Monday, April 25, 2011

Just Food Review Part I

A wise professor of mine once said that you should read both those that you agree with and those you do not. This is why I picked up James McWilliams’s Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly this weekend. As the title suggests, McWilliams believes that those of us that advocate eating locally grown and produced food aren’t doing as much good as we think we are. By assessing only “food miles” and transportation as the sole source of energy consumption in the food production process, we are missing the bigger picture of the impact of what eat.

In some ways, I agree with McWilliams. He cites several studies that show that the transportation of the food we eat only accounts for about 11 percent of the total energy needed to grow or produce our food and that the production process of food is the real culprit, coming in at 46 percent of energy consumption. That makes sense to me and I can see how LCAs (life cycle assessments) are instrumental in identifying the steps in the provision of food that use the most energy.

What I don’t agree with is his assertion that minimizing food miles, and thus transportation energy consumption, is the only reason us locavores chose to eat locally. Sure, we would like to think that buying from the local farmers market means that our food has traveled much less than what one buys in the grocery stores, but is that the entire reason for eating locally? I say no. Buying locally also supports your local economy, brings you closer to the food you eat by meeting farmers and seeing how they raise their crops or animals, and increases your appreciation for what it takes to produce food. Also, the food often tastes better because local farmers are less likely to add harmful chemicals, use pesticides, and artificially flavor or inflate the size of their produce.

I have not finished this book and usually I would wait until the end of a book to write a review or comment on the validity of the author’s work. However, this book has affected me much more than I thought it would so I decided to start now. If you have read McWilliam’s work, feel free to comment (both positively and negatively) and let me know if he was able to persuade you and/or affect your buying habits.

Disclaimer: James McWilliams does not seem to have his own website (at least not one that Google listed in the first two pages of a search on his name). If you find one, post it in the comments.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Food Waste and What You Can Do

Spring is now fully upon us which means that more vegetables and fruit are appearing at your local farmers markets. These goodies will continue to be grown, harvested and sold throughout the Summer but what about the Fall and Winter when the same great fresh vegetables and fruits aren’t available? There are so many options for preserving local foods so you can use them in weeks or months instead of buying them from far off countries that have different growing seasons. 

A note about wasting food: the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that about half of all food that is grown each year is never consumed. This includes restaurants that throw out uneaten food, households that toss unused leftovers, and crops that are never utilized by consumers. Of all the wasted food, approximately 90% finds its way to landfills, creating the second largest waste stream after paper products (where a far greater percentage is recycled or reused) and making food waste is everyone’s problem because it depletes landfill space. Besides, who wants to waste the excellent local ingredients they buy?

To help you reduce your food waste, here are some easy ways to either preserve food you buy or make use of leftover food scraps. Of course, these are but a few options so feel free to leave your tips and experiences in the comments for others to see!

  • Storing herbs. One of my cooking friends has a great technique for keeping herbs: cut their stems, put them in a glass of water, then cover with the plastic bag they came in and put them in the fridge. If you keep the water clean and snip off the good leaves regularly, they can last up to three weeks in the fridge.
  • Canning and jarring. There are hundreds of websites and books dedicated to this method of preserving food. My favorite is this one about canning but the University of Georgia has an excellent resource about the benefits of canning. Tomatoes are the best candidate for canning and jarring but there are always jams, jellies and preserves for those of us that love fruit and want it all year round. The great part of jarring and canning is that you preserve the majority of the nutritional value of the food your preserving!
  • Vacuum sealing/freezing. You can buy vacuum sealers from many online retailers and they will pay themselves off with all the food you won’t have to throw away. 
  • Simple freezing. You can freeze the majority of food for later use. I typically freeze all bread and meat that I buy because I am only feeding two people at most meals so we don't go through food quickly. Try freezing vegetable scraps next time you make a  stir fry to use for stock or broth later.
  • Composting. This is a great option if you have a yard or a farm. My family composts in our horse manure pile which is easy, especially if you have a friend with a front end loader. There are even ways to compost in an apartment-type space as well: Gwen, the guest poster from two weeks ago, uses a product called Bokashi to compost on her window sill in DC. If you live in Mecklenburg County, there is a class you can take on backyard composting which I've heard is excellent.
  • Plan ahead. The easiest thing you can do to reduce wasted food and get the most out of what you buy is don’t buy bags and bags of food at the market without knowing when you’re going to use them or how you’ll make them keep if you don’t.  This can take some planning but will pay off when you don’t waste food by throwing out items that can’t be frozen or jarred.

