local

PASA Local Food Month: Preserving the Harvest

Posted on September 15, 2012. Filed under: challenge, freeze, garden, local, technique | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Crushed tomatoes.

The idea of eating fresh, local food all year long is a delightful proposition: Crisp garden flavors delight our palates, and as one food craving begins to be satisfied, another one emerges. In turn, we help create a system of support for our farmer neighbors. When I lived in California, I gardened year-round and shopped farmers’ markets several times a week; I simply–and happily–changed my diet according to what was available. Alas, that’s a lot harder to in Pittsburgh. To be sure, there are a few options for buying local food all year long: Kretschmann Farm has a winter CSA, Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance runs a year-round farm stand, and you can pick up locally raised meat and eggs at the Pittsburgh Public Market. But let’s face it, winter is pretty bleak around here; I can’t grow lettuce in my garden in January or pluck Meyer lemons from trees while I walk my dog (seriously) like I did in February in CA.  So what’s a local food fan to do?

Preserve the harvest.

Preserving food for winter sounds daunting at first, but, with a bit of patience and practice, it’s easier than you think it is. Yes, you’re going to have to plan in advance, you might have to follow instructions, and it’s going to get messy. But it’s totally worth it. Think about how marvelous it’ll be to have bright-tasting tomatoes in January or lusty blueberries in March. You can make it happen. (OK, you probably should have started this in May, but there are still things you can do in September. Hello, sauerkraut.)

Perfect pesto servings, ready to freeze.

Freeze:

This one is easy because it doesn’t take a lot of special equipment–we all have freezers, right? Blueberries are a fantastic fruit to freeze; separate the berries individually on a baking sheet, let them freeze, and store in an airtight bag. Easy. Tomato sauce freezes pretty well, too. If you have a vacuum sealer you’ll be able to keep food longer, but a freezer bag with all the air sucked out will work perfectly fine. My favorite thing to freeze is pesto. Do it right, and it’ll taste almost as fresh as when you made it over the summer; all you have to do is blend basil, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, garlic, salt, and parmesan cheese. Protip: Freeze it in ice cube trays or cupcake pans; you’ll have perfect serving size.

Jar:

Preserving food in sealed glass is the classic way of extending the harvest. You can make jams and jellies, sauces and chutneys, and pack your shelves with goodness. I made strawberry jam for the first time this year, and as autumn begins to take hold, I can remind myself of the flavors of spring by cracking open a jar. The upside to making your own jams is you can control the sugar content. The downside is that it takes a bit of finesse to perfect your recipe; I have a grape jelly that’s more like a beverage than something I can spread on toast.

If you’re looking to get in the jarring game, there’s still time: you can find late-season tomatoes at farmers’ markets and it’s prime time to make Concord grape jelly! (Yes, I’m going to try again.)

Peach Shrub

Shrub:

My latest obsession. A shrub is an old-timey way of preserving the harvest; records date back to the time when the US was still a British colony (and it’s likely shrubs were made before that, too). Basically, you crush fruit, and mix it with an equal part sugar; let the mix sit in the fridge for a day or two. After that, you strain off all the solids, and then add an equal part of vinegar. The result is a savory-sweet flavor reminiscent of the fruit you started with. Shrubs are a hot trend in cocktails today, but you don’t need to be a drinker to enjoy the pungent sweet flavor of a shrub; just add Pittsburgh Seltzer and you have the world’s best fizzy drink.

Ferment: 

Pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi are all foods that are brought to you courtesy of  preservationist bacteria. Fermentation is one of the oldest methods of keeping perishable food edible for long periods of time. OK, a kosher dill pickle doesn’t taste anything like the cucumber that got it started, but sometimes preserving the harvest means creating a whole new flavor. You don’t need any special equipment for this one, but you do need to pay particular attention to sanitation. Also, the fermentation process releases some–unique–odors. Personally I find the smell of pickles in brine to be a beautiful thing, but if you don’t you might want to use a fan to circulate the air.

Peppers on cooling rack, ready to dry.

Dry:

My hot pepper plants were prolific this year, and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I made a few salsas (those will extend the harvest, but a September salsa in January isn’t pretty) and put a few in recipes, but I still had too many. So I decided to dry them. Think about all the wonderful dried foods there are: fruit leather, herbs, sun-dried tomatoes. What they have in common is that they are all flavor…concentrated. The most efficient way to dry food is with a dehydrator–but they can be expensive, so don’t run out and buy one if you’re not going to use it. An oven set to the lowest temperature will usually do the job, and if you’re especially diligent you can dry food in the sun–it is the original dehydrator after all.

