Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fast Food Meal, Local Ingredients

One of my good friends was in town this past weekend and insisted that we take her to Big Daddy’s, Charlotte’s favorite burger bar. While sitting at the restaurant that night, I took a look around at what was on our plates and knew that I could not only recreate the dishes but do so with local ingredients right down to the pickles served on the side.

As I’ve mentioned, I can’t eat red meat or certain types of beans and most of the burgers at Big Daddy’s are either beef or black beans. Usually I would use ground turkey but the Atherton Market vendors haven’t had any. However, there is a relatively new vendor, Underwood Family Farms, that has ground pork (Windy Hill Farm also has ground pork who, as any regular reader of this blog will know, are one of my favorite vendors. I felt like I was cheating not using their ground pork but I did use their eggs!). The easier part of the meal was the side items and finally an appetizer and dessert. Luckily, a new vendor was at the market yesterday carrying cheeses and crackers so the meal was soon completed:

Cheese and crackers
-Polka Dot Bakery sweet potato crackers (V)
-Beverly’s Gourmet Foods pimento cheese (LPO)
-Holton Hollow Farm Artisan Farmstead cheese (LPO)
Pickleville Pickles garlic dill pickles (V)

Main course
Underwood Family Farms ground pork burgers (LPO) (hand-mix 1 lb with one egg, seasonings of choice, and 1 piece of bread worth of crumbs [I suggest Nova’s Bakery’s French Pullman], sauté on both sides until cooked through) garnished with:
-Houston Farms green leaf lettuce
-Landis Gourmet Mushrooms (lightly sautéed with olive oil)
-Ashe County Cheese mountain super sharp cheddar
-Nova’s Bakery French Brioche buns (I was told by the manager that these are the buns that many local high end restaurants use for their burgers and I can’t blame them – they’re amazing!)
Houston Farms sweet potato fries (V) (peel, slice and put on an oiled cookie sheet, sprinkle with favorite seasoning [ie chili powder, salt], bake on both sides at 350 for 5-10 minutes)

Pretty, right?
Note: the burgers did not include tomatoes since they’re not in season. I had to be a little creative but the lettuce, mushrooms and cheese were more than enough to liven up the burgers.

Pumpkin pie (v) (made using half of the leftover Houston Farm pumpkin from my last post that I had frozen)

The moral of the story is that it’s not hard to put together one of your favorite meals with local alternatives. With a little creativity and adventurousness, you can recreate mainstream food with local ingredients!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Michael Pollan and The Omnimore's Dilemma

Like many avid readers and eaters, I recently picked up Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and found both inspiration and justification for living and eating locally. Pollan discusses the increasingly large impact that our eating decisions make on not only our bodies but also our communities, our country and our world. The book explores every omnivore's (and most vegan and vegetarian) most basic question: what's for dinner?

Pollan argues that eating is a political choice as much as it is a nutritional one: when we spend money in big box stores like WalMart and Target to purchase our food, our dollars go not to our neighbors but to large industrial food corporations that rarely have the welfare of farmers or consumers in mind. Grocery stores like Harris Teeter and Trader Joe's (both favorites here in Charlotte), are better but not great. Though I love TJ’s inexpensive proteins, pre-made pastas and organic options as much as the next girl, you have to keep in mind that they are based in California and their food is trucked in from all over the world.

In addition to discussing at length the real cost of industrial versus local food, Pollan finishes his book by attempting to make an entire meal out of food that he either hunted, foraged for or grew himself. A resident of northern California, this does not seem like it would be that hard a task. Between hunting and preparing a wild pig, foraging for mushrooms with skilled mycophiles (mushroom enthusiasts) and harvesting from his own garden, Pollan finishes his book with a momentous meal and a better understanding of how much work truly goes into the food we eat every day.

We so often take for granted the amount of resources and energy that are required to produce our food. Pollan peels back the layers of Americans’ diets and in doing so makes readers truly appreciate what they eat, regardless of where you get it from.  Most importantly, he slowly builds the case throughout his book for eating local food because of its lower societal costs and high rewards. 

