Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Local Food in My Kitchen This Week

In my sidebar I keep a running list of locally grown or produced food currently in my kitchen. Since some people may be reading my blog posts as aggregated elsewhere, they won't see what's in the sidebar, like my quote of the week and this list. So I'll try to remember to include those items in my posts at least some of the time. And for you aggregate-readers, remember to stop in and see the full site sometimes.

So, this week in my kitchen you'd find:
  • New potatoes and green beans, from last week's trip to the farmer's market. Gotta use up those beans!
  • Jam made from strawberries from Lorence's U-pick
  • Bread from the Brick Oven bakery (but purchased at the co-op)
  • Cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden
  • Milk, yogurt, butter and cheese from Minnesota and Iowa dairies, from the co-op
  • Organic eggs from Owatonna, MN, from the co-op
  • Rainbow chard, green onions and a small melon, all marked as local at the co-op
  • Salsa Lisa (a staple in my kitchen) - made in Minneapolis
  • Callister Farm free-range chicken (boneless chicken breast) from West Concord, MN, from the co-op
Some of these items invite a discussion of what should be considered local food. Bread, for example. Wheat isn't grown around here that I'm aware of, though quite a bit of it comes from the Dakotas, which are traditionally two of the top wheat-producing states. I'm not a hard-liner. If the raw ingredients aren't readily grown here, I see plenty of "local" value in transporting them here and adding economic value to them by turning them into staples like bread that are consumed right here. So if it's from the Quality Bakery or the Brick Oven or other local bakeries, or if it's cereal made at Malt-O-Meal, it passes for local in my mind.

How Are Your Gardens Holding Up?

Originally uploaded by Penelopedia
It's been dry! After quite a lot of rain in the late spring but very little since then, we are running quite a moisture deficit. Since my garden is all in pots, I have to water just about every day. I can tell that the cucumbers have been stressed -- they start to form, and then some of them just shrivel up. The tomatoes are doing okay, particularly the ones in the largest pots, like the Golden Girls in the accompanying photo. What's doing well in your garden, and what's suffering?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Why Eat Locally? (Part two of an ongoing discussion)

cucumber-on-vineLast week I wrote about the fuel dependency argument for increasing the amount of locally-produced food we eat. This week I’m thinking about the words by Wendell Berry that provide my quote of the week: “Eaters must understand… that eating is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat, to a considerable extent, determines how the world is used.”

The essay from which these words are drawn goes on to talk about the industrial food economy, in which “the overriding concerns are not quality and health, but volume and price.” The scale of production has increased, at the cost of plant and animal species variety, the health of the environment, and the ability of the smaller farmer to compete.

Articles about the benefits of eating locally often discuss the hidden costs of “cheap” food -- the mass produced, commodified, packaged food that fills our supermarkets. Those costs come in the form of tax money going to subsidize commodity crops through price supports and tax breaks, road transport subsidies, the below-market price of the water used in western agriculture, long-term environmental costs, and more. The price of our groceries often doesn’t reflect these costs, but we pay them, regardless.

I suspect that our country, and the world, needs some large-scale agriculture, but I’d be very sad to live in a world where that’s all there was. I want us to think about “how the world is used” and make choices as if the future of small-scale farming were at stake -- because it is. I’d like to know that in every suitable climate, family farms can use sustainable practices to produce varied and healthy crops and make a decent living doing so because consumers (literally, "eaters," in Berry's wording) value high-quality farm products for their freshness and flavor and beauty and variety and nutrition ... and also value the local farmer's essential contributions to our culture, our landscape, our local economy, and the future of our food supply.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Getting Adventurous With Chard (and Cellists)

I missed yesterday's farmers' market, as my younger daughter and I had a chance to attend a rehearsal of the Minnesota Orchestra with guest cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott, playing Dvorak's Cello Concerto -- one of the most glorious pieces of music ever, and Daniel was phenomenal. Check him out! (I'm listening to his recording of a Bach sonata from his website as I write.) The New York Times recently described him as "the magnetic young German cellist ... a fearless player with technique to burn ... [and a] gorgeous, plush tone." The perhaps hackneyed phrase "caramel tones" kept flitting through my head as I listened to him yesterday.

