Thursday, May 26, 2011

Recipes Part 9: Carrot Top Soup

I’ve been hurriedly trying to sample all the excellent produce that is cropping up (no pun intended) in North Carolina farmers markets. Tomatoes, Spring greens, strawberries, blueberries, sweet onions, you name it, it’s about to come in this month or next. The most exciting veggie for me is carrots which are available in several areas right now and boy are they amazing. I have bought them from both the Lomax Incubator Farm and from Houston Farms. They vary in sweetness and in size but all are delicious.

The only problem with farmers market carrots is that they come with a lot of beautiful greenery that I feel horrible throwing away. The good news is that you can use those carrot tops to make soup. I know it’s getting warmer around most of the country but we’ve had some freak cool weather recently so this was a perfect dish to try here in Charlotte this past week. This turned out to be a great Spring soup as it is very fresh tasting because of the greens. I used carrots and garlic from Houston Farms, thyme from Fork In It, and rice from Simply Local.

A note on Simply Local: the lovely lady that sells their produce at Atherton recently told me about their rice. A small community of Hmong people has settled north of Charlotte and, when they learned little to no rice is grown in this area, they began growing their own. Simply Local now sells their rice, of which they have two or three varieties a week. Simply Local’s other items include cheese, Greek-style yogurt, juices, jams, mustards and other condiments, and, I learned on Tuesday, frozen desserts. Right now they have the most amazing strawberry ice pops made with mint and simple syrup, all from the Charlotte area. I had one for dessert after this soup last night and it was simply delicious!

Carrot Top Soup (v, <5%, LPO)
1 bunch carrots (1 ½ cups carrots chopped [3-4 carrots] and ¾ cups greens chopped)
1/2 cup uncooked brown rice
4 cloves garlic, diced
6 cups water or vegetable stock
Thyme (3 tablespoons fresh or 1 tablespoon dried)
2-3 tablespoons butter
Salt & pepper, to taste

   1. Bring ¾ cup water/stock to boil and add rice. Cook until rice is just tender 
      and set aside.
   2. Melt butter in soup pot and add carrots, greens and garlic. Simmer for 5-10 

   3. Add remaining water/stock and time. Bring to boil them simmer for 10-15 or 
      until carrots get a little tender.
   4. Add rice and turn down heat. Cook until rice and carrots are desired 
      tenderness and heated through.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
Easy, healthy and delicious!
Quick tip: A week or two ago, I used Windy Hill Farm’s ground pork for a Bolognese sauce. The meat is not high in fat but a far amount of liquid cooks off. I drained the liquid into a mug and stuck it in the fridge. It cooled and congealed and I have been using a spoonful in place of butter or olive oil in many recipes. It adds a hearty flavor without being highly processed like butter.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cut out Driving, One Trip at a Time

Do not let the title dissuade you! I am not going to tell you to get out of your car and walk everywhere in this post. I am, however, going to suggest some easy ways to cut down on driving. Though not directly related to local food, getting out of cars and walking or biking reduces our carbon footprints, strengthens communities by raising awareness of our surroundings and improve our health.

As we all know, gas prices have been creeping up steadily due to the unrest in the Middle East and with Summer coming, we can only expect the price of travel to increase. Fortunately, with warmer weather comes the opportunity to walk and bike places and cut out car trips each day.

As Americans, we are very attached to our cars and the independence they bring us but as everyone knows, cars are expensive to maintain and fuel and cause several types of pollution. Luckily, like most cities, Charlotte has many alternatives to driving. Below are just some options I know of from working for the City of Charlotte. If you know of others, make sure to mention them in the comments!
  • Bicycling: Charlotte is greatly expanding its greenways and bike paths. Thanks to numerous municipal bonds passed in recent years, these paths are only going to grow in coming years. In addition, new zoning ordinances require more roads to have bike lanes and to be more bike-friendly.
  • Light rail: Charlotte has a unique rail service that goes from the very southern tip of the City straight into Uptown. For $1.50/ride, you can get to many great cultural centers and locations, not to mention your job if you live in southern neighborhoods. 
  • CATS carpool: Another great way to get to and from work, the Charlotte Area Transit System organizes car and vanpools for residents going to and from Uptown.
  • CATS bus routes: There’s always old faithful: the bus. With 70 routes, CATS transports more than 22 million people each year.
Don’t live in Charlotte? Don’t worry! Most cities have numerous transportation options. These options may not be the easiest or fastest way to get work, but you can save up to $300 per month on gas and vehicle maintenance not mention cut down your carbon footprint by getting out of your car!