Preachy book review over. Thursday: a fun recipe yet to be determined!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Recipes Part 4: Lamb Curry

I imagine you saw the title of this post and thought “I’ve never cooked lamb and curry is just an easy way of saying mushy orange goo on rice.” This is exactly the reaction I would have had a week ago if someone had handed me a similarly-titled recipe. However, I made a great meal out of this recipe with local ingredients and the lamb could easily be substituted for other meats or even hardy vegetables.

Now lamb may intimidate a few of you but, surprisingly, it was not hard to work with once cooked.  Sheep are raised all over North Carolina and the eastern seaboard in general so chances are you can find lamb pretty easily wherever you are. I found lamb at the Atherton Market from Windy Hill Farm and purchased just two small loin chops (Windy Hill also sells shoulder chops, legs of lamb, ground lamb and ribs). I adapted this recipe to include more vegetables, including carrots from Jane Henderson’s plot at the Cabarrus County Incubator Farm, and served it with red cabbage from Houston Farms on the side. You could substitute the onions for seasonal vegetables like cauliflower, sweet potatoes or cabbage.

Simple Lamb Curry
1-2 cups of lamb
2 cups chicken broth
5-6 tablespoons fat free Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons flour
1 ½ onions, chopped
½ cup carrots, chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons curry powder
Salt to taste

To cook the lamb:
  1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet then add the lamb
  2. Cook on both sides about 5-6 minutes or until cooked through
  3. Remove, let cool, and cut into bite-sized pieces
  1. Heat oil and butter
  2. Add onions and carrots, cook for 3-4 minutes or until slightly soft
  1. Add flour, garlic and curry powder, stir well
  2. Add broth and cook for 4-5 minutes until some has evaporated
  3. Mix in Greek yogurt and lamb
  4. Cover and let simmer 5-10 minutes or until sauce has thickened

Note: The original recipe did not call for the yogurt. However, when I got to the part about “letting the sauce thicken”, mine…well…didn’t. Luckily, I had low fat Greek yogurt in my fridge and once I mixed in about 5 tablespoons, the sauce thickened nicely.

Here is the finished product which I served over whatever rice I have in my pantry right now (usually brown Basmati rice but it varies) and the red cabbage. Pretty and delicious!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Price of Local Food

The two most common complaints I hear about local food are the cost and the inconvenience. The latter I have and will continue to tackle by covering the local farmers markets and restaurants that feature local ingredients. The cost, however, is an entirely different matter.

In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (book review to come soon), Michael Pollan discusses at length the true cost of food. He says we all like to think that what we buy from a grocery store or chain restaurant, what he calls "industrial food", is cheaper because the actual money leaving our pockets is less than if we were to choose local options. The reality, however, is that industrial food actually comes with a higher societal cost. Petroleum products are used at almost every step in the production of these foods – they are included in insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers and used in the transport of the food itself - not to mention the other numerous bi-products of what we consume (the packaging, the preservatives and so on).

On the flip side, food bought at a farmers market or at a restaurant that supports local vendors uses far fewer fossil fuels and other natural resources. Consider lettuce bought at your local farmers market: it was most likely not grown with pesticides or other chemicals, traveled only a short distance, and has little or no packaging since farmers transport the lettuce in large crates and you, the consumer, can bring a reusable bag to the market. Compare that to lettuce that has been flown in from California or South America that has been packaged and repackaged, flown thousands of miles, and required preservatives to remain fresh-looking throughout its journey.

Thus, local food may have a higher price tag but the actual cost to the environment and to society is much lower. Furthermore, all of the money that you spend on that bag of local lettuce stays right in your community with that farmer and supports your local food chain. Like many households, I try to feed mine on a budget limited by a mortgage, bills and other costs on a single income. The trick is making food a priority, not an afterthought, in your weekly budget.