Golden Sunrise Chard from Johnny's Selected SeedsBut I digress.

Having missed the farmers' market, I took myself to the co-op this morning to see what locally-grown goodies would catch my eye. I left the produce aisle with an adorable little muskmelon, a bunch of green onions, and a bunch of beautiful rainbow chard (all yellow stalks in my bunch).

And here's where I confess: I have never before cooked with chard, nor ever eaten it as far as I'm aware. I've admired it for its multi-colored stalks and deep green leaves in the seed catalogs, and I know chard (also known as Swiss chard) was widely recommended as a spinach substitute during the recent spinach safety scare, but this is the first time I've ever bought it. I decided it was high time I did.

Many of the recipes for chard call for chopping it coarsely, removing any large, woody stalks, and sautéing it briefly in olive oil and garlic. It can be used in place of spinach in any cooked recipe, and even eaten raw when the stalks are young and tender. I haven't decided exactly how I'm going to prepare my chard, but I will report back.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Helping Farmers Make the Switch to Organic

A recent report on Minnesota Public Radio notes that the supply of organic food -- including organic feed for livestock -- isn't keeping up with demand. Farmers have been slow to switch from conventional crops to organic, but a county in Northwest Iowa is trying to do something about that:
"There are efforts underway to encourage farmers to make the leap. In Minnesota, the state helps pay the cost to certify a farm's organic status.

"In Northwest Iowa, there's a more ambitious program. Officials in Woodbury County, the Sioux City area, are trying to build an organic food industry. As part of the effort the county has trademarked the brand name "Sioux City Sue Foods," based on the old country music song. Local farmers can use the name to market their products. The county offers tax breaks and other incentives to farmers who switch to organic production.

"Woodbury County Rural Economic Development Director Rob Marqusee says he hopes to attract a major soybean processor to the area. Marqusee says organic foods are one issue where local governments can lead. ...

"He says Woodbury County is trying to build a farm to market infrastructure for organic foods. Things like processing plants, storage units, shipping links. Already the Whole Foods Market chain has starting buying from county farmers."
Read more and listen to the piece here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

My Garden This Week

Container Garden
Originally uploaded by Penelopedia
As I wrote in my inaugural post, my garden this year consists of a few largish pots on a patio. I have several varieties of tomatoes, and this week they are really starting to ripen in quantity, though it appears that my two cherry varieties are never going to produce well.

One of the reasons I am a vegetable gardener at heart is the never-ending thrill of seeing a tomato turn from green to deep red or yellow, or seeing a cucumber triple in size, over the course of just a few days. See that cucumber in the photo to the right? That's the same one shown in my "Why Eat Locally" post of just a few days ago. I've since picked it and eaten some of it in a cheese, tomato and cucumber sandwich. I've been very happy with this variety (Burpless 26), which produces long fruits with a thin, completely edible skin and a delicious, almost lemony crunch.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Farm Bill Vote - Express Your Opinion

Just Food, Northfield's community co-op, has sent out a reminder that the Farm Bill is up for a vote tomorrow:
Farm Bill Vote Tomorrow: Call Today. The Farm Bill will govern our food and farm policy for the next five years, and the House has scheduled a vote for tomorrow (Thursday). Luckily, there is still time to make a difference. You can call Representative John Kline to express your hopes for the Farm Bill today.
There's been a lot of talk of weaning large commodity farms from government subsidies and providing more support to smaller farmers, or those growing the fruits and vegetables we'd like our children to be eating more of, for example. If you have an opinion, there is still time to express it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Agritourism Gets Attention; Kenyon Farm Featured

The July/August issue of AAA Living - Minnesota* magazine features a Kenyon farm in an article titled "Getting Back to Our Roots," focused on agritourism:

"As more people seek escape from their daily lives and find it in environments close to the earth, a new travel trend has taken shape—agritourism. ... In many ways, the time is ripe for agritourism. Americans express concern about rising obesity, reliance on highly processed foods and rampant inactivity among ourselves and our children. To farmers and others, the connection between agricultural ignorance and our fattening society seems obvious. Decades ago most people had family who lived on a farm—not so today. But agritourism stands ready to address these issues and educate the next generation."