Monday, April 18, 2011

NODA Area = Mecca for Local Options

Like many metropolitan areas, Charlotte has some trendy, some may say hipster, neighborhoods where you will find locally-owned restaurants, music venues, art galleries and other small businesses. One of my favorite neighborhoods is NODA or the North Davidson Arts District (conveniently located at the end of N. Davidson St.). This area includes numerous businesses that bring a ton of character and entertainment to this mixed income neighborhood. Below are some of my favorite stops there but only a visit to the area will really do it justice. Also, the first Friday night of each month, there is a gallery crawl and street art expo. Just find a parking space and spend the evening in the galleries, browsing local merchants' artwork and jewelry, or enjoying free admission to the music venues.

Boudreaux’s Louisiana Kitchen / Sanctuary / The Mill: traditional and modern Cajun cuisine; visit this one of a kind location on any given Sunday between 12:30 and 2 and you are bound to find me and friends taking advantage of the half priced Bloody Mary bar and their amazing brunch
Smelly Cat Coffee Shop: locally owned and operated coffee shop that also has ice cream, wine and desserts
Crepe Cellar / Growlers: owned and operated by Jeff Tonidandel (Davidson College grad) and Paul Manley, owner of Damian Dining, the restaurant features modern spins on French and American food favorites and the bar serves craft beers
Amelie’s French Bakery: has a full array of pastries and sweets as well as savory lunch-type offerings, serves Dilworth Coffee and employ some chefs from local Johnson and Wales University
Revolution Pizza: fantastic pizza and a surprising dessert menu including several flavors of gelato
Neighborhood Theater: large music venue that hosts acts ranging from Robert Earl Keen to Sara Bareilles (they have much more than that but those are two big acts I've seen there recently)
Evening Muse: smaller music venue that has a more listening room feel, they host a weekly open mic night on Mondays
Cabo Fish Taco: somewhat tourist-y but very popular Baja Mexican restaurant
Tasty Yo: tart yogurt (fat- and gluten-free!), perfect for a light dessert after a heavy dinner at the Crepe Celler!

Again, those are only the places I like a lot but there are several other restaurants and bars that are popular with locals and visitors alike. This is the type of neighborhood that both supports and thrives on local ingredients, local ownership and local patronage so much of the money you spend there stays there.

Don't live in Charlotte? So many cities have neighborhoods just like NODA - look in your local cultural magazine for these places and patronize the establishments that serve or support local options!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Junk Food Alternatives Part II

On Monday I posted a call for suggestions on what to do when you have a junk food craving. Here are some tips that readers posted over the week:
  • Celery and carrot sticks can help you when you need something crunchy and want to reach for a potato chip
  • If you do want "fast food", make it yourself and eat in moderation - this way you'll know what went into it and won't over eat
  • Drinking a glass of water when hungry at odd times will help the feeling pass
  • The New York Times had an interesting article about guilt-free desserts
  • Fat free yogurt with granola or fruit can satisfy your ice cream cravings
Keep sending in your healthy alternatives!

I made the granola bar recipe from the last post as well. They weren't hard at all though I did add some extra honey (from local honey maker Cloister Honey) just before turning the completed mixture into the 9 x 9 pan to help them stick together more.  

They aren't pretty but they're delicious. Also, for those of you with IBS or otherwise sensitive stomachs, I would suggest substituting crushed walnuts or additional almonds for the sunflower seeds. I used dark brown sugar, raisins and Trader Joe's organic mixed oats cereal.

I made another Windy Hill Farms whole roasted chicken on Tuesday night and used the leftover meat and bones last night to make stock.  Look for Carrot Top Soup next week when I have Thyme from my own balcony garden, carrots from the Cabarrus County Incubator Farm as well as the chicken stock. Should be local and delicious!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Junk Food Alternatives

This week, instead of having two unrelated posts, I want YOUR input on your junk food alternatives. When you crave a Frito, do you reach for an apple? Do you make your own potato chips or fries? If you want a burger, does a chicken sandwich suffice? Better yet, do you use local ingredients for your alternative?  Send me your options, your tricks for eating better and your healthy recipes. I’ll post all ideas I get on Thursday as well as the easiest, most local recipe I receive. Make sure to leave your name, location and tip in the comments of this email or on Facebook under the notification for this post.