Of course, eating a 100% local food diet is unfeasible. However, replacing some of the ingredients that you use on a regular basis or patronizing a restaurant that supports local vendors can go a long way in reducing your carbon footprint and bolstering your local economy. So next time you go shopping, check the label of the food you buy at the grocery store: is it from the US or some other country? Is there a local food alternative? Grocery store chains are catching on to this trend and have begun to highlight food that is locally or regionally grown so try to support those options with your dollars!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

300 East

I had this very thoughtful book review post all ready to upload here today. However, I had an all-too-incredible meal on Monday night that I feel obligated to relate so you can go try this restaurant as soon as possible. For those of you that subscribe to Groupon in Charlotte, you may remember about three weeks ago there was a deal for a restaurant called 300 East. Not surprisingly, this restaurant resides in a house at 300 East Blvd in Dilworth and is worth the trip with or without a Groupon.

The head chef at 300 East is Kristine Schmidt and her menu is full of local and sustainable ingredients. Many of the entrees come with mixed greens from local producers and the desserts are made on the premises by pastry chef Ashley Boyd (see picture below – Earl Grey sorbet!). Their menu consists of unique appetizers, a variety of salads, gourmet pizzas and inspired entrees all at prices ranging from a mid-week snack to an anniversary dinner.

I ordered their pork porterhouse made from Niman Ranch pork. Niman is a network of family farms that practice sustainable agriculture, use no hormones or antibiotics, and raise all their stock humanely. You can tell from the exceptional quality of this meat that 300 East didn’t use your run-of-the-mill pork supplier – it was truly decadent.  We also ordered their pimento cheese appetizer that is made in-house, their soup of the day (a black bean puree with lime), their black bean and green chile tortilla and finally the Earl Grey sorbet.  Everything was absolutely amazing.

All these details add up to a menu that is full of delicious meals in a range of prices that highlight sustainable and local options. I cannot suggest this restaurant enough. Make sure to make reservations if you go on a date night – this is not a huge place but well worth the wait!

Note: For those readers not in the Charlotte area, I strongly encourage you to seek out similar restaurants (they are out there!) that buy from farms that produce and support sustainable agriculture. You will not be disappointed in the quality of these products!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Recipes Part 3: Roasted Chicken

As I've mentioned before, there is a particular vendor at the Atherton Market that I buy from pretty much every week. Windy Hill Farm sells lamb, beef, pork, chicken and fresh eggs and everything I have had from them has been amazing. In addition to whole meat pieces, they also make some pretty amazing sausages and Kielbasas and the eggs are fantastic. Among their products right now are whole roaster chickens which I very much wanted to try. Since there are just two people in my household, I knew I would get a lot of use out of an entire chicken but had never prepared one before.

I began, as usual, with my cooking bible. Unfortunately, there are literally 15 pages in The Joy of Cooking about how to roast a chicken. The authors talk about brining the chicken (basically giving the thing a two hour salt soak), roasting trays and other fancy stuff. Newsflash: you don’t need any of that to make a great chicken. I made a really tasty bird on my first try with a brownie pan, the rack out of our toaster oven and some tin foil. Just place a wire frame of some sort over a 1" deep pan, a layer of tin foil (long enough on the ends to wrap around the chicken to keep moisture in), then the chicken and voila.

Simple Roasted Chicken (LPO)
1 whole chicken
½ cup olive oil
½ onion, cut in medium-to-large pieces
4 cloves of garlic
Rosemary (or any spices you like)
  1. Using a pan at least 1" deep, place the chicken on a piece of tin foil long enough to wrap the chicken in (hint: you may need to use two pieces of foil, making an X with them with the chicken in the center)
  2. Use your fingers to rub olive oil all over the bird
  3. Sprinkle salt and pepper and whatever spices or herbs you like over the bird
  4. Stuff the chicken with the garlic and onions
  5. Seal with the tin foil
  6. Cook until the chicken is 180˚ (a useful hint from Joy: measure heat with a thermometer in the thigh but not touching bone)
    Now, a whole chicken produces a fair amount of meat (especially an organic 5 or 6 pounder) so we had a lot left over the first night. Luckily, there are a lot of things you can do with the leftover chicken. I sliced off as much white meat as possible and refrigerated it (some mayo, salt and pepper make a great sandwich!). Then I took what was left (meat, skin, onions, garlic and all) and put it in my largest pot for soup. Below is the recipe for the soup that I made which could easily be adjusted to your favorite spices or consistency: 