Agritourism could involve staying overnight at Dancing Winds Farm in Kenyon and learning to milk a goat, or picking your own blueberries at a beautiful site like Rush River Produce (overlooking Lake Pepin at Maiden Rock, WI -- one of my favorite day trips), visiting a living-history farm like the Oliver H. Kelly Farm near Elk river, or a farm that's part of a park district, like the Gale Woods Farm in Minnetrista, or joining and helping out at a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm like Valley Creek Community Farm or Big Woods Farm (both still operating last I knew, but post a comment if you have any updates or other local CSAs to add).

The AAA article mentions that Wisconsin’s departments of agriculture and tourism are collaborating to develop "culinary trails." For example, Bayfield, Wisconsin, a stop along one of these trails, offers orchard, berry and flower farms that attract both locals and out-of-state visitors.

What a good idea.

* - Looks like despite my link you have to enter your zip code on the AAA site before you can navigate to the article, either via the AAA Magazine link at the bottom of their web page, or by coming back here and clicking on my link again.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Walk in the Woods

A friend and I found our way to an eastern spur of the Cannon River Wilderness Area (Google map here) on Sunday, from an unobtrusive entry point on Hwy 20 (Cannon City Blvd), south of Northfield. Shortly after you enter the woods, 60 wooden steps lead steeply down into a ravine, and an alternating boardwalk and trail winds through woodlands, crosses Fiske Creek, and climbs to a lovely oak savannah decked with wildflowers -- yellow black-eyed susans and purple spikes of blazing star (liatris) -- where on this occasion a red-tailed hawk wheeled and cried overhead. It was one of the prettiest spots I've ever seen, I must say. We also came upon several growths of black raspberry canes, and gathered a couple of handfuls of sweet, glossy, black berries.

Afterward, I picked up my 7-year-old son from his dad's and told him all about it, and he was so intrigued we went back out and did the whole walk over again.

Update: My friend thinks I should have mentioned seeing a female American Redstart in the woods -- a lovely little gray and yellow bird (the male, of course, is more boldly colored). We're near the edge of their summer breeding grounds, which are mainly to our east.

The Eat Local Challenge

Just Food Co-op has announced details of the Northfield-area Eat Local challenge:
"The challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to eat 80 percent of your diet from food produced within the region from August 15 through September 15. That includes fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, milk, ice cream, yogurt, cheeses, bread and anything else produced within the five-state region....

How you divide your percentages is up to you. You may want to measure your 80 percent by product weight or by your food budget. The easiest way might be to make sure four out of five of the items you eat or the ingredients you use are from local sources. No matter which way you do it, your meals will be supporting the local economy, protecting the environment and connecting you with the food and farmers of our region. They may even give you ideas for how to eat more locally during the less productive times of the year.

If you eat mostly local food already, perhaps you could try to eat 100 percent of your food from local sources. Or you may want to eat only foods grown or produced within 60 miles (labeled at Just Food with a green “local” tag). Intimidated by 80%? Try for 50%. We encourage you to challenge yourself."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Why Eat Locally? (Part one of an ongoing discussion)

cucumber-on-vineWhat's the big deal? Why should we make a point of eating more locally grown and produced foods? Over the next few weeks I'll discuss some of the reasoning I've found persuasive, starting with one of the real biggies:

  • Reduce fuel dependency: According to research summarized in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle ("AVM"), Americans consume about 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen for agriculture. About 20% is due to fuel use in production, including large-scale farming's heavy reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. 80% is attributable to getting food from the farm to the table, including transport, warehousing, packaging and refrigeration.
"Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles... If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week." (AVM, p.5)

We've come to a point, here in the year 2007, where talk of man-made global warming is no longer dismissed as fiction and the environmental and political costs of being so reliant on fossil fuels have finally penetrated the American psyche. The need for a change in our fuel-consumption behaviors is almost universally acknowledged. Eating locally is something we can do about it, starting today.

To be continued...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

STOGROW Farm Open House... and Square Foot Gardening

I stopped by the STOGROW farm open house this afternoon. STOGROW is St. Olaf College's student-run garden research and organic works farm. The farm uses organic and sustainable methods to produce fresh produce that it sells to the Bon Appetit kitchens on campus. Bon Appetit then uses the produce in daily meals for St. Olaf students and for the various organizations that visit St. Olaf during the summer.

