Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why Local?

OK, so I want to explain a little bit about what eating local is something I've decided to try, and why I'm so passionate about being conscious about my food choices. The most obvious reason is the desire to support local, small businesses. This often happens two-fold when you buy local: first of all, you're supporting local farmers. That's a no-brainer. But often, you're also buying that local food from a local retailer, like your neighborhood co-op or other local small business. Here in the Twin Cities, we have several wonderful co-ops, and in St. Paul there's also the small grocer on Grand Ave.,  Golden Fig.  These are great resources for anyone who wants better-quality, local food. While I still love buying from the Farmers' Market, I can't always make it there during its limited hours, and not all products that I need are available there, so that's when I seek out those local retailers.

But there are other, most subtle reasons to choose local food that we may not always think about. First of all, the concept of food safety is something that, for the most part, we have the luxury of taking for granted in this country. We don't have to boil our water in order to drink it; we don't have to wonder how old our milk is or whether the grocers' meat is rotten. Usually. As you are probably aware, there is a huge egg recall going on right now that has many people asking questions about our food supply and how safe it really is. Add that egg recall to a list of several other recalls we've had recently, including peanut butter, spinach, and green onions, and it becomes an alarming trend.

How does eating local protect me from contaminated food, you may ask. Well, it won't protect you from EVER having to think about food safety, but eating local drastically reduces your chances of buying bad food. Why? Because much of this problem of tainted food comes form the fact that there are fewer and fewer mega-farms supplying more and more of the food that we buy. This creates problems on a variety of levels, one being the existence of mega-farms. To be blunt, they're terrible. Terrible for the animals on the farm, terrible for the environment, and terrible for us when it comes to food safety and quality. To maintain such large-scale food production, land use quickly gets out of control, animal populations become very dense, contributing to disease, and quality control goes out the window. Take the case of the Iowa farm where the tainted eggs are coming from. This farm has been cited for numerous violations going back to the 1970s, but somehow people haven't been adversely affected. So, it was allowed to stay in business. Now, people are getting sick and people are finally asking questions.

Keeping such dense animal populations is the root of the problem. In order to do it, animals have to be given antibiotics, they can't be fed high-quality food so they're not healthy, and their waste products are a never-ending issue. Do you ever wonder how vegetables get tainted with eColi? eColi is a bacteria that is only found in the lower intestinal tract, and it only comes out into the environment in the form of feces. Yep-- poop. That means that somehow, poop got on those vegetables. Most of the time, it got there from runoff from a mega-farm. For me, that fact alone is enough to turn my stomach and make me want to get my vegetables from a reliable farm that is not right next to, or part of, a mega-farm.

Mega-farms aren't just contaminating food, though. They contaminate the water supply in the communities where they exist, and they contribute heavily to greenhouse gasses. Did you know that the emissions from livestock contribute more to greenhouse gasses than cars and trucks?  A 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated that livestock contributes 18% of total greenhouse gasses; a 2010 study upped that number to 51%!

On a brighter note, choosing local food from a small farm means that your food is just going to taste better! Because it doesn't have to be shipped far and wide, the fruits and vegetables can stay on their vines, plants, or trees much longer, getting ripe and sweet and delicious! You may not even recognize the flavor of some fruits and vegetables when you try the local version. Heirloom tomatoes, ripened on the vine will blow your mind. Good, local potatoes and corn are so sweet, they need nothing added to be delicious. 

All of these reasons and more caused me to think long and hard about the food choices that I make, ultimately leading me to the decision to choose local whenever I can. I must say, it's been very easy and extermely enjoyable! Of course, at the height of the local harvest, it IS easy to choose local. Come winter, it's going to be a bit more of a challenge, but one I'm going up for.

Choosing local doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition! It's just not practical for me to choose local 100% of the time. But like I said, I do it as often as I can. If you choose to take on the challenge, you decide what is right for you. Maybe it's one meal a week that's entirely locally sourced. Maybe it's a little bit of every or most's up to you! Make it what you want, and have fun!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Photos of a Local Feast

Finally, some photos of our feast a couple of weeks ago. I had to order a new cord for my camera-- my old one was no where to be found! I so rarely lose things, I was sure it would turn up, but no. It has fallen into the other dimension. So... our yummy local feast consisted of: mozzarella made in-house at the Mississippi Co-Op, a cave-aged cow and sheep cheese from WI, tomatoes from the farmers' market (ours were just not quite ripe yet), basil from our garden, and bread from A Toast to Bread in St. Paul. It was fabulous!!

