also be really helpful tool to learn about what works, possible substitutions or additions, and whether the recipe is worth your time. I’m a regular (per)user of Foodgawker, a searchable compilation of blog recipes with beautiful photos.
4. Develop a few key recipes that can be adapted to any season. Then stock up on the staple ingredients so that throwing together a meal at the end of a busy day won’t take too much thought or energy. I can't think of one thing that isn't delicious sauteed in olive oil and garlic.
5. Start preserving your own food so that you can enjoy your favorite fruits and vegetables even after they are out of season. Home canning can be intimidating at first, but it’s really not that scary once you face it head on. Other strategies like freezing, drying, and pickling are even easier. Check out Food In Jars, my favorite site for all things food preservation related.
Question: Is there anything you can grow without a green thumb (a natural skill for gardening)?
Answer: Yes, with patience and dedication, anyone can grow something!
Some people have an extraordinary gift for making plants grow well. They bring herbs up out of cracks in the sidewalk. They tend to the most difficult vegetables in a manner that makes the hardest-to-harvest look easy to grow; among them, cauliflower and celery and other plants that enjoy a cooler climate. They coax prize-winning roses out of the dirt, and despite the weather.
But most of us have to work hard and invest in planning in order to enjoy the fruits (and veggies) of our labor. We watch the temperature of the soil as winter melts into spring. We patiently start seeds indoors. We talk to garden managers and nursery owners. We may even take classes!
There are a few plants that exist, however, that nearly anybody can cultivate.
Beginners should start with tomatoes. With full sun and regular water, cherry and grape tomatoes will produce all summer long. Carrots can be grown in rocky soil and require little care. Lettuces are surprisingly easy to plant – seeds or starts – and for some reason are the plant that makes me feel like a “real” gardener. And definitely try basil – its aroma alone is worth the cost of good dirt and a nice pot.
So for those of you who enjoy eating local, look no further than your backyard or a sunny windowsill. It is possible to grow your own food, even if you weren’t born with the coveted green hued thumb.
Once you’ve successfully harvested a few choice items for the evening meal, consider moving on to those trickier edible plants. Eggplants are especially sensitive to changes in temperature and easily attacked by pests, but they make a fresh and sublime eggplant Parmesan. Do a little mental digging first to find out what these less hardy plants require and you’ll be ready to challenge yourself in the garden.
Question: Should I worry about things like pink slime in my burger and arsenic in my chicken?
Answer: No (But, this is answer comes with a caveat. Keep reading)
There’s been a lot of hubbub about industrial meat production in the US lately—the "pink slime" fiasco, changes in poultry slaughter inspection, arsenic and caffeine (plus a whole ton of other pharmaceuticals) in our chicken, and most recently a case of mad cow disease found in CA. And then there was the recent New York Times op-ed attack on sustainable meat (If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance this is old news. Hopefully you caught Joel Salatin’s biting rebuttal as well). Yikes!
As someone working in the (literal) field of sustainable food, I love seeing these issues come to light. Though it’s changing, mainstream media has devoted much too little attention to the problems associated with our industrial food system. However, like most things covered by mainstream media sources, the current clamor can tend to be sensationalist, frustrating, defeatist, and/or generally overwhelming. As consumers of both media and food, it’s hard to tell where to put our energy, anxiety, and money.
Here’s where I ultimately come down on the issue: It’s all aboutknowing your farmer and knowing your food. You don’t have to worry about all these alarming new exposes if you get your meat, dairy and eggs from a small-scale, local farm, ideally one that pastures their animals (raises their piggies/chickens/cows in a field, not in a factory).
In addition to being more delicious and nutritious, pastured animal products are safer. Cows that have space to move, clean air to breathe, and green grass to chew are healthier and less likely to spread disease amongst themselves. Pigs whose diets are based on pasture and supplemented by organic grain instead of pharmaceutical-laced feed don’t develop antibiotic-resistant strains of disease that could be passed on to humans. Small-scale poultry farmers that do their own slaughtering inspect their birds more thoroughly for disease and contamination than industrial slaughterhouses.
Because they are marketing directly to consumers, small-scale farmers also have a major stake in making sure quality and safety of their meat is prioritized. The short supply chain also makes it possible to isolate the cause if by chance an illness or problem does occur.
Committing to sustainably raised meat is also more expensive. I won’t deny that price is a (if not the) major consideration with regards to purchasing animal products and it’s a major deterrent to making food choices that we know are best. But I will also say that it is possible to do without breaking the bank.
I’ll try to avoid getting preachy, because my financial commitments are thus far pretty minimal and I have yet to know what it is like to try to feed a family on a tight budget. However, as a beginning farmer, my salary is low, my free time is limited, and my protein requirement is quite high—and I’m doing the best what can. For the next 6 months (the duration of my farming season), I’ve committed to sourcing my animal protein needs as sustainably as possible. I’ve signed up for asustainable seafood CSA as well as a pastured chicken CSA. For less than $50 per month, I’ll be getting what I’ve deemed to be enough meat for my diet: two organic chickens a month as well as several pounds of fresh-caught wild salmon—all delivered to my door. For me, this is totally worth the avoiding all of the anxiety, guilt, and potential health impacts that buying conventionally raised meat gives me.