Not only does the farm feature enough tomato and squash plants to feed an army, it is an educational garden, demonstrating a variety of techniques such as raised beds, French intensive double-dug beds, and square-foot gardening (read on for more about that).

Mel Bartholomew's book Square Foot Gardening, and now a companion website, advocates planting modest amounts in neatly divided square-foot plots, making them easy to take care of and allowing people to grow some of their own food in a small space. I highly recommend it for people who would like to do just that. His website shows permanently constructed divided beds, but you can approach the technique more simply; I've often just laid twigs on the ground to mark my squares.

Cormorant over the Cannon

On my way to the Farmers Market this morning I stopped to take a summertime photo of the Cannon River for use here. I happened to glance up and saw two large black birds in the branches of the big tree that overhangs the river by the dam at Fourth Street. A little additional observation noted their long beaks and sinuous necks, and a quick call to my birding expert (and dear friend) confirmed my impression that these were cormorants. One flew away over my head, and I got a great view of its yellow beak and long neck. I've never happened to see them in Northfield before. Anyone know if they are a common sight here?

This Week at the Farmers Market

Having resolved to eat more local foods, I'm hoping to make it to the Northfield Farmers Market just about every week this summer. Rather than shopping with particular foods in mind, I'll see what's ripe, plentiful, beautiful or otherwise appealing and then think of what to do with it.

Today's haul: Red potatoes (recently washed and still shining like jewels), a bag of dried Black Turtle beans and Italian parsley from a small family stand, tomatoes and green beans.

Potatoes, green beans and tomatoes always immediately suggest to me Salade Niçoise, which would traditionally include anchovies (or tuna) and olives, all beautifully arranged on a large plate and dressed with a vinaigrette or Italian salad dressing.

I had an interesting talk with the proprietor of Kirsten's Kitchen, a stand selling natural sodas (cherry, lime and rose hip-hibiscus), made via fermentation with live cultures. I particularly liked the lime.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

MPR's Speaking of Faith on The Ethics of Eating

Barbara Kingsolver is the guest on MPR's Speaking of Faith this week. Host Krista Tippett reveals she started frequenting the farmer's market for the first time after reading Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about the merits and joys of eating more locally grown foods and the hidden costs of "cheap" supermarket food. Read Tippett's journal entry, "The Pleasurable Choice Is the Ethical Choice," and listen to the show here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Birdwatching While Playing Tennis

I’m an easily distracted tennis player, with modest skill and less stamina. I only play at all because my younger daughter is determined to play a great deal this summer and improve her game, and as she has improved, so have I. I’ve even stopped calling what we play “VBT” (Very Bad Tennis). We enjoy ourselves and it’s good for us both. I even win the occasional game, though never a set. She’s working on hitting with spin, and will soon leave me in the dust.

The Northfield Middle School courts, where we often play, are set atop a gentle rise at the edge of town, bordered by farm fields as our main street passes the last of three schools in a row and suddenly becomes rural highway. Playing tennis in the early evening, I’ve come to expect to hear — if not to see — nighthawks out there. The nighthawk is a handsome bird with an unmistakeable piercing — the books say nasal — cry and strongly angled wings, with diagnostic white bars appearing against the dark wing when seen in flight. I hear it before I see it, and then my eyes are off the tennis ball and scanning the sky, hoping to see one or both of the pair I’ve seen before.

Tonight all the courts we usually frequent were in use or, in the case of the high school courts, closed for resurfacing, and we found our way to the deserted Upper Arb courts on the east edge of the Carleton campus. There were no nets, but we decided to ignore the fact and just hit the ball around. A casual game of Ultimate Frisbee was taking place on the adjacent playing field; I could see the sweat darkly staining some T-shirts on this mild but muggy evening.

Suddenly I caught a glimpse of some really large wings passing behind the tall trees bordering the courts to the south. Thinking it was a possible great blue heron, I paused between shots to see the bird emerge, flying with steady purpose to the northeast into the Arb. It was not a heron, it was a large, dark raptor, perhaps a juvenile eagle that didn't yet have its white markings, very clearly carrying something in its talons — a fish seemed most likely, but perhaps a rodent or something else. I couldn’t tell, and it quickly disappeared over the trees. Man, I wished I had my binoculars. I’ll have to bring them next time (and I’m only half kidding).