PASA CHALLENGE

I posted this blog as part of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s Local Food Month challenge. Leave a comment below by Sunday, Sept 23, sharing what you’re preserving this winter, your favorite food preservation story, or any recipes/tips you have in your playbook. Winner will be picked at random and will receive a signed copy of Marisa McClellan’s remarkably informative book Food in Jars and a $25 gift certificate to the East End Food Co-op! Hooray for free things!

Meanwhile, try to get cracking with a preservation project. Visit a farmers’ market, raid your garden, or check out a local farm. Be creative and have courage! Feel free to ask me for advice, too.

For more on PASA’s local food month, check out the rest of the challenge.

UPDATE:

We have a contest winner! Congratulations to Sarah Leavens!

Method: I used random.org’s random number generator. The list of numbers is as follows:

1: Emily S.

2: Amanda W.

3. Catherine

4: Julia

5: Katie O.

6: Dora

7: Sarah

8: Lori D.

9: Food Me Once

10: Leah L.

11: Marieella

12: Leigh W.

13: Damarias

14: Jeralyn

15: Jackie @ Auburn Meadow

16: Brigid

17: Jackie

(15-17 via PASA blog). Winning number, generated at random, is 7.

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Impatient Garlic; Heavenly Jam

Posted on June 26, 2012. Filed under: garden, local, patience | Tags: , , , , , , |

Gardening can be risky business.

I nicked my arms pawing through my raspberry bramble yesterday; I suffered no serious damage, but I’ll certainly wear long sleeves from now on when I pick berries. Two days prior to the bramble burst, I, a la cartoon, stepped on the spiked side of a rake. The result was just as you’d expect–a long wooden handle unexpectedly flying toward me at light speed (note: the expected comedic outcome is not at all hilarious when it happens to you). I was able to block the handle before it broke my face, but my left forearm still evidences the incident.

Worse than the brambles and the bruises, though, was what I did to my garlic: I harvested too early.

Last year, I waited 20 days between cutting the scapes and harvesting the garlic heads. The end result was that I had a number of small, but fully formed, heads of garlic. So I figured I’d proceed in the same way this year. As I thrust my hand deep into the garden soil, the heads felt firm and full. So I pulled all of them, except for one. Most of garlic was huge, bigger than ping-pong balls. There was cheering and photo-taking. And then there was sadness.

I looked at the garlic heads. All of them were covered in just a thin layer of paper skin, and some seemed malformed. Garlic shouldn’t be flat on one side, right? Two from the harvers were still…bulbs. Like a small onion, except layered with inedible pre-paper instead of savory flavor. Why did this happen?

Lack of patience. Gardening, just like cooking, requires patience for the best result, and I blew it. Five of the heads look salvageable, but I won’t have certainty for another two weeks. All I can do now is be extremely…patient…with the curing process.

Happily, I had a pick-me-up designed to comfort me after my gardening woes: Strawberry Jam!

I’ve started playing with canning and preserving, and, after a questionable chicken soup experiment (nobody died, but nobody volunteered to eat more than one bite of the soup, either), I decided to make jam. Strawberries were in season, and I bought a lot of them from several farms. The jam making process is straightforward: crush berries, boil with pectin and butter, add sugar, and then jar. I’ll leave the specifics to the experts.

Best way to serve the jam? Take a thick slice of crusty bread. Toast it. Slather with a little bit more butter than you think is good for you. Top with thicker layer of jam. Smile.

Looking for something to listen to while you eat your toast and jam? I have two stories on this week’s edition of Essential Public Radio’s Allegheny Front:
An Interview With Legendary Environmental & Social Justice Activist Vandana Shiva
Seed Savers & Seed Libraries Aim to Restore Biodiversity and Preserve Unique Flavors

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More Thoughts on Ramps

Posted on April 16, 2012. Filed under: foraging, hodgepodge, local, recipe, Uncategorized, vegetable | Tags: , , , , , , |

My story about foraging for ramps aired Saturday on The Allegheny Front. They’re a marvelous little plant, and the experience of waking up (VERY) early to wander through the woods and harvest my own food was pretty incredible. I’d never foraged for anything before, and memories of that morning keep popping up. Now, when I pass a forested hillside, I wonder if ramps are growing on its slope. (I’ve cursed at several “No Trespassing” signs preventing me from scrambling up the hill and checking it out for myself!) I’ve considered foraging in my urban environment–but, I don’t know enough about urban foraging to decide what to harvest (though I did enjoy a nice snack of dandelion greens from my backyard the other day). This exercise was much easier to accomplish when I lived in Los Angeles; street-side rosemary grows everywhere and fruit trees overhang many sidewalks (protip: they are fair game if they are on the public side of a fence).