Know Your Farmer Know Your Food-a new project of USDA: search their compass for farmers near you and learn more about where your food comes from.
Related Digging Deep posts:
Question: What could a healthy, fun school lunch that kids actually eat look like?
Answer: I’ll show you.
With all the controversy over pink slime blowing up the interwebz last month, you may have forgotten that the whole brouhaha started because the USDA was going to keep using it in the National School Lunch Program. After things died down a little, I highlighted what could happen next in a post-pink slime lunch program over at Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution website (yeah, I name-dropped there, sorry!).
The local example I highlighted as an alternative to overprocessed crap in school lunches is the Environmental Charter School, a K-6 public charter school in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood. I was excited to visit at a lunchtime recently to see the program in action, because as good as it sounds on paper, if the kids won’t eat it, what’s the point?
I shouldn't have been worried. It was great to see – to talk to the kids and asked them what they liked on their trays, to see them drink plain water or white milk without complaint, to notice them eating salad willingly and not having a huge amount of waste at the end of the meal.
Check out these examples from their lunch program, which my kids (who do not go to this school) said they would eat willingly when they saw the pictures:
Looks good, right?
Next year, they’re expanding into an additional building space, where they’re constructing a from-scratch kitchen (right now they contract with local restaurants and caterers for all of their meals due to space and equipment constraints). With the from-scratch kitchen, it’s easier to not go over the reimbursement guidelines, which will save the school money (right now their food program operates at a loss).
The post-pink slime school lunch landscape doesn’t have to be a desolate one – the schools just need some creativity in their programs - which is easier said than done, I know. Keep up the pressure on the schools, though. The Future of America deserves all the healthy food it can get.
Sources for this post:
Question: Why should we grow our own food?
Answer: I’ll give you ten reasons.
One of the things I love most about the Digging Deep Campaign is that it’s not all doom and gloom. We don’t normally herald the impending arrival of an environmental doomsday scenario in which roughly a third of the world population dies in a sh**storm of drought, flood, typhoid, typhoon, and crop failure. On the other hand, every once in awhile you have to ask yourself what motivates folks like us to write, research, and experiment so passionately on the subject of sustainable food. I suspect that for most of us, it’s at least in part about fear.
I recently heard a rumor that America’s corn crop is in for a disastrous year. (Actually, many industry experts are predicting a bumper crop.) While only semi-credible, the rumor certainly brought me right back to how I got involved in the sustainable food movement in the first place—the fear that our food system will soon fail us and we’ll all be, well, screwed. At first, I thought the answer was going to be the reemergence of small, sustainable family farming. Now? I’m not so sure. I think the critics are right when they say that sustainable farms can’t feed us all, at least not right now. That’s not because there’s something inherently wrong with small farm methodology—it’s just a matter of scale. Already, many sustainable farms are hard pressed to keep up with demand. What if something catastrophic does occur and the burden of feeding 315 million falls to our already over-worked small farmers?
Our current local food systems can’t feed us, but I think we can feed ourselves. It’s time for folks toliterally take matters into their own hands. Not because I actually think the corn crop is going to fail and everyone who doesn’t have a CSA share or their very own milk cow is going to starve to death. No, it’s not quite that simple. While the threat of a “food crash” has certainly renewed my sense of urgency, I have plenty of other reasons for growing my own food. As someone who is currently working in Milwaukee to expand opportunities for folks to grow their own food, I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about why people should start edible gardens. To that end, I’ve put together a top ten list of reasons that I’ll release in the next post or two. To kick us off, here’s my first two!
10. Property value. Starting an edible garden can add value to your house just as any form of landscaping can. Furthermore, one study showed a positive impact on property values in the immediate vicinity of community gardens, with the largest impact in lower-income neighborhoods. This is particularly good news for the majority of us who now live in an urban setting—it turns out that gardening is actually good for the neighborhood! Community gardens have also been connected to decreased crime in some neighborhoods, though others have reported an increase in theft due to tomato bandits and the like.
9. Garden Therapy. Gardeners everywhere will tell you how therapeutic gardening can be, but gardens are now being used formally by organizations and therapists for everything from stroke rehabilitation to grief. While therapeutic benefits of gardening aren’t limited to growing food, I personally find it more rewarding to grow something I would otherwise need to purchase for my own survival. Flowers and ornamentals are great too, though, and many are actually edible!
Until my next post, think of your own reasons. The question isn’t why do I grow my own, it’s why don’t you?
American Horticultural Therapy Association: http://www.ahta.org/content.
Edible flowers: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/
A different list of Top Ten Reasons: http://www.foodmatters.tv/
Sources for this Blog Post: http://www.growingcenter.org/