What's my weakness? Granola bars. I realize this isn't really junk food but have you ever looked at the ingredient list? Unless you spend $6 a box for Kashi bars, there are a lot of ingredients I’ve never heard of and probably don’t want to know about. So I found this easy recipe on the Food Network website to make my own granola bars. My project this week will be to try them and let you know how they turn out in Thursday's post.

Easy Granola Bars (v, <5%, LPO)
2 cups oatmeal
1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
1 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups chopped dried fruit (any combination of apricots, cherries or blueberries)
  1. Grease a 9 by 9-inch glass baking dish
  2. Spread the oats, sunflower seeds, almonds, and wheat germ onto a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 350 (turn once or twice to bake on all sides)
  3. Combine the honey, brown sugar, butter, extract and salt in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat
  4. Cook until the brown sugar has completely dissolved
  5. Once the oat mixture is done, remove it from the oven and reduce the heat to 300
  6. Immediately add the oat mixture to the liquid mixture, add the dried fruit, and stir to combine 
  7. Turn mixture out into the prepared baking dish and press down, evenly distributing the mixture in the dish and bake for 25 minutes.
  8. Remove from the oven and let cool completely
  9. Cut into squares and store in an airtight container for up to a week

So send me your junk food alternatives. It doesn't have to be a recipe or other complicated option, just how you avoid high-fat, high-salt snacks and meals by choosing fresh, local or just plain healthier foods. Check back on Thursday for other people's healthy, local options!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Recipes Part 5: Mushroom Chicken Omelets

My boyfriend is a gym rat like me only his interests span more towards lifting heavy things rather than running or swimming. After a workout he often asks if we can have more protein for dinner (my usual cooking talents span mostly to vegetables and desserts). This recipe is one I threw together one night using some beautiful mushrooms from Landis Gourmet Mushrooms, the leftovers of a chicken I roasted from Windy Hill Farms as well as eggs from Windy Hill.

The beauty of Landis’s mushrooms is that they grow them in a converted barn so they produce all year round. These are not your standard crimini or button-type mushrooms; they are almost leafy in a soft, meaty way. Clearly I am no expert on fungi, but they are delicious and hearty. A note about these fantastic mushrooms: I asked the farmer about how best to store them and he said to clean the mushrooms, pat them dry and store them in a plastic container with a couple holes poked in the lid in the fridge. This will make them last and keep from getting soggy.

Mushroom and Chicken Omelet
2 eggs
1 handful mushrooms
1 small handful chicken
2-3 tablespoons cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons sour cream (optional)
1 pinch salt
  1. Beat the egg and pour in frying pan with a tiny bit of melted butter to keep from sticking.
  2.  Let egg cook about half way through then add mushrooms and chicken (you can pull the mushrooms and chicken apart by hand) and let warm for 1-2 minutes
  3. Add cheese and sour cream and fold omelet
  4. Cook on both sides and serve

Unrelated note: strawberry season is almost upon us! Check out this website for a list of strawberry farms near you, most of which let you pick your own!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Local Food in Washington, DC

Hi, Blogosphere. Gwen here. I’m a newbie to this forum writing from the District of Columbia where the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Sarah has invited me to talk about the local foods movement in DC and share with you some of my favorite early spring recipes. By way of background, I moved to the city in 2006 and settled into the park-side neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant. My roommate and I fell in love with the quaint storefronts (which remain mostly local businesses still today), tree-lined streets, and most of all the Saturday farmers’ market that was literally just outside our front door. Like most people, I had always known the giant grocery store chains as the source of my food. That was until I studied abroad in Paris and learned that a different relationship with your food and your food producers was not only possible but preferable. Since then I have become increasingly interested in a host of food related issues and today I aspire to source at least half of my diet entirely from locally available and sustainably raised sources. This year I am even venturing into growing my own food in my community garden plot, but that is a topic for another time. 