Bonus: Here is a really neat blog about going carless in Charlotte including a link to determine the walkability of your home, wherever you live!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Recipes Part 8: Tomato Sauce from Scratch

Tomatoes are going nuts right now at the various markets in North Carolina. Some farmers have had them growing in their green houses and some just got a head start this Spring despite the wacky temperatures we’ve had in this area. Regardless, tomatoes are in and it’s time to find great, easy ways to use them.

I’ve always wanted to try canning but I don’t have a sealer or anything else fancy (as always, if you have any suggestions or tips, put them in the comments!). So my first foray into the world of using tomatoes in a more exciting way than salads and sandwiches was making my own pasta sauce from fresh tomatoes. I’ve put the recipe below that I used but you can vary it a lot and it will still come out well. My herb garden failed horribly (the only thing that came up at all was the cat grass I planted for our cat) so I have no fresh basil but many farmers do so keep an eye out because basil would be delicious in this. Parsley, mushrooms and ground beef could also be added. I used sweet onions and garlic from Houston Farms, tomatoes from Muddy Boots Farm (sold by Windy Hill Farms), and ground pork from Windy Hill.

From Scratch Tomato Sauce (LPO)

4 medium tomatoes (best if a little past ripe)
4 cloves garlic
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar or your favorite cooking wine
1 cup onions, chopped
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground pork
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil till just soft
  2. Add tomatoes and vinegar or wine and let simmer covered for 30 minutes
  3. In a separate pan, sauté meat until cooked through
  4. Add to tomato sauce and let simmer uncovered for 5-10 minutes or until some moisture has evaporated
  5. Add salt and pepper as needed
  6. Serve over favorite pasta or bread
Sauce while tomatoes are simmering

Bon appetit!

I served it over capellini pasta with sautéed cabbage from Houston Farms. Delicious!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Yorkmont Farmers Market

When I first started this blog, I promised that I would travel to other farmers markets in the Charlotte area in order to share all that is available to this region in terms of local foods. In that vein, I accompanied a friend to the Charlotte Farmers Market on Yorkmont Rd. this past Saturday morning to experience what I’ve been told is the largest market in the area. The market is run by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and features close to 100 vendors.

Boy, am I glad that I went with someone that was familiar with this farmers market. Unlike other markets that I’ve been to, this one is closer to a flea market than a road side stand. Four gigantic covered sheds comprise the market: one exclusively for craft items, one housing only plants and the other two for produce. Seems straight forward, right? Unfortunately, it’s not. Both produce sheds contain a mix of local and third-party imported meat, fruits and vegetables and you have to look hard to differentiate the two.  When you first enter the middle shed, the first 15 or so vendors grow exclusively from this region of North Carolina. However, the further back you go the more imported food there is. I knew when we got to the sweet corn and avocados about half way back that we weren’t in NC produce anymore.

Going to this market really made me think about how we classify farmers markets. By definition, the Yorkmont Road market is a place where farmers bring their produce to sell. But in many ways "farmers market" is a broad title for a market that happens to include 15 or so local farmers. I worry that this type of market just makes some people feel like they are buying local, and subsequently better, food but some vendors are no better than grocery stores.

When I voiced this concern to a friend this weekend, he made an excellent point: perhaps true farmers markets, where items are necessarily grown or butchered by the farmers within X number of miles from the market, are not feasible in all areas. There may be places where markets can only flourish by providing non-local produce like bananas and oranges so that the uneducated buyer will come buy those and hopefully pick up a local item while there. Maybe our local markets are only possible because they have a mix of items to satisfy the incredibly diverse American diet. Though this point of view saddens me somewhat, if having a huge variety of not necessarily local food is what brings people out to a market and they buy local products as well, perhaps this is the future of farmers markets.

As usual, I have digressed but these issues are important to those of us that are adamant about only buying food grown locally. The Yorkmont market is a great place to find more than your average number of local meat and produce, but you have to talk to the farmers and read their information to truly learn what is local. One huge advantage of this market is its hours, below, but make sure you go early - it is also a very popular market and getting in and our during peak hours can be a challenge.