The Ultimate players cooled down on the side of the hill where we sled in winter, and then traipsed away, leaving us with sole possession of the whole field. We played a little longer, and when we switched sides so that I was again facing the field, I saw that about three dozen Canada geese (several sets of parents with their so-quickly-adolescent offspring, I presume) had wandered up from the Lyman Lakes and were grazing all over the field like so many pastoral sheep in the golden light of the fading day.

Nets or no nets, I’ll be happy to play on those courts again.

STOGROW Farm Tour this Saturday

I'm planning to stop by the STOGROW farm tour this Saturday. STOGROW is St. Olaf College's student-run garden research and organic works farm. The farm uses organic and sustainable methods to produce fresh produce that it sells to the Bon Appetit kitchens on campus. Bon Appetit then incorporates the food into daily meals for St. Olaf students and for the various organizations that visit St. Olaf during the summer.

They're hosting a summer festival Saturday, July 21, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event will include tours of the natural lands, beekeeping demonstrations, music, face painting, sheep shearing, and food . The festival is free and open to the public. More info is available here.

The farm is located just west of the St. Olaf campus, at 8997 Eaves Ave. (just off Highway 19 on the "hospital" road), directly behind the Cannon River Watershed Project.

Bald Eagle Over Northfield

I saw an eagle more or less over the Cannon River on my way to work today. I'd never seen one until the last few years, and though I now see several a year (and many at a time if we drive down the Mississippi in the winter), I'll never take them for granted. This one was being scolded away by some smaller birds and was flapping those huge, flat wings as it departed, rather than riding the air currents. It took my breath away, as seeing one always does.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

This is My Garden

This is it... my garden. I've never had a huge garden, and some years I've had no garden at all, but this year what it amounts to is five varieties of tomato and two varieties of cucumber in six pots on the southwest-facing patio of my current residence. Oh, and some parsley, basil and chives in windowsill pots. I've been picking cucumbers and the occasional tomato for a couple of weeks now.

I love eating out of my garden. And I've decided to start eating more sustainably in general. For me, right now, that involves a real commitment to shop regularly at the local farmer's market, to spend more of my grocery dollars at the local co-op, and to let my local supermarket know that I am interested in supporting local produce and other farm products. I'm going to participate in the co-op's Eat Local challenge next month (August 15-September 15), striving to make 80% of my food choices from our five-state area (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and North and South Dakota). I'll share my progress here. I don't mean to be fanatic about it, but I think I can do some good for the local land, the global environment, and the local economy by making some conscious choices about how and what I eat. When it can't be local, at least I'll try to choose organic or minimally processed options.

Eating more fresh, local food necessarily requires preparing it. Along the way I'll share some recipes and menus and musings about food in general.

I don't come new to an interest in this kind of thing, but due to things like my transition from part-time work while my kids were younger to full-time work, plus a divorce and subsequent move to rental property (at least for the next couple of years), I've let it slip. But I've just read Barbara Kingsolver's new book, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, about her family's experiences eating almost entirely locally in rural Virginia for a year, and I'm all fired up again. So, here goes.

In my kitchen this week:
  • New potatoes (white and red) from the farmer's market
  • Early zucchini (ditto)
  • Low-sugar strawberry jam I made a couple of weekends ago from the flat of local strawberries my older daughter gave me. It's almost more of a sauce, with a 4:1 fruit-to-sugar ratio and no added pectin. It's soft and intensely strawberry-y, and delicious on buttered bread.
  • 10-grain bread from one of our two local bakeries
  • Cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden
  • Milk, yogurt, sour cream, butter and cheese from Minnesota and Iowa dairies
  • Organic eggs from Owatonna, MN
Simple July potato salad:

Boiled and sliced new potatoes, with skins left on
Sliced cucumbers
Newman's Own Oil & Vinegar dressing (a perennial favorite)
Crumbled feta cheese

Gently toss, add some salt & pepper to taste, and that's it.