Back to the ramps. I touch on this in the story, but it’s worth repeating: if you forage for ramps, don’t over-harvest; experts say you should only take 5% to 10% of what you see (if you leave the bulbs in the ground you can harvest a bit more, however). If you see ramps at a restaurant, farmers’ market, or festival, don’t be afraid to ask about where they came from. This is especially pertinent if you see ramps on the West Coast–ramps don’t grow in California, so you might want to inquire about how they got there. I’m not discouraging the popularity of ramps (they truly are terrific), but we all need to be sure to consume them in a sustainable way, or we’ll be out of luck in a few years. Ramp population recuperation time is tremendously slow, and if they’re over-harvested the land where they grow can easily be overrun with invasive species.

If you do get your hands on ramps, what should you do with them? Here are a few ideas:

Quick and Easy Grilled Ramps:

Wash and dry ramps.
Rub with olive oil and salt.
Grill until ramps are just slightly charred.
Season with pinch of salt and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

Pickled Ramps:

The basic ratio is 1-1-1 rice wine vinegar, water, and sugar–plus a pinch of salt.
Boil those ingredients and pour over (washed) ramp stems.
I also added a few black peppercorns, whole coriander seeds, and pinch of dried ginger.

You’ll just be using the stems for this one. Better make use of the greens, too, right? Render a few slices of bacon, and add chopped ramp greens to the bacon fat. Add three eggs (beaten), the cooked bacon, and handful of grated Pecorino Romano cheese.
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Market Demo: Bean and Bacon Stew

Posted on September 12, 2011. Filed under: bacon, local, recipe, vegetable | Tags: , , , , , , |

Back from an extended vacation. I’m sure y’all had a hard time sleeping while you were waiting for the next post. Well, sleep now, friends, sleep now. The new post is here.

I spent Saturday morning cooking in the Chef’s Demo Tent at a local farmers’ market (Farmers@Firehouse, sponsored by Slow Food Pittsburgh). I decided to challenge myself by not planning anything in advance; I was going to let the market dictate what I should make. This could sound daunting to some people, but I thought it would be a good test of my creativity. And it was.

It was exciting for me to walk around the market, choose delicious-looking food, and then immediately start preparing it. What a wonderful way to cook! We’re in a bit of transition in Pittsburgh–summer fruit and veg are on their way out, but the autumn harvest is yet to be bountiful. No matter. I was able to find a great combination of ingredients: green & yellow beans, heirloom eggplant, tender kale, onions, ripe tomatoes, and locally produced bacon.

I promised quite a few people the recipe. Here it is, more or less*:

Begin by sauteing:
3/4 lb. Bacon, diced
When bacon is crisp, remove from pan.
Save delicious bacon fat.
Leave 2-3 Tbs. bacon fat in pan.

While the bacon is cooking, boil:
2 lbs. Green Beans,  cut into 1.5 inch pieces*
Boil for 10-15 minutes, or until tender.
Plunge cooked beans into ice water until ready to use.
Boil one bunch Kale (cut into strips) the same water.
Plunge kale into ice water too.
Reserve One Cup Cooking Liquid

Cook, in the bacon fat:
3 Cups Diced Eggplant
1 Medium Onion, diced

Once eggplant is cooked, it’s time to assemble.

Add, to a pot:
Beans
Eggplant & Onions
Kale
Reserved Cooking Liquid
1 Cup Chicken Stock

Simmer for 5-10 minutes, and thicken if desired.

Before serving, top with:
Cooked Bacon
1 Cup Diced Tomato*


*I was cooking on the fly, so I wasn’t measuring anything at all, so you’re going to have to challenge yourself to create balance!
* You can use any combination of fresh beans: green/yellow/purple/wax.
* The time for ripe heirloom tomatoes is fading, my friends. I think this will work with a quality canned tomato, but it won’t be quite so sweet.