March through September:
Tuesday - Saturday: 8:00am to 6:00pm
(Market is also open Sundays 12:30pm to 6pm May through August)
October through February:
Tuesday - Saturday: 8:00am to 5:00pm 
1801 Yorkmont Rd.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Recipes Part 7: Mama Poulton's Leftovers Quiche

My mom is the most wonderful woman I know. She worked full time for forty years (recently “retired”), ran a farm that had up to seven horses, two dogs, four cats, and an assortment of other animals, raised two daughters (with my dad, who is also awesome), and still came home every night and made us dinner from scratch. I hardly ate out before going to high school and never realized how lucky I was. The other thing about my mom is that, bless her, she can’t smell a thing due to a workplace mishap many years ago. Subsequently, her cooking, though delicious the majority of the time, occasionally included burned vegetables and other interesting ingredients. But I digress.

My mom is, and always will be, the master of the leftovers meal. Any normal person would look in the fridge at 6pm and be convinced a meal could not be assembled from the odds and ends yet my mom would have a hot delicious meal on the table by 7. Stews, casseroles, even calzones would be born out of soggy peas, half jars of tomato sauce and a single pork chop.

So in the spirit of Mother’s Day on Sunday, I made my mother’s famous leftovers quiche. There is no recipe anywhere in the world for this dish - the only two things you must have are eggs and a pie crust. This recipe doubles as a great way to get rid of farmers market odds and ends: I used broccoli from Houston Farms that wouldn’t quite make two more servings, the end of a block of cheese from Simply Local, and sausage from Windy Hill Farms. As always, the eggs came from Windy Hill but, I confess, I bought the crust from Trader Joe’s (I still haven’t tackled homemade crusts).

Mama Poulton’s Leftovers Quiche
3-4 eggs depending on size
1 pie crust
¼ cup milk or cream of your choice
½ cup of shredded cheese
¼ cup cooked broccoli, chopped
½ cup cooked breakfast sausage
  1. Beat eggs
  2. Saute broccoli and sausage until sausage is cooked through
  3. Fold all ingredients into eggs
  4. Pour egg mixture into crust
  5. Cook for 20-30 minutes or until top is firm except for a little jiggle at the center

Yes, it tasted as good as it looks!
Two side notes: first, my pie dish is at a friend’s house so I had to improvise with a cake pan which actually worked just fine.  Second, I accompanied the quiche with sliced tomatoes from Windy Hill and dill from a new vendor at the market and doused them in balsamic vinegar and cracked salt and pepper over top. 
Simply delicious!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Luna’s Living Kitchen

Several friends and coworkers have been suggesting I try Luna’s Living Kitchen, the all-vegan restaurant next to the Atherton Market that also grows some of their own products. My lovely coworker and I thus made the trek there for lunch last week and all I can say is: wow. For a restaurant that uses little salt, no meat, and no commercially-produced food let alone only food that is grown or made locally, I was completely blown away by their menu and by what I ordered. Not only do they have an array of salads and wraps, soups and sides, but they also have an exciting drink menu including juices and smoothies. 

A little background on Luna’s: this little place is right next to the Atherton Market and uses some of their vendors' products and ingredients. They have their own biodynamic garden, showcase artisan breads, and have unique offerings like almond milk and original smoothie flavors.

I ordered their veggie burger which comes with their special brand of hummus (which is green) and guacamole on bread they also make onsite. This was served with a green salad of arugula, bean sprouts, cucumber and red bell pepper with a light honey mustard dressing. All of it was absolutely delicious.

The menu is a little pricier than your average Uptown or South End lunch but more than worth it for organic, local, vegan options that are delicious and use environmentally sensitive materials and methods. My only other caveat is that most, if not all, of their dishes have dark greens in them (arugula, etc) which are difficult for IBS sufferers like to me to digest. If you’re sensitive to these or other foods, you can always ask them to substitute the green salad for their amazing hummus!

Monday – Thursday: 11am – 7pm
Friday – Saturday: 8am – 3pm
Sunday: closed
2102 South Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28203 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Russell Howard Tackles Local Coffee Options

Hello all. Russell Howard here. Today we talk about coffee.