    Leftover Chicken Soup
    Whole chicken leftovers
    Other vegetables of your choice (I suggest onions, carrots, garlic and celery)
    Water to fill the pot
    Salt, pepper and other herbs to taste
    1. Put leftovers in the pot
    2. Add vegetables and water almost to the top of the pot
    3. Let simmer covered for 1 hour
    4. Using a strainer or sieve, pour everything from the big pot through a strainer into a smaller pot. This will separate the bones, skin, etc from the liquid
    5. Using a knife and fork , remove any usable meat from the bones (Note: people’s tolerance for what makes it into their soup in terms of sinew and marrow varies. My mother, bless her heart, will literally eat everything from a piece of chicken except the bone itself. I’m more of a purist and basically only want white meat in my soup. The strainer trick is a way to be in control of what meat actually makes it to your final product.)
    6. Return soup to heat and simmer uncovered until the total amount is reduced by about 1/3
    7. Salt and season to taste

    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    IBS and the Local Food Advantage

    My journey along the path to eating and living more locally started about three years ago when I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Millions of people suffer from this condition where certain foods can cause intestinal cramping and discomfort. Though the specific foods that trigger symptoms vary from patient to patient, there are some foods that most sources say you should stay away from:
    • Foods high in fat
    • Foods with lots of preservatives
    • Artificial sweeteners
    • Foods that cause higher than normal levels of gas in the intestines (beans, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli)
    • Intestinal stimulants (ie caffeine, chocolate, coffee)
    The foods that bother me the most are the ones with large amounts of fat, artificial sweeteners or preservatives so no Splenda in my tea, no fast food, and little or no pre-made “freezer food” (TV dinners or other foods meant to last months or years on the shelf or in the freezer). Side story: about a year before my diagnosis, I used two packets of Splenda in a cup of hot tea and spent the afternoon in urgent care doubled over from abdominal pain. Though Splenda is better than most sweeteners, some people, even those without IBS, have trouble digesting this product.

    So how does this tie into eating locally? 

    The answer is that the less distance and time that an item of food has to travel, the fewer preservatives are needed for that food. Nova’s Bakery is the perfect example: their breads are made fresh on-site daily and are meant to be consumed within three to four days. This means their products contain few or no preservatives needed to make them last on a grocery store shelf for weeks. Shopping at farmers markets and choosing to support local organic farmers means your food just has less artificial stuff in it. In addition, eating fresh, whole vegetables increases your dietary fiber intake, a common suggestion for IBS sufferers. 

    Of course, what started as a way to eat better and minimize my IBS symptoms has turned into a way of life for me. Though I do sneak the occasional French fry or canned soup, keeping to a diet of fresh foods low in fat has done more for my condition than prescription medication. Even if you don’t have IBS or another stomach disorder, there are many health benefits of eating local food.

    Monday, March 7, 2011

    Recipes Part 2: Pumpkin Pie

    In my family, my grandmother was always the pie master; every holiday she made pumpkin pies, pecan pies and, if you were lucky, a mince pie. Having raised four children in the 1950’s, my grandmother was a firm believer in the canned pumpkin technique. However, she has recently passed on the pie making to me, her youngest granddaughter.

    This weekend I set my sights on what has been a white whale for me: making a pumpkin pie from scratch. Houston Farms at the Atherton Market has had some beautiful pie pumpkins for weeks that I have been dying to try. I purchased one of these gorgeous gourds on Wednesday - the pumpkin plus a head of cabbage and three large sweet potatoes only cost me $7.36. I was able to get six overflowing cups of pumpkin meat (enough for three pies) so that makes buying a whole pumpkin cheaper than buying cans!