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Challenge Continues...

We made it through the weekend and it was so much fun to try to eat as much local food as possible! And need I say, it was delicious, too!
So, a little bit more about how I'm structuring this thing so that it really is do-able...
First of all, I'm not restocking my kitchen. I just don't have unlimited funds to replace all condiments and whatever groceries we still have from our Trader Joe's shopping trip from last week. I'm working within my means, buying local as I go along, as often as I can. I keep telling myself, this is about exploration, not perfection. So, the olive oil is not local (nor could it be), the lemons and limes...not local. In fact, there were hardly any fruits for sale at the farmers' market this weekend, so we're having to supplement with shipped-in fruits. Big B loves his bananas so I don't intend to deprive him of that. (If I have time this week, I'll stop at the co-op and get some local fruits there.)
 So, Saturday morning we ventured out to the St. Paul Farmers' Market, bags at the ready, cash in hand. We stocked up on tomatoes, zukes, cukes,  onions, garlic, cheese, and bread. The tomato stand I recommend is the one where their tomatoes are pesticide-free, and all varieties are $2.50/lb. That includes heirlooms!! Compare that to the co-op, which will charge you up to $5.99/lb. for heirlooms! So, we filled a bag with a huge, gnarly red heirloom, some smaller roma-like tomatoes, and a couple of purple ones (I don't remember the names.) The big one was amazing! When I cut into it that evening, the flesh was smooth, juicy, and tasted like the earth it was grown in. It tasted like a tomato-- and you probably know how hard it is to find a tomato these days that tastes like a tomato!
I snagged a couple of onions from a guy who was selling the largest ones I've ever seen-- about the size of a 1-year-old's head! He said they were super-sweet, like a Vidalia. He was not kidding; sliced super-thin and tossed in the Greek salad I made that evening, they were heavenly.
Next, it was on to my favorite bread stand, A Toast to Bread. I get their rosemary or basil baguette whenever I visit the market. They are so dense and chewy, you can't take just one bite. And the ingredients list: flour, yeast, sea salt, water, herbs. (I'm going from memory here; there might be sugar in that list, too, but that's it!) Compare that to the litany of ingredients on the labels of bread at a big-box grocery store, and that alone may convince you to eat local and/or organic. (Seriously, next time you're grocery shopping, read the label of some of those breads that are supposed to be "healthy"! Many have HFCS and other nasty ingredients. It's unbelievable!)
After a few more veggie purchases, we made our big splurge of the day: a big, $10 wedge of cheese from (I think it was) Love Tree Farmstand Cheese. The mother and son were selling that day, dressed in their finest pink T-shirts. Hers read, "Aged to Perfection" and his, "Got Mold?" I've met her before; she's quite a character, and VERY passionate about good, artisinal, cave-aged cheese. They had 3 kinds there that day: a fresh sheep's cheese they had just made the night before; an aged goat cheese that was super-mild, and an aged cow/sheep cheese that had the most beautiful, bumpy rind, was pungent and smelled to high heaven. Guess which one we chose! Hint: the kitchen smelled like feet for hours! But, oh was it ever delicious-- rich, creamy, amazing.
We went home loaded with treasures and excited about digging in. I had even stopped at Heritage Liquor on Frost the day before and picked up a bottle of Crispin "The Saint", a hard cider made in Minneapolis, and a 4-pack of Liftbridge "Minnesota Tan", brewed in Cold Spring.
So, do you want to know what we did with all that goodness?? First, I have to say that if you want a plethora of great recipes that use ingredients readily availble in MN, pick up a copy of "The St. Paul Farmers' Market Cookbook" and "Simply in Season". The former orders the recipes according to main ingredient, so that when the market is overflowing with carrots and parsnips, you can just flip to those sections and find lots of ways to prepare them. "Simply in Season" groups recipes by season, according to what foods are growing at that time of year. I'm a seasonal eater by habit-- I can't even fathom eating apples in the Spring or strawberries in the Winter, so this cookbook is a godsend.
OK, so back to Saturday dinner: I made the Greek Salad from p. 100 of "Simply in Season": tomatoes, onion, and cukes dressed in olive oil, wine or balsamic vinegar, garlic, and dill from our garden. With that we had caprese stacks: the baguette sliced thin stacked with a slice of tomato, cheese (either the fresh mozz I got at the co-op on Friday or the lovely stinky cheese), and a basil leaf on top, drizzled with olive oil, salt and pepper. Even Little B can't get enough of those! On the side, we had local corn drizzled with lime and salt, of course our hard cider to wash it all down. We dined (and sweated) al fresco and it was beautiful!
I took some great pictures of the spread, but until I find my USB cord, the pics are trapped inside my camera. Hopefully it will turn up soon!
Later this week, I'll tell you about the pizzas we had on Sunday, and how we fared on our weekday meals....the adventure continues!