The DC area is ripe with sources of local foods and commodities and the community here has really embraced the principles of the Slow Food movement. From the upscale Restaurant Nora to your neighborhood grocer or market, you can easily make the switch to a local way of life. One of the first producer-only markets in the area sprung up in the environmentally-minded Maryland suburb of Tacoma Park in the early 1980s and it remains a vibrant hub of community food sourcing today.  In 1997, FRESHFARM Markets, a local non-profit dedicated to building urban-agricultural partnerships in the Chesapeake Bay area, started the first market in DC in the affluent and centrally located neighborhood of Dupont Circle. Today, they operate 11 producer-only markets in the DC-VA-MD area, including the nationally known White House Market. A host of other locally organized and run markets dot the city’s neighborhoods, as in my own beloved Mt. Pleasant. The moral of the story is that if you live in DC, there are many different options to buy delicious food from area farmers.

Sunday I traveled to the Dupont Market to procure the items for the recipe highlighted below. Most people lust after the bounty of mid-summer – the tomatoes, peaches, corn, and squash and this is certainly when the markets are bursting at the seams with produce. But for me, this period of early April is one of my favorite parts of the growing season. Crisp, bright days bring out the people and the vendors who have been hibernating all winter and the market stalls are all different shades of green.   

That’s right, I love April for the greens - along with the cherry blossoms, it’s the first sure sign that spring is here. It’s easy to confine your greens to your salad plate, but there is so much more possibility. Just start with kale. You could spend a week trying the different varieties from curly to lacinato and red Russian, each with its own texture and taste. They can add some kick to your traditional salad, when sautéed they make an excellent side dish, or try adding kale to soups, pastas, or risottos. 

If you are new to cooking seasonally from your local market, I recommend two sources that helped jumpstart my love of cooking seasonally. The first is Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It documents a year in the life of her family as they try to grow or locally purchase all of their food. Each chapter ends with recipes from her college-age daughter and recommendations for how to make a week’s worth of meals. It was actually from this book that I discovered my new hero, Deborah Madison. Anyone who has spent time near me in the last year has heard me mention her name at least five times. I seriously have not tried a recipe of hers that was not fantastic. The ingredients can be a little hard to find and you should dedicate some time to getting it right, but trust me it is worth the effort!

This week I decided to try something new with my second favorite early spring food, leeks. As part of the Allium family, a leek is a cousin to garlic and onions, so it’s both delicious and good for you! They like the cold, so you will usually see them in early spring and late fall. I’ve had them in quiche, tarts, and just plain roasted but this was my first effort with them in a risotto, and they didn’t disappoint. The recipe is from Madison’s book Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. If you have never made a risotto be prepared to use lots of dishes and don’t skimp on the butter. I like to use a heavy soup pot for the actual risotto making. 

Leek and Green Garlic Risotto
4 medium leeks, quartered - white parts only (save the tops and roots for making veggie stock!)
3 large heads green garlic (the sweeter flavor of this immature state of your pantry staple compliments the leeks very nicely)
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup white wine
6 cups veggie or chicken stock
1 ½ cups Arborio rice
½ cup cream or crème fraîche
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ cup chopped fresh parsley and 1 tbs chopped tarragon (I used 1 tsp dried)
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  1. Start by chopping your quartered leeks into ¼ slices and mince your green garlic (you may want to remove some of the tough outer leaves). Be sure to wash the leeks well. Dirt can get in between the leaves and make your meal gritty. 
  2. Sauté the leeks and garlic in 2 tbs of melted butter. Add ½ cup of white wine as soon as the veggies are coated with butter. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until the leeks are soft. Season with salt and pepper and put them aside while you prepare the rice.
  3. Begin simmering your veggie stock while you cook the leeks so that it is nice a hot when you start on the rice. You want to incorporate the liquid while its warm to help cook the rice faster and aid in absorption. 
  4. Melt the remaining 2 tbs of butter in your heavy soup pot. Add the rice and stir to coat, about 1 minute. Pour in the remaining ½ cup wine and simmer until it absorbs. From here you will be slowly adding liquid until it has all absorbed into your rice making a sort-of sticky consistency. Start with 2 cups of the stock. Once that is absorbed, add the remaining in ½ cup increments. You’ll want to stand near and keep stirring so the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. This will take about 10-15 minutes. 
  5. Once the rice is done, add the leeks, cream, cheese, and herbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste. 
I enjoyed my risotto with a fresh salad of early spring greens, including a little red Russian kale.
Bon appetit!

Disclaimer, I do not confess to be an expert on any of the topics I discuss and welcome your comments and suggestions!  All recipes are the property of the amazing women who published them.