    A note on pumpkins: Their season is relatively long, running September through March. Like many gourds and other vegetables in season this time of year, pie pumpkins are a great source of Vitamin A. If you want to try this or other winter gourd recipes, get to your local market soon because they will be out of season in just a few weeks.

    The next step was consulting my cooking bible, The Joy of Cooking. The instructions in the book are simple though I have to admit that I didn’t make the crust from scratch. If you have access to local dairy products in your area, the only thing you would have to buy that wasn’t local would be the sugar and spices. I got my eggs, as always, from Windy Hill Farm (note: if you are using farm-fresh eggs, I would suggest just using 2 as these tend to be richer than store-bought).

    Pumpkin Pie Filling
    2 cups fresh pumpkin
    2 or 3 large eggs (2 eggs for a cakier pie and 3 for more of a custard)
    ½ cup white sugar
    ½ cup packed brown sugar
    1 ½ cups dairy (any combination of milk, evaporated milk, or light cream)
    1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice (or 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon nutmeg and ½ teaspoon allspice)

    To prepare the pumpkin:
    1. Cut in half and remove seeds
    2. Place meat side down on a cookie sheet with a rim
    3. Fill cookie sheet with about ¼ inch of water
    4. Bake until easily pierced with a fork, between 30 and 45 minutes, at 350˚
    5. Scoop out and allow to cool completely
    Note: you can freeze the remaining pumpkin meat or just make several pies or pumpkin rolls.

    To prepare filling:
    1. Follow instructions for the crust of your choice
    2. Whisk eggs thoroughly
    3. Whisk in pumpkin, dairy, sugar and spices until well blended
    4. Pour into crust
    5. Bake for 35-45 minutes at 350˚or until, when shaken lightly, the middle of the pie is still a little wiggly but the outside seems set
    6. Cool completely, refrigerate overnight (if you slice in too quickly, the pie will not have set up - I suggest refrigerating overnight or at least a couple hours before serving)
    Here is the pie I made - not beautiful but it was delicious!

      Thursday, March 3, 2011

      Nova's Bakery

      Nova's Bakery is a family owned business started and run by Vlado and Sladjana Novakovic. Opened in 1996, they originally intended to be a wholesale business but they quickly developed a reputation for amazing breads and eventually opened their retail store. Now their storefront is a landmark in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood.

      Nova’s is one of my favorite places in Charlotte as well as a staple in my diet. Not only do they make amazing bread from scratch each day on site, most of their ingredients are organic (they are also listed on the website). Their selection includes European breads; pastries like cannolis, cakes, cookies and baklava; and the full range of hot drinks. This is a great place to grab a cup of coffee, use your laptop, or bring a book. I often escape the confines of my office at lunch by grabbing a scone and a cup of their decaf black tea along with my weekly loaf of bread.

      I originally fell in love with Nova's when a friend suggested it because they use organic ingredients. Most store-bought breads have high levels of preservatives in them which are difficult for people like me with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) to digest. Nova's breads, however, are made fresh daily and are meant to be consumed shortly after purchase. All unpurchased loaves go on the "day old" shelf the day after they were made and sold at a reduced price so you can tell that everything you buy fresh is just that: fresh. (Hint #1: if you don't think you will use the whole loaf you bought within 3-4 days of purchase, put half of it in the freezer.)

      Many people are intimidated by bakeries such as Nova’s because they are not familiar with the somewhat exotic types of bread. Fear no more! Nova’s website has a great glossary of the breads they offer and what each type is best for. A combination of faith in their breads and a dash of adventurousness has led me to some awesome uses for their products. (Hint #2: their cinnamon raisin bread and challah both make amazing French toast!)

      My favorite food here: Spinach Feta Scones. I know, I know, spinach is not ideal for people with IBS but they do not have enough spinach to bother me and their scones are amazingly buttery while also keeping with the traditional saltiness. I cannot recommend these little bundles of carbs enough!

      Hrs: 7am to 7pm 7days a week
      1511 Central Ave., Charlotte, NC 28205

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