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Eat Local Challenge

OK, I'm doin' it. I'm going to eat only local foods for 1 week. It's the Eat Local Challenge and it's designed to encourage and educate people about the benefits of eating foods that aren't shipped in from miles away, generating tons of CO2 and harming the planet. But the planet is not really why I'm doing it. While I would definitely call myself a "treehugger", and very proud of it, my decision to eat local is based on something much more selfish: pure pleasure.

It started with a trip to the St. Paul Farmer's Market, which I LOVE!! It's one of the things I get excited about each Spring, and mourn the loss of every Winter. (Yes, they're open all Winter, but let's face it--it's not the same!) So, the Big B and I went to the market last weekend and filled our bags with more produce than a family of 3 could possibly eat. We always do that. Can't help it. So that evening, while we were preparing dinner, a huge smile crossed my face as I thought of the farmer right here in Minnesota who grew all this amazing food. Beautiful, fresh-picked just that like it was meant to be. I thought about how nice it would be to eat this way all the time. And that's when my stomach said, "Take the Eat Local challenge!" To which I said, "I can't; it's too hard!" To which Stomach said, "Stop your whining or I'll give you heartburn for a week!" I shut up at that point because I realized I was talking to my stomach. I also realized that it's August, there is bounty to be had at the markets and my co-op, and it really wouldn't be that hard. Would it?

I haven't started yet, but I'm planning to start tomorrow, after I make my morning trip to the Farmer's Market. I shopped the co-op today to get a few things like local cheeses; I'll probably just stick to produce and chicken from the market. I'm going to blog about the whole sordid affair so that you, dear reader, can learn from my fumblings and hopefully do something like this yourself! The planet, and more importantly, your stomach, will thank you!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mr. Dyson, You Suck!

Oh, Mr. Dyson, why? I'm sure you meant well. You're so suave and distinguished and brilliant, and you have a great accent. I just wish you had never invented that vacuum. See, you went and invented that pretty, robot-resembling bagless vacuum that everyone just HAD to have, and every other company just HAD to copy, and you made vacuuming a royal pain in my side forevermore.

I was just running the old suck machine a couple of days ago, and I have to admit that it's not a Dyson, but another popular brand that copied the technology, complete with the "cyclone" feature and yes, the bagless dust tank. So, I finished vacuuming (OK, full disclosure, my son finished vacuuming), and I went to empty the tank and of course it was completely full. As I'm pulling out the container, dust flying in my face-- dust that was HEPA filtered, by the way-- I'm cursing the inventor of the fancy yellow machine who convinced everyone that vacuum bags are evil. Why?!? What is so horrible about bags? It seems to me that bags keep all the nasty stuff I just vacuumed neatly contained and out of my face! What is the point of using a filter at all, let alone a fancy HEPA filter, when you're just going to open up that container, shake it into your trash can, and immediately inhale all the dust, mites, fur, and who knows what that you just filtered! It makes no sense!!

I don't hold it against you, Mr. Dyson. Well, OK, maybe I do a little bit. And while I know Mr. Dyson is very proud of his sucking vacuum-- "it never loses suction"-- and I actually think my knock-off sucks pretty hard, too,  I'm just not sure I (or my nose) can ever forgive him for his illogical hatred of the vacuum bag. I hear he's moved on to inventing a new fan which looks very cool and will probably inspire many knock-offs as well. Maybe he should just stick to inventing/"improving" things that blow and leave the things that suck to Mr. Hoover and friends.