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Spring into Green Dinner

Posted on May 4, 2011. Filed under: hodgepodge, local, review, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |


I celebrated my birthday by attending Wild Purveyors Spring Into Green dinner. The dinner was held in a barn at the Beechwood Farms Nature Preserve, and was a benefit for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. All the food was either foraged by Cavan and Tom from Wild Purveyors or sourced locally. Blackberry Meadows Farm provided much of the produce, and Horizon View Farms provided the beautiful grass fed ribeye steaks. Food was prepared by Restaurant Echo.

There were about 40 of us in the barn. It was a dreary late spring day, with temperatures in the mid 50s. Happily, we were warmed with beer, not-too-shabby locally made wine, and Boyd & Blair’s ramp infused vodka. The meal itself was a bit uneven; certain items (braised pork shoulder, luscious goldenrod honey sherbet, strawberry and rhubarb panna cotta, pickled wild ramps) really shined, while other items (I’m looking at you oddly savory and BabyFoodLike chilled pea soup) missed the mark. If the meal was uneven, why am I posting something about it? I’m not a restaurant reviewer, and it’s really not too terribly terribly interesting that I spent my birthday drinking and eating in a barn. Believe me, there are much crazier birthday stories.

I’m writing because the event itself was something important. Foraged food and respect for farmers. Each course was preceded by a little story about where the food came from. Although this might sound silly or boring to some people, it’s important. I’m not saying that every time you eat you need to hear a tale about sunlight, water conservation, and moonbeams. But it’s good to know where your food comes from. We live in a society that’s so disconnected from our food supply, and we’re not going to be able to change that unless we make an effort to connect those who eat with those who grow. And that’s what an event like this does. When you’re hearing stories about the heritage seed saving efforts of Blackberry Meadows or sitting next to the parents of the dudes who did the foraging, it’s hard not to be inspired to think more about where your dinner came from.

I should point out tickets to this were superduper expensive. I was lucky enough to be given a wonderful birthday gift and get to go for free. But the sad fact is most people who would benefit from a reconnection to their food wouldn’t be able to afford to go to something like this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for fancy-pants parties, and for having those who can afford to attend them donate to support organizations like the Audubon Society. I’m not knocking it at all. It’s good. This was a super fun evening. People who can afford events like this need to be connected to their food too, and will hopefully use their economic and political influence to make the system better. But while we celebrate spring and foraging and rainbows and pickled wild ramps, we also need to make sure we’re working on solutions to the problems food deserts, cheap calorie processed foods, and educating people that meat doesn’t come pre-packaged in a Styrofoam tray. Change needs to happen from the top-down and the bottom-up.

Finally, an update on my quest to become a Less Picky Eater: I tried mushrooms. Three times in one night. Mostly without the “I’m Not Going to Like This” face. Foraged morels. They were…well, not too bad. In two cases, I more or less enjoyed them, though the aftertaste wasn’t quite as nice as the first bite. Would I try them again? I do believe I would.

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Fava Beans

Posted on March 11, 2010. Filed under: local, recipe, vegetable | Tags: , , , |

Fava beans are often seen as the harbinger of spring. Thank goodness, because after the harsh Los Angeles winter, we are really in need of some good news.  It rained nearly 15 times, and I think it’s been over 70 degrees only a few times since December. Man, it sure is rough here.

OK. I kid. Winter is most certainly not rough in Los Angeles. Actually, it’s hilarious, because some people actually do believe it’s rough, and wear mittens and scarves when the mercury drops below 60. Seriously. Hilarious “harsh” winter or not, fava beans are still a welcome addition to the farmers’ market.

The fava season is fleeting, just a few weeks, so act quickly. Look for young beans-they have green husks and lay flat in the shell. The younger beans will save you a bit of labor. Thing is, fava beans have a tough second skin protecting the bean. The older beans will have a pale-green to white color- this is an indication you’re going to have to remove the bean from the skin. Don’t worry, they taste just as good, it’s just a bit more work. If the beans have a vibrant green skin, skip this extra step- the skin will be tender enough to eat.

Add, to a hot pan:
1/4 Cup Diced Pancetta

Cook pancetta until crisp.
Remove pancetta from pan.

Leave tasty fat in pan!

Reduce heat to medium-high.
Add:
One Cup Shelled and Shucked Fava Beans
One Shallot, diced

Cook until fava beans are tender, about 5 minutes.
Remove pan from heat.