We'll start off with the acknowledgment that coffee is in no way a local food. Grown in the equatorial regions around the globe from Brazil (#1 in production) to Indonesia (#3), all of our coffee is imported. One cornerstone of the local food movement is cutting both the economic and environmental costs of long range transportation. Well.... that's not really going to work with coffee. And while we're not going to kick the habit anytime soon, we can be choosy about where our coffee comes from and where our coffee dollars are going. 

So Sarah asked me to highlight a few of my favorite NC coffee companies which I have broken down into three categories:

Independent coffee shops 
You know the type: meccas of Mac users and mismatched mugs.  In my experience, most have a better selection of roasts, more attention to detail, shorter lines, and lower prices than the big chains. Most importantly, your $2-4 contributes directly to a local business. My favorites in NC are: Davidson's Summit Coffee, Carrboro's Open Eye Cafe, Winston Salem's Brew Nerds, and Greensboro's Green Bean. They may not be on every corner with a drive-thru, but coffee shops like these are everywhere - just keep your eyes open. 

Local coffee roasters 
Now some of us need a cup before we even get out the door, but for brewing at home there aren't many local options. While there are local roasters in many places, their beans are not to be found in your regular grocery store, and are usually on the pricey side when they do turn up at specialty stores. What to do? Well, at Charlotte's Atherton Market, you can now find Monk's Groovy Beans, a roaster from Four Oaks, NC, with an unbeatable dark roast and pretty middle of the road pricing. Go online to get a monthly subscription and they'll keep you in beans all year long.

The super-combo-platter 
Many times a roaster will also have a coffee shop. Or several of them. I'm talking of course of Dilworth Coffee, one of the Charlotte area's favorite coffee spots with eight locations. Basically, the best of both worlds in terms of keeping your dollars in your neighborhood and drinking fresh roasted deliciousness both at home and on the go. I've probably drunk my weight in Dilworth coffee at the East Blvd. location, and you can buy beans at the shop or order them online as well. 
I haven't tackled the fair trade/rainforest safe side of the coffee equation and that's for one good reason: I'm not an expert. I am however, very experienced with drinking local coffee.

So there you have it, a quick and dirty guide to some great, local, North Carolina Dunk-ibou-bucks alternatives. 

Russell Howard is a singer-song writer based in Charlotte, NC. Check out his website with touring schedule for why he needs all the coffee he can get.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Recipes Park 6: Sausage, Polenta and Tomatoes, Oh My!

One gem in the farmers markets is sausage. This type of meat is not as pretty as your filets, whole chickens or pork chops, but is a mixture of many different cuts of meat (those that are too small to sell individually). Sausage is an easy way for farmers and consumers to minimize wasted protein and is an opportunity to add spice and flavor to otherwise boring meat.

Most pork farmers have a couple types of sausage including breakfast sausage, kielbasa and regular pork sausage. The later is my favorite to work with because it has a great basic flavor but takes on other flavors really nicely. I use this sausage for pasta sauces (both tomato- and cream-based), casseroles, and breakfast foods. I’ve included one recipe below that I love because it is quick, easy and highlights produce grown regularly right here in Charlotte. The sausage I got from Windy Hill Farm, the tomatoes from Houston Farms and the onions and garlic from the Kings Drive Market*, but most markets this time of year have all of these ingredients. Windy Hill's sausage is surprisingly low in fat and very flavorful making this a great, light Spring dish!

Sausage Polenta Tomato! (LPO)
2 links sausage of choice
1 package polenta, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 cup fresh tomatoes (any variety), cut in 1 inch pieces
1 sweet onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Remove sausage casing and cut into ½ inch pieces
  2. In a large skillet, sauté sausage over medium heat with olive oil until about half way cooked
  3. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft
  4. Add polenta and then tomatoes
  5. Heat until polenta is slightly brown on all sides
Note: if you don’t like to work with or eat polenta, this recipe is also great over angel hair pasta!

*There are varying opinions, rumors and speculation on where the food from the Kings Drive Market comes from. I asked one of the cash register ladies there once and she couldn’t really tell me. Some of their produce says “NC Mountain Apples” or “Local SC Cucumber” but otherwise the labels are kind of vague. All I know is that bananas, grapefruit and avocados don’t grow in North Carolina. However, they are one alternative to grocery store produce that many Charlotteans prefer.