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.

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