Add:
1/4 Cup Cream
1/8 Cup Parmesan Cheese

Squeeze or Two of Fresh Lemon

Top with reserved pancetta.

Taste for salt. Add if necessary. Between the cheese and the pancetta, this probably won’t be necessary.
Taste for bitterness. Fava beans can have a touch of astringency. The cream should balance this out, but if it doesn’t, add a pinch of sugar.

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At the Farmers’ Market: Grapefruit

Posted on February 18, 2010. Filed under: fruit, healthy, hodgepodge, local | Tags: , , |

I always thought of grapefruits as horrible softballs of sourness that grandparents eat for breakfast and fad dieters believe are spiritual. And there certainly is something to that stereotype; they are indeed sour & astringent, fad dieters love them for their high lycopene and vitamin C content (as well as a mythical, yet unproven nutrient found only in grapefruit that, when combined with protein causes rapid weight loss), and, as they are grown primarily in Florida, many old people eat them for breakfast.

But there is more to the grapefruit than sour old fads. They’re in abundance right now at Los Angeles farmers’ markets (CA is third in the nation in grapefruit production, behind Florida and Texas), so it made sense to give some a try.

Oro Blanco: Larger than a softball, the Oro Blanco is a white grapefruit with lemon-green skin. Nearly half of the fruit is pith, with means it will keep at least a week on the counter, even longer in the refrigerator. The sections of flesh are small, and there are a few seeds. When you cut the Oro Blanco open, you’ll be hit with a strong citrus smell, almost like surface cleaner. The taste is acidic and astringent, almost as mouth puckering as a lemon. There is a mild sweetness, but I found I needed to add a pinch of sugar to eat the whole thing.

White Marsh: Lemon colored, medium sized grapefruit. The white marsh smells refreshing even before it’s cut into. There isn’t much rind to it, so store in the refrigerator. The fruit separates easily into individual sections. The flavor is like natural sour candy- it’s very tart, but the tartness is pleasantly balanced with sweetness. It was the most complex and interesting of the bunch.

Pink: Slightly smaller than a softball, with deep orange skin flecked with pink. The interior is pink. When you cut the pink grapefruit open, you get a natural burst of grapefruit room spray. Sadly, that was my favorite part of the experience. The fruit itself was acidic and astringent. For me, pink grapefruits are best as part of a juice blend.

Ruby Red: The most popular commercial grapefruit. Sadly, none were available at the farmers’ market, so I picked one up at the grocery store (via Texas). The Ruby Red is about the size of a softball, and has a bright orange outside. One the inside, it’s deep pink. The flavor is very sweet- it’s the least complex of all the grapefruits I tried- but, it’s also the most accessible to those new to eating grapefruits.

Pomello: The basketball sized father of the grapefruit. Lemon yellow on the outside, the orange-yellow inside is buried beneath a wall of pith, making it a perfect storage fruit (if you have room for it). It has a soft, sweet flavor, with just a touch of astringency. Very refreshing!

So try a grapefruit. They’re great for you, and taste better than you might think.

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Eat Local (New York): Ronnybrook Farms

Posted on September 12, 2008. Filed under: hodgepodge, local, travel |

I visited the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan on Wednesday, and purchased some milk & yogart from Ronnybrook Farm.  What a joy!  Rich and creamy, the farm produces dairy products that taste like dairy should.

The dairy and creamery are located in New York’s Hudson Valley, one of the most beautiful places on the east coast.  Milk is made in small batches from hormone-free cows.  Ronnybrook was founded in 1941 by the Osofsky family, and is still family owned and run.

The milk is not homogenized, which allows it to be pasteurized at a lower temperature than homogenized milk.  The drinkable yogurt is made with 8 live & active cultures.  Compare that to your high fructose corn syrup ‘yogurt’ drink!  It’s marvelous.  Four of the cultures are buttermilk cultures, resulting in a flavor more tart than you might be used to.  By the end of the drink, though, you’ll come to appreciate the rich contrast between the buttermilk tartness and the sweet dairy cream.  Wonderful.

Supporting producers like Ronnybrook Farm is a fine example of a way you can easily transfer your eating/shopping habits back to local, non-industrialized food.  They can be found at several farmers’ markets, in many groceries in the Tri-State area, and at their own store in the Chelsea Market. 

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